When people ask what the best part of my Argentina trip was, I always say there is my favorite part, and then the most awesome part. And I mean awesome in the “awe-inspiring” sense of the word. My personal favorite was seeing the wild penguins in Ushuaia, while ice trekking on the Perito Moreno glacier was simply beyond my wildest imagination.
I had never even laid eyes on a glacier, much less walked on one before this trip. I guess this was surprising to some people – at least as shocking as the fact that I’d never seen penguins in the wild before. For my hostel roommate in Ushuaia, the #3 largest ice field in the world probably wasn’t high on her list of must-sees after having been to Greenland (#2) and being en route to Antarctica (#1).
Veronica and I met back up in the Calafate airport, since she stayed in Buenos Aires for a few extra days while I was in Ushuaia gallivanting with penguins and sea lions. Taxi drivers have a monopoly in Calafate because it is such a tiny town that people go to solely for Los Glaciares National Park (~1 hour away by bus), so be prepared to shell out some cash to get around!
The other splurge that this post is mostly about? The Helio y Aventura “mini-trekking” excursion that is the only operator who can take you on a guided hike ON the glacier. Many travelers we met in our respective hostels raved about the experience, so we took the plunge and booked it through our hostel. Unlike my penguin tour, this wasn’t something I had planned months in advance… but I was careful to make sure we had at least one full-day in Calafate, in case we did decide on a tour. It really does take a full day, so factor that into your travel decisions if you plan on continuing up to El Chalten like we did!
Springing for the glacier hike ended up being one of the best decisions of the whole trip. Without booking the ice trekking tour, visitors to Los Glaciares National Park can only admire Perito Moreno from the balconies pictured above. We were picked up at the hostel and dropped off at the balconies to wander around on our own for a few hours (including lunchtime), before getting on the ice itself later. Other tour bus operators will get you to the National Park and take you back to Calafate, but keep reading for more details about the Mini Trek with Helio y Aventura.
There is a small cafe/restaurant at the park, but Veronica and I packed a lunch to eat during the walkway time. After making a loop and stopping often for photos that couldn’t do it justice, we sought refuge from the wind behind one of the covered shelters to pull out our (slightly mushed) PB&Js. The Patagonia part of our trip was quite a departure from the haute cuisine of Buenos Aires, where we ate at expensive steakhouses with white tablecloths. Get you a girl who can do both, am I right?
Chunks of ice periodically broke off the edge of the glacier and crashed into Lago Argentina below, creating massive waves and thunderous cracking sounds. You had to listen carefully for the pre-crackling that would signal a coming wave, and then keep your eyes peeled and camera ready to try and capture the “calving”.
After our time on the walkways, we got back on the bus to another area of the park, where we caught a boat to the Southern face of the glacier – the side that is accessible to humans. It is here that I realized for the first time, “The North Face” brand name (that I’ve been wearing on my backpack since college) comes from glacier terminology!
Back on land, we split into tour groups (English and Spanish) and followed our guides on a walk through the woods on paths that are re-carved every year to accommodate for the glacier’s seasonal receding and advancing. I asked our guide the back story of the word “Patagonia” and he said to Google it… so I was like umm what am I paying you for?!
But then we got to the edge of the ice and I was like oh yeah, you need to help me lace up my crampons and navigate through this different planet so I don’t die…
Our guide pointed out these crazy ice formations and crystal clear pools of glacial melt as we trekked. He also helped me fill up my water bladder (what a funny name) with glacier water. It was a more treacherous operation than I anticipated, but what’s life without something to keep you on your toes? Not literally though – it’s important to keep your weight evenly distributed between heel/toe when walking on ice 🙂
The “Mini Trekking” tour we selected was a shorter trek compared to the “Big Ice” option, but I think it was just enough time. Hiking with crampons was exhausting! But at the end of the tour, we were rewarded with a surprise glass of whiskey on the rocks (glacier ice!) and chocolates to wrap up an incredible experience. I don’t even like whiskey, but I have to say – it was the perfect finishing touch.
