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The forth stop in our Patagonian tour was the city of El Calafate and we arrived at noon amongst a generalised party atmosphere. Every year, during mid-February, the National Celebration of the Lake is held with several sports and cultural events. This year, Luis Fonsi, Marco Antonio Solis, Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, Cristian Castro, La Beriso, Damas Gratis, Guasones, Kapanga, Karina, La Oreja de Van Gogh and Chaqueño Palavecino played live, among others. There was music for all tastes and it was evident that alcohol was not in short supply. In addition to the tourists that came from all over the world to visit Perito Moreno Glacier, thousands of Chileans crossed the Andes mountain range to attend the festival. The city was on the brink of collapse. When we arrived at the hostel, this became even more evident: queue to check-in, queue for using the toilet, queue for buying food, queue even for queuing…
We left our backpacks in a corner of the hostel and we walk away without the intention of returning until the night. We wanted to sail across Argentine Lake and across its interior branches to admire the glaciers from the water, but it was already too late to take the ferry tour, so we had to be content with walking in the walkways of the Los Glaciares National Park. You can also set foot in the glaciers and drink whiskey with glacier ice.
Moving around in the South of Argentina is expensive, but in El Calafate it is even more expensive. From the bus terminal to Los Glaciares National Park, the transportation costs $600 (return ticket) and there is no other option, since all the bus companies that operate that trip charge the same price.
While I was leaving downtown El Calafate, I realised Macarena, born in Río Gallegos and raised between El Calafate and El Chaltén, was right: the growth of El Calafate is overwhelming. The city is expanding on all sides, and there are buildings and houses under construction in almost every block. In 2001, 6,500 people lived in El Calafate; in 2010, the census counted 16,000 people; in 2014, there were already 21,000 locals; it is estimated that in 2020 more than 28,000 people will live here.
The bus to Los Glaciares National Park takes 45 minutes. In the journey, the road runs by the coast of the huge Argentine Lake, with its shiny turquoise and blue shades. The Patagonian estepp, full of calafates and thorny bushes, slowly begins its transformation into Andean-Patagonian forest, and the lengas, the ñires and the guindos start to dominate the landscape as temperature decreases. The Los Glaciares National Park has a surface of 726,927 hectares, and the admission fee costs $260 pesos for Argentines and $500 for foreigners.
Once we crosed the entrance to the national park, the road skirts the Brazo Rico (Rico Branch) of the Argentine Lake and icebergs start appearing floating in the water, telling us that we are close. Then, the revelation: from its hiding place emerges the impressive Perito Moreno Glacier. The third biggest glacier in Argentina (after Viedma Glacier and Upsala Glacier) has the same height as the obelisk and its surface is bigger than that of Buenos Aires. This colossal ice monster has the capacity of puzzling even the most incredulous.
When we got down to the walkways, we could appreciate from a close distance the size of this massif. The walkway circuits run throughout the front of the glacier, bordering the Canal de los Témpanos and, when we made it all the way down, we felt as if somebody would have left the door of the freezer open.
All of a sudden, the absolute calm was interrupted by a din that sounded like a lightening: a massive ice block falls to the water and the camera flashes light up the glacier. We looked at each other with Ángel, not possibly believing that the noise came from the glacier. Some minutes later, another noise, but this time it was more like a mountain lion roar: the interior of the glacier cracks down. And only then we realised the glacier is alive, that it moves, that rivers run through its interior and that its walls fall down and then they regenerate. And then another lightening, and then another roar.
The Los Glaciares National Park is located inside the Southern Patagonian Ice Field (shared between Argentina and Chile). This territory of eternal ice has an extension of 370 km from North to South, an average wide of 35 km and it has 48 main glaciers. Due to its position on this ice field, Perito Moreno Glacier remains relatively stable, but the two biggest glaciers in Argentina do not meet the same fate. In the last three years, Viedma Glacier retreated as much as in the previous 17 years.
Likewise, a study made by the scientist Pedro Skvarca helped probe that Upsala Glacier retreated more than 10 km in less than 50 years. Almost half of it was lost during the last decade.
This was the second time during the trip that I encountered concrete evidence of glaciers retreat (the first one had been in El Bolsón). Thus, I asked Maca, who lived her whole life surrounded by them, to tell me something about this process:
“We hear people speaking about global warming all the time and how that negatively affects the world. For those of us who were raised here, in this land surrounded by glaciers, this is something evident: glaciers are tremendously retreating, and due to that sad reason, in a few years, some activities such as walking on them have been prohibited. This happened with Laguna Torre Glacier and also with the huge Viedma Glacier, which is close to El Chaltén, since accessing the glacier became very dangerous.
The problem, as it was explained to me by a geologist friend, seems really simple to understand: combustion and contamination generate more and more Co2, and it forms a layer that works as insulation and prevent heat from exiting the atmosphere, so it returns to the Earth. According to experts, glaciers have retreated 10% and even 20% in just 20 years. At this rate, we will only have the pictures to show to our grandchildren. I truly believe each of us should actively assume his or her responsibility in taking care of the environment“.
All the one who have the economic capacity of visiting El Calafate should check out Perito Moreno Glacier as soon as possible: it may be the next victim of climate change.
This series continues in chapter 5.
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This post is also available in: Español