21 Things to do in El Calafate, Argentina: The Ultimate Guide
Things to DO IN EL CALAFATE, THE LAND OF THE GLACIERS
Argentina’s Patagonia is an outdoor enthusiast’s playground. This small town in the heart of Patagonia is known as the land of the glaciers. These glaciers, along with the lakes and mountains that surround them, are filled with adventurous activities. If you’re looking to fill your Calafate itinerary, check out this complete list of 21 things to do in El Calafate.
1. PERITO MORENO GLACIER
El Perito Moreno is the star of the show and the apple of El Calafate’s eye and one of the official 7 Natural Wonders of Argentina. This massive glacier is one of the few advancing glaciers in a world where most are in decline. Its stunning beauty and easy accessibility make Perito Moreno a hot tourist attraction in El Calafate. Don’t let the hype turn you off from visiting, El Perito Moreno is one of a few of those can’t miss it, once in a lifetime experiences. Just check out this photo diary of Perito Moreno for more motivation.
There are a a lot of ways to see El Calafate’s star glacier. The most popular and unique way to see Perito Moreno is by going on a Glacier Trek. The Ice Trek includes a twenty minute boat ride across the lake, time to walk the paths and catwalks as well as a 1.4-3 hour hike on the ice (depending on which option you choose). If you’d prefer not to trek, take a boat tour across the lake and see the glacier up close and personal. If you’re on a budget you can take a bus and enjoy a picnic lunch on one of the catwalks with a priceless view of the ice calving off into the water. No matter what option you choose, it will be a day you never forget.
Read More | how to visit El PErito Moreno: A Complete Guide
2. Visit an Estancia
If you didn’t go to an estancia, did you even go to Argentina? In the land of the gauchos, the best way to experience rural Argentine culture is by going on a “dia de campo” (day in the countryside) at a working ranch. These ranches are plentiful all across the country, particularly near Buenos Aires, but estancias in Patagonia are particularly extraordinary.
The estancias near El Calafate offer unique experiences. For example, Nibepo Aikes Estancia is located next to the shores of El Lago Argentino inside Glacier National Park. When I visited El Calafate we spent a day at Nibepo Aikes and I would go again if I’m lucky enough to return. You can reserve a visit to their estancia here.
Estancia Cristina is the other powerhouse estancia in El Calafate. They offer a full day experience that begins with a boat ride through the Upsala Channel among iceburgs to arrive at the ranch. Spend 6 hours at the Estancia, learning how the ranch works and enjoying a long asado (BBQ) lunch, vegetarian options are available upon request. If spending a full day as an Argentine Gaucho sounds like something you'd enjoy, reserve yours here.
3. Go Horseback Riding
I’ve gone on a few horseback rides (or cabalgata as they say here) in Argentina. None has surpassed my riding experience in El Calafate. We spent the day exploring the grounds of the Nibepo Aikes Estancia, led by an excellent local guide and riding well-trained, calm horses. Since this ranch is located within the borders of the Glacier National Park it offers incomparable views of the Perito Moreno Glacier. You’ll ride uphill on horseback to reach a viewpoint, reserved only for you, of the glacier far below.
Nibepo Aikes Estancia now offers a full day experience, starting with breakfast with a view of the Andean foothills. You'll tour the grounds and be treated to traditional Patagonian lamb for lunch, followed by a three-hour horseback ride across the ranch. Book here to be a Patagonian gaucho for a day.
4. Bird watch at Laguna Nimez
I’ll tell you one thing I did not expect to see when I landed in El Calafate, and that is flamingos! At the advice of our hostel, we went on the short one-kilometer walk from town to reach the Laguna Nimez Nature Reserve and were met by, you guessed it, flamingos! In fact, 70 different bird species inhabit this nature reserve. You don’t need to be an avid bird watcher to appreciate the beauty Laguna Nimez has to offer (and Lord knows, I’m not). It’s a beautiful site to see regardless. Bring a camera and binoculars to capture the views and if you can, visit at sunrise or at dusk.
5. Try Patagonian Lamb
Save the beef for Buenos Aires, in Patagonia it’s all about the lamb. Traditionally lamb, or cordero, is cooked “a la cruz",” hung from a large metal cross over a low fire (see above). It’s slow cooked for hours over this small fire, resulting in a buttery meat so tender you could cut it with a spoon. Head to La Zaina or Don Pichon to try some of the best lamb in town.
Exploring Patagonia? Read about The Peninsula Valdes: Patagonia Wildlife Paradise
6. Kayak among icebergs
See Perito Moreno from a unique perspective, from sea-level in a kayak. This kayak tour is a full day excursion to the Glacier National Park. No prior experience is needed, the guides will conduct a complete safety briefing and provide equipment. Speaking from experience from white water rafting in Mendoza: avoid cotton and wear wool and don't forget your camera. Your guide will lead you across the Lago Argentino, explaining the importance and history of this world-renowned landmark. Reserve your kayak tour here.
