The top draw for visitors to the charming, if somewhat isolated town, of El Calafate on the shore of Lake Argentina is a visit to the Perito Moreno Glacier in the nearby Los Glaciers National Park, a 1 hour bus ride or drive away.
Looking up what there is to do while in town, apart from take in some of the ample nightlife in town (or try some of the delicious chocolate that the towns chocolatiers have become known for), you will come across a great many companies offering to take you to the national park to see the spectacular sight of great chunks of ice calving off the front of the glacier from the look out point across the water.
Aside from the viewing platform, boat trips on the lake are organised for a nominal fee to get you closer to the action but the best way, surely, to appreciate the power of the ice in front of you is to be surrounded by it on a glacier hike.
Here, there are two options from the one operator that runs these tours, Hielo y Aventura (Ice and Adventure). The more common way, and one that is pushed by a lot of operators who do a combined tour of the glacier in the morning and something else in the afternoon is the shorter 4-5 hour tour called Mini Trekking which gives you 90 minutes to 2 hours on the ice.
Obviously, because of the associated cost of running such adventuresome tours and the specialist equipment, staff and insurance that’s needed, neither option is particularly cheap so which one is best?
Hiking Perito Moreno Glacier: Mini Trekking Tour
It was a cloudy, chilly day in 2013 that I finally set eyes on what I consider one of the greatest natural sights in the world, the Perito Moreno Glacier. Standing on the upper deck of the surprisingly small boat that was taking us across the lake to the start point of all trekking tours on the Glacier the glacier face loomed large above us while all around small chunks of icebergs floated in the lake.
The excitement from everyone was palpable as we docked on the far side of the shore and saw the base camp. Looking around we could have been in Alaska, surrounded by a towering Lenga forest on one side and a more than kilometre wall of ice on the other slowly, ever so slowly, forcing its way down the valley until great chunks broke off and float away into the giant Lake Argentina which is the largest body of freshwater in Argentina covering a mind boggling 1,400 square kilometres (546 square miles). At its widest point it is 20 miles (32 kilometres) wide.
After disembarking and making an obligatory toilet stop (you probably won’t be surprised to learn that this is the only toilet available on the south shore), small huddles formed for a brief note on safety based on your preferred language and then everyone was off down a trail that snaked its way through the dense woodland for 25 minutes.
Occasionally peeking through the curtain of wood the glacier would offer hints of what’s to come but it’s not until you break through the forest and start descending to the start point that you realise the enormity of what you are about to take on.
Silhouetted against the brilliant white peaks and deep blue crevices, the hut where you strap on your crampons is but a tiny speck against the backdrop of the ice. Perito Moreno is one of many glacial tongues spreading down from the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, the second largest extrapolar ice field in the world.
Look at a google satellite image of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, you will see that it goes on for thousands of miles like a great white spine through a lot of Chile and Argentina. While Perito Moreno itself isn’t the largest (that would be the Viedma Glacier 2 hours north near El Chalten, the 19 mile long, 97 square kilometre Perito Moreno is still a sight to behold.
Stepping onto the ice the first time is a surreal experience. You’re still just getting used to walking with crampons which have only been attached to your feet for the past 10 minutes and now you have to negotiate the steep ascent from the ground up and up, and seemingly up some more.
After 20 minutes of stop start walking you realise that all the layers you are wearing are probably too much. You’re on a glacier which by definition is freezing and the wind blowing a gale while on the boat over earlier was bitter cold against your exposed skin and yet here you are, standing on the ice sweating profusely.
Your brain doesn’t quite compute the situation. You should be cold when this is likely the warmest you will feel the entire time you’re in El Calafate. Welcome to the weird world of ice trekking!
Up ahead is a valley that needs careful negotiation. Some people are more sure footed on the crampons than others but the guides take everything slowly and make sure the people that need help over tougher segments receive it whilst not holding up the rest of the group.
A glacier is a dynamic thing. Constantly moving, however slowly, no two tours are exactly the same. What I saw, and the photos you see here today may no longer exist, at least not in the form I saw them. Your tour is just the briefest snapshot if the glacier at a specific time.
While I can’t promise you that you will see great crevasses or giant sinkholes with meltwater gushing down them creating the lubricating layer of water the glacier slides on I can promise you that your tour will be unique to your group and it will be unforgettable.
The paths of the treks are walked by the guides first thing in the morning to check they are safe, if something has happened to the previous days route that creates a problem, the route is changed. Simple.
The climax of my first tour was a breathtaking valley on the glacier upon which we toasted the glacier itself with some fine Scottish malt whiskey over ice from the glacier. Crystal clear and glistening in the daylight it was a perfect end to an all too short stay on the river of ice.
Stepping off the glacier I knew that wouldn’t be my last time here but I would have to wait over 2 years to find out for myself what it’s like to spend most of the day on the ice.
Hiking Perito Moreno Glacier: Big Ice Tour
Fast forward to 2016, I was back on the same boat crossing the same stretch of open water, surrounded by a little more ice than the first time around.
Knowing that I wanted to do the full day tour this time, I booked direct with Hielo y Aventura who thankfully can include round trip transport from your hotel in town making things that much easier if you decide you don’t want to drive to the National Park.
A full day on the ice doesn’t mean you lose the chance to see the glacier face. A 30 minute stop off at the viewing platform is included in the tour at the beginning so don’t fret. While this is maybe not quite enough time for a trigger happy photo taker like me it’s a fine trade off to be able to spend most of your time, where it matters, on the ice.
