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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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Beautiful, Embattled Lake Tota – Sogamoso, Colombia

The city of Sogamoso is certainly not going to win any beauty contests. It does, however, make a great base for travelers who want to visit one of the few wineries in Colombia, check out a museum devoted to the country’s Muisca culture, tour Andean villages and admire Lake Tota (Laguna de la Tota in Spanish). The highest and largest lake in Colombia is a stunner despite the environmental battle that’s raging around it.

Lake Tota Colombua Laguna de Tota

Lake Tota is the highest and largest lake in Colombia. It’s also facing serious environmental challenges.

Beautiful, embattled Lake Tota

We don’t know about you but we’d never seen a mountain lake with a white sand beach before we arrived on the shores of Lake Tota in the Andes above Sogamoso. At 9,891 feet (3,015 meters) and covering 21 square miles (55 square km), it’s the highest and largest natural lake in Colombia and the second highest navigable lake in South America (after Lake Titicaca in Perú & Bolivia). It’s also very, very beautiful and that’s part of the problem.

Playa Blanca Lake Tota Colombia

This sandy white beach surrounds part of Lake Tota in Colombia.

The deep lake doesn’t look polluted. The water is clear, green reeds flourish around the edges and provide haven for birds. The beach-like sandy shore is so white it’s called Playa Blanca (White Beach). Locals brave the cold, high altitude temperatures to take a dip and the lake supplies water for thousands of area residents.

That water, it turns out, might not be safe to drink. Local conservationist Felipe Velasco says he wouldn’t touch the stuff. He’s been borderline obsessed with the water quality and general environmental well-being of the lake since 2009 when he unwittingly rented a plot of land he owns on the lake shore to a trout farmer. At that time he says he was unaware of the polluting effects of trout farming and when he became aware of the environmental impact of fish farming he tried to get out of the lease. Years late he was still trying to end the lease.

Lake Tota Colombia

Despite its beauty, Lake Tota is under serious environmental pressure.

The champion of Lake Tota

Since entering into the trout farm lease, Felipe has learned about other environmental threats to the lake and, in 2010, he formed Fundacion Montecito, a non-profit org focused on protecting Lake Tota and the area around it.

Felipe Velasco Fundacion Montecito Lake Tota

Felipe Velasco is fighting to stop pollution in Lake Tota and the surrounding areas.

One of the main polluting elements in the lake is trout farming. When we spoke to Felipe he said there were eight caged trout farms in Lake Tota producing millions of trout a year and resulting in concentrated organic pollution and pollution from fish food in the lake. In 2013 one million trout died from oxygen deprivation in Lake Tota, according to Felipe.

Felipe believes local onion farmers are an even bigger threat than the trout farms. Farmers have been growing onions on the shores of the lake and nearby hillsides for decades. The majority of onions consumed in Colombia come from farms around the lake. There are so many onion farms that the place smelled like onions when we were there.

Lake Tota Onions

Farms around Lake Tota produce most of the onions consumed in Colombia. It’s big business and an important part of life in the local communities as this onion statue in the main plaza in Aquitania, the principal town on the lake, attests. However, pesticides and fertilizer used on the fields are polluting the lake.

When we spoke to Felipe he said that chemicals from pesticides and fertilizer used in the onion fields inevitably find their way into the lake, polluting the water even more . “I see the lake as a living body that can’t talk for itself,” Felipe told us.

Over the years, Felipe and others have managed some environmental victories for Lake Tota, including international recognition and some protections and the implementation of environmental education in local schools, but commercial scale fish farming and onion farming continue.

Muisca Temple of the Sun Sogamosa

A recreation of the Temple of the sun at the Archeological Museum Elicer Silva Celis Suamox museum (often just referred to as the Temple of the Sun) in Sogamoso.

Other things to do around Sogamoso

The Archeological Museum Elicer Silva Celis Suamox (better known simply as the Temple of the Sun), on the outskirts of Sogamoso (6,000 COP/about US$2 per person, exhibits all in Spanish), is one of the few (some say the only) museums focused on the Muisca people. There are various rooms with displays of baskets, pottery and other relics but the highlight, for us, was the chance to check out recreations of the culture’s elaborate round buildings including the Sun Temple which the Muisca used for religious ceremonies before it was destroyed by Spanish conquistadors in 1537.

