When visiting Patagonia for the first time, there are two national parks that are pretty much mandatory stops: Torres del Paine in Chile and Los Glaciares in Argentina. The latter is over four times the size of the former, there is far more to do, see, and experience in Los Glaciares National Park. The largest national park in Argentina, Los Glaciares covers an enormous 2,800 square mile area along the Chilean border in southern Patagonia with three major zones. In the north is the area around El Chalten and Lago Viedma, in the south you have the main gateway to the park at El Calafate with Lago Argentino, and in the center you have a large non-touristic zone called Zona Centro that is off limits to most activities.
Thirty percent of Los Glaciares is covered by ice that makes up part of the Southern Patagonian Icefield, the third largest ice cap in the world after Antarctica and Greenland. There are 47 large glaciers in the park, many of which sit at low elevation and empty out into large lakes, a process that is typically not seen outside of a polar region. The park was established in 1937 and has since been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981. There are many critical endangered species here, and the local authorities and population take great pride in maintaining the natural beauty of Argentinian Patagonia. Within the park is a good sample of the Patagonian cold forests, a wide variety of birds and other wildlife, towering peaks, and enormous flowing glaciers.
El Calafate in the south has the only large airport that takes most flights from nearby international airports, and it will likely be your point of entry into this part of Patagonia. From there a wide variety of activities are available to you, as well as an easy-to-organize bus transport to El Chalten, where the more accessible portion of the park is located. It is highly recommended to visit both portions of the park. It is generally possible to drink water straight from streams or falls without needing to purify, but caution is always recommended, and do this at your own discretion.
In the north near Zona Viedma and El Chalten the park is geared more toward trekking and mountain activities. From Chalten you can expect a variety of strenuous day hikes, overnight backpacking loops, rock climbing, and accessible mountaineering objectives. Many of these hikes leave right from town, which is fairly small. It can be an interesting experience to put on your pack at your hotel and simply start walking down the street toward the trailhead just a couple of blocks away. That’s not to say there are only adventure activities; cruises on Lake Viedma and excursions north to Lago del Desierto along with a few shorter hikes can keep the less adventurous busy as well.
Zona Argentino and El Calafate offers a more front-country experience. The town is a short drive from a lot of the action, so you won't feel that you are in the thick of it like you would in El Chalten. Many of the activities here would be excursion driven, though plenty of things can be done on your own without the planning help of the guide companies. It is recommended to check out the Glacier Museum and then pick from the myriad other activities such as fishing, horseback riding, or scenic drives. The absolute must-do in this part of the park is a visit to Perito Moreno glacier. Here you can check out the viewpoint dubbed the “Cat Walks” and try either a guided ice hike or boat tour along the headwall of the glacier, which towers over 200 feet over the water.
Lodging when visiting the park can easily range from primitive camping to well-equipped hotels depending on how much you are willing to spend. El Calafate and El Chalten both offer a wide selection of hostels, hotels, and motels to choose from. Keep in mind that El Calafate is a more modern town, so set your expectations accordingly when visiting El Chalten. If camping is a better option for you, there are many frontcountry and backcountry sites. Some have fees, though many are free and do not require a permit. The list below includes many of these, but other smaller campgrounds can be found depending on what part of the park you are visiting.
The climate of Los Glaciares is a cool and moist temperate one, with everything that comes from a notoriously unpredictable Patagonian weather forecast. Mean temperatures range from around 0.6 °C (33.1 °F) in winter to 13.4 °C (56.1 °F) in summer, which can vary with wind, cloud cover, and shade. Plan for it to be cool and very windy during your visit. Snow is common in winter and can last well into the summer at higher elevations. Stereotypes of high winds in Patagonia are not to be ignored. Take great care on exposed areas if the forecast calls for wind, and keep in mind that the forecast cannot always be relied on. Gusts can reach very high speeds and knock down unsuspecting trekkers.
There are absolutely no pets allowed in Los Glaciares National Park. This may seem contradictory to some considering the amount of stray dogs inhabiting both El Calafate and El Chalten, but it’s not without reason. Foreign animals have been known to bring parasites and diseases into the country to animal populations not ready or used to them, and the consequences can be terrible. There are also many endangered animals that would be disrupted or potentially attacked by dogs from unaware owners. It is for this reason that the officials are quite strict about the limitations about bringing animals into the park.