Category Archives: Commentary

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Choosing your hotel and neighbourhood in Buenos Aires

On Swoop’s Sallys most recent visit to Patagonia she spent a few days in her beloved Buenos Aires checking out new hotels, old haunts and getting up close and personal with a few juicy steaks. Below she shares a few thoughts on choosing the right hotel for you in Buenos Aires.

 BuenosAires

As in many big cities, Buenos Aires has its edgy side and so choosing where you stay can make a real difference to your enjoyment of the city. There are bohemian quarters, business quarters, the hustle and bustle of the city centre and safer neighbourhoods with bars and cafes. Where you choose to stay will be a very personal choice depending on how you enjoy cities, the style of hotel you feel most comfortable in and the length of time you have to enjoy this vibrant, diverse city.

Below I have tried to give a little detail on each neighbourhood where you might choose to stay so you can get a little more its flavour, style and close by amenities and attractions.

Palermo

Palermo is very pleasant! It has some historic buildings dating from the 1920s and is a more relaxed and safer neighbourhood than the ‘MicroCentro’ or ‘San Telmo’. It is residential with an abundance of bars and restaurants. What it lacks are the main historic sights and museums, but these are easily and quickly accessed by the metro. Many of the eateries are fairly new so, in my opinion, lack a certain amount of Porteño identity. That said, there are a few historic restaurants such as ‘El Preferido de Palermo’ and ‘Lo de Jesus’ which do ooze the porteño flavour.
 PalBike

If you’re looking to mix with young porteños, visit historic sights by day then return to a trendy (safer) suburb in the evening, then Palermo is for you. Although not thought of as a bohemian area, I think that compared to most residential streets of anywhere in the UK, it would feel really rather bohemian, oozing with character, great food and a relaxed, charming character (there are enough holes in the pavement and graffiti to remind you that you’re in Buenos Aires).

Palermo is divided into 2 separate districts, Palermo Soho (Viejo) and Palermo Hollywood. The main hub of restaurants and hotels is in Palermo Soho and is my favourite of the two neighbourhoods. It is the area of the city of a massive block between Av. Santa Fe, Av. Juan B Justo, Av. Cordoba and Av. Scalabrini Ortiz. With most bars and restaurants concentrated within in this within Malabia, Cabrera, Thames and Guatemala.

 My 2 favourite boutique hotels are the Legado Mitico or the Bobo. They both are oozing with charm, local character, excellent service and both with good locations. The Bobo is a little more ‘trendy’ than the Legado but both are lovely.
For a mid-range option, the Esplendor Palermo Soho is a great choice.

San Telmo

SanT

San Telmo gives you the historic ‘barrio’ feel but is also just a stones throw from the city centre (literally, 5 blocks). Although culturally more interesting with its historic cafes, facades and cobbles street, I’ll admit that it might feel a little dirty and daunting if you’ve just stepped off the plane.

My favourite boutique hotel in San Telmo is the San Telmo Luxury Suites right in the heart of the neighbourhood. More more budget friendly, midrange options you could choose either the Los Patios de San Telmo or the Babel Boutique.

SanT

If you are making a visit to Buenos Aires at the start and end of your trip, it might be an idea to stay in Palermo at the start of your trip and in San Telmo at the end of your trip.

 Downtown / Centre – Micro Centro & Monserrat

This is the business district of the city where you also find the ‘Plaza de Mayo’, Government Palace and the Obelisc. The streets are small, cramped and rather pedestrian unfriendly but if you have just 1 night (midweek), then staying right in the heart of the city has its attractions. The Continental 725 is a lovely hotel choice right in the centre with stunning views from its roof top bar, a 2 minute walk from the main historic sights and you really are right in the thick of the hustle and bustle that drives this city.

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Once you’ve decided on your place to rest your head, then you can start to plan a little more with some ideas of ‘Things to Do“.

 

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Sally’s Hike in the Tagua Tagua Park

On Sally’s most recent visit to the Patagonia, she was fortunate to take a 2 day hike through the Tagua Tagua Park. Relatively new, this park is a Private Protected Area (PPA) not a National Park, dedicated to the preservation of biodiversity.

Map

The Hike In

The entrance into the park is unlike any other I have seen before, reached by boat across the vast emerald waters of the Tagua Tagua Lake.  As the El Salto River falls into the Tagua Tagua Lake the boat approached a cluster of rocks, here we clambered off and scrambled up onto the trail.

Arrival

The trail starts from the information centre at 20 metres where you sign in. There was a pile of bamboo sticks which hikers can borrow to help them on their way as they head up into the valley.

