El Calafate is one of those places where anyone traveling to Argentina sooner or later happens and for a very specific reason: it is the main base for visiting the Perito Moreno Glacier.
Carribean Sea? No, Lago Argentino!
But El Calafate, despite being a bit of a tourist trap, has something else to offer besides the most famous glacier in the world.
In fact, here it is possible to organize a lot of other activities ranging from tourist tours for everyone to real adventures for adrenaline sufferers (a bit like me).
Almost the entire life of this small town takes place onAvenida del Libertador San Martin (in Patagonia the main street of every place is called this way) where restaurants, shops (mostly for souvenirs, but also sports and mountain items) and travel agencies are located.
Clearly it is an extremely touristy place (the permanent inhabitants are just over 6000) which in high season is filled with foreigners who come here from all parts of the world and as such has the distinction of being extremely fake. At least this in the city center. In fact, it is enough to take a car and move just off the main road that El Calafate takes on a totally different flavor.
The most peripheral area is in fact made up of small colored houses in the middle of the desert with the incredible color of Lake Argentino behind them, on which the small town was born and raised.
In fact, El Calafate was born as a refuge for wool merchants, before the establishment of Los Glaciares National Park which has made this small gathering of houses one of the most visited places in the whole country.
The road over Lago Argentino, towards El Calafate
We flew in from Ushuaia, but El Calafate is also well connected by bus with El Chalten, the Argentine capital of trekking e Puerto Natales in Cile.
However, getting to El Calafate is very simple. In summer, but also in winter, in fact Aerolineas Argentinas offers numerous daily flights from in Buenos Aires landing atLake Viedma International Airport which is located 22 km from the city. At the airport there are numerous shuttles that for less than 10 euros take you directly to the hotel or hostel you have booked.
El Calafate is perfect for walking and cycling. For those who want more flexibility, have a higher budget or simply can divide the expense, you can rent a car from the companies Served-Car e Fiorasi Rentacar.
Even though it hardly ever rains, in El Calafate, even in summer, it never gets too hot.
Il best time to go is definitely spring from November to December and in autumn between March and April because in addition to the favorable climate there are no peak months (January and February) when there are really a lot of people (and the prices are much higher).
Even if you visit El Calafate in the summer months, it is still advisable to bring a slightly heavier jacket for the evenings that are always cool.
If you go in winter instead, well wishes, be sure to cover yourself well even if with the choice of shops that there are, in case you are not well equipped, you can always buy what you are missing directly on site.
Throughout El Calafate there are ATMs to withdraw from. In Patagonia Argentina the withdrawal costs are simply absurd: you can only withdraw a certain amount per day (2000 pesos maximum) with a very high commission (more than 10%).
Also, most hotels only want to pay in cash.
The best thing to travel to Argentina is to leave with pesos in your pocket.
Welcome to El Calafate!
We went to El Calafate 3 times during our Patagonia trip. And since we were in the height of the tourist season, we booked a few days in advance.
A El Calafate finding accommodation is very easy: with the Perito Moreno next to it, it is useless to say that the offers of accommodation are wasted, from multi-starred (and expensive) hotels to small and efficient hostels. In short, there really is something for all tastes.
We stayed in two small guest houses and we found ourselves very well in both.
However, due to the high influx of tourists, in El Calafate it is difficult to find accommodation for less than 50 euros per night, apart from in shared room hostels. There is also some Airbnb at 40 euros per night.
Cheap hotels are around 60/70 euros per night for a double room, while those of a slightly higher level are around 100/120 euros.
For those who want to indulge in true luxury after a long day of trekking, Eolo Hotel Spirit it offers rooms for around 500 euros per night, but it is magnificent in the middle of nature and surrounded by exceptional views.
The two guesthouses I've been to can be found below.
(about 60 euros for a double room with shared bathroom, breakfast included)
THEAonikenk Bed & Breakfast, in which we spent 4 nights is an excellent solution: very close to the town center, very close to the bus station, cheap and simple but clean.
The girls who work there, even if they did not speak English perfectly, have always been extremely available to help us with any problem. They do not accept credit cards but only cash: this is a big problem in Patagonia, especially because you can withdraw a fairly small amount from ATMs and branches with a very high transaction cost.
(about 60 euros for a double room with private bathroom and super buffet breakfast included)
THEHosteria Los Gnomos, the second in which we stayed overnight, is a brand new structure: very fast wi-fi, breakfast (included) was one of the best we have found in all of Patagonia, it has a beautiful garden in which to sunbathe, everything is taken care of in the smallest details.
When we arrived we even found a lovely tag hanging on the bedroom door that read "Welcome"!
I go crazy with happiness when I find a place that has these little delicacies towards its guests.
The rooms are spotless and with private bathroom: in short, it is an excellent choice especially if you are traveling by rental car. In fact it is not very close to the bus station. To get to the center there are 10 minutes on foot or a short ride in remiso.
Find other offers to sleep here on Booking.
Meetings around El Calafate
If in El Calafate you have no problems sleeping and you find good opportunities, it is different for clubs and restaurants. In fact, almost all of them are very expensive and the quality in the cheapest places is not the best.
However, there are a couple of places that I can recommend to you.
Meat, meat, meat, after all we are in Argentina, aren't we? This place serves dishes of typical lamb (the cordero) cooked on the grill for around 20 euros. Side dishes, salad, potatoes and courgettes are paid extra.
Since there are vegetarians in the world (like me for example), Pura Vida is the right place to spend the evening. The environment is very welcoming (I liked it a lot) the abundant dishes even if you have to be a little careful about what you order because they are not all good. Some are a little bland to be honest. The wine is excellent and the salads are super, the kind in which you can put whatever you want.
