Tuesday, March 18:
After a nice buffet breakfast at our hotel, where we picked up our bag lunches for the day, we sat in the lobby, waiting for our arranged 8:00 pickup to go to Glaciar Perito Moreno. Since practically everyone who is in El Calafate is there to see one or more of the 200+ glaciers in Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, there are a great many bus operators, who contract through tour agencies to fill their buses.
We waited and waited, watching a handful of other buses come by to pick folks up, and finally at 8:45, had the front desk call to see what the deal was. As such things usually go, our bus arrived when they were on the phone. It turns out the buses start picking folks up at hotels at 8, however, between folks not being quite ready, and there being many hotels in El Calafate, it doesn’t actually get on the road to the glacier until closer to 9:30.
Note the large tour catamaran for size comparison!
After picking up another dozen or so people, we got underway. Our narrator discussed the natural history of the area, in both English and Spanish, on the 1.5-hour drive to the balconies overlooking Perito Moreno. It was raining lightly throughout our drive, but I still managed to see a few Southern Caracaras (LIFER!), called Carancho in Spanish, on the roadside. Good looks at this beautiful scavenger would have to wait until another day, however.
We stopped at a picnic area for a pit stop, and again at the National Park entrance station to pay the AR$20 entrance fee (not included in the tour ticket price), and once more at a turnout with a distant (and very cloud-and-rain-obscured) view of the glacier across Lago Argentino.
Finally, we got to the end of the road, got off the bus and into a fairly heavy rain, and walked down the paths to the series of balconies overlooking the glacier. Words really fail me in describing how amazing it was to be just ~400 meters from the face of a huge and fairly active glacier! Perito Moreno is reportedly the only glacier in the world that is in a healthy state, that is, it’s being replenished by the Andean ice fields at the same rate as it calves off and melts at the front. According to the Wikipedia page on Perito Moreno, it is 5km wide at the end, and rises 60m above the water.
Patagonian Sierra-Finch / Comesebo Patagónico
Despite the rain, there were a ton of people around, and we actually had to jockey a bit to get to the rails of each balcony (there are 7 balconies in total). I hadn’t expected to see much wildlife, and we generally didn’t, but the cute Rufous-collared Sparrows were about, hopping to and fro on the ground, and as I attempted to split my attention between them and the beautiful blue glacier, a flash of yellow caught my eye, and a Patagonian Sierra-Finch (LIFER!) caught my eye. This beautiful bird didn’t hang around for long, but I got a good look at it, and enjoyed the fact that I was probably the only person out of hundreds who noticed it.
The glacier calved off some fairly large chunks of ice while as we watched, announcing the start of a fall with a gun-rapport-like CRACK! followed by a crashing of ice into the aqua waters of Lago Argentino. At the time of our visit, the glacier was touching the peninsula, creating a natural dam on Lago Argentino. Our guide explained that the water on the west side rises, up to 50+ feet above the level of the east side, and eventually creates a tunnel through the glacier. Water rushing through this tunnel gradually erodes the “bridge,” and eventually it collapses in a spectacle that’s very well-attended. Wikipedia’s page has a link to a cool video of the 2004 collapse (you may want to mute your speakers, as it’s accompanied by awful new-age music!).
Austral Thrush / Zorzal Patagónico
Despite being outfitted in waterproof coats, we were getting fairly wet by this point, and I was concerned about drenching my camera gear as well, but as we made our way back up, I spotted a couple of Austral Thrushes (LIFER!).
We ate our huge lunches in the bus, talking to our guide and 3 generations of women from Costa Rica. Oddly, our guide said there was virtually no wildlife to see, something I was pretty sure wasn’t the case, since I’d already seen well over a dozen bird species in just over one day! Perhaps she was talking about the areas right at the glaciers….
After we finished lunch, the rain largely subsided, and we walked back down to enjoy the views some more, as we still had ~40 minutes before the bus left (they give you 3 hours at the balconies, which seemed like a lot until we were actually there). On the way, I saw a woodpecker-like silhouette fly by, and got enough of a photo to identify it as a Chilean Flicker (LIFER!). Photos will have to wait until later, however, as I got much better photos of them later in the trip.
Finally our time was up, and we boarded the bus and went to a boat launch for a 1.5-hour trip to the face of the glacier (US$15, also not included in the bus ticket price).
Fortunately, the weather was dry and clearing by this point, so we stood on the top deck of the boat, bundled in our caps and gloves.
We met a nice Israeli woman who punctuated every sentence with the word “fucking” (the first thing out of her mouth was “This is so fucking beautiful” – which was true!).
A bridge had started to form, which will eventually go all the way through and collapse, but for now is more of a shallow ice-cave. With the lifting storm we had very smooth waters, which Sarah, whose seaworthiness is often questionable at best, really appreciated.
It was very impressive being just a couple hundred meters from the ice wall, and at water level. Spires of ice over 100′ tall towered above us, and the crazy blue hues of the glacial ice stood out in stark contrast to the black-and-snowy peaks of the Andes.
As we neared the edge of the glacier, we could make out the dots of people trekking on its south side. If we have the good fortune to find ourselves here again, we’ll have to give it a try!
With that, our boat ride was over, and we motored back to the docks, boarded the bus, and went back to El Calafate. We’d waffled on taking the boat trip earlier, but should anyone reading this have any doubts – DO IT! 🙂
Back in town we noticed some Land Rovers advertising backcountry excursions (and bragging that their vehicles run on biodiesel), and since the birding trip we’d wanted to book through our hotel hadn’t panned out, we went into the office of MIL tours and booked a 6-hour overland 4×4 outing for the next day.
El Calafate’s Museum
After a forgettable late lunch at La Esquina (which did, at least, feature cheap beer), we walked back to the hotel, enjoyed happy hour, saw some Ashy-headed Geese (LIFER!) with the usual Lapwings, Snipes, and Ibises, then retired early. Little wonder that Glaciar Perito Moreno is on the UN World Heritage Site list – I’ve never seen anything like it, and don’t expect that I will again!
Part 1: Getting to Patagonia
Part 2: El Calafate & Laguna Nimez
Part 3: Glaciar Perito Moreno <– You are here!
Part 4: El Calafate backcountry excursion
Part 5: Goodbye Argentina, hello Chile
Part 6: To Torres del Paine!
Part 7: Lago Pehoe and Paine Grande
Part 8: Mirador los Cuernos
Part 9: To Rio Verde and Punta Arenas
Part 10: Pelagic, Penguins, and farewell to Patagonia
Part 11: To Buenos Aires!
Part 12: BsAs’ Sunday markets and other diversions
Part 13: Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay
Part 14: Buenos Aires’ Jardin Botanico and Costanera Sur