El Calafate is the gateway city to Southern Patagonia on the Argentinian side. If you have ever seen pictures of the massive Perito Moreno Glacier in Los Glaciares National Park, El Calafate is where you would come to visit the glacier. El Calafate owns its popularity to the airport in town and to its former president building a vacation house here and inviting other international dignitaries to show off the area’s beauty. Mainly, the breathtaking Perito Moreno.
This post is about the most popular things to do in El Calafate. El Calafate is conveniently located close to the Chilean border and is a great centralized location to see Perito Moreno, Torres del Paine, and Fitz Roy, visit an estancia, and indulge in traditional Patagonian food and wine.
How to Get to El Calafate
El Calafate is located on the shores of Lago Argentino in Southern Patagonia. To get to El Calafate is best to fly. If coming internationally, you will most likely have to connect through Buenos Aires. Buenos Aires has three main airports:
- Ministro Pistarini International Airport, Ezeiza (EZE) – Main international airport.
- Jorge Newbery Airport, known as Aeroparque (APE) – Serves domestic flights and flights from neighboring countries.
- El Palomar (EPA) – Serves a range of low-cost domestic flights and has only been open since 2018.
If you continue to El Calafate from Buenos Aires, you may have to change airports. It may not always be obvious when booking your flight that there is a change of airports required, so make sure to check! Both EZE and APE have flights to El Calafate.
If on the Chilean side, such as Torres Del Paine, you will either have to drive or take a bus to make it to El Calafate. Unfortunately, El Calafate is not an international airport and there are no direct flights between Puerto Natales and El Calafate.
Thingas to do in El Calafate
There is a plethora of things to do in and around El Calafate. It can be overwhelming to choose the best things to do in El Calafate but you will not go wrong with anything you pick from this list. I would recommend a minimum of 4 days in El Calafate that would give you an opportunity for a day trip to Torres del Paine or El Chalten or both.
Explore El Calafate
El Calafate is a small town easy to explore. Walking around you will find open-air markets with local artists selling arts and crafts. Plenty of local breweries, small chocolate shops, bakeries, and fantastic food anywhere you go.
While exploring chances are that you will encounter or be followed by one or many stray dogs roaming the streets. They are usually very friendly and just looking for a belly rub or food.
Visit the Glacier Museum in town, Glaciarium. The museum is enormous and filled with a lot of interactive exhibits. It is only a 10-minute drive from the town and there are free shuttles that leave from El Calafate Tourism Bureau. The general admission fee for visitors is 1400 $AR
After a visit to the museum, you can stop by the Glaciobar for a cold beverage in the ice bar!
The town comes alive after 6 pm as during the day most visitors are out on excursions. Even though El Calafate is thousands of miles away from Buenos Aires, it is still Argentina, and people stay out late.
All Things Calafate
The Calafate is a berry that naturally grows in this region, and locals usually compare it to blueberry. Everything is made with it: deserts, ice cream, jams, juice, chocolate, syrups, beer, and you must try it. Calafate ice cream is the most delicious ice cream I have ever had.
The legend says whoever eats Calafate will return for more. Which must be true as we are preparing for our return trip to Patagonia 😊
Patagonian Traditional Food
In Argentina, meat is king and in Patagonia even more so. Every meal involves piles of meat, deliciously cooked to perfection. Yes, prepare for meat sweats while in Argentina!
What you will see in the windows of a lot of restaurants is Cordero al Palo. Lamb slow roasting over an open fire until the outside is crisp and the meat falls off the bones. It is a genuinely a finger-licking meal.
Chimichurri is always served with an order of meat. It is a to-go condiment in Patagonia alongside Pico de Gallo.
Yerba Mate is the official tea of Argentina. It is drunk in abundance in Patagonia, almost entirely instead of coffee. Do not be surprised if you see people sharing the same cup and straw, passing it amongst each other, and drinking it all day long. If you have never tried it before, it takes some getting used to.
