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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Western Beaches of Panama – Isla Boca Brava & Playa Las Lajas

While not exactly untouched, Isla Boca Brava and Playa Las Lajas are not nearly as visited as Panama’s more well-known beach destinations like the islands in the Bocas del Toro Archipelago and that’s part of the charm of traveling to the western beaches of Panama.

Isla Boca Brava Hotels

To get to the 30 square mile (77 square km) island of Boca Brava you have to first get to the fishing village of Boca Chica. After leaving our truck under an avocado tree on the property of a family that’s decided to use part of their land as an informal parking service, we got into a water taxi for the ten minute ride to Cala Mia Pacific Hotel for a dose of secluded romance.

Cala Mia Hotel, Boco Brava, Panama

Plunge pool with a view at Cala Mia Pacific Hotel on Isla Boca Brava in northern Panama.

Cala Mia’s 11 thatch-roof accommodations, private horseshoe bay beach and cliff side location make you feel like you’ve got the island to yourself. Rooms have all the mod cons including A/C and private patios with ocean views, especially nice from August through November when humpback whales migrate through.

Private Beach Cala Mia , Boca Brava, Panama

A shady perch on the private beach at Cala Mia Pacific Hotel on Isla Boca Brava, Panama.

When we were at Cala Mia a new owner had just taken over and we believe there’s been a new owner since then. Hopefully one of them upgraded Cala Mia’s dramatic Spa Cielo which is accessed via a swinging bridge which connect the mainland of the island to a nearby rocky outcrop but needed some serious TLC.

On the other end of the accommodation spectrum (and the other end of the island) is Hotel Boca Brava with 17 rooms ranging from privates (around US$30 double) to dorms. The food in the open air restaurant is almost as good as the view of the Pacific. Room #10 was our favorite with curved walls, a small private patio with chairs and a water view. Water can be scarce on the island in the dry season and the hotel’s gregarious owner, Brad, keeps occupancy to just half  in order to make sure everyone has enough water. Still, conserve as much as you can.

Boca Brava Office of the Day

Karen’s office of the day on the patio of or room at Cala Mia Pacific Hotel on Isla Boca Brava in Panama, though we still don’t fully understand why hammock seats exist…

What to do around Boca Brava

Boca Brava, and more than 20 other islands, are all protected within the Gulf of Chiriqui National Marine Park, so it’s not surprising that most of the things to do around Boca Brava involve getting wet.

As we already mentioned, August through November is whale watching season in northern Panama with migrating humpbacks crowding the water and plenty of tour companies waiting to take you out to see them. Isla Ladrones, 27 miles (43 km) from Boca Brava, is a SCUBA diving hot spot all year round with the chance to see sharks, rays and more. Our plans to dive around Ladrones were thwarted, however, by bad weather which created rough conditions and very limited visibility in the water so our trip was cancelled. The deep-sea fishing is said to be terrific around Boca Brava as well, if you’re into that kind of thing.

Iguana Boca Brava Panama

Local resident on Panama’s Isla Boca Brava.

Exploring Playa Las Lajas

Playa Las Lajas is most famous for its 12 mile (20 km) long stretch of beach. You can walk for ages and you’re likely to have the place to yourself except on weekends. Just don’t have your heart set on a funky beach bar or awesome seaside seafood shack. Playa Las Lajas was eerily free of any sort of service like that.

Las Lajas beach

Playa Las Lajas is 20 miles (12 km) long and at low tide this beach is incredibly wide as well.

If you ask us, the town of Las Lajas, inland from the beach, should also be equally famous for is flamboyant, sculpture-filled bus stops, each depicting a different marine scene. You almost hope the bus never comes.

Mermaid bus stop Las Lajas, Panama

This is a bus stop, Las Lajas style.

Swordfish bus stop Las Lajas, Panama

Another impressive bus top in Las Lajas. The roof reads “Looking for Paradise? It’s in Las Lajas.”

Naturalmente Boutique Bungalows, opened in Las Lajas in 2013, is not on the beach but it’s close enough and you can’t beat it for its style bungalows and small pool. The real reason to visit Naturalmente, however, is the open-air restaurant where owners Chantal and Gabriel, both from Modena, let their Italian roots show with pizzas (baked in an oven imported from Italy), great pasta dishes, homemade bread and homemade Italian sausage.

Naturalmente Boutique Bungalows - Las Lajas, Panama

A bungalow at Naturalmente Boutique Bungalows near Playa Las Lajas, Panama.

