As a former overland driver and expedition leader in South and Central America, I’ve witnessed over my lifetime seismic changes in South America, from coup d’etats, revolutions World Cups, the rise and fall of the drug industry of the 80’s, and most strikingly a shift in the quality of travel and accommodation in this wonderful part of the world. I can recall on those overland journeys arriving into many a city where we enjoyed the “luxury” of checking into a simple, local hotel. Let me define luxury for a traveller who spends three or more months on a bus: hot water, a bed with clean sheets, and electricity. Mind you, we also camped quite a bit so any hotel was a nice treat. During those days, accommodation choices in even major urban centres were limited and low quality, except for the most exclusive hotels which were known more for their armed-security than for their amenities.
How times have changed! I for one as a traveller have changed in my personal preferences and tastes. The world headlines have also changed, the violence and revolutions once typical of this region are gone and forgotten, and the entire region is experiencing years of stability, economic improvement and growth. The type of traveller to South America has also drastically changed. While there are still overland buses rumbling along the Andes, a new type of traveller is on the up-rise, a cultured, globetrotting traveller who’s been around the world and back has now pinpointed Latin America as very much on their bucket list, and as such there have been tremendous changes in the types of accommodation, touring, comfort, cuisine and style of travel here.
I am still an intrepid traveler at heart, so the choice of being “roughty toughty” during the day but relaxing in top notch accommodation at night is now an easy choice. My style now fuses hiking boots and local markets with exquisite cuisine and a private, local guide. I’ve traded the lurching overland bus to spacious air-conditioned vans with cold water and snacks on board… and I haven’t even begun to describe some of the well appointed train cars and rail travel options!
If you can’t already tell, I love all of Latin America, and arranging travel there is my professional pleasure. It’s a destination which still delivers excitement, even for someone like me who’s been there and everywhere, multiple times, and to do so in total comfort. The time is now right, as there has never been a better time to travel here.
The first destinations most globetrotters think of when considering South America are Peru and Ecuador, likely due to two world renowned sites: Machu Picchu and the Galapagos Islands. To journey here in style is easy, and below Ill provide specific examples. After that, Ill try and give a quick run-through of the leaders of experiential hotel and travel experiences in Chile, Argentina and Brazil.
In Peru, Belmond Hotels, formerly Orient Express, endeavour to set the benchmark of exclusive accommodation, with properties like the Palacio Nazarenas or the Monasterio in Cusco, historical buildings turned luxurious hotels. They’re so incredible, there’s a compelling case to travel all the way to Cusco just to see them (They’re also next door to each other within a beautiful plaza, you might just have to stay at both!). Competing alongside them are local boutique operations such as the Casa Andina and their Private Collection series, Aranwa Hotels, or Libertador. All of these hotels however are noteworthy not just for their service, their cuisine, historical or modern architecture, but in the locations of the properties themselves, like the Sacred Valley, tree-lined avenues of central Lima, the shores of Lake Titicaca or in the shadows of soaring condors with the Colca Canyon.
As the saying goes, “the journey is more important than the destination”, so considering a phenomenal arrival into Machu Picchu from Cusco aboard the well appointed Hiram Bingham train, famous for it’s top-notch meals within it’s candlelit vintage dining car. Considering dinner, step out of your hotel in Cusco to experience the forefront of Peru’s gastronomic scene at one of many fine restaurants, one of my favourites being the Cicciolina restaurant. One cannot get to Cusco without first visiting Lima, and I’ve been actively encouraging my travellers to consider a private tour of the fascinating Larco Museum followed by a simple but fine dining experience with a Peruvian twist. The words “unique dining experiences” are a dime a dozen in travel marketing lingo, but one such experience I recognize is to journey into the sandy deserts south of Lima (you could visit the Nazca lines, or simply for it’s natural beauty as many are unaware of Peru’s desert coast), where a ‘Bedouin Tent’ of sorts houses a gourmet spread while you daze into a warm fire or the cool star-lit sky.
