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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!

Antarctica!

27 Feb

Majestic.  Stunning.  Incredible.  Breathtaking.  Spectacular. You could give me a million superlatives and none of them would be quite big enough to describe the beauty of Antarctica.

We’d been tossing around the idea of a trip to Antarctica for months, and we were excited to have met a few fellow travelers who had booked the same last-minute deal as us.  Akio, a single round-the-world traveler from Japan had been sharing a room with us for the last few days in Ushuaia and we ended up with our travel agent from his suggestion.  Kristin and Brian are another married couple from the US who are on a two-year adventure around the world.  We rarely meet other travelling couples from the States and we hit it off with them immediately.  While we were all insanely excited to set out on this adventure, we were also a bit nervous about the infamous Drake Passage, which has some of the roughest seas in the world.  A few hours before we were set to embark, we toasted to our great adventure, and took the first round of Dramamine together.

As our sturdy ship, the Antarctic Dream, left the docks and sailed off into the sunset, I gorged myself on the first of the many fantastic three-course meals we would enjoy over the next 11 days.  We were told that we’d be hitting the Drake sometime shortly after midnight, so I dutifully swallowed another set of motion-sick pills and bid my farewells to our new friends.  I believe I actually said, “Well, I’ll see you in two days.”

I slept fitfully that first few hours, and there was a decided difference in the motion of the ship when we finally hit the open sea.  Much to my surprise, I awoke the next morning to a rocking ship, but not the lurching catastrophe I had expected.  It seems that luck was upon us and we made the crossing in record time, and with some of the smoothest waters you can find in this part of the world.   While I did have to spend most of those two days in bed, I was at least able to come up for meals and some socializing before having to retreat again to our little cabin at the bottom of the boat.

Our early arrival at the Antarctic Peninsula meant that we were able to make an unexpected landing at a Chilean research support base.   We bundled up in the many layers we’d need to keep warm – thermals, snow pants, fleece, gigantic parka (provided by the ship), neck warmer, hats, gloves, every sock I brought on this trip and a huge pair of rubber boots – and set off to view the first of the thousands of penguins we would encounter in the next week.

Our ship, like all responsible Antarctic cruise ships, is a member of the IAATO (International Alliance of Antarctic Tour Operators).  You see, Antarctica doesn’t have any permanent human inhabitants, and does not fall under the governmental jurisdiction of any particular country.  As a result, an alliance has been formed in order to protect and maintain the land and wildlife of Antarctica, and all tour operators have agreed to follow certain standards.  For our purposes, one of the most pertinent standards is that you are not allowed to have more than 100 people on land at any give place.  There are many ships that have more than 100 passengers, and therefore have to use a rotation system, which limits the amount of time you get to spend exploring the continent.  The Antarctic Dream holds a maximum of 80 passengers, which meant we all got to be on land at the same time, and for longer than some other ships might allow their passengers.

Antarctica can be fickle in terms of weather.  One of the things every travel agent, and every cruise ship operator, will stress is that the itinerary you look at before you book the cruise is tentative.  The staff prepares for as many as two landings per day, but it’s completely subject to weather and ice conditions.  It if is unsafe for passengers to be on the zodiacs, then there will be no landing.  If the ice is unexpectedly dense in one area, the ship might have to change its course.  We were told that the last cruise on our ship was only able to make 4 landings because of heavy fog and snow during their trip.  Fortunately, Mother Nature blessed us with spectacular blue sunny skies and over the course of the next five days we were able to go ashore an incredible 9 different times.  In addition, we took two zodiac cruises geared towards wildlife spotting around ice-burg filled bays.

I’ve seen the BBC’s Frozen Planet.  I’ve seen other people’s pictures of Antarctica.  Technically, I knew what it looked like.  The thing is, reality almost never matches those incredible travel photos that the professionals take because normal people can’t get to the spots where the incredible photos are actually taken.  This is not the case in Antarctica.  You get right up in there with the snow and the icebergs and the penguins and the whales.  I keep looking at my pictures and thinking, “Wait…I took that!  I was THERE!” There are many, many stories we have left to share from this particular part of this trip, and as we sift through our zillions of photos and videos we’ll begin to unravel the threads and share some of the smaller moments that have made this one of the most memorable experiences not just of this journey, but of our lives.  To tide you over, here’s a small sample of some of our favorite photos so far. It’s  much better viewed full screen.

 

*At some point very soon I will be writing an even more massively long and glowing review than what is about to follow about the crew of our ship, the Antarctic Dream, on Trip Advisor and I will link to it here.  In the meantime I would just like to say that so much of what made our trip so memorable was the amazing staff, crew, and fellow passengers of the Antarctic Dream.  We found very few reviews of this ship before we departed, so we weren’t really sure what to expect, but the service and professionalism of this crew exceeded anything we thought possible.  Our fellow passengers represented something like 15 different countries, and all ages and walks of life.  We met a fantastic array of people, many of whom we hope to keep in touch with in the chance that our paths will cross again.  We all ate like royalty, with buffet breakfasts, and delicious plated three course meals, including desert, for lunch and dinner.  The expedition team was extremely experienced and well educated, and they were also personable and kind.  The staff and crew of the ship were professional and hard-working, but also willing to take a moment to explain how something worked, or dash off to grab their own cameras (and most of them had impressive equipment!) when there was a wildlife spotting from the deck.  The Capitan and his staff were amazing, and allowed passengers to come onto the bridge of the ship to see how everything was run.  You could literally go up and sit with them and they would explain the workings of the depth finders, the control panels, the mapping instruments, anything!  I would recommend this ship in a heartbeat, and if I ever decide to take another polar cruise, either to the Arctic, or the Antarctic, it will be on the Antarctic Dream.  They have not paid me to write this, but if they’d like comp me for a trip to the North Pole, I’d be totally open to that 😉

The Power of Water

9 Feb

We learned of Futaleufu, Chile from a fellow traveler we met in Mendoza.  It didn’t take very long for us to be convinced that this was a place we wanted to visit.  The name alone is reason enough, especially if you say it with a thick French accent.  Go ahead and try it (Foo – TAh – lay –foo), I dare you not to laugh.

