Vacation Rental vs. Hotel Room – Quito, Ecuador

We’ve just checked into a hotel room in Ecuador and we’re a bit bummed.  Yes, yes. We love hotels (especially these best hotels of 2013). But we recently spent a week of our travels in this vacation rental apartment in the historic center of Quito, which we booked through Flipkey, and we want it back. Here’s why a vacation rental may be the best accommodation for your vacation too.

Panorama Plaza San Francisco - Quito, Ecuador

Plaza San Francisco is just one gorgeous reason why the Colonial center of Quito, Ecuador was among the very first group of sites to be given UNESCO World Heritage Site status.

Vacation rental win #1: Free laundry

Having the ability to wash your clothes mid trip means you can pack less and avoid any baggage overage charges.

living room flipkey rental Quito

The living room of our vacation rental apartment in Quito, which we found through Flipkey. We loved the owner’s art on the walls.

Vacation rental win #2: Instant hosts/friends/city guides

The best vacation rental owners are also the best converges. They’re proud of where they live and they want you to enjoy it too. Down here in Ecuador owners of vacation rentals also often speak better English than hotel staff members.

The owners of our vacation rental, Ken and Maria, are a US expat and an Ecuadorian artist respectively. Before we even arrived they welcomed our many questions and sent detailed emails with additional information and endless help with solutions to our particular questions and problems, like where to find nearby parking for our truck. We arrived in Quito very late at night and Maria even called to make sure we were safe and sound.

Ken and Maria also offer a walking tour of the historic center of Quito, where the apartment is located, and the apartment was full of maps, brochures, guide books and other information about the city. They became instant local friends and enriched our visit on a much more personal level than any concierge ever could, including an illuminating evening of cocktails and conversation in their home.

The gold-covered Jesuit Campaña Quito, Ecuador

The ornate gold-covered La Campañia Church in the historic center of Quito, Ecuador.

Vacation rental win #3: Space

Our vacation rental in Quito was 750 square feet (70 square meters). That’s the same size as the apartment we had in New York City  before embarking on the Trans-Americas Journey and included tons of closet space, a living room and a desk and working area (important for us). It also included a complete kitchen (see below).

flipkey rental apartment Quito

We made good use of the kitchen in our vacation rental apartment in Quito, Ecuador, which we found on Flipkey.

Vacation rental win #4:  A real kitchen

We’ve said it a hundred times: going to the markets and supermarkets in a new country or new city is one of the fastest and most entertaining ways to get inside the culture. With a full kitchen in our vacation rental we immediately went in search of groceries at  supermarket chain called Supermaxi and discovered that groceries are much cheaper in Ecuador than they are in Colombia, there’s a major brand of canned food here called Snob and you can buy liquid hand soap called Sanity.

In addition to the cultural immersion to be had at the Supermaxi, having a real kitchen meant we could eat what we wanted and do it on the cheap. We made fresh pasta sauce, roast beef and chicken fajitas. There were pancakes and fruit salads for breakfast and big green salads for lunch. We were not at the mercy of the meat heavy menus at the local cheap eats restaurants or stuck fueling up on a skimpy hotel breakfast buffet.

colorful colonial - Quito, Ecuador

Colorful Colonial restoration like this gives the historic center of Quito, Ecuador a look all it’s own.

Vacation rental win #5: Homey atmosphere

Maybe it was because we were in our vacation rental during Christmas but we really liked being in a homey atmosphere. Yes, we’re in Ecuador to experience Ecuador but it was nice to find touches of “home” like copies of The New Yorker on the coffee table.

There were even Christmas decorations up including wreaths on the door and a small tree with lights inside. Only a handful of (very pricey) hotels offer in-room holiday decorations and even fewer are going to have copies of The New Yorker  for you.

We also appreciated the fact that the walls of the apartment were full of Maria’s black and white photos from around Ecuador which gave the place more personality than any hotel room.

Plaza de la Independencia, Cathedral & Presidential palace - Quito, Ecuador

That’s the Presidential Palace right in the heart of the historic center of Quito, Ecuador.

Vacation rental win #6: You know exactly what you’re getting up front

Even the best hotel websites can require a lot of hunting around to find full details about what’s included in your room and in your stay. We’d never used Flipkey before but we found their property description pages to be concise, complete and easy to navigate with lots of pictures and a list-based format that made it easy to see exactly what amenities our vacation rental included right down to which appliances were in the kitchen. No guessing. No trolling around a website for ages. No disappointments. No confusion.

bedroom flipkey rental Quito

Comfy beds and more of the owner’s art in the bedroom of our vacation rental apartment, booked through Flipkey, in Quito, Ecuador.

Vacation rental win #7: No hotel tax or surcharge

This one is a bit controversial since one of the main complaints that hotel operators have about the growing vacation rental market is that vacation rentals are not subject to the mandatory taxes and surcharges that hotels much charge each guest and, they say, that gives vacation rentals and unfair pricing advantage. In Ecuador, taxes and surcharges add 22% to your hotel bill but are not applied to vacation rentals which adds up to real savings for travelers.

Changing of the guard, Presidential Palace - Quito, Ecuador

Our vacation rental apartment in Quito, Ecuador was just a few blocks away from Independence Plaza where an elaborate changing of the Presidential Palace guard takes place every Monday morning at 11 am.

La Ronda street - Quito, Ecuador

Not too long ago Quito’s La Ronda was a street to be avoided. Now it’s full of people, restaurants, bars and shops.

Casa Alabado museum - Quito, Ecuador

Quito’s Casa Alabado Museum has all the right ingredients: an impressive archaeology collection creatively displayed in a restored building that’s a treasure in and of itself.  Yes, that’s a living wall in the background.

Read more about travel in Ecuador

Flipkey, which has vacation rentals available in 12,000 global locations including plenty in Latin America, provided our stay in Quito, Ecuador so that we could share our honest opinions about the experience and that’s exactly what we’ve done.


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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.

Read more about travel in El Salvador



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