South America private jet tour of top destinations: Does travel get any better?

Once upon a long time ago, they travelled cheap, sleeping on floors, living on air and dreams, following their endless summer from Marrakesh to Ibiza to Kathmandu to Goa. Once rolling stones, they now travel in the Rolling Stones' jet. Literally. Still desiring exciting travel, those comfortably off and up for adventure – you could call them high-end hippies – are no longer getting their kicks on Route 66.

Some of theme are choosing a different way – luxury over laissez faire, pampering over parsimony, Perignon over plonk, unique experiences over unstructured rambling, and they're prepared to pay handsomely.They seek to travel to the max, unwilling to leave their voyaging to chance.

And so the ultimate private jet travel experience is born, involving total engagement with different customs, culture, history and natural wonders and often to risky destinations.

The mind-blowing Iguazu Falls

The spectacular Iguazu Falls, crashing through the boarder of Brazil and Argentina, are like no other waterfalls on earth.

Come in Captain's Choice, in this case an all-inclusive, business class all the way, Ultimate South America by private jet three-week trip. It takes in Argentina, Brazil, Cuba, Panama, Ecuador, Peru and Chile's Easter Island, covering 42,249 kilometres on a Captain's Choice-logoed Aeronexus Boeing 767-300ER all-business executive private jet, with a 2-2-2-seat configuration.

Formalities such as visas, immigration and baggage are frequently fast-tracked, and with a dedicated flight crew, onboard private chef, vintage Dom Perignon on tap, an accompanying doctor and all four Ts accounted for – tipping, taxes, transfers and travel insurance.

The schedule can be punishing with any hardship soothed by an outstanding crew with wireless in-flight entertainment, multiple-course meals with premium wines (lobster thermidor the first meal) and oh so much more.

The privilege of a private jet means speedier transits with routes sometimes unavailable to commercial flights – like Manaus in the Brazilian Amazon direct to Havana, Cuba and flights scheduled to suit guests' rather than airlines' needs. Tour groups are limited to 24 guests. Small-group, "dine-around" options generally avoid the "barn effect" of group tours.

A sizeable number of this journey's well-heeled vagabonds have taken multiple Captain's Choice trips with aboard our South America-bound flight 60 mostly Australian but some New Zealand, British and Chilean passengers.

In the meantime, there's plenty of time for all of us to debate Paul Theroux's maxim that "luxury is the enemy of observation … it spoils and infantilises you and prevents you from knowing the world" as we embark on what is, without exaggeration, the ultimate journey around South America.

Advertisement

THE STOP: BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA

ON THE GROUND Sprawled along the Rio de la Plata on the Pampas, this Paris of South America grew rich on leather and meat from cattle and horses the Spaniards introduced in the 1500s (along with syphilis). Our hotel, the Alvear Palace, a 2016 Conde Nast Traveler gold-lister, is a belle epoque beauty in the heart of Recoleta, the barrio (district) born from pampas wealth.

Recoleta, like other parts of the city, is lined with neoclassical buildings reminiscent of Haussmann's Paris, when Buenos Aires residents (Portenos) revered the city of light. This lovely city blooms purple and yellow in late September from the jacarandas and the "drunken tree" – palo borracho – so called for its portly trunk. Portenos revere extremes

Our guide, Max, explains that their Italian and Spanish heritage means they possess passionate souls, born from tango and carried through to politics (Peronistas or Radicals), sporting sides (Boca Juniors or River Plate) or footballers (Messi or Maradona).

Portenos, Max says, have the best meat and wine in the world, the most beautiful women, the best opera house acoustics, the widest avenue, the best Pope, the most presidents – five in two weeks in 2000 – we're proud of that, says Max and adds, "maybe one day, the best rugby team!". Possibly also the best sense of humour.

Evita Peron still inspires grand passion, protesters pop up everywhere, dog walkers walk up to 20 animals! When we scream, says Max, we're talking, not fighting!

