After leaving El Chalten we finished our journey down Ruta 40 to the town of El Calafate. The town is named for a berry that grows in Patagonia (seen in the picture below). Legend has it that if you eat some of these berries, you will one day return to Patagonia so we had to eat a few. They were actually not bad and had a flavor kind of like blueberries!
The town of El Calafate itself is not all that spectacular, but it is still a huge tourist town because it serves as a base (with an airport) to travel to a lot of attractions in southern Patagonia. We used it to hit 2 of the most famous: Torres del Paine (details coming in our next post) and the Perrito Moreno glacier.
The glacier is one of the most accessible in the world and is also one of the only glaciers that still advances and retreats seasonally and is not losing mass overall. The glacier is not as old as many in Europe or other places because it flows quite quickly, by glacial standards, due to the slope of the ground it flows down. The ice in the glacier is only a few hundred years old compared to a few thousand or even a few hundred thousand for other glaciers around the world. The young age of the glacier clearly didn't take away from it's beauty which we first observed from the maze of observation decks near the glacier. Unfortunately we didn't get to see any large pieces break off and fall into the water (called "calving") while walking around the decks.
The accessibility of the glacier gave us the unique opportunity to join a tour, strap on some crampons, and walk on the glacier, So we hopped onto a boat (like the one in the picture below) and crossed the lake to go for our adventure. We first walked along the south edge of the glacier for about an hour and a half before stopping to put the crampons on and hit the ice.
Jenna was clearly very excited by this opportunity...
We walked for about 4 hours out on the glacier and unfortunately it got a bit rainy and overcast so I wasn't able to take too many pictures but it was a really fun experience. I kind of want to go buy some crampons for recreational use!
Near the end of the hike the guides planted their crampons near the edge of a moulin (sort of a hole in the glacier caused by warm melted water flowing downward) and let us take a look over while hanging on to our climbing harnesses so we didn't plummet to our deaths. The picture doesn't quite do the moulin justice but you get the idea.
Being the science nerd that I am, I couldn't help being fascinated by the glacier overall. I had expected the surface to be much smoother than it turned out to be (I guess this was my expectation having grown up playing on ice in Wisconsin which is very smooth and slippery) but it was actually quite rough from all the small areas of melted water that had formed, frozen, reformed, refrozen, etc. You can kind of see this from the pictures of the crampons above. The most interesting thing however was the color of the ice. Due to the immense weight of the ice, air bubbles are squeezed out of the buried ice. This gives the glacial ice a different color than normal ice from your freezer since the lack of air bubbles makes the light refract differently as it passes through. The fewer air bubbles in the ice, the deeper blue it looks as you can see from the pictures of the crevasse and hole below.
On our way back out to the boat we got to see the other tour group (that only got a short walk on the glacier) and got a little perspective on how immense the glacier is.
The tour company had one final surprise for us on the boat ride back... whiskey with glacier ice in it! Cheers to a fun day!
See the banner at the top of the blog for a panoramic shot of the glacier.