Back in May I went through a break-up with my girlfriend. My Mom was working overseas and she knew I was down in the dumps. I opened up my email to find two e-tickets dated 20-AUG-2011 to Chile with our names, a great gesture to cheer me up to say the least. As the following months passed, we spoke on the phone and via email about what we really wanted to do on our trip. After all of our research, we both agreed that most of all we wanted to trek to the top of Perito Moreno Glacier, chip some glacier ice, pour two shots of whiskey over the glacial ice and toast to another page in our lives.
On the 20th of August we arrived into Santiago, Chile’s international airport. We spent two days in the capital exploring the city, parks,
people, and restaurants. Next we took a three-hour bus to Valparaiso, to see Chile’s largest port city and visit the home of Chile’s Nobel Prize winning poet, Pablo Neruda. On the 22nd we took a
3000 km domestic flight to Punta Arenas, also known as the world’s southern-most city. Here, the temperatures averaged in the high 30’s, yet the sun shone brightly every day, voiding all annoyances of the frigid temperatures. Punta Arenas is also known as the gateway to Tierra del Fuego and the Straits of Magellan.
After three days of sightseeing in Punta Arenas, we rented a little 4-cylinder Chevy Optima to begin our journey to Perito Moreno Glacier just outside of Calafate, Argentina. The drive was said to take about ten hours through a good portion of Patagonia, plus one international border crossing. We picked the car up at about 11:30 a.m., and headed north on Route Nine. The car was making a really strange humming noise, but I thought it was maybe because the lady said the car had new tires. The first 70 km were straight, as straight as route 66 through the Arizona desert. In any direction I looked, I could see sheep
peppering the Patagonian flatlands for miles. I then knew why rack of lamb in Punta Arenas could be found at prices cheaper then a skirt steak. As we continued, the terrain began ascending into the hills and steps. With the small increase in altitude, the animal life also changed. Guanaco llamas inhabited the small rolling hills; they would graze along the road with no fear of traffic.
As the roads got curvier, the speed limit remained 100km/h. As I took a corner at about 120km/h, the car spun out, but luckily stayed on the road and avoided a ditch on one side and a cliff on the other. I pulled off to the side of the road to look over the car, only to find that the tires were studded. Hence the humming noise and lack of control. Studded tires and concrete roads do not mix well. You’d think the lady at Avis would have mentioned this to me. Or maybe she did, or maybe my Spanish is rusty, or maybe I should have looked at the tires more thoroughly. The route then took us up another 1500 feet in elevation onto a snow-covered plateau. The sheep were still visible in great numbers, yet they flocked together to stay warm. Horses, geese, and shepards and their sheep were seen all along Route 9.
As the plateau ended, we began descending into the valley of Puerto Natales. We stopped into a supermarket to pick up some sandwiches, a bottle of whiskey, and two glasses, for the next day’s excursion. We gassed up and headed out towards the Argentine border. About an hour outside of Puerto Natales the sun was beginning to set behind the Andes. The bright warm sun contrasted the dark snow capped mountains with the brown grass of the flatlands in the foreground.
Both of us were really tired, yet energized at the same time feeling so so blessed to be experiencing Patagonia together.
At about 6pm we arrived at a little general store in Cerro Castillo. It was one of only five dark wooden weather beaten buildings in the tiny village. Not one person wandered the streets, but there was one other vehicle parked outside of the store. We decided to stop in to ask for directions to the border crossing. There was a catholic nun and her daughter working the counter. I asked where the border crossing was and the blonde haired daughter pointed out the window behind her shop. There was a dirt road with a single rusty metal bar blocking the “border control point.” “Drive up to the gate and ring the bell.” She said in Spanish. We drove up to the gate and there was a small cinder block building off to the left of the dirt road. We walked in and there were two windows (immigration, and customs). We had our passports stamped out of Chile, and they reviewed our paperwork to ensure we had permission to drive our rental car out of the country. Next, the customs officer opened the gate and told us to continue down the dirt road seven kilometers to the Argentine border control point. After about four kilometers we came to a “Welcome to Argentina” sign. Mom started clapping and cheering, “Take my picture by the sign!”
Just around the corner was Argentina’s border control point. This one consisted of a chain pulled across the road with a padlock and a small white building, which was beginning to dilapidate as the mortar eroded and stuckle fell showing the red brick foundation. We entered this building to find two Argentine police officers wearing green army looking fatigues sitting in the dark behind their desks. I asked if they were open and they laughed. They explained that their generator was broken as usual, but were thanking the Lord that they still had propane to heat their shack. The customs officer passed me back our passports and asked me to read the numbers to him,(what trust I thought) he said his eyes weren’t so good after years of trying to read in the dark. We completed a simple immigration form and had our passports stamped. This was certainly the easiest and most rural/rustic border crossing I have ever encountered. We were probably the only two to pass through this border for the entire day.
We drove into Argentina down a dirt road, and another 300 km through the night until we reached Calafate. Late that night, we checked into a cheap yet clean hotel on a hill overlooking the village lights. At about 11:30 p.m., we unpacked our bags and went to sleep.
