This article has been updated on December 31, 2020
Catedral de Marmol, AKA Marble Caves is a stunning remote natural attraction that’s located on the shores of General Carrera lake, nearby Puerto Rio Tranquillo in Chilean Patagonia. The caves that are sometimes also called Capilla de Mármol (Marble Chapel) consist of about a 300 meters long coastal strip of marble rocks that have been eroded by the waves of the lake for the past 6000 years, only to create an amazing spectacle for a visitor to admire. The area has been declared a Natural Sanctuary in 1994.
Once you reach Puerto Rio Tranquillo, Marble Cave tours are widely available and inexpensive. I’ve paid 10000,-CLP (€13) for a 90-minute tour. Being a major attraction in the area, the numerous touts do make it look like that nearly everything that’s going on in the village was centred around the tourism business. So it does involve a bit of embracing the mass organised AKA “sheep” tourism but nature helps a lot to make that embracing very easy.
Actually, as soon as you get close to the rocks, you forget about “sheep tourism” altogether. I mean imagine that you mix the following elements: beautifully shaped natural marble, bright sunlight and the crystal clear blue water of a glacier lake, not to mention the ever stunning Patagonian nature around. You’ll simply get a powerful combination that creates an unforgettable experience.
FYI, you could also rent a kayak and explore it by yourself, if that was your preference. I’m told that the best time to do so is early morning. If you want to take a little break from travelling, you could even spend a night in the village to take it easy. I mean that Puerto Rio Tranquillo appears literally worth its name, especially once you’re not a potential customer anymore.
How to get to Marble Caves?
Tip: Start creating your own itinerary by saving the red-highlighted Google Maps location links provided bellow. If you are signed into your Google account and if any of the listed places sounded like your cup of tea, just click "want to go". Personally for me, seeing the "Want to go" places helped me to determine my journey, when I was planning my trip across Latin Americas.
Puerto Rio Tranquillo is about 215 km/5:30hrs ride south of Coyhaique, which is the nearest travellers’ hub with an airport. In case you are coming from southern Chilean Patagonian locations such as Torres del Paine, you’d have to cross to Argentina and take the famous scenic Ruta 40, due to the low population density and the consequent lack of infrastructure in the region. FYI, it is good news because it will take you first to El Calafate with the nearby Perito Moreno Glaciar, and then you could also stop at El Chaltén to do some trekking around the iconic Mt Fitz Roy, while you’re at it 😉
Anyway, to get to Marble Caves from El Chaltén, you need to take a long 700km/9,5hrs night bus from El Chaltén to Los Antiguos first. Because this is one of the only options for travelling from southern Andean Patagonia, the buses are bloody expensive. I’ve paid 2090,-ARS (€49) for a 9 pm – 6:30 am bus that took me to the Argentinian town of Los Antiguos. The night bus was however a very comfy ride and I had a good night’s sleep, following an epic sunset over Argentinian steppes at the famous Ruta 40.
Get a good/suitable music for a night bus 😉
Excuse this subject intrusion, I’m fully aware that this a bit off-topic but it was on this ride when I got inspired to create a series of playlists for overnight buses “Music to Fall Asleep” designed for overnight buses or long flights. I mean they play more and more mellow music to settle your day, clear your head and eventually sent you to the dreamlands. Ever since I’m at peace on long flights or overnight buses 🙂 Check them out, especially if you’re into non-mainstream electronic music 😉
Los Antiguos to Chile Chico
Because of some reason, there’s no public transport between the border towns of Los Antiguos and Chile Chico. It leaves one to hitchhike or walk the 7km of no man’s land between the two towns on each side of the border. Getting through here was however rather easy as I was picked up by the second car passing by me and I wasn’t even hitchhiking. The locals are very friendly here 🙂
I have appeared in Chile Chico there on a national holiday on Sunday morning and there was only one agency operating only the Puerto Rio Tranquillo route so I had not much of a choice, other than to pay 20 000,-CLP (€26) for a 170km/3 hour drive in a 4WD. Although Chile Chico looked like a nice place, I’ve decided to move on because, except for the pleasant warm microclimate, there wasn’t much going on. The driver was very nice and stopped at several stunning viewpoints. Overall, the whole journey was rather rewarding and good fun.