Temple of the Sun Museum Sogamosa

The Archeological Museum Elicer Silva Celis Suamox (aka the Temple of the Sun) in Sogamoso.

Further outside of town you will find one of the few wineries in Colombia. The Marquesa de Puntalarga winery manages to grow grapes and make a wide variety or wines at 8,400 feet (2,560 meters). We found most of the wines produced here to be too sweet for our taste, but we had to admire owner Marco Quijano’s success with grapes at this altitude.

Marquesa de Puntalarga winery Sogamosa Colombia

Grapes growing at 8,400 feet at the Marquesa de Puntalarga winery near Sogamoso.

We heard persistent rumors (and even saw a flyer) about a brewery called 1516 in Sogamoso. However, the website doesn’t open and multiple emails to the owner went unanswered. If you find and visit 1516 brewery, please tell us all about it in the comments, below.

Sogamoso also makes a good base for visiting Andean villages including Mongui which is part of Colombia’s exclusive group of Pueblos Patrimonios. We toured many of the towns during Christmas when each village creates a nativity scene in the main plaza. Check out our Christmas in the Andes post to see more.

Plaza in Sogamosa Colombia

Sogamoso is not a beautiful city, but the main plaza and cathedral aren’t bad.

Where to sleep in Sogamoso

It’s no contest: Finca San Pedro is the best place to stay in Sogamoso. Located a short distance out of the city itself, this economical and homey place is set in a large and tranquil garden. There are private rooms and a dorm and a shared kitchen. Yoga retreats are also offered.

This is also a great place to learn more about Lake Tota. Felipe’s brother Juan runs Finca San Pedro and is very knowledgeable about the area and the issues affecting Lake Tota.

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Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2015 – Best Hotels

This post is part 3 of 4 in the series Best of 2015

Welcome to Part 3 in our Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2015 series of posts. Part 3 is our guide to the Best Hotels we stayed at during the past year of travel on our little road trip through the Americas including where to sleep in Mick Jagger’s bed in Peru,  the most dramatic check-in in Ecuador and the best Bed & Beer in Colombia. Part 1 covers the Best Adventures & Activities of 2015, Part 2 covers the Best Food & Beverages of the year and Part 4 tells you all about our Travel Gear of the Year.

In 2015 the Trans-Americas Journey explored Colombia, Ecuador and Peru and we drove 7,210 miles (11,603 km) doing it. Want more geeky road trip numbers like how much money we’ve spent on gas and how many borders we’ve driven over? Check out the Trip Facts & Figures page on our website.

And now, in no particular order, here’s our travel guide to the best hotels in Colombia, Ecuador and Peru of 2015.

Best Hotels Guide for 2015

Kentitambo Hotel - Leymebamba, Peru

Best bohemichic hotel: The indigenous quechua word “kenti” means “hummingbird”. The Quechua word “tambo” means inn. The Kentitambo Hotel, just outside Leymebamba in Peru, lives up to the name with a hummingbird filled garden surrounding its two large suites. Cobblestone paths wind through the lush flowers. Owner Adriana Von Hagen has created two relaxed and stylish suites, one upstairs (pictured above) and one downstairs, which feature vibrant textiles, lots of sunlight, a porch with a hammock, small deer antlers used as towel hooks and gleaming wood floors. Right across the street is the excellent Museo Leymebamba which houses a collection of artifacts, including 200 mummies.

 

Zen Suites Hotel Quito

Best new mid range hotel in Quito: Hotel Zen Suites, opened in late 2015, is conveniently located between the La Floresta and Mariscal neighborhoods of Quito, Ecuador just 10 minutes by (very affordable) taxi to the city’s colonial center which was part of the very first group of cities inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site way back in 1978. Most of the 47 rooms at the hotel feature great views of the city skyline and surrounding Andes mountains from a wall of floor to ceiling windows and some rooms have private patios. All rooms have plush bedding, rain shower heads and mini fridges. Rooms on the 8th floor have small balconies.There’s also a small but effective gym and a business center. Coffee and tea are available all day and the staff speaks English (not always a given in Ecuador). Rates, from US$97 per night, include a full breakfast buffet, which is much cheaper than similarly appointed hotels in the area.

