Booked: A Latin American Expedition

My next trip is coming up just around the corner, and I can’t tell you how excited I am for this one. Jessica and I will be heading to Argentina and Brazil for two weeks, with quick visits to Uruguay, Panama, and Mexico along the way.


The Trip

The highlight of this trip will be a six-day stay in Buenos Aires, which is a place that’s been near the top of my travel bucket list for as long as I can remember. I wrote a quick primer on Buenos Aires a while back and I’m so excited to see the Argentine capital for myself. From the colourful streets of La Boca to the electric tango shows in the city’s milongas, I think we’re in for one hell of an adventure.

I’ve also planned a quick side trip during my time in Buenos Aires to visit Uruguay. We’ll be taking the ferry across the Rio de la Plata to Colonia del Sacramento, a historic old fort town and UNESCO World Heritage site. We’ll also be spending the better half of a day checking out Uruguay’s capital, Montevideo, before making our way back.

That’s followed by a three-day jaunt to Iguazu Falls on the Brazil–Argentina border. Everything I’ve heard about these incredible waterfalls has indicated that it’s a real spectacle and dwarfs our very own Niagara Falls in just about every way.

 Iguazu Falls

Iguazu Falls

From there, we’ll be heading to Rio de Janeiro for five days. Rio is one of my favourites out of everywhere I’ve been to so far, and I’m excited to show Jessica the sultry vibes of The Marvellous City. On my last trip, I spent too much time watching football and hanging out on Copacabana Beach that I actually missed out on going up Sugar Loaf Mountain – one of Rio’s most popular attractions – so this time it’ll be a priority to knock that off the list.

Finally, we’ll be heading back to Toronto, but not before two long layovers in the eponymous capitals of Panama and Mexico. 18 hours in Panama City and 24 hours in Mexico City should give us plenty of time to get a taste of what lies within the streets of these two great Latin American metropolises.


The Flights

In planning this multi-stop trip, my thinking would naturally gravitate towards applying the principles of the Aeroplan Mini-RTW to enjoy stopovers in three places for over 24 hours. The tricky thing is that Star Alliance’s coverage in South America is rather weak, so in the end I had to get a little creative with the routing and scheduling.

I booked this trip last year just as Air Canada had announced their new nonstop service between Toronto and Buenos Aires. I’m excited to try out Air Canada business class for the first time, especially now that they’ve recently upgraded certain aspects of the business class experience.

While Air Canada long-haul flights notoriously incur hefty fuel surcharges if booked through Aeroplan, I was able to make this booking out of a friend’s Air Canada Super Elite account and therefore enjoy a surcharge waiver. If booked out of a regular account, this flight alone would have cost me about $1,000 in surcharges per person.

If you don’t have a Super Elite friend whose benefits you can share, another option for long-haul travel to South America is to fly with United, which operates a few flights from Houston, Chicago, and Newark to Buenos Aires, São Paulo, and Santiago.

Buenos Aires would become one of my stops of over 24 hours – indeed, as the furthest point away from Toronto out of all my over-24-hour stops, it would count as the “destination” of my trip. From there, we had to get to Iguazu Falls, which is served by two airports: Foz do Iguaçu (IGU) on the Brazilian side and Puerto Iguazu (IGR) on the Argentine side. The only possible Star Alliance flight into either airport was the Avianca Brasil services from São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, both of which sadly only feature economy class cabins.

I decided to fly into Foz do Iguaçu via São Paulo, and then fly out to Rio de Janeiro, since Aeroplan doesn’t allow you to transit the same airport twice on the same side of your “destination”. Foz do Iguaçu and Rio de Janeiro would therefore become my other two stopovers on this Aeroplan booking.

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We then needed a way to "connect the dots" by flying Star Alliance between Buenos Aires and São Paulo. Much to my delight, Ethiopian Airlines announced around the same time as my booking that they would begin flying a fifth-freedom segment (i.e., a flight between two countries operated by a third country’s airline) between the two cities. Business class space was readily available, so I picked that up to fill in the gap.

I’m excited for the sheer novelty of flying with Ethiopian for the first time between Argentina and Brazil. Getting to eat injera at 35,000 feet in the air somewhere over Rio Grande do Sul? Sign me up please.

From Rio, I needed a way to get home. The Air Canada and United long-haul flights weren’t giving me any business class availability, so I thought it was a good opportunity to try out Copa Airlines and also enjoy a few long layovers in other places I’d love to visit but wouldn’t be able to squeeze in on this trip. Therefore, the rest of our itinerary was completed with two flights in Copa business class bringing us to Panama City and Mexico City, followed by an overnight Air Canada Premium Rouge flight back to Toronto (I know, I know).