The free Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes is a riot of Rodins, Modiglianis, Rembrandts, Picassos and Manets; education is revered with literacy at 98 per cent. What a city, what a country, though still recovering from the Dirty War of 1976-1983 when up to 30,000 Argentinians were killed, and desperately hoping for an economic turnaround with the new government.

UNIQUE EXPERIENCES Learn to Tango. Vintage car to a tango house, Rojo Tango. Meet Australia's charming Argentinian ambassador. Visit the ornate 5.5-hectare Recoleta Cemetery where Evita Peron is buried. Stroll the vibrant, former immigrant ghetto of La Boca, which spawned the tango.

See: Buenos Aires - the most European city outside Europe

THE STOP: IGUASSU FALLS, ARGENTINA/BRAZIL

ON THE GROUND Bas Bosschieter, our tour manager, tells us, "Expect the unexpected". It happens when the Iguassu Brazilian airstrip is unexpectedly downgraded. Our oversized aeroplane must land on the Argentinian side and we are ferried back to the Brazilian side through the Iguassu National Park.

The red-soil jungle closes around us, home to spotted jaguars, prego monkeys, pumas, rattlesnakes and myriad lurid butterflies. Then the unexpected happens, again.

A jungle marathon threatens a two-hour delay but our Argentinian tour host, Patricio Thijssen, negotiates and we are miraculously waved through.

In 35-degree heat and 90 per cent humidity we walk the slippery 1.2-kilometre trail to the falls, which mark the border between Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay. The thunderous immensity of Iguassu, discovered by Europeans in 1541 and meaning "big water" in the Tupi or Guarani language, encompasses 275 individual drops spanning 3.2 kilometres over two levels.

Iguassu is taller and twice as wide as the Niagara Falls. As US first lady Eleanor Roosevelt said on seeing Iguassu: "Poor Niagara."

Trying not to imagine the carnage if the winding walkway gives way under pressure of the water, we don raincoats and are instantly drenched as we venture into the maw of Devil's Throat. The 82-metre high, 150-metre wide and 700-metre long U-shaped chasm funnels half the river's water in a deafening torrent. We are surrounded by 260 degrees of waterfalls. No chance, if the unexpected happens.

After lunch, my choice of helicopter ride over the falls illustrates how the Iguassu River tumbles over the edge of the Parana Plateau, 23 kilometres upriver from the Iguassu's confluence with the Parana River.

The convenience of our private jet means we can do all that in one day then enjoy our onboard dinner as we fly the two hours back to Rio.

UNIQUE EXPERIENCES Cocktails and picnic lunch near the highest edge of the roaring falls. Scenic helicopter flight. Or Macuco safari boat trip into the teeth of the falls. Or Iguassu Falls bird park.

See also: The hotel on the edge of Iguassu Falls

THE STOP: RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL

ON THE GROUND Greeted with capirinhas, ensconced in the gorgeous 1920s wedding-cake Belmond Copacabana Palace on Copacabana beach, favourite of Brigitte Bardot and Princess Diana, we have well and truly arrived in Rio, carnival city of samba.

A note of reality here – a trip such as this pretty much insulates you from Brazil's severe economic and political woes. Copacabana beach sounds glamorous but we are warned not to venture there after dark, and to take care with our safety.

Down the road is chic Ipanema, Botafogo and Leblon, across Guanabara Bay rises smooth-flanked Sugarloaf Mountain where Bond battled Jaws on the cable car, above us, Christ the Redeemer perches on Corcovado Mountain, while multi-coloured favelas scramble up Rio's protective hills.

A city tour introduces us to the neighbourhoods scattered higgledy-piggledy up Rio's granite inclines, through its multiple mountain tunnels and along the bay, past the samba schools and gentrifying port area. We take the 20-minute scenic tram up through the Tijuca Forest National Park to the Redeemer, walk the old town, haunt of Carmen Miranda, and then launch into our unique adventures.

