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Argentina/Chile Trip Report Nov 2011 - Very Long - Part 1

Illinois
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Argentina/Chile Trip Report Nov 2011 - Very Long - Part 1

This is a trip report of our travel experiences for November 2011. We travelled to Buenos Aires, Puerto Madryn, El Calafate, Torres del Paine, Punta Arenas, Australis cruise, and Ushuaia. We worked with Say Hueque to plan our tour. The trip was customized to our very specific list of what we wanted to see, how we wanted to travel, and how many days we wanted to spend in each location.

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1. Re: Argentina/Chile Trip Report Nov 2011 - Very Long - Part 1

5 Nov 2011 – We flew from Chicago O’Hare to Miami on American Airlines and from Miami to Buenos Aires via an overnight flight on LAN. There were a few changes to our flight schedules prior to departure day, the airlines sent us a notification via email, and the airlines were very accommodating about changing our flights so as not to miss any connections. The American Airlines flight went off without a hitch, but our LAN flight departure was not quite as smooth. We boarded the plane and watched movies for about an hour before we were told to exit the plane. The airline passed out sandwiches and cans of soda for everyone to eat at the gate. We began to lose hope that we would be flying out that night. The airline started unloading the luggage from the plane but then stopped and put it back on. The passengers were told to reboard, and the plane took off approximately three hours later than scheduled departure. The delay appeared to be due to a hydraulic issue.

6 Nov 2011 – We arrived at EZE just before 10am about three hours later than anticipated. We were pretty tired since we never really sleep on airplanes. We paid the reciprocity fee, and we were met at the airport by Mariana from Say Hueque. She was also waiting for another couple, so my husband left to get some pesos from an ATM. The other couple had still not arrived by the time he returned so Mariana sent us to our hotel with the driver. She promised to stop by our hotel later to go over the itinerary.

The transfer to our hotel, the Hotel Dazzler Maipu, was fine. The hotel was comfortable, quiet, and in a good location for a one night stay. All of the staff were friendly. Mariana stopped by our hotel, as promised, and she reviewed our itinerary with us. She gave us our travel vouchers, the names of our local contacts, restaurant recommendations, and a bottle of wine. She told us that it wouldn’t hurt to call the local contacts to verify pick up times and confirm tours. I thought to myself “Well, isn’t that what the travel agent is supposed to do?” I should have voiced this concern since this piece of information would become crucial later in the trip.

We had planned to meet up with a walking tour of the city, but we were too late due to the late flight arrival, so instead we walked around a bit on our own, and made our way over to the Recoleta Cemetery. We had heard a lot about Buenos Aires being a very fashion-conscious city, but we must have missed the fashionable area since most of the people we noticed walking around were not dressed up at all. We visited the cemetery including Eva Peron’s tomb and the nearby Basilica. We paid 5 pesos to enter the museum in the cloisters. This was a collection of mostly religious art. The woman handing out pamphlets at the museum was surprised to discover we were not Argentine when we requested an English-language pamphlet. This was a nice afternoon.

We rested at the hotel and then went out for an early dinner at El Establo. Mariana had recommended this restaurant, and we had also seen recommendations in our guidebook. We wore business casual clothing, and we were definitely overdressed. All of the other patrons wore jeans. This restaurant was great; we both had bife de lomo and ensalada mixta. This was one of the best meals of our trip.

Illinois
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2. Re: Argentina/Chile Trip Report Nov 2011 - Very Long - Part 1

7 Nov 2011 – We woke up early for our 4am pickup to AEP. This was not easy to do since we hadn’t slept the previous night on the plane, and we were too early to partake in the included breakfast at the hotel. We left the bottle of wine behind as well. Our transfer to the airport was on time and we arrived at AEP without any problems. We checked in with Aerolineas to obtain our boarding passes, and we were informed that our 6:05am flight to Trelew did not exist. We had a travel voucher for a non-existent flight. The attendant asked if our flight had been confirmed, and we didn’t know the answer to this question. The attendant said that we were now on the 14:30 flight to Trelew which would have us arriving too late to take our Punta Tombo tour to see the penguins. We were upset by this news since the Punta Tombo tour was one of the primary reasons for our stay in Puerto Madryn. The Aerolineas attendant was very helpful and tried to put us on the standby flight departing at 07:50. She warned us that we would have to retrieve and recheck our luggage if we couldn’t get on the flight.

