Chile Patagonia 2009 – Laguna San Rafael

¡Otro viaje relampago!” exclaims my mother-in-law.

We smile. “Absolutely, why not another lighting fast trip. Two days and three nights. We leave Christmas morning and will be back to Santiago on Monday evening.”

“So where to this time?”

“La Laguna San Rafael.”

When my sister-in-law, Haydée, suggested this excursion last fall, I tried to find it on the map without any luck. “Where is it?” I asked her.

“In Aysén. Find the northern ice field. Look for the San Valentin glacier.” I trembled at the thought of snow and ice.  December marks the beginning of summer in Chile and is one of the reasons I love spending Christmas there. The long hot dry days and cool nights are much the same as summer weather in California and is much nicer than cold and ice.

With my finger I trace along the broken up spine of the Andes stretching south from Puerto Montt and Chaiten to Puerto Aysén and Puerto Chacabuco. As my finger slowly descends south from there, I spot the northern ice field, that with the southern ice field make up the third largest deposit of ice on earth after the north and south poles. Looking closely, I see the glacier, a tongue of ice descending into Laguna San Rafael.

To my surprise, as far as expeditions go, La Laguna San Rafael is not that hard to get to. It takes just two hours on a direct flight from Santiago to Balmaceda, the closest airport, and another two hours by bus to Puerto Chacabuco where we will pick up the Catamaran del Sur the following day to complete the trip to the Laguna.

When we land in Balmaceda on the afternoon of Christmas day we immediately feel its remoteness. It is nothing more than an outpost on the frontier with Argentina but the weather is fine: Sunny and windy, very windy. The snow capped peaks of the Andes fan out around us at the edges of this high altitude plain.  Ten of us climb into the hotel’s bus for the two hour trip down to the coast. The scenery is amazing. Blue and pink lupins grow dense by the road, cows and sheep graze in emerald green fields that remind me of Ireland. In the distance, jagged Volcanic cliffs rim the periphery of the Simpson River that rushes at white water speeds down to meet the Aysén River on its way to the Pacific Ocean. After forty-five minutes or so we see Coyhaique, the region’s largest town, nestled below us.

The road is paved and in good condition. This is positive. Usually our expeditions take us on gravel roads (caminos de ripio) that jostle and leave sore even the most stalwart.  The wind blows incessantly as we progress along the road’s twists and turns through the mountains. The wind makes me think about windmills, not the squat Don Quijote knights of old but the sleek modern variety. Suddenly as we come around a bend, I see them: Three wind turbines.

Better these towers turning in the wind than the massive concrete dam of an hydroelectric plant. Where and how to generate the energy to satisfy the country’s ever-growing appetite for electricity is a topic that produces lively debate. In the airport competing posters announce opposing sides of the controversy. Most visible and passionate is the campaign, Patagonia Chilena ¡Sin Represas! but money and politics  seem to be tilting the scales in favor of HidroAysén. It’s not surprising. Hydroeletric power has been a mainstay of Chile’s energy policy for decades. But I hope that these three wind turbines may be a symbol of change towards a more earth friendly and sustainable energy agenda for this country.

I forget about the polemics of energy as we enter the darkness of a tunnel. I don’t like tunnels and tightly grip the seat belt that crosses my chest as we pass through. On the other side, everything is shrouded in mist and rain. The road continues to hug the course of the Simpson River. Magnificent waterfalls channel the rain off the mountains. Our driver suggests a stop at the Cascada de la Virgen.  The rain has softened so we descend to get a better view.

I wonder what came first, the name of the waterfall or the sanctuary at its side. Later, I discover that the waterfall was named for the Grotto of the Virgin Mary. Every year on February 11, hundreds of pilgrims visit the sanctuary to worship the Virgin. Even today the small parking lot is full of locals as well as visitors. While the we jockey for the best position to snap photos, the locals greet one another and immediately fall into lively conversation. I can’t hear what they are saying but can imagine the bits of juicy gossip that are being shared. In this wild place the locals welcome any opportunity to share the community of other people.

We’re on our way again. It’s still raining but we’re making good time. I know we are almost to our destination when we cross the brightly painted bridge across the River Aysén at Puerto Aysén.

