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The Lodges With a Front-row Seat Onto South America’s Epic Landscapes

When I lived in Buenos Aires in the 1990s, a weekend break in the cow-filled Pampas usually meant a lot of steak and a little birding. But with wildlife-watching now a mainstream pursuit, old estancias (ranches) offer a lot more than lunch and lolling about in a hammock (although those are still available). Habitats are being restored. In some areas rewilding projects are replacing cattle and forestry. Local guides have been trained to show guests native species — pumas, condors, giant otters and wild orchids are top draws for travellers.

South Americans have realised they can offer safari-type experiences as entrancing as, and different from, those in other continents. To meet the rising demand for nature-based tourism, rural hoteliers have revolutionised what they offer. The word “lodge” used to suggest a glorified shack, but many South American lodges are now as comfortable as four and five-star hotels, with guests treated to luxurious bedrooms, food prepared by noted local chefs, fine wines and personalised service. At the top end, guides are quasi-butlers in khaki, ferrying families around in private 4x4s.

I like to lay out a bit of effort before I settle into a full-service eco-resort. I’d always recommend going overland to get to a remote base. You see the landscapes, get a sense of scale and the emptiness of many places — Argentina’s steppes, Brazil’s forests and wetlands, and Chile’s deserts remain thinly populated — and appreciate the fabulous fortune that someone has opened a beautiful, all-mod-cons lodge in the middle of nowhere.

I’ve undertaken many odysseys. One of the most memorable was a two-week ride up the Amazon from Belem near the Atlantic to a town called Tefe. I did the entire voyage on public boats —simple, wooden-balconied steamer-type vessels that chugged against the current at sloth pace. I slept in a hammock on a communal deck or in a simple cabin and had only one short break en route, at Manaus, to change to an even more basic boat. It was owned by a Christian company and was, shockingly, beer-less.

At Tefe, 1,200 miles from the start of my trip, I transferred to a motorboat and rode through ever narrower tributaries to Uakari Lodge, a floating hotel-cum-research centre all set up for day and night excursions, delicious food and a tweeting, whistling, growling immersion in the Amazonian world. The hammocks were private and beer was readily available and well chilled.

1. Puerto Valle, Esteros del Ibera, Argentina

See jaguars and caiman from a luxury ranch
The wetlands of Ibera in Corrientes, in northeastern Argentina, have been in the news because of the reintroduction of jaguars to the area after a 70-year absence. It’s still early days, but there’s plenty to see besides the big cats. Puerto Valle is a luxurious estancia on the left bank of the Parana, South America’s second longest river. As well as five original ranch-style rooms, there are eight suites in handsome new cabanas with terraces and rattan chairs looking out on to the water. Organic vegetables are grown on site and guests are treated to a traditional outdoor asado, or barbecue. Commonly seen species in the nearby national park include caimans, capybaras and marsh deer, as well as birds, reptiles and amphibians. Journey Latin America’s Argentina Wildlife holiday combines Ibera with stays in Buenos Aires, Iguazu Falls and Peninsula Valdes in Patagonia, famous for its whale watching and marine fauna.
Details 14 nights with most meals from £5,090pp, including flights and transfers (journeylatinamerica.com)

2. Explora Sacred Valley, Peru

Visits to Inca ruins and pisco sours
Wise travellers don’t rush through the Sacred Valley just to tick off Machu Picchu. This beautiful area deserves time and a little effort. The Chilean firm Explora, which pioneered lodge-based adventure tourism in the 1990s, opened its Sacred Valley property in 2017. It’s an impressive low-slung, wood-framed building with touches of Scandi and hints of Inca in a wide valley, with rooms overlooking quinoa and corn fields. Every day a menu of activities is laid on for all guests, from easy downhill walking (wise, as the air is thin) to mountain biking and visits to archaeological sites such as Pisac, Moray and the Maras salt mines. In the evening there is delicious food courtesy of the renowned Peruvian chef Virgilio Martinez, and some planning for the next day while sipping pisco sours. Lots of UK tour firms offer Explora stays, or you can book direct.
Details Three nights’ full board from £830pp, including all tours and transfers. Fly to Cuzco (explora.com)

