The Glaciers of Argentina

Perito Moreno Glacier, Argentina

Gina Pricope / Getty Images

When nature formed the magnificent glaciers of Argentina, there were no political boundaries in southern South America, nor an area called Patagonia. Now, of course, we refer to this landmass as ChileArgentina, and Patagonia. There are glaciers on both sides of the Andes, forming the Patagonian Ice Field, second only in size to Antarctica

Glaciers and More

On the southwestern Argentine side, there are more than 300 glaciers, some of them in the Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, Glacier National Park, extends for 217 miles (350 km) along the Andes. Los Glaciares is a UNESCO World Heritage site and includes ice fields covering about 40% of the surface, two lakes, and 47 major glaciers.

Thirteen glaciers reach toward the Atlantic, while the glaciers Perito Moreno, Mayo, Spegazzini, Upsala, Agassiz, Oneill, Ameghino feed the lakes in the park. Among them is Lago Argentina, the largest lake in Argentina, and already 15,000 years old. Lago Viedma and Lago Argentina flow into the río Santa Cruz which runs east into the Atlantic.

Glaciar Upsala is the largest glacier in South America. It is 37 miles (60 km) long and 6 miles (10km) long. You can reach it only by boat, playing dodge'em with the icebergs, or ice islands, floating in Lago Argentina.

The park also includes mountains, rivers, lakes, and forests and reaches into the arid Patagonian steppes to the east. Among the steep, jagged granite mountain peaks Cerro Fitz Roy, also known as Chaltén at 11236 ft (3405m) and Cerro Torre at 10236 ft (3102 m).

Flora and fauna include stands of beech trees, shrubs, mosses, orchids, red fire brush, and guanacos, large Patagonian hares, hawks, red foxes, Magellan geese, black-necked swans, flamingos, woodpeckers, skunks, pumas, condors, and the near extinct huemul deer. The huemul is now protected as a national monument.

Within Los Glaciares park, the Parque Nacional Perito Moreno is its own entity and a must on every visitor's list. Perito Moreno has the distinction of being the only glacier in the world to be still growing. Like the other glaciers in the region, Moreno is formed because falling snow accumulates faster than it melts.

Over time, the snow compresses and gravity and the ice buildup behind the glacier force it down the mountain. The distinctive blue color comes from the oxygen trapped in the snow, and the dirt and mud come from the ground and rocks the glacier gathers as it noses its way downward.

These two views of the Perito Moreno Glacier offer an inkling of the size and wonder of it. The glacier winds for 50 mi (80 km) through the Cordillera until it comes to an end in Lago Argentina in a blue-ice wall 2 miles (3km) wide and 165 ft (50 m) high called the snout.

The glacier faces the Peninsula Magallanes across a narrow channel of water, and as it moves across the channel building an ice dam, the waters build up in an inlet called Brazo Rico until the pressure is too much. The wall collapses. This happened last in 1986 when the collapse of the dam was caught on video. No one is sure when it will happen again, but visitors wait expectantly.

Perito Moreno is named for Francisco Pascasio Moreno, whose nickname was Perito. More formally known as Dr. Francisco P. Moreno, Honoris Causa, (1852-1919), he was the first Argentine to travel the area and his son later compiled his Reminiscencias Del Perito Moreno.

Moreno gave the Argentine nation the land that became Nahuel Huapi National Park. Many places in southwestern Argentina are named for him. It was he who named Cerro Fitzroy after the captain of HMS Beagle.

What to See and Do There

Things to do and see in Parque Nacional Los Glaciares revolve around the natural splendors. These depend on which part of the park you are in.

On the southern end, at Lago Argentina, one of the most popular activities is ice-trekking. You don't need to be an extreme sports enthusiast to enjoy this, but you should be fit enough to handle the techniques of walking and climbing on ice, sometimes very steep ice, with crampons. You'll get the equipment you need from your tour agency or guide. This is something you should plan to do. It's an experience you'll never forget.

You can choose a mini-trek if you prefer, which is restricted to a small, safe portion of the glacier. If you prefer a little distance from your experience with the ice, you can use the walkway less than 1000 ft (300 m) from the snout. You might see a section of ice veer off with a huge splash. Watch for the tidal wave; before the walkway was built, people used to get very near the shore and were caught and killed by the wave.

