It wasn’t immediately apparent why Honda, Colombia is part of the country’s elite Pueblos Patrimonio program. Sure, we got a few fleeting glimpses of Colonial architecture as we drove around to get our bearings and find someplace to stay, but the town’s beauty was not overwhelming. Still, we kept driving. Frankly, we didn’t want to get out of the air-conditioned truck. At 750 feet (230 meters) on the Magdalena River, Honda is a hot, hot, hot place.
A Colonial street in Honda, Colombia.
A Colonial church seen beyond traditional red roof tiles in Honda, Colombia.
Sweating it out in Honda, Colombia
We spent our first night in the Hotel Honda where 50,000 COP (about US$17.50) got us a double room with a fan and a private bathroom that lacked both a toilet seat and a shower curtain. Dinner that night was a lousy plate of chicken and rice for the exorbitant price of 15,000 COP (about US$7) eaten on a noisy highway choked with trucks and blanketed with exhaust fumes. So far, Honda was not impressing.
Not all of the Colonial architecture in Honda has been restored.
Colonial buildings in Honda.
Things improved substantially the next day. In an attempt to beat the heat, we got up early to stroll around the heart of Honda where we found a few blocks of Colonial homes including some still awaiting rejuvenation. It was pleasant, but hardly the best example of a Colonial town in Colombia (that would be Barichara).
The Cathedral Nuestra Senora Rosario in Honda, Colombia.
Cobblestones and color in Honda.
We spent a few minutes looking at the exhibits in the Casa Museo Alfonso Lopez Pumarejo (free) which details the life of the Honda’s most famous native son who was governor of Tolima province, President of Colombia twice, head of Colombia’s delegation to the UN and Colombia’s ambassador to the UK. It’s a surprisingly modest place for such an illustrious Colombian figure. The Museo del Rio Magdalena was closed for refurbishment when we were in Honda. That’s about it for attractions in town, but we were getting into the steamy, sleep pace of the place.
The entrance to Posada de las Trampas Boutique Hotel in Honda.
A room in the beautifully restored Posada de las Trampas Boutique Hotel.
We also moved into the Posada de las Trampas Boutique Hotel. Opened in 2011, the 14 room hotel is in a building which was built in the 1700s as the home of wealthy merchants. There are original thick walls, high ceilings with exposed beams, stone details and antiques everywhere. Modern touches include a pool, spa, air conditioning, great bed, WiFi and a nice big parking area. It’s atmospheric, elegant and historic and a top place to stay in Honda.
The much-needed pool at Posada de las Trampas Boutique Hotel.
Another Colonial street in Honda.
The hotel is on Calle de las Trampas. The word trampa means trap in Spanish and the area is so-called because pirates on the Rio Magdalena would come ashore and find themselves trapped in the area’s maze of narrow, winding streets. Either that, or they died of heat stroke.
Another explosion of street color in Honda.
The Puente Navarro crosses the mighty Magdalena River near Honda.
Ecuador is blessed with several ways to access the Amazon Basin. The most well-known and most popular way is via a river town called Coca and then along the Napo River (which is a major tributary of the Amazon River) where travelers find a wide range of tours, river boat hotels and the most upscale Amazon lodges in the country. Those seeking a more affordable and, in some ways, more intimate Amazon experience should head to the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve instead. Here’s why, including our drone aerial travel video over the area.
A sunset paddle on the Cuyabeno River in the Amazon Basin in Ecuador.
Exploring Ecuador’s other Amazon
Founded in 1979, Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve covers 1,490,000 acres (603,380 hectares) and is the second largest preserved natural area in Ecuador. Most of that area is tropical forest which goes through annual cycles of flooding and then receding water. In the wetter season (which varies from year to year), thousands of acres flood. In the dryer season (December to March) the water recedes.
The river is the road through the vast Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve in the Amazon Basin in Ecuador.
The only road through the Cuyabeno area is the Cuyabeno River itself. It’s much narrower than the Napo River which gives a more intimate feeling since the banks of the river are much closer together and, therefore, the wildlife is much closer at hand. Unlike the area around the Napo River, the Cuyabeno region has not been opened up for oil exploration so animals are much more plentiful as well.
