This post is part 13 of 18 in the series Carretera Austral Travel

See why we extended our stay in the coastal village of Puerto Raul Marin Balmaceda. Hint: this worthy detour off Chile’s iconic Carretera Austral delivers tranquil forest and beach hikes, exciting boat trips to see whales, sea lions, and penguins, friendly locals, and the chance to try a local delicacy.

sealions las hermanas islands

Just a few of the many critters you’re very likely to see around the fishing village of Puerto Raul Marin Balmaceda in southern Chile.

Settled in 1888 as Puerto Palena (making this the oldest town in the Aysen region of Chile), the village was renamed Puerto Raul Marin Balmaceda in 1959 in honor of a Chilean senator of the same name. Located at the mouth of the Palena River in the Gulf of Corcovado, Puerto Raul Marin Balmaceda (which is often just called RMB) averages 107 inches (272 cm) of rainfall per year which gives the area its lush Valdivian rainforest. A few of the core streets in the village are paved, but most are still dirt.

The road from the Carretera Austral came to RMB in 2008 (before that, RMB was reached exclusively by boat). Electricity came to RMB even more recently thanks to a massive diesel generator (there may still be some periods without electricity each day). Unlike many small towns in southern Chile, RMB, which is home to just a few hundred people, seems ready to welcome more tourism and even has a functional tourist information office with helpful information and shockingly friendly staff.

beach raul marin balmaceda

Having picturesque stretches of beach like this all to yourself is one of the charms of travel to Puerto Raul Marin Balmaceda.

Getting to Puerto Raul Marin Balmaceda

We get it. You’re focused on driving the Carretera Austral and it can be hard to break that momentum with all sorts of side trips. But trust us when we say that the 2.5 hour 45 mile (73 km) drive (each way) off the Carretera Austral to the coastal village of Raul Marin Balmaceda is worth it.

Near the town of La Junta, turn off the Carretera Austral (Ruta 7) onto a dirt road called X-12. After driving about 40 miles (63 km), you’ll reach a ferry landing where a very short and free ferry shuttles people and vehicles across the Palena River. On the other side, the road continues a few miles to Raul Marin Balmaceda, which is located on Los Leones Island and is accessed by a single-lane bridge.

Rio Palena ferry to Raul Marin Balmaceda

Getting to Puerto Raul Marin Balmaceda requires ferries and patience.

Pro tip: the ferry does not run between 1 pm and 4:30 pm, so time your arrival accordingly or be prepared to wait. Also, we do not recommend driving on this winding and sometimes narrow dirt road in the dark.

Travelers can also get to Raul Marin Balmacedo on a large passenger and vehicle ferry that runs twice a week in each direction between Quellon (Chiloé Island) and Puerto Chacabuco (further south along the Carretera Austral), making several stops in between including RMB.

What to do in Puerto Raul Marin Balmaceda

A handful of Carretera Austral overlanders and an even smaller number of local tourists are attracted to Raul Marin Balmaceda for the easy hiking trails that are accessible right from town, lonely beach walks, terrific beach combing, and boat excursions to see marine mammals. We did it all.

Thanks to ample rainfall in the area, dense Valdivian rainforest sweeps through the area practically to the sea. The 1.2-mile (2 km) Chucao Trail in-and-out route (allow 30 minutes each way) takes you along a flat and easy path through a lovely patch of forest that was so dense and profoundly green that it reminded us of Costa Rica.

driftwood rmb

The driftwood we saw on beaches around Puerto Raul Marin Balmaceda came in all shapes and sizes. We think this piece looks like the back fin of a sea lion.

This trail leads to the beach on the estuary side which is a fantastic place to go beach combing for amazing driftwood formed by wind and waves into wonderful organic shapes. We were tempted to take a few pieces. While on the beach, keep scanning the water. We saw dolphins, a penguin, and many other sea birds just offshore.

dolphins raul marin balmaceda

During one of our beach walks we saw dolphins less than 30 feet (10 meters) off the beach at high tide.

Instead of backtracking along the Chucao Trail, we decided to continue back to town on the beach around the peninsula. All in all, we walked about 5 miles (8 km) and never saw another person.

valdivian rainforest raul marin balmaceda trails

Karen on the Chucao Trail through Valdivian rainforest.

