Letter from the Glaciers

Top of the List: A Trip to the Glaciers.

If you travel in Argentina between October and March or early April, you must include in your plans a trip to the southern glacier fields, which are magical, mesmerizing, inexplicably beautiful.  Before we saw them, the glaciers were just an item on my list of “places to visit in Argentina” and I half thought:  a lot of ice -how can that be so special?  - Was I wrong!  This is ice piled up like 30 kilometers of meringue.  It looks like rows and row of penguins frozen solid, and sounds like a strange animal that is trying to free itself from a straitjacket with grunts and kicks.  People come and sit in front of the main glacier to just watch it throw off pieces, which might weigh several tons, onto the lake.  A little over a decade ago, after the glacier had cut off one arm of the lake where it rests, the rising water broke through after three years of being trapped and in 48 hours released hundreds of tons of ice.  The sound effects were heard 50 miles away, and there was time for crowds of spectators to come, some from far away, to watch the show.  The glacier has since stopped its advance, and given even the minimal global warming expected in the next century, it will never again return with such power again.  This is a great loss for human beings - at our hotel we saw a video of the breakthrough, La Ruptura, and even that was so enthralling,that we watched again the next night!

But back to the start of the trip.  At Aeroparque check-in we selected two window seats, surprising the clerk, but it turned out to be the right thing to do as the view coming in is so spectacular; if the weather is clear - a hundred miles or more of jagged mountain peaks in the southern Andes greet you as you land.  You’ll see the famed El Chaltén off to the east and the sight will tempt you to make another visit.  (Sit on the right side of the plane coming from Buenos Aires.)  If you have a package tour you’ll be met and whisked off to your hotel in a group; some hotels, especially those out of town, meet you individually.  And there are taxis.  You’ll be checked in at your hotel and ready to go in about an hour, or less.

The first afternoon we just wandered about looking in shops, then I spent a hour or so in the wetlands/lagoon reserve on the south shore of Lago Argentino, about a twenty-minute walk from the town center, where hundreds of shorebirds congregate.  That evening we dined on Patagonian lamb in a very nice restaurant one block from our hotel, and were ready for an early evening (a good thing as the full-day excursions all leave quite early in the morning).

Our first trip was a day-long excursion (7:30 am to 8:30 PM) to see seven different glaciers and eat lunch in the midst of them.  All I can really say about that is that you have to be there!  Even the best photographs don’t convey the magic of what you see.  The boat takes you right up to the face of a huge glacier, and alongside dozens of beautiful icebergs, and then you disembark on an island where three glaciers join into a lake.  The dining hall -built by the boat company - looks out over snow-covered mountains and a lovely small river.  We greatly enjoyed getting up close to the Upsalla glacier, which is just stunning - but I found the icebergs to be the star of this trip.  You can’t imagine how extraordinarily beautiful an iceberg can be.  But try:  think of a pile of ice 20 meters or 60 feet tall and twice that wide (and that’s just the one-sixth or seventh that’s above the water), and not just a cube like the stuff in your glass.  It might be shaped as a triangle or an igloo, with turquoise stripes, or glowing cobalt blue from within, and it will change colors as you pass it on the boat.

We had already decided not to spend the second day in an all-day excursion, and so got up a bit late (it was Sunday!).  The day was fine and we enjoyed wandering about examining the ads for tours, looking for a place to book an afternoon trip.  In the process we ran across a company offering trips by Land Rover to the “outback” in the sierras behind the town, and reserved one for the morning of our departure.  Then we went off to the great glacier, the one that stars in all the videos, the Perito Moreno.  The site is about 45 miles or 70 km from the town, and about 2/3 of the trip is on gravel, or “ripio”, which imposes a slow drive.  But the glacier is mesmerizing; and one can only mourn the lost chance of seeing the great Rupture again.  You climb up and down the hillside in front of the glacier and eventually wear yourself out. .  (Stop at the entrance and look at the map so you can figure out how to get down to the lowest platform, as there are no signs explaining that once you get into the catwalks.  Allow time to climb back up, and beware, the restrooms in the kiosk at the top close at 6 pm!)  On returning to town after another bone-jarring ride we pulled ourselves together and went to a local grill, where you could order any of the standard asado items but grilled lamb was the star (if you like lamb, you’ve come to the right part of Argentina).