There are also far fewer visitors to Cuyabeno than the number of people who visit the Amazon basin via the Napo River, so other boats and other travelers are few and far between.
Entering Laguna Grande.
The wild animals of Cuyabeno
While humans are scarce there is no shortage of other animals. The number of registered bird species in the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve is under currently being debated. Some say 530 species exist in the area while others believe more like 580 species have been observed. Suffice to say, there are a LOT of birds. There are a lot of other critters in Cuyabeno too like the lowland tapirs, two species of deer, all of the Amazon cats, including jaguars and pumas, capybaras and two species of river dolphins (one is vaguely pink).
Like all macaws, these blue and yellow macaws mate for life.
We spotted a juvenile pygmy potoo bird at night while in Cuyabeno – one more species we saw for the first time while in the reserve.
A white throated toucan in Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve.
Hoatzin birds along the Cuyabeno River.
There are also manatees and two types of river otters including imposing giant otters. Monkeys are everywhere as well with 10 species living in the area. There are dozens of species of rodents and bats, 350 fish species (including massive and delicious paiche), two species of caymen, boa constrictors and anacondas plus many vociferous types of frogs and toads.
Ladies and gentlemen, our first Saki monkey.
A black mantled tamarin.
This little guy is a pygmy marmoset – the smallest monkey in the world. We saw one for the first time in Cuyabeno.
These are Spix’s night monkeys – the only nocturnal monkeys in the world. I think we were interrupting their daytime beauty sleep.
We visited the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve during low water and saw dozens of different species. Though we’ve spent a lot of time in jungles around Latin America we also saw many species for the very first time including Saki monkeys, a pygmy potoo, Spix’s night monkeys (the only nocturnal monkey in the world) and tiny pygmy marmosets, the smallest monkeys in the world, which were busy sucking sap from tree trunks.
We have no idea what these insects are but they sure are pretty.
There are frogs and toads of all shapes and sizes in Cuyabeno and at certain times of the day they make the jungle sing.
The people of Cuyabeno
Humans also live in the Cuyabeno area including members of the Siona, Sequoya and Cofan indigenous groups who were allowed to stay in their villages and maintain their way of life even after the reserve was created.
Locals on the Cuyabeno River.
So, in addition to hiking on dry land and paddling in small boats through the Cuyabeno River, tributaries and flooded forest areas to see wildlife, it’s also possible to visit villages and see a little bit of the local ways of life. We visited a village where a woman demonstrated how to make a cracker-like bread from yucca that’s been grated and pressed into a kind of flour before being cooked on a massive clay disc. It’s a labor intensive but delicious staple of the diet.
This woman made it look easy, but making yucca bread is a real process which involves grating fresh yucca root then squeezing the water out to create a kind of flour which is then cooked into a tasty flat bread.
Shamans remain an important part of life in most villages and we also had the chance to visit one while in the Cuyabeno reserve. We’ve had many encounters with shamans over the years but our time with a shaman named Tomas was the most informative and authentic yet. As a sudden rain storm opened up overhead, Tomas happily described his journey to shaman-hood in the footsteps of his father and grandfather and answered all of our questions.
Tomas the shaman.
Tomas also performed a “cleansing” for one of the members of our group. This involved a thrashing with a bundle of sticks, blowing and other rituals meant to expel bad energy from the body. We were the only tourists there and we never got the feeling that Tomas was “putting on a show” for us.
Tomas concentrates and works his medicinal branches during a cleansing ceremony.
Where to stay in Cuyabeno
The dozen or so Amazon river lodges in Cuyabeno are simpler and cheaper than the lodges located along the Napo River. A few Cuyabeno lodges are located on Laguna Grande, but see our travel tip below before booking. The rest are scattered along the banks of the river. Lodge rates include meals and guided exploration of the reserve.
Tapir Lodge has a bamboo and thatch tower of rooms right on the riverbank. This could be the view from your room.
