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Ecuador’s Other Amazon – Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve, Ecuador

Ecuador is blessed with several ways to access the Amazon Basin. The most well-known and most popular way is via a river town called Coca and then along the Napo River (which is a major tributary of the Amazon River) where travelers find a wide range of tours, river boat hotels and the most upscale Amazon lodges in the country. Those seeking a more affordable and, in some ways, more intimate Amazon experience should head to the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve instead. Here’s why, including our drone aerial travel video over the area.

Sunset Cuybeno Reserve Ecuador

A sunset paddle on the Cuyabeno River in the Amazon Basin in Ecuador.

Exploring Ecuador’s other Amazon

Founded in 1979, Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve covers 1,490,000 acres (603,380 hectares) and is the second largest preserved natural area in Ecuador. Most of that area is tropical forest which goes through annual cycles of flooding and then receding water. In the wetter season (which varies from year to year), thousands of acres flood. In the dryer season (December to March) the water recedes.

Paddling waterways of Cuybeno

The river is the road through the vast Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve in the Amazon Basin in Ecuador.

The only road through the Cuyabeno area is the Cuyabeno River itself. It’s much narrower than the Napo River which gives a more intimate feeling since the banks of the river are much closer together and, therefore, the wildlife is much closer at hand. Unlike the area around the Napo River, the Cuyabeno region has not been opened up for oil exploration so animals are much more plentiful as well.

There are also far fewer visitors to Cuyabeno than the number of people who visit the Amazon basin via the Napo River, so other boats and other travelers are few and far between.

Cuybeno Lake

Entering Laguna Grande.

The wild animals of Cuyabeno

While humans are scarce there is no shortage of other animals. The number of registered bird species in the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve is under currently being debated. Some say 530 species exist in the area while others believe more like 580 species have been observed. Suffice to say, there are a LOT of birds. There are a lot of other critters in Cuyabeno too like the lowland tapirs, two species of deer, all of the Amazon cats, including jaguars and pumas, capybaras and two species of river dolphins (one is vaguely pink).

Blue & Yellow Macaw Cuybeno

Like all macaws, these blue and yellow macaws mate for life.

Juvenile Potoo Cuybeno

We spotted a juvenile pygmy potoo bird at night while in Cuyabeno – one more species we saw for the first time while in the reserve.

White Throated Toucan Cuybeno

A white throated toucan in Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve.

Hoatzin Cuybeno Ecuador

Hoatzin birds along the Cuyabeno River.

There are also manatees and two types of river otters including imposing giant otters. Monkeys are everywhere as well with 10 species living in the area. There are dozens of species of rodents and bats, 350 fish species (including massive and delicious paiche), two species of caymen, boa constrictors and anacondas plus many vociferous types of frogs and toads.

Saki Monkey Cuybeno

Ladies and gentlemen, our first Saki monkey.

Black Manteled Tamarin Cuybeno

A black mantled tamarin.

Pigmy Marmost Cuybeno

This little guy is a pygmy marmoset – the smallest monkey in the world. We saw one for the first time in Cuyabeno.

Spis's night monkey Cuybeno

These are Spix’s night monkeys – the only nocturnal monkeys in the world. I think we were interrupting their daytime beauty sleep.

We visited the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve during low water and saw dozens of different species. Though we’ve spent a lot of time in jungles around Latin America we also saw many species for the very first time including Saki monkeys, a pygmy potoo, Spix’s night monkeys (the only nocturnal monkey in the world) and tiny pygmy marmosets, the smallest monkeys in the world, which were busy sucking sap from tree trunks.

Insects Cuybeno

We have no idea what these insects are but they sure are pretty.

Frog Cuybeno

There are frogs and toads of all shapes and sizes in Cuyabeno and at certain times of the day they make the jungle sing.

Spiders Cuybeno

Um, spiders.

The people of Cuyabeno

Humans also live in the Cuyabeno area including members of the Siona, Sequoya and Cofan indigenous groups who were allowed to stay in their villages and maintain their way of life even after the reserve was created.

Sona people of Cuybeno

Locals on the Cuyabeno River.

