EL CALAFATE (Argentina), June 13 – It’s still dark outside when we are picked up from our hotel.
El Calafate is a touristy town, with an always bustling ski resort ambience, but at this hour everything is quiet. Serene. Nature is at its best when people are still in bed, not polluting the peace with their clamour and chaos.
Most people, at any rate.
We and a few other passengers in our van, each from a different hotel or bed-and-breakfast in town, are up at this early hour to embark on the 78-kilometre journey required to arrive at Lake Argentino where the stunning Perito Moreno Glacier awaits us.
It’s pretty much the main attraction here. If you’re in El Calafate, the Perito Moreno Glacier (named after a 19th-century explorer) is where you’ll be heading to eventually though there are various trips to other parts of interest.
We are surrounded by the Los Glaciares National Park where the glacier is located after all, itself a Unesco World Heritage site in the Argentinian Patagonia.
When we finally reach Lake Argentino, it becomes immediately clear why the glacier is so celebrated. As we descend on the sprawling walkways that offer various vantage points for viewing, we can feel the “breath” of the Perito Moreno Glacier upon our faces. Chunks of glacier that have broken off float past us, like a fleet of icebergs.
Unlike most other glaciers around the world that are retreating, Perito Moreno is unusual in that it is relatively stable. As it loses mass at its terminus, where it meets the vivid blue waters of Lake Argentino, it also continues to “grow” at its source,
Viewing the glacier from elevated platforms, one still can’t fully capture its immense size – 30 kilometres in length, covering a total of 250 square kilometres. What you can experience, however, is how active it is.
Fortune rewards those who wait: large chunks of the glacier will fracture and break off the main ice mass – in a process called “calving” – resulting in a resounding roar as they crash from as high as 70 metres into the lake.
If the silence is serene, when it is broken by the reverberations of the calving, you can’t help but be shaken. It is surreal and wondrous.
Time to cross the lake. We board our boats. As we approach, we see yet another side of Perito Moreno in a way that isn’t always possible with other more remote glaciers.
It’s breathtaking, the unearthly solitude never quite broken, not even with the inevitable shutter staccato of everybody’s cameras.
The best part is yet to come. Once our boat docks at the side of the glacier, we are led up the slope to a couple of small sheds. Here, we are given crampons to tie onto our shoes as the sharp spikes offering better grip when we walk on the ice.
That’s right – we’ll be hiking on the glacier itself!
Putting on the crampons is an experience in itself. The trekking guide and his colleagues (there’s usually at least one other guide, a second-in-command bringing up the rear) are more than happy to help if you have difficulties with the straps.
Then a quick guide on how to walk on the glacier – taking it slow and making sure we step fully into the ice – ensues before we commence our trek in a single file.
Our lead guide in the front, carving footholds where necessary with his ice pick; his colleague making sure there are no stragglers at the back and helping those who need a hand.
But the path is clear, even if we don’t see it immediately, and the going is easy as our guide takes care to avoid the more rugged parts of the glacier.
With that in mind, we realise that this is an uncertain terrain, unpredictable in the way Nature is, and pay mind to where we step, listening to every instruction from our guide.
The jagged surface of the Perito Moreno Glacier brings to mind the famous Game of Thrones catchphrase “Winter is coming.”
Overhead, we observe wisps of clouds behind the icy peaks. There is no guaranteed landmark we must pass; the path changes daily. The glacier, we realise, is alive in its own way.
For some, this is the first time walking on a glacier. We have done glacier treks before but every experience is unique. Perito Moreno Glacier is gentler, we feel, not as harsh on the knees or requiring as much dexterity.
But the views are heightened by the knowledge we have seen other sides of the glacier just moments before, from the maze of walkways to the approach by boat.
As we make our way down to the ground a couple of hours or so later, we are greeted by a most incongruous sight: glasses in tidy rows on a couple of makeshift tables. Closer inspection revealed these to be old-fashioned rocks glasses, the sort you’d serve whisky in.
Our guide brings a bucket over to a clean patch of ice and starts hacking at it, collecting large chunks of ice. He brings it to the table and breaks the chunks into smaller pieces, the size of... ice cubes.
It’s not an elegant operation but we figure out what’s going on as he pours the bucket of ice over the glasses, the tiniest shards of the glacier flying all over the place.
Out comes the bottle of whisky. Whiskey on the rocks... while we stand on a glacier. Not just any glacier though but the Perito Moreno Glacier – the most dazzling glacier hike in the world, we agree in unison as we toast the completion of a successful trek and each other.
To get to El Calafate, fly in to El Calafate International Airport (a few kilometres from town) from Buenos Aires. The Perito Moreno Glacier is about a two-hour drive from the town of El Calafate.
The are many tour companies that run daily trips via a van or bus depending on the number of visitors. Most hotels can help you arrange a tour reservation. Los Glaciares National Park entrance fee: ARS700 (RM66) per person. Cost of tours (with or without glacier walks) differ according to tour operators and season.