If you’re thinking of exploring southern Patagonia on the Argentina side, chances are El Calafate will be the town you fly into. It’s only a 3-hour flight from Buenos Aires, so it’s easily accessible. It’s a fun town to explore and use as your base when you’re exploring the rest of Patagonia. This guide to El Calafate will help you get around the area, and there are plenty of things to do in El Calafate while you’re there!
El Calafate International Airport
The El Calafate International Airport, or Comandante Armando Tola International Airport, was built in 2000. Before then, it took hours on a bus to get down to the area, so I’m glad it’s an option to fly now.
It’s a very small airport with maybe less than 10 gates, but I was surprised by how much they had there. There’s a cafe both before and after security to get food or drinks. They also have a gift store, drugstore, and a coffee shop. The airport even had some of the fastest wi-fi I experienced the entire time I was in Patagonia!
Where to Stay in El Calafate
There are several great options to pick from. Finding the right El Calafate hotel isn’t always easy, so here are a few good options.
If you’re looking for a decent and cozy place to stay then this is it. It’s a relatively modest B&B with some amazing views of the lake. Though it is on the edge of the town, and you’d have to walk around 40 minutes to get there. Read reviews on TripAdvisor
This is a sophisticated El Calafate hotel, and it’s one of the few in the town with an indoor pool. It’s located in the heart of the town, and everything is within walking distance. It offers excellent views of the town, the lake, and the mountains. Read reviews on TripAdvisor
This is a very calm and quiet B&B located very near the main avenue. It has a splendid ambiance that is ideal for rest and relaxation. There plenty of tourist amenities in the vicinity of this El Calafate hotel, like the nearby supermarket. Everything else is within walking distance. Read reviews on TripAdvisor
There are a ton of hotels to stay at in downtown El Calafate and many are within walking distance to stores and restaurants. I stayed at Kosten Aike and loved it. The hotel was only a few minutes from the main street so I could easily explore the town and pop back in to rest when I needed to. They had a huge selection at their breakfast buffet each morning, a gym, and a hot tub. Read reviews on TripAdvisor
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Transportation Options in El Calafate
El Calafate is a well-connected city. Even though it is modest in size, you can get in and out pretty much every way. It has an airport, that even though it’s not connected worldwide, it flies to and from Buenos Aires and Bariloche. If you fly in El Calafate you have the option of taking the bus or hire a cab.
Although the bus is cheaper, a taxi is almost always faster. Because the city is not that big you won’t need a rental car just to get around, though it can come in handy if you’re planning on exploring the region. A rental can be expensive and it’s best to split the cost with other people. The public transport isn’t the most efficient, but it’s reliable enough if you have no other option.
In my opinion, the best way to get around is to rent a car, especially in this part of South America. There are several car rental companies available at the airport as well as in town. The roads are in great condition, so having a car allows you to stop when you want and explore more than a normal tour might let you. That said, there are plenty of tour companies that will take you out for the day, taking the stress off you.
Things to Do in El Calafate
El Calafate is the perfect base for day trips, but there’s plenty to do around the town, too. You can buy almost anything you need there, from electronics to warm clothing. The prices are astronomical though, so I recommend being as prepared as possible with your supplies before you head here. It’s nice to know you have options though, such as if you get sick and need medicine.
This may seem like a no-brainer, but most tourists’ focus seems to be out of the city. Because of the large number of people visiting El Calafate, there is a nice tourist infrastructure. From tiny shops to cafes, and pubs, there are lots of things to do downtown. It’s a great option for when you’re stuck on what to do in El Calafate itself.
If you want to buy local souvenirs, go to the Artesanos. It’s tucked away on a side street on the main road and you’ll need to know some Spanish, but this is where I found my favorite handmade gifts.
Visit an Estancia
Patagonian lamb is known worldwide as a delicacy. That’s one of the reasons why visiting an Estancia is one of the best things to do in El Calafate. They’re ranches of great quality and they offer a view on the life of the gaucho, which is basically a cowboy. Most of them offer excellent barbeque which is served by picturesque views.
Check out a museum
The region surrounding El Calafate is definitely historic. Patagonia is a fascinating region and learning about its history is fun and delightful. The El Calafate Historical Interpretation Center is definitely a museum that everybody should check out. It’s full of information on local human and natural history, and it’s a great experience if you’re not sure on what to do in El Calafate.
