A small town in the middle of Patagonia; El Calafate has fast appeared on the travelling scene. It used to be a sleepy village where wool was traded. Today it is a beautiful small town where you will meet people from all around the world.
Fun Fact: Calafate is located at the banks of Lake Argentina; the biggest lake in Argentina. It has 4 big glaciers located in its backyard with one of the most famous glaciers in the world; Perito Moreno.
Read my country guide about Argentina to find answers to all your questions for a comfortable trip.
There are so many reasons to visit Calafate from Perito Moreno Glacier to Los Glaciares Park. Whether you are a hiking lover or an extreme sports junkie, nature lover or just need some time to switch off, this place has it all.
Calafate is a beautiful little town with small huts and houses, neatly lined streets with flowers, small cafes, grill houses with roasting lambs on displays, relaxed bars and lots of travel agencies. It seems even smaller when you see it in the context of Patagonia where distances are huge and everything plays out on a grand scale. I felt very insignificant here and yet felt the importance of recognising how we are ruining this beautiful place with global warming. I must give it to the locals for keeping this place is pristine condition, I didn’t see a single plastic bag or a bottle lying about. The whole park is kept in pristine condition.
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Getting to El Calafate
Getting to Calafate is quite easy now thanks to the International airport with many flights options to choose from. I flew into Buenos Aires and took a 3-and-a-half-hour flight to El Calafate International Airport. The landing is mesmerising and before you land, you start to see breathtaking scenery. We landed into the small airport, I got out of the plane and that fresh, crisp air entered my lungs, a feeling of happiness just ran through my body. I felt at home, this is going to be an epic journey and I knew it already.
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The airport is very small and has a lot of tour operators and service providers with some shops but only ONE ATM! And wait for it; it was not working. There was also no money changing facilities at the airport, I paid with the card and took a return transfer ticket for 700 ARS. The airport is roughly 23 km from the city and it takes 20-30 minutes to get to the Calafate Bus Terminal.
Tip: There is an option to get transfer tickets that pick and drop you to and from your hotel, it is a bit more expensive but it is very convenient.
Getting nervous before a flight? Here is my guide on managing flight anxiety.
Bus Terminal is located a little outside the town and is the bare minimum building with a few tour and bus operator offices. There is no ATM or food shop or any other facility here, I had to take a bus to El Chalten and had to walk to town to get money out. You don’t need to come to the terminal to book anything as pretty much all the companies have offices in the city centre.
Check out all the different modes of transportation you can use in a new city.
Where to Stay in Calafate?
Calafate is quite a small place and depending on your places you can stay either close to the bus terminal or in the city centre. I preferred the city centre because all the tour operators pick you up from your hotels. City centre is more beautiful and also has tons of restaurant and food options. There are a variety of options available from budget hostels to luxury hotels. I got myself a cute little room with the view of a beautiful flower-laden garden in the middle of City centre.
Check the guide to find the best accommodation in a new city.
When to Visit El Calafate?
You can visit Calafate at any time of the year. There will be fewer things to do and you will be cold with less pleasant weather in winter (March to September, remember this is southern hemisphere) but the best time to go is summer. Weather in Patagonia is very unpredictable with fierce winds blowing throughout the year but it is much more bearable in summer. I visited in December and I was super lucky with the weather.
It is also very important to know that weather prediction apps are mostly wrong here because Andes and Patagonia carve out their own weather which changes significantly hour to hour. The day it was supposed to rain turned out to be the sunniest day and we have had excellent visibility on our boat tour when we were expecting nothing other than winds and clouds. My advice would be to just go with it and try your luck. Another good reason for visiting in summer is the long days; the sun sets at around 10pm which gives you plenty of levy in terms of time.
Want to plan your perfect trip? Read this guide.
Food in Calafate
Food is Patagonia is heavenly; fresh, organic and cheap. Then the best food I have had was in El Chalten and then in Calafate.
