When I first saw The Motorcycle Diaries, Walter Salles's 2004 film about young Ernesto "Che" Guevara's South American road trip, I was less affected by the tale of social injustice and more by the stirring poetry of the great Latin landscape: Machu Picchu, Chile's lakes, Patagonia, and Argentina's sere yet green pampas. Once you fall for it, this place is addictive.
There are, to be sure, some challenges for even the most sophisticated travelers. First is the sometime difference in attitudes. "To schedule" or "on time" is not always as important here. I once showed up for an internal flight in Ecuador only to discover hours later—the check-in was unmanned, all phone calls went unanswered—that the service had been canceled because of an erupting volcano. Sometimes you'll encounter a certain colonial arrogance, too. At one hacienda I was turned away by the owners, who hadn't decided if they were operating a hotel or a private residence that accepted guests by sufferance only. Then there's the crime and the possibility of violence—no way in hell would I have explored Rio's samba clubs without a guide and a waiting driver—and there's always a chance the politics might go awry (during the financial crisis of December 2001, I'd just got out of Buenos Aires when the crowds began their takeover).
It also occasionally takes a painfully long time to get to places. Last October I hired a car to go from Trancoso to Espelho on Brazil's northeast coast. The night's rain had transformed the track into a mud bath; a 40-minute journey became a two-hour scramble. The same happened on a trip to the Amazon. When I reached the lodge, my bags, which I'd sent ahead, were soaked and their contents ruined. Yet the next day I was standing on the edge of the miraculous Iguazú Falls. I'm here, I thought, so who cares if I look like a drowned capybara?
But South America's enormous appeal is its vast, unrivaled vistas. Take Iguazú—you can view it from three countries. I haven't yet explored the Patagonian hinterland, but traveling up the Beagle Channel, I've seen the glaciers beckoning, the bone of the Andes crumpling up from the shoreline. This is at the very tip of the continent, in Tierra del Fuego. I'd arrived from the Falklands, where the wildlife display of penguins, albatross, and Commerson's dolphins rivals that of the Galápagos. I've been there, too, snorkeling with hammerheads and mantas. I met a 200-year-old turtle. Fauna isn't even my first passion. But to be moved like this—and similarly in Brazil's Pantanal, Ecuador's cloud forests, and the Amazon—speaks of South America's transcendent variety.
If you don't speak Spanish, or in Brazil, Portuguese, you'll need a guide. Logistically, South America requires as much unraveling as China; your outfitter must scout every aspect of the trip beforehand, from hotels and restaurants to guides and drivers. The domestic market here is burgeoning—especially in Brazil and Argentina—but most hotels aren't quite up to North American standards. It's as if they don't need us nor our demands for 24-hour room service. In Argentina many of the estancias are extraordinarily average (unheated pools, twin beds). In Brazil most pousadas aren't air-conditioned. A private house is usually a better choice than these rustic hostelries (particularly in Angra dos Reis).
You'll also want a specialist's help, since the global travel firms tend to keep travelers confined to the gringo trails long-worn by backpackers. Latin America is more interesting than this so wherever possible, hire an outfitter based locally. There's Marisol Mosquera in Peru (aracari.com), who also covers Bolivia and Ecuador; Robert Betenson in Brazil (matuete.com); and Maita Barrenechea in Argentina (mai10.com.ar). And in Patagonia, Burco Adventure (burcoadventure.com) runs four lodges—two each in Chile and Argentina—while Explora (explora.com) has a breathtaking lodge in the Chilean peaks. Or stick to subject-specializing companies: the American Alpine Institute (mtnguide.com) for climbing, Osprey Travel (osprey-travel.com) for fishing, Butterfield & Robinson (butterfield.com) for biking. Just don't try going it alone or you may end up sitting by the roadside like Che Guevara beside his broken-down Norton. Oh yes, and a friend of mine swears by the high- altitude medication called Diamox, prescribed by his doctor before a trip to Machu Picchu. It made the difference, he's convinced, between a great trip and an okay trip.
