This post is part 9 of 16 in the series Carretera Austral Travel

The Marble Caves (often called Capilla de Marmol in Spanish) along the shoreline of Lago General Carrera are famous natural wonders in the Patagonia region of southern Chile. Less well-known is the fact that this network of naturally eroded marble formations around the largest lake in Chile can be accessed from two different embarkation points: Puerto Rio Tranquilo (including nearby Bahia Mansa) and Puerto Sanchez. Use our Marble Caves travel information to choose the best Marble Caves tour for you.

beautiful marble cathedral chile marble caves tour

The Marble Cathedral formation is a geological wonder including lovely marble swirls around its base.

Lago General Carrera (yes, like the famous Italian marble but that’s a total coincidence we swear) is the biggest lake in Chile and nearly 2,000 feet (586 meters) deep in places.

Lago General Carrera mirador carretera austral

Lovely Lago General Carrera where Marble Caves tours are a highlight.

The marble here was formed over hundreds of millions of years as limestone was buried by tectonic activity and supercompressed underground to form marble which was then thrust upward along a section of the lakeshore. Over more than 6,000 years, lapping lake water–fueled by infamous winds and charged with a high concentration of corrosive calcium carbonate from the glaciers that feed the lake–eroded the marble into shapes that make this area seem like an otherworldly sculpture garden. That process continues today.

marble caves tour aysen chile

Time, water, and waves make art around Lago General Carrera in southern Chile.

No matter how you decide to tour the Marble Caves, this destination delivers stunning natural beauty as you can see in our Marble Caves photo essay.

Now, here’s the travel information you need to choose the best Marble Caves embarkation point for you. No matter which approach you choose, remember that it’s best to visit the Marble Caves on a sunny day to make the most of the color of the aquamarine lake water, and be aware that Marble Caves tours are likely to be canceled in high wind conditions.

Marble Caves tours from Puerto Rio Tranquilo

The lakeside town of Puerto Rio Tranquilo (often just called Rio Tranquilo) has grown from a tiny village to the most (over) developed small town on the southern half of the Carretera Austral thanks to its convenient location right on the Carretera Austral and it’s proximity to the Marble Caves, the Exploradores Glacier, and the San Rafael Glacier.

You can expect Rio Tranquilo to be very, very crowded with tour buses full of tourists and individual travelers driving the iconic Carretera Austral. Hotels fill up, restaurants are packed, prices are high, and there’s a general hectic tourist buzz to the place. These days, there’s very little that’s tranquilo (tranquil) about Puerto Rio Tranquilo.

puerto rio tranquilo cemetery

The cemetery in Puerto Rio Tranquilo, which has grown from a tiny village to a bustling tourist hub.

The lakefront in Puerto Rio Tranquilo is full of stands and makeshift offices from which tour companies hawk their Marble Caves boat excursions and glacier trips. It’s worth noting that trips from the port in Puerto Rio Tranquilo require a longer navigation through some sections of open water (that can get choppy) before reaching the Marble Caves formations and this means you’re in for a longer and more expensive trip from town than you are from nearby Bahia Mansa (see below). Also note that Marble Caves kayaking tours also depart from Bahia Mansa and not town because of the distance to the formations.

whale skeleton puerto rio tranquilo

A whale skeleton in front of the school in Puerto Rio Tranquilo.

We did our first trip to the Marble Caves from Bahia Mansa, a small bay about 5 miles (8 km) south of Puerto Rio Tranquilo, where a cooperative offers boat trips and kayaking trips to view the formations which are much closer to Bahia Mansa than they are to Puerto Rio Tranquilo. Marble Caves tours from Bahia Mansa do not require passing through open water either (10,000 CLP/US$12 per person for a guided 1-hour boat tour from Bahia Mansa).

We arrived at Bahia Mansa, accessed via a short but very steep, rutted, and rocky dirt road off the Carretera Austral, at around 10 am and waited for about 30 minutes for four more travelers to arrive in order to meet the 6-person minimum per boat. Do not count on any food or bathroom facilities at Bahia Mansa.

After meeting our careful and cautious boatman and our Spanish-speaking guide, our open motor boat chugged out of the bay and we began hugging the coastline, traveling swiftly north for about 15 minutes to reach the furthest point on the tour. From there, we worked our way back along the wall of marble, slowly exploring the water-eroded marble face and nosing into arches to explore small cave spaces that have been carved out over time.

marble caves tour carretera austral

Seeing sculptural formations and bobbing in vibrant glacier-fed water are highlights of any Marble Caves tour.

During our tour, we reached all of the highlights including the Capilla de Marmol (Marble Chapel) and Catedral de Marmol (Marble Cathedral) formations which are free-standing marble monoliths close to shore. During our Marble Caves boat tour, two motorcyclists from Spain were also on our boat and they kept muttering about the Sagrada de la Familia in Barcelona and we think that comparison is apt.

