Cerro Castillo - Puerto Natales
Cerro Castillo forms part of Cordillera Señoret and is located approximately 60km north of Puerto Natales at the southern edge of Toro lake. It takes its name due to the rampart shape of the mountain which, if approached from the South or the East shows impressive walls and bastions similar to a castle.
If you're travelling in Patagonia and you're looking for a spectacular and medium difficult ascent, then Cerro Castillo represents a great deal since it can be climb as a day hike from Puerto Natales; alternatively we can also guide you to the summit to enjoy great vistas of Torres del Paine National Park and after the descent drive you towards your accommodation inside the park.
Information about Cerro Castillo
Cerro Castillo is one of the four peaks that form Cordillera Señoret, together with Cerro Mocho, Cerro Campana and Cerro Pincol; this is a minor mountain range forming part of the easter Andean Foothills together with Cordon Chacabuco and Cordillera Prat. Cerro Castillo is the mountain located at the northern most part of the range right at the southern flank of Lago Toro which, with its 202 square kilometers is the biggest lake in the Magallanes region.
Cerro Castillo is composed by three main summits, the highest been located at the southern edge of this natural buttress and reaches 1140m (approx 3700 feet), the second summit is right in the middle and roughly exceeds 1000 meters, while the lowest one is on the northern side, facing the waters of Toro lake and Torres del Paine.
The greatest thing about climbing Cerro Castillo is the spectacular view you get anytime you gain elevation over the lakes and the peaks that become visible to the North. Cordillera Señoret and Sierra del Toro are naturally divided by a broad and wide U-shaped valley created by an ancient piedmont glacier, and it's nowadays filled up by a net of three beautiful lakes connected to each other. These are Porteño, Maravilla and Toro lake itself, being the last one the biggest and evacuated by Serrano river which eventually flows into the Last Hope fjord. To the North of Sierra del Toro lie the peaks of Paine Massif, while on the West the Patagonian Andes and the Southern Patagonian Icefield are clearly visible from each of the three summits of Cerro Castillo.
Take into account that this area is not protected by any kind of national park, natural reserve or wilderness sanctuary; historically the valley where Lago Toro lies has been used as a sheep and cattle ranch since the end of XIX century. The access to Cerro Castillo is granted by a public gravel road that runs along the southern shore of Toro lake and after that you’ll have to ask permission to enter a private property; this is always granted as soon as you’ll respect the area, close all the fences and gates you’ll have to cross, respect the animals and leave no trace of your passage in the land.
As well as Cerro Mocho this mountain is part of Cerro Toro Formation, a geological formation of the early Cretaceous (approx 85 to 78 million years ago) which formed the Magallanes Fore-Land Basin. At these latitudes the basin was active starting from the late Jurassic till the late Cretaceous and geological surveys and studies show that the maximum depth, estimated to be around 2000m, was achieved during the Cerro Toro formation.
Cerro Toro is therefore characterized by sedimentary rocks, typically thick and powerful layers of conglomerate interbedded by layers of sandstones and shale. Cerro Castillo presents an excellent example of these geological features, in fact as you approach the summit you will notice the thick and vertical walls of conglomerate which give this mountain its buttress-looking morphology. Once you reach the mid-plateau that separates the first slopes from the summits you'll be surrounded my a world of round pebbles and conglomerate walls.
Due to the fact that Cerro Toro was a depositional marine environment, fossils such as ammonites, belemnites and inoceramus can be found on these layers, especially in the shales and sandstones that stand before the conglomarate thick layers of the top.
Hiking Cerro Castillo
Getting to the summit of Cerro Castillo involves passing through different ecoregions, climbing up more than 1000m (3300 feet approx) and experiencing all types of weather conditions that Patagonia has to offer.
There is in practical no marked trail leading to the summit of this mountain, therefore a certified guide is highly recommended, moreover since most of the trekking is bushwhacking we suggest you to bring hiking poles and wearing high-ankle boots and long hiking pants to protect you from the prickly bushes that we'll need to cross.
It takes approximately 5 to 6 hours to climb up the summit and get back down to the road that grants access to this mountain. The first part of the trail is fairly easy, we cross a meadow and then start a gentle ascent through shrubland till reaching a small fence that we'll cross; after this point we turn to the East and walk on the edge of a small southern beech forest (this area is main cover by lenga and nirre trees) until conquering a minor ridge with incredible views of Toro and Maravilla lakes down below. At this point, after 2/2,5 hours, above the tree line we're exposed to the winds of Patagonia and we'll choose how to proceed accordigly; we aim towards a crack that lies on the thick conglomerate layer ahead of us which is the only way to climb up to the high plateau of Cerro Castillo buttress.
Once we conquer the plateau we should be cover from the wind for a while; here we decide whether we want to aim for the summit of Cerro Castillo which is distant approximately two more hours towards the Southeast, or we push for the first summit to the South from where we can get the best view of this area of the Chilean Patagonia. Approaching the edge of the wall we'll be granted with great chances to spot Andean Condors gliding around and at the distance the peaks composing Paine Massif together with some of the glaciers of the Southern Patagonian Icefield.