Smart Guide #1
The lure of the Galápagos, a cluster of more than a dozen islands some 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, is its flora and fauna. Darwin navigated his Beagle through these waters in 1835 and based much of his evolutionary theory on what he saw here: animals living in a lush oasis, unaffected by the outside world. On the island of Santa Cruz the Charles Darwin Research Station, which was founded in 1959, offers an introduction to plant and animal life. But the only way to really take in the spectacular surroundings is to traverse the islands by boat, either through day cruises, a weeklong excursion, or a chartered yacht. There are thousands of species within the 50,000 square miles of ocean and islands—giant iguanas, red-footed boobies, tiny penguins, century-old tortoises—and many are endemic to the area. The islands themselves range from verdant (the Palo Santo forest on Genovesa) to volcanic (the rocky Bartolomé).
A destination this remote and protected is understandably difficult to reach. You must fly from Quito, Ecuador, to the southern town of Guayaquil, then take a flight to Baltra, a military base off the coast of Santa Cruz, from which most ships launch. The number of vessels and visitors arriving to the Galápagos is strictly—and thankfully—monitored by the Ecuadoran government, as it has been for decades. My own favorite time of year is March/April, when the species are most reproductive—that is, colorful and engaging. Abercrombie & Kent (from $4,900 for 11 days; 800-554-7016; abercrombiekent.com), Lindblad Expeditions (from $4,150 for ten days; 800-397-3348; expeditions.com), Butterfield & Robinson (from $7,000 for nine days; 866-551-9090; butterfield.com), and Big Five (from $4,350 for 11 days; 800-244-3483; bigfive.com) all ply these waters on boats that hold between 32 and 100 passengers. They also offer guides with expertise in biology, zoology, and botany. Excursions usually include a night in Quito at either end of the trip. The terrific 48-passenger Eclipse, which relaunches this month after renovations to spiff up its interiors, has the largest cabins of all the big boats in the islands (from $3,200 for eight days; 877-262-3496; oceanadventures.com.ec). You can also charter boats: Ecoventura has four vessels, among them the 16-passenger Sky Dancer, which does customized dive-focused journeys (from $58,090 for a ten-day charter; 800-633-7972; ecoventura.com). The Beagle, a 17-passenger schooner that comes with its own naturalist guide and a private chef, sails you through the islands with eight-day tailor-made trips ($31,655; 54-911/5109-6428; azullatinamerica.com). If you want to sleep on land, the villa Infinite Blue, a modern 12-bedroom house on Santa Cruz, recently became available for private rental ($5,200 per person for ten days, including two nights in Quito and flights in Ecuador; 44-20/7384-2332; cazloyd.com). The house is within walking distance of the research station and includes a guide and a private speedboat. To be honest, this isn't the way we would do it—for us it's boats only—but it is an option.
Smart Guide #2
Named for the day in 1722 that it was discovered by Dutch explorers, Easter Island is its own lonesome, detached world some 2,200 miles off the coast of Chile, halfway to Tahiti. Fewer than 4,000 inhabitants live on the 63-square-mile piece of land. Most are Polynesian by descent; they speak a local dialect and call their island Rapa Nui. The reason most people come here is to see the moais, those grand and mysterious stone statues. There are more than 400 on the island, built to represent the Rapa Nui ancestors, their aringa ora (living faces) pointed inland to protect the villagers. The stones were mined 1,000 years ago from the quarry at the Rano Raraku volcanic crater, now a destination in its own right. Easter's other top draw is the petroglyphs at Orongo, a 980-foot volcanic rim jutting majestically into the ocean. Hanga Roa, the main village with the airport and majority of hotels, is worth staying in, but it's on the other side of the island, away from most of the sights. You can rent cars there, as well as bikes and horses. The beaches on Easter are surprisingly good, especially the white-sand Anakena.
