The Adventure Lodge Boom
High-end adventure lodges have become the gold standard of South American luxury travel—and offer a laundry list of outdoor excursions, superb spas, and authentic cuisine.

Some parts of the world are known for having lodgings so unique they have become synonymous with the destination. On a dream trip to the South Pacific it’s an overwater bungalow, while in Africa it’s a top-shelf safari camp. Travelers seeking immersion into Japanese culture imagine an authentic ryokan with a deep soaking tub. Increasingly for visitors to South America, the choice is a luxury adventure lodge. The fast-growing hospitality niche combines the best of the continent’s cuisine, access to its widely varied ecosystems, and a rich slate of cultural and natural education. The small but powerful properties especially make sense for travelers who want to fully experience iconic destinations such as Patagonia, the Atacama Desert, Easter Island, Iguazu Falls, and the Galapagos Islands.

The original Explora Patagonia opened in 1993 as an industry game changer. The first and only hotel inside Chile’s striking Torres del Paine National Park, a world biodiversity reserve, the 49-room lodge seamlessly—and sustainably—combined fine cuisine with turnkey access to expertly guided adventures in one of the most stunning, hard-to-access places on earth.

Owned by a Chilean family and partners who wanted to show off their homeland, Explora’s mission was to showcase the country’s scenery, culture, food, and wine to the rest of the world. It worked, and the brand has won countless accolades and grown across South America. Its success inspired other similarly proud, family-owned groups and three major players now lead the charge, with more and more independent properties following in their footsteps.

Explora (explora.com), Tierra Hotels (tierrahotels.com), and Awasi (awasi.com) all regularly show up on best-of travel lists and have earned numerous industry and media awards. While there have long been rustic eco-lodges across the continent, where these companies broke new ground was by delicately balancing environmentally sensitive operations with food, lodging, and service up to the standards of the most demanding travelers. The lodges tend to be both very green and very comfortable—think villas with private plunge pools that incorporate local materials. Décor features art and antiques from the area and restaurants celebrate regional cuisine, South American spirits such as pisco and cachaca, and the best wines of Chile and Argentina. But what really sets this model apart is a deluxe, all-inclusive approach, similar to that of the finest safari lodges with full-time staffs of highly trained guides leading an enticing selection of full- and half-day excursions, daily outdoor adventures, and immersive cultural experiences.

While the three brands have very similar approaches, there are key differences among them. Explora has the largest lodges, often up to 50 rooms, and more of an equestrian focus, breeding its own Patagonian horses, and operating stables instead of subcontracting rides. All offer treatments and massages, but Tierra has full spas at its lodges, and a wider range of scale, from 24 to 40 rooms. Awasi is the most luxurious, with just 12 to 14 villa-like suites, and the brand always assigns a dedicated private guide and four-wheel-drive vehicle to each villa, instead of setting up group excursions. The brand’s cuisine is the most rarefied.

Tierra’s most recent lodge sits on an island in Chile’s undiscovered archipelago of Chiloé, featuring a diverse range of land and sea activities. Explora has staked out a coveted spot in Peru’s Sacred Valley, the gateway to fabled Machu Picchu, and is also far and away the best option on remote Easter Island, a place of almost indescribable wonder and mystery, famous for its towering stone moai statues.

For 2021, the brand will open its fifth full lodge in Argentinean Patagonia, within the Los Huemules Natural Reserve. Explora also operates two smaller camps in Salta, Argentina, and Uyuni, Bolivia, as part of its “travesias” programs of mobile adventures, multiday glamping trips connected with its full lodges. All three companies are excellent at what they do, and you can easily mix and match brands to connect a string of dream destinations into a single epic trip.

Chile

Each major player has a luxury adventure lodge in Chilean Patagonia, and all three brands also vie with one another in Chile’s Atacama Desert, the driest place on earth, and a remarkably attractive tourist destination that is less famous than Patagonia, but may have even more to offer.

Patagonia is legendary for its hiking and horseback riding, but the widely varied options here also include kayaking, cruises, fishing, cycling, and immersions into gaucho culture. The Atacama Desert is both striking and varied, so starkly beautiful it has been described as otherworldly, and in fact, NASA tested the Mars rover here because the terrain was the most similar to the Red Planet that they could find on earth.

