Latin America: Tour Operators Do the Talking

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Laguna San Rafael in Chile
Laguna San Rafael in Chile (photo courtesy: SERNATUR).

No sector of the travel industry has been more important in opening up new vacation horizons in Latin America than tour operators. They invest in the research, do the leg work, and point the way with new and flexible travel products. And for travel agents, tour operators bring destination knowledge and experience to the travel planning table. For our Latin America coverage, Recommend often checks in with these folks about what’s hot, and indeed we like to know what’s new on their own sales shelf.

All eyes have been on Brazil during the exciting World Cup 2014 and will continue to be as the country revs up for the 2016 Summer Olympic Games. “Certainly those events have produced an uptick in inquiries and bookings for Brazil,” says Jennine Cohen, managing director for the Americas, GeoEx. Cohen reports that while Brazil is not a company best-seller, it is a destination GeoEx presents with regional programs that put the accent on great and adventurous experiences and are offered on a customized basis rather than scheduled departures. “Launching just this fall is our Northeastern Brazil: The Soul of Bahia, a 10-day itinerary embracing cultural touring, day hiking, beach time in Salvador, Chapada Diamantina and Trancoso. By focusing more in-depth on the many splendid cultural and natural attractions of the state of Bahia,” Cohen points out, “clients will not be spending a lot of time flying the great distances that are necessary to cover the iconic sites in this immense country; however, we fully expect people will be adding on Rio either coming or going.” Also, she believes that this itinerary, with a lot of physical activity and interactive features, will appeal to a young client demographic.

Touch down for the tour is Salvador, where travelers stay at Villa Bahia and tour the UNESCO World Heritage listed Pelourinho neighborhood; explore the Sao Joaquim market; attend a folkloric performance; and visit a capoeira dance school. They then fly on to Chapada Diamantina to savor the vistas of dramatic mesas, hike the lush gorges of Capao Valley, and explore caves and soak in waterfalls. Hotel Canto das Aguas is home base in Lençois, while in Palmeiras, guests stay at Pousada Lagoa das Cores. Afterwards, travelers fly on to Trancoso, for beach-lolling and other activities, while staying in a luxe bungalow at Uxua Casa Hotel & Spa. For each of two guests, the trip cost is $7,755, for each of four guests, $6,875.

In Central America, Costa Rica is still a sales leader, according to Grier Donald, CTA and leisure travel advisor at Brownell Travel, “but some clients feel that everyone is going to Costa Rica. They would like someplace different, and with its own great outdoors, fine accommodations and new adventures, Panama is gaining ground.” And you know, she adds, “I believe the ‘hot’ destinations lists that come up annually in such magazines as Conde Nast Traveler andTravel + Leisure do influence travelers thinking about where to go next. Panama has been on those lists for the last few years, and we are seeing new interest in Nicaragua, a more recent hot list entry.”

Donald reports that family travelers top Brownell’s client list for Panama, followed by honeymooners and the getaway vacationers.

“Once we understand their wishes and expectations, we outline a suggested itinerary, and on approval, off it goes to Ancon Expeditions, our onsite travel partner in Panama City who turns it into an optimum vacation.”

She adds that the Brownell bookings for Panama are usually eight to 10 nights, visiting Panama City, Boquete, Bocas del Toro, and then, for rest and relaxation, perhaps some time at the JW Marriott Golf & Beach Resort on the Pacific coast. For the agency’s upscale clientele, she works with associate Virtuoso partners, which assures clients extra amenities. In Panama City, that might be the Bristolor the boutique Canal House in Casco Viejo.

Panama-based Ancon Expeditions has extended its 7-night Panama Canal Centennial program, celebrating the Panama Canal’s 100th anniversary, through 2015. Travelers spend three nights in Panama City at the Radisson Summit Hotel, with a full day excursion by boat through the Chagres National Park for excellent birdwatching and a visit with lunch at the Embera Indian village; another day is spent in the Soberania National Park. Then, crossing to Colon for a night, tour members will visit the Spanish Main port of Portobelo and the Panama Canal Expansion site at the Gatun Locks, and on return to Panama City aboard the Panama Canal Railroad, activities during a 3-night stay at the Country Inn & Suites Amador include a Panama City and Canal Zone tour, as well as an Ocean to Ocean Panama Canal Transit. The net rate of $1,490 pp sharing includes accommodations, all land, air and boat transfers, all meals, and private group guide services. Departures are scheduled for Dec. 14, Feb. 8, April 12, July 12, Aug. 9 and Dec. 13, and optional pre- and post-tours are available to Bocas del Toro, San Blas Islands and Chiriqui Highlands.

Ancon Expeditions has an exclusive deal for Recommend readers.

Chile has been making the “hot” destination scene for a number of years. It offers visitors a plethora of memorable experiences, including thriving food and art scenes in Santiago and Valparaiso; adventure in Patagonia and San Pedro de Atacama; and a mysterious and exotic scenery in Chiloe Island and Easter Island, to name just a few. A key factor luring travelers is some sensational places for clients to stay, says Michele Shelburne, president of Ladatco Tours.

