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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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Bocas del Toro Travel Guide Part 1: What to Do & What to Eat – Bocas del Toro, Panama

This post is part 1 of 2 in the series Bocas del Toro Guide

Christopher Columbus arrived in Bocas del Toro, Panama in 1502. In the 17th century, pirates used the sheltered bays in the area to repair their ships. Rumors of buried treasure persist. British author Graham Greene finally got to Bocas in the early ’80s on his third attempt to reach the area. These days the conquistadors, pirates and old-school adventure travel writers are long gone, replaced by a growing number of tourists. Here’s part 1 of our 2 part  Bocas del Toro Travel Guide. This one is focused on what to do and what to eat. Check out part 2 to find out where to sleep in Bocas del Toro on any travel budget.

Getting to Bocas del Toro and Bocas town

Generally speaking, when people say Bocas del Toro (Mouth of the Bull) they’re referring to the whole Bocas del Toro Archipelago of nine islands. But it gets confusing since the main town in the archipelago, located on Isla Colon, is called Bocas town. This is where you will get off the ferry from Almirante on the mainland (30 minutes, US$5 per person in an open sided motor boat) or off your flight from San Jose, Costa Rica or Panama City.

Bocas del Toro, Panama

Bocas del Toro in Panama is not short on charm, as this guest house proves.

Bocas town wouldn’t exist at all if not for the United Fruit Company (now known as Chiquita Brands) which created the town as part of its now defunct banana operations in the area. Today, Bocas town still has more bicycles than cars, though a vehicle ferry makes the run between Isla Colon and the mainland daily. The number of buildings in Bocas town has increased but they’re still mostly small, wooden structures (there’s a five storey maximum) simply built and brightly painted in true Caribbean style. Electricity is supplied from massive, and massively unreliable, diesel generators.

Bocas town has the charm and pace that beach towns in Belize wish they had and a smaller price tag to boot. It’s like a Central American version of Key West from 50 years ago and it makes the perfect base for exploring the Bocas del Toro Archipelago, which we did for two weeks.

Panama Beer  - Bocas del Toro, Panama

Beer on the beach, just another day in Bocas del Toro, Panama.

What to do in Bocas del Toro, Panama

Playa Bluff: You have to work a bit for it–a five mile (eight km) bike ride from Bocas town (about 45 minutes)–but your effort delivers you to one of the most beautiful beaches we have ever seen. The sand at Playa Bluff is gold. The beach is wide and flat. And nearly deserted. Shade-giving sea grape trees hug the high tide line. The waves crash mercilessly, so much so that you can’t actually swim at Playa Bluff. No problem. That allows you to focus on settling into the chair or hammock you’ve claimed and downing your cold beverage of choice, supplied by nearby Playa Bluff Lodge. If you had your heart set on swimming, we hear Mimbi Timbi Beach, further down the coast, has a naturally protected pool.

Playa Bluff  - Bocas del Toro, Panama

We told you the sand on Playa Bluff, in the Bocas del Toro Archipelago, is gold.

Playa Estrella (Starfish Beach): You’ll need to catch a public bus (US$3 round trip from the small central park in Bocas town) going to Boca del Drago (Mouth of the Dragon) if you want to visit Playa Estrella (Starfish Beach), and you most certainly want to visit Starfish Beach unless you’ve got something against giant, bright red starfish. They’re common in the archipelago but they love this beach in particular for some reason. Buses leave town for Boca del Drago on even hours and come back from Boca del Drago to town on odd hours. From Boca del Drago you can catch a water taxi to Starfish Beach (US$1.50 per person) or walk for 30 minutes along the coastline.

Starfish Beach - Bocas del Toro, Panama

Two of the starfish that congregate in the calm, warm, shallow bay off Starfish Beach in the Bocas del Toro Archipelago in Panama.

Playa Estrella - Bocas del Toro, Panama

A water taxi waits to take travelers to and from Starfish Beach (Playa Estrella) in the Bocas del Toro Archipelago in Panama.

To be honest, we were expecting to be tripping over starfish but there were only a dozen or so around when we were at Starfish Beach. The smart ones fled. We watched in horror as person after person picked up the fragile creatures for photos or just for the heck of it despite signs all over the area telling people to keep their hands off so they don’t kill the starfish.

