El Calafate and El Chaltén
Located in Southern Patagonia, the towns of El Calafate and El Chaltén are the best-known starting points for glacier seekers and intrepid hikers. I’ve grouped them together because of the short distance (220~ Km) between them. They are, however, quite different in what sorts of activities and attractions they offer travelers. Lets begin with the larger and more developed El Calafate, the major transport hub in the area.
Overview: El Calafate is the most popular place to go when you want to see Argentina’s beautiful glaciers up close. While the town itself is frankly a little boring, it’s the closest town to Los Glaciares National Park which includes the great Glaciar Perito Moreno.
When To Go: Spring, summer, and fall are all great times of year to visit El Calafate. You can technically go any time of year, but it can get very cold and miserable during the deep winter months of July and August.
How to Get There: El Calafate is far, far, far away from everything. Unless you include El Calafate as part of a larger Patagonia trip, it makes sense to fly there because a bus from Buenos Aires takes 40+ hours. Yikes! Aerolineas Argentinas offers many daily flights from Buenos Aires. There is a bus that goes from Bariloche to El Calafate that I’ve heard takes around 24 hours.
Recommended Trip Duration: You really only need one full day to experience that El Calafate has to offer. There is very little to do in the town itself and a full day tour of Glaciar Perito Moreno is all that’s really necessary. It’s a nice weekend trip, but if you stay there more than a few days, you’ll likely get bored (and run out of money because it’s a very expensive place).
Where to Stay: There are a bunch of hostels and hotels to stay at in the town of El Calafate. I stayed at MarcoPoloInn (hostel) which I enjoyed very much. A quick search on hostelworld.com turns up a plethora of options and prices.
What to See and Do
Tour of Perito Moreno Glacier: There are many tour operators, but most follow a basic format. Tours leave early in the morning as it takes at least 1.5 hours to reach the national park from El Calafate. Then, they’ll offer an optional boat ride up to the glacier which I HIGHLY recommend that you do. Finally, you’ll be given a couple hours to marvel at the incredible majesty of the Glaciar Perito Moreno before heading back in the evening to El Calafate.
Glacier Trek: I actually did this in El Chaltén and not El Calafate, but it is a readily available option. There are a bunch of tour companies that will supply you with all the necessary gear (crampons, snow pants etc.) and then take you on a guided tour of the nearby glaciers.
For more ideas, check out this nice list of activities over at TripAdvisor.
Out of all of the places that I’ve traveled to in Argentina, El Chaltén sticks out as the most jaw-dropping and flat out amazing. Nestled right on the border with Chile, El Chaltén is one of the natural jewels of Argentina. The scenery is dominated by Cerro Torre and Cerro Fitz Roy which are a sight to behold and are easily visible from town.
Overview: El Chaltén is a hiker’s and nature enthusiast’s dream come true. The landscape is rugged and the jagged peaks of the Fitz Roy range dominate the surrounding area. The main attractions are hiking, camping, and glacier-trekking. There isn’t much infrastructure in the town (I think there is one supermarket) due to the fact that the town was founded in 1985 to secure an Argentine foothold on the disputed border with Chile. Make sure to bring extra cash with you to El Chaltén because ATM access is spotty at best.
When to Go: The town empties out during the winter (June-September), but is fine to visit any other time of year. I went in December and it was absolutely perfect. It never gets too hot, even in summer, but high season for tourism is in January and February which means less hostel availability and more hassle getting to and from El Chaltén. There are places to rent warm clothing like jackets and gloves in town.
How to Get There: If you don’t have a car, there are multiple daily buses from El Calafate to El Chaltén. The trip takes about 3-4 hours and you’ll get to see some incredible desert landscapes along the way. Most buses leave early in the morning so make sure to check the schedule!
Where to Stay: There are a bunch of hostels in El Chaltén and camping options are also available. The hostels are relatively expensive, but won’t break the bank. Camping is a very attractive option because there is a campground a couple of hours hike up towards Cerro Fitz Roy that is very cheap, if not free. You can also rent camping gear in both El Calafate and El Chaltén.
What to See and Do:
Hiking: My favorite part about El Chaltén is the easy access that you have to multiple hiking trails that are challenging while still remaining accessible for the casual hiker. I recommend getting up bright and early and taking your time on the trails. You don’t need hiking equipment or shoes, but it’s recommended.
Check out the map above to see the different trails. I couldn’t find a good map in English, but at least it gives you an idea. My personal favorite was the B-C-D hike up to Lago de los Trés at the base of Cerro Fitz Roy!
Glacier Trekking: You’ll be able to set up guided glacier treks once you arrive in the town and they have equipment to rent. My route was the A-K trail and when I finally got to actually walk on a glacier, I was not disappointed! I can say with all certainty that there is a breathtaking shade of blue that you will only find in glacial ice. Some of the tours include a little ice-climbing as well which is a fun experience for the uninitiated.
All Photos by Nick Hadsel-Mares