Squat tin towns with a certain charm, a surreal meal of Irish stew and frosty red wine in a first class bus, an opaque aquamarine lake, its shallows pink with flamingos, frozen crackling swamp grass and stubbornly sucking mud, joy, ice-creaking and a blue glow, crampons and jagged crests, thorny purchase and river tumbles
A lovely ugliness
Río Gallegos boded well for us. We were nestled in our first class pleather seats swathed in blankets sipping on plastic cups of frosty red wine and savouring a delicious and truly surreal Irish stew. I almost clapped by hands in delight when I found that the volume control on the built-in seat-speakers worked and, for the first time, I could turn down the piercing, stricken screams emanating from the (traditional?!) on-board slasher film. Blood-curdling shrieks in the middle of the night as we hurtled through the darkness in an unknown country surrounded by strangers had become the disconcerting norm. Not on this wonderbus! We settled in contentedly, smiling cat-like at each other. 20 hours later, we pull into Río Gallegos and are jarred out of our cosy metal haven. A spitting, dullness hangs over the neglected transport hub. It is striking in its ugliness. Squat tin houses, peeling paintwork and ancient trucks somehow give it a singular charm. Its dejected neglect is interesting.
“The shallows were pink with flamingos” – In Patagonia, Bruce Chatwin
The next day, we continue on to El Calafate, a small town feathered with tourists and tour companies. The town crouches on the shoreline of Lago Argentino near the famous glacier, Perito Moreno. We settle our bags into our warm and comfortable hostel, I Keu Ken, pull on our hiking boots and follow the draw of the strangely opaque, aquamarine waters of Lago Argentino. It is still wintertime and the lake’s waters have receded to expose a swampland of frozen, crackling grasses and moss. A thin layer of ice has formed over earthy patches. It cracks satisfyingly as we walk over it, releasing deep, sucking mud. Male upland geese cast wary looks in our direction and carefully escort their females out of our path. Highlighter pink feathers lie scattered on tussocks and their gaudy owners convene in the lake’s shallows.
The sound of creaking ice
I have wanted to visit the Perito Moreno ever since I came across it in a Geography class in secondary school. Its colossal size and, for some reason, the fact that it’s blue grasped my imagination so when it came to planning this trip, a visit to this blue giant was at the top of my wish list. A jungle, a desert and a blue glacier! Damien tried to convince me for years that I had already seen glaciers during ski trips in the Alps but I was adamant – my dream glacier was blue. And it was! My heart was pounding as we stood on the deserted viewing balcony. The glacier was everything I had imagined – its jagged peaks, its surrounding iceberg clusters and its wonderful blue glow. We could hear it shift and creak and every now and then, a crack like a gunshot would echo through the valley and a giant chunk of ice would tumble dramatically from the ice outcrops into the still waters below.
It’s difficult to try to convey the size of Perito Moreno. I could say that the ice field is 250 km squared and 30 km in length but statistics like that have always seemed so dry and meaningless to me. Instead, I’ll say that this stable glacier has the same surface area as the city of Buenos Aires and that after the North and South Poles, it forms part of the third largest ice field in the world and, accordingly, the third largest reserve of fresh water. Basically, it’s MASSIVE!
Crampons and jagged peaks
The thought of getting so close to the glacier and passing on the chance to walk on its ice was unthinkable to us so we opted for the only trekking option available in winter – the “mini-trek”. We gamely strapped on our vicious-looking crampons and headed out onto the ice. Stepping on to its bulk was really special. Its jagged peaks glinted in the weak sunlight and crevasses glowed blue and deadly just beyond the trail. Had the group been smaller, I think the experience would have been truly magical. As it was though, we picked our way across the ice behind our guide like a weaving, noisy trail of ants. Despite the slightly industrial tang to the walk, the mystic and power of the glacier remained. The glacier loomed around us and the sight of the jutting and twisted ice-peaks is something that 12-year old me will always treasure!
A mountain climb and a prickly new enemy
An enormous brown and yellow mountain hulks over the I Keu Ken hostel and somehow, as a group of us shared mate in the early morning sunshine, a gauntlet was thrown down. The mountain was to be climbed. Oh I came to hate that mountain with its sliding dune-like clay and its treacherous handholds. This plant in particular gifted me with 20 (!) of its finest thorns.
Some strenuous scrabbling and a sunset peak felt pretty wonderful. A little of the wonderful was washed away though when my stumbling, tripping feet met with some slick stepping stones. A quick and inelegant tumble into a glacial river followed and I squelched back to the hostel not unlike a drowned rat. These feet will have to learn!!!