The fastest—and, to be frank, pretty much the only—way to reach the island is to take the five-hour flight from Santiago on Lan Chile, the sole commercial airline that flies there. Just a few good operators can even arrange the trip: Abercrombie & Kent is one and Explora another. For most companies the island is just an afterthought, and hotels throughout Easter are basic, no matter who you book them through. A&K does bespoke trips (from $2,400; 800-554-7016; abercrombiekent.com) that include a night in Santiago and four nights at Easter's Hotel Otai. It also includes the island in a three-week-long private itinerary called the Best of South America by Private Jet (from $45,000 per person), which makes fabulous stops all over the continent, among them check-off-list favorites like Machu Picchu and diving with a member of Jacques Cousteau's 1978 expedition. Explora, the Chilean outfitter that has the famously glorious hotel in Patagonia, recently opened two stone-and-wood houses with nine guest rooms (the firm plans to open a serious full-scale hotel, but that's just now getting off the ground). Though hardly luxurious, they are exclusive, small, and pretty much provide, at this point, the only chance to live as Easter Islanders do. A three-night stay and guides who can customize excursions start at $1,230 a person (866-750-6699; explora.com).
Smart Guide #3
Chilean poet Pablo Neruda wrote his masterpiece, The Heights of Machu Picchu, after ascending to the Lost City of the Incas, 7,700 feet above sea level. Lost it was for centuries, until Yale professor Hiram Bingham located the ruins in 1911 and deemed it Phuyupatamarca, or "Town Above the Clouds." The stone-walled buildings, which cover five square miles, date back to about 1450, when the Incan empire was at its height. Today the Peruvian site has become so popular—despite the strenuous hike up the Inca Trail—that laws now require visitors to be part of an organized tour escorted by a guide.
A sojourn to Machu Picchu starts by flying into Lima, then connecting, after an overnight layover, to Cuzco. This is the jumping-off point for any trip to the ancient city, whether it be by foot, rail, or helicopter. The latter is now offered by our favorite place to stay here—the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel, a wonderful lodge set around a rainforest and a 25-minute ride from Machu Picchu. For hard-core hikers, there are two routes: a daylong walk or the more arduous four-day trail. The firm Inkas takes small groups on the second course—the long way, just as the Incas did it, trekking 30 miles of stone roads and bridges. But Inkas provides personal porters to carry your packs and the Sanctuary Lodge awaits at the summit (from $4,255 a person for a two-week trip that includes Lima and Peru's Sacred Valley; 212- 787-0500; inkas.com). Blue Parallel offers the best of both worlds, with a train ride most of the way up, followed by a guided hike to the top (from $5,500 a person for a seven-day trip including the Sacred Valley; 800-256-5307; blueparallel.com). For anyone not up for even a short hike, Inkaterra's new heli service, which launched in April, departs from Cuzco (from $900 per person; 800-442-5042; inkaterra.com). The 30-minute flight arrives at the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel's helipad. Orient-Express does perhaps the most luxe trip ($500 per person; 800-237-1236; orient-express.com). It's aboard the Hiram Bingham train, departing from Poroy Station (20 minutes from Cuzco's center) at 9 a.m.; the journey takes three-and-a-half hours. Then it's a 30-minute drive to the Sanctuary Lodge, located right next to the ruins. You can stay overnight ($715–$1,045) or go back for cocktails and dinner on the evening train to Cuzco.
24 Hours in Quito
To enjoy 24 hours in Quito, Ecuador, you need at least 48 hours—the city is more than 9,000 feet above sea level in the Andean highlands. Altitude sickness can take some time to kick in, so don't be fooled: Relax the first day and allow your- self time to acclimatize.
The 31-room Hotel Patio Andaluz ($105–$125; N6-52 Calle García Moreno; 593-2/228-0830; hotelpatioandaluz.com) is in a 19th-century colonial building in the capital city's historic center. The JW Marriott Hotel Quito ($119–$1,500; 1172 Avda. Orellana and Avda. Ama-zonas; 593-2/297-2000; jwmarriottquito.com) is the top modern hotel, with suites looking out onto the Pichincha volcano. There's also a full-service spa.
