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?
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!
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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.