Our guide Russell collects us and we realise with a silent Wow, this is just going to be the two of us with him for this adventure expedition. How brilliant is that? We collect a few final provisions and head off towards Puerto Rio Tranquilo and an amazing journey.
When planning a 3 month trip there are many things that have to be planned on the road. Or they just evolve. While it was low season in places like Machu Picchu, it was going to be high season in Patagonia so this expedition was one thing that was planned many, many months in advance.
Just one chance review I happened across in months of research led me to Rio Exploradores Laguna San Rafael and what a gem of a trip that has turned out to be. A total stunner!
Timing hinged on the flight out of La Paz to Santiago going without a hitch. We needed to fly out of Santiago south to Balmaceda airport in Patagonia the very next day. Now I’ve seen people on various forums angsting about an unbelievably tiny window, maybe a matter of hours, between an international arrival and an onward flight but that is so not me. Even with 24 hours or so to play with, I was on tenterhooks on and off over the entire trip hoping that everything would go according to plan. It did!
Walking in to Balmaceda airport you stop wondering how to make the 45 minute journey into Coyhaique, our real jumping off point for this Patagonian expedition. Several different company representatives are strategically positioned in the arrivals area frantically waving tickets begging to be allowed to drive you direct to your hotel.
Coyhaique was a surprisingly happening place for a Thursday evening with a troupe of acrobatic buskers entertaining the reasonably large crowds of people thronging the Plaza and streets of this small place. I remember this is high season so there are plenty of tourists around, many of them appear to be Chileans. An excellent meal with good old-fashioned service that night sets us up for the first of four very big days in Patagonia.
The scenery is ever spectacular. All those snow-capped mountains I have tried to snap with varying degrees of success over this last few months through dirty bus windows was so unnecessary. Everything is larger than life and immediate here. There is a never-ending feast of mountains, rivers, lakes, waterfalls and stunning scenery.
After driving for about 90 minutes we reached the end of the sealed road and stop for an excellent lunch break at Cerro Castillo. Those country Chilenas make a mean soup. From here on, we will either be only be on roads that are dusty, narrow or corrugated or a combination of all three, or, on a boat of some description.
Over the four days we total maybe 1,000 kilometres. Hard work on unsealed roads, but unfailingly awesome at every turn. Not as hard though as for the many cyclists we see who are doing over 1,000 kilometres from Puerto Montt to O’Higgins on the Carretera Austral. The corrugated roads, the dust and the narrow sections in some parts make this a journey strictly for dedicated cyclists only. Plenty of hitchhikers as well doing the trek.
It still feels quite early in the Chilean daylight saving hours when we reach Puerto Rio Tranquilo. Not a lot of time to savour the luxury at the gorgeous Hostal El Puesto where shoes are dispensed with and woollen slippers are provided to walk around the wooden floors. We are soon heading off to tour the marble caves on Lake General Carrera, the second biggest lake in South America after Lake Titicaca. Another silent Wow as we realise what a jam-packed agenda this is going to be. Excellent.
Again it is just the two of us who head down to the picturesque little dock on the lake and head out at speed across the water. The caves and formations are a truly stunning marvel. The boatman is addicted to taking photos for his passengers it seems and snaps us at every conceivable angle at every opportunity.
It’s a small flat-bottomed boat and that’s how our rear ends feel after the trip back. The wind has picked up in the late evening and with it a pretty good swell. Our only option is to clutch the plank seat for grim death and just go with the exhilaration as we bump back over the choppy water.
Puerto Rio Tranquilo is a tiny town only 4 blocks square, but the food at El Puesto is a gourmet delight.
An early morning start as we have to be at the river crossing by 9am and it’s another 90 minutes on another dirt road to reach the river. Russell makes it all feel so relaxed though especially with a great Playlist to choose from. There’s always time to stop at a particularly spectacular spot for photos, to watch Andean condor soaring, or to fill our water bottles from the pure water pouring down a mountain side. We drink water that has probably rested up there frozen for thousands of years. Just hard to beat.
Night two was going to be camping out but an unusually wet summer means Ian from the company Rio Exploradores has had to come up with plan B. We reach the river crossing and meet Jaime the boatman and Rosa his wife. Their old house, a very rustic cabin, will be our home for the night so we dump our bags at their new, slightly less rustic home and hit the road in the van kept on the other side of the river. Today we are with seven other travellers, still a pretty small group. We’re off to the glacier and Laguna San Rafael.
The weather is perfect after many inclement days. We feel unbelievably lucky at the momentous timing choices made at least six months ago. When we finally reach the river there is no wind so with a surface like glass, the boat journey is maybe only two hours to the glacier.