 

Gocta Lodge, Peru

Best view from bed: The 2,531 foot (771 meter) high Gocta Waterfall, in the town of Cocachimba in northern Peru, has the fifth longest free-falling waterfall drop in the world, which is to say it’s an impressive sight. Make the most of it by booking a room at the sleek and stylish Gocta Lodge where all 10 rooms afford views of the cascade right from bed. Get a room on the second floor for more privacy so you can keep your curtains open all the time.

 

Buga Hostal, Buga Colombia

Best bed and beer: The town of Buga, Colombia is most famous as the site of what some perceive as a miracle. Pilgrims come to the church in Buga regularly. Those who worship good beer should visit as well because Buga is home to Buga Hostal and the Holy Water Ale Cafe, Colombia’s only Bed & Beer. The hostal is affordable and fine. The brew pub attached to the hostal is great, offering a range of delicious beers on tap made by German owner and brew master Stefan Schnur. Bonus: the pizza is legit too.

 

Masphi Eco Lodge - Mindo, Ecuador

Best curtains: The 22 rooms at Masphi Eco Lodge, the most luxurious way to stay in the rain forest in Ecuador, each have a different, vibrantly colored, massive remote-control operated curtain over a wall of windows. Upon check in, the curtain is raised to reveal a stunning view of the rain forest (and its inhabitants) just outside your room (pictured above). Your stay just gets more stunning from there.

 

La Casa Fitzcarraldo hotel - Iquitos Peru Mick Jaggers bed

Best place to sleep in Mick Jagger’s bed: Actors, crew and director Werner Herzog descended on the Peruvian Amazon to film the movie “Fitzcarraldo” which tells the crazy real life tale of Peruvian rubber baron Carlos Fermín Fitzcarrald who moved a 320 ton ship over a mountain to reach a different Amazon tributary. Shooting in the jungle took years. Cast members, including Mick Jagger, came and went.  Somehow, the movie was made (if you haven’t seen it you should fix that). Through it all, cast and crew used a sprawling house in Iquitos, Peru as their base. Today, the executive producer of the movie, Walter Saxer, runs the house as La Casa Fitzcarraldo hotel. You can sleep in Mick Jagger’s room (above) or in the bungalow where Werner Herzog and his wife lived and fought. Don’t miss the chance to chat with Walter to gain even more incredible insights into the making of the movie.

 

Reserva El Cairo Hotel - Salento, Cocora Velley, Colombia

Best new hotel in Colombia: Reserva El Cairo Hotel (above) brings the right mix of modern sustainability and Colombian traditional architecture (the restored and converted house is more than 100 years old) to the Salento area of central Colombia. Nestled in the Cocora Valley, a few miles away from the fray in the picturesque town of Salento, the hotel is surrounded by the storybook beauty of this valley which is home to stands of wax palms which are Colombia’s national tree and the tallest palm on the planet.

 

Tucan Suites in Tarapoto, Peru

Best headboard: The awesome graphics of tucans perched on urban power lines behind the luxe beds at Tucan Suites (above) in Tarapoto, Peru are arresting, playful and the perfect embodiment of this super-chic retreat in the gateway to Peru’s northern Amazon which is a haven for tucans and tourists alike.

 

Aria Amazon Cruise Peru

Best floating luxury hotel: There are many ways to float down the Amazon river but nothing reaches the level of luxury, cuisine and service offered by Aqua Expeditions which operates the Aqua Amazon River Boat and the Aria Amazon River Boat. We spent four days on the Aria which is, essentially, a floating world-class boutique hotel (above). Suites are elegantly designed. Staff members are polished and English-speaking. The food is fantastic with a cuisine program lead by Executive Chef Pedro Miguel Schiaffino who runs the award-winning Malabar restaurant in Lima. The on-board experience is so good that you almost don’t want to leave the mother ship for guided excursions into the Amazon. Almost.

