The first view of Patagonia’s Perito Moreno glacier is from an overlook just before reaching a park café. It takes your breath away to see and hear up close one of the world’s last remaining advancing glaciers. It’s accessible in the south from El Calafate and in the north from El Chaltan within Parque Nacional Los Glaciares – the largest and most visited in the Argentine National park system. In 1981 the United Nations declared it a Patrimony of Humanity.
Parque Nacional Los Glaciares protects a stunning range of Andean peaks, which are awesome to view and prized by climbers. Cerro Torre, at 10,000 feet certainly not the tallest mountain, is one of the most difficult and dangerous to climb on Earth. Monte FitzRoy at 11,000 feet is its equal in beauty and difficulty.
The mother source of all this glacier glory is the Hielo Continental Sur, the largest ice sheet outside of the Antarctic continent and one that is not melting. It covers over 6,000 square miles on top of the southern Andean mountains and effects southern Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego’s weather creating the fierce western winds, frequent rain showers and winter’s heavy mountain snowfall.
Of all Hielo Continental Sur’s glaciers the park’s tourist star is Perito Moreno. In 1937 Argentina established Parque Nacional Los Glaciares to preserve a vast region of Patagonia’s unique Austral Andes eco system. Waterfalls, streams, old growth forests, mesetas (a high elevation plateau), the Redheaded Patagonian Woodpecker, Huemules (the endangered and extremely shy Patagonian deer) are just a few of the beauties of Parque Nacional Los Glaciares.
In 1943 Parque Nacional Los Glaciares constructed its visitor center in El Calafate. The village had one dirt road and 100 residents. Today, El Calafate is a bustling town of over 15,000 residents and the numbers swell many times during the summer season – December through March. It’s a sophisticated tourist mecca with impressive landscaped boulevard Avenida Libertador lined with premium shops, restaurants and a casino. Positioned at the western shore of Lago Argentino, Argentina’s largest lake, and the third largest in South America, certainly adds to the town’s appeal.
Although guided treks on the glacier itself are possible, on a one-hour boat excursion a visitor can get to within 1,000 feet of Perito Moreno glacier’s massive, crunching, iridescent blue magnificence without trekking for hours. Why only 1,000 feet? Because huge chunks of ice regularly break off the front crashing into the lake below. The boat simply sails to the North Face and allows you to observe. What you observe is a 180-foot tall wall of fissured ice over one mile long. The fissures reflect the sun creating an iridescent blue color that a lighting engineer could not have accomplished.
But what you hear is startling. A cacophony of concussive explosions erupts from the glacier as it grinds its way from its Andes Mountain perch. Every 10 to 15 minutes you hear and/or see a huge iceberg break from the wall and smash into the lake. The guide informs us that although the visible wall of ice is 180 feet high, what we don’t see is the 2,700 feet of glacier under water to the lake bottom.
For hikers and trekkers, the park is well laid out with marked trails of varying length and difficulty. Trekkers, who are on multi-day camping journeys, must register with the park office. Rules are enforced: trash (pack in/pack out), cook stoves only (no open fires) sanitation (300 feet from any water source), no bathing (in 45-degree water?) or washing of clothes and utensils in the streams and lakes. I’ve rarely seen such pristine landscape. You are encouraged to drink the water from the streams because its source is the pure glaciers and it means one less container brought into the park.
Before 1985 El Chalten did not exist. To reach the northern side of Parque Nacional Los Glaciares you had to be an intrepid trekker. But it was international politics not tourism that is responsible for El Chalten. The long festering border dispute between Argentina and Chile threatened war and Argentine sovereignty over this region that had already been included in Parque Nacional Los Glaciares since 1937. To solidify their claim, the Argentine government established El Chalten in the remote yet picturesque Rio de las Vueltas river valley within the Park.
A couple hundred residents were housed in hastily built rustic buildings. Within months, the Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the two nations established the original Park boundaries as the border for this region. Today El Chalten is recognized as the trekking capital of Argentina, but it is no El Calafate and many find that to be its charm.
For superb trekking and day hikes to observe Cerro Torre or Monte FitzRoy with their lakes and many natural attractions in the rugged northern section of the park the entrance is at El Chalten. You can make a day excursion from El Calafate to El Chalten but it’s a 264 mile, 7-hour round-trip modern coach (bus) ride. If traveling in summer you have 14 to 15 hours of sunlight, but even in early Autumn that is reduced to 8 hours giving you time for only short hikes. To appreciate the northern end of the park, an overnight or two, at least, in El Chalten is advisable. Besides, El Chalten has its own odd charm.
El Chalten’s permanent population is about 1,000 but that number increases considerably in the summer months. Although the sole reason today for its existence is tourism, it is still a rustic frontier town and the average tourist, no matter what age, is carrying a backpack, not Gucci luggage – hiking boots are a necessity. Undergoing rapid change the town will most likely resemble El Calafate within time. For now, a visitor can still enjoy the calm and closeness of nature.
The park office has easy to follow hiking maps covering a variety of trails of varying lengths and difficulty. One moderate four to six hour round trip hike through blissfully peaceful forests where woodpeckers make the most noise brings the hiker to a clearing – a mirador. In front thrusting into the sky like massive otherworldly pinnacles of ice are the sheer granite walls of Mount FitzRoy shimmering in the sun with blue glaciers streaming down its sides. It’s as if an ice cube of the Hielo Sur is cooling a Patagonian summer day.
When you go:
El Calafate can be reached by air via Buenos Aires or by comfortable modern long-distance buses from various Argentine cities. El Chalten is connected by bus to El Calafate and other cities along historic Ruta 40.
Argentina is south of the equator so seasons are reversed. Summer months are December through March. Parque Nacional Los Glaciares is located in southern Patagonia with very long hours of summer sunlight.