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1 week in El Calafate and El Chaltén - Patagonia Argentina Backpacker’s Itinerary

June 6, 2024
Alfie Laurence

When people ask me what my favourite places in the world are I say Argentinian Patagonia. I have never experienced anything like it and for me, it is a place that you must visit at least once in your life. For that reason, I’m happy to share this guide to support your trip in its infancy and plan out the best steps in order for you to enjoy Patagonia and everything it has to offer. In March 2022, I spent a few weeks exploring Patagonia in both Argentina and Chile. In this blog, I share my itinerary for spending a week exploring El Chaltén and El Calafate.

How to arrive in Patagonia Argentina?

The easiest and most convenient way to arrive in El Calafate is by plane, there are regular flights from Buenos Aires, Bariloche and other major cities in Argentina. Once you arrive at the airport, you can take buses to El Chaltén directly from the central bus station.

When is the best time to visit El Calafate and El Chaltén?

You can visit El Calafate throughout most of the year, although I would say the best months to visit are between September and March. In El Calafate, the major attraction is the Perito Moreno glacier and it is open all year. The best time to visit El Chaltén is between October and March because many agencies, restaurants and local shops are open. These are the summer months in Argentina and it can get bitterly cold outside of these months, making it for less of an enjoyable outdoor hiking and camping adventure. That is what you are after, right?!

Itinerary for 7 days in El Calafate & El Chaltén

In this article, I share the route I took for a week in El Calafate and El Chalten. Of course, this may not be the best way to do this trip but it worked for me, I had time to relax and reenergise after a long days hiking, as well as enjoy all the major hiking trails with a level of spontaneity. What I mean by that is I had time to meet people, hike some days where the weather was clear, and relax when winds were up 70mph and visibility was low. This is a key player when spending a week in Patagonia Argentina. If you do have more time, I would extend your time in El Chalten to explore more of the trails.

It is important to note here that a lot of the trails in El Chaltén are self-guided and they are very well sign-posted. There is no need to hire a guide, unless you plan on doing some pretty hardcore climbing… that is not what this blog is about. There are maps in all the hostels and hotels that can help you plan out your days in El Chaltén.

Day 1: Arrival into El Calafate

Flying in from London to Buenos Aires on an international flight, you are going to want to base yourself, adjust to the time zone on your backpacking argentina trip and then move forward down to Patagonia. I would recommend staying a few days in Buenos Aires, it's one of the most beautiful and amazing city in Latin America. I have written guides on top restaurants in Buenos Aires & best neighbourhoods in Buenos Aires.

International flights from London Heathrow fly direct to Buenos Aires International Airport (EZE). In order to then get to Patagonia, the cheapest alternative is to transfer airports and then fly to El Calafate with Aerolineas Argentina from Jorge Newbury airport.

Once you touch down in Calafate, you can either take a taxi or public bus into the centre of Calafate, which is a small residential town with a main street that has restaurants, bars & most importantly, cash points. This is my first major bit of advice: BRING ARGENTINIAN PESOS OR US DOLLARS. It can be a bit of a nightmare taking out money when in Patagonia, especially El Chaltén, which doesn’t have great coverage. See my other blog for recommendations about how to access cash when in Argentina (via Western Union). Cash points have a terrible exchange rate to the dollar/pound so your best bet is to get cash out via Western Union Transfer, or bringing US dollars, which can be exchanged at most hostels/hotels. Back to travel!

I stayed at Folk Suites hostel, which was off the main drag, had a lovely sitting area and comfy rooms. El Calafate is a resting place to then launch yourself into the mountains and so usually backpackers will only spend 1 or 2 nights here. After spending a lengthy amount of time on an aeroplane, I went out for a walk towards Reserva Laguna Nimez and then into the town to suss out the local restaurants. La Zorra is a beer taproom and burger joint and will fill you up. It’s a great place to meet other people as well before beginning your day 2 trip out to Perito Moreno glacier. Time for some well earned kip before a big adventure day.

Day 2: Glacier Perito Moreno

Most hostels will offer tours throughout the day. There are a number of options on how to access the Glacier depending on your budget and time available. First option is what I did is on my own. I found the bus service runs twice a day, departing at 8am and 3pm, returning at 1pm and 8pm, respectively. If you get the early departure, you can enjoy the glacier ahead of the crowds. If you fancy making it even more enjoyable, buy yourself a cheap bottle of Malbec to enjoy while enjoying the views of the crashing glacier. (Tip - bring some refreshments and some snacks to enjoy while watching the glacier). The second option is to go via a tourism agency, which costs around 3,000 pesos per person. Option 3 is to hire a taxi. All these options still require you to pay entry into the park, which is $4000 ARS, which amounts to approximately $15 USD per person.

