“The bridge will come down at any moment!!!” the clerk yelled as we neared the front desk.
We had no idea what he was talking about. We had just made our way through the billowing white curtains, with Enya blaring in the hotel’s monastery-cum-spa lobby, and my husband and I were silently confirming to one another that we’d chosen the wrong hotel for our energetic kids.
But this man was emphatic.
“Everyone is at the glacier – GO!” the clerk demanded, gesturing wildly.
We had suspected something was up from the moment we landed that morning. We remembered how the tiny local airport had been brimming with travelers and excitement. And many tourists were weighed down by super fancy cameras and gear – but we’d landed in Southern Patagonia and assumed everyone comes prepped for a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
We didn’t know if we should be excited or afraid, but even the kids knew he was serious. We threw caution to the wind, jumped back in the car and headed for the glacier. As my husband headed down the highway and the kids bubbled with anticipation in the back seat, I braved the spotty wireless to figure out what was going on.
Perito Moreno is the most famous of Argentine glaciers. Once every few years, huge chunks of ice begin dropping into the lake below, resulting in the collapse of a massive ice “bridge” connecting the glacier to the mainland. Scientists, photographers, tourists, and locals wait up to 15 years for the chance to see the natural spectacle – but our luck landed us in the hottest spot in icy Patagonia – at precisely the perfect moment.
The drive from our hotel to the glacier was about 40 miles, and we were making good time until a heavy, icy rain began to fall. As we got closer to the park, the traffic became stop and go. After waiting in traffic for almost two hours, a bunch of cars started streaming toward us, leaving the park. We assumed we had missed the big event but decided to keep on going, hoping we could at least get a glimpse of the glacier while we were there.
By the time we parked and rode the bus to the entrance, it was nearly 5pm and storm clouds were gathering. We grabbed some warm cookies and tea at the snack bar, headed out over the catwalks, and got our first glimpse of big ice.
We were completely awed by the massive blue slab – but we continued to hurry down the path to the viewing platform. To our surprise, the bridge was still there!
The rain had thinned the crowds so we were able to squeeze ourselves into a good viewing spot. We spent the next two hours mesmerized. Every time a chunk of ice would crash spectacularly into the water, the crowd would erupt in cheers and we would happily join them.
As night began to fall and the storm became more intense, officials closed the park and shuttled all of the disappointed guests back to their cars without seeing the big finale. But we were actually the last group to see the bridge intact: That sneaky arch collapsed later, in the dark, with only a few park rangers in attendance.
We didn’t care that we had missed the actual collapse; our family had witnessed something truly remarkable that we would never forget. We drove away buzzing with excitement, so grateful for what we had seen, and completely blown away by our first glimpse of the enormity and expansiveness that is Patagonia.
The ROAM Report – Southern Patagonia, Argentina
Travelers: Two adults and two kids, ages 7 and 10.
Dates: One week in Spring 2018
Itinerary: El Calafate (1 night, then 2 additional nights upon return from El Chaltén) and El Chaltén (4 nights).
The Good Stuff
The El Calafate Area
Perito Moreno Glacier Even if we hadn’t nailed our timing perfectly, Perito Moreno was spectacular. The size of this brilliant blue, giant mass of ice is otherworldly and the myriad of catwalks surrounding it gives you a chance to see it’s grandeur from all different angles. (You can even take a hike on the glacier but you must be at least 12-years-old to go on one of these expeditions, so it wasn’t an option for us.)
It is unique in today’s world of glaciers because it is advancing, rather than retreating. The bridge builds up over years of pushing forward and connecting with the land, creating a dam that causes the water levels to rise, and pressure to build. Eventually, this pressure causes the dam to break and the flowing water creates a tunnel under an ice bridge. At this point, huge chunks of ice start calving into the lake, and eventually, the bridge over the tunnel collapses. This happens cyclically, generally every 2 to 4 years, but sometimes as many as 15 years can pass without a collapse.
Ferry to Other Glaciers There’s a ton of companies offering half-day and full-day tours; we found the half-day trip to be plenty and absolutely worthwhile. While it’s possible that some tours sell out in advance, we walked into one of the many tourism offices on the main drag and bought tickets for the following day without a problem.
The half-day tour we took went to some of the other big glaciers we hadn’t yet seen: Upsala (the largest in South America) and Spegazzini. There’s a boat that goes to Perito Moreno as well, but we chose to see some of the glaciers we hadn’t seen yet – and got a close-up look at some icebergs, as well.
Glaciarium With the eco-reserve and most parks flooded, we decided to check out this super cool, modern museum that focuses on glaciers and on the terrain of Southern Patagonia. This small museum features interactive exhibits, short films, and everything you have ever wanted to know about snow and ice.
The location is incredible, but the most exciting part for my kids was the 20 minutes we spent in the attached Ice Bar. For an additional fee, we were led down some stairs into the basement of the museum and outfitted in shiny superhero capes, gloves, and boots, all designed to keep us from getting hypothermia.
We were offered ice glasses of Sprite and vodka and invited to dance around to blaring techno, which of course we did. An unexpected highlight for sure.
