Beyond the Beauty of the Kuna – San Blas Islands, Panama

The world is increasingly full of hotels and resorts run by local communities and indigenous groups. Many claim to give guests the chance to gain true insights into the cultures they’re visiting but, too often, what travelers get is a pre-packaged, buffed up, sideshow version of reality. Yandup Island Lodge, run by the Kuna (or Guna) people, goes beyond the beauty of the Kuna by actually delivering on its promise to help guests understand Kuna life, traditions and challenges in the San Blas Islands of Panama.

Kuna San Blas Islands - Yandup Island Lodge, Panama

Our destination: Yandup Island Lodge in the Kuna Yala, or San Blas Islands, of Panama.

But first you have to get there

The only way to reach Yandup Island Lodge is to fly from Panama City to the Playon Chico air strip, then take a short boat ride to Yandup island in the San Blas Archipelago of islands, also known as the Kuna Yala. Our Air Panama plane carried just six passengers and was piloted by what appeared to be interns. They applied sunscreen before take off and warned of a bumpy ride. A sign near the plane’s control panels said “You have to step outside to smoke.”

Flying over Plyon Chico, Kuna Yala, Panama San Blas Islands

Though most of the islands in the San Blas Archipelago, also known as the Kuna Yala, are uninhabited, some are packed with Kuna villages, like this island we flew over on our way to Yandup Island Lodge.

Any time you get into a small plane you know that take off and landing are going to be extra exciting. Still, we weren’t quite prepared for the fly-straight-at-the-mountain-bank-hard-then-drop-straight-down-onto-the-ground landing that the pilot artfully made into the dinky, waterside Playon Chico airstrip. 

flight to Playon Chico San Blas Islands Panama

Safely landed at the Playon Chico air strip on our way to Yandup Island.

Back on solid ground, we got our first glimpse of the San Blas Islands or Kuna Yala archipelago, the name given to a chain of more than 350 islands, mostly uninhabited, that is governed by the autonomous Kuna people within Panama.

Deserted islands -Kuna Yala, Panama San Blas Islands

One of the many tiny uninhabited islands in the Kuna Yala archipelago of Panama, also known as the San Blas Islands.

While most of the islands in the Kuna Yala are uninhabited, some are packed wall to wall with Kuna villages. A few others, like Yandup Island, are used for hotels.

Boat Yandup Island Lodge Kuna San Blas Islands, Panama

Transportation at Yandup Island Lodge.

 A different kind of luxury

After a five minute boat ride from the air strip we arrived at Yandup Island Lodge which occupies a small island owned and run by a Kuna family. The round, stand-alone, stilted bungalows are basic but comfortable with nets over the beads, private bathrooms and hammocks on the porches.

Yandup Island Lodge Kuna San Blas Islands, Panama

Bungalows at Yandup Island Lodge.

The island is picture perfect with lapping waves, swaying palm trees and gentle breezes and no WiFi or TVs. The place is partly run on solar power and water is piped in from a waterfall on the mainland. If you can’t relax here there’s no hope for you.

Kuna mola pillow

A traditional Kuna mola decorates a bed pillow at Yandup Island Lodge.

Beyond the beauty of the Kuna: culture today

The Kuna, the largest indigenous group in Panama, came to Panama from Colombia and successfully resisted assimilation during Spanish colonial times and thwarted later Panamanian efforts to suppress their culture. In 1925 the Kuna staged a revolution and were officially granted cultural autonomy by the Panamanian government.

Kuna mola blouse

A Kuna woman wearing a traditional top which incorporates vibrant, geometrically designed, hand-made fabric squares known as molas.

Kuna their culture remains remarkably intact including the beautiful traditional dress of Kuna women and their hand-made fabric molas which are known around the world.

That’s about all we knew about the Kuna before we arrived at Yandup, but that was about to change thanks to the lodge’s wonderful Kuna staff who were open, friendly and patient as we peppered them with questions.

Colorful Kuna indiginous tribe Panama

When we asked these Kuna employees of Yandup Island Lodge why they didn’t wear the traditional arm and leg beads they proudly explained that they were “modern”.

