Here are the best things to do in El Calafate, because no trip to Patagonia would be complete without a few days in the Land of Glaciers.
El Calafate is a picturesque town located in Argentine Patagonia that sits on the southern shore of Lago Argentino and serves as a gateway to Los Glaciares National Park.
Most visitors to El Calafate have one goal in mind and that is to see the world-renowned Perito Moreno Glacier, which is one of the few advancing glaciers in the world and one of the gems of South America! Plus, there are so many different ways to admire the beauty of the glaciers: you can do an ice trek, take a boat tour, or view them from the balconies and boardwalks.
Aside from glaciers, El Calafate is also the perfect playground for outdoor activities on the Patagonian steppe. You can join a 4×4 off-road adventure, visit caves with ancient paintings, kayak the milky waters of La Leona River, spend the day learning about the gaucho way of life at an estancia, go on a horseback riding excursion and so much more!
El Calafate proved to be one of the highlights of our trip across southern Patagonia. We quickly fell in love with the magnificence of the ice fields, the pristine blue hues of the glaciers and the bobbing icebergs.
We dedicated two full days to exploring Los Glaciares National Park; first seeing all the glaciers up close on a full-day boat trip and then exploring the boardwalks on foot and visiting the Iceberg Lagoon. The rest of our week in El Calafate was spent exploring the town as well as going on various day tours.
This is our list of the best things to do in El Calafate, Argentina so you can get inspired for your trip!
How to get to El Calafate
Reaching El Calafate is an exciting journey filled with stunning landscapes. Most travellers arrive by air, flying into Comandante Armando Tola International Airport (FTE), which is approximately 21 kilometres from the town center.
The airport is well-connected with domestic flights from major cities in Argentina, including Buenos Aires.
Another option is to travel by bus, enjoying the scenic road trip through Patagonia. Bus services connect El Calafate with various destinations across Patagonia, providing a more budget-friendly and scenic travel experience.
Things to do in El Calafate, Argentina
1. Visit Los Glaciares National Park
El Calafate is the gateway to the Land of Glaciers, so of course a visit to Los Glaciares needs to be at the top of the list!
Los Glaciares National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage site known for its spectacular glacial landscapes, towering mountains, and pristine wilderness. It covers an area of over 7,200 square miles, making it the largest national park in Argentina, and it’s a haven for nature lovers and adventure enthusiasts.
The park has two different access points. Nearby El Chaltén, gives you access to the northern part of the park which is considered Argentina’s trekking capital with its epic mountain peaks. Meanwhile, El Calafate gives you access to the southern part of the park where you can witness some of the most beautiful glaciers in the world!
In this part of the park, you can walk the Perito Moreno Glacier Walkways, locally known as Pasarelas, where you can see the Perito Moreno Glacier and watch it calve into the lake.
This was hands down one of the most magical moments we experienced in the park. There’s something special about witnessing the immensity of the glacier and the ice field it descends from, feeling the crispness of the icy air in your face, and seeing the glacial blue hues of the ice, that just makes you feel so small and yet so alive!
We spent the whole day walking the different walkways and stopping at the different observation points along the way to take in the show. This is our guide to visiting Perito Moreno Glacier independently.
We also enjoyed visiting Laguna de los Témpanos, or the Iceberg Lagoon. This is where the chunks of ice that break off the Perito Moreno Glacier end up. It’s a pretty cool spot and worth the little detour.
There are different boardwalks and trails to enjoy in the Pasarelas section of Los Glaciares National Park. These include:
- Central Circuit – 600 metres – 1:00 hs – Easy
- Lower Circuit – 1100 metres – 1:15 hs – Challenging
- Forest Trail – 570 metres – 0:45 hs – Moderate
- Shoreline Trail – 1117 metres – 1:30 hs – Moderate
- Accessible Circuit – 565 metres – 0:30 hs – Very easy
2. See the Glaciers on a Boat Tour
If I could only recommend one activity to every traveller visiting El Calafate, it would be to do a boat tour on Lago Argentino to visit the glaciers up close and personal.
Technically, you can do a short 1-hour tour from Los Glaciares National Park, however, I would recommend the full-day tour aboard Maria Turquesa to visit all the glaciers up close. This activity is definitely a splurge and we debated booking it, but it turned out to be our favourite tour of the whole trip and I can tell you that tears were shed by almost every passenger when we reached the final glacier of the day.
