Sunday, January 7, 2024

Argentinas Southern Glaciers in Patagonia

One Must-See for South America is the Patagonian glaciers dotted along the border of Southern Argentina and Chile. Argentina has more than 15,000 glaciers. Patagonia is the place with the largest ice area in the world - after Antarctica. The glaciers are at a very low altitude, so it is easy to see them up close. I admired this amazing glacier world on guided tours into the mountains and a boat tour over the icy waters of glacier lakes. And on top of that, the icebergs that are floating in the cold waters of these mountain lakes. The first icebergs I ever saw in my life!

After Antarctica, the Southern Andes cover the largest area in this hemisphere, even larger than those of Greenland. Within this vast area, an ice field of 12,500 square km shared by Argentina and Chile stands out:  The Southern Patagonian Ice Field, the starting point for many of the glaciers in the National Park.  It includes 48 major glaciers and more than 100 minor glaciers.

Flight from Buenos Aires to El Calafate

From Argentinians North or from Buenos Aires, try to get a seat on the right-hand side in flight direction to the south. And on the way north, departing from El Calafate try to get a seat on the left-hand side to admire the mountains and glaciers. Once your plane arrives in El Calafate, head to the counter for the downtown bus (2000 pesos vs. 18.000 for a taxi).  Official taxis are all equipped with a taxometer, the illegal ones don’t have these…

El Calafate

This is quite a big village which has grown a lot over the past years. The main reason to visit El Calafate is to travel to Glaciares National Park to see the Perito Moreno Glacier among other glaciers.  Near the edge of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field in the Argentine province of Santa Cruz the town is mainly known as the gateway to Los Glaciares National Park.  

The name of the town comes from the Calafate berry that is found in the vicinity of the town. It is a thorny shrub but with delicious fruits. Calafate jam is offered in several boutiques through the downtown area for around 5 USD (ca. 4800 pesos).  The Latin name is Berberis microphylla, a common name for box-leaf barberry and Magellan barberry, in Spanish Calafate.  Many stores in El Calafate sell marmalade from the berries.

Calafate is a fruit that is only harvested in the wild, and there is a growing demand for this "superfood”.  It is considered an excellent natural antioxidant that protects the body from cellular aging due to its high content of polyphenols and flavonoids.  It is also a powerful source of minerals and vitamin C.

A modern interpretive center in El Calafate called the Glaciarium, serves as a primer on the region’s numerous glaciers.  Exhibits are in English and Spanish. The museum has an ice bar (ca. $8 USD) ticket buys entrance to the museum and the ice bar and includes 1 shot and 1 cocktail).  Located on the way to the Perito Moreno glacier from El Calafate or catch the free shuttle from town.  This museum is full of information and an absolute must-visit before or after seeing the Perito Moreno glacier.  Excellent presentation.  And best of all, there is free transportation from and to El Calafate.

Laguna Nimez

Although most activities concentrate on this park, there are short walks you can take from the city too, such as the circuit of Laguna Nimez. In this natural reserve, you will spot many of the native bird species of the area, but also lots of flamingos and swans. 

You can reach the laguna on foot, by car or taxi from downtown, and make the circuit in particular, as it is audio-guided. On the laguna, there is an information center where you can access brochures, bilingual (Spanish and English) about the particular characteristics of each species and its relationship to the ecosystem.

You can extend your trip and walk to the natural shoreline of Lake Argentino for a beautiful view of the lake and city background.  Lake Argentino is the largest in Patagonia with its 1,560 square kilometers, and the third largest one in South America. At 185 meters above sea level, it has a length of 125 km and a maximum width of between 14 and 20 kilometers. 

Boardwalks of the Perito Moreno Glacier
From El Calafate, it is a short drive to the glacier park.  Once there you can follow the boardwalks and enjoy the views of the glacier.  Or book the amazing tour to walk over the glaciers!  This is more a walk than a hike but it can take one hour to complete the whole circuit.  Plus, amazing views are guaranteed!  It is even wheelchair-accessible.  Mini trekking over the glacier, a hike through a forest to reach the base of the glacier, and then start walking on the white soil.  It is a group hike and the rhythm is rather slow. There is only an age restriction (from 8 to 65).  

