Parque Nacional (PN) Bernardo Oâ€™Higgins is the grandest of Chileâ€™s national parks. It covers 3,525,091 hectaresâ€”an area larger than Belgium. Created in 1969 and expanded in 1985, Oâ€™Higgins protects the Campo de Hielo Sur (Southern Ice Field), which covers over 1.1 million hectares. This remnant of the last Ice Age is a UN World Biosphere Reserve. Due to its isolation, PN Bernardo Oâ€™Higgins is a land to which few travelers ever make it. Those who journey on Navimagâ€™s Puerto Montt-Puerto Natales ferries glide through the parkâ€™s channels. Other travelers glimpse slivers of it on trips from Puerto Natales or Villa Oâ€™Higgins.
The park extends from XI RegiĂłn de AysĂ©n to XII RegiĂłn de Magallanes. The administrative office is in Punta Arenas (Monday-Friday 8:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Avenida Bulnes 309, Tel.: 061-23-8554) with field offices in Puerto Natales (Monday-Friday 8:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Baquedano 847, Tel.: 061-41-1843) and Villa Oâ€™Higgins (Calle RĂo Pascua and RĂo Mayer). The only brochure-map available is of Sector Balmaceda, near Puerto Natales.
PN Bernardo Oâ€™Higgins is bordered on the north by PN Laguna San Rafael, which protects the Campo de Hielo Norte, also a UN World Biosphere Reserve. To the west is Reserva Nacional (RN) Katalalixar, preserving a large swath of Pacific coast and islands. RN Alacalufes is on the south edge of Oâ€™Higgins. On the east flanks of the park are PN Torres del Paine and Argentinaâ€™s PN Los Glaciares, home of Perito Moreno Glacier. PN Bernardo Oâ€™Higginsâ€™ massive PĂo XI is the largest in all of South America. This 64-kilometer (38.4-mile) long tongue of ice licks the waters of Fiordo Eyre. It measures 1262 square kilometers (487.26 square miles), or the size of the Santiago metropolitan area.
Sector Balmaceda (Puerto Natales)
The most easily accessed part of PN Bernardo Oâ€™Higgins is Sector Balmaceda, close to Puerto Natales. Boats sail across Seno de Ăšltima Esperanza to the foot of Glaciar Balmaceda, then aim for to the ranger station at Puerto Toro. During the voyage, keep your eyes open for Cisne de Cuello Negro (black-necked swan, Cignus melancoriphus), Cisne Coscoroba (coscoroba swan, Coscoroba coscoroba), Flamenco Chileno (Chilean flamingo, Phoenicopterus chilensis), PingĂĽino de Magallanes (Magellanic penguin, Spheniscus magellanicus), plus various species of gulls, cormorants and ducks, as well as other sea birds. Condors (Vultur gryphus) soar overhead. The sound is alive with Commersonâ€™s dolphin (Cephalorhynchus commersonii) and lobo marino de un pelo (South American sea lion, Otaria byronia or Otaria flavescens) and de dos pelos (South American fur seal, Arctocephalus australis). The port is at the mouth of Laguna Serrano into which Glaciar Serrano flows. An 800-meter (half-mile) path leads to the glacier. The land, imprinted by past logging, is forested by coigĂĽe de Magallanes (Magellan's beech, Nothofagus betuloides), lenga (lenga beech, Nothofagus pumilio), Ă±irre (Antarctic beech, Nothofagus Antarctica), ciprĂ©s de las guaitecas, guaitecas (Guaitecas cypress, Pilgerodendron uviferum) and ciruelillo (Chilean fire bush, Embothrium coccineum). Along the way you can observe CachaĂ±a (Austral parakeet, Enicognathus ferrugineus), Rayadito (thorn-tailed rayadito, Aphrastura spinicauda), Tordo (Austral blackbird, Curaeus curaeus), Chercan (house wren, Troglodytes aedon), Chincol (rufous-collared sparrow, Zonotrichia capensis), Jilguero (black-chinned siskin, Carduelis barbatus), Picaflor chico (green-backed firecrown hummingbird, Sepanoides galeritus), Frangilo PatagĂłnico (Patagonian Sierra-finch, Phrygilus patagonicus) and Frangilo Cordillerano (grey-hooded Sierra-finch, Phrygilus gayi).
A less demanding trail, especially designed for visitors with mobility difficulties, leads to a mirador with a view of the glacier. Other activities in this part of the park are kayaking and rappelling. Both activities are limited to the 90 minutes when the tour boat in the lagoon and the number of participants are limited. Balmaceda Sector has five campsites specifically for those who paddle down the RĂo Serrano from PN Torres del Paine.
Northern Sector (Villa Oâ€™Higgins)
The northern portion of PN Bernardo Oâ€™Higgins is reached from Villa Oâ€™Higgins at the south end of the Carretera Austral. Two trails lead into the north edge of the park: Sendero Altavista and Tramo Ventisquero Chico. They can be done on foot or on horseback. Both are open only from November to April. Villa Oâ€™Higgins' tourism office has a pamphlet describing the Sendero Altavista hike, which along with Tramo Ventisquero Chico is part of the Sendero de Chile trail network (www.senderodechile.cl).
Sendero Altavista is the Tramo (leg) Lago Ciervo of the Sendero de Chile. The signposted trailhead begins three kilometers (1.8 miles) west of Villa Oâ€™Higgins, off the Carretera Austral, just past Puente Grosse (Difficulty: moderate, distance:1 6 kilometers / 9.6 miles) round trip, time: one day). This trail gives views of Lago Ciervo and RĂo Mayer. It ends at RĂo and Lago Negro.
Tramo Ventisquero Chico begins from Candelario Mansilla on the other side of Lago Oâ€™Higgins. This trail is used by the Chilean Institute of Ice Fields to access a refuge in the Ventisquero Chico sector (Difficulty: moderate-hard, distance: 82 kilometers / 49.2 miles, duration: four days). The trail is divided into two parts: Candelario Mansilla-DesagĂĽe (mouth) of Lago Chico (24 kilometers / 14.4 miles, 4-5 hours on horse or 8 hours walking) and DesagĂĽe of Lago Chico-Ventisquero Chico (17 kilometers / 10.2 miles, 4-5 hours on horse or 7-8 hours walking). The return is following the trail from the glacier (ventisquero) back to the mouth of Lago Chico and Candelario Mansilla. Consult with Conaf about conditions before attempting this trek. Campsites exist.
Less adventuresome souls can undertake the ExcursiĂłn Glaciar O'Higgins, a cruise to the foot of Glaciar O'Higgins to watch it calve into Lago OÂ´Higgins. At three kilometers (1.8 miles) width and 80 meters (260 feet) height, it is the largest glacier in XI RegiĂłn de AysĂ©n and the fourth largest in South America. The eleven-hour journey, which is done only from December through March, also stops at Candelario Mansilla.
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