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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.

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Insider’s Travel Guide to Paradise – Salento, Cocora Valley, Colombia

Salento is not a secret. Lots of travelers to Colombia visit the mountain town above the gorgeous Cocora Valley every year. Locals love it too. After spending weeks in Salento over four separate trips, we’ve got your insider’s travel guide to paradise including a great new hotel, the smartest days to visit and where and how to see the best of the area’s famous wax palms (it’s not where you think).

Salento Colombia

Traditional architecture and a laid back vibe bring many travelers–foreign and Colombian–to the mountain town of Salento.

Salento, a Colombian paradise

Salento was founded in 1850 and proudly wears its badge as one of the oldest towns in Quindio province. The more charming parts of town take you back in time with cobble stone streets, meticulous traditional paint jobs on original adobe buildings with terracotta roof tiles and fire-engine-red geraniums everywhere. In 2011 UNESCO named a large swath of Quindio province, including Salento, as a “Coffee Cultural Landscape”.

Salento Colombia plaza

The main plaza and church in Salento, Colombia.

Salento is like a smaller, more tranquil version of the town of Jardin except on weekends when Salento bursts at the seams as Colombian visitors descend on town creating traffic jams in the main plaza, filling hotels (some charge higher rates on weekends) and jamming the pedestrian street lined with shops selling everything from coffee to hats. On weekdays the town slips back into a sleepy pace, so our first Salento travel tip is: avoid weekends if you want a more peaceful experience.

Salento colors

The road into the Cocora Valley from the town of Salento, and it just gets more and more gorgeous from here.

Finding the (best) wax palms in Salento

There are plenty of things to do in Salento including hiking, biking, horseback riding, shopping, coffee touring and tasting, playing an explosive (literally) Colombian bar game called tejo and there’s even a zip line now. But the real reason you’re there is to see the famous wax palms of Salento, right?

Wax palms Cocora valley Salento

Wax palms in the Cocora Valley below Salento.

Wax palms are a distinct species found only in the Andes in parts of Colombia and Peru. They are the tallest palm in the world and most grow to about 150 feet (45 meters) but some shoot up to 200 feet (60 meters). They’re also the national tree of Colombia.

Cocora Valley

The Cocora Valley unfurls below Salento.

Salento sits on a ridge above the Cocora Valley which is home to some of the few remaining stands of wax palms. Most visitors take a shared jeep taxi from town down into the picture perfect valley a few miles away: green pastures, rolling hills, an ambling narrow road, babbling brooks, historic haciendas – it’s got it all. See what we’re talking about in our drone travel footage of the Cocora Valley, below.

At the head of the Cocora Valley there’s a five hour loop trail which winds through small stands of the palms. It’s picturesque and the palms are stunningly tall, like the giraffes of the palm world, but these most famous wax palms are not the best examples on offer.

Wax Palms cocora Salento Colombia

Wax palms in the Cocora Valley.

It wasn’t until our second or third visit to Salento that we learned that the Cocora Valley wax palms are nothing compared to the even more amazing palms that exist in a neighboring valley on and around a finca called La Carbonera. How do we know this? Because we’ve been adopted by a magical Colombian auntie (Hi B! We miss you!) and her family owns La Carbonera.

Willys Yipao Salento Colombia

Classic Willys Jeeps are used as taxis in Salento.

 

She took us to La Carbonera, which is located about about 1.5 hours from Salento on a road that includes parts of the Camino Real which Latin revolutionary hero Simón Bolívar traveled along between Ecuador and Nicaragua. So here’s our next Salento travel tip: hire a jeep taxi and driver in the main square to take you to La Carbonera. Be ready for a bumpy, dusty ride, but it’s worth it (150,000 COP or about US$50 round trip for the whole jeep which will seat 5 people in addition to the driver).

Wax palms Carbonera, Colombia

Travel tip: the wax palms on the road to a finca called La Carbonera are much denser and more impressive than those in the Cocora Valley and we can tell you how to get there.

Right from the road to La Carbonera you will see thousands of wax palms clumped in large, swaying stands which blow the palms in the Cocora Valley out of the water.

