Travel Gear of the Year 2014

We’re still using (and loving) the travel gear we’ve told you about in previous Travel Gear of the Year posts and Product Reviews, from KINeSYS sunscreen to Chaco flip flops to Seagate external hard drives to Rare Parts tie rods. Now it’s time to present our travel gear of the year 2014 including a taxi app we love (and it’s NOT Uber), a genius (and cheap) way to keep mosquito coils from breaking, a laptop surprise for Karen, two retro gadgets that will keep you warm at night, Eric’s new favorite (small) camera, prescription sunglasses that look badass not bifocal, the perfect smartphone for travelers and more. All road tested. All road approved.

Here’s what earned the right to be called…

Travel Gear of the Year 2014

Travel tech

There are many times during our Trans-Americas Journey when we need to take high quality photos but it’s just not safe or cool to carry around Eric’s big, flashy Canon SLR camera and lenses. In 2010 he added a Canon Powershot S95, about the size of a pack of cards, to his arsenal and it quickly became his go-to camera in dodgy cities, when it was important to take pictures discretely and when he just didn’t want to haul around his heavy camera bag full of tricks. In 2014, after four years of pretty extreme use, the S95 no longer focused properly when it was zoomed in so Eric started researching all of the high quality compact cameras that were high quality, but not quite SLR replacements. The problem is that most of them aren’t exactly pocket-sized or affordable or high quality enough, so his search lead him straight back to Canon. He now uses a Canon Powershot S120 (below) which is the updated version of the S95. Like its predecessor, it can shoot fully manual and RAW images and has a sharp and fast lens covering a solid zoom range. It’s also very ruggedly built but still lightweight and truly pocket-sized all for under $400. Eric loves the new touch screen on the S120 and the camera’s ability to change focus while shooting video. In October Canon came out with a pricey but even better pocket-sized camera option too. It’s called the G7X. Maybe next year…

Canon Powershot S120

 

We see a lot of wild animals. We also see a lot of wild animals that we can’t identify. Enter Project Noah, a deliciously geeky website where people way smarter than us (biologists, ornithologists, entomologists, etc) can help us id what we see. Just post a photo of the critter in question and other site users can weigh in about what they think you’ve seen.

 

We are fans of Dell computers not only because their high-quality products are usually substantially less expensive than an equivalent Mac product but also because of their international warranty service that has allowed us to have computers fixed right in our hotel rooms by authorized Dell technicians in Mexico and Nicaragua. In 2014 Eric got an updated version of his 17 inch Inspiron and Karen changed from the heavy ruggedized Dells she’s had in the past to a Dell XPS 12 2-in-1 Ultrabook (below). It weighs just over three pounds (1.3 kilos) and is a drop smaller than the 13 inch MacBook Air. It’s got a sleek aluminum and carbon fiber shell and the 12.5 inch high-definition touch screen is stellar, the 256 GB flash hard drive is fast and reliable and with eight GB of memory Karen’s computer no longer crawls along when asked to do more than two things at once. It also has a flip screen that allows the laptop to be used like a tablet, that’s where the “2-in-1” comes in. The XPS 12 specs are nearly identical to the MacBook Air except that the Dell has a much better screen and can be used as a tablet. Most crucially, Apple’s “global” warranty (its version of what Dell has offered for years) still has many gaping geographical wastelands where the warranty does not cover you — ie, many of the places you want to go. Also, Apple’s global coverage is only available for two years and Dell’s is available for up to four years.

 Dell XPS 12 2-in-1 Ultrabook

 

In many parts of the world, including many Latin American cities, hailing a taxi on the street is not recommended since taxi crimes (usually involving being driving around town to ATMs against your will until you bank account is empty) can happen. Therefore, it’s a good idea to call for a taxi because then there is a record of the name of the driver who was sent to pick you up. However, this requires a phone, an often lengthy wait on hold and the ability to understand the mumbling dispatcher who finally picks up the line. Easy Taxi, a free app for iOS or Android, solves all of those problems. You request a ride using the app which transmits your exact location. A drivers near your location claims the job and usually arrives at your location within minutes. You are sent the driver’s name, plate number, phone number and a photo so you have multiple ways of verifying that the person in the taxi is, indeed, your driver. You can also track the driver’s journey to you via a map on the app which is updated in real time. It’s wonderfully simple and safe and, unlike some other taxi apps, you pay the driver directly so there are no additional fees. Like most taxi apps, Easy Taxi only works in select cities primarily in South America, Mexico, the Middle East and Asia.