In a Los Glaciares National Park brochure, I found this:

"Above the forest, at more than 1,000 meters, cliffs, wind, cold temperatures, and snow are the extreme conditions that make this environment one of the most hostile places for any kind of life.  Nonetheless, tiny and fragrant plants can be found there along with a multitude of pollinators. 
The Lenga tree is the most predominant in the forest. They can bear extreme conditions. They lose their leaves in the fall. The guindo tree, the only evergreen in the area, it dominates the more humid and poorly drained sites. 
The National Park has a small portion of this environment in which bushes and small plants stand out. Solar radiation is intense and so are winds. One of the species is the hard grass, called the Corona. There are also thorny bushes, like the Calafate, and the Nine, and colorful fragrant flowers such as Oxalis, Verbenas, and Adesmias bloom after scarce rains in springtime.
Andean Condors and Pumas are the largest predators in Patagonia. With a maximum wingspan of 3.3 m and a weight of 15 kg, the Andean condor is one of the largest flying birds in the world and is generally considered to be the largest bird of prey in the world.
The primary prey of pumas is hoofed mammals, especially deer, that are larger than themselves. In North America, each puma kills about 48 hoofed mammals per year and smaller prey, including rabbits and hares, coyotes, bobcats, porcupines, beavers, opossums, and raccoons."

Guanacos, Vicunas, Llamas, and Alpacas

All of them are related to camels.  But they live in South America, while camels are found in Africa and Asia.  Guanacos and vicunas are wild animals, but llamas and alpacas have been domesticated and were probably bred from guanacos. 

Photo Wikipedia


Standing less than 4 feet (1.2 meters) tall at the shoulder, guanacos have a slender body, long legs, and a long neck. They are shorter and smaller than their camel relatives. 


It has a longer nose and much less fur on its face than alpaca. Llamas have a longer neck and head, and ears in the shape of a banana. This also differs from the smaller alpaca. They are also less hairy. The size and bulk figure distinguish them from the sleeker and smaller vicuña and guanaco. Llamas can have a wide range of colors: brown, white, gray, and black, either solid or speckled.



Alpacas are more reminiscent of a small llama than slimmer guanacos and vicuñas. They have straight and pointed ears. Alpacas have cute faces with a lot of furs and rounded noses. Their hair grows densely on their legs and cheeks. There is a much bigger variety of natural colors of their fur than of llamas, 22 in total, which range from white to black with various shades of brown and grey.



Vicuñas are the smallest and most delicate of the four. They look similar to guanacos, but are more delicate and smaller and have shorter heads. Their ears are also pointed and share a similarly colored coat. It means light brown backs with white hair on the bellies, necks, and legs.

All of them are very shy, and as soon as you stop your car or bus to take a photo, they run away. Vicuña is the wild ancestor of the alpaca.

It is disheartening and shocking to see so many of the guanacos dead:  Often when they try to leap over the ranch fences, they are stuck on the barbed wires, cannot get forth or backward, and miserably die - often over hours and days. Sometimes vultures pick on them while they are still alive. In some areas one can see them from the road, hanging in different stages of life or dead still on the fence, or the carcasses nearby. 

The guanaco's population, reduced by nearly 95 percent from the original number believed as much as 50 million, is now predominantly based in Patagonia. Many farmers shoot them too as they don’t want them to eat the few grasses that they think are reserved for their sheep herds.  And instead of using dogs to herd the sheep and stop predators, the farmers build fences everywhere …

An oft-quoted reference to wildlife from the ranch-land owners in Argentina elucidates the predicament, “Todo son bichos”, translated as, “They're all insects”.  This has led to the hunting of pumas, guanaco, Darwin's rhea, Patagonian Humbolt skunk, Patagonian armadillo, in fact virtually everything that moves - producing an unbalanced, unhealthy ecosystem.

Read more here:

Glacier Tours by Boat

The Perito Moreno glacier is the most famous of all. It is a mass of ice located in Los Glaciares National Park, in the province of Santa Cruz, Argentina. It is one of the largest and best-preserved glaciers in the world. Its surface area is approximately 250 square kilometers and it is 100 m thick in some areas.

For thousands of years, the Moreno glacier has stretched across the mountains of Patagonia. This mass of ice is one of the few glaciers in the world that is still growing and is known for its breathtaking beauty.  The Moreno glacier creeps forward upward to 2 meters per year, causing house-sized icebergs to calf and fall into the lake. Be warned that the winds in this area are enormous. The wind blew my glasses from my head and into the icy waters.

