El CALAFATE AND EL CHALTEN TRAVEL – UPDATED FOR 2021

Both El Calafate and El Chalten travel this 2021 became possible after Argentina decided to open up its local tourism after the world’s most prolonged lockdown that ended last November 2020. This trip gave me some of the most memorable experiences in my gap year, and both places showed me some of the most beautiful natural wonders in the world. Allow me to share my experience here, including all the necessary stuff you need to know to kickstart your visit to these marvelous places.

EL CALAFATE AND EL CHALTEN TRAVEL 2021 INFORMATION

Close-up view of Perito Moreno Glacier.
Close-up view of Perito Moreno Glacier.

Patagonia is a paradise for those seeking thrilling outdoor adventures. This area, comprising of various Argentinean provinces, attracts thousands of travelers yearly, all wanting to experience some of the best hikes amongst the most scenic natural wonder in Latin America. Out of all the Patagonic regions of the country, perhaps the most well-known is the quiet town of El Calafate, home of the world-famous Perito Moreno Glacier. Besides that, most travelers who come here combine their trip to El Chaltén, home to some of Patagonia’s best hiking trails.

SITUATION DURING THE PANDEMIC

Laguna de los Tres
Laguna de los Tres

I originally scheduled my El Calafate and El Chaltén travel last 2020, but due to the pandemic lockdown, I had no way of going here because of the travel restrictions worldwide. A few months after, the government decided to open local tourism to help the economy recover, and last December 2020, Santa Cruz, home to both towns, decided to open both the tourism to Perito Moreno and the hiking trails to El Chalten. Most airlines also started offering flight promos here, with Jetsmart and Aerolineas Argentinas opening up this segment and buses returning to their routes (albeit infrequently) to cater to the increasing travel demand.

WHAT DOCUMENTS DO YOU NEED TO TRAVEL TO EL CALAFATE AND EL CHALTÉN?

As I mentioned in my other blog post, most provinces in Argentina would ask for a Certificado de Verano before traveling. However, the region of Santa Cruz leveled this up a notch, as they ask for more documents before you can set foot.

Santa Cruz´s official website
Santa Cruz´s official website

Here is a list of documents required:

  • Certificado Habilitante para Circulación Provincial (get it here.)
  • Declaración Jurada para circulación y permanencia (get it here.)
  • Travel insurance with COVID-19 coverage
  • Reserved flight or bus ticket
  • Hotel reservation

One of my friends who went there ahead of us told me that they didn’t check his requirements since he came by bus from Ushuaia. In my case, they did ask for it when I checked in my luggage at the airport. You don’t need to have a COVID-19 test before entering, but expect it when you return to Buenos Aires, as it is one of the requirements to enter the city (2,500 ARS for foreigners, free for locals.)

EL CALAFATE and PERITO MORENO

Everyone’s primary goal in visiting El Calafate is to see the imposing Perito Moreno. It is the largest glacier accessible, almost 30km in length, and is part of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field’s complex glacier system shared by Argentina and Chile. Though there are other glaciers here, Perito Moreno is the most visited, even voted as the most wanted tourist site by Argentineans during the summer of 2021.

Perito Moreno Tours 2021

Hike to the glacier.
Hike to the glacier.

There are many tour companies around El Calafate offering excursions to Perito Moreno. Almost all of them offer the same price, so you don’t need to check around. Here are some of the tour combination provided and the entrance fee to the site as of January 2021:

Entrance fee to Perito Moreno:

  • Foreigners – 1,800 ARS
  • Argentineans – 500 ARS
  • Students – 110 ARS

TOUR PACKAGES TO PERITO MORENO

View from the pasarelas.
View from the pasarelas.

All tour packages do not include the entrance fee to the site.

  • Perito Moreno Mini Trekking – 16,000 ARS without transportation, 19,000 ARS with hotel pick-up. Includes crampons, 20-min yacht ride, whiskey drink, and tour guides.
  • Perito Moreno Kayak – 13,300 ARS without transportation, 16,800 ARS with hotel pick-up, equipment included.
  • Glaciar Sur Pioneros – 15,000 ARS January, 15,600 ARS February, 16,100 ARS March.
  • Guided Tour Perito Moreno – 4,500 ARS without transportation, 8,000 ARS with hotel pick-up.
  • Glaciar Norte/Sur expedition – 2,000 ARS 1 hour boat tour.

As for the COVID-19 protocol, everyone needs to wear a facemask throughout the tour, and the guides are not allowed to accept photo requests.

