Perito Moreno Glacier


matt 120pxThe only reason to visit beautiful, but touristy, El Calafate is to visit the nearby Perito Moreno Glacier. It’s actually just one “arm” of the Hielo Continental Sur, the largest body of ice outside the poles. And while its not the largest, longest, or tallest glacier in the Nacional Parque de Los Glaciares, Perito Moreno is supposedly the most visually impressive for reasons I hope to highlight in this post. Yet, it was the cold that defined today. Glaciers obviously only occur in cold places and while I’ve seen various glaciers in India, Nepal, and Alaska, today was by far my coldest glacier experience. It was also my first experience with Patagonia’s notorious winds. While it was a sunny morning in El Calafate, dark clouds obscured the mountains across the lake and foreshadowed the miserable cold we’d face later in the day.


El Calafate

            It was a two hours bus ride from El Calafate to the glacier. I think it would have been a scenic ride if it weren’t for the clouds and rain. A couple times, windows in the clouds opened up offering nice views of the mountains, valleys, and lake. We stepped off the bus into a light drizzle and fierce winds. It was cold and I’m sure the windchill took the temperature well below freezing. Nonetheless, we came to see a glacier, so we headed down to the glacier observing platforms. Basically, the Perito Moreno Glacier winds its way down from the Hielo Continental Sur, across a portion of Lago Argentino, and connects to the opposite shore. The viewing area is actually a network of stairs and walkways built on the hill/mountainside of the aforementioned opposite shore. It only reached the shore in 1917 and is one of only a few advancing glaciers in the entire world. Enough factoids, back to the cold. We walked down the stairs from the parking lot the first viewing deck, where the sheer size of the glacier surprised us. It was huge and even in the biting cold, we couldn’t help but admire it. It snaked its way down the mountainous valley, although clouds obscured our view of its origins.


All we could see was a massive jagged surface of bluish ice coming out of the clouds. The blue tint (from low oxygen levels) contrasted sharply with the pure-white snow on the mountains. Some of the lower parts of the face were even dark blue, unlike any ice I’d ever seen. The face of the glacier was impressive too, standing at 50-60 meters above the water level.


            The glacier was alive. The sounds of cracking ice constantly echoed across the lake and through the mountains. And a couple times, we saw large pieces of ice break off the face and plunge into the icy lake. By large pieces, I mean anything from the size of large house to the size of large buildings. Towards the end of the day, I even saw several large pillars of ice fall off the face- 50 meter-tall chunks of ice crashing into the lake. Every chunk of glacier that dropped off would produce huge clouds of ice-dust and send out enormous waves. Boats weren’t allowed within 300 meters of the glacier for this reason. Also, the ice wouldn’t float back up to the surface for about a minute, as its descent into the water is often very fast and, thus, deep.

            All of it was fun and interesting to watch, but after about an hour, the weather began to take its toll on us. Our gloveless hands were frozen from holding umbrellas. We didn’t need the umbrellas to keep from getting wet, but to protect ourselves from the rains sting. The high winds turned raindrops, even just the drizzle, into high speed projectiles, bullets that stung any exposed skin. My fingers hurt from the cold, eventually too much to turn my camera on or press the shutter. Plus, it was nearly impossible to take photos anyways, since the increasingly strong wind rendered our umbrellas useless. Joylani and I decided to head back to the “lodge,” the only shelter available. As we hurriedly walked back, it began sleeting and then snowing. Luckily we made it inside just as this weather began.


            Inside, we just stood and tried to regain our warmth. And actually, two Swiss cousins from my Spanish class, Stephanie and Melanie, happened to be travelling around Argentina too and were in El Calafate. We had seen them in town and they were on the same bus to the glacier as us. So we hung with them inside and they gave us some tea from their thermos- smart Swiss people know how to deal with the cold. We also chatted with Mishko, a Slovakian guy who was couchsurfing at the same house as them. He was pretty interesting to talk to, as he was also traveling all around South America and was a fellow hardcore traveler who spoke of future trips and destinations. The only thing I found alarming was that he said the cold and wind here was nothing compared to El Chalten- we’re going to El Chalten tomorrow. After warming up a bit, Mishko and I decided to head back out to see the glacier again, while the girls stayed inside and chatted. The weather had cleared somewhat during the hour and I hoped to get some better shots of the glacier. We walked and chatted for about an hour, while also photographing the ice from various angles and we even saw some big chunks break off the face. All in all, it was a cold day, but we made the most of it because as I said, the only reason to come to El Calafate is to see the Perito Moreno Glacier.

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