So, in addition to hiking on dry land and paddling in small boats through the Cuyabeno River, tributaries and flooded forest areas to see wildlife, it’s also possible to visit villages and see a little bit of the local ways of life. We visited a village where a woman demonstrated how to make a cracker-like bread from yucca that’s been grated and pressed into a kind of flour before being cooked on a massive clay disc. It’s a labor intensive but delicious staple of the diet.

Preparing Yuca bread Cuybeno Ecuador

This woman made it look easy, but making yucca bread is a real process which involves grating fresh yucca root then squeezing the water out to create a kind of flour which is then cooked into a tasty flat bread.

Shamans remain an important part of life in most villages and we also had the chance to visit one while in the Cuyabeno reserve. We’ve had many encounters with shamans over the years but our time with a shaman named Tomas was the most informative and authentic yet. As a sudden rain storm opened up overhead, Tomas happily described his journey to shaman-hood in the footsteps of his father and grandfather and answered all of our questions.

Amazon shamen Cuybeno Ecuador

Tomas the shaman.

Tomas also performed a “cleansing” for one of the members of our group. This involved a thrashing with a bundle of sticks, blowing and other rituals meant to expel bad energy from the body. We were the only tourists there and we never got the feeling that Tomas was “putting on a show” for us.

Curado shamen Cuybeno Ecuador

Tomas concentrates and works his medicinal branches during a cleansing ceremony.

Where to stay in Cuyabeno

The dozen or so Amazon river lodges in Cuyabeno are simpler and cheaper than the lodges located along the Napo River. A few Cuyabeno lodges are located on Laguna Grande, but see our travel tip below before booking. The rest are scattered along the banks of the river. Lodge rates include meals and guided exploration of the reserve.

View from Tapir Lodge Cuybeno

Tapir Lodge has a bamboo and thatch tower of rooms right on the riverbank. This could be the view from your room.

We stayed at Tapir Lodge which has solar panels and a back up generator, good food and a great tower of simple thatch roof rooms with private bathrooms near the bank of the Cuyabeno River. Though rooms are well-screened, some critters do get in. There was a (relatively) small tarantula on our ceiling until Karen insisted that someone give it its own room…

Tarantula Tapir Lodge Cuybeno Ecuador

One of us really, really, REALLY wanted this guy out of our room.

The best amenity at Tapir Lodge is owner Kurt Beate. He’s been exploring the area for more than 40 years, first as a guide and later as the creator of Tapir Lodge which he opened almost 20 years ago. It was one of the first lodges in the area and the very first to offer private bathrooms, hot water and electricity based on solar power.

Kurt’s enthusiasm for the region has not dimmed over the years and you really want to be at Tapir Lodge when he is on site and available to explore with you, which is about 70% of the time. Ask if Kurt will be at the lodge when booking.

For more Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve and Tapir Lodge inspiration check out our drone travel footage, below.

Cuyabeno travel tips

Be wary of booking a lodge that’s located on Laguna Grande. The lagoon is beautiful, but during dry times the water level can drop to the point where boats can’t enter the lagoon. That means you’ll be in for a long, hot slog to and from your lodge.

Here are some other things to ask before booking a Cuyabeno lodge:

Is there 24 hour electricity and is it supplied, at least in part, by solar power?

How many guides will be available and what is their certification and experience?

Do you provide binoculars and/or spotting scopes to your guides?

Do you provide real coffee or instant coffee (most adventures start early in Cuyabeno)?

Do your boats have lightweight paddles or heavier wooden paddles?

Do you provide drinking water to guests?

Oh, and we heard Cuyabeno pronounced two different ways: “Kwai-ah-ben-oh” and “Koo-ya-ben-oh”. Go figure. Really. Go figure it out.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tsgf8w5CAtM

This massive jungle tree is a major jungle attraction. It even has its own sign. Climbing up its vines: optional.

Getting to Cuyabeno

From Quito you can fly, drive or take a bus to the dismal oil town of Lago Agria. Then it’s 1.5 hours by road to the Cuyabeno bridge where your roughly two hour journey on the river in a motorized canoe will begin to reach your lodge in the reserve. In times of low water the trip takes longer. Entry to all parks and reserves in Ecuador is free except for the Galapagos Islands National Park.

