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Dispatches From The Hinterlands of Patagonia

By Dan Moore
Published August 25, 2008

The Perito Moreno Glacier in southern Argentina is bucking the global warming trend. According to Argentine officials, this ancient, frozen leviathan is one of the only glaciers on the planet not in retreat. Granted, it’s also not advancing, but these days you can’t have everything.

The glacier is found in the Parque Nacional Los Glaciares—a vast nature preserve that stretches over 100 miles along the Chilean border. I reached it by bus from the small village of El Calafate, which hugs the southeastern edge of the milky blue Lago Argentino and subsists largely on tourism. One of the benefits of traveling the 50 miles or so from El Calafate is the stunning spectacle of glaciers and lakes that greet you as the bus approaches the park. The famed Patagonian wildlife is also on display, with massive condors gliding overhead and ostrich-like rheas scurrying over the steppe-like terrain.

After winding its way up treacherous mountain passes, the bus rounded a bend and halted before a gaping chasm, one end of which was blocked by the biggest wall of ice imaginable. It’s difficult to convey the sheer scale of this natural wonder photographs in guidebooks (or in this story) don’t do it justice, but I came closest to gaining some perspective when down on the lake far below us, a ferry put-putted into view. I knew for a fact that the boat was large—I was planning to join it later that day—and that it had  capacity of well over 100 passengers. But from up here, it might as well have been a speck of dust before the hulking glacier. I couldn’t even make out the people on board.

They were a couple of miles out along an icy face that never seemed to shrink in size, regardless of how far away it was. I clambered down a steep-decked walkway toward the bottom of the mountain, and after about half an hour I reached a small, fragile-looking wooden jetty just in time to board the ferry and head out onto the calm aquamarine waters. It was only when I was at water level that I could fully appreciate the size of this block of ice. It was a dazzling white monster that towered above our berth.

The ferry scudded along parallel to the 200-foot-high glassy face at what I felt was a little too much of a respectful distance. I was told that this was necessary, because from time to time, chunks of ice split from the body of the glacier and plunge into the lake. Big deal, I thought, until I heard a deafening crack and boom as a lump of ice the size of a large townhouse splintered away and hit the water below, only to re-emerge as another enormous turquoise iceberg.

Although the boat must have been a half mile from