trip report: Patagonia, January 2019 – part 4: Marble Caves & Glaciar Exploradores guided tours at Puerto Río Tranquilo

Our southern most point on our Carretera Austral drive was the town of Puerto Río Tranquilo. While we typically don’t partake in guided hikes or tours, we did here to see the highlight of the town, the Marble Caves on Lago Gral Carrera (Lake General Carrera).

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The other tour here is the guided glacier hike onto Glaciar Exploradores, spilling off the Northern Patagonia Ice Field. Having endured the last few days through sickness and car issues, we made the decision at this point to just enjoy ourselves and splurge on both tours. We did not regret it one bit.

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This is part 4 of my Patagonia and Carretera Austral trip report series. You can navigate to the other parts in the index below as they are posted. 

index

1 planning & research
2 trip report: getting in & Huemul Circuit
3 trip report: Ruta 40 & driving on the Carretera Austral
4 trip report: Marble Cave on General Carrera Lake & Glaciar Exploradores
      4.1 Marble Caves
      4.2 Glaciar Exploradores guided hike
            4.2.1 getting to the trailhead
            4.2.2 hiking information
            4.2.3 report
            4.2.4 ratings
5 trip report: Mirador Laguna Cerro Castillo
6 trip report: Parque Nacional Queulat & Ventisquero Colgante
7 trip report: Futaleafú
8 trip report: Pumalín National Park
9 trip report: getting out via San Carlos de Bariloche & Mexico City
10 final impressions & budget

This part of the trip report details our adventures on day 8 and day 9 of our travels on Ruta 40 and the Carretera Austral.

trip report: Marble Caves

As soon as we entered the outskirts of Puerto Río Tranquilo in the late afternoon, we were greeted by the Explorasur Excursiones kiosk. They are one of the many tour companies here in Puerto Río Tranquilo with most other ones set up in the center of town by the beach. That street was also one of the most touristy areas we’ve encountered the entire trip with vendors approaching anyone they see on the street to sell a tour.

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Apparently, we were just in time for the last boat tour out to the Marble Caves for the day at 5:30pm. Originally we had thought about doing the kayaking tour the following day, but it was few times more at 35000 CLP per person than the 10000 CLP we paid (20000 CLP total for 2 people, USD$29.18 equivalent at the time). We had nothing to do at the time either.

The boats left at the dock that shared the same parking lot as the Explorasur Excursiones kiosk.

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From the port, we were packed into a boat three across and set off on the choppy waters of Lago Gral Carrera.

We were glad that we weren’t in a kayak at this point with the stronger than anticipated waves. However, I don’t think the kayakers leave from the same point as the boat tours did. After about a 20 minute ride through choppy waters, we closed in on the rocky shores and the first set of cliffs. There were a couple of other boat tours here at the same time.

The caves created through erosion from of Lago Gral Carrera were indeed impressive.

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We drove into a few of the caves and our guide said some informational stuff, but our lack of spanish failed us once again. So instead let us pretend he just quoted wikipedia, “The Marble Caves, Marble Chapel and Marble Cathedral are unusual geological formations located at the center of the lake. They represent a group of caverns, columns and tunnels formed in monoliths of marble. The Marble Caves have been formed by wave action over the last 6,200 years.”

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I did make out that this rock was called the turtle rock

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and this was dog rock, tortuga and perros. I’m slowly getting it.

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We continued to follow the marble coast peaking into an cave here and there. One of the coolest features of the caves was smooth dimples that lined the walls.

The boat tour then took us across an open section of the lake to reach the climax of the tour, the two islands. The first one we saw was the larger of the two. This was where we met the returning kayak tour. It seemed like this area was much better sheltered against the winds and waves coming from the east of Lago Gral Carrera.

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Though I seemed like the second was the more preferred and photographed.

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Both were in the process of losing their bases.

We circled the lonely islands for a few minutes and caught a smig of sunshine as we were pulling away that really brought out the colors of the lake to contrast the marble rocks.

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Our ride back was into a strong headwind. The boat was well prepared for this providing heavy wind and water ponchos to shield all of us from the wind.

The tour wrapped up about 1.5 hours from the start of the boat ride. The boat ride wasn’t the most stable with the strong cross winds and waves during the section to and back from the caves, but they guides and boatman knew what they were doing. Still I was glad to be off the small boat back at the docks.

ratings (range: 1-5; click link for detailed breakdown)

views: 3. The Marble Caves were impressive indeed, especially in contrast to the teal blue Lago Gral Carrera. The colors and textures of the caves were another aspect that stood out. I was satisfied with the boat tour, especially for the cost in comparison to the kayak. However, you’ll get much more up and personal time with the rocks in a kayak at the trade off of seeing more caves. So either option would be good. Overall, the Marble Caves are the tourist attraction for the town, but I wouldn’t come all this way just for it exclusively. It is worthy of a stop while you are enjoying the the Carretera Austral.

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trip report: Glaciar Exploradores guided hike

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Since we did the boat tour the evening of our day 8, we had an open day on the 9th and it was forecasted to be a clear day. We opted for the Glaciar Exploradores guided hike with Explorasur Excursiones. The cost of the tour was 80000 CLP per person (160000 CLP for 2 people, USD$233.87 equivalent at the time). It was not cheap and one of the reason many budget travelers pass it up or opt for Perito Moreno Glacier walk near El Calafate or Glacier Gray in Torres Del Paine.

