Updated November 8th, 2018.
Once nothing more than a pitstop for wagons in the sheep-rearing region of Southern Patagonia, El Calafate is now one of the most visited destinations in Argentina.
After the surrounding area was declared a National Park in the late 1930s, the town blossomed into a tourist haven, as people began to flock from all over the world to visit the surreal landscapes of Los Glaciares, and in particular, the world-renowned Perito Moreno Glacier.
As a result of this shift, El Calafate is now a town structured almost entirely around its tourism industry – hostels, hotels, restaurants, and souvenir shops occupy most of the centre – and unless you have time to kill and money to blow, you’re not likely to spend more than a few days here.
That being said, it’s a place entirely worth the nightmarish distance you’re probably going to travel to get there, and its lakeside location and rolling steppes provide a stunning backdrop for some rest and relaxation once you’re all natured out.
Read more about backpacking in Argentina!
Where to Stay in El Calafate
El Calafate is so small that no matter where you stay (unless you’re in a flashy hotel/resort on the outskirts of town), you’ll be within walking distance from everything. That being said, there are a lot of options concentrated into this small space, and prices can be high. Here are three of the better value options in town:
- Hostel America del Sur: one of two sister hostels in Argentina (the other one being in Buenos Aires), America del Sur is one of the top-rated hostels in El Calafate, and although a bit on the pricey side, it has all the trimmings you’d expect, including breakfast, and a spacious common area with sweeping views over the lake.
- El Ovejero: a sunny campground that offers cheap campsites as well as dorms in either the main building (including breakfast), or smaller 4-bed dorms at the rear of the property (these don’t include breakfast and you have to use the camp bathrooms, but they’re super cheap). Not much is included, but there are plenty of basics available for sale in reception, as well as a large, in-house parilla.
- Albergue & Hostal del Glaciar Libertador: this HI (Hostelling International) affiliated hostel is pretty both inside and out, with great private rooms (all with private bathrooms), and 4 or 7-bed dorms. The staff receive consistently glowing reviews, and they have their own in-house tour agency. Note that the dorms don’t include breakfast.
Things to do in El Calafate
Hike the Perito Moreno Glacier
The obvious must-do activity in El Calafate, the Perito Moreno Glacier is the largest growing glacier of the Patagonian ice field, and a breathtaking sight to behold. There are numerous tours available, ranging from simple transfers to and from the park, to full-day trekking excursions on top of the glacier.
The most reputable company is Hielo y Aventura, and you can book tours either online or at one of their offices in the town centre. Bear in mind that the trekking tours are very popular so it’s best to book a day or two in advance. Alternatively, if you’re more of a DIY kind of traveller, you can hire a car and drive yourself to the national park (it’s about 80km from El Calafate).
If you’re a boat person, you can take a full-day cruise on Lago Argentino to see some of the other, equally impressive glaciers in the park, including Upsala and Onelli, for around AR$480. There are more expensive tours that take in Perito Moreno as well, but you’re probably better off doing that separately. Solo Patagonia is the company to see for these trips, they have an office on the main street in town.
Laguna Nimez Reserve
For an easy yet rewarding walk, take a stroll down to the lake to spot flamingos in the lagoon of El Calafate’s ecological reserve. There is an entry fee if you want to get close, but if you’re low on cash, you can just walk around the perimeter and see the birds from afar. While you’re at it, enjoy a stroll along the sparse banks of Lago Argentino.
If you’ve never tried your hand at riding a horse before, this might be the time to do it. Patagonia is a region rich in gaucho (cowboy) culture, and the rugged scenery of this area is the perfect backdrop for a day in the saddle. Cabalgatas del Glaciar offer rides from just a few hours, to 2, 3 or 5-day adventures, and judging by their reputation, the prices are well worth it.
Bosque Petrificado La Leona
Literally meaning “Petrified Forest”, this paleontological site is a little-seen attraction of the region. If dinosaur bones and gorges full of fossilised tree trunks are your thing, chances are you’ll love this. Full-day guided tours can be organised through either Andes Expeditions or Moressi Viajes.
Eat comfort food at Librobar
he most popular watering hole in town, this Alpine-inspired bar and restaurant serves up tasty artisanal beers, gourmet coffees, and hearty pub grub all day, every day. Sit upstairs and peruse the hundreds of books that line the walls, or get a table on the sidewalk for some people-watching. Good music and good service are guaranteed.
Getting to El Calafate
By bus: the main point of origin for buses travelling to El Calafate is San Carlos de Bariloche, with Marga/Taqsa running services every second day. Depending on whether you’re taking Ruta 3 or Ruta 40, these busses pass through most of the larger towns in Southern Argentina, including Puerto Madryn, El Bolson, Esquel, Los Antiguos and El Chalten. If you’re arriving from Southern Chile, there are daily buses from Puerto Natales to El Calafate.
By plane: there is an airport in El Calafate with daily flights from various destinations in Argentina, as well as connecting international flights via Buenos Aires.
By car: if you’re feeling adventurous and have time and money to spare, you can hire a car in Bariloche and drive the Ruta 40 yourself. The road is forever under repair and a large chunk of the route is on dirt/gravel, but it’s certainly possible. Plan ahead and map out your route, fuel stops, and overnight stopovers.
Where to head next?
Puerto Natales, Chile: only a few hours by bus, Puerto Natales is the gateway to the world-renowned Torres del Paine National Park.
Ushuaia: there’s not a whole lot going on here, but being the southernmost city of South America, Ushuaia is a place for novelty-seekers, as well as a gateway to Antarctic excursions (if you’re loaded and that way inclined).
El Chalten: situated on the Northern side of Lago Argentina, 300km from El Calafate, El Chalten offers a plethora of hiking, trekking and outdoor activities.
Puerto Madryn: if you’re on the way to Buenos Aires, this might be a good stopover on the way up. Situated on the coast, it’s renowned for whale-watching and penguin-spotting (if you go at the right time of year).
Written by Kelly Snyders