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Come for the Crucifix, Stay for the Craft Beer – Buga, Colombia

There are two miraculous reasons to travel to Guadalajara de Buga. One involves a crucifix. The other involves craft beer.

Holy Water Ale cervesaria - Buga, Colombia

Mmmmm…..craft beer.

The miraculous crucifix of Buga

Guadalajara de Buga (usually simply called Buga) is just 45 miles (70 km) from Cali, but the tranquility of this colonial town, whose architecture and living tradition earned it a place on Colombia’s elite list of Pueblos Patrimonio, makes Buga feel a world away from the big city.

Founded in 1555, Buga is one of the oldest cities in Colombia and its main claim to fame is a story that’s nearly as old. As the legend goes, an indigenous washer woman was trying to save money to buy a crucifix. She finally washed enough clothes in the local river to save the money needed to buy a simple crucifix. However, as she was on her way to make the purchase she saw a neighbor being hauled off to jail because of unpaid debts.

Instead of buying the crucifix, the woman paid off her neighbor’s debts. When she returned to work in the river she noticed something shiny in the water and discovered  a small crucifix floating by. She grabbed it and brought it home where the crucifix continued to grow and grow.

Today, the legend of the indigenous washer woman and her miraculously growing crucifix is marked by The Lord of the Miracles, a distinct dark-skinned Christ on the cross, which is housed in the Basilica del Senor de los Milagros in Buga. Every year millions of pilgrims visit the pink church.

The miraculous craft beer of Buga

If you worship at the house of hops, you’re in luck as well.

Stefan Schnur Buga microbrewery & hostal

Brew master Stefan Schnur with some of his Holy Water Ale beers made in Buga, Colombia.

When German Stefan Schnur arrived in Buga he did not intend to create the only bed & beer hostel in Colombia, but that’s what he did when he opened the Buga Hostel in 2011.

The hostel is affordable with standard hostel accommodation. The Holy Water Ale brew pub and cafe attached to the hostel, however, is a craft beer miracle with nine different beers brewed by Stefan at a small, nearby brewery. There’s also an inventive menu including homemade bread and legit pizzas with locally made sausage and other great toppings on homemade crust. Don’t miss happy hour.

Holy Water Ale brew pub - Buga, Colombia

The Holy Water brew pub, part of the Buga Hostel in Colombia.

 

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Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2016 – Best Hotels

This post is part 2 of 4 in the series Best of 2016

An RV hotel on the beach in Peru, the best luxury sleep in the Galapagos, a floating budget hotel in Brazil, the most over-the-top honeymoon suite we’ve ever seen, and more great hotels in South America! Welcome to Part 2 in our Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2016 series–our guide to the Best Hotels of the year. Part 1 covers the Top Travel Adventures of 2016, Part 3 covers the Best Food and Beverages of the year and Part 4 tells you all about our favorite Travel Gear of the year. But now, in no particular order, here’s our travel guide to…

The best hotels of 2016

Hotel Unique Sao Paulo

The appropriately named Hotel Unique in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Best check-in

Best check-in Hotel Unique Sao Paulo

Staff at Hotel Unique in Sao Paulo, Brazil get check in (and so many other things) right.

Checking into a hotel is tedious. Didn’t you already give all of that information when you made your reservation? Some hotels think the answer is to forego check-in for some kind of check-in light as if answering the same questions in your room instead of the lobby makes it better. We think the answer is to simply improve the check-in experience in order to make a stellar, tone-setting first impression. Hotel Unique in Sao Paulo, Brazil gets it right with capable, amenable staff plus champagne along with a bowl of beloved Brazilian sweets. Check-in on a Friday and there will also be trays of popcorn. And we all know how well popcorn and champagne go together. Believe it or not, the Hotel Unique experience just gets better from there.

Best rooms with three walls

Rainforest Expeditions Tambopata Amazon Peru

The owners of the Amazon lodges operated by Rainforest Expeditions know that you want to be in the jungle, so rooms only have three walls.

Rainforest Expeditions runs three lodges in the Tambopata Reserve in the Amazon in Peru and each of them offers a lot of things: excellent guides (including Paul, our favorite guide of the year), comfortable facilities, great staff and terrific food. What they don’t offer is rooms with four walls. Every room at every Rainforest Expeditions lodge has only three walls. The fourth wall is left open to the jungle which means macaws can fly into your room if they feel like it (and they do). Beds have good nets over them and, honestly, bugs were never a big problem so don’t freak out. The idea is to really immerse yourself in the sounds, sights, and smells of the jungle. That’s what you’re there for, after all.

