After 5 days exploring Chile’s Patagonia in Torres del Paine National Park we weren’t ready to leave the dramatic landscapes, jarring cliffs and turquoise glacier lakes; luckily we still had the Argentinian side! We decided to visit El Calafate and scheduled a few more days of epic hiking in El Chalten. Below I’ve shared our highlights along with some tips so you can make the most of your visit.
El Calafate is a cute town, albeit touristy. But its main attraction is the close Petito Moreno Glacier, which can easily be reached by bus on a day trip from town. We arrived late afternoon and stayed for two nights which was enough time to see the glacier and explore the town.
From Puerto Natales (where most hikers will be based coming to and from TdP NP), the bus to El Calafate takes about 6.5 hours including a brief stop at the smallest border post I’ve ever seen (and that’s including some of the African land border crossings) and can be easily booked online through Bus Sur (Cost: $35 US pp). Depending on how far your hostel is (and how heavy your backpack is) you can walk into town or take a taxi; the taxis are metered so no need to worry about getting ripped off. Our taxi driver was happy to take US dollars as we hadn’t found an ATM yet ($5 US).
Where to stay in El Calafate
There are lots of options ranging from cheap dorm rooms in hostels to luxurious hotels, which is in line with the type of tourists you’ll see around El Calafate (young backpackers up to retirees). We opted for something in the middle and booked in two nights at The Michelangelo Hotel (which sounds much fancier than it was) for $55 US per night through Booking.com. It was right in the city centre, and walkable to the bus terminal (about 20 minutes).
What to do in El Calafate
This is an easy one since there’s really one reason people coming to this town – to see the nearby Perito Moreno Glacier! There are other excursions that can be booked from town if you’re staying longer than one day, but in my opinion you really only need 1 day to explore the Glacier and then (f you like hiking) head straight to El Chalten like we did.
Visiting Perito Moreno Glacier from El Calafate
There are many ways to see the glacier; you can go on an organized tour with a guide from town, or you can just take a bus with any of the major operators. We decided to pay for just the bus and walk around ourselves once we got there. We couldn’t find a whole lot of information online about which buses left and at what time, but we had read they leave around 8:00 am, so walked over to the bus terminal to get there for 7:45 am. We went with Chalten Travel, who left slightly earlier than the other operators (8:30 am). We were told the bus will wait around, and depart the park at 2:00 pm so we would have over 4 hours to walk around and explore. The bus took 90 minutes and the cost was $30 US pp. Keep in mind that this does not include the park fee of $25 US per person.
When we arrived, our driver dropped us at the bottom of the trails, and also pointed to an area where you can book a boat tour on the Southern Spirit – an hour long tour that will run up and down the front of the glacier giving some pretty incredible views. We were keen to see the glacier from as many angles as possible so booked the first tour at 10:30 am for $25 US pp.
In my opinion, the tour was really interesting because we were able to get so close and appreciate how monstrous this glacier is. But, as with any tour, the most annoying part is other tourists and it was difficult to find space along the edge of the deck to get pictures. We decided to take a few pictures and then head back inside and enjoy the view from the large windows in the peace and quiet. Eventually, others got cold and also came down which gave us an opportunity to head back up. Patience is important 🙂 I will also say that the tour after ours (11:45 am) did not look as full, so perhaps start exploring the trails first and then come back to take a tour.
As we began walking the trails, we started to hear ice breaking off the glacier – a pretty impressive sound! This would happen about every 20 minutes or so.
We made our way toward the lookouts above and took a few pictures before heading toward the snack stop to get some hot chocolate (this may seem obvious, but it’s freezing around the glacier! We were dressed in layers and rain coats, and I still couldn’t stop shivering).
After warming up a bit, we walked around some more and then the rain kicked in. A few of the lookouts have rain shelters, so we camped out in one of those and had our picnic lunch (tip: bring a lunch to avoid the crazy prices in the canteen! We even brought a bottle of wine, but didn’t end up indulging because we were too chilly).
After some more exploring, followed by seeking shelter from the cold and rain in the canteen, we headed back to get on the bus and arrived in El Calafate before 4:00pm.
The glacier is incredibly impressive, and I think it would be a shame to blow past El Calafate and miss seeing it in person!
Where to Eat in El Calafate
We ate the included breakfast at the hotel and bought supplies to make lunch, but we did have one delcious and memorable meal in El Calafate and that was at Mi Rancho. We ordered Pickled Lamb to start (it sounded interesting, but was a bit of a miss as you might guess) and split the Osso Bucco which was out of this world. A nice bottle of red wine to accompany dinner certainly helped warm us up after our day at the glacier. Mi Rancho is small, and books up quickly so if you are interested, make a reservation in advance or do like we did and show up when it opens. We were seated right away and within 15 minutes nearly every table was taken.
El Chalten is a beautiful little town and the perfect place to base yourself for some of the most incredible day hikes we’ve ever done. There are numerous hiking trails straight from the town, so arranging transportation isn’t necessary. You can wake up in the morning, hike anywhere from 2-8 hours, and head back into town just in time for happy hour. We spent 4 happy days hiking, eating and drinking and trying to do some trip planning/blogging (the internet is pretty much non-existent so it’s a good place to unplug! Our Claro SIM card did not work at all but the hotel had very limited WiFi).
Getting to El Chalten couldn’t have been easier. We bought our tickets from the bus terminal day before departing, and took the 8:30 am Cal Tur bus which was $24 US pp and took 3 hours. As you come into El Chalten, the bus will take you to the vistors centre where you will hear about different trails and be given a map. Added bonus – though the whole town is technically in Los Glaciares National Park, there is no park fee! After 10 minutes at the visitor’s centre, you will be dropped at the bus terminal in town.