Don't touch the starfish sign - Starfish Beach, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Despite warning signs like this all over Starfish Beach, many, many visitors still insist on touching and picking up the starfish which can be deadly.

Enterprising locals have set up makeshift kitchens on Starfish Beach and we were delighted with our fresh grilled fish lunch. Fried chicken and even lobster were available too (US$7-US$12). We rented beach chairs (US$4 each for the day) and enjoyed cold beer (US$2) before getting back into the crystal clear, warm, protected water in the bay. It was like floating in a salty, warm pool full of pipefish and humans tormenting starfish.

Starfish - Bocas del Toro, Panama

Don’t touch the starfish in the bay at Starfish Beach!

Red Frog Beach: The most famous beach in the area requires a 15 minute water taxi ride form Bocas town (US$5 per person plus US$3 per person to walk through the private property at the dock) followed by a 10 minute walk to reach the beach itself. But famous doesn’t always mean fabulous and Red Frog Beach left us a bit non-plussed. It’s wide and the surf is swimable but we found Playa Bluff to be much more beautiful and much, much less crowded.

Red frog Beach - Bastamientos Island,  Bocas del Toro, Panama

Red Frog Beach in the Bocas del Toro Archipelago in Panama before the arrival of the day tripping crowds.

Yes, we saw the red frogs for which the beach is named. They’re strawberry frogs, actually, and visitors are so anxious to see them that local kids gather them up and charge you to take a picture of them. We’re fairly certain the captured frogs were dead by the end of the day. Luckily, we saw some in the wild too.

Strawberry poison dart frog - Red frog Beach, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Red Frog Beach gets its name from the strawberry frogs which live above the high tide line.

There are some hotels on Red Frog Beach, notably Palmar Tent Lodge and its bohemian tented beach safari vibe with solar power, outdoor showers, purified rain water and daily yoga. In late 2013 a mega resort called Red Frog Beach Island Resort & Spa opened as well.

Day trip to the Zapatilla islands: Isla Bastimentos National Marine Park was founded in 1988 and was Panama’s first marine park. It protects a vast area in and around the Bocas archipelago, including Zapatilla 1 and Zapatilla 2, a pair of neighboring island so named because someone thought they resembled a pair of shoes (zapato means shoe in Spanish and zapatilla means little shoe). The only way to visit the Zapatillas is on a day trip in a long motorized wooden boat with a driver (around US$40 per person including mask and snorkel plus US$10 per person park entry fee).

Zapatilla Island - Bocas del Toro, Panama

We finally managed to find a stretch of beach on Zapatilla 1 that wasn’t strewn with washed-up garbage.

The day we decided to visit the area the sea was rough which meant we didn’t see any dolphins as we passed through Dolphin Bay. It also meant that it was too dangerous to reach Zapatilla 2 so we had to content ourselves with Zapatilla 1. This was not easy since Zapatilla 1 was ringed with a mini-moat of garbage, mostly plastic stuff probably brought there from Bocas town on the tides including a bunch of flip flops which struck us as ironic. And sad.

The Zapatilla tour includes a lunch stop at a small nearby restaurant. We enjoyed the snorkeling around and under the restaurant’s dock and pier more than what we’d done around Zapatilla 1 (no garbage for starters).We saw soft corals, starfish and baby reef fish. But be warned: meal prices were extremely high at this restaurant. We’d recommend bringing your own food for this long day outing.

Smithsonian Tropical Research Center: The Smithsonian Tropical Research Center about a mile (two km) from Bocas town can be toured as well though we never got to it.

Oggling at the sunset: Any local will tell you that the best place to watch the spectacular sunsets is from Bibi’s on the Beach, an open-air, thatch-roof restaurant and bar on the waterfront on Carnero Island just a stone’s throw across the bay from Bocas town. Water taxis will take you to and fro and there’s a generous happy hour nightly.

Sunset Bastamientos Island - Bocas del Toro, Panama

Sunset in Panama’s Bocas del Toro Archipelago.

What to eat in Bocas Town

Lili’s Cafe, on main street, is a solid spot for moderately priced passable food served slowly on a pier. However, the real reason to come here is to try their famous, fiery-hot housemade Killin’ Me Man hot sauce which gets its considerable punch from habaneros, mustard and a slew of secret ingredients.

Eating in Bocas del Toro, Panama

Main Street in Bocas Town is dotted with eateries like this one.

