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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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The Enduring Legend of El Dorado – Lake Guatavita, Colombia

You probably know at least the basics of the legend of El Dorado which tells of a lake filled with gold and jewels whose secrets and treasures eluded Spanish conquistadors and modern day treasure hunters for centuries. Like most good stories, this one survives despite a profound lack of proof and Lake Guatavita in Colombia is ground zero for the enduring legend of El Dorado.

The enduring legend of El Dorado

This part of Colombia is home to the Muisca people. In their heyday they were ruled by kings who were appointed only after going through a tough vetting process and those ultimately chosen were celebrated in an elaborate ceremony which, legend has it, involved the newly minted king covering himself with gold and paddling out into a lake before jumping in and washing the gold into the water.That habit earned the king the nickname “El Dorado” or, The Golden One.

It’s said that more gold and jewels were tossed into the lake for good measure and you can see an elaborate hand made rendering of a Muisca raft in solid gold at the fantastic Gold Museum in Bogotá.

Muisca god Guatavita Bogota Gold Museum

This solid gold recreation of part of the mythical Muisca lake ceremony is on display in the Gold Museum in Bogotá.

Needless to say, a shiny legend like that got the gold-hungry Spanish conquistadors all in a tizzy. In their inimitable style they suppressed the Muiscas and forced them to form a macabre bucket brigade to try to drain the lake. After months of effort the water level had gone down just a few feet. Then the Spanish shifted gears and forced thousands of men into the task of cutting a notch in the rim of the crater to drain the lake.

That effort dropped the water level by about 20 feet (six meters), revealing some paltry trinkets before the support system collapsed killing many.

And it wasn’t just the Spanish that were desperate to get their hands on the El Dorado treasure. A British group arrived with a steam pump and dug tunnels to try to drain the lake and failed. Treasure hunters were arriving as recently as the 1930s when hard-hat divers schlepped up to the crater, dove in and explored the lake’s muddy bottom for treasure. Nada.

 Travel to Lake Guatavita

These days Lake Guatavita is a protected are (so leave your SCUBA equipment and pick axes at home). You can travel there to see it for yourself during an easy day trip from Bogotá (about two hours and 35 miles (56 km) each way along a scenic but windy and narrow paved mountain road). If you don’t have your own wheels there are plenty of tour companies in Bogotá that offer group outings.

Lake Guatavita Legend of El Dorado Bogota, Colombia

Lake Guatavita, where the legend of El Dorado lives.

In 2000 a conservation group took over Lake Guatavita and the surrounding area and created a protected zone. Workers spent six years putting in excellent brick and stone trails and letting most of the protected area regenerate after years of clearing, farming and hunting.

You must enter with a guide during one of the timed tours (last entry is at 4 pm; the site is closed on Mondays except during long weekends when they open on Monday but close on Tuesday; 14,000 COP/about US$4 for foreigners). Our tour took about an hour during which we stopped in a replica of a traditional Muisca roundhouse for a cultural cram session, then walked slowly along a short, easy trail (with a few steep sections) during which our guide explained more about the region, the lake and the legend (all in Spanish).

Once we reached the crate’s edge our guide pointed out the and could look down into the lake our guide left us to our own devices to  hike higher up to other view points. Gold or no gold, Lake Guatavita, with its green water, swirling mists, tenacious vegetation and lingering legend, is a lovely spot as you can see in our drone footage from Lake Guatavia, below.

 

Travel tip: We struck real gold when we were tipped off to a restaurant called Le Petit Alsace in the nearby town of Guasca (look for the French flag flapping in the breeze shortly after you turn off the main road toward Guasca, cash only, only open on weekends).

Le Petit Alsace - Guasca, Colombia

A typical (and delicious) plate at Le Petit Alsace.

