I couldn’t come up with better words than these to explain Patagonia, “the farthest place to which man walked from his place of origin” ~Bruce Chatwin.
Miles of barren land with not a single human soul visible, hypnotizing snow-covered mountains which can’t let you take off your eyes from them, the wind which can literally take you off from the ground sometime and glaciers extending to infinity, all of this comes as one package in one of the most beautiful places we have ever been to, Patagonia. It is the southern part of South America covering both Argentina and Chile.
Patagonia is huge
This place is huge and you can easily spend months only in the Argentinian side covering all the amazing places and it may happen that you are still left with a few places for the second round. We spent two weeks in Argentina and with our limited time, we decided to visit two of the most popular places in Patagonia, El Calafate and El Chalten.
This post is to provide all the information required to plan a trip to El Calafate, from accommodation and food recommendation to a list of things to do during your stay at this amazing place. We listed down the amazing places which you can explore in the town and also the popular day trips to Glaciers and Petrified Forests.
How to reach
Bus vs Flight is equivalent to time vs money as it takes ~2 days to reach El Calafate from Buenos Aires by bus. Flight from Buenos Aires to El Calafate is really expensive, it cost us ~400 USD round trip per person.
Tip: In South America, you will find different flight rates for residents and non-residents which is super weird. Please make sure you read the details correctly before booking a flight.
El Calafate is a very touristic town with tons of stay options which vary with budget and location. We can help you in choosing the right location and then you can select the options which suit best to your budget.
If you want to be at the center of the action, Ave de Libertador is the right place for you. Ave de Libertador is the main commercial street of El Calafate filled with restaurants, cafes, souvenir shops, and tour offices.
On the other hand, if you want a quiet secluded place, there are so many stay options at the hills surrounding the town with a great view of Lake Argentina. This is recommended if you have a car rental so that you can have the flexibility to go to the town center.
We stayed at both the locations and our take is that if you are staying for at least 3-4 days and have a rental car, then the outskirt location will be great for you. We stayed two nights at Apart Hotel Libertador, a budget hotel in the middle of Ave de Libertador and one night in an Airbnb outside the town near the Bus station. You can signup to Airbnb to get $40 discount using this link.
Being a non-vegetarian, I had a blast with Argentinian food from the main course like Bife de Chorizo, Patagonian Lamb and traditional Parilla with Patagonian Malbec to desserts with Dulce de Leche (Caramel). I will definitely write a separate post regarding my food experience in Argentina. You must try Patagonian Lamb during your stay in El Calafate.
We have two recommendations for the restaurant one for breakfast and another one for dinner.
- Pietro’s Cafe, a nice place with both indoor and outdoor seating and have really great options in the menu from American style breakfast to pizza and some great local beers too. It is right in the center of Ave del Libertador.
- Don Pichon, a great restaurant if you want to choose one place to try traditional Parilla or Patagonian lamb with a complimentary sunset view. It is a 15-20 min uphill walk from the center, they arrange pickups, which we didn’t bother, and a free drop to your hotel after dinner.
Explore El Calafate
After reaching El Calafate, we came to know that the mountains can also be private property. There are very limited things which you can go out and see on your own for free and for the rest, you need to book a tour as all the amazing places around the town comes under private property.
Without any tours
Laguna de Nimez
Walk for few km outside the town towards Lago Argentina to reach Laguna de Nimez which offers a self-guided walk around small lakes, you can also get to see Flamingos in the morning. The timings are 9:30 AM to 7:30 PM every day. The entry fee is around 150 Argentina pesos.
Visiting an ice bar can be a bit touristy but having a drink in a shot glass made of ice while sitting on an ice chair in a temperature of -10 deg Celcius can be a great one time experience. There are multiple options to visit Ice Bar in El Calafate. If you are interested in the information regarding the glaciers, you can visit the museum named Glaciarium which also has an ice bar to visit. It is around 8 km outside the town. But if you just want to visit the ice bar, then you can visit the Polar Ice Bar or Yeti Ice Bar in the main avenue.
We went to Polar Ice Bar in the main avenue which costs an entry fee of 300 pesos/person and they offer free drinks and let you stay inside for half hr.
Guided tour options
Cerro Frias is a privately owned property which offers different tours options like zip lining, 4×4 excursion, horseback riding, and trekking along with dinner or snacks depending on your tour timings. You can book these excursions through any travel agency in the town which will arrange your pickup and drop to your hotel. We decided to take the 4×4 excursion and they took us to the highest point, through an adventurous bumpy ride, which offers a magnificent view of the Andes ranges and you get to see Guanaco, protected species from the family of Alpaca.
