Los Glaciares National Park, Patagonia

Argentina’s Los Glaciares National Park is aptly named; it is home to over 40 glaciers, with a third of its 7,200km2 covered in ice. Perito Moreno, the most famous of Los Glaciares’ frozen residents, and one of the few glaciers in the world not retreating, ends dramatically in a constantly shifting, 60m-high wall of turquoise ice best explored from the water. And then there’s the Fitz Roy Massif and Cerro Torre, whose shard-like pinnacles dominate the sweeping Patagonian skyline near El Chaltén. Lace up walking boots, strap on crampons or simply step aboard a boat to explore some of Patagonia’s most extraordinary landscapes.

What does a visit to Los Glaciares National Park entail?

All visits to Los Glaciares are centerd around two Argentine towns tucked next to the edge of the immense Southern Ice Field, with a couple of days spent in each. El Calafate, the larger of the two is the gateway to the Perito Moreno glacier, while a variety of trails from the smaller El Chaltén take you to stupendous miradores and remote lagoons in the fairytale mountain landscapes of the Fitz Roy Massif.

Getting active

This part of Patagonia is all about big, dramatic landscapes, so no matter how active or leisurely your visit you can expect to be humbled by the sheer scale of the park’s glaciers, mountains and sweeping vistas. If you’re of an energetic bent then you can expect your days to be filled with strenuous yet magnificent full-day hikes in some of Patagonia’s most awe-inspiring scenery.

If you’re traveling as part of a small group tour then these hikes may be guided, or you may be given free time to explore independently. The trails around Mount Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre, for example, are all well marked and well trodden so self guided walking is an easy option – and there’s plenty here to suit all levels of willing walkers. Ice climbing, ice hiking and even kayaking are also possible around the region’s more accessible glaciers: Perito Moreno near El Calafate and Viedma near El Chaltén.

A more leisurely approach

Los Glaciares National Park can be enjoyed at a more relaxed pace if you prefer. Easy walks of just two hours will still take you from El Chaltén, for example, to some of the most spectacular viewpoints over the Fitz Roy Massif. Alternatively, you can forgo hiking here and enjoy horse-riding with local gauchos instead.

And while you can choose to strap on crampons and try ice hiking and ice climbing on Perito Moreno Gacier, you can just as easily enjoy a leisurely boat cruise along the glacier’s snout, or a wander along its network of wooden viewing platforms. Despite its popularity, the immediate area around Perito Moreno has been kept as natural as possible, so your glacier views remain unimpeded by souvenir shops and tourist cafes.

For a cultural fix, a few estancias – Argentine cattle ranches – just outside El Calafate welcome visitors to share in traditional gaucho life, complete with horse riding and mouthwatering asado (barbeque) dinners. Alternatively brush up on your icy knowledge in the Glaciarium Museum, just outside the town.

Where will I stay?

Accommodation here is as varied as the activities on offer. Depending on the style of your trip, what activities you’ll be doing and your preferences, you could find yourself staying in anything from boutique hotels with splendid mountain views and spas, to basic campsites in the heart of the national park.
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How to visit Los Glaciares
National Park

Whether you choose a small group tour, a tailor made vacation or a self drive tour of Patagonia, a specialist vacation company will be able to arrange your accommodation, activities, entry permits and transport for you, seamlessly connecting hikes in the Fitz Roy Massif with boat trips along the towering face of the Perito Moreno Glacier.

Self drive tours are easy in this part of Patagonia, with El Calafate equipped with a variety of decent car rental outfits and a small airport with excellent links to Buenos Aires, Ushuaia and San Carlos de Bariloche. Main roads linking El Calafate to Perito Moreno glacier (80km or a 1.5 to 2 hour drive) and to El Chaltén (215km or a 3 to 4 hour drive) are paved, smooth, often dead straight and cut through astounding scenery. Alternatively, Argentina’s excellent and very affordable bus network plies the same routes.

Los Glaciares National Park highlights

Perito Moreno Glacier

One of the world’s few advancing glaciers, Perito Moreno is unusually (along with two other glaciers in Patagonia) in equilibrium, not retreat. Boat trips on Lago Argentino take you up close, but not too close, to the looming and constantly calving 60m high wall of turquoise ice, while ice hikes and introductions to ice climbing are possible on the glacier itself.

Fitz Roy Massif

The fairytale rocky fingers of Cerros Fitz Roy and Torre reach skywards over 3,000m to create one of Patagonia’s most phenomenal mountain vistas. A network of well marked trails from El Chaltén take you to isolated lagoons, hanging glaciers and spectacular miradors. Hikes here vary from strenuous, multi-day scrambles necessitating a stay at one of the Massif’s campsites, to two-hour, but no less lovely, round trips to a viewpoint and back.

El Calafate

Thanks to its air links with Buenos Aires, bus connections and proximity to Perito Moreno glacier, El Calafate is an almost universal feature of most Patagonia vacations. Unremarkable yet perfectly pleasant, this small city makes a convenient base. Stock up on trek provisions here, visit a nearby estancia for a taste of gaucho life, or brush up on your knowledge of Los Glaciares’ 40-plus glaciers at the Glaciarium Museum.

El Chaltén

Argentina’s sleepy ‘trekking capital’ has a certain backwater charm fuelled by decent food and an abundance of locally brewed craft beer. A mecca for hikers in summer, its appeal lies in the variety of trails that lead directly from the village into the surrounding mountains. A highlight is the challenging 26km trek to Laguna de los Tres for spectacular views of Mount Fitz Roy. Horse riding with local gauchos and boat rides on the nearby Lago Viedma are also options here.

When to visit

Between December and February, Patagonia is at its warmest and sunniest, with long summer days making for ideal hiking conditions. This is peak season, so accommodation in El Calafate and El Chaltén and any trail campsites will need to be booked well in advance.

To avoid the peak tourist crowds – and the most expensive rates – consider traveling during the Patagonian spring and autumn. Mid-November to December are green and pleasant, with spring flowers in bloom, and while rain showers are more likely these are rarely particularly heavy. Mid-March to late April are ideal for photographers who want to capture vibrant autumn colours and spectacular sunsets.
El Calafate, Perito Moreno Glacier and the trails around El Chaltén are still accessible in the Patagonian winter, although you’ll need to come wrapped up and prepared for icy temperatures. However, many activities and accommodations will close during this time, and you may find some trails shut if the weather is particularly inclement.

You’ll need to come equipped with warm layers and waterproofs at any time of year, however, as the Patagonian wind can be cold, and the weather unpredictable even in the height of summer.
Written by Sarah Faith
Photo credits: [Page banner: Jorge Láscar] [Intro: Jorge Láscar] [Getting active: Jorge Láscar] [Perito Moreno Glacier: Jorge Láscar] [El Calafate: Jorge Láscar] [When to visit Los Glaciares National Park: Francisco Antunes]