If you’re making the very long haul on the Pan-American Highway between Panama City and David, Boquete, Cerro Punta or the border with Costa Rica at Paso Canoas or Sixaola, Playa Las Lajas makes a great place to break your journey.

Geographical note about the screwy compass in Panama

Countries in Central and South America unfurl in a tidy north-to-south trajectory except for Panama which takes a sharp turn and ends up sitting perpendicular to its neighbors.This means that, in Panama, “north” refers to the long Atlantic/Caribbean coast and “south” indicates the long Pacific coast of the country. If you want to talk about the end of the country nearest the city of David and the border with Costa Rica, as we do within this post, you’re really talking about the west end of the country.

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Simply Charming – Little Corn Island, Nicaragua

The fact that there’s no direct way to travel from mainland Nicaragua to Little Corn Island, about 45 miles (100 kms) east of the country’s Caribbean coast, acts as a kind of natural barrier. You have to really, really want to get this simply charming island. You also have to pass through Big Corn Island to do it.

Little Corn Island,  Nicaragua beach

A “crowded” stretch of beach on Little Corn Island in Nicaragua.

Getting to Little Corn Island

Once you’re on Big Corn Island (find out how) you’ll need to catch a water taxi (essentially a very long, very exposed motor boat) for the journey to Little Corn Island which costs around US$6 and takes 30 to 60 minutes depending on how rough the passage is (heading to Little Corn is often rougher because you’re gong against the current). Bring some large plastic bags to cover your luggage. If you forget to bring bags you can buy some from general stores near the dock.

We were told there was a plan to start sea plane service from the mainland to the Corn Islands but the sea plane is currently “parked” on Lake Nicaragua near Granada and no one in the area expressed much hope that the service would ever materialize.

Once you’re on Little Corn Island you’ll be walking or taking smaller water taxis everywhere. There are no roads and absolutely no motorized vehicles on Little Corn Island. We expected that there would be a few sneaky exceptions to this rule but over our five-day stay we never saw so much as a moped.

As you can imagine, the carelessness creates an instant luscious disconnect from the noise and pace of the rest of the world. If you can’t relax here there’s nothing we can do for you.

Casa Iguana beach Little Corn Island, Nicaragua

The view down to the beach from Casa Iguana on Little Corn Island in Nicaragua.

What to do on Little Corn Island

Snorkeling and SCUBA diving are the big activities on Little Corn and there are many more dive shops here than on Big Corn. When we were on Little Corn a group of guys was also getting ready to open a windsurfing business on the island, so check into that if that’s your sort of thing.

Or you can just let the heat and the slow, Caribbean pace of the place work their relaxing magic. We certainly heard the siren song of the hammock.

beach dogs Little Corn Island,  Nicaragua

The “entertainment” at Farm Peace & Love on Little Corn Island.

Where to eat on Little Corn Island

There is an extraordinary amount of good food on Little Corn Island. They’re not the cheapest meals you’ll have in Nica, but for around US$10 a plate you can eat very, very well at stylish beachfront places like Cafe Desideri and the nearby Tranquilo Cafe where expats (mostly Italians for some reason) have created tasty hang outs. We also heard rave reviews of the authentic Cuban food at Havana but at more like US$20 it was too spendy for us. Some dishes, like their famed ropa vieja, need to be ordered in advance.

There are cheaper eats as well. For example, we loved Rosa’s, a tiny open-air place on the south end of the island near Casa Iguana for breakfast. About US$3 got us fruit salad, coffee, eggs, bread…the whole shebang.

A disappointment was the three-course dinner, served family-style, at Casa Iguana which cost US$15 per person and was really nothing special.

beach Little Corn Island,  Nicaragua

This beach was just steps away from our little bungalow at Farm Peace & Love on Little Corn Island.

Where to stay on Little Corn Island

When we arrived on Little Corn Island a man named Bing was waiting to ferry us to the other side for our stay at Farm Peace & Love in his boat. We cannot imagine a better introduction to the charms of Little Corn Island.

Bing Farm Peace & Love boat

This is how Bing, co-creator of Farm Peace & Love on Little Corn Island, commutes to work.

Bing’s lancha is named “Peace & Love” and that’s what he and his partner, Paola, are all about. Paola, an Italian journalist and avid horsewoman, arrived on Little Corn years ago with her saddle. Bing had the only horse on the island. The rest is  history.

beach Farm Peace & Love - Little Corn Island

Bing’s water taxi, the Peace & Love.