Easy Taxi App

 

The Nexus 5 by Google (below) is the perfect smartphone for travelers. Every Nexus is unlocked so you can travel anywhere in the world with it and have a local telephone just by dropping a local SIM chip in. Plus, the Nexus is a fraction of the price (US$349 with 16GB  of storage) of similar high-end phones from Samsung, LG, Motorola and Apple whose smartphones cost well more than US$600 for an unlocked, contract-free model. Our Nexus also has a large, bright display screen and one of the best processors around so nothing slows it down. **Not to mention we’re fans of Android over iOS as an operating system and the new Android upgrade, 5.0 (Lollipop) has some fantastic new features. Our only complaint is the less than stellar battery life of our Nexus 5 (a complaint many users have). Sadly, the new Nexus 6 costs a more typical US$649. However, frugal travelers like us can still find a more moderately priced new Nexus 5 on Amazon and eBay.

Google Nexus 5 phone

 

Travel accessories

2014 was the year we finally ditched plastic bottles made with increasingly suspect BPAs and moved to insulated stainless steel Hydro Flask bottles (pictured below in our truck). Here’s why we loved our Hydro Flask bottles when we first got them and all of this still holds true many months down the road.

hydro-flask-in-the-truck

 

Prescription sunglasses. Shudder. But it was no longer possible for Eric to deny that he needed a prescription lenses in all of his glasses, not just his reading glasses. Luckily, he didn’t have to ditch the Costa del Mar sunglasses that we’ve worn and loved since the very beginning of our Trans-Americas Journey because a wide range of Costa frame styles are available with prescription lenses. Now Eric can see what’s out there while still looking like a badass, not a grandpa in bifocals (he wears Zane frames, by the way).

Costa prescription sun glasses

 

Mosquito coils are a smart thing to pack for travel to many parts of the world. Not so smart is just tossing a box of coils into your backpack or luggage, unless you enjoy the challenge of making bits and pieces of broken coils stay in the coil holder long enough to burn. It took us a few years to figure it out, but you can keep mosquito coils from breaking by putting them inside a hard, reusable plastic sandwich container (below). Bonus: these tightly sealed container keeps coils from getting damp too and there’s room inside for the little metal stand and some matches.

Mosquito coil protection

 

After years of pretty much being hot all day every day while we traveled through Central America, our Trans-Americas Journey has now entered South America where the presence of things like mountains (hello Andes!) means we can go from sweltering hot at sea level to freezing cold at well over 10,000 feet (3,000 meters) within the same day. That’s why we now travel with an enamel cup and an electric hot water coil. This allows us to crank out gallons of tea right from our room and this has gotten us through many a cold night. We recommend a 24 ounce (700 ml) enamel cup, like this one, because you can make a lot of tea (or instant noodle soup or hot chocolate or whatever) in it but it’s still light and durable. We bought an electric immersion coil at a hardware store but there’s also this cool dual voltage coil (120 and 240) with a pouch that would be perfect for travel. Tip: The metal handle of enamel cups can get hot so you might want to wrap it in handlebar tape.

 

One-DropEric’s brother’s girlfriend, Lisa, gave us our first bottle of One Drop. We’re not sure if it was a hint or what, but we love the stuff because it magically covers up even the most egregious bathroom atrocities which comes in handy if we get traveler’s tummy or find ourselves sharing bathrooms in hostels, etc. In Colombia we found a local version, called Oseaan Goticas Aroma, in the toilet paper aisle for US$4 but the label suggested four drops, not just one, and we didn’t think it worked as well as One Drop.

 

Road trip gear of the year

When the “check engine” light on the dashboard suddenly goes on it’s impossible to know what the problem might be and whether it’s minor or urgent without taking your vehicle into the dealer and paying the mechanics to read the engine error code which set off the “check engine” light in the first place. That’s usually not an option when you’re driving through countries where dealerships are few and far between. Plus, who wants to pay a mechanic when you can check engine error codes yourself. Yep.  OBD  or “on-board diagnostics” is a standardized port that every vehicle has. The trick is reading it. We’ve had an OBD reader with us since Day 1 of our Trans-Americas Journey and in 2014 we upgraded to an OBDLink MX, which has enhanced information for GM and Ford models (the LX model covers all other makes). It not only reads our Silverado’s diagnostic codes but turns our Nexus 5 smartphone into the ultimate performance monitoring tool, providing all sorts of information about our truck like instant mpg, torque, mass air flow and dozens of other things we don’t really understand. And, yes, it will read that engine error code and tell you what the problem is so you know if you need to “check engine” immediately or not.

