If you visit Argentina’s glacier country, plan to do so between October and April so that you can go trekking on the Perito Moreno Glacier. Otherwise it would be like visiting Paris and skipping the Eiffel tower and the Louvre. The Perito Moreno Glacier is 80 km from El Calafate, the nearest town where you will most likely be staying. Don’t bother renting a car because transportation is included in the price of the trekking excursions. You can choose between two standard trekking excursions on the Perito Moreno Glacier: Mini Trekking and Big Ice. The difference between them is the level of exertion, the time actually spent on the glacier, and of course the price. Think of it as the difference between a 10K and a Marathon.
Both the Mini Trekking and Big Ice excursions include a short boat ride near the Perito Moreno glacier and a visit to the viewing platforms on the cliffs facing Perito Moreno where all the spectacular photos in guide books are taken from. Longer versions of the boat ride and the viewing platform visits are also sold as separate excursions, but if your time and budget are limited a trekking excursion lets you hit three birds with one stone. Also keep in mind that the US$ 25 National Park entry fee is never included in the excursion prices and must be paid every day you enter the park.
If you only have a couple of days to spend in El Calafate, I recommend doing Mini Trekking or Big Ice in one day and the glacier cruise the other day. This way you will get up close and personal with the Perito Moreno Galcier and then see the other principal glaciers by boat. The All Glaciers Cruise (AKA Todo Glaciares) operates year round but only on Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday, so plan your trip accordingly. One more tip on planning your trip: pack warm clothes and hiking boots in your carry-on! It is not uncommon for the airlines to lose checked baggage. If you show up in glacier country wearing a T-shirt and flip-flops you’ll still have to pay for any excursions you have reserved even if you can’t go on them, making the trip an expensive waste of time.
Both the Mini Trekking and Big Ice excursions are for physically fit people. The age limits for Mini Trekking and Big Ice are 10 to 65 and 18 to 50 respectively. Mini Trekking is ideal for families with children and retirees. Big Ice is a longer and tougher trek using more advanced mountaineering techniques and therefore unsuitable for minors and older travelers. Do not plan on doing any ice trekking if you are pregnant, obese, physically handicapped, or otherwise impaired. It’s not safe and the mountain guides won’t let you proceed. You don’t need to be dressed for the Arctic to do these excursions. Just wear comfortable and warm clothes in layers with a water resistant windbreaker. If you have ski pants they are a great option. Hiking boots or sturdy sports shoes are fine, even better if they are waterproof. Do not wear rubber boots, après ski boots, or high heels; they are definite no-nos. Remember to bring sunglasses and sunscreen because the sun’s glare on the ice can be very intense. There are no restaurants or gift shops on the glacier so bring your own consumables like water, food, camera batteries, SD cards etc.
The Mini Trekking excursion begins at the Bajo de las Sombras port, where we embark on a short boat ride across the Brazo Rico branch of Lago Argentino lake, enjoying breathtaking views of the Perito Moreno glacier’s front walls. We disembark on the opposite shore, where specialized bilingual mountain guides welcome us and lead us to a small shelter. We are then split into small groups and assigned a guide who will lead us along the lake’s shore towards the edge of the glacier. Once on the glacier itself, the guides show us how to attach the crampons to our boots give a short class on their use. This is where the Mini Trekking really begins. The two hour ice hike that follows introduces us to the fascinating landscape of the glaciers: streams, small lagoons, gullies, crevasses and ice formations of the most incredible blues. The trekking is not too exerting or challenging. The ice surface we walk on is irregular, but firm and safe. The guides give short lectures about the regional flora and fauna as well as the inner workings of the Perito Moreno Glacier. There is a surprise at the end of the excursion.
The Big Ice excursion also begins at the “Bajo de las Sombras” port, with a short boat ride on Lago Argentino across the Perito Moreno glacier’s front walls. After checking gear and picking up a pair of crampons the group sets out on a hike along the glacier for about an hour and a half. Expert bilingual mountain guides will always lead they way, looking after our safety and teaching us the “ways of the ice.” Once we reach the access point to the glacier we put on torso harnesses and fit crampons to our footwear to start the ice trekking. You are now on an immense plateau of ice and the view is breathtaking. You will spend about four hours exploring the glacier’s blue lagoons, deep crevices, and magical ice caves where everything turns blue. The excursion ends with a 20 minute boat ride as close to the face of the glacier as possible. Big Ice is without a doubt one of the most spectacular ice-hikes in the world.