Patagonia, land of glaciers and mountains
Leaving behind the civilization and big cities such as Buenos Aires and Cordoba for something of spectacular nature in this world: glaciers, mountains and landscapes of surreal pristine beauty. El Calafate itself being the major gateway into the countless natural parks, some of which in Chile’s soil yet accessible from Argentina’s side. Although not a city, but a small town, it contains all the facilities to handle the ever growing number of tourists seeking another of the fascinating sides Argentina has to offer.
Be prepared to not only enjoy the natural landscape, but also the flora and fauna which is beautiful. From the Patagonian desert of infinite emptiness, only interrupted by serpentine rivers, to the Magellanic subpolar forests. easy to spot are guanacos (similar to a llama), cougars (puma concolor) which is the second heaviest cat after the jaguar in the Americas; grey foxes, rheas (similar to an ostrich, also known as ñandúes), condors or eagles to name a few. You could simply spend weeks in the area, and every day visiting a different place, but distance of course, are large, and time spend travelling around dramatically increased because there are no motorways nor dual carriage roads. In some place and for many kilometres, the path is unpaved, not the best when in rainy or snowy conditions.
A trip to Argentina in my own opinion, is not complete unless you plan well your route to include this place. While there is something I would not recommend at all, coming here overland and spend unnecessary very long time, even days on a bus with actually not much to see out there from the window other than the emptiness; I would for sure not hesitate in taking a flight. The good news is that from most of the main cities in the country you can fly here directly, and at great fares! Would you even consider 40 hours on a bus from Buenos Aires to take an example, against 3 by plane?
Some of the jewels noteworthy to visit, bearing the mandatory Perito Moreno Glacier are some of the plenty other glaciers, considering there are no less than 47 within the National Park! Spegazzini and Upsala should be high up in the list, and anyway often included on a tour. The three of them are by far the most incredible, and also accessible, and having the chance to experience the power of nature to this scale will give anyone goosebumps. The noise of the cracking ice as a thunder, the falling pieces and the vivid colors is unforgettable.
Thereafter, there are another two national parks to consider, pretty much at the very same distance from El Calafate, around 220 kilometres, one at the north, the other towards the south. Starting with the one at the north, the El Chalten is another awe-impressive wonder of the world, famous for the imposing Cerro Torre and Fitz Roy Mountains of especial beauty surrounded by lakes, rivers and nature. And lastly, Torres del Paine National Park, within Chile’s soil, is the cherry on the cake. That image of these mighty mountains will be difficult to forget.
To take into good consideration when heading to all these places, is first of all, having a rental car. Otherwise, forget about getting to some incredible viewing points, the flexibility and the actual possibility to even reach certain places. Then before setting off, make sure you have a full tank of petrol, and shop some drinks and food to carry with you while you are still in El Calafate. Finding a supermarket is problematic elsewhere, and the small shops you might see have super inflated prices and almost no choice. The same applies to find any restaurant along the way. Yes, of course there are near the major natural sights, but again, expect to pay an unnecessarily expensive price.
Also in terms of what to carry and/or wear, this is easy. Basically, during the high season (the summer months between December and March), the weather is not bad, and +16 degrees during the day is normal, colder at night of course, but generally sunny. Some comfortable walking/trekking shoes is an advantage, especially if these are waterproof. Some sweatpants, pullover and jacket is well enough, and a scarf and gloves just in case. A waterproof poncho could be handy to be honest, since you never know the weather pattern in Patagonia. A minute is sunny while the next could be raining. But other than that, there’s nothing really out of the blue to know.
For more information about El Calafate check Wikipedia and Wikitravel sites, however in this last case, whoever wrote the guide must have been a very, very low class backpacker who considers “very expensive” to pay 30 Pesos for a coffee! crazy, because that’s miserable money, and the list goes on as you read through. Thankfully there is some other valuable information to take some advice from. Argentina’s currency is the Peso ($, ARS). Please note that any price reference is true as from when this guide was created, therefore check prices in advance as with the time they change.
What to see and do in El Calafate area
- El Chalten National Park Located some 220 kilometres north of El Calafate (3 hours drive), driving by the shores of Lago Argentino and then along most of Lago Viedma. It is from the easternmost edge of Lake Viedma that you will start to get views towards the famous Cerro Torre and Fitz Roy Mountains at the far distance, key natural features of the national park. Then again, a much closer view is from the viewing point right at the entrance of the national park before entering El Chalten town. Not far after you pass the town, there is the beginning of the walking trek towards the Laguna de los Tres where you will have the most stunning view of the Fitz Roy Mountains. Glacier Viedma, at the westernmost edge of Lake Viedma is another astonishing site, but you will need to get a boat tour to admire it.
- El Calafate Town Itself has nothing worth for the visitor other than the Glaciarium, a museum that focuses on ice and glaciers, located west outside of the town.
- Los Glaciares National Park The major draw for anyone coming to this region. These are some of the most spectacular one can see in the planet, from that very near the edges, no matter if by a boat tour, or the multiple viewing platforms offering grand views of this powerful natural wonder. Although it is a very long region starting farther north of El Chalten at the height of O’Higgins village and continuing south most of it along Chile’s soils farther down Torres del Paine. Please do remember that no matter if you are coming on your own or as part of a tour, you will need to pay the entrance fee to Perito Moreno National Park. This currently stands at 800 Pesos as of January 2020, however with such a fluctuating economy and volatility of the Peso, it might increase, even though the relative change to your home currency would translate as the same.
