Saturday, February 21, 2009

El Calafate and Perito Moreno Glacier: Feb 20 - 21

Friday, February 20, was my last time leaving Chile. I had actually crossed between Chile and Argentina seven times! My passport looks like a commuter book. I think I should get frequent crosser milage, and a ¨fast pass¨. Unfortunately, the governments don´t give a damn, so I just wait in line.

I drove today from Puerto Natales to El Calafate, Argentina. El Calafate is extremely touristy. Nothing but cutesy shops and high prices. But it is also the jumping off point to the Perito Moreno Glacier. I had seen so many glaciers in Antarctica that I wondered if this would be worth it, but everyone kept telling me this was different. And they were right.

First, it is HUGE. Something like 30 km wide by 80 km long. It is also one of the few glaciers surrounded by forest. Most people approach from the road and look at it across the river, or take a boat. Some friends had suggested that I go hiking on the glacier, despite the cost of a tour. It was good advice.

First, after an hour and a half bus ride, we took a boat to the base of the glacier. Just approaching it was impressive.

We then had a short hike through the woods to where we were fit for crampons. (I was told that Extra Strength Midol is good for painful crampons, but that´s another story).
For those not into mountain climbing, crampons are like a combination of the bottom of a golf shoe and the old-fashioned roller skates that you attached to your shoes as a kid. (If you don´t know what a skate key is ask your grandparents!). They keep you from playing ¨slip sliding away¨ on the ice.

Then it was onto the ice for a couple of hours. Interesting crevasses, blue holes, streams, and all the other things that make a giant ice cube worth driving thousands of miles to see.

There was also a pay-off at the end of the hike. The guides pulled out the fine crystal, and a bottle of very cheap whiskey, and we all had a toast of whiskey and glacier ice. And then, of course, we got to hike back down drunk. Well worth it!

As we were waiting for the boat to cross back to the other side (the River Styx?), we kept looking for ice falls (also known as ¨calving¨. We saw a few small ones, but couldn´t get a picture. However, we then heard a loud muffled explosion and an island slowly appeared in front of the glacier. Evidently an underwater piece had broken off. It was eerie, and looked kind of like a new island being formed by a volcanic eruption. It was a unique way to see the birth of an iceberg.

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