Andrew Bain explores the apres-ice attractions of the famed Perito Moreno Glacier.
In El Calafate ice isn't just cold, it's cool. As the gateway to the famed Perito Moreno Glacier, the town has long pinned its existence to glacier tourism. Not content any more to just send visitors out of town, it recently opened one of the world's few glacier museums, with what is said to be the only bar carved from glacial ice.
Mornings in El Calafate move at anything but glacial speed, with buses hurrying waves of people towards the glacier, about two hours out of town. On the rocky slopes of the Magallanes Peninsula, opposite the glacier, a spaghetti network of boardwalks connects a multitude of lookouts. But the most intimate view is from atop the ice itself, on a guided glacier walk.
At the port of Lago Argentino I board the Perito Moreno, the boat that threads its way through icebergs to the opposite shore. Across the glacier's surface I can see other hiking groups, looking no bigger than ant trails.
The walk to the glacier is across rocks scratched and scraped by thousands of years of glacial movement. The seracs along the snout of the glacier resemble a forest of ice about to be felled.
True to the image, a series of seracs calves away from the glacier's snout as I'm walking, crashing into the lake with a sound like thunder.
Inside a shelter among the rubble at the glacier's edge, I'm fitted with my crampons, the metal teeth that will hold my shoes to the ice. We step out onto the glacier, kicking hard to make our crampons bite into the glass-hard ice - it's like being nailed to the glacier.
Ascending in single file, we follow the ridge lines of the ice, which flows from the Andes like a frozen river. In the next couple of hours we'll see just a sliver of this mighty glacier, which begins on the Chilean border, in an area that receives about 50 metres of snow each year - one of the highest snowfalls in the world.
About 23 kilometres in length, the glacier is four kilometres across at its narrowest point and up to 700 metres deep. At its terminus at Lago Argentino, the wall of ice is as high as a 10-storey building.
Atop the glacier, meltwater pours between my feet, tumbling into crevasses and sinkholes. Peering inside these water-carved caves, the ice darkens from powder blue to midnight blue. It's enticingly beautiful, except for the knowledge that some of these holes might plummet dozens of metres into the ice.
Eventually we rise to a point about 100 metres above the lake. Three ice fins stand at a lean above us, looking like waves about to crash over the glacier. Walking groups crisscross the glacier below us and a pair of Andean condors turn circles overhead. All across the glacier, ice creaks, groans and crashes, but always far from where we are walking.
At the end of the walk, we're led to a makeshift bar on a shelf of ice. A guide chips ice from the glacier into drinking glasses and adds a nip of Famous Grouse, a whisky on ice sipped on possibly the most famous block of ice on Earth.
Back in El Calafate, most of the apres-glacier activities are fairly banal - shopping, mostly - which makes a visit to the Glaciarium museum appealing. This well-designed museum opened in February last year on an empty knoll six kilometres out of town. Its facade resembles the seracs of a glacier and its exhibits focus on glacial regions around the world, with particular focus on Patagonia, where the Patagonian Ice Sheet forms one of the world's largest ice fields.
The museum has nine displays, from glacier anatomy to a dedicated Moreno Glacier exhibit. There's also a theatre that screens a 3D film about the peaks and glaciers of nearby Los Glaciares National Park, which incorporates Perito Moreno Glacier. There's a more interesting video re-creation of the rupture of the glacier, a spectacular periodic event triggered when pressure from Lago Argentino causes a section of the glacier to fracture in an explosion of ice.
Reconstructed footage has been used because the last three ruptures - in 2006, 2008 and March this year - have occurred either at night or in the middle of winter, unseen by almost anyone.
Beneath the museum is the small Glacio Bar, chilled to a constant temperature of minus 10 degrees. Before entering I'm made to wear warming silver mittens and a fur-lined silver cape, an outfit that falls somewhere between the Jetsons and Josie and the Pussycats.
Inside the Glacio Bar, the bar, tables, chairs and even the drinking glasses have been carved from one of Perito Moreno Glacier's icebergs. Neon lights and dance music bounce off the frozen walls. It's kitschy but, like El Calafate itself, the chill is, well, cool.
Andrew Bain travelled courtesy of Peregrine Adventures.
Aerolineas Argentinas has a fare to El Calafate from Sydney for about $2125 low-season return, including tax. Fly to Buenos Aires (14hr 25min), then to El Calafate (3hr 20min); see aerolineas.com.ar. Melbourne passengers pay about $380 more and fly Virgin Australia to and from Sydney to connect. You have to spend a night in Buenos Aires both ways at your own expense. Australians pay a $US100 ($94.70) reciprocity fee on arrival.
Peregrine Adventures' 13-day Patagonian Highlights trip (from $6225, including local flights) and 10-day Highlights of Argentina (from $3950, including local flights), include visits to Perito Moreno Glacier and time in El Calafate. Phone 1300 854 500, see peregrineadventures.com.