Lago O’Higgins, Chile & Argentina

Lake Locations:

Argentina - Patagonia - Santa Cruz - Chile - South -

Also known as:  Lago Bernardo O'Higgins, Lago San Martin

Reaching Lago O’Higgins on the Chile/Argentina border takes some effort. Lago O’Higgins is known as Lago San Martin on the Argentina side. Located in the Patagonian Aisen (or Aysen) Region, Lago O’Higgins is the deepest lake in the Americas. With a maximum depth of 2,743 feet, this is not only the deepest known lake in South America, but also the deepest known accessible glacial lake in the world. Lake Vostok in Antarctica, while deeper, is a sub-glacial lake with its surface buried under miles of ice.

Lago O’Higgins is located in one of the most inaccessible areas of the world, tucked between the Andes Mountains on the east and the Southern Ice Cap on the west. Fed by the Mayer River and other glacial streams, the eight arms of the lake sprawl into drowned valleys on both sides of the international border. The milky-blue water owes its hue to the ‘rock flour’ of finely ground rock carried by the glacier melt in the streams that flow into the lake. Because strong winds can create dangerous waves, small boats are not usually an option in the main parts of the lake. Locals know which areas are usually safe, but paddle sports should not be attempted without a trusted guide. The lake forms the headwaters of the Rio Pascua, one of the fastest-flowing rivers in Chile. After it leaves the lake, the Rio Pascua tumbles wildly through rapids, gorges and waterfalls to reach the Pacific Ocean.

The massive lake lies in one of the least-populated regions of South America, an area crowned by glaciers and ice caps, steep valleys and unusual flora and fauna. The area around the lake and river is home to such animals and birds as the torrent duck, river otter, culpeo fox, huemul (an Andean deer so endangered that its population has dipped below 3,000), hawks, harriers, condors and the Magellanic woodpecker. For most of the last century, the area was accessible only on foot or horseback and via small airplane, with some visitors and supplies crossing the lake from Argentina via ferry. Only recently has the Carretera Austral highway finally reached the town of Villa O’Higgins – the end of the road. Opening the gravel highway provided a route for long-distance cycle and hiking trekkers to enjoy the region, leading to more visitors who engage in strenuous sports. The road is mostly gravel and in many areas deserted except for the occasional cyclist camping beside the path. Whitewater rafting is just becoming a tourism industry on the rushing rivers in the area. Because only limited supplies can be purchased in the area, visitors are encouraged to bring everything they think they will need.

The area around Lago O’Higgins that is flat enough for grazing is primarily used for sheep and cattle ranching. Above the rolling pasture lands, glaciers cap the mountains, some with active volcanic vents. Villa O’Higgins has become the base camp for fly fishermen who come to pursue the rainbow and brown trout that the rivers and streams are known for. Sport fishing expeditions can be arranged from Villa O’Higgins, and boat cruises on Lago O’Higgins take sightseers to the base of the huge O’Higgins Glacier.

Small Villa O’Higgins is the site of five popular, though rugged, hiking trails. One, Sendero Humedales Rio Mayer, leads to wetlands frequented by a variety of native birds. Others lead toward the glaciers and the surrounding peaks. Guides to these trails are available at the tourist kiosk in Villa O’Higgins. At the southern end of the lake, Chile’s largest protected area – nearly nine million-acre Bernardo O’Higgins National Park – contains several smaller glaciers and well-known Glacier Pio XI. The South American summer, from November to March, is most popular time for visits to the area. Winters can be chilly, although the lake does not freeze, and snowstorms can quickly turn into howling blizzards in the valleys.

Both names for the lake, O’Higgins and San Martin, are named after heroes of the two countries’ struggle for their respective independence. Villa O’Higgins itself is a relatively new town, officially dedicated in 1966. Prior to its official village designation, a few workers who stayed behind when a large ranching operation departed were the sole inhabitants until joined by new settlers. The town has scrambled to forge an identity based on both its traditional ranching and on the increasing amount of tourism in the area. Young artists are gradually reviving traditional Patagonian craft techniques, like rawhide braiding and woodworking, to create everyday utensils and souvenirs. Festivals have become annual events, with rodeos, a cattle drive and anniversary ‘asado’ (barbecue) enjoyed by residents and visitors alike. A number of small hotels and fishing resorts have grown up in the area, and a few restaurants and markets now serve up basic supplies. An irregular ferry boat schedule will take passengers to the Argentina side of Lago O’Higgins, where they must pass Customs to reach another gravel road which will eventually take them to El Chalten, Argentina. Experienced visitors often arrange to lease a horse for convenient travel.

