Four of the Best Hotels of South America

by Rosemary McNoe

When planning a holiday, it’s easy to delve straight into researching all the sightseeing options and day trips, sometimes dismissing accommodation. We tell ourselves the hotel is just a bed to sleep in, thinking you won’t spend much time in your hotel room.  That’s often the case on an action-packed holiday, where you have one night to stop before moving onto the next hotel. I’ve spent my fair share of holidays arriving late at night and leaving early the next morning, with little time to appreciate anything but the pillow underneath my head.

However, on a recent trip to South America, I opted for a different approach to my resting spots. I stayed in a mix of luxury and boutique hotels where I could stop and linger, relax in the room a little longer and enjoy the surroundings and amenities on offer. 

These gorgeous hotels felt like a ‘home away from home’. Well, if I’m being honest, much better than home, without the toys strewn about the floor, dishes in the sink, Weetbix and banana smashed into the carpet… with much higher-quality bed linen and beautiful, helpful people gracing the hallways. So really, in fact, nothing like home at all. I will rephrase that to ‘my spiritual home that I long to have one day’.

Whether it’s your first or your fifth visit to South America, here is a brief guide to some unique hotels where a stay can transform your holiday from good to outstanding and add a little extra something special to your South American adventure.

Palo Santo is a lovely 4-star boutique hotel in the trendy Palermo district

Palo Santo Hotel, Buenos Aires, Argentina
This was my third visit to Buenos Aires, one of my favourite cities in the world. Many people stop here only for a night or two but I would recommend staying at least four nights in this bustling capital city. If you are looking for a small hotel in trendy and fashionable area, then consider Palo Santo in the Palermo Hollywood district.

This area is less formal than Recoleta and has become known as the place where young and innovative chefs choose to open their restaurants and bars.  Palo Santo is a ‘design and green hotel’ with only 26 rooms and is proud to be Argentina’s first urban green hotel. The award-winning hotel was built to strict green design principles and has vertical gardens, water recycling and purified air. Over 800 plants cover the hotel walls and balconies and the lobby features an impressive 18-metre high water feature.

With a light and airy décor, the rooms are spacious, especially with their balconies. There is a tasteful mix of well-known design features such as Eames chairs and Noguchi sofas, matched with handwoven rugs and unique art from Argentina’s artisans.

Although there are plenty of outstanding restaurants close by, the in-house restaurant and patio garden offer Japanese and sushi – a welcome change if you have over-indulged in the steak the country is so well known for. A roof top pool provides a relaxing way to cool down after exploring the streets of Buenos Aires.

Not far from the hotel is the Bosques de Palermo -the city’s largest park, planted with over 12,000 trees. There is a rose garden, lake, Japanese garden and you will see Portenos out running, cycling and taking in the fresh air. The hotel offers free bikes with helmets and locks and I highly recommend the 10-minute ride to the gardens, with a stop at any of the excellent eateries on the way back.

Although this is a trendy neighbourhood, the hotel staff are unpretentious and provide a helpful booklet on the local area along with a restaurant guide. They can design an itinerary for you to explore Buenos Aires at your leisure.
Best for: Greenies, foodies and design aficionados. Anyone looking for a contemporary, boutique hotel in a trendy and fashionable neighbourhood, but with a relaxed vibe and personable staff. Travellers interested in green design will also appreciate a stay here to feel better about reducing their environmental impact. And it’s a great option for foodies who will want to check out the up and coming new restaurants and nightlife close by.

Belmond Hotel das Cataratas captured Portuguese-Colonial style in all its pink glory

Belmond Das Cataratas, Iguassu Falls, Brazil
Dating from the 1950s, the iconic pastel pink Das Cataratas is the only hotel on the Brazilian side of Iguassu Falls and provides an oasis of calm and understated luxury. With an impressive exterior set amidst a rainforest, there’s no mistaking you have arrived somewhere special when your driver pulls up outside the hotel. A welcome cocktail on arrival and a complimentary pair of Havaianas awaiting each guest, you’ll immediately feel as if you have arrived at an elegant country lodge, miles away from the hustle and bustle of crowds exploring the falls.

