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After doing slow travel in the southernmost city in the world, Ushuaia, it was time to explore another spot in Patagonia!
We took an hour and a half flight to arrive at our next destination, El Calafate.
As our flight was descending, I can see a beautiful bright blue lake zigzagging around the area. This lake is called Lago Argentino or Lake Argentino. It is Argentina’s largest freshwater lake.
It has a mesmerizing colour because it is fed by glacial meltwater. Glacial meltwater is a fine powder produced by the abrasion of a glacier.
El Calafate is a small town in the Santa Cruz Province in Patagonia. It is situated on the southern border of Lake Argentino. While there are a few activities to do in this town, there’s really one major reason tourists come here….
It is to see the Perito Moreno Glacier! This is Argentina’s most famous glacier. It is a World Heritage UNESCO site located in Los Glaciers National Park. The nearest town to this national park is El Calafate. Making this remote town the gateway to see this impressive glacier.
What’s So Special About Perito Moreno Glacier?
The White Giant
Perito Moreno Glacier or the White Giant as it is sometimes referred to is one of the largest glaciers in the world. It has a surface area of 250 square kilometers and is 30 kilometres in length. Its height is 240 feet or 74 meters above Lake Argentino and it has a depth of 558 feet or 170 meters below the water’s surface!
The front of the glacier looks like a massive, impenetrable wall. Hence the nickname – the White Giant!
This glacier does not retreat! Despite global warming, Perito Moreno Glacier is still growing, unlike most glaciers around the world. It actually advances about 2.2 meters each day. It’s not noticeable to the blind eye though because of how slow the advancement is.
This glacier is also unique because as it advances into the shores of Lake Argentino every 5 to 10 years. This advancement of the glacier periodically cuts off the southern arm of Lake Argentino. It then creates a separate body of water referred to as Brazo Rico.
This causes a rise in water levels in Brazo Rico as it dams it against a wall of ice. This results with a lot of pressure on the dammed water. Leading it to rupture with massive pieces of glacier falling into the lake. The last time a rupture happened was in March 2016.
Things to Do in El Calafate and Surrounding Area
We only spent two nights in El Calafate so we only did a few activities. I’ll cover the activities we did, along with a few others that may pique your interest if you make a visit to this region.
1. El Calafate’s Town Centre
On our first day we visited the town centre of El Calafate. This is where you can buy tour tickets, eat, snack and shop at the different souvenir shops. Other things to do:
Intendencia Parque Nacional Los Glacieres
First, we visited the Intendencia Parque Nacional Los Glaciers, which is a small park located in the town centre. This park has a small garden with beautiful flora and fauna.
You can also find information about the explorer and academic, Francisco Moreno. He is a big deal in Argentina. They gave him the title “Perito”, which basically means expert.
He discovered many of Patagonia’s landscapes. This includes the glacier named after him, the Lago Nahuel Huapi, and Mount Fitz Roy. Besides the infamous Perito Moreno Glacier, there’s also a town and a national park in his name.
El Calafate Artisanal Market
Next, we checked out this small artisanal market, where you’ll find handmade products, mostly souvenirs. There are some cute things to buy here, including leather made magnets and colourful paintings.
2. Laguna Nimez Nature Reserve
Another activity that you can do in El Calafate is bird watching. If this is something that interests you, then you definitely need to include a visit in Laguna Nimez Nature Reserve. It’s located just a kilometre from El Calafate’s town centre. There are over 90 different bird species there, including flamingos!
Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to visit this nature reserve. If you do visit it, you can combine it with a walk to see the edge of Lake Argentino since it’s nearby.
3. Los Glaciers National Park
On day two, we had an early start to visit the Los Glaciers National Park. This national park is the main attraction, with Perito Moreno Glacier as it’s star celebrity. Many of the activities revolve around and on this glacier.
How to Get to Los Glaciers National Park
To get to this national park, you have a few options:
- Car rental – you can drive to the park and explore the glacier on your own. The biggest benefit is the freedom to choose how much time to spend there. Tip: arrive at the park as soon as it opens at 8am before it gets crowded.
