If you’ve never traveled to South America, it can be rather daunting to figure out which destinations are set up well for luxury travelers and which are not. The best luxury South America travel hotspots are not always obvious since the region doesn’t get nearly as much press coverage as Europe and North America—thus the reason for the founding of this publication.
We traveled far and wide in this region before even launching in 2007, then our editorial team and correspondents have criss-crossed the continent ever since looking for the “best of the best” in each country. Here’s where to start in South America if you want to plan a vacation where you’ll find top luxury lodging, great tour companies, and excellent restaurants.
Luxury South America Travel in Cartagena, Colombia
Starting at the top of the continent, beautiful Cartagena is replete with luxury lodging and increasingly excellent restaurants. The UNESCO-designated heart of the city is a maze of colorful Colonial buildings, several ancient fortresses, and religious convents. Despite the international press’s lingering portrayal of Colombia as a violent place, there has been a lot of national and local investment in Cartagena to make it a safe place for tourists to visit. It’s a favorite for international conferences and the international airport is just 15 minutes from downtown.
Cartagena is Colombia’s fifth-largest city, with a square mileage that resembles Chicago. Average year-round temperatures hover around 85 degrees and this port city is a major center of shipping trade and cruise tourism. The city’s centro historico is where you will find the best boutique hotels like Hotel Sofitel Santa Clara, Casa San Agustin, and Hotel Boutique Ananda, while the InterContinental Cartagena is a great choice for anyone who wants a beachside experience.
Cusco, Peru – the South America Tourism Magnet
The jumping-off point for many travelers on their way to Machu Picchu, Cusco (sometimes spelled Cuzco) is one of the most enchanting and attractive cities in Latin America. Located at a height of 11,000 feet/3,500 meters in the Andes, the city is a mix of ancient Inca walls and colonial architecture, with surprises at the end of every cobblestone alley.
To take advantage of some of that Colonial decadence, stay at Aranwa’s Cusco Boutique hotel, a restored Colonial building with all the modern amenities. Or, relax at the Belmond Hotel Monasterio, one of the city’s most luxurious stays in an ancient monastery on the city’s Nazarenas Plaza (with easy transport to their sister hotel in Machu Picchu on the luxury Hiram Bingham train service). More tech-inclined travelers might want to stay at the Inkaterra La Casona or the also intimate Casa Cartagena.
Wherever you stay be sure to take advantage of the stunning architecture of the city as well as delicious local fare and shopping for Peruvian handicrafts and textiles.
Sacred Valley of Peru – Spoiled for Choices
While many travelers to Peru head straight from Cusco to Machu Picchu, the Sacred Valley that lies between the two has started to convince luxury travelers of all stripes to add this idyllic valley to their itineraries for a few days. There are dozens of sites worth visiting here, such as Pisac, known for its archeological ruins and lively crafts market, and Ollantaytambo, home of an ancient Incan fortress. All the while you’ll find yourself gawking at the spectacular mountain scenery and the impressive history in this part of the world.
There is an ever-growing choice of upscale lodges and resorts so that when the adventure is over at the end of the day, you head back not only to a place to sleep but a real oasis for the soul and body. Some properties focus on wellness and relaxation, such as The Aranwa Resort and Spa and Belmond Hotel Rio Sagrado. Others are more about adventure and getting to know the local culture, such as Explora Valle Sagrado. For something a little homier, stay in a casita at the Sol y Luna Lodge & Spa and get pampered at their Yacu Wasi spa.
One-of-a-kind Galapagos Islands
Machu Picchu may be South America’s most iconic wonder of the world, but plenty of upscale travelers have the Galapagos Islands at the top of their bucket list. There’s no place quite like it on the planet, with animals that have so few predators that they’re not afraid of us odd creatures that are far larger. Guides continually have to chide visitors for getting too close because the fur seals, blue-footed boobies, and marine iguanas aren’t phased by two-legged giants with a camera.