Horseback rides will take you around Lago Argentina, through the deep green forests for great views of the glaciers, meadows, lakes, and rivers. You don't need to be an expert rider, as the horses are tame and the saddles are wide and comfortably padded with sheepskin. You'll also travel by bus and by boat, and by 4X4. Mountain bikers have many trails to choose from.

You can also visit a sheep estancia, some of which are now open to overnight stays. These aren't inexpensive, but they do include a meal and the experience of being part of a working ranch.

On the northern end, at Lago Viedma, the activity centers around the lake, Upsala glacier, and the mountains. Upsala is reached only by boat, and you may choose to take a catamaran from Punto Bandera across the lake to the observation points on Canal Upsala. The boat will let you off here to follow a trail to Lago Onelli for a look at Onelli, Bolado, and Agassiz glaciers there. You'll see many icebergs floating in the lake.

Climbers, campers, and trekkers congregate in the town of El Chaltén. Developed in the 1980s to serve their needs, El Chaltén is a base point for climbing, hiking, or strolling. Be prepared for constant wind. Cerro Torre is notorious for bad weather, and it's not uncommon to see people waiting weeks or longer for good climbing conditions.

Easier to reach in any weather is the Chorillo del Salto waterfall where you can see Cerro FitzRoy and Cerro Poincenot 7376 ft (3002 m). Other trails lead to Laguna Torre and the base camp for climbing Cerro Torre, to Laguna Capri and on to Río Blanco, the base camp for FitzRoy and then to Laguna de Los Tres, named for three members of a French expedition.

Cerros FitzRoy and Torre are not for the inexperienced climbers.

Side Trips

Go to Punta Walichu Caves to see the pictures of people, animals, and handprints made by long-ago Indian tribes. Perito Moreno found the caves, and a mummy, in 1877. You can take a 4X4 part of the way, then walk or ride a horse to the caves.

Laguna del Desierto, or Desert Lake, is somewhat of a misnomer since it is surrounded by forest. It is a nice trip north of El Chaltén.

When to Go and What to Pack

You can go any time of year, but October to April is high season. Be prepared for crowds and make your reservations and travel arrangements in advance. Spring is a good time to go. The weather is warming, the flora is blooming, and there aren't that many tourists yet.

Any time of year, you'll experience the wind, so you'll need warm clothing. No need to dress for an Arctic expedition, but you will need a windproof jacket, hat, gloves, sturdy hiking boots.

If you plan to camp, you'll need your gear to include a sleeping bag, a portable stove, and cooking fuel. Take plenty of water. If you plan to use a shelter, a refugio, you'll need only your sleeping bag.

Take a backpack with you for your incidentals and make sure you have water and snacks. High energy ones are good. You'll find lots of food stores and restaurants, but be prepared for the cost. Everything has to be brought in from miles away.

How to Get There

Getting to the Parque Nacional Los Glaciares is easier than it used to be, with flights on LADE or Líneas Aéreas Kaikén from Río Gallegos and other Argentine cities to Punta Walichu Caves on Lago Argentina's southern shore. However, even with the reconstruction of the airport in El Calafate to accommodate larger planes, the wind plays havoc with flights, and you may experience unexpected delays.

Many people prefer to fly to Río Gallegos and then take the bus for the four to six-hour ride to El Calafate. The buses are comfortable, and traveling this way gives you an excellent view of the landscape, steppes, and sheep, with an occasional guanaco or Patagonian hare thrown in for relief.

Either way, you arrive, allow at least three to four days for the park. Weather conditions might not be optimal, and you might need to wait for just the right photograph or glacier viewing.

El Calafate is geared for the visitor, with restaurants, markets, lodgings, tour agencies and the Ranger Headquarters for the park. Many visitors use the town as a base camp for Perito Moreno and side trips, then stay in El Chaltén for a day or two before traveling on.

Camping is available and inexpensive. There are campgrounds on Peninsula Magallanes. You'll need to take your equipment with you, but supplies are on hand. From the park, visitors can proceed further south into Patagonia to visit Ushuaia and Tierra del Fuego, go west into Chile to see Chilean Patagonia or go north. Chances are, if you are flying in or out of Argentina, you will be going through Buenos Aires.