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Dangerous Beauty – Los Nevados National Park & Ruiz Volcano, Colombia

Los Nevados National Park in central Colombia is a dangerous beauty full of high altitude landscapes carved by glaciers and volcanoes, including the Ruiz Volcano which has proven deadly in the past and is currently making its mighty presence felt again.

El Cisne PNN Los Nevados Colombia

Dangerously beautiful Los Nevados National Park in Colombia.

The dangerous beauty of Los Nevados National Park

Los Nevados National Park (Parque Nacional Natural Los Nevados in Spanish) was created in 1974. The park gets its name from a Spanish word commonly used for snowcapped mountains or volcanoes (nevado means snowcapped). There are a number of volcanoes within the 144,000 acre (58,300 hectare) park but the Nevado del Ruiz (Ruiz Volcano) is the biggest and baddest of them all.

In 1985 the 17,547 foot (5,389 meter) volcano erupted in the night and the glaciers and snowcap on its peak melted with devastating results. More than 25,000 people, mostly in the town of Armero, were killed as a river of mud and debris flowed down from the flanks of the Ruiz Volcano. It was the second deadliest volcanic eruption in history.

Nevado Ruiz vocano from El Cisne Los Nevados National Park

One of three vents on the Ruiz volcano shows off a dusting of snow in Los Nevados National Park.

The beauty of the park comes from those same volcanoes whose peaks we want to glimpse and whose glaciers and eruptions have created the landscape within the park. In 2009 Los Nevados National Park was the third most visited park in Colombia with more than 50,000 visitors (COP 57,000 or about US$18 entry fee including a mandatory guide) coming to see all that beauty. However, the park opens at the whim of its namesake volcanoes. If they are too active then the park is deemed too dangerous to visit and access can be restricted or stopped altogether.

Nevado Ruiz volcano Colombia

Wind, weather and seismic activity sculpt the landscape in weird ways in Los Nevados National Park. Here, rock and ash combine to create a moonscape on earth.

The park was in restricted access mode when we were there and the higher elevations, roads, lakes, trails and the El Cisne Refugio were all closed to visitors because of activity within the Ruiz Volcano. But that did not stop us.

Our all access park pass

Colombian national park officials kindly assigned us a park employee who took us on an overnight trip through the park, but first we had to deliver some condor food. Instead of taking the usual route into the park’s main Las Brisas entrance near the town of Las Esperanza, we drove in from Villa Maria along a rough back road carrying a dead calf in a bucket.

Paramo PNN Los Nevados Colombia

The high altitude páramo landscape in the park acts like a sponge and forms many small ponds and lakes.

Los Nevados park is home to a dozen or so Andean condors which were bred at the San Diego Zoo. The species is considered threatened as populations decrease and while park officials say the Los Nevados condors are thriving, they still support the community with food drops like the dead calf.

Frailejon Espeletia plant paramo Colombia

Frailejon, which remind us of Joshua trees, are a mainstay of the páramo landscape in the park.

About five hours later we finally entered the park. Los Nevados is a high altitude park and a kind of alpine tundra called páramo, which only exists in the northern Andes of South America, thrives here. The ground is covered with rugged tufts of grass, Joshua tree-like flowering frailejón plants and a weird low-growing, dark green dome cushion plants which, upon closer inspection, is made up of thousands of tiny plants. We also saw hundreds of rabbits but, sadly, not the puma or the tigrillo that also live here.

Paramo plants Colombi

Though it is called a cushion plant, this massive green dome is solid as a rock and made up of thousands of tiny, prickly star-shaped plants.

It was getting late so we headed straight for the El Cisne Refugio (named for one of the other volcanoes in the park) which is a huge building capable of housing up to 70 people. When the park is fully open there’s a restaurant as well. Because the park wasn’t officially open the normal dorm building was locked up tight. So we settled into a much smaller and more rustic building behind the larger structure. This is where park rangers and employees stay and it was our home for the night. There was a kitchen, a cold water bathroom and bunk beds plus electricity and, weirdly, a TV but no method of heating.

