Parque Nacional Laguna San Rafael
If you're not planning a trip to the parks in southern Patagonia, Laguna San Rafael National Park is a must-see. It's the foremost attraction in the Aysén region, drawing thousands of visitors each year to be dazzled by the tremendous vertical walls of blue ice that flow 45km (28 miles) from the Northern Ice Field and stretch 4km (2 1/2 miles) across the Laguna San Rafael. It's the closest sea-level ice field to the Equator. Around these walls, thousands of aquamarine icebergs float in soupy water, forming jagged sculptures.
The glacier is actually receding, and quite quickly; it may well stop dropping ice into the lagoon within only a few years, but in the meantime, you will likely see numerous, heavy chunks of ice plunging into the deep water. The first explorers here in 1800 described the glacier as having filled three-quarters of the lagoon; when you're here, you can appreciate how much has disappeared, and the speed at which it is shrinking is unsettling.
Laguna San Rafael National Park is a staggering 1.7 million hectares (4 million acres). Most of the park is inaccessible except by ship, on which visitors slowly cruise through narrow canals choked with thick vegetation. Like Torres del Paine, Laguna San Rafael is a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve. Visitors set sail in Puerto Chacabuco or Puerto Montt aboard an all-inclusive luxury liner or modest ferry for day and multiple-day trips. The ship anchors near the glacier and passengers board zodiacs (inflatable motorized boats) for a closer look at the icebergs and the glacier, which in some places rises as high as 70m (230 ft.), rocked when the ice hits the water. A smaller fraction of visitors book an overflight excursion for a bird's-eye view of the glacier's entirety, which includes a touchdown at the park's center, near the glacier, for an hour-long visit.
Your best bet for clear skies is from November to March. Even on foul-weather days, the glacier is usually visible, as the clouds tend to hover just above it. Bring protective rain gear just in case, or inquire when booking a ticket, as many companies provide guests with impermeable jackets and pants.
Conaf administers the park and charges a $6 (£4) admission fee (ferry passengers do not pay; only those landing in planes do, but please donate something at the park ranger station anyway, as every bit of funding helps). Conaf offers several services at the park, including a boat ride near the glacier for $40 (£27) per person, and five sites for camping ($4/£2 per tent).
Ferry Journeys Through the Fjords to Laguna in San Rafael
This extraordinary journey is about a 200km (124-mile) sail from Puerto Chacabuco, but many visitors leave from Puerto Montt for a round-trip journey or to disembark in Puerto Chacabuco. Some visitors plan a multiday journey to Laguna San Rafael as the focal point of a trip to Chile. When booking a trip, consider the journey's length and whether you will be traveling at night and, therefore, missing any portions of scenery. In addition to the companies below, Navimag Ferries offers round-trip cruises directly from Puerto Montt. Prices range from about $477 to $816 (£318-£544) per person.
Overflight Trips to the Laguna San Rafael
A handful of companies arrange 2-hour overflight trips to the Laguna San Rafael, including disembarking near the glacier. It is a spectacular experience to view the glacier in its entirety (which means you won't want to do this trip on a cloudy day). These are charter flights, so you'll have to get a group together or fork over the entire price, but in a group, the price is competitive when you compare it with the cruises. Companies offering the service include Don Carlos, Subteniente Cruz 63 (tel. 67/231981; www.doncarlos.cl); Aerotaxis del Sur (tel. 67/252253; www.aerotaxisdelsur.cl); and Transportes San Rafael, 18 de Septiembre 469 (tel. 67/232048). Conaf charges passengers $6 (£4) for admission to the park.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.