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Indisputably one of the world's most beautiful natural wonders, the Marble Cathedral of Lago General Carrera is one that most people will never see. This large turquoise lake is in the Patagonia region of Chile and crosses the border into Argentina where it is known as Lake Buenos Aires. The second-largest lake in South America, General Carrera is dammed only by ancient gravel moraines left from the earlier glacial epoch. Shining majestically below Chile's Northern Ice Field, the lake carries a variety of blue and turquoise hues caused by the 'glacial flour' - rock dust - scoured from the underlying rocks as the glaciers slowly expand and recede.
An entire peninsula on the western shore is pure marble; eons of water erosion at the base of the cliffs created the Marble Cathedral. The marble caverns are accessible by small boat and a prized destination of photographers who marvel at the breathtaking array of colors and shadows created by ever-changing sunlight and water levels. The Capilla de Marmol as it is known locally is likely one of Patagonia's best-known destinations, but the difficulty in getting there assures that visitors will never encounter crowds. Adventurous visitors to Lago General Carrera either arrange transportation with their hosts at local fishing resorts or try their luck driving the poor roads over 150 miles from the nearest large city. At times the road is little more than a rude path, more suited for horseback or serious hikers. Small boat tours of the Marble Cathedral are arranged from the small village of Rio Tranquilo. The marble caverns of Lago General Carrera have been named an official nature sanctuary by the Chilean government
The huge lake is 457,145 acres and spans the border between Chile and Argentina. Its only outflow creates Bertrand Lake which becomes the headwaters of Patagonia's Baker River, eventually emptying into the Pacific Ocean. Several villages and towns are perched along its shorelines, the home of less than 500 people. Traveling here amid the glaciers and mountains is difficult by road, but a car ferry plies the water between Puerto Ingeniero Ibanez and Chile Chico on the Chilean south shore. The winds blow nearly constantly across the lake, creating waves up to six feet high; only large boats can navigate the open water safely. In some places, the wind actually blows water into the air. Chilean Route 7, also known as the Carretera Austral, is the main-and in most places-only road on the western shore by which to reach the other towns. A small number of fly fishing resorts provide conventional lodgings, and some towns have a small hotel to welcome visitors.
Lago General Carrera is noted for fly-fishing for trout. Both the large lake itself and smaller surrounding lakes and streams welcome fishermen who practice 'catch-and-release' almost exclusively. The western shoreline is also the best point for accessing the Northern Ice Field glaciers, a hike for the hardy and well-prepared. Those less prepared for major exertion are better suited to remain near the fishing resorts, where some have spa treatments, golf courses and arranged sightseeing tours in addition to fine food and every modern amenity. Two of the best examples of the oldest style of rock art in South America are the Patagonian Art Style examples found near the Ibanez River, towards the north bank of Lago General Carrera, and in the Pedregoso River Cave, located south of the lake and the town of Chile Chico. Estimated to be over 10,000 years old, the rock paintings represent such things as prehistoric human's chief prey, the guanaco, and 'hand' symbols.
The eastern shoreline is more easily accessed across the Argentine Steppe (shrubland ecoregion), where sheep ranches and fruit orchards take advantage of the more moderate micro-climate created by the huge lake. Visitors are more likely to see the unique wildlife of the area from the eastern shore, where small herds of guanaco (a camelid similar to a llama) and South Andean deer can be seen, along with a wide variety of birds and waterfowl.
Near the western shore of Lago general Carrera, the Reserva Nacional Lago Jeinemeni covers almost 400,000 acres and includes two lakes, Lago Jeinimeni and Lago Verde. Impressive cliffs, waterfalls and small glaciers provide habitat for huemul deer, pumas and condors. Access is via an unpaved road, which branches south off the road to Los Antiguos and crosses five rivers, four of which have to be forded. Along the road to the park, there is a small lake, Laguna de los Flamencos, where large numbers of flamingos can be seen. The reserve exhibits examples of several types of climate and geology and is a fine trek for wildlife viewing.
Of current major concern among environmentalists is the proposed plan to install huge hydroelectric dams along the Baker River and the Pascua River. Five huge dams would provide power from Patagonia to Santiago; environmentalists are concerned that the the dams will drown thousands of acres of natural habitat for already-threatened wildlife, and that the altering of glacial flows and the attendant 1500 miles of power lines to be installed will damage both Lago General Carrera and the surrounding glaciers and steppes. Such actions would forever change the natural landscape and negatively impact the lives of the native peoples in the area. Environmentalists hope that the Chilean Government will entertain plans for a different power source so as not to damage this fragile landscape.
A trip to Lago General Carrera requires careful planning. Visitors can arrange lodgings at one of the fly-fishing resorts in the area or plan an extended stay at one of the small locally-operated hotels. Occasionally, private rentals are available, usually for longer time periods. Resorts vary in focus, with some catering to photographers and others to hikers and climbers. Ex-patriots from the United States have already discovered the real estate opportunities near the lake with several building new homes overlooking Lago General Carrera and the nearby glacier. Time is of the essence in order to see the area in all of its unspoiled glory before dams cover much of the nearby lands. So bring your maps and hiking boots and by all means a camera. Visit this unspoiled natural wonder before progress changes it forever.
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