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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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How to Buy the Best Binoculars for Travel

If you’re like us, seeing wildlife is a big part of the thrill of travel and we’ve had plenty of exciting wild animal encounters throughout the Americas including an amazing array of birds in Belize, penguins in Antarctica and these guys in the Galapagos Islands. It helps that Karen inherited eagle eyes from her dad. It also helps to have a good pair of binoculars, like our new Steiner Optics Navigator Pro 7X30 binos (buy on Amazon or B&H), made by the only company in the world that focuses solely on binoculars. Of course, price matters. However, no matter what your bino budget is here are the basics about how to buy the best binoculars for adventure travel.

lizard on Steiner binoculars

Our Steiner binoculars made friends with the locals at Anaconda Lodge in the Amazon in Ecuador.

How to buy binoculars: key terms

All binoculars come with a confounding set of numbers, such as 8X42. Once and for all, here’s what those numbers mean.

The first number refers to the power of magnification. In the case of 8X42, those binoculars have the power to make things look eight times bigger than they would with the naked eye. So, if you’re looking at something that’s 800 feet away it will look like it’s only 100 feet away.

The number that appears after the X refers to the size of the objective lens in millimeters. The larger the number, the larger the objective lens. Why does that matter? Because larger objective lenses let in more light which means you see brighter images. This is especially important in low light situations like dense forests, cloudy days or at dusk or dawn.

Steiner binoculars - Cotopaxi volcano, Ecuador

Karen and her Steiners in Cotopaxi National Park in Ecuador.

How to buy binoculars: lens coatings

Like cameras, binoculars are only as good as the lenses and one of the key elements of the lenses is the coating on the outside. This coating controls how you see wave lengths of light which affects how you see color when using the binoculars. Low end binoculars often have lens coatings which drop some wave lengths which can result in color distortion.

Higher end binoculars, like Steiners, apply multiple coatings to ensure all wave lengths reach your eye ensuring that you see all colors true to life. Steiner actually created a new lens coating process for its binoculars.

Steiner binoculars - Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

Karen and her Steiners in the Galapagos Islands.

How to buy binoculars: focus

It’s true that different binoculars are suited to different needs because seeing a small close object in low light conditions, like spotting a bird in dense jungle, requires different performance than seeing a large object far away in bright light, like a whale in the ocean at distance. For most people, it’s not practical to buy binoculars for each and every situation. That’s where a little something called Sports Auto Focus, offered on many Steiner binoculars models, comes in.

Our Steiner binoculars have Sport Auto Focus and it’s terrific. Karen set the focus of the binoculars one time and the Sport Auto Focus now maintains her settings between 60 feet (20 meters) and infinity. This means she can be looking at a blue footed boobie on the shore of a nearby island one second, then whip around and look out to sea at a pod of dolphins in the far distance without the need to change the focus at all. It’s honestly our favorite thing about our Steiners.

Steiner-binoculars-searching-for-whales

Karen and her Steiners in the Galapagos Islands.

How to buy binoculars: durability

In recent years it’s become easier to find lighter binoculars that are still high quality, which is good news for travelers. But the truth is that quality lenses and a durable body add weight. Our Steiners, for example, weigh 18.5 ounces, in part because they are housed in tough rubber which guards against damage from drops and bumps and provides a comfy, grippy surface in your hands.

For us, a bit of extra weight was worth it for better lenses and better body protection and carrying our Steiners has never been an issue thanks, in part, to the nifty strap we talk about in the next section.

Besides dropping, the other big travel threat to binoculars is moisture inside the binoculars. We’ve taken our Steiners into many super humid situations with confidence because most Steiner models have a nitrogen pressure system which uses dry nitrogen inside the binoculars to reduce the internal oxygen content (and, therefore, any humidity in the oxygen) to a minimum.

How to buy binoculars: worthy accessories

Since Eric almost always has a camera to his face, Karen is the one most often using the binoculars and she’s been carrying binoculars around her neck for decades but she never went for the cross-chest strap accessory because, well, they just scream “bird geek!”. However, we got a cross-chest strap for our Steiners and it makes a world of difference.

