Sunday, February 12, 2012

I’d like my whiskey with ice, please!

Not tired of hiking in the mountains, valleys and around lakes in the beautiful Patagonia yet? Well welcome back to Argentina! About 4-5 hours (depending on how fast the border crossing is) north of Chile’s Puerto Natales & Torres del Paine is Argentina’s El Calafate. Yes yes, it's another pretty village with nice shops and restaurants, looks actually more like a ski resort than a South American small town. The night life is pretty busy and there’s big casino in town as well but most people come here to see one more Patagonian natural wonder: the Perito Moreno glacier.

I had a lovely bus ride from Puerto Natales to El Calafate, sitting on the first row to see the beautifully boring Patagonian landscape all the way. At last when the sun set behind the flat Patagonian wilderness I could fall asleep. It was a late at night when I arrived to El Calafate but with the help of my hostel there I had manage to book a tour to the glacier early next morning. 

Nothing - as far as the eye can see

So after another very tired, very early morning wake up, I got on a bus at 7.30 in the morning to get to Perito Moreno. It was one of those “ok this is why I’m here and paying all this money” kind of moments when I got a first glimpse of the glacier. Gorgeus! Massive!

We passed a couple of miradors (viewpoints) before we stopped at the passarellas, balconies that was across the lake from the glacier. I say across the lake but actually there is no lake right in front of the glacier as currently the ice has reached the other side of the Lago Argentino – cutting it in half. So the balconies are smack in front of the ice. Far enough though to give you an amazing view of the 50-60m high wall of ice that goes all the way to a snowy mountain, reaching 80km in length.

You can hear that the ice is alive, it’s moaning and grunting under the pressure. The glacier is advancing two meters every day – the sides are moving slower than the middle part of the ice which is why you hear all the loud cracking. That’s also why the ice has its hills and ridges. I was looking at the huge, sharp hills on the front of the ice – are we going to walk there??

The ice is moving forward quite fast because it is so warm that there is water below the ice – this is one of the warmest places to have a glacier! It’s quite rare to have a glacier you can access by road and that is surrounded by a forest. Most glaciers are in a lot colder places (think Antarctica and Greenland).

At times, in fact many times during the couple hours I spent going around the ice, pieces would fall off with loud bangs, like highly exaturated movie sound effects. Even the tiniest piece (probably in real life the size of a car but would look like a grain of sand compared to the mound that was the entire wall of ice) would make loud bangs on the way it fell down and a huge splash once it hit water. If you heard it, you already missed it, so it made taking a picture or a video of the occurrence quite a challenge.

I had over an hour to walk on the balconies and watch the ice before I would hop on the bus again to take a boat to the side of the glacier. From the boat you had a nice view of the side of the glacier and how a bridge of ice is now forming from the large mass of ice being pushed to the shore across the lake. In a couple weeks or next year (no one knows) the water will erode the bottom of the bridge, making in narrower and narrower leading to the bridge collapsing with a massive ice explosion. This last happened in 2004 and 2008, there was lots of pictures of the explosion and can just imagine the noise – deafening for sure!

Note the boat on the left side of glacier... shows the scale of the ice!
Last look at view from the balconies
Looking at the glacier from the boat
The bridge is forming gradually...
Be careful, 90% of these little floats are under the surface
Update: The bridge did collapse, at least partially, as expected about a month later!! Here's a clip and news story about it.

I knew my tour included a nice breezy walk on the ice. Just an hour or so.. no biggie. But it was more challenging than I thought. First you put on crampons, a piece of metal with spikes on the bottom that are crudely but effectively tied to your shoes – the guides tie them on, very tight but very secure. Then you are split into groups of about 15 people and you are taken care of by two guides that teach you how to walk on the uneven, slippery icy surface, how to get up and down the hills and watch over you when you cross holes, the guides navigate the group through a series of valleys, crevasses and hills. Have a good snack before you head there, you’ll need the energy! But no need to bring water, you can drink the sweetly fresh glacier water from the creeks that are everywhere on the ice.

The density of the ice can be seen in the blue color

Walk carefully: short steps, keep your feet wide, pace yourself...

After the two hours you’ve barely just learned how to walk and climbed many hills, jumped crevasses, peeked into deep holes that go all the way to the bottom. I arrived back to the base of the ice thoroughly exhausted. – and thrilled! The tour was completed with a glass of whisky - with no other than glacier ice. This is the way to finish a hike! :D

My El Calafate stay was sadly as short as all the Tierra del Fuego and Patagonia visits, just two or three days everywhere but I spent altogether over a week in Patagonia so I wouldn’t say it was the shortest of visits and I got to see so much. And on my last night I was yet again reunited with some of my travelling friends: Hanneke who I met in Puerto Iguazu and Buenos Aires arrived just in time for us to have an amazing dinner together. And we joined Thomas and Jean-Paul, who I’ve been crossing paths with since Ushuaia, for drinks in a very quaint bar in town. A nice way to complete my Patagonia excursion :)

How to get to El Calafate? You can fly or bus in very easily, the town well connected considering its size. Hostels, restaurants and tour agencies are abundant. Everybody seem to recommend Hielo y Aventura for the ice treks that are (horribly expensive but) fantastic – or you can take the bus to the balconies to get a view of the ice, that’s lovely too. I’d say go for the Mini Trek like I did, you’ll walk about two hours on the glacier which gets you a good idea of the ice, you hear lots of great information and you’ll enjoy the whisky :P Pack your lunch with you (or ask a lunch box from your hostel, most provide one)! If you’re more adventurous and fit, and have water- & windproof gear from head to toe, you can try the four hour trek on the ice. My city sneakers and semi-windproof gear worked out just fine on the shorter hike (like on all the hikes so far :D)!!

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