When travelers choose a Patagonia navigation route, one of their motives is often the opportunity to see sights off the beaten path. Even if the region has become more fashionable and is now on many more bucket lists, Chile’s glacier-studded Parque Nacional Laguna San Rafael, southwest of the regional capital of Coyhaique, remains one of the region’s least visited parks – technically, at least.
Laguna San Rafael is one of Chile’s largest national parks, where the ice from the Campo de Hielo Norte, the Northern Patagonian Icefield, still reaches the sea. I have viewed the jagged seracs of the park’s namesake glacier – the world’s lowest-latitude tidewater glacier – on three separate trips, but I have never actually entered the park.
In fact, despite the fact that thousands of visitors view the glacier up close and personal every year, only a relative handful ever enter the park – as recently as 2009, only 158 persons (82 Chileans and 76 foreigners) actually set foot in it. That’s because the jurisdiction of the Corporación Nacional Forestal (Conaf), which manages the park, ends at water’s edge, and almost everybody arrives on catamarans and cruise ships that spend a few hours before heading back to Puerto Chacabuco, Chile, the port from which they sailed.
On my most recent visit, a few years ago, I took the catamaran Chaitén, which sailed from Chacabuco at 8 a.m., arriving at the glacier around 1 p.m. after a couple brief stops to view sea lion colonies en route. Over the next couple hours, the crew shuttled the passengers on Zodiacs along the glacier’s face – not too close, to avoid the crash of melting towers of ice and the waves they create – on a magnificent day that yielded the best views I’ve ever had of the advancing river of ice and its surrounding peaks.
In the course of my Patagonia travels, I have also taken the Navimag ferry from Puerto Montt to Puerto Natales at least half a dozen times, and it still amazes me that, in a world of six billion people, such an enormous area could be almost unpopulated – human settlements, or any sign of population, are virtually absent in an area that resembles the Alaska Panhandle. Verdant forests rise from the sea to mountains bearing the last of the winter snow, among other peaks of perpetual snow and ice, but they remain largely nameless, to me at least.
In reality, except for the handful who earn their livelihood at sea, this is still the nearly trackless wilderness it was when John Byron – grandfather of the famous poet Lord Byron – was shipwrecked here in the 18th century, and when the Beagle, with Darwin and FitzRoy aboard, anchored at Laguna San Rafael in 1835.
In one sense, the forested hillsides and islands of archipelagic Chile differ little from the barren wastes of the Atacama desert – there is a verdant monotony to them. Yet in the Atacama the evidence of human habitation and activity is present everywhere, while in the lush south it’s simply overgrown, if indeed it ever existed. There is no simple way to orient yourself, other than by the cardinal directions – in general, you’re going north or south.
While seeing Laguna San Rafael other than by sea has been difficult, that’s starting to change. This past year, the total number of visitors rose to 4,728 – still only an average of 13 per day, though that’s misleading because almost everyone goes between mid-October and April. I had hoped to go last January with the operator Río Exploradores, which now takes hikers by road and sea to the park for day trips, and for one- and two-night packages with dome tent camping from the town of Puerto Río Tranquilo, 228 km south of Coyhaique by a mostly paved highway.
It’s not cheap, but prices compare favorably to the catamaran and cruise ship excursions; unfortunately, there was no space available on the one day I had to spend in Tranquilo (which, however, has its own brewpub and several other excursions, like the nearby Capilla de Mármol on Lago General Carrera). I’ll give it another shot this upcoming season, though.
Activities in Laguna San Rafael
Visit the San Rafael National Park. With a campground, places to eat, and fun excursions and tours, it has all the infrastructure and services needed to have a great family outing.
The blue hued San Rafael Glacier is a giant mass of continental ice. Sailing among the icebergs that have broken off from the glacier is an extraordinary spectacle.
How to get to Laguna San Rafael
Laguna San Rafael is located about 120 nautical miles to the southeast of Puerto Chacabuco within the Laguna San Rafael National Park, and covers a surface area of 123 km2.
Several boats depart daily from Puerto Chacabuco and Puerto Montt towards the lagoon where one can take in the natural beauty of the glacier and see the walls of ice break off and dramatically crash into the ocean.
Navimag Ferries sail from Puerto Montt to Puerto Chacabuco, on a voyage through spectacular Patagonian scenery. From here you can take a connecting boat to Laguna San Rafael.
Climate of Laguna San Rafael
This area has a humid winter climate all year long, with temperatures low throughout the day and even lower at night. The average annual temperature is 8° C. Rainfall is practically constant and humidity high.