Just over a week ago, I was further south than I’ve ever been — crampons firmly tied over my hiking shoes — stomping around a glacier with my family. It was possibly one of the coolest things I’ve ever done — ranked right up there with bouncing through a jungle in Thailand on top of an elephant, or ballooning over “fairy chimneys” in the desert of Turkey.
We chose Perito Moreno glacier for this activity. It is just over an hour from the city of El Calafate, Argentina which has an airport with several flights per day from Buenos Aires. The city was larger than I first imagined, with plenty of hotels and restaurants from which to choose.
The landscape surrounding El Calafate includes a large blue-green lake and rivers encircled by wide open buff-colored hills and plains — dotted with a few sheep ranches and trees — and snow-capped iron-gray mountains in the distance. It doesn’t sound all that interesting but it truly is a beautiful place, one that photos have an extremely difficult time capturing.
One could spend just a couple days in this area, or several depending on your love of trekking. Within a short drive is another area — El Chaltan — where hikers and the outdoorsy type can find plenty to fill their days. There are also several Estancia in the area — these are ranches which allow tourists to stay. They often have several activities for their guests, such as guided treks, horseback-riding, bike-riding, fishing, and gaucho (cowboy) demonstrations with the horses and sheep. We did not try one of these, for two reasons — 1.) I did not know about them when we decided on our visit length, and 2.) we originally thought we would prefer to be in the city for restaurants and exploring.
In hindsight, I think I would have preferred to stay at one of the estancias to get a glimpse at that life, relish the beauty of the Patagonian countryside, and enjoy the grilled lamb and wine meals which are served each evening. Plus… we have a new drone which would have been extremely fun to fly out in the wide-open spaces, looking down on the horses, sheep and gorgeous topography.
If you are planning a trip to this area, take a look at Estancia Cristina as an option. It is nowhere near a town, but looks absolutely amazing. And if one is going all this way, why not really soak in the solitude of this part of the world? It’s not cheap, but there are lots of other similar options for other budgets. There is also a lovely and pricey luxury hotel which bills itself as an estancia called Eolo. I’m sure it’s VERY nice — it is highly rated — but it really is not a true estancia, nor is it near town, so it did not interest me so much.
To view the glacier, there are a few options. One can drive — or take bus transport or taxi — to the national park platform area. There is a series of platforms, all with stunning views, winding down to the water. This is the cheapest — though still quite good — option.
There are also guided treks on the glacier: a Mini Ice trek lasting 2 hours for those ages 10-65, and a Big Ice trek lasting 7 hours which is for those who are fit and between 18-50 years of age. 50 seems a bit young for the cut-off, don’t you think?!! The treks are provided through a company called Hielo y Adventura. If you are interested in doing one of these, be sure to book well in advance as they do fill up. FYI — we did the Mini-Ice trek and it was absolutely fantastic.
In order to get to the glacier, the trekking groups take a short boat ride. There are toilets and places to store lunch and gear not needed during the trek near the boat launch, FYI. The guides then break the groups into English and Spanish-speaking, give a short talk about the glacier, stop to put on crampons, give a demonstration on how to use said crampons, and finally the trek over the blue glacier commences.
A third option for viewing the glacier would be one of several cruise companies — some with cabins for overnight trips and some just for daytrips. Click on the before-mentioned underlined areas for suggested links.
Recommendations in El Calafate:
Hotel: Esplendor El Calafate
This is a decent mid-range hotel with lovely design, but be forewarned that it does have some issues! I initially booked through the hotel, but then found a better rate through booking.com. I checked the cancellation policy and noted that it was still possible. However, when I contacted the hotel, their response was that my rate did not allow for any cancellation, and I would be charged the full amount of the entire stay. I then forwarded back to them the provided booking info which states cancellation and modifications ARE allowed up to 10 days prior without penalty (a stated penalty of which consists of just one night, mind you, NOT the entire stay.)
Here is their next response…
For this time as an exception we will cancel your reservations without penalty.
We hope you choose us for your next trip to Calafate.
Ejecutiva de Reservas – Reservations Executive
Esplendor El Calafate
Hmm… wasn’t sure I was anxious to still book with them after that less than diplomatic response but the booking.com rate was VERY good — half what I was going to pay initially, and much lower than other mid-range places right in town — we wanted to be within walking distance. Plus, I liked the design of the hotel. So, we booked, paying upfront to booking.com.
Checking in, they only had one of our rooms noted for the reservation. I showed them the booking.com confirmation, and they did honor it. However, if the hotel had been full, this could have been an issue!
So far, this hasn’t been a glowing review, but somehow the hotel worked for us. Oh… two other complaints I just remembered. Lumpy pillows and the room was hot at night. We cracked the windows, but this welcomed a few small bugs. Hmm… Maybe you should look elsewhere, LOL! Location and the hotel style did work well, though… AND, the front desk staff did a nice job giving us directions and recommendations for a couple restaurants.
- Casamiro Bigua: Steakhouse right on the Libatador (main street.) Very good beef, lamb, empanadas, pasta, and wine! Yummy bread, too. Would definitely return.
- La Cocina: Italian restaurant on Libatador. Good. We had a great time, though a few hits and more misses.
- La Lechuza: Pizzeria. We went here for lunch on our last day, and wished we had tried it early. It’s cute inside — lots of quirky trinkets and antiques and good pizza. It has lots of other offerings, too. Recommend!
Hielo y Adventura
Av. Libertador 935
El Calafate – Santa Cruz , Patagonia Argentina
Tel: (02902) 492205/094 | Email: email@example.com Website: http://www.hieloyaventura.com
- If you want to visit an estancia — but not stay overnight — there are several with options to visit for just the day, such as Estancia El Galpon, Estancia Cristina, Estancia Alta Vista, and Estancia Nibepo Aike.
- There are places to rent gear — such as hiking boots and clothing — right in El Calafate, so if you want to pack light, keep this in mind. Also, dress in layers! I kept reading about how cold it was on the glacier. I almost took a down coat, but ended up packing a thin sweatshirt, lightweight down vest, and a windbreaker/raincoat. It worked brilliantly as the temperature varied greatly throughout the day, including some rain. It is NECESSARY to have gloves for the hike, but they do have some available if you don’t want to pack these. DO BRING SUNGLASSES! It is extremely bright on the glacier. Sunscreen necessary as well. Ladies, bring a hat and/or hair tie for longer hair — it gets quite windy.