The Wine Bar, on the second floor of a building on the inland side of main street, has a proper climate-controlled cellar for wine storage (though we’re not sure how climate-controlled the wine’s journey to the archipelago is). They offer a wide range of wines by the glass (around US$4 per glass when we were there)  which change every day. There’s a breezy balcony and interior living rooms and dining rooms for tapas or more substantial plates. Art rotates in and out of the place and there’s life music on Friday nights.

The RipTide Bar & Restaurant has two things going for it: it’s located in a converted ship that still bobs in the water and they offer things like “chicken fried steak and Texas holdem” specials and broadcast events like the Super Bowl which reliably attracts local expats as well as travelers. Don’t expect to try any Panamanian or Caribbean food here. It’s all US comfort food all the way, at reasonable prices.

Cute - Bocas del Toro, Panama

Opening hours can be unpredictable in Bocas Town.

It was too rich for our blood (around US$25 per person), but diners rave about the six course, prix fixe Mediterranean food at Guari Guari. Reservations are a must, it’s cash only and the restaurant is located a mile (two km) from the center of town.

We were disturbed to learn from another traveler that it looks like Chris Fish, a closet-sized take-out-only place we found on the waterfront on main street not far from the ferry docks, seems to have closed. It was our go-to spot for big red snapper sandwiches and huge plates of made-to-order fish and chips with hand cut fries and coleslaw for US$5.50 Ask around and let us know if it’s really closed or merely moved.

Main street, Isla Colon - Bocas del Toro, Panama

This is where our favorite cheap meal place, Chris Fish, used to be located on Main Street in Bocas Town, but other travelers told us it may now be closed. Update, please.

Another good budget travel eating option, also on main street not far from the ferry docks, is the no-frills place with the huge machines out front slowly cooking succulent chicken rotisserie style. You can buy a quarter, half or whole chicken, each one rubbed with a delicious Caribbean mix of spices and served with fries or patacones (fried discs of mashed plantain) along with hot and delicious housemade hot sauce. Get your ice-cold beer at the little store next door.

For a good cheap snack, pick up a few of the meat-filled empanadas at John’s Bakery (less than US$1), but grab ’em early. They’re usually sold out by noon.

There are a few moderately well-stocked Chinese-owned small supermarkets in Bocas town. There’s also the Super Gourmet, an adorable, well-stocked gourmet market. You won’t have any trouble finding ingredients to cook up if your accommodation has a kitchen.

Super-Gourmet-Bocas-del-Toro

The Super Gourmet market in Bocas Town lives up to its name.

Weird Bocas del Toro

  • There’s a guy who walks around Bocas Town at night with a large, intricate paper plane on a string tied to a stick. When the spirit moves him, he starts running down the street to make his plane “fly”.
  • There’s a Chinese temple on the water near the fire station with Chinese characters in red across the front. It’s never been used, but it will never be sold or torn down either. It’s been sealed and sacred since the Buddha inside it somehow remained upright through a strong earthquake in 1991.
  • There’s an old man who collects tin cans. When  he has more than he can carry he lines them up in the middle of main street and crushes each one with a cinder block very methodically.

Bocas del Toro travel budget tip

Whenever we head to a beautiful island location (which is embarrassingly frequently) we get ready for the sticker shock. After all, the logic goes, everything has to be shipped or flown in and the customers are a bunch of geographically captive holiday makers so who cares if we double the price of beer/Band-aids/beds. Imagine our delight when we realized that prices for most things in the Bocas del Toro Archipelago are only marginally higher than they are on the mainland. We don’t know why and we don’t care.

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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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San Blas Islands Sailing – Panama to Colombia

After making the convoluted arrangements for shipping our truck from Panama to Colombia on board a giant container ship we turned our attention to getting ourselves around the Darien Gap, a swath of jungle that creates a 60 mile (96 kilometer) road less break in the Pan-American Highway between Panama and Colombia. Sure we could have flown from Panama City to Cartagena. We even found Copa Airlines flights that were going for 10,000 frequent flier miles (one way, per person). But if our truck had to travel by sea over the most complicated overland border in The Americas then so did we. Plus, we really, really wanted to do some sailing through the San Blas Islands and see the spectacular Kuna Yala.

