Ice Ice Baby, or Adventures in El Calafate

After three weeks traveling around Chile that included some highlights as well as low lights, it was time to move on.  We boarded an early morning bus in Puerto Natales and rolled north towards Argentina.  As the miles passed, the mountainous landscape turned to rolling grasslands, with the occasional fox or guanaco trotting by.

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After a couple of hours we came to the border crossing, which consisted of only a few buildings seemingly in the middle of nowhere.  On the Chilean side, all of the bus passengers disembarked and we queued up to be stamped out of the country. 

According to some sources, Chile requires a certified birth certificate in order for children to leave the country.  We didn’t have these on hand so we were a tiny bit nervous that we (or at least the kids) would be denied permission to exit.  Fortunately the border guard was satisfied that we weren’t abducting our own children and we were allowed to exit with passports alone.

After all of us had our departure stamps, a guard raised a pole gate and we continued down a dirt road towards Argentina.

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After a few miles we reached the desolate Argentina border station where we repeated the process of disembarking and waiting our turn to be stamped into Argentina.

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A vista from our bus window.

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After another couple of hours we reached El Calafate.  We walked from the bus stop to our hostel then went for a walk on the main street.  Shortly we came across a gelato shop and of course had to stop.  We soon found that every gelato place in Argentina has at least three flavors incorporating dulce de leche.

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Further down the street, the kids stood in puzzled amazement of the artistic paint job on this van.

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Perito Moreno Glacier

The main draw for visitors to the area is the Perito Moreno Glacier, part of Los Glaciares National Park.  We drove to the park in a tiny rented car and upon catching a glimpse of the glacier we could immediately see why it is a star attraction (even on a cloudy day).

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The glacier flows from the Southern Patagonia Ice Field, which (if Wikipedia is to be believed) is the third largest reserve of fresh water on the planet.  The glacier is currently advancing, pushing forward at a rate of about 2 meters per day.

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The face of the glacier is at the meeting point of two lakes, and every few years the glacier pushes forward all the way across the channel, creating a dam between the two lakes.  When this happens the water rises on one side, eventually creating enough pressure for the water to form a tunnel under the ice dam.  As more and more water flows the tunnel gets larger and eventually collapses spectacularly.

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There was no tunnel during our visit but we did get to hear the ice cracking and groaning as it flowed. Even though it was a relatively warm day, the wind blowing over the glacier had the same effect as the original air conditioners and we were pretty chilly.

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The kids were beginning to get a little bored until finally a large chunk of ice split from the face of the glacier, creating a huge splash and a small tsunami.

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Here’s a video we took of a large chunk of ice calving off the glacier.  For some perspective, the wall of ice is approximately 40m (120 feet) tall.

We contemplated going out on the lake on one of the many sightseeing boats on offer, but we decided against it after observing that the metal walkway actually gets closer to the face of the glacier than the boats are allowed to go.

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Perito Moreno is a truly impressive sight and the park is very well done, with sturdy metal walkways and sign boards that taught us more about the glacier and the surrounding landscape.

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Glaciarium

Because we are home schooling the kids this year, we are always looking for educational opportunities.  The Glaciarium in El Calafate opened in 2011 and is devoted to the Patagonian Icefield and its glaciers, one of the few glaciological interpretative centers in the world.

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At the front of the museum, the boys were fascinated by the high-tech weather forecasting system.

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Inside, there were exhibits that described the formation and movement of glaciers.  There were also video exhibits on the ice bridge that forms at Perito Moreno.  The kids enjoyed a couple of fun interactive exhibits that were cute but not particularly educational in themselves.

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The final exhibit in the museum was a very stark doomsday-based video presentation on the dangers of global warming.  Scenes of baby seal clubbing, wars, and other distressing scenes flashed across the screens before a countdown timer ticked towards doomsday.  Our middle kiddo was rather terrified by the exhibit and made a beeline for the exit.

 

Playground Time

We were pleased to find several good playgrounds for kids around town.  One was right on the banks of Lago Argentino.  Being Patagonia, it was extremely windy but still a lot of fun.  In the lake, we could see a good variety of birds including flamingos.  

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Summing Up

We enjoyed our stay in El Calafate, and seeing the Perito Moreno glacier up close was a very memorable experience.  Going to the glacier and the museum provided some great educational opportunities for all of us.

Next time, we check out the north section of Los Glaciares National Park in El Chalten.

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