 What to eat and drink in Salento

Small trout farms are abundant in the area and many restaurants sell trout in various forms. Another Salento travel tip: you will see trucha al ajillo (trout with garlic) on menus everywhere. Be aware that this dish is not simply trout cooked in garlic. Your fish will come smothered in a milky, mildly garlicy sauce. Just so you know.

Trucha y patacon Salento Colombia

Fried trout on a platter-sized patacon is a common (and delicious) dish in Salento.

Dairy products are also huge in Salento thanks to sprawling cattle farms. Get some local cheese, then head to the small supermarket on the main square, walk to the back near the produce section and look for baskets of small baguettes made daily by a local woman. Yep, that’s another tip.

Milk bar Salento Colombia willys

Many diary products are produced in and around Salento and some are sold at this creative road side stand on the way into town.

Whatever you do, don’t leave town until you’ve tried a patacon. Usually, patacones are thick discs of boiled, pressed, then fried plantain which come as a common side dish. In Salento, a patacon is a very thin, crispy version the size of a dinner plate which is topped with cheese, chicken, trout, etc. and garnished with rich hogao which is a common Colombian sauce of chopped and simmered vegetables. You won’t find this delicious dish in many other parts of Colombia and we still crave it from time to time.

Salento patacon

Don’t leave Salento without trying a thin, crispy patacon topped with meat, cheese and hogao.

Salento is in the so-called “coffee triangle” so there are lots of area coffee producers (some offering tours of their farms and facilities) and many cafes in town. We liked Cafe Bernabe Gourmet because the coffee was good and so was the art on the walls. Another solid place to caffeine up is Cafe Jesus Martin.  We liked their coffee so much that we bought a few bags of beans to keep with us in the truck for future use in our beloved Bonjour insulated French Press.

Jesus Martin coffee Salento

Excellent coffee at the Jesus Martin cafe in Salento.

 

On weekends, open air bars open around the square under tents and they’re a great place to grab a beer and watch Colombian families. Speaking of beer, if you’ve been looking for an opportunity to play tejo, Colombia’s beloved bar game, you can do it in Salento. Here’s where to play tejo in Salento.

kiddy rides Salento Colombia

On the weekends enterprising locals push Colombian kids around the main plaza while their parents relax in the casual restaurants and bars around the square.

Where to sleep in Salento

There are more than 70 hostels and hotels in little tiny Salento, so choice is not the problem. During our very first visit we stayed at the stylish and peaceful Hostel Tralala, just off the main square, which has a dorm, two lovely shared kitchens which include free coffee, there’s a casita off the garden and a handful of and private rooms (70,000 COP or about US$24 for a private double with bathroom/60,000 COP or about US$20 with shared bathroom).

Salento, COlombia

Classic Salento.

We also spent a few days in a one room apartment outside of town which is rented by Maria Clara who also bakes those baguettes we recommended above. It’s sunny, clean and comfortable with a large porch with a hammock. It’s a great option for families or those staying longer term, but her current rates are a bit steep for us at 120,000 COP or about US$40 per night, contact Maria Clara at claragarciamar AT hotmail DOT com or call 3133717249, she speaks English).

We also stayed at La Floresta Hostel which has a parking lot and basic but fairly clean rooms and a pretty filthy shared kitchen (55,000 COP or about US$17 per night for a private double with bathroom, there’s also a camping area and dorms).

Hacienda Cairo Cocora Valley Salento Colombia

Reserva El Cairo Hotel is a lovely new addition just a few miles from town in the Cocora Valley.

During our most recent visit to Salento we were delighted to tour the new seven room Reserva El Cairo Hotel. Located two miles (3 km) outside of town in the Cocora Valley (taxis are common and cheap), this hotel is peaceful and combines sustainability with traditional architecture. The restored building, formerly a private house, is more than 100 years old and rooms now have modern bathrooms and good beds plus a basket full of locally-made snacks. Staff members speak English and they’re passionate about service. They grow their own organic fruits and vegetables and produce their own milk, butter, eggs and chickens on their 100 acres (40 hectares) of land.

Other good accommodation options in Salento include Hostal Ciudad de Segorbe, The Plantation House and La Posada de Cafe which is located right on the pedestrian street off the main square.