The main question for me as a budget traveler and hiker is whether you could do this hike on your own. The answer to that is a definite maybe. The biggest logistical obstacle you would face is trying to reach the trailhead itself.

getting to the trailhead

We gathered at the Explorasur Excursiones kiosk around 8:30 am and were picked up by a 12 seater van. We would be a group of ten lead by two guides who grew up locally and spoke much better English than our Spanish. We drove down the dirt road X-728 away from the Carretera Austral. About a half hour into the drive to stopped by a waterfall for a short break.

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Another 15 minutes later, we reached the first roadblock should you be looking to hike this yourself. That is the road was washed out and the only option is to take a boat toward the otherside.

I’m not sure if the people running the ferry are always around or if they work for the tour company, so this potentially could be a major issue for the independent hiker. It also goes without saying, speaking spanish is a must here. Once we were across the short section of flooded road, we walk a short stretch on foot where it seemed like they were starting to fill in a more elevated road to a second van the tour company had left on this side. We hit the road again just before 10 am and reached the trailhead around 10:20 am.

The trailhead had plenty of bathrooms for all the tour groups and it was packed on this day.

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Other than difficulties in getting to the trailhead, knowledge of navigating a glacier and the moraine are the technical skills you’ll need to have to do this hike. If you don’t possess those skills, there is a viewpoint overlooking the glacier you can hike to (alltrails).

trail information

  • gps track – alltrails wikiloc
  • type: in & out
  • distance: 5.3 miles (8.5 km)
  • elevation change: 672 ft. ascent & descent
  • time: 6:40 hours (3:30 hours moving)
  • location: Exploradores Park, Parque Nacional Laguna San Rafael, Aysén, Chile (google maps)

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report

As part of a guided group, things take a while. This includes getting everyone their lunches, helmet, crampons, and gaiters. Lastly, the guides went over a short briefing of the hike.

We finally started to hike around 10:40 am. The initial section was a few feet through the woods before the trail turned to the right and started up the rocky moraine.

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It was slow going no so much before of the terrain, but because the tour had to wait for groups ahead of us. While we were waited, we got our first glimpse of Glaciar Exploradores.

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Once we got moving, we continued uphills for a few minutes in a wooded area and blooming Fuchsia Magellanica before dropping down to a glacial pond.

Here we waited for a bit longer before climbing onto the toe of the glacier which is blanked mostly in dirt and rocks. It might not looked like the glacier here making it a typically dangerous hike through the area for independent hikers without glacial experience. Due to the large number of tours here, there was a clear trail.

We continued forward through the rocks, mud, and dirt for a bit before the terrain flattens out and we could see the while ice of the glacier below our feet.

We stopped here to put on our crampons and were giving pointers on how to hike with them on before continuing.

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This is where having the benefit of a guide through the glacier is nice since they know all the cool features of the area.

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There are also no trails on the glacier itself so knowing where to go to avoid the cravasses are also nice.

Should we needed some extra water, there was nothing like glacial waters.

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The best part of the glacier hike was just walking on the pure white glacier itself. It was a spectacular view no matter where you looked.

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We stopped for lunch around 1:40 pm when we had a view of the glacier further up the valley spilling out from Monte San Valentín, the highest peak in the Chilean Patagonia.

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After lunch, the guides took us to an ice hole for pictures, which Meg begrudgingly complied with.

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And then it we started making our way back.

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But that wasn’t the end of our adventures as the guides took us through an ice cave

followed by more ice tunnels.

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The last cool feature we encountered was a large glacial pond near the end of the ice portion.

After that, we took off our crampons and took the same trail through the dirt and mud portion of the hike back to the the trailhead. It was again a slow process as we had to stop and wait several times for the group in front of us.

It was 5:20 pm by the time we returned to the trailhead and 7 pm when we returned to the town of Puerto Río Tranquilo.

ratings (range: 1-5; click link for detailed breakdown)

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view: 4. On the Carretera Austral and not including the Huemul Circuit on this trip, this was my favorite hike. It is almost beyond words of how to describe the feeling when you are walking on the pristine white ice of a glacier. Add in the mountains in the background, teal glacial ponds, and ice tunnels to go through, it makes for an amazing experience and well worth the price for the guided trip. Other than not being able to make it to the trailhead without going through the tour company, you would be hard pressed to find all the cool features hidden in the glacier without guides who knew the glacier like the back of their hands. The negative of a tour group is the duration it takes to hike to and from the glacier in the form of many stops to wait for other groups in front. But once we were on the icey part of the glacier, we didn’t have to worry about that anymore since all the groups went their own way.

difficulty: 1. The hike is not difficult with only a initial major uphill onto the moraine. The guided tour will also provide plenty of breaks. A couple of aspect that may be annoying were the muddy sections making it to the icy part of the glacier and the exposure from the sun.

technical: 1 with guides. With guides, technical navigation aspect of the hike is not a worry. Otherwise, this rating maybe a lot higher to know your way around a glacier and to avoid cravasses. Hiking on the glacier does require the use of a crampon, but the guides will instruct you on it and there is no climbing or steep ascents.

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Written by John

I'm a graduate student that likes to hike and travel.

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