Sail San Blas Islands, Panama to Cartagena MS Independence

The M/S Independence, our home for four days as we sailed through the San Blas Islands on the Caribbean coast of Panama then on to Cartagena, Colombia.

San Blas Islands sailing adventure

Ask a child to draw a deserted island and, odds are, he or she would produce something that looks a lot like one of the 378 islands that make up the San Blas Archipelago off the Caribbean coast of Panama: crystal clear water in a dozen shades of blue ringing white sand mounds with perfectly angled palm trees jutting out of them like some sort of festive cocktail garnish.

White sand & palm trees San Blas Islands, Panama

Most of the nearly 400 islands in the San Blas Archipelago are deserted like this picture post-card example.

San Blas Kuna Yala fisherman piragua canoe

The San Blas Islands in Panama are also known as the Kuna Yala as they are the homeland of the autonomous Kuna people who often make a living as fishermen.

Welcome to the world of the Kuna people, one of Panama’s seven indigenous groups. The Kuna came to Panama from Colombia and in 1925 they fought for and won autonomy from the Panamanian government. The Kuna currently inhabit nearly 50 of the islands in the San Blas Archipelago, which is also known as Kuna Yala. The rest of the islands–more than 300 of them–are deserted.

Beautiful San Blas Islands, Panama

A few of the more than 300 uninhabited islands in the San Blas Archipelago. These one can barely keep their heads above water.

Sail San Blas Islands, Panama to Cartagena Colombia

Our first days on the M/S Independence were spent lazily nosing around the San Blas Islands – each one more picturesque than the next.

Our four day sailing trip through the San Blas began as a slow, gentle meander among these islands, each more picturesque than the last. Our days were filled with snorkeling over the reefs that perilously punctuate these waters, swimming around our sailboat and lazing on board listening to music, eating and getting to know the other passengers and our salty Slovakian captain Michel.

Boat in the San Blas Islands Panama

A fishing boat waits patiently in the San Blas Islands of Panama.

Clear water & white sand beaches of San Blas Islands, Panama

Soaking in the gentle surf protected by the reefs that surround the San Blas Islands.

San Blas fisherman selling lobsters & fish

Kuna fishermen sidled up to the M/S Independence selling freshly caught lobster.

San Blas Islands fisherman piragua canoe

A home made Kuna sailboat plies the calm, protected waters around the San Blas Islands.

Snorkeling and sailing are the two big activities of any San Blas Islands trip and for good reason as you can see in our video, below.

We were also able to visit a few of the islands for special shore excursions in a small dingy including a campfire with a Kuna family on Chichime Island one night and a grilled fish dinner prepared on Elefante Island where the Kuna inhabitants have built a beach bar with cold drinks, WiFi and a volleyball court (for some reason the Kuna love volleyball – maybe because none of the islands is big enough for a soccer field).

Fresh fish Elefante Island, San Blas, Panama

We enjoyed a grilled fish beach party on Elefante Islands during our San Blas Islands sailing adventure.

Sailboats San Blas Islands, Panama sunset

Another perfect sunset in the San Blas Islands.

Not so smooth sailing

After three days this lazy rhythm was interrupted and it was time to batten down the hatches, literally and figuratively, for the open water crossing from Coco Bandera island to the port in Cartagena, Colombia. Up until that point it had been smooth sailing as our captain weaved between the islands seeking sheltered water. Now it was time for the inevitable open water crossing to Cartagena.

Depending on weather conditions and the size and speed of your sailboat this trip can be a 50 hour (or more) stomach churning ordeal or a 25 hour relatively even-keeled jaunt. We, thankfully, had the latter, though Karen still put on her Sea-Bands and took some Dramamine just in case.

Raising the sails MS Independence, sailing to Colombia

Putting up the sails on the M/S Independence as we prepare for the open water crossing into Cartagena.

The time-lapse video, below, lets you watch us head into open ocean aboard the M/S Independence in footage shot with a GoPro attached to the mast (thanks, Cous Cous). Don’t miss the pod of dolphins that escorted us part of the way. Pop a Dramamine and enjoy!

We sailed into the Cartagena port around 9 pm and we were greeted by the twinkling lights and impressive skyline of Cartagena. In the morning we left the sailboat and took the dingy to shore and caught a taxi to the nearby immigration office where our passports were stamped with our free 90 day tourist visa for Colombia.

