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El Calafate is a small town that has grown due to the tourist influx into the Patagonia region of Argentina. It is set on the glacial blue Lago Argentina and is full of eager trekkers.
Aerolineas Argentinas has daily flights to/from Bariloche,Buenos Aires and Ushuaia. LAN also flies on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from Buenos Aires. On-line booking and e-tickets are available. During peak season, flights are usually fully booked with tourist groups. Make sure you book your flight well in advance.
There are also charter flights between Puerto Natales and El Calafate operated by DAP. These flights from the tiny airport of Puerto Natales can be very scenic and let you cross the Andes in about 90 minutes and no road travel hassle (which however in right doses is something not to be missed in Patagonia).
From the airport, it is about a 15-20 minute ride into town. A taxi from the airport is quoted at 360 pesos to downtown. There is also a bus that will take you to your hotel for 120 pesos (as of May 2016). If you are flying out of El Calafate, you can arrange a return ticket on the bus for an extra 80 pesos (200 total), and the bus will pick you up at your hotel at a set time a few hours before your flight.
El Calafate is a small town, so no car rental needed. However, make sure you book your bus ticket out of town when you get there, or you can get stuck there for a couple of days. The bus station is located one street up from the main street, which is accessible by walking up a small set of stairs around the artisinal market stands.
What to see
A must, the Perito Moreno Glacier is 80km / 50mi away from El Calafate and is the main point of tourism. Park entrance allows you to stay only one day, no camping inside, and you need to have left by 10pm. You can see the enormous glacier just meters away from you, and listen to all of the sounds that cracking ice makes 24 hours a day.
Take a boat excursion and see many of the glaciers and places in the National Park Los Glaciares. The colors and shapes of the ice-bergs floating in the lake are really awesome and inspiring, making a boat ride in a sunny day a fantastic day out.
Wild nature can be seen just walking a few blocks away from main street, like in El Cañadón, or at Laguna Nimez, where you can see all kind of Patagonic birds a few feet away from you. Wildlife and views, especially at dusk, make Laguna Nimez a must see, perfect if you have just arrived in town, settled your next days excursion and are eager to go see some of the real Patagonia.
Excursions to Perito Moreno glacier are on a sliding scale for the entrance: 330 pesos for foreigners, 180 pesos for people from Mercosur and 100 pesos for Argentines. You can go by microbus from the bus station and these buses will take you directly to the walkways and back. You can also book a recommended Argentine travel agency from town to arrange private trips for boat rides to the glacier, short or extended (a few hours) hikes on the ice (crampons provided) and drinking whiskey with glacier ice.
A taxi is 500-600 pesos round trip.
Hitch-hiking to the glacier and back is not impossible, but difficult in low season.
There is a hideously expensive (by any standard) restaurant on site (meager coffee in styrofoam cup is 30 pesos), be a cheapskate and take a picnic and flask and keep smiling. Numerous places to sit and eat overlooking the glacier.
The Hielo y Aventura Mini trekking excursion consists of a morning trip to the observation boardwalks, boat ride across the lake, and then an hour and a half with crampons (provided) walking around on the Glacier.
The Fernandez Campbell All Glaciers boat tour is an all day long affair, but has some incredible glacier views that you won't be able to see otherwise. When booking, see if you can get on the smaller boats (they have one large and three small ones).
Pura Aventura, a UK-based tour operator, also offers trips to Patagonia including private guide to Fitzroy and Laguna de Los Tres. A great choice if you want to enjoy the most spectacular viewpoints of the National Park.
A newly built Museum dedicated to glaciers, known as the Glaciarium, stands several kilometers outside of El Calafate. This museum provides exhibitions and detailed information on the makeup, history, and importance of the glaciers found in this region. It also has an ice bar in the basement where you can down some drinks.
Another museum that has been highly recommended by travelers is the tiny El Centro de Interpretación Histórica. 5 blocks north from the main street, the museum has been praised for its interesting displays and information about local history, information is available in Spanish, English, Portuguese, French, German and Italian with display descriptions in Spanish
There are also 4x4 excursions up into the mountainous area surrounding El Calafate. These provide stunning views of Lake Argentino, and, on a clear day, the top of Fitz Roy as well as the Torres del Paine. They also stop for refreshments and visit geological formations caused by glaciers known as the ´mexican hats'.
Food is expensive mainly due to the remote location of the city. There are four supermarkets. No quality fresh food is available. Buy your food for your tours in advance, because on ruta 40 and in the glacier national park there are almost no places to buy food.
Buy your food early in the day as things get picked over by 8pm. All the freshly baked bread was gone.
Handicraft and souvenirs can be bought in large scale at the main street.