For example, when we noticed that some of the female staff members did not wear the traditional Kuna leg beads (called wini) and arm beads (called chaquira) and we asked them why. Ruby, who could make a stone smile, proudly answered soy moderno (I’m modern), then laughed. Another female employee explained that she had chosen not to cut her hair for the same reason even though short, almost mannish hairstyles are common among Kuna women mostly, we were told, for comfort in the heat.

Examnples of Kuna Beaded Bracelets (Chaquira)  and leg beads (Wini)

It takes Kuna women about a day to make each of the traditional beaded leg and arm wraps, called wini and chaquira respectively, though some Kuna women are choosing not to wear them at all.

 Playon Chico, life in a Kuna village

While it was easy to imagine an idyllic Kuna lifestyle while relaxing at Yandup Island Lodge with its views and spacious lawns we saw a different reality when we visited Playon Chico for a guided look at life in a Kuna village. The first thing we were struck by was the crowding. When the majority of your land is composed of islands, many of them tiny and some of them sinking and eroding due to environmental pressures, space is a luxury.

Kuna woman sewing a mola, Panama

A Kuna woman in Playon Chico works on a mola which is traditionally made using two colors depicting a geometric pattern which can be abstract or represent individual animals or more elaborate scenes.

Playon Chico is the largest Kuna village with more than 3,000 people living shoulder to shoulder on a small island which seemed as if every square inch was covered in something man-made. Kuna families typically have five to seven kids, so children make up more than 60% of the population in Playon Chico which gave the village a “Lord of the Flies” vibe.Garbage was a problem and visible everywhere and the community was struggling to find garbage management options that were better than simply making huge piles along the water line.

Kuna crafts and molas Playon Chico Panama San Blas Islands

Kuna women on Playon Chico set up stands along the village’s sand roads where they sell their hand-made molas, traditional beaded leg and arm wraps and more.

Mixed in among the traditional thatch-roof houses, tiny shops selling daily necessities and the volleyball courts (the Kuna love volleyball, perhaps because they don’t have space for soccer fields) we walked past a number of make shift open-air shops where Kuna women were selling beads and items made from their most famous handicraft, the mola. Made almost exclusively by women, each vendor seemed to have her own particular style when it came to colors and designs.

Though Kuna men have mostly stopped wearing traditional clothes in favor of jeans and t-shirts, most Kuna women still wear blouses made from molas and elaborately patterned sheer fabric, colorful arm and leg beads and bright head scarfs. In Playon Chico we learned that even within this traditional outfit there was room for fashion with colors going in and out of style and women making trips to specific fabric stores in Panama City to get the latest patterns for blouses.

Children Playon Chico Kuna Yala Panama San Blas Islands, Panama

Kids make up 60% of the population of the Kuna village of Playon Chico.

Other things we learned during our visit to Playon Chico:

  • Kuna men and women attend church services separately (men in the morning and women in the  afternoon)
  • It takes about a day for Kuna women to make new leg or arm beads and they do this frequently to keep up with changing fashions
  • Albinos are revered in Kuna culture
  • When a Kuna dies they are placed in a hammock for 48 hours then buried in their hammock along with some of their favorite possessions
  • The word for “thank you” in the Kuna language is “nuedi” and they say it a lot

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Beach Bungalows, Perfect Pizza & the Best Road in the Country – Mechapa & Northern Pacific Coast, Nicaragua

Few  travelers make it to León, Nicaragua which is just one reason why León was our favorite city in Nicaragua. Even fewer people travel to the northern Pacific coast north of León, but they should. In fishing villages like Mechapa and on beaches like Aposentillo you’ll find great beach bungalows, perfect pizza and the best road in the country.

Driving on the beaches of Northern Nicaragua

Karen hanging out on the tailgate during a break in our epic beach drive in Mechapa, Nicaragua.

Mechapa, gateway to Nicaragua’s Northern Pacific Coast

Thanks to the completion of a fantastic new paved road, replacing one of the most notoriously brutal dirt roads in the country, you can now drive yourself to Mechapa from Leon in 1.5 hours or 3.5 hours from Managua (it’s tricky and slow by bus as service is limited and stops are many).

Fisherman, Machapa, Nicaragua

Fishermen plying their trade in Mechapa, Nicaragua.

