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Low prices lure travelers to Latin America

Latin America has long enticed budget-oriented travelers with its low prices, and as the global economic crisis lingers, the bargains are increasingly tempting - especially when it comes to a luxury vacation.

Meals are often half the cost of their European counterparts, hotels are generally more luxurious than what you'd get for the same money in the United States, and spa treatments and other private services are so affordable you feel good about splurging, because, really, you're saving - or at least that's what you tell yourself.

And things are getting cheaper still. Hotel prices across Latin America fell by 18 percent in the first half of 2009 compared with the same period last year, according to Hotels.com's Hotel Price Index. That's slightly steeper than hotel rate decreases in North America and Europe.

Some of the best places for affordable luxury are Argentina and Mexico, in part because of swine flu scares earlier this year. Also, the dollar is going farther than a year ago, at about 13.5 Mexican pesos (vs. 12.5 in October 2008) and 3.9 Argentine pesos (against 3.3). Both countries have long attracted well-heeled tourists, with established resort towns and bustling cities.

Stylish boutique hotels in Buenos Aires such as the Craft, Moreno and E Hotel de Diseno are listing rooms for less than $100 a night at Tablet Hotels, a booking site that specializes in design-oriented hotels.

In Mexico, some of the best deals are at ultra-luxurious megaresorts along the Riviera Maya south of Cancun. The Banyan Tree Mayakoba, where villas have their own plunge pools, is offering 50 percent off two-night packages with daily breakfast, a massage and dinner for two. Nearby, the Mandarin Oriental has a seven-night Holiday in Mexico deal that includes breakfast, airport transfers, dinner for two and a private yoga class from $354 a night until Dec. 18.

Not interested in the beach? Starting rates at the Four Seasons in Mexico City are $225 a night on weekends, not bad considering that it's $70 cheaper than the Four Seasons in Austin ($295). A Swedish massage costs about $100 at the hotel in Mexico vs. $130 in Austin.

Large tour operators, such as Globus, recognize the good value in Latin America and are adding more itineraries and new destinations that emphasize luxury for less. Abercrombie & Kent, the high-end tour operator known for its luxury safaris, is expanding its 2010 "signature" Latin American itineraries. The packages, designed for travelers who don't want to take a group tour but still want the Abercrombie & Kent experience, include the same comforts and sightseeing of its group excursions but with private guides from $5,995 a person for a nine-day trip to Ecuador.

For travelers looking to spend less, Group Voyagers, the parent company of Globus, Cosmos, Monograms and Avalon Waterways, recently added four Latin American itineraries, including Ecuador and the Galapagos from $3,379 and three Monograms packages from $1,299 for eight days in Costa Rica.

The strategy seems to be paying off. Collette Vacations, based in Pawtucket, R.I., recently reported that revenue for its Discover South America tour more than doubled from last year. Interest in Peru in particular is picking up. Its 12-day trip through Peru, visiting Machu Picchu, Lake Titicaca, Lima and the Paracas National Reserve, with rates from $2,449 a person, is already beginning to fill up for 2010.

"Travelers start out thinking it's too exotic and therefore out of reach," Allison Flint, Collette's product manager, said in a statement. "But then are pleasantly surprised at how affordable it really is."

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