Interview

Stephanie Berwick: South America offers epic experiences and diversity

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October 25, 2019

We talk to Stephanie Berwick from Argentina-based DMC Garcia Fernandez Turismo (GFT) about the hot destinations, hidden gems and changing trends driving luxury travel growth in South America.

Stephanie has worked in tourism for 27 years in both MICE, corporate and private luxury travel and has been general manager of GFT for three-and-a-half years. GFT has been in business for 30 years as both an on-site DMC and an outbound travel agency. Along with Argentina, Virtuoso member GFT books bespoke itineraries across South America for its clients, including to Brazil, Peru and Chile.  

Have you seen increased demand from clients to visit South America in the past few years?

We’ve seen demand in the past couple of years rise by over 100% in terms of revenue, particularly for Argentina, which has become more attractive to visitors since the devaluation of the Argentine Peso in 2018 and again this year. Two years ago, Argentina also exempted foreign travellers from paying VAT on accommodation, so both these factors have helped boost the numbers of foreign tourists.

What destinations and experiences are growing in popularity?

Patagonia, the remote southern part of Argentina and Chile, has been growing for many years after being very well-publicised in Europe and the USA. It has three very distinct regions known for glaciers, lakes and mountains, with a host of wildlife to discover.

Perito Moreno Glacier, Argentina

One of the most popular destinations is the area around the Perito Moreno Glacier, within Los Glaciares National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in south-west Santa Cruz Province. Former Argentine president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner still lives in the nearest town of Calafate, raising the profile of the region. A popular option is to combine the glaciers with a visit to El Chalten, the national capital of trekking in Argentina, then cross over to Torres del Paine National Park on the Chilean side.

The southernmost tip of Patagonia is Tierra del Fuego (land of fire) where you can find Ushuaia, the embarkation port to Antarctica, while central Patagonia offers whale-watching off the Valdés Peninsula. We’ve also seen a surge in wine tours. Argentina’s wine industry has developed and become very popular abroad. Our famous Malbec wine’s terroir is the leading wine region of Mendoza, and we’re increasingly receiving requests for another popular wine region in the north western province of Salta.

Iguazu Falls, Argentina

The Iberá Wetlands in north-east Argentina is also on the rise. It’s a vast natural paradise and the second-largest wetland in the world. It’s a haven for wildlife and a great area for birdwatching, with over 350 species of birds. It’s a completely different natural environment to what you might find in Europe and great for outdoor activities like night safaris, boat trips and horse-riding. Further north-east you will find the Iguazu Falls, a spectacular series of 275 waterfalls which can be experienced from both the Argentine and the Brazilian side.

For some visitors, we combine their trip to Argentina with visits to Chile, Uruguay, Brazil or Peru; planning the best itineraries according to the various borders and connecting flights. They might begin their trip in Buenos Aires, then head to Bariloche, our beautiful lake district in north western Patagonia, before crossing over to Chile by boat. Or they may arrive into Argentina from Brazil or Peru. After visiting the Iguazu Falls, they can travel to Salta and Jujuy in the west, then cross into northern Chile by road to visit the Atacama Desert.

Punta del Este, Uruguay

Those visiting in December, January or February may also want to visit the glamorous Punta del Este beaches in Uruguay. It’s a popular celebrity hangout over the New Year period, and it’s only a 45-minute flight from Buenos Aires.

What destinations or experiences do you recommend to clients visiting South America for the first time?

Whale-watching

It really depends on the time of year you visit and how long you have to stay! Something unique about Argentina is that it is an all-year-round destination. if you’re coming between June and October, I would recommend the north-west, north-east or central part of Argentina. If you’re visiting in our summer months of November to March, we would recommend central Patagonia for whale-watching during the migration period, or other areas of Patagonia. Some visitors love the heat, so for them Iguazu Falls is the ideal trip!

The amount of time and budget you have is important. Bear in mind that the distances in South America are tremendous. It’s a three-hour flight from Buenos Aires to the glaciers in Patagonia, or two hours to the Mendoza wine region. That means it’s not possible to do a trip around Argentina in a few days. It can take a full day of travel to get to another destination, although we have very well-connected flights and it is easily the best way to travel throughout the country.

