The sleepy mountain town of El Calafate in Argentina has become a popular stop-off for backpackers and tourists due to its close proximity to Perito Moreno Glacier. But if you make it a flying visit and leave once you’ve seen the glacier, you’re missing out! We’ve compiled the best things to do in El Calafate to explore the town, enjoy the local cuisine, experience the surrounding landscapes and – of course – witness that incredible mass of ice.
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In this article:
Perito Moreno Glacier tours
1. See Perito Moreno Glacier up close
Perito Moreno Glacier is a wonder of nature and awe-inspiring to behold. Located a 75-kilometre drive to the west of El Calafate, the glacier covers some 250 square kilometres, stretching 5 kilometres wide at its face and standing over 70 metres at its highest point. It is part of the giant South Patagonian Ice Field, the world’s second largest extrapolar ice field.
There are many ways you can see Perito Moreno Glacier. It is possible to travel independently, taking a bus from El Calafate (you can buy tickets at the town’s main bus terminal in advance). A return ticket costs 800 Argentine pesos (about $17.50), and you then have to pay a park entrance fee on arrival of another 800 Argentine pesos. This is the cheapest option for visiting independently, and in our opinion the best way outside of high season.
Alternatively, you can book a guided Perito Moreno Glacier tour in advance. The advantage of this is that you are collected from your accommodation, and if you book through GetYourGuide you can cancel for free until 24 hours before the tour. This tour also has the option to add a boat cruise to see the glacier up close. You can also book bus transfers in advance (a cheaper option without a guide) to make sure you secure a spot when it’s busy.
2. Hike on the glacier
For an immersive and unique experience of Perito Moreno Glacier, you can actually hike on top of it. There are two options for trekking on the glacier:
- Mini Trekking – 1 hour and 40 minutes hiking on the ice, plus a boat cruise in front of the glacier face
- Big Ice Trek – 4 hours hiking on the ice, plus around 3 hours further trekking in the forest and a boat cruise in front of the glacier face
3. See more glaciers on a full-day cruise
Perito Moreno Glacier is not the only spectacular glacier within the vicinity of El Calafate. There are many more glaciers of varying shapes and sizes dotted along the edge of the South Patagonian Ice Field.
On a full-day cruise in Los Glaciares National Park from El Calafate you can sail past the glaciers of Seco, Heim, Spegazzini, Upsala and Bertracchi before culminating at Perito Moreno. This is a great option for travelling families, as the boat has a glacier-themed recreation area.
Things to do in El Calafate: around town
4. Shop for souvenirs on Avenida del Libertador San Martín
Avenida del Libertador San Martín is the main street that runs through the spine of El Calafate. This busy thoroughfare is the town’s hub for shops, tour agencies and restaurants. Along its central stretch you will find an array of souvenir and gift shops where you can buy all sorts of Patagonian trinkets to take away from your trip.
The street is also the place to come if you need to find a bank, ATM or pharmacy. You’re never far away from a supermarket either.
5. Visit Glaciarium, the glacier museum
This museum is set inside a strikingly beautiful building a few kilometres outside town. Inside Glaciarium, the Patagonian Ice Museum, you can learn everything you could possibly want to know about glaciers, including how they are formed, how they move and how our knowledge of them has developed throughout history.
Glaciarium features an impressive 3D model of the South Patagonian Ice Field, displaying the most notable glaciers in Los Glaciares National Park. If that’s not enough to get you interested, you can sip a drink at Glaciobar, the world’s only bar made from 100% glacial ice.
A free shuttle bus runs to Glaciarium from 1 de Mayo, just off Avenida del Libertador. Entrance to the museum costs 480 Argentine pesos (about $11), and it’s another 300 pesos (about $7) to enter Glaciobar, which includes a drink.
6. Learn history at Centro de Interpretación Histórica
This cute little museum on the north side of town (about a 10-minute walk from the centre) gives a window into the natural history of Patagonia, complete with dinosaur models, fossils and an assortment of archaeological artefacts.
Open until 8pm every day, it’s well worth spending an hour or two here to learn about Patagonia from the ice age to the present day. Information is presented in both English and Spanish, and you can enjoy a free cup of Argentinian mate when you’re done.
7. Explore the ecological reserve of Laguna Nimez
Just 15 minutes’ walk from El Calafate centre, Laguna Nimez is a protected wildlife reserve on the cusp of Lago Argentino. For an entrance fee of 350 pesos (about $7.50), you can follow a boardwalk trail around the entire reserve and see its resident creatures and plants. The ticket stays valid for one week.
Notably, the reserve is home to a variety of birdlife. The most striking to see is the Chilean flamingo, which you can witness frolicking in the tranquil waters of the lagoon.