The beauty of staying here, is not only the chance to stay in one of Brazil’s finest luxury hotels, but the sanctuary and refuge it provides after a day or two of exploring the falls with hundreds of other tourists. Make no mistake, Iguassu Falls are one of the world’s wonders for a reason and absolutely should be included on any South American itinerary – but between 9am and 5pm, there are busloads of tourists arriving to explore the trails and take in the thundering roar of this incredible spectacle. As the only hotel located inside the national park, staying at Das Cataratas means guests are free to experience the falls at leisure – minus the parade of selfie sticks.

The Brazilian side of the Iguassu Falls is shorter than the other side, giving you ample time to explore and enjoy it fully

Guests can enjoy early morning walks – ideal for any keen photographers wanting to capture the dawn light. For the ultimate adventure, book a helicopter ride over the falls to really have something to brag to your friends about on your return. A word of warning about wandering around by yourself after dark – pumas and jaguars do roam the national park and have on occasion wandered up to the hotel – the reason the concierge advised me against any independent late night meanders. Sleep walkers, beware!

The interior has a Portuguese colonial influence, with rooms all differing slightly with beautiful blue tiled bathrooms. Tropical art works grace the walls and bold green leaf print curtains complete the look without being garish. There are few places in the world that can pull off a look that combines colonial design, bright tropical décor and pastel pink -and yet somehow here it works.

With a large heated pool set in the manicured gardens, a tennis court and outdoor giant chess set, along with a luxury spa, there are enough activities here to keep your brain and body occupied or relaxed, depending on your mood. 

Best for: A stay in this iconic pink palace should be on everyone’s list of must-do experiences in the world.  With old-world charm and service and understated elegance, plan to have at least one night here as part of your Iguassu Falls experience so you can wander the trails at leisure and enjoy a Caipirinha watching the sun set over the Falls. Book a Falls View room so you can get the full ‘wow’ factor when you pull back your curtains. Or really indulge and book the Suite, with a separate living room and four balconies so you can get even closer to the Falls without leaving your room. If you have time, stay two nights so you can truly relax and be transported into a world of comfort and elegance. You can also read this blogpost for making the most of your time at the falls.

Belmond Copacabana Palace facing Copacabana beach with incredible views like this

Belmond Copacabana Palace, Rio De Janeiro, Brazil
You know you’re in for an extraordinary stay when your hotel has the name ‘palace’ in the title. If your idea of a great holiday involves an iconic beachfront hotel full of old world glamour and glitz, the chance to spot celebrities being fawned over by paparazzi and a place to see and be seen, then be sure to include a stay at the Belmond Copacabana Palace on your next visit to Rio.

This landmark hotel is an imposing art deco design from the 1920s and is set across the road from Copacabana beach. As our driver pulled up to the hotel, we saw a flurry of photographers and camera flashes and we wondered if someone had mistaken our tinted-window van for someone important arriving. Craning our necks out the window, we soon saw a glamorous woman posing at the front entrance of the hotel with her assistants touching up her make up for every camera angle. Although unknown to us, our guide recognised her as a TV actress. Day 1 celeb spotting – tick – welcome to Rio!

The soft pastel colours of the evening light add to the sheer beauty of this incredible landscape

The Copacabana Palace has been welcoming famous guests from its opening days nearly 100 years ago. Photos of big names throughout history line the walls in the lobby – from silver screen stars Marlene Dietrich, Brigitte Bardot and Marilyn Monroe, to Princess Diana and Nelson Mandela, not to forget the Rolling Stones who hosted one of the world’s biggest concerts on the beach. More recently, Brazil’s own Gisele Bundchen has been a frequent guest here and used the hotel as a backdrop for various campaigns. If those walls could talk, I bet there would be some stories to tell! I half expected Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire to come tapping across the polished marble floor, who used the hotel in their 1933 movie Flying Down to Rio.