Spot Flamingos at the Reserve
The stunning Laguna Nimez Reserve is found in the north part of town. It’s easily reached on foot from downtown. This is an amazing avian reserve that allows you a unique opportunity to observe flamingoes, besides other birds. This reserve should be on everyone’s itinerary even if you’ve already planned what to do in El Calafate.
Everyone is so focused on hiking and trekking here that they miss out on other amazing experiences. Renting a bike and cycling along the lake is absolutely spectacular. The air is fresh and the wind is in your hair, and you’ll be enjoying excellent views. This is one of the best active things to do in El Calafate.
Enjoy Beautiful Views
It’s no secret that Patagonia is stunning. The world-famous Calafate Balcony is the place to go to witness gorgeous sights. It’s located very close to the city, but the caveat is that it’s only accessible by four-wheel vehicles. Fortunately, these can be arranged easily and you can witness spectacular sights of El Calafate perched high atop the hills. Just an amazing thing to do in El Calafate.
Though technically not in El Calafate, there is a series of caverns called Walichu Caves found on the coastline. They’re a great family option too, as they feel thrilling to explore but are quite safe. The caves have great archaeological value and are gorgeous.
Read more: The Ultimate Patagonia Packing List
Where to Eat
Here are some of my recommended places to eat in El Calafate.
El calafate is a berry that grows in the town, and the ice cream is very popular to get. It tasted like a mix of berries to me, and it’s perfect for an afternoon snack!
This upscale restaurant will let you taste some traditional Argentian food, including lamb and pigs that you’ll see roasting in a glass window before you. Save room for dessert, as they have some decadent choices.
This small, cozy restaurant will introduce you to new dishes from the region that you likely haven’t had before. They’re also big on hanging up their lambs to dry out so you can see what you’ll be eating.
La Zorra Taproom
I was surprised to find a taproom in the town, and even happier to find out ladies got a discount when I was there. They have a variety of beer, from pilsners to IPAs.
Day Trips From El Calafate
El Calafate is the entryway to the Southern Patagonia Ice Field, so I recommend stopping by this museum first before you actually go out and see glaciers. You’ll learn all about the history of the area, how glaciers form, and how they’ve shaped the current land.
Perito Merino Glacier
I’ve seen large glaciers in Alaska, but nothing compares to the Perito Merino Glacier in Patagonia. This massive glacier can be visited by boat and then explored with a tour. If you don’t want to ice hike, you can go to the other side of the glacier to view it from a boardwalk.
Torres del Paine
This is one of the most popular El Calafate tours. Torres del Paine is an amazing destination in general, and it feels like an entirely enchanted place. It has a very unique and cool atmosphere with its many waterfalls, lakes, and the amazing surrounding mountains. This day trip will take you at least a full day, so make sure to plan for that when you’re figuring out what to do in El Calafate.
If you’re going hiking or camping in El Chaltén, you’ll take Route 40 from El Calafate to get there. It’s a beautiful drive, so be prepared to stop and take pictures. I saw plenty of wildlife along the way as well.
Rios de Hielo
Seeing the amazing glaciers around the town from up close is one of the best things to do in El Calafate. It’s reachable by boat only, so you’ll most likely need a tour. You’ll go along the northern arm of the lake, and one of the first and best things you’ll see is the amazing Upsala Glacier. It’s followed by the Seco Glacier in the south, and then the Spegazzini Glacier. It’s one of the most unforgettable El Calafate tours.
If you’re driving on Route 40, make a stop at La Leona. They have hotel rooms, souvenirs, food, and drinks. I stopped here several times and got a coffee and an alfajore (my favorite South American dessert). There’s a lot of history to this store/hotel, as Perito Merino (from the glacier) and even Butchy Cassidy and the Sundance Kid stopped here back in the day.
About 40 minutes from El Calafate is the Petrified Forest. This is yet another reason I love Patagonia – the landscape is constantly changing! The day before I was freezing walking on a glacier, and then the next day I was down to my t-shirt hiking around here. There are plenty of fossils here that have been preserved for centuries, plus it’s a decent hike that’ll have you sweating.
If you’re up for a bit of adventuring then this is one of the best El Calafate tours for that. You’ll be deep in the waters of the Upsala Channel if you so choose, but you can also glide slowly and quietly too. It’s one of the best things to do in El Calafate as you’ll be experiencing its stunning flora and fauna first hand.
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