We stayed at Tapir Lodge which has solar panels and a back up generator, good food and a great tower of simple thatch roof rooms with private bathrooms near the bank of the Cuyabeno River. Though rooms are well-screened, some critters do get in. There was a (relatively) small tarantula on our ceiling until Karen insisted that someone give it its own room…
One of us really, really, REALLY wanted this guy out of our room.
The best amenity at Tapir Lodge is owner Kurt Beate. He’s been exploring the area for more than 40 years, first as a guide and later as the creator of Tapir Lodge which he opened almost 20 years ago. It was one of the first lodges in the area and the very first to offer private bathrooms, hot water and electricity based on solar power.
Kurt’s enthusiasm for the region has not dimmed over the years and you really want to be at Tapir Lodge when he is on site and available to explore with you, which is about 70% of the time. Ask if Kurt will be at the lodge when booking.
For more Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve and Tapir Lodge inspiration check out our drone travel footage, below.
Cuyabeno travel tips
Be wary of booking a lodge that’s located on Laguna Grande. The lagoon is beautiful, but during dry times the water level can drop to the point where boats can’t enter the lagoon. That means you’ll be in for a long, hot slog to and from your lodge.
Here are some other things to ask before booking a Cuyabeno lodge:
Is there 24 hour electricity and is it supplied, at least in part, by solar power?
How many guides will be available and what is their certification and experience?
Do you provide binoculars and/or spotting scopes to your guides?
Do you provide real coffee or instant coffee (most adventures start early in Cuyabeno)?
Do your boats have lightweight paddles or heavier wooden paddles?
Do you provide drinking water to guests?
Oh, and we heard Cuyabeno pronounced two different ways: “Kwai-ah-ben-oh” and “Koo-ya-ben-oh”. Go figure. Really. Go figure it out.
This massive jungle tree is a major jungle attraction. It even has its own sign. Climbing up its vines: optional.
Getting to Cuyabeno
From Quito you can fly, drive or take a bus to the dismal oil town of Lago Agria. Then it’s 1.5 hours by road to the Cuyabeno bridge where your roughly two hour journey on the river in a motorized canoe will begin to reach your lodge in the reserve. In times of low water the trip takes longer. Entry to all parks and reserves in Ecuador is free except for the Galapagos Islands National Park.
In July of 2015 we got a DJI Phantom 3 Professional drone (aka UAV or quadcopter if the word “drone” sounds too military for you). So far we’ve used it to shoot nearly 12 hours of aerial footage during 82 flights covering 66.8 miles (108 km) in four countries. Our skills are being honed so that we can enhance more travel blog posts with drone footage and so we can offer aerial photography services to hotels, tour operators etc (if you’re interested in that, visit our Hire Us page and get in touch). After a year on the road with our Phantom 3, here’s what we’ve learned about traveling with a drone.
Eric manning the controls of our drone at Lake Ipsaycocah at 14, 212 feet in the Andes of Peru as local women and other trekkers look on.
Drone travel tips
Never drone alone. Always drone with someone who can help keep their eyes on the aircraft and use their hands as human landing pads to catch the drone if the terrain is uneven. If you land the drone on uneven ground it can easily tip over and break a propeller (been there).
Our DJI Phantom 3 drone kit.
GPS is key. Unless you are a VERY skilled pilot avoid flying without GPS, which can happen if you’re flying in an area where satellites are hard to secure such as a steep canyon or around tall buildings, especially if there’s any wind. When hovering with a GPS lock, the drone stays pretty much locked in place even in a strong wind. Lose the GPS and the drone doesn’t know where it is so it can’t hold position. This lack of control in flight is terrifying.
Practice, practice, practice. If you want to hone your skills a cheap practice drone like this under $50 SYMA X5C is a great tool. It’s cheap, so losing or crashing it isn’t a crushing blow to your ego or your wallet, and since this cheapo model doesn’t have the brains and GPS of the DJI Phantom it takes real skill to fly it.