The tour we did is called Glaciers Gourmet. We opted for the basic option which includes a packed gourmet lunch box, however, you can also choose the premium tasting menu which gives you access to a private deck.
We were picked up from our accommodations in El Calafate and driven to a private port where we boarded the ship.
Over the course of the day, we cruised the icy teal waters of Lake Argentino which is the largest freshwater lake in Argentina.
We saw the Seco Glacier, Heim Glacier, Spegazzini Glacier, Upsala Glacier, and Bertacchi Glacier, finally reaching the iconic Perito Moreno Glacier. That’s a lot of glaciers in one day!
And when we weren’t ooh-ing and ahh-ing at the glaciers, we were mesmerized by the icebergs floating by, the glacial waterfalls running down the mountain, and spotting eagles flying overhead.
We fished chunks of glacier from the lake – some people had them with whiskey! – and we even disembarked at one point and went on a guided hike at Puesto de Las Vacas.
All this to say, we loved our glacier boat cruise through Lago Argentino and we’re still raving about it years later! Here’s a list of the best Perito Moreno Glacier tours for some travel inspiration.
This is the Glaciers Gourmet boat tour aboard Maria Turquesa that we went on. It’s a full-day tour lasting 10-12 hours and you get to see all the glaciers up close and personal!
3. Explore Perito Moreno Glacier on an Ice Trek
Perito Moreno Glacier is one of the most iconic and impressive natural wonders in Los Glaciares National Park.
The glacier covers an area of about 250 square kilometres and is part of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, the third-largest reserve of fresh water on the planet!
It’s renowned for its sheer size and beauty, however, what sets Perito Moreno Glacier apart from the rest is its active nature; it is one of the few glaciers in the world that is still advancing.
The glacier’s terminus reaches Lago Argentino, and as it moves forward, it periodically creates a natural dam, separating the waters of the Brazo Rico from the rest of the lake.
Eventually, the pressure from the dammed water causes a spectacular rupture known as a calving event, creating a thunderous roar as giant ice chunks fall into the lake. This is a major event that takes place every 4 to 5 years.
We’ve already talked about viewing Perito Moreno Glacier from the boardwalk and seeing it on a boat tour, but now let’s talk about a more active option: ice trekking!
To do the glacier trek, you first need to reach the glacier and that involves boarding a vessel at Bajo de las Sombras and crossing over the Rico Arm. Once you reach the other side, you get geared up with crampons and ice axes, and you embark on your ice trek with your trusty guide.
The glacier trek is a unique way to explore the glacier and its blue-hued crevasses and seracs. So if you’re looking for a bit of adventure, this activity certainly ticks the boxes!
Glacier treks are an expensive tour item and you can probably get them for a bit cheaper if you book locally once you arrive. But if you can, try to reserve a few days in advance as spots fill up fast and there is only one operator for this activity and that’s Hielo y Aventura.
This Perito Moreno Glacier trek includes transportation to and from the park, a professional guide, all ice trekking equipment and has a maximum of 10 people per guide.
4. Go Bird Watching at Laguna Nimez
Another activity to add to your list of things to do in El Calafate is bird watching at Laguna Nimez Reserve.
Laguna Nimez is a reserve situated on the shores of Lake Argentino and it offers a mix of wetlands, lagoons, and grasslands. This makes it a haven for a wide variety of birdlife and an ideal location for bird-watching enthusiasts.
The lagoon is home to 132 different bird species, both migratory and resident. Some of the notable species include flamingos, black-necked swans, coscoroba swans, upland geese, kelp gulls, and numerous waterfowl. The reserve’s diverse ecosystems provide habitat for both aquatic and terrestrial birds.
We were looking for some light activities to enjoy around town after some action-packed days, so we were quite pleased to learn about the reserve. The trails are easy to follow and there are also strategic observation points and bird-watching huts along the way for some optimal bird-watching.
One of the highlights of the reserve is the presence of a flamingo colony. They gather in the shallow waters of the lagoons and their distinctive pink plumage makes them quite the attraction. We were certainly excited to spot them!
The whole walk is 3 kilometres and takes about 1.5 hours to complete.