Overall, I’m very much looking forward to the variety of new airlines I’ll get to try out on this trip. Air Canada business class should be the pick of the bunch in terms of quality, and Ethiopian should be a lot of fun if only for the novelty. Meanwhile, Copa Airlines has a business model that relies on Panama City as a megahub between the Americas; none of their flight times are more than seven hours and they can therefore “get away” with providing angled seats in business class. I look forward to reviewing these flights so that you have a better idea of what you’re getting if you choose to redeem Aeroplan miles to South America.

In summary, the overall routing of the trip looks as below, all booked for 150,000 Aeroplan miles per person.

  • Toronto to Buenos Aires on Air Canada, departing 7:40pm and arriving 7:25am the next day, business class
     
  • Buenos Aires to São Paulo on Ethiopian Airlines, departing 9:30pm and arriving 12:01am the next day, business class
  • São Paulo to Foz do Iguaçu on Avianca Brasil, departing 3:30pm and arriving 5:15pm, economy class
     
  • Foz do Iguaçu to Rio de Janeiro on Avianca Brasil, departing 11:10am and arriving 1:10pm, economy class
     
  • Rio de Janeiro to Panama City on Copa Airlines, departing 1:29am and arriving 6:45am, business class
  • Panama City to Mexico City on Copa Airlines, departing 9:18pm and arriving 1:18am the next day, business class
  • Mexico City to Toronto on Air Canada Rouge, departing 12:10am and arriving 5:45am, Premium Rouge
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The Hotels

The search for accommodations for this trip turned out to be a bit of a mixed bag. In total, I needed:

  • 5 nights in Buenos Aires
  • 1 night in Montevideo
  • 1 night in São Paulo (overnight layover, so an airport hotel)
  • 3 nights in Iguazu Falls
  • 5 nights in Rio de Janeiro
  • 1 night in Mexico City (late arrival, so an airport hotel)

Given the amazing value of Marriott Travel Packages which I’ve outlined many times on the blog, my stays in both Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro seemed ripe for applying a 7-night package for the duration of the stay. That plan worked out smoothly in Rio – I booked a 7-night Category 7 package to use at the JW Marriott Rio de Janeiro, overlooking Copacabana Beach, for a total of 330,000 Marriott Rewards points (and I also got 120,000 airline miles out of it). I’ll only be staying 5 of the 7 nights, but once you factor in the airline miles, it’s very much a worthwhile proposition.

 JW Marriott Rio de Janeiro

JW Marriott Rio de Janeiro

I went about trying to do the same thing for Buenos Aires, but much to my shock and amazement, I discovered that Marriott doesn’t have any hotels in Argentina’s capital! I was taken aback by the fact that the world’s largest hotel chain had no coverage in such a significant market – after all, Buenos Aires is the most visited city in South America. It turns out there used to be a hotel called the Plaza Hotel which was part of Marriott, but exited the portfolio in 2013.

Thus, as a backup option, I checked the Starwood website and booked 5 nights at the Sheraton Buenos Aires for 8,000 Starpoints per night, taking into account the Fifth Night Free benefit. My US-issued Amex Business SPG Card will get me lounge access at this hotel, which is a great perk.

 Sheraton Buenos Aires

Sheraton Buenos Aires

Then it was time to book a hotel for three nights in Iguazu Falls, and once again, the hotel ownership gods were not smiling in my favour. You see, there are only two hotels that are actually overlooking the Iguazu Falls themselves – Belmond Hotel on the Brazilian side and the Melia Iguazu on the Argentine side. And guess what? The Melia only started being a Melia back in late 2017; before that, it was a Sheraton!

I felt frustrated and disappointed that such a magnificent opportunity to redeem points for a hotel stay had slipped under my nose. With the nightly cash rates at both of the hotels on park grounds going for about $400 a night, I decided to do the sensible thing and stay in the nearby town of Foz do Iguaçu in Brazil instead, where a basic four-star hotel, the Wyndham Golden Foz Suites, only costs $70/night.

I then finished off the hotel bookings with a few one-night stays. I opted for the cool-looking Aloft Montevideo in Uruguay’s capital, the one-night stay costing me 7,000 Starpoints for a Category 3 hotel. Then I needed some airport hotels in São Paulo and Mexico City, so I booked stays at the Marriott São Paulo Airport and the Courtyard Mexico City Airport using some free-night certificates I had earned recently.

My total out-of-pocket costs for this trip came to the below, per person:

  • Aeroplan taxes and fees, YYZ–EZE–GRU–IGU–GIG–PTY–MEX–YYZ: $213
  • Aeroplan change fee: $85
  • 3 nights at the Wyndham Golden Foz Suites: $210
  • Ferry tickets between Buenos Aires and Colonia: $103
  • Total: $611


Conclusion

There's going to be lots of new airlines and hotels to review on this trip, but most importantly I'm really looking forward to visiting some of the greatest cities and most spectacular natural wonders of South America. Argentina's fun-loving capital of Buenos Aires has been a particularly longstanding wish that's finally coming true, while I also can't wait to go back to my favourite haunts along the steps of Rio de Janeiro and see what's changed and what's still around.