EXPERIENCES Sunset cable car up Sugarloaf Mountain with cocktails and a inspirational talk from paralympian Kurt Fearnley. Dinner at Michelin-starred pan-Asian MEE restaurant. Lunch at a Brazilian churrascaria restaurant. Samba-show dinner at Oscar Niemeyer's family home (Brazil's eminent modernist architect). Oscar Niemeyer architectural tour hosted by Niemeyer's architect grandson great-grandson. Or favela walking tour. Or Santa Teresa tour of one of Rio's oldest bohemian neighbourhoods with cachaca tasting – the main capirinha ingredient.

See also: The 20 must-do highlights of Rio

THE STOP: MANAUS, AMAZON, BRAZIL

ON THE GROUND Do any of the so-called "uncontacted tribes" gaze up at our silver bird as we fly in across the Amazon's roiling green mass? Huge rivers reveal themselves, so large, they must be the Amazon but no – mere tributaries.

Finally the great 6518-kilometre-long water snake that has sprung from the Andes, unfurls – so large, Denmark fits into its mouth. We are headed for the middle of the Amazon in northwest Brazil – the steamy port city of Manaus, 1500 kilometres from the ocean. And, like a many-layered Russian doll, in the middle of Manaus is a European opera house.

Portuguese wild-rubber barons craving European culture built it in 1896 with European materials imported on steamships that returned laden with rubber latex. Synthetic latex eventually curtailed the wild-rubber riches.

At this European remnant, we enjoy a private performance from the Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra and some of us return later to hear the wonderful all-women Amazonian Philharmonic Orchestra. Then it's onto the river, sailing to a watery kind of apartheid – the "meeting of the waters" where the dark waters of the Rio Negro meet but don't mix with the lighter-coloured Rio Solimoes. Beyond their two-toned might is the Rio Amazonas.

We decant into smaller boats to voyage along streams to feast on native cuisine including baiao-de-dios (rice and black-eyed peas), pirao (manioc) and some of the Amazon's fabulous firm-fleshed freshwater fish.

EXPERIENCES Evening at the Opera. Poolside dinner at our hotel, the Tropical Eco Resort on the Rio Negro with indigenous dance performance.

See also: The San Francisco you've never heard of - on the Amazon

THE STOP: HAVANA, CUBA

ON THE GROUND There's palpable excitement as we land in Havana, the 500-year-old heartbreakingly lovely capital of Cuba. This largest Caribbean island, only 145 kilometres from Florida, writhes like a crocodile between Atlantic and Caribbean. We'll spend time in Havana's three main areas, but it's Old Havana that makes the soul sing with its rainbow neoclassical, colonial and baroque buildings, cobbled streets, crumbling facades and its backbeat of syncopated Afro-Caribbean rhythms of son, salsa, cha-cha and rumba.

Cuba is complicated, which is part of its appeal – full of code and subtle nuance – hard to understand in just a few days but we give it a good go, knowing that full comprehension may only come with return visits. But you do get a sense that in Havana, "anything is possible", as Graham Greene wrote, especially now, maybe, Donald Trump willing. Among other things, we walk Old Havana and the El Morro fortress, visit the Museo de la Revolucion, ride vintage cars along the seawall to dinner in the old town and then on to a dance extravaganza, lunch at the colonial Club Havana and paddle in the Caribbean. The photographs and commentaries in the lobby of our Iberostar Parque Central Hotel provide a fascinating narrative to this historic city.

EXPERIENCES Dine at a colonial family paladar. Cruise in classic cars through Havana's grand suburbs, stop for cocktails and sundowner at the swinging Hotel Nacional. Reprise Ernest Hemingway's Havana sojourn, with daiquiris at his favourite bar, Floridita, and visit his home outside the city.

