On the drive from the airport to the hostel, the taxi driver (who says he only speaks a little English) gives us a running commentary of the area around us in perfect English. He tells us that El Calafate sits at the same southern latitude as London does to the north. He is even able to predict with perfect timing when we are going to get a view of Lago Argentino around a mountain, or a view of the town itself. He chats on and then tells us he only provides these guides for the big tip we will give!
We are staying at Lagos Argentino Hostel which is painted magenta and blue with bright orange curtains and green lettering. Our double en-suite is set in a garden across the road from the main block that contains lots of bright coloured plants and flowers. Its a welcome colour explosion! The town is fairly small and is set on the edge of a lake and quite picturesque. The town caters to hikers and tourists so has many tacky gift shops and over-priced 'outdoor' shops. 50 quid for a flask!!! This is a major hub for visiting the Parque Nacional Los Glaciers, however, the huge tourist information centre at the bus station has few English speakers so communication is a little stilted as we try and book tours and onwards bus journeys.
A bus picks us up at 7am just as dawn is breaking and we head down to the lake to catch a boat out to the Estancia Cristina (an old ranch built by a Brit - but more of that later). The boat holds about 200 passengers with camera's ready jostling around waiting to catch a glimpse of an iceberg. We get very excited as we spot one in the distance and snap away from all angles. Another 20 minutes further on and we are suddenly surrounded by the most beautiful scene of glistening blue and white icebergs floating around us, making the previous one seem a little insignificant. It really is a sight to behold and we need to stop snapping away to actually just look and appreciate it for a while. Many of the icebergs have a deep blue crystal (meth) clarity. They are breaking (bad) off from the glacier Upsala which sits at 60km long and at it's widest at 4km. The purest blue bergs are called Heisenbergs. The blue hue is all due to air bubbles and wavelengths and it is that colour due to the fact that blue can penetrate deeper than any of the other primary colours. The more compact the ice the longer the path of light has to travel and the bluer ice appears (in a nut shell). We are not able to get close to the glacier itself, but we can see it snaking its way down the valley in front of us. Continuing on and leaving the icebergs behind we continue until we reach the edge of the lake where the Estancia Cristina is based. We are divided into groups and our group are sent straight to lunch. We had opted to take our own picnic rather than spend 50 pounds on their set lunch (did we mention Argentina can be so expensive). We were then escorted by Ricardo, our guide, to see the grounds of the Estancia. Built in 1914 by a British man it is set in a valley amongst the Patagonian ice fields and the only accessibility is by boat. It is beautiful, yet so ridiculously remote from anywhere. We walk down to the river by a hand built watermill. Wild horses are in the water and a new addition to the estacion is following us everywhere - a wild foal nudging us along trying to get in on the action. The small museum gives a glimpse of hard life for the family who lived there for almost 90 years. The ranch is named after the founder's daughter who died of fever shortly after the family settled there. The last surviving member, Janet, who married the eldest son when they were both in their eighties, lived alone there for the last three years of her life with hardly any human contact. On her death the estate passed to the national park and is now a hotel let on a 10 year concession - unfortanately Janet and the eldest son did not produce offspring to carry on with the farm!
We then board a 4x4 and drive up into the surrounding hills on a dirt road. We are thrown all over the place as we bump over rocks and ruts on the dirt road but the views are stunning. Stopping at the top we then hike for about twenty minutes past multi-coloured rock that looks like an artist's colour palette and a section of it like the rusting hull of a ship buried within. As we reach the peak we look down onto a huge turqouise lake 100 metres below and three glaciers sitting in the mountain valley's opposite. Ricardo shows us a photo taken in 1928 when the glacier was a single huge one and was at the same level on where we stood. Amazing. He informs us that the this is a natural cycle of deglacification and in 500 years there might not be any glaciers on earth and that global warming has an insignificant part to play. The turquoise colour of the lake is due to the glacial sediment which stays suspended in the water and defracts the sun's light. The sun is shining and just a few odd UFO shaped clouds are in the sky. It's a breathtaking view and would be enjoyed so much more if only there weren't another thirty-odd tourists there shouting above each other in various languages and getting in the way of the perfect photo opportunity.
About 70 km outside the town sits the imposing Perito Moreno Glacier. A well maintained series of balconies and walkways are built in to the side of the hill opposite and give fantastic close up views of this magnificent bulk of ice that is up to 60 m high (30km long and 5km wide). The top of the glacier shows deep fissures in blue and white due to the movement of this weighty giant that has been there for millenia. Not only is it exceptional to look at but it is exceptional in the fact that it advances up to 2m per day causing cathederals of ice to shear off the face and crash into the lake below. Chunks of ice lay at the bottom as evidence of this. It is as much an audible experience as visual as you hear the movement of the ice creaking and groaning. Occasionally there is a cacophany of popping sounds like firecrackers that inevitably lead to a chunk of ice breaking away. It really is nature at its best. It's another beautiful day and after standing watching for some time we were lucky enough to experience a huge chunk at the centrepiece of this wall of ice tear away and plummet into the milky lake. It was an overwhelming sight and Steve's quick reaction with the camera meant we got some amazing shots as it was happening. Truly an awesome, somehow, mesmorising experience!
As Steve has man-flu we have a few quiet days around town but get out to visit the lake at sunrise (ish!) and see the flamingos, go to the Glacarium to learn more about these magnificent glaciers and spend time planning the days ahead.
We cook most nights in the big kitchen at the hostel accompanied by our delicious 3 quid bottle of Malbec and get chatting to a few people including one girl who is cycling her way from the southern most tip of Argentina to the north of Chile and maybe onwards to Buenos Aires. She shared her cup of mate with me - a very bitter local tea that has countless health properties so of course tastes vile.
We go to the bus station in the morning where the many stray dogs tend to hang out. Usually quite placid, this morning they are snarling and fighting with each other right where everyone is standing. After almost boarding the wrong bus we join the one for El Chalten, our next destination. The bus is fairly comfortable with a glorified slush bucket as a toilet and the usual windscreen with the many cracks and chunks missing. It's a lovely scene, however, watching the colour in the hills change with the rising sun.