Even independent travelers find themselves on tours now and again. Some sites are just too difficult to reach with a limited amount of time, and having a good guide can turn a touristy excursion into an adventure experience. I’ve been on quite a few over the years and most have been just fine, some haven’t been worth it, but a few, a few have been outstanding.
The Perito Moreno “Big Ice” glacier trek got raving reviews on-line. Folks who went looked on at the so-called “Mini-Trekking” in disdain, writing that surely those folks had wasted their money on a brief, touristy, walk with camera-toting, just-off-the-bus seniors, while “Big Ice” really got out there on the glacier, like Francisco Moreno himself. Frankly, aside from the extra five and a half hours of walking really fast on the glacier I don’t see what the difference was.
One of the biggest factors separating a good from a bad tour is how many people are there with you. Of course, you have little control, and likely less knowledge, of how many will be joining you when you book, but the fact is, your guides, no matter how interested they are in explaining the details of glacier walking or telling humorous, historically relevant, stories, won’t have enough time if they’re forced to manage twenty would-be adventurers. My Big Ice experience certainly suffered from numbers. We were broken up based on language (Spanish and English speaking) and then further to manageable groups of 15 and 18 people before we set out, but that still meant a long column of people marching along a windy, maybe occasionally dangerous, ice-sheet. It’s difficult for even an attentive guide to say much about it when you’re trying to make sure no one turns an ankle on a crampon or slips into a crevasse.
I could see Mini-Trekking folks as they walked in a circle around ice at the foot of the glacier. To get there, they had to hike a few hundred meters from the boats across Lago Rico. They put on crampons and harnesses and visited little streams, sink holes and other features of the ice. They returned on a short path through the forest to the boats which take them to the other side to view the glacier from balconies at the Parque Nacional Los Glacieres visitor center.
People on Big Ice are no weaklings. Booking agencies will insist you must be physically fit to participate, and will check out your gear before they allow you to come along. They’ll discourage you from selecting Big Ice, warning that it’s difficult and they wouldn’t do it themselves. In Big Ice, we visited the balconies first, to see the foot of the glacier which moves up to 2 m per day, and get a taste of what our adventure would be like. We then take a boat across Lago Rico and the guides will ask if we have proper gear, offering boots are jackets to those that didn’t bring adequate clothes. (Did you catch that? A couple of folks on our trek had no rain jackets and canvas shoes. So much for checking ahead, but OK, the guides had their back.) We’ll hike not just a few hundred meters, but several hundred, maybe even a kilometer, (passed a waterfall) to a tent where we put on our harnesses and receive our crampons. Then it’s down to the ice where we’ll walk <em>fast</em> for about three kilometers, stepping over little streams, sink holes and other features of the ice and finally stop to have the lunch we packed out there on the ice. In the distance we’ll see < ;a href=seracs and we’ll hear about nunataks. Then we’ll march back 3 more kms to the foot of the glacier (passed those losers on the mini-trekking) and relax, waiting for the boat to take us back while hoping for one more opportunity to see a giant chunk of ice calve off the glacier (no luck).
I don’t know if you noticed the difference between Mini-Trekking and Big Ice; I mentioned it above: about five more kilometers on the glacier and it’ll cost you an extra $80 (USD). The guides did lead us very fast which would make the trek a challenge for a real couch potato, and we did get views of the ice impossible for the mini-trekkers (it’s really big, and mostly white), but essentially, everything you could learn and experience on Big Ice, you could learn and experience with Mini-Trekking. How was our tour less “touristy” I wondered? Wasn’t there also a chatty group of college students, woefully unprepared for the journey and almost equally uninterested? (How a young woman in cotton leggings wasn’t freezing in the wind and rain that morning, I’ll never know.) Our guides, perhaps taking a clue from the group of students, simply marched us out and back, making sure to keep us safe, but saying little and taking little time to point out or explain any features of the ice. They readily answered any question posed to them, if you could catch up with one, but seemed little motivated to offer anything on their own. I had read the Wikipedia page on glaciers the night before, so I had some ideas of what to ask; no one else seemed to. So, on we marched, crunch, crunch, crunch, in a meandering line around the crevasses. And that’s pretty much it.
The tour could have been so much more. Perhaps we could have heard about the challenges of glacier travel. Maybe roped up and experienced a canned version of how to be safe (if this had been a real adventure). Or we could have discovered a few ice phenomena and learned how these formed and why they are important. Little of this was offered, and because, for some reason we had this big distance to cover, we all felt about as rushed as the mini-trekkers must have, with little time even to snap a picture.
It’s no surprise everyone loves Big Ice. Perito Moreno Glacier is about as close as we regular humans will ever get to such an enormous, beautiful, amazing phenomenon as this. Big Ice gives you the chance to spend more time than anything else you can book, especially if the only thing you have time for in southern Patagonia is El Calafate, but whether it’s really that much better than the “touristy” Mini-Trekking? I’m not so sure. Maybe it depends on your guides, the weather, who’s on your tour, whatever, but certainly nothing about the actual design of our tour was meant to be anything other than shipping tourists out to the sites. The glacier is amazing though!
770 Argentine Pesos + 100 park entrance fee. Lunch not included.
Hielo y Aventura