Two and a half days on a bus from Bariloche and we found ourselves deep in southern Patagonia. Barren plains with wind so strong the double decker bus shook violently with each gust, it wasn’t beautiful to look at in the traditional sense and yet we couldn’t take our eyes off the landscape. Flat and uninviting, you could see the sky for miles, which unfortunately for us, meant seeing the impending storms.
We finally arrived in El Calafate, exhausted, dirty and wanting a good meal. The town basically only exists as a entry point for the Perito Moreno glacier, so its touristy and in our opinion one of the more expensive places in Argentina. Almost everyone whose traveling through Patagonia comes through town to see the glacier, so its a strange mix of tour buses, independent travelers, backpackers and families on vacation. Everyone it seems wants to see the glaciers, and its widely joked that we had better see them now because they won’t be there in forty years. Admittedly I’ve had the same thought.
When we stepped out of the van at the national park and the biting cold and wind hit me, I assumed there was no way the glacier would keep my interest for five hours until the shuttle left for the city. I was wrong. Four years ago we stood on a hiking trail at Mount Rainer swathed in fog unable to see the glacier that was hovering above us, but we could hear it. Thankfully there was a brightly painted sign that we couldn’t miss, even in the fog, telling us to watch for falling rocks and ice from the glacier or we may have been hit by falling debris. To this day I don’t know what that glacier looks like but I’m about 99% positive that its not nearly has huge or impressive as Perito Moreno.
Perito Moreno glacier is enormous and although there are numerous walkways at all different levels, giving you a dozen different views of the glacier, you can’t really get a feel for how large it is. Pieces crack off and crash into the lake, but from the walkways the huge sound doesn’t seem to match the seemingly small piece of ice. That is until a boat pulls along side the glacier and the large ship becomes a small bathtub toy compared to the wall of ice. The glacier is 60m (180 feet) high and according to our brochure 5 kilometers (3 miles) wide. Even staring at it for several hours, its hard to comprehend the size of the glacier.
Perito Moreno is one of the only glaciers in the world growing and its constantly advancing across the lake, some sources say at up to 2m (6 feet) per day. Every few years the glacier connects to the land, but only temporarily, as the water flowing below the glacier eventually cracks the ice and huge chunks float away. Ironically, in a nearby valley is Upsala glacier, the famous “Al Gore” glacier from his “Inconvenient Truth” documentary. Somehow Perito Moreno didn’t make the film. Although the national park that protects Perito Moreno is big on recycling, it is the first place in the country that we’ve seen recycling bins and notices about water usage.
Maybe its ironic to discuss global warming in a post about a glacier that’s growing, and after telling you about all the cold, snowy weather we’ve been traveling in. And yet, every local we meet tells us that this weather is uncommon, that the summer starts later ever year and the winter comes earlier. There’s an awareness that the climate has changed at all levels of society: from the farmer who can’t plant his crops until later in the spring to the families near Cordoba that are right now experiencing a drought so severe that the rivers are drying up. Sitting at the glacier looking up two American girls sat next to us not realizing we spoke their language. Clearly impressed by the size and beauty of the ice, the girls remarked that the glacier was “awesome” and a sight unparallelled so far in their lives. Will their impression of the ice change their habits at home? Probably not, but maybe every once in a while they’ll think about walking to the store instead of driving, or reusing their water bottle instead of buying a new one. Maybe if we all do that these glaciers will still be there for our children.