As previously mentioned, we had also had some changes made to our American Airlines and LAN flights prior to the flights. We had booked these flights ourselves. In both cases, the airlines sent us an email when the schedule changed requesting that we confirm the change is acceptable or allowed us to switch to a more convenient flight. We did not receive an email from Aerolineas about this particular change since Say Hueque booked the flights on our behalf, and change notifications would have been sent to the Say Hueque agency. The Terms and Conditions state that “Say Hueque will endeavor to inform the Client as soon as possible in the event of any flight alteration.” This was not done.

We waited until about 06:00, not wanting to wake anyone up, and then we called “X” at Say Hueque since she was listed as a 24-hour contact person. We did not want the driver in Trelew waiting to pick us up from the non-existent flight. We probably should have called Mariana instead, but we opted to call “X” since we were hesitant to call anyone other than a 24-hour contact person so early in the morning. Mariana would likely have been more helpful since “X” was not helpful at all. She could not answer why Say Hueque had not notified us of the flight change, and she said she could not give us any information or help us with our itinerary changes until the office opened much later in the day. She said “We are not responsible.” She was also unable to refer me to anyone at Say Hueque who was responsible. I do not think this is a good motto for a travel agency, and we would prefer to deal with people who are responsible.

We were not able to get on the 07:50 flight to Trelew so we went down to luggage claim to retrieve our suitcases. My husband’s suitcase was there, but mine was not. We tried calling “X” again from the luggage claim area, but she said she couldn’t help us since we didn’t know which flight we would be on. She also refused to help us with the standby flights. We went through security again and waited in line at the Aerolineas counter again to try the standby flight at 10:15. We rechecked our one remaining suitcase. By this time, we really envied all of the people with the responsible travel agents. Unfortunately for us, these people had taken all the seats on the 07:50 and 10:15 flights. The attendants at the Aerolineas counter were very helpful in trying to get us on the earlier flights. We were able to get on the 10:15 flight as standby passengers. My husband called “X” again as we were walking out to the plane since we wanted assistance rescheduling our Punta Tombo tour. “X” refused to help him with this and simply said that Say Hueque would refund the tour price. A better approach would have been for her to ask us what we wanted to do and then to find a way to accomplish it. We were sorry that we had wasted more time in talking to her since she did not help us at all. Plus, the international charges were starting to run up on our phone bill. Our chances of seeing the Punta Tombo penguins did not look good at this point.

Illinois
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3. Re: Argentina/Chile Trip Report Nov 2011 - Very Long - Part 1

We arrived in Trelew and found the Huinca Travel driver, Tito. Tito indicated our names were not on the list of pick-ups for the current flight, but he had us on the list of the pick-ups for the later 14:30 flight. Tito did not speak English and he was having trouble getting a good cell phone reception, but he managed to contact an English-speaking person at Huinca Travel and they arranged a Punta Tombo tour for us. We were also relieved to find my suitcase at the airport. This is a small airport, so there wasn’t really a luggage storage area. My suitcase was next to the wall in the main lounge area.

We waited at the airport while Tito took his other passengers back to Puerto Madryn, picked up a Huinca Travel guide, and came back to the airport to collect us for the tour to Punta Tombo. He had to stop at a gas station since Puerto Madryn was experiencing unusual flooding, and gas was unavailable in the town. Puerto Madryn had also been without electricity for several days. The lines for gas in Trelew were rather long due to this shortage. I wish I could remember the guide’s name because she was fantastic. We would like to thank both the guide and Tito, the driver, from Huinca Travel for rearranging their schedules on short notice to take us on this tour. We really enjoyed the tour to Punta Tombo as well as the time spent with Tito and the guide. The Punta Tombo entrance fee was 35 pesos. We saw a lot of Magellanic penguins and numerous guanaco. It was so much fun to watch the penguins; the guide explained to us how the penguins would walk backwards when it was time to poo. Sure enough, we saw that happen several times.

We paid an additional 1050 pesos for this private tour and we missed stopping in Gaiman for the tea and the Paleontology museum in Trelew. This situation could have been avoided if we were given advance notice of the flight change by Say Hueque or booked our own flights. We would have

1) Rescheduled our flight to either the 07:50 or the 10:15 flight to allow ample time for the tour or

2) Taken an overnight bus after our arrival at EZE to arrive in time for the tour or

3) At the very least have been able to sleep in a little and not miss the included breakfast at our hotel.