OBDLink MX

 

 

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Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2014 – Best Hotels

Welcome to Part 3 in our Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2014 series of posts. Part 3 is all about the Best Hotels of the past year of travel on our little road trip through the Americas including a salsa theme hotel in Colombia, the smartest amenity in the Amazon, the best budget hotel of the year, an outstanding eco hotel and the best luxury boutique hotel in Ecuador (by far). Part 1 covers the Best Adventures & Activities of 2014, Part 2 covers the Best Food & Beverages and Part 4 tells you all about our Travel Gear of the Year.

In 2014 the Trans-Americas Journey explored Colombia and Ecuador and we drove 7,074 miles (11,385 km) doing it. Want more road trip numbers? Check out the Trip Facts & Figures page.

And now, in no particular order, here are the…

Best Hotels of 2014

Best luxury boutique hotel in Ecuador: It’s no contest. Casa Gangotena in Quito, Ecuador is the best luxury boutique hotel in Ecuador. It’s also the most expensive hotel in Ecuador with all the expected niceties of a world-class luxury boutique hotel. On top of all that, here’s what you get for your US$420 (and up) per night:

  • prime location in the Colonial heart of Quito, the world’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site city, right on Plaza San Francisco
  • a five year renovation transformed the art nouveau and art deco home of the Gangotena family into a hotel, preserving original details like pressed tin ceilings and an incredible curved marble staircase
  • some of the 31 spacious and light-filled rooms (one is pictured, below) have original wall frescoes
  • impeccable service – staff will even burn a CD of your digital camera images for free to clear up card space so you can take more photographs
  • delectable freshly made turn down treats every night
  • complimentary afternoon tea with plates of savory and sweet treats
  • an enormous and varied complimentary breakfast buffet
  • in-room materials in English or Spanish (changed to suit the needs of each new guest) and TVs that are programmed to the appropriate language too

 Casa Gangotena Quito Ecuador

Best bohemian hotel in Ecuador: Pantavi Hosteria & Spa, not far from the northern city of Ibara, was a sprawling cotton plantation with a hacienda home on the property. The cotton is gone and the original home has slowly been transformed into the best bohemian hotel in Ecuador. New owners, artist Camilo Andrade and his wife Adriana Ramirez, meticulously restored the original buildings which took on fresh life with Camilo’s modern art on the walls. A new wing of rooms shows off Camilo’s massive wall murals (below) and is home to four roomy suites which are worth the splurge (from US$115 including a fantastic full breakfast). Every piece of the art was created by Camilo and there are hundreds of diverse pieces giving the place an intimate gallery feel. Don’t miss the photos of Camilo, who’s also an avid mountain climber, with legendary mountaineer Reinhold Messner near the reception desk.

 Pantavi Hosteria & Spa Salinas Ecuador

Best hotel in a national park: Tambopaxi Lodge (below) is the only hotel that’s actually inside Ecuador’s Cotopaxi National Park, home to the Cotopaxi Volcano, one of the highest volcanoes in the world. Locals and travelers planning to climb 19,347 foot (5,897 meter) Cotopaxi cram the dorm rooms at Tambopaxi. Though mysteriously not represented on Tambopaxi’s website, the lodge also offers eight multi-bed suites with walls of windows and epic views of the perpetually snow-capped volcano. Six small private double rooms are also now available. At press time a refugio at 15,900 feet (4,800 meters) on the flanks of the volcano was being completely renovated and should re-open in 2015 offering additional lodging.

Tambopaxi Lodge Cotopaxi National Park Ecuador

Best view from bed: Speaking of volcanoes, Hacienda Manteles, near the town of Baños in Ecuador, is the place to go if you want to keep an eye on the very active Tungurahua Volcano without bothering to get dressed. The hotel recently added edgy, modern suites which were built with nearly floor to ceiling windows that give guests an unobstructed view of Tungurahua right from bed (below). The volcano, just a few miles from the hotel, has been spewing and erupting with some regularity lately and when the clouds part the view is awesome. Hacienda Manteles also gets the nod for best view from the tub since the suites also have big Jacuzzi tubs placed in front of corner windows that offer another view of the volcano.

