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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.