South America Travel Tips

El Calafate: the Trap. Glaciar Milk. And the “Man of the Glacier”…

Once you reach Southern Patagonia you get into a trap. Literally, you’re in the middle of nowhere. There is a town (if you can call it like that even) every 150km or thereabouts. You really are at the end of the World. You’re stuck. There is nothing around you. You’re alone, in the South of South America.

The landscape is unbelievable, with the steppe in every direction you look, with mountains gradually getting lower and lower until you get to the Antarctic Sea to the far South, with yellow, brown and white colours – yes, the glaciers.

El Calafate: from shelter to the most visited town of Southern Patagonia

Let’s start from the town of El Calafate, where I spent 5 days with the only goal being going to the Perito Moreno glacier. Now that I know El Calafate is a trap, I would have happily spent there just 2 nights: see the glacier and then leave as soon as possible!

El Calafate used to be a tiny settlement used by local wool traders. Then, the miracle happened.

In 1937 the Los Glaciares National Park, located 80km from the town, was opened. This turned its luck around: today, El Calafate is the only possible accommodation for tourists who wish to go to the glaciers.

And this, of course, is where the trap is born. There are no “competitors” within hundreds of miles, and therefore El Calafate is 3 or 4 times more expensive than the rest of Argentina. Here is where English, German, French, Italian, Japanese, Chinese are spoken more than Spanish. Where going out for dinner costs more than Ireland. Where accommodation is way out of budget for the majority of local people. Also, only expensive tours give you access to the National Park – if you go there alone you can only see the glacier from a boardwalk.

The main street has got tour agencies every other shop. There are so many that choosing the best is quite impossible – each one has distinct offers and different kind of tours.

Other than walking on the main street trying not to spend all your money, there is nothing else to do in town. No hikes, no places of interest, you’re basically stuck in there.

Oh – I almost forgot.

Of course, you can take a short 20 minute walk to reach the Lago Argentino, the largest lake in Argentina.

This lake has the lightest blue I’ve ever seen – it is fed by glaciers and after researching a little it seems the colour is due to “glaciar milk“: glacial erosion of rock generates small silt particles which then make the water cloudy. This blue, trust me, is unbelievable.

The Man of the Glacier: Photostory of the “Big Ice” Tour @ Perito Moreno Glacier

There are quick and easy 2hrs boat tours to the glacier.

And then there is the “Big Ice” tour, like they call it here.

Only one agency has the permit for it: Hielo y Aventura. All the other agencies in town just sell H&A tour, as the Glacier National Park only assigns the right to the best and most appropriate tour company.

The “Big Ice” tour features 1hr on the boardwalks, where it’s possible to look at the glacier from the other side of the lake, a 15min boat trip to reach the base of the moraine, a 1hr trekking on the trail which runs beside the glacier and finally a 2hrs walk on the glacier itself!

You’re provided with gloves and crampons, so that you can turn yourself into a professional ice-trekker. But let’s start from the beginning – I hope you can enjoy this as much as I did!

First, you get to walk and take photos from the “passerellas”, boardwalks located just in front of the glacier. Sometimes, you can literally hear “bomb-alike” noises. The ice produces this noise as it’s constantly breaking up – and sometimes falling into the lake to create mini-icebergs.

It’s not visible, but the moraine’s height is 70m above lake level – and 200m underwater!

Done with the “passerellas”, the real tour starts. Only tours can reach the glacier itself. And the only way is to get a boat to reach the base of the moraine.

After some very helpful safety tips by our guides, we then start hiking uphill, in between the mountain and the glacier, for about an hour. This is to reach a decent height, where the ice-trekking can finally start.

Once the trail is completed, guides help you wear crampons, as the ice walk is about to start. It’s pretty fun to wear these, it really feels like the real thing.

And at this stage, the walk we’ve all been waiting for begins. It’s not extremely cold, and the ice is really hard – a pleasure to walk on it!

You get to see lots of interesting things, such as amazing cavities, incredible blue waters, hills, holes, small rivers, water flowing under your feet, stones stuck into the ice. Impossible to put this on photo, but I tried my best:

I would keep going if I had your attention at this stage, but maybe this is sufficient for today. So, a special “hola” and definitely a huge “Happy New Year” from the man of the glacier:

At the end, this was the best money I ever spent. Difficult to describe really, and difficult to repeat.

We got back down to the little boat once again, and were rewarded with a “OMG I need this so much right now!” cup of coffee.

On the boat, we got free chocolate sweets and whiskey 🙂

This tour could not have been better really. Needless to say I got back home and had the best sleep ever, knowing that a few more days of relax and hiking in the Argentinian trekking capital of El Chalten were coming soon!

Hasta luego,