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Friday, February 22, 2013

El Calafate

Last weekend we had the joy of visiting El Calafate, a little town in the province of Patagonia.  The town is quaint and enjoyable, but the real reason to visit this place is because it is home to multiple glaciers, or as Gretchen deemed them "Big Ice'.  This is a trip we have wanted to take for a few years, but since it is wayyy down at the bottom of South America, there are only a few good months to visit - otherwise you'll be frozen solid the whole time.

To me, multiple glaciers set in the middle of a land mass was a very strange thought.  El Calafate is an inland town, with two very large lakes, Argentino and Viedma to its north.  The glaciers live in between the Andes Mountains, expanding and contracting with the seasons.  The history is that somewhere around 18,000 years ago the majority of this area was covered in ice and as the glacial period ended and the Earth's temperatures warmed, the glaciers have reduced to their current locations.

For this trip we used a different travel agency, Neptuno Viajes, which came in quite a bit cheaper than Sundance Spirit.  I realize now that the difference in price was the difference between private and group tours.  The main inconvenience was that we were the first pick-up and last-drop off to both days of tours, adding an hour each way, and after 2 full days of tours, an additional hour on a bus seems a whole lot longer.

We stayed at the Alto Calafate, a nice hotel about a 5 minute drive from town.  They offer a shuttle service to and from the center of town.  The rooms are nice and the restaurant hotel was a good choice for lunch and dinner.  The breakfast was included in our stay, but left much to be desired.  There are a ton of hotels in town (and we stopped by most of them during our tour pick-ups), and if we were to do it again we would stay right in town.

The company that handled our tours once we were in El Calafate was Tiempo Libre, and they have a whole menu of tours to choose from.  You are able to book ahead of time or on arrival, but be aware that some of the tours are restricted by age and physical ability. We booked two full-day tours, the Todo Glaciares (All Glaciers) and the Perito Moreno Glacier tour.

Starting with the All Glaciers tour, we started with an 8:30am pickup where we drove 45 minutes to the dock.  We boarded a large catamaran that had a big indoor seating area and an indoor second floor VIP section. We had tickets for the first floor seating area, where the only downfall was that there were no assigned seats - and the window seating was taken by the first people to arrive.  Most of the day was spent with people mulling around, inside and out to the balcony area where you could feast your eyes on these glorious icebergs. Point being that the window seats were not a necessity.

The whole day we were on Lago Argentino, starting by traveling up the Northen Arm to the Upsala Glacier. Upsala is a Swedish city whose university first sponsored a glaciological survey of the area, thus the namesake to the glacier.  It is difficult to capture the enormity of the ice on film, but the "wall" of this glacier (where the ice meets the water, also called the tongue) is approx 4 km (~2.5 miles) wide.  The height of this tongue is an average of 60 meters (~200 feet) above lake level.

The next glacier we passed was the Spegazzini Glacier, which shows a bit more clearly how these glaciers are located right in the middle of the mountains.  Glaciers begin with snowfall.  The snow compacts, creating hard layers that eventually form into ice (think of the snow on your driveway that you have to scrape up because someone drove over it... now multiply that by a million).  For this to form a glacier, it needs to be located in an area where the snow does not melt from year to year, but instead, piles up and causes incredibly bodies of compacted ice.  As with all things, glaciers are impacted by gravity, and since they are located among the steep slopes of the mountains, they are constantly in movement.

The glaciers we saw move somewhere around 4 meters a year, though each one varies depending on the slope in which it lives.  

The most visually interesting part of this process is when the ice wall cracks and breaks off pieces on the front lines, creating huge waves and loud noises resulting in icebergs the float along the lake.

The lake is just above freezing so the icebergs stay big, but they melt as they distance themselves from the mother glacier.  The closer to a glacier, the bigger the iceberg.

Our boat drove right up to one of these icebergs and chipped off a piece for everyone to hold.  Gretchen was thrilled at being able to hold ice, though all she really wanted to do was eat it.  

For those that were interested, you could buy a drink poured over the glacier ice - they recommended scotch or whiskey.  An interesting idea, though I'm pretty sure the flavor is exactly the same - probably just a bit more pure.

It was freakishly warm for our trip to El Calafate, so much so that nights in the non-airconditioned, no fan, small windowed room were almost unbearable.  It made for good ice-viewing weather though!  The boat was quite windy and much cooler when we got closer to the glaciers, so a winter coat, hat, pants, etc is recommended.  We had a whole bag of clothing that we never even touched, but again, I think that was due to the unusually high temperatures - people who had recently visited told me horror stories of frigid temperatures and shivering children.  We also brought boxed lunches from our hotel, the snack bar on the boat was very slim, and unless a can of Pringles fills you up, you want to have something more substancial for the almost 9 hour trip.
The last glacier we visited was Perito Moreno, the most famous of the Argentine ice.  At 4 km wide on its front, and 30 km long, the surface area encompassed by this glacier is approximately the size of Buenos Aires city.  We spent the following day doing everything Perito Moreno has to offer, so I'll stop at a picture of the glacier in today's post.

The ice takes on this intense blue color due to the molecular changes made when snow turns into ice.  The deeper the blue, the more dense the ice.  Aside from the vibrant blues and milky whites, it is remarkable to me that once the ice is chipped into a smaller piece, it is just as crystal clear as if you were looking through glass.

Gretchen was a trooper on this trip, and though she didn't spend much time "strolling" we were glad we brought our stroller to accomodate her 3 hour nap!  It was a great introduction to the "big ice" and though it was a long tour, I feel that it was a good way to spend the day.  If you are going on this trip, remember to bring your sunscreen!  The sun is strong, the ice and water reflect the sun and it doesn't take long until you're nice and crisp.


  1. Awesome pictures!!

  2. Great pictures & information. Looks like you all had a good time. Regarding your stay, you mentioned you if visiting El Calafate again you would stay right in town. Any hotel pop in mind? We are planning a trip to El Calafate mid March/early April and our travel agent suggested to stay Alto Calafate for its great views of Lago Argentina, and she also mentioned Hotel Calafate Parque & Hotel Quijote. The later two are in town center. Any comments or suggestions will be greatly appreciated.

    1. Hi Delia,
      We passed both of those hotels during the weekend, the Parque Hotel looks a little older than Quijote - but we didn't go inside either one, so I'm not sure which is nicer! The other hotel our travel agent recommended was the Kosten Aike, which also looked really nice from the outside. I'm sorry this isn't much help!
      Good luck and enjoy your trip!