The harbor at Puerto Chacabuco is magnificent. A fishing port, commercial boats come and go to unload their catch, but even then, the remoteness and beauty of this place remains in tact.

When we arrive to the hotel, it is still raining and I am damp and cold, but our room is really hot. At least, I’ll be toasty warm tonight. We open the window for some fresh air. The wind pushes the sweet air inside. The abundant rain falls softly. I am going to sleep well, I think; and I do.

The next morning we are up at six. By eight the boat is leaving the dock with eighty travelers plus crew on board. In five hours we’ll be there. It’s still raining. Protected by dozens upon dozens of islands, the water is only a bit choppy. Dark green forests come down to the rocky shore reminding me of the Maine coast of my childhood. Now and then when the rain momentarily subsides the gulls take wing. The sun breaks through the clouds. Flying  hula ducks follow the boat. Seals nap on the rocks. Then I see something I have never seen before, a rainbow glistening on the water’s surface.

The passage into the Laguna is narrow and shallow, but the crew is expert. We have been in route for five hours and I don’t notice that we’re entering the Laguna until I see the glacier, the tallest of any in the Patagonian ice fields, dead ahead. Immense, strange and mysterious, it sends chills up my spine.

The catamaran will keep its distance while the Zodiacs get closer. I’m nervous and not sure I’ll be able to get into the proportionately miniscule rubber raft. Ice floats everywhere. I think of the Titanic and wonder how many of the my companions are thinking the same. The guides organize us into groups, ten in total. We are in the first group. Fernando, one of the guides, shows us how to put on the life jacket and how to descend from the catamaran into the Zodiac. I do it just like he says and find that once in the Zodiac it isn’t bad at all.

Two crew members maneuver us closer. Hunks of ice slide off the glacier into the Laguna creating a succession of round waves that move towards us.

One of our companions, an engineering student from Switzerland, puts his hand in the freezing water to catch a piece of floating ice.

As we pass by an iceberg I am amazed at how blue it is. “The more oxygen trapped inside, the bluer the ice,” comments another fellow traveler.

After twenty minutes or so in the Zodiac I’ve had enough. It’s cold and lonely here in the company of the glacier. I’m ready to head back to the catamaran. Once on board, whisky with glacial ice is offered but I opt, instead, for a glass of wine and curl up to listen to the onboard saxophonist warm up. The long day is only half over so I take a nap only to be awakened by the sounds of Karaoke and laughter that ease the boredom of the long return trip. We dock once again in Puerto Chacabuco after nine at night and head to bed.

It’s still raining the next day as we prepare for a hike in the forest. Well, it’s not actually a hike–it’s more like a walk on a well manicured trail. But it’s fun. Our rain slickers keep us mostly dry except for our legs. Rafael, our guide, knows the plants and animals well and stops often to show us native specimens. I ask him about medicinal plants and he tells me that there are many. Further on he stops. “This,” he says pointing, “is Tiaca or Caldcluvia Paniculata. It cures cramping.”

“How is it prepared?” I ask.

“As an emulsion,” he replies.

This is something I could really use. I often get leg cramps especially after a long hilly run. If only I had a Tiaca tree in my backyard in California.

The walk ends at a lodge, or quincho, sitting above Lago Riesco. Here our hosts welcome us with pisco sours, lamb roasting on an open fire, and a group of spirited young people waiting to regale us in Chilean song and dance. Haydée accepts an invitation to dance.

Not a bad way to spend a rainy day I think as I toast adventure, family and friends, the coming new year, and the warmth of the fire.

All original content copyright 2010 Mary E. Slocum


3 responses to “Chile Patagonia 2009 – Laguna San Rafael

  1. Thank you Mary for this lovely description of our nice trip. I hope that many people want to visit our “long and thin” country, where you can enjoy the desert, the south, the wine and the amazing sky plenty oy beatiful stars and galaxys.

  2. Jeannette Ambrose

    Thank you Mary! I enjoyed reading about the trip to the glacier as I did it from the Argentinian side and was amazed at the beauty and powerful aspect of the blue ice and the noise. One feels very small and fragile next to it!


  3. Mary,
    very nice description. It make me think of planning a trip to Chile. Too bad that we can only take (long) vacation in August, so I’m assuming it will be really cold at that time.


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