Ice cubes and penguins
29.11.2010 - 04.12.2010 5 °C
We were all knackered after our exertions in Torres del Paine, and treated ourselves to a nice relaxed day of R&R in Puerto Natales, with an extra treat of dinner at Afrigonia, a delicious fusion of traditional Patagonian and African flavours and generally rated as the best restaurant in town.
The next day we headed Northeast into Argentina to El Calafate, a small town overflowing with tacky gift shops and not much else. We were here for one thing only though; the Perito Moreno glacier, one of the most spectacular natural wonders in the world. Unfortunately our good weather karma had apparently been completely used up in Torres del Paine, and we were bused out to the glacier in complete white-out, which meant I spent the journey worrying about whether I would get any photos at all. We arrived at our first stop, the main lookout point, in a snow storm, but despite this we could at least see the glacier.
The Perito Moreno glacier is one of only three in Patagonia that is actually growing, for reasons that aren't fully understood but clearly are related to the huge amounts of snow dumped at the head of the glacier. It is also unique in that the face of the glacier is in contact with a spur of land in the middle of Lago Argentino. This not only provides an amazing viewpoint incredibly close to the face of the glacier, but also means that every so often the glacier forms a dam between the two sides of the lake as it grows. This gradually causes the water level to rise on one side of the lake, until there can be a height difference of as much as 30m! This eventually results in the increased water pressure causing a spectacular collapse of the ice forming the dam, which can happen every few years, the last time in 2008 (click here for a video of one collapse).
We didn't get to see that, but still were pretty awestruck by the views. Sadly we couldn't hang around, so after a quick coffee to warm up, we were herded down to the water's edge for a quick ferry ride across the lake. We had signed up for the "Big Ice" tour, which involved trek right onto the glacier. After a brief introduction we were all led up the side of the glacier, just as the sun came out for the one and only time that day and giving me the opportunity to fire off a few shots (annoyingly I later realised most of them were trashed by raindrops on my lens, doh).
It took almost an hour to hike up the side of the glacier, through the forest with views of the ice peeking out through the trees. Finally we reached forward base camp, where we were issued harnesses and crampons, then led onto the ice proper. Amazingly, although we could still see the sun shining on the end of the glacier, we were standing in a blizzard, which came and went over the next few hours. Frustratingly this meant that the ice was covered in snow, which prevented us experiencing the ethereal blue light I'd seen in other's photos. We trekked towards the centre of the glacier, stopping at various sink holes where water plunged down incredibly blue holes deep into the ice below - not somewhere you'd like to slip!
We stopped for lunch by a stunning blue pool, before eventually retracing our steps back to the edge of the glacier and then down to the lake. Ultimately we all felt frustrated by the experience, which whilst incredible, was somewhat spoilt by the weather and seemed extremely expensive - the $200 was as much as I paid for 5 days trekking in Colombia! A complimentary glass of whisky served with 1000 year old ice form the glacier helped to put a shine on things though, and I still managed to grab a few OK photos.
The next morning I said farewell to the few of us remaining from the Torres trip and headed back to Puerto Natales, stopping there for a day to relax and take a few photos of the town. There are lots of really beautiful, colourful old buildings, some a bit ramshackle but mostly in a pretty good state of repair.
The next day I moved on to Punta Arenas, the southern-most point of my trip as sadly I didn't have the time to make it all the way to Ushuaia. Punta Arenas is a modern, medium sized town, with most of it's income coming from oil reserves, although it has now become an important link to the Falklands whilst Argentina is being difficult. Bizarrely, the night I arrived I went out to the local casino for drinks with a few people I met, and ended up having a beer with the British ambassador to Chile, who was down in Punta Arenas for a few days on business relating to the Falklands apparently. The next day I enjoyed two of the areas main attractions - the main cemetery, which is similar (although a little less impressive) to Recoletta in Buenos Aires.
In the afternoon I was looking forward to the main event - heading out to Isla Magdalena - an island a few hours sail away which is famous for its penguin colonies. Unfortunately at the very last minute the ferry was cancelled due to bad weather, so I had to make do with a trip to Seno Otway, a slightly smaller pinguinera on the mainland.
It was still a great experience - we walked along a series of wooden walkways through the dunes, until we spotted our first little black and white head peeking out through the grass. Soon we were spotting loads, often waddling around in comedy lines of four or five. They were incredibly cute and really funny to watch - it may be a cliche but they really do look like tiny little waiters the way they toddle about on their back legs!
Soon it was time to leave, and after a quiet night back in town, watching the cricket updates in an internet cafe until the early hours, I was up early for my flight back to Santiago, and some well-deserved warm weather, which can wait for the next episode.