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South America

Sip Malbecs in the foothills of Mendoza, walk Incan flagstones in the Bolivian Andes, and pick up some new moves in Medellín.


A far-ff view of Bolivia's Choro Trek trail from Hotel Esmerelda.  


ECUADOR
The geographically blessed nation switched currencies from the sucre to the U.S. dollar in 2000.

INDULGENCE INDEX
Alpaca scarf: $1
Daylong surf lesson: $15
Bucket of crab legs $4


Otavalo
The recent political standoff with Colombia mostly concerned the Oriente region in the north, reasonably removed from Otavalo. The artisan market in the Plaza de los Ponchos is most intense on Saturdays; exclaim, “ˇQué brutalidad!” when an alpaca-sweater vendor starts the bidding at $20. Invest no more than $10 for ten handmade wool or five alpaca scarves, $3 for jewelry made from tagua (vegetable ivory), and $35 for a decent Panama hat. Stay in the hillside cottages at Las Palmeras (from $65; 593-6292-2607 or laspalmerasinn.com).

Guayaquil
Retrace William Burroughs’s Yage Letters footsteps through Ecuador’s largest, loosest, richest city. But instead of scouring the streets for psychotropic drugs, seek out bowls of sea-bass seviche ($5) and saltado (stir-fried chicken or lamb atop rice and papas fritas; $6) at a really good chifa (like La Gran Chifa), South America’s version of a Chinese restaurant. Seek out cold pitchers of Biela and admire the dancers at Jardín de la Salsa (Avenida de las Americas). Nurse the hangover in the poolside hammocks at Ceibos B&B (from $30; 5939-397-994 or ceibosbb.com).



BOLIVIA
Its central bank is trying to strengthen the boliviano, but that won’t change its dirt-cheap status.

INDULGENCE INDEX
Patterned shawls: $50
Cup of coca-leaf tea: 75˘
Alfajores cookie: 50˘


Yungas
Bolivia’s Choro Trek is just as gorgeous as Peru’s Inca Trail, but not nearly as popular. The Terra Andina company ($760 for two people; 591-2242-2995 or bolivia-travels.com) leads packers from a chilly, 15,000-foot mountain pass past 400-year-old Incan dwellings and aqueducts—the only man-made features in a terrain otherwise lacking signs of life. The four-day, mostly downhill hike pauses near the town of Coroico, where you can lounge around the mountainside pools at the Hotel Esmeralda (from $24; 591-2213-6017 or hotelesmeralda.com) and gaze up, tens of miles, to the long path you just walked.



ARGENTINA
Though recent anti-government strikes and rising inflation cause concern, it’s as beautiful and affordable as ever.

INDULGENCE INDEX
Slab of bife de chorizo steak: $12
Ski-lift ticket at Las Lenas: $45
Bottle of Torrontes white wine: $5



Taking a breather in Mendoza.   

Mendoza
Estancia el Puesto is all horseback riding and trout fishing until you get to the main event: eating ($180, including all meals and excursions; 5426-1439-3533 or estanciaelpuesto.com.ar). The estancia’s owner, Raul, plies guests with eggs at breakfast, three cuts of steak at lunch, beef empanadas in the late afternoon, and homemade fettuccini for dinner, all accompanied by local Malbecs and Pinot Grigios.

Cafayate
Throw rented bikes from Hostal El Balcón (from $8; 54-3868-421-739) on an El Indio bus headed for Salta ($7), and jump off at Las Quebradas de las Conchas, where three-story mounds are scattered on the reddish-orange plains. Pedal around the massive overhang known as the Amphitheater, listening to tango bands taking advantage of the natural acoustics. It’s a 30-mile, winery-dotted ride back along RN 68. Stop at Bodega Vasija Secreta (vasijasecreta.com) for free tastings of the fruity, dry Torrontes.

Buenos Aires
The steak at La Cabrera (5411-4831-7002) is alone worth the trip, but after a few days on the B.A. steer circuit, you’ll need a break. Local foodie and travel agent Harry Hastings of PlanBA (5411-4776-8267) points beef-averse clients to Sirop (5411-4813-5900), a French country-style kitchen in Recoleta, or the fish and pasta specialist Social Paraíso (5411-4831-4556) in Palermo Soho. Nearby, Cluny (5411-4831-7176) has the best salad in town, tossed with almonds, roast pears, Brie, and gravlax ($12).



COLOMBIA
The peso-to-dollar ratio isn’t as good as it used to be. The upside: Colombia’s nicer than it used to be.

INDULGENCE INDEX
Nightclub cover: $7.50
Mesa de los Santos coffee: $7/lb.
Mud bath: $2
Bottom-dollar Destination .......


Medellín
Think Miami’s sexy? Try Medellín. Avianca Airlines (avianca.com) regularly offers an extra ticket to a second Colombian city with round-trip purchase from JFK. Recover from the flight with a steam bath at the Hotel Porton Medellín (from $100 with breakfast; 574-313-2020 or hotelportonmedellin.com). If it’s Saturday night, air out your best jeans and follow the gorgeous crowd to Mangos (discotecamangos.com), a cowboy-themed discothèque with lamé-clad dancers wriggling to salsa, vallenato, and pop on multiple stages. Order a shot of Ron Medellín rum and ask someone, “Bailamos?”

Parque Nacional Tayrona
From the visitor’s center of this 37,000-acre ecological reserve ($13 entrance fee) follow wooden signs along a muddy jungle path to the turquoise waters of Cabo San Juan de la Guía, a cape framed by huge boulders, coconut palms, and shaded hammocks, where low- maintenance travelers rest their heads at night ($5 to $8; 571-607-1500 or parquesnacionales.gov.co). Two on-site restaurants and a bathhouse make for effortless camping—with or without a tent.

Volcán de Lodo el Totumo
Don’t expect soothing music or spa lighting at Volcán de Lodo el Totumo. Located 30 miles from Cartagena, the 50-foot-high mound of mud is manned by self-taught locals who dish out massages for $2 a pop (plus a customary 50-cent tip). Book a day trip ($22 with lunch) through Hotel 3 Banderas (from $88 with breakfast; 575-660-0160 or hotel3banderas.com). In less than an hour you’ll be neck-deep in mineral-rich gray stuff.


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