John and Laura returned in January 2014 from a Christmas trip to Patagonia, where they took a Cruise from Punta Arenas to Ushuaia, and a Kayaking trip in Torres del Paine (both organised by Swoop), as well as arranging a Self Guided W Trek and various other day trips independently. Here they tell us about their experiences on their trip…
‘We had a great time…it was a brilliant trip!’
What was the HIGHLIGHT of your trip?
The 3 day Kayaking Trip and the Cruise from Punta Arenas to Ushuaia were probably the highlights… the kayaking for being a bit wild, and the cruise for being very luxurious but also in a wild place.
On the kayak trip on Lago Grey we were close to an iceberg when it turned over. I think the guide was rather shocked as we were within about 5m of it!
Did you manage to visit anywhere else in Chile or Argentina on your trip?
We started off in Buenos Aires (the only place that was hot), and from there we travelled to El Calafate, and on to El Chalten.
We then headed back to El Calafate, and on to Puerto Natales, from which we took the W trek in Torres del Paine, and a Kayaking trip.
Afterwards we headed to Puerto Natales, and on to Punta Arenas, from which point we took a Cruise to Ushuaia, and then headed back to Buenos Aires.
How well did SWOOP PATAGONIA do helping you plan your holiday, and finding the best trips or operators for you?
Very good – booking the kayaking through Swoop with a reputable company with good access to the lake was the most useful and didn’t cost much more (if any)* than the other quotes we had.
*NB, you will not pay any more by booking through Swoop than you would by booking direct with a local operator. Read more about how we work here.
How were the OPERATORS Swoop put you in contact with?
Both the companies you put us in contact with (the Kayaking and Cruise companies) were very good.
How were the other operators you found yourselves?
Other operators were a little patchy.
We found a great guide kayaking for a day in the Tierra Del Fuego national park but the kayaks weren’t very good (although the clothing was).
We also did half a day of Horse Riding which was OK but I really wanted to see the gauchos and how they managed the estancia and the landscape. That seemed difficult to arrange although Estancia Mercedes sounded the best but was booked up.
Was there anything that you wish had happened DIFFERENTLY or not happened at all?
-Traveling on Christmas day was a PITA.
We had to leave at 4.30am and had a few hours kicking about El Calafate in the bus station as everywhere was closed. At least we managed to do it but getting information was a challenge (thanks for your help by the way – but it was pretty clear that the bus operators just made things up as they went along). Some buses were completely empty (e.g, El Chalten to El Calafate at 4.30am! on Christmas day and others seemed to be fully booked so we had to run around to get a seat, even days in advance.
-We decided to book our W Trek in Torres del Paine independently [without Swoop’s support], and this was awkward…It was very unclear from the website we used if we could cancel or rearrange the bookings.
On this trip we had a mix of tents and bunks, and availability was tight. But when we got there it seemed like certain guides were taking groups around who had booked late and companies must have been holding group bunk reservations, which we might have done had the procedure been clearer.
The tents were pretty pants to be honest. Neither of us are very tall but we struggled to fit in the tent with a small amount of kit – and it rained and rained and the tent leaked – partly as kit was unavoidably touching the sides and the ventilation wasn’t very good. They ought to spend more money on them considering how much they charge.
Also, Vertice’s huts were noticeably better than Fantastico Sur’s in the quality, warmth, food and service despite costing the same. In fact, accommodation seemed to be a lottery – for USD45 in Buenos Aires we got a huge posh suite with a kitchen but for USD135 in Ushuaia we got a pokey, noisy ground floor room that was somewhat dated. We booked both late due to the uncertainty with our plan. There is little correlation between price and quality.
Do you have any TIPS for other people who are planning a trip?
1. Don’t travel on Christmas day
2. Try and get up to date info – even the latest Lonely Planet Chile is pretty poor for accuracy, which was frustrating.
3. It is an expensive place to visit, everything and everyone seems to have a chunk of your money, taxes, booking fees etc. Planning a budget was difficult – they are not afraid to ask for tips!
4. TAM airlines are not very comfortable, or attentive
5. It is cold. Even colder than I expected
6. Don’t eat for a week before or after a Cruise (the staff here were fantastic, friendly and fun – superb)
7. I think I’d advise against travel over Christmas as it is windy, very busy, expensive (due to availability) and there is nothing particularly extra to see. If (when) we go again I think we’d wait until February or March.
8. It was very safe at all times and we never really got any hassle – even from the stray dogs.
Some of that sounds a bit blunt but none of it spoiled the trip (or is any different to any of our other traveling experiences). We saw another person with a Swoop buff and they seemed very happy too. I’ll pass on your details to anyone who is interested in planning their own trip – I think you’ll hear from my mother once she has rounded up a few of her trekking buddies!