The Southern Patagonia ice field which stretches across both Chile and Argentina is the third largest in the world, after those found in Antarctica and Greenland, covering an area of almost 5,000 square miles.
About half of the ice field can be found in Argentina in the Parque Nacional Los Glaciares. Designated a UNESCO world heritage site in 1981, it contains more than 300 glaciers. Of these, its most famous and one of the largest and most spectacular is the Perito Merino Glacier.
The Perito Merino Glacier is 35 kilometres long, five kilometres wide and contains more than 60 metres of ice above the waterline. This constitutes only 10 per cent of the glacier’s depth. Another 600 metres of ice and rock exists below the waterline.
The glacier has become one of Argentina’s most visited tourist sites. Boats take hundreds of tourists each day to within a few hundred metres of the glacier’s solid ice wall .
You can also view the glacier at even closer range on tastefully constructed walkways which almost overlook this extraordinary phenomenon.
This national park also contains giant lakes and fjords, serviced by chartered boats navigating inland waterways dotted with icebergs to take tourists even deeper into the park where the views are rimmed by spectacular cliffs and mountain peaks.
Evolutionary biologist, naturalist and geologist Charles Darwin visited this place on his famous journey in the 1830’s, making many observations about the flora and fauna.
Over a hundred years ago pioneering settlers also came to this desolate, isolated but beautiful landscape attracted by huge land grants handed out by the Government in return for undertakings to raise sheep on giant plantations called haciendas at the height of the wool boom.
Deep in the park the ‘Estancia Christina’ was established in 1914 by Englishman Percival Masters and his wife Henrietta who lived here for the rest of their lives raising two children, Herbert and Christina.
Christina died young but Herbert worked the hacienda, which at its height had 14,000 sheep, until he died in 1984.
The shearing sheds and other buildings including a waterwheel constructed to bring water to the hacienda have been well preserved.
Before he died, Herbert married Janet, who originally cared for his ailing parents, so the estancia could remain in the family after it was decreed by Government that it would become part of the newly created National Park upon the death of the last family member. Janet passed in 1992.
The estancia now offers tours through a spectacular and isolated glaciated landscape, to view some of the most awesome glaciers and geological phenomena in the national park of which it is now a part.
These include the largest, the Uppsala glacier, named after Swedish scientists from Uppsala University who came to explore these extraordinary remnants from the ice age. Above and beyond the ice, colourful layers of rock from these glaciers are clearly visible all around, as are fossils formed over time.
In addition to scientists, polar explorers came here to acclimatise for polar journeys, and formed close bonds with its custodian Herbert Masters.
Today the original Christina boat, built using instructions from a Popular Mechanics magazine, lies rotting and isolated in a remote corner of the hacienda which is also named after Herbert’s sister.
But the extraordinary ice fields and glaciers, which have been here since the beginning of time, remain. They are now part of an incredible national park. The precious ice fields of Patagonia do what they have always done – acting as climate regulators – reflecting back light into the atmosphere and providing a huge fresh water resevoir for the planet.
Read: Ice Hiking in Argentina
All images by Ian Cross ©
By Ian Cross