It took about 18 hours to get to Rio Gallegos (or it's alternative name 'the place where everyone changes buses and goes for a wee') then another 4 hours up to El Calafate and when we arrived it took a while to find a hostel that was within our price range. The entire town was full of healthy, mountaineering types standing around looking fit in trendy bars with lots of wood (the bars, not the mountaineers). Our hostel was on the hill overlooking Lago Argentino and we shared a dorm with three quite entertaining German guys.
We had to go on a tour to see the Perito Moreno Glacier because we didn't have time to rent a car but it turned out to be OK. Our guide was a park ranger so he kept stopping and pointing out interesting birds and trees and things.
The first glimpse of the glacier got everyone suitably excited but nothing could prepare us for the up close view of it from the first walkway. A low layer of cloud was hanging over the mountains, giving the scene an extra sense of other-worldliness. The glacier covers an area about 97 square miles and stretches from mountain to mountain like a huge polystyrene block. The blue hue comes from heavily compacted ice crystals and makes the glacier completely entrancing to look at. We walked around for hours just listening to it creaking and groaning and watching huge chunks of ice crash into the lake below. At one point it started snowing and a lot of people went back up to the visitor centre to get warm so we had a lot of the look out points to ourselves. It was bitterly cold, and at one point a girl passed out next to us; my utterly un-waterproof shoes were drenched but I really didn't care, we just wanted to spend as much time watching it as was possible.It's not really possible to explain in words the sheer size and scale of in words, or even the whole experience of being there. Reading this through just seems distinctly inadequate. Or maybe my vocabulary just can't deal with things like this!
We took a boat out up to see the south edge of the glacier to get a more up close look and we were lucky enough to see some massive pieces collapse when we were in the water. The wind had picked up and made it almost impossible to take photos with hands out of the jacket without going blue with cold. There were some really annoying tourists on the boat jostling to get a photo taken by a professional photographer in front of the glacier. It has always completely mystified me as to why anyone would want to spent an amazing experience like this facing the opposite way to the edge and shrieking every time the guy took a bad photo.
When we arrived back in El Calafate we booked our tickets up to El Chalten for one night and also down to Ushuaia. We had originally planned to take buses up from Ushuaia back to Buenos Aires but had found out about a cheap flight for 500 peso on a military airline so we booked that as well.