El Calafate is a small town in southern Patagonia, Argentina. It is a gateway to both Torres del Paine National Park in Chile, as well as Parque Nacional los Glaciares in Argentina. It is home to the famous Perito Moreno glacier and close to El Chaltén, which boasts the famous Fitz Roy. It has an airport and is near Route 40, which makes it a must-visit if you wish to see the best in the area.
Here are some tips to help you get the most out of your stay in El Calafate.
How to Get to El Calafate
El Calafate is in southern Argentina, close to the border with Chile, along the famous Route 40 in Patagonia. It is serviced by an airport (FTE) as well as buses from other cities in Argentina and Chile. Aerolineas Argentinas is the best option on the Argentinian side. Try to get a seat on the right side of the plane going south, the views are ridiculous.
If coming from Chile, you can take a bus from Puerto Natales (or vice versa). There are a few that run each day with different companies. It is advised to book ahead of time as there are only a few and they fill up. The price is 450 pesos.
If booking online, the only option is Turismo Zaahj, which you’ll have to arrange by email. If booking in person, I recommend COOTRA, and you can book at their office in the bus station (in either city). You’ll need the passports of each passenger at the time of booking.
Bus Station in El Calafate
The bus station is about one block from the main street, and up a flight of stairs. If you arrive on a bus, simply walk out the back of the bus station (where the buses are parked), and take the stairs down. You will end up in an artisans market that leads straight to the main street.
If you do not arrive by bus, simply find the artisans market in the middle of town (it runs perpendicular to the main street), walk through it and up the stairs at the end, the bus station is at the top.
The TAQSA ticket office at the Calafate bus station will store luggage and backpacks for 20 pesos per piece.
Where to Stay in El Calafate
We stayed at Kau Kaleshen, a boutique hotel that had everything we needed and was only one block from the main street. The rooms are cozy, breakfast is included, beds are comfortable, and WiFi works in the main areas. It is also next door to a great laundromat, De La Mancha, which I recommend if you need to do laundry in El Calafate. Just keep in mind that they generally have a 24-hour turn around time, so make sure you have ample time to leave your clothes there.
If you are several people, check out “Apart en el Centro de Calafate” on Airbnb. It offers an apartment that sleeps six, just be aware that it only has one bathroom and could be a tight fit. We had four and it was ample space for us. It is also just a couple of blocks from the main street.
Click here to save $55 on your first Airbnb stay.
Where to Eat in El Calafate
Our favorite lunch restaurant in El Calafate was Viva la Pepa, which offered delicious sandwiches, crepes, soups, and salads, complete with a garden patio to eat outside under the sun. They also accept credit cards and have functional WiFi.
New to El Calafate in 2016 is La Zorra, a craft brewery! They have burgers and bar food as well as a decent selection of their own craft brews. It is in the southeast corner of town, across the main street from Viva la Pepa. La Zorra does accept credit cards but has a 300 peso minimum as of January 2018.
The best Argentinian restaurant (steakhouse) in El Calafate is La Tablita. You may need a reservation, ask your hotel to call for you if possible. It is a traditional style Argentinian steakhouse. I recommend bife de chorizo (this is not chorizo as we know it, this just means a big juicy steak and is the go-to option) or ojo de bife (ribeye).
If you like rare, order “jugoso,” medium is “a punto,” and you can say “medio rojo” for medium-rare, or “jugoso” or “poco hecho.” If you must kill your steak, order it “cocido.” Order a few sides to share for your group, and pair it with some local wine or beer, and you’ll have yourself a great traditional Argentinian meal. There is also chicken, fish, pasta, etc for those who don’t eat red meat. Credit cards accepted.
Check out Panadería Don Luis (yes, it’s a chain, but it’s delicious) for a great selection of traditional pastries and treats. This is also a great place to grab lunch to go if you’re heading out for the day. Try the pan de queso if you haven’t before.
For ice cream, stop at Acuarela on the main street. DROOL.
How to Get Money in El Calafate
My best advice is to bring cash with you to El Calafate. If you’re coming from any other city in Argentina, hit an ATM before going to El Calafate. I have a debit card from Well Fargo in the US, it is equipped with a chip, and it didn’t work anywhere. We tried nearly every bank in town and not a single one would let me take money out. I was with friends who had different banks with different cards, and the ones without the chips worked. Even the trusty Charles Schwab ATM card did not work in El Calafate.
Update 2018: Last time I was there in November 2018, Banco de Tierra del Fuego on calle 25 de Mayo worked for most people in our group.
On top of most cards not working, if you find one that does, the most the ATMs will let you withdraw at a time is 1,000 pesos, which is about $70. Put a 93 peso ATM fee on top of that (over $6) and your usual bank fee, and you’re left with about $11 in fees every time you take out $70. Ouch. If you are in a bind, you can take your passport and debit card into a bank and try to withdraw money in person. The problem with this is that most banks have ridiculously long lines. This could take a lot of your precious time.
Money exchange in El Calafate
Some of the shops will exchange money for you. One such shop is “Patagonia Shop” located just off the main street on calle 9 de Julio, number 23. They are open from 10 am to 9:30 pm every day, and last time we were there, they exchanged USD to Argentinian pesos for about 5 of us.
How to Visit Perito Moreno Glacier On Your Own
Tours abound, and if you want something easy and taken care of, go ahead and book one. If you want to do a glacier trek (crampons and the whole shebang), you’ll need a tour – I recommend the “Mini Trekking” over the “Big Ice” trek, as they are essentially the same except with Big Ice you just spend longer walking on the glacier. There is only one company licensed to do these tours: Hielo y Aventura.
If you just want to go out and see the glacier, and even take a boat tour, you do not need to pay for an entire tour package (and you’ll save about US$40 by doing it on your own). Simply go to the bus station in El Calafate and buy a bus ticket to the glacier.
I recommend booking with Chaltén Travel (there is also an office on the main street, and they accept credit cards). The ticket is 450 pesos round trip and you can opt to go at 9:30 am or 1 pm. We went at 1 pm and loved this decision. The bus left the glacier at 7:30 pm and we returned to El Calafate at 8:45 pm (still plenty of daylight in summer months).
The bus will stop at the entrance to the park where an attendant will get on the bus and you’ll need to pay (in cash) for your entrance to the park. The cost is 500 pesos per person as of January 2018. The bus will then continue to the visitor’s area, where you can separately purchase boat tickets. The boat company is Southern Spirit, there is a kiosk right there in the parking lot and tickets cost 500 pesos. There are trips every hour and a half or so. There is a cafe in the visitor’s area where you can buy food and drinks.
You can either walk up the boardwalk from the parking lot, getting closer to the glacier as you go, or you can take a free shuttle from there to the “top” (the whole area isn’t very big).
I personally recommend taking the shuttle up and walking back down the boardwalks, maybe when you see the view you’ll understand. It is more powerful to see it suddenly than to approach it slowly, and the view from the top of the boardwalks is possibly the most surprising and breathtaking view I’ve ever seen in my life.
Perito Moreno glacier is worth it.