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Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2016 – Top Travel Adventures

This post is part 1 of 4 in the series Best of 2016

Jaguar spotting in Brazil, trekking the Andes in Peru, mud slogging and (really) close-encounters with condors in Ecuador, tapir sex, and more! Welcome to Part 1 in our Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2016 series–our guide to the Top Travel Adventures of the year. Part 2 covers the Best Hotels of 2016, Part 3 covers the Best Food and Beverages of the year, and Part 4 tells you all about our favorite Travel Gear of the year. But now, in no particular order, here are our…

Top travel adventures of 2016

Raimbow Mountain Ausangate Peru

Peru’s Rainbow Mountain which we visited during the Apu’s Trail hike around Ausangate.

Best mountain trek

Andean Lodges Ausangate Trek Peru

Karen hoofing it up an other Andean slope during the Apu’s Trail hike around Ausangate in Peru.

Everybody knows about the Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu, that’s why it’s so crowded you have to make your plans and reservations months in advance. But Peru is full of other even more spectacular ways to trek in the Andes. If you’re seeking time in the mountains, spectacular scenery, and difficult but rewarding trails then trekking around 20,945 foot (6,384 meter) Ausangate Mountain is hard to beat.

There are many ways to get into this region which is not far from Cusco. We went with Andean Lodges, which has built a string of comfortable lodges (wood stove for heat, no electricity, good beds in private rooms with bathrooms that offer hot water during certain hours), on their 4-day/5-night Apu’s Trail route around this massive and sacred mountain. It delivered everything we were looking for and then some, including visiting Peru’s increasingly popular Rainbow Mountain, then continuing down the trail to an even more spectacular high-altitude landscapes which nearly no one visits.

We haven’t loved a multi-day hike this much since we were tramping around the Himalayas.

Best slog through the mud

El Altar Trek Ecuador

The crater lake in El Altar volcano, our reward (plus condors!) for the muddy slog up.

El Altar is an extinct volcano so named because someone thought its nine peaks looked like nuns and friars worshiping. Nuns or not, it is a beautiful volcano with a lovely crater lake and it sits at the head of a wide, wind-swept valley. It’s the kind of beauty that needs to be earned, which may explain why the hike to El Altar (there are no roads, though you may see left over materials from one ill-fated attempt) is so difficult.

The trail starts from Hacienda Releche in the tiny town of Candelaria and almost immediately it is a steep, slippery slog up an increasingly muddy trail. We wore our rubber boots  (and you should too) and there were points on the trail when they were almost sucked off our feet by mud. The stuff was nearly knee-deep in places. Around six hours later we arrived at the Collares plain with El Altar just ahead of us.

This is where the owners of Hacienda Releche have built Refugios Capac Urcu (Capac Urcu is another name for El Altar) with plenty of dorm rooms with bunk beds and shared bathrooms and a big kitchen. You can carry up what you need (sleeping bag, food, etc) or hire a horse and horseman from the hacienda. After such a slog up we recommend spending at least two nights in the refugio. The plain and the volcano are lovely places to explore on foot but the weather at more than 11,000 feet (3,400 meters) is changeable so you’ll want to hang around for good weather for as long as you can.

Did we mention that El Altar is also condor country? When we hiked up the flank of the volcano to the crater lake we had an extremely close encounter with a condor that flew by at eye level no more than 10 feet (3 meters) from Eric. Check out our condor fly by video, for proof.

Best XXX wild animal encounter

Tapir sex

You can’t unsee this: tapir sex.

We hadn’t been in the boat for more than five minutes when our boatman from Pousada do Rio Mutum in Brazil’s Pantanal Norte cut the engine and our guide pointed out two tapirs swimming a few hundred feet in front of the boat. Though big and clumsy looking, tapirs are great swimmers and we watched in silence as they made it to shore. That’s when the male decided it was sexy-time and, after appearing to give the female a kiss (truly), he got down to business. Turns out they’re way more graceful in the water than they are in the bedroom. Cue Barry White.

Best horseback riding to an archaeological site

horseback riding ruins chiclayo peru

Riding easy-gaited Peruvian horses through protected dry forest to an archaeological site.

