Checking-In To Latin America

written by | Posted on December 10th, 2012

El Secret on Ambergris Caye in Belize offers 13 Villa Accommodations.

The region upped the ante in 2012, with a booming hotel industry and a bevy of new product.

Many of us who focus on Latin America look forward to TravelMart Latin America (TMLA), an annual ingathering of buyers and sellers of travel products and services, this year held in Cartagena, next year in Quito. The 3-day marathon of business meetings, orchestrated by William H. Coleman, Inc., gives all attendees a chance to find out what’s trendy, what’s hot, and what’s new among Latin American destinations. All destinations that are tailor-made for today’s kinds of vacation experiences: active and adventurous, nature-oriented, family-minded, romantic, cultural and involving, and chock-full of comfort. We made some client-pleasing discoveries.

the boutique hotel bonanza
In the 21st century, the hotel development in Central and South American destinations has been a boom industry, expanding and upscaling their lodging infrastructures by leaps and bounds. But it is the luxury boutique hotels—found by the sea, in the cities, close to vineyards, near World Heritage Sites, in the rainforest—that have dramatically changed the hospitality offering.

“In 2012, as in the previous year, the most requested destination is always Peru, and now that Machu Picchu is one of the new Seven Wonders of the World, the whole world wants to go there.”

Pam Walker, President, Walker Adventures

Crillon Tours is offering an adventure for two in an Airstream caravan in Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni.

In Belize, the 13-villa El Secreto, a luxurious oasis on Ambergris Caye located 11 miles north of San Pedro Town, pulls out all the stops offering, as the owners Abraham Roffe and Abraham Saade, say, “barefoot luxury with top-notch service.” This South Pacific-inspired resort, which opened in October, offers seclusion complemented by a delightful home-away-from-home service where the staff actually knows your name (with only 13 villas, it feels like family). The spacious accommodations are stunning, with beautiful decor, private jacuzzis and outdoor showers, and some of the most comfortable beds we’ve ever slept on—all under a palapa roof. Days can be spent on a hammock by the beach, biking into town, snorkeling along the world’s second largest barrier reef, taking an adventurous excursion to Mayan ceremonial centers or enjoying a spa treatment. Look for the full onsite in an early-2013 Recommend issue.

In Chile, Explora Patagonia (Hotel Salto Chico) in Torres del Paine National Park led the way in high-style wilderness lodges (and continued the tradition in the Atacama Desert and on Easter Island). The Patagonia hotel scene has also been making boutique headlines with the opening of the 54-room The Singular Patagonia, overlooking the fjords outside Puerto Natales. And perhaps the newest boutique-hotel formula of all is the Dos Lagos Lodge (doslagoslodge.com), an exclusive retreat made up of a lodge and cottages—with views over Paloma Lake or the Andes—that can be booked only on a whole-house, full-service basis, ensuring total privacy for groups of friends or families, up to 28 people. Capitalizing on its great outdoors, activities include fishing, mountain biking, hiking, horseback riding, kayaking, jet boating and UTV buggies.

In Colombia, you have to take your hat off to Cartagena, where luxury tourism began in 1995 when a former convent was transformed into the beautiful Hotel Sofitel Santa Clara. And following in its footsteps, the seaside resort city now has a solid core of elegant boutique hotels, tucked into restored mansions and historic buildings. The newest to open in the historic center is Casa San Agustin (hotelcasasanagustin.com), a luxury beauty whose 22 rooms and eight suites occupy three white-washed, colonial-era buildings and incorporate the remnants of an aqueduct.

In our November issue we highlighted the places to put your focus on for travel in 2013, one of those being Colombia because, in fact, as we wrote in that issue’s Colombia Rising onsite, “tourism has been rising at a double-digit percentage pace as this close-by country, with improved security countrywide, a greatly enhanced infrastructure and a major campaign of image building, has become tourism’s comeback kid in South America.”

In Costa Rica, birthplace of ecotourism, there is no shortage of wonderful boutique lodgings. Eight of those—Lapa Rios for one, Arenas del Mar for another—come under the management of Cayuga Sustainable Hospitality. Its newest launching is Kura Design Villas (kuracostarica.com), set on a mountain ridge overlooking the Pacific’s Costa Ballena. The property features six hillside villas for up to 12 guests who enjoy king-size beds, plush amenities, private minibar and wine cellar, and complimentary Internet, as well as an infinity pool, spa area, onsite restaurant serving Costa Rican fusion cuisine, and a Sky Lounge for star-gazing.

In Ecuador, the multi-million-dollar restoration of the historic city of Quito (and a UNESCO World Heritage Site) was accompanied by the opening of a bevy of small hotels. The latest entries are La Casona de la Ronda (lacasonadelaronda.com), occupying a historic mansion of the Bohemian quarter, and the 31-room Casa Gangotena (casagangotena.com), a Quito heritage property on Plaza San Francisco.

