This morning we meet our local guide, Carolina and she is instantly likable, passionate about her country, nature conservation, ecology, and life in general, looking forward to spending time with her on our 2-hour drive into Los Glaciares National Park to visit the very accessible Perito Moreno Glacier. Just outside of Calafate we can see ice bergs on the far shore of the lake, these have traveled more than 50 miles from the glacier, blown by the winds.
As we drive Carolina talks about Patagonia and of the special relationship they share with Chile in this part of the world, so far from everything. It can be a difficult existence with the harsh climate; nearly constant winds and great distances between towns but according to Carolina the people that live here do so because they love this dramatic landscape and the beauty that surrounds them – so what about the brutal winters? Well, she says, winter is for making babies.
As we drive out of Calafate very quickly the landscape opens up to vast plains bordered by mountains and the ribbon of highway. Our driver willingly stops whenever he or Carolina sees something that might be of interest; there isn’t much traffic to worry about.
Breaking up the browns of the plains are bright yellow flowers of the calafate bush or box-leaved barberry, Patagonia’s best-known plant and easy to spot this time of year. Vindictive thorns protect the bushes; the wood is used to make a red dye, the edible berries are harvested to for jams and ice cream and it has some medicinal properties being used like eucalyptus for colds.
Legend says “Él que come el calafate, volverá” (he who eats calafate will return).
On down the road we stop again, this time to get out and watch three enormous Andean condors soaring high above – these enormous birds are second in size to the California condor. They carry a lot of weight with their 10-foot wingspans and rather than flapping their enormous wings they are able to use the tips of the wings like fingers to take advantage of the currents adjusting their glide. Awesome sight.
Entering Los Glaciares National Park we stop for a little orientation; Carolina tells us more about the park and the Perito Moreno Glacier one of only three glaciers in Patagonia that is still growing.
Created in 1937, Los Glaciares is the second-largest national park in Argentina, and comprises more than 1,700 square miles and nearly 50 large glaciers. These glaciers are fed by a giant icecap, the largest continental ice extension after Antarctica and world’s third largest reserve of fresh water. The Southern Patagonia ice field begins in the Andes and occupies well over a third of the park’s total area.
The glaciers here are unique. Unlike other glaciers, which typically formed at least roughly 8,200 feet above sea level, the icy marvels at Los Glaciares form much lower, around 5,000 feet. The lower points of origin are a boon to visitors, as they offer unique access—visually and physically—to glaciers.
Perito Moreno Glacier is a pristine marvel towering nearly 200 feet above Lake Argentino. The constant, cyclical movement of Perito Moreno’s ice mass often forces the glacier to “calve.” This means that smaller chunks of ice fracture and break off from the glacier accompanied by thunderous noises. It’s quite a spectacle, and can occur at any time. We heard many calving events but only witnessed one. They seem to patiently wait until you have turned your back or are otherwise distracted.
East of the ice fields are areas of southern beech forest and the windswept Patagonian steppes. It was a beautiful ride to and from the glacier, along Lago Argentino and passing through scenic forests and the wide-open steppes.