Hacienda Manteles Ecuador

Best hotel eco initiative: Hotel Bambu was one of the first hotels on the beach in Canoa on Ecuador’s central Pacific Coast and it currently offers a wide range of comfortable, clean dorms and private rooms. As Canoa became more popular and more built up the Swiss/Ecuadorean owners became concerned about the growing problem of trash on the beach so they decided to offer a free cocktail to anyone who collects a large bag of trash from the beach. More bags mean more cocktails. We saw plenty of people taking them up on the offer and we love this simple, effective eco initiative.

Hotel Bambu Canoa, Ecuador

Best budget hotel: Here’s what you get for US$10 pp at Hostel Chimenea in Baños, Ecuador: a spotless private room with wood floors, lots of light, a hot water (mostly) bathroom, small patio with partial view of a nearby waterfall, a TV, living plants, a desk and chairs, WiFi and parking. Just be sure you reserve an upstairs private room (our favorite is number 23) because the private rooms off the small pool on the ground level are not the same quality. Shared dorm rooms are also available for even less money. 

Best cabins in the (really rare) woods: The fireplace-heated cabins at Polylepis Lodge, inside El Angel Ecological Reserve in northern Ecuador, have seen better days and are best thought of as bunking down in a family cabin that no one has visited in a few years. The real reason to book a night or two here lies outside your door. Polyepis Lodge is located smack in the middle of a forest of a species of weird, gnarled, peely-barked polylepis trees that is only found here. If ever there was a Tolkein forest, this is it (below).

 Polylepis Lodge El Angel Ecuador

Best hostel you could own right now: There’s only one riverfront hostal in Mocca, Colombia and only one tennis court and you can thank Filip Goemaere for both. A few years ago he fell in love with Mocoa and decided to build Casa del Rio, a relaxed, clean and comfortable place with private rooms and dorms and an awesome riverfront location. It’s generally full of travelers on their way to or from the nearby Ecuador border. Then Filip became a tennis fiend and decided to build a tennis court in Mocoa too. Now Filip is getting itchy feet so both businesses are for sale. If you’ve ever considered getting into the hostel business contact Filip at casadelriomocoa@gmail.com. You will not find another hostel in Colombia with such high construction standards or attention to detail. We’re pretty sure this place would pass code in the US. Oh, and the resident night monkeys (below) come with the property.

Casa del Rio - Mocoa, Ecuador

Best eco hotel: Whether you come for the yoga and wellness retreats or just to relax in the shadow of volcanoes and with awesome views of San Pablo Lake, you can feel good about your stay at Sacha Ji Wellness Hotel, near Otavalo, Ecuador, because its Ecuadorean owner/architect created the serene and swanky retreat with a remarkable amount of environmentally friendly initiatives, including:

  • more than 2,000 old tires were recycled and used in the foundations of the structures at Sacha Ji for insulation and earthquake proofing
  • rain water is collected in blue tarps, arranged like outdoor sculpture, which funnel the precious moisture into a cistern
  • a waterfall two miles (three km) away supplies the rest of the water and all water is filtered and then purified with UV light so it’s potable
  • a huge organic garden supplies vegetables, fruits, herbs and medicinal plants
  • a large portion of the six acre (2.5 hectare) property was covered in invasive non-endemic eucalyptus trees but has now been cleared and reforested with native species
  • solar panels, used to heat the water at Sacha Ji, are super efficient because of Ecuador’s proximity to the equator where the sun’s rays slant straight down to earth which means panels can be laid at a five degree angle
  • wood burned in Sacha Ji’s heating stoves is collected only from fallen trees
  • all kitchen waste is composted
  • all grey and black water is filtered
  • solar windows absorb and trap the sun’s heat to keep rooms warmer longer
  • living roofs (below) provide insulation
  • the eight rooms are heated with wood burning stoves but only four rooms have actual stoves – the other four are heated by stove pipes which pass through them and give off heat

