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Harriet’s Aysen Recce: Discovering Deep Patagonia

Harriet’s Aysen Recce: Discovering Deep Patagonia

With my anticipation building as I fly towards the Andes, the panoramic views from the flight down the chain of mountains to Patagonia is a great appetiser for my trip. I arrive amongst the bald peaks and forest filled valleys of Aysen by flying into Balmaceda airport. This tiny airport is out on the steppe and as you drive to Coyhaique, Aysen’s capital, the mountains grow around you until you are surrounded by rocky outcrops and glacier rounded hills. Aysen is a region the size of England but with just 100,000 people and 60,000 of those live in Coyhaique.

I love this place and it feels like I am coming home.  This is my Patagonia: with its warm-hearted people, who greet you with a kiss and take time to talk and to get to know you. This is my Patagonia: with wooden houses in all shapes and sizes, covered in shingle and with an enormous wood burner at their heart, where delicious jams are bubbled up.  This is my Patagonia: with its dry steppe, its mishmash of ice and granite, with wild enchanted lengas in the valleys and a green, fascinatingly forested, coast.

I had just three weeks to get to know this area better and this is a taste of what I did:

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Watching for condors with Alejandro, Tim and Magda above the Valle de La Luna and Coyhaique Alto. One of the best places to see condors, and they soar past incredibly close!

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Kayaking with Rolando near Puerto Aysen and discovering the meaning of ‘backwater’ on the Horseshoe of Ducks – a horseshoe shaped section of stream filled with ducks.

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Boating with Ian to the foot of San Rafael Glacier, both hoping and fearing that an enormous piece of ice will calve into the lake in front of us.

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Exploring a secret place in Patagonia that was very special indeed!

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Arriving at the Chacaubuco Lodge, surrounded by guancos and welcomed by Isabel and Manuel. This is the future Patagonia National Park.

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Hiking the Lagunas Altas hike in Chacabuco Valley, Patagonia Park after a briefing with local guide, Sergio.

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Finishing the trek at Lago Jeinimeini (pronounced ‘Hay-Kne-May-Kne’) where Ferdinando greets us and takes us to Chile Chico.

My Swoop recce was three weeks of the most spectacular adventures, making new friends and being treated to incredibly ‘un-Patagonian’ good weather. I finished exhausted (both emotionally and physically), smelling bad – having not really had time to do my laundry properly, and with ideas darting around my brain like viscachas. The warmth of the Patagonian people and the time people have one for another and for visitors is what makes Patagonia so special, perhaps more than the ice, the forests and the mountains. This is what brought tears to my eyes as I headed back to Balmaceda airport and back to the UK.

Many people hire a car and hurry along the Carretera Austral but I hope this summary of my trip will make you explore the valleys either side of the road, meet local people and share a maté with them and remember the Patagonian saying:

“Quien se apura en la Patagonia, pierde el tiempo” – He who hurries through Patagonia wastes time.

Harriet’s Aysen Recce

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Sierra Baguales, Torres del Paine

Sierra Baguales, Torres del Paine

Great views of Torres del Paine, authentic estancias, big Patagonian landscapes … and no-one else around.
East of the official national park boundary, and before you reach the Argentine border lies an area where you have superb views of the Cordillera Paine, huge open landscapes, and the dramatic mountain range known as Sierra Baguales. This is a superb place for horse riding, hiking and fossil-hunting. These plains, peaks and estancias offer the best riding opportunities in the Torres del Paine region.
It’s no coincidence that the luxury lodges of Awasi and Tierra Patagonia are located on this side of the national park. However there are other accommodation options as well in the form of real working estancias that offer accommodation to visitors such as the Cerro Guido Estancia.
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James’ Argentine adventure

James’ Argentine adventure

James and his girlfriend travelled to Argentine Patagonia in July of 2015. Their trip was not without its dramas, as a general transport strike threatened to scupper the couple’s plans to discover the area. Thankfully, our partners and guides in Argentina were on hand to smooth out any problems and ensure they still had a fantastic adventure. Here James shares their adventure with us and gives us feedback on their experience.