See also: Ten things you need to know before visiting Cuba

THE STOP: PANAMA CITY, PANAMA

ON THE GROUND You don't hear much about this swashbuckling place, apart from the canal, but what a revelation. It's no surprise that pirates and colonial conquerors have coveted it. After checking in to the Bristol Hotel, a member of The Leading Hotels of the World, we tour the original Panama City, Panama Viejo, demolished by pirate Henry Morgan, and walk the colonial-era Casco Viejo crammed with historic buildings.

There's a visit to the Miraflores Locks Centre to learn about the canal's construction and an intimate dinner at the tiny Donde Jose. Chef Jose Carles tells the story of Panamanian cuisine through his smoky, vibrant, nose-to-tail degustation menu. This fabulous restaurant seats only 16 and is booked well in advance.

UNIQUE EXPERENCES Two absolute highlights – a partial transit of the 80-kilometre canal in a private cruiser, sailing thorough the Galliad Cut, the site of the continental divide and the narrowest part, then traversing the locks beside giant Panamax container ships and tankers.

See also: Panama - the unsung hero of the world's best coffee

Sadly, at this point of the tour, it's time for me to jump ship (or jet), while the lotus-eaters keep lotus-eating en route to a three-night/four-day-cruise in the Galapagos Islands, followed by Lima, Cuzco, Machu Picchu and Easter Island, half their Dom-Perignon-soaked luck.

FIVE MORE STOPS ON THE TOUR

GALAPAGOS ISLANDS, ECUADOR

The jet lands at the Ecuadorian port city of Guayaquil, gateway to the Galapagos for transfer to a smaller airline. At Galapagos' Baltra Island, guests board their expedition ship, MV Galapagos Legend. Adventures include snorkelling at Mosquera Islet, sailing to South Plaza to spot blue-footed boobies and the Galapagos hybrid iguana.

See also: Snakes v iguana - What the terrifying snake island from Planet Earth 2 is really like

LIMA, PERU

Guests explore the vibrant Miraflores district and Lima's world-heritage historic centre. View pre-Inca masterpieces at the Larco Museum, and then lunch at Cafe del Museo Larco Herrera. The private jet is too large to land at Cuzco, 3400 metres above sea level, so smaller planes transport guests. There's a low-altitude option for those who wish to avoid the rare air.

CUZCO, PERU

The tour spends four nights in Cuzco/Machu Picchu. Explore Cuzco's cultural jewels – the famed cathedral with its paintings form the 17th-century Cuzco Painting School, the intricate Inca masonry at the Temple of the Sun and the remaining walls of Inca Roca's Palace on Hatunrumiyoc Street.

MACHU PICCHU, PERU

At Poroy train station, guests board Belmond's 1920s Hiram Bingham train, consuming brunch and mimosas as they traverse the Sacred Valley of the Incas towards the ancient Inca city. Finally, guests disembark at Aguas Calientes for a two-hour tour of one of the world's outstanding archaeological wonders with tea afterwards at Belmond's Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge, the only hotel adjacent to the Inca citadel.

EASTER ISLAND, CHILE

This remote Polynesian island, also called Rapa Nui, is the last port of call. After an almost six-hour flight from Lima, there's a trip to the ancient abandoned village of Orongo perched on sheer cliffs, then an expedition to the crater lake of Ranu Kau before dinner at the hotel. Guests stay at either the Hangaroa Eco Village or the Explora Hotel.

FIVE MORE WAYS TO SPEND THE INHERITANCE IN SOUTH AMERICA

BEST FEET FORWARD

Porteno Lucila Iotti's shoes have featured in Sex and the City but you'll have to fork out $5645 for the likes of the Floopaloo sandal. See lucilaiotti.com

ALPACA MENTALITY

For real baby alpaca products in Cuzco, be aware that baby alpaca could be "maybe alpaca" in markets. Pricier stores stock goods from Cusqueno artisans who still employ ancient weaving techniques. Try Alpaca 3 or Alpaca's Best.