It also would have been appropriate for Say Hueque representative “X” to assist us with rearranging our itinerary once it became obvious that the itinerary and vouchers given to us by Say Hueque did not match up with the flight schedule. We had to arrange this on our own with Huinca Travel after our flight landed in Trelew; it should have been arranged before our plane left Buenos Aires. We were not interested in a refund; we were interested in taking the Punta Tombo tour since that is why we came to Argentina. We did not come to Argentina to fly around the country staying in hotels and collecting refunds for missed tours due to travel agency scheduling mistakes. It was difficult for us to have these arrangements in someone else’s charge since we are very proactive people ourselves.

Tito dropped us off at the curb in front of our hotel, Hotel Piren, in Puerto Madryn. There was still some flooding along the sides of the streets, but the sidewalk was okay. This hotel was in a good location, the room was nice, and the included breakfast was very good. The only problem was that the door to our room, Room 502, did not shut properly due to a broken latch. The room was also right next to the elevator. My husband could slam the door shut with enough force, but I was not able to close it enough for the door to lock. We checked in and then looked around for a place to eat dinner. We decided not to travel very far from the hotel since the edges of many streets were still flooded. We found a place a few blocks away. I had au gratin scallops and my husband ate mackerel with seafood sauce. The food was a bit fussy for our tastes; the seafood sauce contained so much seafood that my husband at first couldn’t find the mackerel. We paid our bill with cash (no credit card communications due to the water/electrical problems).

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4. Re: Argentina/Chile Trip Report Nov 2011 - Very Long - Part 1

8 Nov 2011 – We took an all-day tour to Peninsula Valdes with Huinca Travel. The entrance fee was 70 pesos each. This tour included a whale-watching excursion with Whales Argentina. This was a really nice tour; both the Huinca Travel and Whales Argentina guides did a really good job. We saw a lot of southern right whales including a few breaches. Many of the whales came up very close to the boat, and some blew water at us. We also saw dusky dolphins, red-tailed hawk, guanacos, mara, hares, grey fox, penguins, a tarantula, a small snake, an owl, elephant seals, many types of birds, and a gaucho herding sheep. We also had our first taste of mate on this tour. Sebastiano, the guide, and Ricardo, the driver were both excellent.

We arrived back at our hotel, dropped off a few things, and headed out to an ATM. The national park fees and the cash-only meals were depleting our supply of money. The line for cash was pretty long, it started raining while we waited in line, and I went back to the hotel for our rain jackets. I grabbed the rain jackets, but I couldn’t shut the door to the room. I gave up after about ten attempts to slam the door, and I headed out to find my husband. The street between the hotel and the ATM had flooded in the meantime so I couldn’t get across without being drenched. I walked around the block looking for a detour, but all of the streets were equally flooded. My husband called my name while I was trying to decide where to go; he had decided to wade through the water to get back. We stopped at our room again to change from our wet shoes into boots, and we headed out for dinner after the short rain and hail storm with lightning and thunder. The storm reminded me of our visit to Carlsbad, New Mexico the previous year. The streets in Carlsbad had flooded rather quickly as well. This time we ate at a buffet restaurant near the waterfront, a Parilla Libre, cash only. The buffet had good shrimp, calamari, and fish, all fried, as well as an extensive selection of ensalada and side dish items.

9 Nov 2011 – We ate breakfast, and then noticed while packing up that our two fleece jackets were missing. I had taken them out of our backpack and left them on the bed the day before when rummaging for our rain jackets. They had likely been stolen during the 15-minute period of time between when I left and when we returned to the room to change into our boots. Someone heard me trying to close the door, and took advantage of the unlocked door as soon as I left. An examination of the door revealed some deep scratches that indicated the room had been broken into previously.

We had an on-time pickup from Huinca Travel (Tito again!) and checked in for our flight to El Calafate. The flight was an hour late departing and arriving. Tito checked several times to make sure we were doing okay while he was waiting for other passengers to arrive. We were met at the El Calafate airport by Marteen(?), the driver for Huellas del Sur. I would like to apologize for any misspelled names. Marteen drove us to the office for Huellas del Sur where the Huellas del Sur representative went over our itinerary. We needed to buy a new fleece jacket for my husband to wear during the remainder of the trip since his jacket had been stolen from our room in Puerto Madryn, and Marteen was kind enough to allow us to shop for an hour in El Calafate before driving us out to the estancia. I already had a spare jacket that I could wear.

