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Published: March 29th 2014
With a roaring thunder and a great splash, a huge chunk of ice broke off the serrated snout of the towering Perito Moreno Glacier and plunged into the milky, turquoise Lago Argentino--it was for this that I, like so many others, made the pilgrimage to the obscure little town of El Calafate. I'd come to El Calafate for five days in late March, well past the December-February Patagonian summer when the small town would triple in size to 20,000 with tourists. Now, the crowds had gone, but autumn was setting in with rain, fierce winds and clouds that obscured the picturesque mountains surrounding the town and dulling my photos. When storms had been predicted for the days ahead, and I could no longer hike, I reluctantly left my beloved El Chalten El Chalten--Drama Central, population 500, where for ten days, I had hiked the fabulous Fitz Roy Range and walked on a glacier Glacier Trekking on Whipped Cream Peaks. I boarded a bus for the three-hour ride on the last stretch of Ruta 40, a bumpy-rough, dirt road that traverses the Patagonian steppe along the length of Argentina's southern Andes and which had brought me on a 2-day journey
from the Lake District. Here, though, the road was well-traveled and paved, and we flew to El Calafate with its famous Perito Moreno Glacier.
El Calafate, Tourist Central El Calafate is a small, town whose raisin-d'etre is to service the thousands of tourists who come, often by plane, just to see the Perito Moreno Glacier, 80 km away. Thus, it's not a typical Argentine town, but rather like an attractive, alpine ski resort with upscale, carved-wood and stone hotels and restaurants, and shops selling high-end sporting goods, handcrafted souvenirs and chocolate. Best of all, my supermarket conscientiously encouraged the elimination of plastic bags by charging for them. On-line hostel guides and the Lonely Planet showed only pricey dorm beds for $15 and up--too expensive for me. However, I'm a determined optimist, so I rolled my suitcase downhill from the bus station to the hostel area and knocked on doors. Finally, I was directed to an off-the-grid place, Hospedaje Gonzales, where an elderly lady and her friendly dog led me to a dorm room I had to myself for $7.50/night. I love the off-season! In the coming months, I was to find
many of these places, especially in Chile, run by older women who rented out rooms in their family homes once their children had fled and their husbands were dead. While there was no travel info or wifi, that was no problem for this intrepid traveler. With no internet and being out of contact with the world, I felt rather free as if I were a traveler like Odysseus from ancient times, adventuring and floating across the earth. The next morning, I set out for the tourist information center and was hit with sticker shock. In contrast to El Chalten, where world-class hikes, treks and climbs were free, here everything was massively expensive. I certainly wouldn't be taking a tour to Perito Moreno, but prices for the public bus, entrance to the park and to the Glacier Museum were high. Clearly, glaciers were big business. That afternoon, I visited the National Park Office with fine displays and a garden whose evergreen and deciduous varieties of (false) southern beech (nothofagus), were considerately labeled. They even had a calafate bush, whose berries, when eaten, ensured the person would return to Patagonia. The berries weren't in season, but
I had some in ice cream--doesn't that count? I then had a lovely walk around the town's marshy lagoon, seeing distant flamingos and lots of waterfowl so different from ours. Back at the hospedaje, I prepared my usual curried lentils and veggies, listening to my housemates, a couple of Israeli settlers, beautifully singing their Friday night prayers in Hebrew.
A Pleasant Fiasco The next morning, not bright but early, I trudged uphill to the bus station for the 8:15 bus to the Perito Moreno Glacier. After buying my ticket, I was told to board the bus outside the office, and we soon left. I love bus rides, and as usual, I put on my IPOD and enjoyed the scenery. Finally, I saw a mountain that so resembled El Chalten's Solo Mountain that I gasped--how could such a unique mountain have a sibling? We disembarked at a strangely familiar-looking park ranger station, and it was then that I realized I'd not traveled an hour to Perito Moreno, but three back to El Chalten. Hmmm, so much for my sense of time and direction. The front of the bus had
no destination sign on it, so I negotiated long and hard until the driver wrote me a voucher for a free trip to Perito Moreno. I knew I wouldn't have time to hike to Cerro Torre or Fitz Roy, the town's treasures, but thank goodness I was not on a schedule and could enjoy an extra day pleasantly meandering along a river and up to a viewpoint. Oh well, the next day I could feed my glacier habit.
All things Glacier--the Glaciarium The Glaciarium had opened only months before my arrival in 2011. Built in an angular shape to suggest a glacier, it was a fantastic, state-of-the art museum on all things icy. Being a map fanatic, I kept returning to the fabulous 3-D topographical map of Los Glaciares National Park which contains the southern ice field, covering 40%!o(MISSING)f the park and from which flow 48 glaciers down the Andes into Argentina and Chile. There were also great videos and illustrated explanations of the different kinds of glaciers and ice in the world. One room was devoted to the namesake of the nearby glacier, "Perito" (meaning expert) Francisco Moreno, 1852-1919, explorer of Patagonia's
geography and anthropology, who for better or worse, exposed the wonders of Patagonia to the world. There was also a flashy consciousness-raising section on the dangers of global warming to glaciers and the planet. I spent the whole day in this fabulous museum, reading every panel and taking notes, but even for non-glacier wonks, I think the museum would be a treat.
Perito Moreno Glacier The next morning, on the correct bus, I rode through snowy mountains to El Parque de los Glaciares where below was the huge expanse of the Perito Mereno Glacier, flowing like the icy river it was, between mountains and filling the valley. It's one of the few glaciers in the world not receding in this age of global warming and advances about 2 meters a day into Lago Argentino. The lake is a surreal turquoise, the result of "glacier flour," minerals from the glacier that remain suspended in the water. Though not the biggest glacier in the area, it's still impressive towering 74 m/240 ft above the surface of the lake. Perito Moreno is popular, partly because it's so accessible. People fly in, take a tour
that includes perhaps a boat ride, walking on the glacier, and an hour's walk around the glacier's walkways, and fly out the next day. Totally worthwhile for those with more money than time. I was there to spend a day glacier gazing on the walkways. Lucky for us independent travelers, there were lots of information signs all along the walkways that went up, down and around viewpoints along the glacier's 5 km/3 mile front face, its snout. Before the walkways were built, many tourists died thinking they could get close to the glacier, but when it calved, they were swamped with water, hit by flying ice and 32 people died. Now my only danger was freezing since I would be outside all day.
I spent a great day viewing the glacier and the surrounding snowy mountains from all angles, freezing my butt off and watching/listening for the thunder of a dramatic calving and the creation of little icebergs. Even when there wasn't a calving there were constant gun-shot like bursts as the glacier cracked internally all along its 30 km length. Though there was cloud cover all day, at 5 pm, just
as I was leaving, the sun burst through, I could see the glory of the glacier and I snapped away. A perfect ending! My final day in El Calafate, I arose really early for the All Glacier Tour in a big catamaran. Stay tuned for this adventure in my next blog!
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