There are around 600 people living in Mechapa, most of them involved in fishing or working on the area’s sprawling peanut farms. There are a handful of small closet-sized shops in the dirt-road-town and they peddle the basics. There are no restaurants or coffee shops or nightlife or tour companies of any kind but there is one friendly and comfortable beachfront hotel and, really, that’s all you need.

Redwood Beach Resort & Restaurant, Nicaragua

Beach view from the porch of one of the bungalows at Redwood Beach Resort & Restaurant in Mechapa.

The Redwood Beach Resort  was originally built in 2000 by a man from Managua who planned on building 32 bungalows, a large swimming pool and 16 condominiums. Only a handful of bungalows every got built and he never opened the property.

In 2006 Mike and Stacy Vogelsang, a metal worker and psychologist from Illinois, bought the 22 acre (nine hectare) property, sold everything in the US and became hoteliers. There was no running water, no electricity and no plumbing.

Bungalows Redwood Beach Resort - Mechapa, Nicaragua

Redwood Beach Resort & Restaurant in Mechapa on Nicaragua’s Pacific Coast north of León.

Today the Vogelsangs offer a full restaurant and six homey, comfortable beach bungalows (from US$65 per person per night including three meals a day). All are just steps away from the beach (#4 has the best view) with hammock strewn porches.

It’s the perfect comfy castaway base and your hosts can arrange horseback riding, kayaking, boat tours, fishing and more. Sea turtles also nest here  between November and January. Cold beers are abundant and thoughtfully served in beer cozies.

Redwood Beach Resort - Mechapa, Nicaragua

Sunset on Nicaragua’s Northern Pacific Coast.

The best road in Nicaragua

While Nicaragua’s roads are far superior to those in many of the neighboring countries thanks to the fellow-socialists in Venezuela who provide cheap petroleum (asphalt is made from a mixture high in petroleum), we took one look at the 15 mile (24 km) long wide, flat, hard-packed black sand beach in front of Redwood  Beach Resort and asked one question: can we drive on that?

Come along on our epic 30 mile (48 km) beach drive in Mechapa in our seven minute high-speed recap video.


Turns out, the owners enjoy a good beach drive too and assured us that as long as we timed the tides right we could drive for miles. Which we did, driving all the way down to the largest estuary in Central America. We saw plenty of birds along the way and no more than five other people.

Mechapa Beach Nicaragua

Our happy truck unleashed on the beach in Mechapa, Nicaragua.

End of the beach lies Reserva Natural Padre Ramos, Nicaragua

This end of the 15 mile (24 km) beach in Mechapa is home to the Padre Ramos Nature Reserve.

Mechapa Beach Redwood resort, Nicaragua

One of the bungalows at Redwood Resort & Restaurant peaks out of the jungle toward the beach in Mechapa, Nicaragua.

This is yet another reason to explore this part of Nica in your own vehicle.

Perfect pizza by way of Paris

Tipped off by Stacy and Mike from Redwood Beach Resort we made a point of stopping at Al Cielo Cabañas & Restaurant just above the surf breaks at Aserradores Beach while we were in the area. It was created by two friends from France, Xavier and William, who decided to ditch the pace in Paris for the surf in Central America.

Al Cielo Cabanas & Restaurant Nicaragua

Rooms with a view at Al Cielo Cabañas & Restaurant on Nicaragua’s Northern Pacific Coast.

The pair were traveling and surfing along the Nica’s Northern Pacific Coast when they fell in love with a patch of land above Aserradores Beach which had been used to grow cotton. They bought it, cleared it and did much of the construction themselves.

Menu at Al Cielo Cabanas & Restaurant - Aserradores Beach Nicaragua

Everything on the menu at Al Cielo is homemade and delicious but do not miss the pizza.

Al Cielo has eight basic but comfortable wooden cabanas, some with shared bath (from around US$30 per night). All have views of the Pacific and breezy porches and there’s a pool. One of the country’s top surf beaches is just a few minutes away. However, the best thing about Al Cielo is the restaurant.

Pizza at Al Cielo Cabanas & Restaurant - Aserradores Nicaragua

Behold, REAL pizza made from scratch by the French-trained chef who co-owns Al Cielo Cabañas & Restaurant on Nicaragua’s Pacific Coast north of León.