5. Visit the Glaciarium Patagonian Ice Museum
The Glaciarium Patagonian Ice Museum is an interpretive center dedicated to showcasing the unique environment and glaciers of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field.
The Glaciarium is situated about 6 kilometres west of El Calafate and it also offers free transportation there and back making it easily accessible from the town. The shuttle usually runs daily at 12:00 and 18:00, however, you’ll want to confirm this on their website in case the schedule changes.
Once you arrive at Glaciarium, you can expect to find a range of exhibits and displays that explore the science, history, and impact of glaciers in Patagonia. There are interactive installations, multimedia presentations, and educational panels provide insights into the formation, movement, and importance of glaciers.
One of the highlights of the Glaciarium is the Perito Moreno Glacier Room. This space is dedicated to one of the most famous glaciers in the world, allowing visitors to learn about its characteristics, significance, and the environmental changes affecting it.
The museum offers a unique 3D experience that allows visitors to virtually explore the glaciers, understand ice formations, and realize the scale and majesty of the glaciers in the region.
Glaciarium also has its very own ice bar located underground, where you can enjoy a drink in a glass of ice at sub-zero temperatures. Inside the bar, there are ice sculptures and coloured lights, making it a fun photo op. Even we were lured in and we’re Canadian – we get enough ice and snow as it is!
6. Visit the Historical Interpretation Center
The Historical Interpretation Center of El Calafate, locally known as the Centro de Interpretación Histórica, is a museum dedicated to showcasing the history and natural heritage of the Patagonian region.
We like to include a few museum visits wherever we travel because they’re usually a nice rainy day activity or a good option for when you’re craving a low-key day.
We didn’t know what to expect when we came across this museum, so imagine our surprise when we came face to face with mega mammals and dinosaur skeletons unique to Patagonia! We got to see animals that we didn’t even know had walked this Earth and that lived not that long ago.
The one that particularly caught my attention was the Megatherium, a now-extinct giant sloth that would have stood 5 to 6 metres tall.
What is perhaps most surprising is that the Megatherium roamed Patagonia with humans. They existed up until 8,500 years ago when they were hunted into extinction.
These were creatures that hadn’t known a lot of predators, they were slow-moving, and they had a long gestational period – basically a lot of factors that made them an easy target for humans.
The Historical Interpretation Center is small, but we found it fascinating, so if you’re looking for underrated things to do in El Calafate, maybe add this museum to your list!
7. Spend the Day at an Estancia
If you’re looking for a fun day trip from El Calafate, you can’t go wrong with a visit to an estancia.
An estancia is a working ranch, typically used for rearing sheep and cattle, and you’ll find these scattered across Patagonia as well as other parts of Argentina.
Estancia Nibepo Aike is perhaps one of the best-known ranches near El Calafate located a 1.5-hour drive from the town.
The estancia came to be before the formation of the national park, so it sits within the boundaries of Los Glaciares National Park overlooking the southern arm of Lago Argentino. The setting is nothing short of majestic!
We visited Estancia Nibepo Aike on a day trip and had a really fun time. We got to watch a sheep-shearing demonstration, learn about the gaucho way of life, hike around the estancia grounds, and enjoy a feast of a BBQ with wine.
It honestly made us wish we had booked to stay overnight! A couple of nights in a setting like this would be a great way to end a trip to El Calafate.
This day trip to Estancia Nibepo Aike can be booked as a half-day or full-day excursion. The full-day option includes horseback riding in Los Glaciares National Park with a guide.
8. Tour Punta Walichu Archaeological Site
Punta Walichu is an important archaeological site located near El Calafate. Here you’ll find a number of caves at the foot of a cliff on the shore of Lake Argentino and inside those caves are ancient rock paintings!
These artworks are believed to be over 4,000 years old and provide an insight into the early human settlements in this region of Patagonia.
The first inhabitants of these lands came during the Glacial Age and are believed to have been the predecessors of the Tehuelches. The cave paintings depict painted hands, the animals that lived in the area as well as the inhabitants’ hunting methods.
Punta Walichu, sometimes also called Cuevas Gualicho, is also of geological importance as the caves and rock formations were shaped by glacial and post-glacial processes.
If you’re planning to rent a car during your visit, you can reach the caves by driving along Route 11 heading east out of town. About 6 kilometres into your drive you’ll notice a small unmarked gravel road with a sign that reads Punta Walichu. Here you’ll turn left and drive an additional 3 kilometres to the shores of Lago Argentino.