Though 200 miles from the coast, restaurants here are still known for great seafood. Ignore the awful decor at Las Redes (dinner, $50; 845 Avda. Amazonas and Veintimilla; 593-2/252-5691) and give in to the mariscada (seafood stew). And at Mare Nostrum (dinner, $40; 172 Foch and Tamayo; 593-2/252-8686), the tasty special is arroz del capitán—rice with prawns, mussels, and clams. Trendy? In these parts? You've got to be kidding, but Café Mosaico (N8-95 Manuel Samaniego and Antepara; 593-2/254-2871) is the spot where Quito's hipster elite enjoys café, dessert, and panoramas of the city.
Despite the name, Panama hats originated in Ecuador and the best of them are woven from the fronds of a coastal plant that grows in the hills around Montecristi, in the western part of the country. For a good selection, try Marpy Hats ($45–$800; Centro Artesanal El Indio, 750 Roca and Avda. Amazonas; 593-2/552-672). For sheer experience, visit Otavalo, a village north of Quito that hosts the largest street market in South America—bustling, picturesque, and packed with locally made goods such as ponchos and hammocks.
Neotropic Turis, run by Luis Hernández, specializes in ecotrips to the Ecuadoran jungle as well as city tours around Quito ($ from $30; 593-2/252-1212; neotropicturis.com). Two things everyone must do here is ride up the Cruz Loma—13,450 feet on the teleférico (cable car)—at sunset and visit the Mitad del Mundo, the "official" equator line. The monument itself is humdrum, although it contains a superb museum about the indigenous people of Ecuador. Then pop into the rival Inti-nan museum next door, which theorizes that the monument is about 330 feet off target (Autopista Manuel Córdoba Galarza). —Hal Weitzman
24 Hours in Santiago
Santiago, Chile, isn't as lusty as Rio de Janeiro or as lively as Buenos Aires, but it's a sophisticated and modern metropolis. El Centro is the political and administrative heart of the city, and across the Río Mapocho, leafy Bellavista has been Santiago's bohemian enclave since the twenties. The elite have migrated eastward and upward into the foothills of the Andes. Now most of the eating, shopping, and living is done on the busy boulevards and secluded side streets of Providencia, Las Condes, and Vitacura.
The Ritz-Carlton ($220–$1,600; 15 Calle El Alcalde, Las Condes; 56-2/470-8500; ritzcarlton.com) is the brand's first in South America, and the 205 luxe rooms and central loca- tion have quickly established it as Santiago's best. The stylish Spanish chain NH Hoteles ($95–$150; 40 Avda. Condell, Providencia; 56-2/341-7575; nh-hotels.com), which took over an Embassy Suites closer to the city center, is introducing the tastefully minimal furnishings of a boutique hotel. Be sure to ask for a renovated room.
The 19th-century Mercado Central's main hall has all but been swallowed up by Donde Augusto (dinner, $40; 56-2/ 672-2829; dondeaugusto.cl), a seafood restaurant with a continentwide reputation for, among other things, the steaming platter of centolla (spider-crab legs). The other hot spot is Puerto Fuy (dinner, $80; 3969 Avda. Nueva Costanera, Vitacura; 56-2/208-8908; puertofuy.cl). Santiagans clamor to taste chef Giancarlo Mazzarelli's trademark ravioles de loco, abalone-filled pasta with a Champagne reduction sauce. Pop in for a quick bite at Fast Good (lunch, $20; 2890 Isidora Goyenechea; 56-2/326-2604; fastgood.cl), Ferran Adrià's breezy take on fast food. There are 12 burgers, including the Chilena, with avocado and pebre (a spicy salsa), and the salmón austral, a salmon burger with pepino (cucumber) and caper salsa. As for wine bars, locals are partial to Liguria (1373 Avda. Providencia, Providencia; 56-2/ 235-7914; liguria.cl).
You won't find any bargains here—the peso is strong and shopkeepers know what a finely wo-ven shawl is worth. Instead look for good design and high quality. You'll find both at Patio Bellavista (55 Pío Nono, Providencia; patiobellavista.cl), a fashionable complex of stores, cafés, and galleries. Malls are ubiquitous in Santiago and the closest thing to a walkable shopping street is Avenida Isidora Goyenechea in Las Condes. Top picks here are Interdesign (No. 3200; 56-2/ 231-4114) and Pura (No. 3226; 56-2/333-3144), an airy space with a well-edited group of quality Chilean crafts—say, cowhide carry-ons and carved-horn condiment sets. Close by are the two best wine shops, La Vinoteca (No. 2966; 56-2/334-2349) and El Mundo del Vino (No. 2931; 56-2/584-1172).