In 1996 they opened Farm Peace & Love on the still sparsely developed northern end of the island just a few steps from one of the sweetest little beaches on the island. The place is powered by solar energy and a wind turbine fashioned out of an airplane propeller and wood. Like Farm Peace & Love itself, the thing is half art, half tool. Bing and Paola live in a hand-crafted two-story home on the property and offer just two extremely private stand-alone casitas to guests.

bungalow Farm Peace & Love - Little Corn Island

This the larger of the two casitas for rent at Farm Peace & Love on Little Corn Island.

Each has its own well-equipped kitchen and eggs and fruit from their chickens and organic garden plus coffee, homemade jam, house-pressed coconut oil, basic condiments and Paola’s delicious coconut bread are supplied. As other things ripen (basil, beans, limes, plantains) they magically appear on your porch (you’ll need to bring all other ingredients from the general stores near the dock in Big Corn Island which have the basics and not much else).

breakfast Farm Peace & Love - Little Corn Island

Paola’s famous coconut bread, homemade jam and more produce from the farm made breakfast a treat at Farm Peace & Love.

We stayed in the smaller of the two casitas (which sleeps three and is called The Suite). It had an outdoor shower stocked with homemade coconut oil soap and a breezy porch with built-in wooden seating and a table. Ocean views were blocked by a wall of jungle but the soothing sound of the waves made it through.

Rules Farm Peace & Love - Little Corn Island

The house rules at Farm Peace & Love on Little Corn Islands.

There’s nothing to do at Farm Peace & Love except swim in the warm, clear water, play with the dogs, watch the land crabs do their crabby thing all over the place (mind the holes), nap, read, repeat. The “relaxation now” vibe was so intoxicating that Karen finally did the crossword puzzle she’d been carrying around for 10 months. Those feeling more energetic can go fishing or horseback riding with Bing.

On our final night we splurged on dinner prepared by Paola and Bing (about US$18 per person) which included pasta with a sauce made from tomatoes, basil and cashews followed by fresh jack fish caught by Bing with rosemary potatoes. The best part was the grounded, spiritual company of Paola and Bing who are content with what they’ve created, as they should be.

Farm Peace & Love - Little Corn Island,  Nicaragua

Much of Farm Peace & Love is made by hand, including this sign.

We also stayed at Casa Iguana which is a brightly painted Caribbean version of every backpacker ghetto hostal you’ve ever stayed at. Guests turned into staffers or volunteers run the place, clothes dry on railings, books are exchanged, dive reports shared and well-worn flip-flops pile up outside the lounge/restaurant/bar area.

Casa Iguana - Little Corn Island,  Nicaragua

Casa Iguana welcomes you on Little Corn Island.

Yemaya Island Hideaway Resort & Spa opened after our time on the island and is, by far, the most luxurious (and priciest) resort option on Little Corn Island.

Corn Islands know how

  • English is spoken almost everywhere
  • Don’t count on finding a working ATM (there are no ATMs at all on Little Corn)
  • There is no corn on the Corn Islands and there never was. The name is possibly a bastardization of Islas del Carne (islands of meat) since the islands used to be a common stop over for ships needing to re-stock on things like fresh meat.
  • There are eight baseball teams between the two sparsely populated islands. Learn more about why Nicaraguans love baseball.
Bottle building - Little Corn Island,  Nicaragua

We walked past this shop, constructed with hundreds of empty beer bottles, every day on Little Corn Island.


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Bigger is Not Always Better – Big Corn Island, Nicaragua

The Corn Islands, about 40 miles (70 kms) east of the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua, are not the easiest places to travel to but your effort will be rewarded. Everyone asks “which island is better?” Spoiler alert: we, like most travelers, prefer Little Corn Island which manages to be more pristine while still having a wider and more interesting array of places to stay, stuff to eat and things to do than it’s bigger, more developed sibling. Even if you’re ultimate goal is Little Corn Island you’ll have to stop on Big Corn Island on your way there, so here’s our travel guide to Big Corn Island.

Snorkeling Big Corn Island, Nicaragua

Big Corn Island style: First class snorkeling to the left. First class snorkeling guide to the right.

Getting to Big Corn Island

You can get from Managua to Big Corn Island by taking a bus from 9 pm to 3 am to the town of Rama then catching a water taxi at daybreak for a 1.5 hour ride to Bluefields. From there you get on another boat departing for Big Corn Island twice a week (subject to change without notice) for a five-hour long ride that is often rough. The total cost for this multi-day, multi-craft journey is about US$35 per person.