Xavier trained in the culinary arts in Paris and, thankfully, he did not want to abandon his chef whites entirely. The restaurant at Al Cielo is now one of the most exciting casual restaurants in Nicaragua, attracting locals from the nearby city of Chinandega who make the 20 minute drive to the place just to enjoy the food and the views from the open air, thatch roof dining room.

Xavier - Al Cielo Cabanas & Restaurant - Aserradores Nicaragua

Meet Xavier: French-trained chef, baker of bread, surfer of waves and co-owner of Al Cielo Cabañas & Restaurant on Nicaragua’s Pacific Coast north of León.

The menu is small, featuring one pasta dish, one fish dish, one meat dish (like pepper steak for US$8.50), a real salad (for around US$5) and pizzas. And what pizzas! Thin crust made using a slightly modified recipe given to Xavier by a mentor in Paris before he left, real Italian cheese, inventive toppings and all cooked up in a real pizza oven for around US$7. No wonder Al Cielo made our list of Best Food & Beverages of the year. Oh, and don’t miss their Flor de Caña rums infused with goodies like hot peppers, vanilla and ginger.

Infused Flor de Cana Rums - Al Cielo Cabanas & Restaurant Nicaragua

Flor de Cana rum naturally infused with ginger, hot chilies and more at Al Cielo Cabañas & Restaurant on Nicaragua’s Pacific Coast north of León.


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Whale Watching – Pacific Coast, Costa Rica

Within the first 25 minutes of our whale watching cruise on board the Tom Cat 1 Catamaran out of Quepos on the southern Pacific Coast of Costa Rica we saw a full fluke and a full breach. Over the next three hours we saw at least two dozen humpback whales including mothers, calves and males in equally dramatic displays. We’d seen a few whales while hiking the newly opened Cathedral Point Trail in Manuel Antonio National Park, but nothing compared to the experience of being on the water with these huge animals.

Here are some humpback highlights.

Humpback Whale breach Costa Rica

This full breach of a humpback whale was an awesome way to kick off our whale watching trip in Costa Rica.

Humpback Whale breach splash Costa Rica

Humpback whales pretty much win every belly flop contest.

Humpback Whales Manuel Antonio National Park Costa Rica

It wasn’t uncommon for us to see groups of humpbacks, not just individual whales, during our whale watching trip in Costa Rica.

Humpback Whale fluke Costa Rica whale watching

An impressive full fluke.

Humpback Whale watching Costa Rica Manuel Antonio National Park

This humpback cruised past us not far from the catamaran we were on during a whale watching trip in Costa Rica.

Humpback Whales Breach & Fluke Costa Rica Whale watching

Either this is two humpbacks or we’ve got photographic evidence of a humpback version of the Loch Ness monster.

Humpback whale breach - Costa Rica whale watching tour

They make it look so easy and so fun.

Humpback Whale Manuel Antonio Costa Rica

A humpback checking us out as we checked it out.

Humpback Whale flippers - whale watching Costa Rica

Spouting and showing off those powerful flippers.

Humpback Whale spout Costa Rica whale watching

A humpback spouting and relaxing in a small cove off the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica.

Humpback Whale tail fluke Manuel Antonio whale watching

Yeah, this fluke display got a round of applause from passengers on the boat.

Humpback Whale fin Manuel Antonio whale watching Costa Rica

A tiny bit of a massive humpback breaks the water as it travels by our whale watching boat in Costa Rica.

Humpback Whale fluke tail - Costa Rica

Our guide told us that the fluke displays and tail slapping that we saw were probably a way for male humpbacks to communicate and show off for the females.

We could practically see whales right from our room at the Parador Resort & Spa in Quepos. Built along an undulating ridge line, the 129 rooms at the Parador take advantage of some of the most spectacular coastal vistas in an area known for spectacular coastal vistas.

Parador Hotel Quepos Costa Rica Manuel Antonio

The Parador Resort & Spa in Quepos, Costa Rica has one of the most spectacular views on the Pacific Coast, including parts of Manuel Antonio National Park and passing whales.

Opened in 1995 by the Schans family, the Parador is one of the largest and most resort-like accommodation in Quepos. Set on 12 ares, the Parador includes three pools, a petite but full-service spa, walking trails and beach access. You wouldn’t think a resort of this size could be very green but the Parador is consistently recognized for its eco efforts including composting, water and energy conservation, collection and use of rainwater and support of local reforestation and beach clean up programs.

