I will always remember the first time I laid eyes on the Perito Moreno glacier. I had seen a lot of glaciers by this point in my life and visiting the Perito Moreno seemed more like checking a box than anything else. After driving to the port, we boarded a boat and sailed off towards the front of the glacier. As we approached the glacier face that morning, on the teal waters of Lago Argentino, I remember thinking that this was unlike anything I had ever seen before. It was one of those moments when you see something that is a true testament to the raw natural power and beauty of Earth. One of those moments that reminds you that nature can be simultaneously beautiful and destructive; merciful and merciless. As the glacier loomed above us, it appeared a massive optical illusion - jagged, aquamarine ice swirled with whites and greys, rising 25 stories to the sky and stretching as far as the eye could see. Each thunderous crack, each chunk of ice - distant and unseen - that went crashing into the water below seemed to be the glacier's way of reminding us just how small we are in this world. It was a fine and fitting welcome to Patagonia.
There are a number of ways to experience the glaciers in Patagonia and there are a number of glaciers to explore. You can view them from platforms, from the air, and from the water. You can even walk upon them, passing by their yawning crevasses and wandering through tunnels made of ice. No matter which way you choose to explore these awe inspiring forces of nature I guarantee you will leave Patagonia with a new appreciation for the world around you.
1. By Foot
There are two main parks where hikers can get up close to some of Patagonia's most famous glaciers: Torres del Paine in Chile and Los Glaciares National Park in Argentina. For the intrepid hiker, a day trip (6-8 hours) will allow you to stand near some of the world's most impressive chunks of ice.
In Torres del Paine you can embark on the W Trek, a 4-6 day trek on which you'll ascend the Valle Frances to see the French Glacier which hangs dramatically above the valley. You'll also approach the Grey Glacier which you can choose to observe from afar or go ice trekking on. The same ice cap that feeds the Grey also fills the iconic Lago Grey which can be approached via kayak
The Los Glaciares National Park in Argentina is home to dozens of glaciers. El Calafate is considered the hub for many but for hikers El Chalten, which sits at the base of Mount Fitz Roy, is the most logical jumping off point. From this mountain town you can take day hikes to the Torre Glacier and Glaciar Grande. Combined with epic vistas of Mt Fitz Roy these hikes can't be topped
2. By Small Cruise
Many of Patagonia's glaciers are as remote as one would expect in this part of the world – the best way to access them is by water and there are a few ways to do this. The waters at the southernmost tip of Patagonia, The Magellan Straits and Tierra del Fuego, are aptly called "Glacier Alley". The Australis is a small, expedition style cruise that sails the Beagle Channel - the same one that Darwin sailed many years ago – from Punta Arenas to Ushuaia. The Australis gives you the chance to get up close to the glaciers on small zodiac boats, hike the infamous Cape Horn (weather permitting), and interact with friendly penguins.
3. By Kayak
Paddling just feet away from ice walls rising 60m + into the air is truly a once in a lifetime experience. In Torres del Paine the Grey Glacier offers day trips paddling around icebergs floating in the Lago Grey. Travelers can paddle towards the eastern side of the grey glacier and get up close and personal to the glacier itself. The glaciers of Tyndall, Serrano, and Balmaceda are further removed but offer the unique opportunity to see them via a 3 day kayak tour along the Serrano River. Argentina also offers kayaking on the Upsala Glacier. The Upsala Glacier is one of the most important in the National Park and the second largest in Argentina. Rising 60m above the lake it's famous worldwide for the sheer amount of ice that calves off the main body and ends up floating in the lake below. You paddle the Upsala channel of the Argentine lake which allows for safe touring in the vicinity of giant icebergs. If you're lucky, you might also see condors soaring high above your kayak.
4. Day Trips
Patagonia is known for its glaciers so its no surprise that there are a number of day trips to a variety of glaciers available to the Patagonian adventurer. In Torres del Paine, Glacier Grey is the most readily accessible of the glaciers. You can take a catamaran across the lake, paddle in a kayak, go ice trekking on the glacier, or observe it from numerous viewpoints from the trails within the park. Los Glaciares National Park offers the most accessible glacier viewing with the Perito Moreno and the Upsala. The Perito Moreno glacier is perhaps the most famous in all of Patagonia – known for its brilliant blue color, constantly calving ice hunks, and easy access from El Calafate. Visitors can choose to observe the glacier from a series of walkways, take a boat up to the face, or go ice walking on the glacier. The Upsala Glacier is actually larger than the Perito Moreno and can be visited from Estancia Cristina by guided hike or 4x4. Estancia Cristina is accessed from El Calafate by boat and can be done as a day trip or as an overnight.
Bonus: Glaciarium Museum in El Calafate. This museum in El Calafate is a wonderful stop for a free afternoon or morning in El Calafate. The Glaciarium is a modern center devoted to the Patagonian Icefield and its glaciers, one of the few glaciological interpretative centers in the world. Don't miss a stop at the Ice Bar which is underground and features ice walls, ice glasses, ice tables, and even ice couches.
5. Remote Glaciers by Air
For those who want to visit glaciers where there are no other visitors, and there have been few before them, the Aysen region is the spot for you. Located North of Torres del Paine the Aysen region of Patagonia is an undiscovered gem that's home to the Carretera Austral, the Glacier O'Higgins, and the second largest ice cap in the world outside the Arctic. O'Higgins is accessible by boat, foot, and air. Helicopters take off and land on the glacier, allowing you to walk on this incredible remote glacier. Flights above the ice cap are equally impressive.
6. Trekking on the Ice
Explore the mysterious and unique world of glaciers on foot – donning crampons and wandering through ice tunnels, seeing moulins from afar, and listening to the constant cracking and creaking of the shifting ice. There are a few options for ice trekking – the Viedma Glacier and the Perito Moreno. The Perito Moreno offers a few different options: minitrekking and Big Ice. They have strict age limits (65 for minitrekking and 50 for Big Ice). Minitrekking allows hikers 1.5 hours on the ice and Big Ice delves deeper into the glacier with 3 hours of trekking on ice.
Cross the lake by boat, don crampons, and head off to discover crevasses, ice pools, and even underground rivers. The Viedma Glacier, near El Chalten, offers a glacier walking experience as well. Unlike the Perito Moreno, there is no age limit for this excursion. Cross the lake, clamber onto the glacier, don crampons and head off on a 6 hr excursion on the ice. The Viedma is actually larger than the Perito Moreno and less visited allowing for a more intimate glacier trekking experience.
For a more detailed blog about choosing between the two check out our write up Glacier Trekking in Patagonia: Viedma vs Perito Moreno
* Interested in ice climbing, ask us about the Viedma pro adventure