Blue Ice & Depth Charges ~ Perito Moreno Glacier

14 March, 2018

I could barely contain my excitement as we boarded the Always Glaciers tour bus, anticipating our third national park, Los Glaciares National Park, and one of Argentina’s most visited destinations, the Perito Moreno Glacier. Rain clouds teased overhead but I was remaining cautiously optimistic that the Argentina rain gods would be kinder to us. Weather is so fickle here in Patagonia, so no use expending negative energy worrying about that which I couldn’t control.

El Calafate is famous as the base for visiting this glacier and the southern sector of Los Glaciares National Park, the largest national park in Argentina. The park has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has 47 large glaciers being fed by a giant ice cap in the Andes, and 30% of its mass is covered by ice. This is the world’s 4th-largest ice cap, excluding Antarctica, Iceland, and Greenland.

The sky cleared as we paid our entrance fee to the park. I was encouraged as I had read that Perito Moreno tends to be more active in sunny weather. We were hoping to experience calvings off the face of this massive beauty.

There are several ways to see this gal – from her many boardwalks, taking a one-hour boat ride along part of her stunningly blue face, or trekking across. Try as I might before our arrival, I could not convince any of the tour companies to allow Terry to trek on the ice, their age limit being 65, and no exceptions due to the insurance they carried. 😦 We opted to stay on the boardwalks as we felt our chances of seeing calvings might be greater.

Not the largest glacier in the park but the one with star quality, Perito Moreno upstages twice-as-long Glacier Upsala, who has picked up much more debris during her advance and is not the brilliant blue that characterizes Perito Moreno.

Unsullied Perito Moreno, a jagged mass of crevasses and knife-edged seracs, is one of only two advancing glaciers in all of South America, crawling forward at a rate of ~ 2 meters per day. Most of the massive glaciers cloaking the spine of the Patagonian Andes are retreating in response to global warming, according to Andrés Rivera, a Chilean glaciologist, all except for Perito Moreno and Pio XI in Chile.  Perito Moreno, at  30 kilometers long and 5 kilometers wide, overshadows all else, sitting in the largest of Argentina’s lakes, Lago Argentino. Over 50% of her bulk sits below the sea, for a total combined height of ~ 170 meters.

Over millennia, untold numbers of storms have deposited countless meters of snow, compressing this glacier into what we see today. As the ice pushes across the channel of Lago Argentino, a massive dyke of ice cuts off the Brazo Rico arm of the lake from the main body. The water pressure builds until the natural dam can no longer bear the weight, resulting in an explosion of ice and frigid water that rushes into the lake’s main glacial trough, flooding everything in its path, including El Calafate. This phenomenon has occurred fifteen times during the 20th century, then from 1988 until March 2004, silence.

There was an arch over this section until two days before our visit.

On March 14, 2004, the dam gave way, releasing an avalanche of water and ice, a fitting metaphor for the flood of tourists who invaded El Calafate in hopes of seeing this event. It is said that those lucky enough to witness such a spectacle have found it to be one of nature’s most awesome sights. The last event of this type occurred just two days before our visit. Although this would have been the ultimate, the 14-meter wall of water that descended upon El Calafate is the reason the Laguna Nimez Bird Sanctuary was closed due to flooding. 😦

As if acknowledging our sadness at the loss of seeing all those feathered charmers, Perito Moreno stepped up and performed mightily the day of our visit. From our boardwalk perch, we listened for the sound of the glacier calving. Once you hear a sound that resembles a small cannon, get prepared for the show. Camera should be on-the-ready or you’ll miss blocks of ice, weighing hundreds of tons, detonating off the glacier’s 74-meter face, crashing into what has been dubbed “Iceberg Channel” below. These frozen depth-charges trumpet the forming of a new iceberg.

And the walls came tumbling down! Terry captured this on video. 🙂

These massive calvings occur several times daily and we were fortunate to see several during our few hours on the viewing platforms. Imagine pieces of a 24-story building being blasted away by a small cannon and this is the sound you hear. Terry got some great video footage, but internet will not allow me to upload it at this time. I see another Perito Moreno post in my future. 🙂

Gateway to Los Glaciares National Park ~ El Calafate, Argentina

12 March – 16 March, 2018

Overcast and misty, we bid adieu to Puerto Natales. Putting her in our rear-view mirror, we set our sights on our next destination, El Calafate, and another stamp in our passport – Argentina.

We boarded Bus Sur bright and early for our 5-hour ride and as daylight approached, we discovered the sun and the promise of a beautiful day. We passed by guanaco, rhea, and even a couple of little grey fox. Most of the time we’ve seen the wildlife through our steamy bus windows, but, even if I’ve no photos to remember them by, we are still seeing them.

We pulled into the bus terminal, booked a couple of future bus rides, then hopped in a taxi and were whisked off to America Del Sur, our hostel for the next 5 days. We were greeted warmly; all the staff spoke English; and once settled, it was time to find a doctor to remove the duct tape and examine my finger.

The hostel manager, Patrick, said the hospital is the only place to go as they have a clinic within it. He offered to take me there, as he was concerned about our ability to communicate my needs to a Spanish-speaking doctor. We didn’t want to inconvenience him, so he wrote a brief note instead. A 20-minute walk later and we were checking in at the hospital. Consulting with a nice doctor, x-rays, and a splint cost a mere $40. 🙂

We were some of the oldest guests at America Del Sur but we felt totally comfortable. The constant hum of young, international voices was exhilarating. We met some remarkable young men and women: Julia from Moscow, Stella from LA, currently studying in Buenos Aires, Benjamin and Amil from Australia, to name a few.

Breakfasts were plentiful, the on-site restaurant served great meals, and the beer was quite tasty. The large floor to ceiling windows in the common area looked out over the lake, as did the view from our room. Knowing we had given ourselves a couple of extra days in El Calafate to chill, leisurely explore the town, and allow me time to write, kept a perpetual smile on my face. And with some sun in the forecast, life was good!

I had hoped to visit Laguna Nimez Bird Sanctuary on the outskirts of town, said to have over 100 species of birds that visited or made this their permanent home. Unfortunately, it was closed due to flooding, caused by the very glacier we were planning to visit – Perito Moreno (more on that later). To say I was disappointed was an understatement, as I wanted to see the unique feathered beauties from this part of the world.

Most of the towns we have explored to date in South America have found us looking like the pied piper as we strolled through town, collecting stray dogs along the way. Many don’t look emaciated or as if theirs is a hard life lived fighting for scraps. Perhaps some are just out for their daily stroll, like us. But they all seemed to have an invisible line they refused to cross and once we stepped over it, they were lost to us, until El Calafate that is.

The day we walked across town to see the flood damage at the bird sanctuary found us collecting yet another stray, but this one stayed with us all the way back to the hostel. He was adorable and we found ourselves wanting to stick him in our luggage, along with a beautiful little kitty we found begging at the window to be let inside.

I expected El Calafate to be a quaint little town but was quite surprised when we entered downtown and found a bustling town filled with boutique shops, outdoor gear stores, lovely cafes, tour companies, and a casino. El Calafate is the poster child for the tourist boom in Argentina, with the population more than doubling in a decade, increasing real estate prices, surely a double-edged sword for the locals. The population now hovers at 25,000. We enjoyed our wanderings almost as much as America Del Sur.

We had only one big adventure planned when we arrived in El Calafate, a visit to Perito Moreno Glacier, and the day had finally dawned. More on that later, as it deserves its own post.