San Carlos de Bariloche was to be our next stop after El Chalten. Looking at a map it was clear that there was a lot of empty space between those two places, and we hoped there would be something (anything) around the mid-point for us to break-up the trip. Some Googling revealed the marble caves at Puerto Rio Tranquilo as the most promising option. Unfortunately there is a lack of up-to-date information about these caves online, so I've put together some pointers on how to get there.
What are the Marble Caves?
The marble caves (which include the caves, as well as the Capillas de Marmol - the Chapel of Marble) are a collection of natural marble formations which have been shaped over time by wind and water erosion. They are located a short speedboat ride from the town of Puerto Rio Tranquilo in Chilean Patagonia, which can be reached from either Chile or from across the border in Argentina.
Tourism in the area is nascent compared to other places in Patagonia (especially El Chalten and El Calafate), so things move slowly and sometimes unexpectedly. If coming from Argentina and you don't have your own car, I'd suggesting giving yourself three or four days to get into and out of Rio Tranquilo.
The pay-off for going through the rigmarole of getting there is views such as these:
How to Get to the Marble Caves
We arrived into Puerto Rio Tranquilo via the Los Antiguos-Chile Chico border crossing, originating from El Chalten. This post will cover only this route in detail. You can see from the map below there are a few key towns in the area - Los Antiguos, Chile Chico and Puerto Rio Tranquilo. In broad terms, you arrive in Los Antiguos via Route 43, cross the border to Chile Chico and then take Route 265 and 7 to Rio Tranquilo.
If you're already in Chile (say in Pucon), you can get down to Rio Tranquilo via the Carretera Austral. We ran into a few people doing this with rented 4x4s and vans.
Step One - Getting to Los Antiguos
We took a Chalten Travel bus from El Chalten to Los Antiguos. The bus left El Chalten on a Friday evening (around 7:30pm) and arrived into Los Antiguos at around 8am on Saturday morning. Cal-Tur also run a service between El Chalten and Los Antiguos.
It will also be possible to arrive into Los Antiguos from Bariloche if you are travelling in the opposite direction.
Step Two - Getting to Chile Chico
This is trickier than it was a year or so ago. The Argentinian government has clamped down on Chilean tour and taxi operators entering the country, requiring a US$100 payment to cross into Los Antiguos from Chile. As a result, it doesn't make any sense for taxi drivers to take a US$10 fare (at the most) to cross the border.
The Argentinian border crossing is only a couple of kilometres outside of Los Antiguos and is easily walkable. The office doesn't open until 8am, so if you arrive early into Los Antiguous on an overnight bus you'll have some time to kill.
The map below shows the general layout of the crossing:
From the Argentinian border control office its another 3km or so to the actual border, where you'll see a couple of signs and a small parking area / turning bay. If you manage to grab a taxi in town it will drop you here.
We got lucky here and managed to catch a ride into Chile Chico in a shared van - the driver charged us 2,000 pesos (around US$1.50) to get into town, including waiting at the Chilean border control. The driver was making a few trips back-and-forth to the crossing, so chances are good that you'll be able to snare a ride into town from the border.
Step Three - Getting to Puerto Rio Tranquilo
The van or taxi will drop you off on the main street in Chile Chico. There are a few ways to get to Rio Tranquilo from Chile Chico - the trip is around 5 hours by car so hiking isn't an easy option. Several people we met in town were trying to hitchhike (far more common and safer in this part of South America than elsewhere in the world) but the roads were quiet and they weren't having much luck.
The easiest (but not cheapest) way we found was to take a shared van which leaves from outside the Martin Pescador store on Avenida O'Higgins (the main street in town), next to the supermarket. This option wasn't cheap - 20,000 pesos per person each way (~US$30). Tickets are purchased from the Martin Pescador store (just hang around the van if nobody is there, someone will sort you out) The van leaves Chile Chico at around 11am, so if you choose to walk all the way from the border you'll need to hustle.
The van gets you into Rio Tranquilo late in the afternoon (around 5pm or so from memory), but you'll have a couple of stops along the way. The driver will help you find some accomodation in town - they will usually drop you off at an "affiliated" hostel. If you don't like the look of this option then there are a few other places in town.
This van you rode in on returns to Chile Chico the next day, leaving Rio Tranquilo at around midday (confirm with the driver). This gives you enough time to take a morning cave tour before catching the bus back.
Step Four - Getting a Boat to the Caves
All of the boat tour companies have small offices on the waterfront - you'll see them all as you drive into town. As far as we could tell, all boats offered the same tour for the same price (9,000 pesos per person) and depart between 8am and 9am in the morning. You're out on the water for around 2 hours, ducking in and out of the caves, driving through larger formations and getting up close the main cathedral formations.
Step Five - Back to Argentina
Just reverse the steps you took to get to Rio Tranquilo. The bus will get you back to Chile Chico late in the evening (after sunset), and you can ask the driver to drop you at a hostel. We stayed at Hospedaje Don Luis on Balcamdea, and can recommend it. The next morning you can take a taxi to the border crossing (ask the hostel to help if needed). Like your trip across the border the first time, you'll be dropped off at the actual frontier, from which point you need to walk or hitch into Los Antiguos.
We stayed a night in Los Antiguos as our bus to Bariloche left at 6am, which wouldn't have allowed us to get through the border controls (which open at 8am).
There you have it - an up-to-date guide on how to get to the Marble Caves of Puerto Rio Tranquilo from Argentina!