How were Swoop Patagonia?

We are very impressed with your diligent follow-up. We are also very happy with how you helped us when we were stuck, and even made suggestions for our other destinations. We will definitely recommend Swoop to our friends. We really thank you for your recommendation and coordination. We can’t wait for our next visit to Patagonia in the near future!

IMG_7101How did you enjoy our partner’s itinerary? How were their guides? Is there anything you would have changed about this part of your trip?

We were quite touched that our guide tried to assess our fitness level and arrange tours accordingly. It was our first time trekking on ice and although we are a young and fit couple we were worried that it would be beyond our ability. As a precaution our guide lent us two trekking poles which were very very handy.

Not many companies are open in Winter, and even the cities themselves are quite quiet with only a few supermarkets open and not much else. But trekking in Winter months is entirely possible.

IMG_7031In El Chalten, windy weather meant that we weren’t able to reach Laguna Torre and headed back after completing 1/3 of the trek. We did have time for a few hours to go around Mount Fitz Roy which was very rewarding.

What was the highlight of your trip?

El Calafate was one of the main highlights of our trip… we thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it! It had always been our dream to see the Perito Moreno glacier. And we happily set off to our tour stopping here and there to take photos of the beautiful landscape and scenery while our guide taught us all about geology to botany and history to zoology. He was also armed with a DSLR Canon and took photos for us throughout the tour, including some close ups of flying condors and eagles with his zoom lens, which he then transferred to our SD cards.

IMG_7246Our guide has been leading trips for more than a decade and is very experienced. It felt like a first-person Discovery Channel documentary with a childhood friend.

Really thank you very much. We really could not ask for more and feel totally spoilt with the fabled Argentinian hospitality.

Danny’s Ice Cap Exploration

Danny’s Ice Cap Exploration

As the world’s third largest mass of ice, trekking and living on the Patagonian ice cap is a truly unique experience and a challenge. Danny contacted Swoop in May of last year looking for an experience that took him to the ice field for several days.

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Danny’s trip to the Southern Patagonian Ice Field started with his group leaving El Chalten, entering the ice fields through Paso Marconi and leaving via the Paso del Viento. He travelled there in November, and below are a selection of his incredible photos and some feedback about the adventure he undertook.

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What were the challenges you faced?
My challenge was one of language and communication – I wish the group would have been more mixed with fluent English speakers. Communication with the guides was fine, they were highly experienced and professional, but small talk in the group did not really work well for me, as the group mainly talked in Spanish.

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What were your highlights?
The first day on the ice field, as we had perfect weather conditions. At the end, I think the most important success factor for this expedition is the weather, this Patagonian beast… But we were very lucky, and had some very sunny days.

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What was it like living out on the ice field?
It is a unique and very special experience due to the vastness and remoteness of the ice field. It feels like visiting another planet. A yet unspoiled wilderness which is challenging but also very much rewarding.

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How does this adventure compare to other skiing and trekking trips you have undertaken?
It is quite different. Most trekking and skiing trips are not in such remote areas, and do not require such specific experience. Additionally, this is not one of those popular destinations like Torres del Paine with thousands of visitors and an established infrastructure, but truly a hidden gem which is rarely visited.

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How did it feel after completing your trip?
That this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I think the only place on earth comparable to this is Antarctica. But even in Antarctica, there would not be the such incredible views on Cerro Torre and the Circo de los Altares.

IMG_1595IMG_1591Would you recommend Swoop to friends, family or colleagues for a trip to Patagonia?
Yes, absolutely.

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To venture out onto the incredible ice fields yourself, get in touch with Swoop.

Estancia hopping in Torres del Paine

Estancia hopping in Torres del Paine

There’s not much that beats the thrill of discovering Torres del Paine’s rugged landscapes on horseback – a method of travel that’s been used in the region for hundreds of years and is still favoured today.