Pool Parador Hotel Quepos Costa Rica

One of the three pools at the Parador Resort & Spa in Quepos, Costa Rica.

With 129 rooms there are a lot of categories to choose from but our advice is to go big. The most spectacular rooms at the Parador are the premium plus rooms and the suites which earn every penny with spectacular ocean and coastal views, including portions of Manuel Antonio National Park. Want to do some whale watching right from bed? Book room #5532, which made our Best Hotels of 2012 list as “best bed with a view.”


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Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2012 – Best Hotels

This post is part 4 of 4 in the series Best of 2012

Welcome to Part 3 in our Best Of the Trans-Americas Journey 2012 series of posts. Part 3 is all about the Best Hotels from the past year on the road including boutique hotel bargains, a mind-boggling pool and a room with (nearly) no walls. Part 1 covers the Best Adventures & Activities of 2012 and Part 2 covers the Best Food & Beverages of the year.

Yes, end of year round-ups can be lame. On the other hand, they can also be a valuable chance for us to look back on the year that was and remember just how damn lucky we are. Done right, an end of year round-up can also be a quick and easy way for you to get the best tips, tricks and truths that made our Trans-Americas Journey travels so special in 2012. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll hit the road yourself in 2013 (or 2014, no pressure).

First, a few relevant stats:

In 2012 the Trans-Americas Journey…

…thoroughly explored Nicaragua, Costa Rica and northern Panama

…drove 8,349 miles

…spent $2,608 on fuel

…made seven overland border crossings

We also spent nearly all 365 nights of 2012 in hotels (when we weren’t lucky enough to be staying with new friends, old friends or family). In no particular order, here are some of the hotel moments that stand out.

The best hotels of 2012

Best infinity edge pool: We took one look at the infinity pool at the newly opened Kurà Design Villas in the hills above Uvita on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast and we knew we had our winner. As the name would imply, design is a major element of this super-stylish, super-romantic place and it’s the first time we’ve ever seen a pool with an infinity edge on all four sides (check it out, below). Toss in a flame that shoots out of the deep end, underwater speakers and breath taking views and you’ve got one spectacular swim.

Kurà Design Villas -  Uvita, Costa Rica

Best accommodation with a sense of place: Little Corn Island is like no other place in Nicaragua thanks to a serious Caribbean cultural and culinary influence and the quirks that come from island life. Farm Peace & Love, created on the north side of the island by a Little Corn native named Bing and his Italian wife Paola, is a stellar reflection of the island’s unique personality. Two stand-alone bungalows with kitchens come complete with freshly laid eggs,homemade coconut bread and fruit from the surrounding organic farm. Live like a local for a few days with ocean breezes on your porch, resident land crabs in the yard and no TVs or cell service.

Best bed with a view: Room 5532 at Parador Resort & Spa near Manuel Antonio National Park Costa Rica would be a stunning over-size suite even if the bed wasn’t angled to give you a perfectly unobstructed view of the Pacific Ocean, a sandy arc of beach and the occasional whale.

Best rooms with no walls: Okay, there are partial walls, but all seven traditionally built wood and thatch bungalows at Al Natural Resort on Isla Bastimentos in the Bocas del Toro Archipelago in Panama opens up completely to the sea. You can pull curtains closed if you want, but with a view like that why would you?

Al Natural Resort on Isla Bastimentos in the Bocas del Toro Archipeligo in Panama


Best re-birth of a hotel: Poas Volcano Lodge near Poas Volcano National Park in Costa Rica was heavily damaged after an earthquake in 2009. The owners turned tragedy into an opportunity to re-invent their operation, turning what was a basic, homey lodge into a chic boutique property with style and service. For more, read the full review of Poas Volcano Lodge that we did for iTraveliShop.com.

Best B&B for bird watching over breakfast: The 10 rooms at Boquete Garden Inn in Boquete, Panama are a comfortable bargain and the owners are dedicated, charming and info-filled. But the best part of this place is the garden which attracts dozens of species of colorful birds which flit around bird baths and fruit-filled platforms nearly oblivious to your presence. Bring your binoculars to breakfast and enjoy some of the best (and laziest) bird watching in Panama.

