Our list of top adventures in 2023 highlights the best adventure travel in Chile in national parks and natural beauty along that country’s famous Carretera Austral (our second visit to this region) plus a fish adventure in Argentina. Part 1 in our annual series of “Best of” posts covers the top adventures of 2023 including epic hikes, camping, whitewater rafting, frogs, and our own personal death road. Part 2 in the series covers the Best Food and Beverages of 2023 and Part 3 reveals the 13 Top Hotels of the Year.
Top adventure travel 2023 in Chile & Argentina
These 11 highlights (and 1 lowlight) of adventure travel in Chile and Argentina topped our list of adventures in 2023.
Best hard hike: Laguna Cerro Castillo Trail, Cerro Castillo National Park, ChileThe Laguna Cerro Castillo Trail, in Cerro Castillo National Park in the Patagonia region of southern Chile along the Carretera Austral, takes hikers to a lovely high-altitude glacial lake with views of jagged Cerro Castillo. The trail covers just shy of 9 miles (14 km) round trip, but in that relatively short distance, hikers climb (and then descend) nearly 4,000 feet (1,219 meters) each way, much of it over very, very steep trail. Get more trail information in our post about travel to Villa Cerro Castillo.
Best short hike: Cuevo de los Manos Trail, ChileJust before the official entrance to the Jeinimeni area of Patagonia National Park in southern Chile off the Carretera Austral you’ll pass the trailhead for the Piedre Clavada (Nailed Rock)/Cueva de las Manos (Cave of the Hands)/Valle Lunar (Moon Valley) Trail. This 4.8 mile (7.7 km) loop is worth your time with natural beauty–including Piedra Clavada (Nailed Rock) which is a 130-foot (40 meter) spire of rock that seems to be piercing the earth, and Valle Lunar with white rock formations that seem to be melting–and a bit of ancient culture including two places where ancient hand prints left by ancient cultures. For more details about this hike and other adventure travel opportunities in this area, see our full post about the Jeinimeni area of Patagonia National Park.
Best long hike: Lagunas Altas Trail, Patagonia National Park, ChileThe most iconic hike in trail-filled Patagonia National Park in southern Chile along the Carretera Austral is the Lagunas Altas Trail. We started this 13-mile (20.9 km) loop hike from the park’s visitor village along with our guide from the Explora Patagonia National Park Lodge. Soon we were in the thick of a 4-mile (6.5 km) climb up from the valley floor to the flat top of an imposing chunk of mountain. After traversing across the formation, through forests and past lakes, we made a 3-mile (4.5 km) descent back to the valley floor. The Laguna Altas hike is long (allow at least seven hours) and tiring with a seriously long and steep ascent at the beginning and a long descent at the end, but there’s plenty of varied scenery and terrain along the way to make the effort worth it. For more about the Lagunas Altas Trail and other hikes, see our full post about Patagonia National Park.
Best trail overall: Sierra Nevada Trail, Conguillio National Park, Chile
We had our boots on many, many, many trails in 2023, so it’s a big deal for us to pick a “best trail overall” of the year. However, the Sierra Nevada Trail in Conguillio National Park in southern Chile along the Carretera Austral is rightly acclaimed. At just over 4 miles (6.5 km) each way, this in-and-out trail has a moderate elevation gain. On paper, it’s a pretty normal day hike. On the ground, however, this trail delivers a delightful combination of varied landscapes and views (forest of araucania trees, sweeping vistas of lakes and volcanoes, more than one condor) over challenging (but never brutal) terrain. There are even a few benches at viewpoints along the way for resting, snacking, or lunching.
Best drive in camping: Volcan Chaiten Campground, Pumalin National Park, Chile
During our second visit to Pumalin Douglas Tompkins National Park in southern Chile on the Carretera Austral, we camped in the Volcan Chaiten Campground where your options include a large and grassy communal area where you can pitch your tent with others or one of a dozen or so private campsites with covered cooking areas and picnic tables, garbage cans, and flat tent sites. We chose the Zorzal private campsite and enjoyed privacy, lovely amenities, and views of the Michinmahuida Volcano and the smoking Chaiten Volcano. For more, check out our full post about exploring Pumalin National Park.
Best hike in camping: Cochamó Valley, ChileWe heard several people refer to the Cochamó Valley as “the Yosemite of Chile” so, of course, we had to check it out. To give ourselves ample time, we chose to camp for three nights in the La Junta Campground which offers about 50 flat tent sites scattered around the edges of a green grassy pasture. We chose site number seven because it was extra large, had a shady area for our tent, trees for our hammock, and was close enough to the passing river to hear the soothing sound of moving water—the perfect place to relax after long days of hiking. For more about this amazing part of southern Chile, see our full post about hiking and camping in the Cochamó Valley.
Best watery adventure: Whitewater rafting on the Futaleufu River, Chile
The town of Futaleufu along the Carretera Austral in southern Chile is world-famous for whitewater kayaking on the Futaleufu River, drawing pros from around the globe. The rest of us can experience sections of this mighty river on guided whitewater rafting trips. Our half-day Bridge to Bridge + Macal half-day trip with Rio Futaleufú Rafting delivered just as much adrenaline as you’d expect from a 6-mile (10 km) stretch of river with a nearly continuous daisy chain of 15 rapids, mostly Class IV and Class V. In the middle of one of the most notorious rapids, Karen somehow got washed into our raft…Get all the details in our full post about whitewater rafting in Futaleufu.
