Los Glaciares National Park is a national park in southern Argentina known for its glacial activity.
It holds 47 larger active glaciers. The park is situated on the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, the largest ice cap in the world outside of Antarctica and Greenland.
The biggest glacier in the park is the well-known Perito Moreno. The area is also shaped by two large lakes: Lake Argentino and Lake Viedma.
Map of Los GlaciaresLoad map
The kick was key. There was a perfect angle and force to drive the front pitons of my crampon into the hard-packed snow. Once I had mastered that, the slopes were easy to climb. Usually, though, we avoided the ridges and just followed the gullies through which meltwater rivers ran fast and clear as vodka. I stopped to catch my breath for a second, marvelling at the other-worldly scenery. A distant crash brought me to my senses, a reminder that despite my inactivity I was still moving. Slowly, imperceptibly, the glacier on which I stood continued its inexorable forward motion, inching towards the point where its calving face continually fractured and crumpled down into the frigid waters of Lake Argentino.
As noted in other reviews, Argentina’s Los Glaciares National Park is a tale of two halves. There is a northern section around Lago Viedma running up to Mount Fitzroy, most of which lies within the World Heritage Site boundaries (a slice lies within the borders of Chile), serviced by the town of El Chalten. And there is a southern section around the snaky arms of Lago Argentina serviced by the town of El Calafate. (Strictly speaking there is a central section linking the two but that seems wilder and almost impenetrable). Having spent the previous week preparing for and hiking Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park my partner and I skipped the chance to hike from El Chalten and based ourselves for three nights in El Calafate to explore Los Glaciares.
As noted by Nan, getting to El Calafate is easier than El Chalten. There is an airport 15 minutes east of town (100 peso by taxi in 2012, though cheaper shuttle buses also run) which we used to leave for Buenos Aires via Bariloche in the Argentine Lake District. And buses ply the five-hour route to Puerto Natales in Chile for the not-to-be-missed Torres del Paine. In comparison, El Chalten is another three hours away by road.
El Calafate is well set up for tourists as a result. The average age of visitors seemed a healthy 25 years older than it had been in Natales. There are plenty of cafes, restaurants and tour operators. We certainly availed ourselves of the latter, signing up for a gaucho experience on a ranch half-way to the park. This gave us the opportunity to perfect the signature gaucho slouch in the saddle as we rode patchwork mares across the pampas, hares bursting from the undergrowth and guanacos gazing at us stupidly, the distant vision of the Torres del Paine themselves before us, prior to stopping to share a gourd of maté. We also found a chance to explore north of town on our own terms too, walking to Laguna Nimez to marvel at the teeming birdlife. Ruddy ducks and black-necked swans scooted around the lagoon, Chilean flamingos picked their way ahead of us, rufous-collared sparrows hopped in the calafate bushes and harriers and caracaras swooped overhead. Sitting on the beach of Lago Argentina at the end of the day, listening to the gulls and watching the wavelets break on the shore, it was hard to remember that we were well inland.
From El Calafate it is easy to see the World Heritage Site. With your own transport or on a tour you can easily get to the viewing spot on the Magallanes Peninsula. To do so you have to enter the National Park; in 2012 this was 100 peso (around £14 then) but the price has now risen to 800 peso (around £10!) for foreigners. Argentine nationals pay about half that. From here you have the perfect view out to the face of the Perito Moreno glacier. Its stats are impressive: 4km wide, 31 km long, standing proud 70m above the lake surface (and descending another 120m to the scoured bedrock beneath). All that separates you is a narrow stretch of water, the Canal de los Témpanos.
And if we’d arrived four days earlier we wouldn’t even have had that separation. Somewhat uniquely, the Perito Moreno glacier is not in retreat. Enough snow falls over the Southern Patagonian Ice Field to ensure that it continues to advance. This means that periodically the glacier manages to reach the Magallanes Peninsula, completely cutting off the channel. And when that happens the outflow of water from its southern arms into Lago Argentino is blocked. The water backs up and its level begins to rise. Eventually the pressure of the trapped water gets too much for the glacier to withstand and there is a rupture as the dammed water bursts through its icy barrier. Just such a rupture occurred four days prior to our arrival. A spiky cathedral of ice still stood on our side of the channel and the waterways were busy with icebergs.
While this gives you the perfect view of the glacier you are not actually inside the World Heritage Site at this point. According to the map on the Unesco website the site commences at the water’s edge. So to enter the site from here you can do one of two things. You can take a scenic cruise on the lake, getting a bit more ‘up close and personal’ with both the glacier and its icy bobbing children. Or you can sign up for a walk on Perito Moreno itself. We did both.