Centro de Visitantes El Cisne PNN Los Nevados

The El Cisne Refugio offers rooms and a restaurant.

Our park escort Hector explained that Los Nevados offers more than just views. There are hiking trails in the park as well including a three hour round trip hike to a glacial lake called Lake Otún at 12,800 feet (3,900 meters). The lake is full of trout and is a breeding ground for many types of ducks. There’s a cabin on the lakeshore as well and camping opportunities.

Los Nevados paramo frailejon

More páramo in the park.

The El Cisne Refugio is located at more than 13,000 feet (4,000 meters) and at this altitude it gets very cold the moment the sun goes down. As evening came we stayed outside as long as we could to watch the light change on the páramo and the hills that surround the small bowl where the buildings are located. Soon we retreated back inside where we bundled up in layers of wool and climbed into our sleeping bags for the night.

Los Nevados Frailejon Espeletia

Frailejon up close.

By 7 am the next morning we were back on the road, headed to a point from which we hoped to catch a clear view of the top of the Ruiz Volcano before clouds descended. We only got brief teases of the top as the clouds came and went, carried by strong winds. We’re told that July and August are the clearest months in the park, but even then cloud-free views of the high peaks are not guaranteed.

Nevado Ruiz panorama

When was the last time you drove to 15,512 feet? Here’s our truck at that altitude on the flanks of the Ruiz Volcano in Los Nevados National Park. Click here to see a larger version of his panoramic shot.

Ruiz Los Nevados altitudeWhat we did get was a milestone on our little road trip. As the surprisingly good dirt road through the park climbed and climbed we reached 15,512 feet (4,728 meters) on a cinder covered pass just below Ruiz Volcano–the highest elevation we’d driven to on the journey at that point. We also saw one of those San Diego condors and a páramo eagle soaring above us. Hector told us that the condors sometimes swoop down the snowy hillsides and brush their chests against the snow to clean their feathers.

PNN Los Nevados Colombia

Clouds descend over a craggy mountainside cut by glaciers and shaped by volcanic eruptions in Los Nevados National Park in Colombia.

Leaving Los Nevados was no less dramatic

The terrain in Los Nevados is constantly shifting due to wind, weather and seismic activity. When we were there a section of road was only marginally passable. The area had recently been crudely cleared so small park vehicles could get through, but there was no guarantee that our monster truck would be able to pass. We decided to take our chances and push forward through the park toward the main Las Brisas entrance anyway rather than backtrack over the terrible dirt road we’d taken into the park the previous day.

bad road Los Nevados National Park

There used to be a road in there somewhere…

This meant driving along a notorious stretch of road called “The Ss” because you have to navigate 17 switchback turns, some of them very, very tight for our long-wheel-base truck.Then we reached the semi-rebuilt wash-out area and managed to power through narrow spaces and deep ash to get through. This is the sort of stuff that Eric finds adventurous and Karen finds arduous.

Driving Los Nevados park Colombia

Our truck after Eric successfully negotiated his way through a sketchy roadless section. You can see the 17 switchbacks of “The Ss” in the background.

Just short of the main Las Brisas entrance we stopped at Chalet Arenales. The original structure burned down in 2010 and a new building (which is not in the chalet style) opened in 2014. It’s surprisingly modern and offers  a warm interior, free hot coffee and large windows which give great views onto the moonlike landscape of the park.

Chalet Arenales Los Nevados

Chalet Arenales in Los Nevados National Park offers free coffee and great views.

Many people only travel as far as the new chalet when they visit Los Nevados but we’re grateful to Colombian national park officials for finding a way for us to visit more of the heart of the park even during a time of restricted access. The unique páramo, extreme landscapes, rare wildlife and fleeting glimpses of the Ruiz Volcano made Los Nevados one of our favorite national parks on the journey so far.

Los Nevados National Park Colombia

This entrance to Los Nevados National Park can be closed whenever seismic activity within the park is deemed too high. Check the status before planning your visit.