Our San Blas Islands sailing adventure was officially over and our South America adventure had just begun.

Cartagena, Colombia skyline of Boca Grande

The skyline of Cartagena twinkled hello as we arrived in the harbor at the end of our San Blas sailing adventure and the beginning of our South American adventure.

Sunrise Cartagena Colombia. Our first South America sunrise.

Our first South American sunrise as day breaks over Cartagena, as seen from the deck of the M/S Independence in the harbor.

Our advice to you is go now! Global warming and rising sea levels are threatening to submerge many of the San Blas Islands. The problem is so real that the autonomous Kuna Congress has started a program that would give island-dwelling Kuna families plots of land on higher ground on the mainland.

How to choose a San Blas sailboat

There are literally dozens of sailboats offering to take passengers on the 3-5 day trip from Panama’s Caribbean coast to Cartagena in Colombia (or vice versa) or simply on a multi-day trip through the San Blas and back to mainland Panama. However, these services are totally unregulated and not all sailboats are created equally. Stories of insane captains, insufficient safety equipment, starvation rations and even sinking ships abound.

Sail San Blas Islands, Panama aboard MS Independence

We chose the M/S Independence, pictured above, for our San Blas sailing adventure because it’s a large, fast, stable boat and because the sailing dates worked with our schedule. But there are other factors you should consider too.

We chose to make the trip on the M/S Independence for the following reasons:

Sailing dates – The Independence (US$550 per person including the sailing and three meals a day) was scheduled to arrive in Cartagena on the same day that our truck arrived on its container ship which was crucial for us.

Size – At 85 feet (25 meters) long the Independence is the largest sailboat doing regularly scheduled weekly trips and it’s twice the size of some of the smaller sailboats. That provides ample space and shaded areas on deck and means that the boat weathers the sometimes-high seas in the final open water stretch to Cartagena better than smaller boats.

Speed – The Independence is a faster boat than many which means it can make the open water crossing from the San Blas Islands into Cartagena in 25-36 hours (depending on conditions) vs. up to 50 hours on slower boats.

Showers – The Independence advertises one fresh-water shower per day so passengers can get the salt water off their skin. Sadly, this turned out to be an exaggeration (more on that below).

Departure point – Sailboats to the San Blas Islands leave from the Caribbean coast of Panama from either Portobello (or very nearby) or from Porvenir. The Independence leaves from the latter. The benefit of this is that departing from Porvenir cuts 10 hours of open water sailing off the trip and lets you start your trip in the San Blas Archipelago. The downside is that it’s much cheaper to reach the embarkation points in or near Portobello. Our trip out to the Independence in Porvenir cost US$57 per person for a shared vehicle from Panama City to Carti, Kuna community taxes along the way and the final small boat ride to the Independence docked in Porvenir.

Safety – Whatever other criteria you’re looking for, be sure to confirm that your
sailboat has enough life jackets and enough properly inspected and certified life boats for all passengers. The reefs around the San Blas Islands are littered with the carcasses of sailboats that ran aground. An experienced captain is a must as well.

Captain Jack, who operates his own sailboat and, therefore, is not a totally impartial resource, has, nevertheless, put together a good sailboat vetting checklist that should be applied before you make a final decision.

San-Blas-shipwreck

Choose your San Blas sailboat wisely. Wrecks, like the one above, dot the reefs around these islands.

What to bring on board

Desalinated water is, technically, drinkable but the “drinking” water on the Independence was foul. Drinking water quality on other boats may be better, but to be safe bring enough bottled drinking water with you. Buy what you think you’ll need then double it. It’s hot out there.

Most boats let passengers bring snacks and beverages including water, sodas and booze on board and provide a guest refrigerator to keep them cold. Once on the boat you will probably need to keep close tabs on any other beverages or snacks you’ve brought on board. Most of the beer we put in to the shared cooler on board the Independence disappeared down other people’s throats early in the trip. We recommend leaving your food and drinks in bags labeled with your name.

You will also probably need to bring your own towel but bedding should be provided on the boat. Double check. And speaking of bedding, you will probably want to sleep up on deck where it’s cooler and fresher than down below so if you have a sleeping mat bring it along.

If you have your own snorkeling gear bring that too. Most boats offer snorkel gear but there may be a rental charge and the gear may not be in such great shape.

