¡Hola a todos!
A word of warning: this is the second of my blog entries added today and so, although it will appear first on my blog-page, there is an earlier post for those eager creatures among you who wish to read every choice refrain, every pointed remark, of this saturated, verbose literary beast.
My flight south to El Calafate passed uneventfully and blissfully quickly with me now happily plugged in to my music from home (thank you Emily!). The transfer from the airport to my hostel was, however, anything but a trip barren of comment. I found myself in a rather surreal, dusty landscape, far, far removed from the big city I had left behind mere hours before. El Calafate sits beside Lago Argentino, the second largest body of water in South America, yet the surrounding area is arid, barren but for a few hardy shrubs, reminiscent of a bizarre cross between a desert scene and the lunar landscape, on account of the sheer scale of emptiness that the Argentine Patagonia is able to conjure. The bus transfer took fifteen minutes and we passed nothing, nothing in that time, bar telegraph poles and the occasional religious shrine to Jesus or Mary, itself a strange sight due to the lifeless setting in which such monuments sat. The town itself is equally bizarre, some discomforting mix between a gold-prospecting, frontier town in the US mid-west and a European alpine community, replete with matching exorbitant tourist prices. Still, I found the town strangely endearing and the lake itself is beautiful: upon taking a stroll along a tiny fraction of its edge nostalgic images were conjured in my mind of the beach at St. Augustine, or Kitty and Skipper's gorgeous lake-house - all that remained absent was 'The Beachcomber' and, of course, the wonderful company of close family and friends.
The reason for El Calafate's rise, from backwater non-entity to touristic hot-spot, is - singularly - the fantastic, awesome interactive display produced by the Perito Moreno glacier, lying 70km west of the town in one of Argentina's national parks. Indeed, this glacier, which adorns the cover of more than one guide-book to Argentina, is the sole reason for my travelling so far south and to El Calafate specifically. Monica and I rose early upon our sole full day in the town and took an inclusive tour to the glacier that lasted the whole day. Upon arrival at the park, a little cheeky propositioning led to the discovery that with our language school ID cards (active for one year) we were both eligible for paying the Argentine resident rate; thus it was that we paid six pesos each for entry to the park, as opposed to the SIXTY pesos charged of all foreigners. I liked the place immediately.
There followed ten minutes of sweeping, wooded scenery, interspersed with tantalizing glimpses of Lago Argentino, before finally, magnificently, majestically, the glacier itself rose into jaw-dropping view. I spoke in my last post of the implication of hierarchy being imposed upon my experiences in Argentina thus-far and even earlier, when detailing my trip to see the Iguazu Falls, of the inherent virtue of my describing an event after time and reflection have rendered a more complete, appreciative picture of an experience in my mind. These issues are apparent once again in this description. At the time, in the moment, the Moreno glacier was simply to stunning to take in completely. I am relieved to say that, with time, I have been able to absorb much more of the phenomenal, unique beauty and inspiration connoted by the scene. The glacier sweeps down from its origin in the Andean peaks, to crash into Lago Argentino below. From here, the glacier is engaged in a titanic struggle with the water, as it tries to bridge the lake and fall upon a peninsula of land-mass lying directly opposite and forming a thin bottle-neck in the lake's body. In order to be successful, the glacier must necessarily partition the lake's waters into two separate bodies, something that the glacier has indeed achieved at various intervals over the past hundred years or so that official human records has been kept. Keen eyes will have already noticed the crucial word, 'various'. For the glacier to ford the lake - the second largest body of water in all South America, remember - is a monumental effort. Once separated, the two bodies of water each begin to build behind the glacial dam, exerting ever-increasing pressure upon the icy structure. Eventually, be it after only a few minutes or a few days, the fragile ice dam is - inevitably - broken by the heightened pressure. At first, water leaks through low down the dam, where water mass, and therefore pressure, is greatest. This hole is swiftly enlarged by the torrent of water flowing through it until the dam has been sculpted into an ice bridge, high above the swirling glacial waters. Once this happens, it is simply a matter of time before gravity takes its toll and the bridge collapses, deafeningly, awe-inspiringly, into the water below. These 'ruptures' occur roughly ever twenty years or so; the last and also the biggest catalogued so far occurred in April 2004 - the resultant explosion of sound as the ice hit the water, amplified by the natural valley that Lago Argentino has carved over the past centuries, was so large as to have reputedly been heard in El Calafate, 70km east!
