Filled with outdoor pursuits, this touristed Patagonian town will have you in awe of the stunning scenery of the nearby Los Glaciares National Park. There are trails to hike, mountains to climb, lakes to paddle all around, and glaciers to visit (obviously). You can check out icebergs, local flora and fauna, caves, and nature reserves right next to town.
El Calafate also makes a great jumping-off point for visiting the petrified forest or Torres del Paine National Park if you fancy getting further afield. And when you’re tired from all the sightseeing and adventuring, explore the town and its artisan markets, or have a craft beer at a local brewery. Remember to try some of the famous Patagonian lamb while you’re here too.
Let’s explore the best things to do in El Calafate:
1. Perito Moreno Glacier
Perhaps the biggest tourist attraction in the area, you have to venture out to Perito Moreno Glacier to have a look at this 70-meters-thick slab of brilliant blue ice.
Get up close with a boat tour where you can hear the ear splittingly loud cracking of ice and see chunks of it fall into the water below.
If you’d rather walk, there’s also a trail that leads up to a viewpoint where you can catch a glimpse of the glacier, which happens to sit on one of the world’s largest reserves of freshwater.
But if you’re feeling truly adventurous, take a tour out onto the glacier to do some ice trekking.
You’ll learn how to use crampons and spikes as you hike to see crevasses, ice formations, gullies, and small pools while you learn all about glaciology.
2. Cerro Frías
Cerro Frías is a hill located just 22 km away from El Calafate within the expansive Patagonian Steppe.
Because it’s not surrounded by tons of other mountains, Cerro Frías is an epic viewpoint 1,300 meters high from which visitors can see Mount Fitz Roy, Torres del Paine, and Lago Argentino.
You can visit in a multitude of different ways, the most common of which is a tour in a 4×4 vehicle which will take you through the lowlands to the shores of the lake, across the Centinela River, up the hill, and to a dune-filled beach.
You can also arrange to go horseback riding, trekking, or cycling up Cerro Frías.
You might catch sights of condors, grazing cattle, guanacos, and hares along the way.
3. Taste the Local Specialties
For an outdoorsy town, there are a surprising amount of upscale restaurants here.
Patagonian lamb is the local specialty, so be sure to try some while you’re here – either costillas de cordero (rack of lamb) or bife de cordero (lamb steak). The preferred way to cook it here is by roasting or grilling, and the lamb is reared locally on the Patagonian steppe.
Visit La Tablita or Isabel, both popular restaurants serving lamb in a multitude of ways.
The city itself is actually named for a berry – “el calafate” is the word for “barberry,” a purple fruit used in jams and infusions here.
Legend has it that whoever eats these berries will return to Patagonia.
If you visit while the berry is in season, try both local specialties at once with lamb in calafate sauce.
4. Visit an Estancia
Another must-do experience while staying in El Calafate is a trip out to one of the many nearby estancias or ranches to get a feel for the rural, gaucho way of life.
This agricultural tourism usually entails a guided tour of a working farm, demonstrations like sheep shearing or cattle driving, and a traditional Argentine asado of grilled meats.
Estancia Cristina is one of the most famous, located in Los Glaciares Park on the shores of Lago Argentino.
They offer boat trips to Upsala glacier, horseback riding, and treks to the nearby Los Perros Waterfall or Cañadón de los Fósiles.
Estancia El Galpon de Glacier and Estancia 25 de Mayo offer guests a feast of local specialties and a folklore show with singing and dancing.
5. Calafate Mountain Park
If you want to do some skiing or snow-tubing, head to Calafate Mountain Park located on Cerro Huilliche for some fun for the whole family.
They’ve got snow-covered trails and slopes on-site during the winter, or you can venture out further to try some snowshoeing or snowmobiling in the wilderness.
In the summer, you can go mountain biking or ride an ATV along the paths.
A popular activity is their 4×4 tour with a guide that takes you off-roading through the park to the Calafate Balcony.
You’ll ride past rock formations and up into the hills for stunning surrounding views of the Andes, Lago Argentino, and the town below.
There’s also a chairlift to the peak of Huilliche for those same views without the tour.
6. Ríos De Hielo
Take a catamaran out across the milky turquoise waters of Lago Argentino on a sunny day to see the glaciers that this area around El Calafate is known for.
The only way to get up close and personal with the glaciers is by boat, so you’ll have to arrange a tour.
Head along the northern arm of the lake for breathtaking views of the Upsala Glacier.
Then float south past the Seco Glacier and floating icebergs to see the magnificent Spegazzini Glacier, the highest in the Parque Nacional Los Glaciares.
Most boats will stop along the way so you’ll be able to take photos and see the enormous blocks of ice rupture and crash into the water.
7. Explore the Town of El Calafate
Wander through this small town along the main road, Avenida del Libertador San Martín, which is lined with chocolate shops, ice cream joints, restaurants, and bars.
Stop for a local Patagonian craft beer at La Zorra Taproom or Cervecería Artesanal Chopen, or grab a sweet treat from Puerto de Frutos.
