The Los Glaciares National Park, created in 1937, is the home to the continental ice shelf, glaciers, lakes and forests. It covers an area of 600,000 ha, located southwest of Santa Cruz Province in Southern Argentina.
Its spectacular beauty, research value and endangered animal life, prompted UNESCO to declare it a World Heritage Site in 1981.
The Park is an ice-dominated area: 47 glaciers crawl down from 2,600 square kilometres of ice fields. The area’s outstanding sight is the Perito Moreno Glacier, 60 metres high and a five-kilometre face, on the Brazo Sur (South Arm) of Lago Argentino.
Perched on the hillsides of a plateau, the picturesque town of El Calafate is located at the heart of Patagonia, at the edge of a mountain (El Calafate) and on the Lago Argentino shore, 315 km from Río Gallegos, the capital of Santa Cruz Province.
As the village comes into view, its gabled homes stand out against the backdrop of the surrounding plateaus. The woodlands of native and rose trees lend charm and character to this cute and quaint town (population 4,000). Its concern is to make visitors feel right at home.
However, the largest glacier in the area is the Upsala, 10 kilometres wide and 50 kilometres in length.
Further north is the imposing Fitz Roy (3,375 m), a challenging climb even for experienced mountaineers. The sub-Antarctic woodlands in the area include native trees such as lengas (Nothofagus pomilio), guindos (Nothofagus betuloides) and many shrubs like the notro (Embothrium coccineum) and the calafate (Berberis buxifolia), an emblem of the area.
The characteristic animal species are the huemul (Hippocamelus bisulcus or South Andean deer) and the lesser Rhea, which can be seen scampering across the plateau in packs.
All lakes and glaciers in this National Park are must-sees due to their unparalelled beauty and unique characteristics. The best known glacier in the Park is the breathtaking Moreno Glacier, advancing on the Brazo Sur (South Arm) of Lago Argentino, The end of the glacier is a sheer wall of ice about 5km long and standing 60m (200 feet) above the water’s surface. Shards of ice in various sizes are constantly breaking off the glacier and come crashing down into the water.
From time to time, a spectacular calving event takes place. The glacier empties into a lake right at the point where two branches connect through a fairly narrow channel.
At regular intervals, the glacier’s face reaches all the way to the outcropping of land on the other side of the channel—sealing it off to create, in effect, two separate lakes. As the glacier continues to melt, the water level in one of the lakes rises at a faster rate than the other, causing significant flooding (as much as 20 metres high).
Trekking to Fitz Roy
Eventually, the warm water melts enough of the ice that an underwater tunnel forms between the lakes; as the tunnel expands, the water levels equalize. Before long, the tunnel becomes more of an underpass for a giant ice bridge. When this inevitably collapses, it’s a breathtaking sight which will be indelibly etched on the visitor’s memory: massive chunks of ice calving off the glacier, the thundering noise; waves forming as chunks tumble into the lake and blue icebergs floating away.
A large series of walkways and platforms or balconies along the glacier’s face, at the edge of the Magellan Peninsula, allows visitors to get closer to the glacier and take panoramic pictures from all angles. Travelers may also take a one-hour safari boat tour, 300 metres off the glacier’s face for close up action of the ice shards breaking off.
It was named after a native thorny, yellow-flowered shrub. People who try its purple berries are said to come back to Patagonia for certain. El Calafate can be reached by plane (its Airport serves all types of commercial aircraft), or on a paved road from Río Gallegos.
Located amidst spectacular landscape, the village boasts a series of hotels and restaurants of all sorts, coffee shops, clubs, a casino, boutique shops, tour operators and travel agencies. It should come as no surprise that El Calafate has been hailed as the Gateway to the Los Glaciares National Park.
The area’s climate is dry (300 mm a year) with mild temperatures considering its latitude (maximum summer temperatures average 18 ºC; minimum winter temperature: -2 ºC). The area is best visited from November to March, as it’s warmer and less windy. In the summer months, visitors flock to the region and more services are available (transport, accommodation, campsites, etc.).
Some of the best trekking options in the area include:
An increasingly popular excursion is the “mini glacier trek”. From “Bajo de las Sombras”, a 20-minute boat tour takes you along the glacier’s south wall and stops off the Brazo Rico shore. The boat excursion is followed by a 30-minute walk up to the edge of the glacier. Then, hikers are outfitted with crampons for a 90-minute trek on the glacier on uneven terrain, where small deep-blue lagoons may be spotted in between the cracks.
The Brazo Norte boat tour (Lago Argentino) departs from Punta Bandera (50 km) and sails through huge bergs before reaching the 50-kilometre long, 10-kilometre wide Upsala Glacier. The boat tour stops at Bahía Onelli and is followed by a trek through the woods. After 800 metres, a small ice-clogged lagoon can be reached to view icebergs from the Onelli, Bolado and Agassiz glaciers.
The Lago Roca trekking trail(48 km) is another must. Visitors pass through an ever-changing variety of landscapes, alternating between sprawling estancias (estates), Patagonian shrubs, woodlands of ñires(Nothofagus antarctica)and lengas, (Nothofagus pomilio) and the crystal-clear lake waters, ideal for salmonid fishing. Trekkers can also take in Cuevas del Gualicho (9 km), eroded into the rock by nature and famous for Indian cave painting.
The village of El Chaltén, regarded as Argentina’s trekking capital, is located 216 km northwest of El Calafate and can be reached after a 4-hour drive through the pristine Patagonian steppes. This village caters to climbers and mountaineers preparing to ascend mounts Fitz Roy and Torre.