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The Balmaceda and Serrano Glaciers: a 40 Photo Tour Through Chile’s Last Hope Sound

Do you remember your first time?

Sailing near the Balmaceda Glacier, Last Hope Sound, Chile
[Last updated 6 March 2017]

We all remember our first time.

Mine came late on a chilly sun-drenched morning midway through a bouncy ride on a boat filled with tourists on the Last Hope Sound.

We were journeying through a picturesque setting that included cliffs of nesting condors and a massive rock that’s home to a cormorant breeding colony, framed all the while by dramatic peaks in the distance that grew taller the further on we traveled. We were moving at a decent clip, bouncing over the wind-swept waves when Balmaceda came into view, the mountain that’s home to its eponymous glacier.

The Balmaceda and Serrano Glaciers: a 40 Photo Tour Through Chile’s Last Hope Sound
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Ice clung to the rock behind a curtain of fog that lingered over the higher portion of the mountain; just below, the bright whitish aqua of the glacier abruptly turned to a brown stone that cried into the sound. I was momentarily saddened that my first contact with a glacier saw cascading mountain runoff as a metaphor for tears.

Just fifteen years ago, our guide said, the base of the glacier was at sea level.

It’s said that the navigator Juan Ladrillero gave the sound its name back in 1557, thinking it was his last chance to reach the Strait of Magellan. Instead he reached a dead end at a glacier.

For the rapidly retreating Balmaceda, all hope is gone. I felt glad that I made the opportunity to add it to my ‘So Very Glad I Saw it Before it Disappears’ file.

***

Why You Should Go

As the primary gateway to Parque Nacional Torres del Paine (pronounced PIE-nay), most visitors to Puerto Natales rush through on their way to South America’s most popular national park. But a decision to pass by without setting aside a day for this fjord trip borders on the regrettable.

For the budget traveler, at 70,000 Chilean Pesos (about US$120*) and up per person, the trip is somewhat of an investment. But given the relatively easy access it provides to a pair of glaciers on the Southern Patagonian Ice Field –glaciers retreating at an alarming rate thanks to global warming– it’s one worth making if you don’t plan to ever return to this corner of the planet. Or if you simply want to see glaciers in one of the world’s most beautiful settings before they disappear.

Then there’s the relative solitude. Bear in mind that while Puerto Natales is becoming a busy place in high season, not many boats ply these waters. You’ll largely be alone over the course of the day, getting at least a glimpse of the sublime beauty that Patagonia has to offer. And experience some of the harsh conditions that left the area unsettled until just over a century ago.

Oh, and this: each ticket includes a delicious feast courtesy of a traditional Patagonian parrillada, or barbeque. You won’t leave hungry.

Onwards. Here’s a brief four-part outline of the journey with 40 photos and a quartet of short videos. Enjoy!

Heading out

The journey begins at Puerto Bories, about a 20-minute shuttle ride from the center of town. There are about 50 passengers on board when we set out at 8am.

The first landmark of note is a man-made one, the Puerto Bories industrial refrigeration complex, built in 1913 to store livestock and produce from Chilean and Argentinian Patagonia. About an hour into the trip we reach the Eberhard Fjord, where cattle ranching began in the area in 1887. Here Ultima Esperanza officially begins.

After about two hours we pass the cormorant colony that has taken over Barrosa point, a giant rock in the center of the fjord. Hundreds of pairs breed here and call it home for about three months, or until their young can fly. Fortunately, they were all still present and accounted for during my February visit.

We pass a condor cliff where we can watch the magnificently ugly predators circling far overhead. Their gliding is sublime.

Last Hope Sound, Chile
Last Hope Sound, Chile
King Cormorant Colony on the Last Hope Sound, Chile
King Cormorant Colony on the Last Hope Sound, Chile

This video should give you a general idea; apologies for the bit of shake. It was a little bumpy at times.

Music: ‘Spring Solstice’ by Podington Bear / Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 International License CC license [Website] [Free Music Archive Page]

The Balmaceda Glacier

Soon after we began to approach Monte Balmaceda, and its eponymous glacier. The mountain is severe and dramatic. On this morning, it was partially shrouded by dark clouds and a gray fog. Jabbing the sky at 2,035m (6,676ft), it’s stunning and difficult to conquer. Only a handful of summits have been recorded.

