Established in 1927 by early Patagonian pioneers, El Calafate is now an adventure hub for travelers seeking to explore the extraordinary landscapes of Argentina’s Far South. This former sleepy frontier town remains small and isolated to this day with approximately 25,000 inhabitants, although the city continues to grow exponentially as Patagonia gains prominence as one of the world’s premiere adventure travel destinations.
While Bariloche and the Lakes are technically considered “Patagonia” by Argentines, the landscapes surrounding El Calafate are much more rugged and unruly than the Lake District. In our opinion, this is the true Patagonia. The source of the mystique that surrounds its name. A land of blinding blizzards, howling winds, and gnarled mountain clusters.
Menacing as it may be, the untainted beauty of this forbidding frontier is as powerful as any other place on the planet. Of the 37 billion acres on earth, none are more secluded and spectacular than those you will find in this far-flung frontier.
Gateway to Los Glaciares National Park
Dominated by glaciers and capped with stunning mountain spires, El Calafate is the gateway to Los Glaciares National Park. Mount Fitz Roy, Perito Moreno Glacier, Torres del Paine… the list of incredible natural wonders within four hours of El Calafate is almost unfathomable.
Glaciers GaloreThe true draw to El Calafate for most travelers is the variety of glaciers that are strewn about this incredible frontier. Located beside the heart of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, El Calafate is within close reach of the Perito Moreno, Upsala, and Viedma Glaciers, three of the largest in South America. There are numerous ways for nature-loving adventurers to experience these natural wonders, ranging from expert-guided boat tours to rugged ice-treks. Remarkably, these three behemoth glacial wonders represent a mere fraction of the glaciers within the region, and there seems to be a hidden ice field tucked behind each and every Andean peak.
While this region of Patagonia is praised for its natural beauty, there are some very powerful cultural experiences available in Santa Cruz as well. Within this untarnished wilderness are some of the most incredible estancias in the world. Visiting these historic ranches is like stepping back in time to the era of the early settlers when one’s entire existence was intimately intertwined with the natural surroundings. To this day, many of the local ranchers continue to practice centuries-old traditions that they learned from their forefathers. In our opinion, experiencing the gaucho way of life on these authentic estancias is one of the most privileged luxury experiences one can have in South America.
El Calafate Practical Information:
In addition to Los Glaciares National Park, El Calafate also makes a good entry point for travelers seeking to visit Torres del Paine National Park in neighboring Chile. Though many travelers access Torres del Paine from Punta Arenas, El Calafate is even closer by vehicle than Punta Arenas. In order to access Torres del Paine from El Calafate, you must cross the border at Cerro Castillo, and then proceed to the park.
Settlements of any sort are few and far between in the Santa Cruz province, and travelers need to be prepared for some long shuttle transfers between the highlight destinations. Just to provide some perspective, here are some approximate time frames for private transfers to nearby sites near El Calafate:
- El Calafate to Estancia Nibepo Aike – 1 hr. 15 minutes to 1 hr. 30 minutes
- El Calafate to Punta Bandera – 40 minutes
- El Calafate to Perito Moreno Glacier – 1 hr. 15 minutes
- Punta Bandera to Estancia Cristina (boat) – 3 hrs. w/stops, 2 hrs. direct
- El Calafate to El Chalten – 3 hrs.
- El Calafate to Cerro Castillo – 3 to 3 hrs. 30 minutes
- El Chalten to Lago del Desierto – 45 minutes to 1 hr (37 km dirt road)
- El Calafate Airport to Town – 15 minutes
El Calafate is nice but we don’t recommend staying more than a couple nights in town since there are so many amazing rural lodges and estancias nearby. Rather than setting up base in town, we recommend using El Calafate as an intermediate stop between other nearby destinations, perhaps staying a few nights south of town at one of the nearby estancias on Lago Argentino, staying a night in El Calafate, and then proceeding to El Chalten. Depending on where travelers are coming from, they may also consider spending the first or last night in town.