7. Day Trip to El Chalten
El Chalten is a destination all on it’s own. This small town is a hiker’s paradise and serves as a base for many of Argentina’s most famous treks. Ideally you’d spend a few days here, exploring the many hiking trails to stunning viewpoints (just google “Laguna de los Tres” and tell me you’re not dying to go). However, if you don’t have any extra days to spare it is possible to take a day trip to El Chalten from El Calafate . Mind you, like most of these full-day El Calafate activities, it will be one long day. But if you're a hiking enthusiast, El Chalten is something you cannot miss.
8. The Glaciarium and Ice BarThe Glaciarum Museum will teach you everything you ever wanted to know about glaciers and the Southern Patagonia Ice Field. This museum opened the year after I visited El Calafate so I haven’t been, but the in-house ice bar is enough to tempt me to return. I’ve been to a kitschy ice bar before, drinking vodka-tonics in a mug made of ice next to an ice sculpture of the Sagrada Familia. But this Ice Bar is the only one in the world constructed out of 100% glacial ice.
The Glaciarum & Ice Bar is located 6 kilometers from El Calafate en route to El Perito Moreno. There are free shuttles departing from the parking lot of The Tourism Bureau of the Province of Santa Cruz, leaving hourly from 11 am to 6 pm. Or if you’d prefer to spend one full day in the National Park, the Glacier and the Museum, this tour offers a visit to the Glaciarium in its full day trip to Perito Moreno.
9. La Leona Petrified Forest
Argentina is filled with jaw-drop worthy landscapes that will have you thinking you’re on another planet. On a road trip in Salta and Jujuy I often felt like I was driving across the surface of Mars or the moon. La Leona Petrified Forest in El Calafate is one of these landscapes. This other-worldly terrain is covered with rock formations and petrified trees (some up to 70 million years old measuring up to 1.2 meters across) that would be right at home on the moon.
Also, did you know that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were in Argentina? Neither did I! But they stayed in the historic Hotel La Leona. This full day tour to La Leona Petrified Forest begins with a visit to the infamous bandits' hotel but the highlight of the tour is the petrified forest. It includes a moderate 7 mile hike across the moon among a forest of countless petrified trees and distinctive geological formations.
10. Boat Ride on Lago Argentino
Want to see the glaciers in a more relaxed setting versus trekking across it or paddling through cold, glacial water? A boat tour across the waters of Lago Argentino is the most comfortable way to see El Calafate’s glaciers up close. Enormous chunks of ice cleave off of the glacier every twenty minutes in an explosion of sound. On this tour , glide through the water among these newly created icebergs, seeing the Perito Moreno glacier up close from the comfort of a catamaran.
11. 4x4 in the Calafate Mountain Park
The El Calafate Mountain park is 15 kilometers from the city center. It’s a recreational activity center offering a number of activities suitable for summer or winter in El Calafate. In summer, ride the chairlift to the peak of the El Calafate Balcony for expansive views that on a clear day reach as far as neighboring town El Chalten and Mount Fitz Roy. 4x4 adventure tours will take you off-roading to the parks best viewpoints. The park is also home to one of the best mountain biking trails in South America.
If you're looking for things to do in El Calafate in winter, there is plenty to do here in the cold winter months of June and July. You can learn to ski with the parks trainers, go on a snowshoe adventure or go tubing for a family-friendly activity.
12. See Torres del Paine
Cross the border into Chile to see the famous Torres del Paine National Park. The highlight are the three granite peaks that give the park its name (above). I must warn you that this will be an exceptionally long day if you choose to do it. I went to El Calafate with a group of friends, and one of these friends had his heart set seeing Torres del Paine. Not knowing if he’d ever be this close again, he opted to take this trip and swears it was worth it.
I can see why he says it was worth the time and effort. The vistas are some of the most beautiful I've ever seen. This full day Torres del Paine tour will bring you to the park, stopping at viewpoints along the way. The day includes hiking and is highly customizable due to the sheer number of trails to choose from. Don't forget to check immigration requirements for crossing the border to Chile.
13. Walichu CavesIf you fancy yourself an archaeologist, take a half-day excursion to the Walichu Caves. These cave paintings were left by native peoples during the Paleolithic age. Learn about both the paintings, that depict the history of the region, and the ancient hunter-gatherers who left them. The views of the surrounding landscapes are a bonus to an already interesting, educational experience.
14. Go Trekking on a Glacier
For a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience, strap on some crampons and trek across this behemoth of a glacier. Small groups are led across the ice on Perito Moreno. The Minitrekking Excursion includes a walk across the pathways in the park, a short boat trip across the lake and a trekking experience you'll never forget. Your guides will choose a path, guiding you across the ice, using pick axes to hack makeshift stairs into steep inclines. Going on the Big Ice Trek is one of the best travel memories I have from Argentina. The whiskey served on glacial ice at the end didn't hurt either.