In September of last year, I had the pleasure of staying at one of Chile’s biggest ranches, the Estancia Cerro Guido and one of Swoop’s customers, Barbara, recently visited another Chilean ranch for a similar getaway. Here, we both give a little insight of our experiences of life as a Patagonian gaucho (cowboy).SWOOP_3_LUKE-ERRINGTON_ALL_CERROGUIDOLANDSCAPE

Luke: “For anyone who enjoys horse riding, the Estancia Cerro Guido is one of the top spots in the region and offers a true slice of Patagonian history. You can experience life on a real working estancia (ranch), and head out with the gauchos to explore the surrounding pampas (grasslands). You can also ascend the peak of Cerro Guido from which the the estancia takes its name.

The ranch is the hub of a vast estate that reaches out some 100,000 hectares (that’s more or the less the size of a small county in the UK). It’s still a working estancia employing and housing a number of gauchos and their families. So, alongside the 100 year old house of its founders, you’ll also find more modern accommodation, a church and a school for this local community.SWOOP_3_LUKE-ERRINGTON_ALL_CERROGUIDOHORSE

If you book well in advance you can sleep in the old house, which is more museum than hotel, and will give you a wonderful sense of the lives of the people who originally owned and cultivated this land. There are some other rooms with ensuite bathrooms that are perfectly comfortable.

You’ll eat well in the dining room here (most of the food is grown / reared on the estate) but it’s the views out to the Paine Massif that I’ll always remember. This is a very special spot from which to see the sun set behind the famous towers of Torres del Paine.SWOOP_3_LUKE-ERRINGTON_ALL_CERROGUIDOSKYLINE

So, there are a number of reasons I’d recommend this particular ranch:

  • It offers the chance to see how a large-scale ranch really works in Patagonia today and so is a “must-visit” estancia for anyone horse riding in the Torres del Paine region.
  • It’s a great place for a couple or a smaller group of friends to spend a final night in Torres del Paine, after hiking in the main part of the national park.
  • Finally, it’s an authentic and convivial place in which to enjoy a private celebration; so ideal for a larger group ( 8-16 people) who want a night or two in their own place.”

Around 100km south of Estancia Cerro Guido, on the Peninsula Antonio Varas you will find another classic Patagonian ranch, Estancia Mercedes. Swoop customer Barbara visited with her daughter in January of this year.

Before their horse-riding adventure, they stayed at the Singular Hotel, a unique luxury hotel situated in a restored and renovated cold storage plant in Puerto Bories. The Estancia Mercedes then offered quite a contrast to the first part of their trip.CUS_2_BARBARA-DAVIS_PRIV_MERCEDESYARD

Barbara:My experience on the estancia was like living in a National Geographic magazine! After three nights at the Singular Hotel, my daughter and I went to Estancia Mercedes. While everything is fancier at the Singular, Estancia Mercedes is authentic. If you want to step off the tourist route and live with a Chilean ranch family, look no further.CUS_3_BARBARA-DAVIS_PRIV_CHILEHORSEMOUNTAIN

We were welcomed by the entire Inglesia family who have a long and rich history in Puerto Natales that they are happy to share.CUS_4_BARBARA-DAVIS_PRIV_HORSE+RIDER

We came for horseback riding which exceeded our expectations but in the end this stay was about becoming part of the Inglesia family for a few days.CUS_3_BARBARA-DAVIS_PRIV_GROUPMERCEDESESTANCIA

I’ll admit that at night I missed how I could watch the sunset from my bed at the Singular but sunsets fade away unlike Estancia Mercedes which will be forever in our hearts. GO!”

Get in touch to book an unforgettable gaucho experience in Patagonia.

Peter and Natalie’s wintry Torres del Paine trek

Peter and Natalie’s wintry Torres del Paine trek

In May 2015, Peter and his girlfriend Natalie ventured to Torres del Paine National Park in Chile for a 5 day winter adventure, as part of a longer two month journey within South America. Here, Peter shares some of their highlights and tips for this challenging but exciting Patagonian experience.

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How was your winter trek?

