The main reason, our main reason, to visit the town of El Calafate in the south of Santa Cruz province (Argentina’s second most southern province after Tierra del Fuego) is to visit Perito Moreno Glacier, which is one of the most accessible in the area. This post is to explain how we made the visit there, and suggest how you can too.
The main street of El Calafate is aimed almost entirely at tourists, with what feels like every second place being an agency offering all kinds of tours, and of course, a day trip to see the glacier. At first, we were slightly overwhelmed by the choice of agencies, and we went in to a few to get an idea of prices.
We were universally quoted 220 ARS (£28) per person for a trip leaving town in the morning (between 7.30am and 9am) with pickup from our hotel, a guide to explain things along the way and drop off back at the hotel, with the option of paying 90 ARS (£11.50) extra for a boat trip up to the south face of the glacier.
On our first day there, we decided not to choose an agency straight away and instead went back to our hotel and asked the friendly receptionist for suggestions. They recommended us the company Mundo Austral, who quoted us 180 ARS (£23) for the standard trip, or 230 ARS (£30) including the boat trip.
If you have a car, it is quite possible to drive to the glacier from El Calafate yourself, or if you’d rather not take a tour, but don’t have a car, there is a public bus with Cal Tur leaving at 8am and returning at 4pm, or leaving at 1pm and returning at 6pm from the (only) bus station in El Calafate. The cost appeared to be 140 ARS (£18) for the return journey, but we were warned that it can get booked up quickly, so it’s apparently best to reserve a seat at least the day before.
The 80km ride from El Calafate along modern road takes about 75 minutes and the change in scenery along the way is quite spectacular. As you leave the town, you drive along Lake Argentino (past the airport) and in to the steppe with views of brush land and flat-topped hills.
After about 45 minutes, the landscape starts to change, with the hills becoming mountains and snowy peaks (even in the summer) rising in to view along the bright blue river. Then, almost all of a sudden, it becomes forest.
Almost as soon as you enter the forest, the gate to the national park appears. There is a fee to enter the park, valid for the day of purchase, for 100 ARS (about £13), and is not included in any of the tours. In our case, a man boarded our minivan and charged us each and gave us the ticket (which we were never asked to present anywhere).
Pretty soon after that, you get the first glimpse of the glacier peeking out from behind the hills. After rounding a few bends, our driver stopped at a lookout point, giving us an overview of the south face of the glacier. As is the way with such popular sights, at the same time we were stopped at the lookout, about three other buses of tourists were also there, meaning vying for a viewpoint from which to take an unobscured photo was a small challenge.
The Boat Trip
Then we got back on the bus and drove the short distance downhill to the tiny port (more of a landing deck, really), where three boats were waiting to be filled and for their turn to go out to approach the glacier. Our ship was clean, bright and comfortable, and was about the size a boat doing a city river sightseeing trip on say, the Thames, would be.
Once we were all on, a professional photographer gave a little speech (in Spanish only) about how to photograph the glacier, especially if you wanted to get a picture of someone standing in front of it, which can be tricky since the glacier reflects so much light.
We then approached the glacier, and the boat floated in front of it, always maintaining a distance of 200 metres to avoid large pieces of ice falling off (which is quite common, in small chunks at least, and does not appear to be an effect of global warming, as the glacier is in balance, with as much falling off the lake end as is added at the mountain end every year).
We stayed like that for about 20 minutes (which is when I discovered the panoramic setting on my iPod’s camera), then turned around a little and headed back. All the time, we were able to get out on the walkway around the side of the boat, and up on the deck, which was the most crowded, however we enjoyed being at a lower level, as it gave more contrast with the views we got later.
After returning to the port, we were driven on to the main complex and pedestrian approach to the north face of the glacier and were given just under three hours to wander around and view the glacier from different points. The views were indeed quite different, as we were much higher up. We could much better see the craggy formations of the ice on the surface of the glacier, as well as the face.
The catwalks (pasarelas), we thought were quite an ingenious addition to the complex, as they meant many people (and there were a lot of people!) could get close to the glacier without eroding the forest that covered the peninsula overlooking it.
We easily filled our three hours at the viewing point, taking several different routes along the labyrinthine catwalks, which even go all the way down to the coast of the lake and away from Perito Moreno glacier itself, showcasing more of the beautiful mountain and forest scenery in the area.
Overall, we really enjoyed the visit, and found doing it by tour worthwhile, as we learned a lot about the history and geology of the area and the formation of glaciers in general that we wouldn’t have found out otherwise. We would recommend visiting Perito Moreno glacier as long as you don’t mind sharing the experience with quite a lot of other people.
Back in El Calafate, there’s a lot of choice of accommodation for all budgets. Take a look at hotels, B&Bs, guesthouses and apartments in El Calafate.
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