Best view from bed

hotel-el-crater-quito

Admiring the crater from bed at Hotel El Crater in Ecuador.

Hotel El Crater near Quito, Ecuador was built right on the rim of the extinct Pululahua volcano (which is one of only two volcanic craters in the world that are inhabited). To take full advantage of the view, rooms have a wall of windows facing the crater and the bed is placed just so. When the fog lifts in the morning, the crater reveals itself and you don’t even have to get out of bed to see it.

Best hotel if you still mourn Mad Men

Brasilia Palace Hotel

Cold, hard, Mad Men modernism at the Brasilia Palace hotel in Brasilia, Brazil.

The first hotel built in Brasilia, the capital of Brazil, still looks, feels, and acts like it’s the late 1950s when the Brasilia Palace Hotel opened its doors. Designed by Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer (who also oversaw its renovation after the building was abandoned and looted following a major fire), the 156 room hotel is all about modernism, open space, angles, and a kind of cold, hard futurism. Room 201, known as the Oscar Suite, has an Eames lounge chair and some truly groovy blue beading in the bathroom. Don Draper would approve.

Best problem solving

Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel

Rooms like this and a polished staff make the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel the best choice in Aguas Calientes, Peru.

We had a problem. Potentially a BIG problem. The date on our entry tickets for Machu Picchu did not match the day we intended to enter the Incan archaeological site. We were being assured by random ticket agents and tour operators that it didn’t matter, but we weren’t buying it. We returned to the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel, where we were staying as part of our Lares trek to Machu Picchu with Mountain Lodges of Peru, and asked the staff what we should do. They gave the correct answer: we should do nothing. They would handle everything. They called the regional tourism authorities, verified that the date discrepancy would not matter, and laid our fears to rest in a matter of moments.

Best breakfast buffet

Casarao Villa do Imperio in Pirenopolis, Brazil

Breakfast is served and the champagne is flowing at Casarao Villa do Imperio in Pirenopolis, Brazil.

Hotel breakfasts in Brazil are almost always a buffet affair, usually heavy on cakes. Hotel Casarao Villa do Imperio in Pirenopolis, Brazil takes the beloved Brazilian breakfast buffet to new heights with a very wide range of house-baked sweet and savory treats, eggs to order, good coffee and free-flowing champagne. 

Best hotel room in a boat

The newest room at the Angermeyer Waterfront Inn, on Santa Cruz Island in the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador, was built into a beached wooden boat and offers a queen size bed, a jetted tub in the bathroom, and a private furnished deck with ocean views. 

Best X-rated room

Room 69 at Anaconda Lodge, in Puerto Maldonado, Peru

Room 69 at Anaconda Lodge in Puerto Maldonado, Peru.

Room 69 at Anaconada Lodge, in Puerto Maldonado, Peru (gateway to the Tampopata area), features a wooden bed with four enormous penises carved into the bed posts, bedside tables with boobs that serve as drawer handles, and a table supported by the bent over legs and backsides of two women instead of traditional legs. The furniture was carved by a local artist based on designs by the owners, Donald and Wadee, who swear the artist wasn’t too shocked. The other bungalows at Anaconda Lodge are all totally G-rated, by the way, and the Thai food made by Wadee and her daughter (they’re from Thailand) is the best we’ve had, so far, in Latin America.

Best new place to sleep with jaguars

Pousada do Rio Mutum have debuted the Mutum Expediciones boat hotel

The new Mutum Expediciones boat hotel offers the chance to spend the night on a river whose banks are frequented by jaguars in Brazil’s Pantanal.

During the dry season, jaguars are routinely seen on the banks of the Cuiabá River in the Pantanal grasslands of Brazil. There are plenty of lodges on dry land which offer boat trips on the river to look for jaguars. Now there’s a new way to sleep on the river too. The team behind Pousada do Rio Mutum have debuted the Mutum Expediciones boat hotel. It has six small cabins with bathrooms, air conditioning, TV, and a mini-fridge plus a roomy common area and ample outdoor lounging areas. Rates include all meals and a fridge full of cold beer.

Best luxury hotel with a heart

Sol y Luna Hotel, in the Sacred Valley of Peru

Style, space, and a real sense of civic duty make Sol y Luna a special luxury hotel in Peru’s Sacred Valley.