The walk was great and we were really lucky with the weather; overall our timing could not have been better, yes we got some bad weather but it came at a ‘suitable’ time. Although it did make me realise that in winter we could have easily been unlucky; we met some people doing hikes who were at slightly different stages to us and unfortunately were unable to see the towers or other parts.

Overall, I would say that if you can face the cold, I would recommend you go in the winter. The lack of people in the region at that time was a real bonus – we practically had the trails to ourselves.

Our guide was great. We couldn’t fault him – he was very accommodating and understanding when Natalie unfortunately got sick. For me, my highlight was the walk into the French Valley. Obviously the view to the towers on the last day was also incredible. Natalie really enjoyed the Grey Glacier, as she had never seen one before.

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Peter’s and Natalie’s trip 

Peter and Natalie took a private transfer to Torres del Paine National Park and started with a hike to the shore of Lake Pehoe. The rest of their trip included a trek through forests to Glacier Grey, a night in a cozy cabin on the Serrano River, hiking to Torres del Paine lookout and of course Peter’s highlight, the walk around Paine Grande, to the French Valley viewpoint.

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Final tip from Peter and Natalie

We found once in Torres del Paine, that it was still possible, in winter, to get a bus from Puerto Natales to El Calafate to see the Perito Moreno Glacier. Had we known this beforehand, we would have definitely included a visit there in our itinerary.

Swoop can help you work out the tricky logistical arrangements of your trip, even in the more complicated winter months. Do get in touch to find out how.

 

Greg and Michelle’s Off The Beaten Track Adventure

Greg and Michelle’s Off The Beaten Track Adventure

Greg, along with his sister Michelle and two other friends, asked Swoop to help them explore some of the more unknown destinations in Patagonia. Their jam-packed itinerary took them to many of the well-known highlights but via routes that enabled them to truly discover Patagonia’s wild beauty. We put together a challenging, action-packed programme with some of our most trusted partners to deliver an unforgettable adventure.

Greg’s itinerary

Greg and Michelle flew from New York to Santiago in Chile. A connecting flight took them on to Punta Arenas where they had two bus transfers, first to Puerto Natales and finally arriving in Torres del Paine National Park to embark on the avid hiker circuit.

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Dramatic skies in Torres del Paine National Park

Hardly pausing for breath, they ventured out on their first hike to see the famous granite towers that give the park its name. From there they hiked on to Japones Camp – a climbers only campsite near to the towers at the far end of Valle Ascensio. A night at the camp was followed by a hike of the Oggioni Pass. This trek is one of the more challenging and technical in the region. Climbing Oggioni highlighted that even within a group of friends on a tour of Patagonia, different people appreciate different things. Greg explains:

“In Torres del Paine we found the trails in particular on the W trek a little bit crowded. We loved the Oggioni Pass and this was a highlight-especially descending from the pass. However Liz and Marc, who were also on our trek, didn’t enjoy the Oggioni and didn’t really mind the crowds on the W trek, so it is a matter of taste.”

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Crossing a river on the Oggioni trek

After the strenuous Oggioni pass crossing, the group rejoined the traditional Paine cirsuit route at Dickson camp headed across to Perros Camp and then completed the John Gardiner pass with some ice hiking (read about Swoop’s Harriet and her ice hiking experience). From there, it was down into the French Valley via Lago Grey, and the group had completed their full circuit of the Torres Del Paine National Park.

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Celebrating the beauty of wilderness

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Taking a quiet moment alongside Lago Grey

After their trek, the group had a 2 day kayak along the Serrano river planned which was unfortunately cancelled due to high winds and so they headed on, to Puerto Natales and finally into Argentina, to the town of El Calafate, to see the Perito Moreno glacier.

A bus from El Calafate to El Chalten took Greg and his friends to the highlight of their trip: the Fitzroy range to see some of Patagonia’s most dramatic mountain and glacial landscapes. Two days of self-guided hiking straight out of town took the group to see Laguna de los Tres and Laguna Torre. They were well fed during their time in El Chalten too; using Harriet from Swoop’s handy El Chalten restaurant guide, the group made their way around town, particularly enjoying the vegetarian options.

