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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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Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2014 – Best Adventures & Activities

This post is part 1 of 4 in the series Best of 2014

Welcome to Part 1 in our Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2014 series of posts. Part 1 is all about the Best Adventures & Activities of the past year of travel on our little road trip through the Americas including SCUBA diving with whale sharks and hammerheads in the Galapagos Islands, rescuing a drowning monkey in the Amazon and being spit on by a shaman in the Andes. Part 2 covers the Best Food & Beverages of 2014, Part 3 covers the Best Hotels of the year and Part 4 tells you all about our Travel Gear of the Year.

In 2014 the Trans-Americas Journey explored Colombia and Ecuador and we drove 7,074 miles (11,385 km) doing it. Want more road trip numbers? Check out the Trip Facts & Figures page.

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

Best adventures & activities of 2014

Best river trip: First of all, its nickname is the “Liquid Rainbow.” Second of all, it’s in an area of Colombia that’s only recently became FARC-free enough to visit. Third? Who needs a third? In 2014 we made it to this one-of-a-kind river on assignment for BBC Travel with Eco Turismo Macarena. The destination lives up to the hype with flowing water filled with waves of vibrant reds, greens, yellows and blues caused by a water plant unique to this area (check it out, below). We were also impressed with the quality of the local guides, the environmental protections that are in place and the truly community-based tourism that’s going on in the gateway town of La Macarena.

Cano Cristales Colombia

Best adventure destination: 2014 was the year that we got to travel to the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador not once but TWICE. During the first visit we spent nine days in the islands including a week on board the M/Y Grace yacht so that we could produce a story about the yacht, once owned and honeymooned on by Grace Kelly, for the Biography channel’s website. A highlight of that trip was the discovery of the best snorkeling site of the year: Punto Vicente Roca off Isabela Island where we bobbed in the water as sea turtles, penguins, sea lions, dozens of species of fish, a shark or two and much more investigated us and went about their watery lives all around us. It was like being in our own interactive aquarium. Our second visit to the Galapagos Islands took an even more adventurous turn with a week on board the very, VERY good value M/Y Eric followed by a week on board her sister ship, the M/V Galapagos Sky live aboard dive boat. That’s when we discovered the best SCUBA diving site of the year: Darwin and Wolf Islands, in the far north of the archipelago, where we spent hours underwater with hundreds of scalloped hammerhead sharks and, incredibly, even a few whales sharks and manta rays even though it wasn’t prime season for spotting those species. We’d go back in a minute because we’re sure this wonderful place has many, many more adventures in store.

Galapagos Islands Blue footed booby, penguins, marine iguana

Best under-visited national park: Ecuador has more than 30 national parks, ecological preserves and wildlife refuges. In 2012, President Rafael Correa waived the entry fee to all of them (except Galapagos Islands National Park) in an effort to get more Ecuadorans out into their wild spaces. It’s a great idea and we certainly appreciate breezing right through the entry gates to national parks, but many parks in Ecuador are still virtually visitor free. Take El Angel Ecological Reserve in northern Ecuador, for example. Despite containing some of the country’s most gorgeous high-altitude páramo (pictured below), including three of the four species of Seuss-like frailejon plants on the planet, and the world’s only known stand of a certain species of polylepis tree, we saw a grand total of five other people in this stunning park.

Parano El Angel park  Ecuador

Best wild animal rescue: We were motoring slowly along the Napo River in Ecuador’s Amazon Basin, happily observing a large troupe of squirrel monkeys in the trees at the water’s edge, when we heard a small splash followed by frantic screeching. For a moment it seemed as if a child had fallen into the fast-moving, current-filled river. Then we saw a tiny monkey being swept down river. Our guide, Fredy Alvarado, who operates Pangea Expeditions and was working as our guide on the Anakonda Amazon river boat we were traveling on, dipped an oar into the water just as the monkey was pulled underwater once again. When it’s drenched, furry head finally popped up the animal reached for the oar in exactly the way a drowning human would. Safely on our boat, the dripping monkey scrambled to a far corner as we motored to the shore where his troupe was waiting for his return. Fredy had to pry the frightened monkey off the boat in order to release him and he got a bite on the hand for his trouble. However, we are happy to report that both monkey and guide are fine.

