Two people exploring the world, seeking adventure & unique experiences.
El Chalten to El Calafate
We took the evening bus from El Chalten leaving at 6pm (275 pesos / $21) and taking about 3 hours to get to El Calafate. The bus terminal is fairly centrally located in El Calafate and we made our way to Hostel Nakel Yenu where we paid 150 pesos ($11.50) each for a 4 bed dorm. The owners are also extremely friendly and helpful. The common area is effectively the dining area and creates a quite social atmosphere.
The only real reason to stay or be in El Calafate is as a jumping off point to the easily accessible Perito Moreno Glacier.
What is Perito Moreno Glacier?
Perito Moreno Glacier is a 250km ice formation, 30km in length that is the third largest fresh water reserve in the world.
The cost to enter was 215 peso ($16.50). The fee is high as it is used to cover the costs of Glacier national park in Chalten as well.
There are several different options to see the Glacier. More details at Hielo & Aventura.
We very nearly went the cheap option to go to the viewing platforms only because we’d heard from several other travellers about how disappointing the mini trek was for the money it cost. We had also heard from a couple of travellers about how good the Big Ice Trek was. With our trip coming close to an end, we decided to break our budget and go for the Big Ice Trek- this was not a mistake.
Big Ice Trek
We booked the day before at around 1pm (with 7 out of 40 spaces remaining) and went on October 27th. In peak season, you’ll want to book further ahead if you know your dates. We were picked up directly from the hostel just after 7am and then transferred about 10 minutes later to the bigger bus with everyone else. You will need to take your own packed lunch and snacks because they’re not included in the trip. The park fee is all done on the bus without leaving your seat. It’s around 80km east of El Calafate on good roads, so it only takes a bit over an hour to get there.
You’ll arrive at the viewing decks at around 9am and have about 1 hour to explore by yourself. We’d suggest you make your way to the northern ends of the platforms because you won’t see them for the rest of the day. You’ll trek on the southern side and the boat will take you for closer views of the southern side of the glacier. There are quite a lot of stairs to climb up and down but it’s worth it to move quickly and explore the different viewing points. Even early in the morning the glacier was quite active with big chunks of ice coming off the glacier and lots of noise.
The initial view of the glacier is really quite impressive. The size is fairly hard to comprehend with the initial ice field measuring 14km front to back, 5km wide and 60m high.
What makes this glacier so special is that it has a stable status whereas a majority of the worlds’ glaciers are receding. The glacier is quite active, apparently advancing on average 2 metres per day, so bits carve off regularly especially when the sun is directly on it. The other party trick is that the glacier pushes forward onto the rocks where it dams two lakes and it then collapses in an impressive display of crashing ice and water. This has happened around 20 times in the past 100 years.
The views from the platforms really are quite good. Many people suggested bringing a picnic lunch and some wine and just finding a quiet spot to sit down and enjoy the ice show. The most impressive part of watching the glacier is watching large blocks of ice the size of houses fall into the water below (this is known as calving). However it was not just the view that was impressive but the loud thunder like sound the ice made just before breaking off into the water. When we approached the glacier we immediately heard the intimidating loud thunder cracks, and played a game of Where’s Wally; looking for the calving on the glacier.
Boat to the Glacier
After an hour on the platforms (which wasn’t enough time), we were herded onto a boat to take us to the Glacier. This is just a boat transfer as you get taken from the dock with a short view of the glacier before arriving on the other side to start your trek. There is a different boat trip available for day trippers (180 pesos / $14) which is a more time consuming tour of about 1 hour. On the way back from walking on the glacier we spent more time sailing past the glacier up close.
From here we had an hour walk up to the starting point of our ice hike. This was a beautiful walk along the side of the glacier, passing a waterfall on the way. At the start of the hike we passed the point the mini trek started from and could see a few groups on the ice. We were instantly glad we picked the larger hike as we went significantly further up the Glacier and had a lot less people.
Gear up and get on the ice
This is when the fun began. We were split up into groups of 10 and assigned two guides per group with one guide at the front and one at the back. Only a total of 40 hikers per day on big ice. We then were fitted with our gear which included harnesses (which we didn’t use) and crampons. We then headed onto the glacier and the guides assisted us on attaching our new sexy spiky crampons to the base of our hiking boots.
Once we were geared up, it was time to get properly onto the glacier and try out the new gear. We took our first step onto the ice with a loud crunch sound. It felt weird but exciting as every step we took, there was a loud crunch noise. “Crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch” we went all in a straight line following our guides up onto the glacier. We were then given the rules; keep your legs wide apart at all times to give better balance and always stay in single file as there are many crevices and wandering off line could mean falling in. When going up lightly press into the snow and do not use the front spikes and going down lean back and make a deep step digging into the glacier. Every time there were crevices or places we could fall the guides would step to the side and help us over and were extremely cautious the whole time. Is this where we tell them about walking next to active volcanos for 6 weeks in Nicaragua?
We then headed to the blue lagoon. This was a beautiful turquoise blue lagoon in the middle of the glacier. Truly amazing colours and scenery.
After this we headed further up the glacier, jumping over crevices, going up and down steep ice mountains and crossing small rivers.
After an hour we reached a turquoise blue cave stopping for a photo in the magnificent ice formation.
We then had a picnic lunch in the middle of the glacier. Here our waterproof pants came in handy as we sat on the ice for around 30 minutes. Unfortunately at this point the weather changed as it does many times a day in Patagonia (think of the Crowded House song “Four seasons in one day”). Large dark clouds were rolling in so our guides decided it was time to move as we walked further up the glacier before the weather turned. At this point we had to descend our steepest hill (almost like walking down vertically). It was a bit scary at first as we did feel like we were going to tumble forward but the spikes dug firmly into the glacier and stopped anyone from falling. We were professionals now!
Here we got an amazing view of the top of the Glacier.
One of the really interesting things about the top of the glacier is what you actually see. It seems a bit weird, but the ice has taken 500 years or so to get here, so it collects dust, rocks and even leaves. Closer to the sides often seem a little dirty, while the middle is much “cleaner” and pristine.
From here it was time to make our way back. We hiked for approximately 3 hours on the ice which was more than enough. On the way back we passed ice with little bubbles caught inside them and ice ponds that looked like they were water but in fact they were ice.
We then walked back to the starting point and took off our spikes. Wow! How different it felt walking without spikes and on firm land. We then hiked back to the start and got on the boat. Here we were given a tasty alfajore and whisky with glacier ice in it.
Hike over – time to sleep
What an exhausting day, nearly everyone was fast asleep on the bus on the way back. Its way more tiring hiking with crampons then normal hiking as you’re constantly concentrating. At the end of the day we also received a present from the company – a crampon shaped key ring and the local Cafayate berry alcohol spirit (this tasted like feet).
In summary this was a very tiring but worthwhile excursion. If you have the time and money then we definitely recommend this tour as you get to see amazing ice formations, lagoons and caves that you don’t get to see if you just watched the Glacier from a platform.
Plenty more to explore. Keep following the blog and our Flickr account for updates. http://www.flickr.com/photos/toraadventure/
*Note that all our Argentinian values are converted at the Dolar Blue rate of around 14 pesos is equal to US$1. The official rate is much closer to 8 pesos is equal to US$1 at the time of writing (Sept 2014)