Patagonia is filled with awe-inspiring landscapes. Travel up, down or across the land and every lake, mountain or village will have something to make you stop in your tracks.
In this region, one of the most incredible areas we saw was certainly the Marble Caves of Puerto Rio Tranquilo. The caves, slowly carved by nature over more than 6000 years are a myriad of colours and the unique geological formation cannot be accessed by land. Instead, there are options to board a small boat or rent kayaks. With 7 others, whom we had the fortune of sharing a smokey wood fire cabin for two nights, we rented a boat as it was too windy to brave the waves of the lake by kayak.
Not an easy access
Travelling all this way just for the Marble Caves would be a very complicated and long journey as they are found on the lake General Carretera (also called lake Buenos Aires in Argentina) situated 2 hours away from the biggest town in the region, Coyhaique, which in itself is not as easy to reach for short-term travelers. Most of the tourists found here are either cycling or hitch-hiking the Carretera Austral and are lucky not to be on a tight schedule.
The Carretera Austral is a very narrow road (mainly gravel) built under General Pinochet, to link isolated towns in the south of Chile’s Patagonia to the main cities further north. Many places of this region were until then only accessible by sea or land via Argentina and gauchos ruled the transport routes. This 1200 km long road going from Puerto Montt was finished in the early 2000’s reaching its final destination Villa O’Higgins right at the border with the Argentinian town of El Chalten. Nowadays it is still an adventure to travel along this dusty road.It is necessary to travel via 4x4s (or bicycles) and it is mainly used during summer.
To read about the Carretera Austral and how to travel it all, please follow this link.
On the road to Rio Tranquilo
From El Chalten, Argentina, there are 2 ways to start the Carretera Austral: a boat and a 2 day trek crossing the border to Villa O’Higgins or a night bus to Los Antigos. We were forced to take the bus as the boat was not running and we weren’t traveling with a tent. In April, everything shuts down in this part of the country, even the locals leave the area or prepare themselves for the hard winter to come. We therefore joined about 30 other backpackers on a 15 hour bus to Los Antigos, on the Argentinian border with Chile (the road to Los Antigos continues further north to El Bolson and Bariloche).
We reached Los Antigos at sun rise and tried to reach the border which was opening at 8am. There is no way to get there except taking a cab or walking the few kilometers from the bus station to the border control… like many others, we hitch-hiked. With the migration formality complete, we hoped for another ride but there was absolutely no cars crossing to Chile. This is how we found ourselves walking 5 km to Chile Chico, the Chilean border control. It was a great adventure that we shared with more or less the 15 other travelers which were also on our night bus from El Chalten. Many of whom we would spend the next few days with or sporadically meet along our route north.
2 hours later, we were back in Chile and still had 200 km to travel before reaching the little village of Rio Tranquilo. While 2 of our friends got lucky and hitched a ride, 7 of us hopped in a paid mini-van. As we drove through the one-way and very bumpy gravel road along the lake General Carretera, we were amazed by the surrounding landscape and the brilliant blue of the lake, the biggest and deepest in Chile (1850 km2 and as deep as 580m).
The Marble Caves : carved by nature
The famous Patagonian wind and the water of the lake are the maestros of this incredible carving work. As we approached by boat our first stop, the “caves”, the marble uncovered its most vibrant colours. Waving shapes of blue, yellow and white light reflecting from the sun in the crystal clear lake water. It was an impressive canvas of colours to witness. We entered the caves with the boat before going to the two other famous formations “the Chapel” and the “Cathedral”.
Where to go from there
From Rio Tranquilo, there are many other excursions to the National Park of the Glaciers but we decided that we had seen enough glaciers and that it was time for us to keep going north before the winter caught up with us. We left our friends and hitch-hiked to Cerro Castillo where we heard we would be able to hike, see prehistorical cave paintings and take part in one of the most important climbing events in Chile in 2017. Keep posted as we will post about this next Thursday.
Cost and useful information
Currency (average) : €1 = 713 CLP – 16.38 ARS
Cabana for 6 people : 10 000 CLP pp/pn (€14) – same price as a bed in a dorm
Bus El Chalten – Los Antigos : 1140 ARS (€70 pp)
Los Antigos – Border Arg/Chile : free (hitch-hiking)
Chilean border to Rio Tranquilo : 10 000 CLP (€14) – mini-van shared by 7.
Marble cave by boat : 9000 CLP (€12.60) – well negotiated; Twice more to rent a kayak