Peru is full of archaeological sites and we visited most of them by car and on foot. However, at Rancho Santana, near Chiclayo, you can visit way off-the-beaten-path sites on horseback. Swiss owner Andrea has about a dozen Peruvian Paso horses and offers a variety of rides (S/55, about US$17, for a three-hour ride to one site; S/75, about US$23, for a five-hour ride to three sites, or multi-day rides).

We chose the three-hour ride to Huaca Sontillo (sometimes written Santillo), passing through the Pómac Forest Historical Sanctuary, an enormous protected dry forest, via a private entrance that Andrea has special permission to use. It was hot and dry but the scenery was great and it was fun to experience the unique ultra-smooth gait of these horses (when horse and rider click it’s like riding a moving sofa).

The Sontillo site is only minimally excavated and when we walked to the top of the only visible structure there were still a lot of bits of pottery around. There is also basic accommodation at Rancho Santana (fan, bathroom) for those who want to hang out or do multiple rides.

 Best mystery from the air

nazca lines

The Nazca Lines are a unique combination of art, culture, and mystery and they’re best seen from the air – something their creators could never do (unless you subscribe to the alien artist theory).

No one truly understands how the Nazca Line in Peru were made or what they were for. That mystery makes them even more compelling. The best way to see massive earth art like the lines is from the air. Our thanks to Alas Peruanas for taking us on a 30 minute flight over the lines. The plane was small, the altitude was low, the turns were many, and the lines were amazing. We recommend staying at the new B Hotel Nasca Suites. It’s right across the highway from the airport and out of the hub-bub of central Nasca. A pool was going in when we were there too.

Best cave float

Bola do Quebo is about a 1-hour drive each way from Bom Jardim town in northern Brazil (about 40 minutes of the drive is on a dirt road, parts of which are very washboarded). The small operation at Bola do Quebo supplies beefy and smartly designed tubes, helmets, life vests, and water shoes for a 30 minute adventure down a 1.2 mile (2 km) stretch of the clear and fairly shallow River (R$75, about US$23 per person).

The highlight of the float is a 1,000 foot (304 meter) long cave which the river flows through. The heart-pumping entry into the cave takes you over two small but startling rapids which plunge you into the darkness of the cave. The combination of the bumpy ride and the sudden pitch blackness is dramatic and disorienting.

Need to know: As with 99% of the amazing watery attractions around Bom Jardim, you really need your own vehicle to get there. There is no food or beverages available on site. There is a passable toilet. Put on sunscreen. Don’t take anything that’s not waterproof with you on the tube. Put your sunglasses on a lanyard because you’ll want to take them off while you are in the dark cave. Wear a long-sleeve shirt or a skin for sun protection and to keep your arms from chafing on tube as you paddle and steer.

 Best drive for wildlife

Jabiru stork Transpantaneira Highway Pantanal Brazil

Huge jabiru storks, just one of the many species we saw at very close range while driving the Transpantaneira Highway in Brazil.

It took us eight hours to complete the 90 mile (145 km) Transpantaneira Highway from Pocone to Porto Jofre in the Pantanal Norte in Brazil. Why? Well, this dirt road is in pretty rough shape even under the best conditions. But the main reason the drive took so long was that we spent a lot of time stopped to look at and photograph wildlife. Here’s a short list of what we saw: hyacinth macaws, about 500 caiman, capybaras, great black hawks, cappuchin monkeys, cocoi herons, black-collared hawks, white-capped herons, jabiru storks, wood storks, crab eating foxes, rhea… We felt like Marlon Perkins (look him up, millennials). This critter-filled drive was worth every pothole, rut, and all 120+ of the (often super sketchy) wooden bridges along the way. 

 Best wild animal first

Jaguar pantanal brazil

You never forget your first time.

We spend a lot of time and energy trying to see wildlife. It’s one of our favorite things. Yet, despite years of looking and hundreds of miles of walking, we had never seen a jaguar in the wild. The pantanal region of Brazil is said to be one of the few places on earth where jaguar sightings are virtually guaranteed. We are skeptical of wildlife guarantees. Still, we headed to Hotel Pantanal Norte in Porto Jofre on the Cuiabá River at the end of the Transpantaneira Highway with high hopes. We were not disappointed. After a few hours on the river we saw a female jaguar and two older cubs on the bank in tall grass and we were able to observe them from our boat for a few minutes before the trio slipped deeper into the forest and out of sight. Sometimes you can believe the hype.