I’m not one who loves the cold, and I was fresh off a knee injury. But on the ice I was so distracted by the incredible views and the fact that I was literally standing on a glacier, that I forget about all that and just couldn’t stop gushing, “WOW OMG” every five seconds. I’m really glad I was able to share the unforgettable experience with Veronica!
After enjoying our little whiskey break, we retraced our steps through the forest to await our boat. Another boat was approaching the face of the glacier when suddenly a huge chunk of ice thundered into the water, sending tsunami-like waves that the boat attempted to speed away from. I imagine being a passenger on that boat was probably a little scary, but watching from the shore, everyone was CRACKING. UP.
The town of El Calafate
Calafate is super touristy (read: expensive), as most people come here just as a gateway to Los Glaciares National Park. I highly recommend bringing your own essentials like sunscreen for the glacier hike, unless you can stomach paying ridiculously inflated prices for it when you get there – I typically like to travel with a stick sunscreen for my face, since it’s carry-on friendly.
Before Veronica and I split up to explore on our own on the day we flew in, we had a very slow, mediocre lunch at a place called Mako Bar recommended by the staff who checked us into our hostel. We later found out that the bar was owned by his friend.. and that is how learned the travel lesson, “take local advice with a grain of salt and read Tripadvisor reviews anyway”. While the food wasn’t great, we were seated outside in the beautiful weather and there were a bunch of really friendly stray(?) dogs lounging around on the patio with us while we waited forever for our food.
I did later find this cute tea house called Olivia’s Coffee Shop, a little off the main drag. At this point in the day, I desperately needed the break. I tripped pretty badly in some gravel around Laguna Nimez, a nature reserve about a mile away from “civilization” (if you can call Calafate that, lol). Limping back with holes in my leggings, bleeding everywhere and running on empty was a low point of the trip. I’m just thankful I wasn’t also lost on top of all of that, because I probably would’ve had a straight up panic attack. Nothing some tiramisu and wifi can’t fix, right?
Hosteria Los Gnomos
As much as I encourage everyone to try solo travel, a major pro of having companions is being able to book private rooms in hostels. That essentially takes the worst part of hostels (sharing sleeping quarters with strangers) out of the equation. Veronica and I had a shared room in an unusually quiet hostel with surprisingly clean showers. We also thought it was strange that we didn’t have access to a kitchen… before I realized “hosteria” does not mean “hostel” in Spanish. So, yes – we were staying at a very affordable “inn”, not a hostel. It all makes sense in hindsight 🙂
Despite not having access to the kitchen, we were allowed to store a few grocery items and leftovers in the fridge. It was actually pretty handy that I was able to bring some of the food from Ushuaia to Calafate (i.e. half a loaf of bread, peanut butter, apples, etc.) for lunches. On our second night, I wandered downstairs to ask for a bag of ice for my knee…. and smelled something delicious wafting from the kitchen. One of the staff was cooking a hearty lamb stew and asked if I wanted a taste. He ended up inviting Veronica and I to join him and his friend for dinner, and it was the heartiest meal I had in days. (Dare I say the best I had on the whole trip?!) His friend spoke no English and Veronica spoke Portuguese, so between the broken languages we all laughed and shared travel stories over a bottle of Malbec.
Our chef was also the baker behind the bread served at breakfast from scratch every day, while the other staff member made the muffins. I definitely took advantage of that, packing snacks for our excursions and the early morning bus trip to El Chalten (that we also booked through the hotel). Hosteria Los Gnomos may have been a 15-20 min walk uphill to get back from the center of town, but at least it was equidistant from the bus depot! With all our things in tow (minus the hiking pole I bought in Ushuaia that I forgot under the bed), we set off towards Mt. Fitz Roy and the hiking capital of Argentina on our last morning…