Let’s imagine you arrive in El Calafate and have checked into your hotel by two p.m. You have enough time to do some exploring, but not enough to go on a major excursion. In that situation, one excellent option would be to get to know the city from the top down. How’s that? One of the newest features of downtown El Calafate is an airlift up to the top of Cerro Huyliche, which provides a panoramic view of the city and its surroundings, including Lago Argentino, the Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, and the imposing Fitz Roy and Torre mountains. Calafate Mountain Park, which is open year round, is also located at the top of Cerro Huyliche. If you visit the mountain park in the summer, you can go on outings in four-wheel-drive and all-terrain vehicles and kayaks. If you are there in the winter, you can go skiing or snow tubing, or participate in a wide range of other winter activities.
Another fun outing in El Calafate is the Glaciarium, a museum and research center on ice and the glaciers that opened in 2011. The glasses, bar, tables, and seats in the museum’s café are made entirely of ice from the glaciers. But, beyond the thrill of having a drink in a place like none other in South America, the museum is highly instructive. A tip: visit the museum before going to the glaciers since it will provide basic knowledge that will increase your understanding and enjoyment of the glaciers.
To speak of El Calafate is to speak of glaciers, mostly of Perito Moreno, which is 150 square miles in extension. That’s big, right? It is not, however, the biggest in the region, though it is the most accessible. There is, after all, a reason that it is visited by over 400,000 people a year.
One important piece of advice: even if you visit in summer, take warm clothing along, especially gloves, if you plan on going hiking or walking on the ice. It’s also important to have a good pair of sunglasses and sunscreen. And it’s not a bad idea to take binoculars as well.
The excursions to the glaciers leave El Calafate every day at 9 a.m. and arrive back in the city at around 5 p.m. They take you to a three-level walkway located directly in front of the glacier’s three-mile side. There are different ways to enjoy the glacier: just sitting back and taking it in; walking on the ice with crampons provided by the excursion’s organizers (to use them, you must have warm and sturdy shoes); take a catamaran ride that leaves from the viewing point to get still closer to the striking mass of ice.
Glaciar Upsala is almost three times as large as Perito Moreno. It can be visited via boat and—since 2011—kayak excursions that leave from Punta Bandera, some 28 miles from El Calafate. There are, then, a number of ways to visit the glaciers from the water, but only in the summertime, from September to May. No boat trips are available during the winter months.
Do you like walking in the mountains, horseback riding, and going fishing? Would you dare to scale the side of a mountain or rock with ropes and harnesses? If the answer is yes, you should visit El Chaltén, which has been declared the hiking capital of Argentina. This small town with just 2000 inhabitants located at the foot of Fitz Roy mountain, is a sort of Mecca for rock climbers from the world over. Though it takes a great deal of training to be able to reach the top of the mountain, there are plenty of great activities to enjoy around the mountain, from walks on trails whose duration ranges from half an hour to all day to week-long mountain crossings, boat rides, rock climbing, fishing, and mountain biking. How to choose?
It depends on how much time you have and how much adrenaline you like pumping through your veins. You can spend just one day and be dazzled by El Chaltén’s landscapes or spend a whole week and explore the ins-and-outs of the natural setting. El Chaltén is 185 miles from El Calafate and the buses connecting the two locations run frequently. The trip takes about three hours.
The further south you go in Argentina, the more you hear the word “lamb.” Lamb meat is a tradition in the region. It is available at almost every restaurant, especially those near Avenida Libertador, the main street in El Calafate and a location favored by tourists.
There are many more options, among them pizza at La Lechuza (the whiskey spider crab pizza is amazing), casseroles at Isabel, fish and seafood at La Vaca Atada, tapas in the cozy La Zaina wine cellar, personalized attention from the owners at Pura Vida, and spectacular views from some restaurants located outside the downtown area, like Don Pichón, which even provides transportation to and from downtown El Calafate.
Speaking of amazing settings, the restaurant and bar Iglú, located in Esplendor Hotel, has not only a gourmet menu and wide variety of beverages, but also an unrivaled view of Bahía Redonda and Lago Argentino.
Some of these places close for the winter so it’s best to call first to make sure they are open and to book the best table.