Boquete birds

Best turn down treat: The locally made dark chocolates spiked with delicious ground coffee from their own estate grown beans at Finca Rosa Blanca Coffee Plantation & Inn in Costa Rica topped all other turn down treats of the year. For more, read the full review of Finca Rosa Blanca Coffee Plantation & Inn that we did for iTraveliShop.com.

Best boutique hotel bargain: The city of Granada in Nicaragua has more than its share of hotels, most of them in the classic colonial style. Los Patios Hotel takes a refreshingly different approach, blending Spanish colonial architecture with minimalist Scandinavian decor from the homeland of the hotel’s owners. Los Patios is so polished and well-appointed that we still can’t believe that rates start a US$90 double including a fabulous full breakfast and you can take 15% off that if you stay more than three  nights. If you need more reasons to book a stay, read the full review of Los Patios Hotel that we did for iTraveliShop.com.

Los Patios Hotel - Granada, Nicaragua

Best truly eco hotel: After 20 years in the green hotel business the owners of  Lapa Rios Eco Lodge in the Osa Peninsula of southern Costa Rica have learned a thing or two. For example, the original buildings were constructed using lumber harvested from fallen trees on the lodge’s 1,000 acre (400 hectare) private reserve. Then they realized that the nutrients in the fallen trees are best left to leach back into the soil so new constructions and furniture are now made using bamboo. Here are more ways they scored green points with us:

  • 58 out of the lodge’s 60 employees are from local villages and all of those employees who commute on motorcycles (the preferred mode of transport) have four-stroke engines.
  • The lodge is moving to fake palapa instead of natural thatch on all roofs to avoid the need to cut down palm when the roofs need to be replaced or repaired.
  • Kitchen garbage is fed to pigs (some of the most impeccably clean ones we’ve ever seen) and methane is collected from their waste and used to fuel the employee kitchen.
  • All water is cleaned with natural bacteria and plant filtration.
  • The pool is chlorine free and kept clean with ionization instead. Housekeeping staff really adhere to the towel and sheet replacement rules.
  • Biodegradable soap and shampoo is supplied along with biodegradable conditioner and lotion.
  • And, yes, they recycle.

Best value city hotel: Hotel Aranjuez in San Jose, Costa Rica where US$30 gets you an antique-filled double room with a shared (spotless) bathroom (only slightly more for rooms with a private bathroom and dorms are available too) plus parking, Wi-Fi and the most mouth-watering and diverse hotel breakfast buffet we’ve ever seen. Choose from freshly baked breads and cakes, made to order eggs, fruit and juice galore, homemade jams, a table full of salads and more. Reservations HIGHLY recommended.

Best beach bungalow: Aguas Claras in Puerto Viejo de Talamancas on the Caribbean Coast of Costa Rica has four simple wood bungalows with kitchens and porches. Each one is built in a breezy Caribbean style and painted in joyful bright colors. It’s a one minute walk to one of the most beautiful stretches of beach in this part of Costa Rica but we were so charmed by our bungalow that we basically didn’t leave it for three whole days.

Aguas Claras Beach Bungalows - Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica

Best healing spa treatments: Pura Vida in Costa Rica is well-known yoga retreat and healing center offering many experiences and treatments not found elsewhere in the country. Eric had never even heard of Korean Hand Therapy (US$105 per hour) so he booked it with a renowned blind practitioner named Olman. The mega-massage was powerful and painful but it effectively de-kinked the knots in his muscles (some he didn’t even know he had) and generally straightened him out. Karen booked her first Watsu treatment (US$125 per hour) with Sergio who managed to alleviate the chronic pain in her hip during an hour of weightless manipulation and stretching in a silent, soothing pool. We both wish we could have these treatments weekly.

Best un-hotel experience: We completed our first house sitting gig in 2012 through Trusted Housesitters and our experiences looking after a house (and dog and cat) in the hills above Playa Matapalo in Costa Rica for a few weeks have us hooked on this fun and free way to put down temporary roots. More to come in 2013.

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Beach Bummin’ – Las Flores and Maculis Beaches, El Salvador

The thing about Las Flores Resort on Las Flores Beach near El Cuco, El Salvador is that it manages to satisfy surfers and non-surfers with a perfect learner’s break, nearby point breaks, a gorgeous, bluff-top, open air spa and laid back style.

