Living Ice

You’d think we’d have had enough of glaciers by now but here we were in a cute little Patagonian town whose sole tourist attraction was a large chunk of ice about 80 kilometres away in the Parque Nacional los Glaciares. Perito Moreno Glacier isn’t the biggest glacier in the national park which protects a whopping 800 glaciers, and it’s not even the tallest, but unlike most other glaciers worldwide it’s not retreating. It’s actually advancing at the same rate that chunks fall off it so it’s basically stationary.

A lot of our time in El Calafate has been spent pointing at birds and going, “What the fuck is that??” I do not know what this is.
This is some manner of ibis. Possibly a black faced ibis.

Anyway. It was not a good night’s sleep. For some reason the hostel, because now we don’t have hideous quantities of money riding on not getting Covid we’re using dorm rooms again, keeps the rooms hotter than the Devil’s arsehole with fancy underfloor heating. It’s unbearable. Then someone’s alarm went off and she fucking slept through it! Her phone was right by her head blasting music, I have no idea how she didn’t wake up. How does she get up for work in the morning? Angry British staring didn’t wake her up either so I had to shake her awake to ask her to turn it off and to add insult to injury, she didn’t even need to be up at 3am anyway. I’m not twitching, you’re twitching.

We’ve also spent a lot of time petting dogs. They’re mostly friendly and cared for with collars and the gall to sprawl out in the street like this.
This is one of the many dogs that hang around a resto bar we like called Mako. Too chilled to even demand we hand over all our food.

Bleary eyed, we dutifully waited outside at 7.15am because that’s what we’d been told. The bus we’d booked showed up at 8am. Is it possible to feel genuine grief at the loss of 45 minutes sleep brutally stolen from you? It did turn out, however, that it wasn’t just a bus we’d booked. We had a tour leader who told us what we were looking at out of the window, first in Spanish and then in flawless English. She was very good, and she did a great job of cheering us up.

A nice view of the Andes from the bus.

She told us at first we’d see dry land full of the calafate bushes, the berry that El Calafate was named after. Legend has it, if you eat this berry you’re guaranteed to return to Patagonia. I’m not going to go around shovelling berries I find on a bush into my chops, not since that time I ate a sloe berry thinking it was a blueberry and spent five minutes Googling if I was going to die or not. Maybe I could find it in a pie or an ice cream or something properly packaged and commercial.

Perito Moreno Glacier as seen from a boat. Bit sexy init?

When trees started to sprout up she told us we were near the national park and sure enough we pulled over at the ticket office to part with the cash. She was also very excited about the weather, the sky was blue with some spectacular fluffy white clouds and the sun was rubbing its hands with glee at the prospect of all that epidermis it was going to claim. She kept telling us this wasn’t normal, that it was usually raining or at least cloudy, that you couldn’t usually see the Andes and she was going to take photos to show her family. She’d also definitely had more sleep than us judging by her enthusiasm but she wasn’t wrong to be fair, the eyehole fodder on the way in was spectacular with mountain views beyond Lago Argentino, South America’s third largest lake and the largest lake in Argentina.

Nothing can really prepare you for this fuck off great big river of ice though. The first stop was at a little ferry port where there was an optional scenic boat ride to gawp at the south face of Perito Moreno Glacier. We did indeed opt for this. Oh my gosh, it’s astounding, at its highest point it soars to 70 metres and from the boat we only saw a fraction of the five kilometre wide face. Five kilometres! That’s huge! We wouldn’t consider booking accommodation that far from town.

Can we tear ourselves away from the ice long enough to actually just appreciate these crazy looking rocks?

It stretched up in jagged fingers of ice. If it were overcast it would look ominous, like the ramparts of the castle of an evil ice lord hell bent on bringing an eternal winter to the land, foiled only by a plucky band of forest folks armed with primitive weapons and, I dunno, love or some shit. They say it’s a one hour boat ride but its more of an hour loiter as close to the face as they can safely get but I think we were all fine with this. They can’t get too close, it’s a calving glacier and no one fancied getting crushed by a tonne of ice. We didn’t see it calve whilst we were on the boat though.