Monkey rescue Napo River Ecuador Amazon

Best adventure in alternative healing: Sacha Ji Wellness Hotel, near Otavalo, Ecuador, is a rare example of eco-friendly construction (living roofs, rain water collection, solar panels, tire foundations) and a posh yoga and wellness retreat all in the shadow of massive volcanoes. The innovative owner has also harnessed the power of the local Kichwa community’s holistic healing traditions and guests can sign up for a cleansing by a local female shaman named Rosa.  Karen took off her shoes as Rosa arranged the tools of her trade: volcanic rocks, river rocks, kindling, two huge bunches of local herbs and branches, a pot for burning aromatic wood, a small gourd with liquid in it and two plastic bottles. Rosa spit liquid into Karen’s face and gently whacked her with herbs and branches. Wood was burned and smoke was read to determine the amount of “bad energy” that needed to be cleaned out (apparently, a lot) followed by more spitting before Rosa put some oil on Karen’s scalp and clasped her head while chanting about strong, clean energy. The whole thing was over in 15 minutes and was oddly relaxing despite the smoke and spit.

Andean Clensing Sacha Ji Ecuador

Best reason to get up early: Napo Wildlife Center Ecolodge, built, run and managed by members of the local Kichwa Anangu community in the Yasuni region of the Amazon Basin in Ecuador, offers many ways to get close to the toucans, giant otters, caimans and monkeys on their vast jungle property. One of the best is their canopy observation platform. A 10 minute canoe paddle and 15 minute jungle walk takes you from the lodge to the foot of a 130 foot (40 meter) tower. Climb the metal stairs to the platform at the top, carefully built around a massive ceiba tree, and you’ve reached the perfect place to look into the tree tops and down into the jungle (below). In the early morning hours we saw ivory billed toucans, a three-toed sloth, blue and yellow macaws in flight, squirrel monkeys, white front capuchin monkeys and more. Bring your binoculars and take advantage of the spotting scopes provided by the guides.

Napo Wildlefe Center Ecolodge canopy platform

Best national park drive: It’s not every day that you get the chance to drive your vehicle to over 15,500 feet (4,724 meters). To put that into perspective, that’s more than 1,000 feet (300 meters) higher than the top of Mount Whitney which is the highest point in the lower 48 in the US. In Los Nevados National Park in Colombia you can drive that high while checking out the Nevado del Ruiz Volcano (one of the most active in the world) and Andean condors (many of whom were transplanted from the San Diego Zoo to repopulate the park) soaring overhead.

PNN Nevados Colombia

Best feeding frenzy: There are a number of clay licks, where birds congregate to greedily eat soil rich in essential minerals, in the Amazon Basin in Ecuador. The one that attracts both parrots and macaws requires a short hike inland from the Napo River to a comfortable shelter/blind where we waited silently for two hours while the skittish birds worked up the courage to come to the ground to take in the minerals they need. Eventually hundreds (thousands?) of mealy parrots and some scarlet-shouldered parrotlettes descended. The sound of their wings and calls was deafening and even though the macaws remained safely in the trees above our heads, the spectacle was impressive.

Parrot Salt Lick Nap River Yasuni Ecuador Amazon

Best adventure on rails: Train trips don’t generally fall into the category of adventure unless you’re on a train that somehow navigates its way over a massive stone obstacle ominously called the Devil’s Nose and includes stops that let you meet the last glacial ice collector in the country and watch traditionally dressed women haggle for guinea pigs (aka, dinner) in a local weekly market. Passengers on Ecaudor’s Tren Crucero  (below) get all that and more during the four-day journey from the Andes to the Pacific (or vice versa). More details are in the story we did about our Tren Crucero adventure for the Dallas Morning News.

Tren Crucero Ecuador

Best horseback riding: Hacienda Zuleta, a historic farm-turned luxury hotel dating back to the 1600s in northern Ecuador, should be on every hotel and food lovers’ list. If you’re also a horse lover then make your reservation now. Zuleta’s stable is filled with their own breed, called Zuleteños, which are a mix of thoroughbred, quarter horse and Andalusian carefully crafted over the years to produce smart, gentle and beautiful horses. The tack is all hand made locally, the volcano-filled geography is gorgeous to ride through and the guides are capable and fun to be with whether you’re out for an hour or a week. Bonus: sore muscles are easily soothed by the hot water bottles and bath salts provided in each guest room at Hacienda Zuleta.

Hacienda Zuleta Ecuador Horseback Riding

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Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2013 – Best Adventures & Activities

This post is part 2 of 4 in the series Best of 2013

Welcome to Part 1 in our Best Of the Trans-Americas Journey 2013 series. Part 1 is all about the Best Adventures & Activities we enjoyed during the past year of travels on our little road trip through the Americas including SCUBA diving in Panama with a man named Herbie Sunk (true story), some truly adventurous jungle horseback riding in Costa Rica and paragliding over one of Colombia’s largest canyons. Part 2 covers the Best Food & Beverages of 2013 and Part 3 covers the Best Hotels of the year.