But there is another way.

For around US$230 round trip per person La Costeña airline will get you to the quaint little airport on Big Corn Island in a puddle jumper from the international airport in Managua. Our flight made a pit stop at the airstrip in Bluefields where cargo and passengers were swapped before continuing on to Big Corn Island. Make reservations well in advance as this is the only airline servicing Big Corn Island and their tiny planes fill fast.

Flying into Big Corn Island, Nicaragua

Our first view of the coastline of Big Corn Island in Nicaragua from our La Costeña flight from Managua.

When we landed we noticed a suspiciously swank looking helicopter under heavy guard at the airport. We later heard a rumor that it was President Daniel Orgeta’s ride and that he was in the ‘hood because of a pretty big drug bust that was taking place in Bluefields and other towns and regions that have become part of a connect-the-dots that drug traffickers use to get the goods north.

If you’re tight on time we’d recommend that you go directly from the airport on Big Corn Island to the small dock area in the center of town where you can catch a boat for Little Corn Island. They leave twice a day, once in the morning and once in the afternoon.

Las Costena Airlines - Big Corn Island, Nicaragua

Our boarding passes for our La Costeña flight from Managua to Big Corn Island were these clipboard-sized pieces of plastic.

If you’ve got time to explore Big Corn Island, read on.

What do do on Big Corn Island

Despite it’s name, Big Corn Island has a total area of just four square miles (10 square kms) which means it’s perfectly reasonable and enjoyable to walk around the entire perimeter of the island. If you’re too lazy for that you can flag down any of the numerous cabs on the island and get anywhere you want to go for about US$1 per person.

If the sight of all that Caribbean blue water makes you want to get in it, check out Dive Nautilus where Chema runs the only dive shop on the island. Our dive wasn’t earth shattering, but it was enjoyable and we saw a few lobsters (Nicaragua’s third largest export is lobster and much of it comes from commercial harvesting in this area), a southern sting ray, some barracuda and just a smattering of reef fish despite the fact that the coral coverage was pretty good.

Nautalis Dive - Big Corn Island, Nicaragua

Nautilus Dive Center, the only dive operation on Big Corn Island.

Where to eat on Big Corn Island

It’s easy to spend too much for mediocre food on Big Corn Island but a worthy splurge is a heaping plate of lobster and shrimp for US$12 at Comedor Maris (all the cabbies know where it is) served on a breezy patio.

Finding even mildly interesting cheap eats on Big Corn Island was a challenge. Ingredients and culinary creativity are both scarce. We finally found Cafetin McGowan (not far from the dock area where water taxis to Little Corn Island depart from) where a perma-smiling woman named Vesna plates up huge portions of fresh yellowtail for about US$4.

During our circumambulation of the island we did not see a single waterside bar but you can enjoy a cold one right across the road from the water at Seva’s Dos Milas for less than US$1 or at Fisher’s Cove near the boat dock which is less tranquil but often breezier.

Where to sleep on Big Corn Island

On the south side of the island is Casa Canada with motel-style rooms each with a breezy porch overlooking an infinity-edge pool right above the Caribbean. It’s a peaceful setting and the view from the pool can’t be beat. The hammocks don’t suck either.

On the other side of the island, close to the airport, is Arenas Beach Hotel. Don’t be put off by the hotel’s “Miami circa 1975” website. This place has a nice bit of beach with a bar built into the hull of an old boat, loungers and a bonfire area and they’ve done a lot with concrete and festive paint.

Casa Canada Hotel - Big Corn Island, Nicaragua

Eric got out of this hammock at Casa Canada on Big Corn Island just long enough to take a photo of it.

Corn Islands know how

  • English is spoken almost everywhere
  • Don’t count on finding a working ATM
  • There is no corn on the Corn Islands and there never was. The name is possibly a bastardization of Islas del Carne (islands of meat) since the islands used to be a common stop over for ships needing to re-stock on things like fresh meat
  • There are eight baseball teams between the two sparsely populated islands. Learn more about why Nicaraguans love baseball
Crab Crossing - Big Corn Island, Nicaragua

This is about as stressful as it gets on Big Corn Island in Nicaragua.


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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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Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2012 – Best Adventures & Activities

This post is part 2 of 4 in the series Best of 2012

Welcome to Part 1 in our Best Of the Trans-Americas Journey 2012 series of posts. Part 1 is all about the Best Adventures & Activities from the past year on the road including SCUBA diving with hammerhead sharks in Costa Rica and perfecting the art of doing nothing on a (nearly) deserted beach in Panama. Part 2 covers the Best Food & Beverages of 2012 and Part 3 covers the Best Hotels of the year.