Buy spare propellers. Then buy more. They’re easier to break than you think. Luckily they’re also the cheapest drone accessory. You’ll find fancy carbon fiber propellers out there, but they’re more expensive and, most importantly, more dangerous. Drone propellers can rotate at more than 7,000 rpm and at that speed even the standard plastic props can do some damage. The carbon fiber props can easily take off a finger.
Buy spare intelligent flight batteries. We have three. In the Phantom 3, DJI states a flight time of approximately 23 minutes per fully charged battery (the new Phantom 4, with it’s slightly bigger batteries, has an approximate flight time of 28 minutes). However, we rarely get a flight time of more than 18 minutes since running the batteries too low can cause the aircraft to crash so we usually return with at least 25% of the battery life left. After the flight the battery must then be allowed to cool down before recharging which takes about 45 minutes with the 100W charger that comes with the Professional model. No one wants to wait around for a battery to recharge before flying again and if you’re shooting in a remote area, as we often are, you won’t have any electricity anyway. So extra batteries are vital.
Safety first. Though the DJI batteries are generally safe, Li-Po batteries must be handled with care. There are many videos on YouTube which show how mishandling these batteries can cause them to explode or burn up violently. To be on the safe side, we keep ours in LiPo battery fireproof bags. Also note that according to the TSA and the IATA, you cannot put these batteries in checked luggage when you board a plane.
Our drone bag.
Bags matter. There are many drone bags out there. Some are soft sided. Some are hard sided. We chose the Manfrotto Pro-Light 3N1-35 Camera Backpack since it’s the very same backpack that DJI sold with their name on it (and a few drone specific modifications) for $100 more. The drone is held securely in the main compartment along with the remote controller, tablet, propellers, charger and other accessories. In the upper compartment there’s enough space for my SLR camera with a large lens attached. The backpack is comfortable enough to wear while hiking and it has a laptop compartment which I use to hold my Camekback water bladder while hiking. Manfrotto now makes a new tailor-made drone bag called the Manfrotto MB BP-D1 DJI Drone Backpack and it’s the bag I’d purchase now.
Wind is a killer. According to DJI, the Phantom 3 Professional can fly in wind up to 22 mph. We’ve seen videos of people putting their drones up in even crazier winds. Personally, we like to be conservative as we’re not eager to lose this flying machine. Remember that wind speed a few hundred feet up can be double the speed on the ground. Also keep in mind which direction the wind is traveling. Though the remote control gives an accurate real-time status of how much flying time you have left and, therefore, when you need to return, it doesn’t account for headwind which could make the return trip longer and more energy intensive. Crashing your drone because the battery ran out due to a stiff head-wind would be pretty foolish.
Invest in a good tablet. You can use an android or iOS phone as the display screen on your remote control, but you’re going to want a much bigger screen. We took the money-saving route and bought a $150 Samsung Galaxy Tab 4. Though perfectly functional, the screen is not the same quality as the screens found on more expensive tablets and it can be difficult to see the screen in sunny conditions. Next time around, I’d go for either the Nexus 9, Samsung Galaxy Tab S2, or an iPad. Oh, and you’re going to want a sunshade no matter which tablet you buy.
Neutral density (ND) filters are a must and here’s why. While there’s no problem using fast shutter speeds when taking still photos, when shooting video a fast shutter speed from a moving camera can cause a “jello” effect. This can be particularly problematic when shooting bright scenes such as around water, beaches and snow. ND filters darken the scene allowing you to shoot video using a slower shutter speed. We’ve been happy with the PolarPro ND filters made specifically for the Phantom 3.
Yaw is tricky. The yaw (rotation) of the camera can be very difficult to control smoothly when you’re trying to capture a panning shot. This simple plastic and rubber-band contraption gives the resistance that’s needed to have more control over fine stick movements that control camera rotation.
Don’t forget memory cards. High definition video makes for large files. When shooting in 4K mode we can shoot 7GB of video in one flight. The Phantom 3 Professional accepts micro-SD cards up to 64GB and they need either a Class 10 or UHS-1 rating. We’re partial to these Lexar Professional Micro SDXC cards because we really like the USB-3 adapter that comes with them which allows for easy transfer of videos to your computer.
