South America: Beyond the Backpack

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There is an irrepressible energy in South America drawing all eyes below the equator. Maybe it’s the spark that comes from hosting both the World Cup and the Olympics, as Brazil will be doing in 2014 and 2016, respectively. Perhaps it’s the buzz of a burgeoning viticulture and culinary scene, as both Argentina and Chile continue to produce ever-more delicious wines, and celebrity chefs like Francis Mallmann create epicurean wonders in the Uruguayan countryside. Or, maybe it’s the influx of alluring new accommodations, set, for example, amid Patagonia’s wilderness, that open up what used to be the sole purview of the backpacker to a wider range of travelers. Most likely it’s a bit of all of this and more.

“I really see how the region is piquing a renewed interest from travelers," says Stephanie Bonham-Carter of Galapagos Safari Camp. “We now have a strong sense of political stability and economic growth. Brazil is booming, and with the Olympics and the World Cup coming up the fever has already started. Ecuador has recently been put on the map; visitors appreciate how one can do so much in Ecuador with such ease — from the jungle to the Andes can be a matter of a three-hour drive. The region has everything to offer, from culture to history to untamed nature — it is ideal for experiential travel. There is also a surge in wonderful accommodations and a new culinary element which adds to the experience.”

And, after their first taste of South America, travelers are coming back for more. “Buenos Aires, Machu Picchu and the Galapagos are no longer the only destinations travelers are talking about,” says Sarah Thornton from the Tierra Patagonia Hotel & Spa. “From swimming with pink dolphins in the Amazon to discovering secluded beaches in Uruguay or hiking alongside granite peaks with hanging glaciers in Patagonia, the options are limitless when it comes to South America.” Here are the Andrew Harper Traveler Magazine’s picks of six regions that top the list of the savvy traveler.

Quito, Ecuador

Welcome to Quito, a city that sits at 9,350 feet above sea level, nestled into the eastern slopes of the Pichincha Volcano. With staggering views of the Andes, an expansive old town with plazas galore, and a coterie of swanky new restaurants and hotels opening their doors, Quito is on the rise.

“I strongly believe that Quito is starting to get the attention it deserves,” says Adriana Velasco from Casa Gangotena, a renovated mansion turned boutique hotel. “For many years, Ecuador used to be all about the Galapagos Islands, and Quito was only a stopover. Now, the attention is reverting to Quito as the gateway to the country with much more to offer. From the beautiful Colonial Quarter to the amazing nearby surroundings such as the Cotopaxi Volcano and Otavalo Indian Market, Quito is the base for exploring the Andes.”

Indeed the Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage site overflowing with colonial churches and monasteries, has come alive: the grand old buildings have been restored and the streets are humming with action. To take it all in, Velasco recommends a stroll across the Plaza de San Francisco, where locals play music and sometimes break into dance. Or grab a drink at one of the many festive bars around Plaza Foch. And don’t bypass the chance to taste Ecuador’s fine chocolate, Velasco says, at the República del Cacao, also in the Old Town.

To fully experience Quito, don’t be shy about hiring a guide, suggests Stephanie Bonham-Carter of the Galapagos Safari Camp. “Definitely take a guided tour of the Old Town,” she says, “it makes a huge difference going with a local Quiteño as a guide who will unfold history and place architecture within a context. The pre-Columbian museum there is fabulous.” Bonham-Carter also says that a sunset view from Parque Itchimbía on the edge of town is a must. From there you can see all of Quito stretch out before you.

Rio De Janeiro, Brazil

With the World Cup and the Olympics on Rio’s horizon, the city is ramping up with a litany of new and renewed landmarks. Already this year, the “City of the Arts” was freshly inaugurated to house the Brazilian Symphony Orchestra. The art museum Casa Daros has just opened its doors in a grand 19th-century neo-classical building to house the Swiss Daros Latinamerica Collection. As a prelude to the World Cup, Rio’s fabled Maracanã soccer stadium is getting a facelift just in time for the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup in June. And perhaps most tellingly, Rio will soon be the proud locale of South America’s first ever Apple store. The city’s on fire.

Rio insider Karina Kattan of the Fasano Group says that even with all of the buzz, the city’s charms are still in its iconic attractions. “I have to mention the Sugarloaf Mountain cable car, a Rio landmark,” she says. “Riding the classic cable car reveals blissful views of the city and the Guanabara Bay. And outdoor enthusiasts can hike the trails of the Floresta da Tijuca, the world’s largest urban rainforest.”

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To really get a taste of Rio, you need to rent a boat from the expansive Marina da Glória: “Whether it be a ship, tourist boat or a speed boat, make sure to see the city from the water,” Kattan says. “Rio has great beaches and people really appreciate them more when seeing their length and grandeur from across the water.”

But it’s definitely not all about the natural beauty of Rio. For what would Rio be without all of the people-watching? For nightlife, Kattan recommends the Baretto-Londra. “Located in the best hot spot of Ipanema Beach, Baretto-Londra is Rio’s number one bar and still the trendiest meeting point in the city.”

Chile, Patagonia

There was a time when Chilean Patagonia belonged to the adventure traveler. Most Americans associated Patagonia with the line of eponymous outdoor clothing and the kayakers and mountain climbers who wear it. True, this untamed wilderness of imposing fjords and unruly rivers at Chile’s southern tip is perhaps some of the least-explored terrain in the world, but, with new accommodations and outfitters, the less adventurous among us can also behold its wonders.

“In my opinion, Patagonia is Chile’s biggest draw and it is quickly becoming the hottest destination in the country,” said Sarah Thornton of Tierra Patagonia Hotel & Spa. “The remoteness of the national parks is part of what draws tourists in. Patagonia delivers an immense feeling of being in the middle of nowhere; towering mountains, blue lakes and imposing glaciers create a destination that feels unspoiled and unique. Now with multiple luxury accommodation options, backpacking or roughing it are no longer the only options.”

