El Calafate is a small town that has grown due to the Patagonia region becoming increasingly popular as a travel destination. It is set on the glacial blue Lago Argentina and is often full of eager trekkers.
Aerolineas Argentinas has daily flights to/from Bariloche,Buenos Aires and Ushuaia. LAN also flies on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from Buenos Aires. On-line booking and e-tickets are available. During peak season, flights are usually fully booked with tourist groups. Make sure you book your flight well in advance. LADE also flies more cheaply to/from Bariloche,Buenos Aires, Comodoro Rivadavia and other destinations. LADE has an office in town (open 10 to 16 on weekdays) for inquiries. Their website shows availability even when there isn't any. Their rates are fixed.
There are also charter flights between Puerto Natales and El Calafate operated by DAP. These flights from the tiny airport of Puerto Natales can be very scenic and let you cross the Andes in about 90 minutes and no road travel hassle (which however in right doses is something not to be missed in Patagonia).
NOV2016 Take the shuttle bus 'Las Lengas' from/to the airport. It costs 120pesos p.p. and offers the same service to Calafate as other companies that charge 170. If you book ahead they will pick you up from your hostel or airport.
www.transportelaslengas.com / cel 02902 15483630 / [email protected]
From the airport, it is about a 15-20 minute ride into town. A taxi from the airport is quoted at 750 pesos to downtown. There is also a bus that will take you to your hotel for 250 pesos (as of Oct 2018). If you are flying out of El Calafate, you can arrange a return ticket on the bus for an extra 80 pesos (200 total), and the bus will pick you up at your hotel at a set time a few hours before your flight.
The only other possibility is to arrive by bus. But this means that you will spend quite some time in the bus on rough roads. Due to the dirty streets, especially when it rains, views from buses vanish fast...
A quite remarkable trip is the bus connection between El Calafate and Bariloche along Ruta 40. It is mainly operated for the benefit of tourists by the Agency Chaltentravel (directly only the Calafate-Perito Moreno stage), since people of Calafate and Bariloche have very small ties with each other, which does not sound strange after you have made the journey and seen the state of the road. There is also a second bus company, Taqsa, which has started doing the route 40 bus journey to Bariloche. Unlike Chalten, this is a 25 hour direct connection (with Chalten you can get out at various towns en route) and will drive through the night (Chalten will stop overnight so you can see Route 40 only in the daytime). The cost for Taqsa is 2440 pesos (as of May 2016). Comfortable Celtur buses leave from Los Antiguos (9:00 AM and 9:00 PM) and from Perito Moreno (10:00 AM and 10:00 PM) nearly every day. The trip costs 550 pesos (as of Nov 2015) from Los Antiguos or 500 pesos from Perito Moreno. The Celtur office in Los Antiguos has an option to include a tour to the Caves of Hands, which are on the way and not to be missed.
Views, if the weather is good, are in places stunning, especially between Calafate and Perito Moreno city, less between Perito Moreno and Bariloche. You must however be prepared for a long (10+ hours for 2 1/2 days) and rough trip in a small van. If you are not the kind of person who enjoys slow changes in the landscape and the beauty of lonely places, do not attempt this trip or take a night bus. Of course, if you really like this sort of thing, you will never forget the trip.
The bus trip will let you pass (and most likely stay and enjoy) through El Chalten and give an opportunity to stay in Perito Moreno from where you can organise a (long) ride to visit the "Cueva de las manos pintadas".
El Calafate is a small town, so no car rental needed. However, make sure you book your bus ticket out of town when you get there, or you can get stuck there for a couple of days. The bus station is located one street up from the main street, which is accessible by walking up a small set of stairs around the artisinal market stands.
A must, the Perito Moreno Glacier is 80km / 50mi away from El Calafate and is the main point of tourism. Park entrance allows you to stay only one day, no camping inside, and you need to have left by 10pm. You can see the enormous glacier just meters away from you, and listen to all of the sounds that cracking ice makes 24 hours a day. And when a front wall of the glacier falls down, well, it is just amazing! Viewing platforms and easy trails (with quite a number of steps, though) make the visit and the observation easy and pleasant. You can visit many ranchos (estancias), where you can enjoy the wild nature, perfect meals, and stay in the middle of nowhere, relaxing from the big city rush. Or take a boat excursion and see many of the glaciers and places in the National Park Los Glaciares. The colors and shapes of the ice-bergs floating in the lake are really awesome and inspiring, making a boat ride in a sunny day a fantastic day out. Another perfect point is Onelli Bay, one of the most romantic sites around. Just bring your lunch box, a bottle of champagne, and chill it in the lake, or just add a piece of pure crystal ice. Wild nature can be seen just walking a few blocks away from main street, like in El Cañadón, or at Laguna Nimez, where you can see all kind of Patagonic birds a few feet away from you. Wildlife and views, especially at dusk, make Laguna Nimez a must see, perfect if you have just arrived in town, settled your next days excursion and are eager to go see some of the real Patagonia. At night, grab a chair and go outside. The non polluted sky shows stars like you will never see again, and don´t be surprised by satellites passing by!
Excursions to Perito Moreno glacier are on a sliding scale for the entrance: 330 pesos for foreigners, 180 pesos for people from Mercosur and 100 pesos for Argentines (as of May 2016). You can go by microbus from the bus station and these buses will take you directly to the walkways and back. You can also book a recommended Argentine travel agency from town to arrange private trips for boat rides to the glacier, short or extended (a few hours) hikes on the ice (crampons provided) and all the way to drinking whiskey with glacier ice. You can even get a paramount panorama from a helicopter with AFA helicopters from El Calafate.