There are lots of souvenir shops, stores selling outdoor gear, and open-air markets with handicrafts, though be aware that shopping down here is more expensive than in other parts of Argentina.
You can pick up some nice knitted wool ponchos or handmade jams from locals though.
Check out the areas filled with traditional crafts at La Aldea de los Gnomos or the artwork at the Paseo de Los Artesanos.
8. Laguna Nimez
Just a quick walk from downtown El Calafate toward Lago Argentino, you can explore the ecological reserve of Laguna Nimez.
It’s home to over 80 species of birds, including the most impressive Chilean flamingo.
You can also walk the circuit here around a few small lakes where you’ll encounter Patagonian plants and wildlife.
The boardwalk has informative signs along the way to help you spot the birds and learn more about them, and you can even rent binoculars if you’re an avid birdwatcher.
For an activity in El Calafate that doesn’t include ice, this is a peaceful, self-guided walk with great views.
9. Centro de Interpretación Histórica
A small museum in town, the Historical Interpretation Center is loaded with information on the natural and human history of the Patagonia.
From the age of the dinosaurs to modern-day humans, there are exhibits of cultural artifacts and fossils as well as displays on indigenous people, geographic landscapes, glaciers, and archeological discoveries.
Information is posted in English and Spanish, and it’s a great place for kids.
At the end of your visit you can enjoy a mate (the traditional hot herbal drink of Argentina) and have a discussion with the guides there.
10. La Leona Petrified Forest
A bit further from town, take a tour to explore the petrified forest located just off of the famous Ruta 40 on the Patagonian steppe.
At La Leona, you’ll find dinosaur fossils, rock formations, and petrified trees amidst lunar-like landscapes.
Your guide will take you on an easy trek through this area that once had a very different climate and inhabitants.
As you walk, you’ll learn about the forests, volcanoes, and dinosaurs that flourished here in this now desert-like expanse of land.
You’ll hear all about the geology and paleontology of the area, and you’ll get to see dinosaur fossils, huge petrified tree trunks over a meter wide, and great views of the Andes and Mount Fitz Roy as you hike.
11. The Glaciarium and Ice Bar
This popular little science museum is a bit touristy (which might have something to do with the free shuttle from the Tourism Bureau in the town center) but it’s still worth visiting.
If you’re going to be checking out the glaciers around El Calafate, head here first to learn all about them beforehand.
They have displays explaining how glaciers are formed, how they vary, and how they differ around the world.
You’ll also learn about how climate change is affecting glaciers and the evolution of Los Glaciares National Park.
Just next door is the gimmicky ice bar – the GlacioBar – where visitors pay for entry to enjoy unlimited cocktails in ice glasses, on ice furniture, surrounded by ice sculptures in freezing temps for around 20 minutes.
12. Kayak the Upsala
Kayaking in the ice and cold might not sound like the time of your life, but visitors to El Calafate rave about the unique experience.
Paddle up the Upsala Canal alongside icebergs accompanied by super knowledgeable guides and a photographer.
Don’t worry too much about the freezing temperatures and cold water because you’ll be wearing a drysuit and floating in top-quality double kayaks.
Navigate around the lake, and experience the awe-inspiring size of the bright blue Upsala Glacier and icebergs – you’ll come home with incredible photos.
13. Torres del Paine National Park
So this is a really long day with a border crossing included, but Torres del Paine is one of the most famous national parks in the world.
Known for its amazing Patagonian landscapes and endless hiking opportunities, tour companies will take you in trucks across the steppe and into Chile at Cancha Carrera before heading south to Torres del Paine National Park.
You’ll sightsee from the truck and get out for some excellent walks, stopping along the way for viewpoints like Lago Sarmiento, Lago Pehoé, the famous Grey Glacier and Grey Lake, Salto Grande waterfall, and more.
14. Walichu Caves
This site is just next to Lago Argentino, and you can either DIY it yourself by driving down Ruta 11 or hire a guide who can explain the history surrounding this prehistoric place.
That way you’ll learn a lot more, and some even provide lunch so you can picnic in the brilliant natural surroundings.
These caves are home to 4,000-year-old cave paintings and incredible rock formations and eaves.
Experts believe they were used as shelter by men as early as the Upper Paleolithic Era (also known as the Late Stone Age). You can also catch wildlife like guanacos and foxes roaming around the rugged terrain here.
15. Lake Roca
Head to Lago Roca for a beautiful outdoor experience and tons of activities, where you can relax by the shore, camp for the evening, or try your hand at fishing.
Cerro Cristal is a popular, super underrated hike in the area that will reward you with great views of the Perito Moreno glacier as you ascend over the course of about two hours.
Visitors to Estancia Lago Roca can go horseback riding here through the forests and up the Cordón de los Cristales for photos of the surrounding lakes and mountain ranges.
It’s a great place to immerse yourself in nature, observe some local wildlife, and bring a picnic (or have lunch with the gaucho guides from the estancia).