Perito Moreno Glacier

Trip Start Mar 29, 2010
Trip End May 24, 2010

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Flag of Argentina  , Patagonia,
Thursday, April 15, 2010

Upon crossing the border back into Argentina, Monique and I had one thing on our mind.


Coffee is an institution in Argentina, perhaps a testament to the Italian influence in the country. Cafes are abundant, and it's easy to find anything from a basic drip to a triple macchiato latte-whatever.   In Southern Chile though, there's only one option – Nescafe instant.  And while coffee canisters have the word "suave" (smooth) on their labels, I can assure you it’s anything but.    So when we pulled into El Calafate, we headed straight to place where we could get a decent cup of joe.

El Calafate itself is bit of a contradiction.  Situated on a huge lake in the Patagonian steppe, the city is dry and dusty (lots of brown and dry dirt lawns).  The rate of construction and city planning seems haphazard, sprawling, and unsustainable – but eco-tourism is the bedrock of the local economy.  Hippies and wealthy second-home owners live side-by-side.  But we weren’t here for the city; we came here for the glacier.

And the coffee.

El Calafate’s claim to fame – aside from being the locale of a vacation home for past two Argentine presidents, who happen to be married to each other – is the Perito Moreno Glacier.   Located about 80 kilometers from the city, the Perito Moreno glacier is one of the most accessible glaciers in the world.  While not the largest in Patagonia, the glacier is still massive, measuring – five kilometers wide at the face by thirty kilometers long.  There are well constructed walkways that offer multiple vantage points, and you can even trek across the top the glacier itself.    Which is why we were here – we signed up for a tour called the "Big Ice" which promised three to four hours of ice trekking.

We arrived to the glacier shortly after sunrise (around 8:30), and spent an hour making our way through the viewing walkways.  During the summer high season, these walkways can be packed making the glacier-viewing experience rather unpleasant.   Since we were visiting in the low season, however, our tour group consisted of the only people on the walkways, which made for an intimate glacier-viewing experience…if viewing a glacier can be considered an intimate experience.

The Perito Moreno Glacier is rather dynamic, as far as glaciers go.  It “only” takes three hundred years for snow to fall, compress into ice, and make its way to the face of the glacier.  By contrast, the ice in some of the glaciers on the Chilean side of the Andes is tens-of-thousands of years old.

As a result of this dynamism, it is not uncommon to witness large chunks of the glacier fall off – or “calf” – into Lago Argentina.   While at the viewing platforms, we heard numerous instances of what sounded like thunder.  By once you hear the ice fall, it’s too late.  Unless you are very close to the glacier, the ice is already in the water by the time you hear the sound.

We were very lucky, however.   As our tour guide had our entire group looking at the face of the glacier to point out a feature of the glacier, a massive chunk separated from the glacier wall and fell into lake.  It seemed to happen in slow motion.   Everybody gasped.  As the ice hit the water, we heard a loud roar – the delayed sound of the ice separating from the glacier wall. 

I didn’t fully appreciate the size of the ice chunk that fell until I saw size of the wave that it created.  A wall of water rippled down the base of the glacier wall which reminded me of a mini tsunami.   There must have been tons of ice that fell into the water.   After ninety seconds of collective gawking, our group continued along the walkway, where we took a boat to the base of the glacier to begin our ice trek.

Before we could begin trekking on the glacier, we had to hike.  We walked for a little over an hour, over hilly and moderately strenuous terrain alongside the glacier, at which point we strapped on our crampons and began our first ice trek.

According to our guides, this section of glacier was compact ice with no snow cover.  Because of the absence of snow and the sturdy ice, there was no risk of hidden crevasses and other lurking glacier-related dangers (so they said), and no need for us to be tied to one another with a rope like you see on the Discovery channel or in the movies.  Though, this fact didn’t stop us from making multiple “cut the rope” jokes.

After a brief tutorial on walking on glacial ice – you need different approaches for walking up, down, and horizontally across the contours of the ice – we began our trek.

The top of a glacier is a rather unworldly place.  In some respects, it was like what one would imagine the surface of the moon to be like – plenty of divots, holes, small craters, small mounds and hills, completely devoid of life.  In other respects, it was remarkably varied - there were streams carving out lines in the ice, pools of water that resembled small azure lakes, waterfalls cascading into the bowels of the glacier, small crevasses running hundreds of feet deep, and all sorts of different types of ice.  Some of the ice was slushy and dirty, while other parts of the ice were smooth and slick – and multiple gradients in between.  

Of course, during my first hour on the ice, I wasn’t thinking of any of this.  I was totally consumed by doing my best not be “that” gringo who fell flat on his ass on top of the glacier.  

The trek itself was remarkable, even if I couldn’t appreciate it entirely at the time.  We walked in a loop across the middle of the glacier, covering about six or seven kilometers over the course of three hours of so.  We were the only people on this part of the glacier, which added to the “other world” feel of the day. Despite my concerns of tripping and making a fool of myself, it only took about 15 minutes to adjust to the crampons and feel comfortable walking across the ice.  (See the video of Monique below). Mercifully, the weather held and we enjoyed some rather rare and spectacular views across the glacier.  It was a truly unique perspective, and one that I enjoy more and more as time passes.

At the end of trek on the ice, our guides assisted us with some creative photography that accentuates Monique’s more adventurous spirit.  While we did not do any actual climbing of ice walls, you won’t know it from the final picture in this post.

On the boat-ride back to our tour bus, our tour guides handed us “Famous Grouse” whiskeys served over 200 year-old glacial ice.  A fitting end to the day.

Traveling Notes

There is only one company that offers ice-trekking on the Perito Moreno Glacier.   There are two options “mini-trekking” and the “Big Ice.” The main difference between the two outings is the length of time that you are on the ice and where you do the trekking.

For the mini-trekking, you trek on the ice for about 90 minutes to two hours, right near the face of the glacier.  The tour groups are larger, multiple tours run throughout the day, and the cost of the tour is cheaper relative to the Big Ice.

For the Big Ice, you trek in the middle part of the glacier.  To get there you hike an hour or so alongside the glacier and after the hike, you get more time on the ice (about 3 to 4 hours).  While we were there, there was only one tour that ran each day and it was more expensive than the mini-trek. 

In other reviews of these excursions, we read mixed reviews of the guides on the ice.  For our trip, the guides were professional, courteous, attentive, and vigilant.   But who you get on a particular day may be hit or miss.

Finally, we stayed a great hostel – I Keu Ken.   They only have bunk beds, but the place is very clean, fabulous staff, and fantastic common areas.  They can arrange all the tours for you directly.
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Melodi on

Loved the commentary. Spectacular photos!

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