Parque Nacional Los Glaciares: Glacier Perito Moreno and Other Sights

The edge of the glacier sheds into the water while snow-capped mountains rise up across the lake.

Tourists on the viewing platform at Glaciar Perito Moreno. Photo © Dominic Alves, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

In general, the park’s southerly sector, west of El Calafate, gets day visitors for passive sightseeing. The northerly sector—a 3.5-hour bus trip from El Calafate—attracts hikers and mountaineers. Gregory Crouch’s Enduring Patagonia (New York: Random House, 2001) details one mountaineer’s experiences on Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre.

Backpackers should note that no campfires are permitted within the park—carrying a camp stove is obligatory for cooking.

Glaciar Perito Moreno

Where a low Andean pass lets Pacific weather systems cross the cordillera, countless storms have deposited immeasurable meters of snow that, over millennia, have compressed into the Moreno Glacier, the groaning, rasping river of ice that’s one of the continent’s greatest sights and sounds. Fifteen times during the 20th century, the advancing glacier blocked Lago Argentino’s Brazo Rico (Rico Arm) to form a rising body of water that eventually, when the weight became too great for the natural dam, triggered an eruption of ice and water toward the lake’s main glacial trough.

No such event took place from 1988 until March 14, 2004, when the avalanche of ice and water could have been a metaphor for the flood of tourists that invaded El Calafate in anticipation. On any given day, though, massive icebergs still calve off the glacier’s 60-meter face and crash into the Canal de los Témpanos (Iceberg Channel) with astonishing frequency. Perched on newly modernized catwalks and overlooks, many visitors spend entire days either gazing at or, eyes closed, simply listening to this rumbling river of ice. Descending to lake level is prohibited because of the danger of backwash and flying ice chunks; it’s possible, though, to contract full-day “minitrekking” excursions onto the ice (US$129 pp with transport from El Calafate) with Hielo y Aventura (Avenida Libertador 935, El Calafate, tel. 02902/49-1053). Hielo y Aventura also offers a more strenuous “Big Ice” trip (US$150 pp) and a passive “Safari Náutico” boat trip (1 hour, US$10 pp) that approaches the glacier’s face.

Organized tours to the glacier, 80 kilometers southwest of El Calafate via RP 11, leave every day, as does scheduled transport; transport is usually extra for everything except bus tours.

Glaciar Upsala

Even larger than the Moreno Glacier, 50 kilometers long and 10 kilometers wide at its foot, the Upsala glacier is accessible only by crowded catamaran trips from Puerto Bandera via Lago Argentino’s Brazo Norte (North Arm). Impressive for its sheer extent, the sizeable bergs that have calved off it, and their shapes and colors, it’s the trip’s outstanding sight.

At midday the boat anchors at Bahía Onelli, but bring a bag lunch (skipping the restaurant) to hike to ice-clogged Lago Onelli. The land portion of this excursion is regimented, and the guide-suggested pace—30 minutes from dock to lakeshore—is suitable for those on crutches. Smoking is prohibited on the forest trail.

Visitors should realize that this is a mass-tourism excursion that may frustrate hikers accustomed to freedom of the hills. If you take it, choose the biggest available ship, which offers the most deck space to see the Spegazzini and Upsala glaciers. On board, the freshest air is within the cabin of the ALM, whose seats are cramped but where smoking is prohibited; on deck, desperate smokers congregate even in freezing rain. Reasonably priced cakes, sandwiches, coffee, tea, and hot chocolate are available on board.

Puerto Bandera is 45 kilometers west of Calafate via RP 11 and RP 8. For information and reservations, contact concessionaire Fernández Campbell (Avenida Libertador 867, El Calafate, tel. 02902/49-1155 or 02902/49-1428). The full-day trip costs about US$85 pp; this now includes transfers to Puerto Bandera but not the US$17 park fee for non-Argentines.

A new alternative is an overnight trip, with onboard accommodations and meals, through Cruceros Marpatag (9 de Julio 57, Local 10, El Calafate, tel. 02902/49-2118), which visits the Upsala and Spegazzini glaciers the first day and the Moreno glacier on the second before returning to Puerto Bandera. Rates are US$625 pp, double occupancy.

Lago Roca

Also known as La Jerónima, the park’s little-visited southwesterly sector along Lago Roca’s Brazo Sur (South Arm) offers camping and cross-country hiking—there are no formal trails, only routes such as the one from the campground to the summit of Cerro Cristal, 55 kilometers from El Calafate. The landscape’s most striking feature is the high shoreline—dry from the days when the lake backs up behind the advancing Moreno glacier. Unlike other sectors, Lago Roca charges no admission fee.

Sector Fitz Roy

In the park’s most northerly sector, the Fitz Roy Range has sheer spires to match Torres del Paine, but even if you’re not a top technical climber, trails from the village of El Chaltén to the base of summits such as Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre make for exhilarating hikes. It’s even possible to traverse the southern Patagonian ice fields, but visitors seeking a sedate outdoor experience will find a handful of former sheep estancias, onetime Patagonian wool producers that have reinvented themselves as tourist accommodations.