The Ruiz Volcano is very, very active

And speaking of the Ruiz Volcano, it’s still very, very active. Most recently, Ruiz erupted again this month. No deaths have been reported so far, but the airport in nearby Manizales was closed. Check park status before planning a visit to Los Nevados.

Travel tip

Smart visitors to Los Nevados National Park combine it with a warm and relaxing visit to one of the many hot springs in the area where you can soak in water that’s naturally heated by the area’s volcanoes. These places range from basic pools to full service hotels. We soaked our bones at Termales El Otoño which has three big, clean pools surrounded by a large hotel with standard rooms and traditionally painted stand-alone cottages.

Termales El Otoño - Manizales, Colombia

One of the soaking pools at Termales El Otoño.

 

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Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2015 – Best Adventures & Activities

This post is part 1 of 4 in the series Best of 2015

Welcome to Part 1 in our Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2015 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 cruising the Amazon River in Peru (in luxury and in a hammock), playing with gunpowder in a bar in Colombia and sky biking through the treetops in Ecuador (don’t miss our Amazon drone footage). Part 2 covers the Best Food & Beverages of 2015, Part 3 covers the Best Hotels of the year and Part 4 tells you all about our Travel Gear of the Year.

In 2015, the Trans-Americas Journey explored Colombia, Ecuador and Peru and we drove 7,210 miles (11,603 km) doing it. Want more geeky road trip numbers like how much money we’ve spent on gas and how many borders we’ve driven over? Check out the Trip Facts & Figures page on our website.

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

10 Best Adventures & Activities of 2015

 

Best walk through the tree tops: It’s more than a third of a mile (500 meters) long and up to 115 feet (35 meters) above the ground. It sways and creaks as it connects more than a dozen different platforms. It’s supported by enormous rain forest trees and there’s nothing else like it in the Peruvian Amazon basin. We’re talking about the Ceiba Tops Canopy Walkway at Explorama Lodge from which you can see toucans, tree frogs, monkeys and more all at eye level. Check out our Amazon drone footage from above the Canopy Walkway, above.

 

Caceria del Zorro horse race - Ibarra, Ecuador

Best insane horse race: Every October the town of Ibarra in northern Ecuador hosts a race that includes hundreds of horses and riders who parade around town, then leap down a series of steep cliffs (see above) before taking part in a track race in pursuit of a rider dressed as Zorro. Yes, that Zorro. It is breathtaking in more ways than one. Learn more about the annual Caceria del Zorro in our story about Ecuador’s craziest horse race for Afar.

 

Cock-of-Rock

Best cock sighting: The national bird of Peru is called the Cock of the Rock. It is a crazy looking thing, but not how you’re thinking (check it out, above). It’s also pretty rare and seeing one is not a guarantee. Seeing five in one day without a guide is pretty extraordinary, but that’s exactly what happened when we hiked the trail to the Gocta Waterfall in northern Peru. Just after reaching the 4km mark on the 5km trail we heard a really weird noise–like alien frogs. We stopped and looked around and soon saw a bright red flash in the rain forest. We hung around and looked and listened some more and then we saw three male Cock of the Rocks in the same tree just off the trail. They hung around for more than five minutes before flying off. On our way back out we saw another Cock of the Rock alone in a tree around the 3km trail marker. Our advice is to keep your eyes and your ears open on this trail. And even if you don’t see any Cock of the Rocks the waterfall is worth is. At 2,530 feet (771 meters) Gocta Waterfall is one of the tallest free-falling waterfalls in the world.

 

Amazon Ferry Iquitos Peru Hammock

Best bare bones Amazon River trip: At an average up river speed of less than 10 miles (15 km) per hour, it takes more than three days to travel up the Amazon River by cargo ferry from Iquitos to Yurimaguas, Peru (you can hack off a day or so going downstream in the other direction). We slept on the deck in hammocks (Karen is demonstrating, above), spent a lot of hours spotting blue and yellow macaws and pink river dolphins with our binoculars and generally slowed down to river time. It was like taking a multi-day trip on the Mississippi but with rarer wildlife.

