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!
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 with 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 coffee shop. The airport even had some of the fastest wi-fi I experienced the entire time I was in Patagonia!
Where to Stay
There are a ton of hotels to stay at in downtown El Calafate, so 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.
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How to Get Around
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.
What to Do
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.
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.
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Where to Eat
Abuela Goye – 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!
La Tablita – 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.
Mi Rancho – 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.
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.
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.
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