The San Rafael Glacier welcomed us with an uncomfortably loud bang when our little boat crashed straight into an unexpected iceberg. El Capitán immediately turned off the engine and listened carefully. Our guide and expert Christopher looked straight at me and bluffed confidently: “Don’t worry, everything is ok.” Good for him that he was right. We continued to navigate through the channel more slowly now, carefully evading the ice tips that towered out of the dark water. The icebergs continuously increased in size and beauty, until suddenly we looked upon a rather special one: the majestic San Rafael Glacier, located in the Northern Patagonian Ice Field in Chile. It took me a few seconds to process and grasp the immense size of the glacier. I passively mumbled to our guide Christopher how amazed I was about the size of the San Rafael Glacier, after which he dryly answered: “Yes, yes…do you see the lighter rocky parts next to the ice? That was the original size of the San Rafael Glacier. It has strongly retreated in the last decade and will probably be entirely gone around 2030.” What he had described as “lighter rocky parts” seemed like almost an entire mountain to me: global warming – alas, we meet.

We met the crew of the Explora II at Bahia Exploradores from where we embarked on our two and a half hour trip through the Golfo Elefantes (Gulf of Elephants). Although we didn’t see any elephants (I had already seen plenty in Ruaha National Park, Tanzania), we did encounter a wonderful and rare surprise: wild Patagonian dolphins! They were about six dolphins, taking advantage of the tides to catch some disoriented fish. The crew spotted them already from far away and we went nuts (as we hadn’t even considered the possibility of seeing dolphins), but it got even better when they came close to our boat and curiously swam along with us. The snow-capped Patagonian mountains in the distance, jungle-like forests along the shores, amazing air, astonishing icebergs and wild dolphins really made it an amazing start of our trip to the San Rafael Glacier.

I had assumed that the San Rafael Lagoon was a tranquil and desolate place when, contrarily, it was very much energetic and “alive”. The ice of the San Rafael Glacier was steadily building up immense pressure from the Northern Patagonian Ice Fields and therefore constantly in motion – accompanied by fearsome cracking, creaking and rumbling noises. And from time to time – after hundreds or even thousands of years of unity – the glacier would separate itself from a big chunk of ice, forcefully pushing it off the mighty ice wall and letting it slowly melt away in the lagoon. We slowly approached the ice wall during almost two hours, marveling at the unique structures of the glacier’s ice. Some structures even resembled a gate, reminding me of The Wall in Game of Thrones.

However, what had fascinated me the most was what I would like to describe as a “Clash of Titans” – the battle between the powerful mountain and the restless glacier. You could literally feel and hear the tension between both fronts. But every war demands its losses, so we honored the fallen blocks of ice by fishing a tiny part of them out of the water and enjoying our whiskey in it. Slightly buzzed, I spent a good amount of time looking at the San Rafael Glacier, feeling increasingly frustrated about the visible retreat. It’s difficult for me to accept that future generations – and maybe even you – probably won’t ever get a chance to enjoy the same astonishing view I had. “Entirely gone by 2030”. Too bad everyone loses eventually – even a true Titan.

Did you enjoy our San Rafael Glacier so far?

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How to get to the San Rafael Glacier

It’s best to visit the San Rafael Glacier during the Patagonian Summer – roughly from October until April. I flew from Santiago de Chile to Balmaceda (near Coyhaique), where I rented a 4WD and drove down to Puerto Tranquilo (roughly three hours). Coming from the Cerro Castillo National Park (so from the north), you’ll have to take a turn to the right – directly before the little bridge when entering Puerto Tranquilo. From there, it’s about a two hour ride on an even rougher gravel road to La Teresa. You can’t go wrong from there. Just follow the road until it ends at a river. You’ll find an unfinished bridge (won’t be finished for many years, apparently) where your guide will be waiting for you. You’ll cross the river with a little boat and then continue by car to Bahia Exploradores (roughly half an hour), where you’ll meet the crew. The trip continues on water through the Golfo Elefantes until you reach the San Rafael Lagoon (roughly two and a half hours). The waters in the Golfo Elefantes are rather wild due to the tides, so be prepared for a potentially bumpy ride.