Here, French chef Gilbert Staffelbach turns out escargot, beef Bourguignon, duck ala orange, rabbit in wine and more in a rustic cabin as accordion music plays and he floats from table to table wearing full chef whites and a toque. Be sure to order the cheese plate which comes loaded with options made in-house using milk from his own herds of goats and water buffalo.

Chef Gilbert Staffelbach, Le Petit Alsace - Guasca, Colombia

Chef Gilbert Staffelbach of Le Petit Alsace with just some of the cheeses he produces.

 

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Mountain Mercy – Minca, Colombia

After a few days in the sweltering beach town of Taganga and in sunny, coastal Tayrona National Park we were more than ready for a cool down. In northern Colombia, with its sweaty, slow, Caribbean heat, that means one thing: time to travel to the mountain town of Minca.

The road up to Minca, about nine miles (14 km) from Santa Marta, is narrow, winding and rough but we were undeterred in our quest to get to Finca San Souci which we originally read about the finca in this post from the folks at Life Remotely. We were not disappointed.

Minca view Los Pinos Colombia

The town of Minca, Colombia is in the Sierra Nevada mountains which means cooler temperatures and views like this.

Cool camping in Colombia

Started nearly 20 years ago by Chris, from Germany, and his Colombian wife, Finca San Souci has some basic rooms but we jumped at the chance to do some camping in Colombia and set up our tent for 10,000 COP (about US$4) per person per night including access to a clean cold water shower, two shared toilets and a very cool outdoor kitchen with running water and a fireplace.

There’s also a small swimming pool at Finca San Souci but we are delighted to say it was too cool to use it. At more than 2,000 feet (600 meters) in the Sierra Nevada mountains, Minca delivered the cool temperatures we were after.

Tip: if you’re going to camp in Minca bring groceries and supplies from Santa Marta. There are very few stores or facilities up in Minca. There are no ATMs in Minca either.

SteriPen water purification Minca Colombia

Karen, left, and Teresa (part of the duo we shipped our vehicles with from Panama to Colombia) in a battle of the SteriPENs in the outdoor kitchen at Finca San Souci in Minca.

Travel is better with friends

Another great amenity? Travel mates. Since shipping our truck from Panama to Colombia, we’d been convoying around Colombia with our awesome shipping partners, George and Teresa and “Vida”, their (mostly) trusty Toyota. They’d come up to Minca with us and as we set up our tent on the big, flat lawn they relaxed since Taco has a pop up roof tent that makes camping a breeze.

Besides cool weather, Minca is known for its coffee and its natural beauty. There are hiking trails past waterfalls and up to scenic viewpoints like Los Pinos at more than 5,500 feet (1,700 meters). Wildlife loves the region too. We saw toucans every day in the trees near our tent.

Toucans Minca Colombia

Toucans were our neighbors a we camped at Finca San Souci in Minca.

Minca was one of the most relaxing places we visited in Colombia and we still can’t figure out why there aren’t more tourists in Minca. We liked it so much that the four of us ended up staying for three days and in all that time only two other guests showed up at Finca San Souci.

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More Jungle In the Jungle – Mamoní Valley Preserve, Panama

Nearly 13 years ago Nathan Gray, founder of the ground-breaking Earth Train  peer-to-peer student activism movement in the US, was looking for a new home base for his seemingly boundless philanthropic efforts. A friend recommended Panama as a place with lots of land just waiting for Earth Train to protect it and lots of young people in need of empowerment. So Nathan got on a plane, then he got on a bus, then he got on a truck taxi and soon he found himself in Mamoní Valley. That’s when a Panamanian woman sitting next to him mentioned that her family was selling a chunk of property nearby. Nathan toured the property later that day and soon he was the owner of 198 acres (80 hectares). The Mamoní Valley Preserve was born – part nature reserve, part environmental education center, part eco adventure travel destination.

Mamoni Darien Panama

Earth Train’s Mamoní Valley Preserve works to turn cleared farm and ranch land back into this: lush jungle and vibrant waterways.

