My travel cohort and sister, Andrea Belgrade, has been bringing you posts from her Argentine adventures. This final post in the Argentina Guide series is from her travels with our dad through Argentine Patagonia. If you missed the others, you can find them at the end of this post.
Argentine Patagonia – The End of the Earth
Unless otherwise noted, all of the photos were taken by Andrea Belgrade on her rugged camera, the Olympus Tough TG-3.
If the world were flat, I would have been afraid of falling off the edge in Patagonia. Argentine Patagonia is glittering lakes, glowing blue glaciers, shark tooth peaks, and miles of vast scrubland. Condors and eagles soar from peaks to valleys, llamas and horses graze the fields, and awestruck hikers trek the network of paths sprawling across it all. Shops and restaurants, boarded up during the winter lull, buzz to life in the spring, readying for the influx of backpackers making their way to see the mountains at the end of the Earth.
El Calafate is the gateway to Argentine Patagonia. Flying is the fastest and most convenient way to get there. If you don’t, then you’re in for a bus ride that will take days (literally).
El Calafate has an airport with connections to Buenos Aires. From here you can take a bus to other parts of Argentine Patagonia.
Planning Your Time
Plan to spend 2-3 days in El Calafate checking out Perito Moreno Glacier, the Glacier museum and the Glacier bar, with the option to add on a day of biking around Lago de Argentina. Then add 2-3 days in El Chaltén for hiking the trails around the Fitz Roy Mountain range in Parque Nacional Los Glaciares.
When looking at a map, you may think you’ll be able to hit many areas around Argentine Patagonia, or even hop over to the Chilean side. Be advised that the distances are actually very great, and you will need plenty of time to get between towns. Taking a bus might not be very practical depending on where you plan to go. El Calafate and El Chaltén are only a 3-4 hour bus ride apart. We would have loved to see the penguins and seals Argentine Patagonia is famous for, but those are seen in Puerto Madryn, which is quite far.
When to Go
High season in Argentine Patagonia is November – February. This is Argentina’s summer, when the weather is typically best and everything is open for business, but the crowds are biggest and the prices are highest.
We went in October during the shoulder season, which had some perks and some drawbacks. You don’t have to worry about booking long in advance during the shoulder season. Our bus going to and from El Chaltén was not even half full. If you do book your ticket on the day of departure, keep in mind that the bus ticket office is only open 30 min prior to departure times – at least during shoulder season. Another benefit of coming during shoulder season is that hotels will give discounted rates, and the trails shouldn’t be too packed with hikers.
There are definitely some drawbacks to shoulder season as well. You’re more likely to get a rainy day, and you’re really out of luck if you do, because the best things to do in Argentine Patagonia are all outdoors. Also, many restaurants and shops will be closed in early October, and start to open up throughout the month. During the off-season, the whole town shuts down.
Since you’re flying into El Calafate, you’ll need to take a bus to get to El Chaltén. It was a very comfortable 3 hour trip (remember how great bus travel is in Argentina?). We saw horses, llamas, cows, sheep, eagles, and even pink flamingos along the way.
The town of El Chaltén looks like a little Alaskan outpost, colorful ramshackle houses dotted along the 4 or so dirt roads that make up the town. During high winds, all the dust from the roads creates a huge cloud that can really irritate your eyes and throat. If it starts to bother you, take a hike! No really, the dust clears up once you get out of town.
This town runs on cash only for the most part, so you’re going to need it! In El Chaltén the only ATM is at the bus station. Don’t plan on doing any shopping here, though. Outdoorsy gear is really expensive in Patagonia and you’d be better off bringing your own. Especially Patagonia brand, ironically.
Hiking in El Chaltén
Talk to the rangers at Parque Nacional Los Glaciares and get a map of the park. They helped us decide which hikes were safe and ideal for our time. All the trailheads are right in town, making it easy to set off whenever you please.
Early morning is the best time to go if you want good photos, as the sun will be behind you and illuminate the mountains. In the afternoon, the sun will be in all your photos.
Laguna Capri HikeRound Trip Time: 3 hours Difficulty: Easy, with the option to go further if you have a full day.
Laguna Capri Hike is a great easy day hike from El Chaltén. You’ll have amazing views of the iconic Fitz Roy peaks and there are plenty of flora and fauna to admire.
We stopped at a rest area to recharge and enjoy the view. According to the ranger, all of the water in the streams and lakes is safe to drink in this area.
The Fitz Roy views were pretty spectacular.
The end point of the trail is at Laguna Capri, a lagoon with crystal clear blue water where you can hike around and enjoy the view from different angles.
There was a super camping spot right near where this photo was taken. While I can’t speak to the facilities, the site was gorgeous. If you’re interested in a night under the stars with the Fitz Roy range across the lake, this is a great option.
Laguna Torre HikeRound Trip Time: 6-8 hours Difficulty: Easy (Although an Argentine woman we observed described one hill as ‘una lucha’).
We decided to tackle the Laguna Torre Hike on our second day. If possible, try to plan a full day in El Chaltén so you can complete the full Laguna Torre hike rather than turning back half way. The popular Laguna Torre Hike is 6+ hours return trip with two incredible look-out points to the shark tooth peaks.
The first lookout is Cerro Torre, about half-way to the farthest point with views to the tall granite needles.
The farthest point of the trail is the Laguna Torre lookout, where you’ll see an icy lagoon at the foot of a glacier that is slipping down the granite spire of Cerro Torre. You’ll often see small ice bergs floating in the lagoon.
We turned around after Cerro Torre to make our return bus on time, but if you start early in the day and allow yourselves the whole day to hike, it is definitely worth the extra effort to continue on to Laguna Torre. Just look at this photo:
You can find more hikes around El Chaltén here.