- Buy bus tickets and take the bus to get there. There’s a bus that leaves from El Calafate town centre at 8:30am and a return bus at 4:30pm from the park back to the El Calafate town centre.
- Buy tickets to an organized full day tour that will take care of all the logistics for you.
We chose the third option. We were staying at a hotel a few kilometers away from the town centre, so we appreciated having a hotel pickup and drop off.
The tour cost just a little more than the bus tickets, but it was worth it for us to pay for the convenience. We also purchased the option to take the boat ride to see the glacier. The total cost for the transportation and glacier cruise is about $48US per person.
The bus picked us up from the hotel at 7:30am. The first stop was to go pay for the national park entrance fee. This fee cost about $18US per person.
Glacier Cruise to See Perito Moreno Glacier
Next, our bus dropped us off at the port and we took a one-hour cruise in Lake Argentino to see the Perito Moreno Glacier.
The boat sails close to the edge of the glacier allowing us a closer look at the White Giant.
You get to witness when a piece of ice breaks off the glacier every 15 to 20 minutes. Every time it does, it makes a loud, thunderous sound as it plunges into the ice field! It’s hard to peel your eyes away as you admire the power of this massive glacier.
Generally, the ice breaks off more frequently in the afternoon, than in the morning because of the warm sunshine.
Walking the Different Boardwalks to See Perito Moreno Glacier
After the boat ride, we were back on the bus and we were dropped off at the boardwalk to see the glacier from different viewpoints.
The tour guide didn’t accompany us to the boardwalk. We had around 5 hours to ourselves to spend to walkaround the boardwalk to see the glacier.
There are multiple trails/paths marked in green, blue, orange, yellow and red colours to guide you. These lead to different platforms or viewing points across from the glacier. It involves taking a lot of stairs, but most trails are not difficult since they’ve built walkways.
As I was taking photos of the glacier, there was an elderly Argentinian tourist from Buenos Aires standing next to me. He was a wealth of knowledge sharing all kinds of facts with me about this glacier. It was like I had my own personal tour guide!
Afterwards, it was time to take a break from walking all the various trails and getting our fill of seeing the glacier from different vantage points. There is a building just before the entrance of the boardwalk where you can find a casual restaurant that mainly sells sandwiches, a coffee shop, a souvenir shop and washrooms.
The food isn’t great here, so you may want to pack some snacks with you since it’s an all-day long trip. Most importantly, there was an electric outlet to charge our phones in the seating area by the restaurant.
More Adventurous Ways to See Perito Moreno Glacier
There are other more active tours you can sign up for to explore this glacier if you’re feeling more adventurous. For example, you can sign up for a trekking tour to trek on the glacier itself with an expert guide. This tour is very popular, so sign up at least a few days in advance.
Another tour option is to go kayaking in Lake Argentino to have a closer look at the Perito Moreno Glacier.
The Other Glaciers
If you noticed, the national park is called Los Glaciers because there is more than just Perito Moreno Glacier there. There is also the Upsala Glacier and the Spegazzini Glacier.
To access these two glaciers, you need to purchase a boat tour. There’s no boardwalk to walk around and see them like there is for the Perito Moreno Glacier.
Tip: If you plan on doing several activities in this national park, then it’s best to buy a two-day entrance ticket. You get a nice discount for the second day.
4. Glaciarium Patagonian Ice Museum
Before or after your visit to Los Glaciers National Park, you can opt to visit the Glaciarium Patagonian Ice Museum. You can learn a lot about the Perito Moreno Glacier and the other glaciers online. However, if you want something more interactive, make a visit to this museum.
This museum has exhibits, interactive displays and a 3D documentary. It’s 6 kilometers away from El Calafate’s town centre, but they do have a complimentary shuttle that leaves from there to the museum regularly. The cost of the museum ticket is $10US at the time of my visit to El Calafate.
This museum is also unique because it has an Ice Bar in the basement!
Where to Eat in El Calafate, Argentina
While in El Calafate, we had the pleasure of trying out a true Patagonian dish, grilled lamb. We had dinner at Mako Fuego y Vinos. This restaurant is very elegant as you can see from the table setting.