If you’re prone to seasickness come prepared. Eric is generally unaffected but Karen wore her Sea-Band pressure point wrist bands and took Dramamine. Note that we could not find Scopolamine patches for sale in Panama City. Scopolamine has been used by criminals to drug victims, including tourists, and we figure that’s at least part of the reason why it’s not for sale.

Flying Dutchman - San Blas Islands, Panama

The boys on board the M/S Independence took up the challenge to dive drawer-less, including this “Flying Dutchman.”

Should you sail on the Independence?

We were generally happy with the Independence. We felt completely safe during the entire journey. There was more than enough safety equipment (life vests and life boats) and Captain Michel is an experienced and knowledgeable sailor with nearly half a century and 240,000 miles of ocean under his belt.

Trained in the pre-GPS and LORAN era of sextants, he impressively had all of the coordinates for sailing safely through the reefs and onto Cartagena in his head. Just don’t get him started about red-haired illuminate giants and conspiracy theories…

We truly appreciated the space on board, including shaded areas though our crossing was only about half full and a full capacity boat would have felt much  more cramped. We also appreciated the speed of our open water crossing which we completed in around 24 hours.

We were disappointed, however, by the daily fresh water “shower” which amounted to a minuscule trickle of beige water which required you to fill up a plastic cup, douse, and repeat. Frustrating and unsatisfying to say the least but better than staying salty for four days.

If you have any kind of special dietary needs be sure to ask a lot of questions about what you’re eating and bring snacks. The vegetarian and the two kosher folks on our boat ate a LOT of peanut butter and jelly…

It also has to be said that as of this writing the Independence is a pretty filthy boat with general scum and grime everywhere and a very healthy population of cockroaches. Cleanliness is a common issue on sailboats offering trips through the San Blas (these are hard working vessels not yachts, after all) so be prepared for it (bring hand sanitizer for starters).

One of the more affordable options (around US$350 per person) that comes highly recommended is the Darien Gapster. We considered taking the Darien Gapster but the sailing dates did not coincide with the arrival of our truck in Cartagena, this service drops you off far from the city because the Gapster is a very small open boat that is not up to the challenges of an open water crossing.

We also hear good things about the Stahlratte which is another large and fast sailboat and overlanding friends who took the Jacqueline (a 56′ catamaran) had great things to say about the size, speed and cleanliness of that boat as well, though we have been advised by more than one sailor not to make the trip on a catamaran because in open water they essentially impact the waves twice – once on each hull.

Starfish San Blas Islands, Panama

A San Blas Island starfish.

Cartagena travel tip

There are a lot of hotels in all price points in Cartagena. There are also a lot of
travelers and things book up. You will be tired and dirty when you arrive in Cartagena so we recommend making a reservation even if that’s not normally your style. Hotel Villa Colonial, in the fabulous Getsemani neighborhood right next to the Colonial centro historico, is a mid-range budget option that we can highly recommend.

Villa Colonial does not have dorm rooms, but its prices for private rooms (doubles or  triples) is the same or even cheaper than area hostels and there’s a kitchen for guest use. The famous Viajero Hostel, for example, wanted to charge us 52,000 COP (about US$27 per person per night) in a private room for three people with a fan and a shared bath. At Hotel Villa Colonial three of us got a spotless room with A/C and private bath for 120,000 COP (40,000 COP or US$20 per person per night). Martha, the hotel manager, is a living ray of sunshine and not just because she has a voice like Glenda the Good Witch.

Thanks for the tip about Hotel Villa Colonial, David Lee of Medellin Living!

So that’s how we made the “overland” border crossing from Panama to Colombia. If you know of an even more complicated overland border crossing between two adjoining countries, tell us all about it in the comments section below!

San Blas sailing trip MS Independence. Sailing Colombia to Panama

The motley crew of the M/S Independence (that’s us in the far left).

Read more about travel in Panama

Read more about travel in Colombia

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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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In the Water with Whale Sharks – Cancun, Mexico

We’ve been trying to get in the water with whale sharks for years. Our most recent attempt in Belize earned us a fabulous underwater dolphin adventure, but exactly zero whale sharks. This is surprising since whales sharks, as their name would imply, are some of the largest creatures in the sea. They’re members of the shark family and the “whale” part of their name comes from their size. They’ve been measured at 45 feet (14 meters) long and more than 46,000 pounds (21,000 kilos), though scientists believe these filter feeders (they only eat tiny krill and the occasional small fish) can get much, much bigger.