The Perito Moreno began its formation more than 2,500 million years ago, in the last ice age. It is believed that its current form, as we know it today, is approximately 20,000 years old. The park where it is located was created in 1937 to protect the glacier, and today it is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country.  In 1981 it was declared a World Heritage Site by Unesco for being an example of the geological processes of glaciation (in addition to its natural beauty of course). 

If you want to experience not only the Perito Moreno Glacier but more icy beauties, explore the Los Glaciares Parque Nacional with a Glacier Cruise to Upsala Glacier and Spegazinni Glaciers.   A luxurious boat tour including a lunch of lamb, chicken, pork, or vegetarian, paired with red wine and a delicious dessert made the trip through icebergs and glaciers even more appealing.

In the Footsteps of Günter Plüschow on Lago Argentino 

Gunther Plüschow was a German aviator, aerial explorer, and author from Munich, Bavaria. His feats include the only escape by a German prisoner of war during the war from Britain back to Germany.  He was the first pilot to explore and film Tierra del Fuego and Patagonia from the air.

On January 28, 1931, after a flight over the Torres del Paine, the Heinkel-24W aircraft crashed in an approaching storm.  He and his friend and photographer Ernst Dreblow died and drowned.  The Heinkel broke up over the lake, presumably after a makeshift repair.  Rodents had gnawed the spars of the wings during the wintering period from 1930 to 31.  Locals erected a memorial stone on the shore of Perito Moreno (Moreno Glacier), which is still there today.

Günter Plüschow became famous in the twenties through his book Der Flieger von Zingtau, after which he also named the airplane.  His probably best-known book is Silbercondor über Feuerland in which he describes his journeys and flights over this unique landscape.

Torres Del Paine

Torres del Paine is one of the biggest protected natural reserves in the world.  A National Park that is on every hiker’s bucket list.  You can reach the park as a passenger on a guided tour or drive by (rental) car there.  Technically it is located in Chile. So you have to cross the border - and hopefully have your passport with you.  Your luggage will be inspected, such as it is done on any other border or at the airport.  There is also a form to be filled out on paper or online. 

Once you are there, the park can be visited on foot, on a boat, and via horseback riding.  There are few places to stay inside, one hotel and a couple of refuges.  Also, a magic place to go glamping!  No matter where you stay, hiking trails are nearby.  The most famous trails are part of the W Circuit, a 5-day hiking and camping travel experience to visit half of the park.  However, there are many other easy hike options to explore!

"Paine" in the Tehuelche language means "blue" and is the predominant color in the landscape.

Once there you can take self-guided excursions or with guides or car tours. There are several places to visit including:

  • Lake Sarmiento de Gamboa viewpoint
  • Lake Azul - Panoramic of the Torres
  • Paine river falls
  • Almirante Nieto hill / Cuernos del Paine from the Superior Lookout.
  • Lake Amarga
  • Salto Grande viewpoint
  • Cuernos del Paine viewpoint
  • Lake Pehoe
  • Interpretation Center of the National Park explains the geological phenomenon of the formation of solid features of the flora and fauna and the Ice Age.
  • Lake Toro viewpoint

Easy hikes in Torres del Paine

  • Nordenskjöld Lake is a beautiful 1 h 30 min hike to the coast of this amazing lake inside the park. 
  • Mirador de Cuernos is a 2-hour round trip hike, easy for any age. It starts from Peohué and ends at Salto Grande waterfall. 
  • Fauna trail, an easy hike to spot native wildlife like guanacos! It goes from one entrance of the park to another, Porteria Sarmiento Lake and Portería Amarga Lagoon.

Located in the region of Magallanes and Antártica Chilena, Torres del Paine is one of the most famous natural reserves in the world for hikers.  Inside Torres del Paine you can sail through lakes to meet glaciers, enjoy hiking trails of all kinds, and even multi-day hiking and camping experiences.  This is the place of the mighty Puma, but also of the Andean Condors and other amazing wildlife.

Torres del Paine is one of the biggest protected natural reserves in the world.  And the destination on every hiker’s bucket list. The park can be visited on foot, on a boat, and on horseback riding. There are few places to stay inside, one hotel and a couple of refuges. Also, a magic place to go glamping! No matter where you stay, hiking trails are nearby. The most famous trails are part of the W Circuit, a 5-day hiking and camping travel experience to visit half of the park. However, there are many other easy hike options to explore!