New threats to Salento

Despite the importance of Salento and the Cocora Valley as a tourist destination, the area’s UNESCO site status, and it’s standing as home to the country’s rare national tree, there’s a new plan afoot that would allow open pit mining for gold in the region. There is local backlash, so stay tuned.

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Eco Escapes from Medellin – Rio Claro & Tierra de Agua, Colombia

We love Medellin (and not just because of its growing craft beer scene). We’ve spent many months in the city exploring, working and soaking up the laid back vibe and great weather. However, sometimes a little eco escape from Medellin is just what the travel doctor ordered. Here are three very different ways to get a nature fix near Colombia’s second largest city.

Reserva Natural Cañón del Río Claro

It doesn’t take long to leave hectic Medellin behind and find yourself on a mountain road. Near the tiny town of San Francisco we pulled off and headed to a nearby waterfall that’s reached via a very short trail and has a lovely swimming hole. Then we stopped for lunch at Todo Rico roadside restaurant which is spotless, has great service and serves good, cheap traditional plates (look for the boulder painted bright yellow) before continuing on to Reserva Natural Cañón del Río Claro.

Cascada San Francisco

Cascada San Francisco near Medellin, Colombia.

Located about three hours from Medellin, this is a protected chunk of land where the Rio Claro has cut a deep swath through the marble bedrock creating a dramatic canyon. As the name would imply, Rio Claro is famous for crystal clear water…..except during the height of the rainy season which is when we visited.

Reserva Natural Cañón del Río Claro

A view of Rio Claro (which is not so clear in the rainy season) as it runs through the Reserva Natural Cañón del Río Claro near Medellin, Colombia.

Even without clear water (quite the opposite, actually), the place is still gorgeous. The canyon is very steep and dramatic and there’s a lovely mostly flat trail that meanders along the river’s edge. You can go tubing or kayaking, swim in the river at various entry points including Playa de Marmol (Marble Beach) which features a huge slab of exposed marble or cross the river and explore a cave called Boca Caiman (Caiman Mouth) which has stalagmites that look like rows of caiman teeth.

Boca Caiman Rio Claro

In the dry season, when water levels are lower, you can cross the Rio Claro and explore the Boca Caiman (Caiman Mouth) cave which has stalagmites that resemble rows of caiman teeth.

The area is also a great place for bird watching. We heard the call of the chestnut-mandibled tucan many times while we were there but we never caught a glimpse.

The hotel run by the Reserva is called El Refugio and it offers a variety of different types of rooms in a variety of different buildings. There are hotel rooms in a building called Ecohotel Blue Morpho which is close to the entrance and the restaurant. Further down the river about 10 minutes are another group of buildings called Cabanas El Refugio, but they aren’t cabins at all–just another bunch of more remote rooms. There are a few true cabins for families or large groups.

El Refugio Hotel Rio Claro

Some of the rooms at Reserva Natural Cañón del Río Claro have (intentionally) missing walls.

All rooms (starting at 80,000 COP/about US$35 per person) are basic but clean and have private bathrooms and electricity but no TVs, Wi-Fi or cell service. Some rooms in the Blue Morpho building have A/C too. Mediocre breakfast and dinner is available for around 25,000 COP/about US$9 per person.

We were in room #11 in the Cabanas El Refugio section and our room was (intentionally) missing an entire wall to maximize the view and the feeling of being on the river. The sound of the raging water was almost too loud at night and, miraculously, we had no trouble with bugs or bats. Honestly. Our modern bathroom had a shower that was built around a boulder and a rain shower head.

If you continue a short way down the highway toward Bogota you’ll find a turn off that takes you to a small bridge with views of the impressive Cascada el Cuba (Cuba Waterfall). It’s another worthy nature stop traveling to or from Rio Claro.

Cascada el Cuba

The lower portion of Cascada el Cuba near Medellin, Colombia.

Eco Hotel Tierra de Agua

Our friend Kjeld told us about Eco Hotel Tierra de Agua Hotel and we’re glad he did. Located just outside the mountain town of Corcona, about two hours in a private car or the direct bus from Medellin, this place is just the right kind of eco hippie.

