The Top Things to Do and See in El Calafate, Argentina
El Calafate is a small town in the far south of Argentina with a small population, but vast numbers of tourists visiting throughout the year, hoping to explore the nearby Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, Argentina’s Glacier National Park. While the town is small, there are plenty of expeditions or tours to the National Park for visitors to make the most of, as well as a few good attractions within El Calafate itself.
The main attraction of Parque Nacional Los Glaciares is the glacier named Perito Moreno, and one of the best ways to get up close to it is on a boat trip. From the boat, visitors can really get a feel of the vastness of the glacier (it is 60 metres high), and if they wait for long enough are likely to see a huge chunk of ice fall off the front. Another way to see the glacier is from the visitor centre, which has a good trail that covers various different viewing angles. From the viewing platforms, you can see the starting point of Perito Moreno, 35 kilometres away at the summit of the Andes. All hotels and hostels in El Calafate offer tours that include both a boat trip and time at the visitor centre.
Perito Moreno glacier Ⓒ Marc Conelis/Flickr
For the more adventurous visitors, another way to experience the National Park’s glaciers is to hike across one of them. Hikes are not recommended for the faint-hearted, and appropriate footwear and clothing is an absolute necessity before visitors will be allowed on the tour. The hikes normally last a full day, with some offering the opportunity to camp, and are extremely physically challenging. However, being able to walk across a (very slowly) moving glacier is a unique and worthwhile experience. Again, most hotels and hostels are able to book hikes for their guests, or there are plenty of tour companies on El Calafate’s main street who can do the same.
Perito Moreno Ⓒ Marina & Enrique/Flickr
Many visitors passing through El Calafate will take a trip to El Chaltén, a nearby village located within the Glacier National Park, home to Mount Fitz Roy, a mountain with popular trekking and hiking routes. The views from the mountain are stunning, especially on clear days when hikers can see for miles. It is very cold and wintery throughout the year, and it is not recommendable to climb the mountain during the winter months (April-October). El Chaltén itself is a very small village, so visitors often leave El Calafate for a night in El Chaltén to experience the wilderness, and then return to catch a connection to somewhere else.
Mount Fitz Roy Ⓒ Chris Ford/Flickr
Perito Moreno is not the only glacier in Parque Nacional Los Glaciares. Other glaciers include Upsala and Spegazzini, which are both smaller than Perito but nonetheless impressive. The best way to see the other glaciers is on a full day boat tour, which takes visitors all around Lago Argentino, the largest lake in Argentina and the lake in which all the melted glacier ice ends up. The colour of the water in the lake is a grey-green, due to the sediment picked up by the glacier ice as it moves from the summit of the surrounding mountains. The lake is vast and truly beautiful to look at. Boat tours can be booked at hotels, hostels or travel agencies on the high street.
Lago Argentino boat tour Ⓒ Ana_Cotta/Flickr
A short 15 minute walk from the centre of El Calafate is an ecological reserve, Lake Nimez. The area is protected, and is a haven for a great variety of birds, of which the largest and most fascinating is the Chilean flamingo. The reserve is also a microcosm of the Patagonian landscape, encompassing examples of the plants and wildlife of wetlands, desert steppe and the shores of Lake Argentino. There is a self-guided boardwalk which takes visitors around the whole reserve, and a visit can take around one to three hours, depending on how long visitors might spend spotting wildlife. For a break from the glaciers, Laguna Nimez is a beautiful and surprising attraction.
Opening hours: daylight hours
Av Kirchner y N.L.Alem, El Calafate, Argentina
Centro de Interpretación Histórica
Another offering for visitors, within the town of El Calafate itself, is the history museum, which details the natural history of the surrounding area. It covers the history of Patagonia since the ice age, including useful information on glaciers, as well as dinosaurs, extinct animals, indigenous peoples, and the formation of other geographical landscapes. The exhibits are presented across a range of mediums, such as models, photos and real-life archaeological discoveries. The exhibit information is in both Spanish and English, and is accessible for children and adults.
Opening hours: 10am-8pm daily
Cnr. Av Brown and G. Bonmelli, El Calafate, Argentina
El Calafate’s Glaciarium is a bit of a tourist gimic, but is nonetheless popular and worth a visit. After a couple of days exploring the Glacier National Park, visitors often want to experience the cold and ice up close, and so take a trip to the Glaciarium. It is not a typical ‘ice bar’, however – inside there is a small museum with displays and videos explaining how glaciers are formed, as well as the geology of the area and climate change. At the end of the tour is an all-you-can-drink ice bar where visitors have 20 minutes to enjoy their choice of ice-cold beverage.
Opening hours: Sep-Apr, 9am-8pm daily; May-Aug, 11am-7pm daily
Ruta Provincial 11 km 6, El Calafate, Argentina
This petrified forest provides visitors with a completely different impression of the area. A far cry from the Glacier National Park, the dry and sandy rock landscape is full of petrified trees, as well as dinosaur bones and other fossils. The atmosphere is eerie, as visitors imagine what the land was once like, although they may be able to spot some of the wildlife that now inhabits the area, including guanacos and Andean birds. Visitors can only go to the area on a guided tour as it is private land.
La Leona Ⓒ Simone Capretti/Flickr