The first hour, although forested, is through an area which has noticeably been inhabited as there is grass and introduced plants such as blackberries and apple tree. The only family to live in this area were the Melipillan Sanchez family between 1953 and 1994 who made a living from farming and also making the alerce shingles for building – a trade locally known as a tejueleria.

Tagua walk

There was a lot of humming birds (green hooded fire crowns) activity in and amongst the fushias bushes – flitting from here to there, fighting and being really noisy. As there were no other hikers we were able to stand and admire these beautiful birds.

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After the first hour of patchy forest and open grass land we then entered the dense forest where the vegetation becomes almost mythical with hanging lycans, trunks covered in creeping vegetation and the rain dripping through to create the illusion that the forest is moving! There were ferns of all shapes and sizes – giant ferns, monocell transparent ferns and umbrella ferns that looked like they were made of velvet.

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Also funguses – some as large as dustbin lids – mostly mushroom type or enormous layers of yellows, oranges, purples, more abundant and bigger than I had ever seen.

After crossing various riverson newly built wooden bridges and climbing up to 535 metres, you reach the Refugio Alerces.

Refugio Alerces

Looking out over the flooded Alerce forest, the Refugio Alerces sits 6.5km up the trail at 535 metres (the park guide says 4.5 hours but we had done it, taking our time in 3 hours). The refugio has sleeping space for 22 in open bunks and an open kitchen – it is really just 1 big room with bunks built into 1 wall – all in wood. As it is just 1 hut the heat from the wooden stove burner benefits all. There is an outdoor porch with a hammock and stunning views of the mountains behind.

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This refugio is manned by Sol and Felipe, the park rangers, who live up here all year round maintaining the refugios, trails and park in general.

The next 2 kms heading out from the Refugio Alerces climbs almost 200 metres in a series of ladders. They are not totally vertical and could be described mearly as steep walkways resting on the ground below.

Refugio Alerces2

After 9 kms from the start you reach the valley top at 710 metres where the forest opens up to large patches of mallin (fragil, spongy ground cover), the large granite walls show themselves and the expansive forests of Alerce and Cypress trees. As it had rained all day, there were waterfalls appearing from everywhere.

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You can easily track your progress along the path with handy signs every 500 metres .

We arrived at the Refugio Quetrus after about 5 hours hiking, absolutely soaking wet. Having worked previously as park ranger, Mauricio my guide was a dab hand at getting the fire going and the kettle on. This higher refugio is un-manned so was absolutely freezing!

Refugio Quetrus

This refugio, currently at the end of the trail but there is plans to extend the trail, sits at 710 metres so from the trail head you have gained 690 metres on the 10 km hike. There is sleeping room for 8 with a similar layout as the Alerces but the sleeping space is up a ladder on another floor. There is a porch with benches to sit out on and look out across the truly breath taking view of the Lake Quetrus, islands forested with cyprus trees, granite walls and waterfalls.

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At both refugios the toilet is housed in a separate wooden hut, a 2-3 minute walk up another trail, deep in the woods. This hut is just a toilet which flushes with rain water (all toilet paper should be bagged up and carried out of the park). The refugios have a supply of fresh water in containers which the park rangers get from higher up the mountain and the sink has running water which is just rain water (for cleaning teeth etc). There are no other facilities or privacy.

Inside

All food that you have in the park has to be brought in and rubbish carried out. If you do the trek as a guided trek, the guide will provide food, stoke the fire and cook up a storm. On the menu during my trek we had a local dish called Cancato, a sort of pizza using Salmon as the base or better described as salmon stuffed with tomato, courgette, onions and cheese. Really delicious after a hard day in the rain.

Candle light

We chatted by candle light, read back copies of the Patagon Journal and had an early night listening to the howling wind and sound of the rain.

During the middle of the night I was aware that the autumn rains had definitely begun – I thought it had been raining hard the previous day but this was nothing, just a passing shower, in comparison to what we woke up to hear in the middle of the night. Since 3 am there had been thundering rain on the roof and we woke up to a curtain of rain outside; there were waterfalls cascading down the granite walls which surrounded us (in fact, the weather was so bad that I couldn’t see the granite walls just the white water) and the lake in front, Lago Quetrus, had risen significantly. The water had flooded the firewood store but luckily Mauricio had brought in enough the night before so within just a few minutes in the morning, we were nice and toasty with hot tea & toast.

The Descent

What an adventure the descent turned into – the footpath and river had become indecipherable! Knee deep in water, using trees to keep us up right, we waded out and back down the valley. Luckily the Refugios have their own store of rubber boots so I borrowed these instead of getting my own boots wet.