While here you must try Patagonian wine! Even though grapes are grown, and wine is produced in the northern part of Patagonia, it is still a pride of this region. Patagonian Pinot Noir can stand shoulder to shoulder with American or French pinot.
For a tiny town in the middle of nowhere, El Calafate has excellent restaurants and a great selection of wine. Since we spent most of the days on different excursions, we indulged in Patagonian cuisine and delicious wine every evening for dinner.
Visit an Estancia in El Calafate
Visiting an estancia, cattle or sheep ranch, while in Patagonia can not be missed. Here you will be exposed to the simpler times where people learned how to live off their land in this unforgiving region. There are many different estancias around El Calafate open to visit
We visited Estancia 25 de Mayo, on Christmas Eve and had a blast. The visit started outside around the fire pit discussing the life of a rancher and the customs. The Yerba Mate is passed around for anyone interested to take a sip, then a delicious fried dough as a snack while waiting for the big dinner.
This agricultural tourism usually entails a guided tour of a working farm, demonstration like traditional sheep shearing, a show and a traditional Argentine asado of grilled meats as dinner.
Reserva Laguna Nimez
Laguna Nimez is a bird sanctuary a short walk from the city center. Here you can spend half a day walking on the boardwalk and birdwatching – 80 distinct species of birds live here. It can be very windy in this area; it was our first introduction to the Patagonian wind.
On sunny days remember to bring enough sunscreen. There is no shade when out on the boardwalk.
Perito Moreno Glacier
The main reason most people visit El Calafate is Perito Moreno Glacier located in Los Glaciares National Park. It is a 75-minute drive from El Calafate. You can drive there, take a bus, or go on a tour to visit the park and see the glacier.
There is a number of different activities you can do here:
Walk the boardwalk – covered with the entrance fee to the park. It is one of the most popular things to do here and expect to see large crowds.
Trek the Glacier – one activity you can do here is actually hike on top of the glacier. There is two options short (1hr) hike or a long (8hr) hike. There is only one tour company that operates the Big Ice Tour Hielo & Aventura.
Scenic Glacier Cruise – you can cruise around the face of the glacier for some amazing and up-close-and-personal views. Or you can pick an all-day cruising and see two additional glaciers in the park.
Kayak up to the Glacier – it can be intimidating getting close to this majestic giant in a little kayak, but it can also be a lot of fun.
Whatever option you choose to explore this glacier you will not regret it.
Torres Del Paine
Torres Del Paine is a definition of Patagonia. This national park is in Chile, but many visitors travel there from El Calafate. El Calafate offers one-day tours to Torres del Paine which makes for a grueling day. The day starts early, 4 am pick up, with a 3.5-4 hr. drive one way.
If you are joining a tour, chances are that you will not have time to hike to the towers. Instead, you will visit the waterfall and the horns – still iconic viewpoints in Torres Del Paine. However, if you have your own transportation and are not on the time limit, you may be able to make it to the towers and back.
We joined the tour but did not think that was enough time to spend in this fantastic park. Hence, we are returning to do the W Trek later this year.
You are likely to see Guanacos and Condors on this excursion.
El Chalten is another gem in Souther Patagonia and a rival of Torres del Paine when it comes to its beauty. It is the home of Fitz Roy and a village where climbers settle for months at a time waiting for that perfect weather opportunity to climb to the peak.
If you are not an avid climber but like to enjoy amazing scenery just driving to El Chalten is an adventure with amazing views. On a cloudless day, it is an amazing view from the main road. And if you would like to get closer to Fitz Roy, there are a few hikes to take: Laguna Capri, Laguna Torre, or Laguna de Los Tres.
Unfortunately, the clouds play a crucial role here, and often the peaks are covered by clouds. Another reason to spend more than one day in El Chalten.
El Calafate is not an easy place to get to however, we knew we would be back. There is something about Patagonia that just draws you in, hard to explain it has to be experienced.
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