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El Calafate serves mostly as a service town for visitors on their way to the glaciers, but it does present a pleasant main avenue for a stroll. As expected, there are lots of souvenirs, bookstores, and crafts shops to keep you occupied. Heading out of town on Avenida del Libertador, you'll pass the Calafate Historical Interpretation Center (Calle G. Bonarelli s/n; tel. 02902/492799; free admission), open Monday through Friday from 10am to 9pm, with a collection of farming and ranching implements, Indian artifacts, and historical and ethnographical displays. It's worth a stop if you have the time. The Los Glaciares National Park Headquarters, Av. del Libertador 1302 (tel. 02902/491755), has a good visitor information center and a lovely garden. New to town is the planned Glaciarium: Museum of Patagonian Ice (www.glaciarium.com), which is scheduled to open in late 2009. Located 3km (2 miles) from town, it will focus on interpretation of the ancient ices of Los Glaciares National Park, with a 3-D theater, interactive exhibits, and a thorough catalog of the planet's glaciers. The plans look very impressive.

El Calafate with a Half-Day to Kill -- Because of flight and bus schedules, many people are "stuck" in El Calafate the day they arrive or depart. Here's our list of the best things to do to make use of this extra time:

  • Who knew there were flamingos in Patagonia? Take your binoculars and stroll along the shallow shore of Laguna Nimez, on the edge of town. Other birds include cauquén geese, black-necked swans, and ibis birds. Join a guided tour with Ecowalks (tel. 02902/493196).
  • Slated to open in 2009, the new Glaciarium (www.glaciarium.com), mentioned above, is a state-of-the-art glaciology facility calling itself a "Museum of Patagonian Ice." Inspired by the Ecocentro museum at Puerto Madryn, it's sure to be a worthwhile museum-style interpretive center.
  • Calafate Historical Interpretation Center, also mentioned above, is a exhibition center that covers 14,000 years of history. Five blocks from downtown, it's open daily until 10pm.
  • Let your inner gaucho ride free on a half-day horseback riding trip.
  • The estancia El Galpón del Glaciar (see "Visiting an Estancia", below) has afternoon sheep-shearing shows, and evening folklore dinner shows. Similar programs are offered at Parque de la Bahía.

Visiting an Estancia -- As the world's wool market declines, many of the estancias (ranches) in Patagonia have opened their doors to tourists, including some very close to El Calafate. This is the heart of the real Patagonia. Trips typically run day activities and restaurant services, and many even offer lodging, should you opt to spend the night. They're a lovely way to experience the local history, immerse yourself in the wild landscapes, and live Patagonia as authentically as possible. Most day excursions include a choice of horseback riding, hiking, or bird-watching, as well as a hearty traditional meal, usually of barbecued local cordero (lamb). All of the following estancias offer meals, excursions such as horseback riding and trekking, and transportation from El Calafate. Most also have museums in the old family ranch homes. Close to town, El Galpón del Glaciar (tel. 02902/491793; www.elgalpondelglaciar.com.ar) adds traditional estancia activities, such as sheep-shearing, and has a lovely afternoon tea. It's also a good spot for an evening visit; dinner shows with folklore dancing start at 6pm (reservations required). My favorite of the bunch is Estancia Cristina, situated at the end of the remote north arm of Lago Argentino. You take a spectacular 4-hour boat trip to get there, sailing past floating icebergs and the enormous Upsala Glacier. Day trips include a hike with excellent views of Cerro Norte and the Patagonian Ice Cap, a 4WD trip, or a lovely horseback ride. Contact their office in El Calafate at 9 de Julio 57, Loc. 10 (tel. 02902/491133; www.estanciacristina.com).

The meticulously maintained Estancia Alta Vista (tel. 02902/491247; altavista@cotecal.com.ar), 33km (20 miles) from El Calafate, on the dirt road RP 15 near the beautiful area of Lago Roca, is open October through March and offers ranch activities and fishing. It has an English-country style that has made it popular with British genteel types. Hostería de Campo Nibepo Aike (tel. 02902/492797; http://nibepoaike.com.ar) is picturesquely nestled on the southeast edge of the national park, about 60km (37 miles) from El Calafate. It's also near Lago Roca, offering fishing and ranch activities October through April. An overnight here is a slightly less than at other local estancias.

On the lakefront just beside town, Parque De La Bahía, Padre Agostini and Avenida Costaner (tel. 02902/496555), has a nightly shearing show and in-depth presentation on all things wool- and sheep-related. After a lively demonstration of dogs herding sheep, you get a chance to feed a baby lamb from a bottle, and then head indoors for a hearty lamb dinner with a folklore show. There are also midday options with lunch included.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.