Best adventure back in time: Sewell Tour, ChileEric loves a good ghost town tour–even better if it’s attached to a massive mine. Karen does not. However, we both found reasons to enjoy and appreciate our tour of Sewell near Rancagua, Chile. At 7,000 feet (2,133 meters) in the Chilean Andes lie the remains of the mining town of Sewell. This Unesco World Heritage site was created in 1906 by the US-based Braden Copper Company to house workers for its El Teniente Mine (which is still in use and remains the largest underground copper mine in the world). Sewell and the copper mine remained in US hands until 1967 when Chile’s mines were nationalized. In the ‘80s, many of Sewell’s historic buildings were destroyed before public outcry to save this piece of Chilean history inspired the creation of the Fundación Sewell which protects and restores what remains of historic Sewell. To fund that work, the Sewell Foundation runs guided trips to see preserved areas of Sewell including the US sector Social Club with its swimming pool, the bowling alley (the first in Chile, picture above bottom left), the movie theater (which showed first-run US movies before anyone else in Chile could see them), and restored homes and apartments.
Best fishy adventure: Rinconada Lodge, ArgentinaWe can count the number of times we’ve been fly-fishing on one hand. So we appreciated the patience of Gonzalo Galmarini, who runs Rinconada Lodge near Junin de los Andes in the Patagonia region of Argentina, as he helped refresh (and maybe even improve) our skills in the shallow, cold, clear streams on the property where rainbow and brown trout await. Gustavo and his wife also run the lodge with charming country house rooms, massive home-cooked meals, and wide-open spaces (perfect for practicing your cast). The word rinconada means “my place” in Spanish and Gonzalo and his wife work hard to make you feel absolutely at home whether you set a trout or not.
Best rare frog spotting: Darwin’s Trail, Futangue Park, ChileWe’ve been in several areas where the Darwin’s frog lives. But we never saw one of these endangered amphibians, said to have been discovered by Charles Darwin, until we got to Parque Futangue, a large and diverse private reserve near Lago Ranco in southern Chile. This is one of the best places in the world to see Darwin’s frogs and one of the guided tours offered to visitors is a slow and careful walk through an area known to be home to many of them. The general manager of the Futangue Hotel & Spa, told us that visitors to their Darwin’s Frog Trail see 3-50 Darwin’s frogs per visit. We embarked on the 1.2 mile (2km) trail with our guide Philipe with anticipation. To spot the brilliantly camouflaged dime-sized amphibians–that can be putty-colored, black, or green as their age and the terrain dictates–we strolled very slowly, all eyes on the ground. In the end, we saw a dozen Darwin’s frogs and we feel pretty sure that you will too.
Best adventure in the dark: Nomade Astroturismo, Elqui Valley, ChileThe Elqui Valley in northern Chile is famous for pisco and for its lack of light pollution and nearly crystal clear high-altitude desert air. These conditions are perfect for sky-watching and several operations are offering stargazing experiences. We doubt any are as personal as those offered by Nomade Astroturismo where creators Ani and Jorge have found a way to articulate their love of the sky. Inside a curved mud wall built by Jorge that mimics the Golden Spiral which is based on the Fibonacci sequence, guests find a dozen or so Adirondak-style chairs (also built by Jorge at a special angle to allow for comfortable stargazing) and two telescopes through which we enjoyed amazing views of Saturn and its rings, Jupiter’s colors, clusters of “baby” stars, and more all accompanied by this couple’s educated enthusiasm (available in Spanish and in English).
Best “Google Traps” lesson: road to nowhere, Chile
All we wanted to do was get to Alerces National Park Costa in Chile to see what’s believed to be the oldest tree on earth. Google Maps had other plans for us. It started when Eric noticed a scenic alternative route to the highway on Google Maps and decided to take it. We turned off the pavement and onto a dirt road called T-452 where we saw a sign listing the distance to La Union which is the town we wanted to reach. The first few miles were fine, then this route began deteriorating fast until we were traveling on a rutted, steep, boulder-strewn, narrow dirt track with deep and slick mud holes and no place to turn around. With no choice but to keep going, we proceed at about 5 mph in 4X4 low with Eric at the wheel and Karen in front guiding our truck over a wide range of obstacles. At times there were only three wheels on the ground. At one point we had to build up an unavoidable drop-off/hole with stones and logs. Five hours later we reached a river, but there was no bridge. Though Google Maps showed this route continuing, there was no way across the river which was far too deep to ford. We were exhausted, but we had no choice but to return the way we came (thankfully there was a large open space at the river where we could turn around) and drive over every obstacle again. Once safely out (we admit there were moments when we weren’t sure), Eric alerted Google to the impossibility of this route. The last time we checked, however, Google Maps was still showing this route…You’ve been warned. Check out some of the white-knuckle action as we negotiated over our own personal death road in our video, above.
Here’s more about travel in Chile
Here’s more about travel in Argentina
Here’s more about Adventure Travel in the Americas