November 23-25, 2015
We arrived in El Calafate after a short 3 hour bus ride from El Chaltén. Our hostel was a close walk from the bus station. It's an interesting hostel- the large outside area in front has camping space for tents with large grills scattered throughout, the building in front of the campground accommodates a first floor restaurant and the small second floor has 4 bedrooms, all dorm style. There is a communal kitchen and bathroom for the second floor. Our room has 2 sets of bunk beds, one on either side of the room with a small walkway in between and each of the bunks comprises of 3 tiers of beds, rather shaky looking! Scott got the top bunk and I took the middle. The man sleeping under us snores- good thing we have ear plugs!
Naturally, after arriving at the hostel we set out to find the town's supermarket. This is a travel routine we have down pat. We are very efficient at getting just what we need for the amount of days we are staying in a place. We always make sure to stock up on fruit and veggies to compensate for all the times we went without in the previous countries we've visited. Food supplies for lunches are important too as we usually take a bag lunch with us on our hiking excursions to avoid inflated prices at tourist trap restaurants at these locations. Also many of the places we hike to are extremely remote.
We walked the Main Street of town with our grocery bags observing tourist stores selling t-shirts and other gimmicky items, chocolate shops, ice cream shops, trendy over-priced restaurants, a casino and lots and lots of tour companies offering excursions to the National Glacier Park to see the enormous glacier Perito Moreno. Similar to El Chaltén this town has an inauthentic feel, largely catering to tourism, though this town is much larger than the pint-sized El Chaltén. Since we have entered Patagonia we have also observed a different breed of traveler. This region attracts a wealthier crowd and a larger croudof older travelers--middle-aged to even some in their 70's who don their name brand expensive hiking gear. Scott's is confident that their hiking won't be used for more than 2 or three days. They would have been better off bringing their old sweatshirts since the packaged tours they doing involve little, if any, actual extreme conditions. There are also more Americans here than we've run into in any other country. It is always surprising to over hear conversations in english and actually understand what they are saying! That is not to say the budget backpacker can't be found, they are just not as prevalent as in Bolivia and Peru.
While in El Chaltén we had met a backpacker on our Mt.Fitz Roy hike who had strongly suggested we do the mini excursion of the Perito Moreno glacier while in El Calafate. We heeded his suggestion and found a tour company on the main strip of town called Hielo y Aventura (Ice and Adventure). We booked the mini-trekking trip of the glacier for the following day. The trip included transportation, stops and scenic view points, a boat ride, crampons and an hour and half trek on the Perito Moreno glacier. The tour cost 1,500 pesos per person (plus 260 pesos pp for the park entrance fee). This amounts to $110/person, whereas 4 years ago it would have been over $400--thank you inflation an the recent introduction of the blue market for the $ USD.
Feeling confident and excited with our glacier hike for the following day we returned to our hostel, sat outside in the beautiful weather, split a bottle of wine (Malbec of course) and caught up on some internet time. The Internet in El Chaltén, and here, is provided by satellite and is incredibly slow and unreliable.
Later we competed for space in the small and ill-equipped kitchen to cook our dinner of chicken, vegetables and salad. One stove is not ideal for accommodating 4 dinners being cooked simultaneously. We shared conversation at the communal table with a man from Mexico and two girls from Japan who were studying Spanish.
We woke up at 6 the next morning, packed our lunches, ate breakfast and walked to the tour agency. We boarded a bus with 20 other passengers and headed to the Glacier Park. We paid admission to the park upon arrival. Inside the park we spent an hour walking the interconnected boardwalk-like paths to different view points of the glacier. The glacier is immense, and is the third largest fresh water reservoir in the world. The glacier formed between several mountains as snow got trapped has accumulated and compacted. Perito Moreno and the other glaciers in the glacier park exist because of a large ice field in the Andeans range in the Southern Patagonia region. Over 20,000 years ago all of Patagonia was covered in snow and ice. Around 12,000 years ago it began melting. The large ice field still exists and its borders are largely comprised of glaciers, many of which meet large glacier lakes.
The glacier looks like a literal wall of ice as the edges of it meet the water with a completely vertical face. The top of the glacier forms jagged points and it was possible to see deep crevices with an astonishing shade of deep sapphire blue. We later learned that the blue color is a result of glacier ice being more dense than normal ice, and because their is no air in glacier ice is does not absorb blue light. As we watched and photographed the glacier we were amazed to see chunks of it breaking off and crumbling violently down the glacier and crashing into the water. The sound was so loud it sounded like thunder. Scott was lucky enough to catch it one video! This time of year is summer in the glacier park so the glacier is receding but it expands during other parts of the year. Perito Moreno is at equilibrium so it's ice mass is relatively stable.
