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La Campanilla, Ushuaia

La Campanilla, is a small owner-run hotel on the outskirts of Ushuaia.
I stayed here the night before my expedition cruise to Antarctica. As you enter La Campanilla the first thing you’ll see is a large photograph of Ernest Shackelton as his men in front of the ice-bound Endurance; especially thought provoking for anyone heading down to Antarctica. You also be welcomed by your charming hosts, whose photos of their own travels you can see up on the wall next to reception.

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The rooms are cosy but comfortable and breakfast will stand you in good stead for a day ahead exploring the Tierra del Fuego national park. A taxi ride to San Martin in the middle of town costs around $7 and takes about 10 minutes.

Book a room here if you want: friendly and familiar, at a good price, and don’t mind being outside town. 

San Telmo, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Buenos Aires & San Telmo

Sally’s thoughts on Buenos Aires and  San Telmo

Unfortunately Buenos Aires is not as safe as it once was. There are more homeless people, shanty towns have grown enormously and so inevitably the level of crime has increased as well. At night, a certain level of caution is an absolute must (i.e. don’t stray too far from well lit, busy areas where there are bars and restaurants, and take taxis).

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Plaza Dorrego – San Talmo

San Telmo was once a poor neighbourhood (and parts of it still are), but vast amounts of money have been invested opening up boutique hotels, restaurants, bars, cafes and clothes shops. It also has the lovely Plaza Dorrego which is buzzing with life until at least 1am. It is definitely not as polished or affluent as other neighbourhoods like Palermo or Recoleta, but in my opinion it has more character.

To give you an idea, the following links are to my four favourite restaurants in the area:

http://www.parrilladelplata.com/

http://www.parrillalabrigada.com.ar/

http://www.cafelapoesia.com.ar/english/que-notable.php

http://barelfederal.com.ar/

Sam’s W Trek in Torres del Paine

Sam returned in March from a W Trek in Torres del Paine. Here he tells us about his experiences on the trip and in booking through Swoop and our partners…

‘I had a wonderful time – helped by the fact that we had some exceptional weather and a good group of trekking companions’

How were Swoop Patagonia?

I found the Swoop team to be very quick to respond to all my queries (especially given the short notice prior to trip departure). Please note that this was greatly appreciated.

How were our partners who run the W Trek?

They also performed well – I found the 5 day W Trek to be relatively easy over the 5-days and to finish off with the boat cruise up to Grey Glacier was a real highlight. Our guide Miriam was excellent, offering just the right amount of info at each location, and was always very conscious of how the group was travelling.

Is there anything you would have done differently in hindsight?

I enjoyed the luxury of having a hot-shower and shelter at the end of each days trekking, but didn’t feel that the additional cost over camping was entirely justified, particularly as we found  that some of the food did not meet our expectations.

Lis’s Trip to Torres del Paine & Tierra del Fuego

Lis returned in December from a trip to Patagonia during which they took W Trek in Torres del Paine followed by a visit to Isla Navarino in Tierra del Fuego. Here she tells us about her experiences on her trip and in booking with Swoop and our partners in Patagonia…

What three words would best sum up your experience in Patagonia?

Wild, Beautiful, Fantastic.

What was the highlight of your trip to Patagonia overall?

It’s genuinely hard to pick one thing overall, it was so varied and beautiful. The light and the windswept, dramatic wilderness of it all was perhaps the most abiding memory of Patagonia – the sheer space and also the diversity.

We dipped in and out of different parts of Patagonia, including a 3 day W Trek (thanks Swoop Patagonia for organising it for us!) in the stunning Torres del Paine National Park, and spending time in Punta Arenas which really felt like a frontier town at the edge of the earth.

Then we also flew in a tiny plane down to Isla Navarino, where there really is the last town before Antarctica (and the most southerly Yacht Club in the world!). This was definitely the most unusual aspect of our trip, and included our best story: drinking with the locals on the German frigate (now a bar) at the Yacht Club, with a Penguin swimming in the bay – and especially the luxurious Lakutaia Lodge and services of local guide Denis (quite brilliant).