Sol y Luna Hotel, in the Sacred Valley of Peru, was started in 2000 as a way to fund the owner’s primary passion: the Sol y Luna Intercultural Colegio which was created to give a better level of education to students of all backgrounds, including many from poor families in communities with weak or no schools at all. Both the hotel and the school are thriving. The school has educated hundreds of students, including more than 150 enrolled right now, and the hotel is now part of the exclusive Relais & Chateaux group of boutique hotels and gourmet restaurants. And for good reason. The hotel is an art-filled oasis with a spa, lovingly tended grounds, excellent service, a fabulous stable of horses and some truly stunning rooms. An outdoor solar-heated pool was unveiled this year.

Best city hotel that feels like a country home

Second Home Peru - Lima

Welcome home to Second Home Peru in Lima.

Lima, Peru is a big, bustling city but you leave all that behind the moment you step through the garden gate at Second Home Peru. This eight room hotel in Lima’s Barranco neighborhood feels like a country home, because that’s what it was. Built in 1911, the Tudor style house was a summer home for rich city folk who took a trolley to Barranco from Lima. Most recently it was the family home of Peruvian artist Victor Delfin. He still lives there and has his studio there, but the main Tudor home was turned into a hotel and spectacular ocean view rooms were added on the edge of the property as well. There’s a Second Home in Cusco as well which creates a similar “city haven” atmosphere in Cusco’s San Blas neighborhood.

Best floating budget hotel

Abare SUP & Food - Manaus, Brazil

Abare SUP & Food draws weekend crowds near Manaus, Brazil and now a new budget hotel floats right beside it.

Diogo de Vasconuelo has a winner on his hands with Abare SUP & Food, a popular floating restaurant and standup paddle board spot on the Turuma River which feeds into the Amazon River near Manaus, Brazil. At the end of 2016 he added Abare Hostel, a floating budget hotel, to the operation. Private rooms with double bunks, air-conditioning, and private bathrooms go for R$180 (about US$55) and there are also beds in a men’s dorm and a women’s dorm with air-conditioning, lockers, and a shared bathroom for R$80 (about US$25) per person. Breakfast at Abare SUP & Food, floating right next door, is included. 

Best hotel with its own Incan terraces

Explora Valle Sagrado Peru

Designers of the Explora Valle Sagrada luxury base camp changed their plans when Incan terraces were discovered on the all-inclusive hotel’s construction site.

When the property was being leveled for the new Explora Valle Sagrada in Peru’s Sacred Valley, a startling discovery was made: Incan terraces. Lots of them. The government stepped in and put the hotel project on hold until archaeologists could do careful excavation. Ultimately, the footprint of the Explora Valle Sagrada project was shifted and now the all-inclusive, luxury adventure base camp hotel is arranged around the terraces which are still being excavated by experts. Read our full review of the impressive Explora Valle Sagrada for LuxuryLatinAmerica.com.

Best luxury hotel in the Galapagos

Pikaia Lodge Galapagos

Pikaia Lodge, the best luxury hotel in the Galapagos.

These are the facts. We’ve been to the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador three times in the past two years and we’ve been on assignment so we’ve stayed at or at least toured most of the existing luxury hotels in the Galapagos. Nothing holds a candle to Pikaia Lodge. Yes, there’s a chance that a new luxury hotel could open in the Galapagos that would best the Pikaia, but we doubt it. See why in our full review of Pikaia Lodge for LuxuryLatinAmerica.com.

Best new Amazon suite

Juma Amazon Lodge - Manaus, Brazil

Inside the panorama suite at Juma Amazon Lodge in Brazil.

Juma Amazon Lodge, outside of Manaus in the Brazilian Amazon, debuted a panorama suite in 2016. Built on stilts over the water, it’s a spacious round room with floor-to-ceiling screens (no glass) on all sides and a wrap around deck with hammocks, a table, and chairs.

Best key chain

Inkaterra Hacienda Urubamba - Sacred Valley, Peru

It’s in the details at the Inkaterra Hacienda Urubamba hotel in Peru’s Sacred Valley.

This year the Inkaterra group of hotels in celebrating 40 years in Peru where they now have seven properties. Their newest is the Inkaterra Hacienda Urubamba in the Sacred Valley. While service was still an issue when we were at the hotel, there was a remarkable level of attention to detail in other aspects including the extremely comfortable, spacious, and stylish stand-alone casitas and in executive chef Rafael Casin’s “earth to plate” cuisine using ingredients from the valley.

Even room keys were given their due with keys dangling from a gorgeous ring adorned with braided strands of alpaca and wool yarn in a rainbow of natural dye colors. The key rings were handmade by workers at Threads of Peru, a Cusco-based not-for-profit organization focused on preserving and promoting traditional Peruvian textile arts around the world.

