It’s not often you get to see a glacier up close and personal let alone go hiking on one, especially one as grand as the Perito Moreno Glacier. Towering icy structures, fed by snow all year around. Growing, moving, twisting and bending under the immense pressure. Thunderous sounds of ice crashing into lake Argentina causing tidal waves that could wipe out boats nearby. This is what you experience once you pick your jaw off the ground after marvelling at the enormity of this wonder.
Situated in the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, The Perito Moreno Glacier is one of 43 glaciers in the region and only one of three in the region that continue to grow. Just over 70km from the town of El Calafate, this living beast is over 70m in height from water level, 5km wide and over 30km long. Despite the crook knee I sustained in El Chalten, I still wanted to do the trek on the glacier. There are two types of tours on offer when it comes to the glacier trek: A mini trek that lasts a few hours and a full day trek which is over 5 hours. As much as I wanted to spend a full day on it, I had to be cautious and opt for the mini trek.
El Calafate is named after the indigenous plant that grows in the area and is the symbol of Patagonia. It’s an evergreen plant which bears fruit in the spring and is harvested for the production of jams. As we drive past Lake Argentina, we spot icebergs floating on the water which apparently take up to eight months to melt. The bus ride takes about an hour to get there and pulls up by the wharf where we’re greeted by the ferry which will take us to the southern end of the glacier for our hike.
During the ferry ride over, there are plenty of opportunities take photos if you can withstand the high winds and freezing temperatures whipping off the glacier. We do a pass of the face along the way there and I secretly hope that a huge chunk of ice falls off like you see on the TV shows that produce the huge waves. Alas it doesn’t happy and we finally arrive to the base where we meet our guide and head over to the edge of the glacier where we strap on our crampons and get ready for the hike. At this current time, tiny flecks of snow fall down but there are no snow clouds around. Our guide says that they come from miles away up in the mountains and the winds have blown the flakes all the way down the the lake level.
Despite feeling slightly awkward at first, walking on the glacier is pretty cool. Not many people would say they’ve been able to do it. The surface is quite crunchy below and the proper technique is to walk flat footed and with your feet flared out like a duck, ensuring that you have contact on as much surface area at all times. The glacier is primarily white in colour in the most exposed areas but in the shadows and crevices, they turn the brightest blue in colour.
We walk around for a few minutes at a time and our guide would then stop to give us a few more nuggets of information. The glacier grows due to the 20 metres of snowfall it receives over a 320 day period throughout the year. Over time the snow compacts which creates the pressure that keeps the glacier moving forward. Forward to a point that it has reached land where the lookout point is.
What happens when it reaches land? The point where meets the land is Brazo Rico, the southern end of Lake Argentina. When he glacier is jammed up against the land mass water is prevented from crossing, resulting in the water levels rising. Eventually the erosion from the water causes ruptures in the structure, creating a bridge so that the water can escape from underneath. This phenomena occurs every few years with the most recent one being in 2012.
We continue to traverse across a few more ravines and along the some pools of water. Again our guide explains that it’s caused by the dirt in the glacier. The “dirtier” the glacier, the more heat is absorbed into the snow therefore speeding up the melting process. The process will continue until the pools will become deep enough to merge into an underground well and then drain away underneath. Some of the pools seem frozen on the surface but nobody is keen on testing the strength of the ice.
Afterwards, it’s a short ferry ride back to shore and another pass across the face of the glacier. Again, no ice falls off the sides of the glacier…..nada. The hour leading up to the ferry arriving we could hear the constant cracks and eruptions every 15 minutes or so. Guess I can’ have everything right? In total we have 1 hour to see the Glacier from the various vantage points along the various viewing platforms. Up high above the glacier, you can see just how far reaching it is. It was a clear day so you could see as far as the eye see. Further down you can see it from eye level and use it as the prefect place to relax and wait for the ice to fall off. Further down along the shore you can walk along the shore line, pick up an ice berg and appreciate how large the glacier is.
It’s quite an ordeal to see much in our limited time as there are kilometers of walkway and not enough time. Ideally I would have loved to have gone down to the shoreline to get a view from the waters edge but I would have had to have been a marathon sprinter to be able to do so. So I settled for just spending that time from the main viewing deck which was more than satisfactory.
I’ve previously mentioned that Iguazu was quite the tourist attraction and the main reason as to why I didn’t love it unlike most people. The irony is that at the glacier there are tonnes of tourists that arrive by the bus load each day . An indication of how many people visit the area was with the sewerage system in the restaurant on site being clogged up from the number of people. However, my feelings were still different about this place to that of Iguazu. At Iguazu, everything felt like it was constant and never changed. All day, every day, all year long. However, at the glacier, although things are moving slowly, you could see, hear and feel the life and energy pushing the glacier forward inch by inch. It’s the unstoppable and unpredictable force of nature that I found appealing.
Although the area you can explore is relatively limited, you could spend countless hours here waiting and anticipating the next giant piece of ice crash into the water. My only gripe was that with this particular tour we were only allowed an hour even though we had forked out quite a bit of money to do both the mini trek and spend time at the viewing platform. Overall though, I was still quite impressed with the site.
Other Useful Information:
Getting there: LAN and Aerolineas Argentinas fly into El Calafate. From El Calafate it’s a US$40 (Official rate) and 70km bus ride to the glacier.
Stayed: America Del Sur Hostel. It was 10minutes walk from town but it was set up on a hill with amazing views of the town at sunset. Cost was approx. US$20 (Official rate) for a 4 bed mixed dorm. Comes with breakfast and free WiFi. Everything can be organised at the hostel from tours to busses to your next destination.
Cost (Offical rates): Bus: US$40, Half day glacier trek: US$150 , Entry to the national park: US$25
What to bring: Water, snacks, warm clothing and lunch. It’s very expensive in general for everyday living in El Calafate. Expect to see grocery bills double that to what you’re used to anywhere else in Argentina.
Have you seen the Perito Moreno Glacier or any other glaciers around the world?