Tucked deep into the fjords of the Aysén Region of Chile, the San Rafael Glacier receives far fewer visitors than other more famous glaciers in Patagonia. But this huge block of ice, 230-ft. (70m) in height and covering 2.5-miles (4km) is an awe-inspiring sight and one of the final remaining – and rapidly disappearing – relics of Patagonia’s ice age.
Why visit the San Rafael Glacier
One of the largest glaciers in the Northern Patagonian Ice Field, San Rafael once filled most of the lagoon that now sits at its snout, with records and photographs from early explorations of the region proving the significant distance that it has since retreated.
As a result of climate change and increased global temperatures, scientists believe that in the past 136 years, the San Rafael Glacier has shrunk by 7.5-miles (12km) in total. If it continues at this rate, estimates suggest it will disappear by 2030 – meaning chances to visit this huge Patagonian landmark are rapidly diminishing.
How to visit the San Rafael Glacier
There are various options for visiting the glacier and Parque Nacional San Rafael in which it is located.
Leaving from Puerto Chacabuco, around 90-miles (150km) north of the glacier, catamarans sail through the channels and waterways of the Chilean fjords before entering Laguna San Rafael and weaving in between the ghostly icebergs as large as buildings that bob the meltwater.
As these ships cannot get too close to the glacier, passengers move onto smaller Zodiac boats – although these vessels must still approach with care to avoid the ice calving from the glacier’s snout.
Information: These trips take roughly 14 hours and include food and drink on board.
Overland and Boat Tours
The closest town to the San Rafael Glacier is Puerto Río Tranquilo, 135-miles (220km) from Coyhaique along the Carretera Austral. From here, overland transport to Bahía Exploradores brings you to the start of the tour.
Passengers board either 12-person, semi-rigid inflatable boats or fiberglass vessels and sail to Laguna San Rafael to see the glacier. Here, it’s possible to disembark and hike around the lake to get a closer look at the unique flora and fauna of the national park.
Information: These are full day trips and passengers are required to organize their own transport to Bahiá Exploradores or book a tour where this is included.
The most adventurous option for visiting Glacier San Rafael is with a kayaking tour. This includes kayaking down Río Exploradores to join the ocean, before paddling into Laguna San Rafael.
What makes this a unique way of seeing the glacier is that you can get close to the icebergs in the lake and even camp in the national park.
This Patagonia glacier tour can also be combined with a kayaking trip around Lago General Carrera, the location of the colorful Catedrál de Marmol (Marble Cathedral) and other beautiful marble caves that have been eroded and polished by the elements.
Recommendations for visiting Glacier San Rafael
- The Patagonian summer, when weather conditions are best, is the prime time for exploring the region and visiting the San Rafael Glacier.
- Take clothing suitable for cold, rainy weather; this part of Patagonia experiences a vast amount of rainfall, so a waterproof jacket and shoes that can withstand a downpour are essential items.