There are not many tourists who come to see the beauty of Patagonia and miss the Perito Moreno glacier. One of the forty-eight glacier flows of the huge Campo de Hielo Sur, it stands out not only for its easy accessibility, but also for the fact that it is one of the few glaciers in the world that does not recede. This fact causes a unique phenomenon called rupture (La Ruptura), which once in a year or more provides a breathtaking and deafening spectacle.
The berries that gave the city its name
Perito Moreno’s popularity grew up thanks to it’s location and easy accessibility. The base for tours is the town of El Calafate, which would otherwise be a forgotten village on the shores of Lago Argentino. Everyone who wants to see the majestic Perito Moreno must pass through here. The tourism industry has filled the main streets of today's town with hotels, restaurants and travel agencies.
The city is named after a small bush (calafate/ berberis), whose dark blue fruits are used by the locals for marmalades and other delicacies. Legend says, that whoever tastes it once, he will come back to Patagonia again for sure.
The original settlement belonged to sheep wool traders. The town was officially founded only in 1927. The real development started ten years later with the establishment of the Los Glaciares National Park, which covers almost 7 500. km2 in the Campo de Hielo sur area (South Patagonian Ice Field) along the Chilean-Argentine border.
A national park full of ice
A third of Los Glaciares National Park is covered by ice. The ice field is the third largest in the world after Antarctica and Greenland and belongs among the world's largest reservoirs of fresh water. Most of the precipitation comes from the Chilean side from the Pacific ocean. Significant part of the snow and ice accumulated on the Andean ridge leaves on the other side in direction of Argentina, which is in the rain shadow. In the northern part of the park, the glaciers mainly flow to Lago Viedma lake and in the south to the more ragged Lago Argentino, whose water flows in the Rio Santa Cruz river and into the Atlantic.
The national park was established in 1937 to protect the vast continental glacier, Andean forests and Patagonian steppe. It has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1981. In the wild forests, we can meet gray foxes and, with a great deal of luck, the endangered huemul deer, guanaco llamas and flightless nandu run across the steppes.
Glacier as the main attraction
Almost everyone who arrives in El Calafate continues another 80 kilometers west to the ridges of the Andes, from which flows the famous Perito Moreno Glacier. With its exceptionality and good accessibility, it soon gained one of the highest places on the visitor list in all of Patagonia and Argentina.
Travel agencies organize dozens of buses every day to the Peninsula Magellanes, from which you can have the best view of the 5 kilometer long and almost 80 meter high glacier front. In case the viewing platforms on the opposite bank are not enough, you can get closer to the huge wall by a tourist boat. You won't get much closer anyway, because the boats have to keep a safe distance from the breaking off pieces of ice. Moreover, from the surface of the lake, you have to really turn your head up to see the entire front of the glacier. Even from the viewpoints on the shore it can’t be captured by a regular camera lens. If you want more adventurous experience, take a short walk on the glacier with rented crampons and other equipment.
The Perito Moreno glacier is not even a bit brown, as the name moreno would mislead you to translate from Spanish. It was named after the Argentine geographer Francisco Perito Moreno, who organized many surveys in the area at the end of the nineteenth century. Among other issues he contributed to the definition of the Chilean-Argentine border. One of the Patagonian towns was given the same name, but it is not really close to here. We would find it about 700 km further north on the shores of Lake Buenos Aires.
How to get there
The nice asphalt road number 11 brings you from El Calafate to the lookout platforms. There are many options. You can take an organized tour, a bus or a taxi. Or you can try hitchhiking as we did. Lucke enough we soon meet a young couple from Buenos Aires. They come to visit their relatives in El Calafate. They have visited the glacier a few days ago and they were amazed that much so they just go again.
Soon we are on a road winding along the Brazo Rico, one of the sides of Lago Argentino with total surface of 1,5 tis. km2.
An amazing spectacle
Behind the tips of the trees, a gigantic glacier emerges in front of us. Perito Moreno occupies an area of over 250 km2 on its thirty-kilometer long flow. the Magellanes Peninsula rises opposite the head of the glacier, between Lago Argentino and one of its lateral branches Brazo Rico. Its strategic location was used by the national park administration to build a tourist center with a large parking lot, restaurant and souvenir shops. Several kilometers of elevated footbridges made of metal grids have been constructed here. This also eliminated the number of injuries that occurred when visitors descended too close to the ice wall.
Passing from one viewpoint to another and can't believe our eyes and ears. The dark blue shades of the cracked ice mass stand out especially in the afternoon backlight, and a sharp cold wind blows from the white peaks of the Andes.
Perito Moreno is one of the few glaciers that is not retreating. Thanks to the amount of precipitation, supplying the Andean ridges with new snow, its front is even moving forward. Loud cracking is coming from all parts of the glacier body. From the front wall, striped with gray deposits of dust from somewhere else, compressed by other layers of snow and ice, every now and then a piece of ice sized a soccer ball to a car breaks off and splashes into the turquoise lake water.
Even though the glacier "throws away" big pieces, its front is slowly moving forward. It slides to the other shore until it separates Brazo Rico from the main lake at its narrowest point. Brazo Rico has many other tributaries that raise its level up to thirty meters above Lago Argentino.
The rising water finds its way and slowly begins to erode the ice dam. The ice bridge is getting thinner and when it can't last any longer, the biggest attraction of the whole park comes. Photographers from all around the world wait for so called La Ruptura (collapse, rupture). The tall white vault collapses into the cold blue water with a deafening noise, and the constant "battle" of the two states of water can begin again.
The first rupture was observed in 1917, and since then it has continuously recurred at irregular intervals of several years. The last such spectacle took place in 2018, and the next one is definitely not coming.