There is only one hotel inside the park which often runs out of capacity, that is why you should always plan your trip to Torres del Paine well in advance. You can also enjoy the experience of lodging in the eco-camp, and go glamping. Or venture into a 5-day hiking experience and stay in refuges throughout the park while you complete the W Circuit, one of the most popular hiking trails in the park. During this trip, you will meet famous peaks like the Paine Towers, and the French Valley, deep inside the heart of the park. Torres del Paine National Park is a fabulous choice for hiking trips. 

El Chaltén 

You can find all kinds of hikes in El Chaltén since it is the hiking capital of Argentina. Though it managed to remain quite small, visitors come in bigger numbers every year. This is because it is practically possible to start a hike from downtown. These hikes will be the easiest to take if you are a beginner.

I opted to take the 3-hour public bus drive to El Chaltén. It runs five times a day from the El Calafate bus terminal. The last bus returns at 6 pm, arriving in Calafate at 9 pm.

Easy hikes in El Chaltén

  • El Chorrillo del Salto, a tranquil walk through a forest to reach a hidden waterfall. A one-hour round hike.
  • Cerro Torre Viewpoint is also a 1-hour hike to see Torre Mountain, Río Las Vueltas, and spot birds, like the woodpecker. 

Exploring Viedma Glacier in Chaltén is an unforgettable experience for hikers of all different skill levels.  After sailing across the beautiful Lake Viedma, you’ll head towards the impressive glacial structure.

Having an experienced and knowledgeable guide trekking along with you, explaining the nature of the glacier and leading you around, is highly beneficial. With the guide, you’ll probably be able to venture into the depths of the glacier itself, inside an ice cave. Transforming Patagonia glacier hikes into something even more special. Within the ice caves, water from the lake gushes across the banks of a natural river, reflecting a spectrum of blue across the walls.  How can a huge chunk of ice reside in the water for so many years and never melt?   

Other Parks on my Bucket List:

Parque Nacional Bernardo O’Higgins
Located in the región of Aysén in Chile, this park is easily accessible from Patagonia Argentina, departing from the hiking village of El Chaltén.  This is also a destination every hiker has to visit once in his life!  The region is known for its incredible glaciers, snow-capped mountains, and fjords. 

Chilean Fjords – Nature at its Best
No words are enough to explain the imposing beauty visitors are about to witness when arriving at the fjords in Patagonia Chilena.  Located across de Aysen, Magellanic, and Antarctic regions, the Chilean fjords are home to mighty glaciers, waterfalls, and stunning views of the legendary and captivating beauty of Patagonia Chilena.  The main reason why visitors do not often travel to this land is that in many cases the only possible access is by boat only.

And it’s worth the ride. Postcard-like landscapes are joined by the unique marine wildlife of the area home of the blue, grey, and humpback whales—an unspoiled piece of land where to find beauty at the edge of existence.

Parque Nacional Pali Aike
Another national park in the Chile Patagonia located in the Magallanes and Antartica region is the Pali Aike, a natural reserve full of volcanoes, caves and hiking trails.  From Punta Arenas, you have to travel 125 miles to the park.

This place is the favorite of geologists and archeologists since the soil is greatly covered by basaltic lava.  The great natural attraction is the Cave of Pali Aike, declared a National Monument, and where important fossils of the first human populating the region have been found.  Plus, you can enjoy active exploration like navigation to the glaciers and kayaking while enjoying the moon-type landscape that characterizes the park. 


This legendary province in Tierra del Fuego is the Argentine gateway to Antarctica.  It is also the port from which many Antarctic cruises depart each year.  But talking about hiking trails, there is the Tierra del Fuego National Park, a must-see natural reserve if you want to discover the landscapes at the end of the world.  The park can be visited in many ways, and there are some easy walks you can take.

My tip is to only check the many guide tours on the Internet but then go to a local travel agency to book it in person. Internet-booked tours cost often double what you pay. That was at least my experience after I discovered in an El Calafate tour office that I had paid almost double for the guided tour.

Money Exchange 
Avoid banks to exchange your Dollars or Euros. You get a much better exchange rate on the private market. Ask in your hotel for the "blue dollar exchange".  The difference is often more than 100 pesos per dollar, especially in Buenos Aires.

Stay tuned for more about Argentina travel ...


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