First, a few relevant road trip stats: In 2013 the Trans-Americas Journey spent time exploring Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia and Ecuador through which we drove 8,546 miles (13,753 kms) spending US$2,400 on fuel and crossing four overland borders.

Now, in no particular order, here are the…

Best adventures & activities of 2013

Best thing we tried for the very first time: Paragliding really is the best way to appreciate Colombia’s Chicamocha Canyon which is one of the largest in the world. When Parapente Chicamocha (parapente is the Spanish word for paragliding) offered to take us up, up and away we said yes. Quickly. Before “I hate heights” Karen could change her mind. We arrived at the launch site with owner Sergio and a team of wing wranglers and pilots then stood around and watched  the birds waiting for them to catch thermals so we could too. Then we ran of the top of the hill (well, Karen dragged her feet a bit) and the thermals took us up a few thousand feet above the canyon floor. We spent about half an hour rising, circling, dropping and rising again over the canyon. Eric says the view was great. Karen never had her eyes open long enough to really appreciate it and her forearms are still sore from the death grip she had on her harness.

Eric took our GoPro up with him and our video, below, shows the gorgeous scenery and the thrill of flying during our paragliding adventure above Chicamocha Canyon in Colombia. Don’t miss the acrobatics Eric goes through just before landing…

Best controversial tour: Like many Colombians we struggle to find a middle ground between Pablo Escobar fascination and Pablo Escobar revulsion. When we got an assignment to write an SATW award-winning piece about Pablo Escobar tourism in Colombia for the awesome travel/food/sports/world journalism site RoadsandKingdoms.com we booked one of the half-dozen or so Pablo Escobar Tours offered in Medellin, Colombia. We’re still struggling to find a healthy middle ground when it comes to this narco terrorist (pictured below during a rare and short-lived stint in jail), but taking the controversial Pablo Escobar tour helped a little bit thanks to a guide willing to share personal stories and his own struggles with Escobar’s legacy.

Selling Pablo Escobar - Roads 7 Kingdoms & Slate magazine

Best SCUBA diving: The water around Panama’s Coiba National Park (which used  to be a penal colony and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site) is full of rocky formations and sea mounts which attract the big stuff like sharks and rays. We spent two days SCUBA diving in the area with Herbie Sunk (real name) who is the owner of Scuba Coiba based out of Santa Catalina. There was lots of current and not much viz when we were there (March) but we still had a ball and even in the less-than-perfect conditions we could appreciate these unique dive sites. On the surface we saw dolphins, leaping mobula rays, bobbing turtles and even a whale shark.

SCUBA diving with Manta Rays - Coiba National Park, Panama

Best horseback riding: If you’re gonna call it “Adventure Horseback Riding” and charge US$60 for 2.5 hours you’d better deliver. Selva Bananito Eco Lodge & Preserve on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica did just that with super sure footed horses, varied and challenging terrain and even a boa constrictor sighting (there she is, below). This is not a ride for beginners, as we found out one heart-pounding, thrill-packed, fabulous afternoon.

Boa Constrictor - Selva Bananito Eco Lodge, Costa Rica

Best nearly deserted wind sport beach: Cabo de la Vela in the Guajira peninsula of northern Colombia is hard to reach and hot as hell but it’s also one of the best places in the region for wind sports as our traveling companion at the time, an avid kiteboarder who travels with not one but two kites, verified. As we sought the shade on shore he spent hours in the water (that’s him kiting, below) and raved about the consistently kiteable winds and the often deserted water.

Guajira Kite Surfing -  Cabo de la Vela, Colombia

Best white knuckle landing: Any time you get into a small plane you know that take off and landing are going to be extra exciting. Still, we weren’t quite prepared for the fly-straight-at-the-mountain-bank-hard-then-drop-straight-down-onto-the-“runway” landing that the pilot of our Air Panama flight artfully made into the dinky, waterside Playon Chico airstrip in Panama. The extra gray hairs were worth it, however, since this is the only way you can get to Yandup Island Lodge where we learned a lot about the area’s Kuna people, the largest indigenous group in the country.

Fasten your seat belts, stow your tray tables and check out this epic landing in our video, below.

Best festival: We attended/survived our first Carnaval (aka Carnival) in 2013 and while annual celebrations in Rio and New Orleans hog all the limelight we’re here to tell you that the festivities in Las Tablas, Panama hold their own with gorgeous, dueling, foul-mouthed Carnaval Queens, relentless water cannons during the day and fireworks that approach the noise, mayhem, and danger levels of a combat zone at night.  Go inside the madness of this five-day non-stop mega-party in our series of posts about Carnaval 2013 in Las Tablas, Panama.

