After Bariloche we flew* south to the town of El Calafate in southern Patagonia. The main draw in El Calafate is the Perito Moreno glacier, about 50 miles west of the town. It’s also a jumping-off point for other treks, including to the imposing, improbably-steep Mount Fitz Roy. We’re not mountaineers nor are we up for multi-day hikes right now, so our plans were focused on the glacier.
Our flight south paralleled the Andes mountains. Approaching El Calafate we began to see glacial lakes and rivers – each one a different color blue – that stood out against the grays and whites of the mountains, and the browns and yellows of the vast, desolate pampas.
We hear a great deal of alarming news about global warming, especially in reference to effects upon glaciers and ice packs. Perito Moreno is a bit of an aberration in that it is in relative equilibrium rather than in retreat. The glacier, which flows up to 7 feet a day, oscillates in length every few years. It crosses a lake, bumps up against the far shore, then retreats a bit before repeating the cycle.
Lauren wasn’t feeling great, so she stayed home while I took the boys on a day trip to the glacier. Oozing down from the Andes mountains, the glacier is situated among snow-capped mountains, pine forests, and a lake fed by meltwater. We started with a boat ride that brought us within a few hundred feet of the front of the glacier. Any closer and we’d be endangered by waves or ice from the glacier as it calved. Pieces regularly fall off into the water, and there are a number of small icebergs in the lake. We saw a number of small and medium pieces fall. The glacier is almost 200’ high, and those pieces are loud when they crack, fall, and hit the water! The lake itself looks artificial. It’s a light turquoise that our cameras + screens can’t quite reproduce. Thanks to the high levels of very fine minerals (“dust”) ground up by the glacier, the water is also opaque – like milk. Mixing blue Gatorade with skim milk might be a good approximation, but I’m not about to confirm that.
After the boat, we had several hours of free time to explore before our bus back to town. We started with our boxed lunches on a beach. The rocky beach on the lake had views of pine- and snow-covered mountains with several eerily blue icebergs in the foreground. Not a bad place to eat, even if it was a little windy.
After lunch we hiked several of the well-developed walkways for viewing this UNESCO World Heritage Site. We spent quite a bit of time just looking at the glacier. The glacier is constantly changing – both through flowing and calving, but also from the light throughout the day. We saw colors ranging from whites and grays to brilliant blues in the cracks and crevasses.
It’s early spring in southern Patagonia, and the weather is changeable. The day’s persistent wind brought clouds to replace the morning’s blue skies, and by the time we got on the bus late afternoon, it had started to snow!
The following day the boys and I went to the Glaciarium, a glacier museum weirdly situated on its own a couple miles out of town. There was a free shuttle from downtown, and the grounds have a stunning view across the pampas towards the lake and mountains. The view alone was worth it. The museum was excellent, and captivated the boys. All 3 of us learned a great deal.
As we waited outside for our shuttle back to town, a small herd (herdlet?) of horses ambled past us, about 10’ away. The grassland is their home, and as they passed unhurriedly I felt a strong sense that I was a guest in someone else’s living room.
That evening Lauren joined us for another museum on the outskirts of town. This museum chronicles the history of the area from the dinosaurs through to European colonization. I was impressed that it did not sanitize the period of colonization, a time of sometimes-brutal exploitation and inhumanity toward the locals.
After El Calafate we flew even further south, to Ushuaia – the southernmost city on the planet.
* When we first started planning our time on Argentina the Bariloche-El Calafate flight didn’t exist and we would have had to fly via Buenos Aires or take a 24hr bus ride to get to El Calafate – so we almost skipped it. Glad we didn’t!