 

Geisha Love Motel Cali

Best love motel: A love motel is a discreet place, often on the edge of big cities, where lovers (covert or not) can shack up by the hour. They’re ubiquitous, popular and largely without stigma in Latin America were it’s common for couples to live at home where privacy is at a premium.  You can pull into a love motel, park your vehicle in a garage so no one can see your plates, enter your room and register all without ever being face to face with another human. Room service is delivered via a revolving lazy Susan in the wall to retain anonymity. Guests are often supplied with condoms and the better love motels have porn on the TV, Jacuzzis, condoms and even sex toys. The best love motel of 2015, by far, were the Geisha Love Motels in Cali, Colombia with their random, Japanese theme, sex chairs in the rooms which “accommodate 3” plus available “medical assistance” all for 60,000 cop (about US$20) for eight hours. For your convenience, there are two locations in Cali, one north of the city and one south of the city.

 

Egypt themed motel Peru

Best budget hotel with a random Egypt obsession: Rates at Hostal El Aribalo in Catacoas, Peru are a big draw – at just 70 soles (about US$20) for a private room with WiFi, fan,  TV, hot water bathroom and an enormous parking lot it’s a bargain. The other draw is the unique decor. Never mind that the street out front is noisy and there was no mirror in our bathroom (only a huge one in front of the bed…) and the shower didn’t work properly and they’re using a bed skirt as a top sheet…We had King Tut in front of our door and a 14 foot tall sphinx looking over our truck in the parking lot (above). Why, pray tell, are the grounds, halls and rooms at this Peruvian hostal full of Egypt motifs? We have no idea. Frankly, we were a bit scared to ask.

 

W Hotel Bogota bathrobe Estaban Cortazar

Best cold weather bathrobe: Guests in the massive Extreme Wow Suite at the W Bogotá Hotel in Colombia’s capital are treated to robes designed by Bogotá –born fashion designer Estaban Cortazar who was head designer at Ungaro before famously storming out after Lindsey Lohan was brought on board as a consultant (who wouldn’t?). The lush hooded robes, unveiled in August of 2015, are emerald green with gold accents and come with a slim hook-and-clasp belt as well as the usual sash belt (ours are pictured, above) for those of us not quite as svelte as the designer is.

Best hot weather bathrobe: The light, high quality cotton robes on board the Aria Amazon River Boat (see above) come in a chic shade of river stone grey, fit like a dream and aren’t too hot to wear in the Amazon.

Read more about travel in Colombia

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Read more about travel in Peru

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Colombia’s Cosmopolitan Capital – Bogotá, Colombia

Every time we travel to Bogotá we invariably hit a stand-still traffic jam the second we reach the “Welcome to Bogotá” sign at the edge of the city. The traffic in this town of nearly eight million people (and seemingly as many cars) is epic. Also, the 8,600 foot (2,640 meter) altitude demands to be heard (bring a sweater and walk slowly) and the general pace and sprawl of the place can boggle city novices. Despite all of that, we braved Bogotá on three separate occasions for a total of nearly two months in the city. We drove away loving Colombia’s cosmopolitan capital (but still cursing the traffic).

Bogota traffic

Traffic grinds to a halt with spectacular regularity at this “Welcome to Bogotá” sign marking the northern entrance to the city. The city center itself is still miles away.

The New York City of Colombia

In many ways Bogotá reminds us of our last known permanent address: New York City. It’s full of chic people (no matter how you define “chic”) as well as fringey, arty folks and a contagious energy. It’s also full of distinct neighborhoods, just like NYC.

Bogota street performer

A street busker working his intersection in Bogotá, Colombia.

Chapinero Alto is an exciting mix of bohemians and high-rise apartment buildings. The Candelaria neighborhood has an edgy, student vibe. The Zona G area is where many of the best restaurants are clustered (don’t make a reservation until you read our epic list of the best restaurants in Bogotá) then there’s Usaquen, which was a separate town but has been incorporated into the sprawl of Bogotá. Then there’s Parque 93 and, well, the list goes on and on.

Rainbow over Bogota

Bogotá under a rainbow from the Galerias neighborhood of the city.

