El Calafate and Perito Moreno

Perito Moreno is one of the most visited glaciers in Patagonia due to its accessibility. The closest town is El Calafate, which is about an hour away by car. El Calafate was my first stop in Argentina, and I couldn’t leave without seeing Perito Moreno.

A few options are available to see the glacier. For a more relaxed experience, visitors can see the bottom of the glacier from a set of balconies. For visitors looking for a more active experience, tour companies offer “minitrekking” and “Big Ice” tours, both of which allow visitors to hike on ice. These are the main differences between the tours:

  • Big Ice requires an hour-long uphill hike through forest before you step onto the ice. The hike allows you to go farther up the glacier. Minitrekking is on a lower part of the glacier, so you don’t have to worry about the uphill forest hike.
  • Big Ice groups spend about three hours on the glacier, while minitrekking groups spend about 1.5 hours on the ice.

I decided to go for Big Ice with Hielo y Aventura. YOLO, right? (Do people still say this?) Regardless of the trek you choose, you’re going to have an awesome experience. Both treks also offer the chance to visit the balconies to see the bottom of the glacier.

On the morning of my Big Ice trek, the tour company picked me up from my hostel. Once we finished picking up all the guests in El Calafate, we drove to the balconies at Perito Moreno. There was a steady drizzle, and I was shivering in a rain jacket, fleece, long-sleeved tee, and gloves. Even though my hands were numb, I snapped away with my camera.

perito moreno

During the hour we were on the balconies, the glacier kept creaking and groaning due to the shifting ice. I saw a couple small pieces of ice fall into the water. Our guide Silvia explained that the falling ice was part of the glacier’s “life cycle” and that the ice would regenerate at the top of the glacier. She said the ice melted and regenerated at a consistent pace and that climate change hadn’t affected Perito Moreno yet.

Before we started our hike, we took a 20-minute boat ride to get closer to the glacier. We met our lead trekking guide and two assistant guides, and I donned pants I had rented in El Calafate for extra warmth; leggings weren’t going to cut it on a glacier. Even in steady rain, the hour-long uphill hike to the ice wasn’t challenging. I’m not particularly fit, but I didn’t struggle with the hike (I slipped a couple of times toward the end, but that’s just to be expected when you’re a traveler who insists on trekking in sneakers rather than hiking boots), and no one else in my group experienced issues

Before stepping onto the ice, we put on harnesses and crampons. To walk on the ice safely, our guides told us to march in small steps so our whole foot would touch the ice at once, keep our feet shoulder-length apart, and plant our feet in a “V” when walking uphill and parallel when walking downhill.

Finally, we trooped onto the ice. I walked like an unsteady toddler in crampons, but at least I was safe(?). Optical illusions caused the clear ice to appear blue, especially in deeper parts of the glacier.

perito moreno

I wish I remembered our guide’s explanation for the optical illusion (I think it had to do with refraction), but it went over my head because…science. Too much for a former lawyer.

The assistant guides carved steps in the ice for us and helped us pass over gaps. I took full advantage of their assistance since I didn’t want to fall into crevasses like this:

perito moreno

The ice was astonishingly clear and played tricks on my perception. I cautiously approached shiny spots because I expected to hit water, but these spots ended up being ice.

Although it was raining when we first hit the ice, the clouds slowly started to lift. The rain stopped about 30 minutes before our lunch break, and we were able to fill our bottles with frosty glacier water.

perito moreno

After lunch, we reached a couple of caves.

perito moreno

perito moreno

After being on the ice for three hours, we headed back for our hike in the forest (downhill this time!) to the port where our boat was waiting. As our boat drove away from the glacier, we were each given a glass of whiskey. We were able to toast to a final view of Perito Moreno.

perito moreno

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