[Patagonia III] January 7, 2012: Perito Moreno

I awoke at 6am and blearily dressed, brushed, and ate, in preparation for my Official Day of Tour: to Glaciar Perito Moreno. The tour van picked me up around 6:30am and, after grabbing a few more passengers, they switched us over into a large bus, and we were on our way to El Calafete in Argentina.

Our first stop was at the Chilean border, where they also had an appealing gift shop filled with all kinds of Patagonian goodies. After a perusal of their offerings, we waited in line to have our papers checked, and got our official salido-Chile stamp. Then, we drove through five minutes’ worth of no man’s land: a stretch of flat plains and low mountains, not officially part of Chile nor Argentina. At the other end, we stopped at another customs station to enter Argentina.

At the Chilean border.

We drove for some time, through gentle hills coated with golden fuzz, some with the Andean black-grey dirt showing through. Eventually, we did a brief stop at a shiny, bright blue lake, which was bordered by all kinds of unusual spiky shrubbery, as well as more daisy-clumps.


We drove and drove and drove, and we also did a little bit of driving. At some point, I started chatting with a group of three Californian boys who were sitting next to me on the bus, on a range of topics from GIS to video games. This was a useful thing: it was a grueling five-hour drive, but the conversation made the time edge by a little faster.

After a lot of driving through barren, almost desert-like terrain, we reached the entrance to Los Glaciares National Park. Here, we had to pay an entrance fee that was surprisingly expensive for this country. This is part of a pattern I’ve noticed about Patagonia, especially in contrast with the Atacama: while it’s stunning, there are a large number of unexpected pop-up expenses. Such is the tourist life.

Lichentastic tree.

We entered the park and drove a while longer, now passing lush forests and shrubs with pendulous red flowers. Lichen and hanging moss (Usnea) were visible everywhere, and dagger-shaped snowy mountains loomed in the distance. We passed alongside a huge lake in a peculiar shade of blue, and then, at last, we got our first glimpse of the Perito Moreno glacier. It took up the entire far end of the lake, 97 square miles and a frigid blue-white. Increíble.

We reached the tiny dock of the icy lake, where two catamarans lay waiting. Here, we had to shell out another chunk of money for the boat ride (I would have thought that would have been included in the tour fee, since it was the ultimate destination of the trip, but no such luck).

Our catamaran.

Along with the Californian boys, I settled on the first level of the boat, right at the front. Our catamaran backed out, and then we were bouncing on our way through the gelid waters. A breeze whipped up that went right through my layers of clothing, but I was too interested in the scenery to be bothered: we were beginning to see fist-sized lumps of ice floating on the waves, with larger ice floes on either side of us. The land at the edge of the lake (the glacial moraine) was also stunning: red-brown rock, arranged in swirling layers, the craggy remnants from when the glacier had glided through. Higher up, there were some tentative trees, and even higher, more sharp, snowy peaks.

Soon enough, our boat reached the glacier — and good gracious, the glacier was enormous. It was a jagged mass of ice, rearing about 240 feet up out of the water, with various peaks and crenelations at its top, and bizarre shapes along its vertical edge, formed by chance as pieces break off. There were many little crevices shaded a luminous blue.

The boat drove us along the edge of the glacier (at a respectful distance so that no ice would fall on our heads). Every square inch of the ice formations was unique and interesting, from the dark tracings near the base to the scalloped edges at the top. Frequently, when the boat motor was quiet, we could hear faint distant creaking sounds, as something shifted deep within the ice. Several times, I saw medium-sized chunks of ice slip off the glacier’s edge, to fall crashing and shattering into the water below.

After a good amount of time gawping reverentially, it was time for us to turn back. The boat headed to the dock, again wending its way through a variety of floating icebergs. Several of the small ice floes revealed handsome new facets from this angle: sides as polished as glass, or a fine line of fresh blue popping up from under the water.

We climbed off the boat and back into the bus until the next destination, another touristy spot with a gift shop and convenience store food. The building was unremarkable, but the location was exceptional — it was situated high on the mountain on the far side of glaciar Perito Moreno. Even from the parking lot, we could gaze out over the top of the glacier; I got a much clearer sense of how enormous it really is. There were a series of raised wooden paths and steps, which led down the wild hillside, between bushes and trees, allowing a closer view of the glacier.

Glacier paths.
Overview of the glacier. So enormous!

After not quite enough time scampering down the wooden platforms, we went back into the bus again, this time for the long haul back (with stops at gas stations and again at the Argentine and Chilean borders). Five-ish hours later, the bus dropped me back at my hostel. I’m a little conflicted about whether the tour’s contents were worth ten hours’ bus riding and multiple border crossings. Still, I was very glad to have seen the breathtaking Perito Moreno, especially since Torres del Paine’s Glacier Grey was still closed because of the fires. As always, I enjoyed watching the scenery out the window. I saw a handful of large, raptor-like birds hanging out on fence posts, and I also saw a skunk! If I were to do the trip again, I think it might be better to spend a few nights in Las Glaciares National Park, instead of attempting the whole long trip in one day.

Sunset at the border.

Back at the hostel, I dealt with the work emails of the day, and then headed out to get a late dinner (quesadillas!) with the Californian boys. Afterward, I returned to my hostel and cozied up on the top bunk. Pleasantly, I had the room to myself for the night, as all the other occupants had traveled on.

(Unsurprisingly, there are more photos on Flickr, for your viewing pleasure.)

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