The parrillas are an Argentinean speciality, these grill houses are famous for their world-famous steaks but in Calafate, they also do the special Calafate roasted lamb. Walk around the town centre and you will come across the poor lamb carcasses being slow-roasted on fire. On the palate, it is less cruel and absolutely divine with succulent meat. I loved trying it with grilled vegetables and obviously, you have to try the wine when you’re here. Check out my Insta stories above for restaurant recommendations.
Another thing to try is jam and marmalade made of Calafate Berries.
Fun Fact: The town is named after the berries and not the other way around. They are quite yummy and if you go in late summer you can have them freshly ripened as well.
There’s also plenty of microbreweries, bars and small cute cafes. I spent time in a few of them looking at the beautiful windows opening into small courtyards full of flowers, people here really appreciate nature and beauty!
Tip: Argentineans always under seasoned and overcook their meat, always ask for a degree lower than the redness you require (got for medium-rare if you want medium) and make sure to take your steak off the hot plates as soon as it arrives or it will turn chewy. (I am not sure who gave the restaurants this suggestion).
3 days in Calafate; Itinerary
I spent 3 days in Calafate which was just the right amount of time, It wasn’t too rushed and I didn’t get bored of the place. You can spend a week here and not get bored here but I had limited time, unfortunately. The first day went to a bit of relaxation after El Chalten in the spa and around the town after some demanding hiking, the second day went to the boat tour which took the whole day. I took the tour to Perito Moreno third day and in the evening took my bus to Torres del Paine. For details, keep reading.
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Money and ATMs
This is the thing that annoyed me the most, there are only 3 ATM’s in Calafate and all are operated by the same network in the background. They charge you for withdrawing pesos (378 ARS each time with a limit of 4000 ARS in one go), I really hated it and used my credit card as much as possible. Bring enough cash with you when coming in.
Tip: They love USD and Euros here, not big fans of Pounds or other currencies, unfortunately.
You can learn how to manage your budget during travelling in this guide.
Internet reception is quite good in the town but as soon as you’re out of town the reception is gone. There’s also good reception at the entrance of Perito Moreno cat ways but that’s about it. Who’s here to use the internet anyway, the place is too breath-taking to care about the rest of the world.
Day Tours to El Chalten
You will see plenty of these on offer and I’d strongly recommend not taking these. The amount of time it takes to get to Chalten and back you will barely have 5-6 hours and you cannot do any of the good hikes in that time plus after a hike, the last thing you want is a 3 hours bus ride to your bed. Chalten deserves a good 2 days, for more check my post about El Chalten here.
Day Tours to Torres del Paine
This poses an even bigger problem, the distances between Calafate and Torres del Paine are huge, you will go very early, will be shown a few places and brought back; Torres del Paine deserves more than that. Also, don’t forget you have an international border which adds to the complexity of the journey. Avoid these tours as well. If you want to go to Torres Del Paine, it is an easy bus ride away, check out my post about how to see it here.
Sunscreen and sunglasses
We are in the land of glaciers here which reflect most of the sunlight back and some of it quite strongly scatters on you when visiting. The city is also very close to the south ole which means longer sun exposure and strong sun so a good sunscreen and sunglasses are a must.
Tour bookings for Calafate
The million dollars question; Should I pre-book the tours or book them when I arrive? Also, which agency to choose from? I didn’t book any tours in advance and it worked in my favour because I checked the weather and made my decision based on that (or that’s what I thought), luckily weather was good throughout which helped massively.
It doesn’t matter mostly who you book with because the companies that actually operate the tours are the same on the day, there is also no difference in prices mostly.
I booked myself a boat tour and Perito Moreno Tour which would have been 9600 ARS but she gave me a discount and I got it for 9000 ARS.
Tip: Make sure you have cash when you arrive for tours to pay for national park entrance which is 800 ARS for one day. I got 2 days pass for 1200 ARS. If you got a single day pass, bring your ticket on the second day, it entitles you to a 50% discount.
In short, get here, look at a few tours and see what you fancy doing based on your time and then book with one of the agencies, it is fairly simple.
