Tag Archives: Tours

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?

 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 El Chalten?

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 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?

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.

Rob’s Patagonia Cruise

Rob recently returned from a Patagonia Cruise from Punta Arenas to Ushuaia and back to Punta Arenas as part of a wider trip to South America. Here he tells us about his experiences on the cruise, and booking through Swoop…

How was your trip?

Overall I had a great time and the overall enjoyment was greater than I had anticipated before departing.

What was the highlight of your trip?

The highlight of the trip for me was always going to be the landing on Cape Horn, and this was one of the prime reasons for undertaking the trip in the first place. The glaciers, the penguins and the wind and the waves were all part of a fully supportive cast and all played their part in making the whole thing so good.

Did you visit anywhere else in Patagonia?

I didn’t visit anywhere else in Patagonia other than the Cruise, but continued on to visit other areas of South America.

How well did Swoop and our partners do in planning and arranging your trip?

The holiday was planned well and if there were glitches they were not major and were probably because I hadn’t read the itinerary properly.

Is there anything you wish had happened differently?

The cruise itself was excellent in most respects.

I do feel that more care could have been taken by the ship in ensuring that there were at least 3 English speakers out of the six people on each meal table. On the return leg we had five -a Chilean doctor and his wife who could speak Spanish English and some Italian and who was happy to translate in order to be inclusive, and the lovely smiley mother and grandmother of the waiter, who could speak no English. At the mealtimes when the doctor was not present or engaged in doctoring there was a lot of pointing and smiling but not much else! I don’t remember being asked which if any other languages I could speak or understand.

How were the other sections of your trip in South America, organised by our partners?

All of the trips and events around the cruise were good particularly the tour of Santiago. The guide was informative and knowledgeable and obviously loved her job and her city.

I was surprised by the day adventure up into the hills on the turn around day in Ushuaia as I don’t recall that being mentioned. It was enjoyable but came as a bit of a surprise to get a phone call saying that the guide and land rover were outside! I still can’t see it mentioned on the itinerary.

I suppose the one slight problem for me was the transfer from the cruise ship to a rendezvous in a café c 0.5 kms away. My bag was 18 kgs and had no wheels and I struggled somewhat even over that distance (I had earlier in the trip hurt my leg a little bit). I think that someone older than I would have struggled more particularly if it had been raining and /or very windy even over such a short distance. Many travellers were being met with taxis, perhaps to get to the airport, but I think a meet and greet at the ship would be a nice idea.

Apart from these few relatively minor things the trip was thoroughly enjoyable and was helped by the large amount of support out there -it wasn’t just getting you to the airport, it included check in, emigration, customs etc and really took the pressure off.

‘I would have no hesitation in recommending the whole experience to others. Despite the little grumbles it was really a wonderful holiday…Thanks a lot for making it so enjoyable!’

Review of 13-Day tour of Patagonia and Polar Pioneer Antarctic Cruise Review

Emma visited Patagonia in November 2012 over 13 days as part of the South America Southern Explorer tour of El Chalten, Torres del Paine and Tierra del Fuego.  In Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego and boarded the Antarctic vessel, the Polar Pioneer as part of a 12-day cruise to the Antarctic Peninsula. Emma shares her thoughts on the tours, staff and her favourite experiences whilst she was there.

On Swoop’s service: I realised I failed to thank you properly for all the work you did too – less glamorous and exciting than my tours but they couldn’t have happened without you!  I immensely appreciated your efficiency and friendliness, especially since it was hard to get in touch with me, and I took my time to think about what I wanted to do, and asked lots of awkward questions, when time was short.  You were great about getting me the discount, researching my questions, and just sorting everything out.  Genuinely couldn’t fault anything, and I’m as enthusiastic about your company as the others I wrote to you about!  I also appreciated you and Luke giving me tips about other things to do in Patagonia. It would have been good to know there was a first half to the Viva tour – I hadn’t realised it started before Chaltén – but that knowledge might have complicated things, so maybe better off without!