Know the local laws. A drone registration law went into effect in the US in December of 2015 which means all drones in the US must receive a registration number from the National Drone Register. Note that even if you are just passing through a US airport you must register your drone with the National Drone Register or customs can confiscate it.
Drone regulations are less organized in other parts of the world. In October of 2015 we were told about a photographer who arrived in Peru via plane and had his drone confiscated at the airport and held until special governmental permission was received. Once inside Peru, drones are banned at all archaeological sites (not just Machu Picchu). Chile was the first country in South America to formalize drone regulations and requirements in that country include registration of the drone and licensing of the operator with civil aviation authorities, insurance, no flights over 425 feet (130 meters) and, most absurd of all, a parachute. In India drones are illegal everywhere until they figure out their own regulations (in February of 2016 a tourist was arrested in India for flying a drone). It’s illegal to enter Nicaragua with a drone or fly it inside the country.
There are three models in the Phantom 3 line ranging from $499-$999, along with the newer Phantom 4 which costs $1,399. We have the Phantom 3 Professional. If you’re interested in the Phantom 3, you’re in luck since prices have dropped by about $300 since we bought ours following the introduction of the Phantom 4.
Unless your budget is very limited I wouldn’t recommend the Phantom 3 Standard ($499). As compared to the Phantom 3 Advanced ($799) and Professional ($999), its camera is inferior, it doesn’t have the same GPS capabilities and its range is a fraction of the other models. The Advanced and Professional models are identical in many ways, however, the Professional can take 4K video while the Advanced is limited to 2.7K. The Advanced comes with a faster charger so the batteries more quickly.
We haven’t flown the newer Phantom 4, but its primary advantage is its collision avoidance system. The Phantom 4 is also a little faster, has a longer range and has a larger battery that allows for slightly longer flight times.
NOTE: DJI is currently offering $200 off the Phantom 4. Click the banner below for details.
Though totally landlocked and located at just over 2,000 feet (700 meters), San Juan Girón (which everyone simply calls Girón) has a surprisingly sultry, Caribbean climate which washes over the town’s famous Colonial architecture.
A typical street in the Colonial heart of Girón, Colombia.
Travel highlights of Girón, Colombia
Modern Girón is hardly worth a second look. The small, tidy Colonial heart of town, however, is a different story. It consists of less than 50 blocks but the center is an atmospheric charmer with cobblestone streets (they look fantastic but they’re a pain to drive or walk on) and well-preserved and methodically white-washed Colonial buildings which have earned Girón a place on the very short list of Pueblos Patrimonios iin Colombia and the nickname “The White City.”
Colonial architecture and cobblestone streets in the historic heart of Girón.
A Caribbean game called bolo, which is like bowling but is played with a stone ball and just three pins, suddenly popped up around Girón as did tobacco fields which added to the Caribbean feeling of the place.
You’re beginning to see why they call Girón the “White City”.
Head for the promenade along the Rio de Oro to find makeshift fritanga restaurants where around US$10 will get you a plate piled high with fried pork, chorizo, blood sausage, potatoes and more. It’s big enough to share. Morsels are pickup up with toothpicks and Colombians like to wash it all down with a mixture of beer and a local bright pink soda called Primero. We stuck to plain beer.
All the fixin’s for a proper fritanga at one of the outdoor stalls on the river in Girón.
Ironically, a top attraction is sweaty Girón is a small church with a revered image of the Virgin of the Snows inside. You’ll also want to find a shady bench in tranquil Parque Peralta, also known as Lovers Park.
In sweaty Girón, the Virgin of the Snows lives in this church.
For a town this size, and one that’s usually visited as a day trip from nearby Bucamaranga (just a few miles away), we were pleased to find the six room Girón Chill Out Hostal Boutique which was offered more style and comfort than we’d expected. Rooms (from 210,000 COP or about US$70) include air conditioning and a full breakfast.
Our room at the Girón Chill Out Hostal had charm to spare and air conditioning.
The Basilica Menor in Girón, Colombia gets the full light show treatment at night.