We recently returned from a 10-day trip to Argentina, and the highlight of our time there was the three days we spent in Patagonia, where we hiked a glacier and rode horses through the gorgeous countryside. Click through for my travel guide to Patagonia!
For our trip, we opted to travel to the southern tip of Patagonia. This requires an international flight to Buenos Aires, followed by a 3.5 hour domestic flight to El Calafate. We booked our own flights on Aerolinas Argentinas, which has multiple flights throughout the day to and from Buenos Aires. But be warned – we had multiple flight cancellations and lackluster customer service before we even departed for Argentina!
In the end, we made it in and out of Argentina, but not before having a forced overnight layover in Buenos Aires. The airline didn’t compensate us or provide us with a hotel voucher, either. If you’re nervous about the idea of having to spend hours on the phone with a limited English speaking customer representative, contact a tour operator to assist you with booking flights. Although we didn’t end up using them, the folks at Swoop were responsive and helpful when we made some initial inquiries into traveling to Patagonia.
Where to Stay
Due to the flight arrival times in Calafate, it’s inevitable that you will need to spend at least one night in Calafate. It’s a quaint town, if a little touristy. If you’re not planning on renting a car, booking a hotel or AirBnB in the center of Calafate is essential, since taxis are rare and Uber is non-existent. Orient yourself by calculating the distance between where you’ll be staying and Arte Indio, one of the largest souvenir shops in town. If the place you’re considering is walking distance to Arte Indio, you’ll be able to walk anywhere in town pretty easily. (As an added bonus, you can pick up a handmade penguina there – a penguin-shaped wine pitcher that all Argentinians use to drink house wine from.)
Rental cars are easy to grab from the airport. Major car rental companies (e.g., Hertz, Avis, Budget) all have kiosks. The main road to Parque Nacional los Glaciares, Route 11, is smooth and paved, making an easy journey from the airport all the way to the Parque (and beyond). Most of other roads in Calafate, however, are gravel. When we arrived (in October 2022), it had just snowed the day before, which can make the gravel roads a little wetter and harder to navigate. However, given the relatively warm air temp (around the 60s during the day), we were able to drive on smaller roads without issue.
What to Do/See
Um, yeah. About that glacier. Perito Moreno is one of the world’s few remaining ascending (i.e., growing) glaciers. It’s the main attraction that draws people there and therefore an essential part of this travel guide to Patagonia. Most tourists will travel to the glacier (about 1.5 hours’ drive from Calafate) and view it by boat, which is an amazing way to get close to the glacier and its impressive south face.
For our family, hiking the glacier was a must. However, there are some minimum requirements in order to be able to actually step foot on the ice. We booked the Minitrekking Hike directly with the main (only) glacier hiking operator, Hielo y Aventura. The tour requires that hikers be between 8-65 years and have no history of heart conditions or surgery. The hike on the actual glacier is only about an hour, but getting to the glacier requires a boat ride and a one-hour hike.
There’s also another, more intense full-day option called Big Ice that Hielo y Aventura offers for people between the ages of 18-50. I’m sure that thrill seekers and young fit whippersnappers will jump at this option. Honestly, I did not for one second wonder whether the Big Ice trek would’ve been more fun for me. I had plenty of fun. I got to walk on the glacier. I did not break anything, and I did not need two Ibuprofen and a heating pad afterwards. At my age, I’d call that a win.
Another must in my travel guide to Patagonia is a visit to a working estancia (ranch). The estancias were very much part of the “old” way of life when European settlers arrived in this region. You can arrange for a day visit to an estancia, but we opted for an overnight visit to Estancia Nibepo Aike. This small, rustic estancia is known for being located inside Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, so many visitors couple a glacier visit with a stay at the estancia. The estancia is still a cattle ranching farm and raises a few hundred sheep as well (for eating, see below). Again, you can book through one of the many tour operators working in this region, or the ranch also handles its own reservations through their WhatsApp number.
Before arriving, the information on Estancia Nibepo Aike felt a little piecemeal and unclear to us, so here’s the deal. The ranch has a slew of day visitors to the estancia. The day trippers arrive around 10am each morning and are escorted to the ranch’s quincho, or main gathering place, for an orientation and brief history about the ranch. Then, the ranch guides will release the sheep to graze for the day.
A hike down to Lago Argentina follows with some breathtaking views of the Andes. Afterwards, everyone learns more about the traditional way of sheep farming back at the farm before returning to the quincho for a whole lamb asado. I won’t underscore the point of seeing all these sheep on the farm and questioning what they’re doing there … before returning for a grilled lamb lunch. But you know what I’m saying, right?
After lunch, the ranch guides lead a 3 hour horseback riding tour around the expansive grounds belonging to the estancia. As overnight guests, we were welcome to participate in any/all of the day trip activities at the ranch. The staff at the estancia, however, discouraged us from doing the 3 hour horseback riding trip. Why? Because the minimum age to ride horses in the park is 10 and they felt our kids might not have the endurance to handle the 3 hour trip. In retrospect, we probably should’ve pushed harder to go on the trek, as our kids ended up falling in love with horseback riding in such a scenic place.
That being said, as overnight guests, our guide made time after the day trippers left to let our kids try their hand at rounding up the cattle and sheep back into their corral. The next day, they organized a morning ride (about 1.5 hours) for us. In the end, I think it was a more manageable amount of time for our kids (and their tushies) to be on horses.
I hope my travel guide to Patagonia is helpful as you’re planning your trip there! Are you ready to go to now? (And, more importantly, can I come with you?)