The go-to place for Latin lovers

The stronger Aussie dollar, better promotion and improved flight schedules are combining to make South America a sought-after destination.

It used to be held up as a badge of honour for adventurous travellers; somewhere that only the intrepid would venture. But those looking for badges might want to look elsewhere because South America is now open to everyone, with mainstream operators catering for the group-tour market and top-end hotel chains looking after those who like their creature comforts.

Throw in a big boost in flights and promotional efforts, and it's hardly surprising that South America is absolutely booming.

The Latin America specialist Chimu Adventures says its sales out of Australia for the past financial year were up 50 per cent on the year before. The marketing manager, Meg Hall, says a favourable exchange rate, ever-improving infrastructure and greater awareness are combining to make the continent a mecca for Aussie travellers, particularly those who want adventures with comforts.

Retailer STA Travel is also seeing big growth in demand for South America, with numbers up more than 30 per cent on last year.

Its spokesman, Reuben Acciano, says the company has had a "significant increase" in inquiries since the London Olympics, with Rio due to host the Games in 2016.

One of the biggest factors in recent growth has been improved air services, with Australian travellers offered a range of flights to Buenos Aires in Argentina or Santiago in Chile, with onward services to Brazil, Peru and other areas.

Aerolineas Argentinas began direct flights from Sydney to Buenos Aires in July, having previously operated all flights via Auckland, while Qantas switched from Buenos Aires to Santiago earlier this year, enabling greater access to Chile.

The Chilean carrier, LAN Airlines, which flies daily from Sydney to Santiago, continues to expand its reach within South America, giving travellers affordable flights beyond the gateway. Late last year, the airline introduced flights between the Peruvian capital, Lima, and Easter Island, in addition to its Santiago-Easter Island services, creating a new "tourism circuit" without the need for backtracking.

The managing director of Trafalgar Tours, Matthew Cameron-Smith, says improved air access has been a "very significant" factor in boosting demand for South America. Trafalgar is in its second year of a dedicated South America tour program, and the presence of such a mainstream operator says a lot about how much the destination has changed.

Cameron-Smith says Trafalgar's presence shows a maturing - of both the destination and the Australian traveller.

The youth brand, Contiki, also launched into South America last year and its managing director, Fiona Hunt, says the destination is attracting an older demographic (average age 29-30), compared with 18-25 on most Europe trips.

Hunt says many travellers heading to South America have already done Europe once or twice and are looking for something new.

Another factor in the growth - and likely future expansion - has been a step-up in promotion.

Peru has been well promoted in the Australian market but other countries such as Chile, Argentina and Colombia are joining forces to boost their share.

Colombia has long had a reputation as a dangerous place to travel but the official Australian Government travel advisory for the country is currently "exercise a high degree of caution" - the same level as countries such as India, Kenya, Costa Rica, Mexico and Morocco.

Peru, which has been known as an adventure destination thanks to the Inca Trail and Amazon adventures, is moving into the luxury travel arena, with five-star brands such as Hilton and Marriott opening new hotels.

The promotional body, PromPeru, says tour operators are also targeting the high-end traveller, with experiences such as lodge-to-lodge trekking in the Andes, luxury trains to Machu Picchu, luxury lodges in the Amazon and upmarket sailing adventures in the Ballestas Islands.

Australian operators who have expanded their luxury offerings in Peru include Bill Peach Journeys, Adventure World and Peregrine.

Peru is also gearing up to host the start of the famous Dakar Rally next year, with the race setting off from Lima on January 5.

More than 1 billion people are expected to watch coverage of the race, which will take on Peru's southern coast before heading to Chile and Argentina.

Cuisine's day in the sun

When I think of dining in Peru I tend to think of guinea pig (they really do eat them), but the country is being touted as a new leader in cuisine.

Frommer's lists the Peruvian capital, Lima, as the top food-and-drink destination for this year, while The Wall Street Journal recently declared Peruvian food "the next big thing", saying it is having its moment in the gastronomic sun.

Peruvian food features a mix of Spanish, Japanese, Chinese and African cooking styles. One of its dishes is ceviche: seafood cured in lime juice and chilli.

jane@janeefraser.com.au

The story The go-to place for Latin lovers first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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