Chile’s Marble Caves and Avoiding Hazardous Weather
I’ve been back in the States for a couple of weeks and conveniently had to go back to Chile before Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast. Since I’m always on stand-by with LAN Airlines, I never really know if I will get on the plane anyway, but I have a good idea whether I’ll make it or not.
If it wasn’t for my dad telling me that flights were canceled due to the storm, I might have not made it out of NYC in time…kind of like in 2010 when that damned blizzard hit and I waited (and slept) for hours in JFK without any flight confirmation…and I was on standby. Bad travel memories.
Evidently, I’m pretty oblivious in terms of weather, and it didn’t really click that a hurricane was going to hit until everyone was freaking out buying milk, eggs, bread and preparing like it was Armageddon while posting dramacidal Facebook updates because of the constant coverage on the news. All I could think was, “No wonder it’s exceptionally warm for October.”
To say the least, I changed my flight to that same day (last Saturday), packed my bags like a pro, hopped on Amtrak and was out of PA within 3 hours of getting the news that flights might be cancelled. No stress.
I urgently had to get out because Francisco and I had planned a mini-trip to Coyhaique and Las Capillas y Cuevas de Mármol (Marble Chapels and Caves). This is one of my Chile Bucket List items that I added after Stumbling Upon an awesome picture of these stunning caves. When I saw the pic below, I instantly asked myself: why haven’t I heard of this place before and, more importantly, why haven’t I visited yet!?
The closest and largest city to the Marble Chapels, is Coyhaique – a typical, small, Chilean city with a central plaza and a church at the center. You can walk to almost every corner of the city and see the characteristic smoke emerging from every chimney in the South welcoming you in from the brisk outdoors. The most special part about Coyhaique is the surrounding areas making it a conveniently positioned home base for further travels during October to May – the best times of the year to visit.
On the Way, You’ll See:
- “The Great Wall of China” – smooth marine and molten rock shaped like a wall formed by glacial erosion.
- Alero de las Manos Rupestres – 35-meter rocky wall with 6,000-year-old paintings made by the Tehuelches aboriginal culture which is open to the public.
- El Cerro Castillo (Castle Hill)
- El Bosque Muerto (Dead Forest) – a tree graveyard, all dead but still standing after the Hudson Volcano eruption in 1991.
- Quaint Southern homes.
- Thick forests
- Finally a view of General Carrera Lake, the aboriginal Tehuelche name for the lake was “Chelenko” meaning “storm lake” because of its unruliness.
- Here is a link to a Carretera Austral guide with more sites you can see along the way: Recorre Aysen
Tours usually run from October to May, which is also the recommended time of the year to visit. It’s still not a crowded tourist attraction as it’s not the easiest place to get to, but during October to early December and mid-February to May are the less crowded and cheapest times to visit. Prices range from $35.000-45.000 CLP/per person for a full day tour. See these websites for ideas:
If you are driving, it’s best to book with a boat tour before arriving to Puerto Rio Tranquilo or Puerto Marmol to secure a reservation during high season or to make sure the tour operator will be expecting you during the low season. Be sure to actually call since e-mail use is less responsive. You can get book a boat tours right in front of the lake along the main road, you can’t miss it! Tours are $10,000-30,000 CLP depending on whether you book a boat tour or rent a kayak with a guide. Here are some tour operators:
During our boat ride to the Marble Chapels, the lake is anything but calm. We were flying across with fresh, icy water splashing in our faces and there were at least 2 times that I thought I would fall out of the boat – and it was supposed to be the best time of the year to sail through the lake! Keep your hands and feet in the boat and get a good grip on the bench or side.
Tip: Keep in mind that in the middle of Chile’s summer (December – February), the tide is higher which may mean you might not be able to walk into some areas as easily as you would during the months earlier or after said months. Where to stay: Hotels, hostels, cabañas and camping sites, B&Bs are all available.
We stayed at Dreams Hotel in Coyhaique. Dreams Hotel is part of a Chilean franchise and has wonderful hotels with excellent service and a central location. There are a number of hostels in the city as well.
Where to Eat
- Restaurant Historico Ricer
- Sabores del Sur
- Carnes Queulat
- La Casona (Read the review we did!)
How to get there?
For a long weekend trip, you will need to fly to the Aeropuerto Balmaceda (2.5 hours from Santiago) and take a taxi/van or rent a car to get into Coyhaique, all services are safely located outside of baggage claim. You can rent a car at the airport and go straight to the chapels with careful planning and booking with boat tours on General Carrera Lake.
If this is a stop on a longer trip through la Carretera Austral, you can reach Coyhaique on bus or by car. There are two ways to get to the Marble Chapels on Puerto Rio Tranquilo – renting a truck or car with four-wheel drive or booking a day tour which will pick you up at your hotel/hostel.
Tours can be a bit expensive, and if you’re with a group of two or more, it will be more economical to rent a car, drive to Puerto Rio Tranquilo, and book a boat tour once you’re there.
Leave in the morning to Puerto Rio Tranquilo which sits on General Carrera Lake, also known as Lake Buenos Aires as it shares a border with Argentina. It’s the second largest lake in Latin America with access to the caves via boat. On average, it takes 3-4 hours to get there from Coyhaique driving on a straightforward route mainly on unpaved, but manageable roads, sweeping through picturesque sites and beautiful, unspoiled panoramic views on the way. Make sure not to take the wrong turn on to Route 245 and end up at the Argentine border!
Tip: Take appropriate clothing and shoes (walking/hiking shoes, waterproof jacket, warm hat, sunglasses, etc.), it will be cold and most likely rainy! As always, take your camera, you´ll be taking a lot of photos.
Other awesome sites and activities in the area:
- Laguna San Rafael National Park
- Northern Patagonian Ice Field
- San Rafael Glacier
- Baker River
- Rio Pollux with it’s 20-meter waterfall
- Queulat National Park
- Kayaking, rafting, hiking and camping
- Fishing in Lago Elizalde, Lago Pollux and Lago Castor
- Skiing: Centro de Ski el Fraile (29km from Coyhaique)
- If you are into a more off-the-beaten path, adventurous route, you can also embark on one of the best trekking experiences in the Chilean Patagonia though Cerro Castillo National Forest. Beginning in Las Horquetas Grandes (75km reached by bus from Cohyaique at the bus terminal for about $13.000 CLP), you can hike to Cerro Castillo in about 4 days and 3 nights, best during December to March with various off-trail side-trip options. There is a small village, Villa Cerro Castillo, to end your trip and stay the night. Here is a great guide-book.