This article is part of the Complete Guide to Photography in Patagonia
Perito Moreno Glacier is one of the most significant tourist attractions in Patagonia, located just outside El Calafate in Argentina. The glacier is impressive and huge, but the shape of the landscape is what makes this such a popular sight with visitors.
The Perito Moreno Glacier flows down from the Southern Patagonian Ice Field directly towards a hill that serves as a perfect natural viewing platform, making it easy to access without much disruption to the landscape. It's hard to imagine a better layout for getting so close to a glacier, and hundreds of thousands of people come to stare at the ice each year.
Approaching Photography at Perito Moreno Glacier
The popularity of Perito Moreno Glacier means this isn't somewhere you'll find yourself alone with the camera in the landscape, and there are very few photography spots nearby. A single road leads from the national park entrance to the glacier, with a few lookouts offering pretty but uninteresting views of the valley to the South. Closer to the glacier, some places next to the road provide an early sighting of the ice, but none are as good as the main viewing area across from the glacier itself.
However, this is one of the few places in the world where you can explore so many angles of the front face of a glacier. The viewing hill is covered in platforms and ramps that allow you to get up close to the ice or climb higher for views of the glacier emerging from the distant mountains. It's also easy to set up a tripod and stay out of the way on the platforms, although they can be a little bouncy when other visitors pass.
At Perito Moreno Glacier, photography is all about exploring shapes and patterns in the ice and landscape. There is only one main viewing area, and it's so close to the ice that there are few opportunities for large-scale vistas. These restrictions force you to be more creative and consider colour, textures and patterns in the face of the glacier.
Even if that's not your usual style of photography, it's hard not to get lost picking out detail in the ice. The viewing platforms run for hundreds of metres up and down the hill, and the face of the glacier is 2km across; this gives you almost endless variations for abstract and pattern-based photography.
Direct light on the ice is very bright and will make it hard to expose images well, especially if you are visiting Perito Moreno Glacier on a sunny morning. I recommend under-exposing to capture the bright details in the ice and create interesting effects with the high-contrast scene.
Timing for Photography at Perito Moreno Glacier
Perito Moreno Glacier is located within Los Glaciers National Park, and there's no way to stay overnight in this portion of the park, even if you camp. This means your visit will be limited by the daily national park opening hours, and you may not be able to photograph the glacier at sunrise or sunset, depending on the season.
The national park entrance is located a 30-minute drive from the glacier itself. If you arrive early, you'll find the barriers closed and you'll have to wait for the park to open before continuing your journey.
You'll need about 2 hours to thoroughly explore the glacier with the camera, depending on your interest in abstract compositions. More time would allow you more in-depth thinking about your images, and returning for a second day may give you different weather conditions or light.
Photography Locations near Perito Moreno Glacier
(Note: the links in this section open Google maps)
There are few photography locations near Perito Moreno Glacier. The road from El Calafate to the park entrance is not particularly interesting for photography, and much like any other part of the landscape in this part of Patagonia: largely flat with only a few features near the road.
I have heard that Lago Roca can be a good photography spot just outside the national park to the south, but I have not been there to see it.
From the park entrance, you'll travel along a slow and windy road between high rocks to the right and a thin lake to the left, and there are several places to stop and take in the view. These areas all face south, but the high peaks are all to the west, so there are no essential stops along this route.
However, as you approach the end of the road, there is a spot where you'll catch your first view of the glacier. At the right time of year, you may reach this place for sunrise but miss it at the main viewing area, so pay attention to the light as you near this spot.
There is one main area across from Perito Moreno Glacier where you'll spend most of your photography time. This is the busiest area of the park and can feel very crowded as tours start arriving from El Calafate. However, it is the photography highlight, and the best approach is to find a secluded part of the walkways, set up the tripod, and get lost in making images.
A second parking area acts as an overflow when the main area is full, which happens soon after the park opens. A walkway runs along the edge of the lake between the two parking areas, but the view gets worse as you approach the overflow parking, and there are no new compositions along this route.
The limitations at Perito Moreno Glacier can be refreshing, and you can spend plenty of time on the viewing platforms, focussed on photography, knowing that you aren't missing out on any other photography spots nearby. That helped me to concentrate on patterns in the ice - not my usual style of photography - and enjoy being creative to make the most of the scene in front of me.