 Best drive for scenery

Sondondo Valley Peru

Part of the Sondondo Valley including slopes with Incan terraces which the locals still use to grow crops.

On our way to Puquio we missed the turn off for the Sondondo Valley and we’re very glad we returned later to explore it. The road into the valley is narrow but well paved and the valley itself varies from wide and semi-lush with herds of llamas and alpacas roaming around to narrow and cliff-lined, perfect for the condors who live here. There are also Incan terraces still being used by farmers, hot springs, and waterfalls. The tiny town of Andamarca seemed to have basic guest houses. The road through the valley appears to go all the way to Ayacucho, but we did not go that far so we don’t know if the paving continues or if the road quality worsens.

Best South American safari vehicle

 Refugio Ecologico Caiman safari vehicle

Safari in style at Refugio Ecologico Caiman in Brazil.

The open-sided, high clearance vehicles used for driving excursions and night safaris at eco lodges in Latin America are usually cobbled together rattletraps with uncomfortable seats and jarring suspensions. Not so at Refugio Ecologico Caiman in the Pantanal Sur in Brazil. The custom trucks used to transport guests on wildlife spotting excursions at this extraordinary private protected area  and eco lodge are brand new customized Toyota’s that are quiet, have comfortable padded seats, good suspension and are rugged enough to go off-roading where the animals are. There’s even a cool guide/spotters seat off the right hand corner of the front bumper. Seems like the jaguars like the vehicle too. We saw loads of them during our stay at Caiman.

 Best guide

Puma Tambopata Reserve Peru

Look closer. No, CLOSER. There’s a young puma looking back at you.

Rainforest Expeditions has been leading the eco way in the Tambopata area of southern Peru since they started as a macaw research and rescue center in 1989. The organization continues to do serious science (including brand new interactive Wired Amazon programs) and now operates three surprisingly upscale lodges in the area.

With chops like that it was no surprise that we had the best guide of the year during our stay with Rainforest Expeditions. His name is  Paul. He  grew up in remote village nearby on the Manu River and he knows Tambopata and its inhabitants intimately. True story: he had a pet jaguar growing up. He’s also funny and easy-going and willing to go the extra mile. For example, when he noticed cat prints and scat on a trail during a morning walk he suggested that we return to the same trail for a night walk to increase our chances of seeing the animal that left the pug marks.

The return visit paid off and we all got a (fleeting) glimpse of a young puma at night, something we never would have seen without Paul.

 Best THIRD visit to the Galapagos

Mating Blue Footed Boobies Galapagos

Blue footed boobies doing their bill-clacking mating dance in the Galapagos Islands.

Yeah, it was a Galapagos embarrassment of riches in 2016 with our third visit to Ecuador’s most iconic destination. You won’t believe us when we tell you it was work, but it was. Look! We did this travel guide to the Galapagos for Travel + Leisure magazine and this review of the fantastic Pikaia Lodge plus this piece about a new extra eco luxury boat.

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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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Dangerous Beauty – Los Nevados National Park & Ruiz Volcano, Colombia

Los Nevados National Park in central Colombia is a dangerous beauty full of high altitude landscapes carved by glaciers and volcanoes, including the Ruiz Volcano which has proven deadly in the past and is currently making its mighty presence felt again.

El Cisne PNN Los Nevados Colombia

Dangerously beautiful Los Nevados National Park in Colombia.

The dangerous beauty of Los Nevados National Park

Los Nevados National Park (Parque Nacional Natural Los Nevados in Spanish) was created in 1974. The park gets its name from a Spanish word commonly used for snowcapped mountains or volcanoes (nevado means snowcapped). There are a number of volcanoes within the 144,000 acre (58,300 hectare) park but the Nevado del Ruiz (Ruiz Volcano) is the biggest and baddest of them all.

In 1985 the 17,547 foot (5,389 meter) volcano erupted in the night and the glaciers and snowcap on its peak melted with devastating results. More than 25,000 people, mostly in the town of Armero, were killed as a river of mud and debris flowed down from the flanks of the Ruiz Volcano. It was the second deadliest volcanic eruption in history.

