Latin America has long enticed budget-oriented travelers with its low prices, and as the global economic crisis lingers, the bargains are increasingly tempting — especially when it comes to a luxury vacation.
Meals are often half the cost of their European counterparts, hotels are generally more luxurious than what you’d get for the same money in the States, and spa treatments and other private services are so affordable you feel good about splurging, because, really, you’re saving — or at least that’s what you tell yourself.
And things are getting cheaper still. Hotel prices across Latin America fell by 18 percent in the first half of 2009 compared with the same period last year, according to Hotels.com’s Hotel Price Index. That’s slightly steeper than hotel rate decreases in North America and Europe.
Some of the best places for affordable luxury are Argentina and Mexico, in part because of swine flu scares earlier this year. Also, the dollar is going farther than a year ago, at about 13.5 Mexican pesos (versus 12.5 in October 2008) and 3.9 Argentine pesos (against 3.3). And both countries have long attracted well-heeled tourists, with established resort towns and bustling cities.
Stylish boutique hotels in Buenos Aires like the Craft, Moreno and cE Hotel de Diseño, are listing rooms for less than $100 a night at Tablet Hotels, a booking site that specializes in design-oriented hotels.
In Mexico, some of the best deals are at ultra-luxurious megaresorts along the Riviera Maya, just south of Cancún, like Grand Velas, an all-suites resort and spa, which was just opening as the travel downturn hit. The Banyan Tree Mayakoba, where villas have their own plunge pools, is offering 50 percent off two-night packages with daily breakfast, a massage and dinner for two. Nearby, the Mandarin Oriental has a seven-night Holiday in Mexico deal that includes breakfast, airport transfers, dinner for two and a private yoga class from $354 a night until Dec. 18.
Not interested in the beach? Starting rates at the Four Seasons in Mexico City are $225 a night on weekends, not bad considering that it’s $70 cheaper than the Four Seasons in Austin ($295). A Swedish massage costs about $100 at the hotel in Mexico versus $130 in Austin.
Large tour operators, such as Globus, recognize the good value in Latin America and are adding more itineraries and new destinations that emphasize luxury for less. Abercrombie & Kent, the high-end tour operator known for its luxury safaris, is expanding its 2010 “signature” Latin American itineraries. The packages, designed for travelers who don’t want to take a group tour but still want the Abercrombie & Kent experience, include the same comforts and sightseeing of its group excursions but with private guides from $5,995 a person for a nine-day trip to Ecuador.
For travelers looking to spend less, Group Voyagers, the parent company of Globus, Cosmos, Monograms and Avalon Waterways, recently added four Latin American itineraries, including Ecuador and the Galápagos from $3,379 and three Monograms packages from $1,299 for eight days in Costa Rica.
The strategy seems to be paying off. Collette Vacations, based in Pawtucket, R.I., recently reported that revenue for its Discover South America tour more than doubled from last year. Interest in Peru in particular is picking up. Its 12-day trip through Peru, visiting Machu Picchu, Lake Titicaca, Lima and the Paracas National Reserve, with rates from $2,449 a person, is already beginning to fill up for 2010.
“Travelers start out thinking it’s too exotic and therefore out of reach,” Allison Flint, Collette’s product manager, said in a statement. “But then are pleasantly surprised at how affordable it really is.”
Though airline cutbacks have reduced flights to some regions, low-cost carriers have helped bring fares down in many markets. No-frills Spirit Airlines, for example, which is based in Miramar, Fla., and sometimes sells tickets for as little as $9, began service to Latin America in 2007. It now has routes to Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua in Central America, and to Peru in South America.
In Brazil, low-cost airlines, like GOL Linhas Aéreas Inteligentes and WebJet, now account for a significant portion of Brazil’s domestic market. And in Mexico, InterJet and Volaris have expanded service.
Tour operators are also going beyond the big cities and popular destinations and offering more trips off the beaten path. Country Walkers, based in Waterbury, Vt., for example, used to visit only popular places like the Galápagos in Ecuador. While it still offers a Galápagos add-on, the company is focusing this year on the Ecuadorean Highlands, with its working farms and the Indian markets of the Imbabura region.
The tour is not exactly cheap at $3,598 a person, but all meals and accommodations are included, and obtaining the kind of access and local insight the trip offers would be time-consuming and more difficult on one’s own. Travelers spend nine days with personal guides trekking from one hacienda to the next, past farms where locals still use ox-drawn plows and spectacular backdrops with snow-peaked volcanoes.
There are perks, especially if you’re a big shopper. Handmade leather handbags from the town of Cotacachi, for example, can be bargained down to about $20. “The same would retail for at least $100 in the U.S.,” said Sonya Bradley, the Latin America tour manager for Country Walkers.
One of the rising tourist stars in Latin America is the Andean city of Cuenca, in the southern Ecuadorian highlands. A number of publications, including International Living and Germany’s Stern, have named the colonial city of 500,000 the top retirement destination in the world. Loaded with history, culture and European charm the city is attracting large groups of North Americans and Europeans not only interested in visiting but in finding inexpensive real estate and a low cost of living as well. From now until early December, Cuenca will see even more tourists as it presents its Bienal, one of the largest art exhibitions in Latin America.
For affordable luxury outside the city of Buenos Aires, Vanessa Guibert Heitner, of Limitless Argentina, a luxury travel agency, recommends that visitors head northwest to the provinces of Salta and Jujuy, to explore indigenous ruins, colonial architecture and the natural scenery of the region. Legado Mitico Salta, a boutique hotel within walking distance of colonial cathedrals, museums and restaurants, starts at $170 a night with breakfast. For $295 a person, Limitless Argentina can arrange a private tour of Salta and the wine belt of Cafayate, about two hours away, including visits to artisanal goat-cheese makers, hikes through canyons and a private food and wine pairing at a winery.
It’s also a good time to visit Rio de Janeiro, which is celebrating its 2016 Olympic bid win. Getting to Brazil is easier with 14 new flights this year from the United States, including daily nonstop service from Houston to Rio on Continental and flights three times a week from Atlanta to Brasília on Delta. Several more are planned for 2010.
Recife, a historic town on Brazil’s northern coast, dubbed the Brazilian Venice for its many bridges and rivers, is one of the places expected to benefit from new flights, with routes from Atlanta and Miami. In late February, when the average temperature is 82 degrees there, rates at the Internacional Palace Hotel in Recife start at about 196 Brazilian reais, about $110 at 1.78 reais to the dollar.
To maximize your budget, go just after Carnival, which runs Feb. 12 to 16, when hotel rates drop sharply. The Pestana Rio Atlantica in Rio, with views of Copacabana Beach, for example, is 490 reais a night in late February, down from 1,495 during Carnival.
Credit: By Michelle Higgins, New York Times, www.nytimes.com; photo credit: Colonial Cuenca is a big draw for foreign tourists in Ecuador; photo credit: erikdeleon.