Chile’s largest national park, Parque Nacional Bernardo O’Higgins covering 3,525,901 hectares of islands and icecaps from near Tortel (Region XI, Aisén) to Última Esperanza (Region XII, Magallanes), has few easy access points, but Balmaceda Glacier at the Río Serrano’s outlet is one of them.
From Puerto Natales , the closest approach is northwest by sea, past Puerto Bories, several estancias reachable only by sea, and nesting colonies of seabirds and breeding colonies of southern sea lions, among U-shaped valleys with glaciers and waterfalls. Andean condors have been sighted in the area.
At the end of the trip, passengers disembark for an hour or so at Puerto Toro, where a half-hour walk through southern beech forest leads to the fast-receding Glaciar Balmaceda. They remain about an hour before returning to Puerto Natales , unless they’ve decided to travel upriver to Torres del Paine , sometimes visible in the distance.
A new option for visiting the park’s remote parts, in comfort, is the Skorpios cruise of the so-called “Ruta Kawéskar .”
Across the sound from Puerto Toro, in virtually the most peaceful location imaginable—but for the wind—is the nearly new Hostería Monte Balmaceda (c/o Aventour Patagonia, Av. España 872, tel. 061/244197, www.aventourpatagonia.com , US$89–99 s, US$108–131 d). Rates, which include breakfast, depend on the view.
In addition to the hostería, Aventour now operates Refugio Monte Balmaceda (US$15 pp), a tent-style hostel (sleeping bags not provided) with shared baths. Guests at both the hostería and the refugio can lunch or sup at the restaurant for US$18 per person.
As it’s mostly accessible by sea, a stay here is usually part of a package including a visit to the park and/or Torres del Paine . There is, however, a footpath suitable for a two-day trek to or from Paine.
Natales operators navigate the sound to the glacier daily in summer, less frequently at other seasons. Bad weather and high winds may cause cancellations at any time.
Turismo 21 de Mayo (Eberhard 560, tel. 061/411978, 21demayo [at] chileaustral [dot] com) sails its eponymous cutter or the yacht Alberto de Agostini. Fares are US$60 per person; on the return the boat stops at Estancias Los Perales, where an optional asado costs US$12 per person.
A new entrant is the faster Catamarán Fiordos del Sur, operated by Turismo Runner (Eberhard 555, tel. 061/712132), at 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. daily in summer, less frequently the rest of the year. At US$67, it’s slightly more expensive, but a good alternative for those with limited time.
Instead of returning to Natales, it’s possible to continue upriver to Paine with either 21 de Mayo or with Onas Patagonia (Eberhard 599, tel. 061/414349, tel./fax 061/412707, www.onaspatagonia.com ). In open Zodiac rafts, supplying all passengers with warm wet-weather gear, Onas passes scenic areas not seen by most Paine passengers, makes a lunch stop along the Río Serrano, and requires a brief portage around the Serrano rapids before arriving at the Río Serrano campground. The total cost is US$90; the excursion can also be done in the opposite direction.