While not quite on the level of New York City, there is an incredible (and growing) restaurant scene throughout Bogotá which we will be covering in our next post and you can use Uber and Uber X in Bogotá which we often found to be cheaper than taxis plus we liked the added security of having the Uber record of booking rather than just flagging down a random taxi on the street. Colombia is much, much safer than it’s been in decades, but it’s still smart to use your common sense.

Congresso de la Republica - Plaza Bolivar Candelaria Bogota

Plaza Bolivar in the Candelaria neighborhood is where the main governmental buildings are located, including the National Congress building pictured here.

We never did figure out Bogotá’s much ballyhooed Transmillenio bus system and after getting bad advice which led to getting really lost on the system during our first visit to the city we gave up. Because…Uber X.

Things to do in Bogota

Besides just soaking up the big city vibe, we recommend that you take some time to enjoy the following:

The Museo de Oro (Gold Museum) in Bogotá is one of the best museums we’ve visited (3,000 COP/about US$1.25, free for all on Sunday, tours available in English). The exhibits are fantastic with descriptions in Spanish and English, the collection is breathtaking and the guides (some tours are available in English) are passionate and knowledgeable. Check out 15 hand picked favorite items in our photos essay from Bogotá’s Gold Museum. An interactive, rotating display on the third floor called “The Offering” brings the importance of these gold objects to life with an audio track of shamans chanting and a mesmerizing video display. The museum also has a very classy gift shop so get your souvenirs and presents here.

Bogota Gold Museum

One of the thousands and thousands of treasures in the excellent Gold Museum in Bogotá.

The Swedish-built cable car system (called a teleferico in Colombia) that travels from the city up to Cerro de Monserrate whisks riders up to 10,500 feet (3,200 meters) in less than five minutes. You can also take a funicular (look it up), but that only runs in the morning. Up on top of Monserrate you can visit a church that was built in 1657, enjoy the views, get a snack or even eat a decent meal at a decent French restaurant. Tickets for the cable car or the funicular cost 17,000COP/about US$5.80 round trip or 10,000COP/about US$3.50 on Sundays. Or you can walk up.

Cable car ascending Monserrate Bogota

Heading up, up, up on the teleferico cable car to the top of Monserrate hill in Bogotá.

Panorama of Bogota from Monserrate

Click here to see a larger version of this panoramic image from the top of Monserrate.

Colombian artist Fernando Botero was born near Medellin, so it’s no surprise that the Museo de Antioquia on Medellin has a more impressive collection of art by their native son, including 23 of his signature bronze sculptures installed in front of the museum in Botero Plaza. However, the Botero Museum in Bogotá is worth a visit. Located in a renovated building, the museum includes galleries filled with work by modern masters (Miro, Calder, Klimt, Picasso) donated from Botero’s private collection along with works by Botero himself. Admission is free.

Botero Museum Bogota

A painting depicting ‘Colombian artist Fernando Botero painting a Botero from the Botero Museum in Bogotá.

We are not guided tour people, but when we heard about 5Bogota tours we were intrigued. The owners goal is to present Bogotá through the five sense (sound, touch, taste, smell, hearing). You can embark on a tour that includes all 5 senses, or choose just the senses/activities that most interest you. We chose taste and sight and that’s how we ended up learning how to make empanadas and got our first glimpse of Bogotá’s vibrant street art and graffiti scene (more on graffiti in Bogotá in an upcoming post). The 5Bogota website is in English and is really fun to use as a tour planning tool and we had great guides and a lot of fun.

Making empanadas with 5Bogota

Karen learning to make empanadas during a 5Bogota tour of the city.

Graffiti tour with Bogota street artist Kochino

Graffiti artist Kochino in front of one of his own works as he lead us through a tour of street art in Bogotá.

The Museum of Modern Art Bogotá (aka MAMBO, 4,000COP/about US$1.40) offers two floors of exhibits which rotate regularly to showcase all types of modern art. It’s a small but very hip museum. On the other end of the spectrum is the sprawling Colombian National Museum (free admission). Located in an imposing stone building that used to be a prison, this place has a bit of everything.