Nevado Ruiz vocano from El Cisne Los Nevados National Park

One of three vents on the Ruiz volcano shows off a dusting of snow in Los Nevados National Park.

The beauty of the park comes from those same volcanoes whose peaks we want to glimpse and whose glaciers and eruptions have created the landscape within the park. In 2009 Los Nevados National Park was the third most visited park in Colombia with more than 50,000 visitors (COP 57,000 or about US$18 entry fee including a mandatory guide) coming to see all that beauty. However, the park opens at the whim of its namesake volcanoes. If they are too active then the park is deemed too dangerous to visit and access can be restricted or stopped altogether.

Nevado Ruiz volcano Colombia

Wind, weather and seismic activity sculpt the landscape in weird ways in Los Nevados National Park. Here, rock and ash combine to create a moonscape on earth.

The park was in restricted access mode when we were there and the higher elevations, roads, lakes, trails and the El Cisne Refugio were all closed to visitors because of activity within the Ruiz Volcano. But that did not stop us.

Our all access park pass

Colombian national park officials kindly assigned us a park employee who took us on an overnight trip through the park, but first we had to deliver some condor food. Instead of taking the usual route into the park’s main Las Brisas entrance near the town of Las Esperanza, we drove in from Villa Maria along a rough back road carrying a dead calf in a bucket.

Paramo PNN Los Nevados Colombia

The high altitude páramo landscape in the park acts like a sponge and forms many small ponds and lakes.

Los Nevados park is home to a dozen or so Andean condors which were bred at the San Diego Zoo. The species is considered threatened as populations decrease and while park officials say the Los Nevados condors are thriving, they still support the community with food drops like the dead calf.

Frailejon Espeletia plant paramo Colombia

Frailejon, which remind us of Joshua trees, are a mainstay of the páramo landscape in the park.

About five hours later we finally entered the park. Los Nevados is a high altitude park and a kind of alpine tundra called páramo, which only exists in the northern Andes of South America, thrives here. The ground is covered with rugged tufts of grass, Joshua tree-like flowering frailejón plants and a weird low-growing, dark green dome cushion plants which, upon closer inspection, is made up of thousands of tiny plants. We also saw hundreds of rabbits but, sadly, not the puma or the tigrillo that also live here.

Paramo plants Colombi

Though it is called a cushion plant, this massive green dome is solid as a rock and made up of thousands of tiny, prickly star-shaped plants.

It was getting late so we headed straight for the El Cisne Refugio (named for one of the other volcanoes in the park) which is a huge building capable of housing up to 70 people. When the park is fully open there’s a restaurant as well. Because the park wasn’t officially open the normal dorm building was locked up tight. So we settled into a much smaller and more rustic building behind the larger structure. This is where park rangers and employees stay and it was our home for the night. There was a kitchen, a cold water bathroom and bunk beds plus electricity and, weirdly, a TV but no method of heating.

Centro de Visitantes El Cisne PNN Los Nevados

The El Cisne Refugio offers rooms and a restaurant.

Our park escort Hector explained that Los Nevados offers more than just views. There are hiking trails in the park as well including a three hour round trip hike to a glacial lake called Lake Otún at 12,800 feet (3,900 meters). The lake is full of trout and is a breeding ground for many types of ducks. There’s a cabin on the lakeshore as well and camping opportunities.

Los Nevados paramo frailejon

More páramo in the park.

The El Cisne Refugio is located at more than 13,000 feet (4,000 meters) and at this altitude it gets very cold the moment the sun goes down. As evening came we stayed outside as long as we could to watch the light change on the páramo and the hills that surround the small bowl where the buildings are located. Soon we retreated back inside where we bundled up in layers of wool and climbed into our sleeping bags for the night.

Los Nevados Frailejon Espeletia

Frailejon up close.

By 7 am the next morning we were back on the road, headed to a point from which we hoped to catch a clear view of the top of the Ruiz Volcano before clouds descended. We only got brief teases of the top as the clouds came and went, carried by strong winds. We’re told that July and August are the clearest months in the park, but even then cloud-free views of the high peaks are not guaranteed.

Nevado Ruiz panorama

When was the last time you drove to 15,512 feet? Here’s our truck at that altitude on the flanks of the Ruiz Volcano in Los Nevados National Park. Click here to see a larger version of his panoramic shot.