Hielo y Aventura is the official concessionaire for the park and they operate both cruises and treks. ‘Minitrekking’ involves a 90 minute walk on the glacier (currently 8,000 pesos), and ‘Big Ice’ involves 3.5 hours on the glacier for 15,000 pesos (equivalent to £190 each). We booked the Big Ice experience which involved being picked up at 7am and shuttled to the viewpoint across from the glacier. This is, in itself, an attraction as we were the first bus into the Park and had the balconies to ourselves for an hour. From here we were shuttled down to a boat. The crossing of the Brazo Rico took only ten minutes but docking at the far side was a bit of a palaver as ice floes had to be shunted out of the way. We disembarked in the lee of the glacier and were split into a Spanish-language group and an English-speaking group to receive a briefing. We were then led up a trail skirting the glacier for about an hour. At one point two condors flew overhead, so low and slow that everyone was able to get good photos.
At the top of the trail we paused at a shelter where we were fitted with harnesses and the aforementioned crampons. And then we carefully stepped off onto the glacier (photo).
Having never walked on a glacier before, I was awe-struck. Rather than ‘ice’ the going underfoot was deep, firmly-packed snow. On occasion the snow cleared to reveal transparent patches where water ran beneath our feet. Periodically there were perfect round sinkholes, each formed around a dark pebble. There were fast-flowing river valleys leading to waterfalls tumbling deep into the glacier’s heart. Cracks and crevasses shaded from mint-white to turquoise to the rich blue of copper sulphate. Beyond the ridges and hummocks over which we journeyed we could see sharp pinnacles of ice where the glacier had fractured while crossing a hump in the bedrock.
My one criticism of the experience was that we kept up such a relentless pace that we barely had chance to take it all in. We needed to look where we were placing our feet rather than at the extraordinary scenery around us. This was my partner’s third glacier trek after having walked on both Fox and Franz Josef glaciers in New Zealand’s Te Wāhipounamu. In three-and-a-half hours on Perito Moreno she took only 15 photos; in a comparable length of time on Fox she took 300. Her view? “If you want to see a glacier, come to Los Glaciares. If you want to walk on one, go to New Zealand.”
World Heritage-iness: 4
My Experience: 3.5
(visited March 2012)
There is a lot to the region that the WHS includes - it's easy to spend weeks here if you really wanted. I loved spending some time based in El Chalten and hiking around Mount Fitzroy, for instance
But I think the highlight is the Perito Moreno Glacier - one of the most popular tourist stops in southern Patagonia. Busloads of people come in and out of the site every day and it’s one of the main reasons travellers bother to stop in the nearby town of El Calafate (although it is actually quite a nice place in its own right). In fact, the whole region seems to be going through a tourist boom at the moment and visitor numbers are definitely on the rise.
Read more from Michael Turtle here.
Los Glaciares is a national park in the southern Andes in Argentina. As the name suggests there are plenty of glaciers to see and explore, the most famous one being Perito Moreno.
The park is split into two parts: North and South. Our map doesn't quite convey this. The southern part is where you find the Perito Moreno glacier. It is serviced by the town of El Calafate that lies 1h drive outside of the park. The northern part holds the Fitzroy Mountain range and spots several great hiking opportunities. This part is serviced by El Chalten and both parts are a 3h drive on a nowadays good paved road apart.
I agree with Solivigant that El Chalten and the northern part are more interesting. It’s not so much that the city is nicer per se; construction has picked up and I guess in a few years it will be equally touristy as El Calafate. But you are on the edge of the park and less dependent on a tour operator or bus. As such, I would do a one day visit from El Calafate to see Perito Moreno and then head to El Chalten the very evening or the next day.
To me the park is one of the great national parks of the world, truly deserving of its inscription and worth travelling this far.
El Calafate has an airport with connections to Buenos Aires, Bariloche and Ushuaia. Busses from both El Calafate and El Chalten north run along the Andes (the famous Ruta 40) or the coast via Rio Gallegos. From El Calafate you can also connect to Torres del Paine in Chile. There are daily shuttles between El Chalten, El Calafate and the airport.
Be aware that distances in Patagonia are huge, especially taking the average speed into account, and that there are very few sites and cities in between. If you look at the map and don’t see any town for 100km, then there isn’t any. And even the “towns” you find may be tiny. Finally, gravel is still widely used for the roads, even on Ruta 40, so the ride can be bumpy. Damaged wind shields are the norm.
