The best luxury stays in Latin America

From works of architectural genius and hotels that double as art galleries, to eco-retreats and community tourism initiatives, these outstanding feats of accommodation are far more than simply places to stay.

By Julia Buckley
Published 18 Jan 2020, 06:00 GMT
Santulan in Baja California.
Santulan in Baja California.
Photograph by Chema Gonzales

For sustainable architecture: Santulan, Baja California, Mexico

‘Santulan’ means ‘balance’ in Hindi, and this eight-room hotel in the vineyard-filled desert of the Guadalupe Valley perfectly straddles the worlds of high design and sustainability. Walls are made from hand-pressed, air-dried blocks of earth, and the five buildings provide natural cross ventilation, there’s a ‘fog-catcher’ tower that converts mist into water, and a pretty triangular ‘pool’ around which everything converges is actually a greywater recycling system. An organic orchard leads onto vineyards, while the block of rooms has a ‘green roof’ (planted with desert-loving foliage) that doubles as a stargazing terrace. There’s also an art gallery, a yoga studio and a wooden geodesic dome for meditation. Doubles from £124, B&B.

Vik Chile and Puro Vik, Millahue Valley, Chile.
Photograph by Chema Gonzales

For design: Vik Chile and Puro Vik, Millahue Valley, Chile

Vik Retreats is arguably South America’s most design-focused hotel brand, and Vik Chile, a hilltop wine and spa retreat, two hours from Santiago, only enhances this reputation. Overlooking the vineyards of the Millahue Valley with the Andes in the distance, it was designed by Uruguayan architect Marcelo Daglio. Inspired by Frank Gehry, the building — a glass-titanium fusion — resembles a flying saucer docked in the wild landscape. Wedged into the hills below is a clutch of 19 futuristic glass, grass-roofed cubes: Puro Vik, which opened in April this year. Propped up on stilts and cantilevered over a void, each has three glass sides, a balcony with a bathtub out front and a unique theme, ranging from Japan with Utagawa Hiroshige to the art of glass with Dale Chihuly, and pop art. Doubles from £853, full board.

For modern art: Casa Malca, Tulum, Mexico

Casa Malca has a new claim to fame — and it’s rather more tasteful than its past life as the beach retreat of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar. In its new incarnation as a boutique hotel, it’s known for its collection of modern art, curated by owner Lio Malca, a New York art dealer. There’s a Marina Abramović installation in the restaurant, giant black fibreglass light bulbs by Sunil Gawde on the beach, and a statue of a Mumbai street seller amid the palms. Keith Haring, meanwhile, is responsible for the bar’s wallpaper and the outré chair coverings in Ambrosia restaurant. Doubles from £529, B&B.

Tabacón thermal resort & spa, Costa Rica.
Photograph by Chema Gonzales

For hot springs and wildlife: Tabacón Thermal Resort & Spa, Costa Rica

Displays of lava flows in Costa Rica’s ‘resting’ Volcán Arenal can’t be seen currently, but this volatile environment offers incredible birdwatching and wildlife-spotting opportunities, not to mention the best spa in the country. Guests at five-star Tabacón Thermal Resort & Spa get exclusive access to the hot springs here, along with spectacular views of the volcano from the resort itself, which centres around a thermal river, replete with relaxing pools and waterfalls. Book tours via Arenal Observatory Lodge, located within Arenal Volcano National Park, or with Costa Rica Adventures.    

For conservation: Ibitipoca, Minas Gerais, Brazil

At Ibitipoca, a 12,355-acre farm-turned-reserve a four-hour drive from Rio de Janeiro, visitors are taught about rainforest conservation. Proceeds go towards reforestation of the rainforest reserve. Fazenda do Engenho, an 18th-century farmhouse, contains eight rustic-luxe suites with copper showers and freestanding bathtubs, while nearby buildings, plus one in a local village, house ultra-private suites. Doubles from £232 per person per night, full board, including two daily guided walks.

Blue Apple Beach House, Isla Tierra Bomba, Colombia.
Photograph by Chema Gonzales

For all-round excellence: Blue Apple Beach House, Isla Tierra Bomba, Colombia

At Tierra Bomba, off the coast of Cartagena, beach chic meets mid-century bombast with a hint of nautical thrown in. But beyond its fun vibe and strong art ethic, its eco credentials are impeccable: used cooking oil is made into biodiesel fuel, organic matter is composted and a machine grinds bottles into sand. This year, it also paid for 10 locals to train as glass artisans — the fancy lights you see around the place are their work. Doubles from £120, B&B, including transport to the island.

For local life: Napo Cultural Center, Ecuador

The local Kichwa Anangu people are behind this lodge deep within the Yasuni National Park. At dawn, you can join them for wayusa, an ancestral ritual that includes singing and dream interpretation, while at night, traditional meals including maito (a Napo River fish) wrapped in banana leaf and served with cocoa beans. A short canoe ride away is Napo Wildlife Center, whose thatched huts overlook the river. Three nights from £1,600 per person, full board, including transport and return flights from Quito to Coca. 

Sacromonte, Maldonado, Uruguay.
Photograph by Chema Gonzales

For architecture: Sacromonte, Maldonado, Uruguay

You might miss Sacromonte at first glance. Located in the hilly interior of Maldonado, near gastro hotspot Pueblo Garzón, it sprawls over 250 acres of sierra, its prefab cabins seemingly lost to the elements, thanks to their mirrored facades. Each minimalist wood-clad room put the focus firmly on the landscape. Not that views are all that’s on offer — each cabin has an outdoor plunge pool, with the only disturbance you’re likely to get from the neighbouring boars (which also turn up on the restaurant menu). Doubles from £348, B&B.

For community: Posada Amazonas, Peru

This lodge, set on a brazil nut plantation two hours from Puerto Maldonado, is owned by the native Ese Eja community of Infierno. The onsite ethnobotanical centre showcases indigenous medicine, while the shaman takes guests on jungle walks to discover medicinal plants. There are also visits to a farm, where you can try everything from chocolate to tomato-like plants. The community is also home to 500 species of bird, eight types of monkey, and jaguars. Doubles from £454, full board, including activities and transport. 

For gaucho heritage: Estancia Los Potreros,  Argentina

An off-grid 6,500-acre farm in a nature reserve above the Sierras Chicas Mountains south of Córdoba, this is as wild as it gets. Rooms are tastefully traditional, stuffed with antiques (the estancia dates back to the 17th century) and cosy touches like rolltop baths and wood-burning stoves. The Begg family will be your guides to gaucho life: their herd of 130 horses, including ‘dancing’ Peruvian Pasos, sweep riders through a landscape patrolled by condors, eagles and owls. From £301 per person per night, full board, including transfers and activities.

Published in the January/February 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller 

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