Top highlights on the Patagonia Tour: Fitzroy hike and Torres del Paine and on the Antarctic cruise: Antarctica!  That place is beyond anything.  But if I had to choose one thing, I’d say the climbing, especially the day when we climbed a mountain in the morning, cruised the Lemaire in the afternoon and scaled an iceberg at 11 o’clock at night.  Beyond belief.  I know a lot of people on that trip feel really changed by Antarctica, and the climbing experience.  -Also worth noting that Aurora seems a lot better than a lot of companies I’ve heard about from other Antarctica travellers, both in terms of the opportunities it offers, the experience on the boat itself (small boat = more opportunities and better group bonding), and the company’s ethics in respecting the IAATO.

Things the operators could have done differently:  there was general discontent on the Patagonia tour with the $750 cash local payment (which was the same whether you stayed for the whole 24 day tour or did as I did and picked it up half way through).  There is actually no problem accessing cash in any of the places we went, so we concluded it was probably a tax thing, and it’s really inconvenient.

Things I’d wished were different:  none.

Winter tours in Patagonia; Torres del Paine, El Chalten and the Patagonian Lake District

If like many other Brits, you only really get the opportunity to go on holiday during the summer months and you really want to visit Patagonia, don’t fear. Although May-Sep is the winter season in Patagonia, there are local operators running a range of different winter trips in southern Patagonia in order to cater to European visitors.

Check out the latest on winter trips to Torres del Paine

Winter trips are designed to take in as much as possible in the region whilst also avoiding getting caught up in the harsh weather. Patagonian winter brings with it snow & rain and temperatures of well past minus 5 at night (not great weather for camping). Although one bonus to visiting Patagonia is the beautiful snow covered trees and mountains and the fact that you avoid the infamous Patagonian wind which is only around during the summer months from October to March.

Winter tours are organised around short treks, van transfers to key highlights in the national park that you’re visiting and some of them include horse riding trips, as Argentinian and Chilean criollo’s tend to be a little hardier than us humans! This type of trip is popular in Torres del Paine National park as you are still able to get up to see the Torres if you’re lucky, and in El Chalten you can try day hiking into Los Glaciares National Park.

 

Self-guided treks in Torres del Paine

 


If you are an experienced walker but don’t speak Spanish or you’ve only got a few weeks and don’t want to spend ages sorting out your trip and waiting in bus stops, a self-guided trek could be the right option for you.

it’s possible to do a self-guided trek either on the Full Circuit or W Circuit in Torres del Paine, as the paths are pretty clear, giving you the freedom to set your own walking pace, take lots of breaks and photos or even speed ahead to reach the next glacier if you want.

Self-guided treks are a great way of saving some money by cutting out the guide, but aslo gives you the flexibility to get the most out of your budget, using that extra cash to try something different and exciting, such as kayaking your way out of the park along the Serrano River.

Serrano River - Spend 2 days kayaking in the wilderness along the Serrano River to the hanging Glaciar Serrano and celebrate with a delicious asado and boat trip back to Puerto Natales

Tyndall Glacier Adventure - A 3 day adventure paddling along the fast-moving Rio Tyndall taking in the Serrano Waterfall and kayaking to the icy walls of Tyndall glacier.

Importantly, going ‘self-guided’ rather than doing everything on your own saves your precious time by taking the hassle out of having to organise your trek as the logistics are organised for you by the operator. You can also be safe in the knowledge that there is someone based on the ground if anything goes wrong.

Is self-guided for you?

Self-guided trips include the following in the price:

-       Vouchers for your bus to and from the park and or Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales

-       Accommodation whilst in the park

-       Park entrance

-       Packed lunches per day, evening meals and breakfast

It’s pretty difficult to book buses over the internet yourself from or to Puerto Natales whilst making sure that they coordinate with the start of your trip, when your plane lands, etc, so having the operator do this for you is a real plus. The bus companies generally speak Spanish only and schedule 1 or 2 buses per day.

It’s also difficult to book the refugios in the park, especially if you don’t speak Spanish. We’ve met and spoken to lots of people that tried booking the refugios unsuccessfully and those that did manage it turned up to find that their room had been double booked.

A great advantage to going self-guided is not having to carry and cook your own food for 5 days . You start off each morning with a breakfast of scrambled eggs, toast, coffee, cereal and juice and the operator will make sure that your packed lunches are prepared each morning by the refugio and ready for you to set off. (Don’t forget to take the tomatoes off your sandwiches, unless you’re partial to a bit of soggy bread! – A good tip we got from a Torres del Paine guide, Chino)They will also communicate to the refugio if you’re a vegetarian.