8. Stay in a lake view hostel
El Calafate has a multitude of options for places to stay, from rustic campsites to luxury hotels and everything in between. But there’s something extra special about America Del Sur Hostel, where you can enjoy a spectacular view across Lago Argentino.
The hostel is set in a large, Patagonian-style wooden building, and has a full suite of facilities including a restaurant, bar, and kitchen for self-catering. We love staying in hostels as they’re awesome places for meeting travellers and sharing experiences.
Prices at America Del Sure Hostel begin at $18 for a dorm bed and $75 for a private room. You can book on hostelworld or booking.com. For more places to stay on a budget, check out our guide to the best hostels in El Calafate.
Things to do in El Calafate: food and drink
9. Try the local beer
Craft beer is a big thing in Patagonia, and El Calafate is somewhat of a hotspot for trying the local brews. If you are a beer lover then a visit to Cervecería Artesanal Chopen is an absolute must while you’re in town. This homely, rustic pub has an emphasis on great beer, and is run by people with a passion for it.
When you sit down at the bar you will be served a sample of free tasters before you decide which beer to order. The prices are cheap compared to other joints in town, and there’s some delicious local food too. Try a plate of local meats and cheeses washed down with a half-litre of Calafate beer. Mmmm.
10. Drink in a library bar
Librobar Borges y Álvarez is another place you can try local craft beers, but in rather a more bohemian setting. This place resembles a library as much as it does a bar, with shelves upon shelves of books lining the walls, and inspirational quotes filling the gaps. When stopping in for a drink, you are welcome to leaf through any book of your choosing.
It’s not only a good beer you will find here, either. Take your pick from authentic coffee, Argentinian wine or a cocktail if you prefer. If you’re hungry there’s also a selection of easy food – pizzas, empanadas and the like. This place also has one of the fastest wifi connections in town, so it’s the place to be if you need an afternoon work station.
11. Stop by at Yeti Ice Bar
I’ve already mentioned that you can drink in the world’s only 100% glacial ice bar in El Calafate – Glaciobar, inside the Glaciarium. But if you don’t have time for a trip to the museum, then Yeti Ice Bar in town is a pretty good substitute.
It’s rather a novelty yet formulaic experience. You pay an entrance fee of 250 pesos (about $5.50). Then, you enter a ‘pre-cold chamber’ where you are kitted out with thermal layers, a poncho, gloves and crampons.
Finally, you enter the freezing cold cavern bar with an average temperature of –10°C. Once you’re inside, you have 25 minutes to soak up the atmosphere, beginning with a photoshoot in wintry scenarios. Then you can keep yourself warm with free liqueur drinks and/or a boogie on the dance floor.
12. Eat a warming lunch at La Zorra Taproom
El Calafate has a wide selection of restaurants serving traditional Patagonian fare, but the tourist prices can make it pretty expensive to eat out. La Zorra Taproom is one of the more reasonably priced places to enjoy some tasty nourishment, and it’s also a cool and quirky place to hang out.
We popped in here for a casual lunch when we had a free day in El Calafate after someone tipped us off about it. Sure enough, it was way cheaper than other places we tried, and the food was fabulous. We had a soul-warming Patagonian stew with some chips – the perfect hit!
As the name Taproom suggests, this is also a great place to try the local beers. There’s a plentiful choice of cerveza artesanal available at the bar to accompany your satisfying meal.
El Calafate tours and day trips
13. See the unobstructed views from Cerro Frías
Roughly 23 kilometres to the west of El Calafate, the lofty hill of Cerro Frías stands at 1,300 metres above sea level. As it’s the only summit for miles around, at the top you can glimpse an incredible panoramic view of the Patagonian steppe landscape.
From Cerro Frías you can see far across the sprawling waters of Lago Argentino, all the way to the peak of Mount Fitz Roy to the north and Torres Del Paine to the west.
The area around the hill is also popular for adventure sports and and activities. Tour agencies in town offer experiences such as 4WD driving, cycling, horse riding and hiking.
14. Take a day trip to Torres Del Paine
Across the border into Chile, the national park of Torres Del Paine features some of Patagonia’s most breathtaking scenery. The glimmering granite towers of Las Torres, the mighty Grey Glacier and the calm waters of Lago Nordenskjöld are just some of the iconic natural landmarks within the perimeter of the park.
People travel across the world to attempt the famous W Trek in Torres Del Paine, one of the world’s great multi-day hiking trails (if you’re planning to try it, check out our W Trek guide). But if you’re short of time and want to see some of the highlights, you can take a full day tour to Torres Del Paine from El Calafate.
