While cruising down Chile’s Carretera Austral we took a few days off from driving to lace up our hiking boots and tackle the 4 day Las Horquetas trek up to Cerro Castillo, touted by some to be the “new (and less crowded and less expensive) Torres del Paine” for trekking enthusiasts. While the hike has been around for a while, it has only more recently emerged as more of a mainstream trek with trails navigating not only tricky mountain terrain, but also precarious land access agreements. It all sounded great to us, so off we went!
We began the hike by first driving and spending the night at the eastern trailhead. Starting the hike after 1 pm isn’t allowed in order to allow time to safely arrive at the first camp, so we were aiming for the next day. The parks ranger there was quite relaxed about, well, just about everything, and he had no problem with us camping nearby before starting the hike early the next morning. Ironically it was the coldest night of the entire trip, and only after we signed up and started walking the first few hundred meters did our hands warm up from packing up our icy tent fly.
The first day was quite relaxed, with a gentle uphill meandering through pastures and across muddy cow streams, the mountains growing ever grander as the inched forward in the distance.
After just a few hours we reached the first campsite, Río Turbio, pitching our tent alongside about 20 others that trickled in throughout the day, and did a small side trek to the first of several alpine lakes we would visit throughout the hike.
After a peaceful night we set off early the next morning to tackle Paso Peñón,t first of two mountain passes we would cross on the trip. With about 500m of elevation gain in about 4 kilometres it wasn’t the worst pass we’d done, but it certainly gave us a chance to test out our cardio. Near the top of the pass the trial disappeared and was replaced by large rocks and boulders with rock cairns marking out a rough route, also giving us a chance to put our new-ish hiking boots to the test.
After a while we made it to the top, passing other hikers as we went, and suddenly entire new vistas opened up before us.
But what goes up must come down, and after taking a short break near the top of the pass we picked our way down the rocky slope back down the other side, with views of the mighty mountains just a few kilometres ahead helping to guide us along our way.
After several hours of hiking we were quite tuckered out when we reached the new El Bosque campsite, which was moved further down the trail and up a nasty final climb after the original campsite had issues with contaminating the water supply of the Cerro Castillo town down below. After setting up our tent we took a short hike up to another alpine lake and relaxed beside the icy waters under the blazing sun.
The next day included the most elevation gain and loss, but also by far the most spectacular views.
We headed out early once again to start the trek up to the Morro Negro pass, the morning light just starting to illuminate the pale mountains as we approached.
Once we reached the Cerro Castillo lake, tucked in below the namesake mountain itself, we left the other brave few who had woken up early to observe sunrise on the lake and decided instead to climb about 100 metres up the rocky slope to view the sunrise on the lake and the mountain from there. It was a great decision, and we spent at least a half hour gaping at the scenery laid out before us in awe.
We also decided to have some fun with an impromptu mountain photo session, forever immortalizing the “early 30s mountain hikers” version of ourselves with a couple of trail-side portraits.
The further we made our way above the azure waters of the lake, picking our trail among the rocks, the greater the details of Cerro Castillo emerged, with its preposterously pointy spires jutting out like spears trying to pierce the sky.
As we climbed higher, a new view opened up further to the south and west, with unknown mountains crowding the sky beyond the lush and fertile valley down below.
Finally, after a couple hours of hard uphill hiking, we made it to the top of the Paso Morro Negro!
We put on some extra layers to shelter us from the wind and relished the magnificent views that spanned a complete 360 degrees around us. But the winds here are notorious for picking up the later the day goes on, and if they get too strong it makes the descent down the other side too dangerous to complete. So after a quick lunch and a drink of water we shouldered our packs and headed off down the other side. The descent was quite steep and made up of loose gravel and big unsteady boulders, and we were too focused on the trail to take any photos.
Once we were back in the more level treed terrain, however, we were able to focus on the beauty around us once again, and we also caught a fleeting glimpse of the super threatened and seldom seen Huemel deer, or at least we think that’s what we saw!
Finally we reached the bottom of the pass and the campsite… and then continued another several kilometres to another, less-crowded campsite. It was a great decision, as it was much more peaceful, level, and also directly at the treeline, meaning we had direct access to alpine views above an absolutely delightful mountain meadow to relax in under the sunshine. We couldn’t have asked for a better end to a tough day of hiking.
… Except of course to check out one last alpine lake, nestled conveniently just a short rocky scramble away from the campsite.
The next day as poor weather rolled in we headed down the mountain and out to the trailhead, thankful for the bout of good weather that we had. Once we got to the parks tent/office we also met a little tiny dog with no apparent owners. He had been spotted at the pass the day before, and apparently his hobbies include following random hikers up mountains and back again, as well as barking at and pestering horses.
After the official end of the trail we had another 7 or so kilometres to walk down a road, with the little mountain dog at our heels. Once the mountain dog turned around to follow a different pair of hikers back up, we were also lucky enough to have a local truck drive by and offer us a ride. Sitting in the back of the pickup and bumping down the road with Cerro Castillo still looming behind us was the perfect way to end the trip, followed of course by a healthy dose of greasy post-hike food.
Was the hike worth it? Absolutely. The views were incredible, the difficulty level made it a nice challenge, and it was a fabulous introduction to trekking in Patagonia. Does it earn the title of the new Torres del Paine? Well, we’re heading further south, and we’ll find out!