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Published: March 14th 2019
"It’s the glaciers, Stupid!" Yes, Patagonia has picturesque dramatic mountain peaks: Yes, it has awesomely beautiful lakes and majestic wildlife: And if there is one thing that makes it stands it out from the crowd it is its glaciers. The Southern Patagonian ice field is the third largest in the world (after Antarctica and Greenland) and by far the most accessible. The glaciers flow off the ice sheet down to 200 metres above sea level, well below the tree line. And Perito Moreno glacier is the ‘Hollywood’ of all glaciers: It is almost as if it was created for tourism. It finishes its 17 km journey opposite a promontory that divides two glacial lakes on the Argentinian side of the border. There are a series of board walks so you can view the glacier flowing down towards you ending in an ice wall 40 to 70 metres high. It ‘calves’ with a clap of thunder and a splash as a new iceburg crashes into the lake on a regular basis. The central part moves at 2 metres/day, Formula 1 speed by glacial standards. Every 5 to 10 years it actually reaches the promontory and blocks the Southerly arm (Brazo Rico) from
flowing into Lake Argentina; that is until the water pressure becomes too great and it carves an arch in the ice like it was sand on a beach.
We were not there for such a rare event. We were very lucky because it was a cloudless blue sky with little or no wind. We had elected to do the mini-trek with ‘Hielo Y Adventura’. Being over 50 we did not qualify for the longer Big Ice trek! The glacier is 65km west of the town of El Calafate, which has grown up to support these trips. We had plenty of time to watch the action on the ice wall and then we were ferried in front of the ice wall for a 90 minute trek on the glacier from the far shore. They even had crampons to fit my boots. To be sure we did not walk far on to the glacier. The surface was carved into knobbly surfaces by the wind so our guides insisted we wore gloves. On the well worn paths the ice lay like frozen jewels.
The blue of the ice was mesmeric. When you looked into a hollow it almost seemed to luminesce.
As we walked the guides positioned themselves so we did not fall into crevasses and sink holes and showed us the different characteristics of the ice. Just before we left a large lump fell off the ice wall and created three series of waves which radiated across the lake and crashed on the nearby shore. They served glasses of scotch with glacial ice as we handed in our crampons, which was a nice touch. We left dazzled and glowing.
El Calafate is the second of the three ‘tourist’ towns on the standard Patagonian hiking itinerary, which we were following. These towns, Puerto Natales in Chile and El Chalten in Argentina are the other two, are there to service the tourists visiting the 5 star sites nearby. Many travellers were doing some version of the route in as little as two weeks as a work vacation/holiday from the US or Europe. To the West of these towns are the mountains, the glaciers and not far away the Pacific Ocean on the coast of Chile. To the East is the nothingness of the Patagonia steppe. Golden brown low tufts of grass and a few hardy bushes punctuate the thin volcanic earth.
Trees can not grow in the open and where they do on the mountain sides and lake shores you see dead trucks because, with the thin soil, they often cannot cope with any short term environment stress. This is the habitat of the guanacos and rheas.
Originally, the new Argentinian government gave out the steppe in 20,000 hectare ‘estancias’. That was great when the price of wool was good and the industry has been declining for many years so signs of livestock are few and far between. A guide told us that they need a hectare of land per ewe. If the tourist sites were not here that is all that would be here for hundreds and hundreds of miles.
We got a different perspective when we rented ‘electric’ bikes to explore local cave art and the Glaciarium which were a few kilometres outside El Calafate. These bikes were a new experience. When the head wind was a bit fierce or the incline slightly uphill you increased the electric power and glided effortlessly along. They seemed truly modern fitness machines – you got the impression of working out with little effort at all. They were classic ‘dutch style’
road bikes and most of the cycling was on dirt, sand or gravel tracks which added to the fun. It got us away from the tourist strip and we got fantastic views of Lake Argentina and the surrounding mountains from a bluff by the shore.
The Glaciarium was an excellent little museum that told you about the science of glaciers and also highlighted the early explorers and surveyors. The latter were ensuring they secured the territory for Argentina (and not Chile). Most notable in my mind was a missionary priest, De Agostini, who in the 1920’s not only explored whole swathes of the mountains surrounding the ice field but also created a unique photographic record.
We were on the early bus the next day to El Chalten, three hours North and the newest of the town trio. Prior to 1995 it was a two building ‘estancia’ and now very much has the feel of a ski resort. The town was build to service the National Park and to ensure the Chilean border stayed North of the Lake Deserto, North of the town. There is a narrow opening to the glacial valley with Park HQ at the entrance to the town, a mandatory stop for all bus travellers coming in. The town has been built on the raised flood plain above a river confluence with the Fitzroy mountain range dominating the vista to the West. It is ideal hiking because all the trails start from the town. The ‘ski resort prices’ for accommodation are compensated by the Park and all its excellent trails being free.
As at the last two centres we were blessed with glorious weather. The notorious Patagonian wind has been non-existent since Punta Arenas and at El Chalten we barely saw a cloud. The 5 star walk is up to Laguna de los Tres at the base of Mount Fitzroy. It was similar to the ‘base of the Torres’ walk in Torres del Paine: 10km up with some uphill, some relatively flat valley walking and then a brutal last km taking one hour. Our walk happened to coincide with an outbreak of furry caterpillars (Ormiscodes amphimone for those interested) which apparently periodically denude the local trees. They were everywhere and many had been trampled by previous hikers.
Mountain Fitzroy rises majestically before you. The profile is that of steel knives stuck to a magnetic strip in the kitchen. The range stands as an extended palm holding back the ice field beyond with glaciers dribbling between the fingers. We looked in vain for climbers trying to conquer the spires.
By the time we had found our way into a bustling local pasta joint that evening my phone (OK it only cheap Chinese) was telling me that I had done more than 40,000 steps. That was plenty. By chance we shared our table with a couple of young Swiss-French doctors. We had to buy them drinks because they announced that they had got engaged at the base of Mountain Fitzroy and we were the first people they had told. A great way to end the day.
The next day we did not feel up to another 20km walk and took on the more modest goal (an 8km round trip) to the Torre mountain mirador. As usual Jane continued at her tractor pace, never fast and never slow and rarely stopping. When the going gets steep she puts her hands on her hips for a turbo boost. I continue behind her my sticks clanking from rock to rock to aid my balance and push me along. The Torre mountain is a sharp pinnacle of rock with a cap of snow at the summit to add an extra challenge to anyone insane enough to go up there.
We continued from the mirador to a short hill walk about the visitor’s centre that gave great views of the town and its surroundings. By then we were pretty much hiked out. We took the night bus that evening to Los Antiguos for the next stage of out adventure.
Tot: 4.153s; Tpl: 0.046s; cc: 20; qc: 57; dbt: 0.0529s; 3; m:saturn w:www (188.8.131.52); sld: 2;
; mem: 1.4mb