Calle Abajo queen pollera carnival Tuesday night

Best border crossing adventure: Going from Panama to Colombia (or vice versa) may be the most difficult overland border crossing in Latin America. Shipping our truck from Panama to Colombia was an adventure in and of itself. This border crossing also lead to an enjoyable adventure when we got on board a sailboat and spent five days sailing through the postcard-perfect San Blas Islands (below) from Panama to Cartagena, Colombia where we reunited with our truck. Blue, blue water. White, white sand. Dolphin escorts. Even our open-water passage into Cartagena went pretty smoothly.

Sail San Blas Islands, Panama aboard MS Independence

Best difference of opinion: You can choose to explore the Panama Canal on a small tourist boat during a partial transit trip, which takes five hours and travels through three of the six locks, or during a full transit trip, which takes more than eight hours and gets you through all six locks traveling from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean (or vice versa). ONE of us had his heart set on the full transit from ocean to ocean. The other one of us spent the day wondering when the boat ride and subsequent interminable bus ride back to Panama City would end. Adventure really is in the eye of the adventurer. One man’s awesome day is another woman’s hostage crisis.

Our adventure/hostage crisis on the Pacific Queen booked through Adventure Life resulted in one awesome time lapse travel video, below, that will take you from ocean to ocean through the Panama Canal in just 10 minutes.

Best milestone: 2013 was also the year that finally entered the Southern Hemisphere when we crossed the equator in Ecuador as the photo of our Garmin GPS, below, proves.

0 latitude - Crossing the Equator - Equador

 

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There’s a Potoo on my Porch – Selva Bananito Eco Lodge & Preserve, Costa Rica

Green travel. Rarely are two words fraught with more potential for disappointment. We spent weeks of our road trip in Costa Rica checking out eco hotels, eco lodges and eco resorts and there were certainly disappointments. Selva Bananito Eco Lodge & Preserve was not one of them.

Off to a startling start

When the owner of a pioneering eco lodge and vast preserve in Costa Rica tells you he has a surprise for you the moment you arrive, the mind boggles. Even in our wildest dreams, however, we would never have guessed that Jurgen Stein, co-owner and manager of Selva Bananito Eco Lodge & Preserve, was about to point out one of the freakiest and hardest to spot birds in the world mere feet from the porch of our room.

Northern pootoo  - Selva Bananito Eco Lodge, Costa Rica bird watching

This northern potoo spent all day doing its best impersonation of a tree just a few feet off our porch at Selva Bannaito Eco Lodge & Reserve in Costa Rica.

The northern potoo is a night hunting bird that spends its days pretending to be a tree. Mottled feathers, the ability to hold perfectly still for hours on end and its oddly vertical physique allow it to hide in plain sight.

When we were done gawking at the potoo, Jurgen dropped another whammy: the room we were staying in was one of the first ones built when Selva Bananito opened in 1994. Seventeen years in the hot, damp rain forest environment is like 65 years in kinder climes. However, the breezy, spacious cabin looked polished and pristine.

CabinSelva Bananito Eco Lodge, Costa Rica

Reclaimed mahogany, lots of light and epic bird watching are hallmark of all of the cabins at Selva Bananito Eco Lodge & Preserve in Costa Rica.

All of the 11 cabins at the totally solar powered lodge were built using mahogany salvaged from trees left behind by previous logging on parts of the 99,000 acres (40,000 hectares) that make up the preserve. Each log was dragged into place by water buffalo, not destructive tractors.

Hammock - Selva Bananito Eco Lodge, Costa Rica

You don’t even have to leave your porch hammock to get in some world class bird watching at Selva Bananito Eco Lodge & Preserve in Costa Rica, as Karen demonstrates.

The bathrooms are large and wonderfully tiled and the enormous showers are fitted with low-flow fixtures. The beds are super comfortable and come with mosquito nets (not really necessary) and blankets, which you will be grateful for when the temperature drops at night.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves

None of this would exist–no cabins, no rain forest, no potoo–if Jurgen’s father hadn’t seen the light. Back in the 1970s the German expat began homesteading 2,000 acres (800 hectares). Every year he was issued a logging permit that allowed him to cut down trees on 2/3 of his property. While he cleared some land to plant crops and put up buildings his children, including a very young Jurgen, started talking to him about conserving the land and making money with an eco lodge instead of a chain saw.

Talamanaca Mountains and Cattle pastures at Selva Bananito Eco Lodge, Costa Rica

The Talamanca Mountains loom behind a cattle pasture on a small portion of the vast tract of land that’s protected as part of Selva Bananito Eco Lodge & Preserve in Costa Rica.