Where to Stay in El Chalten
El Chalten is a small town, and nearly any accommodation you could book is walking distance from the bus terminal. We booked a private room with bathroom at Los Nires for $33 US per night including breakfast (which is essentially just bread, cereal and cake so I hope you like carbs!). The location of the hotel was great, but since it is such a small town I don’t think you can really go wrong.
What to do in El Chalten
This is an easy one – hike! There are so many trails from the city centre and some absolutely stunning day hikes. We did 4 hikes in total, 2 short ones and 2 longer ones. Being there for 4 days gave us the flexibility to plan our hikes around the weather (which was pretty cold most of the time, as we were visiting in April!). This is the map you’ll get from the visitor centre with super helpful information on the available hikes:
These are the ones we did:
Fitz Roy Viewpoint
Total distance: 8km from beginning of trail
Time: 2 hours return
We did this quick hike the afternoon we arrived, it was a nice was to get acquainted with the park, and the fall colours were insane! This lookout is part of the Fitz Roy trail, so you will be doubling up if you’re intending to do that hike (as we did). It’s not particularly difficult, and the lookout provides some great views!
Laguna Torre (the Maestri Viewpoint)
Total distance: 22km from beginning of trail
Time: 6.5 hours return
We had incredible weather the day of this hike; the sun was shining which made the fall colours even more vivid! The start of this hike officially begins at the ranger station, which was 15-20 minutes from our hotel.
There is a bit of a climb to the first lookout (the first hour of the hike), but then it is more or less flat until Lake Torre which just makes it a really pleasant walk for anyone, regardless of fitness level.
Most people will stop at the Lake Torre lookout, which is just incredible. We opted to continue on for a brief climb up to Maestri Lookout. There were a few people scattered along the trail enjoying lunch and it was difficult to tell if we had reached the lookout since there was no signage. Sure enough we continued another 200m and there was a sign saying not to go any further.
We had our packed lunch here as well, and James went off the trail for a quick drone flight. While I waited I grabbed this time lapse.
The walk back was just as pleasant, with the sun shining and the reds & oranges popping against the blue sky.
This was a beautiful hike and I would give it a rating of easy to moderate. The only thing that makes it moderate is the climb to the first viewpoint (250m over 3km) and the total length.
Fitz Roy (to Laguna de los Tres Lookout)
Total Distance: 17.5km starting from El Pilar Inn
Time: 6.5 hours
This was probably my favourite hike (it’s the purple one on the map above). We started from El Pilar Inn which meant we weren’t doubling up on anything (apart from the descent from the Fitz Roy Viewpoint which we had done on our first day). We asked our hotel to arrange a taxi to drop us at El Pilar, which took about 20 minutes and cost $30 US (not cheap, but considering we didn’t have to pay anything for these hikes, not even a park fee, we were ok with it).
Starting from El Pilar meant that the first 5.5 km of our hike (to where the trail meets at Poincenet) was relatively quiet. It’s beautiful coming from this direction and seeing the mountain range, as well as getting an incredible view of Piedras Blancas Glacier. The hike to the lookout is pretty easy; there’s a climb of 350m but it’s over 5km so you barely feel it.
From Poincenet is where the hike goes from easy to difficult; it’s 2km from Poincenet to Laguna de los Tres and there is a climb of 400m in the last km. As you approach the climb, there are signs warning that you must be in good physical shape to complete the climb. We were happy to have our trekking poles for this portion, both going up and down! But the climb is absolutely worth it for the breathtaking views at the top.
We hung around for a bit, took some pictures and had lunch before beginning our descent. As we climbed down the sun came out which made the last half of the hike all the more enjoyable!
Chorillo del Salto
Total distance: 6km
Time: 1 hour return
This one isn’t so much of a hike as it is a nice walk to a waterfall. On our last day we wanted to get a bit of exercise, but were short on time and so decided to do this walk. It was lovely, and if you’re a runner could also make a great run; you can either run along the trail or the road which meets up with the waterfall lookout.
Where to Eat/Drink in El Chalten
There are quite a few options for a town that’s so small! When we were there, you got a real sense that things were closing up for the season and this was evident in a few of the restaurants as well as the shops. Even so, we had no problem finding a few delicious meals.
Favourite place to stock up on picnic supplies: Almacen Don Mando
This little deli and cheese shop was the perfect place to pick up sandwich supplies and snacks. Though the men who work there speak very little English, we had no trouble communicating with them – they were super friendly and not shy on letting us try whatever we liked before buying.
Favourite dinner spot: La Tapera
La Tapera was the best meal we had in El Chalten; unfortunately we only discovered it on our last full day and so only ate there once! It was warm and cozy, and the food was delicious. We shared a large salad and steak with a bottle of wine and apple crumble for dessert (the fall colours and crisp weather had me seriously nostalgic for apple pie!) all for $75 US.
Favourite Happy Hour: La Vineria
This place had the best happy hour deals and was always full of people. We went here nearly every day for a drink; the happy hour runs from 3:00-9:00pm and is 100ARS ($5 US) for 2 wines or 2 beers, in addition to other cocktails which we didn’t try.
We also had dinner here one night which was an insane charcuterie board that we couldn’t finish.
The Argentinian side of Patagonia was stunning. El Calafate is well worth a visit to see the impressive Perito Moreno Glacier and hiking enthusiasts will love the ease with which you can explore the landscapes of Los Glaciares National Park in El Chalten. If you are planning a trip to Patagonia, these two destinations should not be missed.
— Catie xx