3. Uakari Lodge, Tefe, Upper Amazon, Brazil

Floating rooms amid rainforest wonders
Named after an endemic red-faced, white-furred monkey, Uakari Lodge is a floating hotel in the Mamiraua Reserve between the Amazon, Japura and Auati-Parana rivers. The topography is varzea — seasonally flooded rainforest — so the setting changes depending on the time of year. Between September and March water levels are low, offering the spectacle of corralled fish and their predators; it’s possible to walk in some areas. In the flood season (May to July) all excursions are by canoe. Headline species include two and three-toed sloths, black-headed squirrel monkeys and pink (Amazonian) and grey (tucuxi) river dolphins. The ten en suite floating rooms have solar-powered hot water and a private terrace. A central building has a dining room, library and private veranda with hammocks and chairs overlooking the river. Reef and Rainforest Tours’ Wild Brazil tour also includes stays at lodges in a remote part of the Parnaiba Headwaters National Park, in the arid Cerrado, where the signature species are the maned wolf, hyacinth macaw and tool-using bearded capuchin monkey.
Details 13 nights from £8,718pp, including most meals, flights and transfers (reefandrainforest.co.uk)

4. Awasi Iguazu, Argentina

Jungle villas near Iguazu Falls
Awasi is the most lavishly appointed lodge-type property close to the famous Iguazu Falls on the Argentina/Brazil border; it’s also the one that delivers the most personalised attention. The 14 stand-alone villas have whitewashed wood interiors and private plunge pools, with plenty of space inside and out for contemplating the jungle. Toucans and smaller tropical birds flit across the high canopy and coatis can be seen scuttling through the undergrowth. The bar/restaurant is a high-ceilinged pine cabin, with leather sofas and wooden coffee tables to sit at while planning excursions; all guests have their own private guide and 4×4 vehicle, so it’s easy to get off the well-beaten routes around the waterfalls. Awasi recently joined forces with a local animal rescue project aiming to reintroduce endangered species such as the white-lipped peccary.
Details Seven nights’ B&B with full board at the lodge (three nights) from £6,985pp, including flights and transfers (cazloyd.com)

5. Tierra Chiloe, Chile

Island immersion with dinner cooked in the ground
The island of Chiloe, between Chile’s lake region and the wild steppes of Aisen on the edge of Patagonia, has a distinctive history, climate and topography. The friendly staff at Tierra Chiloe have honed the art of opening up less obvious sights, taking guests on boat trips to see Unesco-listed wooden churches and to remote islands to meet local communities. The lodge is an impressive-looking wooden property on stilts inspired by the island’s traditional palafito houses, with 24 textile-adorned rooms looking out across a lawn to Pullao Bay and Hudson Channel. A lovely evening meal that brings guests together is the curanto, an indigenous cooking tradition that involves burying cuts of meat, shellfish, potato dumplings and vegetables with heated rocks in the ground under a layer of native nalca (rhubarb) leaves. When dinner is dug up, it’s all very festive and delicious. Audley Travel’s tour combines three nights at Tierra Chiloe, with three nights each at the company’s sister lodges in Atacama and southern Patagonia.
Details Thirteen nights’ B&B from £12,000pp, including flights, all meals at the lodges (nine nights), and transfers (audleytravel.com)

6. Uman Lodge, southern Chile

A working farm with designer lodges and river views
Uman Lodge is an architectural statement: a fan of strikingly designed wood and glass structures on top of a cliff that overlooks a confluence of the Futaleufu and Espolon rivers. Huge windows and five outdoor platforms make for glorious views inside and out, and there’s an outdoor pool if you prefer to enjoy them from that angle. The lodge is a working sheep and horticulture farm with historic buildings and trails that wind through fruit orchards. It’s a great base for hiking in the Andes, riding around Espolon Lake, fly-fishing or rafting on the Futaleufu, a legendary river in the whitewater world. The Patagonia specialist Swoop has created a wildlife and flora-themed trip with a private naturalist guide that takes in a range of lodges in northern Patagonia, an underexplored temperate region between the Chilean lakes and the ice fields and fjords of the south.
Details Twelve nights’ full board is £10,995pp, including flights and transfers (swoop-patagonia.com )

