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San Rafael Glacier: Worth a Visit

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Located in San Rafael Lagoon National Park and spanning a colossal 760km², the San Rafael Glacier is an impressive ice mass tucked away in the fjords of Chile’s Patagonia. One of the last remnants of Patagonia’s ice age, the glacier sees far fewer tourists than many of Chile’s other glaciers. This means that if you make the effort to visit the San Rafael Glacier you may well have it all to yourself. Few things on earth will compare to the tranquillity and beauty of finding yourself alone on this incredible glacier.

How to experience the San Rafael Glacier

The San Rafael Glacier lacks the popularity of Chile’s other glaciers because it is far less accessible than they are. It is possible to get there but it is time-consuming. If you’re willing to make the journey, however, you will be richly rewarded. Here are some ways to experience the glacier.

  • Catamaran tour

This is the most common way to visit the San Rafael Glacier. The trip takes a total of 14 hours and leaves from Puerto Chacabuco. Once you arrive at the glacier, you will get out of the main boat and climb into smaller boats that will take you closer to the ice. Weaving through the mini icebergs that fill the water, you will feel the chill on your face as you sip some whiskey and gaze in awe at the glacier. The journey from the port to the San Rafael Glacier is incredibly scenic and makes this trip even more worthwhile.

  • Overland and boat ride

San Rafael Glacier in Patagonia
Tourists can take tours to see the San Rafael Glacier on small boats

If you want a combination of road and water travel then you can start your adventure in Puerto Río Tranquilo. From there you will need to drive to Bahía Exploradores, which is where you will transfer into an inflatable boat. Once in the boat you will float along the water to tour the San Rafael Lagoon to see the glacier. If you want to, you will have the option to disembark and walk around the lake near the glacier. This San Rafael Glacier tour will take you all day.

  • Kayaking

Kayaking is the most thrilling way to see the San Rafael Glacier. From the unique vantage point of your own little kayak, you will get to see the glacier in all its glory. Tours take kayakers along the Río Exploradores all the way through to the ocean and then on to the San Rafael Lagoon. In the kayak, you will be able to sail through the icebergs that pepper the water and pull over and explore the national park.

If you are thrilled about the idea of kayaking in Chile, you have to take a look at our list of best kayaking rivers and tours in Chile.

Other activities

Once you have finished at the San Rafael Glacier, you might want to explore some of its nearby attractions. Most notable of these is the incredible Catedrál de Marmol (Marble Cathedral). Not actually a cathedral, this natural wonder comprises numerous marble arches that form a series of caves and plunge into the icy water. The best way to explore the Catedrál de Marmol is on a kayaking tour.

An alternative option is to spend some time walking through the San Rafael Lagoon National Park. In the park, there are plenty of hiking trails and opportunities for snow trekking. Be sure to take a camera with you as there is some incredible wildlife in this park as well, including black box albatross, black neck swans and sea elephants.

Best time to visit

The best time to visit the San Rafael Glacier, and all of Patagonia for that matter, is during the Southern Hemisphere summer. This takes place during the months of December through to February. The shoulder months of November and March are also usually fine but it is not recommended to go outside of this window.

Patagonia is prone to extreme weather and the winter months see copious amounts of snow and rain as well as very strong wind. Because of the conditions, most of the attractions are inaccessible during this time so there is no point in travelling there during this period.

Good to know

In order to make the most of your time visiting the San Rafael Glacier, there are a few things you should know. Take note of the following:

  • It will be cold when you get near the San Rafael Glacier so make sure you take some gloves and warm clothes with you. Layering up is a good idea.
  • Even in the summer, the weather in Patagonia can be unpredictable. Pack for sun, rain, wind and sleet. Refer to Patagonia in Chile for more information and travel tips. 
  • Patagonia is one of the most expensive parts of South America. Make sure you have the means to afford a trip there. If you run out of money in Patagonia you could end up in trouble.
  • Most tour operators will speak English but it is a good idea to know a bit of basic Spanish before you go. This will make your trip run more smoothly.
  • Patagonia is one of the few remaining places where the nature is virtually untouched. Pick up your litter and follow the rules of the national parks.

The San Rafael Glacier is unfortunately receding at an alarming rate and scientists predict that if this continues the whole glacier will disappear by 2030. This means that if you want to witness this natural phenomenon then your opportunity is becoming more limited every day. Don’t postpone. Go and see the San Rafael Glacier while it’s still there.

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