Our next stop was the port in order to take the boat to the other side of the glacier. The side of the glacier that touches land is easier to access for hiking. It was a short 20 minute boat ride. Before hiking we had a quick lunch in a Refugio, bundled up in more layers, and then met our guide. Scott and I were impressed with the organization and efficiency of the tour. It was very professional.
We hiked for 15 minutes through the forest until reaching the access point of the glacier. We stopped while our guides helped up to attach crampons to our shoes.
After being debriefed for safety and proper use of crampons, we set foot on the glacier! We dug our crampons into the ice and walked up and down steep peaks in the glacier. We followed a preset trail to ensure we didn't walk on any weak parts of the ice. It was very interesting to see areas of water on top of the glacier. In fact, we were able to fill up our water bottle in a small pool of glacier water. The water was incredibly cold and almost flavorless because of the absence of minerals. The wind on top of the exposed glacier was harsh but we were warm from walking-using the crampons was like hiking with ankle weights. We admired and cautiously avoided deep crevices in the glacier as we hiked. The crevices are filled with water and you can hear small rushing rivers and waterfalls under the ice in some places. Our guide explained that some crevices are formed by the wind. Our guide also pointed out the different striations in the glacier that help tell how old the glacier is and how it flows. It takes hundred of years for the snow to get pushed from the accumulation zone to the ablation zone (leading edge). Glaciers are not static, they are dynamic and are always flowing. Snow accumulates and the weight of it pushes downward. In the middle of the glacier it can move up to a couple yards per day.
As we neared the end of our hike we were surprised to see a small wood table set up on the glacier. When we reached the table, our guides handed us glasses filled with fresh glacier ice and a shot of whiskey and a chocolate treat. We celebrated our first glacier hike and warmed our bellies with the whiskey.
To return home we took the boat back to the port and then drove back to El Calafate. In total it was about 10 hours and the excursion was well worth it! We would definitely recommend this tour and tour company to anyone traveling to El Calafate.
Tourist Information for El Calafate:
Most people that travel to El Calafate come here for 3 day (2 nights). The first day involves traveling here, the second day is spent at the glacier, and the third day is spent traveling back.
The excursion we did was called Mini-Trekking and costs 1,500 pesos (+ 260 park entrance) which is the standard rate whether you book directly with the company or through your hotel. The agency will pick you up and drop you off at your accommodations. We booked the day before and it wasn't a problem. However, we asked about their other excursion, "Big Ice", which is also a day-trip but takes you on a longer hike on the glacier. The cost is an additional 1000 pesos but it was booked solid and the next opening was on Saturday (5 days from then). In place of the 1.5 hour glacier hike Big Ice was a bit more technical and had you on the ice for 5 hours. Lunch is eaten on the glacier as well. The age limits for the Mini-Trekking tour was 10-65 while it was 18-45 for the Big Ice trip. You can read about the tours the company offers here here! They are the only company that does tours like this.
A cheaper way to view the glacier is to take a bus to/from the glacier park. A good way to spend a half day in El Calafate is to visit the Glaciarium, which is just a short busride from town. The 100 peso admission includes a 3d movie and free transportation.
I've seen day trips to El Chaltén but I would recommend staying one night there. You can take an early bus from El Calafate to El Chaltén and drop your bags off at your hotel/hostel (the bus ride is around 2.5 hours). Then from the center of town you start the hike to Mt. Fitz Roy around 10 or 11. Although there are several hike, all which leave from the city, 85% of the splendor of El Chaltén can be gleaned from hiking the trek to Mt. Fitz Roy. The hike should take you 6-9 hours (3-5 hours each way as it's an out and back path) so pack a lunch and bring layers. The last hour of the hike is uphill and the temperature drops quite a bit...the wind picks up as well. On your way back from the hike you will walk down one of the main roads. Stop in one of the log cabin style microbrew pubs and treat yourself to a local artesian brew...you deserve it. After you freshen up back at your lodge come back out for a nice relaxing meal at one of the many upscale restaurant in the city. Make sure you enjoy a nice bottle of Malbec with your meal. Most of Argentina waits till well after 9:00 to eat their dinner but here in the sleepy town El Chaltén dinner is eaten between 8:30 - 9:00. Much after 9:00 and the city starts winding down in preparation for the next day of hiking. Please make sure to check out our blog posting on El Chaltén here: Blog Posting of El Chaltén.