Big Ice – Trekking the Perito Moreno Glacier in El Calafate, Argentina

20 Mar

Perito Moreno Glacier in El Calafate, Argentina

Wow, that title sure is a mouthful.  The thing is, any post about the Perito Moreno Glacier in El Calafate, Argentina deserves such a title because the glacier itself is so huge.

Perito Moreno has been on our South American Must-See list for as long as I can remember.  While it’s not the biggest glacier in the world, it is one of the most accessible and tourists come in droves from all over the world to get up close and personal with this giant hunk of ice.  It measures 97 square miles, and is part of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field on the border of Chile and Argentina.  This ice field is so massive that it contains nearly 1/3 of the world’s fresh water.  It stands at a height of about 250 feet, and that’s just above the lake! One of the most remarkable things about Perito Moreno is that it’s one of the only glaciers on Earth that continues to grow instead of melting away into oblivion.

Close up of the ice formations on the Perito Moreno glacier

There are a million varieties of tours you can take when you visit – everything from boat rides that get you up close to the face of the glacier, to bus/boat combos, to ice trekking tours.  You can also go on your own and take a public bus to the park entrance and spend the day wandering the catwalks.  Despite the fact that we have generally been living like paupers, we decided to go ahead with a major splurge for our chance to spend a day doing some ice trekking.  There’s only one company in town that runs this show (heeellloooooo monopoly!) so we forked over way more cash than we should have, and attempted to go to bed early since we were getting picked up bright and early the next morning.

We were a bit bummed to be greeted with a drizzly morning, but we layered up, grabbed some extra plastic bags for the camera gear, and hopped on the Hielo & Aventura bus at 7:30am.  It takes about an hour to reach the glacier from town, and as our bus rounded the bend to give us our first glimpse of the ice, the driver slowed way down and blasted comically dramatic music to heighten the atmosphere.  We were given an hour to walk around the catwalks and take photos before we boarded a boat for a ride across the front of the glacial lake to where we would get our gear for the ice hike.   After a moderate climb up behind the edge of the glacier we were given gloves and crampons and split into very small groups to begin the trek.

Be careful when walking!

Hiking on ice is fairly straightforward.  Make sure your crampons are on tightly, then lift your feet and smash them down into the ice to make sure you have a good grip.  Keep your feet enough apart that you don’t rip your pants or skewer your own calf, which apparently has happened more than once on these tours.

Our guides were fantastic and took us on a long and meandering path where despite the fact that we knew the other groups must be close, we didn’t see them at all.  The ice is constantly moving, changing shape, melting and re-freezing.  This makes each trip unique, and some features that we saw will have totally vanished in the time it took me to actually get this post up (6 weeks since we visited).

We saw numerous ice caves, including one that was big enough for us to walk inside, though we had to really watch our step because it was split down the middle with a crevice that was easily 20 feet deep.  The inside was perfectly smooth, slippery and so blue that we almost glowed.

Inside the ice cave

An erratic rock on the Perito Moreno glacier

We also saw numerous ‘erratic rocks’, which are rocks that tumble down the mountains that surround glaciers and are then carried by the movement of the glacier.  Eventually, when the glacier is gone, the rocks will remain and appear completely out of place since they are often carried great distances and then deposited in the valleys and flatlands created by the glacier.

It’s a very surreal feeling to be out in what seems like the middle of nowhere on something that is as foreign as the surface of the moon.  The ice changes texture and shape often so there is always something new to look at after walking just a short distance.  The surface is deceptively peaceful since one wrong step can leave you crashing through a thin spot, or slipping into one of the fast moving rivers that form on the surface as parts of the ice begin to melt.  Above all, it’s exquisitely beautiful.

Ice landscape

Top of Perito Moreno glacier

Lunar ice landscape

After tromping around for nearly 5 hours we were completely exhausted and were taken back to the boat landing to begin the journey home.  Much to our surprise and delight, we were given a chocolate biscuit and a healthy glass of Jameson on glacier ice (yes, for real) to finish off the day.

This was easily the most expensive tourist day trip we’ve done so far on our journey, and it was totally worth it.

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Word On The Street
* The Perito Moreno glacier is part of the Los Glaciers National Park in Argentina, about an hour outside of El Calafate.  You can visit parts of the park for free (notably, in El Chalten, Argentina) but you must pay an entrance fee to see the Perito Moreno glacier.  At the time of writing, the fee for international tourists was $100 pesos.
 
* There is only once company that can take you out onto the ice – Hielo and Aventura.  They offer a Mini-trekking tour, which is a half-day trip, or the Big Ice trip, which ended up being a full 12 hours, door to door.  We highly, highly recommend the Big Ice trip if you are fit as it seemed like a much better value.  The Big Ice tour costs around US $175 and the Mini-trek is less, somewhere around US $140.  Prices can be higher if you book ahead with a travel agent, but most hostels will book at the same cost as going directly through the company.
 
* Waterproof shoes are essential.  Waterproof jacket and gloves are a good idea, especially if the weather isn’t being cooperative, though Hielo and Aventura will loan basic gloves if needed.  Crampons are provided.
 
* You’ll need to bring your own lunch, and you’ll eat it on the ice.  Having a bag to sit on is a good idea. 

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For more pictures, take a look at the slideshow below!

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9 Responses to “Big Ice – Trekking the Perito Moreno Glacier in El Calafate, Argentina”

  1. Click. The Good News March 20, 2012 at 7:27 am #

    AWESOME! those are some amazing shots. I’m so bummed we missed this part of our trip. Glad you got to see it though 🙂

    • Ashley March 21, 2012 at 10:18 am #

      You can always go back..and I’d highly recommend it!

  2. Carol Hodges March 20, 2012 at 1:46 pm #

    All I can say is WOW!!!!! This was fantastic, Guys.

    • Ashley March 21, 2012 at 10:19 am #

      Thanks Carol, hope all is well with you and Hugh 🙂

  3. tiger April 9, 2013 at 9:05 am #

    Hi, thanks for sharing.

  4. yuen360 February 4, 2015 at 12:42 am #

    Thanks for sharing. I will be going there early January 2016, and look forward to it. Sad thing is, price now is USD $1500! (Monopoly! See website… It’s listed for that much)

    • yuen360 February 4, 2015 at 1:32 am #

      My bad. Google Translate changed “Argentine Pesos” to “American Dollars”. It’s $1500 Pesos.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. The Argentina Roundup « The Parallel Life - May 28, 2012

    […] Big Ice Tour in El Calafate – Even though we got ripped off by the travel agent who sold us our tour, this still goes down as one of our favorite activities.  It really was worth it, especially if you’ve never been on a glacier.  If the cost is too steep for you, look into a trek on the Viedma Glacier out of El Chalten. Taking a break from biking in Bariloche […]

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