We were welcomed at the El Galpon del Glaciar estancia by Carolina. She was very friendly, and she mentioned they had expected us several hours earlier. We began to relax and forget all of the stressful situations from the beginning of our trip. We enjoyed the included breakfasts and dinners at the estancia as well as the horseback riding, the bird-watching, and the Dia de Campo excursion. The employees Carolina, Carolina, and Javier were all wonderful and treated us like people. One of the Carolinas in particular double-checked on all our excursions for us, made sure we had breakfast no matter how early we were leaving, and even joined us on our horseback ride during her time off. She took pictures with her own camera during the ride since she thought it would be difficult for us to ride and take pictures, and she emailed them to us after the trip. None of them were too busy to stop and say hello whenever they saw us. When we mentioned we wanted to purchase some postcards and a DVD of the estancia, they took all of the postcards from the glass case for us to look at and insisted we watch a portion of the DVD prior to purchase to verify that we liked it. We never heard the words “We are not responsible” from them. The estancia employees made themselves responsible for everything.

We participated in the “Dia de Campo” excursion at the estancia that evening. This excursion consisted of some initial refreshments (cocoa, cookies, tea), a tour of the estancia, a sheep herding demonstration, a horseback ring race, a sheep shearing demonstration, a barbecue with lamb served five ways and a large variety of side dishes, and a folk show. Our favorite type lamb dish was the lamb chop. The tour was given by Javier. He gave the information in both Spanish “Chicos ….” and English “Guys ….” even though we were the only two English speakers. A French tour group also joined us, but they brought their own tour guide/translator. The whole excursion was great, from start to finish.

Mariana from Say Hueque called us during the folk show to try to learn more about the problems we had experienced earlier in the trip while talking to “X”, but I’m not sure how much she understood since we were not talking in a quiet area.

Illinois
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5. Re: Argentina/Chile Trip Report Nov 2011 - Very Long - Part 1

10 Nov 2011 – Big Ice Excursion. Our breakfast was served at 7am since we had a 7:40 pick up for the Big Ice tour. Carolina gave us the box lunches we had ordered, and we took the last two seats on the tour bus. One hundred pesos was collected from everyone on the bus as the national park fee. The first stop was an one hour visit to the balconies. This gave us plenty of time to look around and use the rest rooms. Next was a bus ride to the lake where we boarded a boat to cross the lake. We were met on the other side by the Lago Argentina guides. They have extra gloves and boots if anyone needs them. There is also a place where you can leave anything you don’t want to take with you. There was quite a variety of attire worn by the excursion participants: jeans, sneakers, ski pants, hiking clothes and boots, fleeces, heavy jackets, rain pants, etc. You need to wear gloves to prevent cutting your hands on the ice. The excursion starts off with a 50-minute uphill hike. There was a short break after 10 minutes to remove extra layers. The trail was a mixture of sand, dirt, gravel, pebbles, and rocks. I did slip on the downhill sandy portion of the trail right after the big waterfall so be careful and don’t rush too much. The scenery along the trail was outstanding. At the end of the trail there was a stop for harnesses (which were never used) and to measure for crampons. You will be colder at this spot than you will be the whole rest of the trip so be careful about adding layers here.

We split up into three groups, two English-speaking and one Spanish-speaking, with two guides for each group. We joined the first group to depart which was headed up by the lead guide. You might not want to do this if, like us, you are at the high end of the age range (the cutoff was 45 when we went) for this trip since he travelled faster and went much farther than the other groups. You will have an easier time of it if you join up with the slower, not-quite ready yet group of hikers. There were no overweight people on this hike, and I’m pretty sure we were the only Americans as well as the only people in our forties. The lead guide forged ahead while the other guide helped people over tricky portions and crevasses. We were the oldest hikers in our group (except for the lead guide of course) and I am female, so I was given a lot of attention from both guides. I think they just really want to ensure that no one experiences any problems or falls behind.