Las Flores Surf beach El Salvador

Blissful Las Flores Beach in El Salvador.


Las Flores Surf Resort - El Salvador

The lounge in the bluff top, open air spa at Las Flores Resort in El Salvador.


Las Flores, El Salvador

Las Flores Beach, El Salvador.

It’s a toss up, but we think non-surfers get the better end of the deal at Las Flores, which hosted us for a few days of beach bummin’ so we could write this full review of the resort. Why? Because us non-surfers get to watch the show going on in the sea from the comfort of our private patio, the pool deck or the breezy bar.

Surfing, Las Flores Surf Resort - El Salvador

Taking advantage of the reliable waves at Las Flores Beach, El Salvador.


Beach house bliss

Less than 20 miles (32 kilometers) along the coast east of El Cuco is a beach so off-the-radar that it’s not on most maps of El Salvador. This is Maculis Beach, home of Los Caracoles beach house.

Las Caracoles - El Salvador

Shaded hammocks with a view are all yours at Los Caracoles beach house on Maculis Beach in El Salvador.

Created and owned by Pascal Libaily and Joaquín Rodezno, the same duo behind Los Almendros Hotel in Suchitoto, Los Caracoles is utterly charming with a fully-equipped, open-air kitchen (bring groceries with you) and living room with a concrete floor inlaid with shells. A round, blue-tiled plunge pool is set into a wooden deck just off the living room. A thatch roof shades a bank of inviting hammocks, gorgeous wood loungers and an outdoor dining table.

Caracoles beach house - Playa Maculis, EL Salvador

The plunge pool at Los Caracoles beach house on Maculis Beach, El Salvador.


Caracoles beach house - Playa Maculis, EL Salvador

The open air living room and kitchen at Los Caracoles beach house on Maculis Beach in El Salvador.

There are two bedrooms with a shared bathroom off the living room and a separate master bedroom, with a palm tree growing in its private bathroom, in “The Annex” a few steps away. Guests are left to fight over who gets to use the outdoor shower with a conch shell for a shower head.

Caracoles Beach House -  Playa Maculis Beach, EL Salvador

Beach house bliss.

Maculis, the beach maps forgot

All of this just a few steps from a wide, flat, clean beach you will pretty much have to yourself since, as we already mentioned, Maculis isn’t on anyone’s radar. Another plus? You get to see sunrise and sunset over Maculis beach.

Sunset  Playa Maculis Beach, EL Salvador

Sunset over Maculis Beach in El Salvador. The beach is positioned in such a way that it gets sunrise too.

We walked the beach for hours every morning and encountered no one before returning to our hideaway to cook or read (no WiFi!) or cool off in the pool.

We lived in our swimsuits and did precious little for three of the most relaxing days of the entire Trans-Americas Journey, content to be entertained by watching swooping pelicans (instead of surfers) and relaxed by the spa-like effect of the stylish, simple ease of Los Caracoles.

Playa Maculis Beach, EL Salvador

Enjoying the last of the light on Maculis Beach, El Salvador.

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Best Of the Trans-Americas Journey 2011 – Best Hotels

This post is part 4 of 4 in the series Best of 2011

Welcome to Part 3 in our  “Best Of 2011″ series of posts. Part 3 is all about the Best Hotels of the year (from showers with a view to urban eco hotels). Part 1 covers the Best Adventures & Attractions of 2011 and Part 2 covers the Best Food & Beverages.

Yes, end of year round-ups can be lame. On the other hand, they can also be a valuable chance for us to look back on the year that was and remember just how damn lucky we are.

Done right, an end of year round-up can also be a quick and easy way for you to get a dose of the best tips, tricks and truths that made our Trans-Americas Journey travels so special in 2011. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll hit the road yourself in 2012 (or 2013, no pressure).