The best way to visit the islands is on a luxury cruise where everything is taken care of, with fine food, excellent guides, and snorkeling stops. See our luxury Ecuador tours section for Galapagos stories with Ecoventura, Quasar, and other companies. If you want to spend a little more time in the area and be close to giant tortoises, check into the top Galapagos luxury hotels here.
Sultry Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Long a destination for upscale travelers from other parts of Latin America, Brazil in general and Rio more specifically is back on the itineraries of luxury travelers from the rest of the world. This massive urbanscape offers incredible food, soul-feeding music, world-class shopping, and a handful of famous beaches to boot. Despite the international press’s attitude that Rio is wild and dangerous, the city (and country) have made positive steps to ease travel for visitors here and in their growing portfolio of luxury accommodations.
The best luxury digs in Rio are in the upscale neighborhoods near their two famous beaches – Copacabana and Ipanema. The Hotel Fasano is right on the Ipanema beachfront is a homage to minimalist modernism, with understated and sophisticated interiors designed by architect Philippe Starck. Emiliano Rio is its biggest competition for the sophisticated urban set, but beachside on Copacabana. The JW Marriott is great for the business traveler that still wants luxury and a great location for exploring Copacabana beach and Rio in general.
Last but surely not least is the Belmond Copacabana Palace, the city’s first luxury hotel that continues to be a step above its competitors in service and facilities.
Atacama Desert, Chile
One of the world’s most arid places, the Atacama Desert is replete with salt flats, volcanoes, geysers, and a landscape often compared to the lunar surface. In fact, simulations for space travel are often performed there–plus this is one of the best spots worldwide for star-gazing.
Several high-end tours will allow you to explore the area’s stark and stunning landscape with some of the best luxe glamping and other accommodations in the country. There are so many opportunities for trekking, mountain climbing, horseback riding, hot springs, astronomy, bicycling, and other outdoor activities that both nascent adventurers and adrenaline junkies can find their place in the excursions of Atacama.
In the area’s main city, San Pedro de Atacama, you will find the Nayara Alto Atacama hotel, Explora Atacama, Awasi hotel, and Tierra Atacama Boutique Hotel & Spa, each with a variety of amenities and excursions on offer, with Explora topping the list in terms of activities and facilities.
Further south in Copiapo is Hotel Wara which feels more like a private house than a hotel, whose seven bedrooms each have their own private gardens, fireplaces, and huge en-suite bathrooms. Casa Molle is another tempting alternative to staying outside of San Pedro, an all-inclusive hideaway further north with bocce ball courts and horseback riding.
Mendoza, Argentina – the Wine Capital of South America
Mendoza is all about pleasure and is a dream for foodies and wine-obsessed travelers, particularly those that love Malbec, the king of wines in this area. Eating, drinking, and lazing about can take up days of travel if you do it right, and Argentina’s knowledgeable upscale travel companies know just how to show you the best of the best of this gorgeous wine-producing region. Wineries with on-site lodging, expansive estancias, and boutique hotels abound in this part of Argentina; you can have your pick depending on the kind of experience you want.
Algodon Wine Estates has great food and wine as well as a championship golf course and world-class tennis facility. Cavas Wine Lodge has a vinotherapy spa and stand-alone villas that provide the ultimate in privacy amidst the grape vines.
Vines of Mendoza features food by the uber-famous chef Francis Mallman and Entre Cielos Luxury Wine Hotel and Spa has the first traditional Turkish hammam in Latin America. Most luxury lodging in this region will put you right in the middle of the vineyards with incredible views of the Andes in the distance, and only minutes from exploring other vineyards in the area.
Just one of South America’s awesome urban centers, Santiago offers all the things that make for a great travel – top notch restaurants, excellent local wine, quirky neighborhoods, a vibrant nightlife, and hundreds of alleyways to meander checking out art galleries and bookshops. Santiago is also a great base for exploring the surrounding wine country and other outdoor attractions like small rural towns and horseback riding.