The third day we spent out in the wild countryside overlooking the town and the huge lake (third largest in the continent), where there were strange rock formations like those in Utah or the Badlands of the Dakotas.  The driver of the Land Rover was very good, fortunately, as the route led down inclines of 30 degrees or more, which I only endured by not looking forward as we inched our way down.  Later we stopped and had tea surrounded by rocks with odd formations splattered on them, looking for all the world like hats on a rack.  So far they have not been explained by the few geologists who have seen them (apparently some locals have always known about them but never bothered to mention it to anyone, so it is quite a new find!).  That morning had clouded quite a bit and as we left a few drops of rain fell, showing us how different our trip might have been.  We got to the hotel in time to buy a few more postcards and get in the van to head for the airport, where the inevitable check-in discomfort did not ruin a glorious trip, one that will be remembered for a long time.

Some Keys for a Happy Trip to the Glaciares

Clothing:  Plan for layers; dress like an onion!  It was cold on the boat, and we had good late summer weather!  Temperature and wind can change very fast in normal circumstances, and a strong wind is not uncommon.  Don’t worry about changing for dinner!  No one dressed up.  Be sure to take comfortable shoes that are good for rough walking: only the main road of the town is paved.  

Camera:  You will want to photograph everything. but the ice is very demanding.  You need a polarizing lens to get really good shots.  If you have a panoramic option, this is the time to use it!  Many of my pix were wasted, as my basic 35 mm camera was simply not up to task.  But it was worth it all the same, as about 10 percent of the shots were good and they confirm my memories of this fantastic trip.

Dining:  Your breakfast will almost certainly be included in the hotel but you can find coffee and pastries at several cafes around town if you choose.   We dined once at Hotel La Posada’s restaurant and had excellent food in a very nice setting.  We enjoyed La Tablita, a six block walk from the center - a fine grill.  The Upsala Parrilla was also recommended to us but we did not have time to try it!  The restaurant in our hotel - the Kosten Aike - was fine, and if you’ve indulged in the Happy Hour (during which you can watch the film of La Ruptura, which you MUST see) there’s a discount in the restaurant.  Rick’s Cafe on Libertador, the main street, is a great bargain for those who want a tenedor libre.  The meal you get at the restaurant on the island during the Todo Glaciers boat trip is fine, and while it may seem a little more costly than town prices, building the facility and then transporting all the food there, just for the boat folks, could not have been cheap.  We were glad we had not chosen to eat a sandwich in the open air.

Tours:  The company that meets you at the airport can book tours for you or you can ask your hotel, or do your own booking.  They all seem to interchange.  We got the boat trip from the Gaydor people, who also charged $20 each for transport to the port.  If you book with some other firm or with the Fernandez Campbell folks directly, you might get a cheaper trip by going in a big bus (ours was a minivan).  We enjoyed talking to the guy at the Mil Aventuras place (Libertador 1001), where we booked our off-road trip, and he arranged the afternoon excursion to the glacier, with a different company, as well.  If you can find someone to share the remis you might want to go to the glacier that way; you could ask the driver to stop at Los Notros for a glass of something afterwards, while your tour bus will just follow a prescribed route.  (An afternoon tour is $25 each, while a remis would be about 80 or 90 pesos.)

If you have more time there are many other tours offered, including trips across the border to the Chilean Torres del Paine park.  Some of these are day trips, but this seems to be overdoing it, especially the trip to Fitzroy, or El Chaltén, as it’s four or five exhausting hours each way on ripio and you are hardly there before you come back.  Planning for a two-day excursion for these longer forays would probalby be wise.

Shopping:  There are quite a few nice stores including a bookshop in the pleasant minimall on Libertador.  In La Casita at the entrance to this little mall there are some nice belts, among other things.  You’ll find many things on sale that do not come from Patagonia, but most places are quite clear about what is what.  Prices seemed reasonable, based on what we have seen elsewhere.  Branches of shops you might see in Buenos Aires are here, including Pueblo Indio at 1130 Libertador.

Hotels:  Our hotel, the Kosten Aike, was just as advertised: new, excellent, comfortable rooms plus internet room, exercise center with jacuzzi and massage (none of which we used as there was no time, but nice to think we could have!), pleasant bar and restaurant.  Many others that we looked at seemed quite nice as well, and several new places are going up, so you may not find your proposed hotel listed in a guide more than a year or so old - but not to worry!  It will probably be warm and comfortable, and the nights are very quiet.

Leaving:  Don’t forget that on departure you have to pay $18 tax per person at the airport, after you check in.  We did the three hour 4x4 tour the last day, so did not have time to eat lunch, and then the check-in line at the airport was slow and we did not have time to eat there either, so we only got a sandwich on the flight at 3:30 pm.  If I had realized all that I would have asked the hotel, or a local eatery, to make me a box lunch.

© Copyright 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, Richard W. Tripp, Jr.