The best luxury hotels, travel tours, and high–end vacation real estate in Mexico, Central America, and South America. We offer candid and detailed reviews of the most luxurious hotels and resorts in Latin America, from Mexico down through the tip of Tierra del Fuego.
If you're drinking a spirit that tasted like tequila but it's not tequila, what is it? If it comes from Chihuahua, you're probably drinking sotol.
There are strict regulations on what can and can't be called tequila and part of that relates to where the agave is grown. (It's like Champagne or Scotch whiskey.) Once you get outside of that designated area, it needs to be described as "agave liquor" or some less generic term. It turns out that the plant sotol is made from is not technically an agave either though. It's Dasylirion Wheeleri, or desert spoon. Different soil, climates, and plant variations will create different tastes, of course, so it's worth seeking out these alternatives if you're in a Mexican state that's not part of the better-known spirit's area of origin.
This is made from wild plants (also called sotol in Spanish) that haven't had all their quirks bred out of them. These plants take even longer to mature though---up to 15 years---and don't yield as much liquid as your typical blue agave in Jalisco. On the plus side, they do grow fruit more than once when mature.
The distillation process uses a different kind of still and the product is distilled two or three times for purity depending on the price level.
Sotol Tasting Notes
To my palate, there was a subtle but clear difference in both the reposado and añejo versions I tried in comparison to tequila. In the reposado especially, there were more dried fruit and citrus tones, especially bitter orange and pineapple, and it imparted a tangy sweetness that I can't recall tasting before in any tequila I've tried. (And as you can see from our tequila reviews, I've tried a lot of them.) The fiery finish in this spirit aged 6-12 months in barrels lingers on for a while and it's a pleasant, complex experience from the nose to the end. There's a lot going on in each sip of sotol.
The Hacienda de Chihuahua añejo sotol is aged in a new numbered French white oak barrel for 2 years. This is a fine sipping liquor and again, it seemed more complex to my taste than its tequila cousins, especially when compared to the lowland ones. It comes in an impressively hefty enough bottle to make a fine gift after you return from your Copper Canyon trips.
If you want the highest premium option though, go for the Chihuahua Extra-Añejo H5. I didn't get a chance to try that one, but it's aged at least five years in a single new French Oak barrel. This version is apparently distilled separately too: the company website says it uses Champagne yeast in the production.
Sotol - Organic and Kosher
Those two are just the start of the line-up from the Vinomex company though. Besides the obligatory plata version that's unaged, you get a premium plata and a crema de sotol desert drink in a black bottle. I also saw a chocolate version for sale in a white bottle.
You may notice an interesting label in the bottom left of that line-up photo above: USDA Organic. Yes, since the source plant is harvested wild, there's no fertilizer or pesticide use. Agave farms in general seldom use chemical fertilizers and the plants don't require much in the way of pesticides, but it's hard to find any tequila on the market that is certified organic. Supposedly this Hacienda de Chihuahua sotol is also certified kosher!
Prices are in line with quality tequila when you buy sotol in Chihuahua, with all but the top version being under $30.
I haven't personally seen Hacienda de Chihuhua sotol for sale in the USA, but after poking around online, it looks like it's available in California and Texas at least. U.S. prices range from $25 to $40. Otherwise, plan to try it on site in its home state of Chihuahua.
High season is in full swing in the Riviera Maya beach region of Mexico right now, in March as I write this. The weather is nasty in much of the USA and Canada and many vacationers are rushing to trade in snow shovels for flip-flops.
This generally continues through Spring Break season, then as sure as April showers bring May flowers, visitor numbers drop off from May onward. Sure, the summer stays busy at family beach resorts, but summer and fall are when you can find some of the best deals at the luxury Riviera Maya resorts that romantic couples favor, like Belmond Maroma.
That highly rated beach hotel has a wide range of promotional deals going starting from May 1. So you can stay in a beachfront hideaway that was rated a Forbes 5-star resort for the third consecutive year---but with extra perks thrown in to make your stay special. Here are a few notable resort deals to consider, then check out the rest on the Maroma offers page.