15. Upsala Glacier
Perito Moreno may be the most famous but it’s not the only glacier in the Southern Patagonia Ice Field. The Upsala Glacier is one of 47 in the region and very much worth seeing. This glacier has been receding since it was first documented in 1810. Despite this it is the largest glacier in the region and dwarfs its popular cousin. Despite its large size, it’s practically impossible to access due its retreat and the constant calving of ice off the front. It’s possible to book a tour to sail among these newly formed icebergs, such as this one, which sails by the Upsala Glacier en route to one of the regions most historic ranches.
16. Explore the town of El Calafate
Most of the things included on this list involve full days in a car or bus, exploring the expansive distances of Southern Patagonia. All of these El Calafate activities are exciting, but they can also be tiring. Take a day or afternoon off and relax in town. One afternoon, I curled up with a book in the cozy Borges Libro Bar with a hot chocolate and slice of chocolate cake (too much chocolate? Impossible!). Slow down for a day and take it easy.
17. Trek through Fossil Canyon
A lot of fossils have been discovered all across Patagonia and El Calafate is no exception. Accessible on a day trip to Estancia Cristina, trekking through the Cañadón de los Fósiles is paramount to a hike across terrain littered with marine fossils. The trek lasts for 14 kilometers through the canyon, constantly descending. The tour also includes a boat ride through the lake in front of the Upsala Glacier.
18. Cerro Frias
Cerro Frias is 23 kilometers from downtown El Calafate on the way to the Glacier National Park and Perito Moreno. This ranch offers a wide range of adventure actives including a 4x4 excursion in one of their Land Rovers, zip lining and horseback rides. Its ideal location on the Patagonian steppe offers opportunities to see native wildlife like guanaco. Cerro Frias is a great way to spend half a day if you're short on time on a travel day or tired from so many full-day excursions. Top off your afternoon with lunch or coffee with a view.
Read Next: Adventure Activities in Mendoza
19. Learn something at the Regional Museum
The Museo Regional is at Av. del Libertador 575 in downtown El Calafate. Entrance is free, so you have no excuses. This small regional museum houses archaeological artifacts and Paleontologic samples to expand on what you learned by hiking through Fossil Canyon or La Leona. Look at the photos of early settlers to see what this region looked like many years ago.
20. Mountain Biking
Top of your adventure activities in El Calafate by biking to beautiful viewpoints outside town. Some places are too remote to reach on a large tourist bus, so take the literal off the beaten path on a mountain bike. The mountain biking excursion begins with a chairlift ride to the top of the El Calafate Balcony. With panoramic views of Lago Argentino below you'll be given your bike and safety instructions. The ride is a total of 13 kilometers (8 miles) down the mountain. While the views offered on many of these adventurous excursions may be similar, I find that this one is special. You'll be in such small group, allowing the group to savor the vistas in the peace a place like this deserves.
21. Kick Back with Artisanal Beer
When I moved to Argentina many moons ago, the beer selection was dismal. Quilmes was and still is the main beer in town, resembling a Bud Light in taste and quality (or so I’m told, I’m more a Malbec girl myself). In recent years, artisanal beer is all the rage. You can’t walk five blocks in Buenos Aires without walking by at least one new pub serving beer by the tap or the growler. Patagonia is no different and is also home to quite a few cervecerias popping up in El Calafate such as Cerveceria Artesanal Chopen or La Zorra Taproom. Both offer a wide selection of beers to choose from to end an adventurous day in El Calafate.
Where to Stay in El Calafate
AMERICA DEL SUR HOSTEL | We stayed in the America del Sur hostel and it’s the best budget accommodation in El Calafate. I really loved this hostel and wouldn't think twice about staying here again if I was on a budget. My friends and I rented an en suite private room and were very comfortable.
It’s a short walk from downtown and the views it offers are priceless! It's very affordable, with beds as cheap as $11.50 US for a dorm or $50 for a private double room. Check rates here
- BOUTIQUE HOTEL LA CANTERA | Great for couples | This boutique hotel in La Calafate is the highest rated for value, with rooms starting at only $100 US. They serve an excellent breakfast (which in Argentina, is priceless). Just picture yourself on this deck, with a glass of Malbec watching the sunset and you'll be booking your room right away! Check rates here
- LINDA VISTA APART HOTEL | Great for families | In Argentina, an apart hotel is a hotel where the rooms are small apartments, like an Argentina Airbnb before it's time. This apart hotel in El Calafate is perfect for families that need more room to move or anyone who appareciates having a kitchen at their disposal. It's very highly rated and it's easy to see why, the cabins look clean, cozy, and spacious. Apartments start at only $115 US for two. Check rates here
Continuing through Patagonia? The nearby town El Chalten is a great way to continue your trip. It's great for hikers and offfers some of the best views in Patagonia. You could road trip through the lake district from Bariloche or see whales and penguins in Puerto Madryn. If you're staying longer in Pagonia, then check out this two-week classic Patagonia itinerary and this complete guide to hiking traveling in Patagonia.
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