A Complete Guide To El Calafate, Argentina

A Complete Guide To El Calafate, Argentina

El Calafate is a small town of around 25000 inhabitants in the south of Argentina, and one of the main getaways to explore Patagonia, with easy access to Los Glaciares National Park, where Perito Moreno Glacier is located, and connections to El Chalten, one of the main hiking hubs of the country, as well as Torres del Paine National Park, on the Chilean side of Patagonia.

Sure enough, it would be a pity to visit Argentina and leave El Calafate out of your itinerary. For as small as it is, this town, which takes its name from the calafate berries that commonly grow in small bushes in Patagonia, has a lot to offer. From hiking to visiting the great glaciers; from admiring the local fauna to cayaking, El Calafate is a fantastic place for nature and adventure lovers. And if you need to take a day off and just relax, the city has plenty of good coffee shops, restaurants and bars, and an intersting shopping scene.

In this post, I highlight all the things to see and do in El Calafate, Argentina, and share a few tips on how to make the most of this lovely town.

For a great itinerary though Argentina, check out my post A Flash Pack’s Argentina Itinerary” and for a guide on everything that Argentina has to offer, read my post A Guide To The Greatest Things To Do In Argentina.”

Make sure to also read my post 30 Things You Should Consider Before Traveling To Patagonia.”

El Calafate Argentina

Visiting Perito Moreno is a must when in El Calafate

17 Things To See And Do In El Calafate, Argentina

Visit Perito Moreno Glacier

Virtually all people that travel to El Calafate, Argentina, go there to visit Perito Moreno Glacier. Located at about one and a half hours drive from El Calafate, Perito Moreno is the hightight of Los Glaciares National Park. It isn’t the biggest glacier in the country, but it definitely is the most scenic to see, for it is very easy to access, and contrary to most glaciers which are now receding, it is actually stable.

Once at Perito Moreno Glacier, you have the option of admiring it from the balconies near the visitors’ center; going on a boat tour that gets as close as 100 meters from the main wall of the glacier; and even going on an ice trek on the glacier itself (this last activity needs to be booked in advance).

The entry fee to Los Glaciares National Park, from where you’ll have access to Perito Moreno, is 700 ARS (Argentinian Pesos), which at the current exchange rate is around $16 USD. You can visit the glacier independently: public buses regularly leave from El Calafate.

A guided tour is probably a better option, as it will include transportation costs and activities and will end up being slightly more expensive, but significantly easier.

The following are some excellent guided tours of Perito Moreno Glacier that depart daily from El Calafate, Argentina:

Make sure to read my post A Complete Guide To Perito Moreno Glacier.”

Go on an ice trek

A guided ice trek is a great way to experience Perito Moreno Glacier, and definitely one of the highlights of a trip to El Calafate, Argentina. You have the option of going on a big trek, which usually lasts all day; or on a small trek, which on the other hand only lasts around one and a half hours.

Short treks are great addition to a visit to Perito Moreno Glacier. You’ll get the opportunity to see the glacier and the moraine up close; listen to the ice cracking; look into the cracks and even drink glacier water.

The short trek is fairly easy, suitable even for families with children. The only real requirement is that of being properly dressed: you’ll need a few layers of technical hiking gear and thermal underwear; a good snow jacket; hat, gloves and a scarf, and a good pair of hiking boots to which crampons (necessary to walk on ice) will be tied up.

These tours of Perito Moreno also include an ice trek:

El Calafate Argentina

Lake Argentino and Laguna Nimez are excellent places to admire wildlife in El Calafate

Admire wildlife at Laguna Nimez

If you have a few hours to kill while in El Calafate, make sure to head to Laguna Nimez. This ecological reserve is an easy 15 minutes walk from the center of town; it is a protected area where an incredible variety of birds live, first and foremost the beautiful Chilean flamingo. The reserve is a good representation of the landscape of Patagonia, with recreations of the desert steppe, the wetlands and lake Argentino.

You can go on a self-guided tour that can last anything between one and three hours. It costs around $10 USD to get in.

Walk or run around the lake

A great and free alternative to Laguna Nimez is Lake Argentino, on which shores El Calafate is located. Just as easily reached from the center of town, it’s a fantastic place to observe the local wildlife – including the beautiful pink flamingoes. Make sure to bring your camera and a good lens if you want take stunning photos!

Another thing to do around Lake Argentino is running or biking. This is the best location in El Calafate, Argentina, for this purpose. There even are small open-air gyms if you fancy doing some push ups and other extra exercises.

El Calafate Argentina

Visiting an estancia is one of the nicest things to do in El Calafate

Visit an estancia

Estancias are farms that can be found all over Argentina and that are traditionally used for cattle raising. The name literally translates as “stay” and refers to the period of time that the government authorities have allocated for a stay in a specific piece of land.

Not far from El Calafate you’ll be able to find a few gorgeous estancias that can be visited on an easy day trip. Most of them have now turned into tourist attractions, where there is very little animal farming. They often have a museum, and offer experiences such as horse riding and hiking in the surroundings. The estancias that aren’t touristy are great places to visit to learn a bit more about the traditional local way of life and culture. The touristy ones still offer very good experiences. I visited Estancia Cristina and truly enjoyed it.

