South America is bestowed with unique geography and pristine landscapes that is nothing less than spellbinding. The entire border between Chile and Argentina is a treasure-trove of nature's best kept secrets brimming with charm and magic.
For us, this was a trip of numerous firsts and extraordinary experiences. Our first snow fall together, my first multi day trek, spotting multiple shooting stars in a span of a few minutes, seeing milky way with naked eyes, the driest place on earth, the largest salt flat of the world, staying in a salt hotel, seeing natural geysers and what not. Amidst all of this and many more, our rendezvous with the sparkling bright blue Glaciers of Patagonia is one such experience that filled us with so much joy and wonder as if we were little children in Disneyland.
The small touristy town of El Calafate is the doorway to the Glaciers and located strategically between El Chalten and Torres Del Paine, makes for an inevitable stop for most tourists.
Exploring El Calafate
We stopped at El Calafate twice, on our way to and back from Torres Del Paine. The plan was to stay in El Calafate just for a day to visit the Glaciers, but we ended up spending two days extra here, you will shortly know why. So, the idea was to land in El Calafate and immediately leave for Puerto Natales, the base town for Torres Del Paine, which is approximately only 4 hours away. Once we reached the bus station, we realized that there were no more buses going to Puerto Natales that day. Similarly, when we were back from Torres Del Paine, we were supposed to reach Balmaceda via El Chalten and los Antiguos in four days. We realized that was practically impossible because of the bus timings and frequency. Most of Patagonia is connected by bus service, but the frequency of buses is very low and the peculiar bus timings makes it necessary to keep a couple of days extra for transit.
So, tweaking our plan, we booked a bus for the next morning and found a nice accommodation right opposite the bus terminal at hostel Glacier Perito Moreno. Located so close to the bus terminal, this proved to be a very comfortable stay. They also let us keep our luggage at the hostel while we carried only the necessary stuff for the trek to Torres Del Paine. The hostel provides breakfast, has a nice kitchen that we can use, and we could do our laundry as well.
We spent the day loitering around the town. It is a small touristy town, very lively and easily walkable. El calafate is named after a berry found in this region, the calafate berry. It is said that someone who eats this berry has to come back to El Calafate. We had the best helado (icecream) here. Ofcourse we had to try the calafate berry flavour. OMG! it was heavenly ! I can sense its fresh, tingling flavour bursting in my mouth as I type this. The main market street, Avenida Del Libertador is flanked by cafes, restaurants, heladerias, and numerous tour companies, and is the epicenter of all the hustle bustle of the town. While strolling on this street, you would come across Paseo de Los Artesanos, a small hub of all things artsy. A place where local artisans put up their unique art and craft products on sale. It is a nice look around if you are interested in local crafts and you can also pick up a few souvenirs.
There are so many tour companies selling so many different options to experience the glaciers that it really gets quite confusing at some point. There is one particular tour, that all tour representatives reiterated as the most popular one. In fact, each of them used the exact same script and spoke with the same tone while describing that tour to us. By the end of a couple hours, we had heard exactly the same thing at least ten times over. Let me put it down here, as it also describes our day in a nutshell:
"We pick you up at 7 am from your hotel from where you go to Puerto Bandera and board the magnificent Maria Turquesa cruise that sails through the Lago Argentino taking you to Upsala, Spegazzini and in the end to the most wonderful, the most beautiful Glacier, the world famous Perito Moreno. You disembark here, you have some time to explore and experience Perito Moreno from various view points and then we return back to Puerto Bandera. Packed lunch, both vegetarian and non vegetarian options as per your choice and beverages are served on the cruise. You are dropped back to your hotel in a 4x4 comfortable vehicle."
The way they said it, with peculiar emphasis on Upsala, Spegazzini and Perito Moreno, it still rings in our ears. We did end up booking this very tour for ourselves, considering its popularity and suitability to us in terms of time and budget, and must I say, it was an absolutely delightful experience.
The Los Glaciers National Park
Cruising the waters of Lago Argentino on board Maria Turquesa is undeniably one of the best ways to explore the surreal landscapes of Los Glaciers National Park. It is indeed a very fine and comfortable ride with four exterior decks to ensure everyone has enough space to be outdoors if they wish to and enjoy nature in all its magnitude. There were large informative displays of the terrain we were traversing to help visitors know more about the geography of this incredible topography. The captain was also very friendly and entertained us with stories of his numerous voyages across these waters.
Sailing through those bone chilling waters, with cold gusty winds slapping the bits and pieces of our visible skin, we were constantly torn apart between staying on the deck to enjoy the majesty of the landscape around us and getting indoors to keep ourselves warm.