Sadly, no such phenomenon took place during my visit, although sections of ice did indeed break away from the ever-eroding ice-face, to fall (seemingly deafeningly) into the electron blue below, wondrous experiences in themselves. Again, even without witnessing these 'mini ruptures', the glacier is a brilliant sight. It formed thousands of years ago, when snow falling on the Andean peaks froze, solidifying to ice. This ice, much heavier than the previous snow, was compacted under the pressure of its own weight, over many years, until eventually, gravity began to tear away the excess, pulling compacted ice, irresistibly, down the mountainside, like a giant, frozen river. At the base of the glacial ice-mass the temperature is warmer, where the ice is in contact with the much warmer earth. Here, melting ice mixes with dirt and rocks to form a lubricating compound that helps the glacier to travel downwards ever more quickly. In time, the ice reached the water of Lago Argentino and began to push back some water, freezing the rest and growing out into the lake. Even today, here near its current edge, in what is known as the ablation zone, the ice creeps forward, making Moreno even more special as one of the world's few growing glaciers. Indeed, it is one of only two glaciers currently growing rather than retracting in South America and the only that is easily viewable. At its edge, the ice pushes forward an incredible 2m per day and its ice-face, rising ominously, towering from the lake's waters and directly opposite the viewing platforms, stands 50m high in places. Even without any ruptures, the glacier interacts with its visitors, constantly speaking to them as its mass moves, imperceptibly though loudly, groaning and clanking in its restlessness. The scene is magical and I spent all of the allotted two hours taking in the views from the various visitor stations along the opposing peninsula that the glacier yearns so much to meet with again. It is impossible to compare of course but, I feel incredibly fortunate to have been able to visit Iguazu and Moreno and within such temporal proximity as well - they are truly awesome spectacles.
After drinking our visual fill, Monica and I, along with the rest of our party, embarked upon a ship and crossed the channel to the land directly touching the edge of the glacier. From here we walked with guides, who explained a little of glacial terminology and theory to us, until we stood at the very edge of the glacier. At this point, crampons were donned and we trekked onto the glacier itself, a superbly surreal experience. It took me many minutes to grow sufficiently in confidence so as not to feel in imminent danger of slipping as every sign of a slight incline or decline in the ice. The gambolling, cavorting nature of our guides did little to encourage me initially but, in time, I too attempted a short run and the occasional jump from ice-rock to ice-rock. The glacier, up close, was even more impressive, with picturesque though potentially deadly ice wells carved by melting rivulets of water and sweeping crags towering above us, at times blocking out the late afternoon sun. Eventually, after twenty minutes or so of trekking, we reached, of all things, a wooden table and matching casket, tucked away in a valley of ice. Here, using their ice-picks to collect the vital, bountiful ingredient, our good-natured guides served up whiskey on the rocks along with jorgitos (biscuits sandwiching a sweet caramel filling and covered in chocolate). A lovely, memorable touch, although I was of course sensible with my consumption - I only refilled my glass once, I think…
We retraced our steps back across the ice, through an enchanting wood to our boat and then headed back to El Calafate, fleeing the sinking sun and the natural paradox that is the Perito Moreno glacier, in part tremendously loud, physically arresting natural phenomenon, in part deeply moving, yet strangely harmonizing, visual feast. At the risk of sounding repetitious, it has been another memorable, magical experience and, again, one that seems certain to grow in stature in my mind over time.
¡Abrazos y besos!