Once you arrive at the Glacier Perito Moreno, there are 3 or 4 different walking routes, which don’t take long to marvel at nature’s finest drama. You can spend a couple for hours at the Glacier before catching the last bus/taxi back to your hostel for a burger and a pint. You have officially arrived in Patagonia!

Day 3:

Setting off early morning on a public bus from the central terminal, I arrived in El Chaltén, with a few more day light hours to go. I checked into my hostel La Comarca, a stone’s throw from the bus station. I had some lunch and wanted to make the most of the day so I did a short hike to El Chorrilo del Salto. It’s a pretty flat 7km hike which crosses a beautiful forest. At the end of the trail, which takes approximately an hour and a half to complete, you arrive at this beautiful waterfall called Chorrillo del Salto, with a gorgeous backdrop. If you’re feeling cheerful, there are a couple of bars that host your evening’s activities. Bourbon Smokehouse kept me entertained with live football on the screens, as well as Fresco Bar. Early night ready for a big hike tomorrow!

Day 4: 

After keeping a close eye on the weather forecast (I didn’t really) I just asked people what the weather was going to be like over the coming days, I decided that it’d be the optimum day to set off on a 2 day hiking and camping adventure. No tent, no problem as there are plenty of camping equipment rental shops in El Chaltén. I set off first thing with a group of lads from my hostel and walked to Campamento Poicenot. The hike is pretty substantial to get there, approximately 18km but once you get there, you have amazing views of Fitzroy. We set up camp in the most chaotic wind I have ever experienced. We had heard about this nearby spot called Glacier Piedra Blanca, which boasted pretty amazing views all around.

The campsite can get pretty busy but there is always space to pitch up and admire the view of Fitz Roy before resting your head. Bring a book or some earphones to pass the time, especially if it’s cold and windy. You are going to want to get to sleep early because the following morning the hike to Laguna de las Tres could begin as early as 4am in order to catch the sunrise.

Day 5:

We all woke up 2 hours before sunrise, prepared a small tea and then set off to hike the final 2km. It is definitely the most challenging part of the full hike from El Chaltén town. The path is slightly weathered and full of rocks. I would really recommend buying some poles for the hike, too. No pain, no gain and we made it to the top in good time to watch the gorgeous sunrise. The amazing golden hue hitting Fitzroy was a view I will never forget. We stayed up there for a couple of hours before the day-trippers arrived and the area started to get much more crowded. We set off back down the slope and over to Laguna Sucia, which if you can see from the photo below, is one of the most incredible places I have EVER been. The route to get there is a bit sketchy but it’s well worth it, and it is nice water to swim in (if you’re brave enough.) After a dip, we headed back to camp to pack up our tent and move on with our trip. This time, we traversed over to Cerro Torre.

Now, at this stage, it’s very common to want to head back to El Chaltén, get some rest, shower and relax. We decided very last minute that we wanted to continue the camping trip and we didn’t really have much food but knew we would manage. Plan for both and see how you feel. The hike over to Campamento D’Agostini is still another 10km or so but it is a smoother hike, we played some tunes, enjoyed the afternoon sun and all was grand.

Day 6:

After setting up camp late in the evening the night before, we woke up early to a cloudy day. It was to be my final day in El Chaltén, and I wasn’t going to miss a trek to Cerro Torre. 

Fortunately, we got a glimpse of Cerro Torre the night before as the sun was setting so I wasn’t too annoyed. Either way, we headed to the lake, watched the floating ice for a bit and then headed back to El Chalten to return my equipment and rest my feet. We arrived back in the centre of town around 3pm and I had one more night at the local hostel. Fortunately, they let me leave my stuff in a locker. Tip: build rapport with the hostel volunteers! See photo of my final night at the hostel hanging out and chatting with the local volunteers. Great fun.

Day 7:

Sad to say goodbye but it was time to move on. I got the bus back to El Calafate, which I organised on my way back into town the day before. Definitely plan in advance because some buses only run on particular days eg. if you want to travel up to Bariloche. My next stop was Bariloche as it were, more on that later.

My top recommendations for travelling through El Calafate & El Chaltén:

  1. Bring cash in advance.
  2. Have rest days in El Chaltén because the hikes are long and you are going to need to have a little break.
  3. Plan onward travel if you’re time pressured.

Enjoy!

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Written by

Alfie Laurence
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