Ruiz Los Nevados altitudeWhat we did get was a milestone on our little road trip. As the surprisingly good dirt road through the park climbed and climbed we reached 15,512 feet (4,728 meters) on a cinder covered pass just below Ruiz Volcano–the highest elevation we’d driven to on the journey at that point. We also saw one of those San Diego condors and a páramo eagle soaring above us. Hector told us that the condors sometimes swoop down the snowy hillsides and brush their chests against the snow to clean their feathers.

PNN Los Nevados Colombia

Clouds descend over a craggy mountainside cut by glaciers and shaped by volcanic eruptions in Los Nevados National Park in Colombia.

Leaving Los Nevados was no less dramatic

The terrain in Los Nevados is constantly shifting due to wind, weather and seismic activity. When we were there a section of road was only marginally passable. The area had recently been crudely cleared so small park vehicles could get through, but there was no guarantee that our monster truck would be able to pass. We decided to take our chances and push forward through the park toward the main Las Brisas entrance anyway rather than backtrack over the terrible dirt road we’d taken into the park the previous day.

bad road Los Nevados National Park

There used to be a road in there somewhere…

This meant driving along a notorious stretch of road called “The Ss” because you have to navigate 17 switchback turns, some of them very, very tight for our long-wheel-base truck.Then we reached the semi-rebuilt wash-out area and managed to power through narrow spaces and deep ash to get through. This is the sort of stuff that Eric finds adventurous and Karen finds arduous.

Driving Los Nevados park Colombia

Our truck after Eric successfully negotiated his way through a sketchy roadless section. You can see the 17 switchbacks of “The Ss” in the background.

Just short of the main Las Brisas entrance we stopped at Chalet Arenales. The original structure burned down in 2010 and a new building (which is not in the chalet style) opened in 2014. It’s surprisingly modern and offers  a warm interior, free hot coffee and large windows which give great views onto the moonlike landscape of the park.

Chalet Arenales Los Nevados

Chalet Arenales in Los Nevados National Park offers free coffee and great views.

Many people only travel as far as the new chalet when they visit Los Nevados but we’re grateful to Colombian national park officials for finding a way for us to visit more of the heart of the park even during a time of restricted access. The unique páramo, extreme landscapes, rare wildlife and fleeting glimpses of the Ruiz Volcano made Los Nevados one of our favorite national parks on the journey so far.

Los Nevados National Park Colombia

This entrance to Los Nevados National Park can be closed whenever seismic activity within the park is deemed too high. Check the status before planning your visit.

The Ruiz Volcano is very, very active

And speaking of the Ruiz Volcano, it’s still very, very active. Most recently, Ruiz erupted again this month. No deaths have been reported so far, but the airport in nearby Manizales was closed. Check park status before planning a visit to Los Nevados.

Travel tip

Smart visitors to Los Nevados National Park combine it with a warm and relaxing visit to one of the many hot springs in the area where you can soak in water that’s naturally heated by the area’s volcanoes. These places range from basic pools to full service hotels. We soaked our bones at Termales El Otoño which has three big, clean pools surrounded by a large hotel with standard rooms and traditionally painted stand-alone cottages.

Termales El Otoño - Manizales, Colombia

One of the soaking pools at Termales El Otoño.

 

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Flying Over a National Park – Chicamocha Canyon, Colombia

The Chicamocha Canyon, between the cities of San Gil and Bucaramanga in central Colombia, was formed more than 46 million years ago and covers more than 100,000 acres (404,685 hectares) and is up to 6,500 feet (2,000 meters) deep. In other words, it’s one of the largest canyons in the world. There are a number of ways to explore Chicamocha Canyon, including two that involve traveling through the air.

Chicmocha Canyon Bucamaranga

Colombia’s Chicamocha Canyon, one of the largest in the world.

 

Paragliding over Chicamocha Canyon in Colombia

You can hike it, raft it, kayak it or visit the theme-parky Chicamocha National Park and ride a cable car over it (more on that later). But perhaps the best way to explore the Chicamocha Canyon is to paraglide over it. It’s certainly the most dramatic way.

Paraglide-Chicmocha-canyon

Paragliding is a great way to see Chicamocha Canyon.

