Glaciar Sur Pioneros - an awesome Perito Moreno Experience.
There are many ways to experience the Perito Moreno Glacier. The most common is a small group or private sightseeing tour to the walkways overlooking the glacier, perhaps with the optional extra of the Safari Nautico - a one hour boat trip on a large 200 person boat that gets you close to the south wall.
Then there is trekking on the glacier - the Minitrekking or the tougher Big Ice excursion are both popular tours for the active and adventurous. Another popular option is to take one the two full day boat tours that include the Perito Moreno - the Southern Spirit or the Gourmet Glaciers by Marpatag, both offer time at the walkways as well as a chance to see other parts of Lake Argentino and stretch the legs.
They all have something to offer, and of course all have elements that make them ideally suited to some guests, but not right for others.
But there is also a relatively new kid on the block, and H&T was down in Calafate last week checking it out - the Glaciar Sur Pioneros tour. To be honest, we loved it. The day incorporates many different elements that make it a varied and interesting - in the morning we learnt about the history of the old Patagonian ranches, then we had a killer lamb barbecue at Nibepo Aike, before a trip on a small motorboat, and a light hike in an otherwise unvisited part of the park, then a visit to the south wall (back on the boat), and finally a visit to the main walkways late in the afternoon when - crucially - most of the tourists have long since left the park. Fantastic.
The day started at a very civilised 9 am (many tours start much earlier) when the guide, Pablo, came to pick us up in a very well maintained Hyundai H1 driven by Sebastian. With just two others joining us (and an absolute maximum of 8 or 10 but this is very rare), this is truly a small group tour.
We started by taking the old route 15 to the Brazo Sur, Lake Roca and Estancia Nibepo Aike. This is an hour and a half on a dirt road, but this is Patagonia - if you want to get away form the crowds, you need to get on the bumpy roads!
The scenery is excellent - the ruta 15 is higher up the valley floor than the new road, and this offers better views, even allowing a distant sighting of the Perito Moreno glacier, an early, unexpected treat. Pablo's local intel was also of the highest order, as he spoke about the ranches - or estancias - that we passed along the way, and told us about the guacho's way of life in this part of the world. Especially interesting was the history of the Patagonia Rebelde uprising, a tragic and bloody part of El Calafate's history that many visitors to the region never hear about.
As the Perito Moreno glacier came into view the wildlife also came out to play as a group of 4 Andean condors swooped down unusually low to show off above us. Breathtaking.
On arrival at Nibepo Aike, we joined a group of around 15 day trippers to the ranch to watch the sheep shearing demonstration, using the traditional scissor method, before adjourning to the quincho (barbecue house) for a delicious lamb barbecue with bread and salads, all washed down with plenty of basic but tasty malbec.
After lunch, we reverted back to being our small band of 4, plus Pablo. Our driver Sebastian left us at a simple jetty on the lake and headed off to meet us again on the other side of the lake at Puerto de las Sombras.
We then had a bumpy crossing of around 20 minutes before we disembarked in a little visited area of the park - the shore opposite Puerto de las Sombras, for a pleasant 20 minute walk across the peninsula to meet the boat again. Here we could begin to see the size of the Moreno glacier as the south wall came into full view. Wow. Over 2 thousand people a day visit the park in high season, yet just a small handful visit this area and get this view - we felt truly privileged.
Once back on the boat, it was a short and much smoother trip to the south wall. This is the same side of the glacier that you would see if taking the Safari Nautico on the standard sightseeing tour, but we were on a much smaller boat, making the glacier appear even larger. For obvious safety reasons and local regulations, we were not allowed any closer than 300 metres away from the wall, but over water, distances can be hard to gauge and it felt like we were closer. The sheer size of the wall of ice is best appreciated from water level, so this was a real highlight being so close in a small boat.
Of course we then had to have a whiskey with some millennial ice... a bit corny but sometimes the corny things just have to be done!
Finally, we docked at Puerto de las Sombras where Sebastian was waiting to take us to the walkways, where we had an hour to wander and marvel at the glacier from above. We got there at 5 pm, by which time most of the tourists had left, which makes a huge difference to the experience. From there it is an hour back to El Calafate on the new, paved road, arriving around 7 pm.
All in all, H&T was extremely impressed by the whole experience - the guide, the lunch, the walk, the views, the wildlife were all amazing, and the logistics ran like clockwork. Yes, it is more expensive than the standard shared tour, of course the lunch at Nibepo Aike, and logistics of a small group including a private boat trip make it much more expensive to operate, but the price is comparable to a basic private sightseeing tour, and this offers a much more complete exploration of the National Park in an ultra small group dynamic.
Here is a rather grainy map of the route:
There is also an alternative tour called Glaciar Sur Adventure. This second tour is also highly recommended, but does not visit Nibepo Aike or the Perito Moreno glacier. It is ideal for a second, more active day, and offers the chance to visit a very remote corner of the park down near the Chilean border. The trip crosses Lago Frías, at the end of the Southern Arm of the Lake Argentino an involves around 5 hours / 14 km trekking, and includes a packed lunch.