Glacier trekking: Big Ice in Patagonia

By Tracy Johnson, a Travel Professional

Read more on Argentina.

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Patagonia, in Argentina's remote south, has desolate spaces and wicked mountain spires - and, topping the bill, the chance to take an enthralling trek across the top of Glacier Perito Moreno

First the stats: 70 metres tall, 1 kilometre wide and 5 kilometres long, Perito Moreno is one mother of a glacier - but no figures, no coffee-table books packed with Adolf Sessa photographs, prepare you for the sight of her. She is huge and immutable and very, very far away. Even having reached Patagonia (at the end of the world) and then El Calafate (small airport, no direct bus from Buenos Aires), the closest town to the Parque Nacional los Glaciares, there is still an 80-kilometre drive down mythical Ruta 40 (Argentina’s kicking Route 66) before she reveals herself.

Awe is not a word much bandied about these days but the glacier silences the busloads of visitors for a while. In the early morning light, she is incandescent. The arriviste sun refracts from her flaming blue-white pinnacles. Her early morning bones creak a little and the crowd holds its breath. Maybe a massive spire is going to calve into the water below, sending a tiny tidal wave across Lago Argentino.

There are bus tours and boat tours aplenty from El Calafate, and every view is worthwhile, even from behind a couple of hundred new friends. However, we splashed out with the Hielo y Aventura tour company, who have the exclusive rights to trek on top of the glacier. Any doubts about the quality of the investment are dispelled on first sight of Perito Moreno from the viewing platforms across the lake with the realisation that, after a short boat ride to the other side, we are going to be the lucky ones, an exclusive band of 20, standing on top of her, glowing like Hillary and Tensing.

There are two tours – the two-hour ‘mini-trekking’ and the seven-hour Big Ice. Naturally, we went Big. The muy guapo (very handsome) mountain leaders fit crampons and harnesses at intervals designed to break up the fairly rigorous hike up the moraine beside the glacier, the glacier flirting with us through the trees all the way.

Finally we take our first Bambi steps on the ice, being careful not to catch the points of the crampons and face-plant, and before long we are confidently crunching along behind our guides, scaling the heights of ice pinnacles like a perfect storm frozen in time and bridging crevasses, hoping they won’t open and swallow us into the void. Perito Moreno moves forward two kilometres a year, the only one to do so in this area of ecological recession. We chatted with locals who remembered the days when there were many more glaciers, which have totally disappeared from Patagonia in the last few decades. What was an ice cave yesterday could now be a compacting crush of rubble. The guides seek out caves and lagoons bluer than any Brooke Shields movie. The water is the purest we will ever see on this planet and we fill up our bottles from the trickling streams while sitting on the ice eating our sandwiches.

Everyone is tired but invigorated from the long trek and on the boat back to reality, the guides serve neat whisky with glacier ice to warm us. No one regrets the outlay. Back in El Calafate, we find we have exhausted our supply of reviving chocolate during the trek, even though the guides plyed us with alfajores (chocolate biscuits filled with super-sweet dulce de leche, Argentina’s national dessert) along the trail to keep the energy up. We head straight to Oveijas, the best chocolateria on the strip, for some hand-made whisky mousse dark chocolate sandwiches.

The town is pretty much dedicated to servicing glacier visitors, so there is no shortage of hotels at all price levels, although they get booked up in advance, especially in peak season (December to March). We stayed in a private room at the America del Sur hostel, not wanting to trail our Patagonian dust-caked boots through the reception at luxurious Eolo.  America del Sur’s receptionists trustingly bought our tickets for tours and buses in advance of our arrival.

We spent evenings after dinner playing pool in the Los Alamos Hotel and booked into their spa for massages to relieve our weeks of trekking Patagonia. When the rain slammed through our waterproofs (no guarantees are watertight against the Patagonian downpours that break through the barricade of taping within moments), we snuggled in the Librobar, feet up with some English beer and their wall of travel books.

Although far from cheap, we didn’t eat a bad meal in El Calafate. Patagonian lamb cooked on the spit or parilla at La Tablita is pungent and revitalizing when washed down with a smoky malbec. On our last night we discovered Pura Vida, on the strip but 10 minutes' walk from the centre. The two-level atmospheric restaurant has the finest empanadas stuffed with hand-cut steak and a delicious pastry-topped steak pie big enough for two.

The following day we would take the jolting bus down the, as yet unpaved, desolate Ruta 40 for three or four hours until we came to tiny El Chalten, trekking capital of Argentina. Just time in the morning to stock up on some whisky mousse sandwiches.
 

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Author:
Tracy Johnson
Traveller type:
Travel Professional
Guide rating:
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)
Total views:
506
First uploaded:
14 October 2009
Last updated:
4 years 48 weeks 1 day 4 hours 20 min 6 sec ago
Destinations featured:
Trip types:
Activity, Adventure
Budget level:
Budget, Mid-range, Expensive
Free tags / Keywords:
trekking, glaciers, Ice Climbing

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Community comments (5)

Rating:
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0 of 1 people found the following comment helpful.

This conjured up the destination well - I could picture myself on the boat post-trek, warming up with a glass of whisky and glacier ice! (Though I can't quite imagine what a whisky mousse dark chocolate sandwich would taste like...) Adding in contacts for the tour company, bars, restaurants and hotels you mention would have earned it a higher star-rating on the usefulness front. Also, please could you add your recommended hotels in the Hotel Recommendations box on the upload page; this creates a 'Make it Happen' box on your story, with a link to the hotel - without it, there's no way for the reader to click through and potentially book a stay there. I like the pix, but they could do with captions - and if you had a few more you could put up, that would be good too.

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Thank you for your feedback Suzanne - perhaps you are not aware of the problems with loading hotel information onto the site. Having gone through the process and having it crash every time and finally being told that it is a problem - I thought I would wait until you fixed it.
I also think that maybe you should reconsider your change in my title. BIG ICE is a very specific journey across one of the world's most amazing glaciers that will attract a lot of google hits!

Hi Tracy. When I Googled Big Ice, I got a lot of stories about flood pumps, novels, ice hockey and ice cream, and no sign of your story. When I searched on ice climbing + Patagonia (which I included in the revised title), your story was listed on the second page of Google results. However, if you're unhappy with the new title, then of course we're happy to change it - I've now adapted it to include Big Ice, but also kept in other key words that will help in searches. As far as loading hotels goes, I do understand that you've been having problems, but with the browser I use (Firefox) it all works very smoothly, so if you add the contact details for the hotels into your copy, I'll happily do that bit for you.

Suzanne you might think Im being picky but in view of optimization I still think your title is wrong. Firstly the word Argentinean is incorrect - you say Argentine! Also no one is going to google arg adv when theyre looking for glacier trekking. OPtimal title would seem to be Glacier trekking - Big ice in Patagonia (or Argentina)

Hi Tracy. I have no problems with your suggested revision - it's closer to the rewrite than it was to the original and still has key words in it, so I don't think it's worth arguing over - will happily change it now. And it avoids any further argument over Argentine/Argentinian - both of which, according to Collins, are valid.