Situated on the southern shore of Lago Argentino, the small town of El Calafate is the gateway to two of Patagonia’s icons – Perito Moreno Glacier and the mountain village of El Chaltén – or more so the jagged peaks of Mount Fitz Roy.
We didn’t quite make to it to El Chaltén, but the glacier, we did. More on that later.
The town of El Calafate gets its name from a thorny shrub that’s endemic to Patagonia. Covered in yellow flowers in spring, then juicy and tart berries in summer, the calafate is one thing you simply cannot avoid in this town.
All along the main drag of Avenida del Libertador General San Martín, there are souvenir and food stores selling preserves, liqueurs, sorbet and even alfajores made from this popular little berry.
Looking past all of that, and the casino monstrosity that mars the streetscape, Libertador is lined with many restaurants, a few bars, specialty chocolate stores, handicraft arcades and bank ATMs that rarely function. Yet, when they do function, those thieving Argentine banks will smack you with an exorbitant transaction fee for the privilege.
It’s impossible to miss this colourful enclave of eateries, booths selling tourist tat and a bar in the centre of town. Yes, it all looks and feels a bit contrived, but there’s one cool little pub in there with oodles of character.
Sit inside amongst many shelves of books and paraphernalia or tread across the small footbridge and sip an over-priced pint, or two, in the sun whilst looking down at the people parade. The food menu is your standard sandwich, empanada and salad affair and the service, well, let’s just say they’re well and truly on South American time.
Borges & Álvares Libro-Bar, Avenida del Libertador 1015
Budget travellers will quickly learn that El Calafate isn’t so friendly on the wallet. There’s always La Anonima supermarket where you can grab some cheese, salami and fresh arugula for sandwiches, but skip the supermarket bread and head down to PANtagonia for one of their excellent baguettes.
For another budget feed there’s also Green Market Patagonia, a tiny cafe that specialises in empanadas, sandwiches and salads. There’s a decent variety of baked empanadas that you can eat in or take away; perfect if you’re hitting the road and heading to the glacier and don’t want to spend money at the overpriced cafe in the national park.
Green Market Patagonia, Avenida Libertador 1008
Artisanal chocolate is big business in El Calafate, and you don’t have to walk more than 20 metres before hitting some kind of business selling it. One chocolate that stands out from the rest is rama, a delicate ripple that resembles tree bark. It can be found at any of the good chocolate sellers, or at this place – Ovejitas de la Patagonia.
On one side you’ve got all of your tempting chocolates, on the other it’s all about 45 different flavours of helado. The most popular is the ubiquitous calafate, which tastes of slightly sweet and slightly sour berries, but there are plenty more to sample. Loved the yoghurt and berry gelato.
Ovejitas de la Patagonia & Acuarela Artesanal Ice Cream, Avenida Libertador 1197
For the best coffee in El Calafate, head up to the same street as the bus station and seek out La Tienda de Vinos. We never thought The House of Wine would even qualify as being a good coffee maker, but there’s ristretto, machiatto, even flat white on the menu. You can even buy an espresso machine.
Great place to chill, sit amongst a fantastic selection of vino, stemware, gift sets and cigars. It even poses as a wine bar.
La Tienda de Vinos, Julio Argentino Roca 1221
Pizza houses seem to dominate the main drag, but in amongst them all are some other options. La Lechuza has two outlets in town that are a few blocks apart. One is all about the pizza, the other covers just about everything else.
Grilled local trout, lamb with mushroom soufflé, steaks and pasta. There’s a lot on this menu I wanted to try.
We both resulted in ordering a variety of risotto. The first being Patagonian risotto with lamb, mozzarella and orange. It’s basically a beautifully cheesy risotto topped with a grilled lamb chop, a squiggle of honey and dried orange. Very tasty. The other – seafood risotto loaded with shrimp, squid and mussels.
La Lechuza Restaurant, Julio Argentino Roca 1221
About 90 minutes from El Calafate is one of Patagonia’s marvels – Perito Moreno Glacier. This big mamma’s 74 metre high terminus is advancing over Argentino Lake, the complete opposite to most of the world’s glaciers, which are in retreat mode.
Seeing it from a distance is nothing short of spectacular, but the closer you get, the more it takes your breath away. Its sheer size, the creaking and cracks it makes, and if you wait around long enough, you’ll see an enormous chunk of it crash into the water.
A series of walkways provide excellent viewpoints from varying levels, all of which are easily navigable, despite the many stairs. Those that are less mobile can still enjoy the incredible view from the observation deck, which is easily accessed via an elevator.
Onsite there’s a cafe, gift store and restaurant with free wifi. The food choices aren’t crash hot and expect to pay AUD$5 for a coffee and AUD$6 for a small cup of fries or simple ham & cheese sandwich. Take our advice and bring your own packed lunch.
Shuttle buses to the glacier from El Calafate bus station cost around ARS$455 per person for a return trip. Times are either 8.30am or 1.30pm. There’s also a terminal tax of ARS$10 that needs to be paid before boarding your bus. Return buses leave the carpark at the glacier at 2.30pm or 7.30pm.
Entry to the National Park costs ARS$330 for non-locals, yet the Argentines pay a very easy ARS$100. Really not sure why, but that’s how things work in this country.
How we got to El Calafate from Puerto Natales.
Bus-Sur to El Calafate leaves Puerto Natales bus station at 7.45am and arrives at 1.45pm. Cost was ARS$17,000 pp.