South America: Latin spirit

The Tunapu Volcano and Uyuni salt flat, Bolivia.
The Tunapu Volcano and Uyuni salt flat, Bolivia.
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With the World Cup underway, South America is in the spotlight. But beyond Brazil, which other countries deserve the traveller’s attention? Sarah Marshall reports.

Peru: Star players: Hotel B and Central restaurant, Lima

The Tunapu Volcano and Uyuni salt flat, Bolivia.

The Tunapu Volcano and Uyuni salt flat, Bolivia.

The South American food scene has exploded in recent years, with Peru leading the way. Some of the best restaurants can be found in coastal capital city Lima, where ancient temples, colonial houses and republican palaces sit alongside sophisticated apartment blocks and five-star hotels.

For a whirlwind taste of the diversity Peru has to offer – from ocean, jungle and rainforest –visit boundary-bending Central (www.centralrestaurante.com.pe), run by husband and wife team Pia Leon and Virgilio Martinez (who owns the Michelin-starred restaurant Lima in London).

Frozen potato, a puree made from algae, and dried roots sprinkled with mud may sound challenging, but for true gourmands, the menu is a real adventure.

Peru is also home to the Pisco Sour, and some of the best low-key bars can be found in bohemian district Barranco, where Lima’s first boutique hotel, Hotel B, (doubles from £270 per night, www.hotelb.pe) opened last year.

The former Belle Epoque mansion, pictured below, used as a seaside retreat in the 1920s, has been fully restored, and now dynamic works of art and brightly coloured sculptures decorate rooms with original Italian marble terraces and fine wooden floors.

Chile: Star player: Alto Atacama Desert Lodge and Spa

Considered to be one of the driest places on earth, the Atacama desert will appeal to those who like to tackle extremes. One oasis in the 105,000 sq km stretch of sand, wind-beaten rocks and gnarled escarpments is San Pedro de Atacama, once a hang out for new age hippies but now a busy tourist hub.

Set a little way back in the Catarpe Valley, the Alto Atacama hotel (doubles from £167 per person. www.altoatacama.com) melts inconspicuously into the terracotta-tinged mountains.

Plunge pools provide relief from the dry, dusty heat, while at night, an on-site observatory can be used to study the brilliantly clear sky.

Twice a day, guests can take part in excursions, exploring other-worldly landscapes. Hike through the Valley of the Moon, where sand and stone have been carved into surreal shapes and dry lakes are frosted with salt; or rise early to see powerful jets of steam spout from the Tatio geysers in the world’s highest geothermal field, 4,300m above sea level.

Bolivia: Star player: Hotel Tayka de Sal

Bolivia might lag woefully behind on the football pitch, but they do have one secret weapon at their disposal: the glorious Altiplano (high plains). Stretching as far as the eye can see, the Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flat on earth, can be classed as one of the world’s greatest wonders.

During the dry season, May to September, tourists travel in 4x4s across a thick salt crust left behind from the evaporation of prehistoric lakes. And during the rest of the year, when it rains, the flats become a giant mirror, where clouds float across sky and land.

In a quiet corner, beneath the Tunupa volcano, is the rustic but charming Tayka de Sal hotel (doubles from £70 per night, www.taykahoteles.com). When temperatures drop at night, guests can warm up in front of a blazing fire, where excellent food is served at simple wooden tables draped with embroidered blankets. In daylight, explore the surrounding quinoa fields and grasslands where lama and vicuna graze, and visit the peculiar Museo de Chantani run by an elderly archaeologist.

Ecuador: Star player: Mashpi Lodge

It may be one of the smallest countries in South America, but Ecuador is also one of the most biodiverse, spreading across the Andes and Amazon Basin.

A comfortable introduction to the jungle is the eco-friendly Mashpi Lodge (a three day all-inclusive package costs £820 per person. www.mashpilodge.com), a two and a half hour drive from Quito, perched on a high plateau in the cloud forest.

Blending discreetly into its surroundings, the lodge offers guests an opportunity to experience remarkably close encounters with the local wildlife. Five hundred species of bird can be seen swooping through the forest canopy, while peccaries and even puma pass below.

Climb the observation tower at sunrise to see toucans, parrots and raptors, or ride tandem on a sky bike across a gorge. Even from inside the glass-fronted lodge, guests have a window onto the forest, so there’s plenty of time to admire the wildlife while relaxing with creature comforts of their own.

Argentina: Star player: La Bamba de Areco, Pampas

Football is a religion in Argentina, with a Church of Maradona allegedly open for worship in the star player’s humble birth place, Villa Fiorito, a shanty town on the outskirts of Buenos Aires.

But step outside the capital city, and people play a very different sport. Argentina’s cowboys, the gauchos, can be found rounding up cattle on horseback or competing in rodeos in the grasslands of the Pampas.

Bringing this age-old equestrian tradition into the modern world is the luxurious La Bamba de Areco (doubles from £385, www.labambadeareco.com), one of the oldest estancias in the area now converted into a boutique 11-room hotel. French owner Jean-Francois Decaux originally bought the property to indulge his passion for polo, and the estancia has its own international 
team who often practise here. Saddle up on one of La Bamba’s steeds and tour the grounds and stables.