El Calafate

El Calafate sits on the south shore of Lago Argentino, a town existing almost entirely as a tourist centre for visiting the glaciers in the Parque Nacional los Glaciares, 50 km west. From here you can visit Glaciar Perito Moreno by bus and boat, and even go trekking on its surface. Alternatively, travel by boat along the western arms of Lago Argentino, between stately floating icebergs, to see the glaciers of Spegazzini and Upsala. Best of all, take the long day excursion by boat to Estancia Cristina, which gives you the chance to trek, or ride horses up to a spectacular viewpoint above Upsala Glacier. All are breathtakingly beautiful, and an unforgettable part of your trip to Patagonia. The town itself can be expensive, and at times in January and February, even the growing number of hotels, hostels and cabañascan't quite accommodate the hordes, so it's essential to book ahead. The town is empty and quiet all winter, but can be extremely cold and most tourist services close down, it's best to come in March or April if you can. A small ski resort with just four pistes opened in 2006, 11 km away in the nearby hills: this is a brave attempt to keep visitors coming in winter, but has a long way to go. You can visit the Perito Moreno Glacier all year round, but weather close to the glacier can make it unpleasant. There are a couple of festivals worth seeing: Lago Argentino Day, on 15 February and Día de la Tradición, on 10 November. For more information on El Calafate, see www.losglaciares.com and www.todocalafate.com.

Sights

Though El Calafate was founded in 1927, it grew very slowly until the opening of the road to the Perito Moreno glacier in the 1960s, and has since expanded rapidly as a tourist town. Following the economic collapse in 2001, many people flocked here from Buenos Aires to start hotel and restaurant businesses, and escape the economic stress of the city. The town has little culture of its own, aside from a very transient tourism: most people stay here no longer than two or three nights.

Just west of the town centre is Bahía Redonda, a shallow part of Lago Argentino which freezes in winter, when ice-skating and skiing are possible. At the eastern edge of the bay, Laguna Nímez, there's a bird reserve where there are flamingos, black-necked swans and ducks, recommended for an hour's stroll either early morning or late afternoon. Visit the Centro de Interpretación Histórica, a small well-run centre housing a very educational exhibition created by an anthropologist and a historian with pictures and bilingual texts about the region. There's also a very relaxing café and library.

Around El Calafate

El Calafate has a number of other attractions, worth considering if you're here for a few days, and some good places for trekking, horse riding and exploring by 4WD. At Punta Gualicho, (or Walichu) on the shores of Lago Argentino, 7 km east of town, there are cave paintings. Though they're rather badly deteriorated, the six-hour horse ride is worthwhile. Some tour operators run excursions to the top of nearby hills for views of the silhouette of the southern end of the Andes, Bahía Redondaand Isla Solitaria on Lago Argentino. An easy five-hour walk (or horse ride) is possible to the top of Cerro Calafate for panoramic views too.

Several estanciasare within reach, offering a day on a working farm, a lunch of Patagonian lamb, cooked asado al palo (speared on a metal structure over an open fire), and activities such as trekking, birdwatching and horse riding. Estancia Alice www.estanciaalice.com.ar, also known as 'El Galpón del Glaciar', 21 km west, is a lovely house with views of Lago Argentino offering the 'El Galpón' tour, including tea with home-made cakes, walks through a bird sanctuary where 43 species of birds have been identified, displays of sheep shearing, asado, and music shows. Trekking, 4WD or horse riding trips to the top of Cerro Frías (1030 m) for fantastic views of Mount Fitz Roy.

Lago Roca, 40 km southwest, is set in beautiful open landscape, with hills above offering panoramic views, perfect for lots of activities, such as trout and salmon fishing, climbing, walking, and there are estancias, such as the beautifully set Estancia Nibepo Aikeiwww.nibepoaike.com.ar, or book through Lago San Martín agency, www.lagosan martin.com, where you can watch typical farm activities, such as the branding of cattle in summer. There is good camping in a wooded area and a restaurant. At Estancia Quien Sabe, strawberries and walnuts are grown, and you can see beehives and sheep shearing, and eat an asadolunch; contact Turismo Leutz, www.leutzturismo.com.ar.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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