The overriding reason to visit El Calafate is to make it your base for seeing Glaciar Perito Moreno and the other world-class attractions in the southern sector of Parque National Los Glaciares. Once a primitive staging post between the area’s estancias and Río Gallegos, the town is now one of Argentina’s most-visited tourist destinations, with a hotchpotch of neo-pioneer architecture, scores of hotels and souvenir shops, and a huge casino. There has been significant investment here, not least because it is the fiefdom of President Cristina Fernández Kirchner, who owns several hotels in the region. Prices are high, and El Calafate has a sprawling feel, set in the shadow of its eponymous mountain and overlooking Lago Argentino. Apart from shopping, eating and planning your visits, there’s little to do in the town itself.
The best times to visit El Calafate are spring and autumn (Nov to mid-Dec & March–April), when there’s a nice balance between having enough visitors to keep services running but not too many for the place to seem overcrowded; it can be uncomfortably busy in January and February. If you’re planning to arrive any time outside winter (when access can be hard and many places are closed anyway), it is advisable to book accommodation, flights and car rental well in advance.
The town’s biggest festival, the Festival del Lago Argentino, takes place in the week leading up to February 15.
Outside of the high season (Jan, Feb & Easter) accommodation prices are considerably reduced and all but the top-end hotels become affordable; some places close during the height of winter. If you don’t want to stay in town, try one of several nearby estancias.
In addition to the options below, staff at the office of Estancias de Santa Cruz can provide information on many other estancias in the area and throughout the province, and make reservations.
Most restaurants are clustered along or within a block of Avenida Libertador; with a few exceptions, prices are high by Argentine standards. Surprisingly, the choice of bars and late-night hangouts is limited – perhaps because everyone has to get up so early for the excursions. The opening times given here are for the high season; during the rest of the year, some places close and most of the rest operate reduced hours.
The tiny Museo Regional, housed in a 1940s-era building, just east of the centre, has an eclectic range of exhibits including photos of the pioneers who founded El Calafate, a collection of fossils and stuffed birds, a stack of ancient typewriters, and some indigenous crafts. It’s worth a quick look.
The Calafate Centro de Interpretación Histórica, a 10min walk from the town centre, attempts to trace 100 million years of natural and human history in Patagonia. There are displays on Patagonia’s indigenous communities (and the devastating impact on them of European settlement), rock art, the 1920–21 workers’ strike, glaciers and dinosaur skeletons, including part of a mylodon, the creature that inspired Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia. The entry fee includes a free mate after your visit.
This nature reserve, just a fifteen-minute walk from the town centre, is home to around a hundred different species of bird, including flamingoes (though you can sometimes spot them from a distance from the edge of the reserve without paying the entry fee), and is a good way to kill an hour or so.
The Glaciarium is a state-of-the-art museum that focuses on ice and glaciers, and aims to raise awareness of the impact of climate change. It uses a range of models, photos, 3D documentaries and interactive exhibits to help bring the subject to life (everything is in English as well as Spanish), and after looking around you can sink a drink in Argentina’s first ice-bar.
Calafate, the indigenous name for what is known in English as the box-leaved barberry (Berberis buxifolia), is Patagonia’s best-known plant. The bushes are protected by vindictive thorns, and the wood contains a substance known as berberina, which possesses medicinal properties and is used as a textile dye. From late October onwards, the bushes are covered with exquisite little bright yellow flowers. Depending on where they’re growing, the berries mature between December and March. Once used by the indigenous populations for dye, they’re nowadays often employed in delicious ice creams, appetizing home-made preserves or as a filling for alfajores. Remember the oft-quoted saying: “Él que come el calafate, volverá” (“Eat calafate berries and you’ll be back”).
Top image: The Perito Moreno Glacier, Argentina © saiko3p/Shutterstock