Ice, water, ice: part 1

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 Glacier San Rafael is fed by the Northern Patagonian Ice FIeld.Glacier San Rafael is fed by the Northern Patagonian Ice FIeld.
Part 1 of a trip our correspondent took in Aysén Patagonia, which included a 12-hour sail to Laguna San Rafael and walking atop the ice of the Exploradores Glacier. 
Text and photos by Clara Ribera
Translated by Taylor Fitch
Getting to Laguna San Rafael was the object of today’s trip on board this catamaran. Meantime, as the world outside carries on peacefully, a party has started inside the boat with a toast of whisky chilled with thousand-year-old ice from the San Rafael Glacier. 
I climb to the upper floor of the boat, where Mexican ranchera music is playing. Two microphones circulate among the passengers for karaoke, and there’s an open bar. The guides are making a reasonably successful effort to keep the group, who have now spent almost 12 hours shut in the barge, entertained.   
The catamaran sails through fjords and Patagonian islands, leaving Laguna San Rafael behind. It has been a long day that started before dawn in Puerto Chacabuco. Now we are already returning to that same town, situated 80 kilometers from Coyhaique, capital of the Aysen region.
Outside the vessel, nature is the owner and keeper of these lands, some probably still unexplored. Night has fallen early. It is the beginning of July and the days are too short for a tourist wishing for more hours to see Patagonia in the full light of day. 
Inside, the scene is, without doubt, also picturesque. I sit in a corner to observe how a group of people who were strangers a few hours ago are now hugging, dancing, casting complicit looks and singing at the top of their lungs, “¿Qué le pasa, qué le pasa a mi camión? ¿Qué le pasa, qué le pasa que no arranca?” (What happened, what happened to my truck? What happened, what happened? It won’t start!), a catchy Chilean cumbia hymn played by the band Chico Trujillo. After a while I realize that my cheeks are starting to hurt from looking, laughing, and smiling so much, and I decide to join in when a forgotten Spanish hit from the 90’s comes on. 
Laguna San Rafael
The trip began at 7am, when the Chaitén, the name of the boat of Hotel Loberías del Sur, set forth from Chacabuco with some 100 passengers on board.   The friendly crew managed to keep the group, primarily Chilean, constantly supplied with food and drink. 
View from the boat while navigating the Elefantes estuary (Aysén)View from the boat while navigating the Elefantes estuary (Aysén)
A couple of hours after we left, Franco, the tour guide, invited me to see the bridge. It was a calm cabin, isolated from the tourist crowd sipping pisco sours in the salon above as the catamaran advanced through frozen waters (calm for now) at a speed of 24 knots. 
Boarding the Chaitén is the fastest way to get to Laguna San Rafael. The voyage is 125 nautical miles, or about 230 kilometers. The captain, the pilot, and the chief engineer, who chatted easily inside their control bubble, switch off every hour to bring the vessel along safely. 
While sailing the Rio Témpanos, hundreds of ice pieces announced our arrival to the glacier.While sailing the Rio Témpanos, hundreds of ice pieces announced our arrival to the glacier.
After enjoying aperitifs and sea lions along the way, we arrive at our destination: the tongue that comes down from the Northern Patagonian Ice Field known as San Rafael Glacier. This wall of ice belongs to Laguna San Rafael National Park, the largest park in the Aysen region and this region's most well-known tourism attraction. The area, declared a biosphere reserve in 1979, covers 1,700,000 acres, of which 400,000 are part of the ice fields. The glacier occupies 17 percent of the total surface of the ice field. 
The main access is via the water, whether by catamaran from Puerto Chacabuco by day, or on cruise ships that leave from further away and sail longer. Access by land is more limited, but possible, traveling from Coyhaique to Bahía Exploradores (a distance of 303 kilometers). Even so, to reach the glacier wall some kind of boat is necessary. Another, even more spectacular, way to see the national park is to fly over it in one of the small, six-passenger planes that leave from Coyhaique or Puerto Aysén.
Catamaran Chaitén can carry around 100 passengers.Catamaran Chaitén can carry around 100 passengers.
Some say that San Rafael Glacier is the Chilean version of the Perito Moreno Glacier of Argentina, but the only thing they have in common is ice. The atmosphere around each glacier is different. Neither better nor worse. While the famed Patagonian glacier of Argentina overwhelmed me with its immensity when I visited it two years ago, San Rafael swallowed me up. To the left and right I could see all the ice columns that it is composed of. The little Zodiac boat we took from the catamaran came so close to the glacier that I felt almost a part of the monument of ice in front of me. Sailing through there, which had at first looked small but tripled in height as I got closer, made me feel part of this incredibly beautiful natural scene.
If Perito is a spectacle of size, San Rafael is the love of the detail. The roars of the falling ice sound close, reverberating in my ears.  They speak to me. They tell me that the lagoon is the result of glacial recession. That in a few decades it may fall silent because since 1875 this precious outcropping of ice has only grown smaller. According to a study by Chile's Catholic University, the northern ice field has lost 100 cubic kilometers of ice since the beginning of the 20th century, and the trend shows no sign of stopping. 
The Zodiac boat returns to the Chaitén and the adrenaline of the glacier experience has subsided. I look over my photos in the tiny screen on my camera and I feel lucky to have been able to enter the untouchable depths of Aysén. 
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