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TPG Managing Editor Eric is spending a month down in Argentina (I’m such a tough boss!) checking out the scene in Buenos Aires and venturing around the country for wine-tasting and adventure. He also just spent a few days up at Iguazu Falls by redeeming British Airways Avios for an award ticket on LAN and stayed at the Sheraton. Here’s how it all went.
Although I’m spending most of my month down in Argentina hanging out and living like a local porteño in Buenos Aires, I am going to hop few flights around the country to check out some of the other regions.
One in particular all my friends mentioned and insisted that I had to visit: Iguazu Falls, which is a well-worn spot on most South America itineraries, but one which I have not yet visited on my half-dozen or so trips down here. Just some fun facts that helped convince me: the falls are actually a series of nearly 300 waterfalls which lie near the confluence of the Iguazu and Parana Rivers in the jungly region where the borders of Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil meet. The falls are higher than Niagara and wider than Victoria Falls – a veritable wonder of the natural world…so naturally I felt like the old guy in Up…minus the house strapped to balloons.
As soon as I’d decided I’d go there, I looked into airplane tickets. One of the maddening things about booking airfare in Argentina is that prices for foreigners are actually much higher than for Argentine citizens, and there’s pretty much no way around it. So while an Argentinian could book a roundtrip ticket for around $150-200, the price I was getting was closer to $500…for a flight that’s barely 90 minutes! I looked into booking a flight to the airport on the Brazilian side at Foz de Iguazu, but they were just as expensive and would require me to get a visa for nearly $200 more.
However, one of my options was on LAN, so I immediately logged into my British Airways Executive Club account – which is looking good after my 100,000-Avios bonus from getting the BA Visa last year – and tried to enter my flight info. The only problem was, britishairways.com recognized neither the small domestic airport in Buenos Aires (AEP Jorge Newberry) nor Puerto Iguazu (IGR), so I had to call British Airways directly.
The phone rep I got was a little difficult to deal with. First she told me that those airports didn’t exist, then she said that she couldn’t book anything to them even though she eventually found them in her system once I spelled each out for her multiple times. After some cajoling, she finally looked up some dates in March for me, and sure enough there were plenty of seats the days I wanted to go. I had been considering 2-3 nights, but the best option for awards was a Tuesday-Thursday itinerary, so two nights it was. People who had suggested I go said that would be more than enough time to explore the park, especially if I was staying just on the Argentine side.
Best of all, the total roundtrip would be just 15,000 Avios, since the two airports are just 652 miles apart, plus $74 in taxes. The next thing my agent told me was that I would also have to pay a $75 phone booking fee since I wasn’t able to book this online, but I replied that it was exactly because I wasn’t able to book this award online that they should waive the phone fee. She put me on hold for a minute and when she came back she said that she would indeed waive the phone booking fee.
So 15 minutes and 15,000 miles later, I had my ticket at a value of about 2.7 cents per Avios.
Next was finding a hotel. Although it looks like most of the hotels near the falls are in the town of Puerto Iguazu, I decided to book a room at the Sheraton there instead since room rates were about $289 – which was close to what the hotels in town were booking – but the Sheraton is in the actual National Park itself and close to activities, so it seemed like a good, if expensive, choice. Using points would have cost me 12,000 per night, giving me a value of 2.4 cents per point. No Cash & Points option was available, though I kept checking back since hotels tend to release more C&P space closer in. If it had been, I would have spent 6,000 points and $110, giving me a value closer to 3 cents per point.
I just decided to book and pay the rate since I’m an SPG Gold elite and am hoping to requalify for next year, so this would count as one more stay and two nights towards requalification (I also have the Starwood Amex, so I already had 2 stays/5 nights’ credit towards elite status).
TPG stayed at this hotel three years ago when he visited Iguazu and was upgraded to a large suite thanks to his SPG status, but I knew I’d probably have no such luck. He said the resort was decent and the location was great, but that it was by no means a high-end property and was expensive for what it was.
I am staying in the Palermo neighborhood, so it only took me 15 minutes and AR$40 (about $8USD) to get to Jorge Newberry Airport the morning of my flight, and check in was quick and easy – I even got an exit row seat.
Boarding for LAN was pretty orderly with separate lines for the back half of the plane and the front half, though we all boarded through the front. It was interesting that there was no pre-boarding for families, disabled persons or elites, but it didn’t really matter since the plane wasn’t very full and I actually had my row all to myself.
One thing I like about flying foreign legacy carriers like LAN or Qantas, say, is that you still get some old-school amenities, and beverage service came with a little snack box that included crackers and cookies as well. The flight itself was apportioned 1 hour and 55 minutes, but the in-air time was closer to 90 minutes and we were landing before we knew it.
The Sheraton doesn’t have a shuttle, so I just took a taxi to the hotel instead, which was about a 20-minute ride and cost AR$110 ($25.50USD) plus my entrance ticket to the national park, which I had to pay on my way to the hotel since it’s inside the park, and cost $AR170 ($34USD). It’s cheaper than going into Puerto Iguazu, which is another 12 miles or so past the park entrance.
After I paid my fee at the park entrance (in cash), I hopped back in the taxi and in another 2 minutes we were pulling up to the drab ’80’s style edifice of the hotel.