In the afternoon, we did the 3.7 mile (6 km) Arrayanes Trail which also travels through dense forest with plenty of arrayan trees with their reddish bark and bushy canopy (some of them are more than 400 years old) that give the trail its name. The trail also passes a few viewpoints looking out over the Palena River and skirts around to the estuary side and onto the beach essentially in the same place where we’d exited the Chucau Trail earlier that morning.

rio palena Chucao Trail

Valdivian rainforest gives way to dunes and the beach.

From there, you can continue on the beach around the peninsula to return to town, as we did in the morning, or walk back to town inland via a dirt and sand road.

las hermanas islands

The Las Hermanas Islands.

In 2022, the 395,500 acre (1,600,531 hectare) Tictoc-Gulf of Corcovado Marine Park was established to protect the waters around RMB and the creatures that live in it and to promote tourism. 

baby sea lion Las Hermanas Islands

A baby sea lion prepares for re-entry in the waters around the Las Hermanas Islands.

Many RMB locals now offer half-day boat trips to spot marine life in the open ocean, along the coastline, and around the nearby Las Hermanas Islands.

kelp goose

Kelp geese (male left, female right) feed on kelp.

We booked a boat trip with Chungungo Expediciones and boarded a motorboat at the small village pier along with nine other passengers plus owner Luis Bohle and his captain for the 2.5-hour tour (25,000 CLP to 30,000 CLP/US$27 to US$32 per person depending on the total number of people on the boat).

marine life raul marin balmaceda

Marine life around Puerto Raul Marin Balmaceda.

We took our seats on hard wooden benches and Luis provided some information about the area (Spanish only) as we cruised the shoreline and then entered open water.

red legged cormorant

Cormorants flock to small islands around Puerto Raul Marin Balmaceda, including red-legged cormorants (left).

Along the way, we saw swimming and basking sea lions, red-legged cormorants, Austral dolphins, Chilean dolphins, kelp geese, gulls, and vultures. Bring your binoculars if you have them.

Magellanic penguins Las Hermanas Islands

Magellanic penguins find food and sanctuary in the Las Hermanas Islands.

About two hours into the trip, the captain tied the boat to a buoy in a tiny bay around Las Hermanas Island.

Magellanic penguin chile

A Magellanic penguin takes the plunge.

Here, Luis passed around thermoses of coffee and handed out cookies as we watched resident Magellanic penguins hop, scramble, and tumble into and out of the water all around us.

Magellanic penguins las hermanas islands chile

More Magellanic penguins around Las Hermanas Islands.

Luis told us that thousands of Magellanic penguins call this island home.

sea lion raul marin balmaceda

Sunning sea lions give us a sleepy greeting.

Check out our boat tour around RMB and see (and hear) all those Magellanic penguins in our video, below.

 

Luis also told us that at the end of 2022, locals were surprised to spot two blue whales and some humpbacks in this area.

southern river otter chile

A lucky sighting of a notoriously shy southern river otter.

We didn’t see any whales during our boat trip around RMB, but Luis did spot a southern river otter. Despite its name, this shy creature also lives in marine environments. Seeing one on this boat trip was fitting since Luis’ company, Chungungo, is named for the Indigenous word for sea otter.

Ocean and river kayaking trips are also offered and the Palena River is known for its trout and salmon fishing opportunities if that’s your thing.

Where to eat in Puerto Raul Marin Balmaceda

You can count the number of “restaurants” in Puerto Raul Marin Balmaceda on one hand and menu options and hours of operation are limited at all of them. It’s best to come prepared to self-cater at your campsite or in the kitchen of your cabin, hostel, or guesthouse. There are a few small, thinly stocked shops in town where very basic groceries can be found. Don’t count on finding too many fruits and vegetables, however, unless you manage to visit a shop on the day the supply truck arrives.

The most promising-looking restaurant in RMB is called Isla de Palena, formerly known as Valle de Palena (this place also has double rooms for  50,000 CLP/US$54 and cabins for 70,000  CLP/US$75 and up).