Best rural homestay

Q’eswachaka bridge building festival

Now there are some simple but charming places to stay near the site of the annual Q’eswachaka bridge festival during which a rare Incan grass bridge is re-built by villagers.

Every June, communities near Quehue in northern Peru re-build a traditional Incan bridge that’s made entirely out of grass. It’s one of the last remaining bridges of its kind and even though a modern vehicle bridge was put in nearby, the Q’eswachaka bridge building festival remains an important cultural event. Travelers who want to see the festival have to two choices: make the long drive from Cusco to the site of the bridge, stay for a few hours, then make drive back, or camp in the cold in a few locations near the bridge. Now there’s a third choice.

A small network of Casas Habitantes have been built in villages near the bridge. Funded by BanBif Bank, locals made simple rooms to rent to visitors with electricity, real mattresses, shared bathrooms with flushing toilets and a simple shared kitchen. We stayed in a room built by Justo Callasi which was cozy and clean and warm and just a 5-minute drive from the bridge (US$12 double occupancy, bring your own food and take out all of your trash). This allowed us to experience the whole 3-day festival with ease. To book, contact the Patronato de Cultura Machu Picchu which administers these Casas Habitantes and others around Peru ([email protected] in Spanish).

Best RV hotel

Bamboo Paracas Eco Bungalows RV hotel

Bamboo Paracas Eco Bungalows on the beach in Paracas, Peru is the country’s first RV hotel.

Despite the name, there are no bungalows at Bamboo Paracas Eco Bungalows. That’s because it’s the first hotel in Peru that uses RVs for rooms. Thirty custom-built RVs are permanently parked on the beach. Each has electricity, a plumbed toilet and shower, a full kitchen and a sandy front yard with your own grill and picnic tables. There’s a communal pool, a small snack bar and stand up paddle boards plus kitesurfing and windsurfing to take advantage of the area’s legendary coastal winds. This year, owners Pablo and Felix Gilardi and their partners have also opened the Paracas 360 Eco Hostel in central Paracas offering shared RV accommodation with shared bathroom and kitchen facilities for those on a tighter budget.

Best presents

DCO Suites, Lounge & Spa - Mancora, Peru

DCO Suites, Lounge & Spa just south of Mancora, Peru is a shot of chic right on the beach.

When you check into the sexy and chic DCO Suites, Lounge & Spa on the beach south of Mancora, Peru you are showered with gifts. First, a glass of champagne, then a beach kit including a cotton sarong and a bottle of after-sun soothing gel, then an iPod nano loaded with music to play in your room. Though the sound of crashing waves was enough of a soundtrack for us.

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Top Hotels in the Coffee Triangle – Colombia

South of Medellin farmers found the perfect conditions for growing some of the world’s best coffee. Colombian coffee from this area is so good and the coffee culture so intact that UNESCO inscribed the region as the Coffee Cultural Landscape of Colombia. More commonly called the Coffee Triangle, this area has become popular with travelers because of the laid back people, beautiful landscapes and (of course) the coffee. Here are our top hotels in the Coffee Triangle of Colombia including hotels in Manizales, Pereira and Quimbabya.

Top Hotels in the Coffee Triangle of Colombia

Hacienda Buenavista near Quimbaya

When this five room boutique hotel opened in 2014 it ushered in a whole new level of accommodation in the coffee triangle: exclusive, romantic, stylish, modern, gourmet, adults-only. Find out more in our complete review of Hacienda Buenavista.

Hacienda Buenavista - Coffee triangle, Colombia

 

Sazagua Hotel & Spa near Pereira

The small city of Pereira isn’t a tourist destination in and of itself (it’s more of a business hub), but Pereira is on the way from Medellin to the heart of the coffee region. The Sazagua, named after a chief of the Quimbaya people who used to live here, is on the outskirts of town where things are still rural and peaceful. The stately elegant hotel, which also offers a pool and a spa, makes a great break in your journey. Brass bathroom fixtures and original tile floors give the rooms a homey feel. Book room number one (pictured below) for even more space and an indoor hammock. The hotel restaurant is so good that people stop by just to eat or to have business meetings over a good meal. Bilingual waiters, a peaceful garden setting and a wide-ranging menu including homemade soups and salads (the Cesar salad was excellent with home-made dressing), pork, fish and lots of beef (the steak au poivre was succulent with a truly peppery sauce) keep everyone happy.