Check-in was quick and I was promptly offered my choice of SPG Gold amenities: 250 bonus points, a free beverage at the bar, or free internet. I chose the internet because, well, I had to work! But it was also the best value since 24 hours of WiFi cost AR$70, or $14, so I was saving at least $28 for my stay.
I had booked the standard category room, a non-smoking King Jungle View, and had been hoping to get upgraded to a standard Falls room, but no such luck since the hotel was almost full.
The hotel reservation email had said the room was recently refurbished, but there was no way that was true.
The room was pretty small at around 250 square feet and had a simple king bed in what I’d call fairly shabby linens (the bedspread in particular seemed quite old).
It also had a small side table with two worn chairs, and a long desk/mini-bar area with a white leather Eames-style chair and a wall-mounted flatscreen above it. I did appreciate that the desk had a power outlet with an international adapter-style plug, so I could plug in my computer without having to use my single adapter.
The bathroom was pretty tiny, but had a toilet and bidet, a single sink and a combo shower-tub stocked with Sheraton products.
One nice touch was that the room had a balcony, but again the furniture was pretty old, and though I did have a view of the jungle, most of my view was of the driveway and parking lot – not exactly getting back to nature.
As I mentioned, though, one of the draws of the hotel is the fact that it is actually situated within the national park, so you just walk out the back and you can take paths to the lower falls where you can hang out in the spray of some of the waterfalls, as well as up to the crest of the falls on the Argentine side where you can watch the water pour over the rim.
There are also a few fast-food-type restaurants in the park along the paths where you can get snacks and sandwiches or stock up on water and drinks because the Sheraton sells them at such a premium (a half-liter bottle of water at the hotel is almost $6!) – just watch out for the cute but potentially ferocious coatis (sort of like huge raccoons) who hang around the rest areas looking for food from tourists and who will fearlessly approach you if you’re carrying a bag that they think has food in it.
The other nice thing is that the hotel has a desk right in the lobby for Iguazu Jungle Adventures, the main tour outfitter in the park. They run the range of usual experiences with eco hikes and tours as well as zodiac rides up and down the river and under the falls. I got suckered into their “Great Adventure” tour which includes a ride through the jungle looking at plants and animals (mostly we seemed to talk about palm trees and a special kind of papaya that grows there), then a 20-minute ride up the river to the falls where we could take pictures and get doused in the spray. It was fun and only (though freezing after “la ducha,”or the shower, in the falls) took about 90 minutes but cost AR$310 ($62USD), which was expensive for what it was.
If I were to go again, I’d just book the cheaper “Nautical Adventure” for AR$150 ($30USD). Instead of the jungle ride and cruise up the river, you just hike down to the dock that’s closer to the activities center right near the falls and take a 15-minute ride in the zodiac around the falls and take pictures and get wet. Live and learn.
Apart from the guided activities, I hiked all the paths around the park, which only took about 90 minutes or so on my first afternoon there, and then I hung out at the pool at the Sheraton, which looks over the most famous of the falls, the enormous Garganta del Diablo, and enjoyed sundowners out on the lobby bar patio, which overlooks the falls as well.
There is only one restaurant at the hotel (the ones in the park close at 5pm), where the breakfast buffet that’s included in room rates is served – including cold plates like fruit, cheese and yogurt as well as a hot buffet with eggs, bacon, crepes and things like that – as well as lunch and dinner service. I ate there my first night and got the fish platter that included two kinds of river fish, but since it was rather expensive (dinner of just the entree and a glass of wine was $60USD), I decided that the next day I’d just grab a sandwich for dinner in the lobby bar, which still cost me close to $20USD. The hotel really does take advantage of a captive audience.
The hotel actually has a little spa by the pool (where there’s another bar and restaurant during the day), and a decent little gym as well.
Check out is normally at an annoyingly early 10:00am, but I was able to ask the night before if I could extend mine until 12:30pm, which would give me just enough time to get back to the airport for my return flight, and it wasn’t an issue. The taxi ride back to the airport was the same price, but when I got to the airport, I found out that my flight was delayed an hour, which had not been updated on the LAN site, so I was stuck waiting for a while.
Luckily the little airport has WiFi, so I purchased a 2-hour pass for AR$20 ($4USD) and got some work done in the little cafeteria before my flight was ready to board. I had scored the exit row again, and had it to myself since the flight was only about half full, and in the end we were only 45 minutes late into Buenos Aires because we made time up in the air and had boarded and left IGR more quickly than if the flight had been full.
All in all, I’m glad I made it up to Iguazu. The scenery was truly spectacular and made up for the more touristy aspect of the experience. I couldn’t help feeling like the Sheraton was a huge ripoff that profited from its location and the limited hotel options up there, but at least I was able to earn some valuable SPG points and stay credits for my trip, and I had made the most of my two days there by being in the park.
Have any of you stayed there? What was your experience like? There’s no telling how much longer these cards will be around and available for new applications because of the Marriott takeover, so now might just be the perfect time to apply. Apart from hotel redemptions, you can transfer Starpoints to over 30 airline partners, and now also transfer points from Starwood to Marriott Rewards at a 1:3 ratio, opening up even more redemption options.
There’s no telling how much longer these cards will be around and available for new applications because of the Marriott takeover, so now might just be the perfect time to apply. Apart from hotel redemptions, you can transfer Starpoints to over 30 airline partners, and now also transfer points from Starwood to Marriott Rewards at a 1:3 ratio, opening up even more redemption options.