Yet, while it is rocky and rugged and there are weather stations that have never recorded an ounce of precipitation, underground aquifers supply verdant oases and hikers can soak in mineral laden hot springs. One day you may pedal mountain bikes through slot canyons below the desert surface, the next trek among flamingos across vast salt flats at ground level, and then hike up a towering and perfectly conical volcano to over 18,000 feet. The sheer range of activities, from horseback rides to geyser hikes to visiting ancient petroglyphs explains why all three companies have built lodges here, and Explora alone has more than 40 different excursions. The adventure does not stop when the sun goes down, as the combination of altitude, ultra-clean air, absence of light pollution, and atmospheric moisture makes the Atacama the best place in the world for astronomy. It’s home to the world’s largest telescope and many prominent international research facilities. All three lodges offer nightly astronomer-led stargazing, using research-grade domed observatories.

Well-known African safari lodge operator andBeyond (andbeyond.com) recently opened andBeyond Vira Vira in Chile’s lesser-known Lake District, just north of Patagonia. The new property has just 18 suites and villas and a five-bedroom house, as well as an organic garden, a full spa, and daily yoga classes. Unlike many other South American lodges, it has summer and winter activities, including hiking, horseback riding, fishing, river rafting, kayaking, mountain biking, skiing, snowboarding, and snowshoeing. Not included in the nightly rate, try snowmobiling, dog sledding, and even heli-skiing. AndBeyond was the first notable company from outside South America to move into this space, but given the growth and success of the luxury adventure lodge concept here, it certainly will not be the last.

Argentina & Brazil

Awasi Iguazú is the only all-inclusive adventure lodge at Iguazu Falls, on the Argentinean side of the most impressive waterfall on the planet, one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. The lodge offers guests VIP access to excursions that allow them to visit the Argentinian side of the falls early, before opening to the general public, when the most iconic paths and viewpoints become perennially jammed with tourists.

While not an all-inclusive adventure lodge, the Hotel das Cataratas, A Belmond Hotel, Iguassu Falls is a full-service grand luxury hotel, perched right at the edge of the falls on the Brazilian side, the only lodging in the national park. Its guests also enjoy special, crowd-free access to the falls before and after the park gates open and close, and even at night, including naturalist-led full-moon walks. Because of its unrivaled location, spa, gorgeous pool, multiple bars and restaurants, exquisite hospitality, and built-in advantages for guests, many travelers pair a stay here with Awasi on the Argentinean side for the full Iguazu experience.

Ecuador

Ecuador’s highly acclaimed Mashpi Lodge (mashpilodge.com) is the brainchild of former Quito Mayor, entrepreneur, and environmentalist Roque Sevilla. Located in a 6,100-acre preserve spanning both rain forest and cloud forest, it offers unique opportunities to explore these distinctive ecosystems and their amazing biodiversity on a range of included excursions with staff guides. These include lots of hikes, waterfall sightings, and aerial canopy rides and towers that go way beyond conventional zip lines. Mashpi has just 222 rooms and suites, and in addition to standout cuisine, rates include chauffeured transport round trip from Quito, just 60 miles away.

In Ecuador’s most popular tourism attraction, the Galapagos Islands, sits Pikaia Lodge (pikaialodge.com), an adventure hotel with just 14 rooms, set in the heart of a private wild giant tortoise reserve. Pikaia, located on the edge of an extinct volcanic crater, requires a minimum of 10 years’ experience when hiring its expert guides and claims to be the only hotel in the Galapagos with its own yacht, a 105-foot luxury ship used for daily excursions. Exploration packages include a mix of full- and half-day guided explorations on land and sea, all meals with wine, and airport transfers.

Bolivia

Looking like it was lifted from the set of a sci-fi movie, Kachi Lodge (kachilodge.com) consists of half a dozen high-tech domed pods in the heart of Bolivia’s famed Uyuni salt flats, at the base of a 17,000-foot volcano. Each of the six Swiss-designed domes houses a 300-plus-square-foot suite with bespoke fabrics, locally made furnishings, and original art. Dome guests call on their private guide and vehicle, and the list of possible excursions ranges from summiting the massive volcano to visiting ancient mummies to touring a quinoa plantation. Each day there are sunrise and sunset hikes—complete with sundowner cocktails in the field. Astronomy is a strong nighttime focus, and the tiny resort partnered with Proyecto Nativa in Sucre to run its eatery, showcasing the best locally produced organic ingredients. —Larry Olmsted

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