At present, there is a serious threat to Lago O’Higgins in the form of a massive hydroelectric scheme that would place three dams on the Rio Pascua and two on the nearby Baker River. The resulting reservoirs would forever alter the course of the pristine rivers and flood-sensitive ecological areas around the lake. Almost 1500 miles of transmission lines would require a huge amount of clear cut through refuges, forests and the habitat of endangered species. The world’s environmental organizations are fighting the plan and have managed to get a temporary court injunction on construction, but their long-term success in halting the project is in serious doubt. One concern is that changes caused by altering the path and amount of water will speed up the melt of glaciers in the area. The progress that brought the Carretera Austral and its tourism boom to Villa O’Higgins may soon destroy some of the reasons tourists come here.

Visitors to the Lago O’Higgins area are encouraged not to try to ‘fly by the seat of their pants’ in terms of lodgings and travel. Because even boat schedules tend to be adjusted on the spur of the moment, it is best to work through a reputable travel service or knowledgeable friend to secure any adventure, especially the first time you go. Some private rentals exists but accommodations may not be modern and they may be difficult to get to – due diligence is necessary. Real estate in the area is available but again, one should be certain that it is reachable and that some basic utilities can be accessed. For the adventuresome traveler, a visit to Lago O’Higgins is a once-in-a-lifetime excursion, one with plenty of rugged travel and grand unspoiled vistas. Come visit one of the last unspoiled wildernesses in South America. Lago O’Higgins certainly isn’t easy, but it sure is grand!

Things to do at Lago O’Higgins

  • Vacation Rentals
  • Fishing
  • Boating
  • Whitewater Rafting
  • Camping
  • Hiking
  • Horseback Riding
  • Waterfall
  • Wildlife Viewing
  • Birding
  • National Park

Fish species found at Lago O’Higgins

  • Brown Trout
  • Trout

Lago O’Higgins Photo Gallery

Lago O’Higgins Statistics & Helpful Links

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Lake Type: Natural Freshwater Lake, Not Dammed

Surface Area: 261,437 acres

Shoreline Length: 326 miles

Normal Elevation (Full Pond): 820 feet

Average Depth: 2,300 feet

Maximum Depth: 2,743 feet

Drainage Area: 3,861 sq. miles

Trophic State: Oligotrophic

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Trophic State | LakeLubbers

Trophic State measures the level of algae and nutrients in a lake.

An oligotrophic lake is very clear (blue in color) and does not support much plant or fish life. A hyper-oligotrophic lake is the clearest of all lakes, and is nearly devoid of plants and fish.

A mesotrophic lake is slightly green and supports a moderate degree of plant and fish life. A lake's most desired trophic state is generally this mid-point - the mesotrophic state.

A eutrophic lake is somewhat murky and supports a large amount of plant and fish life. A hypereutrophic lake is clouded with algae, plant life, and fish life. A eutrophic or hyper-eutrophic lake can be difficult to navigate by boat - and is often an unpleasant place to swim.

The use of phosphorus-rich and nitrogen-rich fertilizer on lawns and golf courses surrounding a lake can cause it to become eutrophic or hypereutrophic.


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Catchment or Drainage Area | LakeLubbers

This is the surrounding area that drains into a lake, including land, rivers and their tributaries. This is also known as the lake's "catchment basin".

Small lakes at the highest peaks of mountains have small drainage areas. The world's oceans have the largest drainage areas.


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Lake-Area Population | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated number of people who live in a house with a view of a lake, plus those who self-describe the lake as their home, for example: "I live at Smith Mountain Lake."


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Water Residence Time | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated time that it takes for an amount of water equal to the entire volume of a lake to flow out of - or evaporate from - the lake.

Residence Time can be as short as a few days for fast-flowing small lakes, and can exceed 100 years for slow-flowing large lakes.


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Completion Year | LakeLubbers

This is the year that a reservoir was first filled to the reservoir's normal elevation - or the year that a natural lake was first dammed. A large reservoir can take more than a year to fill after its dam is first closed.

The Grand Anicut in southern India is generally considered the world's oldest dam that still operates. Grand Anicut was constructed in the second century BC. It now impounds an irrigation network that includes roughly one million acres.

You can find many of the the world's newest reservoirs on LakeLubbers. Many of the world's oldest reservoirs appear on the last page of that list.


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Water Volume | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated volume of water that a lake contains -- measured at the lake's normal elevation. By this measure, the world's largest freshwater lake is Siberia's Lake Baikal.

You can find many of the the world's largest lakes (by water volume) on LakeLubbers.

Water Volume can be measured in acre-feet, in cubic miles, or in cubic kilometers. One acre-foot is the amount of water needed to cover one acre (43,560 square feet) to a depth of one foot. One cubic mile equals 3,379,200 acre-feet. One cubic kilometer equals 810,713 acre-feet.

1 acre-foot is equal to 325,851 US gallons. Siberia's Lake Baikal contains about 6,276,367,740,000,000 gallons of freshwater - nearly 1 million gallons for every living person on earth.