Whale sharks: nomadic giants in the world’s largest swimming pool

The problem is that, despite their size, whale sharks are shy and they’re seasonal, only showing up in certain places at certain times of the year when their tiny food source is plentiful. However, every year between June and August hundreds show up in the waters around Isla Mujeres and Isla Holbox near Cancun, Mexico. Isla Mujeres even hosts an annual Whale Shark Festival. In May nearby Isla Holbox also hosts an extended whale shark festival. 

We left Cancun and traveled to a spot in the ocean pretty much between these two islands, high hopes in tow.

Whales sharks: worth throwing up for

A handful of tour operators in Cancun have licenses to take small groups of snorkelers out to the open ocean where whale sharks congregate during certain period, drawn to high concentrations of food in the warm Caribbean water. We went as guests of Solo Buceo

After a choppy, seasickness-inducing, one and a half hour boat ride we arrived at the feeding grounds. How did we know? The surface of the water was cross-crossed and broken by hundreds of fins. They call this “the boil” and, if you squinted, it really did look like the water was boiling. Every once in a while the massive oval that is a whale shark’s mouth would break the surface of the water. Their gaping maws were big enough to take in a compact car. Or a snorkeler.

Whale Sharks Isla Mujeres, Mexico

Small snorkeler with massive whale shark in the waters between Isla Mujeres and Isla Holbox off Cancun in Mexico. Photo courtesy of Solo Buceo.

We pushed that last thought out of our minds as we scrambled to get our masks and fins on so we could jump into the water. Once in the water it hit us: we were surrounded by hungry animals the size of buses and we were in their watery world. Our captain, Anselmo, estimated there were nearly 200 whale sharks in the vicinity. Being among them was everything we’d dreamed it would be, and plenty more.  

Whale sharks: even bigger in person

Despite having imagined being face to face with a whale shark many times the reality proved more shocking than we anticipated. A few expletives were shouted through our snorkels until we got used to being sandwiched  between two of these massive creatures as they cruised along near the surface with their five-foot-wide mouths open, filtering food in a kind of grazing frenzy.

They didn’t seem to mind our presence, but they also didn’t make many concessions to us. Intent on feeding, they swam wherever the food was. If a snorkeler was also there, well then he or she should really watch out.  Many whale sharks came close enough for us to feel the swoosh of their meter-long tails as they passed. 

Get a feel for it in our video below and do not miss seeing Eric get totally blind-sided by a whale shark at one minute and 22 seconds into this footage.

 

Adding to the adrenaline was the fact that there was only about 20 feet (six meters) of visibility in the water which was all clouded up with the krill the whale sharks had come to gorge on. Many times a whale shark would be rising silently through the murky water below us and we would have no idea it was there until it was practically right under us.

Whale sharks: controversial contact

Swimming with Whale Sharks Cancun, Mexico

It’s a good thing whale sharks are filter feeders. Photo courtesy of Solo Buceo.

As whale shark tours gain in popularity, conservationists worry about potential harmful side effects of so much contact with so many humans and their boats. During our own encounter with whale sharks the water was often uncomfortably full of snorkelers. By the time we left the area at least 20 boats had amassed in a very small area and the human and boat traffic was changing the behavior of the whales sharks which dispersed into looser and looser groups as the crowd thickened.

The effect of humans and boats on whale sharks is being studied in places like the island of Utila in Honduras where we visited the Whale Shark and Oceanic Research Center and learned a lot. The lecture was fun and free and there were even with bar specials.  

Even more controversial is the practice of hand feeding small shrimp to whale sharks to make them rise to the surface where tourists can see them more easily. Boat captains have been doing that in the Philippines since the 1980s but the baiting of whale sharks was outlawed in August of 2012 after biologists raised concerns that the hand feeding was turning the whale sharks into dependent beggars.  

 

TIPS

The ride out to “the boil” and sitting around parked on the surface of the water are both choppy experiences and some of the people on our boat became so seasick they couldn’t snorkel. Take medication if this is a problem for you. And book the earliest boat possible since the sea is generally calmer in the morning.

Read more about our snorkeling adventure with whale sharks in our piece for TravelandEscape.ca, the website for Canada’s travel channel.

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