El Calafate is a small town located in the Santa Cruz province of Argentinia. It serves as the hub for the Parque Nacional de los Glaciares. We spent 5 days here exploring the town and beautiful surroundings.
Estancia Nibepo Aike
Nibepo Aike is a working ranch located about 50 km from El Calafate. It has been a family-run operation since its opening in early 1900s with its lands were integrated into the National Park in 1937. Since, limits have been placed on the size of the ranch and number of animals they may have. It currently functions mostly for tourism with a hosteria for overnight guests and thousands of day visitors throughout the season. Even though it accommodates mostly tourists, the estancia offers a truly genuine Patagonian experience.
We spent 3 nights at Nibepo Aike and had an exceptional time. Our first night we were treated to an asado (fire-cooked lamb and grilled steaks). It was delicious, but after eating steak for nearly a week straight – we were shocked to find ourselves saying afterwards, “I need a break from Argentinian steak”. The following morning we took a tour of the ranch, which included a short hike and observing sheep shearing. There was an optional horseback ride that we chose to avoid knowing Chris’ new-found allergy! That afternoon we took another short hike and went for a bike ride down the road. We were pleased to be spared steak that night and were served mushroom risotto (much to Chris’ chagrin!)
The following day we did a wonderful (but steep!) hike in the area, Cerro Cristal. We had 3,000 feet of vertical gain in a very short distance, with great views that only got better the higher we climbed. The views at the summit were truly mesmerizing – a 360° panorama including the Perito Moreno Glacier, Cerro Cervantes with hanging glaciers, and the entire Torres del Paine mountain range! Greeted again by fierce Patagonia wind, we couldn’t stay long at the summit but enjoyed the short time we did. It started raining on our descent and didn’t stop for the next 36 hours. As it is fall here now, this rain turned into snow for higher elevations. Thankfully we got the vistas in while we could. It was one of our favorite day hikes in recollection – and what made it more special was that no one else was on the trail!
We spent the rest of the rainy afternoon and the next morning lounging about the hosteria, reading in front of the warm fireplace. The following afternoon we headed back into El Calafate to continue our adventures.
Glacier Perito Moreno
Perito Moreno is a huge glacier located in the Parque Nacional de los Glaciares, 78 km from El Calafate. This massive 98 square mile ice formation is one of only 3 Patagonian glaciers that are growing. The 3 mile wide glacier face is ~220 feet above the water, truly impressive and the scale is incomprehensible!
We chose to explore Perito Moreno with Hielo & Aventura, a group that offers guided ice-trekking tours. Our bus arrived to the national park in about 1.5 hours after circling Calafate for an hour to pick up tour-goers. We first had 1 hour to explore the various viewpoints that offered a panoramic view of the massive glacier. We then navigated by boat across Lago Argentino in order to approach the ice by land.
After gearing up with crampons and harnesses, we took to the ice. The weather was blustery and sideways blowing snow – no better way to truly feel like explorers! This was our first opportunity using crampons, which turn out to be pretty easy to get the hang of. We were told to follow directly behind our tour guide as we navigated around crevasses, ice shelves, surface drainages and ice streams.
The glacier is constantly moving, and moves faster at the center of the ice. It’s the difference in velocity that forms the crevasses, or cracks in ice. Because the glacier is always melting, water often fills in the crevasses creating a magical blue accumulation in the ice. We spent some time looking at these ice streams, and at one point came across a massive sink-hole with a river/waterfall running through. Apparently, while most crevasses change over the years, this river is present at all times, perhaps due to rocks deep below the surface.
We walked for about 1.5 hours before eating lunch on a flat section of the glacier. Believe it or not, it’s very cold to sit idle on the ice. Lunch wrapped up quickly, and we refilled our water bottles in the ice streams before continuing the adventure. All in all, we trekked on the glacier for about 3 hours. After the tour we were served whisky poured over glacial ice and local chocolates, yum!
During this excursion we learned a lot about glacial formation and the various features. Perhaps I was distracted by the beautiful scenery or freezing temperatures, but I don’t recall much of what I heard I guess we will just have to explore more glaciers on trips to come!
Calafate is definitely on the short-list of Patagonian destinations due to its proximity to Los Glaciares National Park (ie: Fitz Roy) and Torres del Paine in Chile. Perito Moreno can easily be tacked on to any shorter trip to visit Fitz Roy or even Torres del Paine.
Up next… El Chalten and Mount Fitz Roy!