Most people zoom through El Calafate, stopping only long enough to visit the reknowned Perito Moreno glacier. Due to the pandemic, we were in El Calafate for five months (!!), and we learned more about this town than we could have ever hoped.
Lucky for us (and you!), there are a bijillion things to do in El Calafate! From pato, the national sport, to adventure sports on the bay to visiting 4,000-year old cave paintings, we discovered a ton of hidden gems in El Calafate that we’re excited to share with you! We hope you stay a while to check them out. And if you do, let us know what you think in the comments!
Make sure to check our El Calafate Travel Guide for more tips to help plan your stay!
El Calafate in a Nutshell
If you’re exploring Patagonia, El Calafate is a MUST on your itinerary. Whether you’re bouncing between national parks or enjoying a more relaxed Patagonian experience, El Calafate cannot be missed.
Most tourists are lured to El Calafate by the famed Perito Moreno glacier, which lives in Parque Nacional Los Glaciares. Many alott only enough time in El Calafate to visit the glacier before zipping to El Chalten for more extensive hiking within the park. This, in my opinion, is a huge mistake.
There are a bijillion things to do in El Calafate: from watching (or playing!) the national sport of pato to adventure sports out on the bay to visiting 4,000-year old cave paintings. IF you’re on a tight schedule, perhaps zooming through Calafate is your best option. For all those with a bit more flexibility in the schedule, a few days in El Calafate are sure to be worth your while.
How we got here
Our Patagonian itinerary took us from Tierra del Fuego at the bottom of Argentina, across to Chile to explore Torres del Paine, and back to Argentina to discover Los Glaciares. Little did we know our visit would turn into a dragged out courtship of Parque Nacional Los Glaciares. Endlessly optimistic that she would soon open and let us explore her trails, we waited… And waited… And waited. Summer turned to fall, then to winter, and we were still in El Calafate with no news of the park opening. Perhaps we were too optimistic…
It took a heck-of-a-lot to get to here, and we had a heck-of-a-lot more planned before leaving. To give you an idea of the pains (and glories): after Carnival in Rio, we flew to Buenos Aires, and from there, we flew down to Ushuaia, the “bottom of the world.” In Ushuaia, we visited Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego and hiked many of the glaciers around town. Then, we took a 12-hour bus/ferry combo to Punta Arenas, Chile. From Punta Arenas, the following day, we took a 3-hour bus to Puerto Natales, also in Chile, the gateway to Parque Nacional Torres del Paine. After 5 days in the park, we returned to Puerto Natales, and following a restful night’s sleep, took the 6-hour bus to El Calafate.
From Calafate, our plan was to visit the Perito Moreno glacier, then head to Chalten, then back to El Calafate to catch a bus up to Bariloche, spend a few days in Bariloche and finally head up to Mendoza. That was to be our Patagonian adventure.
Then the pandemic hit.
The exact day we planned to visit the Perito Moreno glacier, which lies in Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, was the first day the park closed. Thus began our long period of waiting for the national parks to reopen… Little did we know it would remain closed for over four months. Had we known, we likely would not have stayed, and would not have explored all the wonderful things to do in El Calafate, like hiking to this frozen waterfall!
Again, if you’re in a hurry to get through Argentine Patagonia (NOT our recommendation), then you can whip through El Calafate: bus from Puerto Natales, visit the Perito Moreno glacier the next day, and whiz on up to El Chalten that night for more hiking. But you should keep reading this post so you can know what you’ll be missing… and to decide how many days you may want to spend in El Calafate. We recommend at least a weekend, including 3 full days.
Things to Do in El Calafate
Note: Since this post is called “Things to Do in El Calafate BESIDES the Glacier,” we won’t cover visiting the glacier in detail. For tips on visiting the Perito Moreno glacier, check out our El Calafate Travel Guide.
1. Go on an epic bike ride to Punta Soberana & beyond
See the land mass that juts out far west of town? That’s Punta Soberana. There’s not much there besides houses and stunning views. Rent a couple of bikes, pack a lunch, water, and extra snacks, and head on over!
You can bike up the hill or stay more-or-less level by biking closer to the coast. We recommend both. Head towards the water sanitation plant that sits atop the hill (it looks like a factory from afar). When you get to it, go left, then right along the only road. You cannot get lost here.
Once you’ve soaked up the views, cross the water sanitation plant again and go down the side slope to reach the coast. It’s pretty steep. If it’s too steep for you, and can bike down more-or-less the way you came, keeping west as possible. Then, just keep biking along the coast.
At some point, the pavement ends. You can keep going or turn around there – we didn’t think the view was appreciably better the further out you went. If you do keep going, you’ll end up on the road pictured above in the center. It eventually ends at someone’s property, where you’ll find a locked gate that stops you from going further.
The ride back is fairly easy. Do bring water and snacks because there are no stores along the way. At a leisurely pace and with snacks, this can take ~4 hours.
2. Watch (or play!) Pato, Argentina’s national sport
Pato is a crazy game. It’s like quidditch if you were to replace the brooms with horses, but there are no bludgers and there’s only one hoop.