 

Aria Amazon river boat - Iquitos, Peru

Best super luxe Amazon River trip: On the extreme other end of the Peruvian Amazon River Trip experience scale you will find the Aria Amazon river boat. This floating luxury hotel and fine dining restaurant lived up to the substantial hype with some of the best food we’ve had in Peru so far (the menu was created by Executive Chef Pedro Miguel Schiaffino who runs the award-winning Malabar restaurant in Lima), exceptional service, chic rooms with floor to ceiling windows, great guides and, of course, all that Amazon. Did we mention the air conditioning and the hot tub?

 

Playin Tejo - Salento, Colombia

Best explosive bar game: It’s called tejo and it involves a heavy metal disc (called a tejo) which you toss underhand toward an angled board covered in wet clay. Your goal is to hit pieces of paper stuffed with gun powder which are arranged around a metal ring pressed into the clay. You know you’re doing it right when the reaction between your tossed tejo, the gun powder and the metal ring causes an explosion. We played it in the otherwise tranquil mountain town of Salento, Colombia at the Los Amigos bar where they have a massive open air tejo area set up in the back. Pay 1,000 COP (about US$0.40) per person, grab a cold beer for 3,000 COP (about US$1.00), choose one of the half dozen or so tejo set ups and start tossing. You earn one point for the tejo which lands closest to ring. You get three points for an explosion. You get six points for landing in the center of the metal ring and causing an explosion. You get nine points for landing in center of metal ring without causing an explosion. The first person who racks up 25 points first wins. Though Karen hates loud noises, she somehow won anyway. Check out her winning form, above.

 

Masphi Eco Lodge sky baike jungle canopy

Best place to bicycle through the air: Masphi Eco Lodge in Ecuador is remarkable for a number of reasons, including top luxury deep in the rain forest and breathtaking architecture. Mashpi is also home to the only sky bike in the country. What is a sky bike? It’s an ingenious contraption that allows you to pedal your way across a taught line high above the ground (above). Think of it as horizontal zip lining on a bike. At Mashpi they’ve installed their sky bike through a particularly lovely patch of cloud forest and a leisurely round trip between two platforms gives sky bikers eye level views of the tree tops and the flowers and critters that live there.

 

 

Best death road: There are two ways to travel between Macoa to Pasto in Colombia: via a normal highway or via something called the Trampoline of Death. Guess which one we chose…To assuage her nerves, Karen crushed the pre-drive to do list. Water bottles were filled. Tire pressure was checked. The oil level was monitored. We were ready for the steep grades, blind corners, narrow stretches where two vehicles can’t possibly pass, potholes, rock slides and whatever else something called the Trampoline of Death might have in store. What we weren’t ready for was a recently graded surface, helpful safety signs and guardrails. Guardrails? We still had fun on the road and it is still challenging and requires even more concentration then usual, but the moral of this adventure is: don’t judge a road by its nickname. Check out the time lapse video from our death road drive, above.

 

Animals of Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve, Ecuador

Best Amazon adventure destination in Ecuador: Ecuador is blessed with a number of different areas from which travelers can access the Amazon Basin. We spent weeks exploring the Amazon along the Napo River out of a town called Coca which is the most popular gateway. Then we visited the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve in the Amazon Basin and it blew our minds. The waterways in the Cuyabeno area of Ecuador are much smaller and they flood and recede throughout the year. There are also far fewer lodging options in the Cuyabeno area then there are along the Napo which means fewer humans. This means the animals are more common and much easier to see. In three days we saw pink river dolphins, the smallest monkey in the world (the pygmy marmoset), huge tracts of primary rainforest, toucans, a pygmy potoo (look it up) and more. We saw so many animals we had to make a wildlife montage for you, above. Lodges in the Cuyabeno area of the Amazon Basin are fairly basic with varying degrees of electricity, hot water, etc. We recommend Tapir Lodge where the food is great, the solar and generator electricity is reliable and the private rooms are clean and comfortable. The biggest asset at Tapir Lodge is Kurt the owner. He is passionate about his slice of paradise and works hard to make sure his guests fall in love with it too.