First, a few relevant stats:

In 2011 the Trans-Americas Journey…

…thoroughly explored four countries (Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador)

…drove 8,055 miles (we said they were small countries)

…spent $2,300 on fuel (yes, that’s in US dollars)

…had one flat tire (we drove over a nail in Copan, Honduras)

…bounced over about a billion topes/tumulos (viscious Latin American speed bumps) and through twice that many pot holes

We also spent nearly all 365 nights of 2011 in hotels (when we weren’t lucky enough to be staying with new friends, old friends or family). In no particular order, here…

The best hotels of 2011

Best private plunge pool: The Honeymoon Cabana at Francis Ford Coppola’s Blancaneaux Lodge in Belize has many romantic touches. The most irresistible one is the private plunge pool. It’s roomier and deeper that most plunge pools and it’s ultra-private with sweeping views over the hills and forests of the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve and Privassion Creek below.

Best eco hotel: Sure Hotel Arbol de Fuego in San Salvador (the capital of El Salvador) has made all the usual eco moves like long life bulbs and “please re-use your towels” signs. But this homey, tranquil boutique guesthouse has also adopted a ton of other initiatives (low-flow showers for example) that have resulted in epic reductions in energy use, water consumption and pollution.The owner, a passionately green woman named Carolina, has kept meticulous records of the profitable side effects her eco efforts. Her success has been so big and so well documented that Carolina is now helping other small hotels in El Salvador take the environmental plunge. BONUS: Hotel Arbol de Fuego is within walking distance of the pupuseria La Unica which serves what we consider to be the best pupusas in El Salvador.

Best massage room: The petite spa at Belcampo Belize (formerly Machaca Hill Rainforest Lodge) near Punta Gorda in Belize has just one massage room but it’s a doozy. An entire wall is floor to ceiling windows  with views into some of the 13,000 acres of jungle that surrounds the resort. Book a treatment in the morning or evening for the best chance of seeing toucans and howler monkeys right outside.

Best hostel kitchen: The shared kitchen at Casa Verde in Santa Ana, El Salvador has more tools and gadgets than the kitchen in our old apartment. It’s also spotless and there are two refrigerators–one entirely filled with ice-cold beer. Related thought: we’re loving this website that dishes about easy recipes that can be made in even the most basic hostel kitchen using cheap, available ingredients (and gadgets) with delicious results.

Best unexpected hotel moment: We were thrilled at the chance to witness the epic Semana Santa celebrations in Antigua, Guatemala. Then the owner of Hotel San Jorge (large, spotless rooms from $50 with fireplaces and Wi-Fi arranged around a meticuously maintined and super-serene garden) invited us to take it one step further. And so we found ourselves helping her create a traditional temporary street decoration called an alfombra on the road in front of her hotel. We don’t know of any other hotel in Antigua that offers this experience. Our advice is to book your Semana Santa room now.

Best beach house: It’s a perfect recipe: a rustic chic private beach house with four bedrooms, two bathrooms, small pool, hammock-filled deck, open air kitchen and living room all mere steps from the waves on a secluded beach. Even better, Los Caracoles, on Maculis beach in El Salvador, is owned and run by the same guys who operate the stunning Los Almendros hotel in Suchitoto–one of the best hotels in the country.

Best hotel for Mayanists: Hacienda San Lucas is a lovingly restored 100 year old family home which now oozes rustic charm in the foothills above Copán in Honduras which is home to the epic remains of the Mayan city of Copán. But you need not leave the hillside to get close to one of the most fascinating civilizations that ever existed. Hacienda San Lucas is run by Doña Flavia Cueva who is the daughter of a man roundly credited with preserving Copán and creating the archaeological discipline in Honduras.  Doña Flavia’s daughter, Frida Larios, has turned her artists’ eye to Mayan glyphs, transforming the traditional ancient stone carvings into modern graphic art which decorates the hotel. The kitchen turns out traditional Mayan dishes during five-course gourmet dinners and the hacienda is just a short walk away from a small, mysterious cluster of Mayan remains called Los Sapos.

Best outdoor shower: The outdoor “jungle showers” on the decks of the plush hillside suites at Ian Anderson’s Caves Branch in Belize are spacious and beautiful but odds are you’ll be too busy admiring the view of the Caves Branch River, karst hills and sprawling orange groves in this bucolic section of Western Belize to  notice the tile work and charming use of a tin bucket. The perfect way to wash off your cave adventures!

Best boutique hotel newcomer: Newly opened five room Casa ILB in San Salvador, El Salvador is minimal, elegant and (for now) shocking affordable with rates from $110 double including a lovely breakfast buffet. We did not want to leave.


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