The descend takes roughly three hours and is done by following the same path.
Andean Condor (Vultur gryphus)
The Condor is the biggest bird in South America and in most of the western countries of this continent it's been historically an idolized species among indigenous people. Its wing span can reach 3,5 meters (approx 10 feet) and body weight around 10-12 kilos in adults; therefore condors like to glide and use thermals to save energy while flying.
On this hike it's probably the main character since it lives and nests in natural cavities on the rock faces of Cerro Castillo. Quite often we had the opportunity of spotting 5/6 of this magestic birds flying nearby.
Black-Chested Eagle (Geranoaecus melanoleucus )
The largest of the birds of prey in these southern latitudes, also known as the Chilean Blue Eagle; it's an eagle like-buzzard distinguishable when flying by its triangular shape. The chest is white with a bluish dark V-shaped spot that also covers the head and the back wings.
The Black-Chested Buzzard-Eagle spans broadly from the steppe and shrubland, to the forest and andean desert of the high elevation of the Andes; near Puerto Natales though it can be spotted hunting introduced European rabbits and hares, as well as rodents, small birds or occasionally feeding on carcasses together with Condors and Caracaras. Actively hunting at dusk and dawn is often spotted perching on fence posts while driving in the Patagonian Steppe.
Grey Fox (Lycalopex griseus)
South American Gray Fox or sometimes called Chilla or Pampa Fox due to ecosystem where it dwells, it's a species of canid endemic of the Southern Cone and can be found in Argentina and Chile below the parallel 15°, thus in the Atacama desert. Compare to its bigger cousing the Andean or Red Fox, its body lenght is no longer than 1 meter including the tail; fur colour is pale brown to grey with reddish paws; a distinguish long black spot under the chin makes it easier to recognize from the Andean Fox.
Solitary or sometimes small families of Gray Fox can be spotted all around the area of Puerto Natales, in the proximity of the fjord or in the valleys and slopes of the mountains surrounding the city. It's a very common sight although sometimes it last few seconds since it's a very elusive predator.
Chimango caracara (Milvago chimango)
Known locally as Tiuque, this small bird of prey of the family Falconidae is very common thorughout the entier Southamerican continent. It's a very adaptable bird which can be found in the Patagonian steppe as well as at the edge of the forest normally closer to water courses.
Chimango caracara typically has a pale brown to cinnamon striped chest and a darker brown coloured head and back as well as feathers; bill is pale azure. It's quite an intelligent species that feeds on small vertebrates, insects as well as carrions, and use to live nearby settlements and humans. That's why it's quite easy to approach it and can commonly be spotted in campamento italiano as well as along the trail of Skottsberg lake.
Long-tail Meadowlark (Sturnella loyca)
Loica, as it's called in Spanish, is a medium-sized passerine bird dwelling in the shrubland and grassland of the Patagonian Steppe. During spring and summer meadowlarks are mostly seen in couples, males having a brighter red breast which make them easy to discern from the pale-orange colour of the females; during winter time they gather in small flocks of 10/15.
Their distinctive shriek make them easy to spot, although being a bit skeptical and fast moving, they're not so easy to photograph. They build their nest in the ground or on low bushes and breed and live in the Southern Cone between Chile and Argentina.
How to Get to Cerro Castillo
Cerro Castillo lies half way on the road Y-290 that connects Puerto Natales with the southern entrance of Torres del Paine. If you're driving from Puerto Natales you should take the road leading you to the Milodon Cave and continue on that for approximately 50km; this is nowadays mostly paved, even though a part of it is still gravel. After one hour drive you'll approach a ranch called Complejo Torres del Paine and get to a junction, turn right on the provincial road Y-200 and drive approximately for another 15km. You can leave your car at the side of the road and start trekking from there.
On the other hand you can approach the starting point of the hike by driving from the hotels located right outside of Torres del Paine in the area called pueblito Serrano. If you're staying there it takes approximately one hour and fifteen minutes along road Y-290.
Accommodations near Cerro Castillo
There are three places where to stay near Cerro Castillo, all of them located at the same distance from the mountain. The first being of course the city of Puerto Natales which offers more options in terms of budget and services and can be reached via a direct flight from Santiago or via a three-hour drive from Punta Arenas. A second alternative is to stay at one of the accommodations in Pueblito Serrano such as Hotel Rio Serrano, Hotel del Paine or Hosteria Lago Toro; this can be a good deal if you're visiting Torres del Paine National Park as well. However, take into account that services like stores, supermarkets or a gas station are absent in this area.
A third option, if arriving from Argentina, can be staying at the small town of Torres del Paine, right after the border crossing. A couple of accommodations can be found here as well as a basic market, although gas station is non existent thus you'll have to drive to Puerto Natales to fill up your tank.