What’s generally not included in the self-guided price:

- Any additional nights in the park

- Any alcoholic or non-alcoholic drinks at the refugios (fruit juice is served with your evening meal)

- Entrance fee to the park (app. CLP $15.000.-)(Approx £20)

- Laguna Amarga / Torres refuge minivan (app. CLP $3.000.-) (Approx £4)

- Pudeto / Pehoé catamarán (CLP $11.000.- per trip. Fee to be confirmed) (Approx £15)

- Insurance

Remember, if you’re going to go on a self-led trek in Torres del Paine it’s a good idea to buy yourself a decent map. Although you’ll get a small map with your park entrance ticket, you’ll probably benefit from a proper map, even though they do have big blown up versions in the refugios. We recommend getting the water and tear resistant Torres del Paine National Park map from Stanfords costing £12.95.

 

 

One of clients said about their self-guided Full Circuit trip:

‘The highlight of our time was without a doubt our 9 day hike around the Torres del Paine national park. What a stunning place. The glaciers were fantastic and the walk was really enjoyable. We returned in a tired but deeply satisfied state! We also really enjoyed our time in Punta Arenas.

All the vouchers worked perfectly, and the transfers all ran smoothly. The only thing that I wanted to raise that was inconvenient to us was that on a couple of days on the hike, we were unable to collect our packed lunches from the campsite we stayed in. We managed to survive by buying biscuits and snacks, but this was not ideal for a 30 km hike in the day! It didn’t dampen our mood or the trip, but I just feel I should raise the point so it doesn’t happen to anyone else who might find it a bit more of an inconvenience than us!’*

*Swoop has shared the point about the packed lunches on 2 of the 9 days and the operator has confirmed they’ll manage this more tightly in the future

One of our best-selling self-guided trips is this 

For more info about self-guided trips email charlotte@swooptravel.co.uk and for photos of Torres del Paine visit our facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/swooptravel

Why booking in advance is the way to go

 

We often receive enquiries from travellers who don’t feel that it’s necessary or cost effective to book their adventure holiday in advance. It’s easy to understand their logic, if you’re a confident person who is happy just to rock up and see what’s available and you’re not too bothered about having organised everything down to a tee before you go, then booking a couple of tours when you arrive would seem like a good idea. 

However, we are all too aware of the problems facing travellers when they try to book on arrival and unfortunately waiting until you’re in Patagonia to book a trip certainly has its downsides. We spoke to an anonymous traveller who tried to organise her trips when she got to Argentina, a decision that resulted in a seemingly never ending list of difficulties. After listening to her experience, it was clear that rather than save time and money, in fact, the whole experience of trying to organise her tours in Argentina had been so frustrating that it actually ruined her holiday;

‘To cut a long story short, I had a pretty bad time overall in Argentina. I wouldn’t recommend anyone go there at all really! I found it very difficult to organise the trips from the UK so (stupidly) left it until I got out there as I  had a week with a friend in Buenos Aires. That week was bad enough in BA. When I got there, it was even more difficult to organise tours. I thought I would meet more people and tour operators but no!’

Although this is just the account of one traveller, and there are no doubt many people that have successfully organised their trips on arrival, it’s true that travllers may experience a bit of culture shock when they get to Patagonia, where for example, you can’t flush toilet paper, the power cuts out a lot, or as I have personally experienced, there may be an unannounced strike in the town where you are staying. Booking with local operators who can organise the bits that can easily go wrong limits the culture shock and maximises your time in Patagonia:

‘I flew to El Calafate and went to see Perito Moreno Glacier and then the next day went on an All Glaciers catamaran tour. This was the the worst day of the holiday – I had no cash on me to buy the ticket to get into the park (despite booking the tour). The reason I had no cash is that Argentina ALWAYS run out of cash in cash points and I couldnt get any out for this reason for 3 days. I managed to communicate to the mini bus driver (who didnt speak English) that I had no money and we found money off other bus drivers (he didnt have enough – it was only about £10). Then I had to stay on the catamaran from 9am-5pm with no money to buy a hot drink or food! It wasnt great to say the least!’