Tip: If you like a bit more adventure you can go mini trekking on the actual glacier or do kayaking but I avoided these because of my flu. Kayaking can be especially difficult if the wind is strong.
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Things to Do in Calafate
Most people use Calafate as a stopover for Perito Moreno but this beautiful city offers a lot more than that.
The city centre is small, beautiful and full of great restaurants, bars, chilled cafes and full of flowers; my favourite part. It is quite small and you can walk from one end of the city to the other end in 30-40 minutes. The centre of the city is a street with some nice bars on it, another fun thing to try. Most of the tour agencies have their offices here as well as equipment hire and the only 3 AM’s in town and a money changer.
I loved finding this beautiful spa which is a proper complex with gym, swimming pool, jacuzzi, steam room, sauna and works. I booked myself a massage (dead cheap 1200 ARS for an hour) and paid 700 ARS to use the facilities. The whole place is clean and looking out of the jacuzzi was their golf course in pristine condition. The massage was also great and I felt very relaxed after the whole experience.
This small lagoon is 15 minutes on foot from the town centre and hosts a diverse set of bird species including my favourite pink flamingos. The entrance is 500 ARS and you get to walk a very easy trail of 3 km watching different birds leading you to the shores of Lake Argentina. It was evening and the sun was about to set. I was alone in the whole place watching these beautiful creatures strut about. It is a good activity for a rest day between tours.
Tip: If you don’t want to pay the fee just walk around the boundary to the shores of the lake and then walk on the beach, you will still see swans and flamingos in the lake.
Los Glaciares National Park
Tip: Do not forget to bring your passport, you will need it here.
The National Park of Glaciers is the reason people come to Calafate, it has more than 300 glaciers; big and small but the three I got to see are the biggest, tallest and most accessible one and the experience was divine. I booked myself a boat tour to see the glaciers up close and then a bus tour to see Perito Moreno glacier from the balconies.
Read about eco-friendly travelling.
Boat Tour of Los Glaciares Park
It was 7:30 am when I boarded the tour bus and we were on the way to the boarding point for the boat in an hour. It was raining when we arrived and based on the weather forecast it was going to be a windy day. I purchased the two-day entrance ticket for the park and boarded the boat. It was a cosy ride with good facilities but I was starving with no breakfast. Soon we headed out and I bought some green tea and a small sandwich and we were on the way. The first half an hour was exciting and we all tried to go to the front area of the boat but the wind was very strong and we were all going at a high speed.
Tip: Stay inside until you arrive at the canal towards Spegizzinni, there isn’t much to see which you can’t see from inside.
The plan was to go to Spegizzinni glacier, then to the Upsala glacier followed by a small walk at a beach and then to Perito Moreno’s north face.
Just before Spegizzinni, we stopped at a small glacier called Seco which is small but perched on a mountainside, it is gorgeous with a forest at its feet.
We arrived closer to Spegizzinni and it became my favourite instantly. It is the tallest of them all and the fourth biggest glacier after Viedma, Upsala and Perito Moreno in that order.
We got really close to the glacier (300 m only) and while everyone was taking pictures, the glacier threw us a little party of cracking sounds and a big chunk fell off, I was just ready with my camera. It was a bloody awesome experience and apparently, we were quite lucky because it doesn’t happen often. The weather also cleared up.
The Beach and Cow Island
Next stop was a small beach and the island inhabited by wild cows. It was a small stop to understand the ranches and their lifestyle. Quite a serene place!
Glacier and Canal Upsala
The next stop was Upsala but the boat can’t get too close because it is unstable and the proof soon arrived. We were in a channel of icebergs, massive chunks floating in the lake water. It was so insane my mind was in an amazing shock. These majestic beasts were huge, our boat which luxuriously seated 200 people with 3 stories seemed like a child’s toy in front of these blue giants.
Fun Fact: The younger snow which falls on the glacier is white and the older ice further down is blue due to immense pressure and water reflection. If it is too sunny the blue colour doesn’t come off properly so a little cloudy day is perfect.