When Parapente Chicamocha (parapente is the Spanish word for paragliding) offered to take us up, up and away we said yes. And we said it quickly before “I hate heights” Karen could change her mind.

Karen Paraglide Chicamocha Canyon

Karen wondering how she got herself into this paragliding mess just moments before take off over the Chicamocha Canyon.

We arrived at the launch site with owner Sergio and a team of wing wranglers and pilots. Then we stood around and watched the birds, waiting for them to catch thermals so that we could too. When the pros saw enough birds catching thermals it was time for us to try it too.

This involved getting into the paragliding harness in front of the paragliding pilot (you didn’t think they’d send us up alone, did you?) and then running off the edge of the canyon. Truth be told, Karen dragged her feet a bit. But even she ended up in the air where the thermals, bless them, carried us up a few thousand feet above the canyon floor.

Parapente chicamocha Canyon

You have to run off the edge of the canyon to begin paragliding over Chicamocha.

We spent about half an hour rising, circling, dropping and rising again over the canyon as the pilots worked the wing to direct us. Eric says the view was great. Karen never had her eyes open long enough to really appreciate it and her forearms are still sore from the death grip she had on her harness.

See what Eric saw, in our video from our paragliding adventure over Chicamocha Canyon, below.

 

National park or theme park?

Parque Nacional de Chicmocha National Park

They call it the Chicamocha National Park, but it’s more like the Chicamocha Theme Park.

The Chicamocha National Park (15,000 COP/about US$5) protects a section of the Chicamocha Canyon, but instead of spotlighting its natural beauty in the typical peaceful, passive way of most parks, this one shows off its considerable natural attributes in a theme park environment. There are ice cream shops, a synthetic ice skating ring, a goat park, some really, really strange sculptures and monuments and some zip lines.

Chicamocha National Park

These imposing statues at the Chicamocha National Park have something to do with the history and traditions of the Santander province in Colombia.

Chicamocha National Park

This enormous, spiky, modern sculpture greets visitors to Chicamocha National Park and is a monument to local Santanderean culture. We don’t know why there are goats.

There’s even a theme park ride of sorts. In 2009 the park debuted a four mile (6.3 km) cable car system, one of the longest in the world, which takes visitors from one edge of the canyon to the other and back again (40,000 COP/about US$13.50).

Teleferico Chicamocha Cable Car

One of the world’s longest cable car systems takes passengers across Chicamocha Canyon.

Check out the cable car ride over Chicamocha Canyon in our video, below.

Travel tip

San Gil may be the self-proclaimed adventure capital of the region, but unless you like a noise, dirty town with a bunch of hostels, skip it. Instead, continue past San Gil about 30 minutes to Barichara, the prettiest town in Colombia where preserved Colonial architecture, historic stone streets, peace, quiet and a wide range of hotels and restaurants (including budget-minded ones) await.

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Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2015 – Best Adventures & Activities

This post is part 1 of 4 in the series Best of 2015

Welcome to Part 1 in our Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2015 series of posts. Part 1 is all about the Best Adventures & Activities of the past year of travel on our little road trip through the Americas including cruising the Amazon River in Peru (in luxury and in a hammock), playing with gunpowder in a bar in Colombia and sky biking through the treetops in Ecuador (don’t miss our Amazon drone footage). Part 2 covers the Best Food & Beverages of 2015, Part 3 covers the Best Hotels of the year and Part 4 tells you all about our Travel Gear of the Year.

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

And now, in no particular order, here are the…

10 Best Adventures & Activities of 2015

 

Best walk through the tree tops: It’s more than a third of a mile (500 meters) long and up to 115 feet (35 meters) above the ground. It sways and creaks as it connects more than a dozen different platforms. It’s supported by enormous rain forest trees and there’s nothing else like it in the Peruvian Amazon basin. We’re talking about the Ceiba Tops Canopy Walkway at Explorama Lodge from which you can see toucans, tree frogs, monkeys and more all at eye level. Check out our Amazon drone footage from above the Canopy Walkway, above.

