Things to Do in El Calafate
If you’re visiting El Calafate, there’s no way to miss the vast Lago Argentino. The city sits on the shore of this massive lake, the largest freshwater source in Argentina. It covers 566 square miles and is a result of glacial meltwater, which causes its milky blue color. The lake is part of Argentina’s Glacier National Park and is home to one of the area’s only advancing glaciers, Perito Moreno, which calves into Lago Argentino.
But Perito Moreno is not the only thing to see at Lago Argentino, and many visitors choose a full day of sightseeing on the lake, starting from El Calafate. Visits up the north arm to Upsala usually give visitors a chance to see calving glaciers up close, and the Spegazzini Glacier is the tallest one in the area, at almost 450 feet. Most visits also include the Onelli Glacier, and visitors are sometimes allowed to disembark along the shores and hike among native beech forest and red-blooming firebush.
Parque Nacional Los Glaciares protects Argentina’s wild Patagonian expanses of icy glaciers and mountain lakes. With a massive 47 glaciers, the Andean ice cap is the largest expanse of ice outside Antarctica and Greenland.
Created by millennia of ice flows from the Andean snowfields, the ice feeds huge Lake Argentino, Lake Viedma and the Rio Santa Cruz. The national park’s most famous glacier is the Perito Moreno Glacier, safely viewed via lookout platforms and renowned for its dynamic movement and dramatic ice falls.
Climbers target Mt Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre, and fly-fishers praise the trout fishing on Lake Argentino. Wildlife spotters might see condor, guanaco and pumas in the park.
El Calafate is the national park’s main hub, the base for sailing cruises to spot icebergs on the lakes, hiking expeditions and mountain climbing.
The Upsala Glacier upstages even Perito Moreno in scale.
South America’s largest glacier, Upsala measures 50km long and 10km wide (31 miles long, 6 miles wide). It’s only from the water of Lake Argentino that you can really appreciate the glacier’s magnitude and crystalline beauty.
Forests surround the glacier and lake, and icebergs that have tumbled from the glacier’s peaks fill the water.
From the glacier, you can hike to the iceberg-dotted waters of Lago Onelli and take in vistas of blue-white ice floes, jagged mountains and pristine waterways stretching to the horizon.
Travel here by horseback, boat, hiking or 4WD, before taking the boat to the glacier’s towering walls fronting the lake.
El Calafate Historical Interpretation Center, a small museum in El Calafate, covers a big chunk of history — 100 million years of history. Recently renovated, the museum provides an excellent introduction to the natural and human history of southern Patagonia from the time it was formed through to today. The collection, divided into five rooms, includes fossilized skeletons of dinosaurs and mega mammals found in the area, as well as recreations of prehistoric cave paintings and collections of objects, tools and relics from the native Aonikenk culture and colonizers who showed up later.
Before Patagonia was peppered with glaciers and jagged, snow-capped peaks, it was a vast plain of lush forests where dinosaurs roamed the Earth. Granted, that was 100 million years ago, and Patagonia today is vastly different from those early days of its founding. At La Leona Petrified Forest, however, visitors have the chance to literally walk through prehistoric Patagonia. This 2,000-acre depression in the Earth is amazingly frozen in time, where massive trees and dinosaur bones still lie on the dusty Earth. There’s an enveloping silence in the desert plains, and only the wind and crunch of your boots seem to break the eerie silence. Nearby, at La Leona Hotel, even more mystique is added to the visit by viewing a place where legendary outlaws hid to escape the law. The towering peak of Mt. Fitzroy can often be seen in the distance, and from walking past fossilized dinosaur dung to hiking in a lunar landscape, this easy daytrip from El Calafate can seem like another world.
Visits to the Onelli Glacier are usually part of a longer cruise of Lago Argentino that includes the Upsala and Spegazzini glaciers as well. The Onelli Glacier is currently receding, like all others in the area, other than Perito Moreno, and visitors witness the extraordinary glacier by boat, navigating the milky-blue waters of Lago Argentino.