Suite Dreams on the Riviera Maya
This package offers an upgrade for less:
• Luxury accommodation
• Up to 25% off their Best Available Rates
• Welcome drink
• Daily breakfast at El Restaurante
Luxury Dive Package
Did you know that the coral reef off the Caribbean coast of Mexico is the second-longest in the world after Australia's? It's just 10 minutes off the shoreline in the Rivieara Maya. This is also an area where the magnificent whale sharks migrate to between May and September. So if you plan it right, you might get a double display.
• Daily à la carte breakfast at El Restaurante
• Welcome drink
• Daily in-room wake-up coffee service
• "Discover Scuba Diving" for non-certified diver including a brief scuba class, pool practice sessions, a beautiful dive in the Caribbean reef followed by two days of one tank dive each day
• For certified divers: three days of two tank dives per day, including but not limited to drift dives, shallow dives or deep dives of up to 100 feet, an experienced PADI instructor and private dive boat
• 20% off any additional water sport activity
Start your new life together after all the wedding planning with an unforgettable romantic escape to the Riviera Maya.
• Daily breakfast at El Restaurante
• A bottle of champagne on arrival
• One three-course dinner on the beach including a bottle of house wine
• A 50-minute couples massage
• Chocolate-covered strawberries with two glasses of champagne
The Mayakoba complex north of Playa del Carmen is one of those ambitious master plans that required a lot of guts and long-term vision. Spanish investors started buying the land in the 1980s, applied for permits in the 1990s, and finally opened the first hotel there (Fairmont Mayakoba) in 2006. Now the project has finally reached its conclusion with the last of four hotels in place: Andaz Mayakoba Resort Riviera Maya.
Andaz is one of the dizzying number of brands that the international chains are cranking out these days to cater to every-narrowing demographics and psychographics. This is the Hyatt-owned company's second beach resort in Latin America, after the Andaz Peninsula Papagayo in northern Costa Rica.
As with that one, the architecture and design were guiding forces in the whole concept.
There are modern abstract sculptures at various points along the trails, while many of the sharp, white buildings across the resort, including blocks of rooms and individual villas, are brightened up by Mexican graffiti-artist Senkoe’s large murals. These depict many of Mayakoba's colorful birds, jaguars, and, next to the beachfront swimming pool, an octopus. That large pool, one of three swimming pools, is a beautiful sky blue and surrounded by brightly colorful seats and loungers. It takes a good eye for design to be able to fill a resort with so many different bright colors and still keep things feeling classy, but here they've nailed it.
Rooms are a bit more subdued than the public areas, letting the wildlife and lagoons outside the walls of glass be the main attraction. Or in the case of the beach villa rooms, the beautiful Caribbean water. Some units have their own plunge pool, including the ones on the beach. They come with rain showers, complimentary flip-flops, Nespresso coffee machines, and complimentary high-speed internet.
Like the rest of the hotels in the Mayakoba complex, the Andaz Riviera Maya occupies land that stretches back from the beach along canals (once cenotes) and lagoons. So some rooms and many of the public areas are inland, reached by a bicycle, golf cart pick-up, or boat ride. With the latter you're liable to spot lots of birds and other wildlife since much of the area's natural state is intact in this environmentally conscious project.
Some activities offered here are part of the Andaz complex, such as two outdoor pools (one a lap pool), a full spa with six treatment rooms and two hydrotherapy areas, yoga, a 24-hour fitness center, and tennis courts. Guests also have access to the Greg Norman PGA golf course in operation since 2007 and the El Pueblito complex with a fine Mexican cooking school. The restaurants here have gotten high marks so far as well, including from our correspondent who was just there.
When you read articles about the Galapagos Islands and see the stunning wildlife shots, your natural reaction is to think the person who took the photos is a really good photographer. It's also natural to think that baby sea lion or that puffed-up, red-chested frigate bird was the only one they spotted that day. An eagle-eyed guide found the right spot and everyone looked through binoculars and scopes.
We think that because in most of the world, spotting wildlife is very hit and miss. Animals and birds are afraid of humans---and for good reasons. The animals are also spread out to a wider area usually as well, or high up in a jungle canopy, not clustered together on a small island with few trees.
