Patagonia – the great unknown. Unrivalled wilderness.
A place to discover yourself and leave the rest of civilisation behind. Or so the guide books say. Contrary to popular belief there’s actually a ton of people in Patagonia. Mostly wearing brand new brightly coloured adventure wear. Now there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. We just imaged something a little bit, well, less neon.
We had two days in El Chalten to cover the Mount Fitz Roy Hike and then a day and a half in nearby El Calafate to visit the Perito Moreno Glacier. Both of these feature on every essential Patagonia list and so we obligingly added them to the beginning of our two week itinerary.
El Chalten is the gateway to Patagonia proper. Here you’ll find the craggy mountains featured on the front cover of the ‘Lonely Planet’s Patagonia edition’. It’s a tiny town with one street comprising of wood cabin style shops, bars and restaurants, mainly catering to the fly in fly out crowd.
If you forget your tent pegs you’ll find a shop (or three) that’ll gladly sell you spares, for a small fortune. In fact you can by most things here but be warned it’ll cost you dearly for the privilege. On the flip side the scenery in every direction is incredible and all around is the freshest air you’ve ever had the pleasure of inhaling. Plus the hikes are free. And this is what it’s all about.
Harden Up, Son.
Only a fool would manage to twist their knee the day before arriving in one of the worlds premier hiking destinations. Turns out I am that fool and we found ourselves wondering whether we’d have to call the whole hiking thing off. In the end we decided we’d come this far and would probably never be in Patagonia again. So, as my dad used to say – boy, drink a cup of concrete and harden up. Parenting 101 right there. Luckily I found some walking poles for hire in town and loaded up on ibuprofen. We’d be attempting the shorter, flatter 11km version rather than the more picturesque 26km advanced version. I was fine with that.
The hike itself was pleasant, gently inclining with native lenga trees covering the hills. It’d been raining the few days previous so the trails were still muddy. It wasn’t particularly cold and kind of reminded me of a mountainous Lake District on a leafy autumn afternoon.
Now you see it, Now you Don’t.
However once we broke through the forest Patagonia turned on the magic. In the distance the rock spires of Cerro Torre towered over the glaciers, their summits just visible through the clouds. Climbers come from all over the world to take a shot at this, which seems mental when looking up from the trail below. We looked in awe at the towers before they promptly disappeared behind a thick grey cloud. And there it stubbornly remained for the afternoon.
Ripping up the Guide Book.
At around the halfway mark we realised the Lonely Planet guide had miscalculated the distance by around 8km. So it ended up being an unexpected 18km trek there and back. I hobbled along using the hiking poles more like crutches and probably not being the most affable of walking partners. The Laguna Torres viewpoint was pretty good, but not as stunning as it’d been given praise for. I think it would have been better had the sun been out, or if I wasn’t limping along. But (today at least) it looked nothing like the picture on the front cover of the Lonely Planet. Cest la vie!
The next day fared a lot better…Perito Moreno Glacier.
Picked up at 8am we loaded onto our bus for the hour and a half journey to the Glacier Nacional Parque. Here is where we’d view the famous Perito Moreno Glacier, one of Argentina’s premier tourist attractions. Scientists aren’t quite sure why, but this is one of only three glaciers in the world that is actually growing rather than receding due to global warming. It covers a distance of 97 square kms across a 19 km width making it truly enormous. Every day it grows approx two meters but sheds ice into the sea keeping it fairly stable.
Patagonia ain’t cheap and the national parks are no different. A cool 500 pesos ($32USD) got us entry into the park which was double the price from the previous week. It seems the powers that be we’re trying to fill their coffers as much as possible before the end of the tourist season. That meant we didn’t have enough money for the boat ride we’d planned on, but we needn’t have worried.
As you arrive in the park you’re pointed in the direction of a series of wooden walkways with platforms or balconies that give you an increasingly close up view of the glacier itself. It’s a sight to behold from afar but as you get nearer you truly realise what a giant of nature this actually is. The walkway is modern and well maintained and you can at least appreciate where that steep entrance fee has gone.
Finding Your Own Space.
There’s a lot of people visiting each day but the length of the walkways and the variety of routes mean that you can mostly find a spot for yourself. We found a few benches looking down over the ice field probably a few hundred meters away. I can hands down say that it was the best picnic spot we’ve ever eaten lunch at. When you get closer it’s not just the visual impact of such a stunning and unusual site that strikes you but the auditory as well. The whole thing is alive, each movement in the ice producing a thunderous crack. As we sat eating our packed lunch small blocks of ice would tumble from the ice turrets above and crash into the sea below with a massive splash.
The Main Event.
We’d been told that in the afternoon the sun heats up the glacier and we might be lucky enough to see one of the larger shards break from the face. This causes a mini tsunami in the icy water below and leaves tons of ice debris floating in the channel. Liz and I spotted a bit we thought looked ripe for cracking and positioned ourselves opposite for a while. The sun was getting stronger and smaller pieces had been falling from around the area we had our eye on.
After a while a guttural crack seemed to come from deep inside the glacier. It felt like it took forever to break and gave us time to get out our cameras. Slowly the piece we’d marked as a possible breaker began to lurch forward. First one towering shard fell down and then immediately after another. The creaking noise and almighty splash it made was huge. The small crowd all cheered at having witnessed something special and we were lucky enough to get the whole thing on video.
We were told by one of the rangers it was one of the largest breakers they’d had in a while. Afterwards we made our way back to the bus via the small cafeteria and warmed up inside. I can honestly say it was one of the best natural wonders we’ve witnessed in our entire trip and well worth the visit. Despite the high cost of the bus and entry to the park, seeing it up close like that made it all worthwhile.
Five Facts about Glacier Perito Moreno.
- It’s one of 48 glaciers that make up the Southern Patagonian Ice Fields
- Its’ a remnant from the last ice age 18500 years ago.
- 32 people have been killed since 1968 because they got too close to the falling shards.
- It’s been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1981
- Glacier Perito Moreno is the worlds 3rd largest reserve of fresh water.
How We Did It.
Bus from Bariloche – El Chalten (24hrs) $150 USD(!)
Bus from El Chalten to El Calafate (5hrs) $29 USD
El Chalten – Lo Di Trivi Calafate – $18 USD for dorm bed.
El Calafate – Cambalache Bed and Beer – $12.50 for dorm bed. (cheapest in town by miles!).
Perito Moreno Glacier:
Bus booked via Cambalache hostel in El Calafate.
Cost – Bus $30 USD,
Entry to Park – $32 USD
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