Villa O'Higgins is a town of 600 people (2012) in Chilean Patagonia. It is at the southern-most end of the Carretera Austral, on the edge of Lake O'Higgins and Campo Hielo del Sur.
Villa O'Higgins is a fantastic base to undertake various tourist activities in its natural environment, such as trekking, sport fishing, horseback riding, expeditions, photography, observation of vegetation, animals and birds.
The main attractions are its mountains and glaciers which are crossed by multiple trails that run through the generous geography of rivers, lakes and Patagonian forests.
There are no large tourist centers, but to stay there are inns, equipped cabins and several family lodgings with very good service. To eat, in addition to the lodgings themselves there are restaurants.
Villa O'Higgins can be accessed by road via the Carretera Austral or by boat from Candelario Mansilla, Chile, where the Chilean border post is for those coming from El Chaltén, Argentina (there is no auto access over this border crossing; see note in the Get Out section).
The village is at the southern end of the Carretera Austral (CH-7). It is about 1200 km to the next big city, Puerto Montt, at the northern end. The closest town is Cochrane, approximately 230 km north. At Puerto Yungay 100 km north you have to use a ferry that runs a maximum of three times a day (see timetable Puerto Yungay).
During the main season there are regular bus connections to Cochrane twice a week (Wednesday, Saturday). There are also buses to Caleta Tortel especially for tourists. This connection is therefore a little more expensive.
There is a small aerodrome with limited flights to and from Coyhaique.
The port of Bahia Bahamondas is 7 km south on Lake O'Higgins. There is a shuttle bus connection at peak times. The excursion boat from the operator "Robinson Crusoe" to the O'Higgins Glacier also stops at the border post Candelario Machilla on the south bank of the lake. A narrow hiking trail can be used to arrive or depart from here via Lago Desierto to El Chaltén in Argentina. In the summer (Dec-Feb) a regular boat service takes passengers from Villa O'Higgins across the O'Higgins/San Martín Lake to Candelario Mancilla, from where it is possible to cross the border into Argentina via a footpath (no road). In bad weather, the service can be suspended for many days.
The ferry runs three to four times a week and costs 44,000 pesos for the connection between Candelario Machilla and the village. The ship starts in town in the morning and stops at the border post at around 10:00 before heading to the glacier. At around 17:30, it comes back from Machilla to Villa O'Higgins.
There are also other providers with whom this ship connection is cheaper, but they do not (see above) regularly. Current information must be obtained on site.
The Carretera Austral is very popular with cyclists. For the journey to and from Villa O'Higgins, most of them use the ferry combination across Lake Desierto and the excursion boat across Lake O'Higgins (see above).
Cyclists coming from the south also have the option of arriving at the border crossing on the Río Mayer (northeast of Villa O'Higgins). On this route you save the cost of the two ferries (Lago Desierto and O'Higgins), but seen from El Chaltén you have to take about 500-km detour via the Ruta Nacional 40 and Tres Lagos. This is why this alternative route is used by very few people.
Villa O'Higgins is a small town and it is easy for the visitor to get to know the entire town in a short while. There are many hikes and treks out of Villa O'Higgins, including to the surrounding glaciers.
The Museo de la Patagonia Padre Antonio Ronchi next to the church presents the gradual settlement of the rough environment by the pioneers. The majority of the small exhibition is only available in Spanish, some also in English. Entry is free. Opening times can be inquired at the tourist information office opposite.
From a short hike to a four-day tour, there are many options in the area, on mostly quiet hiking trails.
The short hike up to the viewing platforms east of the settlement provides a good overview.
- Sendero Altavista: The hike begins on the west side of the bridge over the Río Mayer a few kilometers south of the settlement. It leads you to the shores of Lake Ciervo and offers several viewpoints at the top. There is a good chance of seeing the impressive Andean condor in the air.
- Glaciar Mosco: You can hike along the Rio Mosco river in a 1½-day tour to the end of the path on the glacier of the same name. There is a free, uncultivated Refugio Rio Mosco along the way. There are also nice viewpoints on the way there, so that you don't have to hike to the end of the path.
- Sendero Cerro Submarino: A more challenging hike to the Submarino Glacier on Cerro Submarino Mountain. The starting point is south of the settlement on the Rio Mosco. You cross the river over a bridge and you need about a day for the poorly or unmarked path southeast. There are no official refugios or camping facilities.
- Glaciar Tigre: At 20 km north of the settlement and Lake Cisnes on the Carretera Austral, the starting point of the hike to Glaciar Tigre is very remote. It leads you to the foot of the glacier of the same name. A free campsite (without service) is also along the way. The best thing to do is to get the latest information (maps, arrival) at the tourist information office.