First, the weight of the binoculars is evenly distributed, so neck ache is eliminated. The chest straps also means that Karen can walk quickly, run or even gallop on horseback without having a pair of binocular banging against her chest because the cross strap holds them in place. Yes, she looks like a bird geek, but the benefits are worth it.

Another smart accessory to consider is a small, detachable external floatation device that will keep your binoculars afloat if they fall into the water.

There are many more math-intensive things to consider–like field of vision,  zoom configurations and prisms–when buying binoculars, but these binoculars basics should get you started. This hyper-detailed binoculars buying guide from B&H is a great resource if you feel like studying up even more.

Steiner binoculars - TatacoaDesert, Colombia

Karen and her Steiners in the Tatacoa Desert in Colombia.

Steiner Optics supplied a pair of binoculars for us to use and review out here on the road.

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Better Than Boquete? – Cerro Punta, Panama

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

Quetzal Cerro Punta Rainforest Panama

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

Fastidious farmers

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

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

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

Los Quetzales Lodge Spa Panama

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

Sleeping and spa-ing in Cerro Punta

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

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

Hiking in Los Quetzales rainforest

Lush cloud forest in and around Cerro Punta, Panama.

Resplendant-quetzal

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

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

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

Quetzal with nest Panama

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

Los Quetzales Rainforest Cabins Cerro Punta, Panama

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

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

Hummingbird Panama

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

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

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Central America’s Most Infamous Jungle – Darién, Panama

Mention the Darién Jungle or the Darién Gap or just plain Darién and images of impenetrable greenery filled with hostile critters and even more hostile interlopers (drug runners, guerrillas and others) spring to mind. Like most places, however, there’s more to Central America’s most infamous jungle, which straddles the border between Panama and Colombia, as we learned when we traveled there for four days of hiking in the Darién Jungle.

Giant trees Darien jungle Panama

Things grow big in the remote, road less Darién Jungle.

Plenty to see here

Just because the Darién Jungle is remote, largely inaccessible and little-visited doesn’t mean there’s nothing to see there. In fact, that remoteness and inaccessibility means that the Darién Jungle is a haven for flora and fauna. The Panamanian portion is a lush rainforest with peaks up to 6,000 feet (1,830 meters) high and most of it is protected as the Darién National Park, the largest national park in Central America.

Flowers of Darien, Panama

Though green dominates the palette in the Darién, other colors assert themselves too.

On the Colombian side, the Darién changes into a 50-mile-wide marsh which is even more impenetrable than the jungle on the Panama side. Much of the marsh is protected as part of the Los Katíos National Park.  The two adjoining parks received UNESCO World Heritage Site status and the area is home to more than 450 species of birds and over 500 types of fish. The Darién is also a place where the communities, cultures and customs of the indigenous Kuna and Embera-Wounaan people are preserved.

Exploring the Darién Jungle with Don Michel

Frenchman Michel Puech has found so much to see and explore in the Darién that he’s spent more than 30 years in the Darién. In that time he’s developed a knowledge of the place and a bond with the people that allows him to take travelers deeper in to the Darién. Locals even call him “Don” Michel as an honorific so we were excited to explore the trails and waterways of the Darién with him and his company Panama Exotic Adventures.

Michel Peuch Panama Exotic Adventures, Panama

French tour company operator Michel Puech has spent 30 years in the Darién and earned the honorific “Don” from the locals.

But first, we had to get out of Panama City and reach Darién Province near the end of the road in Yaviza. Unlike the rest of the country, this paved road had a lot of serious checkpoints along it where everyone had to show proper documents and special permits to be in the Darién (Michel arranged our permits). Officials don’t want people entering the area willy-nilly because of the dangers which range from some of the world’s deadliest snakes to some of the world’s deadliest bad guys (guerrillas, drug traffickers, etc).

Goodbye roads, hello waterways and trails

Sabana River Boca de Lara Darien Panama

We give a local Wounaan woman a lift on the Sabana River through the Darién Jungle.

We reached the town of Santa Fe and left the road behind. From there the only way through the Darién was by floating on the waterways or hiking on the trails that criss-cross the vast area. We got into a wooden canoe with an engine and took it to the village of Boca de Lara where the Sabana and the Lara rivers meet.

Old growth trees - Darien Jungle Panama

The few inhabitants of the Darién Jungle have small-scale farm plots for subsistence farming but revere and protect old growth trees like this one.

