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Parque Nacional Laguna San Rafael

Parque Nacional (PN) Laguna San Rafael is a must-go destination for many travelers to Chile. They slice through the icy waters of RĂ­o TĂ©mpanos into Laguna San Rafael and right up to the foot of age-old glaciers streaming from the Campo de Hielo Norte. They hear the sizzling crunch as the glacier shifts, the splash as it calves. A glass of whiskey on millennia rocks is raised to this intense beauty. Guides recount the wonders of this national park, the second largest in Chile and UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve.


The main raison d’etre of PN Laguna San Rafael is to protect the Campo de Hielo Norte (Northern Ice Field), a massive remnant of the last Ice Age. Massive ventisqueros or glaciers, like San Quintín, Exploradores, Hualas, Leones, Soler, Steffens and San Rafael, flow from the mountains to the sea. The national park has some of the tallest peaks of the Southern Andes, including Monte San Valentín (4058 m/13,314 ft), Cerro Arenales (3365 m/11,040 ft), Hyades (2507 m/8,225 ft) and Tarahua (3700 m/12,139 ft).


It isn’t just about ice fields, though. This 1,742,000-hectare park, created in 1959, has only 440,000 hectares of the blue-white stuff. Located between Río Exploradores (north), Río Baker (south) Lago General Carrera (east) and Golfo de Penas (west), much of the park is actually heavily vegetated with

ciprĂ©s de las Guaitecas, lenga and evergreens forests. The most common species are ciprĂ©s de las Guaitecas (Guaitecas cypress, Pilgerodendron uviferum), coigĂŒe (Nothofagus dombeyi), coigĂŒe de ChiloĂ© (Nothofagus nitida), coigĂŒe de Magallanes (Magellan's beech, Nothofagus betuloides), lenga (lenga beech, Nothofagus pumilio), tepa (Laurelia philippiana), mañío macho (Chilean podocarp, Podocarpus nubigenus), ciruelillo (Chilean fire bush, Embothrium coccineum), canelo (winter's bark, Drimys winteri), calafate (Magellan barberry, Berberis buxifolia), chilco (bush fuchsia, Fuchsia magellanica) and chaura (Chilean wintergreen, Pernettya mucronata). Wildlife is bounteous, especially with land and sea birds, and fresh waterfowl like Cisne de Cuello Negro (Black-necked Swan, Cignus melancoriphus), Condor (Andean Condor, Vultur gryphus), Chucao (Scelorchilus rubecula), Huet-Huet (Black-throated Huet-Huet, Pteroptochos tarnii), PingĂŒino de Magallanes (Magellanic Penguin, Spheniscus magellanicus) and various species of albatrosses, cormorants, ducks and gulls. Land mammals include pudĂș (Chilean miniature deer, Pudu pudu), guiña (kodkod, Oncifelis guigna), zorro culpeo (Patagonian fox, Lycalopex culpaeus) and huemul (South Andean deer, Hippocamelus bisulcus), and those of the sea, marsopa (harbor porpoise, Phocaeana phocaena), lobo marino de un pelo (sea lion, Otaria flavescens), delfĂ­n nariz de botella (bottlenose dolphin, Tursiops truncatus), elefante marino (elephant seal, Mirounga leonina), tonina negra (Chilean dolphin, Cephalorhynchus eutropia) and chungungo (marine otter, Lutra feline).


Precipitation in PN Laguna San Rafael ranges from 5,000 millimeters (197 in) per year in the high-altitude zones and the Campo de Hielo, to 200 millimeters (8 in) in the RĂ­o Baker area. At Laguna San Rafael it rains five times more than in Cochrane. Annual temperatures average 9ÂșC (48ÂșF).


Cruise tourists, though, never get to step onto terra firma. Other tours include trekking the administration at Sector Puntilla del Cisne on the west shore of the lagoon, to the Sector Caiquenes ranger station and then to the foot of the glacier (Distance: 5.5 km/3.4 mi, Difficulty: medium-difficult, Duration: 2 days round trip). The ranger station has five rustic campsites (no hot water, $7 per site). Park entry is for foreign adults (Chileans $5) and $2 for children (Chileans $1).


Travelers can get to the park from other points. Along the north boundary of the park is Camino Exploradores, a new road being built from Puerto RĂ­o Tranquilo to BahĂ­a Exploradores, which in the future is projected to be a shorter and less expensive way to arrive to Laguna San Rafael. The highlight on this route is ice trekking Exploradores Glacier. Other eastern access points are through Valle RĂ­o Leones and Valle RĂ­o Soler. At the southern tip of the national park is Ventisquero Steffens where the Ruta Patrimonial Campo de Hielo Norte goes to. The journey begins with a boat from Caleta Tortel up Fiordo Steffens to near the mouth of RĂ­o Huemules. Another boat takes you across that river, from where you then hike or horseback ride to a lookout point of Glaciar Steffens. Mountain climbers look to the challenge of Monte San ValentĂ­n.


Other places nearby Parque Nacional Laguna San Rafael : Villa Santa Lucía , Parque Nacional Queulat, Puerto Guadal, Puerto Aysén, La Junta, Chaitén, Caleta Tortel, Puerto Río Tranquilo, Reserva Nacional Río Simpson and Puerto Cisnes.

By Lorraine Caputo

Upon re-declaring her independence at age 29, Lorraine Caputo packed her trusty Rocinante (so her knapsack's called) and began...

10 Jul 2009

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