Anyway, pato is a team sport played on horseback, and the objective is to get the pato, or ball-like object, through the hoop. If the pato falls, you have to pick it up while staying on your horse. So you will see people slide off the side yanking on the horse’s mane to not fall. (Apparently, this doesn’t hurt the horse.)
You can watch (or play!) pato at Cabalgata en Patagonia on Sunday afternoons. The group meets at 3pm, but they don’t start playing until 3:45-4pm. To play, get in touch via WhatsApp or their website at least 24hrs in advance.
3. Visit an estancia
Visiting an estancia is a sure way to get up close and personal with rugged Patagonia. Estancias are Argentine ranches and they are rich with the history of an area’s first settlers. Estancias embody the ruggedness and persistence necessary to survive in Patagonia’s rough climate. Many estancias nowadays are tourist-centered; some are even run by large conglomerates. For a local experience, visit Estancia Rio Mitre, an estancia that is owned and run by one of the Echeverria family, which was one of the first to settle in Calafate.
You can go on a horseback ride, visit the family museum, and even have an asado! Speaking of asado…
4. Attend a REAL Patagonian asado
Depending on how long you’ve been in Patagonia, you may have noticed that they like to cook meat on a stake and over a fire. This is the traditional way to cook, and you’ll find it offered at some nice restaurants in town (and also in Ushuaia). One step (or two) above going to a restaurant where you see this method for cooking meat is going to an actual asado, where you can get close and personal with the pit (if you so choose).
Many hostels advertise asados and many estancias do, too. We HIGHLY recommend checking out AirBnB experiences for an asado! Our host offers AirBnB experiences at his house and we cannot recommend them more highly. (Link coming soon!)
5. Kite-surfing (or ice skating!) on the bay
In the winter, calafateños can be seen skating and sledding over the frozen bay all the way to Punta Soberana! If you’re in Calafate in the winter, you can rent skates and sleds at Club Andino for a very reasonable price. Bring cash & an ID.
In the more likely event that the bay is NOT frozen when you’re in town, you can see people kite surfing! El Calafate is very windy and the shallow bay makes it a good place to learn. We didn’t get to do this since it was too cold, so our information is limited. It looks like you may be able to rent equipment and take lessons at Club Nautico Lago Argentino. Ask your hotel for more info!
6. Visit 4,000yr-old cave paintings at Punta Walichu
Punta Walichu, sometimes called Cueva Gualicho, is an archaeological site with 4,000 year old cave paintings. The site is located 8km east of town, past the end of the costanera (coastline road), and on the way to the airport. There are organized tours to visit, but you can easily go on your own via bike, car or taxi!
The bike ride is stunning, and we highly recommend going this way as you’ll get to experience part of the landscape that few others do. For more on how to bike there, see the section “Bike to Cuevas Gualicho” further below.
Before you go, visit Punta Walichu’s website to learn more about the archeological site and download an audio guide (only in Spanish). The audio guide is an hour long and very informative! Take note: if you see stark cave paintings, those are replicas! The original 4,000 year old cave paintings have faded substantially and many are vandalized. The trip is still worth it, especially for the landscape.
7. Kayak Lago Argentino
You can kayak on Lago Argentino with Club Nautico Lago Argentino. Their excursions visit a port nearby called Puerto Irma. Visit their facebook page to ask for more info.
There are plenty of hikes in and around El Calafate to stretch your legs and appreciate the stunning views. Here are a few:
- Hoya del Chingue(3hrs) – an outdoor sports center that serves as a ski area in the winter
- Cerro Elefante (1hr) – short hike on the way to El Chalten; great for condor-sighting.
- El Arroyo/La Cascada(4hrs) – the stream that runs through town leads up to a waterfall that freezes in the winter
To learn more about these hikes, see our “Day Hikes in El Calafate” post.
More things to do…
Bike to Punta Walichu/Cuevas Gualicho
Bike east along la costanera, wrapping around the coast until you reach the end. There, you’ll see a dirt path, likely with several vehicles parked on either side. It’s pretty straightforward from there. Just take the path to the cliff on the far side. You’ll see several signs that say it’s a private path, but you can safely ignore them. When you reach a broader dirt road (meant for cars), take a left toward the coast until you reach a yellow house with a gate (pictured below). This is the entry to Cuevas de Walichu, where you’ll find 4,000-year cave paintings. Bring some cash to visit the cave, and snacks to enjoy along the way.
Enjoy a sunset on the lake
Sunset on the costanera is a beautiful time to watch the flamingos and admire the changing colors that dance across the sky and water. It’s not the same to watch the sunset from the cliffs, as getting close to the water allows you to appreciate the way the colors change so drastically across the lake.
Visit the glacier museum, Glaciarium
This museum remained closed during our four month stay in El Calafate (due to the pandemic), so we cannot speak much of it, but we know it’s there!
That’s all for now. We hope you enjoy your stay in El Calafate and do let us know what you think in the comments!
While you’re here, make sure to check out the myriad of other posts inspired by our stay in El Calafate:
- El Calafate Travel Guide
- Day Hikes around El Calafate
- Things to Do in El Calafate in the Winter
- How to Be Argentine
From us to you, happy adventuring!