Alternative route: walking across the border from
El Chaltén to Villa O’Higgins
In case you didn’t want to take this route via El Chaltén – Los Antiguos – Chile Chico, you can alternatively walk across the border back to Chile via Villa O’Higgins (the end of Carretera Austral) right from El Chaltén. People I’ve met on my journey talked about it as one of the highlights of their trips.
You can take a twice-per-week ferry across Lago del Desierto, get your passport stamped at the Argentinian border post and trek to Candelario Mansilla in order to reach the Chilean border post. From there, you could take a ferry across Lago O’Higgins that goes a few times per week from November to March so you need to time your trek well obviously. Needless to say, you should time your trek well in order to catch those ferries.
It is also recommended to inform the park rangers if you decide to take upon this little adventure, needless to say, that you should be prepared and better informed, ideally locally, where you should get the most updated info. From Villa O’Higgins, you can then head north towards Puerto Rio Tranquillo along Carretera Austral.
Sort of epilogue: Is it worth visiting Marble Caves?
Marble caves are really really impressive concert of nature’s beauty. It was certainly worth it cutting my journey through here. But would I ever make that whole journey only to see this one place? Well, I’m not sure if that would be worth it, considering other superb options nature offers in the region.
I mean that Marble Caves is a brilliant stopover location if you’re exploring the Carretera Austral or if you’re on your way from southern to northern Andean Patagonia (or wise-versa) but if your time in the area was limited, I’d have to say that Marble Caves’ unquestionable beauty doesn’t outweigh its remoteness, especially if the visit would mean/cost you missing out on other Patagonian attractions due to your possible time limitations.
Other popular destinations near by
If you fancy walking across long ice fields or being surrounded by giant ice walls, right nearby Puerto Rio Tranquillo, there’s Glacier Exploradores. In order to enjoy this experience, it is however necessary to hire a tour. Read more here on the This Is Chile site.
Laguna San Rafael
Only a few miles away from the glacier park, there’s also Parque Nacional Laguna San Rafael that is certainly worth an “off the beaten path” kind of nature lover’s consideration 😉 Read more here on Rutas de Los Parques.
Rather than a place, this is more of an option for your own little road movie experience. I’d definitely recommend exploring at least a part, ideal the full length along the 1200km long Carretera Austral that cuts through incredible nature. More details, including how to, places to see and other practical tips could be found here.
Puerto Varas and/or Bariloche
Further north, there are also two cute resorty towns on Chilean, respectively on the Argentinian side of Patagonian Andes worth a consideration 😉 More details about trekking and the numerous attractions of Puerto Varas and Bariloche could be found here.
Other popular destinations travelling south
Only “a night bus journey” away from Chile Chico/Los Antiguos, would allow you to enjoy the multiple views of the iconic Mt Fitzroy or Cerro Torre during your treks around the town of El Chaltén in Los Glaciares Parque Nacional. Everything you need to know about El Chaltén could be found here, in case you were interested.
Perito Moreno Glaciar
Torres del Paine
Visit the touristy town of Puerto Natales, the gateway to the iconic Patagonian National Park Torres del Paine. From El Calafate, it’s only about a 6hrs drive across the Andes mountains back in Chilean Patagonia. Everything you need to know about the park could be found here, in case you were interested.
End of the World
Well, in case you’ve had more time on your hands, fancy going a bit further south? I mean nearly as south as one can get? Here‘s a little guide for Tierra del Fuego and the southernmost city in the world: Ushuaia. Once in Puerto Natales, you’ll be “only” about 15hrs drive away.
Here’s a little simple curiosity to end this piece with. The funny thing is that the marble rocks are actually grey. It’s the sun reflected in the water, that absorbs the red part of the light spectrum that turns them blue…
Traveller’s Guides to the Patagonian countries of Chile and Argentina
For more complex information about both countries that are home to Patagonia, please click here, respectively here. Expect learning about basic history, cuisine, general tourism info and safety, popular as well as off the beaten path places to visit and more.