This post is part 10 of 18 in the series Carretera Austral Travel

The San Rafael Glacier is one of the largest glaciers in the Northern Patagonian Ice Field and a highlight of travel along the Carretera Austral in the Patagonia region of southern Chile–but you better hurry.

san rafael glacier

The San Rafael Glacier in southern Chile is part of the Northern Patagonian Ice Field.

Laguna San Rafael National Park is the third largest national park in Chile and home to the entire Northern Patagonian Ice Field including the San Rafael Glacier which is one of 28 tidewater glaciers in the ice field (meaning the glacier ends in a body of water). This massive tidewater glacier is a major outlet of the Northern Patagonian Ice Field which includes 39 glaciers in total.

san rafael glacier aysen

Every time we visit a glacier we are amazed at the many shades of blue to be seen.

Covering roughly 1,600 square miles (4,200 square km), the Northern Patagonian Ice Field is one of the largest continuous masses of ice outside of the polar regions despite the fact that its glaciers are shrinking.

Like so many glaciers, the San Rafael Glacier is receding and has been for decades. For example, scientists estimate that 150 years ago this glacier covered two-thirds of Laguna San Rafael which it calves into. It’s fair to say that this icy icon is disappearing.

northern patagonian icefield glaciers

Like most glaciers, the San Rafael Glacier is receding.

This is also a very active glacier. European Space Agency satellite images show the San Rafael Glacier is “flowing” at a rate of 4.7 miles (7.6 km) each year which means ice that started 4.7 miles back from the glacier’s terminus in Lago San Rafael would move forward so quickly that it would reach the front of the glacier and be in a position to calve into the water within 12 months.

This has prompted some to call the San Rafael Glacier “the fastest-moving glacier in Patagonia”.

Loberias del Sur san rafael glacier tour

The Aysen catamaran was the vessel that brought us to the San Rafael Glacier from Puerto Chacabuco.

Visiting the San Rafael Glacier in Chile

Guided boat tours are the only way to see the San Rafael Glacier. We did a full-day San Rafael Glacier boat tour with Loberia del Sur.

puerto chacabuco fjords chile

We passed through many scenic fjords during the 120-mile navigation to the San Rafael Glacier from Puerto Chacabuco.

At 7 am, we boarded a 40-passenger high-speed catamaran named Aysen (named for this region of southern Chile) and began our tour. The glacier is 12o miles (195 km) from the Puerto Chacabuco marina and the catamaran averaged about 30 mph (50 kmh), so we had a four-hour journey each way.

maca volcano chile

Maca Volcano in the background.

This was plenty of time to settle into the stable, large, clean, and comfortable catamaran to enjoy a light breakfast (fruit, coffee, and a ham and cheese sandwich), get to know our three guides (English and Spanish were both spoken), and watch a short slide show about the glacier.

laguna san rafael chile

Our first view of the San Rafael Glacier across Laguna San Rafael.

Photography note: We felt that the best views of the passing scenery were from the second level of the catamaran and the Aysen had very little outdoor space, which made photography tricky.

tour san rafael glacier

Passengers transferred from the Aysen catamaran to small boats for the final approach to the glacier.

Lunch (salmon with crab sauce, scalloped potatoes, salad, and Chilean wine) was served just before we arrived at the glacier. The Aysen catamaran is too big to approach close to the face of the glacier, so passengers transferred to two smaller 12-passenger boats which navigated slowly and carefully around chunks of ice in Laguna San Rafael–evidence of recent glacial calving–until we got to within 50 feet (15 meters) of the face of the San Rafael Glacier.

face san rafael glacier

The full face of the San Rafael Glacier.

san rafael glacier calving

Though the San Rafael Glacier was notably quiet and calm during our visit, we did see this small calving.