- O'Higgins Glacier: Instead of taking the excursion boat to the glacier, it can also be easily reached with a four-day hike. This starts from the border post Candelario Mancilla on the other side of the lake (see arrival). From there it goes east along the lake to the glacier. Overnight stays are only possible in tents on the free campsites (without service). Hiking maps are available from the tourist information office or, for example, from the Mosco hostel.
The clear lakes and rivers in the area are great for fishing. It is best to find out about any authorizations and options on site beforehand.
Shop-a-holics will find Villa O'Higgins a disappointment; you can buy food and basic supplies, but the village is remote so prices are high and many things are unavailable. There are no ATMs. You may be able to purchase limited camping and trekking supplies at Hielo Sur, but you should ensure that you have everything you need before leaving Cochrane or El Chaltén. White gas is only rarely available in Villa O'Higgins. Cigarettes are hard to get in the town.
There are few restaurants in this tiny town. If you are staying more than a night you may want to ensure that your accommodations include kitchen access. There are several minimarkets and meat and bread shops in town. Ask the locals and they will tell you who sells what. If the stores are closed someone can usually tell you where the owner is. Food is relatively expensive and produce can be hard to come by.
- San Gabriel restaurant, Lago O'Higgins Street.
- Entre Patagones restaurant, at the very northern end of the village, east on the Carretera Austral.
There is a limited selection of wine, beer and spirits in the town's several minimarkets. The bar scene is non-existent in Villa O'Higgins.
There are only a few places to stay in town. There is also lodging along the last section of road between the town of Villa O'Higgins and Lago O'Higgins.
- El Mosco. A warm house with a cozy shared kitchen and three rooms with bunk beds. Each room has place for 6 persons. Upstairs there are three double rooms, more expensive, with private bath. Camping is also allowed on the grounds, with access to laundry, showers, an outdoor restroom and the house kitchen. The owner, Jorge, is friendly and helpful and makes you feel very at home in his house. Internet is free, W-Lan available if you have your own laptop. He speaks fluent English and Spanish, and runs a shuttle to Puerto Yungay and Lago O'Higgins on days that the boat leaves for Candelario Mancilla.
- 1 El Parador Carpintero, Carretera Austral (on Carretera Austral, left side just before entering the town from the north.). Check-in: any time, check-out: any time. This is an eco-campsite with a central lodge for cooking and showers. There are dry toilets and the materials used in the "green" buildings are all either local and/or recycled. The site has been preserved intact as much as possible, leaving the environment as it was found, full of animal and plant life under a canopy of trees. Owner, Mauricio Melgarejo, speaks both Spanish and English, and is very helpful and knowledgeable. He runs birding, trekking and hiking tours, too. An assistant on the site also speaks French. He can also arrange for cabins and other facilities in Villa O'Higgins.
Villa O'Higgins is remote and accordingly there is limited contact with the outside world. Few houses or businesses have phone lines and those that do have very poor and spotty service. There is a locutorio (call shop) in town, but since the phone service is satellite-based it can be spotty. The library has free internet access (with a time limit). There are public Wi-Fi hotspots around the town but they're extremely unreliable, often down more often than up, and slow (as of December 2014).
Crossing the border to El Chaltén, Argentina is a great experience for the adventurous. The border crossing cannot be made by car, but you can cross by a combination of boat rides and hiking, horseback riding or cycling. From Villa O'Higgins you can cross Lago O'Higgins to Candelario Mansilla several times a week from November to March with Hielo Sur. In Candelario Mansilla you can hire guides and horses to cross the border to Argentina, though depending on the border guards that are on duty, you may have to swap to Argentine horses at the border.
The Chilean border post is just outside of Candelario Mansilla. You get your passport stamped there and proceed toward the Argentine border. At the Argentine border the path becomes narrow and muddy. Cyclists should use caution as the path is very technical at times and includes sudden single-log bridges and drops. You may choose to send your pack/bags on horseback and cycle without a load as it may be necessary to carry your bike at times. The path proceeds down to Lago del Desierto and the Argentine border post, where you can get your entrance stamp. If you are lucky, you'll get a nice view of Mt. Fitz Roy.
To get to El Chaltén from Lago del Desierto you can either take a boat across the lake (generally twice daily) or trek around the lake. There is a simple refugio at the border post with several rooms (though there may be a fee) in case you get stranded there by weather or a late arrival, and if you are nice the Gendarmaría will let you camp by the lake. It is not uncommon to have a delay that causes you to spend the night at some point during the crossing, so you should ensure that you have adequate food with you for the night. From the opposite side of the lake, there are occasional buses to El Chaltén, generally synchronized with the arrival of the boat.