It’s hard to believe, but there’s a fantastic hiking trail right in the heart of Bogotá. The Quebrada la Vieja (Old Creek) trail starts amidst swanky high rise apartment buildings on the edge of the city (free to enter, open from 5:30 am to 10:00 am) and winds through lush forest, past babbling brooks and over challenging trail with steep inclines, water crossings, slippery slopes and rocks. We spent two hours round trip on the trail which is just shy of two miles (3.2 km) each way from the trail head gaining 1,000 feet (300 meters) before reaching a fairy tale pine forest then a monument to the Virgin Mary and sweeping views of Bogota below. More than 1,000 people entered the area the Saturday morning we hiked there but the trail is much less crowded on weekday mornings.

Quebrada de la Vieja trail Bogota

Karen on the fantastic Quebrade de Vieja hiking trail which starts right from the city of Bogotá.

Museo Iglesia Santa Clara in the Candelaria neighborhood across from the Presidential Palace presents a small but jam-packed collection of religious art inside a church which itself is a work of art. Built in the early 1600s, the church it’s one of the oldest in Bogotá though it’s no longer used for worship. The opulent nave is filled with paintings, sculptures and religious artifacts. There’s gold leaf everywhere. In contrast to all that antiquity, a high-tech touch-screen system delivers information about each piece (Spanish and English, 3,000COP/about US$1 to enter).

Museum Iglesia Santa Clara Church Bogota

The Santa Clara church was turned into a museum and its opulent nave is now crammed with religious art.

We regret that somehow we never visited the Center of Peace and Reconciliation in Bogotá where the government and artists have collaborated to recreate he city’s Central Cemetery. Opened in 2012 after thousands of bodies were exhumed and moved, the idea behind the project was to create a space where the violence and loss of the past could be recognized and honored in a way that allowed everyone to move closer to peace.

Artists created installations incorporating now-vacant mausoleums. New strikingly modern buildings were constructed (the project was overseen by Colombian architect Juan Pablo Ortiz). Thousands of test tubes of earth from massacre sites around Colombia were installed. The location itself is powerful even without those enhancements because the Central Cemetery is where victims of the revolt of June 9, 1948, regarded as the beginning of decades of violence in Colombia, were taken. This excellent article from Architectural Review will tell you more.

Centro-de-Memoria-paz-reconciliation-bogota

Part of the innovative and moving Center for Peace and Reconciliation.

Bogotá hosts many annual events as well. Every December the many parks and plazas in the city get dressed up in Christmas finery creating a city-wide spectacle they call the Ruta de la Navidad. The annual Bogota Wine & Food Festival (which will be held in early April in 2016) brings out local chefs and attracts talent from around the world. And there are many arts and theater festivals in the city too.

Hotels in Bogotá

There’s something for everyone in Bogotá, from party hostels to a handful of boutique hotels and not one but two Four Seasons hotels.

At 170,000COP/about US$60 for a small room with a double bed for two including breakfast, Casa Platypus is far from the cheapest option in the city, but this stylish, serene place fills a mid-range void and the Candelaria neighborhood location is great. Parking and all-day coffee are also available and the owner and his staff are great sources of information. There’s also a spotless kitchen that guests can use, but you won’t want to. Did we mention the fabulous food scene in Bogotá?

Hotel B.O.G. is the city’s most luxurious boutique hotel. There’s a rooftop pool and bar, rooms feature the best showers in the city and the hotel restaurant unveiled a new restaurant called FROM Ramon Freiza helmed by Spanish chef Ramon Freixa. Find out more in our feature about the B.O.G. Hotel for Luxe Beat Magazine.

bar BOG hotel Bogota

The lobby of the B.O.G. Hotel in Bogotá.

84DC Hotel would be a standard mid-range business class hotel except for it’s energetic design and apartment-like feel. It’s got a great location too near Zona T, Parque 93 and Rosales but with a gentler price tag than many hotels in that area (from $150 double including breakfast).

