El Calafate: Perito Moreno, Horseback Riding and More
Admittedly, this post is a little bit me indulging nostalgia, but I’ll try to be very helpful too! I went to El Calafate in 2010 after only being in Argentine for a couple of months. My friends and I decided to go on a whim. We booked tickets to spend three nights in El Calafate and off we went! Things have changed a lot in the past eight years. Tours are different and the prices have definitely changed. I’ve researched the current situation to offer you the most up to date information here, mixed in with my personal memories from our trip too many years ago. Now all I want is to go back! Here’s how we spent our long weekend in El Calafate.
Best Things to do in El Calafate
We had 2 days in El Calafate, well 4 but only 2 full days. When we checked into our hostel the receptionist sat down with us and explained all the tours we could choose from. We decided to the Big Ice Glacier trek and go on a full-day horseback riding excursion on a local estancia (ranch). Nowadays it’s not as laid back, things book up ahead of time. If possible, reserve your tours and excursions in El Calafate well in advance of your trip.
What to do in El Calafate, the town itself?
Not much. Ha, you’re welcome! The town itself is very small. But I loved it! It was so refreshing after being swallowed up by the hubbub of Buenos Aires for so long. There are cute coffee shops and bars to relax in with a good book. Or take a walk to Lago Argentina and see the flamingos! If you’re a bird watcher you’ll love the Reserva Natural Laguna Nimez on Lago Argentino. And while there’s not much to do but relax in town, there are so many things to do in El Calafate as a region.
If you can see the flamingos in this picture, then you have amazing eyesight! But I swear they’re there.
The Perito Moreno Glacier: The Star of the Show
You didn’t fly to El Calafate to see flamingos and sip coffee with a good book. You flew here for the Glaciar Perito Moreno. We did the famous Big Ice Trek. We were picked up at our hostel at 7 am and spent the entire day on the tour. The tour, despite the high price tag, does not include the $500 peso entrance fee to Los Glaciares National Park (so bring extra cash for that).
Is the Big Ice Tour worth it? Yes! It was such an amazing experience. But it was strenuous and you are isolated out there on the glacier so they have an age limit (you must be between 18-50 and somewhat fit) and they don’t allow pregnant women on this tour. Because of weather the tour is only offered from September through April.
The Big Ice Trek on Perito Moreno
We arrived at the park early in the morning, before most tourists arrived on public transport, so we had the park to ourselves. The tour began with some free time to walk the pathways and catwalks, viewing the glacier from afar. This part of the park is beautifully constructed and offers stunning views. After this, we were ferried across the water and given crampons for our hike on Perito Moreno. Crampons in place, we set off. We walked alongside the glacier for about an hour and a half until our two guides found the spot where we would hop onto the glacier.
There is a lot of action near the crampon station, where a shorter trek onto the ice begins. But after walking an hour and a half, we were isolated and had the place to ourselves! It was such an incredible experience. We spent over three hours on the ice following our two guides. Sometimes they had to hack footholds into the ice with their axes. Eventually, we paused for a break for lunch on the ice (bring your own, lunch is not included). After our picnic near an ice bridge that was packed so tightly it was a bright fluorescent blue (our guide told me it weighed 2 tons!), we began our walk back.
After so many hours of purposeful footsteps with crampons, trying to get a hold in the ice, I felt like a baby horse learning to walk again after taking them off. I took too big a step and flung myself to the ground, so elegant. After leaving the crampons behind and freshening up, we were back on the ferry. However, this time we were each served a glass of whiskey poured over glacial ice. I sipped on my well-deserved whiskey, then kindly helped my friend finish his. It’s what friends do! If you have the budget for this tour, I highly recommend it. It was a once in a lifetime sort of experience.
El Calafate Tour Options
The Big Ice tour is a large time and financial investment (costing around $275 USD). The price has increased quite a bit since I did it eight years ago. I highly doubt I would have been able to do it today on the backpacker’s budget I was on in 2010. The tour company that leads tours onto the ice, Hielo y Aventura, has a monopoly on these tours and there is no competition to bring prices down. That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth it. Also, the idea of multiple companies and tour groups tromping along the glacier isn’t an appealing alternative either. A lot of work and effort goes into these tours by the guides and I wholeheartedly recommend this tour.
