After taking the 24-hour bus journey from Buenos Aires to Bariloche, I knew it would be hard to persuade Jonathan to do another 24-hour bus journey to El Calafate, Argentina. I dislike flying but the ‘it will be so much cheaper than flying and hey, we will save money on a night’s accommodation’ was just not going to work this time. And when we found promo seats on Aerolíneas Argentinas that were only marginally more than the bus, and with travel time less than two hours, it was a no brainer. I would just have to ignore the images in my head that suggest every bump of turbulence meant the plane would crash! Funny enough, the plane didn’t crash, the flight was very smooth, and Aerolíneas Argentinas
Top Tips for Visiting Perito Moreno Glacier
The weather in Patagonia can be a bit unpredictable so assume flights may be delayed a little. You should allow a full day for visiting Perito Moreno Glacier so do factor this in when planning your trip to El Calafate. We met an American couple who thought they’d have enough time to visit the glacier, assuming the flight landed on time, as they were leaving early from El Calafate the next morning. The flight was late, the glaciers are a good hours drive outside El Calafate, so they were not going to have enough time. The main reason for going to El Calafate is to see the Perito Moreno Glacier!
When we finally arrived at El Calafate Airport, we rented a car at the airport for our duration, as we like the freedom that having your own transport offers. For more details about how to get to El Calafate from the airport, please see below.
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Top tip: when travelling in high season, book car hire in advance to secure a better price. Do as we say, not as we do. Yes, that’s right, we didn’t book a car in advance, but we did manage to find the last remaining vehicle, probably paid more as beggars can’t be choosers. The rental cost us roughly $80 a day.
With a few hours to spare before seeking dinner, we decided to visit the Reserva Laguna Nimez, located just on the edge of El Calafate town. It’s a lovely nature trail through wetlands alongside the Lago Argentino shoreline and the Nimez lagoons. A perfect place for bird watchers and for those that enjoy a leisurely stroll in nature. I’m not great at bird recognition, but we saw lots of flamingoes and the adorable blue beaked ruddy duck.
The trail is three kilometres, and you should allow one to two hours to walk around. It costs 350 pesos to enter (about 10 dollars), but your ticket is valid for a few days so you can pop back for free.
How to get to El Calafate from El Calafate Airport
Our Visit Perito Moreno Glacier
The next day, we visited the Glacier Perito Moreno, definitely a highlight of our trip to Patagonia. It takes roughly an hour and a quarter to drive from El Calafate. The glacier is located in Los Glaciares National Park which is situated in the province of Santa Cruz in southwest Argentina, and it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Having a rental car, we were able to set off early and arrive before the tourist buses. The entrance fee to the park is 700 pesos per person.
By the visitor centre, there are loads of short boardwalk hikes to do, each varying in length and challenge. To be honest, even the most challenging walk wouldn’t be challenging for any reasonably fit person, it just means there’s a lot of stairs. None of the trails are that long, but allow lots of time, because I guarantee you will be stopping every few minutes to take just one more photo.
The views of the Perito Moreno were just incredible from every angle. It’s difficult for me to describe in words but just look at these photos.
And the sounds of the ice cracking before crashing into the water, known as calving were just incredible. At times, the noise of the ice cracking sounded like thunderclaps. Also, the intense blue colour of the glacial ice was just stunning.
So Why Is The Ice Blue?
Now, as I tended in my misspent youth not to pay any attention to my science teacher, I was curious as to why the ice was blue. I’m sure many of you know this already, but for those that don’t, apparently, the dense ice of a glacier absorbs every colour except blue, so that’s why we see blue. Having read various explanations about why ice is blue, I’m still somewhat confused; nevertheless, the blue is breathtaking.
In the afternoon, we decided to take the boat tour to the Glacier’s south face, because obviously, we needed more photos of Perito Moreno Glacier. When we boarded the boat, we were told to sit inside. We thought, ‘oh no, don’t say we have to view the glacier from inside.’ But after the safety briefings, you’re allowed to go up on top. So top tip, stay close to the exits when sitting downstairs so you will be one of the first on top deck to get a good view, but don’t worry the boat turns around so everyone should get a chance to see the glacier up close.
To be honest, we don’t usually do boat tours but this was great for photos and takes you right up close, plus we got the chance to see an ice bridge which was fascinating to see, and we wouldn’t have seen this if we remained on land. So, if you have the time, we’d recommend it. For prices, times and other tours, see below.
Tours available within the Glacier Perito Moreno park:
- Before you arrive at the visitor
centre, you will see a sign to your left leading to a small port where the boat tours leave from. This is also where you can book additional excursions in the park.
- Boat tours or a Safari Nautico is a one-hour boat ride to the Glacier’s south face and costs 800 pesos per person. (Approx $20) The boats depart at 10:00 / 11:30 / 13:00 / 14:30 daily with an extra one at 16:00 at weekends.
