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February 2018, El Calafate, Santa Cruz Province – Argentina
If you’re planning a trip to Patagonia and have doubts about where to set your camp, worry no more. El Calafate is the gateway to Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina.
Here are just a few reasons we found El Calafate the best place to stay in Patagonia.
Second home in South America
From the moment we land in El Calafate, we know we want to stay.
The name of the mountain village is derived from a little bush with yellow flowers that is very common in Patagonia: the calafate. Its fruit is an appetizing dark blue berry used for making jam. According to the tradition, whoever eats calafate will return for more.
We find shelter at Los Gnomos, at the edge of the village. It’s a cozy inn with a laid-back feeling and huge lavender bushes spreading around the yard. The host welcomes us with the most important instructions: “If you’re hot, open the window. If you’re cold, close the window.”
At breakfast we face Argentinian eating habits: plain “dulce de leche” (a kind of liquid caramel) or cakes with “dulce de leche” to eat, “mate” (a very strong, concentrated and unsweetened herbal infusion) to drink.
Things to do in El Calafate
Let us show you around. There are plenty of day trips you can start from El Calafate.
In the first day we start small and head to the Nimez Lagoon, a birds’ sanctuary hidden a few kilometers away from town. We move slowly and stop almost every minute to spot wildlife in its natural habitat. Local birds are perfectly mingled with the wide variety of flora that populates the reserve.
The days pass, as if we are out of space and time here. Actually, that’s Patagonia: a piece of another planet with a climate, flora, fauna of its own. Glaciers descend from the mountains in Lake Argentino, some of them still expanding. Explanation? Scientist can’t tell for sure why.
See? I told you this is another universe.
The day we reach Perito Moreno glacier, part of the World’s third ice cap after Antarctica and Greenland, feels like the best of our traveller lives. From time to time, huge chunks of ice break off with a ‘crack’ and fall into Lago Argentino, making us all freeze with excitement. As we keep surrounding the glacier on the iron bridges, at some point we face the frozen blue colossus right at its maximum height above the water. Wow moment!
Beginner level checked. Now it’s time for a full day of trekking in the northern part of Los Glaciares National Park, El Chalten. The area is a Mecca of mountain lovers. We pick up a moderate trail and start climbing. Soon we realize the mountain has its own rules. All the people who are descending, cheer us or at least salute. I find myself saying “Ola“(hello) a few times per minute.
The route is tough. But as we reach Capri Lagoon at the end of 2 hours of exhaustion, nothing else matters but the surreal view. The Fitz Roy peak rises above the clouds, reminding us why we are here.
It’s time for some history next. Do not miss the Historical Interpretation Center, we found so many interesting facts about Patagonia.
The first people arrived in Patagonia 14 000 years ago. They migrated from Asia through the Bering Strait (covered with ice back then), reached North America and kept hunting the big mammals until they reached South America. As already suspected from what we heard so far, the arrival of conquistadors has meant genocide for the locals. In 1520 Magellan finds the local tribes and calls them “patagons” (giants).
If you have more time and money, you can make your way to Torres del Paine National Park. Here’s a guide of how to get there.
Ok, if we keep staying in El Calafate, I can put down roots, that’s how beautiful life is. In the evenings we are exhausted, but one of the guys in charge of the inn, Esteban, welcomes us with beer and hot “empanadas”.
We’re leaving El Calafate with the feeling that it wasn’t enough. The room is already home, the yard has become our safe place.
Fortunately, we’re not entirely done with Patagonia. Bariloche, here we come!
How to get to El Calafate
Flight Buenos Aires – El Calafate 3.5 h + Shuttle FTE Airport to town 20 min
Best weather in El Calafate
Weather in Patagonia varies greatly. One moment there is sunshine and clear sky, the other windy and pouring rain.If you’re looking for the warmest time to visit El Calafate, the hottest months are December, January, February.
We had ~15-20°C during the day, and no less than 8 °C at night in February. Bring trekking boots&pants and some clothes that can be worn in layers (T-shirts, warm polar jacket, thin waterproof jacket).
Where to stay in El Calafate
El Calafate is a tourist hub, and although 5* luxury hotels are few, there are some comfortable, boutique gems to be found in the centre on the main street. However, prices can be quite high for a budget traveler’s pockets.
If you’re like us and look for a medium-range place, there are plenty of backpacker hostels and B&Bs around with private rooms, close to restaurants and bars. Free Wi-fi is everywhere.
We can’t recommend enough Hosteria Los Gnomos, located 5 min away from the bus station/terminal. If you want to do day-trips to El Chalten, Perito Moreno glacier, or reach San Carlos de Bariloche by bus, this is the place to stay.
Where to eat in El Calafate
La Lechuzita – for local delicacies
Viva la Pepa – for pancakes
Don Luis – for sandwiches and all kinds of local sweets
170 USD/pers/one way, Buenos Aires Aeroparque AEP – El Calafate FTE, LATAM airlines
We only had one-way tickets to El Calafate, but if you need a roundtrip, you can find connections with Buenos Aires at ~200-250 USD/pers.
- Airport transfer
9 USD/pers shuttle to town
75 USD/night/double room, breakfast included
Nimez Lagoon: 10 USD/pers – ticket valid for 1 week, no restrictions on number of entries
Perito Moreno glacier: 30 USD/pers bus ticket + 25 USD/pers entrance
El Chalten bus transportation: 48 USD/pers/roundtrip
Historical Interpretation Center: 9.5 USD/pers
In January 2018 we booked one-way tickets, took our backpacks and left cozy old Europe, for (hopefully) the greatest adventure of our lives: South America. If you like our story, don’t forget to spread the word!
Happy travels and stay safe!