7. Caiman eco-lodge, Pantanal, Brazil

A sauna with views of the wetlands
Brazil’s Pantanal is the place to see the country’s big five: giant otters, tapirs, anteaters, maned wolves and jaguars. Caiman has built a reputation for successful and sensitive jaguar-spotting, using 4×4 vehicles rather than speedboats. The birdwatching is some of the best of any lowlands in the world, with eye-catching large species such as the jabiru stork and roseate spoonbill, and there are plenty of caimans and capybaras avoiding one another and the big cats. Activity programmes are based on local conditions, and the lodge, which owns its own large reserve, hosts many conservation projects; seeing the rare hyacinth macaws is always memorable. The main lodge, Casa Caiman, has 18 rooms and there’s a separate six-bedroom private villa. There’s also a good-sized outdoor pool and a sauna with views of the wetlands. Humboldt Travel’s bespoke Brazil itinerary combines a three-night jaguar-focused stay at Caiman with visits to the Iguazu Falls and Rio de Janeiro.
Details Ten nights’ B&B from £6,570pp, including full board at the lodge (three nights), flights and transfers (humboldttravel.co.uk)

8. Mashpi Lodge, Pacto, Ecuador

A cocooning stay in the cloud forest
When it opened in 2012, Mashpi issued a challenge to all future wilderness-lodge developers: go on, beat this. The architect, Alfredo Ribadeneira, was commissioned to design a protective cocoon in the cloud forest, and he delivered that. He also created a glass cuboid with exposed tubing, neo-industrial stairways and 22 pared-down guest rooms with windows for outer walls, all perched on a hillside in a reserve that was previously pretty much uncharted. A stay here feels like an event, but if the interiors could host a contemporary art gallery, the real wonder and beauty are outside. You can breakfast in bed and watch toucans having theirs. The 6,177-acre reserve has 900 bird species. Mammal sightings might include agoutis, ring-tailed coatis, mantled howler monkeys and silky anteaters.
Details Nine nights’ B&B from £5,495pp, including some extra meals, transfers and flights (andeantrails.co.uk)

9. Hacienda Venecia, Colombia

A taste of the Coffee Triangle
If you’re tired of drinking coffee in characterless chains, try a cortado at the Hacienda Venecia, a traditional bamboo-and-clay farmhouse, painted red and white, with a wraparound veranda that looks out on to rows of the bottle-green plants that produce the magic bean. The interior is cosy and rustic, with a country kitchen that turns out hearty breakfasts of arepas (corn cakes), tropical fruits, juices and bean-to-cup brews harvested and roasted on site. Guests can try coffee-cupping, ie tasting, as well as chocolate-making and birdwatching; about 260 species have been recorded on the estate. Peacocks walk around the lawns that have been cut into the coffee plantation, which guests are free to explore. The hacienda is near Manizales, one of three towns that make up the so-called Colombian Coffee Triangle; it’s a lush, verdant landscape filled with life and industry. The Latin America specialist Last Frontiers’ tour combines the region with stays in gorgeous Cartagena on the Caribbean coast and the capital, Bogota.
Details Thirteen nights’ B&B from £4,550pp including flights and transfers (lastfrontiers.com)

10. Atta Rainforest Lodge, Guyana

Homely lodge in the rainforest
A one-stop British Airways flight from Gatwick has made Guyana easier to reach. Laterite roads connect Georgetown, the convivial capital, with impressive waterfalls and forests. In a tiny opening in the Iwokrama rainforest, this established lodge has simply furnished en suite rooms and al fresco showers and an open-sided dining room looking on to gardens. The accent is on immersion, with forest trails just a few minutes away as well as a canopy walkway, a series of suspension bridges and decks at up to 30m in height, affording views of the mid and upper canopy. Birds, including hummingbirds and black curassows, come into the precinct, and commonly sighted species in the forest include deer, monkeys, red-rumped agouti and sometimes tapir. The welcome in Guyana is warm and unpretentious; Atta is known for its indigenous-influenced home cooking.
Details Seven nights’ B&B from £4,495pp, including some extra meals, flights and transfers (geodyssey.co.uk)

11. Pikaia Lodge, Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos

Shamanic massages and wildlife-watching by yacht
As the most luxurious and stylish property in the Galapagos Islands, Pikaia is popular as an alternative to a cruise or as an add-on. On two extinct volcanic craters, it’s a dramatic-looking structure and all 14 rooms enjoy unobstructed views across Santa Cruz Island. The lodge has its own yachts to carry guests to wildlife-watching and diving locations, and a fleet of bikes for exploring nearby trails. White-sand beaches and lava tunnels lie close at hand, as is one of the best places in the archipelago to see giant tortoises. An awesome infinity pool in Peruvian travertine marble, a spa offering shamanic massages and fine Ecuadoran dining prepared by the chef Christian Cristian Puente and his team complete the experience. Select Latin America’s bespoke tour combines four nights at Pikaia with trips to Quito and Otavalo on the mainland.
Details Ten nights’ B&B from £12,175pp, including all meals while at the lodge, flights and transfers (selectlatinamerica.co.uk)