Minitrekking at Perito Moreno

I decided to avail myself of the mini trekking after much deliberation. During pre-pandemic, the tour was so expensive and way above my budget. However, because of the fall of the Argentinean peso during the crisis, the exchange rate of dollar blue soared over the roof, and everything became more affordable, including this excursion. What used to cost around $250 for this tour just cost me $100, and I was 100% sure that this will never happen again. Besides, this was part of my bucket list, so I might as well do it now.

2nd viewpoint.
2nd viewpoint.

I went with my German friend Phillip, and we availed the no transportation tour (16,000 ARS) and just rented a car with our French friend Solene to save money. The adventure started at exactly 10:00 am, wherein we met with the other joiners at the harbor. We then rode a boat and traversed on the south side of the glacier, where our tour guides waited for us. Since there were around 45 people, they decided to divide us into three groups of 15 to be more manageable.

Our ride to the glacier meetup point.
Our ride to the glacier meetup point.

We first head out to two viewpoints; one from the granite rocks near the base camp and the viewpoint near the crampon area. Along the way, the guide explained to us every detail of the glacier. What struck my mind was that there are only one insect species that live there, a bug that produces an antifreeze chemical that helps them survive the harsh environment.

Feels like heaven!
It feels like heaven!

We all regrouped on the crampon area after a lot of photo sessions, and the guides instructed us to put on the crampons, teeth-like contraptions that aid you in walking the glacier itself. It is uncomfortable and heavy, but you will need it to not slip in the ice. Before heading out, they will teach you the right way of walking on ice; steps should be heavy and feet separated to not step on them with the contraptions on.

Crampons - Essential contraptions when hiking glaciers.
Crampons – Essential contraptions when hiking glaciers.

We walked for almost an hour on the glacier, and it was a surreal experience! I thought that it will be like a giant ice slab, but up-close, it is a group of compacted ice shavings; imagine billions of cubed ice! We passed by many stunning formations, clicking our cameras at every opportunity we got, and at the end of the tour, they closed it by giving us a whiskey shot with the glacier ice to make it cold! How extra cool is that? After the tour, we went to Perito Moreno’s viewpoint to also experience the other side of it.

Glacier ice - fresher than freshwater!
Glacier ice – fresher than freshwater!

 I highly recommend the mini trek, as you will have more chances to take beautiful shots not available from the regular viewpoint. Besides, it’s not every day that you can say that you walked on a glacier! It makes for a badass bar story to impress your date.

OTHER THINGS TO DO IN EL CALAFATE

Here are some of the other activities one can do during a trip to El Calafate:

Head to the Walichu Caves and discover markings from ancient settlers

Or so they say. After asking around town, we discovered that the paintings here are just replicas and not authentic. For more bonafide ancient murals, head to Cueva de las Manos, a UNESCO Heritage site containing ancient hand imprints from local settlers located 9hrs away from El Calafate.

Animal watching at Laguna Nimez

We didn’t do this as it was costly (800 ARS). Here you can borrow a binocular and view the pink flamingoes swimming at the lake. I did this for free by walking to the other side of the riverbank and seeing another flock of flamingoes congregating there.

Try these Patagonian specialties – Guanaco burger and Cordero Patagonico.

Cordero Patagonico
Cordero Patagonico

As a foodie, I always try the most well-known food in the places I intend to visit, and both guanaco meat and Patagonia lamb didn’t escape my radar. Lamb meat is common here, and most local restaurants will serve it in different ways; I tried both the asado and arrolladito versions, and they didn’t disappoint!

Guanaco burger
Guanaco burger

On the other hand, the guanaco is an animal related to a llama and can be seen on the road when you travel to El Chalten. A friend who traveled prior recommended trying it out, and as it was something I haven’t tried before, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. I tried the burger version (you can also order milanesa); as for the meat itself, it was very moist and succulent, and there was no hint of gamey taste to it.

Arrolladito
Arrolladito

Recommended restaurants to try these are:

  • Mi Viejo – for the Cordero Patagonico asado.
  • Mako Premium Bar – for the guanaco burger.
  • Restaurante La Cantina – for the lamb arrolladito

Glaciarium and Ice Bar

Both were closed when we visited due to COVID restrictions.

Leono Petrified Forest

I would´ve wanted to visit this, but as of today, DIY trips are not allowed, and you have to avail of a tour package costing 5,800 ARS to go here.