-Perito Moreno Glacier One of the world’s most famous, it is difficult to even describe in words or pictures. Once you stand right there at the front you will understand why. The colossal size! 5 kilometres wide and 30 long, with a maximum height of 70 meters, that means another 140 meters are below the water level. If you are lucky enough you will get to see big chunks of it falling into the water, and the sound of the cracking ice.
-Spegazzini Glacier One of the tallest at its rim in the region reaching up to 125 meters high. It is generally included when on a boat tour of the glaciers, otherwise difficult to reach on your own.
-Upsala Glacier Another of the most magnificent glaciers you will get to see when on a boat tour. It has 3 side tributaries all adding to its mouth, however it is one of the fastest retreating due to global warming.
- Torres del Paine National Park Heading towards the south from El Calafate, some 220 kilometres away crossing through the Patagonian Desert and Magellanic Subpolar Forests, rivers and forever emptiness as your eyes can see; then reaching this earth’s spectacle, the towering mighty mountains half covered in snow and surrounding glaciers. Remember this involves a border crossing at Cancha Carrera, and a special permit needs to be paid to the rental car company while of course, having your passport in order and if any visa needed then dealt beforehand.
-Mirador Nordenskjold Along the Y-150 Road, hence easy to reach as it does not involve any trek whatsoever, and still will grant you some of the finest views over the Torres del Paine Mountains and the lake at its front. Setting this point in your navigation will save you over 2 hours than reaching Mirador Cuernos.
-Salto Grande As you reach the end of the Y-158 road, which translates in 284 kilometres from El Calafate, then a short walk ahead from the car park. The water coming from the glaciers connecting the greater Lake Nordenskjold with Lake Pehoe at a lower elevation creates rapids and a waterfall.
-Mirador Cuernos There is no road, but a trek from Salto Grande, easy nevertheless. It is from this viewing point where you will get the entire view over Torres del Paine Mountains just ahead of you.
While anyone can get on public transport easily to the viewing point of the Perito Moreno Glacier; there is no doubt and you should not hesitate in getting a tour to visit as many glaciers as possible. Coming this far and remote already and not doing this, then sorry to say, that’s nonsense and silly, bearing in mind you will not be able to see any of the other great glaciers any other way around.
There are many tour operators out there, and countless more websites to do such searches and bookings. For instance, two of the most trustful and recommended we generally use are Viator (member of TripAdvisor) and GetYourGuide. We do easily find some of the best prices out there with them, cheaper than booking directly with the final company, plus you can get cashback should you have account on some of the reward websites that pays its members a percentage of money earned when purchasing goods and services via its affiliate links. In my experience, TopCashback is the best. Remember, anyone can join and it’s completely for free!
Now coming to the point, the best suitable tour option for us was the Full day sightseeing on the Maria Turquesa cruise, link here. This is by far the most complete and longest tour option provided where you will get to see not just one but 3 different glaciers among the beauty landscape surrounding the navigation.
The international airport is some 20 kilometres east of the town. As for public transportation you have the bus that for 350 Pesos will drop you at your hotel directly, and for 150 extra for the return ticket, they will also come and pick you at the hotel, but you need to have a departing ticket to show the driver.
Coming overland is possible by long distance buses only, but journey times and comfort not the best. The roads in this side of Argentina are not 100% paved, and when weather conditions are poor, it can easily take several more hours to reach your destination. While this option is very cheap compared to flying, it does not make much sense to lose a day, while if booking well ahead of time, you can grab some nice flight fares and reduce your journey time to the minimum, and increase the comfort 100%.
Within the town, well, it’s merely a main road and others leading to it with nothing in between to see. Unless you are staying near the centre, you will need to rent a car to move around and visit as many places you can or you would like to, and bear in mind renting a car does not come cheap here. Be prepare to pay the extra, but in turn, be free to go anywhere whenever you like without the need to depend on very infrequent buses which will not take you to the nice points as inside El Chalten or Torres del Paine. If in the other hand all you want is to see the Perito Moreno, then you can count of the bus to take you there and back without any problem.
Although being that remote and that far from the nearest big city, the town has developed a good infrastructure for the tourist, and while the accommodation options are not large, these are good but not enough to cover the ever growing demand for a room. Whenever you plan your trip, try to come with the dates as soon as you can and book the hotel. The good ones get fully booked too quickly, especially during the season. A good and reasonable point to start your search is by checking some of our preferred affiliate hotel search engine such as Hotels.com, Booking.com, Expedia, Otel.com, Agoda, Opodo or Ebookers.
We stayed at the Design Suites Calafate, in Calle 598, that’s northeast outside of the city centre in a quiet beautiful location with stunning views over Lago Argentina. The outstanding architecture of the property adds even more value to this place, simply incredible. A perfect stay where everyone was so polite and friendly, helpful and caring that was sad to leave. The room was larger than average, with majestic views towards the lake and nature; comfortable and quiet, elegantly designed. The breakfast was also very good and top quality, and the pool and spa… awesome! Overlooking the nature. One of the most beautiful and so carefully designed hotels I’ve ever been.