From ranch land to reforestation

Like so much of the land in the area, the property had been cleared for cattle pasture so Nathan, a growing Panamanian Earth Train team and a crew of volunteers began reforesting the 198 acres (80 hectares) with indigenous plants and trees. Soon the streams cleared up and wild animals returned.

Bamboo was planted and it quickly began providing building materials for a true environmental retreat and education center where Nathan’s dreams of educating and empowering young people to lead other young people into a better environmental future could be realized.

Mamoní Valley Preserve , Panama

Reforested land around Centro Mamoní is criss-crossed with trails like this one.

Now Centro Mamoní has four two-level, mostly open-air wood and bamboo sleeping structures with room to pitch tents on the upper floor and bathrooms with showers and composting toilets on the ground floor. There’s also a large kitchen and a dining/meeting area with satellite internet all powered by a hydroelectric generator on the grounds.

Centro Mamoní, Darien Panama

One of the two-level, open air bamboo and wood sleeping structures at Centro Mamoní.

Hiking at Mamoní

We visited Centro Mamoní with Nathan and hiked a loop trail that took us up and down through the lush jungle and across creeks. We dove into swimming holes and stopped at lofty viewpoints where we could see the Caribbean Coast and the famed Kuna Yala, homeland of the Kuna (sometimes called Guna) people.

Dart Frog, darien jungle, Panama

We saw this dart frog (named for the shape of its head) while hiking on trails around Centro Mamoní in Panama.

Along the way we saw a dart frog (not a poison dart frog – this one is named for the shape of its head, red spider monkeys, helicopter dragonflies, tiny black frogs, a centipede that smelled like almonds because it protects itself by secreting cyanide (cyanide smells like almonds) and a rare caecilan which is an amphibian that looks like a worm or snake. It amazed us all, even Nathan. Cougars and harpy eagles have also been spotted at Mamoní since reforestation started taking hold.

 caecilan Darien Panama - giant worm

This rarely spotted caecilan, an amphibian which looks like a worm or really weird snake, was spotted on a trail in the Mamoní Valley Preserve in Panama.

You can also go kayaking within the Mamoní Valley Preserve and even hike from ocean to ocean through the preserve since it exists in the narrowest part of the Panamanian Peninsula.

Modern Mamoní

Mamoní now protects more than 12,000 acres (48,567 hectares) including most of the vital Mamoní watershed, six of its tributaries and more than 50 miles (80 km) of streams.

The legendary Dr. Jane Goodall has visited Mamoní and the center has hosted her Roots & Shoots environmental program for 70 students.

bumpy tree Darien jungle Panama

This tree with an odd bumpy trunk is just one of the native species that have been brought back in the Mamoní Valley Preserve thanks to reforestation efforts by Earth Train.

Mushrooms darien Jungle Panama

With few visitors and air-tight environmental protection all kinds of species flourish in Panama’s Mamoní Valley Preserve.

Mamoní abuts he Chagres National Park and an area inhabited by the Kuna (also called Guna) people, Panama’s largest indigenous group, and Earth Train works closely with the Kuna Congress (the indigenous group’s autonomous government) to promote environmental protection.

Junglewood, a program run by Grammy award-winning producer Rob Griffin, brings musicians to an outdoor amphitheater on the Mamoní property for outdoor concerts that are truly in tune with nature.

Panama-Flower

Wild beauty in the Mamoní Valley Preseve in Panama.

Earth Train recently opened a campus, designed by a protégé of architect Frank Gehry, near Panama City in order to offer even more environmental education to even more people.

Pre arrange your visit to Mamoní Valley Preserve and Centro Mamoní, just two hours from Panama City, by contacting Earth Train by email at info AT earthtrain DOT org. The cost of your visit will help fund the purchase and protection of more land and the creation of more environmental education programs.

Fireworks-flower-tree-Panama

Bursts of color in the green, green, green Mamoní Valley Preserve.

