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Luxury travel means different things to different people. And in a region as vast as South America, those differences are more pronounced than ever.
“In the past few years, South America has seen the rise of a new type of luxury travel,” said Melanie Moore, product manager for Central and South America at Avanti Destinations. “While luxury was traditionally defined by the size of a hotel room, the amount of marble in the bathroom, fine linens on the bed or other material objects, luxury today is increasingly more experiential than material.”
Considering that South America comprises 12 nations spread across more than 6.8 million square miles, it’s no surprise that high-end travelers can find an especially wide range of experiences.
“Consumer awareness of South America as a luxury destination has been the greatest change in recent years,” said Kelly Torrens, director of product for Kensington Tours. “The very positive press garnered by the continent’s restaurants, hotels and trains has been of great help over the past two years in particular.”
Javier Echecopar, sales director for Abercrombie & Kent (A&K), says that today’s upscale travelers are seeking more creative combinations of experiences in South America.
“I have two bookings right now where people are traveling city to city by private jets and doing very unique things throughout,” he said. “It’s not about being extravagant; it’s about finding combinations that are special.”
The ability to satisfy cravings for such indulgent experiences gives South America a distinct advantage over other regions, Echecopar adds.
“In South America, you can visit the desert, the jungle and the mountains,” he said. “I can’t think of anywhere else on Earth where you can go from glaciers to jungle in the course of a few hours.”
Suppliers have responded well to the evolving tastes of upscale travelers bound for South America, according to Heidi Creed, vice president of sales, marketing and client experience for Town & Country Travel in Thousand Oaks, Calif.
“Suppliers are really embracing the origins and landscape in a way that allows travelers to have a luxurious and authentic experience,” Creed said. “The industry is also seeing some great Galapagos sailing programs, coupled with land extensions to Machu Picchu, with the Hiram Bingham luxury train as a highlight. The cruise ships are upping their experiences, and many of the accommodations in South America seem to consistently have a wonderful sense of place.”
Managing ExpectationsTravel advisors and suppliers play an important role in educating clients about what to expect when they travel. And that can be especially important in South America, since even well-heeled globetrotters may not be fully aware of what the continent offers, according to Michele Benigno, a senior consultant specializing in South America for Coastline Travel Advisors, a Virtuoso Agency in Garden Grove, Calif.
“Travelers don’t have a good grasp that each South American country is its own little world, and that there can be some challenges in transportation,” Benigno said. “They overlay their concept of travel in Europe to South America, so we have some education to do. It’s not like you get off a plane and you’re standing in front of a glacier in Patagonia. The logistics are the first part of the education.”
Rushik Mehta, co-founder of Coddiwomple Journeys, a Boston-based tour operator that specializes in South America, agrees that many travelers don’t fully understand the characteristics of the region.
“It is very different from what our travelers expect luxury to be when they visit Asia — where hotels are grand and plush with all the bells and whistles — or even Africa, where the safari lodges are very luxurious,” Mehta said.
For high-end clients, Coddiwomple customizes itineraries to include brands such as JW Marriott and Belmond in Peru.
The region’s uniqueness is, in fact, a major reason why the expertise of agents and tour operators is essential, according to Janet Anderson, vice president of sales for Luxury Gold and Insight Vacations.
“There are a lot of moving pieces,” Anderson said. “Having a travel advisor overseeing guests’ intra-country air, coach travel and train reservations makes the trip much smoother.”
The Inkaterra Hacienda Urubamba is a luxury option in Peru’s Sacred Valley.Credit: 2019 Inkaterra Hacienda Urubamba
Clients can visit the rose farms of Ecuador.Credit: 2019 Getty Images
Visitors can learn where their coffee comes from during a visit to a coffee farm in Colombia.Credit: 2019 Getty Images
Several tour operators offer luxury trips to Machu Picchu.Credit: 2019 Kensington Tours
The lobby of the Inkaterra Hacienda Urubamba.Credit: 2019 Inkaterra Hacienda Urubamba
Chile’s Patagonia region is one of the hottest destinations in South America.Credit: 2019 Avanti Destinations
What’s Hot As to be expected, South America’s bucket-list destinations — the Galapagos, Patagonia and Machu Picchu — are home to some of the most celebrated upscale options for accommodations, tours and experiences.
