In Chile’s Patagonia the Marble Caves (Capillas de Marmol) offer a once in a lifetime experience. Hugging the coastline of General Carrera Lake, the waves have been shaping these caverns, tunnels and pillars for over 6,000 years creating dimples, nooks and crannies in the rock. The caves are intense stained-glass colours of turquoise, aquamarine, seafoam green and emerald.
(Note: we didn’t travel during COVID-19 or quarantine. We took this trip in Jan. 2020.)
We ended our three week, 1,000 km Patagonian adventure with a visit to the Marble Caves on General Carrera Lake — a glacial lake which is shared by Chile and Argentina (Lago Buenos Aires on the Argentinian side) and is Chile’s second biggest lake. Declared a Natural Sanctuary in 1994, the Marble Caves, Chapel and Cathedral are a must if you are traveling the Carretera Austral.
The closest access to the caves is from the town of Puerto Rio Tranquilo. Walk down to the main beach and you will find rows of tour operators in small huts lining the wharf. You can book days or hours in advance. When you arrive, check the weather and book a tour for the sunniest, calmest day. Go in the morning if you can, when the light on the caves is at its most dramatic. The wind and waves really pick up on the lake later in the afternoon making for a rocking ride. You can kayak out to the caves or take an open air motor boat. The boats and kayaks have different access points, but you book them both from the town centre.
If you choose to kayak, you can glide right into the caves and cathedral and see them from the inside. The boats go into the bigger the caves. From the 10-15 person boats you can see smaller marble caves along the way, different shapes the wind and waves have carved into the rocks that appear as animals with a beautiful view of the mountains ringing the lake. Either way, you have a stunning up-close view of the caverns — and can touch the walls of the caves above and below the water and feeling the texture and marbling of the rock.
We have toured the caves twice, the first time we went on a sunny morning with a 9 a.m. departure with Patagonia Tours, the life jackets were sturdy and they also provided rain ponchos. The tour lasted three hours and was informative and allowed a lot of time for photos. The second time we went in the afternoon as it was the only day with a good forecast, we rocked up to the wharf at 2:30 and immediately booked a 3 p.m. tour with Andes Tour. The boat was safe and it was a good tour, but shorter than the first one and no rain gear. Our youngest child (6 years) was free, our other two children (under 10 years) were $10,000 and adults were $20,000 Chilean pesos. So check different operators, ask questions and see if young children are free.
If you have rain gear, bring it to the boat just in case and a sealed plastic bag for valuables. No matter when you visit the weather is variable so bring layers, thermals, sunglasses, wind and rain gear. There is often construction and road work being done on the Carretera Austral so if you are staying outside of town and have a scheduled trip booked, ensure you know if the road is closed and for how long.
As well as the marble caves, you can also book glacier trips from Puerto Rio Tranquilo. If you are going to Exploradores to walk on the glacier and you will need ankle boot/shoes for the crampons, for San Rafael you don’t need special gear as it is a boat tour.
The Bahia Murta Cemetery by Puerto Rio Tranquilo offers amazing views and is well worth a visit. Just a few kilometres outside of Rio Tranquilo (heading towards Coyahaique), you will see the black iron gates on the right hand side of the road. If the gates are open you can drive up the hill and park, if not, park in front of the gates and slip inside. The cemetery offers beautiful views of the Rio Engaño and Rio Murta as they flow into Lago General Carrera with snowy mountains to the side looking down on the sleepy inhabitants. High on the hill, it’s almost a village with graves marked by small wooden shingled houses with tin roofs that have withstood all the Patagonian elements. They are bright and colourful with peaked roofs, some with spires and crosses and with the typical wooden shingle of the area. As always, when visiting a cemetery we discouraged the children from entering or if they did they had to be quiet and respectful.
In Puerto Rio Tranquilo we enjoyed eating at Restaurant Cerveceria Rio Tranquilo , a great little pizza with fresh and interesting salads set in a brew pub just across from the main area where all the tours are set up. And another day we ate at Casa Bruja which is in more in-town in an unassuming house, which is actually a two-storey restaurant. We had a wonderful meal, it was really delicious and we both loved our food.
There is lakeside camping on the edge of town, hostels, small hotels and airbnbs in Puerto Rio Tranquilo. We stayed in Puerto Guadal at Lodge Mirador de Guadal and absolutely loved our stay — the accommodation was luxurious with a wood stove, wonderful linens and an incredible view of the lake and snow capped mountains. The owners are very good at suggesting local activities. It’s just under an hours drive from Puerto Rio Tranquilo. We also enjoyed our stay at Mallin Colorado Eco Lodge which offers smaller rooms, but very comfortable with lake and mountain views.
The Chelenko Lodge cabins are located just outside Puerto Rio Tranquilo and offer kitchenettes, and my personal favourite, individual Chilean wood-fired hot tub right on the lake. There is nothing better than running out in the bracing wind to slip into a hot tub fired by a wood stove and enjoying a stunning view of the lake.
Chelenko Lodge on General Carrera lake.
To get to Puerto Rio Tranquilo you can fly into Coyhaique Airport with a five hour drive or Balmaceda Airport and then it’s a four hour drive south on the Carretera Austral. There are frequent buses out of Coyhaique.
The drive from Puerto Rio Tranquilo back to Balmaceda took just under five hours. If catching a plane, give yourself time for construction and road delays and also time to take photos. You will pass by beautiful lakes and mountains — we even saw an huemul, the shy Andean deer.
And there are places you can pull over to take photos of Cerro Castillo. The views of the peak are as you enter town and there is a place to pull off on the twisty road as you leave town to look back on the village and the mountains. If you have time, I recommend at least a day in the area to do the day hike or spend a few days and do the three day back country camping to Cerro Castillo.