12. Guapi Assu Bird Lodge, Regua, Brazil

Dusk wildlife viewings with caipirinhas
This ten-room rustic but comfortable lodge is aimed mainly at birders. It has air-conditioning, a well-stocked library, a large communal dining area and lounge, and a small pool. The location in Regua (the Reserva Ecologica de Guapiaçu) makes it ideal for exploring the biodiversity of lowland Atlantic Forest; this is one of the most vulnerable biomes in South America, not least because it skirts populous coastal towns. Guests can hike to wetlands to observe signature endemic species. The nearby Serra dos Orgaos National Park has some of the most spectacular mountain scenery in southern BrazilHummingbirds, parakeets, armadillos and crab-eating foxes are regular visitors to the grounds. It’s not all about serious spotting; at dusk, caipirinhas are served on top of the viewing platform. For its group tour, the specialist operator Naturetrek uses Guapi Assu and Eco Lodge Itororo; the next departure is November 15, 2024. It’s possible to extend the tour to include an anteater-themed visit to the Pantanal wetlands.
Details Eight nights’ full board from £3,995pp, including flights and transfers (naturetrek.co.uk)

13. Cavas Wine Lodge, Mendoza, Argentina

A culinary stay in the heart of wine country
The wine-lovers Cecilia Diaz Chuit and Martín Rigal built their gorgeous Spanish colonial-style lodge deep inside Mendoza’s wine country. Spread over a estate planted with vines are 18 adobe-walled apartments. Interiors are cream, enlivened by oil paintings, wall hangings and bright red llama-wool throws. They open on to patios with outside showers, plunge pools and views of vineyards all the way to the Andes. Exquisite cuisine and culinary classes, spa services, zip-lining, whitewater rafting and riding excursions round out the stay. Humboldt Travel’s tour features a four-night stay at Cavas Wine Lodge, with a full-day private tour of the top vineyards in the Uco Valley, and includes visits to Iguazu, the Lake District and Buenos Aires.
Details 13 nights’ B&B from £7,670pp, including flights and transfers (humboldttravel.co.uk).

14. Salt Hotel Luna Salada, Uyuni, Bolivia

A lodge made from salt in the heart of the salt flats
This remarkable lodge is made almost entirely from harvested salt, from the floor to the walls to some of the furniture. Its location is even more spectacular, with expansive views of the immense Salar de Uyuni salt flat from every window. With only 11 rooms — colourfully decorated to contrast with the monochromatic environment ― the hotel offers friendly service. Driving across the salt flat is like something out of Star Wars, and the lodge can curate activities according to your wishes, from lunching and sipping singani, the local firewater, to stargazing in one of the clearest night skies on earth. Local landmarks to visit include three lakes with different colours (Laguna Blanca, Laguna Verde and Laguna Colorada) due to their mineral properties ― the latter draws large flocks of flamingos ― plus Uyuni’s train cemetery and the colourful market every Thursday, which specialises in crafts and, you guessed it, salt-based souvenirs.
Details Eleven nights’ half-board from £4,895pp, with some extra meals, including flights and transfers (steppestravel.com)

15. Laguna Garzon Lodge, Uruguay

Foodie break in the ‘Tuscany of Uruguay
Laid-back Uruguay is where Brazilian and Argentinian city-dwellers take their summer holidays. Not far inland from the buzzy beach towns of Jose Ignacio and La Barra is this stylish floating lodge with 12 wooden cabins cooled by the breezes of the lagoon. The restaurant, also on stilts, serves fish dishes, including ceviche and grilled seasonal fish such as Atlantic croaker as well as top-grade prime beef from the surrounding Pampas. The nearby village of Garzon has become something of a gastronomic hub since Argentina’s best-known chef, Francis Mallmann, opened a restaurant in 2004. Wineries, olive groves, organic gardens, wine bars, colonial-style houses and art galleries have popped up all over and local media refers to the area as “the Tuscany of Uruguay”. Birding and water sports are offered at the lodge but this is the ultimate spot for kicking back before or after a stay in Montevideo or Buenos Aires.

Source: The Times