After their warm up, they embarked on the tough but rewarding four day Huemul Circuit.

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Greg and his sister Michelle on Paso del Viento

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Trekking past a refugio on the Huemul Circuit

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The second zip-line crossing on the Huemul Circuit

Elated as opposed to exhausted, the group ended their epic trip in El Chalten and from there a series of transfers arranged by Swoop took them back to Buenos Aires and home to the United States.

We asked Greg a few questions about his adventure and for his top tips. Here’s what he said:

How were Swoop Patagonia?

“We would absolutely recommend Swoop. We really valued Swoop’s expertise, the fact that you had been to the places we were going and could link together all the different treks with local buses. All the buses worked out really well and we were happy with how it all worked out. When our kayaking trip was cancelled due to high winds our guide went out of his way to find alternative activities for us.”

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On a day hike out of El Chalten

What would you say to others considering a similar trip?

“In our opinion, El Chalten is much better and you should forget Torres del Paine and go straight to Fitzroy! The local operators were great and it was just a much nicer environment. Make sure you do your research on the various trekking options out of El Chalten to get the most out of your time there.

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The group day hiking around El Chalten

We would recommend you take the trip to Estancia Cristina near El Chalten, (we took the hiking option which included a 3 hour boat ride with a trip to the Upsala glacier), then we were driven up to a viewpoint and hiked back for 7 miles. We really enjoyed it and saw fossils along the way. Having visited both, I would say the lesser known Upsala glacier is much more enjoyable to visit than Perito Moreno with far fewer people fighting to see it.”

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Spectacular ice formations

“In terms of places that we stayed, in Torres del Paine, we liked Refugio Grey but didn’t like the dorms at Cuernos and Dickson refugios. One thing worth remembering is that we would have preferred to have camped every night rather than having stayed in refugios and this is possible, so think about that choice before you book.

We thought the buffs that Swoop sent were essential and would not go to Patagonia without one – it is so windy! We’d also recommend you take your own snacks on the treks to liven up the food a little.”

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Michelle sporting her Swoop buff

What was the highlight of your trip?

El Chalten and the Fitzroy range were the definite highlights of the trip – we loved the Huemul Circuit.

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Fitzroy

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Greg bathing in a glacial lake

If you’re looking for a unique experience in Patagonia and would like help planning your adventure, we’d love to help; get in touch!

Eric & Nancy’s Patagonian Dream

Eric & Nancy’s Patagonian Dream

“I had for many decades dreamt of travelling to Patagonia. Our five days hiking in Torres del Paine are five days that we will never forget. Thank you so much for your help in organizing this trip. It would have been most difficult for us to do on our own.”

Eric and Nancy had always wanted to visit Patagonia and Swoop helped them to arrange a classic hiking trip in Torres del Paine National Park, Chile. Eric gives us feedback from their unforgettable five day hike in the park and time spent in Puerto Natales:

How did you find the W Trek in Torres del Paine National Park?

Your partners and guides did an excellent job. Our guide was informed, an excellent communicator, read our group well and challenged us accordingly. He is a skilled guide who we would happily use again.

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How was your accommodation?

All of our connections worked out perfectly. The accommodations in the park were good, perhaps excepting the 2nd refugio, but we acknowledge that they were overwhelmed by adverse weather conditions on that night. Our hostels in Puerto Natales worked out well.

How was your experience of using Swoop Patagonia?

After floundering somewhat in our attempt to access travel information for hiking in Patagonia, we found your website indirectly through a blog. The information on that site was immediately helpful. Your prompt response to our questions and your questioning of our intentions and abilities were most helpful.

Swoop can help you book the Patagonia trip of a lifetime. Do get in touch to find out how.

Jenny’s Torres del Paine dream trip

Jenny’s Torres del Paine dream trip

In September, Jenny took a memorable trip to Torres Del Paine National Park in Chile. Jenny does an amazing job below of telling us all about her experiences, the trip highlights and what is was like travelling with Swoop Patagonia and our partners.

