El Calafate (Argentina)
El Calafate (population 6,439) is 320 kilometers northwest of Río Gallegos and 32 kilometers west of northbound Ruta Provincial 40, which leads to the wilder El Chaltén sector of Parque Nacional Los Glaciares and a rugged overland route back to Chile. While it’s only about 50 or 60 kilometers from Torres del Paine as the crow flies, El Calafate is 215 kilometers from the Cerro Castillo border crossing and about 305 kilometers from Puerto Natales via Argentine highways Ruta Nacional 40, Ruta Provincial 5, and Ruta Provincial 11, plus a few more kilometers on the Chilean side.
Spreading along the south shore of Lago Argentino, a giant glacial trough fed by meltwater from the Campo de Hielo Sur, fast-growing El Calafate is the poster child for Argentina’s tourism boom. The gateway to Parque Nacional Los Glaciares and its spectacular Moreno Glacier—tourists swamped the town in early 2004, anticipating the glacier’s rupture—El Calafate has few points of interest in itself. Still, it has improving services, including hotels and restaurants, and it’s southwestern Santa Cruz province’s transport hub.
Calafate owes its growth to 1) a sparkling new international airport that’s nearly eliminated the overland route from Río Gallegos for long-distance passengers; 2) the competitive Argentine peso; 3) the fact that Argentine president Néstor Kirchner, a Santa Cruz native, has built a home here and invited high-profile international figures, such as Brazilian president Luis Inácio da Silva (Lula), to admire the Moreno Glacier with him.
The boom has had drawbacks, though. As the population has more than doubled in a decade, land prices have skyrocketed, and lots that cost barely US$1,500 a couple years ago are now fetching six times that. Tourist demand trumps housing for platoons of construction workers—some of whom sleep in shipping containers after working on hotels and holiday houses during the daytime—and park guides have spent the summer living in tents in the municipal campground (local landlords prefer to rent their houses and apartments to free-spending tourists). Sadly, a prime downtown location that once housed the old power plant—admittedly a noisy irritation—has become a hideously unbefitting casino.
El Calafate is western Santa Cruz’s transport hub, thanks to its sparkling new airport, road connections to Río Gallegos, and improving links north and south along Ruta Nacional 40.
By Air: Aerolíneas Argentinas (9 de Julio 57, tel. 02902/492815) normally flies north to Trelew and Buenos Aires’s Aeroparque, and south to Ushuaia, and sometimes has service to or from Bariloche. The Argentine affiliate of Chile’s LAN is now flying to Río Gallegos and may soon land here.
With an office at the bus terminal, the air force passenger arm LADE (Av. Roca 1004, tel. 02902/491262, ladecalafate [at] cotecal [dot] com [dot] ar) flies northbound to Comodoro Rivadavia and Buenos Aires, and southbound to Río Gallegos, Río Grande, and Ushuaia.
By Bus: El Calafate’s Terminal de Ómnibus overlooks the town from its perch at Avenida Roca 1004. For long-distance buses to most of the rest of Argentina, it’s necessary to backtrack to Río Gallegos, but there are services to Puerto Natales and Torres del Paine, Chile.
Interlagos (tel. 02902/491179) and Taqsa (tel. 02902/491843, www.taqsa.com.ar) shuttle between El Calafate and the Santa Cruz provincial capital of Río Gallegos (US$10, four hours), for northbound connections to Buenos Aires and intermediates, and southbound connections to Punta Arenas (Chile). These buses will also drop passengers at the Río Gallegos airport.
Three carriers connect El Calafate with El Chaltén (US$15–17, 4.5 hours) in the Fitz Roy sector of Parque Nacional Los Glaciares: Cal Tur (tel. 02902/491842), Chaltén Travel (tel. 02902/491833), and Taqsa. Buses usually leave between 7:30 and 8 a.m., though there are sometimes afternoon departures around 5–6 p.m. Winter services are fewer, but normally at least daily among the three companies.
© Wayne Bernhardson from Moon Chile, 2nd edition