Their persistence ultimately paid off and the logging permit was never used. Instead, Jurgen’s father decided to forfeit his right to extract millions of dollars worth of mahogany and other trees on the property that go for up to US$25,000 per tree, in favor of conservation in an era where that word was not part of everyday conversation, even in Costa Rica.

The Selva Bananito property now harbors 250 species of tree, hundreds of species of birds and even jaguars. When we were at Selva Bananito the big cat protection and monitoring group Panthera was also there with special scat sniffing dogs doing a survey of jaguars on the property.

View from the dining room - Selva Bananito Eco Lodge, Costa Rica

The view from the open air dining room at Selva Bananito Eco Lodge & Preserve in Costa Rica.

Just 10% of Selva Bananito’s land is used for the lodge, adventure activities and what’s left of the farming activities. This is particularly good news when you realize that an important watershed, serving thousands in the region, is also on Selva Bananito’s land. Jurgen and his sister, Sofia, have even formed the Limon Watershed Foundation to ensure its protection.

Reserva Selva Bananito, Costa Rica

Poachers and illegal logging still threaten the massive Selva Bananito Preserve in Costa Rica.

Every year since 2010 Selva Bananito has earned five green leaves, the highest eco level handed out by the Costa Rican government’s CST green travel rating association. However, Jurgen seems proudest of the many was Selva Bananito surpasses CST requirements like creating and bank rolling local eco education programs, printing their business cards on paper made from banana fiber waste from their plantation and their amazing zero-impact waste water reclamation system.

Our first ever Poop Tour

An 11 cabin lodge and kitchen produces a not insignificant amount of water waste from sinks, showers and toilets. Sure Selva Bananito uses natural chemical-free soap but they also treat all waste water, including water from toilets, using enzymes and a series of hyacinth-covered pools which naturally purifies it.

Jurgen Stein's Poop Tour - Selva Bananito Eco Lodge, Costa Rica

Jurgen Stein of Selva Bananito Eco Lodge & Preserve shows off his all-natural water reclamation system during a Poop Tour.

The simple but effective process was explained to us by Jurgen during what he calls his Poop Tour. It culminated at the last purification pool which holds the end product (sorry). This water is clean enough to drink as Jurgen, who studied acting and theater before turning to tourism and conservation, dramatically demonstrated. The water is so clean that frogs, some of the most environmentally sensitive animals on the planet, have moved into the purifying pools.

In-room entertainment, Selva Bananito style

In addition to the potoo, we were entertained by the antics of nesting woodpeckers, aracari couples darting in and out of holes in a tree trunk to feed their young, neon song birds darting from branch to bush, toucans, tanagers and more all seen just off our porch.

At dusk the brightest and fastest-blinking fireflies we’ve ever seen took over the sky. As they darted around it looked like the illuminated tips of 100 maestro’s wands conducting the day out and the night in. Selva Bananito may be a TV-free zone but that doesn’t mean there isn’t any in-room entertainment.

Swarovski birding scope - Selva Bananito Eco Lodge, Costa Rica

Karen doing a little pre-breakfast bird watching from the dining room at Selva Bananito Eco Lodge & Preserve in Costa Rica.

Adventures in the Selva Bananito Preserve

More wild entertainment awaited when we headed out into the preserve itself where we were treated to the spectacle of migrating broad shouldered hawks in numbers that literally filled the sky. They formed what looked like a moving black highway high in the sky and we counted more than 200 of them in just one of Eric’s photos.

Raptor Migration Hawks - Selva Bananito Eco Lodge, Costa Rica

There are literally hundreds of migrating broad shouldered hawks in this photo taken at Selva Bananito Eco Lodge & Preserve in Costa Rica.

Get the full effect of a sky filled with thousands of raptors in our video of broad-winged hawks massing above us at Costa Rica’s Selva Bananito Eco Lodge & Preserve. Be sure the volume is up to catch the jungle sounds and the crazy call of the Montezuma oropendola at the very end of this short clip.

Hawks weren’t the only birds in the area. We also saw masked tityras for the first time in the wild, squirrel cuckoos galore, Montezuma’s oropendolas, slaty-tailed trogans and more during an early morning bird watching walk through the property.

Masked Tityra - Reserva Selva Bananito, Costa Rica bird watching

This is the first masked tityra we’ve ever seen in the wild.

Slaty-tailed Trogan - Costa Rica bird watching

A slaty-tailed trogan pair – the male is the more colorful bird on the higher branch.