“There are more luxury ships in the Galapagos, and we have seen more ‘remote’ luxury options,” said Andrew J. Gilchrist, owner of tour operator Lost World Adventures.
“Places such as Mashpi Lodge in Ecuador — in areas where it might seem logistically impossible to erect a five-star hotel — are finding ways to make it happen, so people can get that sense of remoteness and adventure without sacrificing comfort.”
As upscale demand increases, however, travelers must change how they plan their trips and what they spend.
“There are some destinations that have structural limits about how many people they can take, including Patagonia, the Galapagos and Peru’s Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu,” said A&K’s Echecopar. “The demand continues to grow year over year, but the product can’t grow. So, that means people are booking way ahead of time, and prices will continue to go up.”
Lesser-known destinations provide some relief — as well as welcome alternatives for upscale travelers looking for new experiences, according to Coddiwomple’s Mehta.
“Colombia has been a hot destination for us,” he said. “Luxury travel is still very affordable there, and clients get more for the value of their trip. In particular, they want to visit Medellin and the coffee region.”
Mehta also recommends alternatives in Peru.
“Machu Picchu has been overrun with tourists,” he said. “We work with clients to introduce them to Kuelap, which is in northern Peru and is considered a sister site to Machu Picchu.”
What Travelers WantSophisticated globetrotters may look for different things when they travel, but several overriding trends stand out in South America.
The increasing popularity of wellness travel is especially apparent in Peru, where Inkaterra Hacienda Urubamba, a luxury hotel in the Sacred Valley, recently opened Mayu Spa, which offers a menu of Andean-inspired treatments. Meanwhile, this year, A&K debuted a collection of wellness-inspired offerings, including Wellness Peru: Spirit of the Incas, an itinerary that showcases traditional practices that promote spiritual health.
Immersive experiences have grown to encompass a variety of themes, Mehta says.
“There’s a heavy emphasis these days on food and the arts and culture scene,” he said. “We have a lot of clients asking us to organize upscale cooking classes and culinary tours, as well as to weave in more about the local cultures while they are sightseeing. For example, we offer a chance to experience the ‘mother of Earth’ ceremony conducted by a shaman healer in the Sacred Valley; visit a coffee farm in Colombia; or check out a flower and rose farm in Ecuador.”
The appeal of top-notch culinary experiences is evidenced in a new 11-day itinerary from Luxury Gold called Classic South America, which includes a meal at Michelin-starred Mee restaurant in Rio de Janeiro and wine tasting in a Chilean vineyard. And in Buenos Aires, travelers who book with Borello Travel & Tours can join The Argentine Experience, an immersive event that combines cuisine and an interactive introduction to Argentinian culture.
Multigenerational travel is also on the rise in South America — a trend recognized by Inca Rail, which recently launched a new children’s program onboard its first-class Machu Picchu train service, complete with coloring books, entertainment kits, board games and a gourmet children’s menu.
Regardless of the destination or the level of luxury they choose, South America-bound travelers want to create memories that will last a lifetime, says Mark Wheeler, regional managing director of South America, Asia and East Africa for andBeyond.
“While the desires of international travelers are much the same in all our destinations — new levels of luxury and a greater interest in activities and experiential travel — South America is uniquely positioned to take advantage of this trend,” Wheeler said.
In particular, he highlights activities such as Land Rover tours of Chile’s Lake District and helicopter rides over an active volcano near Pucon, Chile.
“The definition of luxury travel is changing, with more travelers looking for authenticity and substance,” Wheeler said. “The growing trend is for meaningful journeys that deliver impact.”