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  • Writer's pictureMarion Marquardt

Glacier expedition on Rio Serrano - kayaking Patagonian river landscapes

Updated: Mar 11, 2023

Alone in the idyllic, green river landscapes of Rio Serrano
Going with the flow – downstream at 15 km/h
Paddling amongst ice in the lagoon of glacier Serrano
Return with obstacles - heavy luggage and rough terrain take their toll

We are still in Torres del Paine National Park. We have already experienced some adventures in this beautiful landscape - a big one is yet to come. We've heard from a few people about the Rio Serrano, a glacial river that meanders through a winding valley before it finally joins a fjord 50km from Puerto Natales. Of course, the best way to explore this landscape is from the water. And so we plan a tour with our own kayak. So far we have only been on lakes, fjords or rather quiet bays in the sea. But why not something new? We study the topography on the map and study the landscape on site. The river has a decent flow. Downstream it should be easy, against the current - no option. Our way back is by foot. A trail leads back from our destination, the Serrano Glacier; in about 27 km. Not an easy undertaking with a kayak on the back. That's for sure!

Torres del Paine Villa Rio Serrano
View of the Torres massif from Villa Rio Serrano

We've been in the idyllic Villa Rio Serrano for a few days, where we want to launch our kayak. For the expedition, we definitely need one day with as little wind as possible. Otherwise it will be a disaster with our inflatable touring kayak. The wind sometimes is so strong that you can no longer tell the direction of the river. We will be toys in the water. Tuesday is looking good, hardly any wind and gusts of no more than 25 knots are announced. This is the best forecast for the coming days. Unfortunately, winds are normal in Patagonia, especially at this time of year. On Wednesday, the wind speed should already double ... And so we prepare our kayak at 6 a.m. The first challenge: loading. We need a tent, sleeping bags, long story short, everything for overnight, plus backpacks for the return. Incidentally, Micha has limited the photo equipment to the bare minimum, not just for weight reasons. From the water we only took cell phone and GoPro pictures. We pack provisions for 3 days. One day for the kayak passage, one for the return. And one more day in case something goes wrong. This is also new territory for us. In addition, the way is unknown. The trail exists on the map, that's all we know.

Here is our route, for you to imagine better:

We're ready to go - both a little nervous. Once in the river there's no way back, the current is too strong. In addition, you cannot land everywhere and have to bushwack your way back. After about half an hour, the first obstacle is in front of us - a waterfall. We know we have to walk around. A jetty helps us to land; then it's time to pack our backpacks and carry the kayak in our hands. It's only about 400 meters. Not far, but with the luggage through dense bushes, it's tough. After we have reloaded our kayak, we lauch once again. At the moment there is hardly any wind and we start to enjoy the ride. Until the next windgust hits us... Always from the front. Imagine that waves 40 cm high are rolling towards us. We cannot avoid having liters of water in our kayak. Well, most things are packed waterproof - including ourselves. And after all, it's only gusts. Usually it looks completely different after about 15 minutes. In front of us we see Tyndall Glacier. However, this is very difficult to reach. We are still more than 10 km away, the terrain is a mix of small rivers and impassable taiga. We refrain from an expedition there.

The Rio Serrano now makes a 90° turn to the south. Here the river seems more sheltered from the wind. Finally we can fully benefit from the current. A wonderful feeling. After a short lunch break on land, we continue. Again and again there are rapids, trees and branches in the water, which we have to avoid. Suddenly a tree trunk appears in front of us. Wait - he dives again. And at once a huge sea lion comes swimming towards us. We are so perplexed that we forget to start the GoPro. The little fellow has probably made a trip upstream from the fjord and is happy to see us. He greets us with a strong belly flop. Anyway, everything is already wet... :-)

Now we go really fast, at around 15 km/h. Our personal paddling record. At around 3 p.m. we reach our destination for the day, the Serrano Glacier. A small pebble beach invites us to land. We'll catch our breath first. Even though it wasn't too physically demanding, we're both a bit exhausted. The tension was too great in unfamiliar terrain – well, waters. Now comes the fun part. We carry our kayak over to the glacier lagoon. Incidentally, there is quite a bit of infrastructure in Puerto Toro. In high season, there is a daily excursion boat from Puerto Natales to the Serrano Glacier, which is situated below Monte Balmaceda. However, we it leaves at 11 am - nobody here at the time of day. There is also a ranger station, but apparently unmanned. We paddle on the lagoon, enjoying the tranquility. Now we can relax a bit. Of course we keep a safe distance from the ice floating around us and the glacier front. The sight of the tons of ice is beautiful. Micha unpacks his camera for the first time. However, no drone pictures, due to too many bad experiences in combination with kayaking :-)

Rio Serrano Serrano Glacier Gletscher Torres del Paine Cerro Balmaceda O'Higgins National Park
Paddling amongst icebergs

After about 2 hours we carry our kayak back. Our luggage is still on the beach. We want to camp near the trailhead. However, it is on the other side of the river, and unfortunately also upstream. The small error in planning could end fatally. We are never ever able to paddle against the current. So, there are two options: Either we take the tourist boat to Puerto Natales the next morning and then the bus back to our car, another day later. Or we walk back upstream along the bank for about 2km, crossing the river with the current to reach the trailhead. We know the boat is $125 per person but includes a whiskey tasting. We think for a moment, but then the fighting spirit and the sense of honor wins. Phew, that's tough. Actually, in our heads we had already finished with the physical exertion for today.

