222km (138 miles) S of El Chaltén; 2,727km (1,691 miles) SW of Buenos Aires
El Calafate was once a rough frontier town that served as the center for a vast community of remote estancias (ranches). Today, it is primarily a tourist-oriented town that has seen phenomenal growth in the past 5 years. It's best known for being the base from which to see the spectacular Perito Moreno Glacier. The town hugs the shore of turquoise Lago Argentino, and this location, combined with the town's leafy streets, gives it the feel of an oasis in the desert steppe. The town's population has grown from 5,000 in 1996 to 30,000 in 2008, and has a remarkable 5,000 hotel beds -- there are a lot of hotels here! Besides the natural wonders in the Los Glaciares National Park, the town depends heavily on the many daily flights that arrive at the El Calafate International Airport packed with foreign and national tourists. Thousands of visitors come for the chance to stand face to face with tremendous walls of ice, including one of the few glaciers in the ice field that isn't retreating (scientists say the Perito Moreno Glacier is "in balance," meaning it shrinks and grows constantly).
The town was named for the calafate bush found throughout Patagonia, which produces a sweet berry commonly used in syrups, ice creams, and jams. As the economy in Buenos Aires deteriorated, following the country's financial collapse in 2001, many Argentines fled to the countryside as well as here, to El Calafate, which had suffered from a tourist-trap mentality for years. While urban planning is nonexistent, the town is quite pleasant, tidy, and clean, and there are more and more efficient and creative businesses meant to serve visitors. But you won't find many attractions here -- they are almost all within the confines of Los Glaciares National Park. What you will find, however, are several good restaurants and a charming main street lined with boutiques boasting fine leather goods and shops selling locally manufactured chocolates, jams, and delicious caramel cookies called alfajores.
Most of the time you spend in the town will be on your arrival and departure days as you transfer in or out of the airport.