El Calafate takes its name from the Calafate berry. Locals claim that if you eat the berry, you’re guaranteed to return to Patagonia. El Calafate’s proximity to the Perito Moreno Glacier has transformed the once-quaint sheep station and trading outpost into a tourist town with souvenir shops, restaurants, and tour offices. Upon arriving in El Calafate, I limped to a pharmacy for a syringe needle to puncture the painful blisters on my feet from my Christmas Day hike. Immediately afterward, I headed to the Hielo y Aventura tour office to book a trekking excursion on the Perito Moreno Glacier.
Hielo y Aventura is the sole operator for trekking excursions on the Perito Moreno Glacier. Hielo y Aventura offers two tours: a “Minitrekking” tour with 1.5 hours of “moderately difficult” trekking, and a “Big Ice” tour with 3.5 hours of “highly difficult” trekking that is “suitable for people between 18 and 50 years old”. (50 years old? WTF!) Naturally, I wanted to book the Big Ice tour. The tours sell out quickly, and disappointingly there were no spaces left on either excursion for the next day. The travel agent advised me to come back at 7:00 pm to check for openings resulting from cancellations.
I joined some other travelers for a leisurely lunch of pizza and beer on an outside patio. After lunch, my companions left for the Glaciarium and an ice bar. I wanted to return to the Hielo y Aventura office promptly at 7:00 pm, so instead of joining them, I browsed the souvenir shops in the central part of town. I bought a Ruta 40 cap, which I consider to be a more authentically Patagonian than my hat emblazoned with the Patagonia clothing logo. When I returned to the tour office, the travel agent promptly booked me on the full-day Minitrekking tour! While my first choice would have been the Big Ice tour, I was excited for the opportunity to hike on the Perito Moreno Glacier.
The tour began the next morning with a 10:00 am departure from my hostel. After a 1-hour bus ride, we arrived at the Perito Moreno Glacier, located in the southern region of Los Glaciares National Park. Fed by the Southern Patagonia Ice Field, the Perito Moreno Glacier advances for 30 km before its terminus in Lago Argentino. The face of the glacier is 5 km wide and 20 stories high. Simply put, it’s big! My first look at the glacier was from a multi-level network of balconies with panoramic viewpoints.
As far as natural wonders go, Perito Moreno Glacier is as impressive as Iguazu Falls! The glacier towers above the turquoise water of Lago Argentino, dwarfing boats full of tourists. Its glacial ice beams a blinding white with cold blue hues. As the glacier advances 2 m per day, building-size chunks of ice break off with a loud cracking sound and crash into the water with a giant splash. I admired the Perito Moreno Glacier from the balconies for almost two hours before leaving for the trekking portion of the tour.
We boarded a ferry and crossed the lake, passing the southern wall of the Perito Moreno Glacier during the 20-minute ride. After disembarking, we walked to a lodge, where the guides fitted us with crampons and helmets. We divided into Spanish-speaking and English-speaking groups, and the guides instructed us on the safety procedures and how to walk in crampons. At last, we were ready to begin the trek!
In single file, we ascended and descended the uneven surface of the glacier. By trekking the glacier, I was able to see a variety of ice formations that are not visible from the distance of the balconies. The guides led us to deep crevasses, pools of water, and an ice cave. The 90-minute trek in this natural ice paradise was easy, not “moderately difficult” as advertised. Near the end of the trek, we gathered around a table to drink a glass of whiskey. Sipping whiskey with ice from the Perito Moreno Glacier was a fun way to end the tour!
The top-attraction in El Calafate is the Perito Moreno Glacier–I didn’t see any other sights before continuing my journey. I ate the Calafate berry, so I’ll be returning to El Calafate someday. When I return, I’ll bring a fake ID so that I complete the Big Ice trek.