Museum at Glaciarium Museum  ,Argentine Patagonia, Argentina , Courtesy Glaciarium Museum

Glaciarium Museum

Dedicated to the study of glaciers, this contemporary museum makes an excellent stop prior to visiting the area’s famed ice fields. Opened in 2011, the museum’s exhibits include models and photographs of the Patagonian Ice Fields as well as a 3D documentary and even an ice bar. Free transfers are offered from El Calafate, but the best way to visit is to stop en route from the airport to your lodge. Arrange ahead of time with your guide to include.

La Usina

Patagonia’s big mountains aren’t ideal for little kids. But families that want a bonding trip to the region before the tots get older can find ways to enjoy the natural setting in less adventurous ways. Plan an afternoon at La Usina, a rustic countryside restaurant set in a picturesque valley halfway between El Calafate and the Perito Moreno glacier. The restaurant is built into the ruins of an old mill and serves as a base for excursions such as mountain biking, easy walking, archery and horseback riding. When I visited, a young family was returning for an afternoon lunch after a morning spent on horses, shepherded by a real-life gaucho. The youngest child, who couldn’t have been more than five years old, sat comfortably on the same horse as his father, while his older sibling rode a smaller pony. The horses looked as calm as any parent could wish and the terrain gentle enough for young equestrians not entirely at ease in a saddle. I did not get a chance to try the food, but my guide said the restaurant is known for its traditional lamb roasts.

Glacier at Perito Moreno Glacier  , Argentine Patagonia, Argentina

Perito Moreno Glacier

Although the Southern Patagonian Ice Field feeds almost fifty glaciers, Perito Moreno is arguably the most famous. Located two hours from El Calafate, the glacier has gained popularity both for its accessibility and its status as one of only three Patagonian glaciers not retreating. Perito Moreno advances an average of two meters per day, and its face stretches five kilometers across Lago Argentina. The ice towers sixty meters above the water and reaches a depth of one hundred seventy meters below the surface.

Visitors arrive via car or bus (tip: avoid the large bus tours) and start their visit with a boat ride to a rustic visitor center where ice trekking excursions begin. Crampons and guides are required for both the two-hour mini-trekking walk and the more challenging “Big Ice” tour. Although these excursions are no longer done with private guides, it is well worth the frustration of a larger group to experience walking on an actual glacier. The trekking is challenging – not suitable for young children or the disabled – but it is safe, exciting and well within the abilities of anyone who has a basic level of physical fitness. Have your lodge pack a lunch to eat on the picnic tables near the visitor center after your morning trek.

Following the ice climb, your guide will drive you to the northern side of the glacier, where the park recently installed a circuit of wooden catwalks that offer unparalleled views of Perito Moreno. This is also the point from which 17,000 travelers gathered in March 2006 to watch a gigantic ice bridge rupture (YouTube videos of this phenomenon abound and are worth a watch). As the glacier advances, it eventually hits a series of cliffs that divide the two sides of Lago Argentina. The water level rises and the pressure eventually begins to chip away the underbelly of the ice, creating a soaring frozen arch attaching the glacier to the land. The collapse is truly spectacular.

Most visitors won’t get a chance to witness this phenomenon (it happens every few years and is impossible to predict), but everyone who comes to Perito Moreno will see the huge chunks of ice that calve as the glacier advances. Come armed with a camera and a quick trigger finger to catch this amazing sight on film.

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 Glacier at Upsala Glacier , Argentine Patagonia, Argentina

Upsala Glacier

Although Upsala isn’t as famous as Perito Moreno, it is actually a much larger glacier – at least for now. Upsala has recently gained notoriety as one of the fastest retreating glaciers, a phenomenon scientists attribute to global warming and environmental change. Once one South America’s largest glaciers, Upsala now shrinks at a rate of two hundred meters per year. Images of the valley showing the difference in ice cover over the years are truly shocking. The best way to visit Upsala is on the way to Estancia Cristina. The boat, which departs from Puerto Bandera, weaves through the hunks of ice that have broken off from Upsala to give guests an up-close look at the vanishing glacier. Guides at Cristina also lead hikes and horseback excursions to ridges that overlook the ice fields.

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