El Calafate – Gateway to Argentina’s Glacier National Park

How To Get There

The small town of El Calafate, named for a ubiquitous bush found across Patagonia, is in the Santa Cruz province of Argentina – one of the most southerly places in this barely civilized region of South America. It is easily reachable on a three plus hour direct flight from the nation’s capital, Buenos Aires. Some travelers also make it to this rugged ranch (estancia) area by land, before or after visiting Torres del Paine across the border in Chile, for example. There are also direct flights to and from Ushuaia, Argentina, for an excellent link-up with a Patagonia cruise around Cape Horn, or visit to Antarctica. And direct flights to and from Bariloche, Argentina allow for a visit to the Lakes region of Patagonia, further north.

Weather & Climate

The city and region’s climate is governed by its location near the southern tip of the continent and its close proximity to Lake Argentina. Keep in mind the seasons are reversed at this end of the world (with respect to the North). In the summer (Nov.-Feb.), although temperatures can reach into the 80s F (high 20s C), they average in the high 60s F (low 20s C).

The region is dry, generally speaking, and the summer is no exception. Most precipitation comes during the colder, winter months from April to Aug. Temperatures during this time usually oscillate in the freezing range – few degrees above or below 32 F – 0 C. One positive during this time of year is lower winds, with summer often given to serious gustiness.

El Calafate – Gateway to Argentina’s Glacier National Park Ideal South America

Perito Moreno Glacier

Many people come to El Calafate especially for the opportunity to experience one of the world’s most special glaciers – Perito Moreno – just 48 miles (78 kilometers) away. As the main draw in Argentina’s Glacier National Park, around 100,000 people each year come to view it from distant walkways, cruise near it on a boat or even walk on it. Named after a 19th century explorer and scholar Francisco Moreno who was a Patagonia specialist, it is often referred to as the 8th (natural) wonder of the world. It is not only the third largest repository or reserve of freshwater in the world, but is also still growing. It is one of the few non-retreating glaciers in the world. Take that global warming.

Although it is “only” three miles (five kms) wide, it covers an area of 97 square miles (250 sq. Km). This is due to its height of 240 feet (74 ms) – above the surface of Lake Argentina, with a further 558 feet (170 ms) below it! One of the most exciting events during a visit is hearing and seeing massive chunks of ice break off the glacier and fall into the sea. That’s why the boats don’t get too close. Dozens of people have died over the years risking it! One truly has to see it to believe it.

El Calafate – Gateway to Argentina’s Glacier National Park Ideal South America

Upsala Glacier

Despite living in the shadow of its more famous cousin aforementioned, Upsala Glacier is actually even bigger than Perito Moreno – one of the largest in all of South America! Unfortunately it’s not as accesible, hence the likely reason for it being “only” the second most popular glacier visit in the región. To see it, clever boats must navigate carefully around chunks of small icebergs spread across the lake. Or for a completely different experience of getting to view the elusive glacier, arrange a tour by kayak.

Its name comes from a Swedish university (Uppsala) that began sponsoring studies of the glacier in the 1940s. Unfortunately, like most glaciers in the world, it is retreating at a rapid pace. Go see it before it disappears!

El Calafate – Gateway to Argentina’s Glacier National Park Ideal South America
El Calafate – Gateway to Argentina’s Glacier National Park Ideal South America

El Chalten

Flying to El Calafate also gives you the chance to visit the village of El Chalten (Smoking Mountain), a nearly 3 hour drive away, and located within the Glacier National Park. As perhaps the best place to explore the región from a hiking standpoint, it is often referred to as the trekking capital of Argentina. Although smaller than even El Calafate, there are some quaint and quality hotels and lodges here offering fabulous views of the peaks of Mt. Fitroy and Cerro Torre.

This is just across the border from Chile, where people trek around the Torres del Paine – the other side of the same peaks! The trails from El Chalten are well marked and easily accesible, therefore you often come across a lot of independent, self-guided fellow hikers here. Feel free to come and do the same yourselves. Or join a small group for a boat tour around Lake Viedma or ice trek on the Viedma Glacier – Argentina’s largest!