The price of the tour was 1750 pesos per person for day tours (3 pm) and 2200 pesos per person for an evening tour (6 pm). We took an evening tour from 6 pm to 9 pm followed by great Parilla dinner at the lodge.
How about an evening with great views while roaming around in 4×4 expedition followed by a dinner in a cave. Nativo experience is another great tour of a private property and it is more inclined towards archaeological importance and paintings by tribes. Price is 1800 pesos per person.
The southwestern part of Argentina has more than 300 glaciers. The southern Patagonian ice field (shared between Argentina and Chile) is the third largest ice field in our planet after Antarctica and Greenland. This simply means that you can’t afford to miss a trip to the almighty glaciers.
Los Glacier National Park, being the largest park in Argentina’s Protected Areas System hosts some of the most incredible glaciers of the region, Perito Moreno, Upsala, Viedma, and Spegazzni.
A glacier with a size larger than the Buenos Aires city is the most famous tourist attraction in the Los Glacier National Park due to its size and accessibility. There are multiple ways to visit this amazing place depending on your preference and budget.
One of the best way to see the massive Glacier near El Calafate is to take a Glacier cruise. You board a cruise which takes your right below the glacier and if you are lucky you can see the big pieces of ice falling into the water which is really amazing. We have done a similar cruise in Alaska, so we skipped this activity. It will be a full day trip as Glaciers are in Los Glacier National Park which is 80 km from El Calafate and it takes two hours by road to reach there.
2. Glacier Trek (Perito Moreno)
This is the major highlight of our trip to Patagonia, a guided trek over Perito Moreno Glacier. It was a completely different experience of walking over the ice with spike shoes, drinking the purest version of water and in the end best whiskey on the rocks.
There is only one company named Hielo & Aventura which arrange the glacier trekking and offers two options: Big Ice Trekking and Mini Trekking. It is hard to get a slot for Big Ice Trekking which has only two slots per day, so you have to book in advance. We did the Mini Trekking as we didn’t make any booking in advance and there was no slot available for next 2-3 days. You can check the latest pricing for the trek on their official website here.
Tip: Any tour agency in the town can book this tour for you with no additional cost which is really convenient. If you are planning to book other tours like Cerro Frias, you can ask the agency to book the glacier tours as well. We booked all our tours through Chalten travels and had a really nice experience with them.
3. Visit Los Glacier National Park
If you don’t want to take any tour, you can still visit the National Park on your own and get a closer look at the Perito Moreno Glacier. There is a nice trail near the tourist information center which gives the amazing view of the glacier. The entry fee for the park is 600 pesos per person.
Day trip to find Dinosaur Fossil
If visiting glaciers and scenic viewpoints don’t inspire you to visit El Calafate, how about a trip to a place dated back to the age of Dinosaur. La Leona Petrified Forest, a privately owned property is one of the popular options for a day trip from El Calafate. A scenic road trip of 100 km on Route 40 followed by 3 hrs of a hike on a completely different landscape finding fossils of Dinosaur and petrified tree trunks.
Being a private property, you can only visit this place through a guided tour which is, in fact, the best way to explore this place. We booked a tour through Chalten Travel and it costs us ~2600 pesos per person including transfers, guide, and lunch. We will add more details and pictures in a separate post.
If you are planning to visit El Chalten, then you can visit this place on the way as it is located halfway between El Calafate and El Chalten. Tour company gives an option to either come back to El Calafate or take a transfer to El Chalten which is really convenient and time saver.
Number of Days
You need at least three days to cover all the major attractions in El Calafate. One basic itinerary can be :
Day1: Arrive in El Calafate, roam around in the town and take a guided tour to Cerro Frias or Nativo in the evening.
Day 2: Mini Trek or Big Ice Trek over Perito Moreno Glacier
Day 3: Cruise to visit Glaciers.
Day 4 (Optional): Day trip to La Leona Petrified Forest (can be done on the way to El Chalten).
We hope this guide will help you in planning your first trip to El Calafate. There is a lot more coming from our 2-week vacation in Argentina and one-month backpacking to South America. We visited Equador, Peru, and Argentina. Follow us on Instagram and Facebook for daily pictures.