Eco Hotel Tierra de Agua was started in 2007 when the family that owned the land finally felt that the local FARC guerrillas had been expelled and it was safe to return to their 30 acre (12 hectare) property. Instead of putting cattle on the land or farming crops their enterprising son Camilo Velasquez decided to turn the land into an eco hotel. He started small with just one building but now the place has a large building for groups or families and a honeymoon bungalow with a private Jacuzzi along with nine bungalows, each of them different.

Eco Hotel Tierra de Agua

The Moon Bungalow at Eco Hotel Tierra de Agua with some of the chemical-free river-fed pools below.

The Moon bungalow, for example, is round. We stayed in the Sun bungalow which has an outdoor shower embedded with river stones. Structures are made, primarily, from guadua (a type of bamboo) and there’s truly something for everyone.

Hanging bridge Tierra de Agua hotel

This suspension bridge is part of Eco Hotel Tierra de Agua.

Most of the bungalows and the lovely river fed plunge pools and Jacuzzis are reached via a swing bridge over there river. The pools are all flushed and cleaned daily and are chemical free, which is a treat for your skin and for the environment.

River-fed pools Tierra de Agua

A chemical-free river-fed plunge pool at Eco Hotel Tierra de Agua.

Besides enjoying the various pools and lying around in hammocks you can watch how panela is made, ride a three platform zip line, go hiking, look for birds, have a massage, go horseback riding or even go paragliding with an outside company located nearby.

swimming cascada Tierra de Agua hotel

Hiking to this waterfall and swimming hole is one of the activities offered to guests of Eco Hotel Tierra de Agua.

The food is great (everything from falafel to trout) and this place also makes a fantastic break journey if you’re traveling from Medellin to Bogota (or vice versa).

blue-necked tanager Cocorna Colombia

A blue-necked tanager spotted at Eco Hotel Tierra de Agua.

Waterfall hiking in a half day hit

We like Palenque Tours because the co-owners combine the best of their German and Colombian heritage which means their tours work efficiently and reliably, but with a free-wheeling love of all things Latin that keeps things fun.

A great way to get a nature fix in just a day trip from Medellin is to sign up for their half  day Nature Experience and Waterfall Hike (150.000 COP/about US$50 per person but the price goes down substantially the more people are added to the trip;  includes English/Spanish speaking guide, transport from your hotel, insurance and water and snacks). A 90 minute hike along a river through cloud forest delivers you to 65 foot (20 meter) Cascada La Miel (Honey Falls) for a quick hit of nature in just a half day.

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Cartagena Travel Guide: 6 Top Hotels in Colombia’s Sexiest City – Cartagena, Colombia

This post is part 1 of 7 in the series Cartagena Travel Guide

We didn’t know it at the time, but our very first destination in Colombia turned out to be Colombia’s sexiest city. Cartagena has drawn us back again and again with its languid Caribbean vibe, intense history and gorgeous restored Colonial architecture in a sprawling historic center which has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1984. Cartagena is also home to most of the best hotels in Colombia, from budget to boutique. All that choice can be overwhelming, but we’re here to help. After spending more than a month exploring Cartagena we’ve put together this hotel guide so you can make the right choices about sleeping in Colombia’s sexiest city.

Plaza-de-la-Aduana-Cartagena

Restored Colonial architecture like this is part of the reason Cartagena, Colombia was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Hotels in Cartagena

Here are our stand-out stays after spending more than a month in Cartagena.

Cartagena is full of hotels crafted in the renovated remains of very, very old buildings. Casa Pestagua, in a mansion built in the 17th century, is not the fanciest or slickest of them but it is the most authentic, full of antiques, elaborate frescoes and original carved wooden ceilings. There are only eleven guest rooms, all of which are set around a double interior courtyard and garden with a reflecting fountain, a recently renovated al fresco restaurant, an outdoor bar, small spa and a large swimming pool shaded by a massive mango tree. The free 15 minute foot massage is a brilliant touch in a city that requires so much walking on cobblestones.

Casa Pestagua Hotel - Cartagena, Colombia

One of the antique-filled rooms at spacious, serene and authentic Hotel Casa Pestagua in Cartagena, Colombia.

