We are off the beaten path now for sure! After a few days in Coyhaique we once again settled into our bus seats (far from comfy first class) for 4 hours to our next destination, Puerto Rio Tranquilo. This town is not even in the guide book. There is no ATM, no internet and most things are cash-only. We did read that they had one ATM in the town, but this is not true. There is some sort of mysterious yellow-signed shop that promises in various languages to be able to get you cash, deposit cash somewhere, maybe pay someone via some strange system. We were not that desperate, well, actually we were, but instead I put my hands in prayer position and pleaded with our landlady to give us a $5 discount on our three night stay so we could afford to take the bus out of there. I digress… so now you know – bring cash.
There are two things to do in this town and we happily did both of them. First is the Glaciar Exploradores and second are the Mármol (Marble) Caves.
Exploradores just started being explora…dor-ed? no, explored! about 6 years ago so there is not a ton of information on it. We thought it would be best to check it out for ourselves. After an hour ride from town we stopped to see a waterfall (not even listed on the itinerary) and then drove just a few minutes more to the trail head.
We hiked about 1.5 hours scrambling over rocks through the woods until we reached the beginning of this spanning glacier. A lot of it is covered with rocks and sand which protect it from melting during the summer. “Summer” down here is kind of a stretch as we have felt quite comfortable in our down jackets, but in the sun we found ourselves changing layers frequently as various combinations of warmth, clouds and wind came along.
The only glacier we had been close to before was in Nepal, and even though it wasn’t especially pretty we found it fascinating with its expanse and dirty ice that you could hear cracking and breaking continuously. This was really the second one we had seen and definitely the closest.
The weather was a bit overcast when we got there so there were parts in the distance we couldn’t see, but it seemed to be clearing up. Strapping on our crampons we practiced walking heel-first downhill on sheer ice while taking in every shade of blue there is.
This is pretty stupid to admit in a public forum, but I didn’t really realize that glaciers are actually solid ice. I thought they would be a bit like that really awful New England snow you get when rain freezes on top of snow as a crusty layer of ice that moves your pant leg up as you break through the top and cuts your already chapped legs and then threatens you with frostbite when all you’re trying to do is fill the darn bird feeder. Anyway, it’s not like that. It’s like a frozen pond with the clearest drinkable water running through nooks and crannies making really picturesque caves and arches that are pretty much the most beautiful things ever.
A couple of interesting things- First, these caves that you can walk through are created (and vanish) in the span of weeks! One of our guides showed us a picture of this one (below) from about 2 weeks before and someone could barely fit inside.
Secondly, Gregor noticed that you could barely see your shadow when on the ice because it’s so thick and the light reflects up through it as if it’s glowing. Not really photo friendly, but cool to witness.
The purest water ever, impossible to not drop down for a drink!
We spent about 3 hours on the ice and while we were there it became a beautiful afternoon and we were able to see the glacier in its entirety as well as the highest point in Patagonia, Monte San Valentin, which obviously is quite dangerous to summit but of course people do it anyway.
Activity #2 from this throwback town is to explore the marble formations: capilla, catedral, and cavernas (chapel, cathedral, and caves). To do this you can hop in a boat with other tourists, but the better way is to kayak. We booked both excursions with the same tour company (99% Aventura) and they were really excellent. For the kayaking we drove down the lake about 6k and after the safety instruction walked over to get paddling. Gregor and I opted for a two-person kayak mostly because I have the attention span of a goldfish and can’t really be expected to paddle in a straight line and also this would free one of us up to take pictures while in the caves.
Gregor and I launched with little fanfare and paddled off to get a look at the weird boat moored in the harbor. The next in our group was not quite as deft and dumped it soon after entering the water. Haha! Although the lake (Lago Gral Carrera, the second-largest in South America) looks like a tropical paradise it’s actually really cold. Our companion seemed to recover quickly and hopped in a fresh kayak and we all paddled off. This is the exact reason kayaks were invented I’m pretty sure. Paddle out about 30 minutes, go in every cave you can find, enjoy the awesome angles and take your time. We felt really sorry for the people in the big boats that had to keep their distance.
These caves have three different types of marble, kind of challenging to distinguish the different kinds, but they all looked like they were hand chiseled, little pockmarks creating vast caverns. Apparently this was caused by acid rain on the lake eroding the marble with help from some big waves over a very long time.
There are three different larger formations that you can kayak into, the middle one called the “Catedral”. You can see the striations from when the rock was bent under extreme pressure.
The Marble Caves were our second breathtaking excursion in as many days. We’re not sure how this little town could have escaped Patagonia’s must-do list but we’re sure glad we went!