Do you have any tips for other people who are planning a trip?

Patagonia is pretty huge – we would have liked to see more of it; then again, with some smart planning of flights and buses (which are excellent for long distance travel in Chile) we could get around in not too many days. There are so many options for hiking and National Parks – definitely pick your top ones and don’t try to do everything.

We’d also have liked to cross the border into Argentinian Patagonia (a well trodden path at different points) and to take a boat ride (whether the Navimag or a more luxury cruise ) – would recommend investigating these options.

How well did Swoop Patagonia do helping you plan your holiday, and finding the best trip and operators for you?

They were great: very generous with their advice and support when we were considering  options before making a decision. It was a very personal, tailored service; and thus felt very responsive and flexible to our needs.

What did you think of the operators we set you up with in Torres del Paine?

The operators were reliable, helpful and professional. The Fast Track W Trek we did in Torres del Paine was quite expensive (as there were only two of us in the group); but in return we received a great service, excellent guide (just for the two of us), top equipment and planning and good food. It suited what we needed very well.

How was the W Trek itself, and how were your guides?

The trek was fantastic: we did a 3-day Fast Track loop which suited perfectly as we only had 3 days to spare. I would recommend this itinerary – others do a 5 day W Trek or the Full Circuit, but the 3 days were honestly pretty stretching, even for us as pretty seasoned walkers. The variation on each day was marvellous too, meaning we felt like we saw the range that Torres del Paine had to offer; we left very satisfied.

Talking with other walkers, it’s worth choosing your refugio carefully – some had a reputation as serving pretty meagre portions of food which isn’t great when you’ve walked 9 hours!

Our guide (Viktor) was fantastic – seasoned, professional, good fun, knowledgeable, everything we could have wanted. The packed lunches, tent and equipment which he bought from them were very good quality, and they provided excellent fresh bread for my partner who is gluten free. He went above and beyond to support us and make sure things ran smoothly. Would definitely recommend the operator and Viktor in particular.

How was your stay at Lakutaia Lodge?

Lakutaia Lodge was great too – again, there were only about 6 guests staying there so we had 1:1 attention and service – for instance, they changed the menus around so we could have King Crab on our last day when we had to leave early.

Their excursions were thoughtful and really interesting (bird watching – not something I’d ever think I’d have enjoyed but was breathtaking), tour of the town of Puerto Williams, short trek, museum…); and we also loved using their bikes and canoes.

Local guide Denis accompanied us solicitously during our stay and was so knowledgeable and accommodating – it really made the trip.

The Lodge manager was equally very hospitable and accommodating, looked after us very well. She even introduced us to a famous Chilean opera singer who arrived to stay as we were leaving!

Was there anything that you wish had happened differently/or not happened?

Only the weather coming in on our third day, and my falling over & spraining my ankle! Otherwise perfect.

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The Babel Suites, San Telmo, Buenos Aires

The Babel Suites are a relatively new addition to the lively (and still slightly edgy) San Telmo. As a result they offer pretty good value in the lower-mid range of hotels.  This was my base for my first night in Buenos Aires and it served me very well.

For those unfamiliar with the term ‘Suites’ the idea is for your room to be spacious, and some limited space and facilities for self-catering; so public areas are normally very limited.
In this case there’s a breakfast room and on the roof terrace a few tables and sun loungers, and a very small pool.

The rooms are nicely done with plenty of space, a sofa area, and a balcony overlooking the lively Calle Mexico.

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NB: there are a few different properties in Buenos Aires with the name ‘Babel’; be sure not to confuse them.

Book a room here if you want: to stay in San Telmo, with a cool spacious room, at a good price.

Sam’s W Trek in Torres del Paine

Sam returned in January from a W Trek in Torres del Paine. Here she tells us about her experiences on her trip and in booking with Swoop and our partners…

What was the highlight of your trip?