Motezuma Orapendola - Reserva Selva Bananito, Costa Rica bird watching

A Montezuma oropendola, note the pointy orange beak and flashy yellow tail, prepares to enter its unique nest at Selva Bananito Eco Lodge & Preserve in Costa Rica.

Squirrel Cuckoo - Reserva Selva Bananito, Costa Rica bird watching

A squirrel cukoo, just one of hundreds of species of birds that can be seen at Selva Bananito Eco Lodge & Preserve in Costa Rica.

Tent bat - Selva Bananito Eco Lodge, Costa Rica

We discovered this tent bat dangling beneath a palm leaf which it had carefully chewed and folded into a tent for protection.

We were too busy to notice any birds when we hopped on the three platform zip line through the secondary rain forest which culminated in a 100 foot (30 meter) rappel down to a creek bed which we followed as we hiked back to the lodge, spotting a hog nose viper along the way. Even more exciting was discovering a tent bat dangling beneath a palm leaf which it had carefully chewed and folded into a tent for protection.

Zip Line - Selva Bananito Eco Lodge, Costa Rica

Karen zip lining through the rain forest at Selva Bananito Eco Lodge & Preserve in Costa Rica.

Hog Nose Viper  - Selva Bananito Eco Lodge, Costa Rica

This hot nose viper was extremely well-camouflaged just off the trail as we hiked around Selva Bananito Eco Lodge & Preserve in Costa Rica.

The best horseback riding in years

You can also explore the Selva Bananito Preserve on horseback. Now, we’re sort of horseback riding snobs. Having owned our own horses for years we can smell a nose-to-tail snoozer from a mile away.

But when Jurgen offered to accompany us on his Adventure Horseback Ride (US$60 per person, four hours, advanced riders only) we mounted up. Over the next few hours we traveled through Selva Bananito’s remaining banana and palm oil plantations, crashed through dense jungle, galloped across sloping fields, powered up and down slippery slopes and splashed through creeks. We even saw a boa constrictor, a first from the saddle.

Boa Constrictor - Selva Bananito Eco Lodge, Costa Rica

Riding past this boa constrictor was just one of the highlights of an adrenaline-filled horseback adventure at Selva Bananito Eco Lodge & Preserve in Costa Rica.

At one point we dismounted and walked through a section of jungle that Jurgen calls The Cathedral. The compact area contains massive examples of some of the most impressive trees on the property, including a naturally hollowed out cacha tree and a 130 foot (40 meter) tall mahogany tree which you can climb up assisted by ropes and an ascender then rappel down.

By the time we returned to the lodge the horses were sweaty and ready for a well-earned rest and we were in awe of what has been preserved here.

Jungle Trail - Selva Bananito Eco Lodge, Costa Rica

A jungle trail through the rain forest at Selva Bananito Eco Lodge & Preserve in Costa Rica.

 

Selva Bananito Travel Tip

Selva Bananito Eco Lodge & Preserve is located about 1.5 hours from Cahuita, an hour of that spent navigating the 10 mile (17 kilometer) dirt road that leads to this jungle retreat. A 4X4 is required or Jurgen can arrange to pick you up where the pavement ends in his beefy 4X4 van.

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Worst Birthday EVER – Piedras Iman, El Salvador

Our El Salvador savior, Miguel Huezo from Suchitoto Tours, tipped us off to a fledgling rural tourism project in the town of Piedras Iman in the mountains about an hour from Metapan along a back route to La Palma. A local family has up-fitted a string of traditional buildings to create three cabañas with multiple bedrooms, bathrooms, electricity and kitchens. There’s also a gorgeous wooded camping area complete with tents on raised platforms, tables, running water and shared toilets and showers.

view from Piedra Iman, El Salvador

The view from the tiny mountain town of Piedras Iman in El Salvador is peaceful and relaxing and nearly impossible to appreciate with broken ribs.

Toss in a babbling brook, gorgeous vistas and complete country peace and it sounded like a beautiful place to celebrate Eric’s birthday with a tour of the place, a bit of horseback riding to a waterfall on the property then a home cooked lunch featuring Sopa de Gallina India, a traditional chicken soup dish that is beloved in El Salvador.

Anxious to get to the lunch part of the program we mounted up for a sight-seeing ride. The horses were clearly borrowed from a neighboring farm–more used to working with their owner than accommodating strangers.

sunset view from Piedra Iman, El Salvador

Not even fractured ribs can keep Eric from taking pictures.

We hadn’t gone more than a quarter of a mile when Eric’s knees started cramping up in the short stirrups and tiny saddle he was using. He took his feet out of the stirrups to stretch out the kinks and his horse got a glimpse of Eric’s feet in its peripheral vision.