 

Caceria del Zorro horse race - Ibarra, Ecuador

Best insane horse race: Every October the town of Ibarra in northern Ecuador hosts a race that includes hundreds of horses and riders who parade around town, then leap down a series of steep cliffs (see above) before taking part in a track race in pursuit of a rider dressed as Zorro. Yes, that Zorro. It is breathtaking in more ways than one. Learn more about the annual Caceria del Zorro in our story about Ecuador’s craziest horse race for Afar.

 

Cock-of-Rock

Best cock sighting: The national bird of Peru is called the Cock of the Rock. It is a crazy looking thing, but not how you’re thinking (check it out, above). It’s also pretty rare and seeing one is not a guarantee. Seeing five in one day without a guide is pretty extraordinary, but that’s exactly what happened when we hiked the trail to the Gocta Waterfall in northern Peru. Just after reaching the 4km mark on the 5km trail we heard a really weird noise–like alien frogs. We stopped and looked around and soon saw a bright red flash in the rain forest. We hung around and looked and listened some more and then we saw three male Cock of the Rocks in the same tree just off the trail. They hung around for more than five minutes before flying off. On our way back out we saw another Cock of the Rock alone in a tree around the 3km trail marker. Our advice is to keep your eyes and your ears open on this trail. And even if you don’t see any Cock of the Rocks the waterfall is worth is. At 2,530 feet (771 meters) Gocta Waterfall is one of the tallest free-falling waterfalls in the world.

 

Amazon Ferry Iquitos Peru Hammock

Best bare bones Amazon River trip: At an average up river speed of less than 10 miles (15 km) per hour, it takes more than three days to travel up the Amazon River by cargo ferry from Iquitos to Yurimaguas, Peru (you can hack off a day or so going downstream in the other direction). We slept on the deck in hammocks (Karen is demonstrating, above), spent a lot of hours spotting blue and yellow macaws and pink river dolphins with our binoculars and generally slowed down to river time. It was like taking a multi-day trip on the Mississippi but with rarer wildlife.

 

Aria Amazon river boat - Iquitos, Peru

Best super luxe Amazon River trip: On the extreme other end of the Peruvian Amazon River Trip experience scale you will find the Aria Amazon river boat. This floating luxury hotel and fine dining restaurant lived up to the substantial hype with some of the best food we’ve had in Peru so far (the menu was created by Executive Chef Pedro Miguel Schiaffino who runs the award-winning Malabar restaurant in Lima), exceptional service, chic rooms with floor to ceiling windows, great guides and, of course, all that Amazon. Did we mention the air conditioning and the hot tub?

 

Playin Tejo - Salento, Colombia

Best explosive bar game: It’s called tejo and it involves a heavy metal disc (called a tejo) which you toss underhand toward an angled board covered in wet clay. Your goal is to hit pieces of paper stuffed with gun powder which are arranged around a metal ring pressed into the clay. You know you’re doing it right when the reaction between your tossed tejo, the gun powder and the metal ring causes an explosion. We played it in the otherwise tranquil mountain town of Salento, Colombia at the Los Amigos bar where they have a massive open air tejo area set up in the back. Pay 1,000 COP (about US$0.40) per person, grab a cold beer for 3,000 COP (about US$1.00), choose one of the half dozen or so tejo set ups and start tossing. You earn one point for the tejo which lands closest to ring. You get three points for an explosion. You get six points for landing in the center of the metal ring and causing an explosion. You get nine points for landing in center of metal ring without causing an explosion. The first person who racks up 25 points first wins. Though Karen hates loud noises, she somehow won anyway. Check out her winning form, above.

 

Masphi Eco Lodge sky baike jungle canopy

Best place to bicycle through the air: Masphi Eco Lodge in Ecuador is remarkable for a number of reasons, including top luxury deep in the rain forest and breathtaking architecture. Mashpi is also home to the only sky bike in the country. What is a sky bike? It’s an ingenious contraption that allows you to pedal your way across a taught line high above the ground (above). Think of it as horizontal zip lining on a bike. At Mashpi they’ve installed their sky bike through a particularly lovely patch of cloud forest and a leisurely round trip between two platforms gives sky bikers eye level views of the tree tops and the flowers and critters that live there.