Yes, end of year round-ups can be lame. On the other hand, they can also be a valuable chance for us to look back on the year that was and remember just how damn lucky we are. Done right, an end of year round-up can also be a quick and easy way for you to get the best tips, tricks and truths that made our Trans-Americas Journey travels so special in 2012. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll hit the road yourself in 2013 (or 2014, no pressure).

First, a few relevant stats:

In 2012 the Trans-Americas Journey…

…thoroughly explored Nicaragua, Costa Rica and northern Panama

…drove 8,349 miles

…spent $2,608 on fuel

…made seven overland border crossings

We did manage to spend some time outside of our truck doing and seeing exciting things. In no particular order, here are the…

Best adventures & activities of 2012

Best adventure of the year: SCUBA diving with dozens of sharks including scalloped hammerheads, tiger sharks, reef sharks and all kinds of rays with Undersea Hunter off Cocos Island in Costa  Rica. Find out more about this adventure and what it feels like to be 100 feet (33 meters) underwater surrounded by sharks in the Cocos Island feature we did for the Sunday travel section of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

SCUBA diving with Hammerhead sharks - Cocos Island

A hammerhead making a quick underwater u-turn as it spots Eric clinging to a rock while diving in the waters around Cocos Island, Costa Rica. Photo courtesy of Rodrigo Roesch de Bedout.

Best extreme tubing: There’s a reason they give you a life vest, helmet and elbow guards when you go tubing with Blue River Resort & Hot Springs at the base of Rincon de la Vieja Volcano in the Guanacaste region of Costa Rica. This trip down the Rio Azul (which really is an incredible shade of blue) is no lazy float. Best to think of it as white water rafting without the raft.

Best (nearly) deserted beach bumming: Playa Bluff on Isla Colon in the Bocas del Toro region of Panama (below) will take your breath away with truly golden sand (and not the icky sticky kind), Caribbean blue water, shockingly powerful waves, chairs and hammocks and just a handful of visitors. Add in the recently opened Playa Bluff Lodge directly opposite the beach with US$1.50 icy cold Panama beers, a restaurant and even stylish rooms (US$95 including breakfast) and it’s really, really hard to leave. Totally worth the 5.5 mile (9 km) bike or taxi ride from Bocas town.

Playa Bluff on Isla Colon in the Bocas del Toro

Best all-around rafting trip: The Pacuare River in Costa Rica is a glorious combination of peaceful floats (ample time to appreciate the densely-jungled riverbanks and steep hillsides) punctuated with plenty of white-knuckle moments over exciting stretches of white water. Book your Pacuare River rafting trip with RiosTropicales and your time off the river is just as spectacular thanks to an amazingly rustic yet comfy river lodge they’ve built for their guests.

Best adventure we never thought we’d have: While SCUBA diving with sharks around Cocos Island we got an unexpected bonus with the chance to dive to 300 feet below the surface of the ocean in Undersea Hunter’s DeepSee submersible. You know how they say it’s another world down there? They’re right.

DeepSee submarine under the surface - Cocos Island

Best perseverance-pays-off animal encounter: We’ve been trying to see whale sharks for years and either our timing is all wrong for spotting these seasonal giants or our timing is right but our luck sucks, as was the case when we spent three days diving at the right time in the right place in Belize but we still didn’t see a single whale shark. This is why we returned to Mexico for three days in 2012 just to try to see whale sharks. And it worked. Not only did we finally get in the water with whales sharks we snorkeled around with more than 100 of the giants as they cruised by feeding on plankton with their VW-Beetle-swallowing mouths agape.

Swimming with Whale Sharks Isla Mujeres, Mexico

Best swimming hole: Ojo de Agua on Ometepe Island in Lake Nicaragua where two bucks gets you access to chairs, tables, benches, hammocks and sun or shade (you choose) around roomy, crystal clear, refreshingly cold, spring-fed pools. The bottoms have been left natural but the sides have been built up in stone and concrete to create depth. There’s even a rope swing and a few enterprising vendors selling snacks and cold beer.

Best adventure activity we’d never heard of: Topless Sport Fishing in Costa Rica. And, no, we didn’t do it.

Find out which one of these adventures made the 25 Epic Adventures by Travel Bloggers in 2012 list as compiled by TravelingCanuck.com.

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