In the Galapagos Islands, there's a bounty of wildlife everywhere. Most of the creatures living there think the camera-toting tourists are just part of the landscape. We are big, but we're not a threat. So about the only creature that tries to get away from you is this one: the Sally Lightfoot Crab.
These two common creatures are often the first thing you see because they're lazing around everywhere, including on the docks where your ship will be waiting. Sea lions are abundant, but so are their cousins the fur seals, who often get called sea lions too even though they're not. Once you know how to tell the difference, you'll know what you're looking at. You may get a chance to swim with one or the other on a beach or while snorkeling. In the water they like to play.
You'll probably see the famous Blue-footed Boobies and the Red-Footed Boobies as you go from island to island. It's not just their feet that are interesting. When they're laying eggs or their chicks hatch, they're still standing around oblivious as you walk by. Watch your step! If it's mating season or they're building a nest, you might see some odd dancing rituals:
Pairs of Boobies in the Galapagos Islands - YouTube
Magnificent Frigate Birds
You can see Frigate Birds all over the place in the Americas, but here they go through the mating and nesting process without caring how close you get. On one visit I counted 28 of them in my line of sight puffing out their red throat pouch. I'm not sure how the females tell them apart, though there are theories that size and a nicer house do matter...
It's a bit strange seeing penguins in this temperate zone and it's yet another sign of how unique this ecosystem is. The Galapagos Penguins are the only ones living north of the Equator anywhere in the world. You'll often see them sitting on rocks or on a cliff ledge, or if you're lucky you'll see them swimming around near your panga boat, calling out.
These lizards will take you back to the Jurassic Age with their fierce features and protruding spikes that look like weapons. They're really vegetarians though, eating seaweed and sneezing out the salt water. You really have to be careful where you're walking on black lava because they blend right in.
In the pirate and plunder days, sailors would capture these turtles and place them on their backs in the hold to provide food over long voyages. Some species died out when humans cultivated land and brought invasive species to these fragile islands. Thankfully there's no native memory in the tortoises and their numbers are on the rise again, so now you can walk among these long-living, impressive creatures in a field. This is one of the animals you can see without going anywhere if you have a serious seasickness problem: they roam around Santa Cruz Island, not far from the Baltra airport.
Fish and Sea Creatures
The Galapagos wildlife is abundant below the water too. If you go snorkeling you will see an impressive array of colorful fish, but you're also likely to see Galapagos sea turtles, small sharks, starfish, and rays. Maybe even an octopus and, in the right place at the right time of year, hammerhead sharks or whale sharks.
Plus Lots of Surprises
These are just the common creatures you are almost sure to see. Also in the mix will be the Waved Albatross, Flightless Cormorant, finches, and countless sea birds that roam the Pacific, like flamingos, osprey, and herons. When we visited Egas Point on Genovese Island on my Haugan Cruises trip, we even saw an owl species that lives on the ground and hunts during the day.
Many people are dreaming of heading to Belize when it's freezing cold up north. They dream of warm water for snorkeling and diving, swaying palm trees, cocktails on the beach. After all, this is what Belize looks like in winter.
That doesn't mean it's the only time to visit, however. Temperatures don't vary much in this part of Central America, whether you are in the water or out of it. Water temperatures are in the low 80s (26-28° Celsius) while air temperatures are in the mid to high 80s (26-30° Celsius).
There can be a bit more rain some months, but in general the coast of Belize doesn't get anything close to the amount of rainfall in the summer as, say, Costa Rica. Think afternoon showers now and then, not days of continuous pelting. Here are some of the reasons to come in the summer months.
Swim With Whale Sharks in Belize
Whale sharks can swim 30,000 miles in the course of a year and have extensive migrating patterns. In the places where whale sharks come to the surface to feed on plankton, there's usually a limited window on when they're hanging around.
In Belize that window is during the full moon between the end of March and the middle of July. Because Belize has serious conservation efforts in place, there's a limit to how many divers can be on location at once and you have to go with a licensed tour operator. Book a whale shark package with a hotel that knows the situation so you can do it right.
The Placencia Lobster Fest
Does the thought of succulent lobster on the grill make you salivate? Head to the Placencia Lobster Fest that takes place in the third week of June each year and you'll be sure to get your fill. It has been running since 1998, so this is no upstart affair.