Peru is easily a standalone destination, as is Ecuador, but both countries combine perfectly well together, and little Ecuador easily competes with their next-door neighbour in providing exclusive travel experiences. It’s hard not to begin by mentioning the Galapagos, which most of our travellers experience by small cruising vessel (although there are some land-based alternatives). The smallest ships carry 16 passengers, while one of the ‘larger’ ships is the La Pinta (50 passengers), which I suggest for those looking for a bit more space while on-board, which has a library, large deck areas and great chefs.
I’ve actually lost count of how many times I’ve been to Ecuador, but take it from myself as well as my sales-team – you must experience Ecuador’s mainland along with the Galapagos – it’s totally worth the extra couple days, and a lovely contrast to the drastically different islands. Ecuador’s vastly improved their rail network as of late, and while there are a few noteworthy routes, one combines perfectly with the Galapagos, travelling by rail from Guayaquil (where all flights to Galapagos touch-down in) to the capital and international airport of Quito. The high-altitude capital has a vibrant gastronomic scene, and we often send travellers to La Ronda restaurant, which consistently ranks as one of the cities finest. To properly round off the ultimate Ecuadorian travel experience my personal recommendation, having now done the Galapagos, the train from Guayaquil to Quito, would be to visit the cloud forest of Mashpi Lodge, 1-2 hours drive from the capital, where this eco-conscious, award winning hotel has only recently opened, and then finishing in the Otavalo region, home to one of South America’s best open air markets (great for souvenirs, plus decent leather goods too). For accommodation nearby, consider nothing other than the 400 year old Hacienda Pinsaqui, which has unique significance in South Americas history.
Differing noticeably from Ecuador and Peru are the much more European like Chile and Argentina. I’ve already mentioned I do enjoy ‘roughing’ it in the day, so for those like me – you’ve got to experience Patagonia, which can feel like a prehistoric slice of earth. There are a range of accommodation choices in the area which spans both countries borders, but Tierra properties in Chile are a sure-bet, and the architecture and casual-adventure focus greatly impress me. There mountain guides will share a drink with you as you peruse maps and plan your following days experiences, from mountain treks to horse-rides over the Pampas… both great reasons to end up in their excellent Spa. In Chile’s North you’ll find the moon-like Atacama desert, set high amongst the Altiplano, where you might consider the brand new Awasi property, absolutely stunning! Far from Chile’s deserts and mountains, you’ll find one of the most exclusive travel destinations on Earth, the Easter Islands. Recognizable by their famous, stern-faced Moai statues, the terrain is quite interesting, and wild horses roam freely. Truthfully, accommodation choices on the island though are often considered ‘rustic’, but one of South America’s finest hotel chains, Explora, maintain a property here, and discerning travellers should consider this there only option, and totally worth it. One lunch to remember could be a private, picnic lunch beach-side on Easter Island, something we’ve received great feedback from.
Argentina might perhaps need no explanation for it’s quality travel experiences and accommodation, from Parisian like Buenos Aires to the wine lodges and gaucho ranches of Mendoza. Brazil appeals to me more often for it’s jungles – but foodies will know that Rio is home to one of the legendary Cipriani restaurants, set within the cities finest hotel, the Copacabana, where we’ve often arranged for our travellers to dine at the chef’s table. Brazil is one of 3 countries bordering the roaring Iguassu Falls where mere steps from the falls you’ll find the Das Cataratas, an oasis of luxury amongst thick, inhospitable jungle.
If you can’t tell – I could go on and on. With such advances in travel experiences in South America, I’ve simply chosen the most striking, stand-out experiences to list here. When you’re ready to experience South America, rest easy (no pun intended) in the knowledge of the rise of so many luxury travel experiences which I can promise you, were well worth the wait. If you’ve saved Latin America at the bottom of your bucket list, or hold it at the top, there has never been a better time to explore this phenomenal continent!