I must have seen a picture of the Perito Moreno glacier long ago, for as far back as I can remember my mental map of Latin America was a jagged inverted triangle filled with García Márquez characters to the northeast, the Amazon forest lush in the centre and the narrowing south an empty expanse called Patagonia. And there, right at the southern tip, a hulking mass of eternal ice uncomfortably close to the Land of Fire.
The photos prepared me for the monumental majesty of its broad stature, the cracks and crevices, the milky ice shining aquamarine where the sun catches it. I imagined battling through snowscapes and howling winds, a climate befitting the goal. I imagined something monolithic and timeless, a majestic ice queen impervious to the outside world.
Reality is often both more mundane and more fantastic than anything that can be printed on paper or projected onto a screen.
You’re driving through the semi-desert of southern Patagonia, all brittle rock and brittle thornbush, that exact same expanse of sun-scorched nothingness that has been your indifferent companion for the past 2,000 kilometres, when you turn a corner and there it is – a massive wall of ice standing majestic and more than a little forlorn, like a forgotten prop from a Game of Thrones set.
A sign says that it is 5 kilometres wide, 70 metres tall above the water and runs 160 metres deep below.
It is one of the few glaciers that are growing, rather than retreating, but its timelessness is one of constant upheaval and change. Its growth is slow and subtle, but the simultaneous destruction is a show of brute force that knots my stomach with awe and trepidation. Less the aloof ice queen of my expectations and more a cantankerous old man befitting its name, Perito Moreno groans and shudders, shedding giant boulders as an afterthought. With an almighty thunder, crack and thud they plummet into the water, sending out circular waves and eventually reappearing as one of the many icebergs floating on the murky lake.
A sign says that 32 people have been killed by falling ice between 1968 and 1988.
To observe such volatile forces from the sun-bathed observation decks, a safe distance from the ice projectiles crashing into the water, is a failure of the senses. A glacier is not to be seen, its icy turrets dulled by the dust, dwarfed by the surrounding slopes and diminished by the midday sun. It is to be felt, I imagine – its shudder and movement, the risk of each step. Or, for us lesser mortals, it is to be heard – the groan, crack and shudder, the sinister creaking and a deep rumble that you’ll remember long after you’ve forgotten the view.