Flowing ice meets frigid sea at Parque Nacional Laguna San Rafael, where frozen pinnacles tumble from the crackling face of Ventisquero San Rafael, a 60-meter-high glacier that descends from the Campo de Hielo Norte to become bobbing icebergs.
Misleadingly named, Laguna San Rafael is really an ocean inlet, though its salinity is low as the icebergs slowly thaw and the receding glacier discharges fresh water into it.
One of Chile’s largest national parks (1,742,000 hectares of rugged terrain), Laguna San Rafael is a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve for its extraordinary scenery and environments. While remote from any settlement, it’s a popular summer excursion for Chileans and foreigners, accessible all year.
Calving off the face of Ventisquero San Rafael, indigo icebergs bob and drift in the waters of Laguna San Rafael, an oval body of water measuring six to nine kilometers in width and connected to the southern canals by the narrow Río Témpanos. The world’s lowest-latitude tidewater glacier, Ventisquero San Rafael may not be so much longer; in continuous retreat since 1960, it could be a casualty of global warming.
Few visitors set foot in the park, as most arrive by ferry or catamaran, transferring to inflatables to meander among the bergs and approach the glacier’s face. Those who manage to land can hike through seven kilometers of evergreen forest on the Sendero al Ventisquero to a glacial overlook.
At park headquarters, Conaf’s three-site Camping Laguna Caiquenes (US$4.50 per site) allows no campfires. Its Casa de Huéspedes Laguna Caiquenes (US$111), with kitchen facilities, accommodates up to six persons, park admission included. For reservations, contact Conaf’s Coyhaique Patrimonio Silvestre office (Los Coihues s/n, tel. 067/212125, fax 067/212130).
No supplies except fresh water are available—bring everything from Coyhaique  or Puerto Chacabuco . Ferries and catamarans feed their passengers; the catamarans usually have an open bar and chill the whisky with ice chipped off passing bergs.
Conaf’s administration and ranger station is on Laguna San Rafael’s northeastern shore. Anyone who literally sets foot in the park pays a US$4.50 admission fee, but boat people do not, as offshore waters fall under naval rather than Conaf jurisdiction; according to Conaf statistics, which exclude maritime passengers, the park hosted only 569 visitors in 2004.
By Air: Light airplanes can land at the 775-meter gravel airstrip; several Coyhaique -based companies can carry up to five passengers for around US$720–740, remaining only about an hour at the park. Among them are Transporte Aéreo Don Carlos (Subteniente Cruz 63, tel./fax 067/231981, www.doncarlos.cl ), Transportes Aéreos San Rafael (18 de Septiembre 469, tel./fax 067/233408), and Aerohein (Baquedano 500, tel. 067/252177, tel./fax 067/232772, www.aerohein.cl ).
By Sea: Navimag Ferries offers slow-moving ferries to Laguna San Rafael, while other operators offer options ranging from small cruise ships to high-speed catamarans. For ferries and cruise ships, the overnight voyage can take 12–16 hours from Puerto Chacabuco , while catamarans return the same day. Ferries and cruise ships, though, spend 5–6 hours at the glacier, while catamarans have 2–3 hours at most. While excursions are most frequent in summer, they may take place all year.
Navimag ferries begin in Puerto Montt  and call in Puerto Chacabuco  before continuing to Laguna San Rafael. Summer fares for the five-day, four-night voyage on the Puerto Edén range from US$460 per person for bunks in shared cabins with exterior baths to US$1,602 single, US$1,926 double in private cabins with external views. Off-season fares are about 15 percent lower; for more detail, contact Navimag offices in Santiago , Puerto Montt , Coyhaique , or Puerto Chacabuco , or see their website (www.navimag.com ).
Other operators include Cruceros Marítimos Skorpios (Augusto Leguía 118, Las Condes, Santiago, tel. 02/2311030, www.skorpios.cl ) and Geoturismo Patagonia (Eusebio Lillo 315, tel. 067/234098, www.geoturismopatagonia.cl ).