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Zodiac approaches San Rafael Glacier
Zodiac approaches San Rafael Glacier
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

A cruise through Chile's inside passage on the Chaiten Catamaran is an enjoyable day-trip from Loberias del Sur Hotel in Puerto Chacabuco. Located in the Aysen region of Chilean Patagonia, the 60-room hotel offers a four-day Glacier Classic Program.

The package includes the two-hour transfer to and from Coyhaique/Balmaceda Airport (code: BBA). It features buffet breakfasts and daily dinners, guided hiking and a Patagonian lamb barbeque.

Catamaranes del Sur cruise

The highlight is the full-day cruise to San Rafael Lagoon National Park on the 100-passenger ship operated by Catamaranes del Sur. Following the Moraleda Channel, our boat threaded its way between forested islands that are actually the verdant tops of the submerged coastal Andean range.

Our catamaran's double hulls noisily parted a flotilla of bergy bits after we entered Laguna San Rafael. It sounded like the ship was plowing through gravel.

Blue icebergs

As we cruised farther into the inlet, the icebergs grew more immense and more colorful. We searched for words to describe their hues: menthol-blue, ice-blue, powder-blue, baby-blue, mint-blue, stained-glass-window blue.

Blue iceberg in Laguna San Rafael National Park
Blue iceberg in Laguna San Rafael National Park
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

A thundering crash diverted our attention to the source of the crystalline mountains of ice: the San Rafael Glacier. It calved a house-sized iceberg, which slipped into the sea, creating a cloud of spray and undulating ripples that gently rocked our boat. Black-backed gulls flocked to the site to scoop up fish stunned by the impact.

Chilean National Park

Stretching three kilometers across and up to 70 meters high, the glacier is the focal point of the 1.7-million-hectare Parque Nacional Laguna San Rafael. The icy tongue is only an offshoot of the massive Northern Patagonian Ice Field.

At the end of the last Ice Age, its retreating glaciers eroded the valley bottoms to such a degree that the ocean eventually flooded them, giving rise to the fjords that now splinter the coast.

Zodiac ride

Backed by the 4,058-meter-high Monte San Valentin, the highest peak in the southern Andes, the glacier was an intimidating spectacle when viewed from a tiny Zodiac.

Aboard the rubber raft, we felt minuscule next to the jagged fragments of floating ice. Somber clouds gathered like heavy curtains over the glacier. Without the sun, the blue colors were even more intense.

Iceberg and bergy bits
Iceberg and bergy bits
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

30,000-year-old ice cubes

We zoomed along the glacier's crevassed facade, darting between wallowing icebergs. A curious black face popped out of the water and eyed us intently. Satisfied, the seal dove back in, only to poke his ebony head out of the sea on the other side of our Zodiac.

A crew member used a pronged stick to coax a punchbowl-sized iceberg into a net bag, which he hauled into the boat. With our booty stowed onboard, we navigated back to the ship.

As the Chaiten Catamaran departed from San Rafael Lagoon, the bartender chopped the chunk of 30,000-year-old glacial ice to cool our pisco sours — Chile's margarita-like national drink made from grape brandy. We raised our glasses in a toast to one of the world's most awesome fjord cruises.

With its mountains, glaciers and fjords, Chile's filigreed southwest coast is indeed something to celebrate.


Loberias del Sur Hotel: www.loberiasdelsur.cl/en

Chile Tourist Board: www.chile.travel

More things to see and do in Chile:

Giant of the Atacama and Pintados in Northern Chile

Torres del Paine - Hiking from Explora Patagonia

Puerto Natales - Giant Milodon Cave

Punta Arenas Chile - City at the End of the World

Chilean Food