Inspirational El Calafate
In the southwest of Argentine Patagonia, El Calafate sits on the shore of Lago Argentino, the largest lake in the country. The city dates back to the early 20th century, when it was founded by sheep ranchers and wool traders. It takes its name from a Patagonian bush: according to local legend, if you eat calafate berries, you’re sure to return to the region.
El Calafate expanded steadily throughout the 20th century, but the pace has accelerated dramatically in recent decades, thanks to the growing popularity of Los Glaciares National Park, located 60 miles (97km) to the west. Today this city of around 26,000 people has a slightly mismatched feel, with its myriad hotels, guesthouses, restaurants, cafes, travel agencies, souvenir shops, and casino built in a variety of contrasting and sometimes clashing architectural styles.
Nevertheless El Calafate is a friendly, well-equipped place and an essential stop-off on any Patagonian itinerary.
Planning Your Visit
A two-day stay in El Calafate gives you ample time to hit the main sights, though a three- or even four-day trip gives you the opportunity to explore further into Los Glaciares National Park. It’s also easy to incorporate El Calafate into a wider journey around Argentina, for example on this 15-day trip, which focuses on nature and wildlife, or this two-week tour, which includes the beautiful cities of Bariloche and Salta.
El Calafate has several banks and ATMs, mostly located in the center, and credit and debit cards are widely accepted. For more practical logistics, see our Argentina FAQ.
Summer (January and February; 41-61°F/5-16°C) and Easter are the peak tourist seasons, when El Calafate gets packed to the gills. If you can, try to visit in either spring (November to mid-December; 37-59°F/3-15°C) or autumn (March and April; 34-55°F/1-13°C), when the city is considerably quieter, but the tourist facilities are all still in operation. Many places close during the winter, particularly in July and August (23-39°F/-5-4°C), with transport options severely reduced.
Getting There & Away
El Calafate’s modern airport is a 20-30-minute drive east of the city. It has daily flights to/from Buenos Aires, Bariloche, and Ushuaia, and several weekly ones to Trelew, mostly with Aerolineas Argentinas and LATAM. The bus station, in the center, has daily services during the summer to/from Bariloche, El Chaltén, and Río Gallegos, as well as Puerto Natales in Chile; there is a much-reduced schedule during the winter.
El Calafate is compact and easy to explore on foot. You can explore the area around the city, including the national park, on an organized tour, though hiring a car gives you a lot more freedom. Taxis are also widely available.
Highlights & Activities
Glacier-spotting in the nearby national park is by far the biggest attraction in El Calafate, though the city also boasts an enjoyable nature reserve and a pair of fascinating museums.
Los Glaciares National Park
Spanning more than 2,800 square miles (7,300 sq km) of mountains, forest, steppe, and, of course, glaciers, Los Glaciares National Park is one of the finest protected areas in South America. Around 30 percent of this UNESCO World Heritage Site is covered by a swathe of the vast Southern Patagonian Ice Field.
El Calafate is the jumping-off point for visits to the southern section of the park, where the biggest attraction is the magnificent Perito Moreno Glacier, which stretches out into an iceberg-sprinkled channel of Lake Argentino. (El Chaltén, 133 miles (214km) north of El Calafate, is the gateway to the northern section of the park.) You can admire the glacier from various different viewpoints or on a boat trip, but for an even closer look, put on a pair of crampons and join a guided ice-hike across its surface.
Other attractions in this part of the park include the even larger Upsala Glacier and Lake Roca, a popular spot in the summer for camping and fishing.
An ideal accompaniment to a visit to the national park, the Glaciarium is an impressive modern museum dedicated to ice, glaciers, and climate change. It uses multimedia displays, 3D models, video, audio, art, and photography to bring the issues to life. The Glaciarium is also home to South America’s first ice bar, as well as a well-stocked souvenir shop. It’s 4 miles (6km) west of El Calafate, on the road to the national park, and is linked to the city by a free shuttle-bus service.
Calafate Historical Interpretation Center
On the edge of El Calafate, this interesting little museum provides an insight into Patagonian history, from the prehistoric period right up to the present day. It has an eclectic range of exhibits, including dinosaur skeletons, examples of ancient rock art, and displays on the region’s many indigenous cultures.
A short walk north of the city center takes you to the peaceful Laguna Nimez nature reserve. This small park is home to around a hundred different species of birds, most notably flamingos. You can also spot ibis, grebes, and upland geese.
Festivals & Special Events
El Calafate’s main festival is the Lake Argentino Festival, which takes place in mid-February and features a series of concerts, a variety of sporting events, fireworks displays, and plenty of food and drink.
Lodging & Dining
Where to Stay
El Calafate has an extensive range of accommodation options, though prices across the board are on the high side. Room rates are at their peak during the summer (January, and February) and at Easter, when you should book well in advance; they fall significantly during the rest of the year, particularly in the winter.
Mid-range options include El Jardín de los Presentes, a reliable guesthouse a short walk from the city center; Linda Vista Apart Hotel, which has well-equipped apartments ideal for families or groups; and Posada Karut Josh, which has spic-and-span rooms and friendly staff.
There are plenty of top-end hotels in El Calafate, too. Among the best are La Cantera, perched on a hill above the city and boasting attractive, spacious rooms; and the Edenia, which has well-equipped rooms, a sauna, and a good restaurant. Further afield, there are several atmospheric estancias (ranches), including Nibepo Aike, where you can hike or horse-ride across gorgeous landscapes.
There are also several excellent hostels in the city with private rooms, some with great views of Lake Argentina.
Where to Eat
As with accommodation, eating out in El Calafate can be an expensive experience, though standards are generally high. Viva La Pepa is a colorful café serving up delicious crepes, Olivia Coffee Shop has a good line-up of cappuccinos and cortados, and Kau Kaleshen is a delightful tea room with homebaked cakes during the day, and an impressive restaurant in the evening.
No visit to El Calafate, or Patagonia in general, is complete without sampling some of the succulent local lamb. The classy Casimiro Biguá provides expertly barbecued lamb and beef, as does the similarly good Don Pichon, which overlooks the lake and also serves fondue. Meanwhile, Pura Vida has a good range of rustic, home-style dishes, many of them suitable for vegetarians.
El Calafate also has a great selection of bars and pubs. Try Libro-bar Borges y Alvarez, which offers craft beers, hearty sandwiches, and array of books to read or buy, or La Zorra Taproom, a lively brewpub.