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Chaguitillo Petroglyphs, Selva Negra Ecolodge & Jinotega – Around Matagalpa, Nicaragua

The mountains north of Managua are home to more than just Matagalpa. Unwilling to leave the cool weather at these higher elevations we lingered in the hills traveling to the Chaguitillo petroglyphs (with an unexpected horse parade thrown in for good measure), Selva Negra Ecolodge (where we narrowly escaped a coral snake and a falling tree limb) and the caffeinated yet somehow sleepy town of Jinotega.

Petroglyphs & ponies

There is a museum in the town of Chaguitillo which displays the many pre-Columbian artifacts which have been found in the area. However, when we visited the town we went straight to the river where we saw large petroglyphs (ancient stone carvings) right along the banks next to swimming children and women doing their laundry. Talk about living history.

Chaguitillo ancient rock petroglyphs Nicaragua

River side petroglyphs in the town of Chaguitillo, Nicaragua.

We probably couldn’t have gotten to the museum anyway since Chaguitillo was busy hosting a major celebration and a huge parade of horses had taken over the streets.

Chaguitillo petroglyphs Nicaragua

River side petroglyphs in the town of Chaguitillo, Nicaragua.

Extreme hiking at Selva Negra Ecolodge

You can visit Selva Negra Ecolodge coffee plantation and farm, about 15 minutes north of Matagalpa, as a day trip for a tour of their coffee operation which produces 400,000 pounds (182,000 kilos) of organic Arabica beans a year, hydroponic and organic garden, flower farm, dairy and cheese making facility and excellent German/Nica restaurant (don’t miss the schnitzel), but why not stay a night or two? That way you get to enjoy Selva Negra’s rambling array of accommodations–from cottages to hotel rooms–on-site chapel, pine forest and network of hiking trails through some of their 400 acre (160 hectare) property.

Organic Garden at Selva Negra Ecolodge - Matagalpa, Nicaragua

Part of the organic farm at Selva Negra Ecolodge in Nicaragua.

The Kuhl family, a German clan that’s owned Selva Negra Ecolodge since 1975, is serious about the “eco” part of the name with green measures including the use of eucalyptus and papaya as natural pesticides on the farm, bio gas is produced from waste products and used to fuel the workers’ kitchens, there’s a massive earthworm composting operation and they even hope to add a windmill and get off the grid entirely.

chapel Selva Negra Nicaragua

The chapel at Selva Negra Ecolodge in Nicaragua.

There’s a large network of trails through Selva Negra’s hilly property. We spent a morning exploring some of them, hiking up and down extreme, slippery slopes (we may have wandered off trail once or twice in search of the sounds of bell birds and howler monkeys). Then it started to pour making the ground even more treacherous.

View of Matagalpa, Nicaragua from the trails above Selva Negra

The view down to the town of Matagalpa from one of the hilltop trails on the property of Selva Negra Ecolodge.

By the time we’d hiked/slid down the trail to flat ground we were wet and muddy. As we walked along the final stretch of trail leading back to the lodge a five foot (1.5 meter) very venomous coral snake slithered across the trail in front of us.

As our heart rates were returning to normal the wind suddenly picked up and we heard an ominous cracking noise above us. We both instinctively ran as a big tree limb came crashing down on the trail behind us. But, yeah, come and hike. Just maybe not in a rain and wind storm.

Ruined tank Selva Negra Matagalpa nicaragua

You can’t miss the old tank which marks the turn off to Selva Negra Ecolodge in Nicaragua.

The coffee-laced charms of Jiontega

It’s not likely that Jinotega will make it to the top of anyone’s travel hot list for Nicaragua. The area saw intense fighting between the Saninistas and occupying American troops between 1927 and 1934 and in the 1970s the area was devastated again during battles between troops controlled by President Anastasio Somoza vs. a civilian rebellion. Somoza was defeated on July 19, 1979 but in the 1980s fresh battles broke out between the new Sandinistas and CIA-backed contras.