We have never felt as welcome as we did when we checked into Hotel LM thanks to a flawlessly hospitable staff (Spanish only) and a private home feeling. Room #2 is the winner with a small patio that is the perfect photographic vantage point for capturing Cartagena’s famous Colonial architecture spooling out along the street below.

IMG_6056_Cartagena

The view of gorgeous Colonial architecture from the balcony of room #2 at Hotel LM in Cartagena, Colombia.

Though the decor was not our style (a bit like a prom dress exploded in every room), we did appreciate the lovely daily breakfast and the dehumidifiers in each room. And the suite at Tcherassi Hotel & Spa, created by Colombian fashion designer Silvia Tcherassi, is a stunner with multiple levels of space, private patios and even a private plunge pool. In the works now is a brand new project around the corner from the hotel which will add 42 rooms, two restaurants and a boutique. Those additional elements are currently set to open in 2016.

Tcherassi Hotel & Spa - Cartagena, Colombia

The decor at Tcherassi Hotel & Spa in Cartagena wasn’t our style but the hotel has much else to recommend it.

No hotel in Cartagena does a better job of combining architectural heritage with modern design than Casa Pombo. Five incredibly large, thoroughly sleek and modern apartments have been accommodated within the walls of one of the oldest buildings in Cartagena. Parts of the foundation date back to 1533 and teams of restorers spent months carefully revealing and preserving original frescoes and other treasures. There’s no sign for Casa Pombo and the atmosphere is private and casual, like being at home only much, much swankier. The entry way features one of the most breathtaking decorative lobby pools we’ve ever seen.

Casa Pombo - Cartagena, Colombia

Casa Pombo in Cartagena, Colombia where foundations that date back to 1533 meet sleek, modern design.

Best on a budget

Hotel Villa Colonial in the Getsemani neighborhood of Cartagena (not to be confused with its nearby, slightly pricier sister the Casa Villa Colonial) does not have dorm rooms but its prices for clean, comfortable private rooms (doubles or  triples) with A/C are the same or even cheaper than area hostels and there’s a kitchen for guest use. The helpful host, Martha, has a delightful “Glenda the Good Witch” personality and optimism that’s free of charge.

Plaza trinidad -  Getsemani Cartagena, Colombia

Plaza Trinidad is the heart and soul of the Getsemani neighborhood of Cartagena and just a few steps away from Hotel Villa Colonial, a true budget find.

Worthy splurge

Hotel Casa San Agustin opened in 2012 after a 15 month renovation which turned 14 luxury apartments in three adjoining 17th Century buildings into one stunning boutique hotel. Frette sheets, remarkably fast Wi-Fi, iPads, gourmet mini-bars, lovingly restored architecture (including original frescoes and tiles and remnants of a 400 year old aqueduct that now forms part of the hotel’s commanding ground floor pool), elegant furnishings, marble bathrooms that redefine the word spacious, fresh-cut flowers, streaming sunlight, impeccable staff…you get the picture. Since you’re splurging anyway, go for one of the premium rooms which have private jetted plunge pools on spacious private patios.

Room - Hotel Casa San Agustin - Cartagena, Colombia

The lap of luxury in a guest room at Hotel Casa San Agustin in Cartagena.

Pool - Hotel Casa San Agustin - Cartagena, Colombia

The commanding pool, built around massive original walls, at Hotel Casa San Agustin in Cartagena.

New

There are solid rumors that a Four Seasons will be opening in Cartagena soon…

Avoid

We had high hopes for a recently opened hostel called The Roof. Then we checked in and got locked inside the hostel when the staff mysteriously disappeared leaving us stranded and discovered that the shared bathroom was pretty much always out of toilet paper and often occupied by a staff member who liked to bring his tablet in which him…

Cartagena, Colombia

Beauty is everywhere you look in the historic center of Cartagena.

To get the full Cartagena Travel Guide, check out our top places to eat and drink in Cartagena and our top things to do and see in Cartagena.

For clued-in, up-to-the-minute information about hotels, restaurants, bars, clubs and events in Cartagena, check out Ti Cartagena.

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Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2014 – Best Hotels

This post is part 3 of 4 in the series Best of 2014

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 [email protected] 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.