Those wishing to tour the Marble Caves by kayak can depart from Bahia Mansa too and kayakers bob along in the milky blue glacier-fed water of Lago General Carrera along with the tour boats.

Bottom line: Marble Caves tours from Puerto Rio Tranquilo or Bahia Mansa are for you if you want a convenient embarkation point right on the Carretera Austral, don’t mind crowds, want to kayak around the formations, or also want to visit the Exploradores Glacier or the San Rafael Glacier.

Side trips from Puerto Rio Tranquilo

Laguna San Rafael National Park

Puerto Rio Tranquilo is also the gateway for Lake San Rafael National Park, home to the Northern Patagonian Ice Field, including the Exploradores Glacier and the San Rafael Glacier.

The Exploradores Glacier, a 37 square mile (95 square km) terminal moraine glacier, is located 30 miles (50 km) out of Puerto Rio Tranquilo. When we drove there, the gravel road was in terrible condition with lots of potholes thanks to the very high number of tour vans and travelers in inadequate vehicles that drive out to the glacier. Conditions forced us to drive so slowly that it took us 2 hours to cover the 30 miles each way (yes, that means we were averaging 15 mph).

cascada la nutria rio tranquilo

The Nutria Waterfall on the road to the Exploradores Glacier.

We finally reached the Lake San Rafael National Park Park ranger station and found a place to park on the side of the road along with dozens of tour vans and other private vehicles. Then a surly ranger appeared and rattled off details about visiting the Exploradores Glacier, which is inside the national park, as if he didn’t want to see another tourist as long as he lived.

exploradores glacier

The Exploradores Glacier, which is receding so quickly that tours onto the glacier itself were recently prohibited due to dangerous instability.

Options for viewing the Exploradores Glacier include a short walk within the national park to a few high lookouts, then on to the end of a 2-mile (3 km) trail that goes closer to the glacier, gaining about 700 feet (213 meters) for a low/close vantage point. Guided treks on the glacier itself were also popular but walking on the glacier was banned on October 31, 2023, due to the rapid pace of ice melt and the dangerous instability of the fast-receding glacier.

While it may seem exciting to take the national park trail closer to the glacier, you often get a better view of large natural wonders (like glaciers) from a higher vantage point further away. That’s why we chose to view the Exploradores Glacier from trails on a private reserve called Parque Exploradores located 650 feet (200 meters) beyond the park ranger station. There you’ll find a parking area, bathrooms, drinking water, and a check-in station where you pay the access fee (5,000 CLP/US$5.60 per person to enter) and receive information about two trails to glacier viewpoints.

The longest trail in this private area is less than a mile (1.6 km) each way along the Hued-Hued Trail (named for a precocious local bird). This trail starts off level and easy then gets extremely steep and root-covered for the last half before reaching a viewpoint on the glacier. On a clear day, you can also see the top of Mount San Valentín (the highest peak in Patagonia at 13,314 feet/4,058 meters) which is right in front of you and from which the Exploradores Glacier tumbles.

exploradores glacier viewpoint trail

Part of the Hued-Hued Trail through private land to a viewpoint over the Exploradores Glacier.

The shorter trail is much easier and less root-covered and also gives a good vantage point on the glacier. If you have the time, we recommend doing both of these trails. Be prepared for horseflies and don’t forget to look up. We saw condors overhead.

The access point for guided boat tours (book in Rio Tranquilo) to view the San Rafael Glacier, a major outlet for the Northern Patagonian Ice Field and also a highlight within Laguna San Rafael National Park which was designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1979, is further down the dirt road. For those with more time and more cash, this glacier can also be accessed from the town of Puerto Chacabuco on longer and more luxurious boat tours offered by Loberias del Sur.

Where to sleep in Puerto Rio Tranquilo

There are many hostels, guesthouses, and hotels in a range of price points in Rio Tranquilo, though all prices along the Carretera Austral are inflated and that’s particularly true in this popular town. Hotels fill fast and when we arrived with no reservation we spent a few hours searching for an affordable place to stay (most places were full charging exorbitant prices in the range of 140,000 CLP/US$160 for a double room or 60,000 CLP/US$70 for a basic cabin) before settling on a room at Cabañas Al Arrayan located just off the Carretera Austral on the dirt road to the Exploradores Glacier just before the bridge as you enter town. Here, 45,000 CLP (US$50) got us a clean but tiny room with a private bathroom, weak Wi-Fi, parking, and an in-room DIY breakfast set up with a kettle, plates, cups, cutlery, and instant coffee. The owners live in a house across the street (go knock if they’re not around) and they also have a full two-story house for rent.

Where to eat in Puerto Rio Tranquilo

Restaurants serving international dishes (burgers, pasta, soup) plus Chilean favorites (like local trout and lamb) and small simple comedors abound in Puerto Rio Tranquilo. We got a decent burger with a handful of good fries (9,000 CLP/US$10) and good Caiquenes craft beer on draft (4,500 CLP/US$5 per pint) at Ruedos y Rios.