The fun goes beyond the spiny bottom dwellers though. There are craft booths, carnival games, kayak races, eating contests, lots of Belikin beer, and the "Crowning of Mr. and Ms. Physique." This is one of the best times in Belize to catch live Garifuna music around this region.
Caving Trips and Jungle Exploration
A little rain can be good news for the cave adventures of Belize since tours often involve some tubing or swimming along the way. If you visit jungle areas, you'll find more water flowing through the waterfalls of the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary and other areas where the animals outnumber the people.
Since the big rush is over, however, you can often find easier availability for hotels and villas in Belize in Summer, including at Chabil Mar in Placencia. Check out their new video to get a taste:
Best Belize Resorts - Chabil Mar - The Guest Exclusive Resort of Placencia, Belize - YouTube
If you ask a local to name the best restaurant in almost any big city, you're liable to get a lot of different answers. In Quito, however, the one often topping the list has been Nuema, run by chef Alejandro Chamorro. You won't find many people in Ecuador's kitchens with the kind of pedigree he has: he worked at Noma in Copenhagen, one of the top-rated restaurants in the world. Alejandro also worked with the renowned Peruvian chef Gaston Acurio at the Astrid y Gaston Restaurant in Lima. Then partner chef (and wife) Piedad Salazar is a talented pastry chef who handles most of the sweet side of the menu.
Nuema now has a new location in the Illa Experience Hotel in Quito, one we haven't gotten a correspondent into yet but we will link to the review from here after we do. This highly anticipated luxury hotel is a welcome addition to the San Marcos neighborhood of the historic center. Since many of Quito's best restaurants are in the newer business district of the city, having a Nuema location here is going to make a lot of visiting foodies happy.
This restaurant is not just noteworthy for its fine food, however. It represents a holistic "back to our roots" approach to Ecuadorian food. The country's cuisine isn't as well-known as Peru's, but it has the same culinary roots of Andes Mountains, thick jungle, and the sea. Green Plantain is the base of almost every local dish, peanut is a seasoning in many dishes, and Amazon products such as paiche (Amazon fish) or garabato yuyo (bud of a fern) come into play on the menu. Nearly all ingredients are from Ecuador and a committed farm-to-table program is in place for land items. For seafood, they work only with small-scale, environmentally responsible fisherman.
The local emphasis is not just what's on the plates though: it's also part of the plates themselves. All the crockery and cutlery was designed only for Nuema by local artisans from the coastal area of Ecuador.
Nuema cuisine uses a "rule of three" for its dishes. It means that every dish only has 3 flavors + 3 ingredients + 3 textures. (Now there's a good challenge for the next Top Chef season!) I can't tell you what will be on the menu when you get there though because that's based on what's fresh and available. Thankfully this country is on the equator, so it has a wide range of ingredients available all year. Ecuador can grow tropical fruit and berries that require cool temperatures. They've got coffee, cacao, potatoes, grains, and things you have probably never tasted, like the tree tomato.
Over the years we've run a few stories on the regions around Salta and Jujay provinces in northern Argentina. This is a wild landscape that's far different than the better-known, more frequently visited parts of the country to the south. We just posted a new feature story on a tour with Socompa Adventures that heads to Cafayate for some good wine and leads to some hikes in the desert.
That's the lovely town square of Cafayate at the top, a place I wouldn't mind forgetting to leave and staying on for a couple months. It's kind of sleepy and isolated, but it's almost always sunny and there's an unlimited supply of wine, so why not! This is the secondary wine district of Argentina, home to the interesting Torrontes white wine grapes, but also a place where they grow other whites and a few reds.
I was able to check out two good wineries there: long-established Esteco and gorgeous Porvenir on a grand estate where you can have lunch straight off the smoking grill. While this grape growing region is not as large as the better-known ones around Mendoza, you could still spend a couple weeks here trying different wines and visiting wineries.
Getting here really is half the fun though. You leave the city of Salta, the buildings receding behind you, and eventually drive through the stunning Quebrada de las Conchas. The is one of the most scenic drives in South America, looking a bit like the American West landscapes around Arizona and southern Utah. It's a region of layered rock strata, canyons, and glowing red mountains. There are several places to pull over along the way to check out specific formations or to take a hike into the desert.