Today Jinotega, which is known as La Ciudad de las Brumas (City of Mists) and La Ciudad de los Hombres Eternos (City of Eternal Men), is calm. What it lacks in major tourist attractions it makes up for in peace, quite and coffee.

Jinotega Nicaragua

Coffee, not Contras, are what Jinotega, Nicaragua is known for these days.

We were surprised to find Hotel Café where owner Maria Teresa, who also owns Hotel Estancia La Casona in Managua, has created a stylish, homey, well-appointed haven in Jinotega. Another pleasant surprise in Jinotega was the town’s tasty, cheap eats.

Don’t miss Soda el Tico which had some of the best steam table fare we had in all of Nicaragua (much of the budget food in Nica is served to you by ladies at a huge steam table full of choices). We had fantastic beef with home made chimichurri sauce, moist chicken kababs and delicious fresh maracuya (passion fruit) juice for just a few bucks. There’s even some good street food in Jinotega and readers of this travel blog know how we feel about street food.

At the entrance to the town cemetery you’ll find La Taberna. Head inside the building that’s adorned with river stones and you’ll find a dimly lit bar with bark-paneled walls, raw wood furniture, an ecclectic sound track (from Lady Gaga to Enrique lgesias) and a lively crowd of locals who come for all of that plus ice cold beer.

Cafe Flor de Jinotega - coffee cooperative Nicaragua

Good coffee and creative decor at the Cafe Flor coffee co-op cafe in Jinotega, Nicaragua.

Of course, there’s awesome coffee in Jinotega too. The department of Jinotega (essentially a county) produces almost all of the Nicaraguan coffee. Our favorite cafe in Jinotega was Casa de Don Colocha which got our vote not for its coffee (which is great and comes out of a real Italian machine and they even have iced coffee) but for serving the best cinnamon roll in Central America.

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The Other Half – Corcovado National Park, Osa Peninsula, Drake Bay, Costa Rica

You can explore the Osa Peninsula in Southern Costa Rica from two main gateways: Puerto Jimenez on the east side and Drake Bay on the west side. Both gateways give you access to Corcovado National Park, but in very different ways. We first traveled to Puerto Jimenez and explored this wild peninsula from that side. Then we headed for Drake Bay to see how the other half lives.

Drake Bay, with its bustling fishing village, hotels and guesthouses, sport fishing operations, even a 13 platform zip line, felt busier and more built-up than the Puerto Jimenez side of the peninsula. however, Drake Bay is still one of the least visited areas of Costa Rica and the wildlife that the Osa Peninsula is famous for is all around you–you just have to get out of Drake Bay to see it. Luckily, that’s easy.

Osa Peninsula beaches Corcavado National Park, Costa Rica

Pristine beach just down the coast from Drake Bay on the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica.

Corcovado National Park by boat

From Puerto Jimenez our explorations of the Osa had been on foot and we never really entered Corcovado National Park at all. On the Drake Bay side of the peninsula it was all about water access and we finally got into the park itself on a day trip to the San Pedrillo Ranger Station entrance of Corcovado National Park which started off with a 30 minute boat ride (US$85 per person including boat, guide, lunch and US$10 per person entry fee).

Rough coastline and beaches  in Corcavado National Park

Rugged coastline within the boundaries of Corcovado National Park on the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica.

From there we waded through water to reach a hump of high ground covered in secondary forest and primary forest which we walked through for about an hour and a half spotting spider monkeys, tree frogs, agoutis and lots of birds–including squirrel cuckoos and mangrove cuckoos–along the way.

We were hoping, as we always do, for a glimpse of a tapir as well. They’re known to live in Corcovado but they’re most common at the La Sirena entrance which is more difficult and more expensive to get to from Drake Bay.

The flat, shaded, slightly muddy trail ultimately spit us out on the beach which we walked along before heading back to the San Pedrillo Ranger Station for a picnic lunch with ocean views.