Waterfall

On reaching the valley decent back at KM 9, we could see that there was bright light on the horizon, this gave us great hope that the rain might stop…and it did! The sky cleared and the sun came out, what a treat. On the descent we took various side paths out to see hidden waterfalls and a stunning viewpoint which gave us views out over the whole valley.

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As we neared the end of the hike, the Tagua Tagua Lake suddenly came into view and with the sun shining on it that turquoise colour of the water seemed even more intense. As we sat on the rocks waiting for the boat to collect us, I felt totally exhilarated. The trek had been quite challenging, not because of the distance, more for the rain, slippery terrain, basic facilities and the thick dense jungle forest that literally breath air back into my lungs. On the opposite shore of the lake I could see the Mitico Puelo Lodge and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t looking forward to the hot shower and pisco sour.

ODILE SOFA VALPO

Valparaiso and the Palacio Astoreca Hotel

Odile works with some of the top hotels in Chile. Here she shares her thoughts on one of her favourite cities in Chile and the new Palacio Astoreca Hotel there.

ODILE SOFA VALPO

How do you know Valparaiso?

I am half Chilean & lived in Chile for many years, Valparaiso is the first place I would take any of my friends visiting from abroad!

Is it easy to get there from Santiago airport?

It’s only an hour away from Santiago airport and 1,5 hours away from the city. You can easily find a private transfer that will take you to Valparaíso from the airport.

How would you spend your perfect 24 hours there?

As the historical quarters of Valparaíso and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Cerro Alegre is the place to be. It is the perfect place to go for a wander, there are little maps on every street corner showing the most scenic routes where you can discover the street art Valparaíso is so famous for.

Walk through the famous Yugoslavo pedestrian walk, stopping at the Fine Arts Museum at Barburizza Palace en route, as well as at any café that is bound to have a very Bohemian and quirky vibe as most of the city does. Take the funiculars to move around the hills as the locals do and definitely visit the famous house/museum of the chilean poet Pablo Neruda.

Remember to take LOTS of pictures, Valparaíso is an open invitation for snap happy people!  

You’ll probably need a good massage after a day out and about on the colourful hillsides!! I would find a place to enjoy the view of the sun setting on the pacific ocean with a glass of pisco sour (the national drink) on a terrace and head out for dinner with lots of fresh sea food (there is a wide, very good, gastronomic offer) and finish at a live music bar! 

Tell us about the Astoreca. What makes it special?

Palacio Astoreca is a Victorian mansion built in 1923 and restored into a boutique hotel which opened in Sept 2013. It is located in the prime location of Cerro Alegre just on top of the funicular El Peral. It has just become a member of Relais & Châteaux so it’s safe to say it’s the best option in town!

It has a very eclectic bohemian chic style mixing old and new, full of colours and art, with a wonderful spa and the best possible view from the terrace. Plus it has an amazing restaurant called Alegre, led by Spanish chef Sergio Barroso who worked at El Bulli amongst others, the 11 course tasting menu is absolutely a must.

What are the top 3 things you think a first time visitor shouldn’t miss?

  1. Walking around Valparaíso Cerro Alegre Hill & taking lots of pictures of the street art
  2. I’m the biggest fan of the house of Pable Neruda, it’s my personal favourite of the 3
  3. The sunset with a glass of wine or Pisco Sour

ODILE VALPO

Why do we do what we do?

This is what it’s all about…

[we recently contacted someone to ask about their trip - and have received the following reply...]

Luke and Charlotte – Hi!
 
Probably better if we talk as I can’t express my exuberance well enough by e mail to say we had a fantastic time in Patagonia both walking and paddling.  Not a complaint or criticsm of any sort but plenty of groans from my joints and me because every muscle aches.
 
The guys you work for are FANTASTIC and provide a faultless and very wonderful service.
 
It’s impossible to express the brilliance of teh whole holiday!
 
Thanks for all you did,

Our friends and family may think that we’re just in it for the trips to Patagonia, but reading emails like this makes us very happy indeed

:-)

Fire in Torres del Paine: Update 2nd Jan

[Latest update 27th Jan: Patricio Salinas, Regional President of CONAF announced on Twitter on 27th Jan: @Pato_Salinas ‘Catamaran’s working, refugio Paine Grande open but not at full capacity, Refugio Grey open, Valley Frances and the rest of the park is normal’]

[Update as of 25th Jan – Torres del Paine reopens fully: http://chile.travel/en/news/parque-nacional-torres-del-paine-reabre-todas-sus-zonas-tura-sticas.html]

[Latest update as of 13th January: Sernatur released information about open routes at 9th January (in Spanish) http://www.sernatur.cl/noticias/rutas-turisticas-disponibles-en-parque-nacional-torres-del-paine

We also have a map of the affected areas in the park as of 7th January:

[interim update at 6th January: the majority of the park has re-opened as anticipated, but the French Valley is currently closed to tourists. Further updates to follow.]