EL CHALTÉN – Gateway to the best hike in Patagonia

Most travelers who have extra time will combine their trip in El Calafate to the nearby town of El Chaltén, home to the world-renowned Mount Fitzroy. Travelers come far and wide to experience the beauty of Patagonia and to catch a glimpse of the imposing mountain. Those who have extra time in their hands can even hike up to the famed Laguna de los Tres; the closest viewpoint one can get to Mount Fitzroy without needing any special permit.

Monte Fitzroy
Monte Fitzroy

Aside from Mount Fitzroy, one can also hike the Cerro Torre, Mirador de los Condores, and Reserva Natural los Huemules, though the last one will need a specialized tour because it is part of private property.

Laguna de los Tres hike 2021

Santa Cruz also opened the whole hiking trails in El Chaltén alongside Perito Moreno last December 2020 to travelers to coincide with Argentina’s summer holidays. As Argentina hasn’t opened its doors to international tourists as of this writing, we were the only foreigners when we arrived; the rest were all Argentineans who escaped the bustling city to have a vacation. We decided to camp for a day to maximize our stay here, and it is wise to do so, as this hike is very tiring if you cram it in a day.

The Laguna de los Tres hike is a 20km roundtrip hike doable for 8hrs minimum. The difficulty level is medium on the first 9km and high on the dreaded last kilometer. Every trail is marked, so it’s impossible to get lost even if you have a horrible sense of direction.

Laguna Capri viewpoint
Laguna Capri viewpoint

The entrance to the hiking trail is on the northern side of town. The first 2km was somewhat difficult, inclined until you reach your first viewpoint (I think it was Chorillo del Salto). Thirty-minute more, and you reach the fork on the road between Laguna Capri and the first viewpoint of Mount Fitzroy. You can choose either and pass by the one you missed on the way back. We decided at first to check out Laguna Capri and rest for a bit. It is also the first campground, but since this is still too far from Fitzroy, we opted to choose the next one.

5km and beyond

We then set off again, walking for about an hour until we reached another crossroad where you can choose to continue to the Poincenot campground or segway to Laguna Madre and Laguna Hija. The latter will lead you to Cerro Torre, a good shortcut if you also plan to do the Cerro Torre hike after Laguna de los Tres.

3rd viewpoint Mount Fitzroy

Two more kilometers and we reached Camp Poincenot, where we stayed and set-up our tent. There were other hikers here as well, but not as much as I pictured it would be. We rested for an hour before deciding to hike to Laguna de los Tres.

I complained that people exaggerated when they mentioned that this trek is challenging, as we only passed by straight roads until the base camp. Well, I got what I asked for on the dreaded final kilometer. I am not an athletic guy, so the trek here was strenuous for me. It was an inclined, rocky road with loose, wet rocks everywhere. I nearly slipped three times, so I had to walk slowly not to die.

Laguna de los Tres
Laguna de los Tres

An hour after, we finally reached the Laguna de los Tres viewpoint. The first thing I thought was, yeah, it was worth the hassle; it offered us a perfect, stunning view of the sunset of Mount Fitzroy, and we had the place to ourselves. We stayed there for about an hour before heading back and calling it a day.

Glaciar Piedras Blancas and Cerro Torre

We got up early the next day to go to Glaciar Piedras Blancas and Cerro Torre’s following viewpoints. We initially planned to do both on the same day but decided against it after the weather went south, so we decided to check out the glacier and do the Torre the next day.

Glaciar Piedras Blancas
Glaciar Piedras Blancas

We just retraced our route and head to the other side to reach the glacier. From the intersection on the 8th km, you head left and follow the trails to Glaciar Piedras Blancas. It was a 40-minute walk on a straight road, not difficult at all. We stayed there for about 20 minutes before heading back. We didn’t do any more photoshoots because of the bad weather, so we head back to town to rest.

1st viewpoint Cerro Torre
1st viewpoint Cerro Torre

On the next day, we headed to the Cerro Torre trail. I decided not to camp with the guys since I already purchased a ticket back to El Calafate at 18:00, so I just went with them to the first viewpoint and went back to town to wait for my bus.

So that you know, this trail is an 18km roundtrip and is doable for a day. The level of difficulty is medium according to the information posted at the entrance.

How to reach El Chaltén from El Calafate

Mount Fitzroy on a bad day.
Mount Fitzroy on a bad day.

Three bus companies are going this route thrice a day; Caltur, Taqsa, and Chalten Travel. They offer the same price of 1,900 ARS each way and 1,400 ARS for students. Travel time from El Calafate to El Chaltén is approximately three hours, and all bus companies leave at 08:00 and 18:00, while Taqsa has an extra 12:30 schedule.

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