Boca de Lara is a Wounaan village that was settled by the historically nomadic Wounaan in 1973 after the Panamanian government said any that place with 100 people or more would get a school. Despite the settlement, many Wounaan still go off into the jungle for periods of time.

Boca de Lara Wounaan village Darien, Panama

The Wounaan village of Boca de Lara in the Darién Jungle.

In recent years Michel has assisted Boca de Lara in many ways, including building his three room Dosi Lodge here along with the villagers using their traditional architectural style. The employees are Wounaan and lodge guests are customers for their handicrafts too.

Wounaan basket weaving Darien, Panama

Wounaan women work on their intricate, traditional weaving in the village of Boca de Lara in the Darién Jungle.

After eating lunch at Dosi Lodge we saw some of the handicrafts made by Wounaan women who traditionally go topless, including elaborate basket weaving using local reeds and natural dyes.

Wounaan woman - Boca de Lara, darien Panama

A Wounaan woman with traditional tattoos in the village of Boca de Lara in the Darién Jungle.

Boca de Lara Wounaan woman, Darien Panama

Wounaan women in the Darién Jungle traditionally go topless.

Hiking in the Darién Jungle

Later in the afternoon a Wounaan guide lead us on our first hike in the Darién Jungle. Commercial logging is a growing threat to the Darién but as we left the clearings around Boca de Lara village the jungle immediately closed in around us. The Wounaan have cleared some small-scale, subsistence farms in the Darién they’re tiny and spaced far apart with ample jungle left in between. The massive old-growth trees are obviously revered and left standing wherever possible, even in areas where the undergrowth has been cleared for a farm plot.

Boca de Lara Wounaan village, Darien, Panama

The Wounaan village of Boca de Lara as seen from a hilltop in the Darién Jungle.

After a brief hike we reached a ridge above the village near the spot where Spanish conquistador and explorer (back in the days when those two things went hand in hand) Vasco Núñez de Balboa saw the Pacific for the first time in 1500s. Balboa is considered to be the first European to lay eyes on the Pacific.

The French later stood near this same area and were inspired to consider the Darién as the first spot for their Panama Canal project because the natural waterways in the area seemed to make an easy route from ocean to ocean. The mountains they later discovered changed their minds and the French shifted focus to the Panama Canal‘s current site (thought they failed to complete it, leaving that task to the US).

Michel told us that this area was also used by the US to install a radar station after the attacks on Pearl Harbor the CIA later put in an airstrip to monitor drug trafficking through the Darién.

Filo del Tallo Lodge Meteti, Darien Panama Exotic Adventures

Buildings of the Filo de Tallo Lodge were built-in a traditional round style with thatch roofs and split bamboo walls. The carved wooden figure on top is traditional as well and it’s considered good luck when it topples off.

Our first day of hiking in the Darién Jungle behind us, we headed to Michel’s Filo del Tallo Lodge which is named after the massive reserve it adjoins. The place has been designed to work well in nature using traditional Wounaan building techniques including round shapes, thatch roofs and split bamboo walls that help keep interiors cool and carved wooden idols on top (it’s considered good luck when the carving topples over).

Poison Arrow dart Frof - Darien, Panama

This pair of poison dart frogs lived in our shower at Filo de Tallo Lodge in the Darién Jungle.

Parrots Filo de Tallo Lodge - Darien, Panama

These parrots live at Filo de Tallo Lodge and they like to be gently scratched.

Interiors at Filo de Tallo Lodge are well-appointed with good beds, mosquito nets and full service bathrooms including gorgeous carved wood sinks.Bonus: we had a pair of poison dart frogs in our shower. Furnished private patios are the perfect place for nature watching and we saw hummingbirds, parrots, toucans right from our patio.

The Darién’s complicated capital

The next day, shortly after day break, we were got back in a boat at Puerto Quimba for a trip up the Rio Iglesia through mangroves to the Gulf of San Miguel.

Mangroves on Rio Iglesia Darien Panama

Floating through the mangroves along sections of the Rio Iglesia, one of the waterways through the Darién Jungle.

