One of the area’s popular hikes stops at iceberg-dotted Laguna Torre. // © 2018 Mindy Poder
Feature Image (above): Ice trekking is no longer allowed on Viedma Glacier, but travelers can still enjoy a trek to its terminus. // © 2018 Mindy Poder
Pablo Burbano’s mood is as steady as his gait — unless you get him talking about Argentina’s glaciers.
“Pachamama (Mother Earth) will be fine,” he said. “Humans, however, will not be fine. We depend on glaciers for fresh water.”
Along with the polar bear, the glacier has become a de facto poster child for climate change. Story after story has come out encouraging prospective travelers to head to glacial lands — before it’s too late.
And there are a few reasons to choose Los Glaciares National Park in Argentinean Patagonia for glacier gazing besides getting to learn from Burbano, a guide for Fitz Roy Expediciones. Most of the glaciers at the 80-year-old park are fed by the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, one of the world’s largest masses of ice and sources of fresh water. And, last year, the park celebrated its 80th anniversary, along with 36 years as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The park’s marquee glacier — Perito Moreno — is one of the area’s few stable glaciers and is a quick visit from El Calafate, the gateway to the park. Tours there often include ice trekking atop the glacier, followed by a celebratory toast of whisky spiked with glacial ice.
But, for you alarmists in the audience, most of the 47 glaciers in the park are, in fact, receding — some moving at a pace that’s not exactly “glacial.”
For example, ice trekking was offered at Viedma Glacier during the start of the 2017 summer season in December. By February, Viedma became off-limits to ice trekkers.
“It’s not due to government prohibition,” said Luciana Alvarez, sales for Fitz Roy Expediciones, a sister company of Patagonia Aventura, which operates excursions at Viedma. “We stopped, unfortunately, due to the forces of nature.”
During my visit to “catastrophically calving” Viedma, I witnessed how the glacier violently shed large chunks of itself, adding even more icebergs to waters already studded with them. Burbano reminisced about the glacier’s former glory, but the day was still a highlight for me. My hikes at home in Los Angeles don’t include Andean vistas bedazzled by dense rivers of fluorescent blue-and-white ice — heck, I’m likely to bring an ascent to a full stop if I see so much as a lone wildflower along my city’s dry and dusty trails.
So, confronted with Argentina’s largest glacier, I did as any nature-starved, urban-desert dweller would do — I snapped photos like I would never see a glacier again. And I delighted in how the clouds seemed as giddy as me, bringing and removing shade in their rapid flight.
I also took a good look at the rock floor below me. These days, no lesson about glaciers feels complete without a conversation about what happens after the ice melts.
Pointing to the boulders underneath our feet, Burbano explained that their color and texture — smooth, scarred, orange, gray — reveal how ice moved over them.
I got a similar lesson in erosion and abrasion after visiting Upsala Glacier at Estancia Cristina, a lodge in a wild and remote — even by Patagonian standards — swath of land previously occupied by the Argentinean government, which once conducted glacial studies here.
At Upsala, guides once again waxed nostalgic about its receding ice line before leading my group on a hike through fossil-rich land glaciers left behind.
“This is classic glacier moraine,” said Cecilia Costa, our host at the lodge, as we trekked through a strikingly bare, black-and-brown landscape showing the first weeds of life. “The ice melted, so we just have rocks, air, water and organic materials. Most of us live in areas that were once covered by glaciers, but here you can see the gradual progress happening every day.”
Savvy suppliers are not only explaining the area’s changes during trips, but they’re evolving with the landscape, too.
In response to Viedma’s retreat, for example, Fitz Roy Expediciones built Patagonia’s first via ferrata, which makes the relatively unexplored Cagliero Sur Glacier accessible for ice trekking.
Though the Upsala, Viedma and Perito Moreno glaciers are the park’s boldfaced headliners, experiencing the supporting acts can be just as meaningful. For example, some of my favorite experiences with Patagonia’s icy atmosphere happened while hiking the most popular routes from El Chalten.
I’ll never forget my first sighting of a Patagonian glacier at Laguna Torre, where lakefront rocks doubled as lawn chairs and a white-chested southern caracara bird — which, without my glasses on, looked like a flying penguin — swooped over iceberg polka dots.
And, during our trek to Laguna de los Tres, we stopped for a break by Piedras Blancas glacier, which was framed by symmetrical hills and a bouquet of mountaintops. While admiring the scene, I sipped on glacial water — fetched fresh from a trailside lake — while observing its source.
And this time, I gazed pensively by my own doing. Burbano didn’t have to say a word.
Fast Facts about Fitz Roy Expediciones
- Fitz Roy Expediciones is an Argentinean travel agency based out of El Chalten that specializes in all-inclusive, custom trekking programs which are often booked by travel advisors.
- Fitz Roy is part of Viva Patagonia, marketing group that promotes Southern Patagonia. Other members include Estancia Cristina, Hosteria El Puma, Patagonia Aventura, Mil Outdoor and Glaciarium.
- Fitz Roy also creates custom itineraries for a number of adventure travel tour operators.
- Argentinean DMCs also book specific excursions and hotels through Fitz Roy.
- “An American travel agency who already has a DMC in Argentina for booking the whole itinerary, and wants to sell Laguna Condor, or some of our products, just has to tell their DMC that they want our products,” said Luciana Alvarez, who heads sales for Fitz Roy. “The DMC would then contact us for special wholesaler rates.”