Patagonia Glacier National Park
Introduction to Patagonia Glacier National Park
The pleasant town of El Calafate provides a perfect base from which to head out and discover the glaciers of Patagonia. You’ll find all you need within easy reach, with a few good restaurants, a bakery or two, a supermarket, ATMs and a post office. However, you won’t be spending more than an evening or two in town, as its real reason for being is to host visitors who come to see the immense vistas of the incredible Los Glaciares National Park. Many of the main glaciers of the National Park are within easy reach of town and day trips can be comfortably enjoyed without too much driving or rush. One of the most popular outings takes you on a boat trip to the Upsala Glacier. Along the way you’ll pass glowing blue icebergs and catch a glimpse of distant mountains across a hazy landscape of snow and ice. The absolute highlight of the region, and perhaps even of Argentina as a whole, is the mighty Perito Moreno Glacier.
Within the Los Glaciares National Park itself, the tiny village of El Chalten is little more than a scattering of insignificant little buildings dwarfed by the immensity of the Patagonian landscape. The town serves as a base for walkers and climbers heading out into the stunning surrounding mountains and it is the last outpost of civilization before the wilds of Patagonia take over entirely. Well signposted trails lead out from the village directly into the mountains, and though keen hikers can head out with camping gear for several days of hiking, there are plenty of different walks to be enjoyed within an easy day’s hike. Upon first sight the town can appear windswept and even a little bleak, but the laidback locals are welcoming and there are a great variety of restaurants serving up hearty Patagonian dishes. The overall atmosphere is relaxed and friendly, probably because it takes a certain kind of person to live out there, and because the hikers who visit are so delighted with what they find!
What not to miss in Patagonia Glacier National Park
Perito Moreno Glacier
The outstanding star of Lago Argentino is the Perito Moreno Glacier. Not only because it’s a miracle of nature but also because unlike other glaciers, it’s right there, only 50 miles (80km) away from El Calafate and visitors don’t need to make much of an effort to observe, get close, and even walk on it.
Hiking on Glaciers
An easy mini-trekking tour takes you to walk on top of a glacier, where you will be able to see some features that cannot be appreciated from far away: turquoise water ponds, cracks, cascades and crevices. An expert guide provides you with crampons, so you can step safely and then leads you around the vast icy landscape for about an hour.
Boat Trip to the Upsala Glacier
If the Perito Moreno Glacier is impressive with its 75 sq.mile (195 sq.km) surface, what adjective is left for the Upsala Glacier, which is almost three times bigger? You can find this out for yourself, as this colossal ice platform can be reached by boat.
The hiking routes around El Chalten are unbeatable, taking you through beautiful forests and along mountain paths with views of glaciers and jagged peaks. El Chaltén is often referred to as Argentina’s, National Capital of Trekking, and the nickname is not exaggerated. This is probably the place with the most trekking trails in the country.
What you need to know
When to go
The Patagonia winter runs from June to August and at its peak it is harsh to say the least! This is not the time to be heading out on leisure cruises around the glaciers, and the towns of the region all but shut up shop. Having said that, the winter can be exquisitely beautiful and seeing Patagonia with no one else around is a very special experience. The best time to visit is late spring, summer and early fall, from around September through May. The school summer holidays in Argentina fall in late December and continue into early January and at this time the region is understandably busy with families, especially the Perito Moreno Glacier and the glacier cruises. If you travel just before or just after this period you are most likely to enjoy blue skies and fewer crowds. Our all out favorite time of year to visit is September when winter is still in the air but the crowds have yet to arrive.
How to get there
Daily flights from Buenos Aires arrive at the El Calafate Airport, located 14 miles (23km) away from the city. Another option is flying to Río Gallegos and then taking a four hour bus (this was the only way of getting there until 2000, when the El Calafate Airport was opened).
Arriving by bus is another alternative, but distances are big, so trips are long (over 20 hours).
Where to stay
As a relatively new tourist center, El Calafate has growing and modern offers in lodging, including five star hotels, boutique hotels, and B&Bs. There’s also the chance of staying in one of the estancias (ranches) in the outskirts of the city.
The best way to see the attractions is by taking guided tours that not only take you to the place, but also explain (in Spanish and English) what you are about to see. You may also take regular buses to each highlight spot.
Moving around by car or 4×4 trucks is also possible. The most important car rental agencies have an outlet in El Calafate.
To get to El Chaltén, you can take regular buses that leave El Calafate every day. Trips last around four hours.