These are some great tours that include estancia visits:

Hike to Cañadón de los Fósiles

Estancia Cristina is one of the nicest day trips from El Calafate, Argentina. A great way to add some  adventure to it is by hiking to Cañadón de los Fósiles. This is one of the most interesting and unique treks in Patagonia, and allows you to admire Lake Guillermo, the eastern front of Upsala Glacier and the South Patagonian Continental Ice Field. The hike is fairly easy, lasting between 4 and 5 hours with plenty of stops for photos, explanations, and lunch break.

These are the best tours to Estancia Cristina that also go to Cañadón de los Fósiles:

For more incredible hikes in Patagonia, read my post “Hiking in Patagonia: 16 Incredible Trails.”

Kayak Lake Argentino or Lake Upsala

If kayaking is your thing, I am pretty sure that one of the things you’ll enjoy the most in El Calafate, Argentina, is paddling up Lake Argentino or the Upsala Canal. You’ll be going along icebergs, for incredible photo opportunities. I admit I haven’t really done it – I am so bad at paddling that I was afraid I’d fall in the water, though apparently you wear a drysuit when kayaking. People who’ve done it absolutely rave about it.

These are some of the best kayaking experiences near El Calafate:

El Calafate Argentina

Make sure to explore the lovely Calafate

Visit the Centro de Interpretación Histórica

El Calafate isn’t exactly the place where you’d be visiting museums. However, if you have time make sure to pay a visit to the Centro de Interpretación Histórica. It’s a small museum, but you’ll find lots of information on the natural and human history of Patagonia, with an interesting display of cultural artifacts, fossils, archeological finds etc. You’ll find information in English and Spanish, as well as guides.

Explore El Calafate town 

El Calafate is a small town and it won’t take you much to explore it. For as small as it is, it is very pleasant and one of the nicest things to do in El Calafate is actually chilling. The main street, Avenida del Libertador San Martín, is lined with chocolate shops and lovely cafés. There are a couple of breweries and a bunch of shops selling outdoor gear (though I hardly recommend shopping unless really necessary: it’s very expensive!) and lots of souvenir and handicrafts stalls at Paseo de Los Artesanos – it’s a good place to buy wool and leather goods.

Go to La Leona Petrified Forest

To get a good idea of how diverse the landscape in Patagonia is, make sure to visit La Leona Petrified Forest. It’s at about one and a half hour drive from El Calafate, along the famous Ruta 40. With its dry and sandy rock formations, it’s as different as it gets from places like Perito Moreno Glacier. You’ll also have a chance to see the local wildlife (especially guanacos) and fossils.

Only guided tours are allowed at La Leona, as this is private land. This is a selection of the best tours that depart regularly from El Calafate:

Visit the Walichu Caves

Right next to Lake Argentino, along Ruta 11, there are some interesting caves home to 4000-year-old paintings and beautiful rock formations. It’s an easy trip from El Calafate, Argentina, and you can easily drive there yourself or go on a guided tour.

These are tours of El Calafate that also goes to Walichu Caves:

El Calafate Argentina

Head out to El Calafate Mountain for a lot of adventures

Go to El Calafate Mountain

One of the most fun things to do in El Calafate if you have an extra day is going to El Calafate Mountain. It’s a fantastic place to go mountain biking, and if that is not your thing you can hop on a 4×4 that takes you to the famous Calafate Balcony, for fantastic views of the Andes and of the town below.

These tours all go to El Calafate Mountain:

Go to Cerro Frías

At just 22 km from El Calafate, immersed in the Patagonian Steppe, you’ll find Cerro Frías. This 1300 meters mountain stands alone and from there you’ll be able to get incredible views of Mount Fitz Roy and Lago Argentino. You can go independently, though many go on 4×4 tours that also go on the shores of the lake and to a dune-filled beach. Other activities that can be arranged are horseback riding, hiking and even biking. Along the way, you may spot local wildlife like guanacos, hares and even condors.

El Calafate Argentina

El Chalten is a good day trip from El Calafate, and perfect for hiking

Head to El Chalten for a hike

The first time I visited Argentina, a few years ago, I decided to skip El Chalten because I thought that once there I wouldn’t have enough time for a hike. When I finally visited, I realized that I would have abundantly made it. El Chalten is at a little less than 3 hours from El Calafate, and in the summer months, when it’s light out until 9:30 pm, there is plenty of time to go, hike and then head back to El Calafate even on public transportation. Just make sure to take the first bus in the morning, which departs from El Calafate at 8:00 am.

Among the best hikes to do in El Chalten, there is the one to Laguna Torre and the one to Laguna de Los Tres. Both of them take between 6 and 8 hours, depending on how often you stop.

To find out more about the hikes in El Chalten, head to my posts A Complete Guide To Hiking To Laguna Torre” and A Guide To Hiking Around Fitz Roy, In El Chalten.” Make sure to also read my post An Excellent Guide To El Chalten.”