- Mini-trekking – walking on the glacier 4500 pesos per person. Must be reasonably fit. No children under 10 and no seniors over 65. (Approx $117)
- Big Ice Tours – trekking on the glacier. Must be physically fit and is only for those aged 18 to 50. Cost 7900 pesos per person. (Approx $204)
Top Tips For Visiting The Perito Moreno Glacier
- Arrive early. Allow a good few hours. We spent almost a full day here.
- Bring water and snacks with you. There are some great places to enjoy a picnic lunch with great views of the glacier. There is a snack bar but it gets very crowded, plus you don’t get the view.
- Dress for all weathers, the age-old saying, four seasons in one day (Jonathan really hates this phrase lol) really does apply to Patagonia.
- Drone photography is NOT allowed in the park.
How To Get To The Perito Moreno Glacier
We drove. We like the independence and flexibility, although this is the more expensive option. But you can reach the park before the tourist buses arrive and have the place to yourself and for us, that’s worth paying a little bit more. As we booked our car on arrival at the airport in high season, it cost us $80 per day. It’s an easy drive to see the Perito Moreno Glacier, just follow route 11 all the way from Calafate town. The road is paved all the way with a couple of places where you can pull over to enjoy your first view of the glacier.
There are also plenty of bus companies in El Calafate that offer return trips to the glacier. The going rate for travelling in high season when we were there was 800 pesos per person (Approx $20) But check with your hotel or hostel for up to date prices and times.
We noticed that many people were using guides, but you really don’t need to. The boardwalk walks are all clearly signposted, and all the information signs are written in both Spanish and English.
What Else Is There To Do El Calafate?
Walking around El Calafate Town
The town has a nice relaxed vibe to it. Most of the shops, bars, cafes, and restaurants are along route 11. It’s a nice mix of touristy and locals. With a couple of hours spare, it’s a pleasant place to stroll around.
We didn’t have time to do this, but there’s a walking tour in El Calafate. The tour takes two hours and starts at 5:30pm on Tuesdays/Thursdays/Saturdays and Sundays. On the walking tour you’ll learn about the history of El Calafate and its early settlers. You can reserve a spot through the Tourist Office or at your hotel. If you have done this tour, let us know what it was like in the comments below.
A fascinating museum about ice, glaciers, how they are formed and climate change. The information signs at the Glaciarium are written in both Spanish and English, and there are many documentaries shown in both languages too. The friendly, helpful guides will tell you when the next show is shown in English. It was fascinating and well worth spending a few hours there. If you don’t believe in Climate Change, this place may just change your mind!
The unusual architecture of the museum is supposed to represent a glacier!
To Get to the Glaciarium
It’s just a five minutes drive from the town on the way to the glacier. If you don’t have your own transport, free transfers to the museum depart hourly from the car park of the Santa Cruz Province Tourist Bureau. It’s open every day and costs 480 pesos per adult (Approx $12)
Coming back from the museum into town early evening, we saw loads of flamingoes on the lake. Unfortunately, the flamingoes were too away to get a great photo, but close enough to enjoy the experience and say ‘Wow, look at all those flamingoes!’
The Walichu Caves
If you have extra time and your own car, you should pay a visit to the Walichu Caves. It’s just a short drive out of town, heading towards the airport and then down a wide dirt track, but it’s clearly signposted. Here is where the first cave paintings in the province were discovered. Even though most of the cave paintings have severely weathered, it’s still a fun self-guided walk with an audio guide. It takes about 50 minutes to get around. And even if you can’t see as many cave paintings as clearly as you may have hoped, it’s still a great view over Lago Argentino.
Open every day, except Monday. Cost is 400 per person and includes an audio guide.
Our Favourite Restaurants In El Calafate
There are loads of good restaurants in El Calafate, but we had great meals at the following restaurants.
On our first night, we had a lovely meal at Parilla Don Pichon. Jonathan enjoyed a lamb dish, and I went vegetarian. (The portion sizes for meat dishes are so huge in Argentina, it really put me off eating meat. Fortunately, most restaurants do offer vegetarian options.) The restaurant is located on a hilltop, with great views of the lake and town. They even provide a free transfer back to your hotel, but as we were only a few minutes walk to our guesthouse, we walked.
Mi Viejo is another restaurant that’s great for lamb. Patagonia lamb seems to be the specialty in El Calafate. And Jonathan was taking a brief hiatus from all the steaks he had been devouring in Buenos Aires. Vegetarian options are available. This restaurant is very popular, so be prepared to wait for a table. Located on the Main Street, so easy to find.
La Cantina, a hole in the wall restaurant, that was near our guesthouse. Simple food and good beers. It is catered more for locals than tourists.
The German Bakery on the Main Street is good for coffee and breakfast.
So, after three nights in El Calafate, it was time to move on. Next stop: Ushuaia.