The glacier in particular does not feed into Lago Argentino proper, but instead drains into Onelli Lake, which is accessible via a walk through a native beech forest from Onelli Bay. The lake offers views of three glaciers: Bolados, Agassiz and Onelli, which is eight miles long, covering 32 square miles. Upsala glacier is famous for its activity and the Spegazzini for its towering height (nearly 45 feet), but Onelli has its own charm. Because visitors approach the glacier by foot (via a mile-long walk), there is a different sense of Patagonia here.
The Laguna Nimez Nature Reserve is an important conservation spot and stopover for many migrating bird species. It’s also home to dozens of Patagonian bird types, and in all, there are about 80 species that can be seen here. Most notable are the flamingoes and black-necked swans, but visitors are also likely to see geese, silvery grebes, ibis and hawks, among others.
The reserve has a walking path of about a mile and a half that runs in and out of vegetation with full vantage of the two lagoons in the middle. There are two shelters from which you can observe the birds in relative secrecy, and the reed-filled areas of the lagoons are almost always bustling with activity. The best time to visit this area is very early in the morning or later in the evening around sunset, when birds return to rest for the evening.
Patagonia, Argentina, is a place that makes people want to pack up their bags and move to this natural paradise. Estancia Cristina, an old sheep ranch (estancia) dating back to 1918, makes that a possibility. In 2005, the site opened its doors as an inn, as well as an agro-tourism day trip destination.
A visit to the estancia provides background information about the history of how Argentine Patagonia was settled, in addition to explaining the functions of the farm. A Patagonian barbecue is a highlight of the region and to this site specifically, which normally features spit-roasted lamb, often accompanied by a glass of Argentina’s iconic Malbec wine.
Access to Estancia Cristina is on a boat from Puerto Bandera, itself only a 40-minute drive from El Calafate. It is easy to combine a trip to Estancia Cristina with a visit to the Upsala Glacier, one of the most active in the area.
More Things to Do in El Calafate
The alpine lake of Lago Roca is in the southern stretches of Los Glaciares National Park, overlooked by the icy peak of lofty Cerro Cristal. The camping, trekking, fishing and climbing in these parts are legendary, including climbs to Cerro Cristal and the Moreno Glacier, and treks along the banks of Lake Roca. The November to April fly-fishing season draws anglers to fish for rainbow trout and to watch the October spawning. Lakeside estancias offer horseback riding tours and traditional asado barbecues, and birdwatchers come here to spot migrating waterbirds on the lake.
Perched atop El Calafate’s nearest peak, with access to a vast stretch of snow-blanketed slopes and rugged mountain trails, the Calafate Mountain Park is an obvious choice for outdoors enthusiasts and there is a range of activities on offer. Winter visitors can make the most of the snow by skiing and tubing, or venture into the wilderness on a snowshoeing or snowmobiling excursion, while summer activities include downhill mountain biking and quad biking, along with kayaking and rafting tours around the nearby lakes and rivers. Even the journey to the Calafate Mountain Park is impressive and riding the chairlift to the 1,050-meter peak of Mt Huyliche serves up jaw dropping views over Argentino Lake and El Calafate below.
Mount Fitz Roy, the highest mountain in Los Glacieres National Park, rises 3,405 m (11,168 ft) above the bare, sculpted mountains with blowing snow to a peak that only serious climbers will even consider. Its neighbor, 3,128 m (10,260 ft) Cerro Torre is no easier to crest, but their magnificent spires crown the parkland with its most recognizable formation.
Serious climbers can attempt either mountain between November and February, but keep in mind that even in summer, clear days are not guaranteed. Less ambitious hikers will find wonderful trails up into the granite wonderland, nowhere near the apex but high enough to enjoy views across the flowering fields and crystaline lakes.
There’s no doubt the small town of El Chaltén has incredible scenery. Located about three hours from the city of El Calafate, it is known as the hiking capital of Argentina, with the trail to Laguna Torre as a hard-to-beat spot.