On a long day’s trip you can trek some of the shorter trails in the park and see mountains, lagoons and waterfalls with the accompaniment of an expert guide.
15. Visit Estancia Cristina
Estancias are livestock farms or ranches that comprise an important part of life in Patagonia. Several estancias within the locale of El Calafate welcome visitors, and some offer gaucho horse-riding experiences and active demonstrations of farming procedures.
Estancia Cristina is one of the largest examples in the area. Operational for over a century, it features an on-site museum, chapel and country house. For a complete experience, you can book an Estancia Cristina and glaciers full-day tour, which includes a visit to the ranch and a cruise across Lago Argentino to see Upsala Glacier, the second-largest in Los Glaciares National Park.
16. Go hiking in El Chaltén
The village-town of El Chaltén, about three hours’ drive north of El Calafate, is on the doorstep of some of Argentine Patagonia’s very best hiking trails. Via a selection of easy day hikes you can reach fabulous views of the famous peaks of Mount Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre.
There is no entrance fee to the national park from El Chaltén, and many of the trails are comfortable to do independently. Buses leave frequently from El Calafate. Check for services and prices on Busbud, and see our guide to hiking in El Chaltén for details about the trails.
An independent hiking trip to El Chaltén from El Calafate will require at least one overnight stay. If time is limited, you can book an organised full-day hiking tour to El Chaltén, with accommodation pickup and same-day drop off in El Calafate.
17. Go on a 4WD tour in Calafate Mountain Park
There are plenty of things to do in El Calafate for the more adventurous souls. One adrenaline-filled way to explore the Patagonian steppe surroundings is to embark on a 4WD tour. The nearby Calafate Mountain Park is the perfect place for it, with desert tundra punctuated by Cretaceous rock formations and Andes mountains lining the horizon.
On a 3-hour 4WD tour to Cerro Huyliche you can take a morning or afternoon venture into this wilderness and get behind the wheel. On the clearest of days, you will also be able to catch a glimpse of glaciers and Mount Fitz Roy in the distance.
18. Explore La Leona Petrified Forest
As a natural counterbalance to the lakes and glaciers, the petrified forest of La Leona offers a completely different perspective of the landscapes around El Calafate. A ‘petrified forest’ is the fossilised remains of vegetation that has turned to stone, a process that takes millions of years and is rare to see.
On a La Leona hiking tour from El Calafate you can see fossils of dinosaurs and the petrified remains of ancient trees, with transfers, lunch and guide included. If you have a spare day while you’re in town, it’s a great way to complement those glacier experiences.
Map of El Calafate attractions
The map below shows the places and activities we have highlighted in the article that are located in and around the town:
Where to stay in El Calafate
El Calafate welcomes more and more visitors every year, and has a huge range of accommodation options to suit any travel style. We prefer to stay in hostels, as they’re cheap and a great way to meet people. Check out our guide to the best hostels in El Calafate to find cool budget places to stay around the town.
To browse the full range of accommodation in El Calafate, head over to booking.com.
Best times to visit El Calafate and Perito Moreno Glacier
El Calafate is busiest during the hiking season, which runs from October to April, with the peak in summer from December to February. This is when you can find the warmest weather and the best conditions for getting outdoors.
Perito Moreno Glacier is open for visitors at any time of year. If it’s the main reason for your visit and you like to avoid the crowds, then you could consider visiting in winter (June–August). Another bonus of visiting at this time is you can find budget deals on tours, accommodation and transfers. Just remember to bring plenty of warm clothing! (See our Patagonia packing list.)
Note that hiking on the glacier is restricted by season. The Big Ice trek is only operational from September to April, while Mini Trekking runs throughout the year with a short closure during July.
For comprehensive information on the seasons and climate in the region, see our article on the best times to visit Patagonia. For other locations around the country, our guide to the best times to visit Argentina dives into more detail.
How to get to El Calafate
El Calafate is one of the most popular stop-offs on the classic route through Patagonia, and so it is served by very good transport links. If you’re making a one-off trip, the easiest (and usually cheapest) way to reach El Calafate is to fly. It has an international airport with regular flights from Buenos Aires, Mendoza and elsewhere. Check Skyscanner for the best rates, and book as far in advance as possible.
If you are visiting El Calafate on a travel route through Patagonia, taking the bus is the best option. The town is a convenient pivot point for navigating the region, with El Chaltén, Puerto Natales and Rio Gallegos all roughly 3–4 hours’ drive away, and bus services running several times daily. See our guide to getting around Patagonia by bus for more information.
If you have cash to splash, then hiring a car is another option. The highway routes around El Calafate make for outstanding scenic drives along the shores of huge, sprawling lakes, with mountains a constant in the distance. Take a look on RentalCars to find the best rates.
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