The geography I witnessed on my 5 day W Trek in Torres del Paine was absolutely stunning. Trekking through the rolling hills and craggy mountains for hours a day was an incredible experience. I never tired because I was constantly struck and energised by the beauty of its nature.

Did you manage to visit anywhere else in Chile or Argentina?

Yes – Santiago, Vina del Mar and Valparaiso.

How well did Swoop Patagonia do helping you plan your holiday, and finding the best trip or operator for you?

You guys were great! Thank you for everything!

How were our partners who ran the trek, and how were their guides on the trip?

They were great. Carlos was an excellent, informed and thoughtful guide. He made the experience unforgettable.

Was there anything that you wish had happened differently/or not happened at all?

Nope!

Do you have any tips for other people who are planning a trip?

It’s no joke when they say you could experience four seasons in one day – pack layers!

Also, I stayed an extra couple nights to see penguins and Punta Arenas is a bit of a sleepy town. Could have done just one there.

Nada’s W Trek in Torres del Paine

Nada returned in February from a W Trek in Torres del Paine. Here she tells us about her experiences on her trip and in booking with Swoop…

How were Swoop Patagonia?

Swoop were very quick to reply to emails and provided very helpful information!

Did you enjoy your 5 day W Trek itinerary?

On the first day of our 5 day W Trek I would have preferred if we walked a little more than two hours, for example it might have been nice to walk into the park (rather than travelling in by bus), or to start very early in the morning on one of the days so that we could have seen the sunset/ escape the crowds. I understand  however that such alterations would probably depend on the preferences of the other people in the group as well.

How were your guides on the trip?

Victor was a chilled & a nice guy. He was able to provide very good information about Flora & Fauna, you could tell he knows the area well. There were a few moments where I got the feeling he has been doing it for a very long time and is a little bit fed up with it…

Did you manage to visit anywhere else in Chile or Argentina?

Yes, I had another two weeks to travel in Chile.

Do you have any tips for other people planning a trip?

You need to book bus ticket in advance – luckily Swoop and their partners in Torres del Paine told me that and booked everything for me! That was a great service!

Graham and Anne’s cruise and road trip experience.

Graham and Anne returned from Patagonia in February where they enjoyed a cruise as well as a road trip.
Here they tell us all about their experiences and how Swoop helped them on their way.

How did Swoop Patagonia help you plan your trip?

You gave lots of advice in the planning stage, with several options to consider but left enough for us to feel it was ‘our’ trip. You also had local knowledge both of the things to see and local contacts who could make arrangements for different activities. The Google session where we spoke to Luke on line enabled us to ‘put a face to a name’ and gave us confidence in your operation. You responded well to e-mails and kept us in touch with developments.

We would recommend your company to anyone contemplating a trip to Patagonia.
The hotels you specifically suggested: Amerindia, Aguas Arriba and Marianas were all good recommendations with which we agree.

How was your cruise with Cruceros Australis?

 It was very well organised with a complete programme which we were able to take full advantage of.

The ship, Via Australis was great –cabin the equivalent of 4 star hotel bedroom, and the facilities in terms of food, drink and programme were excellent. The excursions (twice per day) were the highlight and you need to be prepared to experience these to get full value –this means getting occasionally cold and/or wet. We were fortunate with wonderful weather, most of the time. Some of the excursions might have been unavailable (landing at Cape Horn) or a bit miserable in the event of bad weather so potential clients need to be aware of this.

The guides were faultless –they were helpful and extremely knowledgeable. The briefing sessions were good at preparing the passengers and putting the excursions in context. The guides were obviously well-trained but they made every effort to help the passengers enjoy the experience. We felt that we learned about the flora and fauna, the history and the geology of the area.

Is there anything you would have changed about this part of your trip?

