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The stretch of Latin America from the tropical jungles of Costa Rica down to the remote snowy fields of Argentina and Chile has much to offer visitors, but exotic wildlife, a range of climates, and the natural surroundings are perhaps the region's greatest asset. And for North American travelers in particular, Latin America is a relatively easy foreign excursion: Unlike other parts of the developing world, many destinations here require no vaccines and visas, and the trip south crosses few, if any, time zones, allowing tourists to enjoy the wonders of new cultures and far-off lands right away, without the painful hassles of jet lag.
For much of the past two decades, a major theme in the Latin American tourist scene has been ecotourism. This isn't surprising, given the stunning endowment of flora and fauna Mother Nature has bestowed upon the region. Costa Rica alone -- a wee country no bigger than West Virginia -- is home to over 6% of the world's plant and animal species. And the wondrous Galapagos Islands, famed for inspiring Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, boast the greatest diversity of living creatures on the planet.
Although many of Latin America's urban regions have historically been overdeveloped and poorly managed for growth, a good deal of there area's most impressive sights, such as Brazil's majestic Iguassu Falls and the remote fly-fishing grounds of Patagonia, are still intact.
And ecotourism has come to encompass much more than rugged camping and hiking through the mud. In fact, the luxury traveler is in the best position to enjoy what nature has to offer. Many of Latin America's localities are difficult for the average tourist to get to, but travel operators have put together several customized packages for the luxury market that allow guests to access these remote areas by private boat and helicopter.
Plus, the luxury comforts offered by many high-end lodges make visits to Latin America's most rugged regions much more doable. What better way to cap a day of exploring the mountainous cloud-forest terrain of Peru's Machu Picchu than a two-hour massage at an Andean Sauna?
By Justin McLean in New York