The other - and more widely used - measure of a lake's size is the lake's surface acreage. By that measure, the world's largest freshwater lake is North America's Lake Superior.


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Maximum Depth | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated greatest depth of the water in a lake -- measured at the lake's normal elevation. The world's deepest lake is Siberia's Lake Baikal; that lake's maximum depth is estimated at 5,314 feet.

You can find many of the the world's deepest lakes on LakeLubbers. If you select the last page of that list, you will find the (maximum depth of) the shallowest lakes in our database.


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Average Depth | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated average depth of the water in a lake -- measured at the lake's normal elevation. If the water volume and surface area of a lake are known, an estimate of the lake's average depth can be calculated:

Water volume ÷ Surface Area = Average Depth

Example: 1,000,000 acre-feet ÷ 20,000 acres = 50 feet average depth


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Maximum Elevation | LakeLubbers

This is a lake's highest water level, measured by the lake's surface distance above sea level, that can occur during flooding. A lake's highest possible maximum elevation is usually the top of the lake's dam or spillway.

At lakes that include residential development, government regulations usually forbid the construction of homes below a lake's maximum elevation.


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Minimum Elevation | LakeLubbers

This is a lake's lowest water level, measured by the lake's surface distance above sea level, that can be reasonably expected to occur. Low lake levels can occur due to deliberate seasonal draw downs for irrigation or impending snow melt, reduced water inflows, drought and evaporation, residential or commercial water demands, and hydropower generation.

Some lakes' minimum and maximum elevations are virtually the same. Lakes that generate hydropower may vary by several feet - according to power demand. Lakes whose primary purpose is to prevent flooding can seasonally vary by 100 feet or more.

When some lakes reach their minimum elevation, their boat ramps may not be long enough to permit boat access - and boats docked on shallow parts of the lake may end up on dry ground. In those cases, kayakers and shore-based anglers may be among the few happy recreational users of the lake.


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Normal Elevation | LakeLubbers

This is a lake's normal water level, measured by the lake's surface distance above sea level. For a reservoir, this water level is also known as "full pond" or "full pool".

You can find many of the world's highest-elevated lakes on LakeLubbers. Lakes with the lowest elevations (known by LakeLubbers) are shown on the final page of that list.


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Shoreline Length | LakeLubbers

This is the length of the exterior shoreline around a lake - measured at the lake's normal elevation. The shoreline length can be considerably shorter or longer when lake water levels are lower or higher than normal.

A lake with many coves has a much longer shoreline than a lake of similar surface area that is nearly circular in shape.

When known, the shoreline miles that we report in our statistics include only the lake's exterior shoreline, and exclude the shorelines of islands located within a lake's boundaries. In lakes with many islands, those islands' combined shorelines may exceed a lake's exterior shoreline.

You can find many of the world's longest-shoreline lakes on Lakelubbers.


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Surface Area | LakeLubbers

This is the area (acreage, square kilometers, etc.) of the top surface area of a lake - measured at a lake's normal elevation. The surface area can be considerably smaller or larger when lake levels are lower or higher than normal. North America's Lake Superior is the world's largest freshwater lake by this measure.

The other measure of a lake's size is the lake's water volume. By that measure, the world's largest freshwater lake is Lake Baikal in Siberia.

You can find many of the world's largest lakes (acres) on Lakelubbers. There is no widely-accepted minimum surface area that defines a lake. What Lakelubbers describes as a lake, you might call a pond. The smallest lake that Lakelubbers currently includes is Hawaii's 2-acre Lake Waiau.


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Water Level Control | LakeLubbers

This is the organization that controls water releases or outflows from the lake or reservoir. In the USA, this is often the US Army Corps of Engineers, a power company, a municipal water system, an irrigation district, or a paper manufacturing company. In the case of private or gated lakes, a homeowners' association may be the lake's controlling authority.

Many lakes cross borders, including North America's Great Lakes. The control of such lakes and their coveted freshwater may be amicably shared - or hotly disputed.

"Water wars" continue at many lakes as growing populations and crop irrigation needs compete for the freshwater that lakes contain.


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Lake Type | LakeLubbers

There are 3 basic types of lakes that are currently included on LakeLubbers. 2 types may be dammed or not dammed, producing 5 classifications.

- A Reservoir is a man-made freshwater lake that is usually created by damming rivers.

- A Natural Freshwater Lake occurs naturally - often by glacial activity - and has a salinity of less than 30 parts per thousand. It may be dammed to produce electricity or for other reasons.

- A Natural Saltwater Lake occurs naturally and has a salinity of more than 30 parts per thousand (ppt). It may be dammed.

"Brackish" water may be categorized as freshwater or saltwater, depending on its salt content (salinity). Oligohaline water has less than 15 ppt of salt. Mesohaline water has 15-29 ppt. Polyhaline has 30-335 ppt.


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