El Calafate, like a teenager who has just experienced a growth spurt, is awkward in its newfound popularity. Dusty, wind-chilled streets play host to the lavanderias and locutorios; pizzerias and albergos which have sprung up to cater for the throngs of tourists who come here in search of ‘the politically incorrect glacier’, the one which is still growing in spite of global warming, Glaciar Perito Moreno.
The town may be both unprepossessing and expensive, but neither of these adjectives should come as a surprise, considering its location 50 degrees south of the equator and 2727 kilometres from Buenos Aires. It is the glacier which people come to see and the glacier which warrants ebullient adjectives.
Even their differing names are apt. The town is named after a common Patagonian bush with yellow flowers and blue berries, while the glacier takes its name from one of the country’s great scientists and explorers. A man who is known not by his first name, but by the epithet Perito, which could loosely be translated as ‘expert’. Perito Moreno explored the Andes from Bolivia in the North to Tierra del Fuego in the South (an incredible feat if you consider the terrain and the fact that he was doing this all with 19th century ‘technology’) and in so doing made countless geographical, archaeological and anthropological discoveries. Not least among them was the realisation that Chilean claims about the continental divide were false, thereby settling the two countries’ border dispute and ensuring the current extent of Argentine Patagonia.
Nowadays no mules and little physical exertion are required to visit the glacier. It is located under two hours from El Calafate, and is conveniently viewed both from the hilly lakeshore opposite it and from the boats which navigate the waters of Lago Argentino in front of its face. The view from above allows you to appreciate its sheer size, and the range of its colour spectrum, while seeing it from the boat gives you a sense of its power and magnitude: huge chunks of ice regularly calve from the face and crash into water below, exploding as they do. Think plopping an ice cube into your Scotch, and multiply by a few million.
If none of this is enough for you, it is possible to take part in ice-trekking tours on the glacier itself, although there are times when this (and the boat tours for that matter) will be entirely out of the question…
You see, the glacier is advancing and advancing fast. About five meters per day, to be precise. Add this to the fact that it advances towards a spur on the opposing shore of the lake and you have a geographical event of epic proportions waiting to happen. Every four years or so, the glacier makes contact with this lake shore, creating a dam of ice between two parts of the lake. This dam results in a difference in water levels between these two sections, which in turn builds up pressure and gradually undermines the ice dam. Water forms a tunnel through the dam until eventually the ice forming the arc collapses. This all takes place over a few days, and it is both cacophonous and spectacular.
You would have to be extremely lucky to witness the aforementioned event, but visiting the glacier on a normal day is a life-changing event in itself. Add this to the fact that Vaya Adventures has its guests stay at the charming Estancia Nibepo Aike located along the remote southern branch of Lago Argentino inside the Glaciares National Park, and you have no reason not to include Perito Moreno on your itinerary. Nibepo Aike will give you a chance to experience a true Patagonian estancia, and the log-fires, spit-roast lamb dinners and horseback rides which go with this lifestyle. Who knows, maybe your trip will even coincide with the ruptura…
By Nick Dall