El Calafate is a small town in the far end of Argentina on the west side of Patagonia. Famous for its proximity with the glacier “Perito Moreno”, El Calafate got its name from a shrub producing berries, that look like blueberries, and from which locals make tasty pies, jams and liquors. In town it’s quite complicated to avoid the tourism surge and all the infrastructures that come with it. The main street “av. del Liberador” is a sting of cafes, tour agencies, souvenir shops and restaurants which are not really friendly with the backpacker wallet. However, it is impossible to not stay in El Calafate for a couple of nights as it is the main city from where most of the tours and excursions are organised towards the attractions of the region such as the glacier Perito Moreno.
Perito Moreno, 50 shades of blue and vertiginous ice fall
As many other visitors we went to El Calafate to visit the Perito Moreno glacier that is situated about 90 km west of the town. Perito Moreno is one of the most photographed places in Argentina. From a height of 74m, the glacier is 5km wide and stretches over 30km from the Patagonian Ice Cap also responsible for the Grey Glacier we had the chance to see during our 7-day-trek in Torres del Paine National Park.
This enormous river of ice finishes its course at the lake Argentino, where tourists can admire its different shades of blue, listen the creaking made by the unseen forces which are at work, and sometimes witness calving, enormous chunks of ice crashing into the water.
At midday, while having a picnic on the benches situated right across from the calving front of the glacier, we heard a massive crack quickly followed by the fall of one of highest peaks of ice (probably about 70m high) and an overwhelming sound as the ice reached the lake water. It was so surprising that despite the adrenaline rush that occurred, we remained petrified with mouths wide open as the waves finished their course along the lake bank bellow us. As we were recovering from this amazing experience, chokingly, a second shard of ice, as big as the previous one, also dropped down. This time we had enough time to actually take a picture of it.
Melting or not melting ?
We could use the words magic, amazing or wonderful to define this incredible scene but we are too scared to be attacked by climate change advocates as melting ice from a glacier is never a good sign… However, did you know that along with Pie XI in Chile, the glacier Perito Moreno is not retreating ? While global warming is affecting most of the glaciers across the world, Perito Moreno advances daily by 2m but loses also a proportional amount of mass each day. Glacierologues are still studying this phenomenon to understand the balance between melting and growing at the Perito Moreno
Arriving and staying in El Calafate
Most of the tourists arrive by air from Buenos Aires or Ushuaïa. Steven and I however reached the city by bus after crossing borders from Chile. The bus station which is quite central, is also surrounded by many hotels and hostels. We got a lost while looking for the hostel we had chosen and that we unfortunately never found. We therefore stayed in one of the few hostels that was still open and empty as the season in this part of the country had already started to decrease drastically. No need to say we loved that !
Getting to Perito Moreno
There are many ways to visit the glacier such as taking a tour that includes transfers, a boat tour and/or glacier walk. Argentina has become so expensive, many extra activities are out of budget for backpackers, so we decided to only visit the park and hitch-hike there and back to save 500 ARS each, the price of the return ticket for the shuttle transfer…
Hitch-hiking was not as easy as we thought but after 1.30 hrs walking out-of-town followed by a “gang” of 7 street dogs barking at cars and getting into fights with other “house dogs”, we finally got picked up by 3 Argentinians and arrived on site before 11 am.
As they dropped us at the car park, the trio from Bariloche told us we had to take a free shuttle to the glacier. Now, I knew there was also a 1 hour hike but stupidly thought we would start the trail were the shuttle would drop us off. Such a beginner mistake ! We indeed arrived right in front of the glacier and didn’t have the chance to build up excitement while walking towards the huge wall of ice.
The site is well structured thanks to several walkways that offer different levels and vary the angles to admire the glacier. But seriously, what else would we expect when the entrance fee is as humongous as Perito Moreno’s size… Once again, Argentina is not ashamed to overcharge foreigners.
Cost and Useful Information
Argentina – Currency (average) =€1 = 16.38 ARS
Chile – Currency (average) =€1 = 713 CLP
Bus from Puerto Natales to El Calafate = 15000 CLP (€21.5)
Hostel Buenos Aires in El Calafate – dorm pp/pn. = 250 ARS (€15)
Shuttle Bus El Calafate to Perito Moreno (Return) = 500 ARS (€30) pp
Entrance to Perito Moreno park = 500 ARS (€30) pp