With some of South America’s most developed tourism infrastructure, in Chile there’s a plethora of great places to stay that will allow you to explore the city and come home to luxury at the end of the day. The city’s best hotels are clustered together, with one group residing in the Bellavista and Lastarria neighborhoods – The Aubrey hotel, Hotel Magnolia, Hotel Luciano and The Singular Santiago.
The other cluster includes the Ritz-Carlton, the Mandarin Oriental, and the W Santiago just slightly further from the center of the city, closer to the Los Condes area. Wherever you stay in Santiago be sure to take advantage of the city’s green spaces and some top-notch museums and cultural landmarks.
Buenos Aires, Argentina
Often called the Paris of South America, Buenos Aires oozes old-world style and timeless decadence. The city’s French-inspired architecture, lively cafe culture, and collection of high-end hotels and restaurants have been perennial draws for the world’s most affluent travelers. The Four Seasons Buenos Aires, Palacio Duhau Park Hyatt and Alvear Palace Hotel are in the heart of Recoleta, one of the city’s upscale neighborhoods where ladies lunch and porteños sip exquisite Argentine wine in posh sidewalk cafes. This just may be the oldest luxury South America travel destination on the continent, despite its many ups and downs.
The over-the-top Faena Hotel is found in the new-money Puerto Madero neighborhood and the Park Tower, a Luxury Collection Hotel is located amongst the high-end shopping and wide boulevards of Retiro, the city’s wealthiest area. Travel to Argentina’s capital is all about pleasure – a steak at Don Julio’s or a leisurely Sunday brunch at Casa Cavia are a good start – so make sure to come with plenty of time to linger over a tango show and money to purchase the incredible leather goods you will find across the city.
Punta del Este, Uruguay
The playground of the rich and famous jet-setters, Punta del Este has long had some of South America’s most exclusive and expensive real estate and logically some great luxury accommodations for those not quite ready to buy. The area might not have the nightlife of Rio nor the isolated elegance of Patagonia, but it is a place where if you have the right bank balance you can enjoy beautiful beaches, great food, and some excellent craft beer. Luxury hotels here are usually in Punta del Este or the more northern and super-elite coastal area of Jose Ignacio.
In Bahía Vik each room is uniquely decorated by a local artist and the low-profile Fasano Las Piedras has been voted the Best Hotel in Latin America. There are also plenty of high-end rentals to be had along this strip of coast, so if you want a more private experience, or are bringing the whole family it would behoove you to look into those as well.
Patagonia – South America’s Adventure Playground
The southernmost tip of the Americas, Patagonia is an outdoor adventurers’ dream. Shared by both Chile and Argentina, the area is divided by the Andes mountains and icefields. The Argentine side has vast grasslands north of the mountains, where the country’s ranchers have traditionally dominated, while the Chilean side is dissected by fjords and has several ski resorts. But the outdoor focus of this region doesn’t mean rough living – you’ll find a deluge of hospitality options that will pamper you even more than a big sophisticated city in both Argentina and Chile.
Argentina’s Lake District in the northwestern part of this country’s chunk of Patagonia is a collection of lush forests, glacial lakes, and endless opportunities for outdoor adventures. The country’s rustic-chic estancias are a favorite among luxury travelers for their impeccable service in a down-to-earth atmosphere. Highly social affairs, at this type of upscale lodging, guests mix and mingle with each other and their hosts. Most offer a bevy of activities like horseback riding, trekking, and fishing as well as incredible meat-forward menus and long lists of the country’s exquisite wine.
Chile’s slice of Patagonia includes the Torres del Paine National Park and Pumalin Park, a vast private park created and owned by the late American conservationist Douglas Tompkins. You can even set out from here for a luxe adventure aboard a private cruise ship to Antarctica or the Chilean fjords. Luxury lodging abounds in both countries and few travelers return from this area without feeling exhilarated.
Have you been to any of these luxury South America travel hotspots? What was it like for you?