Tucked away in Bellavista is La Chascona (0192 Fernando Márquez de la Plata, Bellavista; 56-2/777-8741; fundacionneruda.org), the former home of diplomat turned poet Pablo Neruda. It's packed with his possessions: a Diego Rivera por-trait of Neruda's wife, Matilde Urrutia, some groovy sixties dining sets, and his 1971 Nobel Prize. The 40-minute tour (in English) is dense with detail and anecdotes. Then go for a bite and a tipple at Venezia (lunch, $15; 200 Pío Nono, Bellavista; 56-2/777-4845), a bar with a friendly mix of twentysomethings and tweedy, bearded men who remember when the people's poet himself would stop by. —Oliver Schwaner-Albright
24 Hours in Lima
Some fall in love with Lima at first sight. The Peru-vian capital, home to one third of the country's population, is vast, sprawling, dirty, noisy…and for a few, romantic. But don't be put off by first impressions—Lima is much more than just a place to spend the night on the way to Machu Picchu. The former center of Spanish colonial power, it has a wealth of charming architecture plus a serious regional cuisine, and its residents display a wicked sense of humor.
Where you should stay depends on the time of year. During the summer (December–April), book along the ocean on the Malecón. The Miraflores Park Hotel ($385–$3,300; 1035 Avda. Male-cón de la Reserva, Miraflores; 51-1/242-3000; mira-park.com) is the finest choice on the Malecón and offers suites with ocean views, private gardens, and saunas. Try the bath butler service—antistress salts, a glass of Cognac, and a cigar. Request a sea-view room at the intimate Second Home Peru (from $85; 366 Domeyer, Bar-ranco; 51-1/477-5021; secondhomeperu.com), down the coast in the artsy Barranco district. The house belongs to Peruvian sculptor Victor Delfin, and his daughter runs the art-filled five-room hotel. Between May and November, weather condi-tions are warmer and less humid away from the seafront. The Country Club Lima Hotel (from $295; 590 Los Eucaliptos, San Isidro; 51-1/611-9000; hotelcountry.com) has all the perks of a top hotel along with access to the exclusive Lima Golf Club. This gets pretty close to the grand, romantic Latin hotel of your dreams. You can imagine Evita making a stopover, her LV bags splayed out in the country club lounge.
Many a deal has been sealed with a handshake at La Gloria (dinner, $70; 201 Calle Atahualpa, Miraflores; 51-1/445-5705) over a delicious plate of conchas a la mantequilla de limón y ajo crocante—scallops in lemon butter and garlic—or black ravioli. Ask for a table on the terrace at Huaca Pucllana (dinner, $60; 784 Avda. General Borgoña, Miraflores; 51-1/445-4042), a New Peruvian restaurant on the grounds of a 1,500-year-old pyramid.
Las Pallas (212 Cajamarca, Barranco; 51-1/477-4629) is the best place in the city to buy Andean crafts. Run by Wales native Mari Solari, it is half museum, half shop. Fill your suitcase with luxury alpaca goods at Alpaca 111 (671 Avda. Larco, Miraflores; 51-1/447-1623). The store also stocks scarves and coats made from the wool of the vicuña, a distant cousin of the llama.
Raul Hermoza Guillen offers custom tours of his native city (1 from $25 an hour; 51-1/9942- 1194). For trips outside Lima, Aventuras de Oro ($ from $395 a person; 51-1/243-4130; aventuras-de-oro.com) focuses on areas away from backpackers. Aero Condor can take you beyond Incan ruins with a day-trip to fly over the pre-Incan Nazca lines—2,000-year-old gi-ant geoglyphs in southwestern Peru in the shape of hummingbirds, spiders, and monkeys (from $350 a person; 51-1/614-6014; aerocondor.com.pe). —H.W.
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