Our adventure in Patagonia is just beginning! We’re going to start visiting and exploring those places people travel thousands of miles to see. El Calafate may be a pretty little town but no one comes to Patagonia just to see it. They come here to experience the magnificent landscapes of the Andes, the extensive Patagonian ice-fields, and the vast barren steppe. The main Patagonian attraction close to El Calafate is the Perito Merino Glacier in Los Glaciares National Park, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Glaciares National Park entrance is about an hour’s drive west of El Calafate . You’ll drive mostly near the shore of Lago Argentino, the majestic Andes coming ever nearer. We saw a few guanacos and lots of different birds along the way, although at highway speeds it’s difficult to appreciate types of birds. As you enter the park, you’ll see an area of dead trees extending quite a way up the hill from the lake. This is the Rico branch of Lago Argentino which floods when the Perito Merino Glacier (an advancing glacier) blocks the flow of water from this portion of the lake, causing it to be flooded for up to weeks at a time, killing the vegetation. The ice dam ultimately breaks, leveling the water, but the trees and shrubs are done for. Flooding of the Rico branch continues intermittently but in an unpredictable manner and of uncertain duration. Still, it would be amazing to see the ice dam break and the flood of water pouring out of the Rico branch!
Another 35 kms drive past the park entrance, most of it along the coast of Lago Argentino’s Rico Branch, and we get our first breath-taking view of the Perito Merino Glacier (at the Curva de Los Suspiros). It’s a very pretty drive through the native trees and vegetation of Patagonia, with stunning views of the Andes and their ice and snow caps. The glacier is absolutely impressive, especially as you’re viewing it from above. It’s amazing how massive it is!
The Patagonian Ice cap straddles Chile and Patagonia and covers about 600,000 hectares. It’s the world’s third largest reservoir of fresh water (only Antarctica and Greenland are larger). Perito Merino is just one of the 365 glaciers in this icefield; it has a front which is 5 km (3 mi) long and is up to 74 meters (240 ft) above the level of the lake (when it’s not flooded). It has a total ice depth of 170 meters (560 ft). The glacier covers 250 sq km (97 sq mi) and is 30 km (19 mi) in length.
As you descend from the first view observation point, you approach the shore of the Rico branch of Lago Argentino. Here there’s an optional cruise you can take. The cruise boats brings you directly to the glacier’s face, or at least as close as the captain thinks is safe, and for an hour you slowly cruise along the glacier. This cruise was smooth with great views and a fresh glacial breeze — very enjoyable and is a highly recommended activity. The Perito Merino Glacier is famous for it’s fracturing, or calving of icebergs, and your chances of seeing large blocks of ice breaking off and crashing into the water are excellent, especially if you have a few hours to enjoy it. The cruise gave us a very smooth ride, although crowded, and the water level view of the lake and blue glacial ice were very special to see and study. A few short video clips of what this was like follow to help you better appreciate the experience.