With Socompa Adventures we were able to go beyond this well-worn path, however, and leave the blacktop behind after Cafayate. The road keeps going through the desert after that---and it's even called a "national highway"---but in reality it's all dirt, dust, and gravel for hundreds of miles. With our four-wheel drive vehicle and a guide who knew the landscape, we got into some interesting areas and ate empanadas coming out of traditional brink beehive ovens.
We ended up having to change plans a bit and missed the Colome Bodega winery and the James Thurrel art installation out in the middle of nowhere, but something tells me I'll be back again at some point to try again. What we saw instead were incredible landscapes in areas where there was hardly another soul around.
When you look at the shore excursion or day tour options on the internet for the capital of Panama, they're quite limited. You'd be forgiven for thinking that all there is to do in Panama City is visit the canal, stop by the Gamboa Rainforest center, and have a drink or meal in the Casco Viejo old city.
Thankfully the independent travelers are hearing about and visiting the Biomuseo on the Amador Causeway. It is housed in an impressive work of artistic architecture by Frank Gehry, has helpful displays in both languages, and a presents a really well-done history of this region from its formation through the present day. There's a great video display on multiple screens in one room and young bilingual staffers on the floor are glad to explain whatever doesn't make sense. If you're headed to the city, put this museum on your list, even if time is short. It's not far from either the canal or the oldest part of the city, so you can easily combine it with either.
This is a rather recent addition to the city's attractions, opened at the end of 2014. Several phases in the original design are still in motion, such as a Pacific ocean life aquarium and a Caribbean ocean life aquarium. Outside will be a biological project in the open, with walkways through live plants. The building is Frank Gehry's only project in Latin America and it's an impressive one. You can see it from one shore of Casco Viejo (sometimes called Casco Antiguo), the multi-colored roofs at different angles meant to symbolize the plates coming together to form the isthmus.
The museum centers around this theme of two continents coming together and changing the world. Not only did this development only a few million years ago allow animals to move between north and south America, it also changed global tidal patterns by closing off the connection between the two oceans. This set off a chain of events that led to the most recent ice age. Over time, coastlines around the world changed when the ice melted again and sea levels rose. When man moved across and down from Asia (and probably across the ocean from the South Pacific), the larger animals that could feed a whole village were wiped out by hunters with spears.
That was just the start of the changes, however. The museum highlights the animals that are now extinct, but also shows in detail which ones are extinct or in big danger right now. Then a section on Panama's history shows how quickly the indigenous people themselves were then wiped out by diseases the Europeans brought with them. Crops changed, domestic animals joined the native ones. and the Colombus Effect began. One display shows a typical Panamanian meal and outlines how many ingredients didn't originate here. You could do the same for Italy, Ireland, or Thailand with items they didn't start out using either.
If you are interested in the history of the Americas and how they have had so much impact around the world, the Biomuseo of Panama does a better job of laying it all out clearly than anything I've seen in the past.
The AAA 5-Diamond Awards are, in most respects, the most exclusive listings out there for North American hotels and resorts. There's a thorough vetting and inspection process the properties go through and a long checklist of amenities that need to be in place to qualify. Unlike a membership organization like Leading Hotels of the World, this is not a paid reservation system for hotels. The AAA inspectors are about as impartial as you can get.
If you've ever heard the phrase "true 5-star hotel," the person is generally referring how easy it is for a hotel to be classified as "5-star," especially by the local tourism board or hotel association. For these 5-diamond awards, however, there are only four properties making the cut for all of Canada. There are only eight for all of the Caribbean, including just one in the popular Dominican Republic.
Mexico is a different story though, with several resorts in each major beach resort area and one in the capital city. We have detailed reviews of all them except one Secrets all-inclusive and two Grand Luxxe timeshare properties. We're not sure why the latter are allowed to enter since they're part of a fractional ownership scheme, but we did stay at the Riviera Maya property once and it was quite nice. (We never wrote about it though because they refused to give us any prices! Apparently they want to give you the hard sell before they will reveal that.)