Once that was done we were met again by our tour leader and piled back into the bus to be driven to the main event; the network of boardwalks designed to give you every possible view of the glacier. There are several marked walks you can do of varying lengths and difficulty but you know what? We kind of just wanted to stare at it. Bits were dropping off it and we really wanted to see it calve. It’s constantly cracking and groaning. Crumbs would break off and skitter down the ice face, making tiny splashes below, then larger chunks would fall, hitting the water with a bang that you saw before you heard.

It was a scorcher of a day so you’re stood there absolutely melting and there’s all this jungle then suddenly there’s this random iceberg looking like it got all lost on the way from Antarctica.

And then it happened. First the crumbs, then the boulders, then a larger part came away, then with an almighty rumble a huge section of the face peeled away and crashed down to whoops and cheers from the viewing balconies. Amazing! A section just out of sight seemed to be losing a lot of ice. We moved from platform to platform for different views before settling on one place which had a lot of activity. Just small bits at first, but then in the space of about two hours we saw three good chunks of ice dramatically calve away from the glacier.

The glaciers in Antarctica (because did I mention that we went to Antarctica?) were huge and plentiful and gorgeous, but they were still and imposing. Only a couple of times did we see small sections calve away, or perhaps we’d hear the crack but not see the ice fall. This is the kind of thing we were really hoping to see. The sheer power of it blew us away. Just the noise of it, but by the time you hear it it’s already happened. I guess it’s further away than it looks but without something for scale, how can we gauge distance?

Look at those clouds though!
And the patterns on that mountain!

You’re given plenty of time to do whatever you want, be it walk every trail or just gawp intensely at a wall of ice that may or may not do something. It’s probably going to do something. It’s a living, breathing wall of ice. It grows and it shrinks, sometimes it advances enough to meet the other side of the lake causing water to build up and eventually rupture the ice. You don’t know where to point your face for the best show, and it’s probably one of the most spectacular forces of nature we’ve have the honour of putting in our eyeholes.

Jump to “Useful shit to know…”

Parque Nacional los Glaciares, Santa Cruz, Argentina

Stayed at: Hostel Inn Calafate, El Calafate

Hostel Inn Calafate. It’s nice enough and close to the bus station, a bit of a walk into town though. They insist on keeping the heating on though, it’s unbearably hot and difficult to sleep. There’s also only one ladder between the two bunks so the person on top has to rely on someone passing them ladder. Apart from that the kitchen is fine, showers are great, WiFi works just fine.

Useful shit to know…

  • There are plenty of place in town along Avenida Liberador were you can book a transfer to and from Perito Moreno Glacier.
  • We used Always Glaciers which cost AR$8500 each (US$46 officially, US$26 Blue Dollar) there and back.
  • This includes dropping us at the boat, then collecting us after the boat to take us to the boardwalks.
  • We had absolutely plenty of time to do the boat ride and get our fill of staring at the glacier.
  • Marga Taqsa is cheaper at AR$7000 each but I don’t know if they drop you at the boat too, or just the glacier. You’ll need to ask.
  • There are two boat docks; one is 5km from the boardwalks (our transfer took us there) and has three boats a day at 10am, 12.30pm and 14.30pm. From here you’ll be taken to see the south face.
  • I believe the other dock is at the lower carpark and has boats from 10am to 3.30pm which show you the north face.
  • Boats cost AR$6000 (US$33 officially, US$18 Blue Dollar) for an hour.
  • We were dropped and collected from the upper car park. A free shuttle runs between the lower and upper car parks.
  • The national park entry fee at the time of writing was AR$5500 (US$30 officially, US$17 Blue Dollar). You could pay cash or card.

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