Patagonia: Try a Chilean adventure

The landscape of Patagonia is the perfect place to test your wild side, says Will Gray
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The Independent Travel

Chilean Patagonia's position as a natural playground for all things active is perfectly summed up by the Wenger Patagonian Expedition Race. It challenges competitors to up to 800 miles of kayaking, trekking and mountain-biking in some of the most impressive scenery known to man. But while the athletes who take on the endurance race every year may seem superhuman, the activities involved can offer any adventure traveller the opportunity to understand what wilderness is all about at a more leisurely level.

The Torres del Paine National Park is on most to-do lists for trekkers heading to Chilean Patagonia, but the jagged peaks of Catedral, Cuernos and the towers themselves are just an introduction to this region's bountiful treasures. Head further south and it's easy to escape the crowds and experience virgin wilderness. All the following options include stays in tented camps or in estancias.

ON THE TRAIL: TREKKING

Where: Cabo Froward
How: Hosteria Faro San Isidro (00 56 993 493 862; hosteriafarosanisidro.cl )
Fitness level: low (boat trip); medium to high (trekking)
Duration: one to six days, depending on the trek
Cost: 166,600 pesos (£205) per person (three to five people); 149,940 pesos (£185) per person (six to 12 people) for a one-day boat hike tour

The prominent headland of Cabo Froward, the most southerly tip of South America, is a great place to begin an off-the-beaten-track adventure. By land requires a tough five-day rainforest hike, so an easy alternative is a rigid inflatable boat ride from Punta Arenas, the region's hub. Taking the boat leads to a beach landing and a short wade to shore, after which the trailhead is reached through a small forest. The short route leads steeply up to the towering Cross of the Seas, a white-painted steel structure that can be climbed to reveal a panoramic vista over the length of the Beagle Channel.

Routes lead out from here towards the end of the road, which is around 10 miles to the north, but it is essential to take a guide as the pristine environment can be dangerous. Some of the forest is so thick that visibility drops to fewer than three metres.

GOING WILD: TREKKING

Where: Isla Navarino
How: Nómadas Outdoor Services ( nomadas.cl )
Fitness level: medium to hard
Duration: three to five days
Cost: from 309,000 pesos (£380) per person, min three people

One of the most stunning treks of Chilean Patagonia begins at Isla Navarino, with an ascent of Mount King Scott. "Wulaia is a mystical place," says Stjepan Pavicic, organiser of the Wenger Patagonian Expedition Race and manager of the destination management company Nómadas Outdoor Services. "The summit of King Scott has a 360-degree panorama of the Cape Horn Archipelago, Isla Navarino, the Darwin Range, Beagle and Murray Channels."

From there, the trek heads down through one of the world's largest sub-Antarctic forests. The dreaded turba, the region's endangered peat bog in which you can sink up to your waist, is ever present, alongside stunning mountain scenery.

INTO THE HILLS: MOUNTAIN BIKING

Where: Isla Riesco
How: Tourism Viento Sur (00 56 6122 2590; vientosur.com)
Fitness level: easy to medium
Duration: one to three days
Cost: from 95,000 pesos (£120) per day per person, min. two people

Chilean Patagonia is one of the windiest places on Earth. This might not sound like the ideal place for a bike ride, but the scenery makes it worth it. This year's Wenger Patagonian Expedition Race-winning captain, Britain's Nicola MacLeod, attests to the tough conditions. "The winds were so strong we had to carry our bikes sometimes, because were being blown sideways. But when it blew behind us, we could go up hills without pedalling."

That was on the plains of Tierra del Fuego, a flat region with salt lakes and flamingo ponds. But in Isla Riesco, one of the archipelago of islands on Chile's western coast, the wind may relent. The route heads along dirt tracks through the island's majestic forests.

WHALE WONDER: KAYAKING

Where: Francisco Coloane Marine Park
How: Whalesound 00 56 6171 0511; ( whalesound.com)
Fitness level: easy to medium
Duration: four days
Cost: 800,000 pesos (£985) per person, minimum four people

The island of Carlos III, a few miles further into the narrow Strait of Magellan from Cabo Froward, is a pristine place in which nature thrives. From December to March, it is home to a group of humpback whales, making it one of the few relatively accessible places where you can kayak up close to these giant mammals.

"After the mating season, the humpback whales come to Carlos III Island for the rich feeding this unique area offers to them," says Kerri East of the tour operator, Whalesound. You can also kayak among sea lions, dolphins, and the threatened Magellanic penguins.

LAZY RIVER: KAYAKING

Where: Grey and Serrano rivers Expedition, Torres del Paine
How: Punta Alta (00 56 6141 0115; puntaalta.cl) or Rutas Patagonia (00 56 2 196 0761; rutaspatagonia.com ; )
Fitness level: easy to medium
Duration: three days
Cost: 325,000 pesos (£400) per person

To get off the tourist trail in Torres del Paine takes initiative, but jump in a kayak on the Rio Serrano, and the fast-flowing river will speed you through a wild landscape. One route takes travellers from a rustic cabin on the park's fringes to the mouth of the river in Bernardo O'Higgins National Park, past the Tyndall, Serrano, and Balmaceda glaciers.

As you paddle alone beside the icebergs on Serrano lake, you are only a short distance from the tourist throng. However, on the Serrano you could be a million miles away. Each night is spent in one of the small estancia homestays en route.

"The Serrano river is well protected, so it is an amazing place to kayak and you really get to experience nature the way it was meant to be experienced," says kayak guide Jorge Vera.

The next Wenger Patagonian Expedition Race ( patagonianexpeditionrace.com) begins on 8 February 2011

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