A lovely spot to have breakfast, the decor is something else.

For the less high-profile traveller, book a room facing the beach – there is something special about waking up and opening your windows to look out over that famous beach below. Despite the glistening chandeliers in the public areas, the rooms are fresh and light, soft furnishings have a certain Hamptons vibe, with layers of soothing creams, whites and soft blues.

Stay here for Carnevale or New Year to have your eyes opened to how Brazilians like to party. With reportedly 3 million people lining the beach and partying the night away, you can enjoy it all in the comfort from your room or suite or join the exclusive party and dance under the chandeliers in one of three ballrooms. Watch the fireworks display at midnight before moving onto the pool deck for the next round of partying until the sun comes up.

Escadaria Selarón )also known as the ‘Selaron Steps’) are an iconic tribute to the Brazilian people by Chilean-born artist Jorge Selarón

Best for: Celebrity spotting. You never know who you might bump into here. Foodies will love the three restaurants, including Brazil’s first to be awarded a Michelin star. If you feel an affinity with hotels such as Raffles in Singapore, or the Savoy in London, then you will love this place. Is it old fashioned? Undoubtedly. But sometimes it’s fun to walk in the footsteps of the rich and famous and be transported back to a time of glitz and old-world glamour.

Yes I took this photo. No they aren’t models. Yes it really is as good as it looks.

Hotel Emiliano, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
If you want contemporary sophistication and luxury right on Copacabana Beach and close to Ipanema, then look no further than the Hotel Emiliano… although you may find yourself walking straight past as I did with its understated entrance and very little signage to denote it is a hotel. When you look up, the white exterior of this modernist building may remind you of something from a futuristic space age movie from the 1960s, but the interior is all contemporary, fresh, light and airy – with spacious rooms and balconies looking out over that famous beach.

With gastronomy a focus, you could easily spend a week without leaving the hotel to enjoy what delights the chef at the in-house Emile Restaurant comes up with each day. With a lush green courtyard setting for the main restaurant, it is very easy to spend a lazy afternoon here over a mouth-watering menu.

The rooftop infinity pool looks out over edge of the building and onto the hive of activity on the beach below. It’s the place to be seen, so you will need multiple bikini options and large sunglasses are de rigour.  This place is a world away from the favelas you may have driven past on the way in from the airport – it’s a soothing calming oasis where you could find yourself never wanting to leave (read about exploring the favelas of Rio in this related blogpost)

If you tire of the view from the pool or feel the need to move on from your long lunch, then consider retiring to the Charles Room – named after the hotel founder Carlos Alberto Filgueiras. This room is an homage to the art of relaxation – with another vertical green wall, beautiful modern furniture nodding to mid-century design, a cigar library, cocktails and a well-stocked wine bar.

Did I mention there is a team of butlers available for guests to service their every need? Their entire existence is to get something for you before you even know you needed it. Now that’s my kind of holiday.

If you have an interest in modern architecture, combined with refined service and gorgeous model-like staff, then you will appreciate a stay in this hotel. If however, you have stepped off the farm in New Zealand or Australia and woken up in Rio, then it could be a little intimidating – or pretentious depending on your point of view. Personally, I loved it – such a contrast to the ‘old world’ glamour of the glitzy Belmond Copacabana Palace. Emiliano Rio is my pick for a contemporary stay in Rio – next time I’m booking myself in for a week, so I can try out the spa treatments, the beach service and come up with all manner of things to keep those beautiful butlers busy.

Best for: Style lovers, foodies, anyone interested in design and architecture. If you know your Caipirinha from your Caipiroska and your Havaianas from your Ipanemas – then you will love this place. If you have children and are considering a family holiday, surprisingly Emiliano caters to this demographic -with interconnecting rooms for multiple families, suites with living rooms, a butler to source Xbox games and movies for the teenagers and a babysitting service… perhaps I will consider bringing my family to stay next time after all.

If you want to find out more about the destinations in this article, or have any questions in general please contact us.