We’ve been close to a lot of glaciers but each time we are mesmerized anew by the many shades of blue to be found in glacial ice. Many glaciers also “talk” a lot, emitting loud cracks and scraping noises as the ice shifts. However, during the 20 minutes or so that our boat spent in front of the San Rafael Glacier it was eerily quiet. And despite this glacier’s alarming rate of shrinkage, it is still a daunting mass of ice.

icebergs san rafael glacier

Small boat captains had to navigate through icebergs near the terminus of the glacier.

clear iceberg tidewater glacier

This iceberg was wonderfully sculpted by wind and water.

Back on the Aysen, it was time for hot chocolate and pastries as the captain turned us around for the journey back to the marina (you certainly won’t go hungry during this tour).

san rafael glacier chile

Scientists estimate that just 150 years ago the San Rafael Glacier covered two-thirds of Laguna San Rafael but this glacier is now receding fast.

We recommend that you bring a book or other forms of entertainment for the ride to the glacier and back and bring binoculars if you have them. Dolphins are sometimes seen on this route and even orcas have been spotted now and again and you’re pretty much sure to see cormorants and ducks. Passengers toasted the day with a splash of whiskey over glacial ice before the Aysen pulled back into the marina at 8 pm.

tour boat san rafael glacier

A smaller tour boat, probably coming from Bahia Exploradores, dwarfed by the glacier.

For travelers on a tighter budget, the San Rafael Glacier can also be accessed from the Carretera Austral town of Puerto Rio Tranquilo where tour operators offer day trips that include transport from town to Bahia Exploradores within Laguna San Rafael National Park. From there, small boats travel about 40 miles to the face of the glacier. These small boats are allowed to get closer to the glacier than the large catamaran that we were on and there’s no need for passengers on small boats to transfer to a dinghy like we did during our tour with Loberia del Sur.

Get a closer look at the San Rafael Glacier in our video, below.

Visiting the Ensenada Perez Hot Springs

Since 2026, Loberia del Sur has also been offering a boat trip to the Ensenada Perez Hot Springs, a nearby natural volcanic thermal area. Loberia del Sur holds the exclusive concession to visit the hot springs and also built the infrastructure at the site, creating a pier, walkways, and soaking pools which they maintain.

termas Ensenada perez hot springs

Arrival at the Ensenada Perez hot springs within the Cinco Hermanas Natural Monument.

At 3 pm, we boarded a small catamaran and headed through the Cinco Hermanas Natural Monument, a 560-acre (228-hectare) protected area that includes a peninsula and six islands at the entrance to the Aysen Fjord.

About an hour later we reached the Ensenada Perez Hot Springs where water is naturally heated by nearby Macá Volcano. Here, three large clean pools gather the water which is then cooled to three different temperatures (the hottest pool was 104 F/40C when we were there).

We spent the rest of the afternoon and evening at the hot springs enjoying the soaking pools and the small bar serving snacks, champagne, wine, and pisco sours. We also took a zodiac excursion around the Natural Monument to see the local vegetation, admire a few waterfalls, and look for marine mammals and marine birds including cormorants and what our zodiac captain swore was a lone sea lion (we thought it was an otter).

sunset maca volcano

Sunset on the Maca Volcano.

A lovely sunset was the cap on an enjoyable day, though we felt the excursion could have been two hours shorter to avoid returning to port at 10 pm.

Loberias del Sur also operates the 60-room Hotel Loberias del Sur Puerto Chacabuco. Opened in 2020 next to the boat tour embarkation point, the hotel is surprisingly well-finished with real wood, quality linens, plenty of space, Wi-Fi throughout, and helpful staff members.

 

Here’s more about travel in Chile

Here’s more about Carretera Austral Travel

Here’s more about Patagonia Travel

Here’s more about Boat Travel in the Americas

 


Series Navigation:<< Leones Glacier by Jet Boat, Floating Hotel Rooms, and More – Puerto Guadal, ChileHow to Choose the Best Marble Caves Tour – Puerto Rio Tranquilo vs. Puerto Sanchez, Chile >>

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