We arrived to the minuscule village, just 1700 residents, in the midst of a summer storm that soaked us with freezing rain, and left the surrounding mountain tops dusted in snow. In just under 36 hours the tide had turned and we could see that we had chosen wisely.  Futaleufu is situated in a valley that is truly jaw-dropping.

Valley outside Futaleufu, Chile

Valley outside Futaleufu, Chile

Huge, lush mountains give way to the most spectacularly turquoise blue, crystal clear river I have ever seen.

It’s the river that draws people from around the world to this little dot on a map.  The Rio Futaleufu boasts some of the best rafting and river kayaking in the world, ranking in the top-5 by most accounts.

Rio Futaleufu, Chile

Much of the town’s industry is built around river trips, and it’s an easy task to find a company ready to take you on the ride of your life.  We promptly signed up for a full-day excursion.

We’ve been rafting before, though only minimally on supposed class III and IV rapids, but we were assured that if we were fit and could swim that we would be just fine on the prominent class IV and V runs.

The day we set out on our adventure was bright and warm, a perfect day to get soaked.  We ended up with seven people in our raft – Justin and I, a man from our hospedaje, and 4 other girls (two of which had never been rafting).  We were outfitted with wetsuits, lifejackets, and helmets and given the whole safety spiel.  After a bit of paddle practice at the put-in, we were off!

Justin is ready to go rafting.

The storm had delivered a healthy amount of water to the area making the river swollen and quite high for the season.  The first set of rapids was fast and furious, and we made it through them clumsily, but successfully.

As we approached the next stretch of white-water, a set of three class V+ rapids, appropriately named The Terminator, our guide made it clear that this section was difficult and that we needed to give it everything we had and follow his directions exactly and immediately.  It was essential that we hit our line or we would be in serious trouble.  This section of the river is riddled with ‘holes’, which are basically whirlpools of a sort that can suck you in and just keep you spinning underwater.  These holes can be up to 80 feet deep, and are very dangerous places to get stuck in.

The apprehension was palpable and a few moments later we came around a bend and were all of a sudden right in the thick of it.  It was as if we had no control over the raft.  Sometimes the waves rocked the boat so high that as we went down to paddle there was nothing but air beneath us.  It quickly became clear that we had not made our line and we could see that we were about to hit a huge obstacle in the middle of the river.

My side of the raft got pushed up vertically on a rock as the opposite side got sucked into the hole just in front of the boulder.  I felt myself falling, and had about a hot second to think “Oh shit!” before I hit the river.

The roar of the water was deafening, and the only thing I could see all around me was bubbles. It felt like ages before I broke the surface and was able to take a small breath.  I tried to look for the raft, but there was only water and before I knew it I was going under again.  Have you ever been inside a washing machine on the ‘super’ cycle?  Me neither, but I bet being in that river was similar to what it might feel like.  I was tossed around, sucked along, turned upside down and smashed into rocks.  Despite being more terrified than I have ever been, I made a valiant effort at keeping my feet in front of me and trying to get to the surface but it seemed like I had very little control over my movement.  When I realized I was out of air I did my best not to panic, and just plugged my nose and covered my mouth to try and keep the water from forcing its way in.

Eventually I came to a slightly calmer spot and I was able to see the safety kayaker motioning me to swim over to the side.  I made it to a little pool area and was momentarily relieved thinking that the raft or the kayak must be coming over to fetch me.

I watched uncomfortably as the raft passed me on the opposite side of the river, and my panic increased ten-fold when I realized I was being sucked back towards the middle and into the second part of the Terminator rapid series.  I clawed desperately at the closest rock in a last-ditch effort to stay in calmer waters, but I only accomplished ripping off two of my fingernails.

I remember very little from that second set of rapids, only that I kept thinking “Justin must be freaking out right now” and “keep your mouth shut or you will drown”.

I was in the water for less than ten minutes, but it felt like ages and was so thoroughly exhausting that by the time the raft found me I couldn’t even lift my arms to try and grab onto the safety rope.  The man from our hostel, Celestino, hauled me into the raft by my life vest and I had about 30 seconds to recover before I was handed a new paddle as we entered another set of rapids.

I was still shaking from the adrenaline nearly a half hour later as we went up to shore for a lunch break.  I was nervous and on edge for the rest of the trip, and I was happy to be back on solid ground at the end of the day.

Being in that river was easily the most terrifying moment of my life, and another clear example of the tremendous force that water holds.

Despite the scare, Futaleufu has earned a spot as one of our favorite destinations from this first three months of travel, and if you’re into rafting and gorgeous scenery, we’re sure you’ll love it just as much as we did.

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