The service was exceptional and the food at Mako Fuego y Vinos was delicious! The meal started out with complimentary appetizers.
They cook the lamb on the rotisserie exposing it to flames.
We were then served the main course of grilled lamb and a side of grilled veggies to share.
If you are a meat lover you have to try the Patagonian lamb at least once. I don’t even like lamb that much and I enjoyed it. It was without a doubt the best dinner we had in Patagonia!
El Calafate Berries
Another thing to try while in El Calafate is their natural berries, which shares the same name as the town. The El Calafate berry grows in southern Patagonia and is very similar to blueberry. You’ll find that they use this berry in many of their products such as ice cream, syrup, jam and even beer!
After dinner we had dropped by Acuarela to try their El Calafate flavoured gelato. To our disappointment this flavour was sold out that day. I did purchase a small jar of El Calafate jam to bring home with me to try and it is delicious!
You will find many shops selling jams and other products that have the El Calafate berry. If you eat the El Calafate berry, you’ll be back in Patagonia, or so their legend says!
Where to Stay in El Calafate, Argentina
Lack of Major Hotel Chains
Similar to Ushuaia, there is no major hotel chain here, other than Wyndham Hotel and Resorts. I decided to book a stay at the Design Suites El Calafate, which is a mid-tier hotel. This is a small chain that has hotels in other Argentinian cities including Buenos Aires, Salta and Bariloche.
Design Suites is located by lake of Nimes Peninsula. I booked a room with a lake view. It was a lovely view to wake up to each morning during our brief two-night stay here.
This hotel is located a few kilometers away from the town centre, so it is remote.
They do offer a complimentary shuttle service that goes to the centre, but it is infrequent. It goes into the town centre twice to drop you off, and they come to pick you up once at 10PM if you sign up for this service. Therefore, you’ll need to take a cab or alternatively rent a car due to the infrequency of this service.
Overall, we were satisfied with the room we received. Although it wasn’t a suite, it was very spacious and comfortable for our short stay here. Our room had a large glass window allowing for unobstructed views of the beautiful lake.
We were also relieved that the room had air conditioning. Although it was frustrating that each day housekeeping cleaned our room, they would turn off the A/C.
The best part about this hotel is it has access to a beautiful lake, so you can take a scenic walk at your leisure. Having said that, you do sacrifice the convenience of staying in the town centre.
There are no restaurants or shops that are within walking distance of the hotel, with the exception of the hotel restaurant.
Design Suites has an indoor swimming pool, sauna room as well as a spa. There’s also a small gym with a view of the lake. One of the main pieces of equipment was out of service during our stay.
Breakfast is included in the hotel rate here, but you have to manage your expectations. The breakfast spread is very basic and mostly continental, with a limited selection of pastries. They did have scrambled and hard boiled eggs as well as sausages, but I didn’t try them. I like my eggs freshly prepared 🙂
To my surprise, they didn’t have El Calafate berry jam! I feel this should be a standard breakfast offering in all hotels in El Calafate.
Since I wasn’t staying at a major hotel chain, it was a good opportunity to use my TD Rewards Points. I earned these points by holding the TD First Class Travel Visa Infinite card. This card was refreshed last year and came with a new benefit of offering $100 credit when you book travel of $500 or more through Expedia for TD.
I had made the same mistake that I did for my Ushuaia hotel booking, by booking a prepaid stay. For Expedia for TD, there was a refundable option, but it was almost double the price!
I did miss out on the tax savings by booking prepaid. On the bright side, I was able to take advantage of the $100 credit and also use my TD Reward Points to offset most of the cost of my hotel stay, so it wasn’t a total loss.
I feel privileged to have visited the UNESCO World Heritage site, the Perito Moreno Glacier. I watched in awe the power of nature as pieces of glacier broke off and fell into the icefields with a roar.
If you have the opportunity to visit Patagonia, a visit to see this impressive glacier is a must! It’s one of the most accessible glaciers in the world, making it easy to add to your trip itinerary.