The boat is small and fast with a cabin just big enough to protect our small group of passengers should the weather be inclement. All that thermal gear we carried for 3 months around the Galapagos and everywhere else we have been is finally having its big day. We can rug up enough to be able to sit outside for as long as the skipper allows, virtually the entire 2 hours there and then 2 hours back again.
It is such an amazing, special experience that I don’t want to miss a minute sitting in the cabin.
The journey starts in the river and then we move into the fjord. Mountains reflect in the water, there are hanging glaciers, birds skim at speed unbelievably close to the water surface, then we see some penguin. After some time, ice floes appear just dotting the surface initially, increasing in size and number. A massive Leopard seal suns itself on an iceberg. Our small boat means we are able to manoeuvre to get close views to the apparent disinterest of the enormous creature.
Finally the glacier proper appears broaching down into the water.
Lunch first though in the national park, a gourmet picnic complete with a shot of Pisco. We walk along the shore and see the spot where a hotel once stood to take in the glacier views. The glacier has long since retreated far, far back from this spot.
The glacier is still a majestic wonder of nature though. Two kilometres across and 250 metres deep at the entry point into the water, it cracks and growls, the noise resounding like cannon. Every time there is another enormous crack I look expecting to see yet another giant slab breaking off, but this action is back in the body of the glacier amongst the crevasses as it relentlessly grinds and moves like a living beast.
Several enormous pieces do calve off though thoroughly spectacularly. There is an enormous splash as the giant ice slabs plummet down only to rise and submerge and rise again.
A ritual of the glacier visit is to have a shot of whiskey, or Pisco, in a piece of glacier ice. A highly compressed solid piece of ice is ideal otherwise the alcohol quickly runs through. Luis fishes with a boat hook for the best slab he can find in the water nearby, carves a well in the top with his knife and then we sup our alcohol in turn.
Two hours back on the still glassy surface and I greedily drink in every moment of the journey out in the open back of the boat. Who knows when I will next do something like this again?
There’s still a van ride back to the river crossing and our cabin for the night. Rosa prepares a dinner of Chinook salmon from the river and Russell appears with a bottle of red. For an isolated place it is pretty convivial as people knock on the door of Jaime and Rosa’s cabin to share in some conversation or to participate in the mate tea ritual.
The night sky is amazing and the morning light beside the fast flowing river is beautiful. We can relax at the kitchen table looking out at the river because Jaime has his work life balance well in order, the first crossings don’t start before 9am. Time to just sit right on the river edge and meditate on the beauty as cars and people start to gather on the other side waiting for the boatman.
Plan B means we will go to the Rio Baker Confluencia today. We don’t know what we have missed due to the weather enforced change of plans, but it seems you can’t go too far wrong in Patagonia. We are in for another stupendous day.
First stop is the lookout we missed on day one. It is a pretty decent hike uphill again but after weeks at altitude climbing daily, this hike basically at sea level is a snap to reach the viewing point over the Exploradores glacier and the north face of San Valentin, Patagonia’s highest and possibly most dramatic peak. It is a stunning outlook over the glacier and mountains. Several groups far below us are heading out for a day trek over the glacier. So many young Chileans are enjoying their country.
It is a Sunday and we stop at a small village on the river where a Fiesta is under way. The asada has been well attacked and the revellers are dancing to the music, playing bocce or just relaxing on the river bank. Feels like a good time for an ice cream.
Back on the road and we finally start to follow the Rio Baker. The colour is the most stunning turquoise blue. Just extraordinarily beautiful. The viewing spot is on private property but the generous owner allows public access to what is for me, one of the top highlights of the entire 3 month trip.
Again a good hike in, about 700 metres. The sheep pastures with the mountain backdrops we pass by at the start of the trail are a bit reminiscent of New Zealand. We hear the thundering noise first and then finally the majestic sight is revealed -the enormous “Salton” waterfall at the confluence of the rivers Baker and Neff.
The stretch of river leading up to the Salton is a popular kayaking or rafting spot. A couple leave the water just as we arrive in such a calm and beautiful little bay only metres from the thundering drop. Again, we almost have the place to ourselves to explore this wonder from different vantage points.
The sight is compellingly mesmerising as we watch that mass of water thundering over the rocks with such a consistently strong volume and force. Thankfully a move to dam and flood the entire valley was thwarted. I hope this beautiful part of the world remains intact.
The day is not over yet. We drive to the location of ancient rock paintings, mostly hand outlines, up on a massive rock face.
Just a small section of Patagonia was all we managed to explore in a jam packed four days, but it was such an amazing adventure with nature really. Lakes of so many different colours seemed to be around every corner, the amazing rivers, glaciers, waterfalls with the majestic Andes Mountains as an ever present backdrop.
I loved every minute of this trip as you may be able to guess and a return to Patagonia has to be on the cards in the not too distant future.