Certainly these were the key ingredients on the leisure travel menu of travel products and services during the one event those of us who focus on Central and South America attend every year: TravelMart LatinAmerica (TMLA). Managed by William H. Coleman Inc., TMLA is a 3-day marathon of business meetings and social exchanges that gives all attendees a chance to find out what’s new, what’s hot, and what’s trendy among the leading buyers and sellers specializing in Central and South American destinations. Let’s take a look at some of the client-pleasing discoveries that support these current travel trends south of our border.
addicted to deluxe
The Latin America travel experience has been enhanced by two decades of extensive development of upscale hotels and resorts, boutique lodges and jungle inns—fitted out with sybaritic spas and all-suite treats. From capital cities and colonial towns, to the farthest country corners, comfort levels in accommodations keep soaring to new heights—flying the banners of luxury and ecological correctness. Joining the up-scaling celebration are expedition cruises and even new horizons of train travel.
In Central America, surely one of the reasons Costa Rica draws more than two million international guests a year is its offering of high-quality creature comforts countrywide. This month on the Pacific coast the deluxe 153-room Andaz Peninsula Papagayo resort (papagayo.andaz.hyatt.com) opened with accommodations that include 21 suites with plunge pools. As I reported in the October 2013 issue, this is the “first venture into Latin America for the Andaz brand,” adding that the “design concept for Andaz taps into Mother Nature for inspiration.” In the country’s inland area, meanwhile, in the Guanacaste lowlands, Rio Perdido (rioperdido.com), a luxury multi-adventure resort, opens this month with 20 beautiful bungalows, natural hot springs and a spa. And as Leigh Ann Cloutier, president of Rico Tours, noted in the Costa Rica feature that appeared in the March 2013 issue, Costa Rica: A Trio of Detours, “Part of the reason that Costa Rica is such a successful repeat travel destination is that superb new lodgings in lesser-visited corners of the country lure visitors back.” Some of her examples included the Monte Azul Boutique Hotel that, as I wrote, “adds luxury at the gateway to Chirripo National Park in the south,” as well as the recently opened Copa De Arbol Beach and Rainforest Resort on Drake Bay.
In Panama City, meanwhile, Waldorf Astoria Hotels & Resorts is expanding into Latin America with the opening of the 248-room Waldorf Astoria Panama (waldorfastoriapanama.com), featuring four distinct restaurants and bars including its signature Peacock Alley. On the other hand, RIU Hotels & Resorts is heading to the sea in the Cocle province for the debut of its second hotel in Panama, the RIU Playa Blanca (riu.com), which will have 573 rooms, four restaurants, five bars and three swimming pools.
Many of us who cover Latin America have journeyed—once, twice, maybe three times—to the northern coast of Honduras to cover the development of the major resort area of Tela Bay. It has been our longest-running “coming attractions” story ever. But listen up, for come the first quarter of 2014, the curtain’s indeed going up on a new luxury-showcase property, luxe and lovely Indura Beach & Golf Resort (induraresort.com), opening along a 26-mile stretch of Tela Bay. The resort will incorporate 60 jr. suites, an 18-hole Gary Player golf course and a wellness sanctuary; other guest treats will include hiking and birdwatching in nearby nature reserves and whitewater rafting on the Rio Cangrejal. Already big, beautiful and new is Nicaragua’s first ultra-luxurious resort, the 35-villa Mukul Resort & Spa (mukulresort.com), spread along the almost deserted white sands of Playa Manzanillo on the Emerald Coast. I visited this past year, and as I noted in the November 2013 issue in the Nicaragua onsite, “We loved the privacy, the quiet and the sunset views from hilltop bohios…. Mukul is gorgeous. The supervising decorators have created stunning yet informal public areas that stretch from the indoor/outdoor restaurant and to the pools overlooking the beach, to the Kul Kids club and the special room for Flor de Caña rum tastings.”
Or if your clients are thinking small, consider Little Corn Island, named one of the top three destinations to visit in 2013 by The New York Times. On Little Corn, travelers can now find the new Yemaya Island Hideaway & Spa (littlecornhotel.com) with 16 spacious oceanfront cabanas, pristine white beaches and a colorful reef system just offshore.
In South America, after a $75 million restoration, Montevideo’s heritage-listed Hotel Casino Carrasco has reopened as Sofitel Montevideo Casino Carrasco & Spa (sofitel.com), introducing a lavish, French-style palace hotel to the Uruguayan capital, while in Valparaiso, Chile, the 23-room Hotel Palacio Astoreca (hotelpalacioastoreca.com), occupying a restored Victorian mansion, was voted by Conde Nast Traveler one of the best new hotels in the world. Over in Colombia, the elegant Casa San Agustin (hotelcasasanagustin.com), with 31 rooms, some with 25-ft. ceilings, has rooftop terraces overlooking the domes of the old town’s cathedrals, while offshore on Providencia Island, romantics have discovered Deep Blue (epoquehotels.com), a beautiful boutique hotel hideaway with 14 rooms including luxury suites with plunge pools and 180-degree ocean views.