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Better Than Boquete? – Cerro Punta, Panama

Boquete is beautiful. The coffee plantations. The bird watching. The hiking trails and natural climbing walls. The refreshing weather. The expats (or at least the diverse restaurants they attract). However, Cerro Punta–with its awesome agriculture, Swiss chalet architecture and proximity to Volcán Barú National Park (home to the tallest mountain in Panama) and La Amistad International Park (a UNESCO World Heritage Site that’s shared with Costa Rica which is the largest nature reserve in Central America)–may be even better than Boquete for travelers who are into nature and bird lovers.

Quetzal Cerro Punta Rainforest Panama

Just one of the resplendent quetzal birds that we saw in the cloud forest around Cerro Punta, Panama.

Fastidious farmers

There’s something rejuvenating and reassuring about being surrounded by fields of thriving fruits and vegetables. Potatoes, tomatoes, carrots, onions, some mysterious green stuff we couldn’t identify, strawberries (which are sold in town by vendors who whip up strawberry smoothies, strawberries and cream, strawberry bread, etc) and more deliciousness blanket the slopes around Cerro Punta like edible carpets. No risk of starving to death here.

Everything you shove into the ground seems to flourish in the rich soil and tender climate at 5,905 feet (1,800 meters). However, Cerro Punta farmers don’t just shove things into the ground. Each field is tidier and more picturesque than the last. With neat rows, not a weed in sight and borders planted with flowers, they all seem to have been groomed by the world’s most fastidious farmers in prep for a Martha Stewart photo shoot.

Adding to the agricultural bliss of Cerro Punta is Haras Cerro Punto, a five-star horse farm which opened in 1977 and has produced top of the line race horses and show horses. Even if you’re not in the marketing for a million dollar horse you can take a tour of the pristine paddocks for about US$5.

Los Quetzales Lodge Spa Panama

Los Quetzales Lode & Spa offers everything from camping to private forest houses and has great value spa treatments.

Sleeping and spa-ing in Cerro Punta

Speaking of horses, a brand new colt was frolicking in the central lawn at Los Quetzales Lodge & Spa, in the town of Guadalupe just a few miles from Cerro Punta, when we arrived. Good sign.

The lodge offers something for everyone from camping to motel-style rooms to stand alone cabins. The place looks and feels like a cross between a Swiss chalet and a boy scout camp and is run as sustainably as possible. Most produce comes from their own organic garden (their salad bar is famous). Dairy products come from their own cows. More than 7,000 trees have been planted on the lodge’s 980 acre (400 hectare) private reserve. No plastic water bottles are sold. More than 90% of the staff lives within walking or biking distance of the lodge.

Hiking in Los Quetzales rainforest

Lush cloud forest in and around Cerro Punta, Panama.

Resplendant-quetzal

Another quetzal spotted near Cerro Punta. This is a male but he doesn’t have the bird’s signature long tail feathers because it’s not mating season.

Every morning at 8:30 am there’s a free guided tour so guests can see some of the lodge’s property in a super bad ass custom-built vehicle. We had the added bonus of seeing resplendent quetzal birds in the lush cloud forest which butts right up against Volcán Barú National Park.

During this tour you will also see the lodge’s best kept secret: About 10 minutes up a rough dirt road beyond the main lodge Los Quetzales also offers spacious wooden cabins built into areas of the cloud forest that were deforested decades ago so no new trees had to be cut down.

Quetzal with nest Panama

Yet another quetzal bird in the cloud forest around Cerro Punta.

Los Quetzales Rainforest Cabins Cerro Punta, Panama

Los Quetzales Lodge & Spa also offers a handful of large wooden homes in the cloud forest.

Each cabin has multiple bedrooms, WiFi, full kitchens and fireplaces (at over 7,260 feet/2,200 meters it gets chilly up there). They’re the perfect family or romantic hideaway. Bring your own groceries or arrange for the chef from the main lodge to come cook for you.

Hummingbird Panama

It’s easy to get distracted by the flamboyant quetzal birds, but the cloud forest around Cerro Punta is home to any other species as well.

Los Quetzales Lodge & Spa also has a top value spa which uses all natural products. It’s not fancy but you can get a superb deep tissue massage for 1.5 hours for US$45 in an open air spa room with the sound of a creek gurgling by.

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