Two hours later we land on the river bank and set up our tent in a clearing. A beautiful place. Except for the many mosquitoes... After dinner we fall straight into bed - exhausted and happy.

The next morning we take it easy. And the logistics also take time. We have to pack or rather squeeze our kayak into Micha's backpack; air pump and tent on top. I need to carry everything else. This will be our heaviest luggage ever. We estimate that it weighs just under 30 kg and a little more than 20 kg. To make matters worse, we forgot our hiking poles. We're used to walk with them, especially for balance and to protect our joints. Well, then the paddles have to serve. As a long-term traveler you develop a sense for versatile purposes :-)

We have 27 km ahead of us. After just a few minutes, we realize that it won't be easy. The terrain leads through dense undergrowth and is completely flooded. Not many people seem to walk here. Probably a gaucho or two, as hoofprints suggest. We find a horseshoe - maybe it'll bring luck!? After a short time, our stomach is growling. Micha starts picking berries. Are the calories worth it? After all, since our >>> stay at the Estancia Mercedes, we know what is edible and what is not. Every step is an effort, and everything is twice as hard with the luggage on the back. We hardly make any progress, at about 2 km/h. Even with the long Patagonian summer days, it becomes difficult if not impossible to arrive in daylight. And now it starts raining heavily. We have reached a large lake. The trail leads along the shore until finally a river flowing into it blocks our way. We are undecided whether it continues on the other side. The GPS app is not clear, the river is not mapped. We are looking for alternatives - without success.

Finally I see a person on the bank in front of a small hut. As we walk there, two boys from Chile are greeting us. They spend a few days off here at the lake. It is an angler's hut that is open for public use. Pure luck. We decide to stay for the night. It's already after 4 pm and we still have 18 km to go. If the terrain stays like this, no chance of arriving. The cabin is very basic and yet has everything you need. Even a small oven, which the boys have already fired up. They started the same day from Villa Rio Serrano, where our car is parked. We ask for directions. And yes, we have to cross the river. After changing our wet clothes, we take a rest. And after our power nap it has stopped raining and the sun is out again. We are realizing what a beautiful place we are. From the hut you have views of the Cuernos and the Torres del Paine. In front of us is Lago Brush, where you can fish for salmon, weighing up to 12 kg. We settle for a soup and pasta that we still have. At least, we have provisions for three days with us, albeit very tightly calculated (Micha packed!). Little oatmeal is left for the next day. Micha's mood keeps sinking. He announces to eat everything he has on hand when he gets home (aka the camper). Finally, I discover a pack of spaghetti in the "left over" box of the hut. Our rescue! Dessert, breakfast and snack in one. And with a little salt and olive oil, delicious. No joke :-)

The next morning we leave earlier. We can't afford to be on hiking another day. And the guys promised us that the path isn't easy... so clear. At 9 am we're ready to go. The river crossing awaits us first. Thank goodness at sunshine. Without a backpack I test the depth of the water. It only reaches halfway up my thighs – easy going.

Rio Serrano Torres del Paine Cerro Balmaceda Serrano Glacier
Marion testing the depth of the water

After the Patagonian Kneipp bath in the morning, we continue. The path leads mostly through forest and bushland. However, it is much easier than yesterday's part - probably because it is more used. We are relieved. After our lunch break at 2pm we still have about 5km left. Let's call it "Endspurt" :-) As usual, it's endless. Back on the river bank, the path becomes again more impassable. Countless times we have to walk huge detours around flood plains. Finally, even an unmapped river flows into Rio Serrano. We walk a few kilometers along its banks until we can cross it.

Finally our car is in sight on the river bank. We rip our backpacks off and fall exhausted in the grass. What a trip! We never thought that the way back would be so hard. Nevertheless, we are so happy we dared doing it. With this experience we finally say goodbye to Torres del Paine National Park the next day and thus temporarily to Chile. We have been in this area for more than two months now. Time for us to travel further north.

Rio Serrano Torres del Paine

Please bear in mind some important hints about the expedition, if you want to do it yourself:

  • The Rio Serrano is part of the Torres del Paine National Park. Therefore you have to pay park entrance (online).

  • For navigation on the Rio Serrano with a boat / kayak you need a permit from the park administration, CONAF.

  • Serrano Glacier is located in O'Higgins National Park, entrance fee and a permit for kayaking are also required here.

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