SHELLING OUT

Adopt a giant tortoise for $US100 from the Galapagos Conservancy. You'll receive a tortoise fact sheet, framed adoption certificate and photo, plush tortoise, Galapagos poster and a warm, fuzzy feeling. See galapagos.org/

GOING NATIVE

Sharon Stone went crazy for Plata Nativa in Buenos Aires and its multi-strand necklaces combining turquoise, amethyst, quartz, lapis, and other semiprecious stones. See platanativa.com

BE A MALL RAT

Shop until you drop in Buenos Aires. Recoleta's Patio Bullrich (love the name) is the town's most prestigious mall with Argentinian and international brands. See shoppingbullrich.com.ar

SOUTH AMERICA ON A BUDGET: FIVE TOP TIPS

EMBRACE THE BUS

Air travel is expensive. Choices range from the "chicken bus" named for the fried chook aromas, plus actual chickens, to the more upmarket offerings. Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Uruguay offer better buses. Ideally, travel with a friend to watch belongings.

CELEBRATE GOOD TIMES

Follow the cultural fiestas, from Rio's February Carnival to Bolivia and Peru's Festival de la Candelaria to the June pre-Columbian Inti Raymi or Inca Festival of the Sun in Cusco to the August Tango Festival in Buenos Aires and November's continent-wide Day of the Dead.

SHARPEN THE FOCUS

Consider focusing your travel for a more intense experience. Explore northern Argentina/Paraguay/Uruguay or Ecuador/Peru/northern Bolivia or Colombia/ Venezuela or Chile/Argentina lake districts and Patagonia. Combine if you can.

SIZE DOESN'T MATTER

Small, family-run hotels near a town's central square are often cheap, though you'll meet more people in hostels.

TO MARKET, TO MARKET

Buy inexpensive, regional food at local markets. Think ceviche, especially in Lima, Peruvian hen curry (aji gallina), picarones (doughnuts) and spicy cheese potatoes (papa a la huancaina), Argentinian empanadas, dulce de leche (creamy caramel sweets) and Yerba mate tea, Brazilian coxinhas – deep-fried shredded chicken balls or feijoada, a meaty black bean stew.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

traveller.com.au/south-america

captainschoice.com.au

FLY

Captain's Choice Journeys by Private Jet. No two Captain's Choice private jet journeys are exactly the same. The Captain's Choice 2018 private jet program features four unique journeys on board a newly chartered Boeing 757, fully customised to seat just 50 people in fully reclinable, luxury Italian leather seats. In the air, an onboard chef provides fresh and delicious meals and the bar offers premium labels and a carefully curated wine list.

TOUR

The next itinerary to feature South America, Equatorial Explorer, departs London July 7, 2018 for Bermuda, Havana, Antigua, Cartagena, the Amazon, Atacama Desert, Easter Island and Tahiti, before concluding in Sydney.

This tour is priced from $77,600 a person twin share, all-inclusive, covering all on-tour private jet and other travel arrangements, accommodation, dining and drinks, travel insurance, sightseeing, a valet luggage service and more.

Small changes to 2018 private jet experiences include an upgraded Boeing 757 aircraft, genuine lie-flat leather business seats, a dedicated luxury charter specialist, a reduced number of guests to 50, meaning smaller, boutique luxury accommodation and restaurants and only 12 people per tour group.

For more information, or to order a brochure, call 1800 650 738 or see captainschoice.com.au

DONATE

Although luxury and indulgence are the essence of such a private tour by jet as this one, a substantial amount of money is raised during each trip from silent auctions, and matched by Captain's Choice, to support charities – on this trip, an orphanage in Cuzco and two Cambodian schools.

Alison Stewart travelled as a guest of Captain's Choice

Listen: Flight of Fancy - the Traveller.com.au podcast with Ben Groundwater

The best places to visit in 2017

To subscribe to the Traveller.com.au podcast Flight of Fancy on iTunes, click here.

Comments