Glaciers and mate

10 02 2010

The Southern Patagonian ice field is the third largest in the world after Antarctica and Greenland and today we were going to see a tiny part of it: the Perito Moreno glacier. This is tourist attraction numero uno for anyone staying in El Calafate. Although the glacier is small relative to the size of the ice field; it looks positively gargantuan to human eyes unable to comprehend geological scales. Nature in her infinite wisdom had also decided to situate the glacier in a place that meant it was easy to view from a safe distance – although the viewing platforms that the Argentinians built probably helped too.

Our guide for the day was Carlos and he picked us up at the lodge after breakfast and took us off in a bus to the glacier. Our first stop was an optional boat trip to one face of the glacier where we’d see the glacier from water-level. All of us decided to do this; it wasn’t that expensive. Unfortunately it was permanently spitting and most of my photos from that day are ruined by the water drops that seemed magnetically drawn to my lens. I lost count of the number of times that I had to clean my lens off. It also meant that the skies were hidden behind a grey murk; although according to Carlos the gloomy conditions meant that the glacier was bluer than it would be in bright sunlight. Maybe he was just trying to make us feel better.

After our boat trip we headed off to the main attraction on the other side of the glacier. Every four years or so the glacier grows so vast that it dams the lake; causing it to rise and immense pressure to build up behind the glacier. When this happens, huge sheets of ice sheer off into the water with a resounding crash: I saw some photos of this later in Puerto Natales and it looks absolutely awesome. The last time this happened was in 2008 and the area was swamped with people coming to see what must be one of the most impressive shows in nature; unfortunately the water levels were now receding so it wasn’t going to happen today. Even so we’d still hear some stentorian cracking sounds every so often as the ice splintered off but most of it seemed to be in the middle of the glacier or on the far side. We did see a few small chunks of ice crumbling down into the water but it was close to impossible to capture this on camera since you never knew where it was going to happen.

Perito Moreno glacier

After the glacier we headed back into town where we had the afternoon free. Jola and I wandered around the artisan market: she was looking for a mate gourd. Mate is a strange tea that the Argentinians are completely addicted to. You often see them wandering around with their mate gourds, bombillas (metal straws) and a large Thermos flask filled with hot water. Many kiosks throughout the country offer agua caliente top-ups for the thermos-clutching aficionados. Jola had decided that she absolutely loved the custom (to me it tasted like drinking dirt although I never refused it when it was offered) and was determined to buy one. As it was, however, we actually spent most of our time practising our stuttering Spanish with a jewellery salesman from Bolivia. It was a most amusing chat but it really made me realise how far my Spanish had to go before it was usable.

Mate gourds (photo from Wiki)

We then headed to a cafe in a little square along the main road where we bumped into Zoran and Gordana. They stayed for one drink with us but then headed back to the lodge whilst Jola and I stayed for a few more beers and listened to a local band – 3 Changos y La Luna – belting out some classic songs. We started heading back to the lodge a bit late and arrived 20 minutes late for our pick-up for dinner. The others had all gone without us so we asked reception where the restaurant was: it turned out to be quite a walk outside of the main town. After a long walk (we had to stop in a few hotels to ask for further directions) we finally found them all tucking into their dinner.

Having seen the size of Per’s mixed grill we decided that one of them between us would be enough and we tucked into some really delicious meats including the traditional Patagonian lamb – cooked for hours over an open fire. The smell of cooked meat hung in the air in a heavy fug and I could still smell it on my clothes the next day. After a few glasses of red wine we all headed back to the lodge in a taxi.

We sat up for a bit in the lounge area of the lodge but we kept getting told off by the owners for being noisy; Kaśka couldn’t seem to find her volume control that night! Eventually we turned in, ready for our trip to Chile the next day.