There are 3 bus companies (around 420 pesos round trip, 90min each way) leaving from El Calafate bus station at around 8:00 and returning around 16:00. One company, Cal Tur, departs at 14:00 (13:00 as of Apr 2016) and returns 19:30 in summer. The microbus will drop those who want to do a boat trip off at the port (remember to mention your desire to driver before setting off) and take the rest of the passengers onward to the glacier before coming back upon return. Try to sit on the left side of the bus for the best views of the glacier and surrounding landscape. The glacier has very well constructed walkways to walk along and view the glacier without the need to use a tour group.
A taxi is 500-600 pesos round trip.
Hitch-hiking to the glacier and back is not impossible, but difficult in low season.
There is a hideously expensive (by any standard) restaurant on site (meager coffee in styrofoam cup is 30 pesos), be a cheapskate and take a picnic and flask and keep smiling. Numerous places to sit and eat overlooking the glacier.
The Hielo y Aventura Mini trekking excursion consists of a morning trip to the observation boardwalks, boat ride across the lake, and then an hour and a half with crampons (provided) walking around on the Glacier. This tour runs until around end May. The Big Ice trekking option consists of a much longer hike with possible access to ice caves and is available till around end of April. Proper foul weather gear (rain jacket, pants and gloves) and trekking shoes/boots are strongly recommended, and can be rented from several places in town, or are provided on some other tours: Real World Holidays. Bring sunscreen, and don't bother with water (you can drink the water off the glacier).
The AFA Helicopter Tour [www.argentinaflightadventures.com] takes an hour and views the Moreno Glacier as well as many viewpoints and scenic areas of the surrounding Glacier Parks that usual tours take a long time trekking to, and wraps a lot of the area into one bird's eye view.
The Fernandez Campbell All Glaciers boat tour is an all day long affair, but has some incredible glacier views that you won't be able to see otherwise. When booking, see if you can get on the smaller boats (they have one large and three small ones).
Pura Aventura, a UK-based tour operator, also offers trips to Patagonia including private guide to Fitzroy and Laguna de Los Tres. A great choice if you want to enjoy the most spectacular viewpoints of the National Park.
A newly built Museum dedicated to glaciers, known as the Glaciarium, stands several kilometers outside of El Calafate. This museum provides exhibitions and detailed information on the makeup, history, and importance of the glaciers found in this region. It also has an ice bar in the basement where you can down some drinks. There is a Shuttle from downtown running every full hour from 09:00 to 18:00 and 18:30. It starts on the 1° de Mayo between Avenida del Libertador and Julio Argentino Roca. There is a sign with Glaciarium on it.
Another museum that has been highly recommended by travelers is the tiny El Centro de Interpretación Histórica. 5 blocks north from the main street, the museum has been praised for its interesting displays and information about local history, information is available in Spanish, English, Portuguese, French, German and Italian with display descriptions in Spanish
There are also 4x4 excursions up into the mountainous area surrounding El Calafate. These provide stunning views of Lake Argentino, and, on a clear day, the top of Fitz Roy as well as the Torres del Paine. They also stop for refreshments and visit geological formations caused by glaciers known as the ´mexican hats'.
If exploring El Calafate on a budget one may rent a bike in the city for a cycle around the lake. There is a paved road at the end of the of town running along side the lake. If you go left on it(facing the lake) you can follow it to the outskirts of town. Coming out of town the view is blocked by a hill but if you keep going down the paved road(staying close to the water) you will get around the hill and get an amazing view. Keep going until the end of the paved road for an amazing lunch spot from where you can see the entire lake and the snowy mountains at the back. A good place to rent a bike is La Barraca which is located at the end of the main street on the opposite side of the plaza from the gas station.
In winter, The Club Andino Lago Argentino rents skates to anyone who wants to spend an afternoon ice skating in a small shallow bay in front of the club (very near the town centre). It is a beloved club by the Calafate people community, pioneer in the teaching of mountain sports in the village and always been devoted to the healthy sports and also social activities, teaching to the youngest and open to the general public. It also has a bar with a deck and one of the best lake views in town.
Visit a ranch. Ask your travel agency where to go. Recommendations ; El Galpon del Glaciar Ranch, Nibepo Aike Ranch, Rincón Ranch, Alta Vista Ranch. On most estancias you can ride a horse.
Food is expensive mainly due to the remote location of the city. There are four supermarkets. No quality fresh food is available. Buy your food for your tours in advance, because on ruta 40 and in the glacier national park there are almost no places to buy food.
Buy your food early in the day as things get picked over by 8pm. All the freshly baked bread was gone.
Handicraft and souvenirs can be bought in large scale at the main street.
Argentinian wine is some of the finest in the world, particularly reds such as Malbecs from Mendoza, and whites like Torrontes from the north-west around Salta and Cafayate.
Try grapefruit sodas for something different.
Destileria Helmich (Estancia El Tranquilo), Av. Del Libertador 935 (tucked in the block down a garden path from the main drag; look for the sandwich board sign), ☎ +54 (0)2902 494581 ([email protected]), . Open during daytime. This teashop/bar and small batch distillery creates teas, sweets, and locally-made distilled liquors, liqueurs, infusions, and bitters, using local ingredients from the nearby Helmich family ranch to create flavors unique to Argentina and specifically the Patagonian region. Sit and enjoy a tea or beer with some small treat or chips, then peruse the shelves to find unique, small-size gifts and small-to-full-size spirits to buy for yourself or souvenirs; talk with the distiller about his process (in Spanish or Dutch). In particular, check out the Patagonica Bitters (which pairs well with whiskey) and Calafate Bitters, and the calafate berry liqueur as unique tastings. The small, rose-filled garden is a peaceful and quiet place to enjoy a beer outdoors and relax in the late afternoon. $. edit
Be aware that in order to cross the border to Chile, you have to ask the car rental company to arrange you some documents.