Culture Club: From Peru to Argentina to Morocco, Inspired Itineraries for an Immersive Cultural Experience
Peruvian dancers perform in Peru's Sacred Valley. Photo: Courtesy of Hiram Bingham
Lots of holidaymakers enjoy the ease and set budget of an all-inclusive vacation. But being locked into having all dining and drinks at one property isn’t for everyone, no matter how many on-site restaurants there are. For the traveller looking for destinations and itineraries that allow for a more immersive cultural experience, here’s a few ideas for jaunts that you can plan yourself — or leave to an expert planner.
You love to explore local cuisine — dining rooms to street food — prefer off-radar excursions and want to have more interaction with locals than chatting up resort staff. Some people enjoy planning their own comprehensive itineraries. But, for others, researching an entire country, hiring guides and drivers, scrolling through endless hotel sites and restaurant reviews, is not the fun part of travel.
So, we’ve organized this list with DIY tips for mapping out your own tour and a suggestion for a small group trip planned by experts, like Responsible Travel, who specialize in authentic foreign experiences. Founded 20 years ago on the principles of respecting local customs and communities, protecting animals and safeguarding the environment, this travel company goes, literally, everywhere in the world and lets you do good while having a good time.
Plan It Yourself: In this multifaceted country, foodies will absolutely want to spend a few days in bustling Lima — the culinary capital of South America — exploring its wonderful restaurants, delicious mom-and-pop eateries, street carts and food trucks. Did you know this is where famed chef and restaurateur Nobu comes from? Peru has a huge Japanese population, and the fusion of these disparate cultures has rendered it a real dining adventure. Go in September and you can hit the Mistura Food Festival, which showcases Peruvian food — but every day is a food celebration in Lima. Hotel B, an artsy refurbished mansion in the cool neighbourhood of Barrancas is where to stay. You’ll find the chic gallery, museum and café of Mario Testino, another stylish local, just up the street. You’ll visit Cuzco, the historic Andes town that’s the launching point for Machu Picchu. It’s a great place to buy alpaca blankets and throws. Good as cashmere but much less expensive when purchased directly from the source.
The vintage Hiram Bingham, the most elegant train ride up the mountain, serves a white linen lunch and arrives in four hours at Aguas Calientes, the small town, also known as Machu Picchu, a 25-minute drive from ancient Mayan citadel. But whatever train you take, definitely arrive the day before your visit to the site so you jump on the first bus the next morning — they leave every 10 minutes from 6:00 a.m. — and beat the crowds that pour in all day from Cuzco.
Alternatively, you can book a pricey room at Belmond’s Sanctuary Lodge, the only hotel at (next to) Machu Picchu. Finally, head for Mancora, a lovely Peruvian beach town on the country’s northwest border with Ecuador. Book a room at the boho KChic in the quieter, adjacent community of Las Pocitas, a leisurely beach stroll (or five-minute taxi) from town, or an AirBnB on the beach.
Pre-Planned Small Group Tour: Highlights of Peru takes 10 to 16 travellers on a comprehensive 21-day tour, from the capital of Lima and an Inca trail trek to the ruins of Machu Picchu, to boating along the Amazon River and staying with a local family on Lake Titicaca.
From $5,562 per person, excluding flights.
Plan It Yourself: Modeled on the classic 19th-century Haussmann architecture of the City of Light — wide leafy boulevards, grand apartment buildings and villas, elegant stone facades, wrought iron — beautiful Buenos Aires is known as the “Paris of South America” for good reason.
Famed for its grilled meat restaurants known as Parrillas, this design-savvy capital is rich in stylish bars and dining rooms. If money is no object, check into the Alvear Palace in Recoleta, the city’s toniest district, lined with haute boutiques and restaurants. Even if you don’t stay there, do have a drink at the hotel’s classic lobby bar. For a more bohemian vibe, head for San Telmo, one of the capital’s oldest quarters; its do-not-miss weekend flea market runs for blocks and blocks and is full of amazing finds. Palermo Soho is a stylish area in which to stay, lined in trendy cafés, restaurants, shops, bars and smart small hotels, as is the adjacent Palermo Hollywood, where you should check out the Home Hotel where the mid-century mod decor is softened by vintage floral wallpaper and a wisteria-draped courtyard pool garden.
For Canadian visitors, the exchange rate is currently favourable. Right now, $100 equals 25,611 Argentine pesos. Read a financial comparison of Buenos Aires. vs. Toronto and you’ll want to move there tomorrow. A beer is a couple bucks and dinner bill totals will fill you with joy. Bone up on local vineyards before you go, and you’ll be awash in world-class wine at a crazy discount.
Pre-Planned Small Group Tour: This 15-day Argentine adventure through northern Argentina includes horseback riding and gaucho life on a rural ranch, world-class wines from Mendoza vineyards, the mighty Iguazu Falls and jungle on the Brazilian border, as well as cosmopolitan Buenos Aires.
From $3,420 per person, excluding flights.
Plan It Yourself: The national railway that crisscrosses the country, Tangier to Marrakech, with stops in Rabat, Fez, Casablanca and more, is a great way to get around, taking in the countryside en route. Marrakech is Morocco’s cosmopolitan design capital where a surfeit of boutique hotels keeps the style high and the rates low — though there is lots to splurge on in this style mecca. Treat yourself to an afternoon at Les Bains de Marrakech. Stop by the Musee YSL, devoted to the city’s patron saint of fashion and longtime resident, then tour the famed Jardin Majorelle right next door.
You’ll want to spend a few days in the artsy beach town of Essaouira, a two-hour drive to the coast. A capsule version of bustling Marrakech wrapped by a UNESCO protected fortress, this where Jimi Hendrix wrote Castles in the Sand and its endless boho-cool is found in restaurants, galleries and hotels — cheap and chic to super-sophisticated. But for the best views over the spectacular, crashing ocean, it’s the simple flats of Jacks Apartments where floor to ceiling windows frame miles and miles of deep blue Atlantic Ocean.
Pre-Planned Small Group Tour: A two-week Morocco Encompassed tour with Responsible Travel takes you to the famous blue city of Chefchaouen, the artsy coastal town of Essaouira and through the Atlas Mountains and Roman ruins, with stops in Casablanca, Fez, the capital of Rabat and more.
From $1,752 per person, excluding flights.
BONUS DESTINATION: Malaysia
I haven’t been to this peninsula country that juts out between the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea, but the Borneo Great Apes and Beach Escapes sound wonderful. A nine-day voyage that kicks off in the coastal city of Kota Kinabalu, then takes you to a river lodge for wildlife spotting, monkeys and crocodiles to tropical birds and wild pygmy elephants, before finishing up on pristine Lankayan Island, which has just one, high-end, eco-conscious hotel, surrounded by coral reefs.
From $3,117 per person, excluding flights.
Prices and exchange rates are accurate at the time of publication.