• Assessing El Calafate vs. El Chaltén: The Fundamentals


    El Calafate and El Chaltén, situated on the fringes of Los Glaciares National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, are two must-visit towns in Argentina’s Patagonia. El Calafate is located in the southern part, while El Chaltén lies to the north of the park.

    Equally popular with outdoor enthusiasts, both towns offer a wide array of guided tours and accommodations for all budgets. They also tend to get crowded during Patagonia’s high season, December through March, and feature numerous local craft breweries.


    Overview of El Calafate

    Despite its small population of 6,000, El Calafate possesses the vibe of a bustling town or even a compact city.

    The town’s main draw is the Perito Moreno Glacier, a one-hour drive away. It offers stunning viewing decks. Additionally, you can opt for a navigational tour or a trek on the glacier itself.

    El Calafate hosts many activities like rafting, kayaking, hiking, horse riding at local ranches, and museum tours. The town is also a good place for dining, shopping, and hopping between breweries.


    Overview of El Chaltén

    El Chaltén, with approximately 1,600 residents, has a very quaint small-town charm.

    El Chaltén’s claim to fame is its outstanding hiking opportunities. The town is the starting point for many hiking trails, including the renowned Laguna de los Tres and Laguna Torre routes, noted for their breathtaking beauty.

    Additional activities in El Chaltén encompass glacier trekking, boat cruises, ranch visits featuring horseback riding, and many more day hikes. The town offers a tranquil atmosphere at night, punctuated by a sprinkling of lively breweries.


    Accessibility: El Calafate or El Chaltén?


    El Calafate, housing an airport, is highly accessible and considered one of the easiest destinations to reach in Argentine Patagonia. Flights to El Calafate Airport (FTE) operate directly from Buenos Aires and other Patagonian locales such as Bariloche in the Lake District and Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego.

    El Calafate’s bus terminal connects further destinations in Argentine and Chilean Patagonia. If you plan to travel from Torres del Paine, Chile, a daily early morning bus runs from Torres del Paine National Park. The town is approximately a 30-minute drive from El Calafate Airport and the bus terminal.

    Meanwhile, El Chaltén lies about 2.5 hours away by road or bus from El Calafate airport. Nonetheless, the town’s small size makes it walkable everywhere.

    There’s also a three-hour drive or bus ride between El Calafate and El Chaltén.

    Summary: With its proximity to an airport, El Calafate trumps El Chaltén in terms of easy accessibility, especially for travelers from Buenos Aires.


    Hiking Opportunities: El Calafate or El Chaltén?

    El Calafate offers a plethora of hiking trails nearby — none directly from the town, barring perhaps the flat hike at Reserva Laguna Nimez.

    In contrast, El Chaltén is a hiker’s dream, with access to some of the most striking and commendable hikes in Patagonia right from the town itself.

    The hiking trails in El Chaltén cater to different fitness levels. Apart from intense hikes like Laguna de los Tres and Laguna Torre, there are also simpler ones like Laguna Azul and Chorrillo del Salto, suitable even for elementary-aged kids.

    Summary: In terms of hiking opportunities, El Chaltén clearly outshines El Calafate. From personal experience, I find it amongst the best destinations for hiking in Patagonia.


    Affordability: El Calafate or El Chaltén?


    The answer to this question isn’t straightforward because the expenses vary based on different factors.

    Firstly, let’s consider accommodation. I performed a search for a room for two people for two nights in late March. Overall, the cost of accommodations in El Chaltén was about 50-100% higher than comparable accommodations in El Calafate.

    Regarding activities, the offerings of El Calafate, predominantly tours to Perito Moreno Glacier, tend to be costlier. However, many of El Chaltén’s top activities are free hikes, resulting in lower overall activity costs.

    The pricing of restaurants is fairly similar in both towns; self-catering prices in supermarkets in both towns are also similar.

    Conclusion: While El Calafate offers cheaper accommodation, its activities, especially tours to the Perito Moreno Glacier, can be expensive. On the other hand, El Chaltén has pricier accommodation but offers several free hiking opportunities.


    Beauty rating: El Calafate or El Chaltén?

    Beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder but might we opine that though El Calafate itself may not offer much in this department, the allure of the nearby glacier is undeniable. Feasting your eyes on the Fitz Roy from within the town of El Chaltén and being surrounded by the best that nature has to offer at all times, makes it quite hard to beat.

    Summary: Based on visual appeal, I believe El Chaltén trumps El Calafate due to its mesmerizing surrounding landscapes.


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