Hielo y Aventura also offers a shorter tour of Perito Moreno. You access the glacier next to the crampon station directly and spend an hour on the ice. If you have kids or are older this is a great option, the age limits are from 10-65. They’ll pick you up from your accommodation in El Calafate and it’s a full day commitment.
You can also book a guided tour of the park that doesn’t include any hikes on Perito Moreno at all. It’s much more affordable and you can find more information here. Guests are picked up their hotels in El Calafate and brought in a comfortable coach to the park. You’re accompanied by a guide along the walking trails and have the option to upgrade and include a one-hour boat excursion on the lake for up-close views of the glacier.
How to see Perito Moreno without a Tour
All that being said, you don’t need a tour to see Perito Moreno! You can take the bus there and go at your own pace. If I were going tomorrow, this is likely how my husband and I would choose to see the glacier and the park (both due to the increased tour costs and that we love to go at our own slow pace).
How to get to Perito Moreno by Bus
Ok, there’s no official city bus that you can hop on to the glacier for a few bucks. There are shuttle buses you can take from the main bus terminal in El Calafate (address: Jean Mermoz 104). The buses depart at around 8:30 or 9, depending on the company you choose. The cost is currently $600 pesos ($30 US) as of April 2018. At the end of your day in the park, find your bus in the parking lot at the designated return time (likely around 4 pm), for the hour and a half drive back to town. While you can purchase your ticket the day of, it’s not a bad idea to swing by the bus station the day before you want to go to the glacier. You can confirm the exact departure times and have a better, clear plan for your day.
Bring cash, you’ll need to pay the entrance fee to the Parque Nacional Los Glaciares in cash and in pesos. The current entrance fee is $500 pesos for non-residents, but you can double check that here.
While in the park you can wander the pathways and catwalks that offer panoramic views of Perito Moreno. Watch chunks of ice break off into the water, take a million photos, and enjoy yourself at your own pace. Bring a picnic lunch (and wine, why not!?) to enjoy with a view. You can also book a boat tour once you arrive if you’d like a close-up view without the trekking.
Cabalgata: Horseback Riding with a Gaucho
Cabalgata, say that 10 times fast. We had also reserved a full day excursion to a local estancia (or ranch) for a cabalgata (horseback riding tour). We were again picked up at 7 am, early mornings in Patagonia! The estancia was located inside the national park and the land it occupies is stunning. We met up with our gaucho guide for the day who introduced us to our horses for the day.We spent the morning riding through the estancia, that seemed to never end. Our guide was incredibly friendly, he said he moved to El Calafate with his brother from Buenos Aires to escape the city. He loves it there, however his brother decided even El Calafate was too big for him and had moved to an even more isolated estancia to work. I can’t blame them, just look where he lives and works!
Lunch was included in the tour, and what a lunch it was! We rode to a campsite that was prepared for these tours. Our guide set a fire using moss from the trees and started grilling steak and onions. While waited for the meat, we sat back and relaxed with a large bottle of Malbec.
Visit an Estancia in El Calafate
This was such a fun day! I have been looking and haven’t been able to find this tour anywhere. I’ve been looking at other options and it looks like they’ve upgraded the tour quite a bit. While we had to have breakfast before, and only spent the day on the horseback ride, now they offer a full ranch experience. You can take this tour that includes a visit to the ranch, either in the morning with lunch included or in the afternoon with dinner included. They also have this option that includes quite a bit! It includes transfer and breakfast on arrival, lunch of lamb grilled on a cross in the traditional manner and after lunch you depart on a three hour horseback ride. It sounds like the closest thing to what I was able to do, but with so much more.
Where to Stay in El Calafate
We stayed at the America del Sur Hostel and I absolutely recommend it! It’s a short walk from downtown but 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.
If you’d prefer to stay in a nicer hotel there are plenty. Check out Hotel Esplendor with rooms at around $130 US. The decor has me drooling. Or for something a bit more intermediate, Sierra Nevada has a very cozy feel and a great breakfast.
I did some snooping around Airbnb as well and they have some very cute cabins to choose from. Just check this one out, what a view! If you’ve never used Airbnb before, I love it! It offers you the chance to really feel at home while on vacation. If you want to try it out click here for $40 US off your first stay.
Continuing through Patagonia? Check out this two-week classic Patagonia itinerary.
Any questions or have you been to El Calafate? Just let me know in the comments! I’d love to hear from you.
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