Where to Sleep The mid-range accommodations in Calafate were not super impressive, but that’s not why you’re there and if it is, there are fabulous estancias and a few high-end spots to stay (we stayed at Estancia Peuma Hue, in Northern Patagonia later in our trip and it was AMAZING.) In El Calafate, we found the Santa Monica Aparts clean, quiet and well situated. They were so helpful and friendly, and delivered warm croissant-like medialunas, coffee, tea, and fruit every morning.
Good Food El Calafate is a much bigger and less charming town than El Chaltén (see below), but its the town you fly into and the glaciers are more than worth it. We did find some good meals while we were there. Las Cruces was perfect for kids and the food at La Zeina and Mi Rancho was excellent, especially if you like steak and your littles are able to chill out for a sit-down meal.
The El Chaltén Area
The Hiking! This is why you come to Patagonia: Unbelievable hiking trails with beautiful vistas at every turn.
We did three hikes over three days, sadly forfeiting our fourth day because of inclement weather. There are short, flat hikes and long, treacherous climbs, so we chatted with the super helpful people in the tourism office and they helped us find something in between.
On our third day, we woke up early, packed food and tons of water and headed out for the famous hike, Sendero al Fitz Roy. We had decided early on that we would hike as far as seemed doable, then turn around and head back when our 7-year-old started to wilt. Many friends had suggested that we try to make it to the 4km turning point with a fabulous view of the Fitz Roy peaks, have lunch and maybe head back.
Fueled by other trekkers, and a shameless “Starburst” bribe at every kilometer sign, the kids exceeded our expectations. Up until the very end of the hike, the trail was completely manageable, but there’s an abrupt grade change in the last kilometer as you climb a narrow trail on crumbly rock. My kids were in, but several adults, coming down, some nearly in tears, said it was very icy and slippery and that the conditions seemed to be worsening; in short, head back. Although we were a bit disappointed, it ended up being the right choice. By the time we returned to town, we had hiked about 14 miles over 8 hours, and my little one’s feet were pretty sore. We all felt pretty proud of our big trek, and dazzled by what we had seen.
Post-Hike Treats After a long day of hiking in cold wet weather, there’s nothing quite like a stop at La Waffleria. Super cozy spot with choose-your-own topping waffles. Pair with a submarino (do it yourself hot chocolate served as hot milk with a chocolate bar) and all whining comes to a halt and you are ready for a nap. Thank you, gods of sugar and bribery.
Ski Town Vibe Considered the trekking capital of Argentina, El Chaltén is a small village surrounded by the Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre Mountains. Similar to a low key ski town, this village really exists because of all the trekkers and climbers who are drawn to the area. We spent 4 nights in this awesome little village and could have easily stayed longer. We had fantastic, cozy dinners at La Cerveceria Artesanal and La Tapera.
The Not So Good
Scarce Rental Cars Definitely the way to go if you want a little bit of freedom, but be warned. You know how sometimes you just assume you can rent a car when you get to airport? Don’t do that. We had reserved one and although it was definitely junky, it had wheels and didn’t break down. The group behind us were out of luck, as there were no more cars available that week. Bummer. There are buses that can take you to the glacier and buses that run from El Calafate to El Chaltén, but we loved the freedom of having our own vehicle.
Grocery Stores Super slim pickins, as in, close to barren, especially in El Chaltén, and especially if you’re not a meat eater. What is available is not for the faint of heart. If you stay at a hosteleria (we did not), they will often provide breakfast and even pack you a lunch; this is a great perk.
Wild Packs of Dogs Seriously, they are everywhere, especially in El Chaltén. At first we were a little spooked by these mangy mutts, but we literally saw hundreds of them and not one was ever aggressive.
Good to Know
Cell Service Not so much in either spot, especially El Chaltén, but isn’t that’s part of why we go to remote places?
Bring Bars The struggle to find food for hungry kids wasn’t easy in El Chaltén, especially for ours, who have food allergies. Protein bars brought from home helped us through.
The Drive The drive from El Calafate to El Chaltén takes about 3 hours and it gives you a great sense of the vastness of Patagonia. You may see unique animals like Huemul deer, Guanacos, Patagonian foxes, and condors; it’s also possible that you might not see a single person or car. This was our experience until we stopped at the one real stop between the two locations, La Leona. This roadstop/cafe/lodge/gift shop is a historical landmark with an illustrious past, including a supposed visit by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid while they were on the run. Grab some coffee, empanadas, and lemon pie and get back on the road.
Weather & Packing We visited in mid-March, and it was pretty chilly. The weather can be crazy unpredictable and very intense so you really need to pack accordingly. Additionally, you do not want to have to buy a Patagonia jacket in Patagonia. All gear is really expensive so shop before you go. Bring protective sunglasses and a bandana to cover your mouth–it can get windy and no one likes a mouth full of dust. My son’s rain jacket was a hand me down that had lost its ability to repel rain. Very unfortunate.
Cash Money in Argentina is hard to get, but it’s even trickier in Patagonia. Many places take cards but some do not, and cash machines often have long lines or signs stating they are out of money.
Older Kids Better I am sure you can make this trip work with smaller kids, but I think it is better with school-age kids or older (you need to be 12 to hike the glacier) so they can do the hikes and never forget this amazing adventure!
by Sarah Hart, ROAM Contributing Editor, November 2018
© ROAM Family Travel 2018 – All rights reserved