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.
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The best times to visit 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 any way), 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.
The calafate bush
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”).