White-nosed-coati-Corcavado

A white-nosed coati roamed around as we ate lunch on the grassy picnic area in front of the San Pedrillo Ranger Station entrance of Corcovado National Park in Costa Rica.

After chowing down and watching the antics of a disturbingly tame white-nosed coati looking for handouts we hiked up a different trail for about 20 minutes to reach a lovely waterfall and swimming hole. However, we were almost stopped in our tracks by soldiers.

Monkey skull Corcavado National Park, Costa Rica

A monkey skull along the trail in Corcovado National Park in Costa Rica.

When army ants attack

About midway up the trail to the waterfall we noticed that the ground appeared to be moving. It only took a split second to realize that millions of army ants were swarming all around us. We didn’t need to wait for our guide to tell us to run and we all sprinted through the seething mass. Miraculously, only a few of us got bit.

San Pedrillo River Corcavado National Park, Costa Rica

The San Pedrillo River in Corcovado National Park in Costa Rica.

San Pedrillo waterfall Corcavado National Park, Costa Rica

We braved swarming army ants to reach San Pedrillo waterfall in Corcovado National Park in Costa Rica.

On our way back down the trail, after a refreshing dip in the swimming hole below San Pedrillo waterfall, we found that the army ants were still swarming over the trail right where we’d left them. This time we conceded defeat and bush whacked our way through the undergrowth off the trail, giving the ants a very wide berth.

Tree butress Corcavado National Park, Costa Rica

In the shallow soil of Corcovado National Parks trees need buttressed roots like this to help keep them upright.

Great Curassow Corcavado National Park, Costa Rica

A great curassow in Corcovado National Park in Costa Rica.

Way too close for comfort

Our encounter with the army ants was nothing, however, compared to Eric’s stand-off with a pack of wild peccaries.

It all started when Eric headed out on a trail to explore more of the bays and beaches around Drake Bay. He rounded a bend and saw some white-lipped peccaries on the trail in front of him. We’ve seen (and smelled) peccaries in the wild before but this time was different. Instead of giving Eric a cranky glare then going about their business, these peccaries, which look like boars or wild pigs but aren’t, quickly closed the ground between them and Eric causing a face off between man and a whole mess of beasts.

White Lipped Pecary Osa Peninsula Corcavado National Park

Just one of the white-lipped peccaries that menaced Eric on a trail near Drake Bay on the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica.

We later learned that run-ins with packs of peccaries 50 or more strong are not unheard of in these parts. We’re not sure how many were in the pack that Eric encountered but they were clacking their self-sharpening tusks alarmingly and a few came to within five feet of him.

We only have one or two pictures of this pig/man face off because Eric was actually swinging his camera around as a form of defense. Yeah, that’s how serious it was. Though the most common advice in a situation like this is to climb a tree, Eric sought higher ground by walking uphill and the groundskeeper of a nearby hotel the showed him a trail that dropped back down onto the main trail beyond where the peccaries were located.

Scarlet Macaws Corcavado National Park, Costa Rica

Scarlet macaws near Corcovado National Park in Costa Rica.

Making your Drake Bay entrance

You can drive right to Drake Bay or even fly in. We chose to make our Drake Bay entrance by boat from Sierpe and what an entrance it was. After parking our truck in the guarded lot at the boat dock in Sierpe we headed down the Sierpe River in a open-sided boat.

Boat from Sierpa to Drake Bay Costa Rica

Leaving the town of Sierpe in our boat, headed for Drake Bay.

We sped past huge crocodiles and trees full of birds along mangrove-lined waterways. Eventually the river started widening as we approached the mouth of the river where it flows directly into the Pacific Ocean.

Crocodile River river Osa Peninsula Costa Rica

Massive crocs like this were a common sight during our boat ride up the Sierpe River to Drake Bay.