In Nicaragua, luxury is moving up a notch with the January opening of Mukul (mukulresort.com), a luxury boutique hotel in Guacalito de la Isla, a $250 million, 1,670-acre, low-density private beach community on the Emerald Coast. Featured will be 37 spacious, free-standing units, each with an ocean view, pool and private staff. Other amenities include Spa Mukul with six treatment casitas, a beach club, kids’ club, and the 18-hole Guacalito Golf Course.

In Peru, historic Cusco has become the leading recipient of truly breathtaking boutique properties. The latest is Palacio Nazarenas (palacionazarenas.com), occupying a former palace and convent. The hotel’s 55 luxury suites come with an enriched oxygen system to lessen the impact of the city’s high altitude, as well as personal butler service, and guests have the use of the Hypnoze Spa, the city’s first outdoor pool, and stylish restaurants. In fact, guests not only can dine on the best of Peruvian gastronomy, but can learn its secrets at in-house cooking classes.

Accommodations at Hotel Refugia in Chiloe, Chile.

glamping in the wilderness
The trend toward more comfort in the wild is redefining the camping experience, and filling the bill for clients who like environmentally friendly travel. Costa Rica, a leader in eco-lodge branding, moves on to inviting guests to enjoy the pristine wilderness of Osa Peninsula at La Leona Tent Camp (laleonaecolodge.com). Here, nine tent-cabins with private garden bath are on the beachfront with spectacular Pacific Ocean views or set high up in the rainforest for unrivaled wildlife viewing. Or, go far south to Chile to Torres del Paine National Park where you find Eco Camp Patagonia (ecocamp.travel). In what may be the most scenic spot in the world, clients hike and trek by day, and by night sleep in beautifully furnished geodesic domes (Mongolian yurt-shaped) with ceiling windows for star-gazing. Then consider that, while far better known for cruising, the Galapagos Islands can be seen from a totally different perspective by those who choose to stay on dry land. One popular pick is the Galapagos Safari Camp (galapagossafaricamp.com) modeled on African safari camps where guests experience nature in total comfort: glimpse the islands’ world-famous wildlife from the deck of a palatial tent or swim in an infinity pool in full view of a highlands tortoise.

new adventures: on and off the beaten track
Railroad travel has never been a big attraction in Latin American travel, however, Ecuador hopes to change all that.

The Ecuadorean Railways Company has invested millions of dollars in track, rolling stock and station infrastructure, making the experience of riding the rails in Ecuador fun, safe and exciting. In 2013, Tren Ecuador (trenecuador.com) will offer various excursions, including 3- and 4-day packages along the Avenue of the Volcanoes from Quito to Cuenca. Tracks will also connect Quito and coastal Guayaquil, with a ride down the hair-raising Nariz del Diablo (Devil’s Nose) switchback.

The Salar de Uyuni, at 4,000 sq. miles the world’s largest salt flat, is a major adventure destination in Bolivia. While long been a popular destination for hardy day-trippers, now travelers can stay right in the middle of the Salar, camping out in a 25-ft.-long Airstream Caravan, a fully catered adventure for two. All the comforts of home include queen-size bed with electric blanket, iPod dock station, shower with hot water and toiletries. This new venture comes courtesy of La Paz-based Crillon Tours (titicaca.com), whose other initiatives include the Inca Utama Hotel & Spa and the Posada del Inca on Lake Titicaca.

up in the air
Without a doubt, within the last few years, we’re better connected to Central and South America by new long-haul air routes, as well as very short-haul services that have opened up new—often remote—destinations. The biggest increase in international flights and frequencies has come in Brazil, particularly to Manaus and Brasilia. Further, two countries, Uruguay and Paraguay, have for the first time direct flights to the U.S.: American Airlines inaugurated nonstop flights two years ago between Montevideo and Miami, and this fall debuted direct flights between Asuncion and Miami. In emerging Colombia, flying on down to Cartagena is now easier with new flight services from New York (JFK) aboard JetBlue Airways and from Fort Lauderdale aboard Spirit Airlines.

And certainly these past few years, we’ve had to run to keep up with LAN Airlines, whose family of LAN affiliates expanded from Peru, Ecuador and Argentina to Colombia this year with flights between Miami and Bogota and to Brazil, in association with TAM Airlines. Then, of course, on international routes, LAN became the first South American carrier to operate the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, starting with flights between Los Angeles and Lima.

Back in its homeland country of Chile, this month LAN is introducing the first air service ever to Chiloe Island, operating four times weekly from Santiago, via Puerto Montt. Previously accessible only by ferry, destination Chiloe is making news: named by The New York Times as one of the “45 Places to go in 2012.” The largest island in the Chiloe archipelago, Chiloe itself—with two national parks, colorful fishing villages and wooden Jesuit churches that collectively form a UNESCO World Heritage Site—will be just as fascinating in 2013 and even more comfortable. Just opened is the luxury, 12-bedroom Hotel Refugia (refugia.cl) built overlooking Reloncavi Sound 20 minutes outside the pretty town of Castro. All-inclusive packages here not only mean all meals, but excursions on land and water, as well as use of the spa, jacuzzi, steam bath and sauna.