Sacha Ji Wellness Hotel - Otovalo, Ecuador

Best beach hotel: Playa Escondido, near Punta Galera, was our favorite beach on the entire Pacific Coast of Ecuador: petite, secluded, only lightly visited and clean. The beach is part of the Playa Escondido Ecological Refuge which was created by Canadian expat and life-long traveler Judith Barett. For US$25 pp you can stay in the ecolodge which is a massive, traditionally built building of bamboo and thatch that has breezy, mostly open-air rooms with good nets over the beds, private showers and sinks, sea views and hammocks. Rooms on the top floor have the best design and best views. All rooms share a pristine composting toilet. You can also camp in a large, flat sandy area just off the beach with a covered picnic table with electricity, WiFi and shared showers and composting toilets (US$7 pp per night). Judith is planning to have camping gear to rent soon, in the meantime bring your own (that’s our campsite/office, below). Or you can rent the Round House, a bohemian, private, two-level hideaway with sky blue tile, white washed walls, a huge kitchen and private yard (US$100 per night, sleeps up to six).

Playa Escondido Ecological Refuge Ecuador

Best bohemian hotel in Colombia: As you approach it, Hotel Akawanka Lodge in San Agustin looks like a traditional Colombian building: two stories of white-washed earthen walls with exposed beams and accents of red and plenty of blooming plants. Inside, however, the place is thoughtfully filled with sculpture and found-object art made by the owner plus wonderful, whimsical murals and small-space paintings by the talented on-site manager Yorleny. Each of the 20 rooms at Akawanka (which means eagle in a local dialect) are uniquely painted and decorated (that’s our room, below) and each room is named after a local animal (Andean bear, armadillo, etc). The traditional wide, inviting porches double as galleries for more and more charming artwork and don’t miss the hammocks made from woven strips of cow hide (it works). The place is funky, hippie, arty but never cutesy or cloying or over the top.

Hotel Akawanka Lodge - San Agustin, Colombia

Best community-run hotel: The Kichwa Añangu Community in the Amazon Basin in Ecuador wanted a tourism project. An NGO put in two million dollars and, over the next five years, community members built the Napo Wildlife Center Ecolodge. In 2009, after paying back the NGO’s investment, ownership, management and operation of Napo reverted fully to members of the Kichwa Añangu community and the place has flourished under their guidance. The capable staff of the gorgeous, comfortable lodge (below), which is located on its own wildlife-filled lagoon and large tract of protected jungle, is 100% from the community. Thirty percent of profits are distributed to the more or less 30 Kichwa Añangu families in the area. The lodge also uses part of its profits to pay for better teachers and better doctors for their community and they’ve built a traditional architecture high school that serves students in the whole region. A community recycling and water system were in the works too when we were there.

Napo Wildlife Center Ecolodge Amazon Ecuador

Best theme hotel: We know, we know: “theme hotel” sounds really scary and possibly gross. Not so in the case of Posada Salsa Boutique in Cali, Colombia. Cali is littered with salsa clubs and salsa schools and the self-proclaimed “salsa capital of the world” also hosts two massive annual festivals. Festival Mundial de Salsa attracts the world’s best salsa dancers and La Feria de Cali focuses on the music. Posada Salsa Boutique in the up-and-coming El Peñon area of the city, offers six comfortable rooms with A/C and all of that but the real reason to stay is to soak up some salsa. Owner Ara Kazarians is of Armenian decent but has lived all over the world and currently splits his time between Cali and Brazil. An accomplished salsa DJ in his own right, Ara has turned Posada Salsa Boutique into a mini museum to the music and dance he adores. There are portraits, album covers and posters on the walls (below), many signed by salsa greats and all rooms are named after salsa stars. It doesn’t take much to get Ara talking about salsa and you’ll learn a lot even during in a short stay.

Posada Salsa - Cali, Colombia

Best luxury hacienda hotel in Ecuador: There’s a reason Hacienda Zuleta, in northern Ecuador, is the most famous (and most expensive) of the country’s many hacienda hotels. Actually, there are four reasons: history, luxury, food and horses. The place dates back to the 1600s and has been owned by just a handful of the country’s most powerful families (current owners count two Presidents among their ranks). Traditional buildings (like the one below) have been carefully renovated to offer impeccable style and all modern comforts, plus some unexpected niceties like staff who light your in-room fireplace each evening and a hot water bottle at turn down. Meals are made using family recipes and many ingredients are grown right on the hacienda, including a range of noted cheeses. They’ve even bred their own strain of horse (a cross between thoroughbred and Andalusian) and there’s a mount for every type of rider. If we could return right now to just one hotel that we stayed at in 2014 it would be Zuleta.

