The journey from Puerto Madryn to El Calafate was our longest bus trip to date. Argentina is a massive country (it’s the 8th largest country in the world) and we knew we would have some mammoth bus trips in store for us. Our bus left Puerto Madryn at 7pm and we arrived at our transfer point, Rio Gallegos around 2:30pm the following day. Pretty uneventful, except for the screeching halt our driver made in the morning. We see him putting gloves on, running across the desert plains after a huge armadillo. He finally catches it, runs back to the bus and with a huge grin, tosses it into the compartment under the bus! No idea what he was doing, but we think he later released it as we continued south. Maybe Argentina has asked bus drivers to help in spreading the armadillo population throughout Patagonia. No idea, but very bizarre.
Once arriving in Rio Gallegos, we found that the next bus leaving for El Calafate wasn’t until 6pm and that the ticket office was closed for afternoon siesta until 4pm. Siesta for bus companies? Really? Many offices and shops down here in Argentina and Chile take a siesta and close their shops for a few hours each afternoon. Nice for them, but not so nice for travellers.
We caught the 6pm bus to El Calafate and arrived at around 10pm. I don’t know why, but we didn’t heed other travellers’ advice about booking hostels as we head further south. We tried hostel after hostel for an hour with no luck. Lucky us, hostel #15 had room, but it was their most expensive room at $75. Yes, $75 in a hostel! But it was 11pm, we were tired and hungry and needed showers after 27 hours on buses.
The next morning, we moved across the street to Albergue Mochilero. It was cheap for El Calafate and not in any of our guidebooks. And for good reason. The place is run by rude, loud, inconsiderate punks who think everyone wants loud music blasting from 8am to midnight. I was going nuts there. There’s only one common area in the front of the hostel, which is always loud. There’s no chill-out place to relax. The kitchen is always packed and you have to wait to cook and then rush to clean your pots while your food gets cold. One of the worst hostels we’ve stayed in. Not recommended.
While in town, we visited Laguna Nimez and got to see some flamingos in flight. It’s such a strange sight! We also saw many other Patagonian birds, horses, and spectacular views of the beautiful blue Lake Argentina.
We also took a daytrip to El Chalten, the trekking capital of the country, and got to see the amazing landscapes, the famous Fitz Roy mountain and Cerro Torre. These mountains are so steep, they had never been climbed until the early 1950s after climbers had summited Mount Everest!
While there, we visited Glacier Viedma and got to see it from the boat, but it stayed at quite a large distance from the glacier.
The main attraction to El Calafate is the incredible Perito Moreno glacier. It is one of only 3 glaciers in the world that is actually growing and not receding. We decided to splurge and do the “MiniTrek” walking across the icy top. It’s not every day you get to have a close encounter with an active glacier. Although it cost us 600 pesos each ($150!), it was well worth it!
The day started early at 7:30am. After the 2 hour bus ride, we were rewarded with our first incredible view of the glacier as we entered the curvy roads of the Glacier National Park. There are really no words. This was the first time we’d ever seen a glacier up close and the experience was phenomenal. We walked along the maze of walkways that face the glacier. It’s absolutely mesmerizing.
The Perito Moreno Glacier is one of 48 glaciers along the Southern Patagonian Ice Field which spans across both Argentina and Chile. It is the third largest ice field after Antarctica and Greenland. Here are some figures for you: Perito Moreno covers 250 square km (97 sq miles), is 30km (19 miles) in length, 5km wide (3.1 miles), 65m high (213 ft) and has an ice depth of 170m (558ft) – that’s nearly half the size of the Empire State Building!
Watching this “living” glacier is mind-blowing. From just meters away, we saw huge chunks of ice crash into the lake below. This process of calving happens 24 hours a day and the sounds and sights are just captivating. The crowds cheer when a huge chunk cracks off and lands in the lake with a huge splash. We were lucky enough to see about 10 huge chunks fall that day.
The next part of our tour was a boat trip along the glacier. Also amazing. Then it was lunchtime. Erik and I decided to climb the rocks and had an incredible view of the glacier as we ate our picnic lunch. It’s not everyday that you eat lunch glacier-side!
Then, it was time for the main event: the ice trek. After a quick hike along the shore, we were at “base camp.” Here, our guides kitted us out with crampons, which attach to your shoes and metal spikes dig into the ice for better grab. I have to say although it was very expensive, the tour with Hielo y Aventura was fantastic. The staff is very friendly and the guides were wonderful. They demonstrated how to walk on the ice with our crampons.
Then, it was time to walk on a glacier! It felt bizarre and surreal and exhilarating all at the same time. The ice was a bit wet and soft in parts and I hoped we wouldn’t fall through! The glacier below us was the most beautiful color blue I’d ever seen. The ice is actually clear, but due to its reflection properties, it appears blue. We meandered up and down hills and through crevices, up ice mountains and around sinkholes. A once in a lifetime experience. At one point, our guide encouraged us to fill up our water bottles and have a taste of glacier water. It was hands down the best water I have ever tasted.
The views of the surrounding mountains, and valleys and Lake Argentina were just priceless. I felt like we were in a dream. It was so surreal. Walking on the ice was sometimes a bit rough, especially on steep inclines and descents. One man in our group fell as we were descending at one point. At times, our guides had to chip out stairs with their ice picks so it was easier for us to descend.
As we neared the end of our 1 1/2 hours on the glacier, we were surprised when our guide called us over to a small table. Here, with a large silver bowl and ice pick in hand, he chipped away some glacier ice as it fell into the bowl. The guide poured us each a shot of whisky on the glacier rocks. Incredible!
We had an amazing time experiencing the Perito Moreno glacier from all sides. We would definitely recommend the ice trek to anyone visiting southern Argentina. It’s a unique experience we will never forget!
Next time, we head back into Chile and deeper into the wilderness of Patagonia.