By Joshua Rapp Learn, Contributing Reporter
ARGENTINA – There is no doubt about it. Perito Moreno is one massive ice cube. It’s so big that it’s almost frightening, and with earth-shattering cracks it demands your constant attention as building sized chunks of pressure-packed snow are prone to fall off into the Argentine Lake at any moment. If you don’t stay alert, you have the distinct feeling that it may just creep up on you.
Perito Moreno, a huge glacier lying between Calafate and El Chaltén, is the world’s only glacier that is still advancing, and even if you can’t see it actually move, you can definitely hear it. The sound is so eerily unique that you can even buy nature CDs combining the glacier’s devastating noise with a mixture of Andean pan flute sounds in the tourist shops of Calafate. Yet If you are not impressed by the elemental noise, the vision of an incredibly jagged snowfield that stretches kilometers through a valley and an imposing blue 30 meter wall of ice are worth plenty of gawking.
Calafate and El Chaltén are two small mountain villages in the south of the Argentine Patagonia whose rustic centers are dwarfed by the epic landscapes around them. Calafate, meaning ‘blueberry,’ is a testament to the delicious fruit of the area while El Chaltén means ‘smoking mountain’ in Tehuelche, a native language that is nearly extinct.
Although El Chaltén is by far the more rustic of the two – a few lonely houses and hotels crowded around a few streets – both of the villages provide cozy atmospheres complete with fireplace cafes, wooden mountain lodges and restaurants serving up Patagonian delicacies like smoked trout and lamb. Like anywhere in Argentina, a good bottle of wine is never hard to come by. Most people don’t come to this empty stretch of the world for cozy nooks, however.
The ‘Smoking Mountain’ in question is the legendary Mount Fitzroy, which conceivably competes with the Perito Moreno glacier in sheer proportion. The base of the great mountain can be reached in a three hour hike from El Chaltén.
The jagged cone that makes up its top has fatally challenged many an alpine climber. Although it doesn’t come close to the highest peak in the Andes, Fitzroy and its neighbor Cerro Torre have the reputation of being some of the world’s most challenging climbs due to volatile wind conditions and an almost vertical cliff face.
Cerro Torre challenges climbers with an ‘ice mushroom’ that caps the top of its rock peak. They are even challenging to the governments of Argentina and Chile – the two mountains lie right on the border in often disputed territory.
The hike to the base of Fitzroy can be reached regardless of your climbing skill, however. Camping grounds in a valley below the imposing peaks are accessible by a well maintained set of picaresque hiking trails that snake through the forests and mineral lakes of the area.
The area around El Chaltén and Calafate can be reached through El Calafate International Airport. Otherwise, it’s roughly 2700 km from Buenos Aires.