 

Balmaceda Glacier, Southern Patagonian Ice Field, Chile, 08-Feb-2013
Balmaceda Glacier on 08-Feb-2013
Balmaceda Glacier, Southern Patagonian Ice Field, Chile, 08-Feb-2013
Balmaceda Glacier, Southern Patagonian Ice Field, Chile

Next up some footage of the Balmaceda Glacier. I’d love to hear from anyone with subsequent photos or video footage for a point of comparison.

Music: ‘Passing On The Stairs’ by The Starry Tides / Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 3.0 International License [Free Music Archive Page]

The Serrano Glacier

Four hours into the trip we disembark at Puerto Toro, the only dock in Bernardo O’Higgins National Park, Chile’s largest and least-visited.

From the dock it’s an easy hike of just over a kilometer through a forest and along the shore of the lake where we can walk to an overlook near the base of the Serrano Glacier and sip glacial runoff.

Serrano Glacier Trailhead
Serrano Glacier Trailhead
Pisco Sour service on board, chilled with glacial ice
Pisco Sour service on board, chilled with glacial ice

Back on the boat which of course begged the question: Should I have felt more guilty that my first Pisco Sour, Chile’s national drink, was served with freshly chiseled ice from a rapidly-receding glacier?

Below, some footage of the Serrano Glacier. Again, apologies for some of the shake. I’ll bring a tripod next time, promise.

Music: ‘By Grace’ by Podington Bear / Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 International License [Website] [Free Music Archive Page]

And the Estancia Perales

And again back on land for lunch: a traditional Patagonian parrillada, or barbeque, in one of the most serene settings imaginable.

At the Estancia Perales, Last Hope Sound, Chile
At the Estancia Perales, Last Hope Sound, Chile

 

And the fourth and final video, a short series of scenes that attempt to do justice to the serenity of this sublime Patagonian setting.

Music: ‘Cylinder Six’ by Chris Zabriski / CC license [Website] [Free Music Archive page]

Sorry, didn't have time to shave. Selfie at the Serrano Glacier
Sorry, didn’t have time to shave. Selfie at the Serrano Glacier

Nitty & the Gritty

-There are a few trip options; I went with Turismo 21 de Mayo, a company with 50 years experience in the area. Another is Agunsa.
– Bring water proof and weather proof clothes. It’ll be wet, windy and chilly.
– Services vary, but most outfitters will serve snacks, coffee and soft drinks on board.
*advertised price August 2014

 

Visited in February 2013. Why the delay? For the record, an explanation is here.

 

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  1. Maralee says

    Loved this post. This is an area that I would love to visit some day. Absolutely gorgeous.

    1. Bob R says

      Thanks, Maralee, glad you enjoyed. 🙂 It is sensational.

  2. Jennifer says

    These are beautiful photos. The penguins are my favorite. Chile is definitely on our list and visiting some the glaciers will be on our agenda when we make it there.

    1. Bob R says

      Thanks, Jennifer. It’s such a vast and varied country. I’m sure you’d thrive there.

  3. Valen-This Way Paradise says

    Your pictures are amazing. I can’t even fathom seeing this in person. And, I love the idea of a pisco sour served with glacial ice!

    1. Bob R says

      Thanks Val – yes, it was an extraordinary trip. The Pisco Sour was a very nice touch. I’ll never forget my first. 🙂

  4. Freya says

    Fjords, glaciers, blue sky … it is like a dream. It’s most definitely on my list and I really hope to get there one day. Your photos are breathtaking. The one from the King Cormorant Colony is my favorite

    1. Bob R says

      Thanks – I hope you do to, I’m sure you’d love it.

  5. I haven’t been to South America yet, but I’m hoping next year will be the year. Absolutely gorgeous photos.

  6. axelle says

    The penguins are really beautiful and so are the mountains, I hope one day I’ll be able to see them but with the current climate issues I’m not so sure whether that’s realistic 🙂

    1. Bob R says

      Those are cormorants, actually. They take over this rock in December, Jan and February of each year.

  7. Mindi @ 2foodtrippers says

    What an amazing experience to see the glaciers, and your photos are breathtaking. I’m curious if the runoff water tastes as pure as I’m thinking.