The trailhead is easy to find and begins with a gentle uphill walk through native beech forests. The Fitz Roy River flows alongside, and just 15 minutes into the hike, you’ll come to the first viewpoint over the Cascada Margarita waterfall. The hike continues uphill for a couple of hours, until the final ascent up the steep moraine that arrives at the Cerro Torre Mirador lookout. From this point you can see Cerro Solo, the Adela range, the 10,000-foot, near-vertical Cerro Torre with its distinctive surrounding “mushroom” of snow and also Mount Fitzroy. To get closer, continue to the DeAgostini base camp. After about another 15 minutes in, you will come to Laguna Torre itself, which sometimes has icebergs floating in it.
A trip to Laguna de los Tres near Mount Fitzroy in Los Glaciares National Park is in a word, memorable. The lake is accessed only by hiking, which can be split into two days or rolled up in one somewhat more challenging day. Tent camping is available at nearby Campamento Poicenot.
For the two-day trip, the campsite is a steep, five-hour roundtrip hike from El Chaltén. Many people make camp here to set out early to Laguna de Los Tres for a glimpse of the early morning sun on the turquoise lake set among the mountains. You’ll want to allot time to spend at the lake enjoying the view. To make the trip in one full day, set out early from El Chaltén for an eight-hour hike. This option skips the early morning views of Mount Fitzroy from the campsite.
Huemul Glacier is named for a fairly rare species of deer. However, on a trip from El Chaltén over toward the Chilean side of the Andes, you do stand a chance to see one. The area features a native forest and numerous waterfalls that keep the area green year-round. Trips to the Huemul Glacier often start with an hour-long boat trip on the Laguna del Desierto, which is surrounded by trees and backed by lesser mountain chains. After the boat trip, it’s easy to find the trail up to the viewpoint for the Huemul Glacier. It’s a short but steep hike, about two miles uphill, through a dense, mossy forest, and takes about an hour, depending on fitness level. The Huemul Glacier is a hanging one, meaning it appears to spill down the mountain but stops abruptly in the upper valley and does come down to ground level. Visitors often spend quite a while at the lookout point to see the glacier and appreciate the massive ice-flow that comes down granite walls toward the turquoise lake below.
The Southern Patagonian Ice Field is the third largest in the world and the most important source of freshwater in South America. It covers 5,000 square miles (85 percent of which are located in Chile, and 15 percent in Argentina) and is the birthplace of 48 large named glaciers, including the famously still-advancing Perito Mereno and the Viedma Glacier—the largest in Argentina. Viedma, like Perito Moreno and many others, is located within the UNESCO-protected Los Glaciares National Park. Viedma is best accessed from the small town of El Chaltén.
The iceberg flows down the valley and calves at its terminus, an area that is referred to as “moraine-rich,” which means ice picks up silt as it goes and is dusted with grey and black on exposed surfaces, as opposed to being pristine and white. Within the glacier, as moraine turns and moves, it is also visible as dark stripes, showing the movement the ice took as it came down the valley.
To really get a taste of rural farm life in Patagonia, visit the sprawling sheep property of Estancia Alice outside El Calafate.
Visitors are invited to get involved, with sheep-shearing demonstrations and flock-gathering exercises operated by the farm’s team of well-trained kelpie sheepdogs and border collies.
The huge property borders Argentino Lake and runs along the Centinela River, so birdwatching is a very popular pursuit. More than 30 species of birds can be spotted from the estancia’s birding hides, hidden on the riverbank amongst the grasses.
Fly fishing is another specialty at Estancia Alice, and guided horseback rides wind along the water’s edge and to the icy steppes of the Perito Moreno Glacier. Visit for the day or book a room at the Lodge to relax overnight in this traditional Patagonian homestead, with views of the lake or the Andes from your room. In the evening, the Lodge team entertain with displays of Argentine folkloric dancing.
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