It seems like almost every visitor to Argentina - even those here for only a couple of weeks - makes it down to El Calafate. Considering it's three thousand driving kilometres away from Buenos Aires, with much of that through mind-numbingly featureless Patagonian steppe, you'd expect something special when you arrive.
Once again, Argentina defies expectations. El Calafate - named after the edible purple berries which grow all over Patagonia, and founded less than a hundred years ago as a very remote outpost - is (the theme seems to recur in this part of the world) at first glance a rather uninspiring, windy place on the Southern shore of the huge Lago Argentino. Its secret lies 80km to the west...
Perito Moreno glacier is one of South America's marvels - a river of ice almost twenty miles long, Perito Moreno is but one of the dozens of glaciers fed by the unimaginably vast Southern Patagonian Ice Field or Campo de Hielo Sur. This is an immense expanse of ice and snow ringed by mountains, from which glaciers flow like so many rivers from a lake. And, as luck would have it, the terminal face of Perito Moreno rises almost
250 feet above the surface of Lago Argentino and a stone's throw away from a rocky peninsula jutting out into the lake. Hey presto - a ready-made tourist magnet for Argentina.
Such is the majesty of this incredible sight is that most visitors - we two very much included - are prepared to shell out megapesos to see it. There's little doubt that visitors to the glacier get taken for a ride - fifteen quid for the one-hour bus ride plus another fifteen quid to enter the Los Glaciares National Park in which the glacier is located... a day trip to Perito Moreno is a touch steep. However, having just checked online and found out that an adult ticket to the naff and frankly dismal London Dungeon is a criminal 24 pounds, I shall cease complaining forthwith. Because a visit to this glacier is worth every last centavo.
Glacier-watching doesn't sound like a particularly exciting activity, I must admit. In the case of Perito Moreno, it very much is. For reasons still unclear, Perito Moreno is one of only a few glaciers in the world which are advancing. The majority are retreating, some at an alarming place. Even
though many glaciers flowing out of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field - some of which are many times larger than Perito Moreno - are in retreat, this one bucks the trend. And as the wall of ice creeps forward - by a couple of metres a day - into the lake, large chunks of ice (we're talking the size of houses and more here) calve off with (almost) predictable regularity, plummeting into the turquoise waters of Lago Argentino with a mighty roar and an even more impressing splash. A large, complex network of walkways criss-crosses the peninsula, providing endless views of the glacier's terminal faces. We take our place on a prime viewing platform, watching the brilliant blue ice (highly compressed ice, as is found at the face of a glacier, takes on a beautiful sky-blue hue) and willing large chunks to fall. You can almost hear other people's thoughts...Come on, come on...fall, dammit!
Our telekinetic powers prove to be woefully inadequate (Alex blames my not having paid for her to go to Hogwarts for this) but towards the end of the day we are rewarded with a respectable and noisy family house-sized collapse. Most impressive. Even when the glacier
isn't calving it emits ominous creaks and groans almost continuously as it inches forwards. Boat rides take you up to the face of the glacier, which towers above in impressive, craggy, razor-sharp formations deeply scarred by crevasses.
Once every few years, however, something extra special happens. The glacier pushes forward far enough to climb onto the rocky peninsula the walkways are built on, producing a natural dam on Lago Argentino. The water level on the southern, dammed part of the lake slowly rises until it is tens of metres higher than the northern (for the glacier moves roughly west to east). Eventually, the ice can no longer hold back the immense mass of water and the whole thing explodes in a blast of ice and water called a ruptura. The last one was in 2008. We've been pretty lucky so far in Argentina but I suppose you can't have everything...the glacier is currently damming the lake, but the difference in water level is nowhere near enough for a ruptura yet. Ho-hum! We'll just have to make do with YouTube videos, I suppose.
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