With the extra time before our bus left, we took the small hike near the ranger station to observe the Condors. Had we not been so spoiled by the other views, this in itself would have been a great hike.
Where to Stay in El Chaltén
Our hotel, Nothofagus Bed and Breakfast, was the best in the area. It’s a charming and bright blue building, and the hotel was neat and clean. There may have been one newly built hotel in town, but it lacked the charm of Nothofagus.
Where to Eat in El Chaltén
Estepa Resto & Bar was the best place in town by a long shot. They make a great filet mignon and squash soup, and have freshly baked bread. It was on the pricey side. However, during shoulder season many of the establishments were closed, and so good food was hard to come by. Estepa was definitely a food highlight of Argentine Patagonia.
The food lowlight was a place called Techado Negro where I had the worst beef empanada of my life. Just goes to show you can’t always trust TripAdvisor.
Remember, to get from el Chaltén to El Calafate, you’ll want to take the bus. El Calafate has one major draw – glaciers. That being said, if you get a rainy day, you still have two good options. You could go to the architecturally unique Glacier Museum, or you could visit the Glacier Bar underneath it. We only had time for one. Obviously, we went to the bar.
GlacioBar – the only bar in the world made out of glacial ice.glaciarium.com/en/glaciobar map It is kind of hard to find, but there are free shuttles you can take there and back. Your hotel or hostel should be able to help you.
GlacioBar is more of an attraction than a bar. You can’t just walk in whenever you feel like it. People are sent into the bar in waves of 30 or so after paying an entry fee of 180 pesos, which gets you roughly 30 minutes inside and includes drinks.
Everyone is outfitted with a ridiculous fur-lined cloak and big warm mittens. If you show up in sandals, like me, not only will you shock the establishment, but they will insist you wear huge silver booties to keep from getting frostbite. It wasn’t that cold, but I obliged for the sakes of all the middle aged ladies whispering, “Pobre cita!” amongst themselves.
Inside the bar, everything is made from glacial ice. There is snow and ice making up the walls, tables, and chairs. Even the drinks were served in ice-glasses! Ice sculptures decorated the bar and techno pulsed as patrons lounged in the glacial glow.
Soon enough, our time was up and we were shuffled out of the bar. There is no pretending that this isn’t a major tourist trap. But the whole thing was so hilarious that I must recommend it. And students – don’t even bother asking for a discount – they almost laughed me out of the building saying, “students don’t need motivation to go to bars.”
Perito Moreno Glacier
Our final day in Argentine Patagonia was dedicated to the famous Perito Moreno Glacier. There are lots of different ways to experience Perito Moreno.
Option 1: If you have a car, you can go on your own to the national park and do everything in Option 2 below.
Option 2: Take a tour that will pick you up from your hotel. You’ll visit the main center, which has multiple different viewing decks – although they all have pretty much the same view of the glacier. The company we went with called this part a “hike”, but it was actually all paved walkways that even had ramps and an elevator – making it wheel chair accessible.
Option 3: There is something called a “boat safari” which means they put you on a boat and drive you up closer to the walls of the glacier than you can otherwise get. They don’t take you extremely close for safety reasons, but it is still significantly closer than the hike. Some tour companies allow you to go on both the boat ride as well as the hike.
Option 4: You can also do a mini ice trek or a big ice trek. These are quite a bit more money because they require more equipment. With these options, you can strap on some crampons and hike on top of the glacier. Some of these hikes had age restrictions so be sure to check that out before you plan.
We thought the boat safari + hike was a good option for us, but if budget were no issue the ice trek would have been really cool too.
One of the most impressive parts of the experience is the calving of ice off the glacier’s moving front.
These big hunks of ice would occasionally crash into the water, sounding like a crack of lightning, then thunder. Because sound is so much slower to travel than light, by the time you hear the crack, it’s too late to see the ice calving off the glacier. It’s already crashing into the water. It became a kind of sport for me as I obsessed over seeing the ice calve off before the sound could reach my ears.
The scene at Perito Moreno is one of those things you can’t fully grasp from a photo. It’s more than just a sight to see, but a full experience for all your senses. No matter how many photos you’ve seen, nothing beats gliding through that frozen dramatic landscape, scanning for calving ice, and listening for that sudden crack!
Logistics: Be prepared to pay the price of being a foreigner when you enter the park. Argentines only pay 50 pesos while the Americans pay about 260. Keep in mind that this is on top of any fee you might be paying for the excursion.
The hiking area has a tourist center with clean bathrooms and a cafe, so you wouldn’t have to worry about bringing something there, though the cafe can get really packed.
Biking Lago de Argentina
Another great activity if you’re in El Calafate is to go biking around Lago de Argentina, the lake bordering El Calafate. There are bike rental places around town. The lake is really beautiful with a backdrop of mountains, and we even saw flamingos here along with a host of other birds. We didn’t have time to do the bike ride, but if you have the time it comes highly recommended.
Where to Eat in El Calafate
The food scene isn’t much to speak of in Argentine Patagonia. That being said, we did find a good place in El Calafate called Pura Vida Resto Bar, an eccentric little restaurant with wild colors, denim pockets to hold the check, and menus wearing sweaters. Everything here is served in a casserole dish. I had a great vegetable lasagna, my dad had the lamb pot pie, and the bread was even homemade.
One thing you must try in El Calafate is the famous calafate berry. We filled up on the local delicacy (best consumed in the form of calafate chocolates and ice cream). You’ll find calafate-infused foods all over town. According to local legend, anyone that eats the calafate berry is destined to return to the region.
After 4 days in Argentine Patagonia, it was time to say goodbye and fly back to Buenos Aires. But it wasn’t goodbye forever – I popped a calafate berry in my mouth and knew I’d be back.
Have you been to Argentine Patagonia? Share your story in the comments!
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