Going rodeo

Spooked, the horse started spinning and bucking at the same time. It wasn’t exactly the Calgary Stampede, but it was a powerful performance with no sign of stopping and Eric ended up on the ground landing more or less full-force on his left shoulder and side. The horse, now even more worked up, ran off and Eric tried to get up, gasping for breath.

At first we thought the fall had simply knocked the wind out of him but 10 minutes later he still couldn’t inhale without severe pain and we knew he had at least fractured his ribs and we had no way of knowing if something more serious had also happened. Our hosts were horrified and somehow managed to organize a relay from town to get ice up to us. The pain eased a tiny bit (or Eric just got somewhat used to it) and we managed to get through lunch, which was delicious.

Then we were faced with a decision: Should we spend the night in one of the very enticing cabañas and see how Eric felt in the morning or should we drive out the rest of the dirt road to the town of La Palma.

Since we had no idea how seriously hurt Eric was we decided it was best to be in a town with access to a doctor if we needed one. Eric clearly couldn’t drive (hell, he could barely breathe) so Karen drove extremely slowly and carefully over the very rough road.

Every bump was excruciating for both of us (okay, maybe more for Eric)

We reached La Palma well after dark and spent a terrible, sleepless, painful night there. The next morning we drove into San Salvador and Miguel, our savior as always, took us to a radiology clinic where are fears were confirmed: two badly cracked ribs.

broken rib x-ray

Inside Eric! The square marks the fractures in two of his ribs.

Next, Miguel took us to an orthopedist who gave Eric a naturopathic injection and a cream, a prescription for a pain killer plus a series of electrotherapy treatments to speed healing. By the way, full x-rays cost US$35, the doctor’s consultation, injection and cream was US$40 and the electrotherapy sessions were US$15 each.

It took six weeks for the pain to eventually disappear, making this the worst birthday ever.

PS: the rural tourism project in Piedras Iman really was lovely as are the owners and, despite the horseback mishap, we were thoroughly charmed by the rustic, ranchy vibe. We highly recommend a visit to Piedras Iman so contact Miguel if you’re looking for a few relaxing, bucolic days well off the beaten path. Just don’t go horseback riding.

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Trouble Brewing – Ataco, Ruta de las Flores, El Salvador

We love coffee (technically speaking, Karen needs coffee). Prior to traveling to the town of Ataco (aka Concepción de Ataco), part of the lush, mountainous Ruta de las Floras (Route of the Flowers) circuit in northern El Salvador, we didn’t fully understand coffee’s deep, dark role in this country’s history. Turns out, trouble was brewing in coffee growing regions like Ataco long before the official start of El Salvador’s civil war.

Coffee sacks - Finca El Carmen, Ataco, El Salvador

World class coffee grown in the Ruta de las Flores area of El Salvador, bagged up and ready for shipping.

 

Soldiers in your cup (sung to the tune of that classic Folger’s coffee jingle)

After the invention of synthetic dyes in the late 1800s, El Salvador’s wealthy indigo farmers scrambled to find another cash crop. They settled on coffee. And they did well.

The success of coffee cultivation in El Salvador created an even greater divide between the very rich and the very poor and in January of 1932 economic and social tensions reached the breaking point. Augustín Farabundo Martí, a founder of the Central American Socialist Party, led an uprising of peasants and indigenous people who El Salvador’s military quickly squashed by methodically killing an estimated 30,000 people. Anyone who supported the campesinos and anyone who looked or sounded indigenous was doomed. To this day, indigenous groups in El Salvador tend to shun their traditional clothing, preferring to blend in by wearing jeans.

This terrible time is known as The Massacre (La Matanza) and some consider it the actual start of El Salvador’s civil war which didn’t “officially” begin until 1980. Before La Matanza was through, Martí was shot by a firing squad but he remains a revered and martyred figure to many and is memorialized in the name of the FMLN (Frente Martí Liberación Nacional) which is currently the ruling party in El Salvador.

Arty little town

There is no obvious physical legacy of all that trouble in the sleepy town of Ataco along the 23 mile (36 kilometer) stretch of scenic road dubbed the Ruta de las Flores after the blooms which explode here, particularly between October and February. The coffee plants sprout a blanket of fragrant, white blooms starting in May.

Coffee mural - Ataco, El Salvador

Good morning! Coffee beans and streaming sunshine in the distinctive painting style that covers much of Ataco.

Mural Ataco, El Salvador

Just one example of the vibrant, cheerful painting style that covers many of the walls in Ataco.

These days Ataco seems more intent on retaining its easy-going ways, cautiously welcoming travelers and fostering the distinctive local style of art than rising up against the coffee finca owners.