Along the way we stopped on some surprisingly sandy beaches and bought some fish fresh off the fishing boat for dinner. We also visited remains of two Spanish-built forts which have been utterly re-taken by the jungle before stopping in La Palma, the Darién’s complicated capital.

Fishermen Gulf of San Miguel, Darien Panama

Fresh fish off this boat was turned into dinner in the Darién Jungle.

Ruined Spanish fort Darien jungle Panama

The Spanish built forts in the Darién Jungle, but the vegetation has long since reclaimed them.

With 4,300 inhabitants, La Palma is the most populous town in the region but that doesn’t mean it has more than one street which boasts a hospital, a police station plus a few hotels, bars and restaurants. Oh, and an airstrip. Michel said that In the bad old days when Manuel Noriega was still in power, planes from Colombia landed here three times a week  packed full of cash which Noriega then laundered in his banks.

La Palma capital Darien Provence Gulf of San Miguel, Panama

La Palma may be the capital of Darién Province but it’s not connected to the outside world by road and can only be reached on the water.

THE street in La Palma Darien, Panama

Downtown La Palma.

Meeting the Embera of the Darién

After another night in Filo del Tallo Lodge lodge we drove a short distance to Puerto Limon where we got into another wooden canoe for a trip on Rio Chucunaque to a trail head for more time hiking in the Darién Jungle. This was the most impressively virgin and dense jungle we’d seen yet and we spent four hours enjoying the silence and size of everything around us.

Canoe Rio Chucunaque Darien, Panama

Our river guide on the Rio Chucunaque through the Darién Jungle.

Exhausted but exhilarated we then visited the village of Alto Playona and met members of the Embera indigenous group before heading back to Puerto Limon and the lodge via the Rio Chucunaque. Howler monkeys and other critters we could hear but couldn’t see serenaded our journey from the river bank.

Alto Playona Darien Panama Rio Chucunaque

The Embera village of Alto Playona on the banks of the Rio Chucunaque in the Darién Jungle.

Peccary jaw bones Embera village house Darien Panama

Peccary (wild pig) jaw bones in an Embera house in the Darién Jungle.

Our toughest (and most snake-filled) hike in the Darién

The following day brought our toughest hike in the Darién. Though it only took two hours, the uphill terrain and need for our guide to machete his way through thick jungle had us all working hard.

Boa Constrictor Darien Panama

Yep, that’s a boa constrictor overhead.

Cuipo trees, with their bulbous bellies, towered above us and strangler figs snaked their way up tree trunks. The thick vegetation made spotting animals difficult, though there was no mistaking a six foot (two meter) boa constrictor in the canopy over head. We also saw two small fer-de-lance, one of the deadliest snakes in the world, on the trail before bidding goodbye to the Darién.

Hiking Darien Jungle, Panama

We were delighted to see so many enormous trees while we were hiking in the Darién Jungle.

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Sleeping Around on the Panama Canal – Panama

Anyone can cruise through the Panama Canal or visit one of the canal-side observation facilities, as we told you in our previous post about how to explore the Panama Canal. Few travelers know that it’s possible to sleep next to the Panama Canal in a converted US Air Force radar tower or even spend the night right on the Panama Canal in the only houseboat hotel in Panama. Here’s your guide to sleeping around on the Panama Canal.

Panama’s only houseboat hotel

Jungle Land Panama is Panama’s only houseboat hotel. On top of that, it’s located in a secluded section of Lake Gatún which forms a crucial part of the Panama Canal. Jungle Land Panama is the creation of Captain Carl, an expat from the US who has connected two houseboats, crafted a handful of simple but comfortable rooms and leads boat and kayak tours on the lake.

Jungleland PanJungle Land Panama floating hotel houseboat Panama Canalama floating hotel houseboat Panama Canal

Jungle Land Panama, the only houseboat hotel in Panama. Check in and sleep on the Panama Canal.

Panama  Jungle Land houseboat room Panama Canal

Comfortable, clean rooms onboard Jungle Land Panama houseboat hotel were designed for relaxation and a pretty much unobstructed feeling of being right in the jungle.

Kayaking the Panama Canal Lake Gatun - Jungle Land Panama

Many excursions from Jungle Land Panama houseboat hotel take guests on adventures around the waterways of Lake Gatún and the Panama Canal.

