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The Carretera Austral stretches several hundred kilometers southward from Chile’s major port city of Puerto Montt into the country’s “final frontier.” It is more than 200 kilometers—plus two ferry links totaling several hours—from there to Chaitén, then another 420 kilometers to an archetypal modern frontier outpost, Coyhaique (or Coihaique, Coy-HIGH’-kay), the last community of any consequence in Chile’s southern realm before the mainland farther south begins to crumble into a maze of sounds and straits, channels and fjords.

Nestled at the confluence of two rivers, the Simpson and the Coyhaique, this remote capital city, only officially established in 1929, is hilly, but conducive to walking. With its eclectic collection of accommodations, eateries and welcoming enterprises such as cyber-cafés, vehicle rental firms and shops, Coyhaique is a quintessential adventure travel base: accustomed to visitors both Chilean and foreign, its infrastructure is strong and residents eminently hospitable, eager to help and inform.

Perhaps Chile’s most awe-inspiring national park, Parque Nacional Laguna San Rafael, approximately 1.74 million hectares sprawling southwest of Coyhaique, is comprised of two linked ice fields, El Monte San Valentín and Campo de Hielo Norte, surrounded by almost perpetually cloud-capped mountains. The Pacific pounds its western edge; Argentina encroaches from the east; the Carretera Austral snakes along in between, from Coyhaique to Cochrane and beyond. Created in 1959 primarily to protect its pristine state in the interests of national heritage, the park is vast and almost impossible to visit easily or comfortably.

However, Laguna San Rafael, for which the park is named, has emerged as one of Chile’s elite travel destinations, accessible most readily by ferry from Coyhaique, but also from Puerto Montt, both via Puerto Chacabuco. Also, the deluxe resort, Termas de Puyuhuapi, to the north, operates its own 70-passenger high-speed catamaran as the highlight of its packaged lodging.

The allure of Laguna San Rafael is the 70-meter high Ventisquero San Rafael glacier at the southern end of the lake. From an altitude of 3,000 meters (9,840 feet) above sea level, it flows out of the northwest corner of the Campo de Hielo Norte at the rate of 17 meters a day, making it one of the world’s fastest moving.

Among the several other opportunities to travel this area rife with glaciers is an incomparable white-knuckle tour by air. Several small firms in Coyhaique operate fixed-wing aircraft or helicopters piloted by experienced, knowledgeable professionals. By plane it is about an hour’s flight to a strip on the northern side of the glacier. Helicopters land regularly at pre-determined spots on the solid surface of the (moving) glacier. The downside to these trips is that weather conditions often preclude this tour and prospective passengers too often must wait for several days to travel.

For many Chileans and visitors both, the rugged maritime outposts of Puerto Aisén (ice-EN’) and Puerto Chacabuco (chah-kah-BOO’-koh), about 65 and 70 kilometers, respectively, west of Coyhaique, hold a certain mystique as they are the last links of any consequence between the country’s northern regions and its far south. In recent years Puerto Chacabuco has replaced Puerto Aisén as a viable port. Indeed, they are tucked into a largely pristine area of remote hanging glaciers and cascading waterfalls inhabited only by extensive colonies of waterfowl. Offshore, perpetually mist-shrouded islands appear and vanish, defined only by a maze of fjords.

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