Our group did the most vertical hiking in order to visit ice and water formations. We saw a small ice cave and ate lunch on a high point of the icefield near some rougher terrain. We ate our lunches. I also drank some Gatorade and removed the layers I had added at the cold crampon-fitting area. I had been very warm while hiking. We could see the other groups in the distance, and they hadn’t travelled as far as we did. We got going pretty quickly after lunch since the lead guide wanted to be the first one back to the trail. Crampons and harnesses were collected, and everyone headed back down the trail. We were one of the first ones back and the guides kept heading back down to trail to hustle people along. There was an optional hike to a glacier viewpoint. This hike was at a more relaxed pace, but again the guides had to go back and hurry people along. Whisky on glacier ice and snacks similar to moon pies were distributed on the return boat ride.

The Big Ice excursion was phenomenal, and we would recommend this excursion to anyone who meets the age and fitness requirements. I believe the age requirement has now been extended up to age 50. As for fitness, stamina is important. You have to be able to keep moving at a pretty good pace and stay with the group. It’s not like hiking a trail where you could stop to take a break whenever you feel like taking one. I thought hiking up and down the ice formations was easy but felt walking on the side of a slope was more difficult.

We ate dinner at the estancia at 8pm. My husband ordered the steak criolla and I ordered stuffed chicken. Carolina explained to us that they cook food the country way without a lot of sauces or extra ingredients. This method obviously agreed with us since all our dinners were excellent. We took a short nap, and woke up later to view the Southern Cross. One of the estancia employees, working on paper work in the dining area, was kind enough to point it out to us.

11 Nov 2011 – This was something we had never included on any of our prior vacations, a day at leisure. We mentioned to Carolina several days prior that we might like to take a horseback ride. She booked us for the afternoon of this day at leisure. We had said “Well maybe we should wait to see how the weather is.” She replied “Oh don’t worry, you can cancel. We wouldn’t charge you for a ride you didn’t take.” We had the morning free to do as we pleased.

We headed over for breakfast at 9am. There are several farm dogs that roam about the estancia in addition to the working dogs. One dog in particular seems to be a pet and hangs around the living areas of the estancia. My husband noticed this dog as we were walking over for breakfast and he called “Here dog, here dog!” Well, a couple of the other dogs were just around the corner so all three dogs came running. I thought this was funny until all three were jumping on me at once, and I had trouble getting through the door to the breakfast area. As we ate breakfast, we enjoyed watching one of the dogs attempt to catch a mara (no luck!).

We headed over to the bird blind after breakfast passing several horses and a horse skeleton on the way. There were also a few sheep skeletons dotted about the estancia. The blind provided good protection from the wind, and we saw a variety of birds on the small pond: the Upland Goose, Black-necked Swan, Ibis, White-winged Coot, ducks, and other birds we couldn’t identify. We tried going for a walk along Lago Argentina, but it was really too windy to continue for very long. We went back to the estancia, watched the English-version DVD, and then took our horseback ride at 3pm. Carolina was kind enough to join us during her time off, and she served as an interpreter between us and the gaucho. We had a nice ride over the Centinela river, and we saw many baby lambs. We returned to the estancia and enjoyed cocoa and snacks served by the other Carolina.

Dinner was at 8pm. My husband ordered trout, and I ordered tagliatelle pasta with Mediterranean tomatoes. They were both delicious. We had an early start the next morning so we settled our bill, and Carolina gave us a boxed breakfast with a hot water carafe for the morning.

12 Nov 2011 - Our Huellas del Sur driver picked us up on time at 4:45am and brought us to the hostel to meet the Always Glacier bus for our combination excursion/transfer to Torres del Paine.

Illinois
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6. Re: Argentina/Chile Trip Report Nov 2011 - Very Long - Part 1

Part 2 will be in the Chile forum, but I probably won't be able to start it until later in the week.

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7. Re: Argentina/Chile Trip Report Nov 2011 - Very Long - Part 1

Excellent reading. Looking forward to the rest, as we are contemplating a similiar itinerary in Feb next year.

Illinois
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8. Re: Argentina/Chile Trip Report Nov 2011 - Very Long - Part 1

Ozwanderer: Thanks. I wish I could finish it tonight, but it's taking me too long to write everything.

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9. Re: Argentina/Chile Trip Report Nov 2011 - Very Long - Part 1

If you do post the next segment in Chile Forum, please notify us with a post here.

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10. Re: Argentina/Chile Trip Report Nov 2011 - Very Long - Part 1

Very well written! WE just completed a trip to Argentina and had a wonderful experience too. Want ot second the comment on the agency in El CAlafate -Huellas del Sur. THey are great and Marteen was absolutely fantastic!