And speaking of places not to miss in Chile, in our May 2012 issue (In Chile: Going to Extremes), we reached out to tour operator Anglatin, and they said, “Valparaiso’s 24 beaches, 22 colorful foniculars, 28 hillside neighborhoods, brightly painted Victorian and colonial architecture…will all leave a permanent imprint on your heart and soul.”

In Nicaragua, Costeña Airlines has just launched air service from Managua to the new air strip at Greytown (aka San Juan del Norte), located on the southeastern coast of the country, where the Rio San Juan flows into the Caribbean. Flying into Greytown, visitors are at the gateway to the extraordinary Indio Maiz Biological Reserve, a vast rainforest that is home to more than 400 species of birds, 20 species of reptiles and four different cats—including puma and jaguar. The world’s only freshwater shark makes itself at home in the San Juan River, also a favorite for fishing and kayaking. The leading—if only—pick for accommodations with creature comforts is the American-style Rio Indio Adventure Lodge (rioindiolodge.com), with 27 units, restaurant, bar and pool. Packages include full board, tours and airport transfers. In another airborne note on Nicaragua: the $10 million La Paloma Airport is close to being finished on Ometepe Island.

Hotel Refugia in Chiloe, Chile.

the buzz
During TravelMart LatinAmerica 2012, Recommend spoke with many attending U.S. tour operators about what they found to be trends in travel to Latin America and what were the top spots they were selling. Consider this quartet of responses.

Pam Walker, president, Walker Adventures

TRENDS: The major trend that I see is that prices in South America are approaching those of the rest of the world. All over the continent, hotels are getting more deluxe, and quality costs these days. I am having trouble convincing clients that the continent is not as cheap as they think it is.
TOP SPOTS: In 2012, as in the previous year, the most requested destination is always Peru, and now that Machu Picchu is one of the new Seven Wonders of the World, the whole world wants to go there. Thank goodness they are limiting the entrances to the ruins. In 2013, I think Easter Island and also Peninsula Valdes in Argentina are up and coming. And the upcoming World Cup in 2014 and Summer Olympics in 2016 are sparking a growing interest in Brazil. (pamwalkersadventures.com)

Daniel Taramona, president, Tara Tours

TRENDS: We see more and more custom-made itineraries for people looking for very special vacations. At the same time, they are very cost-conscious and ask tons and tons of questions. They have done a lot of research, which means both agents and their clients seem to need more and more help putting together the dream vacation.
TOP SPOTS: In 2012, Panama and Peru with Machu Picchu, and in 2013, Panama is going to continue to boom with us. The country has great hotels, great prices—to me the best buy for the buck. And next year, we’re all going to have deals with an increasingly expensive Peru and Brazil. (taratours.com)

Jennine Cohen, senior director, Latin America, Geographic Expeditions

TRENDS: While still traveling to remote destinations, travelers are looking for more and more comfort, and Latin America is meeting this demand. However, with the uncertain economy, the trend nowadays is definitely 7- to 10-day vacations, and with better connections to and around Latin America, the region geographically lends itself very well to shorter vacations. On the other hand, as economies have improved in Latin America, North American tourists find themselves increasingly traveling beside domestic and intra-Latin American tourists, which is an exciting development.
TOP SPOTS: In 2012, Galapagos by a landslide. In the Galapagos, land programs have become a big seller; they provide more flexibility than the cruise-based option, which is so heavily regulated by the National Park. For 2013, we are experiencing more requests for emerging destinations like Nicaragua, Guyana, Suriname and Colombia. (geoex.com)

Rosita Perez, vice president, Ladatco Tours

TRENDS: Travelers are asking for more in-depth stays in one area, such as the Cusco Valley in Peru, in Ecuador beyond the Galapagos Islands, in Patagonia where there are so many new wonderful lodgings. And multi-generational families and groups of friends have boosted the demand for exclusive-use accommodations in deluxe small hotels, lodges and villas.
TOP SPOTS: In 2012, the most popular have been Chile and Argentina, usually combined, followed by Ecuador, the Galapagos and the mainland combined. In 2013, we already see a big jump in interest for Brazil, as well as Uruguay, where the season is short but the attractions are many and undiscovered. (ladatco.com)

Looking to delve deeper into some of these “top spots”? Flip back to our March and October 2012 coverage on Brazil—Pantanal: The Brazilian Serengeti and In Santa Catarina, Brazil, the Surf’s Up for Luxury Travel—and our Galapagos onsite review in the April 2012 issue, Sailing the Galapagos Islands.

Or, if you really want to delve into the destination Taramona says is going to be trending in 2013, become a Panama Specialist with the Panama Specialist Program (edu.recommend.com)