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Lago General Carrera

South of Coyhaique, the Carretera Austral skirts a lapis-lazuli-colored lake edged with jade-green forests and snow-peaked mountains glittering like quartz in the sun. This is Lago General Carrera, Chile’s largest lake and the second-largest in South America, covering over 2,240 square kilometers (865 square mi) between Chile and Argentina, where it is called Lago Buenos Aires. The Campo de Hielo del Norte protects the countryside from strong western winds carrying icy rains, thus creating a microclimate. Here, folks enjoy over 300 days of sun per year.


This is southern Chile’s most productive agricultural land, growing fruit orchards and cool-climate crops. But the earth also brings forth other riches: zinc, copper and gold. In the mid-20th century, mining towns sprung up around Lago General Carrera’s shores. Some continue to operate.


Lago General Carrerea’s communities are divided into two districts, or comunas. On the north rim is Comuna de Río Ibáñez, whose administrative seat is Puerto Ibáñez, near the Paso Pallavicini border crossing into Argentina. Within this district are the small communities Levicán, known for its dried fruits; Puerto Avellanos; Cerro Castillo at the base of a fairy-tale castle mountain and natural reserve said to be the next Torres del Paine park; Bahía Murta, with hot springs and fishing; the old mining communities of Puerto Sánchez and Puerto Cristal, a ghost town that was declared a National Historic Monument in March 2009; Río Tranquilo and its boat tours to marble caves; and the road to Bahía Exploradores, an alternative way to enjoy the glaciers of Parque Nacional Laguna San Rafael. A ferry connects Puerto Ibáñez with Chile Chico, the capital of Comuna de Chile Chico on the south shore of Lago General Carrera. A once-monthly boat makes the route from Chile Chico to Puerto Avellanos, Puerto Cristal and Puerto Sánchez. Chile Chico is just a few kilometers from the Chile Chico–Los Antiguos border post with Argentina. Chile Chico’s district includes Puerto Bertrand on the shores of turquoise-blue Lago Bertrand, famed for its fishing; Río Baker, a rafter’s delight; Puerto Guadal set amidst fossil troves; Mallín Grande where you can fish and horseback ride; Fachinal which is also a favorite with anglers; and the beaches at Bahía Jara and Puerto Manolo. To the south of Chile Chico is Reserva Nacional Jeínemeni with abundant wildlife, Lago Verde and Cueva de las Manos (Cave of the Hands), a cave where indigenous peoples left their mark with hand paintings millennia ago. Jeínemeni’s Cave of the Hands isn’t the only place the nomadic hunter-gatherers created pinturas rupestres. All around Lago General Carrera (or Chelenko, as they called it) are such sites, especially near Puerto Ibáñez and Cerro Castillo. Also often found are arrowheads, boleadoras and other stone implements that bear testimony to how these lands had become an important ñandú and guanaco hunting ground after the retreat of the glaciers 10,000 years ago. The Tehuelche, fleeing from Argentine General Roca’s Conquista del Desierto (1879), also left their mark, with numerous cementeries along the shores. The modern villages were settled at the beginning of the 20th century. Most colonists came from the central and southern regions of Chile, by way of Argentina. Later, Swedish, Finnish, and other foreigners arrived. Even though a cart road united the region with Coyhaique, economic and cultural ties were much stronger with neighboring Argentina and remained so until a gravel road was laid in 1952. Mining used to play a much larger role in the region, especially on the north shore where the Sierra Las Minas hold lead, zinc and copper deposits. In the 1930s, the conflict between colonist landholders and mining companies exploded into the War of Chile Chico. The 1991 eruption of Volcán Hudson affected many of the lake communities.

By Lorraine Caputo

Upon re-declaring her independence at age 29, Lorraine Caputo packed her trusty Rocinante (so her knapsack's called) and began...

07 Jul 2009

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