As we continued our journey south the landscape changed dramatically from the lush Alpine slopes to a dry, arid, flat desert, mile after mile with the landscape hardly changing. Steve sat up front in the cab with Chris for a few hours and chatted about his exploits in West Africa. At one point we drove for over 150km on a dirt road and didn’t see a single building so you get the feeling of how remote Patagonia can be.
Eventually we decided to call it a day, we pulled off the road and set up camp. No toilets and showers here! Steve and a few others started a fire with some wood Steve had “acquired” from a previous stop, we cooked dinner on the open flame and settled into the sleeping bags.
Next we arrived in El Chalten. This is a walking and climbing mecca and the scenery is so outstanding that “Lonely Planet” have used it as the cover to their guide to Argentina. On our first day it was a little overcast so we decided to get a coffee and explore the town. We were heading back to our hostel and bumped into Andreas, another passenger on the trip. He said he was going to go for a short hike to a lake about 4 km along the main 10 km route. We set off and reached the lake. The weather was still overcast and a little rain was falling. After a short discussion we all agreed to press on for another 6 km to the top in the hope the weather would improve.
The information and maps said the route was an 8 hour return walk, but as we hadn’t set out to do the whole trip we were a little under prepared. Steve and Andreas were wearing shorts and we had one bottle of water, a ham and cheese sandwich and a small bag of nuts between us. Onwards and upwards we went walking a little faster than normal to keep warm. We were passing other walkers going up and coming down who looked very professional and more prepared than we were! After 9 km the water was going down, the nuts were running out and the dry sandwich was tasting a lot better than it should. The track became very, very steep and we scrambled over rocks and loose boulders, still hoping the weather would improve. After 3 and a half hours we reached the top to an amazing view which extended for at least 15 metres, maybe even 20!! One of the best views in South America was somewhere beyond the mist and rain and fog!
We started the descent. With the water, nuts and sandwich all gone we were cold and soaked to the skin, so we picked up the pace and by half way we were at a fast walk which almost broke into a jog. As we hit the bottom, with high fives all round, we realised we had done the walk in 5 and a half hours! Even though the walk was tough and we didn’t have the expected views it was still an awesome route and on a clear day it must be unbelievable.
After a quick shower we were off out for dinner with Chris (driver) and Nikki (the tour leader). Big Argentinian steaks and red wine all round. Then we met up again with Andreas and Glen in the waffle house. Think of a typical Aussie and Glen is your man, a great guy, sort of a cross between a rugby player and Crocodile Dundee! We all tucked into enormous waffles and Bailey’s coffee.
Another brilliant day. What will tomorrow bring? A bit more than a bottle of water some nuts and a s#!t sandwich during the day we hope! (On our initial writing of this post we missed out the word “sandwich” from that last sentence. I think it read better and considered leaving it out!)
After El Chalten we moved on to a town called El Calafate. The town is the stop off point for the Glacier National Park, the highlight of which is Pietro Merino Glacier. El Calafate is a lovely little town filled with cafes, restaurants and outdoor clothing shops. It services the needs of the hundreds of outdoor enthusiasts who throng here.
The National Park is about 80 km out of town and takes just over an hour to get there. There are several ways to see the glacier from sitting in the visitors centre cafe and looking at it from a distance over a cup of coffee, to getting onto the glacier for a full on ice climb. We decided to opt for an elevated walk along the shore followed by a boat ride out to hopefully get up close to the face. We had seen several images of the glacier during our research before arriving here and it looked unbelievable. Those images however did not do it justice. We were treated to a picture postcard perfect day, blue skies with a few clouds and temperatures in the low 20’s.
We have tried to come up with words to describe it, but to be honest we are struggling. It was spectacular! right up there with the best things we have seen. The face of the glacier is between 50 and 70 metres tall, with another 160 metres hiding below the milky glacial waters. It is almost 2.5 km wide and stretches back into the mountains covering an area bigger than Buenos Aires. The glacier face is mesmerizing, almost like watching flames dancing.
We had been told that in the summer when the sun is particularly warm it heats up the glacier and pieces fall off. Global warming in action!! As we walked around the elevated path we heard and saw 4 small pieces fall into the water below.
After a couple of hours taking endless photographs we jumped on the boat to go out close to the face. We got to about 250 metres from the ice and moved slowly from one end to the other, snapping more photos. As we turned for the shore, Steve found himself in a great position for a shot, as he put up his camera there was a very large cracking noise coming from directly in front of us. He switched his camera to video just as a massive piece of ice, almost the full height of the glacier sheared off and thundered into the water. Priceless. The resulting wave was also quite big and the Captain turned the boat quickly and moved off.
Everyone agreed it was a fantastic experience. Yes there are lots of people there and yes it is quite tourist orientated but there is a good reason for that. Perito Merino Glacier is outstanding.
When everyone arrived back at the campsite with all their stories of the various days out, from kayaking to ice trekking, it was clear no one was disappointed. Nikki had spent the day restocking supplies and had prepared fajitas for everyone (she is just too good). It was truly a memorable day.