Make sure you plan an entire day for the trip to the San Rafael Glacier and ideally plan your trip ahead of time with a tour operator in Puerto Tranquilo (the nearest village), e.g. Río Exploradores. It’s recommended to spend the night before at Puerto Tranquilo, or somewhere along the way to Bahia Exploradores. Considering the quick retreat of the ice, a day trip to the San Rafael Glacier really might end up being a once in a lifetime opportunity.


As you will probably travel to the San Rafael Glacier via Puerto Tranquilo, make sure you reserve two or three hours to visit the magical Marble Caves at Lake Gran Carrera!


For questions or feedback regarding the San Rafael Glacier, please feel free to leave a comment at the bottom of this page.

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About the author Valentin Rüst rotate

I founded Don't Complain Travel in 2010 with the goal to experience, document and share travel adventures from all over the world. From Zurich, Switzerland.

14 Comments

  • Hi Valentin,

    Just watched a short piece on the glacier on a TV show here in Australia, then Googled … and found your post!

    Sounds fantastic. And lovely pictures. Thanks for sharing:)

    Keely

  • what are the cheap options for day trip to the Lagoon?

    • As far as I know, there are two common options: to go via Puerto Tranquilo with a little boat (what we did), or to take a cruise ship (like the Skorpios). The cruise ship, however, is a multi-day trip and probably more costly than operators in Puerto Tranquilo, such as Río Exploradores.

  • Nice descriptive write up and great pictures for a cloudy day! In my several group trips to San Rafael I have usually contracted small yachts (8-12 PAX) for multiple-day trips to the glacier. Every time it is a marvelous wonder and all the close-up views of multi-hued icebergs are worth the trip even if there were no glacier.

  • Danielle MacDonald July 23, 2015 at 5:23 am

    YAK Expediciones (puerto varas) does extended self supported sea kayak tours to this area out of coyhaique. It’s a more unique and adventurous way to explore:)

    • Hi Everyone! I’m planning to go at the end of this month and am scrambling to plan my itinerary. How much are the kayak trips out of Coyhaique and do you know how long they take? I’m trying to budget my time wisely to see both the Marble Caves and a glacier in that area. Any recommendations for lodging as well?

  • Hi,
    I’m planning a trip to Chile this March. Will be flying in to Santiago, and will be doing the Atacama Desert and I would like to also do the glacier. Would it be better to go back to Santiago then fly down or can I fly down from Pedro de Atacama or Antofagosta? Time is not a problem, but I don’t know if I want to drive the three hrs. to Puerto Tranquilo, etc. It also means I’ll have to stay in Balmaceda. Is there any other way to get to Puerto Tranquilo, such as a tour from Balmaceda? Thank you. Ledis

    • Hi Ledis, that’s great news, I’m excited for you! You’ll have to check for direct flights, but I flew in from Santiago and there were already one or two stop-overs until Balmaceda (it went further to Punta Arenas). Also, I don’t think there are reasonable options to stay in Balmaceda, as it’s really just the airport. I would suggest to get to Coyhaique, which was an interesting city about an hour away.
      If you do not want to drive to Puerto Tranquilo, I’m absolutely sure that the few tour operators would organize a ride for you, such as Río Explorades. There’s also a bus that could take you there, but it will be more cumbersome.
      And if you have time: you could also visit the San Rafael Glacier with a cruise ship, e.g. Skorpios (I think starting in Puerto Montt). Hope it helps, and enjoy!

  • Hi I’m wondering what’s the best way to rent a car and if it’s possible to rent an automatic one in coyhaique area.

    Thanks

    • Hi Isabella, we rented a 4WD from Balmaceda airport near Coyhaique. As far as I can remember, it was an automatic. You’ll find all major car rental companies at Balmaceda or Coyhaique. Please keep in mind that the road past the Cerro Castillo National Park is primarily gravel road. I would strongly suggest to avoid an “economy model”, but go with something more robust. Hope it helps!

  • Hi, we are travelling south towards Rio Tranquilo to see both the marble caves and hopefully, the San Rafael glacier. We were just wondering how long in advance you need to book the tours to them? We arrive in Rio Tranquilo in a few days and haven’t made any reservations yet…!

    • Hi Carmen, I think it would be advisable to send out an email to get in touch with some operators before your arrival. The weather isn’t always predictable and the operators have limited capacities (as Puerto Tranquilo is only a tiny town). Have an amazing trip!

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