At this point the captain told us to put on our life vests. It can be a rough ride when rivers meet oceans but we made it through without even getting splashed. We scanned the surface for signs of dolphins and soon the calm arc of Drake Bay came into view.

Spotted dolphins Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica

Spotted dolphins paying in the Pacific near Drake Bay, Costa Rica.

Hotels in Drake Bay

Our boat dropped us off at Aguila de Osa Inn, which we’d chosen because the hotel is part of the Greentique Collection of sustainable hotels and because we simply had to meet owner Bradd Johnson. Bradd opened the lodge 20 years ago making him a card-carrying member of the Costa Rican Eco-Tourism Early Adopters Club. Okay, we just made that club up, but it really should exist.

Bradd, a super gregarious US native, originally bought property on the mainland of Costa Rica before realizing that Drake Bay was poised for an eco-tourism boom and could use a decent hotel. The eco part evolved along with Bradd’s awareness and is now a major focus.

Of course they recycle, but with a twist. Recycleables are given to local school children who collect the money for the items and use it to improve their schools. All guests get a corn-based, totally biodegradable and reuseable water bottle. All staff members are from the local community.

Gladiator Tree Frog Osa Peninsula Corcavado National Park

A gladiator tree frog spotted on the grounds of the Aguila de Osa Inn in Drake Bay, Costa Rica.

Aguila de Osa’s 11 rooms and two suites have gorgeous floors and handmade furniture in woods that are no longer available but were plentiful during construction and much of the hotel was built by hand. Though Bradd brought in a full arsenal of power tools his local workforce preferred their own traditional tools.

Many of those original construction workers went on to full-time jobs at the hotel and some of the staff have been with Bradd since day one, which is part of the reason the service at Aguila de Osa is so natural and polished.

The same can be said for the food. Rates are all-inclusive and you will not go hungry. Meals are huge, delicious and varied. Beware of the never-empty cookie jar!.

Another reason we chose Aguila de Osa is its private location and surrounding jungle which gives it a great feeling of remoteness from Drake Bay even though the village can be reached on foot in less than 10 minutes. We saw frogs, sloths and scarlet macaws in the trees and landscaping near our room. And speaking of rooms…be aware that the rooms at Aguila de Osa are reached via a series of fairly steep ramps and staircases.

Giant brown Callipogon lemoinei long-horned Beetle

This long-horned beetle was nearly five inches long.

In his spare time (ha!) Bradd helped form the Corcovado Foundation which works with Costa Rica’s national park service and local communities to stop illegal logging and hunting which still threatens the area.

When we weren’t in Corcovado National Park or being menaced by peccaries we took advantage of Aguila de Osa’s free kayaks and paddled the languid waterways right off the hotel’s dock where we had the natural wonders of this area all to ourselves.

Drake Bay Osa Peninsula,  Costa Rica

The calm waters and arcing beach of Drake Bay.

Osa Peninsula and Drake BayTravel Tips

You may read accounts of the horrors of the roads on the Osa Peninsula. We sure did. However, we drove nearly the entire peninsula and found 99% of the roads to be paved and in perfectly acceptable shape. Even the shortcut road that bisects the peninsula between Puerto Jimenez and Drake Bay is said to be good these days. We chose to drive the long way between Puerto Jimenez and Sierpe (roughly three hours) because we wanted to take the boat from Sierpe to Drake Bay, and we’re glad we did.

Be aware that small cruise ships (60 passengers or so) do sometimes stop at Drake Bay and the trails and picnic areas at the San Pedrillo entrance of Corcovado National Park can get very, very crowded when there’s a ship in port.

Oh, and Drake Bay was named after Sir Francis Drake but some locals give his last name a Spanish pronunciation so don’t be surprised if you hear it referred to as “Drah-kay” Bay.

Costa Rica mainland & Chirripo the highest mountain in Costa Rica

The Costa Rican mainland seen from Drake Bay, with Cerro Chirripó, the highest mountain in Costa Rica, in the distance.

 

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