Thursday – December 27, 2007 –
In the morning we grabbed breakfast and refreshments in the lobby, which also had a cozy lounge and library. Shortly afterwards, our bus tour picked us up for our tour to Lago Argentino.
El Calafate is located near the southern shore of Lago Argentino. The name of the city comes from the small calafate bush, a bush with yellow flowers and dark blue berries that is very common in Patagonia. The town is the hub for visiting Los Glaciares National Park, where we were heading to see the Perito Moreno Glacier.
This would be our best chance to see the scope of the massive Southern Patagonia Icefield, which extends covers almost 4,800 square miles within Chile and Argentina. The ice cap is the largest outside of Antarctica and Greenland. To get an idea of how big it is, the ice field feeds dozens of glaciers in the area such as the Upsala, Viedma and Perito Moreno in Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina, and the Pío XI Glacier, O’Higgins, Grey and Tyndall glaciers located in Chile.
In El Chalten, we had seen the northern part of Parque Nacional Los Glaciares. This would be our first chance to see the southern part. The park covers more than 2,806 square miles and is the second largest national park in the country. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In most parts of the world, glaciers start at 8,200 feet above sea level, but due to the size of this ice cap, glaciers here begin at a much lower 4,900 feet before sliding down to 660 feet above sea level. The mountains hold most of the humidity from the Pacific Ocean, letting through only the ice coldness while also creating the arid Patagonian steppe on the Argentine side of the range.
After about a two-hour drive, we rounded some hills and saw our first glimpse of 566-square-mile Lago Argentino, the largest lake in Argentina. The lake attracts huge numbers of visitors to see the Perito Moreno glacier, one of the major tourist attractions in southern Patagonia. We then boarded a catamaran operated by Rene Fernandez Campbell for the glacier tour called Hielo y Aventura (Ice and Adventure).
The captain carefully guided our boat around icebergs as we maneuvered across the lake. It was cold and windy on the deck of the boat, but we braved the deck for some great views and better photos than those who stay inside the cabin.
When we arrived in front of the Perito Moreno, we could not believe have massive it was and how it dwarfed our boat which is a quarter mile away at a safe distance. We stopped to watch it calve a few times. The thunderous roar and tremendous splashes were incredibly violent. It didn’t matter where you were from, our very multinational group of visitors was speechless and completely transfixed.
Afterwards, we docked near the side shore and disembarked. Following a short hike, we laced up in crampons for a guided trek on a small but relatively safe side arm of the Perito Moreno itself! The 1.5 hour tour took us on the top of the glacier as well as through sections of it and below. It was amazing how blue the ice was when the sun hit it at certain angles.
We learned some interesting facts about the 97-square-mile glacier, which is one of 48 glaciers fed by the Southern Patagonian Ice Field. The icefield is the world’s third-largest reserve of fresh water. The Perito Moreno glacier was named after the explorer Francisco Moreno, who studied the region in the 19th century. The Perito Moreno Glacier is one of only three Patagonian glaciers that is growing. We mostly only saw the 3-mile wide exit of the glacier. The average height is about 240 feet above the surface of Lake Argentino but it does reach more the 550 feet in many places.
Towards the end of our tour, our guide Paola took an ice axe and broke large chunks of ice to go with our whisky toast – scotch on the rocks! We also had alfajores – soft, delicate cookies made with cornstarch. I had forgotten I had taken the antibiotic earlier, so I naturally came dizzy with combined affect of the whisky. I was a little light-headed and not so steady on my feet for a little while! Upon finishing the trek we had lunch in a park cafeteria because we had worked up an appetite.
My boots started to disintegrate during the day! I had to tie my boot together as Jeff told me with a laugh that I needed shoe glue.
Later, we visited a large visitor center. We had the chance to hike a circuit of boardwalks that took us to an incredible view of the southern flank and the eastern sides of the glacier. It was probably the best view of a glacier that I had ever seen, even in Alaska or Norway.
It was there we read about an interesting phenomenon. The weight of the ice slowly pushes the glacier over the southern arm (the “Brazo Rico”) of Lago Argentino which dams the section and separates it from the rest of the lake. With no outlet, the water-level on the “Brazo Rico” side of the lake can rise by as much as 30 meters above the remaining part of Lake Argentina. Every few years, pressure from the dammed water breaks through the ice barrier causing a massive rupture and huge surging wall of water. We learned the last three ruptures were in 2006, 2004 and 1988.
As we rejoined our boat, we headed back to the bus. On the cruise back, we saw a huge iceberg turn over in front of us causing a few wave rocked our boat. People gasped on the boat at how huge the iceberg was on what was the water-facing side.
After rejoining the bus, we had one more incredible view of the glacier as the bus climbed some switchbacks on the hills above as we headed back to El Calafate. It was an amazingly beautiful all-day journey.
That evening back in El Calafate, we went souvenir shopping for Jeff to buy some things. I went into a Gaucho shop called Arenk Talabarteria Marroquineria where I bought an Argentinean leather billetera (billfold) for Paw Paw. I bought myself a leather belt and traditional buckle with the rosa federal and Mom a llama shawl.
Then we had a steak dinner – what else! We saw the beef and lamb displayed in glass kitchens a la parilla style over open pits. It was delicious. Then we headed back to the hotel where I put my boots to rest in the trash. Like me, they were worn out!