The owners claim to get their seafood exclusively from local fishermen and they don’t fry anything because they don’t want discarded cooking oil to end up in the water system and the ocean. We ordered a local specialty called puyes, which are an uncommon type of tiny river fish that are eaten whole. At Isla de Palena they cook these odd little fish with lots of garlic pil pil style and serve them in a heap on top of white rice. Puyes are tiny, tender, mild, and seem to have no bones or fins or even skin.

Where to sleep in Puerto Raul Marin Balmaceda

There are quite a few hostels in Puerto Raul Marin Balmaceda. We stayed at Hostel El Viajero where 14,000 CLP (US$15) per person got us a private room with a shared bathroom, use of a clean and fairly well-equipped communal kitchen, weak Wi-Fi, parking, and a large dining room with a wood-burning stove that was constantly stoked by Mauricio. Mauricio’s wife, Fabiola, keeps everything else ship shape.

There are also camping options around town whether you’ve got a tent or you’re traveling with a camper or trailer. And new accommodation options are popping up around town including a group of stylish cabins with front porch hot tubs.

About 1.5 miles (2.5 km) before you reach town lies Fundo Los Leones Lodge. The entrance, on the right-hand side as you’re traveling on X-12 toward RMB, is nondescript. However, what lies at the end of the driveway is a haven.

Fundo Los Leones Lodge chile

Fundo Los Leones Lodge, near Raul Marin Balmaceda, offers cozy and stylish cabins on a scenic and peaceful fjord.

The lodge is part of a 2,470-acre (1,000-hectare) reserve purchased and established by Doug and Kris Tompkins in 1995 as an early act of conservation through their Tompkins Conservation organization. As they did with many of their protected areas, the Tompkins built well-crafted cabins on the property for themselves and their guests. At Fundo Los Leones Lodge, these accommodations include five stylishly cozy shingled cabins facing the Piti Palena Fjord.

Now owned by a group of investors, the original cabins have been rehabilitated and opened to tourism. The owners are also developing homesites in other areas of the property. Designed by the Tompkins’s long-time architect Francisco Morande, the petite tin-roofed cabins have wood floors, narrow doorways, and small windows. Antiques, black and white photos of local flora and fauna, a wood-burning stove, sheepskin rugs, a minifridge, and vintage Chile travel posters round out the decor. Bathrooms are modern, beds are indulgent, and views of the fjord are mesmerizing.

The cabins at Fundo Los Leones Lodge reminded us of the cabins at Caleta Gonzalo Lodge in Pumalin National Park and that makes sense since Doug and Kris Tompkins created those accommodations as well.

beach Fundo Los Leones Lodge

Beach walking heaven in front of Fondo Los Leones Lodge.

An excellent true American breakfast (eggs, bacon, toast, juice, coffee, yogurt, pastries, butter, and jam) is available at an additional cost and is served in a homey and very well-equipped standalone kitchen which guests can use to prepare their own meals as well.

corcovado national park from raul marin balmaceda

Beyond this scenic fjord is Corcovado National Park.

The grounds also include an outdoor wood-fired hot tub facing the fjord and lots of rolling lawn with established trees and jolts of color from fuschia and hydrangea bushes. Kayaks are available for tooling around the fjord and the 6-mile (10 km) private beach is lovely and walkable. You’ll likely see plenty of marine birds including ibis, lapwings, and oystercatchers as you wander along the light grey sand. We also saw dolphins and Humboldt penguins in the tranquil fjord in water so calm that it seemed like a lake.

Melimoyu volcano from RMB

On a clear day, snow-capped Melimoyu Volcano is easily seen from the beach in front of Fondo Los Leones Lodge.

It was so quiet at times that the bees and birds and critters splashing in the fjord seemed to be making a lot of noise and one cloudy afternoon we (even Karen) actually took a nap. For anyone looking for a peaceful place to really experience the natural peace and beauty of this area, Fundo Los Leones Lodge is it.

Bonus: you can book the entire facility as well–perfect for a family reunion or celebration or to accommodate a group of friends traveling together.

Here’s more about travel in Chile

Here’s more about Carretera Austral Travel

Here’s more about Patagonia Travel

 


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