We saw Upsala and its majesty from a distance and headed towards the beach of a lake where the tour guide told us about the ranches and gauchos and the wild cows in the national park but it was uneventful.
Glacier Perito Moreno
Soon we were ready to head to Perito Moreno. Lunch was served on the way soon. I honestly didn’t expect much from this lamb sandwich but it was absolutely beautiful and just the right portion. After staying out for so long I needed that warmth. Everyone was dosing off. I took a quick nap as well(I am pretending like it was a decision I took, it was too comfy to resist). 20 minutes and another green tea later I headed out and before long appeared this beautiful glacier that everyone raved on about, perhaps the most famous and most accessible glacier in the world. We were at the north face of it.
Again we got pretty close (300m) but Perito Moreno kept its distance and silence, I didn’t mind I had the whole tomorrow to befriend this beautiful monster.
The journey back was uneventful and the bus brought me back to my hotel around 6pm. A nice dinner and a walk later I headed to bed.
Bus Tour of Perito Moreno Glacier
Tip: You can do this on your own and save yourself some money but it cost me the same with the combined booking so I went for this option. The buses leave daily from the bus terminal around lunchtime and you can come back with the same bus, the ticket is 1000 ARS.
Next morning, I was picked up by another tour bus and we headed to the national park. I checked if I had my ticket and passport and after an hour we were at the national park. The road was splendid with mountains playing hide and seek with the view.
Our first stop of the day was a boat tour which takes you to the south face of the Perito Moreno glacier. To be honest, I could have totally skipped this part because it was a bit like yesterday. The only difference was a different face of the same glacier and the ticket was an extra 1000 ARS. If you are taking the boat tour, skip this part and head to the balconies instead.
After an hour of just staying around the glacier our guide picked up and we headed to the balconies. It was almost midday now, I purchased a very dry sandwich and some green tea; a quick tasteless lunch later I was at the balconies.
Perito Moreno Balconies
There are 4 trails to follow and I did a bit of yellow and blue.
The yellow trail is the busiest because it shows the corner between the two faces of the glacier and this is the closest you will get to be from the glacier. The best part of this tour was the chance to see the sheer size of this beautiful mammoth because you are higher than the glacier which you cannot see from the boat. I saw some people trekking on the glacier and it put the size into perspective for me.
At 300m away these people were just getting on the glacier and they looked a little bigger than ants. A single crack could fit all of them and it was scary and wonderful at the same time.
I took some photos but honestly, you just can’t stop taking pictures! It felt like I wanted to capture it in my mind forever. With my tea, I sat there and listened to the cracks, the anticipation built around these noises and everyone getting ready with their cameras. Perito Moreno kept its quiet, however.
It was a sunny beautiful day and the crisp, fresh air felt good on my skin. I ditched my jacket and sat there for god knows how long.
I looked at my watch and I had an hour so I headed to the first balcony on the blue trail. The lake looked absolutely surreal. The guardian mountains at its back and the north face of the glacier on the left-hand side. I sat down and the same boat appeared which I’d taken yesterday. That was the second realisation of the size of this glacier (which isn’t the biggest either). The boat was a little dinky toy. I also saw some people kayaking but they were quite far away and evidently struggling because of the wind. I felt content with my decision to ditch the idea of kayaking here.
It was soon almost 3 and I was supposed to meet my tour guide. I hurriedly left with a gratifying and heartfelt thank you to Perito Moreno for its sheer presence. The journey back was uneventful. The guide told us some more facts about this part of Patagonia and the glaciers.
It was 4pm when I arrived back and headed to my next destination; Puerto Natales and Torres del Paine on the Chilean side. I consider myself truly blessed to have witnessed such beauty. The might of nature and the subtle beauty it offers is just unbelievable.
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Have you been to Calafate or Los Glaciares park or are you heading there? I’d love to hear about your experiences and if I have missed something feel free to ask me.