Hacienda Zuleta - Ecuador

Best hotel amenity: We were surprised by many things about travel in the Amazon, including how much less hot and humid the climate was than we’d feared. That said, the Amazon is still a humid place and your camera, smart phone, laptop, etc. can get ruined if that ambient moisture gets inside. That’s why we were so delighted by the homemade dry box in each room at La Selva Amazon Lodge in Ecuador (below). After each day’s excursions we just put our cameras and other electronics inside a simple wood box and turned on the light bulb built into the top. Overnight, the heat from the bulb gently did away with any accumulated moisture.

La Selva Amazon Lodge Ecuador

Best The Shining hotel: Some call the area around La Cocha Lake the “Little Switzerland” of Colombia (it’s remarkable how many countries have their own “Switzerlands”). The area is beautiful, but that claim is a bit of a stretch. Still, the Hotel Sindamanoy has taken the high alps theme to heart with Swiss chalet architecture right down to the red and white color scheme. However, what struck us about this lake shore hotel was less Switzerland and more The Shining. With its long hallways, riotous retro colors and patterns, overly cheerful curtains and absolutely vacant, stuck in time feeling we half expected to see Jack Nicholson’s psycho face around every corner. In a good way.

Read more about travel in Colombia

Read more about travel in Ecuador

 

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Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2014 – Best Food & Beverages

Welcome to Part 2 in our Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2014 series of posts. Part 2 is all about the Best Food & Beverages of the past year of travel on our little road trip through the Americas including the most over the top dessert we’ve ever eaten, a pork sandwich showdown, gourmet guinea pig, why you should eat at a place called Ugly American and a little dish we like to call Fanny’s Frijoles that you can make at home. Part 1 covers the Best Adventures & Activities of 2014, Part 3 covers the Best Hotels of the year and Part 4 tells you all about our Travel Gear of the Year.

In 2014 the Trans-Americas Journey explored Colombia and Ecuador and we drove 7,074 miles (11,385 km) doing it. Want more road trip numbers? Check out the Trip Facts & Figures page.

And now, in no particular order, here are the…

Best Food & Beverages of 2014

Best gin and tonic: Colombia is nuts for gin and tonics at the moment. Bars like Gordo in Bogota are making their own tonic water and the gin selection in good bars finally includes more than just Beefeater, Tanqueray and Bombay Sapphire. Most bars serve their gin and tonics in huge snifters lined with thinly sliced cucumber. At Bar al Lado, inside La Escuda de Quijote restaurant in the El Peñon hood of Cali, the bartender has half a dozen gins to choose from (including Gin Mare and others I’d never heard of) and makes his G&T with hand crushed juniper berries and garnished with a carefully flamed sprig of fresh rosemary (below). The result is the crispest, freshest, most “ginny” version we had all year.

Gin & Tonic - Bar al Lado,  La Escuda de Quijote restaurant, Cali, Colombia

Best pizza: It was a veritable pizzapalooza in 2014 with not one but two outstanding examples tied for best pizza of the year. D’Baggio Pizza in Riobamba, Ecuador turns fresh, delicious thin crust pizzas with homemade sauce from a real wood-fired pizza oven (US$13.50-US$23.50 for a 12 slice pie, smaller sizes available). On the Pacific Coast of Ecuador, on the coastal highway between the towns of Sua and Same, you will see a sign for Simons Carne. Make a stop for great square pizza (US$7 to US$25) and decent locally made craft beer on tap.

Best pizza in Ecuador

Best wacky breakfast: Years ago in the small town of Salamina, part of Colombia’s exclusive group of Pueblos Patrimonio, the owner of El Polo Bakery devised a way to add eggs to his menu without installing a stove: he used the milk steamer arm on his monolithic coffee machine to steam eggs, chopped ham and butter inside a coffee cup (below). The results, huevos al vapor (steamed eggs), are still offered today. They are hot, fluffy, rich and, yes, a bit wacky.