The weather is so capricious in Southern Chile, you can easily experience four seasons in one day, making a visit to Patagonia all the more wild and unpredictable. Thornton advises experiencing the region during the months just outside of the November to February high season. “The best months of the year to visit are actually spring (September/October) or fall (March/April) as there are fewer tourists, beautiful colors, less wind and more frequent encounters with animals. It is a bit colder, but without the strong winds it makes for overall better weather.”

Torres del Paine National Park is the best-known park in Patagonia and it is the most accessible. “From hiking to the base of the granite towers that give the park its name,” says Thornton, “to watching condors hover above the cliffs, Torres del Paine is for everyone."

Punta Del Este Region, Uruguay

Relatively unknown to most Americans, Punta del Este is often called the Hamptons of South America, and the number of well-heeled South Americans showing off their tans seems to be ever growing. “South Americans love the outdoors and after a long rainy winter they want to head for warm weather, the coast and the beach,” says Linda Petrasek, an Andrew Harper travel consultant. And the glamor is spreading, as formerly sleepy nearby towns like José Ignacio and Garzón have enhanced the Uruguayan allure.

“People who come to Punta del Este love to explore it all and take home a bit of what every spot has to offer,” says Karina Kattan from the Fasano Hotel Group. “A combination of beaches and countryside is what makes this area so complete and so ideal as an all-year-round destination.”

Indeed, the formerly unknown town of Garzón, about 30 kilometers inland from the beach village of José Ignacio, is on the tip of every international foodie’s tongue ever since the famous Argentine chef Francis Mallmann opened his high-end restaurant and hotel there, preparing meals over his signature open fire. And that’s not the only reason to make a trip to Garzón.

“Colinas de Garzón is a winery and olive oil factory in the outskirts of Garzón that offers both wonderful architecture and gastronomy — a visit to see the plantation and processing there is amazing,” says Kattan. I also definitely recommend — for the complete experience — the spa of the massage therapist Renata de Abreu, in Barra near Punta del Este. Many of her treatments are based on wine and olive oil, plus the fabulous indoor pool there gives you a 180-degree view to Punta del Este.”

Cusco, Peru

The name “Cusco” derives from a Quechuan word meaning “navel of the world;” indeed, for the vast Incan Empire, Cusco was the center of the universe. Now, stunning Cusco, encircled by the Andes, is a city that shows the lasting effects of the Conquest’s culture clash like no other. The city breathes history (although, perched at 11,200 feet, the air is thin). And while Cusco and nearby Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley have long been Peru’s biggest tourist draws, the crowds have yet to diminish the allure.

“Cusco is a magical city with a positive energy that is reflected in every corner,” says Pedro Morales, the concierge at the Hotel Monasterio, a Cusco hotel housed in a renovated 16th-century monastery. “The city is always showing, in great and subtle ways, the grandness of our Incan ancestors.”

While Machu Picchu may be calling, don’t leave Cusco without indulging in the city’s burgeoning food scene. Tomas Miko from The Andean Experience, a bespoke travel company, recommends a swanky dinner at the Museo de Arte Precolombino’s MAP Café, a sleek glass box of a restaurant and one of the best in town. Miko also sends his clients to Cicciolina, a longtime favorite of the Cusco fine dining scene. For a more modern take on Cusco cuisine, stop into Chicha, one of the restaurants of Gastón Acurio, the celebrity chef who is putting Peru on the world food map. And whatever you do, don’t leave town without sipping a pisco sour.

Miko says that downtime in Cusco is key — much of the beauty there is best witnessed while exploring the city on foot. “I would say my favorite way to experience Cusco is just having a day off from the planned excursions and walking freely in the little authentic streets, visiting the markets, soaking in the real atmosphere and coming face-to-face with the living culture there, all the while being aware of the great history of the Incas and the cultures before them. It’s priceless.”

Rio Negro Wine Country, Argentina

Raise a glass to Argentina. At the very southernmost end of Argentina’s wine region (an area that covers more than 750 miles north to south) you will find the province of Rio Negro, a lesser-known but more traditional viticulture area. A Patagonian region that includes the idyllic mountain town and lake district of Bariloche, the Rio Negro is not only a nature-lover’s paradise, it is also producing some of Argentina’s best wines.

“Most people don’t realize that Argentine wine country is an extensive area of the Andes that includes the provinces of Mendoza, Neuquén and Rio Negro,” says Claudina González Escariz of the Llao Llao Hotel & Resort in Rio Negro. “While we have Malbec and Cabernet, we also have Pinot Noir and Merlot which can thrive in Rio Negro since temperatures are cooler here than in Mendoza.”

Argentine Pinot Noirs? Argentine wines are definitely expanding beyond the ubiquitous Malbec. Indeed, one of Argentina’s award-winning wineries, Chacra, is producing Pinot Noirs so tasty they are alerting the palates of wine lovers across the globe.

The area’s bounty of produce also makes the Rio Negro a foodie’s fantasyland, a place where apple orchards are even more plentiful than wineries. “Patagonian wineries thrive mainly in an oasis in the desert region of Neuquén and Rio Negro provinces, the center of much of Argentina’s fruit production,” says Escariz. “All of the wines here may be accompanied by typical Patagonian dishes that include venison, lamb, freshwater trout, cured meats and fish, desserts featuring apples and pears, and chocolate and cheese fondue.” And what could be more delicious than that?

By Hideaway Report Editor Hideaway Report editors travel the world anonymously to give you the unvarnished truth about luxury hotels. Hotels have no idea who the editors are, so they are treated exactly as you might be.
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