“Gateway Santiago is not only a more welcoming place to be, but a more interesting place to stay with its bevy of boutique hotels,” points out Shelburne. “The wine country is dotted with vineyards opening their cellars and manor houses to wine-loving guests—Viña Vik is the latest. And then we have the wilderness areas: Patagonia, Atacama and Easter Island, where Explora opened wilderness areas with luxury lodges, all-inclusive of a full menu of outdoor activities, fine guides, excellent food and gorgeous accommodations. We salute their vision, although they now have competition: In Atacama, Awasi added a totally private,
concierge-style hospitality to desert living and exploration, while in Patagonia, newer lodges such as Singular Patagonia, outside Torres del Paine National Park, offer not only park explorations, but kayaking, biking, and their own fjords yacht cruisers. Bottom line: The hotel scene—full of beautiful design, authentic experiences and top-notch service—has made Chile easier to sell and gets rave reviews from clients.”

Ladatco’s business splits about 50-50 on clients choosing Chile as a single destination and those combining Chile and Argentina in a greater Patagonia vacation. Hitting all the not-to-miss highlights is an 18-day Si! Chile suggested itinerary, starting off with two days in Santiago, with a city tour and a full-day excursion to Viña del Mar and Valparaiso. Then, clients travel to San Pedro de Atacama for a 4-night stay at the Alto Atacama Lodge & Spa. That’s complemented by a visit to the Lake District for a 3-night stay at the Gran Colonos del Sur in Puerto Varas, overlooking Lake Llanquihue. In the far south, the program includes a 4-night stay in Tierra Patagonia Hotel & Spa with transportation from Punta Arenas, all meals, open bar and daily activities/excursions. This suggested itinerary, with many meals and private drivers and guides, is priced from $9,950 pp dbl.

For many years now, Peru has occupied a steady place in the top three countries of choice in South America. And with Marnella Tours, Peru is numero uno. “Selling Peru always came easy, for it had the iconic Machu Picchu attraction,” explains Martha Tavera of Marnella Tours. “However, the 21st century visitor is discovering and booking special interest travel countrywide. That includes the major archaeological discoveries of the north, adventure travel from the Amazon to the Andes, yoga trips to ancient spiritual centers, and culinary stays in Lima.”

Tavera is particularly excited about the capital nowadays. “There is still the impression that Lima is a waste of time. Whoa! Clients should be staying at least two days here, for the city is not only clean and safe, but areas like Plaza de Armas are spruced up and welcoming, the museums are not-to-miss, the shopping has always been excellent, and the culinary scene overflows with award-winning restaurants showcasing countrywide specialties from the
Amazon to Cusco to Arequipa to Lima,” she says.

Tavera has a particular dream: someone will open a fabulous inn at the lost-now-found ancient city of Kuelap (called by some the Machu Picchu of Amazonas), and everyone will run to stay in catered comfort by these unique stone monuments—just one stop on a northern routing including fascinating Cajamarca. Until then, Marnella Tours has a new 10-day Treehouse Lodge & Machu Picchu package. Clients spend three nights (including all meals) at the Treehouse Lodge, located outside Iquitos on the banks of the Yarapa River where treehouse accommodations are indeed high up in the canopy; two nights at the Casa Andina Private Collection Lima; three nights at the Casa Andina Private Collection Cusco; and one night at the Casa del Sol Machu Picchu. Priced from $2,760 pp dbl, the cost includes extensive private sightseeing, all breakfasts and many other meals, top accommodations, Vistadome train to Machu Picchu, and all transfers.

“Honduras is not a hot selling destination,” says Daniel Taramona, president, Tara Tours. “Well, let me back up on that. The Bay Island of Roatan is always sold out. With its great inventory of hotels, direct flights from the U.S., cruise ships with their own elaborate terminals, a loyal corps of scuba divers, Roatan is almost a separate country.” But Taramona feels that this beautiful and reasonably priced destination, with its superb Mayan ruins, north coast beaches, wildlife reserves, river rafting and canopy touring, fine hotels and easy air access is “an undiscovered treasure.”

Tops on his mainland-list is the royal Mayan complex of Copan, a 15-minute walk away from the charming town of Copan Ruinas. “Clients come to Copan to thrill over one of the most marvelous sites in the ancient Mayan World, while at the same time staying in excellent small hotels and nowadays eating delicious food—authentic Mayan dishes at Hacienda San Lucas, for instance. Additionally, the area offers excursions on horseback, soaking in the hot springs and time at the unique Macaw Mountain Bird Reserve.” The Tara Tours chief is also excited about the new resort scene around Tela Bay on the northern coast. He describes the recently opened Indura Beach & Golf Resort, set on a 26-mile stretch of the bay, as “beautifully designed, using top quality material, and fitting perfectly into its national park environs.” Guest accommodations are in 60 jr. suites scattered in 15 villas, and facilities include a world-class spa and an 18-hole Gary Player golf course.

Tara Tours’ newest program, Mayas, Rain Forest & Beach, focuses on these two mainland destinations with a 2-night stay in Copan at the Hotel Marina Copan, including breakfast, guided sightseeing of the Copan archaeological site and museum, and traveling overland to Tela Bay for a 4-night stay at Indura Beach & Golf Resort, including breakfasts and an excursion by boat to Jeannette Kawas (Punta Sal) National Park, navigating through mangrove channels and hiking in the forest. The tour is priced at $1,691 pp dbl.

contact information
Ancon Expeditions: (888) 760-3426;
GeoEx: (888) 570-7108;
Ladatco: (800) 327-6162;
Marnella Tours: (866) 993-0033;
Tara Tours: (800) 327-0080;