steamed eggs  El Polo Bakery Salamina, Colombia

Best meal, period: Leonor Espinosa is not the only chef claiming to be “reinventing traditional Colombian cuisine” but she is the only one who’s doing it this well. At her chic, acclaimed Bogota restaurant, Leo Cocina y Cava, local, traditional and often obscure ingredients and techniques are the cornerstones of elegantly presented dishes. You can order ala carte, but do yourself a favor and choose one of the two tasting menus (US$70 for nine courses). Every one of the plates was gasp worthy in presentation and flavor. Truly creative, but never silly, dishes included Chinese potato dusted cones filled with creamy crab with olive oil pearls on top (below), succulent dollops of rich, slow-cooked beef tail served on a bed of creamy manioc with basil foam and ant-encrusted seared tuna. The female sommelier (the chef’s daughter) provided excellent wine pairings and the service was informed and smooth. Oh, and say yes to the fresh lemonade with coffee. It was complex and refreshing and an improvement on both beverages. No wonder Leo Cocina y Cava was added to the list of 50 Best Restaurants in Latin America in 2014.

Leo Cocina y Cava - Bogota, Colombia

Best bargain burger in Ecuador: Dios no Muere, in a 400 year old building on a short pedestrian street between the historic center of Quito and the San Marcos neighborhood, is owned by Mathieu Charles Guillory P. He’s a dapper dresser who came to Ecuador from Louisiana 13 years ago to grow coffee and chocolate, which he still does. He opened Dios no Muere in 2011 and, in addition to New Orleans classics like gumbo and jambalaya, he dishes up the best bargain burger in Ecuador (below). Generous patties are hand shaped with fresh spices, they’re not overcooked and they come on tasty seeded buns with real spicy mustard, onion , tomato and lettuce and fresh made yucca fries plus a non-alcoholic beverage for US$4.

best Quito Hamburger

Best over-the-top dessert: Criterion, from Colombia’s famously foodie Rausch brothers, is number 19 on the 2014 list of 50 Best Restaurants in Latin America and one of the swankest, most sophisticated restaurants in Bogota (and that’s saying something these days). However, when it comes time for dessert the pastry chef unleashes his inner child, creating something called the Dessert Placemat. First, a silicone mat is placed over the table top. Next, the pastry chef arrives with cart heavy with the tools of his trade–rich sauces, fresh berries, at least two flavors of home made ice cream and half a dozen fresh made indulgences including tiramisu, key lime pie, cheesecake and more. Trading toque for technique, the pastry chef proceeds to artfully place these ingredients on the mat until you are faced with edible art so ample that it comes with a deep spatula for mixing and grabbing. Watch the creation of our Dessert Placemat in our video, below.

Best sandwich: Ladies and gentlemen, we have another tie! Sanduches El Primo in Guayaquil, Ecuador (on the corner of Rocafuerte and Mindiburu streets, 10am to 7pm every day) does not look like much – just a round, closet-sized kiosk plunked down on the sidewalk. However, this is where proprietor El Primo (cousin in Spanish) has been serving up one of the country’s best sanduches de pernil (pork leg sandwiches) for the past 20 years. For less than US$2 you get a sandwich made on a yucca bread roll (like a denser, smaller sub roll) packed with hand sliced roasted pork leg (marinated in yogurt for extra moistness), pickled onion and chopped iceberg lettuce topped with some chicharon pork crackling and, if you like, a few drops (careful!) of fiery homemade pepper sauce all moistened with a spoonful of hot pork drippings (below, right). El Primo (below, left) goes through seven huge pork legs a day to satisfy a constant crowd of in-the-know Guayaqueños and, now, you. Quito, Ecuador has no shortage of pork sandwich sellers either and we tried many of them during the three weeks we spent in the city in 2014. For our money, the best version, hands down, is from El Sanduches on Plaza Independencia in the historic center of the city. Here US$4.90 gets you a crusty baguette cut into three length-wise slices and filled with sliced smoky pork, cole slaw and avocado. Add as much homemade (medium) hot sauce as you like and you’ve got something close to an Andean po’boy.

Pierna  Sanduches El Primo in Guayaquil, Ecuador

Best North American favorites in Colombia: From chicken and waffles at a place called Ugly American to real BBQ and perfectly respectable hot dogs, Bogota, Colombia is the place to be for awesome renditions of North American favorite foods. Get the lowdown about what to eat where in this piece we did for TheLatinKitchen.com.

