Destinations, South America

The Glaciers, El Calafate and a little part of the world called Patagonia

June 2, 2009 • By

This past weekend I packed my bags and headed to El Calafate, a three-hour plane ride from Buenos Aires.  El Calafate is a small Patagonian town located on the southern border of Lake Argentine.  The population is difficult to ascertain but officials estimate as many as 20,000 live in the sleepy town and its outskirts.  The downtown reminded me of a much smaller, quaint version of Aspen.  Picture snow covered mountains, bulky sweaters, chocolate, lamb and two-storied shops and restaurants constructed of wood that reminded me of Swiss chalets and log cabins.

El Calafate is a tourist destination first and foremost but it’s also home to the world’s most visited glacier.  I visited Perito Moreno Glacier and on first sight found myself in complete wonder and awe of this spectacular peninsula of ice towering before me.  I should have known but my adventure had just begun.  The only way to access the glacier is by boat unless you prefer hypothermia and in that case by all means attempt the swim.  My friend Landra and I along with 30 other tourists trekked by foot to the glacier’s edge.  Here we attached crampons to our hiking boats and started our journey known as “mini trekking.”  From afar, the glacier bares a striking resemblance to Superman’s planet of Krypton but on closer view I noticed many valleys, towering points and pivots of an entire mountain of ice.

A little bit of facts and figures on the Perito Moreno Glacier

The glacier is a 97 square mile ice formation and 19 mile in length with an average height of 200 feet (courtesy of Wikipedia).  It is one of 48 glaciers in the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, which is located in the Andes and is also shared with Chile.  Unfortunately, the glacier is only accessible by water on the Argentinean side.  It is one of the few glaciers in the world that has not changed in the last 90 years, which means it is advancing and retreating at the same rate each year.  (The glaciers on top of Mt. Kilimanjaro for example are nearly melted.)

Fitted with crampons and given our final instructions, our group started our trip up the walls of the glacier.  We were told to keep our feet at least shoulder length apart as to not get tripped up. I found that easier said than done and started imitating Herman Munster in my attempts to a) not fall into an ice hole and b) to not take my entire group down with me.  Once we conquered our first uphill excursion, I immediately started to fear the descent.  It seemed everyone must have been thinking the same because at least a few women (including me) expressed aloud concern for their safety.  The guides were carrying chisels to break the ice and they walked ahead to test the strength of the ground but it did make me a bit nervous.

We walked for about an hour until we reached a fairly high level of ice. The views were glorious.  The colors in contrast with the sky, mountains and aqua blue water below were incredible.  Standing on top of the world is a magnificent feeling but looking out to a lush green forest to one side and a land of fresh, clean, crisp water on the other is quite another.  Slowly….very slowly our group made the descent with small but heavy steps down the hills of glacier ice to a cove where we celebrated our accomplishment with shots of Whiskey served over glacier ice.  My group consisted of Landra, a hysterically funny couple from NY, Erik and Janine and two crazy 22-year-old teachers from Holland.  Landra and I opted for the dulce de leche cookies rather than the Whiskey but the Dutch boys made good by finishing our glasses.  Let’s just say we were entertained to some lovely Dutch songs several minutes later. We ended the day by driving to a lookout point to see another section of the glacier.  To top of the perfect day, a massive section of glacier ripped apart from the base and crashed to the water below with a few of us witnessing the natural phenomenon.  It was awesome!

The next day several of us on the trekking trip enjoyed a beautiful 8-hour boat ride through the rivers and lakes of the Patagonian system.  We saw incredible icebergs the size of skyscrapers and picturesque snow covered mountains.  There were a few more notable glaciers but nothing as impressive as Perito Moreno.  That night our NY friends and Landra and I headed to a lamb and pumpkin dinner and of course a few bottles of red wine.  The evening would not be complete without beers at a library lodge, and Elvis Impersonator and this story:

To another guy from our glacier hike we spotted at the bar:

Me: Hey you said you were from NY.  Where do you live?

Him:  Upper West Side

Me:  How long have you lived there?

Him:  I am not really from NY I just say that because it sounds cool.

Me: Do you live there?

Him: Yes sometimes but I am from Boston

Me:  Where do you work? (more questions ensue because I am so curious)

Him:  I am a trust fund kid.

Me:  Oh so you don’t work.  Do you at least study in Buenos Aires?

Him:  No I just hang out.

Me:  OK –Here is my email.  Let’s meet up when you are back in BA. (A friend is a friend in my book)

Who says, “I am a TRUST FUND KID” after only five minutes into a conversation with a stranger?  I guess more people than I originally thought.