When we checked in on the morning of departure,we were perturbed to find that we had to sign a disclaimer regarding the potentially hazardous activities and possible difficulties if there was a medical emergency. In reality they were painstaking over safety and the care of the passengers, so this seemed unnecessary but it gave a poor early impression. The crew and guides could not have been more helpful. I can only think that this is a consequence of having some elderly (mostly American) passengers.

Otherwise, as we had hoped this was one of the best parts of the whole trip!

How was your time in Chalten with Walk Patagonia?

We really enjoyed their itinerary.  The bus connections and transfers were particularly helpful as this would have been difficult to organise locally and still keep to the same schedule. The Puerto Natales –El Calafate bus was delayed for a long time at the border (approx 2 hours) but the local taxi driver was waiting and allowed us to drop our bags at the hotel before the trip to Perito Moreno. Although we had already seen a number of glaciers, we weren’t quite prepared for the scale of this one. Worth a visit. The hotels Sierra Nevada (El Calafate) and Senderos (El Chalten) were very comfortable, especially Senderos. However Aguas Arriba was in a different league –wonderful and probably the one place we would return to if we could.The food and service here was exceptional - it is difficult to see how they can improve on what they offer but clients need to be aware that its isolation means that the lodge may sometimes offer a more limited choice than some people expect (not us!). 

We were met promptly on arrival by the Walk Patagonia rep. The guided walk at El Chalten was interesting and Pablo, the guide, was again knowledgeable and keen to inform but also sensitive to the needs of the clients. The hosts of Aguas Arriba (Ivor and Pato) treated us like guests in their home and made us feel immediately comfortable. Pato took us out for two exhilarating walks (one lasted all day) and she was good company and proud to show off her locality including more glaciers, waterfalls and forest flora.

Is there anything you would have changed about this part of your trip?

We would have liked three nights at the lodge but this wasn’t available to fit our schedule, but we did enjoy the night in El Chalten too. (El Chalten seems a good alternative to Torres del Paine for which we couldn’t get our selected accommodation.)  Overall, we would have preferred to have some sort of breakdown of costs within the overall price as we felt in total this was expensive, even allowing for the cost of Aguas Arriba. We got the feeling that Walk Patagonia were getting a good fee for a limited input. However, from our very positive experience we did feel it was worth it.

How was your road trip with Tierras Patagonicas?

The hotels were variable on Ruta 40 but choice is very limited –we stayed in some extremely isolated places and basically had to take what was available e.g at Lago Posadas which was ‘quirky’ but staying here meant that we were able to spend a fantastic day around the lakes and go out to observe the night sky! Hotel Mora at Los Antiguos was fine and in a good position on the lake but the meal seemed pricey. The hotel Tehuelche at Esquel has definitely seen better days –maybe a smaller more intimate hotel would be better? However, Esquel was a good base to stay and we had two very good meals- in a local parilla and at a restaurant in Trevelin (Fonda Sur –recommended)

Jose, like all the guides we met, was fantastic but because this was his company we felt he really made an effort to ensure we enjoyed the trip. He was good company both on the drives and at the evening meals and always discussed plans for the next day, sometimes with alternatives. He was knowledgeable about the flora and fauna and the sights and this helped us to appreciate the surroundings more. He was very calm and good natured and we enjoyed talking to him about his life in Argentina. .

 Jose had planned an interesting schedule and knew the area very well. Once or twice we weren’t able to carry out the plan e.g. one of the national parks had restricted opening, but Jose was still able to provide interesting days and he was always ready to adapt his schedule to suit our preference.

Is there anything you would have changed about this part of your trip?

As we expected, two of the days were long drives but this didn’t really affect us –there was usually lots to see. Jose coped very well with these and there is no real alternative in terms of the mileage you need to cover and the distances between stopping places. The ‘days off’ were really interesting and took us off the beaten track to places that we would have been unable to find if we were on our own. We felt that we were seeing some of the real Patagonia. The scenery and sheer wide open spaces were amazing, especially compared to our home in the south of England.