Most of the infrastructure (busses, flights) is there primarily to service tourists. There isn’t enough population density to support normal infrastructure. Connections are pricey and limited, even more so out of season. Along Ruta 40 the busses may run only every 2nd day and primarily during the night. If you are like me and dislike travelling during the night and for longer than 4h, bad luck. In any case, plan thoroughly.
The next logical stops are:
- Perito Moreno (town) or Los Antiguos in the North (9h night bus) for Cueva de los Manos
- Puerto Natales in the South (5h) for Torres del Paine (TWHS)
Alternatively, you can fly out of El Calafate. If it hadn't been for Cueva de los Manos I would have preferred flying to Bariloche.
Interestingly, only the southern part of the park charges entry. The common way to view the southern part is to do a tour (can be bought at the bus terminal). They will take you to a very elaborate view point of Perito Moreno where you can watch and hear the glacier moving from many different angles and heights. In addition, you can do a boat tour to see the glacier from up close which I skipped.
Apart from viewing the glacier there aren’t many options, e.g. further trails. The action happens on the other side of the lake and this requires a boat ride and a guided tour. Be advised that things like hiking on the glacier are fairly expensive.
The northern part is accessible by foot from El Chalten and free of charge. Most trails start on the edge of town. I have found that the proposed time and difficulty assigned matched more or less what I experienced. If you are in doubt, know this: If you make the initial climb and get out of the valley that the town lies in, you should be fine.
You will not be able to buy provisions in the park, so pack accordingly. And finally, the northern part offers many very basic, but scenic and free camp sites. Equipment can be rented in town. I would at least plan two full days to do the main hikes.
Perito Moreno is the name of three locations in Patagonia:
- the iconic glacier in Los Glaciares
- more or less the first town north of El Calafate on Ruta 40 that allows access to Cueva de los Manos
- a national park Perito Moreno
Perito Moreno is a hero of Argentine. By rerouting a river from flowing to the Pacific to the Atlantic he moved the land border to Chile in Argentine’s favour.
Most descriptions of Los Glaciares National Park provide as a “signature picture” the Perito Moreno Glacier on Lago Argentino. The glacier is undoubtedly impressive and must be one of the more easily accessible major “calving” glaciers in the world. The nearby town of Calafate is served by a good airport and airline service and exists almost entirely to serve tourism with plenty of hotels, restaurants and tour agencies. As a result the Glacier is very popular with tour groups passing through quickly – It is perfectly placed for a 1 day trip with a coach journey to the glacier, plenty of easy walkways overlooking it and the opportunity for a boat ride underneath on the lake right up to it and then an afternoon or early morning fight to the next destination on a package tour of Argentina or S America. This is by no means all that Calafate and the southern part of the park has to offer - there are opportunities to visit other glaciers which are not accessible by road on the series of lakes created by “arms” of Lago Argentino. And of course one can stay in the park and camp.
Los Glaciares park however covers an enormous area and we personally prefer the northern section based on the town of El Chalten - 220 kms away from Calafate on a dirt road. This town also lives by tourism but has a rather different atmosphere from Calafate – altogether “rougher” and more “frontier-like” with a high percentage of backpackers and climbers. The geography of this area meant that the rough and ready guideline for the Chile/Argentina frontier at the Pacific/Atlantic watershed was fraught with difficulties and El Chalten was created around 20 years ago to solidify Argentine claims to the area.
There is another lake nearby, Lago Viedma, and this too provides glacier viewing opportunities. But it is for the mountains that most people will come to El Chalten. It is overlooked by Mount Fitzroy (photo), whose summit rather strangely lies just outside the Park. This provides, in my opinion, one of the most magnificent mountain sights in the world (As available to non climbers that is. I am aware that such an assertion will cause dissent but it is informed by various visits to most of the world’s mountain ranges). A few miles away lies the almost as impressive Cerro Torre (whose climbing history is mired in controversy and merits a bit of research on the web!) – Both are accessible for viewing by relatively easy paths. The weather here is highly changeable and you should give it a few days to ensure a clear day but the sight of these mountains literally “glowing” in the sun is unforgettable. Even though we were lucky in this respect we got blocked in at El Chalten for a couple of days by road closures because of heavy rain and were in danger of missing our Antarctic-bound boat from Ushuaia!
Just a few further miles away the Torres del Paine range over the border in Chile (but only on Chile’s Tentative List) runs this area very close for grandeur – what a magnificent region this is for scenery!
2012 Name change
From "Los Glaciares" to "Los Glaciares National Park"
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