At 7:00 a.m. we were awoken, and put on our long underwear and warm clothes. We were supposed to have a 6 a.m. wake up call but they were an hour late. We didn’t bother asking the front desk why because it would do no good. We hurried to get ready and have breakfast. In the lobby we found the breakfast to consist of a light pink thin strawberry yogurt that could be sipped from a glass,
and a pot of rich concentrated coffee that was ready to be mixed with warm whole milk. There were also small loaves of French baguettes, but we were in such a hurry that we did the yogurt and coffee. Next we headed down the road to the tour office (Hielo y Aventura). At the office we purchased our tickets. Shortly after that, we boarded a 40-foot Brazilian made Camil bus, it was a new and modern bus, but the heater was broken. At 735 in the morning the Patagonian temperatures are around 25 degrees Fahrenheit making the comfort irrelevant. The bus took us outside of the village of Calafate and towards Los Glaciares National Park. About an hour and a half later we arrived at the park entrance and checked in with the park rangers. Another 30 minutes into the park and we stopped at a “mirador” or lookout.
After stepping off the bus we caught our first glimpse of the glacier. The enormous glowing baby blue iridescent mass was truly incredible. We had seen pictures prior to the trip, but, like the Grand Canyon, pictures do not do Perito Moreno Glacier justice. The glacier is surrounded by snow capped mountains, and Lake Brazo Rico in the foreground. We had a cigarette, and took a few pictures while soaking up the views. We then took the bus down to the lake where we boarded a ferry to cross the lake.
The ferry circled the face of the glacier, though at a safe distance.
The terminus of the glacier is 3 miles, dwarfing us and everything in site but the mountains and sky. We watched as glowing blue icebergs floated past the vessel. The ferry dropped us off at a rickety dock on the opposite side of the lake. We debarked and met up with our guide “Diego.” He was a short; light skinned, early 40’s, partly balding man of Spanish origin. He had been trekking on Perito Moreno for 13 years and knew just about anything we asked; yet he still had a sense of humor. Mom, a kid from South Korea named Moon, and I were the only three in our group. The other group consisted of about 13 people, all Spanish speakers. We got a little better lesson and care being that Diego was the only English-speaking guide. We received a briefing and rough itinerary before breaking for lunch. Diego liked to mention in a joking manner, and quite frequently all of the things that we could do while on the glacier that could kill us, or in his words “Don’t to this or you will die.” (With a thick Argentine accent of course)
No food is served in the park, so knowing this Mom and I brought a couple of sandwiches with Chilean beets and vegetables that we bought in Puerto Natales the day before. While eating lunch, we noticed that we had forgotten the bottle of whisky and glasses we purchased the day prior. We were in such a hurry due to the late wake up call that we left the bottle and glasses in the truck of our little rental car. We were a little disappointed, but looking out at the glacier we still felt blessed to be able to be “here and now.” After lunch we hiked through the woods with Diego and Moon and the other group until we came to the start of the glacier. We sat down and were sized up with ice cleats or “crampons”. At this point we were given specific safety instructions (as specific as Diego’s Spanish allowed) on the manner of trekking, where to step, where not to step, etc. Listen to what I say, “or you will die.” Diego said with a smile.
Once our ice cleats were fastened we stepped from the rocky shores of Lake Brazo Rico, and onto Perito Moreno Glacier.
The cleats bit deep into the ice giving us confidence early on. The first hour of trekking consisted of steep inclines. The pamphlet said anybody 65 and under could easily complete this level of trek. Before arriving, I assumed it would be just that easy, but Mom and I definitely had to work to make our way to the top of Perito Moreno. Diego stopped frequently to chisel steps into the ice where the inclines were too great for cleats. Also at times we would stop to see ice caves and crevices that were deeper blues with wavier surfaces.
We were told not to get too close to the crevices, because we could slip and fall deep into them “and die.” After several hours of hiking, we were about to head back to our point of origin when Diego suggested we go to one last spot, he said it was a special view. Mom looked tired, and I felt tired, we looked at each other reluctantly, and agreed that we only live once, so lets do it. Moon, had no clue what was going on so Diego left it up to us. We pressed on and began climbing another incline of the glacier.
The incline curved around and up and we could see the tip of some deep blue jagged peaks of the glacier. It definitely looked beautiful, but we kept going and rounded the corner and up another incline to find a table set up with cookies, a bottle of Jameson Irish Whiskey, and glasses. Diego said, “Surprise how do you like the view?” Mom and I looked at each other and smiled. We couldn’t believe what we were seeing, both giving thanks to such a blessing. Diego took a stainless steel bowl and began chipping away ice from the glacier with his pick. He filled the glasses with glacial ice, poured a shot of whiskey into each of the glasses, and handed us each one. Mom and I climbed a few feet higher; we looked at each other and smiled again.
“Here’s to another page in our lives.”
Edited by: Heidi Gregory (La Mejor Prima)