Bogotá has many international chain hotels (Four Seasons, JW Marriott, Hilton, Sofitel, etc) but the most interesting is the W Hotel Bogota in the Usaquen neighborhood. The hotel manages to be part of a huge international chain but also give a sense of place and it’s a great base for exploring the city and, in particular, getting to know the reinvigorated Usaquen neighborhood. Read more in our review of the W Hotel Bogota for LuxuryLatinAmerica.com.

W Hotel Bogota

Our room at the W Hotel in Bogotá. The pillow on the bed says “Gold Digger.”

The hippest hotel in Bogotá is the Click Clack Hotel where rooms come in XS, S, M, L or XL, room service is delivered in picnic baskets and the innovative owners are always looking for new ways to undo the hotel rules. They plan to open a second Click Clack in Cartagena in 2017.

Bogotá is bursting with hostels too. The only one we stayed at was La Pinta Hostel in the Chapinero neighborhood. It was funky, clean, laid back and quiet. The bilingual staff were helpful and they’ve got a sister hostel in Cali (La Pinta Boogaloo which has a pool) and an apartment rental in Cartagena and in Santa Marta.

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The Best Budget Hotels in Central America

Finding great budget hotels is like winning the travel lottery because they allow you to make your travel budget go even further. Over the years we’ve become expert at choosing the best budget hotels and for the first time we’re sharing what we think are the best budget hotels in Central America, gleaned from more than three years of travel through Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Panama. We’ve personally vetted all of these budget hotel options so you don’t have to. Consider them Trans-Americas Journey approved.

Best budget hotels in Central America

San Jose, Costa Rica: Hotel Aranjuez offers a range of spotlessly clean rooms in three adjoining houses in a safe, quiet neighborhood of Costa Rica’s capital convenient to most attractions at extremely reasonable rates which include the best hotel breakfast buffet we’ve ever had in any price point. We stayed here repeatedly and they even have (limited) parking.

Hotel Aranjez - San Jose, Costa Rica

El Tunco Beach, El Salvador: There are two places called Papaya Guesthouse in this beach hangout. You want the one directly across the street from a hotel called La Guitara. Look for the enormous wooden gate. This place is spotless, has a nice little pool and sitting areas with hammocks and offers rooms with A/C and large, stylish rooms with fans and private baths for US$25 plus perfectly acceptable smaller rooms at smaller price points (US$14) with shared bathrooms (that’s what we went for). Toss in WiFi, parking, a great staff and a decent shared kitchen and you can’t beat it.

Panama City, Panama: Hostal Amador Familiar (dorm beds from US$15 per night and private rooms with a fan from $30 for two people) is beyond spotlessly clean thanks to the tireless efforts of the best hotel housekeeper we’ve ever seen at any hotel in any price point.There’s a large, shared, semi-outdoor kitchen which stocks paper towels and  tin foil for guest use in addition to the usual supplies. Breakfast is included.There’s a large and secure parking lot. It’s located in a quite neighborhood from which you can easily access Casco Viejo, the Amador Causeway, downtown Panama City and other areas.

Hostal Amador Familiar - Panama City

Cahuita, Costa Rica: At Cabinas Palmer US$20 got us a clean private double with bathroom, fan, TV, a furnished porch with a hammock, free coffee and bananas all day, use of a shared kitchen, parking and WiFi. It’s right in the center of town, just ask for it when you arrive.

Gracias de Dios, Honduras: We called Hotel & Restaurant Guancascos home while we were in Gracias and you should too. Located just below the Castillo San Cristobal fort, the 17 rooms (US$10 dorm and rooms from US$26) are spotless and well-appointed, the staff is charming, free Wi-Fi works in the common area and in the three rooms under the restaurant, which is excellent. Owner Fronicas “Frony” Miedema, a Dutch woman who’s lived in Honduras for more than 20 years, will be happy to give you information about the area and arrange tours and transportation. When we were there the hotel was also in the final stages of gaining green certification, making it one of only a few eco-certified hotels in Honduras.

Guancasos hotel - Gracias del Dios, Honduras

San Ignacio, Belize: Nefry’s Retreat has four peaceful, clean rooms with WiFi and A/C for around US$20 located about a five minute walk from the bustle of the town’s main drag. We really liked the homey feel. It’s not a rock bottom price, but it’s value for money especially in Belize.