 

 

Best death road: There are two ways to travel between Macoa to Pasto in Colombia: via a normal highway or via something called the Trampoline of Death. Guess which one we chose…To assuage her nerves, Karen crushed the pre-drive to do list. Water bottles were filled. Tire pressure was checked. The oil level was monitored. We were ready for the steep grades, blind corners, narrow stretches where two vehicles can’t possibly pass, potholes, rock slides and whatever else something called the Trampoline of Death might have in store. What we weren’t ready for was a recently graded surface, helpful safety signs and guardrails. Guardrails? We still had fun on the road and it is still challenging and requires even more concentration then usual, but the moral of this adventure is: don’t judge a road by its nickname. Check out the time lapse video from our death road drive, above.

 

Animals of Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve, Ecuador

Best Amazon adventure destination in Ecuador: Ecuador is blessed with a number of different areas from which travelers can access the Amazon Basin. We spent weeks exploring the Amazon along the Napo River out of a town called Coca which is the most popular gateway. Then we visited the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve in the Amazon Basin and it blew our minds. The waterways in the Cuyabeno area of Ecuador are much smaller and they flood and recede throughout the year. There are also far fewer lodging options in the Cuyabeno area then there are along the Napo which means fewer humans. This means the animals are more common and much easier to see. In three days we saw pink river dolphins, the smallest monkey in the world (the pygmy marmoset), huge tracts of primary rainforest, toucans, a pygmy potoo (look it up) and more. We saw so many animals we had to make a wildlife montage for you, above. Lodges in the Cuyabeno area of the Amazon Basin are fairly basic with varying degrees of electricity, hot water, etc. We recommend Tapir Lodge where the food is great, the solar and generator electricity is reliable and the private rooms are clean and comfortable. The biggest asset at Tapir Lodge is Kurt the owner. He is passionate about his slice of paradise and works hard to make sure his guests fall in love with it too.

 

Kuelap Fortress archaeological site - Chachapoyas, Peru

Best first Incan archaeological site: During the course of our Trans-Americas Journey we’ve explored more than 100 archaeological sites through the US, Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. None of them have been Incan sites, however, until we crossed into Peru and headed straight for the Kuelap Fortress, which is actually a pre-Incan site that was built by the Chachapoyas people in 1500s. The massive stone wall that encloses this site is nearly 2,000 feet (600 meters) long by nearly 400 feet (119 meters) wide. In places the wall is 62 feet (19 meters) high (check it out, above). Kuelap held thousands of people at it’s peak in distinctive round stone houses with thatch roofs. Despite its name, some archaeologists believe that Kuelap probably wasn’t a fortress at all but more of a sacred area used for ceremonies and rituals. Visiting Keulap is about to get even more adventurous. In late 2015 work began on a massive cable car system, the first in Peru, which will transport visitors from the village of Tingo Nuevo to the Kuelap site covering 2.5 miles (4 km) and rising more than 2,400 feet (730 meters) in 20 minutes. The new Kuelap cable car is expected to be finished in 2017.

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Photo Essay: Colombia’s Caño Cristales “Liquid Rainbow” River

Located in the vast and rarely visited Los Llanos area in Colombia, Caño Cristales has been called the river of five colors and the liquid rainbow. It’s also been called the most beautiful river in the world. We’ve seen a lot of rivers on our Trans-Americas Journey and we’re inclined to agree. It’s not easy to reach and, until the mid 2000s, wasn’t even open to tourism because of FARC activity. Those who do make it to the small town of La Macarena, the gateway for Caño Cristales, between June and November are rewarded with a natural spectacle not seen anywhere else in the world as rare and delicate water plants explode with color, flooding the already lovely river with red, blue, green, orange and yellow hues. Shades of red and green are most common, as you will see in our photo essay.

Cano-Cristales_Colombia IMG_2961 Liquid-rainbow-cano-Cristales-Colombia River-of-Five-Colors_-Macarena-Colombia Cano-Cristales_Macarena-Meta-Colombia Cano-Cristales-color-river IMG_3279 Cano-Cristales-Waterfall Cano-Cristales-rainbow-river IMG_3135 cano-Cristales-multicolored-river Cano-Cristales-plants Macarenia-clavigera Colombia-colored-River_Cano-Cristales

 

Check out this feature we did for BBC Travel for more about travel to Caño Cristales including how to get there, local legends, awesome community tourism and just a touch of science.

 

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