In Latin America, luxury has tamed the wilderness experience, or at least made it ever so much more comfortable. For this relatively new state of luxurious affairs, we have many pioneers to thank. For example, in Chile, the debut of the stunning Explora de Patagonia put the extraordinary Torres del Paine National Park solidly on the must-see map; Explora took its exclusive, all-inclusive, eco-adventure formula to other little-known corners of Chile: the Atacama Desert and Easter Island.
In Costa Rica, the opening of the quintessential eco-lodge Lapa Rios on the Caribbean coast—a member of the newly created National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World—and the arrival of the Four Seasons brand on the Pacific, set the luxury scene for development of upscale lodgings in all corners of the country. And while not in the wilds, but once a wilderness for elegant accommodations, Orient Express (now Belmond) debuted two luxury sensations in Peru: Hotel Monasterio, arranged around graceful 16th century cloisters, and the Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge, occupying the only site right at the famous ruins; the company went one deluxe travel step further and connected its properties with the Hiram Bingham Train—rather a palace on wheels reflecting the opulence of a bygone locomotive era. Today, there is no shortage of creature comfort in the former capital of the Inca Empire, as well as the surrounding Sacred Valley. And Argentina, too, has been taming its wild settings with luxurious lodgings.
In fact, there was no shortage of nominations for Latin America’s best-in-show luxury comforts and experiences coming from my fellow bus mates, made up of a dozen U.S. and European tour operators; we are on the road in Northwest Argentina, getting our heads and hearts around the reality that this region is just plain drop-dead gorgeous.
Our host, Juan Jose Lazcano of Eurotur, gets it right when he tells us: “Think of our 5-day trip as a luxurious one: the luxury of estancias and wine estates turned tastefully into unique and elegant lodgings that reflect their settings, and the luxury of visiting a culturally important and scenically splendid destination on the cusp of discovery.”
Let’s share some highlights.
- High near the border of Bolivia, this northwestern corner offers a completely different perspective on Argentina. Here, the descendants of the Inca warriors who first met the Spanish and the heirs of the conquistadors, have been joined in recent centuries by Lebanese and Syrian sheep ranches, Korean merchants and Italian winemakers. They share a crazy-quilt landscape of stunning natural beauty: dramatic wind-carved rock formations, Andean mountain passes and Grand Canyon-like rock formations in a rainbow of striated colors; broad puma prairies where gauchos herd their flocks; and vineyards green with high-altitude vines producing quite fabulous wines.
- Prepare to enjoy the city that Argentines call Salta la Linda (Salta, the beautiful). Founded in 1582, handsome Salta was a key trading post on the mule highway between Lima, the silver mines of Bolivia and Buenos Aires—today only two hours away by air. Not only is Salta known for its superb meat empanadas and some of the world’s best preserved mummies (on view in the Andean Archaeology Museum), but other must-see attractions in this colonial town include the architecturally stunning, gingerbread cathedral of San Francisco, and the colorful, craft-filled Artisanal Market set in a beautifully restored millhouse.
- Go north from Salta to the Quebrada de Humahuaca, a UNESCO World Heritage site and splendid rift valley that cuts through the Andes and forms a natural corridor from Argentina to Bolivia: a path once well-trod by the Inca. It bristles with towering cactus and dramatically striated rock walls whose colors change by the hour with the movement of the sun. The road that connects here from Salta leads to towns with some of the region’s finest and oldest churches with simple bell towers and beautiful doors—Tumbaya is one, Purmamarca, framed by the magnificent Hill of Seven Colors, is another. Route 52 snakes west from here and rises to cross a mountain pass of nearly 13,700 ft., before descending to Salinas Grandes, a blindingly white salt flat; wild donkeys and vicunas, cousins to the llama, graze on the grassy patches along the edge of the flat.
Salta has some really fine—four-star, not five—hotels. I stayed at Alejandro 1 Hotel, which faces the well-manicured main plaza. The property is comfortable, tastefully appointed in Andean chic modern decor, spacious with panoramic city views, and offers friendly service. Rooms are priced from $185.
The high-end boutique hotel pick in Salta is Legado Mitico, with 11 guestrooms occupying a former private residence, and each named for a notable person—a poet; a gaucho; a sculptor; and dressed accordingly with art from the region. Rooms are priced from $255.
Just outside Salta, at the end of a long, tree-framed road, we find House of Jasmines, a family-run estancia sitting on nearly 300 acres that’s part of the Relais & Chateaux collection. The interiors are worthy of a House & Gardens’ spread. The 14 guest quarters include three suites, all furnished with exquisite taste: embroidered sheets, cowhide rugs, antique slipper chairs, and love seats draped with indigenous textiles. The sweet-smelling jasmine shrubs that give the property its name are joined by vegetable gardens and a fruit orchard. The La Table de House of Jasmines restaurant specializes in hearty regional cuisine—from locro stew to meat-filled empanadas. Guests will also find a wide selection of spa services. Miles of trails and open fields for walking and horseback riding surround the beautiful pool and rose garden. Priced with breakfast from $200 per room and $345 per suite.
Opened last year, the Grace Cafayate hotel and spa puts a whole new light on luxury in the Salta province. It shares the 1,360-acre La Estancia de Cafayate with 20 residential villas and two Grace Suites, 80 acres of vineyards dedicated to Malbec and Torrontes wines, horse stables and polo fields, and an 18-hole, Robert Cupp-designed golf course. Back at the hotel itself, handsome deluxe rooms and suites with wide views of the vineyards and mountains, come with WiFi, HDTVs, baths with oversize tubs, and guests enjoy a big outdoor pool and jacuzzi, poolside bar and grill, the Grace Spa, fine dining in the Muse restaurant with open kitchen, as well as a wine and cigar bar.
Archived related articles (available on recommend.com/magazine/issue archive):
Ah the Spas, Latin America Style (October 2014)
Alejandro 1 Hotel: alejandro1hotel.com.ar
Argentine Government Tourist Office: turismo.gov.ar/eng
Grace Cafayate: email@example.com; gracehotels.com
House of Jasmines: (800) 735-2478; relaischateaux.com
Legado Mitico: legadomitico.com