El Calafate

Upsala Glacier kayak tour (Patagonia)

We went on a kayaking excursion near Upsala Glacier on our first full day in Calafate. Kayaking next to icebergs is something special. 

We were picked up by the kayak tour company at our hotel sometime before 8am. I mentioned this in a prior post, but the biggest upside to staying at a hotel on the western perimeter of the town is that we were one of the last to be picked up and one of the first to be dropped off.

Less time on buses is always a good thing.

Our kayaking group consisted of 15 people, including the driver and guides. It was much smaller than our Perito Moreno Glacier mini trekking tour we did the following day.

The drive from the hotel to the ferry dock on the southern shore of Lago Argentino was about 40 minutes. Upon arriving at the ferry dock, the guides shuffled us past ~100 people waiting to board a cruise boat to take them to Perito Moreno Glacier. 

Our group boarded a huge boat that would be our home for the next four hours, each way!

The boat traveled extremely slowly. Peter slept while I ate pastries made by the guides in the boat’s kitchen and enjoyed the ride complemented by tropical booze cruise music.

As you can see in the video above, the skies were clear, and the sun was shining. The blue water bled into the blue sky, and the snow-capped mountains bled into the sparse cloud cover. 

The temperature was in the mid-60s, which was surprising; I expected temperatures below freezing given the proximity to the south pole. 

The water looked calm, but it was rough at times due to the wind. Perhaps the wind and “rough seas” were why we were traveling slowly.

We had been traveling by boat for four hours by the time we reached the kayaking cove. There, we alighted and began the kayak excursion.

Lago Argentino is a deceivingly large lake. It’s the largest freshwater lake in Argentina. It covers 546 square miles and has a maximum width of 20 miles. 

The lake’s surface area is half the size of the state of Rhode Island!

Drysuits

As we approached the kayaking cove, we were instructed to get into our dry suits, which were full-body suits with tight rubber cuffs around the wrists and neck.

The purpose of the dry suits was to protect us from hypothermia if we were to tip over and fall into the freezing lake. 

Getting into the suits was challenging, and I had to do it twice. Due to my height, I was given a suit that was too big, and when the guides came around to inspect the fit, they gave me a failing grade. The rubber cuffs were not tight enough around my wrists and neck, and I had to undress and put on a smaller suit.

The smaller suit passed the inspection, but as it happens, I got the urge to pee as soon as I was suited up – no option at that point but to hold it!

After we were suited up and the boat was docked, the captain lowered the ramp on the front of the boat, connecting us to the rocky shoreline, but we were not allowed to alight just yet…

Cameras

Except for waterproof and GoPro cameras that could be clipped onto the kayak or a helmet, cameras (including phones) were not allowed while kayaking.

Instead, one of the guides would capture the day by taking photos during the excursion. She had a professional camera and was very good!

Kayaking instructions

Next came the kayaking instructions. I’d never been on a kayak before that day, but Peter had kayaked many times, so I mostly paid attention to the instructions.

The kayaks were two-person kayaks, and the ratio of guides to kayaks was nearly 1:1. Safety was the number one priority at all times.

The biggest concern the guides had with the excursion was that it was a warm day, which meant icebergs would be melting more rapidly and would be unpredictable. 

The kayaking instructions were long and detailed. The first half took place on the deck of the boat.

We were overdressed for the excursion – the hats were absolutely unnecessary!

The second half of the instructions took place on the rocky shoreline. I was sweating profusely, and my broken toe on jagged rocks was painful.

Hand-on-hip attitude

After what felt like 16 hours of instruction, we got into our kayaks and entered the practical test phase of the excursion.

One technique we practiced was tethering kayaks together. It’s a technique intended to help provide stability if an iceberg were to break or decide to start rotating out of control.

Rotating out of control? That sounded scary.

Kayaking

Following the tethering class, we were allowed to kayak around icebergs but were instructed to always follow the lead guide.

We paddled and paddled. Actually, Peter did most of the paddling in our kayak. 

Some icebergs were brittle enough that we could break off and eat tiny pieces. Iceberg ice is the best kind of ice!

We spent a lot of time kayaking around a cluster of icebergs. My arms were tired from doing 15 percent of the paddling work. Peter loves kayaking, and I thought it would be generous of me to let him do most of the paddling.

He never complained, and I felt he was repaying his car napping debts by doing the heavy lifting on this excursion.

The icebergs glistened in the sun and gave us pretty bad sunburn on our faces. That was a lesson learned – wear sunscreen!

The guides explained that it took 500 years for the icebergs to arrive at that very spot where we were paddling.

Iceberg breakin’

Just as I was starting to get the desire to return to dry land and stretch my legs, we circled around a big iceberg, and as we passed it, a huge chunk broke off and fell into the lake. 

This was a photo of the iceberg before the break.

A closer look reveals a big crack.

Here are the action shots captured by the guide/photographer. We were about 100 feet away from the iceberg when it broke.

When it was all said and done, it looked like this – an unusually clean break.

In addition to the still shots captured by the guide, a kayaker with a GoPro captured the break on video!

Peter and I are on the left-hand side of the video. We can’t be missed in our fluorescent yellow and purple hats.

The guides told us they consider themselves lucky if they see an iceberg break once during a season, and none of them had ever been as close as we were to this iceberg when it broke.

Two of the guides mentioned that this was a first for them and probably a last due to the rarity of the situation.

Shortly after the iceberg event, Peter kayaked us back to the boat, and we started the four-hour boat journey to the other side of the lake (followed by a 40-minute drive to the hotel). We were hungry, sunburnt, and exhausted, but the long day was worth it.

Lessons learned

First, I would have packed a picnic lunch. Lunch was pre-packed by the tour company and available on our journey back to Calafate, but it was a dry piece of bread and a slice of meat. I did not eat it.

Second, we would have worn sunscreen.

Third, similar to hiking, it’s better to be a little cold at the beginning of the excursion than risk being hot. Kayaking heated our bodies, and we ended up sweating for the two hours in the kayak. I would have worn fewer layers and left my hat on the boat.

The next post on Argentina is here.

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