One of my favorite experiences in Patagonia so far was the day I spent hiking on the Perito Moreno glacier. In March, Rebecca, Danny, and I signed up for Big Ice, a full day ice trekking experience. I have to admit, I was a little nervous it would be a touristy gimmick– the name and the marketing seemed cheesy. I mean “Big Ice”? Yeah dude, I get it, glaciers are big chunks of ice…
But as the day went on, I was relieved. Yes, there was some cheesy tourist stuff, but the experience was far more than that. Our bus picked us up before sunrise and the tour filled the entire day, clocking in at almost 12 hours. The bus took us into Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, where we spent a little time on a viewing platform soaking in our first views of the spectacular glacier. Then we boarded a nice tour boat, which took us on a short 20 minute hop across the water. Once we reached the shore on the other side, we hiked about an hour beside the glacier along a lateral moraine until we reached a point where it was safe to walk onto the ice.
Our friendly guides quickly suited everyone up with harnesses and crampons. I remember commenting to my brother that I hate the word “crampon” because it just sounds like an awful thing– tampons for feet? Or cramps on your feet? Either way, not good. Little did I know, my complaint was prophetic.
We split into smaller groups of about 10 people each based on language preference, listened to brief instruction on various ways not to kill or maim ourselves, then embarked upon our 3 1/2 hour hike on the glacier.
I don’t think it’s possible for a glacier to be ugly, so I guess it goes without saying that the Perito Moreno glacier is beautiful. But I’m still going to say it: this glacier is fine with a capital F. At some points icy spires rise sharply skyward, reminding me of a frozen castle. In other places the ice was smooth and stretched as far as the eye could see, creating the optical illusion that it was a sea of flowing water. Other spots resembled snowy alpine mountain ranges.
We climbed through ice caves, peered into crevasses, drank glacial water, leapt over streams, and learned about the glacier from our guides.
Our tour group was– well– a bit funny. Made up entirely of Americans (which was very unusual), there was one guy who was an alumni of the same university as me (crazy) and a large group of girls who must have taken about 5,000 photos of themselves during the tour. They were shameless. The poses they struck for photos were… special. They climbed on each other’s backs, lifted each other up, took weird group shots in identical poses, snapped constant selfies, and made me very embarrassed to be American.
At the end of the trek, curiosity got the best of me and I asked one girl what they were doing in Patagonia. She told me they were on spring break from a study abroad program in public health that had taken them to India, South Africa, and Argentina. When I asked her where they were based in Argentina, I was met with a stunned silence. Finally, she responded: “Umm… At a university in Buenos Aires, like a big one? …at the School of Agriculture.” That confused me. “Oh so are you pre-veterinary?” I asked. “What? No…” she replied. One of her friends overheard and came to her rescue. “We’re at the School of Architecture and Urban Planning,” she said, “because that’s where the public health program is. Not the school of agriculture!” Embarrassed, the first girl defended herself with a true display of aptitude: “Well they both start with A!” Oh dear.
But even our funny hiking companions couldn’t detract from the
awe-inspiring experience of walking on the glacier. It was incredible to be surrounded by the ice, immersed in the textures and colors and movement of the glacier.
There are age restrictions (between 18 and 50 years old) and fitness requirements to do Big Ice because parts of the trek are difficult. For me, any difficulty was due to the fact that crampons are indeed cramps on your feet. After a few hours, those things were killing me, and everyone seemed to be suffering from foot pain by the end of the trek. At the end of the day, every step I took felt like it was going to shove my toenails back all the way up inside my toes– or maybe just remove my toes altogether, which actually would have been a relief at that point. Thankfully, neither happened– although I did give myself a decent cut with my crampons while jumping across a river.
After trekking back to shore, we took a break and waited for our boat to come. Most of us napped in the warm sun. Once the boat came, we were treated to snacks and whiskey served on the rocks– with glacial ice! Not a bad way to end the day.
Note: If you’re planning on doing Big Ice, I recommend shopping around in El Calafate. Hielo y Aventura runs the trips but they are not the only authorized ticket vendors. We got a discount by buying our tickets elsewhere, and, as always, if you purchase your tickets with US cash, you will get a further discount. If you’d like to walk on the glacier but want a less intense/expensive experience, consider Mini Trekking or an hour-long boat ride.