Throughout the ride, we were surrounded by fascinating sights and natural beauty in the form of snow capped mountains, deep blue water, ice bergs, and Glaciers. As we approach the magnificent Upsala Glacier, deep blue and white crystal like pieces, glistening in the sunlight, start emerging on the surface. This is the second largest Glacier in South America, but it is rapidly retreating and goes through massive calving, making it difficult to go too close. So the boat goes as far as it is safe and we see the Massive Glacier from a distance. We come across numerous icebergs, both small and large exhibiting spectacular shapes and color. There is so much depth and wonder in these unique pieces made of just frozen water. We saw so many dramatic formations that fired both our excitement and imagination like little kids and we started looking for dolphin, spaceship, cheese, rhino and what not in those wondrous, light as foam, white as cream structures with beautiful intense blue details.
Sailing further towards the Spegazzini Glacier, we encounter the twin hanging Glaciers, Seco and Heim, named this way because they hang from the mountain without reaching the lake.
The boat gets real close to the Spegazzini, offering us phenomenal views of the Glacier. I am totally dazed by the sheer brilliance and magnificence of the Glacier. Spegazzini is impressive in every sense. From the front, the sheer size of its massive wall towering at 135m at places is absolutely spellbinding. And if you look further, it is like pure white foam whipped with the brightest of the blue and spread with a butter knife over the mountains, as far as the eyes can see and beyond.
Within the Spegazzini canal, we halted for a while at Puesto Las Vacan, which is an old Patagonian estancia, with an intriguing story told by a guide who took us for a short walk around the ranch. It is a beautiful and refreshing experience exploring the wild vegetation,
walking through the deserted land, as if nature had cast a spell on it.
After a quiet walk at the Estancia, we started sailing again towards the last and the most coveted destination of this voyage, Perito Moreno. This arm of the lake is called Canal de los Tempanos, meaning "the Iceberg Channel" and rightly so, as we started getting closer, we came across more icebergs; larger, prettier and bluer than before. There is too much hype about Perito Moreno in this part of the world. Everyone is head over heels and talks about this as the most beautiful thing they had ever seen, so we were naturally very curious and excited to see it for real. A part of me did think that there is definitely some exaggeration happening here, only until we saw it for ourselves. No pictures or words that I or anyone else says can ever do justice to the sheer brilliance of this masterpiece of nature.
Perito Moreno is extraordinary in so many ways. Covering a total area of 100 sq miles, it is a part of the Southern Patagonian ice fields which is impressively the third largest reserve of fresh water in the world. What we are looking at is a massive wall of ice rising 70 meters above the lake Lago Argentino and stretching 3 miles wide, while two- thirds of the Glacier is below the water level and cannot be seen. While global warming is causing most Glaciers to recede, with an exception, Perito Moreno is continuously growing, advancing around 2 meters a day.
While sailing across the northern face of Perito Moreno we could witness the most fascinating phenomenon, fracturing of Glacial ice. When you least expect it, Massive chunks of ice would break off the walls of the Glacier and fall into the water with a thud and you will hear an incredible roar. This spectacle is as miraculous as it can get, a sight to behold.
Perito Moreno is understandably the most visited Glacier in the national park. And there are multiple ways to experience it. After having an exhilarating experience of sailing in front of the Glacier, we disembarked on a landmass right opposite to the northern face of the glacier, where we walked across a circuit of footbridges and viewing balconies to appreciate the beaming white beauty with bright blue hues from different viewpoints. There are multiple trails at different levels so one can easily spend a few hours here. It was simply magical to peacefully hang around the balconies and watch the ice rupture and fall into the emerald waters of the lake. It is a spectacle that excited me each and every time I saw it. The thundering sound still rings in my ear as I think of it. We are so close to the Glacier that I could feel it breathing cold icy air on my face.
This part of the park can also be reached by car or bus from El Calafate. So if you just want to see Perito Moreno, you may also take an early morning bus or a shared cab and spend a few hours here. Although I would suggest taking the whole tour, there is an hour long boat ride that can be booked from here as well.
We did not know about this earlier, but I hear that if weather permits, there is also an option to do Kayaking at the north face which seems like a fun and adventurous way of exploring Perito Moreno. You will have to pre-book this at one of the tour companies in El Calafate itself.
If you are up for more adventure and don't might splurging a little, The MINI TREKKING and the BIG ICE TOURS run by some companies allow you to get right on to the Glacier. The first one is a shorter 1.5 hours stint on the ice while the BIG ICE is 4 hours long trekking adventure on the glacier. Both the tours include a boat ride to a landing point, walking a bit to get to the ice and then wear crampons and trek on the ice with a trained guide. It must be fantastic to get to see all the crazy ice formations up close. We chose to skip this since we had only a day and wanted to take the Cruise to see multiple Glaciers in a single day.
Having treated all our senses to nature's bounty, Maria Turquesa sailed us back to the harbor from where we reached our hostel around 8 pm, ready to crash on our beds after an unforgettable day.