Thanks to some extensive marketing Puerto Río Tranquilo has emerged as a tourist hub. The town is not particularly attractive, but is located close to some marble caves which draw tourists by the thousand meaning that, during peak times, finding accommodation and transport can be problematic; be sure to make advance reservations.
The sheer volume of tourists also makes hitchhiking tricky – in fact, Tranquilo and the road to Chile Chico are the most difficult sections for hitchhiking on the Carretera Austral – and public transport is scarce. However, while the town itself may be underwhelming, it is well located. Just across the lake is the lovely village of Puerto Sánchez, with caves at least as impressive as those of Puerto Río Tranquilo. Some 28km south is the entry point to the Ventisquero Leones. From Puerto Río Tranquilo, it is only 49km to the junction at Cruce El Maitén, where the Carretera Austral continues south towards Cochrane and east on one of the most important subsidiary roads along the spectacular south side of Lago General Carrera towards Chile Chico and into Argentina.
What to see and do in Puerto Río Tranquilo
The original attraction in Puerto Río Tranquilo is the network of marble caves. The glacial waters of Lago General Carrera have eroded the limestone walls surrounding this section of the lake over centuries to form unusual, Salvador Dali-esque caves. These structures appear almost to have melted into the water, supported by frozen-in-time lava-like columns which disappear into the watery base of the caves.
Some of the caves are large enough for small boats to enter. On sunny days the light reflects off the cave walls and from the relatively shallow pools at the bottom of the caves creating surreal ripple-like patterns along the walls while the water itself reflects in myriad shades of turquoise.
Countless operators offer trips to the caves and there is no need to book in advance. The journey typically takes around 2 hours including the ride to and from the caves, and boats leave from the shore of the lake next to the Carretera in the middle of the town; it can be rough and cold so be sure to take a windproof jacket.
It is possible to kayak to the caves (the same vendors of the boat trips also rent kayaks), but do consider the strength of the wind, particularly when attempting to return in the evening. The standard boats take approximately five to seven people and cost $15,000 per person.
The second key attraction around Puerto Río Tranquilo is the relatively accessible glacier approximately halfway along the 51km road to Bahía Exploradores. A short trek up to a viewing platform permits views over the Ventisquero Exploradores, and tours are available to hike down to, and on to, the glacier itself. The hike to the viewing platform is well marked and not technical. However, people with limited mobility and young children may find it exhausting, and slippery. There is no public transport along this road, and few people live along it so hitchhiking is difficult.
The glacier emerges from the Northern Ice Field, and as such is part of the Parque Nacional Laguna San Rafael, and thus accessible to all. A nominal fee was charged to those wishing to traverse the private property that leads to the viewing platform (belonging to the owners of the El Puesto hostel). However, in March 2015 Victor Osorio, the Minister of Bienes Nacionales, announced that they had restored free public access to the glacier. ‘We have realised an act of justice, to re-establish public access to an asset that belongs to all Chileans.’ The entry point is now managed by CONAF, who charge the same price as for the rest of Parque Nacional Laguna San Rafael.
Parque Nacional Laguna San Rafael
This park is fast becoming a key tourist attraction for the entire Carretera Austral region, facilitated in part by the road connection from Puerto Río Tranquilo. Previously access was possible only from Puerto Chacabuco or Puerto Montt on more expensive boats travelling far greater distances or by charter plane. The national park extends as far south as Caleta Tortel but in practice the main access points are to Ventisquero San Rafael (by boat), Ventisquero Leones (trekking and boat), or Ventisquero Steffen near Caleta Tortel (trekking and boat).
Experienced trekkers can enter the park independently at other locations, and guides are available in Puerto Bertrand and Cochrane for multi-day hikes towards the ice field, but these are non-standard treks for experienced hikers and mountaineers. There are no formal, marked trails in the park authorised by CONAF.
Ventisquero San Rafael
The most common reason to enter the park is to visit the Ventisquero San Rafael, and this is only possible with a guided tour as a boat is required, and the park fee is included in the tour price. Flights over the glacier can be arranged by charter, with Patagonia Helitours or with Aires del Sur.
The boats travel down the Elefantes Canal and then through a relatively narrow channel into the laguna itself, at which point the glacier becomes visible. Initially it appears to be of modest size, until you realise the size of the laguna; from this distance it is possible to see up on to the ice field behind the glacier and appreciate the sheer magnitude of ice.
The Northern Ice Field is the smaller of the two, covering 4,200k² and extending 120km from north to south. As the boat approaches the snout of the glacier the icebergs become larger, and it is probable that you will see chunks of ice calving off the glacier.
The pressure caused by the sheer volume of ice squeezes the air bubbles out of the snow as it is subsumed into the glacier, and because compacted ice better absorbs light at the red end of the spectrum, the light reflected from the glacier appears surprisingly blue. Particularly on a sunny day the contrast of the bluish glacier, the ice field behind, the lake, icebergs and sky are simply mesmerising. The only sounds are the occasional bird and the groaning of the glacier as it inches forward, sometimes interrupted by the thunderous roar of chunks breaking off.
A trip to the Carretera Austral is incomplete without a visit to a glacier, where you can watch in real time the mechanism that shaped much of our planet, and the Ventisquero San Rafael is one of the more accessible glaciers in the region. Well worth a visit, or consider the Leones glacier slightly further south for a more isolated and strenuous trip.
Travel to Puerto Río Tranquilo
All buses travelling between Cochrane and Coyhaique pass through Puerto Río Tranquilo. There are also regular buses to Puerto Guadal. Transportes Costa Carrera goes to Balmaceda airport and on to Coyhaique daily in high season (depart 07.00, return 14.30).