Here's who made the new AAA Five Diamond List for 2018 in Mexico
Some of these are new, including one property that really is new (Grand Velas Los Cabos) and one that popped back on the list (Esperanza in Los Cabos). For existing hotels, they can drop off the list and then be added back when they make improvements. That's what happened with the Four Seasons in Mexico City last year, when they included this note:
Recently renovated from top to bottom, the design of this AAA Five Diamond hotel is stylish and sophisticated throughout. The elegantly appointed guest rooms are chic and many overlook a beautifully landscaped courtyard. Spanish colonial-inspired rooms feature LCD flat-screen televisions, iPod docking station and mini-bars. Marble-covered bathrooms include a deep soaking tub and separate shower.
If you don't see your favorite luxury resort on this list, keep in mind that inclusion is often a matter of "more is better" when it comes to amenities. You could be excluded for not having a separate shower and tub, for not having a phone in the bathroom, for not providing 24-hour room service. An intimate boutique hotel with superlative service is not going to make the cut. A huge convention hotel may though, as long as all the rooms meet the checklist requirements and there are plenty of good restaurants and bars. See more explanation at the AAA newsroom site.
What if, by booking a certain hotel, you could have all of your adventure excursions taken care of in the land of the Incas, including a visit to Machu Picchu? What if you didn't have to book a custom tour to do everything you want and you knew up front what all your expenses were going to be for transportation, meals, and drinks?
If you stay with Explora in the Sacred Valley of Peru, you get an all-inclusive experience, but it's not the kind you get at some vacation factory beach resort. At Explora Valle Sagrado, they're going to provide you with a comprehensive experience that includes daily adventure excursions as well. You can explore Moray, go hiking around Pisac, or ride mountain bikes through the Andes Mountains. You choose the daily fun that suits you best, going out with an experienced guide.
As we mentioned in this post on the rules for Machu Picchu, it's getting stricter and more complicated to visit the most famous site in South America, so you'll probably want some help there too. You can book an organized Peru tour from home to accomplish this, or just stay at this lodge and sign up for their optional Machu Picchu visit. You'll take the train in, visit the ruins with your guide, and return back to your own room that night. No luggage to move, no unpacking and packing a day later. And hey, the celebratory pisco sours are included in your rate.
Explora's Menu of Sacred Valley Adventure Excursions
When you stay at this upscale adventure lodge, you get great food and quality drinks from the bar, plus a very nice room to lay your head down in at night. But that's just the start of it. You also have more than 20 excursions to pick from on a rotating menu. Here's an excerpt from that page to give you a taste:
In the Urubamba River valley we explore Pisac, Ollantaytambo, and Moray, among other archaeological sites; in the plateau, we go to the Huaypo lake, we travel around local trails between lagoons, farm communities, and cornfields; we also visit mountain peaks, an area not well known by tourists.
Most tourists zip through the Sacred Valley and just tick the main sites off their list. If you hang around a while and go deeper, you'll be in beautiful parts of the mountains where you have the place to yourself. You'll see villagers in traditional garb who aren't dressing up for photos: this is how they live. It's a more authentic experience away from the well-worn trail between Cusco and Aguas Calientes.
You choose the activities that will get you excited instead of having to go with the flow of the crowd like you would on a big group tour. No more than eight people are on each excursion, so it's a small and intimate group instead of a big busload.
Since everything is priced on an all-inclusive basis, you don't have to choose one excursion over another because of a rate difference. That goes for what you eat and drink as well. A whole series of decisions gets eliminated from your vacation so there's less to stress out about. You can relax in the lodge and get your heart pumping (if you want) when you get outside. Explora is also one of the most enlighted, eco-friendly companies you'll ever experience, so you can be sure they're taking care of the people and the environment when you book with them as well.
See our detailed review of Explora Valle Sagrado or visit the official website for more information on this lodge, as well as the ones in Chile. Rates at this Sacred Valley adventure lodge are $2,958 to $4,620 per person double for a recommended 5-night stay, with lower rates for kids. The only activity requiring an additional fee is the all-day visit to Machu Picchu, due to entrance fees, train ride, and shuttle bus up the mountain.