Alternatively, you can join a tour that includes transportation and a guided visit to the caves.
This Lake and Caverns 4×4 Tour takes you to Punta Bonita for panoramic views, and Punta Walichu to visit the caves. It also includes lunch or dinner overlooking Lago Argentino.
9. Take a 4×4 Off-Road Adventure
Another activity you can enjoy in El Calafate is a 4×4 off-road adventure to explore the rugged and pristine landscapes of the Patagonian region.
Patagonia is known for its stunning lakes and towering mountain ranges. A 4×4 adventure allows you to reach elevated vantage points that offer panoramic views of the surrounding scenery, including the turquoise waters of Lago Argentino and the majestic peaks of the Andes. Some tours go up to Cerro Frias while others go to Cerro Huyliche.
The off-road routes often lead through areas with unique flora and fauna, so you have a good chance of observing the local wildlife, including guanacos, foxes, and various bird species.
This 4×4 excursion takes you to the Balconies of Calafate for views of Lago Argentino, fossil spotting and if you’re lucky an encounter with condors flying overhead.
10. Join a Horseback Riding Excursion
If you’re looking for some active things to do in El Calafate, you may want to consider a horseback riding excursion. This is a great way to soak in the Patagonian landscapes which feature arid steppe, snow-capped mountains and milky turquoise lakes.
Since most horseback riding experiences in El Calafate take place at estancias, this also means you get a glimpse of rural life and gaucho culture. And because this is Argentina, the outing typically ends with a traditional BBQ or asado.
Horseback riding trails vary in difficulty and duration, catering to riders of different skill levels. Your guide will ask about your horse riding experience and assign you a horse accordingly.
This horseback riding excursion at Estancia Rio Mitre includes epic mountain views, a ride to the shores of Lago Argentino, and an Argentine BBQ to end the day.
11. Go Kayaking on La Leona River
Kayaking La Leona River is another fun day excursion you can plan from El Calafate. This activity takes place in La Leona which is an outpost in the middle of the Patagonian steppe, halfway between the town of El Calafate and El Chaltén.
La Leona River connects Lago Argentino to Lago Viedma and it has beautiful milky blue waters.
Kayaking around these parts means you’ll be provided with a wetsuit and have a professional guide with you.
This particular tour is also combined with a hike to La Leona Petrified Forest where you can find dinosaur fossils and see ancient petrified tree trunks dating back millions of years when the climate in this part of the world was very different.
This full-day kayaking tour on La Leona River also includes a guided hike through a petrified forest in search of dinosaur bones. This tour has a maximum of 8 participants.
12. Take a Helicopter Tour over the Glaciers
If you’re looking for a bucket list activity in Patagonia, you’ll want to add a flight over the glaciers to your list!
A helicopter tour offers a unique perspective of the stunning landscapes of Patagonia where you can soak in the magic of the ice field, glaciers, lakes, mountains, and the vast Patagonian wilderness.
This is not a budget-friendly activity, let me warn you, so it won’t be for everyone. However, if Patagonia is a once-in-a-lifetime destination for you and you came here ready to see and do it all, then by all means!
DAP Airline has scenic helicopter flights to Perito Moreno Glacier and to Mount Fitz Roy. You can view their rates here – these rates are for a 15-minute flight, 4 passengers and full use of the aircraft.
14. Wander Around El Calafate Town
El Calafate is a really cute town with lots of wooden cabin-style constructions that give the place a bit of a frontier feel.
The main street, Avenida del Libertador, is lined with shops, cafes, and restaurants. It’s a nice place for a stroll and if you have the time it’s worth spending a couple of hours browsing the shops and doing a bit of souvenir shopping.
Aldea de los Gnomos is a little pedestrian street that is lined with little boutiques where you can pick up handicrafts, woven textiles and leather goods.
You’ll also find several ice cream shops along the main avenue, so if you’re looking to treat yourself to a scoop of artisanal ice cream, try some of the local flavours: calafate berries if you’d like to return to Patagonia one day (that’s what legend says) or dulce de leche which is a classic.
14. Sip some Patagonian craft beer
Argentina is a wine-drinking country, but Patagonia loves its craft beer!