The tour, like the Mini Trekking tour starts exactly the same at the base camp on the far side of the lake. The path to the glacier though deviates higher into the woodland taking us intrepid explorers further up the glacier to our start point.
Along the way the path has some stunning photogenic spots, a great contrast of the towering cliffs on one side and a panoramic view of the glacier stretching out far off into the distance on the other.
Crampons on once more and it’s time to head off onto the ice. Remembering the pain of the previous hike I remembered to pack a good sturdy pair of hiking boots. The crampons are tied tightly to your shoes. So tight in fact that towards the end of the first hike they had start to hurt.
For your own sanity don’t wear a pair of trainers like so many people do for this. It is a physical adventure, even before you set foot on the glacier. Your feet will thank you when they are snuggled up in the cosy confines of a well worn in pair of hiking boots.
Remembering the heat emanating from my body the last time, I checked the weather the night before. The forecast was good so, intentionally, I only wore a shirt and a fleece with my waterproof jacket in my bag for safe measure.
The glacier was just how I remembered it. Foreboding, groaning under its own weight. Don’t be surprised if you hear strange noises while on your trek. The glacier talks to you with cracks deep inside, reminding you that you are on a moving thing. It’s as if it is a living being.
Setting off like a snow leopard thanks to my previous practice both here and, in intervening years, in Iceland, I was reminded to slow down. It was something I would have to keep telling myself in the first hour before fatigue started to settle in.
Spending more time on the ice does allow you to see more, travel more into the heart of the glacier, get a lot closer to the fastest moving park of it in the centre, where the crevasses make it too dangerous to travel any further.
It’s like a mini mountain range in the middle of the glacier. It reminded me of the Fortress Of Solitude from the original Superman movie. Giant spikes of ice jutting skyward like a backbone of a Stegosaurus. The spine of the glacier itself.
The atmosphere of the whole glacier changes the more central you get. We knew that we could go no farther and would have to turn, but turn where?
It was nearly lunch. We had been on the ice for 3 hours and had navigated hidden waterfalls, towering cityscapes of ice, carefully balanced along the spine of ridges with 30ft falls either side. This is what I was expecting of Perito Moreno. I felt alive and my inner layers were soaked in sweat from the non stop hiking we had been doing.
We were all ready for a sit down. But the guides had somewhere in mind that would blow our minds. Turning towards the centre of the glacier once again and climbing peak after peak until, at last, there spreading out into the distance was a lake of the clearest blue meltwater.
A lake on a glacier isn’t what you would expect but it can apparently disappear as quick as it forms when the ice on the bed of the lake finally gives way sending a torrent of meltwater down into the depths of the glacier.
Finally after 10 minutes of frantic running trying to get the whole thing in a picture it was time to find the flattest, driest section (not easy when all around is ice under a bright blue sky) to park my derrière for 10 minutes to finish off the included lunch pack we had been given.
Nobody wanted to leave, not least because the crampons were finally starting to smart a little, biting through even the tough outer skin of my walking boots. I didn’t want this view to end but it was time to make our way back.
The grand promises made by the company had been fully realised. Making or way back down the trail after stepping off the glacier for the last time everybody couldn’t stop talking about what we had just seen.
I was thinking back to my first visit remembering how awe struck I was standing in the middle of that valley. I asked Veronica, my guide for the second time if it was still around. It is but tours no longer stop off there because of the shifting ice, new tours have somewhere else to wow them.
The lake was the undoubted star of my time on Perito Moreno. Hopefully tours will be able to appreciate the view for a long time to come but I was also taken aback by the stunning scenery that you don’t get to witness, unfortunately, on the shorter tour.
The valley really opens up just after the point where shorter tours enter the ice field. The valley is thrown into light thanks to the receding walls which are so high at the start, blocking out the early morning sun.
So, the tricky question, which tour is best? That’s going to depend. Without a doubt, even with the sky high cost, it has to be the Big Ice Tour but noticing that not everyone has either the money or physical stamina to undertake such a thing, Hielo y Aventura have been very clever bringing in a shorter tour.
If you are short on time and funds, doing the Mini Trekking tour is far better than not doing one at all but some things in life are worth paying for and the Big Ice tour will give you a day on the ice that you won’t forget.
Whichever tour you opt for remember that you must have a certain level of fitness. The trek to the start point from base camp, is in rough, loose and uneven ground. The Big Ice Tour has segments that are quite steep and the trail is very narrow and wet in places. All this before you even get your crampons on.
Where I would say you need a physical rating of 3/5 for the Mini Trekking Tour, the Big Ice is at least a 4/5. It isn’t for the faint hearted. You have to use your common sense as well as obeying the guides. A glacier is no where for games and this is reflected in the age limit for both tours. From 10 to 65 for Mini Trekking (but anyone under 18 must be accompanied by a paying adult) or 18 to 50 for the Big Ice Tour reflecting the tougher physical challenge.
Bring some sturdy walking shoes, layer up with thermals if you feel the cold, a t-shirt, fleece and a thin, breathable waterproof jacket (and a bag to put them in along with your lunch and high factor sunscreen). You will get hot, you will get tired. You will have points where you wonder if it will ever end.
But ultimately, hiking the Perito Moreno Glacier is about the adventure, not the destination. The more you put in, the more you will get out of it.