Before I begin, a word of warning. Should you wish to travel, as we did, from Puerto Natales, Chile, to El Calafate, Argentina, the bus is simple and comfortable enough: six hours, approx £12. What is not advised however, is to lose, as Leo did, the PDI receipt he had received upon entering Chile. The importance of this small, flimsy paper is never expressed, unless you are travelling alongside someone who has been to Chile before. “Make sure you don’t lose your PDI.” “Keep your PDI safe.” “You’ve got your PDI, right?” I checked repeatedly; I was assured, repeatedly. Of course, he didn’t have his PDI. There is an immediate US$150 fine if you reach a border without said receipt. (Only the smoothest talking Argentines are able to wriggle out of it!) Ye be warned.
Anyway, after this border-based drama, we arrived once more in Argentina. El Calafate was wet, muddy and, near the bus station, there wasn’t a discernible pavement in sight. So, obviously, we decided to camp! However, not wanting to dwell in our tent longer than necessary, we hit the town.
The main avenue is, as expected, lined with tour companies, souvenir shops and restaurants. Amidst the tourist traps, in an inexplicably gnome-themed market area, lies a quaint ‘librobar’. Books and bar, my two favourite words! ‘Borges y Alvarez’ has all the chunky wooden charm one might expect from a lodge or a library; and the walls are lined with books, quotes and beer taps. We sipped delicious artesanal beers whilst reading amusingly dated material and generally soaking up the ambience. We were in El Calafate for two days; we visited said establishment twice!
Inspired by a local guide book (written many moons ago) we wandered in search of Laguna Nimez. Unfortunately, we were a little travel-spoilt and this lake appeared to be just an underwhelming marsh. If you squinted there were some far off flamingoes and the occasional tiny iceberg floating on Lago Argentino beyond; but, truth be told, it wasn’t worth the five minute walk from town!
Instead we caved in and splashed some cash on a slap up meal. With several restaurants offering Patagonian lamb (most showcasing its very carcass over a fire, in the front window) we opted for the location offering 2 for 1. Salty, meaty, delicious. Far better than any campsite meals being prepared as we waddled home.
But the following morning was our main event: we scaled the hillside staircase back to the bus terminal and boarded our budget shuttle to Parque Nacional Los Glaciares. We were going glacier spotting!
The Perito Moreno glacier is one of the easiest glaciers in the world to access via road. Hence its popularity, especially with the elderly! Our bus driver was particularly knowledgable and affable, thus we utilised the 80km journey to learn some random trivia. He stopped to show us the impressively huge Lago Argentino, and to point out the Calafate bush, from which the town gets its name. He also explained some loophole law wherein you are allowed to kill a puma legally once it eats one of your lambs. Man’s excellent intrusion on the food chain.
Anyway, I was a little distracted by the window-side views. Snowy mountain peaks played hide and seek amongst the clouds and, eventually, one face of the enormous glacier swelled into view. Much like glacier Grey, even from a distance it was impressive.
Shortly after, we pulled up to a visitors centre and cafe, told we had four hours to ourselves, and sent on our merry way. Once you can tear yourself from the hot drinks and free wifi, the glacier sits just behind the building. “Look, there it is!” I shouted and pointed and skipped with glee. From here, it seemed like I was looking at a perfectly formed, rectangular damn between the lake and the mountains.
Rush along the metal walkways, closer and closer to the ice face, and it just gets better! Blue, jagged, looming and, thanks to the water echoing ominously within, seemingly alive. Up a few stairs and you can see from above: thousands of jutting peaks atop an enormous meringue. We had read that the ice mass was the size of the city of Buenos Aires (presumably before the city sprawled and the ice receded) which seemed unrealistic… until we were there! There was honestly no end in sight.
As the tourist boat chugged past, the sheer height of this 70m edifice became all the more apparent. Every cleverly positioned viewing platform offered yet more spectacular photo opportunities. Who knew ice could be so enthralling?!
A definite highlight (aside from the ice cold beers we sipped at the ice face) is catching sight of enormous chunks of ice that break free. The sound and the sight come separately, as buildings-worth of ice collapse into the water below. A dramatic splash is followed by perfectly concentric ripples emanating across the lake. Moments that remind you of the constant movement of this imposing city of ice.
We circled every available platform, as it was a view I would never tire of. But, eventually, as a Patagonian fox emerged from the woods to usher all the tourists away, we boarded the bus and waved goodbye to the perfect mirror lake, with its representation of upside-down mountains. It was time for us to return to the librobar, then to pack up our tent and board our impossibly long bus north! (Note: the famous Route 40 closes until mid-October, thus, the only route north is in fact south, and then up the other side of the country. Oh joy.)