    1. Bob R says

      I didn’t try it. But the woman in the picture wasn’t complaining. 🙂

  8. Bonjournal says

    There are so many places in Chile to explore. We’ve been before, but I definitely want to return.

    Great photos. Looked like a really fun trip.

  9. Marie-Carmen says

    That really is on my “to do list”, a glacier… It has got something so beautiful and peaceful…
    120USD isn’t such a bad price either I guess for that kind of experience!

    Thanks for sharing! The photos are great and love the selfie! Keep the “adventurer” beard, that goes well with the post!

    1. Bob R says

      Thanks – I did keep it for a while. 🙂

  10. Raphael Alexander Zoren says

    Everything is better with pisco sour 😀

    Great photos, Bob!

  11. Marcia says

    It’s definitely worth the price, Bob. Such incredible views – loved your videos as well – are priceless.
    Love the new look of your blog as well.

    1. Bob R says

      Thanks Marcia!

  12. Karen Warren says

    Lovely pictures. I’d love to see condors – they must be magnificent.

    1. Bob R says

      They are. They’re also kind of on the ugly side as birds go, but still quite majestic.

  13. Els says

    Wow, Bob, what a post! Words fail!!!! Last sound? Looks more like “last frontier!” + 120$ doesn’t seem exaggerated at all! Plus a bbq and pisco sour? I’m in!! 🙂

    1. Bob R says

      Thanks and yes, me too. I’d be happy to do it again. 🙂

  14. Kaspars Misins says

    Mountains, mountains, mountains,… I want to be there. Great photos!

  15. Wow, your photos are amazing! And you are completely right, most people (including myself unfortunately) just rush to go to Torres del Paine from Puerto Natales and miss all this beauty…

    1. Bob R says

      I did the opposite: I skipped Torres del Paine (although that was largely due to a stomach bug that told me that camping would be a bad idea 🙂 )

  16. Lauren says

    I absolutely loved this post and saved it for future reference on my Pinterest and Evernote account as I would LOVE to go here! It is sad that it is disappearing and I really hope that I can see it in my lifetime. The views are awesome. I’m also going to be subscribing to your Youtube account, great videos!

    1. Bob R says

      Thanks, Lauren – very much appreciated.

  17. Natasha Amar says

    Gorgeous photos! The views are fantastic. Reminds me of my New Zealand travels, where I saw fjords and glaciers for the first time. Needless to say, I was completely blown away!

    1. Bob R says

      Thanks, Natasha, very glad you enjoyed. 🙂 I’ve heard nothing but great things about New Zealand – looking forward to making it there one day.

  18. Rand says

    Awesome! Just put this on my bucket list when I visit South America this year.

  19. Susan says

    Penguinos!! Love the photos and the tips. I will be living in South American starting in October, so the glaciers have been on my list.

  20. Jessi says

    You know, I was just having a conversation with someone about how I really wasn’t all that well-informed on activities that are available as you near the southernmost areas of South America. Now I definitely have something to put on my list. Gorgeous pictures, though it’s sad what’s happening to the glaciers. It can be a little shocking to see the impact of climate change with your own eyes.

    Thanks for linking up to #WeekendWanderlust!

  21. Milosz Zak says

    What a hike! Did you notice that the air changed? Did it feel thinner the further up you went? I don’t know the height of those mountains above sea level, but I would imagine it would have tasted crisp and fresh.

    1. Bob R says

      It was actually a very easy hike; the only hike involved was just over a kilometer to the Serrano Glacier.

  22. Chris Boothman says

    The Estancia Perales looks absolutely stunning and I want to go there right now after seeing this photo tour! But when you combine this with all of the other images that you have included, well you have really sold the reader to this part of the world. I can imagine that this was a really strenuous but worthwhile hike!

    Thanks for linking up with us for #WeekendWanderlust! If you don’t mind including our badge for future link-ups that would be greatly appreciated as we are always looking to spread the word of this inspirational series 🙂

    1. Bob R says

      It was actually quite an easy hike, only about a kilometer as mentioned.