Sazagua Hotel & Spa near Pereira

 

Hacienda Venecia near Manizales

This working coffee farm offers a range of rooms including shared dorms with the use of a kitchen and private rooms in a restored traditional building called the Main House which dates back more than 100 years. Antique furniture, creaking original wood floors and breezy patios make it easy to relax and live like a coffee baron for a few days. There are no keys and no TVs. A good guided coffee tour, which explains coffee growing and processing, is offered and the owners also have a stable of paso fino horses and rides around the plantation can be arranged for experienced riders. Hiking and bird watching are also offered and there’s a pool. Guests returning from activities are greeted with fresh juice and the kitchen turns out delicious traditional meals. An innovative bamboo gazebo, designed by a local architect, is a great place to relax as the resident peacocks stroll the grounds.

Hacienda Venecia near Manizales

 

Finca Villa Nora near Quimbaya

This family run country hotel dovetails perfectly with the culture of Colombia’s coffee country. The two story house was built more than 120 years ago and it retains its traditional paint job, wide wrap around veranda and original wood and tile floors. It was loving restored and modernized as a seven room hotel a couple of decades ago and all rooms have private bathrooms and antiques from the original house. The place is perfectly built to catch the breezes and make the most of the bucolic agricultural land and Andes views that surround it. There’s a pool and a sprawling garden favored by all sorts of bird, a free coffee plantation tour is offered and excellent estate-grown coffee and gourmet traditional meals are served.

Finca Villa Nora near Quimbaya

 

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Hot, Hot, Hot – Honda, Colombia

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.

Alley Honda, Colombia

A Colonial street in Honda, Colombia.

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.

Ruins Honda, Colombia

Not all of the Colonial architecture in Honda has been restored.

Colonial buildings Honda, Colombia

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).

Cathedral Nuestra Senora Rosario Honda, Colombia

The Cathedral Nuestra Senora Rosario in Honda, Colombia.

Honda, Colombia colonial buildings

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.

Posada de las Trampas Honda, Colombia

The entrance to Posada de las Trampas Boutique Hotel in Honda.

Posada de las Trampas room Honda, Colombia

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.

Posada de las Trampas pool Honda, Colombia

The much-needed pool at Posada de las Trampas Boutique Hotel.

street Honda, Colombia

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.

Honda, Colombia house

Another explosion of street color in Honda.

Puente Navarro Magdelena Rive Honda,Colombia

The Puente Navarro crosses the mighty Magdalena River near Honda.

 

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Ecuador’s Other Amazon – Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve, Ecuador

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.

Sunset Cuybeno Reserve Ecuador

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.

Paddling waterways of Cuybeno

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.

Cuybeno Lake

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).

Blue & Yellow Macaw Cuybeno

Like all macaws, these blue and yellow macaws mate for life.

Juvenile Potoo Cuybeno

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.

White Throated Toucan Cuybeno

A white throated toucan in Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve.

Hoatzin Cuybeno Ecuador

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.

Saki Monkey Cuybeno

Ladies and gentlemen, our first Saki monkey.

Black Manteled Tamarin Cuybeno

A black mantled tamarin.

Pigmy Marmost Cuybeno

This little guy is a pygmy marmoset – the smallest monkey in the world. We saw one for the first time in Cuyabeno.

Spis's night monkey Cuybeno

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.

Insects Cuybeno

We have no idea what these insects are but they sure are pretty.

Frog Cuybeno

There are frogs and toads of all shapes and sizes in Cuyabeno and at certain times of the day they make the jungle sing.

Spiders Cuybeno

Um, spiders.

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.

Sona people of Cuybeno

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.

Preparing Yuca bread Cuybeno Ecuador

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.

Amazon shamen Cuybeno Ecuador

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.

Curado shamen Cuybeno Ecuador

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.

View from Tapir Lodge Cuybeno

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…

Tarantula Tapir Lodge Cuybeno Ecuador

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.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tsgf8w5CAtM

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.

Read more about travel in Ecuador

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Caribbean and Colonial – Girón, Colombia

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.

Colonial Giron Colombia

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.”

Plaza Giron Colombia

Plaza Girón.

Giron Colombia Pueblo Patrimonial

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.

Giron Colombia colonial buildings

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.

Fritanga Giron Colombia

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.

Church parque Peralta Giron Colombia

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.

Giron Chill Out Hostal

Our room at the Girón Chill Out Hostal had charm to spare and air conditioning.

Basilica Menor Giron Colombia

The Basilica Menor in Girón, Colombia gets the full light show treatment at night.

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