Are there any ‘hidden gems’ that you recommend to clients looking for something new or different?

Nahuel Huapi Lake, Argentina

We offer some unique experiences and off-the-beaten-path destinations. For remote or unique destinations, we might recommend hiking in the Nahuel Huapi National Park in the foothills of the Patagonian Andes. On the shores of Nahuel Huapi Lake, we would arrange an exclusive culinary experience for you, with classical musicians playing in the background, in a secluded setting in the middle of nature with no other tourists as far as the eye can see.

Salta, Argentina

Few people have heard of Salta, Jujuy and Tucuman provinces in the north west of Argentina. The unique pre-Hispanic culture you’ll find there is authentic and very different to anything that can be found in Europe. We expose visitors to cultural experiences that focus on how to make traditional empanadas or learn the art of weaving or local pottery. The pre-Hispanic culture is infused with tribal culture that stretches back to the Incas who migrated from Peru, so there is a huge contrast with other regions of Argentina.

Have you seen any themes or trends emerge in South American luxury travel?

We’ve seen a huge increase in experiential travel, such as culinary, wine, cultural and art tours in the past two or three years.

Salt flats, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

We’re also seeing an increase in adventure travel and active holidays. Most honeymooners come here not to relax or lie on a beach, but to have an adventure together – kayaking, cycling and horseback riding. Usually with the help of the agency who contacted us, we prepare gifts and surprises in advance so they can have unique experiences at different destinations with souvenirs and opportunities for memorable photographs.

Another theme is multi-generation travel. We organise trips with grandparents, parents and young children in large groups of up to 35 people, so we cater to different tastes, activities and rhythms of life, to make sure everyone is happy with their daily activities.

What is something that might surprise us about luxury travel in South America?

Iguazu Falls, Argentina

There are some wonderful properties in Argentina, indeed some spectacular ones, but not all offer luxurious suites. Luxury in South America is more about the location and the experience. Certain activities have not been standardised so much in Argentina, so in certain parts of our national parks - the Iguazu Falls on the border with Brazil, for example - we could cordon off an exclusive area for our guests and serve an outdoor buffet in the middle of the jungle.

The country is relatively new to incoming tourism in Argentina, as it has developed in the last 30 years or so. We’re quite unspoilt in that sense. We can do a lot of customising and give visitors experiences they may not believe are possible, and most will be surprised at the friendliness of the local people.

What is the best VIP experience in South America?

The Spirit of the Glaciers, Los Glaciares National Park. Photo credit

That’s a very difficult one to answer! But I can think of a couple of a truly unique experiences that I would recommend as ‘VIP’.

The Spirit of the Glaciers is a cruise that navigates Los Glaciares National Park in the Calafate region, offering a magnificent combination of forests, lakes, mountains, ice fields and steppes with views of the vast glaciers. It's a perfect combination of high-end comfort and gourmet cuisine, with pristine wilderness all around you.

The boat itself only has 20 cabins so it’s an intimate experience where you can enjoy a fabulous seven-course dinner onboard. It makes you feel very special when you’re the only group left in the national park at night after everyone has gone home, and you can awake to stunning, unspoiled beauty all around you.

At the opposite extreme of the country, the Salinas Grandes Salt Flats are another awe-inspiring experience; in the far north west of Argentina at 3,450 metres (11,320 feet) above sea level. I first went there 18 years ago and experienced for the first time what the expression 'deafening silence' meant. The complete solitude and emptiness of the truly otherworldly landscape, perhaps influenced by the high altitude and lack of oxygen, made this a one-of-a-kind experience.

You won’t find the same kind of luxury in South America as you might find in Asian properties. You won’t find gold taps in your bathtub or butlers on every floor. Luxury here is different - you’ll find an authentic luxury that is unique and original. You may not find many tourists from North America and Europe at all in more remote locations such as the north west or parts of Patagonia. There are so many unexplored, off-the-beaten-track destinations in Argentina.

What does luxury mean to you these days?

Luxury for me is uniqueness – something that moves my core and makes me feel emotionally connected to the land, people and place.

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