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Trip Report: Eric’s Adventure at Iguazu Falls, Argentina

by on March 26, 2013 · 18 comments

in British Airways, Lan, Starwood, Trip Reports

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.

Iguazu Falls is one of the wonders of the natural world.

Iguazu Falls is one of the wonders of the natural world.

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.

The ticket would have cost nearly $500.

The ticket would have cost nearly $500.

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.

My award ended up costing 15,000 Avios and $74.

My award ended up costing 15,000 Avios and $74.

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.

The Flight

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.

LAN and Aerolineas planes at AEP.

LAN and Aerolineas planes at AEP.

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 Hotel

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.

The exterior didn't exactly ooze charm.

The exterior didn’t exactly ooze charm.

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.

Iguazu Sheraton room descI knew I was going to be overpaying for the product, but spending over $300 a night for what I got seemed like a huge racket on Starwood’s part.

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).

Sheraton bed

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.

Iguazu Sheraton desk

The bathroom was pretty tiny, but had a toilet and bidet, a single sink and a combo shower-tub stocked with Sheraton products.

Iguazu Sheraton bathThe closet had a creaky sliding door and a malfunctioning safe, along with a few hangers and a small hair dryer in case I wanted it.

Sheraton closet

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.

My jungle view left something to be desired.

My jungle view left something to be desired.

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.

The Sheraton has direct access to the park's paths.

The Sheraton has direct access to the park’s paths.

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.

Along the rim of the falls.

Along the rim of the falls.

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.

Approaching the falls in the zodiac.

Approaching the falls in the zodiac.

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.

After my shower in the falls.

After my shower in the falls.

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.

My fish was good...but not $60 good!

My fish was good…but not $60 good!

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.

The gym was actually pretty decent.

The gym was actually pretty decent.

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?

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  • Eric

    Great review…been to Argentina 15 times (always on vacation) and have yet to been to Iguazu. The USD-ARS rate is much higher than what you are being charged…so using credit cards are actually not the best way to go. Officially the rate is somewhere around 5.10 when on the black market it was up to 8.75. Quite a significant drop

  • Eric

    Also, I’ve been to San Martin de los Andes, & Bariloche along with Mendoza and the wine route, you should visit Patagonia for some good nature hikes along the andes mountains

  • Fritz

    Hey! I’ve been there! We stayed on the Brasil side at Hotel Das Cataratas.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=583406016 Tracey Gibson

    I was able to get the Argentina citizen rate by booking through a website in Spanish. You might need a translator or some sort of translating device. (I did this and I speak zippo Spanish) Once you click on the American or British flag to get the info in English, the prices go up. I did this a couple of years ago, but can’t exactly remember which website I used. But I only paid around $150 for my ticket and I used a credit card. Also, I thought they might charge me something different at the airport when they saw my U.S. passport, but they didn’t. So I would suggest that next time. :-)

  • Jonathan

    Ouch, only 2 miles (each away) above the first tier of the avios award chart! Would’ve saved 6000pts r/t… Oh well, gotta do what you gotta do. :)

  • http://mreverydaydollar.com/ Mr. Everyday Dollar

    If you’re traveling on a budget, getting around on bus (free wine!) in Argentina is fantastic. We looked at taking flights within Argentina as well until we found out the costs for a foreigner were obscenely expensive, so bus it was.

    For our one night at the Sheraton Iguazu Falls, we opted for the cheapest “jungle view” room, in actuality a “parking lot view” room. It was fine because we didn’t spend much time in the room; being on the trails, poolside, or outside on the patio of the lobby bar is bliss.

    You pay for convenience staying at there and as we only had one full day at the falls we felt it was worth it. Staying outside the park would have been a hassle and would have cut valuable time from getting the most out of the falls.

    Tip 1: We checked out at noon and had them hold our bags. After spending all day at the park we wanted to shower before our bus so we used the bathrooms/showers by the pool. These showers are so much better than the ones in the room!

    Tip 2: Be sure to ask for the rooftop key card. You get a fantastic view of the falls and can hang out up there with a glass of wine as the sun goes down. Nobody goes up there.

    Check out my trip to Argentina at http://mreverydaydollar.com/5-ways-to-save-money-on-vacation/ which also includes how I stayed four nights at the Palacio Duhau in BA for $0 (thanks to TPG!).

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  • KateMPH

    Really wish I had this post last year while planning our trip to Iguazu. It was definitely an awesome visit. We landed a great room, falls facing from the center with a little balcony. The Sheraton is the only place to stay; we used Cash and Points and it was a great redemption.

    I agree the food at the hotel was pricey. I wish we had stocked up on cheap wine and snacks before hand. We also did a Full Moon Tour – which was amazing, to be able to see the falls at night so close up with only the full moon as your light.

    One other thing – the spa was actually pretty nice too.

  • Rob

    I’ll also point out that you could have used points and still gotten SPG stay/night credit. They changed that policy awhile back.

  • FlavCity

    Good work on using B.A. points for LAN, that $500 rt fare scared me off last year when I was in recoleta also.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=20973 Heather L. Cannady

    We stayed at the Loi when it first opened and it was less than $75 a night. It was AMAZING!

  • http://twitter.com/dapperdanj Dan Johnson

    Cheaper, definitely, to stay on the Brazil side and do one day in Brazil and a day in Argentina. The Brazilian town of Iguazu is more full-featured (it’s a border town w/ Paraguay, so there’s an economy other than the falls), and the money you’ll save will make up for the cost of the Brazilian Visa. And, that Visa is good for many years, so if you go back to Brazil, you’re good. Less hotel cost, much lest meal cost, more to do in the evening.

    If you’re already in Brazil, you can *probably* (reports vary) just take the bus to the Argentine side and explain to the border guards that it’s a one-day trip. There’s a good chance they won’t charge you the visa fee.

  • thetravelplaybook

    I stayed at the Sheraton two years ago, Gold status, but was upgraded to the falls suite. Lots of noise from renovating on other floors during the day. The rate was quite expensive, but I found the restaurant’s buffet amazing and the location prime. I flew in from the Brazil side, which meant a $50 taxi but a cheaper flight (the rest of my travels that trip were in Rio/Sao Paulo).

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  • Brad
  • Jessica McKernan

    I’m traveling out to this area in September for business so your post was extremely helpful. I’ve been looking at hotels in Iguazu as well as planning my days to see as much as I can in the short amount of time I’m there. I’ll have to keep this all in mind, thanks so much!

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