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 Glaciar Perito Moreno, it has its own point of interest in the Glaciarium, a new museum of and about the rivers of ice. Here are a few suggestions for things to do in El Calafate during your visit.
El Calafate (pop. 21,500) is 320 kilometers northwest of Río Gallegos and 32 kilometers west of northbound RP 40, which leads to the wilder El Chaltén sector of Parque Nacional Los Glaciares and an adventurous overland route to Chile. While only about 50 or 60 kilometers from Torres del Paine as the crow flies, the town is 215 kilometers from the Cerro Castillo border crossing and about 305 kilometers from Puerto Natales via Argentine highways RN 40, RP 5, and RP 11, plus a short distance on the Chilean side.
A former stage stop, El Calafate has an elongated city plan that has spread barely a few blocks north and south of its main east-west thoroughfare, the pompously named Avenida del Libertador General José de San Martín (for Argentina’s independence hero). Most services and points of interest are close to “Avenida Libertador” or “San Martín,” as the street is variously called, but explosive hotel growth has taken place to the east, on and near the former airfield.
Sights in El Calafate
West of town on the road to the Glaciar Perito Moreno, the Glaciarium (RP 11, Km 6, tel. 02902/49-7912, 9am-9pm daily, US$20 adults, US$8 ages 6-12) places the Patagonian ice sheets in natural and historical perspective, in state-of-the-art hilltop facilities. Within its walls (shaped to mimic the angular ice blocks on a glacier’s tongue), sophisticated exhibits focus on the formation of the southern Patagonian fields, their original coverage and present extent, and details on individual glaciers. There are also detailed accounts of discovery and research, with special emphasis on explorer and conservationist Francisco P. Moreno. In fact, there’s even a robot of an elderly Moreno at his desk, writing his memoirs with a spoken narration of his thoughts.
Built with private funds, the museum promotes public consciousness of climate change and environmental deterioration. The consulting glaciologist is Pedro Skvarca, an early mountaineer in the region who found his life’s calling in the preservation of the massive rivers of ice and the summits that surround them. In addition to the regular exhibits, there is an art space and a 120-seat theater that offers a 3-D tour of the glaciers themselves, worthwhile for those who lack time to visit all of them. There’s also a café for snacks and sandwiches, as well as the Glaciobar Branca, a subterranean ice bar (US$12 more; US$6 under age 16). It’s a good distance from town, so it offers its own free shuttles hourly.
In town, the Centro de Interpretación Histórica (Almirante Brown and Bonarelli, tel. 02902/49-2799, 10am-8pm daily Sept.-Apr., 11am-5pm daily May-Aug., US$10 adults, US$6 over age 65, US$5 ages 6-12) offers a sophisticated timeline that puts southern Patagonia’s natural, cultural, and historical events in context. It has many photographs, good English translations, and a quality library. Admission includes remise (meterless taxi) transportation from downtown.
The Museo Regional El Calafate (Av. Libertador 575, tel. 02902/49-1924, 8am-2pm Mon.-Fri., free) has sparse exhibits on paleontology, natural history, geology, and ethnology. The pioneer families’ photographic histories show promise, but it still lacks an explanation of the 1920s labor unrest that led to several shooting deaths on the estancias.
At the north edge of town, Reserva Municipal Laguna Nimez is a freshwater body frequented by more than 100 bird species. Guides from the Universidad de la Patagonia now take visitors for interpretive walks (10am-8pm daily, US$6 pp) through the wetlands and along the lakeshore. Information is available at the municipal tourist office (Coronel Rosales s/n, tel. 02902/49-1090, 8am-8pm daily).
One sight that locals know but few foreigners recognize is the Casa Kirchner (Los Gauchos and Namuncurá), home of the late president Néstor Kirchner and his wife, former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.