As the gateway to Los Glaciares National Park, El Calafate is one of Patagonia’s most popular destinations. It’s best known as the luxury base for visiting the Perito Moreno Glacier, arguably the most magnificent glacier not only in Los Glaciares but in all of Patagonia. As incredible as the glacier is, it’s just one of many reasons to include El Calafate to your Argentina and South America itinerary. Discover our Luxury Argentina Tours to make the most of your trip.
In this in-depth El Calafate guide, discover everything this remote desert town has to offer to visitors of all ages and physical abilities. As well as answering your burning questions about El Calafate, it provides a list of the top things to see and do during your visit. After reading the guide, you’ll be able to confidently plan your trip to this must-see Patagonia destination. Let’s see what will surprise you about El Calafate most.
Where is El Calafate?
Located at the edge of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field on Lago Argentino, El Calafate is considered the gateway to Argentina’s Los Glaciares National Park. El Calafate sits 22 km south of El Chalten, the Argentine Hiking Capital, and 250 km northeast of Torres del Paine National Park in Chilean Patagonia making it a popular base for exploring the best of Patagonia.
What Makes El Calafate one of Patagonia’s top destinations?
El Calafate has become one of Patagonia’s top destinations in recent decades thanks to its convenient position at the edge of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field and proximity to Los Glaciares National Park. From here, it’s easy to access and explore the park’s most impressive glaciers including the Perito Moreno, Upsala, and Spegazzini glaciers.
What Can I Do in El Calafate?
See the Perito Moreno Glacier
Bigger than the city of Buenos Aires, the Perito Moreno Glacier is one of Los Glaciares National Park’s biggest and most impressive glaciers. Thanks to its astonishing size and beauty, as well as its easy access from El Calafate, it has become the area’s top attraction. There are several ways to see the glacier including by kayak, boat cruise, or by a simple stroll along the boardwalk facing it.
Sail by the glaciers
There are several boat cruises available from El Calafate that allow you to sail close to the edge of Los Glaciares’ most impressive glaciers including Perito Moreno, Viedma, and Upsala. Along the way, sail past giant icebergs that have carved off the glacier and spot some of the local wildlife.
Ice trek across a glacier
Opt for the small (5 hr) or long (7 hr) ice trek across Perito Moreno which first takes you on a boat ride to reach the glacier, then through a lenga forest before reaching the glacier’s magnificent icefield. There’s no better way to appreciate the mighty size and unique beauty of a glacier’s ice formations than on an ice trek across it.
4×4 tour to Torres del Paine
See the magical landscapes of Torres del Paine in one day on a 4×4 tour from El Calafate. The tour includes stops at Lago Sarmiento, Salto Grande Waterfall, Lake Pehoe, and the Cascada Paine where guanacos, ostriches, and even condors can often be spotted. Views of the Torres del Paine towers accompany you throughout the tour.
Hiking around El Calafate
Walk around the La Leona Petrified Forest
While most hikes are about reaching a goal, the La Leona Petrified Forest hike is about appreciating the rare and unusual natural wonders along its path. See, this is an ancient forest filled with petrified wood (turned to stone) and fossilized dinosaur bones and footprints.
Enjoy birdspotting in Laguna Nimez Sanctuary
Take your binoculars on a flat and easy hike around the grasslands of Laguna Nimez where you can spot a huge array of rare and unusual birds including flamingos, black-neck swans, and ibis. A wonderful way to appreciate Patagonia’s astonishing nature without much effort.
Hike El Chalten’s Laguna Los Tres
If you haven’t included El Chalten in your Patagonia itinerary, consider doing it as a day trip from El Calafate. On a 12-hour tour, you will have the opportunity to embark on one of Patagonia’s prettiest hikes — Laguna Los Tres — which takes you to the emerald lagoon near the peak of Mount Fitz Roy. On the out-and-return journey to El Chalten, enjoy the stops at some incredible viewpoints.
Explore El Calafate in Alternative Ways
Seeing the Perito Moreno Glacier may be El Calafate’s main draw, but there are several fun and exciting ways to explore this part of Patagonia too! These are some favorites:
Kayaking on Lago Argentino: kayak past giant icebergs as you glide up to Perito Moreno on a kayaking tour on Lago Argentino
Horseback riding through the Patagonian desert: take a relaxed horseback ride through the Patagonian desert which is just as beautiful and important as its mountains and glaciers
What is El Calafate itself like?
El Calafate may be a remote town in the middle of the Patagonian desert but it is considered a luxurious and energetic place where people gather to share in the region’s tremendous beauty. One of the town’s main highlights is Avenida Libertador, a well-groomed street lined with high-end boutiques, restaurants, and even a casino. Meanwhile, Paseo de Artesano is a market street that embraces an edgier side with artisanal food, drink, and a wide selection of quality handicrafts like traditional artwork, jewelry, and clothing.
It’s easy to pass hours and days wandering around El Calafate’s shops and eating your way around its restaurants, but no visit is complete without a trip to the Glaciarium Patagonia Ice Museum. Using science and technology to explain and explore glaciers in a fun and entertaining way, the interpretation center provides the necessary context to your visit to Los Glaciares National Park.
Situated on Lago Argentino, visitors can immerse in Patagonia’s gorgeous landscapes without even leaving El Calafate. On days when hiking or ice trekking feels like too much effort, the lake provides the perfect backdrop for a casual walk or bike ride.
Is there a visitors center in El Calafate?
El Calafate is home to the Los Glaciares National Park Administrative Center which provides tourists with information about hiking routes, guided tours, weather predictions, and general visitor information. There is also the Tourism Secretary office which also acts as an information center for more general enquiries.
How is the accommodation in El Calafate?
El Calafate offers a commendable choice of luxury accommodation both in and around the town itself suited to the discerning traveler looking to match an exceptional Patagonian experience with an exceptional stay. Find both high-end boutique and branded hotels, as well as cozy lodges suited to the mountainous surroundings. Expect well-appointed spas, refined restaurants serving the very best of Argentinian cuisine, and suites with floor-to-ceiling windows showing off the surrounding beauty.
How much time do I need in El Calafate?
The amount of time you spend in El Calafate depends on how thoroughly you want to explore the region. The area’s must-dos can be ticked off in a couple of days, but a good week is needed to really experience the region’s magic. In this time, you can do a a multiday hike or a few of the best day hikes as well as some of the other top activities like horseback riding and birdwatching.
When is the best time to visit El Calafate?
The best time to visit El Calafate is when its glaciers and hiking routes are most accessible, usually between September and April (early spring to late summer). For the region’s best hiking conditions, visit during the height of summer between December and February. At this time of year, the weather is warm and clear, and the hiking trails are easily accessible. Check out our blog post on Best Time to Visit Patagonia: Month by Month for more information.
Should I book El Chalten in advance?
Booking accommodation and excursions in El Calafate in advance is highly recommended. Both are in high demand throughout the year and particularly during the summer months. To find the best hotels, guides, and booking deals, book through TLA. As a travel agency specializing in Patagonian adventure, we will ensure your trip includes the very best El Calafate has to offer in a smooth and efficient itinerary. To enquire, message us here or call on +1 855 217 9045.