[latest information from the Chilean Tourist Board: http://www.sernatur.cl/torres-del-paine-update/situacion-en-torres-del-paine]

 

Following on from our original announcement about the fire in Torres del Paine, there’s now further clarity and some positive news:

The President has announced that the northern part of the park that has not been affected by the fire (including the majority of the ‘W Circuit’) wil reopen on Wednesday.

source: http://www.elpatagonico.cl/?p=27871

This map shows clearly the area affected by the fire. You’ll note that the main trekking area is to the north of Lago Nordenskjold.

Source: http://especiales.latercera.cl/INFOGRAFIAS/2012/incendio.html

What has happened to the Eastern shore of Lago Grey (the western strand of the W Circuit), and the southern part of the park is a terrible tragedy. However, it’s a blessing that the two other strands of the W Circuit (French Valley and Ascensio Valley) are unaffected.

Latest estimates are that 13,000 hectares of the park have been affected. In total the park covers over 240,000 hectares. So whilst the news is devasting it’s good to know that visitors will still be able to enjoy the majority of what this incredible destination has to offer.

More updates will follow.

Fire in Torres del Paine

[please also see our update on 2nd January]

I’m very sad to say that a fire broke out in Torres del Paine at 7pm on Tuesday (27th December).

At the time of writing this post this is the most up to date and reliable reference point I have but things are changing quite rapidly.

http://www.sernatur.cl/noticias/ministro-del-interior-entrego-los-ultimos-antecedentes-del-incendio-forestal-en-torres-del-paine

In summary:

  • 1,500 hectares have been effected by the fire
  • The Chilean government are treating it very seriously and sending in firefighters from several brigades, and are supported by the Chilean army
  • 400 hikers have been moved to safety
  • the trails in the western part of the park have been temporarily closed
  • There have been no casualties

The fire started on the Eastern edge of the Grey lake and initially it seemed that is was relatively isolated (with only 15 hectares reported effected in the initial reports). Although around 20 people in the Grey area were moved to safety the majority of the park was unaffected.

However the strong Patagonia winds (reportedly up to 90km/h in the last few days) and the steep and rugged terrain have made it very difficult to contain and fight and it has spread quickly.

Five years ago a Czech hiker admitted to accidentally starting a fire that englufed the East of the park when he used his gas stove in an unauthorised area. Now, it seems people suspect human causes for this fire as well.

A guide with one group of Swoop clients has had to adapt their itinerary. We hope no others will be effected, but this is a very popular time to visit Torres del Paine.

All updates welcomed in the comments below.

Updates from Luke:

This is a helpful map of the area affected: http://www.latercera.com/multimedia/interactivo/2011/12/687-38825-4-incendio-forestal-en-torres-del-paine.shtml

Latest understanding at very end of day on 30th December is that the park may be closed for at least one week, possibly the whole of January.

Cost of a holiday to Patagonia: macroeconomic influences

 

With all the excitement of the Eurozone crisis and the extraordinary economic climate currently I decided it was time to dust off my old undergraduate textbooks on International Economics. I had intended to re-build a deep understanding of the influences on exchange rate movements, and critique the different theories on the competitive advantage of nations. In the end I decide to settle on 3 more down to earth questions:

  1. Will Argentinian inflation mean more expensive trips in the future?
  2. Why do Chilean opertors sometimes charge for their trips in Chilean Pesos when US dollars are the norm?
  3. Should we expect the dollar to pound exchange rate to impact the cost of Patagonian holidays for UK travellers?

First of some high level data points:

Some people ask me why trips to Patagonia are more expensive than, say the Himalayas. Some of the answer lies above!

So, question number one: with Argentinian inflation running at 10% (and twice that of the UK) can we expect the cost of holidays in Argentina to increase?

Answer: NO. Exchange rate movements (the devaluation of the Argentine Peso (ARS)) have meant that much of the inflation effect is kept in check. I think i may have referred to this effect as Purchasing Power Parity when I was at university.

 

Question number two: Is the Chilean Peso following the same trend as the Argentinian Peso? And why are Chilean trips often charged in local currency while others are charged in US dollars?

Answer: NO. The exchange rate of the Chilean Peso is far more volatile and, if anything, the trend is going in the other direction.


Question number three: Given that the majority of trips to Patagonia are priced in US dollars are exchange rates relative to the Pound going to have a meaningful impact on prices for UK travellers?

