Saturday, January 14, 2017

Chile's Least-Visited National Park? (Revisited)

Laguna San Rafael has the world's lowest-latitude tidewater glacier
Nearly six years ago, I wrote that Parque Nacional Laguna San Rafael, where the ice meets the sea, was Chile’s least-visited national park. The reason, I argued, was that although many people see Laguna San Rafael, they usually do so from the sea, and never set foot in the actual park. This was always a bit of hyperbole, since some remote Chilean parks like Parque Nacional Corcovado—which does not appear in any statistical summary—rarely get any visitors at all. As I recently learned, though, Laguna San Rafael gets quite a few more visitors than I expected, for reasons I’ll explain in the succeeding paragraphs.
The road up the Valle Exploradores
Until the last few years, the only way to see the massive tidewater glacier has been via an expensive cruise or catamaran excursions, but now there’s an alternative. Recently, in the lakeside hamlet of Puerto Río Tranquilo, I made arrangements for a combination overland/sea excursion to the park that allows visitors to go ashore (and some to overnight in comfortable accommodations). Sadly, the next day’s weather forecast forced cancellation of the trip and, with a tight itinerary, I was unable to reschedule.
Hikes to the Ventisquero Grosse glacial overlook start from the reception area at El Puesto
The Ventisquero Grosse, as seen from El Puesto's overlook
However disappointed, I decided to drive up the Bahía Exploradores road the next morning, to the point where the Laguna San Rafael excursions sail. I had been up the road once before, but another twenty kilometers were now open in a stunningly verdant area where glaciers approached the road (though, on this cloudy day, they were not visible. I made a brief stop at the German-run Campo Alacaluf, an isolated roadside lodge where I had stayed once before, and the proceeded up the valley past the outpost of El Puesto, a trekking company that’s built a trail to a nearby glacial overlook.
A new sign marks the entrance to the national park
Thomas Poppitz, Alacaluf’s hospitable German owner, had surprised me with the news that Conaf, the agency in charge of Chile’s national parks, had built a ranger station along the road which, I had never quite realized, marked the park boundary. Thus, without knowing it, I had actually set foot in the park at least a decade earlier. I stopped to speak with the Conaf ranger on duty and he told me that, although Conaf does not collect a park access charge here, it does so indirectly from agencies like El Puesto because the glaciers and vicinity are part of the park.
Conaf's new ranger station along the Exploradores road

Thus, in a sense, the statistics on visitation to Laguna San Rafael (4,728 according to the 2015 survey) are still misleading, though it remains true that most people see the great tidewater glacier—still the park’s biggest attraction—from the sea. That said, I’m still waiting on the day that I can walk the trail alongside the intact ice, hopefully before it recedes too far.
Smaller and larger icebergs break off the receding glacier constantly

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