Where to stay to visit Perito Moreno Glacier
There is no accommodation near Perito Moreno Glacier, so most visitors stay nearby in El Calafate. El Calafate is a small town of around 6,000 residents, but it's the gateway to Southern Patagonia in Argentina, so it has a disproportionate amount of visitor facilities.
Full of bars, restaurants, hotels and gift shops, this is where tour groups gather and finish when visiting Patagonia. A large airport just outside El Calafate acts as a regional gateway, and you’ll likely arrive here if you connect via Buenos Aires.
Depending on the route for your trip, El Calafate can be a great place to rest for a few days between visiting Torres del Paine and El Chaltén. If you are on a dedicated photography trip, taking a break from the camera can help your creativity, and El Calafate is a great place to do that without feeling like you are missing out. However, if you are short of time, you won't need more than one day here to visit the glacier.
El Calafate is a very walkable town with dozens of hotels to suit almost any budget. If you don’t have a car, it’s easy to get around and out to the glacier, and El Calafate is also well connected by bus to El Chaltén and Puerta Natales in Chile.
Getting to Perito Moreno Glacier
There are two main ways of getting to Perito Moreno Glacier: drive or take a bus tour from El Calafate.
The drive to the glacier is easy: about 1h15m along a straight road from El Calafate. There are two parking areas near the glacier. If you arrive early, you can get to the one next to the viewing platforms; when that is full, park rangers direct traffic to an overflow. You can walk along the viewing platforms or get a shuttle bus between them.
The advantage of driving is being able to control the timing of your visit, arriving as early as possible for the morning light or staying later when most of the bus tours have left and the park is less busy.
However, the restrictive times of the park opening hours mean that driving isn't as beneficial at Perito Moreno Glacier as it is for most photography adventures. Many tour buses arrive just before the park opens, so get to the glacier first; the park is often closed before sunset, so staying late won't get you any better light.
Bus tours to the glacier are easy to arrange with tour companies in El Calafate, and you don't usually need to book much in advance. This is a simple way to get to Perito Moreno Glacier if you haven't already rented a car, and it won't impact your photography that much; you should have plenty of time to visit the same spots with the camera.
The advantage of a tour is that you can easily add one or two excursions to your day. You'll only need 2-3 hours to photograph the glacier, so there will be time for trekking on the ice or getting a boat tour closer to the glacier if you want a more varied day.
Activities at Perito Moreno Glacier
The two main activities at Perito Moreno Glacier are ice trekking and boat tours, and both can be arranged through companies in El Calafate as part of your visit.
Most ice trekking tours start from the rocks south of the glacier. The tour bus will drop you at a jetty for a quick boat trip across the water to a patch of land next to the ice, where a tour leader will meet you and talk you through the process.
Ice trekking is a great experience and a great way to get a sense of the scale of the glacier. You don't need any prior experience to go on an ice trekking tour at Perito Moreno Glacier.
You can usually take your camera (though no tripod), and you'll want to pick a good lens before you set off, as it can be tough to change lenses as you go. Ice trekking tours for beginners involve walking a strict route in an attached convoy with other visitors, so you won't want to adjust your camera too much along the way.
I recommend using a mid-wide lens (around 24mm), which should allow you to capture patterns in the ice and some wider views of the scene.
You can catch a boat tour to explore the glacier from the north or the south (separately - the boats cannot pass the glacier and get to the other side). Being out on the water allows you to get much closer to the ice than the viewing platforms will allow.
Boat tours can be arranged in advance from El Calafate or the visitor centre at the glacier. There are often places available on boats leaving within a few hours if you are not visiting during the peak season.
If you are doing photography on the boats, it is possible to move around and reasonably easy to change lenses, though you won't need a tripod on the moving deck. I recommend a longer lens (100mm+) to get close into the ice as you approach. Prepare your camera before you set off, in case you find yourself in a crowded space on deck.
Perito Moreno Glacier is not one of the world's great photography locations but is such an impressive sight that you'll be drawn in along with everyone else touring Patagonia. You don't need to spend much time here - no more than a day if your itinerary is stretched - but, for many visitors, it's the highlight of Patagonia, and I recommend stopping in to experience the spectacle of getting so close to such an impressive glacier.
To get the most out of your visit as a photographer, allow yourself two hours at the viewing platforms to push your creativity and explore the patterns and textures in the ice. If this is your style of photography already, this will be an incredible experience. Even if not, Perito Moreno Glacier is an excellent place to expand your range from large-scale vistas to tiny abstracts.