But no country surpasses Peru nowadays in upping its deluxe hotel inventory. For example, just opened in Lima’s seaside and artsy suburb Barranco is Hotel B (hotelb.pe), occupying a Belle Epoque mansion, superbly remodeled to house 17 guestrooms, a spa and a signature restaurant by Oscar Velarde, while the Aranwa Hotels, Resorts & Wellness group opened the 41-room Aranwa Colca Resort & Spa in the Colca Valley this year, and next year its 100-room Aranwa Paracas Resort & Spa (aranwahotels.com) will debut on the Pacific coast. And Cusco, once the capital of the Inca Empire, is once again a city fit for kings—Libertador Palacio del Inca (libertador.com.pe), which incorporates the magnificent Cuatro Bustos mansion, has reopened its doors as a Luxury Collection property, while the latest addition to the uber-luxe scene is the 153-room JW Marriott Hotel Cusco (marriott.com), built over the old 16th century Convent of San Agustin.
rivers & rails
From the Amazon to the Strait of Magellan to the Galapagos Islands, the waterways of Latin America are tailor-made for adventure, and new river and expedition vessels are increasingly being upgraded for comfort in the wilds. In October, International Expeditions (ietravel.com) launched its new 31-passenger river vessel, La Estrella Amazonica, cruising on the Peruvian Amazon from Iquitos in a 10-day program. Measuring 220 sq. ft., all cabins feature river views and private balconies, and public areas include a 1,000-sq.-ft. observation deck, multimedia lecture room, fitness center and kayaks. In Ecuador, the 18-suite Anaconda (advantagecuador.com), the most luxurious river vessel now afloat in this corner of Amazonia, made its debut in August, cruising on 3- and 4-night expeditions and visiting both Yasuni National Park and the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve.
Farther south, the new 42-passenger Santa Cruz, part of Cruceros MarPatag (crucerosmarpatag.com), is offering its Spirit of the Glaciers program, navigating on 2-night sailings among the glaciers—Perito Moreno, Mayo, Upsala and Spegazzini—of Lago Argentino in Patagonia. The season is October to April, and boarding is at a private dock 30 minutes from El Calafate. And way farther south coming round the tip of South America, expedition cruise line Australis (australis.com) has rebranded its name, previously Cruceros Australis. There’s no change in its two luxury vessels—Via Australis and Stella Australis—that follow the path of Charles Darwin between Punta Arenas, Chile to Ushuaia, Argentina from September through April.
Riding the rails, the luxury Tren Ecuador (ecuadorbytrain.com) is on track for its 4-day adventure program, offering an imaginative, expertly guided and comfortable way to experience Ecuador: Traveling between Quito to Guayaquil (including the dramatic “Devil’s Nose” segment), with overnights in traditional haciendas with meals, visits to colorful indigenous markets, museums, towns, farms and national parks. During TMLA in Quito, we got to see the four high-styled, thematically decorated carriages: Spanish Colonial, Republican period, pre-Hispanic-Andean (handicraft shop and coffee bar are here), and Coastal Classico (with outdoor viewing terrace). Accommodating 54 passengers on guaranteed departures of one to three nights, El Tren offers a mix of lounge areas for socializing, refreshment and observation of the majestic landscapes.
Costa Rica has long been the frontrunner in sustainable tourism operations: From officially zoning some 26 percent of its land as protected territory, to supporting a countrywide—hotels, tour operators, transportation companies—participation of its travel industry in the Certification of Sustainable Tourism (CST) program. Recommend asked Rolando Campos, sales director of San Jose-based Swiss Travel, how having a CST rating changes a tour operator’s way of delivering services. “Following the approximately 2-year certification process, great value was added to our operations,” he says. “We now offer our visitors far more information that improves the quality of their experiences, from sociocultural background to environmental tips, and the activities themselves have changed to incorporate the social and environmental issues of specific communities and the country in general.” Perhaps there’s a link between Costa Rica’s strong commitment to sustainable tourism and the country’s highest rate of satisfied, repeat travelers in Central America.
U.S. tour operators not only recognize a sustainability trend but they support it fully because they believe in “going green.” With Culture Xplorers (culturexplorers.com), five-time winner of Conde Nast Traveler’s “Trips of a Lifetime Award,” the road to sustainable travel leads to its sole product: small-group (10 passengers) and tailor-made tours that will, according to company president Jim Kane, “whet your appetite, travel deeply, extend your experience, make a difference, tread lightly.” This interviewer had a further question: “You have a fascinating brand of touring, chock-full of authentic elements. Is the market growing for your kind of travel?” Kane responds, “Yes, I think this style of travel is definitely growing in demand. Travelers are looking for experiences that will draw them below the surface of a place and connect them with local people and rich living traditions in an engaging and natural way.” In the Americas, have a look at Culture Xplorers’ programs in Peru, Guatemala, Cuba, Oaxaca and Chiapas in Mexico.
Latin America travel planners are paying special attention to that buzz phrase, “experiential travel” and coming up with creative ways to meet demands for authentic and enriching vacations. But have you noticed that the biggest boom in traveler-enrichment experiences seem focused on food, food, and more food: discovering local markets, visiting coffee and chocolate estates, joining cooking seminars, sampling farm-to-fork immersion in regional cuisine, or on a different track, dining at starred restaurants and meeting or cooking with local chefs. Consider just this soupcon of culinary travel-flavored programs.