Some of the world’s best coffee is grown in El Salvador and some coffee plantation and processing plant owners are branching out into tourism too.

We now return to our innocent love of coffee

Brewing coffee - Finca El Carmen, Ataco, El Salvador

Coffee made the traditional way by dripping through a simple cloth sack into a handmade pottery jar.

While in Ataco we stayed at Quinta El Carmen Coffee Resort. Owned by the Alfaro family for more than four generations, this sprawling property is part coffee farm, part homey hotel, part coffee processing facility and part adventure activity center.

Hotel first. We stayed in the original “quinta” portion of the property which is an airy, almost ranch-style building with four guest rooms, a large sitting area, wide porch and full kitchen where breakfast is prepared every morning.

The family’s separate, personal residence has also recently been opened to guests as La Casona. Five rooms of varying shapes and sizes have had modern bathrooms added but are still furnished with the family’s antiques. Hallways are lined with family photos, some dating back many decades. It’s a living museum inside an elegant homestay.

Coffee drying patios - Finca EL Carmen, Ataco, El Salvador

At the El Carmen coffee beneficio coffee beans are dried in the sun on special patios or in enormous mechanized dryers.

Coffee drying - Finca El Carmen, Ataco, El Salvador

At the El Carmen coffee beneficio coffee beans are dried in the sun on special patios or in enormous mechanized dryers.

Both sets of accommodations are more than 100 years old and are located right next to the massive El Carmen coffee processing facility (beneficio) where two hour guided tours are offered (US$5). Opened in 1930, this is one of the oldest coffee beneficios in El Salvador and a tour here is a great way to understand the steps it takes to go from field to cup. A highlight is the massive, decades-old machinery that’s still going strong processing around 5,000 tons (4,545 metric tons) of fresh coffee beans, called cherries, every year.

Coffee Roaster - Finca El Carmen, Ataco, El Salvador

Some of the massive machinery inside the El Carmen coffee beneficio dates back to 1930 when the processing facility opened. This practically antique roasting machine is still going strong.

Coffee depulperr - Finca El Carmen, Ataco, El Salvador

Simple but massive tools for de-pulping fresh coffee beans which are called cherries.

Industrial coffee grinder - Finca El Carmen, Ataco, El Salvador

They don’t make machines like this industrial coffee grinder any more.

El Carmen, which was named after the only daughter in the original patriarch’s family, processes coffee for the giant Illy corporation, among many others, and they pride themselves on their ability to track every customer’s specific coffee from start to finish to ensure consistent quality. Illy even has its own storage area at the beneficio to further ensure that its coffee doesn’t get mixed up with anyone else’s.

Coffee tasting - Finca El Carmen, Ataco, El Salvador

All set up for a “cupping” session during you learn the basics of how to appreciate the taste and aroma of coffee like a professional.

Turns out, watching coffee dry is actually pretty interesting. Check out our (sped up) footage of workers raking and aerating green coffee beans at the El Carmen beneficio in Ataco.

 

Amped up on adrenaline

If it’s adrenaline, not caffeine, you’re after Quinta El Carmen has you covered as well with a zipline and ropes course, ATV tours and horseback rides on El Carmen’s Peruvian paso horses.  We took the horses out for a meander through El Carmen’s coffee-covered hillsides and some of the surrounding mountain roads. It was the first time we’d ridden the breed, known for its clipped, yet steady gait. The horses’ legs prance furiously while everything from their shoulders up remains still. This unique gait was really comfortable in an unnatural kind of a way.

Horeseback riding - Ataco, El Salvador - Finca El Carmen

Touring Ataco on Peruvian paso horses, available for hire through Quinta El Carmen.

Next, we hopped on ATVs and roared up and down dirt roads that criss-cross El Carmen’s hilly, forested property. Okay, one of us roared and the other drove cautiously observing all reasonable safety measures.

Remember MTV videos in the 1980s? You get a similarly herky jerky effect when you use a GoPro to shoot footage while you drive around a coffee finca on an ATV. Unless you’re epileptic, check out our video of our ATV tour of El Carmen in Ataco.

 

Cascadas Don Juan waterfall - Ruta de las flores

Las Casacadas Don Juan, one of the most accessible waterfalls in El Salvador.

Also along the Ruta de las Flores is the 115 foot (35 meter) Don Juan Waterfalls (Las Cascadas Don Juan). Not only does this waterfall have a killer name, it’s also one El Salvador’s most accessible.

Look for a sign and parking area where you pay a US$1 entry fee. Then walk up and across the road to the head of a very short trail which leads directly to the base of the two-tiered falls. A perfectly swimmable natural pool is your reward.

 

 

 

 

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