Hot Dogs in Bogota Colombia

Best pie: You may be planning to visit the town of Otavalo in northern Ecuador for its famous Saturday market. Don’t. The market has seen better days. Instead, visit Otavalo for the pie. The Shenandoah Pie Shop, on Plaza de Ponchos, serves more than 10 types of pie daily including apple (below), blackberry, blueberry, chocolate, lemon meringue and many more. They are all filled with fresh ingredients nestled in flaky crust. At less than US$2 per generous slice, it’s the cheapest way to bring back memories of childhood treats from grandma’s kitchen. Thanks to Laurence and Vera of Finding the Universe for the tip and the awesome pie eating company.

Best pie Otavalo, Ecador

Best happy hour: La Xarcuteria in Bogota throws an epic happy hour. Every day (except Sundays and holidays) from 4:00 to 7:30 then again from 10:30 to closing time  all cocktails (which start at around US$6 full price) are 50% off and bottles of wine and all beer (including locally made Chelarte craft brew on tap) are 30% off. They cure and smoke their own meats (below) and turn out an awesome burger too, so come hungry not just thirsty.

La Xarcuteria - Bogota, Colombia

Best Italian: Barichara is, by far, the most beautiful Colonial town in Colombia, that’s why it’s part of the country’s elite network of officially recognized Pueblos Patrimonio. Another reason to visit? The best home made Italian food we had all year. Restaurante Al Cuoco is run by an Italian transplant who dishes up homemade pasta (below) in a simple but welcoming restaurant he set up in the garage of his home. It can be difficult to find and hours are erratic but your efforts will be rewarded.

Italian Restaurante Al Cuoco - Barichara, Colombia

Best gourmet rodent: Guinea pig, aka cuy in Spanish, is a delicacy in many places in the Andes where it’s common to see the flayed rodents spinning slowly on roadside rotisseries. What is slightly less common is to see cuy on the menu at a fancy restaurant, but at La Gloria in Quito, Ecuador, cuy is featured proudly and deliciously. Unlike at roadside restaurants, the cuy here is not served whole. Instead, pieces are  fried in vegetable oil before being pan fried and served on a  bed of peanut and chilli sauce (US$16.50). The result (below) is moist, tender, crispy and rich–like fried duck instead of fried chicken.

Guinea Pig gourmet cuy

Best new dish we learned how to cook: While renting an apartment in Medellin, Colombia so we could catch up on work we hired a wonderful woman named Fanny to come in once a week and clean. Like most housekeepers in Latin America, Fanny offered to cook a meal as part of her day hire and one day Karen asked her to teach us how to make one of her family’s favorite dishes instead. She gave us a grocery list and the next week Fanny taught us how to make a Colombian staple: slow cooked beans rich with spices, sweet carrots and sausage. We dubbed them Fanny’s Frijoles and the recipe is below. You’re welcome.

Colombian frijoles

Fanny’s Frijoles

(serves 6)

INGREDIENTS

1 pound (500grams) dried Red Cargomata beans (or any large, meaty, red bean you can find)

2 large carrots, peeled

8 links of your favorite sausages

1 yellow or white onion, diced

3 large tomatoes, blanched and peeled

Turmeric to taste

Half a bouillon cube

Salt and pepper to taste

3 tbs of olive oil

Half a bunch of cilantro, chopped

Avocado for garnish

METHOD

Soak beans in water overnight. Drain and inspect them, discarding any damaged beans. Peel and trim carrots and put them into a pressure cooker whole. Add the sorted, drained beans. Cover with 2-3 inches of fresh cold water and secure the pressure cooker lid. Bring to a boil and simmer until beans are tender (about one hour, depending on the type of beans you are using). There will still be ample water left in the pot even after the beans are cooked.

While beans are cooking, blanch and peel the tomatoes and smash them. Dice the onion and add it to a small frying pan with the turmeric, bouillon cube and oil. Sautee until the spices are incorporated and the onion is browned. Add the smashed tomato at the end and stir, breaking up the tomato as you go.

Remove the cooked carrots from the bean pot and puree them in a blender or food processor along with some bean water. Return the blended mixture to the pot with the beans.

Add the sautéed onion, tomato and spices to the pot with the beans and stir.

Slice your sausage into bite size pieces and add them to the pot with the beans. Return the pot to the heat and simmer for 15-20 minutes to cook the meat then stir in the chopped cilantro and add salt and pepper to taste.

Serve immediately over white rice garnished with sliced avocado.

 

Read more about travel in Colombia

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