The view over the lake is enchanting. Better to book.
Expensive but worth it, it is undoubtedly one of the best restaurants in town. Here too the main dish is the traditional cordero with chimichurri but they also serve ravioli with crabs for those who cannot do without fish.
Other restaurants that I can recommend are Don Pichón, La Tablita, Casimiro Biguá, The Ladle.
The list of things to see and do in El Calafate is very long. The numerous agencies that follow one after the other on the main street, San Martin, can book all kinds of experiences for you. Many accept credit cards (yuppieee!).
Alternatively here on GetYourGuide you will find tours for all needs.
If you don't want to spend money, you can take beautiful walks on the Cerro Calafate from the top of which you can enjoy fantastic views of the Ande, of Bahia Round and Lonely island on Lake Argentino.
His Majesty the Perito Moreno
Well, how not to mention the first Perito Moreno, the most famous glacier in the world since those who come to El Calafate come there almost exclusively for this reason?
The Perito can be reached from El Calafate within a day. Each agency organizes excursions, but the glacier can also be reached by bus. There are two buses a day that depart one at 9am and the other at 30pm. Better to buy tickets at the station the day before to avoid nasty surprises.
On the glacier it is possible, in addition to navigation, to organize trekking: there are two types. The Big Ice (3 and a half hours of trekking above the glacier) and the minitrekking (the most popular, 1:30 on the glacier which easily becomes 2 hours).
The Glaciarum interactive museum
Al Glaciarum I went there a little reluctantly, only to take half a day off to find out that it is a really well done and interesting museum. You can get there with a (free) shuttle that leaves every half hour from the parking lot in front of the Tourist Board of the Province of Santa Cruz.
It is a small interactive museum that tells the glaciology, geology and geodynamics of the Patagonian glaciers and the effects of global warming.
I loved it.
Some inhabitants of the Nimez Lagoon
Another beautiful discovery of El Calafate was this small reserve a stone's throw from the city which can be reached with a short walk of about half an hour from the Intendencia del Parque.
La friend Nimez it is located on the eastern edge of the bay and is the “home” of pink flamingos, black-necked swan hawks and a host of other birds.
Going to the Nimez Lagoon is a great way to spend a few hours if you are in the city: it is interesting and cheap. Better to go there in the morning as soon as it opens to see the birds but in the evening the light is special especially for photographs.
The fjords at the tip of Lake Argentino are fed by 4 glaciers. The largest of these is the Upsala glacier which (think a little) covers 3 times the surface of the Perito Moreno.
The best way to see the glacier is to join an excursion that includes a night atCristina stay (book in advance and best wishes for the wallet) with prices that are almost unbelievable. Tours generally include a short hike to the viewpoint.
If you don't want (and money) to do this excursion, many agencies organize day boat excursions that include both Upsala and Spegazzini (another glacier further south) at a much lower price (around 80 euros).
You can also take a day kayaking among the icebergs of the Upsala glacier, but the price is prohibitive: around 400 euros per person for a day tour.
Guanacos spy on us cautiously during our 4 × 4 safari experience
A 4 × 4 safari of a few hours with dinner included in an Estancia. The price is, compared to the other activities, quite low (about 70 euros per person). We had a Spanish guide, Alberto, very kind and helpful who told us not only the history of the Estancia, but also a lot of things about El Calafate (do you know that Calafate is a flower?).
We saw lots of animals, guanacos, foxes, hares and even Patagonian ostriches. Dinner is simple, but tasty, complete with an aperitif and unlimited wine. Super recommended to see El Calafate in its genuine part and not just as a passing place.
A half day spent like the ancient gauchos of Patagonia. There are demonstrations of the ancient crafts inside the estancias, with a super dinner and a show of traditional music and dance.
There are actually many Estancias around el Calafate where you can spend a whole day. Some even offer sheep shearing demonstrations or cattle branding in the right season. They also organize trekking and horse riding.
There are many other activities that can be done in El calafate, here I will give you a brief summary, contact any agency in El Calafate for the complete list.
Full Day Chaltén discovery: the tour starts from El Calafate and stops several times at points of interest such as a stop at Estancia La Leona or Lago del Desierto. Includes a short walk to the Vespignani glacier.
Navigation on the Viedma or Icetrekking (I spoke here about my trek on the Viedma glacier).
La Leona petrified forestTrekking around Los Hornos Hill, seeing petrified trees, rocks and dinosaur fossils.
Horse trekking (2 ore).
The agencies also organize any type of activity even more adrenaline-pumping on the neighbor Cerro Frias, as rock climbing, mountain bike, kayak e Rafting on the river o zip-line.
In a place as touristy as in El Calafate there are certainly places to spend a few hours in the evening. The nightlife here however is reduced to places to drink, karaoke or listen to live music.
These are the 5 best places:
- Sholken: the ideal place to sip a cold beer with friends
- Bookbar: cocktails and coffee while leafing through photographic books on Patagonia
- Grouse: if you are not afraid of making a bad impression this is the ideal place to drink and sing in front of people you don't know
- Shackleton Lounge: great music
- Don Diego de la Noche: one of my favorite places in El Calafate where you can also eat for lunch.
There aren't many events in El Calafate, but there are two festivals in February that are really worth attending.
Lake Argentino Festival with music and dances and where you can attend one real competition of doma gaucha.
National Trekking Festival with competitions and competitions on outdoor sports and outdoor activities.