We walked slowly in a single file, lifting each foot with more effort than usual. Our feet were weighed down by the crampons. Each step felt deliberate, robotic even.
The vast expanse of blue went beyond the horizon, seemingly never-ending. It’s unlike anything I’ve encountered before. All sorts of blue surrounded us; sky blue, deep blue, dirty blue. There must’ve been more than 50 shades of blue. Icy peaks, cracks, small ponds and columns of glacial ice make up a wild and captivating environment. Is this what Antarctica looks like?
We were so far south in the continent, no one would doubt it anyway. But no, we were walking atop the Perito Moreno Glacier in the Los Glacieres National Park and the closest city, El Calafate, is only 2 hours away.
I’ve been to El Calafate twice; the first time I got denied signing up for the Glacier Mini-Trekking due to my injured knee, and the second time, back with a vengeance, determined to complete it.
You might think I’m foolish to alert the staff at Hielo y Adventura – the sole company offering glacier trekking – about my injured knee. I thought that way too, initially. But I’m glad I did. The cheaper option, Mini-Trekking, costs ARS $2400 (April 2017) or around USD $155. It would be more foolish to pay and be not able to do it once I’m there.
Price for Mini-Trekking with Hielo y Adventura: ARS $2400 (April 2017)
This isn’t a tough trek, but it certainly isn’t a stroll in the park either. Only people aged 10-65 are allowed, with no back or knee problems. Wearing the crampons while trekking exerts a certain amount of strain. It was only after attempting Fitz Roy with an injured knee (and almost completing it) that I knew I’m ready and gone ahead.
As a touristic city, the staff speaks perfect English. Signing up at the office is a painless process. Signing up online, however, is another story. I’ve read and heard of the almost impossible process to do so online, so I’d suggest doing it in person or with your hostel (it’s a popular activity in El Calafate).
They pick you up at your hostel early in the morning, before the sun rises. Unless you happen to stay at Schilling Hostal Patagonico – where I stayed – you’ll have to be at the office 15 min before the bus leaves. Locationist!!! It doesn’t matter as it’s only a 5 min walk from my hostel hehe.
It’s a 2 hours’ bus ride to the national park. Thankfully, the on-board guide generously allocated sleeping time after her brief introduction. It’s 7:30am, I need my beauty sleep!
Did I mention that NOT included in the exorbitant fees is the entrance fee to Los Glacieres National Park? That’s another ARS $500 (~USD $35). Now you understand why I’d rather ‘test’ my knee condition at the free trek to Fitz Roy.
Los Glaciares National Park Entrance Fee: ARS $500 (April 2017)
I have to state that I have no qualms paying for the national park entrance fees as I’m doing my part to preserve one of the only three growing glaciers in the world.
Near the entrance of the park, the tour guide takes the chance to explain about the surrounding environment, like the trees and the lake. I have honestly no interest in the trees but the lake is interesting. It has a milky blue colour - due to mineral reactions - that makes it intriguing yet disgusting at the same time.
The bus drops you off at Bajo de Las Sombras port, 7km before the Glacier viewpoint. From there, it is a 20-minute boat ride where everyone is busy taking selfies and photos of the glacier as it looms closer and closer. This is the first up-close look of the glacier, and it sure is captivating.
If you’ve brought a tad too many things, don’t worry as the refugio is where you’ll store your stuff and have lunch afterwards.
Cross a wooden footbridge through a forest and arrive at the rocky beach at the base of the glacier. Here, the trekking guides take over by starting with a brief lecture on the history of glaciers and what makes the stunning Perito Moreno glacier famous.
Named after the famous explorer, Perito Moreno extends over 250 square kilometres - larger than the size of Buenos Aires - and is still growing. It slides a meter and a half from its center and 40 centimeters to its sides every day, making it one of the only three growing glaciers in the world.
As huge as it looks on the surface, beneath the water there is more of it. What we see is literally the tip of the iceberg. I was mind-blown finding out that it isn’t actually floating! From the gasps of the other trekkers, I wasn’t the only ignorant person there.
You put on your crampons, or rather have the guides put on for you, and make your way to the start of the glacier like a little duck waddling on land. Crampons are trekking devices with spikes attached to your shoes to allow you to walk on ice and snow. They are heavy, hence the unnatural movements and the restrictions. I felt like a new-born calf entering the world and making its first steps, limbs comically failing about.
As we made our first steps on the glacier, I felt a sense of excitement and wonder. It is so surreal to be standing on such a natural wonder. Even with a still injured knee, I was thankful for the chance and have the health to be able to do this incredible activity.
The first part of the glacier is dirty. Almost black. Sediments and human contact contaminated it. But as we got higher, the glacier became cleaner. Vibrant shades of blue from streams, crevasses and gullies sparkle under the brilliant sun. The less oxygen in the ice, the bluer it gets.
The ice surface is irregular, but firm and safe. Trekking guides stand at both ends, offering their steady hands at trickier spots while picking the ice path on the fly. Due to the ever growing and evolving landscape, erosion and human influence, the guides are forced to modify the trek periodically. No two treks are exactly the same.
Walking with crampons means going downhill with toes pointing forward, not sideward, unlike normal trekking. The spikes dig into the ice so getting your feet stuck at an angle while your body leans forward would sprain your ankles easily. Also, you wear gloves not to protect from the cold, but from the sharp and ragged ice.
If only I was such an attentive student in school.
At certain point throughout the trek, you get to drink directly from the small ponds and that is as pure a water as you can get! At the end of the roughly 1.5 hour trek, you celebrate with chocolate and whiskey, with 350-year-old ice dug directly from the glacier. Now, that’s redefining whiskey on the rocks!
After a not-included-lunch at the refugio, you make your way to the classic viewpoint of Perito Moreno. The wooden walkways stretch from one end of the glacier to the other end, providing a different perspective of the glacier in its entirety. This is where you see the view of the glacier found on postcards and Instagram.
If I were to be honest, I would say it isn’t worth the exorbitant price. I believe there are cheaper options for glacier trekking elsewhere. But if you travelled 14 000 km, from a city without any natural wonders, is your first time seeing a glacier, and if you want to do it, then yes, do it with the most well-known glacier. It’s worth the experience and a photo to show for it.
It really is as majestic as it looks in photos. I leaned against the wooden fences, stared at the glacier and thought of how fortunate I am. As luck would have it, I heard the thunderous breaking of the glacier, similar to the sound of an aircraft taking off, and witnessed blocks of ice falling into the water. It was a magical blue afternoon.
Schilling Hostel Patagonico has the best breakfast I had in my travels. Bread, a variety of jams, cakes, eggs, coffee, tea... plus, it has a good location, just 5 min to the main street. The guy that worked that speaks excellent English and is super friendly. I even extended my stay by another 2 days!
And now, it's your turn.