The rugged town of El Calafate is one of the most popular tourist destinations in all of Argentina. Waayyyyy down south in the southern reaches of Patagonia, situated on the beautiful shores of Lago Argentino, El Calafate is perhaps best well known for its close proximity to the spectacular Glaciers National Park. This park is home to the incomparable Perito Moreno Glacier- a MASSIVE sheet of ice that has an incredible habit of crumbling semi-truck-sized icebergs into the lake waters below. It is AWESOME. In addition to the MUST-DO trips to the glacier fields, El Calafate has all the charm of a mountain town. Cafes, restaurants, shops, and pubs line the main thoroughfare, while the scent of freshly baked empanadas wafts from the bakeries in the alleys. Take a walk through town, stroll down to the lake and sit on the beach, go for a swim in Lago Argentino, marveling at the icebergs drifting in the distance- you can do it all in El Calafate.
As mentioned, El Calafate is WAY down south, almost all the way to Tierra del Fuego. It will take some effort (and money) to get to, but it is WELL worth both. A good way to plan your trip through Patagonia is to fly to your starting point, and then work your way back north (i.e. fly to El Calafate, and then bus back north along Route 40). Of course, you can do it the opposite way as well- bus south from Buenos Aires or Mendoza, and then fly back north from El Calafate or some other southern destination. However you do it, DO IT- Patagonia is one of the most beautiful places on Earth, and a trip to Argentina isn’t complete without spending a bit of time in this expansive wilderness.
Things to do in El Chalten
- Visit Parque Nacional Los Glaciers- THE reason most come to El Calafate, the Glaciers National Park is about an hour’s bus ride out of town. There are numerous companies that run daily tours, each typically including a boat ride that takes you right along the face of the Perito Moreno Glacier. SICK. Another option is to DIY- if you can find a few friends and rent a car for the day, it will average out to be about the same you would pay individually for the bus/tour, and you’ll have all the freedom that having your own ride brings with it- that means more fun on the way out to the park, a few side trips along the way, and more time at the glacier itself. WIN.
- The hills around El Calafate offer some spectacular hiking options. Ask at your hostel for some local advice, pack a picnic, and head out for an awesome day on the trails in Patagonia. Horseback riding is another great option to get out amongst it.
- Hit the beach- Lago Argentino is gorgeous, and there’s a great beach to chill out on if the Patagonian winds aren’t howling to loudly. The lake is pretty shallow here, so if you’re in an adventurous mood, go for a swim- it’s not nearly as cold as you’d think... If you’re lucky, you might catch some kite surfers skimming across the waves. Head out towards the wildlife sanctuary, turn right along the road, and walk until the road curves back to the left- you’ll run right into the beach.
- Hang out in town- El Calafate is a tourist town, complete with all the souvenir, craft, and t-shirt shops you could hope for. There are several pubs, bars, and restaurants sprinkled in, many with outdoor seating areas. If you’ve been out on the trails hiking all day, grab a pint and relax in the warm afternoon sun- Patagonia at its finest!
- If you are renting a car to head to the Glaciers National Park, shop around, and look for the smaller local shops as opposed to the big-name chain agencies. The smaller Mom&Pop shops are MUCH cheaper, and are more than happy to help you out with details on interesting side trips, etc.
- One of the better side trips on the way out to the glacier fields is to stop by Lago Roca- a beautiful spot in the Patagonian wilderness. There are signs posted on the way to the Glaciers National Park- you’ll turn off to the left onto a gravel road and follow that past several estancias before getting to the reserve. It it well worth the detour.
- Rail-side viewing areas are prime real estate on the boats that cruise by the Perito Moreno glacier- make sure to wear warm clothes and something to block the wind if you plan on being outside for the duration of the cruise.
- Make sure to leave plenty of time to wander along the countless walkways and viewing platforms that line the hill opposite the glacier. It is awesome to just sit and listen to the ice moving, cracking, and crashing.
- During the spring and summer months (Oct-Feb), the sun sets late and rises early in El Calafate due to its being so far south. Longer days for more activity. Obviously, the opposite is true during the winter, but El Calafate is generally off-limits during the winter due to weather.