Tourists flock to the burgeoning city of El Calafate mainly in order to visit the Pepito Moreno Glacier, a massive glacier which, when I was here in 2014, was the only glacier that was growing and now in 2023 is in stasis, neither receding nor advancing. This is the state of the world: in the not-too-distant future this mighty glacier will be shrinking. Already, there is concern about allowing people to walk on the glacier in this national park, an experience which will soon be prohibited.
We leave El Calafate from our comfortable hotel to visit this natural wonder. Rounding a corner of the steppes and hills, we see the glacier ahead of us, its size brought into perspective by the relative diminutive size of the tourist boats in the water below. We board one of these cruising vessels along with about a hundred other tourists and sail for an hour alongside the glacier, with the brilliant turquoise blue of the old ice in front of us. There are darker blue cracks on the ice face along with streaks of brown from ancient rock moraine. And unexpectedly, at any time, there is the visual shock of a piece of the glacier calving off into the water, followed immediately by a loud boom as the sound waves catch up to the faster light.
Pieces of ice that have fallen into the lake float randomly on the surface and the ship’s crew pick up a piece to show the passengers the clear ice color, different from the bright blue seen by the ability of the cones in our eyes to absorb color. Heavy rain was predicted but we have been exceptionally fortunate all along this trip and this morning there are heavy dark clouds periodically penetrated by columns of brilliant sun which light up the massive ice structures in front of us.
Around the bend we drive to an extensive series of walking platforms built by the park for visitors to view the glacier from various angles. The base of these walkways is metal grating to prevent slipping in the often wet and freezing weather, with wooden bannisters, and many many steps, up and down along different routes. This prevents crowding and allows the large number of tourists to walk, and sit and contemplate this beautiful part of our planet’s geologic heritage.
The two nights we have enjoyed in El Calafate included good shopping and eating — trying to spend the last of our Argentina pesos before heading South and over the border to Chile. Tomorrow we make the crossing into the other side of Patagonia.