The tourist town of El Calafate is the base for excursions to the Perito Moreno Glacier, one of Argentina’s most impressive natural attractions. Maybe from the whole world. There is a good chance that you will spend the night in El Calafate during a tour through Argentine Patagonia. But don’t stay there longer than necessary and make viewing the glacier your priority. Because apart from the glacier, there is no reason to visit the town. Yet there is plenty to offer in and around El Calafate for a pleasant short stay.
The main reason to visit El Calafate is to visit the Perito Moreno Glacier. This glacier, together with the Iguazu Falls, is one of the most beautiful natural attractions in Argentina. Due to the nearby airport, El Calafate is also a hub for other destinations in the southern part of Patagonia. For example, buses depart from El Calafate to El Chaltèn and the Torres del Paine hiking area in Chile.
Because El Calafate is a regional tourist center, you will not lack anything as a tourist. There is plenty of accommodation, although the popular hotels and guesthouses are quickly booked up during the high season (Christmas to February). The small center even has some charm when it fills up with tourists in the evening. There is a wide choice of restaurants, cafes and coffee shops. During the day the town makes a desolate impression, which is reinforced by the wind characteristic of Patagonia. This applies even more to the rather barren suburbs and it is therefore recommended to choose your accommodation close to the center. There are several banks with ATMs, although not all of them work (in 2017). Credit cards are accepted in many places. There is also a hospital.
Perito Moreno Glacier
The appeal of the Perito Moreno Glacier is its size and its accessibility. The glacier is located in a fjord on Lake Argentina. The ice wall towers above the water surface over a width of five kilometers to up to seventy meters. What is special is that the head of the glacier extends close to the other side of the fjord. There are easy-to-navigate hiking trails and viewpoints on the steep bank. It is noticeable that the glacier wall moves a few meters per day. You hear the dull cracking of the ice and large chunks regularly fall into the lake with a thundering noise. You can also take a boat trip along the ice wall.
Source: Luca Galuzzi (Lucag), Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA-2.5) Accessibility
The Perito Moreno Glacier is located more than 75 kilometers west of El Calafate. The road to it is easily accessible and leads through the vast dry plains of Patagonia. Buses to the glacier leave from the bus station twice a day during the tourist season, early in the morning and early in the afternoon (as of 2017). If you take the early bus, you’ll get to the glacier before the crowds. You can also book an excursion with the various tour operators, which can be found along the main street of El Calafate. You will then be picked up from your hotel or guesthouse. Some hotels and guesthouses can arrange a tour for you.
Arrange the bus tickets or tour to the glacier immediately after checking in in El Calafate, so that you can visit the glacier the next day. During the high season (Christmas to February), tickets sell out quickly. Tours can also be arranged online.
You get the complete glacier experience with an ice trekking, which you can book through a tour operator. You can choose between a short and long ice walk, where you walk across the glacier with crampons and accompanied by a guide. The guides can tell you a lot about the glacier and the surrounding area. It is very special to walk across the strange, almost alien-looking ice landscape. These excursions also allow enough time for viewing the glacier from the lookouts and from the water. A boat takes you to the starting point of the ice trekking on the south side of the glacier. That is why it is best to take the hiking trails with a view of the north side of the glacier.
Glacarium / Source: Alex Proimos, Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-2.0)
The Glacarium is a modern museum a few kilometers west of the center. It provides information about ice formation and glaciers. Attention is also paid to the causes and consequences of climate change. From the cafeteria of the museum you have a beautiful view of the clear blue Argentino Lake. It is best to visit this museum before you go to the Perito Moreno Glacier, then you will also be surprised by the view of the road there. A free shuttle bus leaves every half hour from the parking lot at 1 de Mayo, a side street of the main street.
The Laguna Nimez nature reserve is located on the shores of Lake Argentina, a fifteen-minute walk from the center. The walk through the small reserve takes about an hour. Along the marked route you will find explanations about the birds and plants of Patagonia. Here you also have a good view of the lake and the mountains around El Calafate. It is an ideal destination if you have just arrived in Patagonia and want to stretch your legs after a long flight.
Flamingos in Laguna Nimez / Source: Liam Quinn, Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA-2.0)
El Calafate is a three-hour flight from Buenos Aires. The airport is about twenty kilometers from the town. In the arrivals hall you can buy tickets for a shuttle bus to your hotel. There are free WiFi hotspots with sockets in the arrivals and departures halls. Flights also depart from El Calafate to other destinations in Argentina, such as Ushuaia and El Bariloche. Buses leave from the center of El Calafate to El Chaltèn and further to destinations along the RN40. You can also take the bus here to Puerto Natalis (Chile) to visit the Torres del Paine.