Never have I seen so many craft breweries so close together, and I’m not just talking about El Calafate, this is something you encounter in most Patagonian mountain towns.
A few to check out include La Zorra Taproom, Cervecería Artesanal Chopen and La Fábrica Cervecería. Or just walk down the main street and choose whichever appeals to you the most – you’ll notice many of these breweries have outdoor patios.
Order a flight of beers if you fancy doing a tasting and some good pub grub to go along with it.
15. Sample the Local Patagonian Cuisine
Last but not least, how about sampling some of the local Patagonian cuisine, because you’re probably going to be hungry after all the things to do in El Calafate we’ve listed above. Some traditional dishes to look out for include:
- Patagonian Lamb: Known for its high-quality meat, Patagonia is a haven for lamb lovers. Grilled or slow-cooked, Patagonian lamb is often seasoned with local herbs and spices, resulting in a tender and flavourful dish.
- Trucha: With numerous lakes and rivers, trout is a common and delicious local specialty. Grilled or baked, Patagonian trout is often served with simple yet flavorful accompaniments, allowing the natural taste of the fish to shine.
- Calafate Berries: The calafate berry, native to the region, is celebrated in various culinary creations. Look for calafate berry jams, desserts, and sauces, as these berries add a unique and distinctive flavour to local dishes.
- Empanadas: Empanadas are a beloved staple in Argentine cuisine, and El Calafate is no exception. These pastry pockets are typically filled with minced meat, cheese, or vegetables, offering a tasty snack or light meal.
- Cazuela: Cazuela is a traditional stew made with meat, vegetables, and spices. It’s a warming and hearty dish that is especially comforting during the cooler months.
- Dulce de Leche Treats: Argentina’s famous dulce de leche is often featured in desserts in El Calafate. Try dulce de leche-filled pastries, cakes, or ice cream for a sweet and indulgent treat.
Where to Eat in El Calafate
Olivia Coffee Shop
This is a great breakfast spot with lots of variety. Aside from serving the perfect cup of coffee, they also have waffles, bagels, grilled sandwiches and an array of desserts to tempt you. We ate at this spot a couple of times and were always happy with the food.
For those craving an authentic Argentine barbecue experience, La Tablita is a popular choice. This parrilla or steakhouse is best known for its Patagonian lamb barbecue, however, you can get a variety of meats. They have an open kitchen so you can see how your food is prepared and you can even watch as they grill the barbecue.
Mi Rancho is a family-run restaurant that offers a mix of Argentine and international dishes. Known for its friendly atmosphere and attentive service, Mi Rancho provides a diverse menu, catering to different tastes. You can get barbecued lamb, braised ossobuco, and even try guanaco stew if you’re looking for something very local.
Isabel Cocina al Disco
Isabel specializes in comida al disco, meaning food cooked on a plow disk – yes, we are referring to farming equipment! This is a traditional way of cooking that was quite popular in the estancias and anywhere rural. You can get lamb, pork, trout, chicken and beef. Plus you have different sauces to choose from for your base.
La Cocina is a fun restaurant for a pasta tasting – ñoqui, ravioli, spaghetti, you name it! They have three different pasta sets to choose from and each one comes with three different pastas with various sauces. It was really fun to get a taste of everything and it was a cozy setting that made it feel like you were sitting in you grandma’s kitchen.
Places to Stay in El Calafate
El Calafate provides a range of accommodations, from charming boutique hotels to cozy guesthouses, offering options for various preferences and budgets. Here are three places to consider staying in El Calafate:
Situated on the shores of Lake Argentino, Xelena Hotel & Suites is known for its breathtaking views and luxurious amenities. The hotel offers spacious rooms and suites with modern decor, and some rooms feature private balconies overlooking the lake. Guests can enjoy on-site facilities such as a spa, fitness center, indoor pool, and a restaurant serving Argentine and international cuisine.
Los Sauces Casa Patagónica
Nestled in a serene location, Los Sauces Casa Patagónica is a boutique hotel that combines comfort with Patagonian charm. The hotel’s architecture and decor are inspired by the region’s natural surroundings. With well-appointed rooms, a garden, and a restaurant offering regional specialties, Los Sauces provides a tranquil and welcoming retreat for visitors exploring El Calafate. This location is slightly on the outskirts of town, so you’ll want a rental car or you can use taxis to get around.