      Sorry – will add the badge next time. 🙂

  23. Great photo’s Bob. I had never heard of Puerto Natales, but I will make sure not to miss it when I visit Chile. Those glaciers look stunning!!

  24. Stacey Veikalas says

    This place is really amazing. It is for sure a place I want to go someday when we leave Europe. The water and glaciers are so gorgeous. Adding to the bucket list now!

  25. Dave Cole says

    Pisco sour chilled with glacial ice is now on my bucket list of cocktails. These glaciers really do provide a stunning array of colors and natural beauty. Your captures remind me that I need to see them while they’re still around.

  26. Brad Frankel says

    Looks incredible and as always amazing pics…hope you enjoyed the Pisco sour 😉

  27. Claudia says

    All I want to say is WOW! I have been to Torres del Paine and thought that was it in terms of Patagonia Chilena. Obviously not. It looks like a second trip is needed!

  28. Emily says

    The Chileans will argue that they created Pisco, however it was definitely the Peruvians! Regardless, it tastes amazing! I love these pictures – so beautiful.

  29. Tracie Howe says

    This is such a spectacular area of the world! How great that you got to experience it in this way.

  30. Anne Klien says

    Lovely pics I want to go there 😉

  31. Em says

    Mountains, Glaciers and incredible views. What’s not to like? Great photos 🙂

  32. Ashley @ A Southern Gypsy says

    I feel like South America is one of the regions that I’m as equally uneducated about as I am excited about. I love your posts about your time there because I always learn about new things I want to see or do. Gorgeous photos as always! Thanks for linking up to the #WeekendWanderlust!

  33. Jessica says

    Bob, these are STUNNING photographs! I recently located to Bolivia and after 2+ years living and traveling throughout S. America I STILL haven’t made it to Chile. This pretty much seals the deal, I am itching to go! How long was the trip? Cheers!

    1. Bob R says

      There’s no rush, you’ll get there. 🙂 Enjoy Bolivia while you’re there. There’s plenty to enjoy. 🙂

  34. Anne Klien says

    I love the glaciers …beautiful pictures

  35. Sumit Surai says

    Breathtakingly beautiful place and stunning photography too! At the same time it feels sad that glaciers all over the world are receding.

  36. Keith Yeung says

    I’ll admit it, I’m not really a outdoors kind of person. But after viewing your post, those glaciers seem to look pretty inviting to me. Great work on both the photos and narration =)

  37. Asif Algur says

    Yet another wonder fading away. I wish I could go there especially after seeing the pictures of the tourist drinking straight from nature. I’m sold on the pristine state of the glaciers. From you describe about the journey, the money spent seems to be a bargain rather than an significant investment (but it is a significant investment in the human experience).
    Bob, could you post about India? Any place will do.

    1. Bob R says

      Thanks and will be happy to post about India. As soon as I visit. One of these days. 🙂

  38. Jean Reinhardt says

    What a trip! Those photographs are beautiful and I loved the videos.

    1. Bob R says

      It really was excellent. HIGHLY recommended. 🙂

  39. FloC says

    I was there November 12 this year. What an amazing
    experience. So beautiful, it’s emotionally overwhelming journey. # I travel the world in pursuit of mighty dreams

  40. paula graham says

    what a fabulous part of the world…if I was younger I would move heaven and earth to go there with my camera. Thank you for directing us back to this marvellous adventure you took.

  41. Leonardo S Becerra says

    Wow looks amazing! Always wanted to visit a Glacier National Park. I’m going to New Zealand in July but unfortunately won’t be seeing the glaciers there.

  42. stylishtravlr says

    wow the videos and the photos looks amazing! I have never been in South America before but I would love to go and see places like that! Beautiful !

  43. promisemaxwell says

    Can’t get enough of the photos, they really look amazing. Watched your Balmaceda Glacier video, makes me wanna be there already. Thanks for sharing the beautiful post!

  44. Gonçalo says

    You are such a good photoprapher! Congradulations! The sceneries are also gorgeous! I have never seen a glacier in my life but I want so much to as soon as possible. There is no architect like Mother Nature!

  45. Elaine Schoch says

    Beautiful photos! It sounds like an amazing experience…

    1. Bob R says

      Thanks — it was, truly a sensationally beautiful corner of the planet.

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