Bocas del Toro, Panama: Hostal Hansi, located just off Main Street in the town of Bocas, has a wide range of different room types from singles with shared bath (from US$11) to private doubles (from US$25). WiFi and use of a spotless kitchen is included. It’s quiet and clean (there is a resident cat) and it’s extremely popular. Hansi does not take reservations so get there as early as you can to see about available rooms.

Hostal Hansi - Bocas del Toro, Panama

Panajachel, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala: Hotel Contemporeneo down by the lakeshore, delivers clean, quiet rooms with a bathroom, a TV, secure parking and a good WiFi signal for 120Q (about US$15). We even scored a lake view (ask for room 4 or 5).

León, NicaraguaHarvest House was created by Jason Greene, a smart, surprisingly young man from North Carolina, and it’s spotlessly clean, brightly painted, comfortably furnished and has a huge shared kitchen. Rooms, which range from singles with shared bath to small private apartments, were irresistible (from US$15 per night or from US$150 per month). We booked a double room with shared bath for a month, spending less and getting more than we would have in any hostal.

Harvest House, Leon Nicaragua

 

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Check In Checklist: How to Choose the Best Budget Hotels

One of the beautiful things about traveling in Latin America is that travel expenses like accommodation can be very, very affordable. However, budget hotels can also be fraught with hidden disappointments from toilets that don’t flush to grungy, ill-fitting sheets to missing shower heads. Hotel bargains are certainly out there, but no matter where you’re traveling, it pays to run through this handy check in checklist to make sure you choose the best budget hotels before you settle in.

Economy Inn Motel

 

17 point budget hotel checklist

Besides basic cleanliness and security issues, we mentally run through this checklist before we check in.

  • Is there a seat on the toilet and does the toilet flush? If you’re a dude, or you’re traveling with a dude, also ensure that the toilet seat will stay up on its own and doesn’t just flop down.
  • Do the faucets work?
  • Is the bathroom light bright enough to shave by?
  • Is there a shower head or just a bare pipe?
  • Is the mattress really just an amateurishly-disguised torture device? Go ahead. Sit on it.
  • Exactly how lumpy and stained are the pillows? Go ahead. Take off the pillow cases to see for yourself.
  • Are the sheets clean and at least partly cotton? Ever since we moved into a room that turned out to have curly black hairs in the bed we are not above throwing back the covers to get a better look at the bedding.
  • Does the fitted sheet or base sheet actually stay on or are you going to wake up with your body directly against that mystery mattress?

motel-room

  • If there’s a mosquito net, check it for holes. Are they patchable? PACKING TIP: We always travel with plenty of white thread and a sewing needle. Why white? Because most nets are white and if you darn them with colored thread each colored repair will look like an insect against the white net.
  • Are the light bulbs bright enough to read by or just a tease?
  • Does the fan work and is it quiet enough to sleep with when it’s on? If the hotel runs on generator power, be sure to confirm that the generator runs all night or you’ll lose the fan just when you need it most.
  • Are the ceiling fan blades above the light source? If the blades are below the light you’ll get a crazy-making mild-strobe effect when you turn them both on at the same time.
  • Do the curtains close well enough to provide privacy? Do they blow open when the fan is on? PACKING TIP: We travel with a metal clamp like the sort used to keep papers together in an office and this works like a charm to secure unruly or ill-fitting curtains.
  • Do the windows have screens on them and are they (relatively) free of holes?
  • Is the TV (if there is one) in a position where it’s actually viewable from bed? We’ve been in a disturbing number of budget rooms in which the TV is placed in a corner behind any form of seating.
  • Are there any electrical outlets and are they in locations that are actually accessible?
  • Does the Wi-Fi signal (if there is one) reach the room? The pat answer you’ll get to this question is always “yes” so we find it’s also helpful to locate the actual router to make sure your room is within range.

Relax Inn motel

Check out our tried and tested list of 9 Best Budget Hotels in Central America to make your travel budget go further in Costa Rica, Belize, Guatemala, Panama, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras.

A version of this story was originally published on the Travel+Escape website which we’ve contributed to frequently.

 

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