Book your stay at Los Sauces Casa Patagónica.
Design Suites Calafate offers a contemporary and stylish accommodation option in El Calafate. The hotel boasts modern architecture and design, featuring large windows that frame panoramic views of Lake Argentino and the surrounding landscapes. Guests can enjoy spacious rooms, an on-site spa, an indoor pool, and a restaurant serving a mix of regional and international dishes.
FAQs about Visiting El Calafate
El Calafate is known as the gateway town to Los Glaciares National Park, which is home to the Perito Moreno Glacier.
A minimum of three days is advisable for visiting El Calafate. You can dedicate one full day to Los Glaciares National Park, and use the other two days to join some of the different excursions.
Technically, you could since the distance between El Calafate and El Chalten is 2.5 hours. However, it’s not advisable. El Chaltén merits at least 3 days in order to enjoy some of the most iconic hikes and you’ll want to start those early in the day.
Visiting Torres del Paine, Chile on a day trip from El Calafate is possible but not advisable. You’ll spend more time on a bus and crossing the international border than exploring the park. Plan a visit to Puerto Natales and visit Torres del Paine National Park from there.
When’s the Best Time to Visit El Calafate?
The best time to visit El Calafate ultimately depends on the type of experience you are hoping to have, as the weather and activities vary throughout the year. El Calafate experiences distinct seasons, each offering unique attractions:
Spring (September to November)
Spring marks the beginning of the tourist season in El Calafate. The weather starts to warm up, with daytime temperatures ranging from 7 to 15°C (45 to 59°F). Spring is an excellent time for nature enthusiasts as flowers begin to bloom, and wildlife becomes more active. It’s also a quieter time before the peak summer season.
Summer (December to February)
Summer is the high tourist season, and temperatures range from 10 to 23°C (50 to 73°F). Days are long, with extended daylight hours. This is the best time for outdoor activities, including glacier tours, hiking, and boat trips on Lake Argentino. The warm weather allows for a comfortable exploration of the region’s natural beauty.
Fall (March to May)
Fall sees a decrease in temperatures, ranging from 5 to 15°C (41 to 59°F). It’s a transitional season with fewer tourists. Fall offers stunning landscapes as the leaves change colour, creating picturesque scenes. It’s also a good time for hiking and enjoying the tranquillity of the region.
Winter (June to August)
Winter is the low season, and temperatures can drop below freezing, ranging from -2 to 7°C (28 to 45°F). Snowfall is very much a possibility. While some outdoor activities may be limited due to the cold, winter in El Calafate offers a unique charm. It’s an ideal time for those interested in snow-covered landscapes and a quieter experience.
As you can see, the choice of the best time to visit El Calafate depends on personal preferences and the type of activities you wish to pursue.
If you’re interested in exploring glaciers and making the most of all the outdoor activities and excursions, then the summer months (December to February) will give you the most options.
However, if you prefer a quieter experience and don’t mind cooler temperatures, spring and fall can offer beautiful landscapes and fewer crowds.
Is El Calafate worth visiting?
Yes, El Calafate is absolutely worth visiting!
If you want to see the Perito Moreno Glacier and visit Los Glaciares National Park, El Calafate is the gateway town to these experiences and so many others.
Whether you have 2 days in El Calafate and can only cover the highlights, or a full week to go on all the day trips, this destination is one worth adding to your Patagonia itinerary.
I would recommend combining your trip to El Calafate with a visit to El Chaltén. These towns are best visited in tandem. This article covers the best things to do in El Chalten featuring plenty of hiking and other outdoor activities.
If your travel plans allow for it, you can even book a flight from El Calafate to Ushuaia and also explore the southernmost city in the world.
GROUP TOURS – If you’d rather join a group tour to travel in Argentina, check out Gadventures.
CAR RENTAL – To explore Argentina beyond the cities, the best way to do so is by renting a car. Discover Cars offers rentals across the country.
BUS TICKETS – Bus travel is a great way to see Argentina. BusBud offers numerous routes.
TRAVEL INSURANCE – Don’t leave on your trip without booking travel insurance. You can get a quote on SafetyWing.
HOTELS – Booking.com offers accommodations to suit all budgets and travel styles.
TOURS – For a variety of tours and activities, have a look at Viator.