Marble Caves tours from Puerto Sanchez

Marble Caves tours also depart from the town of Puerto Sanchez on the northern side of Lago General Carrera. This embarkation point is much less known which means there are far fewer tourists and far fewer services for travelers, though there are now a handful of tour operators and a growing number of accommodation options in Puerto Sanchez.

puerto sanchez aysen chile marble caves tour

Welcome to Puerto Sanchez, the other lesser-known access point for Marble Caves tours.

To get to Puerto Sanchez, travelers must leave the Carretera Austral and drive 18 miles (28 km) along a dirt road with many turns and plenty of ups and downs. This road is very windy and also very narrow in places. It does not require a special vehicle, but use caution and go slow, especially in wet conditions.

puerto sanchez view

Tiny lakeside Puerto Sanchez.

Your payoff is the peace and quiet of lakeside Puerto Sanchez with its small grid of streets, a handful of locals, and a very small number of (mostly local) tourists.

While Puerto Rio Tranquilo and Bahia Mansa are closer to what’s considered to be the heart of the Marble Caves formations, Puerto Sanchez is closer to the formations around Panichini Island (an area that’s not included in tours from Bahia Mansa and only included in the longest tours from Puerto Rio Tranquilo).

This means that Marble Caves tours from Puerto Sanchez include Panichini Island plus the core Marble Caves formations for the best of both worlds. When we were in Puerto Sanchez, there seemed to be about six different motor boats being run by individual local tour operators. All of the boats are open air and all looked new and well-kept.

We chose to go with RYS Patagonia Aventura tour company which is owned by Puerto Sanchez locals Raquel and Sergio (hence the name: Raquel y Sergio = RYS).

rys marble caves tour puerto sanchez

Captain Sergio and co-captain Sam.

We joined a few Latin tourists in the RYS open-air motorboat called The Starfish which had very comfortable seats, new life vests, and a friendly golden retriever co-captain named Sam.

Our 2.5-hour tour began with some casual exploration around the shoreline of the Panichini Island just offshore where we saw just a few other boats. Here we also saw a condor soaring overhead and another perched on a rocky outcrop on the island. Sergio also pointed out some empty nests inside a few of the shallow marble caves around the island and told us that cauquenes (local geese) nest in them in October and November.

Panichini Island marble caves tour

Eroded marble formations around Panichini Island near Puerto Sanchez.

The rest of the tour included two bursts of exciting full-throttle travel across the lake to reach the core of the Marble Caves formations, including the Capilla de Marmol (Marble Chapel) and Catedral de Marmol (Marble Cathedral), where we encountered many, many more boats before we turned around and headed back to Puerto Sanchez the same way we’d come.

Bottom line: Marble Caves tours from Puerto Sanchez are for you if you have your own vehicle and want to explore an area off of the Carretera Austral, want fewer tourists and a far less hectic vibe than in Puerto Rio Tranquilo, or want to see the marble formations around Panichini Island close to Puerto Sanchez as well as the core of the Marble Caves formations.

Side trips from Puerto Sanchez

We were told that there are hiking and rock climbing opportunities around Puerto Sanchez for those who want to extend their stay.

Where to sleep in Puerto Sanchez

Ten years ago there was no place to spend the night in Puerto Sanchez. Even today, your options are limited, but they’re growing. We stayed at the newly-opened cabins built by the owners of RYS Patagonia Aventura tour company.

puerto sanchez cabanas

Accommodation options in Puerto Sanchez are growing.

These cabins (pictured above) are clean and comfortable with a wood-burning stove, TV with cable, a well-equipped kitchen so you can cook for yourself (see the section below), two or more bedrooms, a private bathroom, and parking (but no Wi-Fi when we were there).

The lakeside cabins at Catedral Lodge are a spurglier option near Puerto Sanchez.

Where to eat in Puerto Sanchez

We saw one small home-based restaurant (closed) and just two tiny minimarkets (that seemed to keep mysterious hours) in Puerto Sanchez, so bring your own groceries and plan to self-cater while you are in Puerto Sanchez.

On your way to or from Puerto Sanchez, stop for lunch in the town of Puerto Murta and eat at a restaurant called Flor de Murta. Many locals raved about this place but, sadly, it was closed on the days we passed through Puerto Murta. We hope you have better luck. There are a handful of other simple but solid restaurants in Puerta Murta as well.

carretera austral views

Part of the road between the Carretera Austral and the town of Puerto Murta on the way to Puerto Sanchez.

Here’s more about travel in Chile

Here’s more about Carretera Austral Travel

Here’s more about Patagonia Travel

 


Series Navigation:<< Visiting an Icy Icon in Patagonia – San Rafael Glacier, ChilePhoto Essay: The Famous Marble Caves of Chile >>

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