From a signposted trailhead at El Chaltén’s north end, just south of the former Camping Madsen, the Sendero Laguna Torre is an 11-kilometer track gaining about 200 meters in elevation as it winds through southern beech forests to the climbers’ base camp for Cerro Torre; figure about 3–3.5 hours. At the lake, in clear weather, there are extraordinary views of Cerro Torre’s 3,102-meter summit, crowned by the socalled ice-and-snow “mushroom” that technical climbers must surmount. While Italian Cesare Maestri claimed that he and Austrian Toni Egger reached the summit in 1959 (Egger died in an avalanche, taking the expedition’s camera with him), Italian Casimiro Ferrari made the first undisputed ascent in 1974.

From the Madsen pack station, the more demanding Sendero Río Blanco trail rises steeply at the outset before leveling out through boggy beech forest and continuing to the Fitz Roy base camp, climbing about 350 meters in 10 kilometers. About midway to Río Blanco, a signed lateral leads south to Laguna Capri, which has backcountry campsites.

From Río Blanco, a vertiginous zigzag trail ascends 400 meters in just 2.5 kilometers to Laguna de los Tres, a glacial tarn whose name commemorates three members of the French expedition—René Ferlet, Lionel Terray, and Guido Magnone—who summited Fitz Roy in 1952. Truly a top-of-the-world experience, Laguna de los Tres offers some of Patagonia’s finest Andean panoramas.

From the Río Blanco campground (reserved for climbers), a northbound trail follows the river’s west bank north to Laguna Piedras Blancas, whose namesake glacier continually calves small icebergs. The trail continues north to the Río Eléctrico, beyond the park boundaries, where a westbound trail climbs the river to Piedra del Fraile and a possible circuit of the Campo de Hielo Sur, only for experienced snow-and-ice trekkers. At the Río Eléctrico, it’s also possible to rejoin the road from El Chaltén to Lago del Desierto.

From the park visitors center, a short ascent (about 45 minutes) leads to the Mirador de los Cóndores, for good views of El Chaltén and the confluence of the Río de las Vueltas and the Río Fitz Roy.

From the same trailhead, the hike to Loma del Pliegue Tumbado is a 500-meter elevation gain that yields some of the area’s views— weather permitting, the panorama takes in Fitz Roy, Cerro Torre, Cerro Solo, Glaciar Torre, and Lago Torre, but the wind at the overlook can be overpowering. Four hours is about right for an average hiker, but the truly fit can do it three; the descent takes about 2.5 hours.

Glaciar Viedma

From Lago Viedma’s north shore, south of El Chaltén, the park’s best lake excursion is the Viedma Discovery’s full-day catamaran voyage to the Viedma glacier, which includes an iceclimbing component.

Sailing from Bahía Túnel, the vessel rounds the ironically named Cabo de Hornos (Cape Horn) to enter an iceberg-cluttered area before anchoring in a rocky cove. After disembarking, visitors hike to an overlook (the glacier is Argentina’s largest, though its lakeside face is small) with additional views of 2,677-meter Cerro Huemul. Those who want to can strap on crampons and continue onto the glacier for about 2.5 hours (even some sedentary city dwellers do so).

The bilingual guides know glaciology and provide more personalized service than the Fernández Campbell excursion from Puerto Bandera. While the price here does not include lunch, they do provide an aperitif on the glacial rocks.

Departure time from El Chaltén is 8:30 a.m., while the boat sails from Bahía Túnel at 9 a.m.; the cost is US$105 pp including transportation from El Chaltén. For details, contact Patagonia Aventura (Güemes s/n, tel. 02962/49-3110, El Chaltén).

Lago del Desierto

Elongated Lago del Desierto, 37 kilometers north of El Chaltén, is a scenic end-of-the-road destination with hiking trails, boat excursions, and even a challenging border crossing to the Chilean settlement of Villa O’Higgins.

From the lake’s south end, a short trail winds west through dense southern beech forest to a vista point and the hanging glacier at Laguna Huemul; a longer route follows the eastern shore to the border, a 20-kilometer trek over gentle terrain. Every year a few hundred people cross the Argentine-Chilean border in a zone that was once so contentious that a Chilean Carabinero even lost his life in a firefight with Argentine border guards in 1965.

Despite objections by a handful of Chilean nationalists, the matter is resolved, the border is peaceable, and determined hikers or even mountain bikers can readily reach Villa O’Higgins. Before attempting it, though, verify the latest details with Argentina’s Gendarmería (Border Patrol) in El Chaltén.

From El Chaltén, Transporte Las Lengas (Viedma 95, tel. 02962/49-3023, minibuses go to El Pilar (US$10 pp) and Río Eléctrico (US$13) at 7 and 8:30 a.m. and 3 p.m. daily; the later two runs continue to Lago del Desierto (US$21 one-way or round-trip), returning at 2:30 and 8:30 p.m. Hitching is feasible, but vehicles are few and often full. At the lake itself, the Viedma 1 carries passengers to the north end and back (US$24 pp).

Excerpted from the Third Edition of Moon Argentina.

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