Answer: I don’t know! The dollar:pound exchange rate has been stable for the last couple of years, but in the current climate who know what might happen next.

Overall, what can we expect? I suspect more volatility and lots of unknowns, but the good news is that there’s no obvious underlying trend towards an increase in the real price of Patagonian holidays for UK travellers.

Cost of a Patagonia Holiday

We’re often asked to help people with the budgets for their trips, and help them understand whether (with all the different factors and variables) a trip is at the ‘cheap’ or ‘expensive’ end of the spectrum. So I thought it was time to try and answer the all important question: how much will my Adenture Holiday in Patagonia cost me?

We’ve looked at a variety of trips and options and worked out the average cost per night, to give you an idea how much you might budget for an Adventure Travel holiday in Patagonia. This obviously excludes flights (more on Flights to Patagonia).

Generally speaking you can expect to pay around $220 to $400 per day for a Trekking Holiday in Patagonia. For a luxury holiday, tailor-made trip, cruise or horse-riding/Estancia trip you can expect to pay $400 to $800 per day.

The price of a trip will obviously depend on a whole range of different factors…

- Client:guide ratios. Knowledgeable, professional, english speaking, qualified mountain guides command high day rates, and quite rightly so. In large groups this cost can be spread out across many people, but most of us prefer to be part of smaller groups, especially when we’re in the mountains. There’s always the self-guided option as well, if you’re an experienced hiker and ready to miss out on local knowledge into the flora, fauna, geography and culture.

- Local Operator/Guide or Bonded Global Company. The big global companies gain efficiencies through their purchasing power, larger groups sizes, and itineraries on which there’s often zero flexibility, but they have more costs to cover as well. Smaller local players can often offer a trip for 4 people at the same rate a global company can offer it for group sizes of 12.

- Quality of the accommodation. For example a double room in and around Bariloche could cost anything between $40 and $400 per night. In some of Patagonia’s most iconic location there are hotels charging $1000 per night for their fully inclusive packages. In Torres del Paine National Park the strategically located Refugios cost $70 per night (or $130 including all meals), whilst camping costs only $9.

- Transport. Private transfers can be far more convenient and make much more efficient use of your time, but the public transport option can save a lot of money, and in Patagonia this is a safe, secure and comfortable alternative. Some trips will include all transport from the moment you land in Patagonia, on others you may need to pay more to get to the start point.

- Time of year. Christmas is a holiday for everyone; so guides cost more and demand for hotel rooms shoots up. For example the cost of a night in a Torres del Paine Refugio goes up by over 30%. Likewise in the ‘shoulder’ season of October and March/April it’s possible to get cheaper rates, especially on cruises.

- Porters in Patagonia don’t come cheap and there are limits on the amount they can carry. If you’re able to carry all your own gear on a multi-day trek that could save around $40 per hiking day.

- Meals included. Trips vary enormously in terms of the meals they provide, but if breakfast, lunch and dinner are included each day that could save a further $20-$40 each day.

- Equipment rental. whether it be tents and cooking equipment, or kayaks, ropes, crampons or mountain bikes (and even horses) all of that gear needs to be purchased, stored and most importantly maintained.

Chance encounters in Patagonia

I’m working in a world that is so different from what I understood ‘business’ to mean when I started my career. Two recent experiences have confirmed in my mind that every chance encounter with someone new is an opportunity, but each requires a very genuine, open and human interaction, and the outcomes are typically unexpected.

First, our trip started on a difficult note when I arrived at Punta Arenas airport, and my luggage didn’t. Two fellow passengers who were travelling lighter than expected turned out to be a journalist-photographer husband-wife team.  We got chatting, and to my surprise and delight Swoop was featured in one of Belgium’s top newspapers/blogs a week later:

The same day the newspaper article came out Charlotte and I were meeting with the hoteliers and adventure travel operators of Puerto Natales when we came across Alejandro, a true local who runs Hostal Dos Lagunas. This hostel is not necessarily somewhere our clients would normally stay, but he invited is for ‘real italian coffee’ (one of the hostel’s USPs) and we accepted. He turned out be a font of knowledge for the area and he also introduced us to a mountaineer and climber called Cristian, who turned out to be Swoop’s missing link in Puerto Natales. Probably the most important new operator we’ve identified since September, providing more extreme itineraries and new routes in the Torres del Paine area.

One of the great things about travelling is that you meet so many interesting and different people along the way – for Swoop every one of these conversations gives us that little bit more insight that will help us to ensure that our clients find the very best adventure in Patagonia. One of the many reasons why we’ll continue to visit at least twice a year.