From El Chaltén, we headed back down to El Calafate to see the primary sight in the area, the fantastic Perito Moreno Glacier, which is in Parque Nacional Los Glaciares. It´s the primary reason that people visit El Calafate, and as our bus arrived relatively late in the evening, we found that the "Big Ice" tour was booked up, so we had to go for the much less cool-sounding "minitrekking". I still haven't figured out why "hikes" to Americans are "treks" to anyone else, but that's beside the point. I have trouble making myself call walking for a couple of hours along a well-marked trail in the woods a "trek," but again, therein lies a story for another day.
El Calafate lies in the foothills of the Andes, but itself is only 700 or 800 feet above sea level, lying on the shores just above Lago Argentino. Because it's 50 km east of the Andes, it lies more in the Patagonian steppe, which is a glorified way of calling something a desert, except it doesn't really have the typical warm climate of a desert, so they call it something else. But, for all practical purposes, it doesn't rain that much, and is fairly brown.
All that to say, we awoke to a sunny day and obviously didn't expect things to be much different barely 30 miles away in the park, or 50 miles away at the glacier itself. Oops. With each mile as we approached the mountains, the skies got more and more gray and then the drizzle started, and didn't let up for virtually the entire day, only varying in its overall intensity. Fortunately, as we were going to be walking on ice, we were dressed well, and while the weather certainly wasn't pleasant, it wasn't a problem either.
We were awakened by a knock on our door at about 7:10 saying that our bus would pick us up in 20 minutes. Interestingly enough, the night before, our hostel clerk said to come to the desk around 7:30, and they would let us know what time we'd be picked up, and we'd have time to have breakfast and get ready and all that jazz. So, in a flash, we got our stuff together, threw down breakfast, and hopped on our bus.
We had a bilingual guide, which was helpful, on our way into the park, who told us a few things about the glacier. Unlike many glaciers in the northern hemisphere, many glaciers in the Andes are either in a state of equilibrium or even gaining mass in recent years, and the Perito Moreno Glacier is in a fairly interesting state combining both equilibrium and growth, and has been in this state since 1917.
The glacier comes down from higher elevations and eventually reaches the shores of the aforementioned Lago Argentino, which eventually flows out into the Atlantic. In a normal state, it covers most of the lake. However, as it grows, it eventually ends up reaching land on the other side of the lake, which divides the lake in two. The main body of water, Lago Argentino, continues to drain into the Atlantic, but the other side is left without an outlet. Over the next year or two, snowmelt and rainwater fill the other side of the lake, so at times it's nearly 10 meters higher in elevation than Lago Argentino. The extra water creates extra pressure on the portion of the glacier that is dividing the two sides of the lake. Eventually, the water is able to force its way through the glacier, carving a small arch. Within a few days of the initial arch being carved, the arch grows rapidly, and eventually, what's left of the ice can't support its own weight, and it all comes crashing down in tremendous fashion. The park had time-lapse pictures of this event, and because huge chunks of ice fall from heights of over 200 feet, it looks as though a bomb exploded in the glacier. It causes waves and splashes that inundate spots over 100 feet up on the nearby hillsides, and obviously, boats aren't allowed on the lake when this event is about to happen. It happens once every few years, depending on precipitation/temperature/etc over the previous few years. It didn't happen for 16 years before 2004, but then happened again in 2006, and the glacier has already reached the other side of the lake again, indicating a possibility that it will happen next year.
Ok, enough science.
We got to see the standard panoramic view of the glacier from a couple of miles away, which, while impressive, didn't really do much, as it looks the same as any other glacier. Fortunately, the bus took us closer, so we spent about an hour and a half on various pedestrian-friendly trails that let you get relatively close to the glacier, and it was then that we realized just how huge the glacier was. At many spots the ice is hundreds of feet thick, and even in the relatively warmer climate right at the level of the lake, the glacier was almost 200 feet high. Later in the summer, large chunks of ice fall into the lake from those heights as the glacier calves and apparently the walkways are lined with photographers trying to get the perfect picture. Still in the springtime now, we saw some still large chunks of ice fall, but not nearly to the extent of what we would have seen in February and March.
From there, we drove around to the other side of the glacier (the side of the lake that gets shut off by the glacier, as described above), and then we took a boat out in front of the glacier. We obviously didn't get too close, but it was an amazing change in perspective from the land-based views. It's quite an experience to look up and see 20 storeys of ice looming above you.
The boat dropped us off at a small shelter where we had lunch, and then hiked over with our guide to a point at which we would start walking on the glacier. I had walked on a glacier once before, in Banff-Jasper in Canada, but that was a relatively lame glacier compared to this. We were fitted for crampons, and then began our "mini-trek."
During our trek, we got to walk up and down really steep faces of ice, and were eventually out toward the middle of the glacier. While we could still see land, in most directions, all we could see was the white/blue of the glacier. At times, it looked like something out of the movie "Alive," with the plane crash in the Andes in winter (minus the cannibalism, thankfully). If you got thirsty, you could walk over to the numerous little pools of glacial water and just take a drink. Definitely won the "best-tasting water I've ever had" award, other than the numbness-then-stinging-pain in my hands.
From there, we eventually walked back to land on the side of the glacier and crawled around in an ice cave. As a note to anyone who might be going on a group tour of any kind, if you want to take pictures, please do so in a way so as to minimize the inconvenience to anyone else. We managed to get stuck behind this obnoxious couple who insisted on filming every aspect of their trip through the cave, both with video and still cameras, except it wasn't wide enough to get around them. It took us about 10 minutes longer than everyone else because of this. Grumble...
We walked back on the ice for a while, took some more pictures, and then found that they had set up a table with snacks and scotch. So, I officially rang in my 28th birthday by drinking scotch (good stuff too, not the Argentine swill) while standing on a glacier. Not bad!
We eventually worked our way back home and enjoyed our night in El Calafate. I had a filet mignon to celebrate my birthday (for 10 bucks), and an overall great day.