A guest post by one Christine Ribeiro
While we were hiking the “W” in Chile, we met a number of people who had come from Argentina, where we were heading next. In talking to them, it came up that there was one tourist company (Hielo y Adventura) that actually had permits to take you out hiking on the top of Perito Moreno, the most famous glacier in Argentina and one of the largest/most accessible in the world! One couple did it and highly recommended it, while another said it was the one regret of their trip not to do it as they heard such good reviews. It was not in our initial plan and was quite a bit more than we had planned to spend, but ultimately we decided to go for it. Highly recommended and how many opportunities do you have to walk on top of a glacier in life? Probably only 4, so take advantage!
Being the planner I am, I tried to email and reserve a few days ahead, but was told the reservations had to be done at least 10 days in advance or in person. We arrived in El Calafate, the town closest to the glacier, early afternoon. After exploring hostels for the best deal in town, we went straight to the ticket office. We were in luck! They had a few spots open for the next day. After multiple trips back and forth, exchanging money on the black market (official exchange rate is about 8.6 pesos/dollar but you can get up to 13/dollar unofficially), and showing passports, we had our tickets in hand!
The next morning, we were up outside our hostel at 6:58 AM, as the bus was supposed to pick us up at 7AM. The stars were still out shining as sunrise is not until around 8:30AM down here. The bus picked us up and I had us strategically sit on the left side of the bus, per Lonely Planet’s recommendation, and we were off. About half way through the 1.5hr drive to the national park, it started to drizzle. The forecast had said afternoon rain, but it seemed to be getting an early start. As we are driving through the park to get to the glacier viewing point, the first activity of the day, the driver is talking about all the things that we should be seeing our of the left side of the bus, but actually cannot due to the fog and rain. As we get out of the bus, we see a rainbow next to glacier, a hopeful sign that the sun is somewhere around the rain would soon be behind us.
We had an hour to walk around a network of viewing pathways to see the north and south side of the glacier. The glacier is incredible, close to 11 stories high of pure ice walls, and that is just out of the water, it is close to 30 stories if you count what is underwater as well. It is up to 11km wide and 30km deep. Big enough for the entire city of Buenos Aires to fit on top of it! We look at the glacier from various angles, watching ice fall off the walls into the waters, creating mini icebergs. All the while, the rain is getting harder.
After an hour viewing, we head back to the bus, which drives us over to the pier, where we board a boat to take us next to glacier. What would have been a beautiful boat ride, even for someone who gets seasick looking at boats, was difficult to enjoy as all of the windows were fogged up and it was pouring rain outside. No worries, it can’t rain all day right? And we are going to be walking on this thing soon enough, so we will see it up close. We get off the boat pretty much next to the glacier. I already feel that this trip is going to be worth it as being so close, you really get a sense of the magnitude and beautiful of this hunk of ice.
We have to walk about 1 hour along the side of the glacier before we get the point where we can do our ice trekking. The first 15 minutes are along this nice almost boardwalk like path that ends at a point where the mini-trekking people went out, a shorter version of BIG ice. At this point, our guide says, if anyone would prefer to do mini-trekking due to the weather, let me know now because once we go, there is no turning back. If you are wet and miserable, you will have to continue. This is the part where we should have realized what was in store, but no one budged. We had signed up for BIG ice and we wanted to do it! Come hell or high water.
We continued on with our hike. While the rain was a constant, my feet were surprisingly dry with my wool socks and waterproof hiking boats. I stepped carefully as we trudged through some muddy areas, now clearly off the manicured path. All the ended when we hit the waterfall. This waterfall was next to the path and there was a little wooden bridge, about 7feet long, to get over the river streaming from the falls. Perhaps on a normal day this bridge works great, but this was not a normal day. Due to the rain, it was running faster than normal and the wind gusts blow the waterfall directly onto the bridge with a gust probably every 5 seconds. Each one of us, as we crossed, was drenched in a shower of waterfall. Goodbye dry socks.
Just when I started to feel down about my socks, the guide stops us and tells us that the rain is coming down so fast, that there is a strong risk of landslides, so we will have to talk 15 feet apart. That way if a boulder falls down, it will likely only kill one of us and not the whole group. Yes that is a direct quote from our guide. I am now wondering what we have gotten ourselves into. We all get across with no issues, but you can see the side of the mountain changing around you, new rivers appearing as the rain accumulates. We finally get to the tent were we get fitted for crampons, but the other group got there first and are all inside, taking their sweet time, so they don’t have to be in the rain. We had to stand out in the rain and wait. Once we are all fitted up, we head to the ice.
Everyone is soaked and, being so close to the glacier, freezing as well. The guide that straps on my crampons has to stop because of the pain in her fingers as they have gone so numb. Once we get on the ice, however, it is like entering another planet. Sand dune like icescapes of various blue tones, deep crevices of water that are so pure blue you look down and can’t tell where they end. We walk around for about 2 hours, visiting various crevices and holes, each more beautiful than the next. At one point, the guides hold on to you as you look over the edge of a waterfall within the glacier. Unfortunately, due to the pouring rain, we don’t want to take our camera out too much for fear of ruining it, so can’t share too many pictures. Trust me, it was amazing.
After two hours of our supposed three hour hike, our guide tells us we have to leave quickly, the rain is coming in too fast and there is a lagoon forming on the side that is not safe for us. Remember that hell or high water, well here it comes. As we walk back on the ice, we see the side of the mountain next to us pouring down. You can tell the guides are worried, they keep telling us to speed up because we need to get out of there. We finally get off the ice and to the point where we move over to mountain. The water has risen, so you just have to step your whole foot into this freezing river to get across. Once across, the guide had us go one at a time to get past the landslides. When my turn came, I was about to go when the guide told me to wait. I stop and look up confused, he points to a spot above me where the rocks albeit small, are just tumbling down the path I am about to head on. I make it across to the other guide who says, “It’s a big adventure, no?” What did we sign up for?
It is not over. Once we past that point, we turn the bend and there is our good friend the waterfall. The water has become even more violent and has flooded the path around the bridge. Multiple guides are lined up along the path to help people across. I get to one spot, where you are standing on a rock in the middle of the rapids, and there is a guide about six feet away with his hand out. He is telling you to walk into these rapids, but is too far away at this point for you to grab. I just jumped to where I had seen other jump and there was a rock that 2 hours ago was above water, but now was just below. The guide grabs my hand and pulls me over to the bridge, where we all once again get a waterfall shower.
At this point, I just want to get back, I beeline back. When I finally get to the boardwalk path, I can breath. I am going to make it out ok. What were theses people thinking??? I know they told me they never cancel, but this is ridiculous. They have a fire and coffee waiting that the lodge. I head straight to the fire and try to warm my hands with the rest of the group.
The boat arrives about 10 minutes later and they hand out glasses of whiskey. I don’t usually drink whiskey, but today it goes down easy. We cross the lake, get on the bus, all wet and cold, and head back into town.
Certainly not what I had bargained for when I signed up for BIG ice, but it was an adventure. And, despite all of this, would I recommend it? Hands down. Walking on a glacier was amazing and worth it, just check the weather report before you buy your ticket!