Jenny’s feedback

Out of all the places I have seen in Chile during my trip (Santiago, Valparaiso, Atacama Desert, Torres del Paine), Torres del Paine was absolutely the highlight.

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Not only was I excited about being in Patagonia, a wish that has been on my list for quite a while, but choosing an organised hike with a tour operator was a very good choice as well. You can certainly do the trip by yourself; you will meet many people, the paths are marked very well, you can probably buy books that guide you through the park and its characteristics. But having a local guide just gives you the opportunity to learn so much more about what you see, about Torres del Paine National Park, its geology, flora, fauna and history, and getting this first-hand information right away, with the chance to get answers to more detailed questions as well, is a clear advantage in my eyes.

The trip on the W trek was organised perfectly by a tour agency recommended by Swoop Patagonia. The operation manager and one of the main organisers there were always very friendly and helpful whenever there were questions arising prior to the trip or even when urgent support was needed just the night before the trip.

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During the trip itself, even though parts of the hike were unexpectedly demanding (but still a big joy!), we always had enough time so we didn’t need to rush through the park, but enjoy the scenery whenever we wanted. The Torres del Paine National Park is a very special place, and I’m glad we were able to fully enjoy its beauty!

The trip was a big joy not least because of our very professional and pleasant guide! Whenever we had questions about things we saw he was able to give us an answer. Whenever we needed a break or wanted to spend some more time at a certain spot, he would understand and make that happen. He was very caring and always gave us the information we needed about what was going to happen the day. He had a good sense of humour on top of it all, which made the trip special as well.

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I’m thankful Swoop Patagonia put me in contact with their local partners in Torres del Paine! I would definitely recommend Swoop to friends and family, because I think first-hand advice from people who know the region just makes planning so much easier. And Swoop is doing their job very well, as far as I can tell from my experiences.

Ted and Rick visit Torres Del Paine

Ted and Rick visit Torres Del Paine

In November, Ted and Rick and a group of their friends took on a seven day circuit in Chile’s iconic Torres Del Paine National Park. They recount their trip and experiences of booking travel with Swoop Patagonia.

TedBrna1Ted’s feedback

“Many thanks for supervising a terrific and memorable trek. I would absolutely recommend you, certainly over other groups I contacted before selected your agency to organize our tour. Swoop always sent accurate communication – no question was left unanswered.  I really can’t think of anything you may have neglected.

IMG_5682Probably the best part of our trek was our trekking guide, Nicholas.  He was a perfect fit for our group of 5 with superb social skills, direction, knowledge base and flexibility. It was a shame that the wildfire had wiped out a lot of the native beech trees on the hike but that certainly did not detract much from the amazing beauty of the Park!  The highlight to me was the hike to the Towers and view there though the entire 5 day trek was awesome.“

Rick’s feedback

Trip went like clockwork and as planned. Swoop’s recommendations were spot on. Would definitely recommend Swoop and use them if I go back. Swoop’s local partners could have not been better or more helpful. Zoe and her team were great.

IMG_1536Self guided hikes were great, trails well marked. There was plenty of reading material for each hike so you knew what to look for on the hike. Reaching the Mirador base at Las Torres and Lago de los Tres at Fitzroy were certainly the highlights. Incredible views.

Ted & Rick’s itinerary

IMG_5741The group’s trip began in Punta Arenas, where we arranged a transfer for them to Torres Del Paine National Park. Swoop’s partners in Torres del Paine then took Ted, Rick and their friends on a five day hike around the famous W circuit staying at refugios along the way. Of his time spent in the refugios, Ted said “Food was generally very good and better than expected – I personally was very satisfied. Our guide also carried probably 10 lbs of avocados on the trek and personally enhanced our lunches daily with them! The refugios also provided plentiful hot water for washing/showers and adequate toilet facilities”

Ted’s top tip would be to take a towel along as not all refugios provide towels (although it’s something Swoop Patagonia are currently working hard to ensure!):  “I wish I had brought a microfiber quick dry towel for the trip – the other 2 guys said you recommended a towel in your list but I missed that!”

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