While staying at Jungle Land Panama you can go fishing, look for monkeys and caiman or just relax in the hammocks or on the two astro-turfed “lawns” on board. The food is terrific and Carl’s stories are entertaining but the best part is sleeping in a totally wild and peaceful arm of the lake just a short distance from the world’s busiest shipping channel.

Baby Caiman  Jungle Land Panama

A baby caiman discovered while exploring waterways of the Panama Canal with Jungle Land Panama houseboat hotel.

Panamanian Night Monkey  -  Jungle Land Panama

A rescued Panamanian night monkey lives at Jungle Land Panama houseboat hotel and sometimes agrees to interact with guests.

Lake Gatun Sunset Panama Canal -Panamanian Night Monkey  -  Jungle Land Panama

Sunset over the jungle seen from Jungle Land Panama houseboat hotel. It’s hard to believe the world’s busiest shipping channel is just a stone’s throw away.

Cunard's MS Queen Elizabeth cruising the Panama Canal

During one excursion from Jungle Land Panama houseboat hotel we nearly bumped into the MS Queen Elizabeth as she made her way through the Panama Canal.

From radar tower to hotel on the Panama Canal

In 1965 the US Air Force built a radar tower on the banks of the Panama Canal and by 1969 is was being used by the Federal Aviation Administration to control air traffic in the area and by the Panama Canal Commission as a communications tower.

In September of 1988 the radar tower became Site One in the Caribbean Basin Radar Network which was used by the US government to monitor, spot and deter planes suspected of carrying drugs north from South America.

In 1995 the US decommissioned the tower and in 1996, the tower was transferred to Panamanian control.  After extensive renovation, the round tower was transformed into the Canopy Tower hotel.

Old US Radar tower - Canopy Tower Lodge, Panama

Canopy Tower hotel, on the banks of the Panama Canal, is shaped that way because it used to be a US military radar tower.

Located within the Soberanía National Park, in which more than 500 species of birds have been identified, Canopy Tower soon became a magnet for bird watchers, including some famous ones like Oprah Winfrey, eager to explore the surrounding rainforest and spot wildlife from their own rooms which are at tree top level.

Rainforest,canal and skyline view - Canopy Tower Lodge, Panama

Rainforest, the Panama Canal and the skyline of Panama City as seen from the roof deck of the Canopy Tower hotel.

birdwatching Canopy Tower Lodge, Panama

The roof deck of Canopy Tower is at tree top level, perfect for bird watching.

We spent a lot of time gawking at toucans, tanagers and tityras as well as small groups of mantled howler monkeys, Geoffroy’s tamarins, sloths and a bunch of stuff we’re not smart enough to identify from the window-filled public spaces, rooftop deck (where you can also see the nearby Panama Canal) and even from the huge window in the shower in our room.

Keel Billed Toucan Canopy Tower Lodge, Panama

One of many toucans we saw right from Canopy Tower hotel on the banks of the Panama Canal.

Geoffroys Tamarin, Panama

There are more than just colorful birds in the protected rainforest around Canopy Tower hotel. We also saw howler monkeys and Geoffroy’s tamarins like this one.

And don’t worry. You won’t be roughing it in barracks with a bunch of drill sargeants. Rooms are clean, simple and comfortable with fans and good screens to keep critters out. Electric towel heaters and clothes drying areas help keep the jungle damp at bay.

Birdwatching Canopy Tower Lodge -Parrot Aracari Motmot

More than 500 species of birds have been documented in the rainforest around Canopy Tower including (left to right) mot mots, parrots and aracaris.

There’s an ear plug dispenser because the all-metal structure can creak and groan but we never heard anything. You’re more likely to hear frogs and owls in the night.

Capybara Canopy Tower Lodge, Panama

A small herd of capybaras, the largest rodent in the world, seen during a wildlife walk around Canopy Tower.

The food is plentiful and terrific and meals often include local seasonal specialties like palm nuts. The guides are knowledgeable, patient and enthusiastic and the trips, including hiking along the wildlife filled (but not very ecologically named) Pipeline Road and night drives, are fulfilling.

Hey, if it’s good enough for Oprah…

Cocktails on the Panama Canal

Enjoying a Panamanian rum cocktail on the Panama Canal.

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