Visit Torres del Paine National Park

To be honest, I don’t really recommend going on a day trip to Torres del Paine, in Chile, from El Calafate, Argentina. First of all, this is a place that deserves way more than just a few hours. Secondly, it’s a long day – you’ll depart at 4:30 am and spend a good hour (if not more) at the border.

Having said so, if you are short of time this is a convenient way to see one of the most beautiful national parks in the world, and one of Patagonia highlights. You’ll have a chance of seeing Lago Sarmiento, Lago Pehoé, Grey Glacier and Grey Lake, Salto Grande waterfall and more.

These are some good guided day trips to Torres del Paine National Park from El Calafate:

For more places to visit in Chile, check out my post Ten Incredible Places To Visit In Chile.”

Have a drink at the Ice Bar

A place like El Calafate, Argentina, couldn’t do without its ice bar. In fact, there are two. The most popular one is GlacioBar. You pay an entry fee to be able to sit on ice furniture and drink unlimited cocktails in ice glasses. It’s not the kind of place to go if you are looking for something cozy: it’s very cold inside!!

El Calafate Argentina

Torres del Paine is not the easiest day trip from El Calafate

Practical Information To Organize Your Trip To El Calafate, Argentina

Guided tours of Patagonia that go to El Calafate

Patagonia is an incredible place to travel to, but it requires good organizing skills. If you are short on time for both the planning and the actual trip, you may want to let the experts organize your trip and just have to pack your bags and go enjoy.

This is a selection of great tours that all go to El Calafate, Argentina, and other places in Patagonia:

Make sure to also read my posts “30 Things You Should Consider Before Traveling To Patagonia” and Hiking Gear And More: The Perfect Patagonia Packing List.”

When to visit El Calafate, Argentina

The best time to travel to El Calafate, or to anywhere in Patagonia, is in the summer months, between the end of November and the end of March. That’s when the day are longest and when you will get more chances of sunny days – though beware that Patagonian weather can be crazy and you may get rain, wind and snow even in the summer. Shoulder season (October or April) may be good months – provided that businesses are open!

How long to stay in El Calafate

Most people stop in El Calafate for just two nights, spending one day to visit Perito Moreno Glacier and doing little else in the area. As I am sure you have noticed reading this post, El Calafate has a lot to offer and it would be a pity to miss out. I’d recommend staying in El Calafate 4 nights before moving on to other places in Patagonia such as El Chalten.

How to get to El Calafate

By plane

A country as big as Argentina requires plane travel more often than you’d like. Besides, even though most seem convinced that bus travel is cheaper, it isn’t necessarily – especially when you add the costs of a night somewhere to break a long trip, or of food you have to get on the road etc.

If you are planning to go to El Calafate, it’s probably better that you book a flight. There are frequent daily flights from Buenos Aires, Bariloche and Ushuaia, and connecting flights from other places such as Mendoza.

El Calafate airport is at about 22 km from town. There are shuttles and taxi connecting the airport to town.

Coming from Buenos Aires? Check out my post 25 Unmissable Things To Do In Buenos Aires.” Traveling to Ushuaia next? Make sure to read my post Everything You Need To Know About Ushuaia, Patagonia.”

By bus

Unless you do have a lot of time to travel around South America, I do not recommend trying to reach El Calafate, Argentina, by bus. Having said so, El Calafate is well connected to many other places in the country such as Puerto Madryn (20 hours) or El Chalten (3 hours) via direct buses. If traveling from Buenos Aires, you’ll have to take a bus to Rio Gallegos (around 36 hours) and then a connection to El Calafate (4 more hours).

El Calafate Argentina

El Calafate is a must during a trip to Argentina

Where to stay in El Calafate

In Calafate you’ll find some excellent accommodation options suitable for all budgets and tastes. The following are some of the best places to stay in El Calafate:

Where to eat in El Calafate

There are a few good restaurants in El Calafate where you can try the local specialties – first and foremost the famous asado (Argentinian mixed grill) as well as the Patagonian lamb. Keep in mind that for the most popular places you may need a reservation.

La Tablita – known as the best restaurant in El Calafate, it’s the place to go to try a good asado or have an excellent steak. The wine list is endless. Service is very professional. It’s pricey, but worth it.

La Lechuza – Argentinians swear by this pizzeria. I have a different opinion, but I am a picky Italian. Give it a try, and let me know if you liked it!

Los Amigos – a good option if you fancy seafood. Portions are earthy!

La Cocina – the place to go in El Calafate if you want to have some fairly good pasta.

Mi Rancho – a Spanish name for a place that serves Italian staples like ossobuco and risotto. It’s extremely popular, so try to reserve a table in advance.

Other practical information

Make sure to get a good travel insurance for your trip to Patagonia. Check out the prices of travel insurance here.

Have you ever been to El Calafate, Argentina? What did you like the most about it?

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Discover the things to do in El Calafate, Argentina - via @clautavani