Clients can now discover Argentina’s gastronomy renaissance with Zicasso Travel (zicassotravel.com) on an 11-day custom food and wine vacation, tasting one’s way from Buenos Aires to Bariloche and the wine country of Mendoza. Travelers have the chance to shop in local food markets, participate in classes featuring authentic Argentine dishes, enjoy home-cooked meals with local families, discover great wines, and meet with chefs who are re-creating a national cuisine based on sourcing locally grown ingredients.
New to the foodie travel table is Costa Rica, now covered by Latin American Escapes (latinamericanescapes.com) in a 7-day Costa Rica Culinary Adventure, mixing nature and adventure with a coffee, cheese and chocolate extravaganza. Stays at Finca Rosa Blanca Coffee Plantation & Resort and Monte Azul Art Resort also include culinary activities such as cooking workshops, market visits, farm-to-table tours and mouthwatering dining.
In Guatemala, Viaventure (viaventure.com) takes adventurous-eating clients on a Street Eats tour that introduces Antigua’s street food hotspots; in a special workshop, they learn about the chocolate-making process by making their own chocolate from scratch; and in the traditional San Jorge La Laguna Maya community at Lake Atitlan, they join a local guide to go to the colonial church, learn about traditional dress, explore sacred caves, and for a grand finale, help make tortillas before sitting down to lunch with a local family.
Ladatco Tours (ladatco.com) has designed culinary tours to four different countries. Its 14-day Culinary Chile tour, staying at deluxe hotels, includes a chef’s workshop in Santiago, visits to the Santa Rita vineyards and wine valleys of Cachapoal and Colchagua with lunches at the wineries, two nights in Valparaiso including meal preparation with a local chef, four nights at Cliffs Preserve, an eco-retreat and private preserve in Patagonia, with culinary activities, bird and whale watching, horseback riding, spa time and sportfishing.
And no country gets more attention—deserved attention that is—than Peru. Its roster of famous chefs preparing cuisine, long-recognized as the continent’s best, gleaned Peru this year’s World Travel Award as South America’s leading culinary destination. In one of many tours on the market is Adventure Life’s (adventure-life.com) 8-day Peru Cuisine Tour, visiting Lima (dining around), Cusco (shopping for and preparing platos tipicos), the Sacred Valley (learning about sustainable agriculture practices and how to make chicha), and Machu Picchu, savoring both traditional and NovoAndina dishes along the way. I highlighted Peru’s Lambayeque cuisine In The Road to Ruins: Peru’s Northern Kingdoms feature that appeared in the May 2013 issue, writing that Fiesta Chiclayo Gourmet and Fiesta Trujillo Gourmet were especially good restaurant choices for gourmands visiting northern Peru. “Hector Solis is chef and founder of these gourmet temples…he is particularly famous for his mastery of seafood, which he serves on hot stones,” I noted.
This year, we gathered for TMLA in Quito, a city more captivating than ever following its recent $220 million restoration, and the capital of Ecuador, whose Minister of Tourism, Vinicio Alvarado, announced during the TravelMart that “over the next four years we are budgeting $660 million to promote tourism to the country and improve tourism-related infrastructure, development and training.” I was a delegate when Quito first hosted TMLA in 1983—just five years after UNESCO proclaimed the capital the first city on its World Heritage List. Needless to say, what a difference 30 years makes. Although modern Quito’s now all grown up, her Old Town was always considered the best-preserved colonial center in South America. Among my new finds in the Old Town were the Casa del Alabado, a gem of a small museum exploring the mystical side of pre-Columbian art; La Ronda, where a new crop of artisan studios and shops—as well as the 22-room La Casona de la Ronda Hotel (casadelaronda.com)—arranged around a beautiful central patio—occupy 17th century buildings along the narrow, pedestrian-only street; fine-dining meccas from the Plaza Grande Cafe to Mia Culpa; and the talk-of-the-Old Town Casa Gangotena (casagangotena.com), an elegant 31-room boutique hotel occupying a historic mansion whose rooftop terrace offers the best seat in the house on Plaza San Francisco below and the Pichincha Volcano in the distance. Priceless!
check in with rainforest alliance
Savvy agents and travelers looking for sustainable vacation options in Latin America and the Caribbean can now find them by visiting sustainabletrip.org. This online search tool, developed by the Rainforest Alliance, provides a database of sustainably ranked hotels, tour operators and other businesses such as restaurants or car rental companies. Features are in-depth profiles for each business that includes information on amenities and rates; description of the area and activities; a Google map of the business’ location; photos and videos; and actions that the business is taking to demonstrate sustainability.
The Guatemala Specialist Program, the Panama Specialist Program and the Costa Rica Specialist Program 1 offer information on the many activities—from cultural to active—as well as the varied vacation options available to your clients in these Central American countries. The Costa Rica Specialist Program 2, meanwhile, allows you to gain a thorough understanding of the country’s Certificate for Sustainable Tourism program.