Located in the Valdivian Forest / Chilean Nothofagus biogeographical region, Laguna San Rafael is an area of highly varied topography and scenic beauty. The area includes the Continental Patagonian Range, the Insular Patagonian Range, the Central Plain and the Patagonian Glaciers.
Laguna San Rafael National Park, located on the Pacific coast of southern Chile, occupies an area of 17,420 sq km (6,726 sq mi) and includes the Northern Patagonian Ice Field.
Created in 1959 to preserve native fauna and flora from extinction, the park is also of considerable scientific interest to volcanologists. Its windswept canyons and numerous lakes make it a popular tourist and recreation center. The park was designated a World Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 1979.
The park comprises some of the higher Andes mountains of Patagonia, such as the Monte San Valentín, Cerro Arenales, Cerro Hyades and Cerro Pared Norte.
One of the park's great attractions is Laguna San Rafael, a fjord more than 10 mi (16 km) long between Península de Taitao and the mainland, into which Ventisquero (glacier) San Rafael flows.
A number of rivers are found in the park. San Tadeo River is located in the Isthmus of Ofqui and flows into San Quintín Bay in the north part of the Gulf of Penas. Also there are various rivers bordering the park, such as the Baker River and the Exploradores River.
Témpanos River connects San Rafael Lagoon with the Gulf Elefantes, the southern part of Moraleda Channel. Presidente Ríos Lake spans the border between the park and Las Guaitecas National Reserve.
Several species of birds find shelter in the park, including black-browed albatrosses, great grebes, black-necked swans and cormorants. The wildlife in this area also include Chilean dolphins, sea lions, marine otters and elephant seals.
The Laguna San Rafael y El Guayaneco Biosphere Reserve (formerly the Laguna San Rafael Biosphere Reserve) is located in the Valdivian Forest/Chilean Nothofagus biogeographical region. It is an area of very varied topography and great scenic beauty.
In 2019, the biosphere designation was extended to include the Continental Patagonian Range with rivers and lakes, the Insular Patagonian Range, the Central Plain and the Patagonian Glaciers. Its total area was increased from 1,742,000 ha (4,304,575 acres) to 5,130,462 ha (12,677,647 acres).
The glaciers feed the Laguna de San Rafael, a large brackish lagoon where there have been past changes of water levels of great scientific interest. It spans four ecological regions: the cold temperate oceanic, the oceanic sub-Antarctic, the oceanic trans-Andean, and the Andean.
The Biosphere Reserve contains high ecosystem diversity. Of the ten plant formations existing in the Aysen Region, seven are to be found in the Reserve:
- High mountain deciduous shrubland
- Aysen deciduous forest
- Puyahuapi Evergreen forest
- Baker mixed evergreen forest
- evergreen coastal shrubland
- Periglacial shrubland
- Messier Canalpeat-bogs and swampy evergreen shrubland
As most of the Biosphere Reserve is coastal, its relevant characteristics are its many estuaries, mudflats, and coastal and beach lands, in addition to a large area of other wetlands, such as peatbogs, swamps, lakes, lagoons and rivers.
The whole of the Northern Patagonian Ice Field is included, covering over 400,000 ha (988,400 acres) with numerous glacier break-offs, with the well-known San Rafael, the main tourist attraction of the XI Aysen Region and one of the most outstanding glaciers in the country.
There is no permanent resident population. The site has a high potential for ecotourism and the whole area is available for scientific research. Priority is given to studies related to management, geology, glaciology, inventory of flora and fauna, vegetation succession, and the ecology of animals of special interest.