If anybody was contemplating a Ruta 40 trip on their own they need to be aware there are still significant amounts of ripio so you would need a 4WD especially to visit some of the places off the main road. We found the projected hire charges for a self-drive vehicle with drop off at Bariloche were exorbitant and Jose therefore presented good value, particularly when we shared the cost with another couple.

We wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Jose, although it was good fortune that we got along very well with the other couple.

 What was the highlight of your trip? 

All good but especially Aguas Arriba

 Do you have any tips for other people planning a trip?

Do lots of research (with Swoop’s help) so that you know what to expect, what to look out for and what alternatives there are. We would have liked to visit Iguazu falls but couldn’t fit it in –you need to appreciate the size of Argentina and the distances involved. From our son’s experience (cycling from Ushuaia to Bolivia!) we would also have liked to spend some more time in Chile –maybe Torres del Paine (which was on our original list) and the Carretera Austral which has different scenery and climate to Ruta 40.

Did you manage to visit anywhere else in Chile or Argentina?

We left Jose at Bariloche staying at Hosteria Las Marianas probably the best small hotel we stayed in. We then went on to San Rafael by bus and spent a week there. This was also interesting and worth a visit –we met up with our son and his girlfriend here before bussing to Buenos Aires for the flight home. The overnight Andesmar buses we used were very comfortable (cama suite –so we were able to get a good sleep) but the food provided was terrible! and the loos were in a poor state by the end of a 14 hour bus ride. They are a good way of covering large distances if you can overlook minor inconveniences.

Carretera Austral, Chilean Patagonia

For the active and adventurous the Carretera Austral is a huge 1 200 km long playground set amid the natural wilderness of Patagonia.

There all sorts of ways to experience the Carretera, but to give you just a quick idea, check out the list of suggestions below.

Some Background
Construction of the Carretera was begun in the 1970s on the orders of General Augusto Pinochet, the de facto Chilean president of the time.  A Southern Highway had been considered a strategic requirement for some time.  Patagonia is a highly challenging environment for transport infrastructure – everywhere you look there is an obstacle of some sort, be it a mountain range, a fjord, or a glacier.  As such, there was no land route that provided access to the highly isolated territory of southern Chile.  Air and sea travel, meanwhile, was difficult to say the least because of the ferocious winter conditions.  As a rather embarrassing result, most Chilean land-based transport had to travel through Argentina.

With the Beagle Conflict with Argentina in the 1970s, however, Pinochet decided enough was enough.  Scared of Argentine encroachment, he declared the Carretera be built in order to strengthen the Chilean presence in this vulnerable territory.  It wasn’t officially completed until 2003 when it finally connected the north with Villa O’Higgins.  The village’s lake, Lago O’Higgins, marks the end of the road.

Key Facts about the Carretera
-  It extends for over 1 200 km, connecting Puerto Montt in the north and Villa O’Higgins in the south.
-  The road is unpaved for the majority of its length.
-  There are points where you are required to cross a lake by ferry in order to continue along it.

Reasons to Travel Along the Carretera Austral

Road Trips
We can’t talk about the Carretera without talking about the awesome road trips that can be made along it.  People say that there’s nothing quite like the freedom of the open road.  But here at Swoop, we say that there’s nothing like the freedom of the Carretera Austral.  Following the Southern Highway as it meanders around the endless and breath-taking fjords and lakes, and as it climbs over majestic peaks, is an unforgettable experience.  Whatever you’re into, a Carretera Austral road trip is the way to travel around Chilean Patagonia…

Hiking
The Carretera passes some fantastic hiking routes, many of them well-kept secrets.  It provides access to no fewer than 22 national parks and reserves, meaning you’ll get to hike in acres of untouched beauty, often with few other people around.  Spectacular highlights along the Carretera Austral include views of Cerro Castillo or the San Rafael glacial lagoon and the Queulat National Park.