Some of these issues could have been avoided if this person had booked beforehand as local operators are especially good at organising transport for their clients in and around the national parks. They provide you with a neat set of prepaid vouchers which means cash for transfers, boats and buses isn’t an issue when you arrive. It’s small things like help with booking accommodation and paying for services beforehand that can make all the difference to how smoothly your holiday goes.

‘I would never go alone again to a country where they dont speak English (I was a bit naive and assumed such a tourist place would have a lot of English speaking people. Not even the tour operators could speak good English).’

Most people do a lot of research before booking a holiday. According to the Toluna survey of 2,004 UK consumers, while just under 10% of people take less than a day to research their holiday, the majority (64%) take two weeks or more. Indeed, careful research and planning puts you in a stronger position and avoids the disappointment of turning up to find that the interesting trips are booked up and the feeling of being utterly ripped off because you’re doing everything last minute.

By providing you with a wealth of trips to browse and through working with reliable and creible local operators we can organise trips that fit your dates and budget. As Spanish speakers, we are also able to organise the logistics and make sure that your itinerary meets your needs so that if you don’t speak great Spanish, you won’t have to face stressful conversations with Patagonian bus drivers!

Life after the W Circuit

A few of the people who contact Swoop have visited Patagonia before and are looking to go back and explore it further. After all, a region that spans 1,000 miles North to South and 1 million square kilometres, with landscapes ranging from glacial to volcanic, to rainforest and desert, probably deserves more than a fortnight of our attention!

So, we thought we’d share some ideas for things to do if the W Circuit has whetted your appetite for Patagonia and now you’re looking for more. First of all, within Torres del Paine National Park what are your options after the W Circuit?

1. Surprisingly just 5% of visitors to Torres del Paine trek the Full Circuit of the park. Yes, it takes around 8 days and the hikes between the Refugios are significant, and, yes, Paso John Garner is very windy and yes it’s a steep descent down to the Grey Glacier. But the rewards are so great. 8 days of spectacular hiking in such varied terrain; nights of camping in sites that are so much quieter and less developed than those of Grey, Campamento Italiano or the Paine Grande Lodge; the incredible views out to the South Patagonian IceCap from Paso John Garner, and experiencing the unbelievable force of the Patagonian wind; the wonderful descent down to and along the Grey Glacier. If you have the time and the stamina don’t miss the Full Circuit.

2. If you want to get off the beaten track, the Pingo Valley provides some wonderful hiking in a quiet part of the park. The valley is certainly not on the same scale as Frances or Ascensio and is probably more appropriate as a warm-up or preface to your main hike, but it’s stunning nevertheless: up the valley through steep canyon walls, dense forest, and past the immense power of Cascada Pingo, and up to a wonderful campsite on the shores of the river, where there are no facilities and minimal signs that anyone has been there before. This acts as a base for two hikes: one to the Pingo Glacier itself (subject to you being able to cross the river), and up to the Zapata viewpoint (sadly the Zapata Glacier has receded significantly, but the viewpoint remains very impressive). If you are lucky, you may also catch a glimpse of the rare Huemul.

 

3. Hike from Lago del Toro to Paine Grande Lodge (Lago Pehoe). This is gentle hike in the southern part of the park with no major ascents but walking predominantly north you walk with the Cuernos and the Towers ahead of you for most of the way. Starting out from the Administration Centre we saw Condor on the early part of our hike, and the final kilometres along the shores of Lago Pehoe are beautiful. You can also cover most of this route on horseback.

4. The Rio Serrano makes for a wonderful exit from Torres del Paine National Park. Starting out from Camping or Pueblito Serrano you can either kayak or go via zodiac boat, following the river all the way down to Puerto Toro, which sits at the junction of the Serrano River and the Last Hope Sound (Ultima Esperanza Fjord), and alongside the Serrano glacier with its steep descent into a lagoon. If you kayak downstream, you can camp on the shores of the river, and possibly do a day’s extension to the Geike glacier.

5. On the W Circuit you will have walked along the northern shore of Lago Nordenskjold at the foot of the Cuernos and the Towers. However, you can also hike on the southern shore, where your perspective of the peak is enhanced and you are more likely to come across some of Patagonia’s fauna – guanaco, condor, huemul.

If you have further ideas or questions for us then please let us know.