Glaciers
The glaciers are a key part of the landscape in Patagonia, and one of the major reasons many people choose to visit.  Whether you want to take some fantastic photos of some of the best known glaciers in the world, or you want to go ice-hiking on top of them, Swoop will make sure you visit the ones that are best suited to you and that you have the chance to appreciate some unmissable views like those of San Rafael and O’Higgins.

Fishing
Rivers full to the brim with all manner of trout and salmon make this one of the world’s greatest regions for fishing.  The Baker and Palena Rivers are of particular note among Patagonia’s various world renowned rivers that provide plentiful opportunities.

Birdlife
Aysen’s birdlife is fantastically varied; uniquely so, in fact.  For example, there are Plovers and Sandpipers with their own sub-species that are native and unique either to central and northern Chile or to the south of Patagonia.  Yet in the region of Aysen, the two habitats overlap, presenting a fantastic chance to see both kinds of bird in just one area!  Winding through the mountains on the Carretera is the perfect way to observe these birds from above and below.

Ice Cap Expeditions and Mountaineering
The Patagonian ice cap is the third largest in the world (approx.. 18 000 km2) after Antarctica and Greenland.  Split into the Northern and the Southern ice-fields, it is home to world famous glaciers, such as the San Rafael and O’Higgins, as well as the tremendous peaks of San Valentin / San Clemente (4, 058m – the highest in Chilean Patagonia).

Photography
The region’s beautiful lakes such as the General Carrera and San Rafael Lagoon;  the incredible cove of Tortel Harbour, which is built upon stilts and raised wooden pathways;  its jagged mountain peaks like Cerro Castillo, and the glacial fjords that carve up the entire Aysen region…  The fantastic panoramas of the region are a paradise for photographers.  Here at Swoop we’re forever blown away by returning customers and the memories that they’ve captured with their cameras.

Canoeing, Kayaking, and White-Water Rafting
The Rio Baker, in particular, is a spectacular and challenging place for rafting and kayaking.  It’s home to Class II and III rapids and can provide adventure for those of varying experience at different points along its course.

The Rio Palena, meanwhile, can be descended all the way from the Argentinean border down to its estuary town of Puerto Raul Marin Balmaceda, on the Pacific coast.

Personal Discovery
Finally, the Carretera stretches for about 1, 240 km (770 miles) from north to south.  Traversing the Carretera takes you on a journey that begins by winding through the enormous Andes mountains to vast, deserted expanses of dramatic landscapes and wilderness.  In such an environment, you can’t help but wonder in awe about how big the world is and how small each of us really are…

In short, we LOVE the Carretera Austral and think it’s the perfect (and only!) way to travel around Chilean Patagonia.  If you want a properly Patagonian adventure along the Carretera, get in touch or check out our section dedicated to this wonderful part of the world.

Charles’s ‘W Trek’ experience in Torres del Paine

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Charles just came back from a W Trek trip in Torres del Paine with Chile Nativo.
Here he talks to us about what the trek was like and the perks of staying in a refugio.

How well did Swoop Patagonia do helping you plan your holiday, and finding the best trip or operator for you?

I had a stellar time in Patagonia with your group.  It was particularly freeing to not have to book each refugio nor worry about meal reservations, etc.

How was Chile Nativo, and how were their guides on the trip?

Going with the tour group was a great way to see the W circuit, well worth the extra expense. Carlos was an excellent guide, and it was a great adventure. I’d strongly recommend to anyone. It was especially nice not to have to haul tent, sleeping bag, cooking gear, etc, but I still had a sense of being in the outdoors. 

Was there anything that you wish had happened differently/or not happened at all?

One suggestion would be to survey those planning on going on a trip and attempt to group together those of similar skill levels and risk thresholds, etc. (if at all possible, perhaps during the highest season when there are many folks going on trips). I say this because there can be a bit of disconnect between some in a group who want to push a little harder and others who prefer more relaxed style…anyway somehow that consideration should be worked into the way folks are grouped together (but I realize the main driver is WHEN folks are departing, etc.)