 

Kuelap Fortress archaeological site - Chachapoyas, Peru

Best first Incan archaeological site: During the course of our Trans-Americas Journey we’ve explored more than 100 archaeological sites through the US, Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. None of them have been Incan sites, however, until we crossed into Peru and headed straight for the Kuelap Fortress, which is actually a pre-Incan site that was built by the Chachapoyas people in 1500s. The massive stone wall that encloses this site is nearly 2,000 feet (600 meters) long by nearly 400 feet (119 meters) wide. In places the wall is 62 feet (19 meters) high (check it out, above). Kuelap held thousands of people at it’s peak in distinctive round stone houses with thatch roofs. Despite its name, some archaeologists believe that Kuelap probably wasn’t a fortress at all but more of a sacred area used for ceremonies and rituals. Visiting Keulap is about to get even more adventurous. In late 2015 work began on a massive cable car system, the first in Peru, which will transport visitors from the village of Tingo Nuevo to the Kuelap site covering 2.5 miles (4 km) and rising more than 2,400 feet (730 meters) in 20 minutes. The new Kuelap cable car is expected to be finished in 2017.

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Inside The Weirdest Tourist Attraction in Colombia – Pablo Escobar’s Hacienda Napoles Theme Park

One of narco terrorist Pablo Escobar’s many haciendas has been reclaimed and turned into a tourist attraction with water parks, concrete dinosaurs, a zoo and the largest herd of wild hippos outside of Africa. Welcome to Hacienda Napoles, the weirdest tourist attraction in Colombia.

Hcienda Napoles entrance plane

Pablo Escoabar put his very first drug running plane over the entrance to his Hacienda Napoles complex. New owners have painted it in friendly zebra stripes.

Inside Hacienda Napoles, the weirdest tourist attraction in Colombia

Pablo Escobar, the so-called King of Cocaine, was killed on a rooftop in Medellin, Colombia on December 2, 1993. Soon after, the Colombian government claimed much of the drug lord’s ill-gotten gain, including Hacienda Napoles located about four hours from Medellin. Escobar’s original complex covered eight square miles (20 square km) and included a modest house, a private air strip, a helipad, a bullring, a small zoo and a collection of concrete dinosaurs.

Today the property has been transformed into Parque Tematico Hacienda Napoles  (Hacienda Napoles Theme Park) “for family tourism, environmental protection and the protection of animal species in danger of extinction.” The operators of Hacienda Napoles claim it is the largest theme park in South America and since it opened in 2008 managers say it has attracted more than one million visitors, overwhelmingly Colombian, each paying between 34,000COP (about US$12) and 65,000COP (about US$21) to get in.

Hacienda Napos water park

Visitors to the theme park created on Pablo Escobar’s Hacienda Napoles get doused by a giant octopus.

“This is an opportunity to change the bad reputation of the place and turn the area into a good region for business, especially tourism,” said park manager Oberdan Martínez when we talked to him. And so they set about erasing almost every trace of Escobar.

 Erasing Escobar

Escobar’s first drug running plane, which the narco terrorist perched atop the Hacienda Napoles entrance, was re-painted with friendly zebra stripes. Five theme hotels were built (Africa, Casablanca, etc) on the property. Escobar’s private bull ring was turned into an Africa Museum. A massive octopus now douses shrieking swimmers in a new water park that is as tacky as a Florida putt-putt course.

Tiger Hacienda Napoles

Operators of the theme part on Pablo Escobar’s Hacienda Napoles have expanded the narco-terrorist’s private zoo to include tigers and elephants.

The menagerie of animals that Escobar amassed in his on-site private zoo has been expanded to include lions, tigers, rhinos, jaguars, a pair of elephants and more. Escobar’s original four hippos have, inevitably, multiplied many times over. Many have escaped and now constitute the largest wild hippo herd outside of Africa.

Feral wild hippopotomus Pablo Escobar Hacienda Napoles

Pablo Escobar had four hippos as part of the private zoo he kept at Hacienda Napoles. These have bred and many have escaped, creating the largest wild hippo population outside of Africa.

Those looking for any insight into Escobar will need a good guide to find it since Hacienda Napoles staff say they are discouraged from answering any questions about the infamous previous owner. We visited Hacienda Napoles from Medellin with Palenque Tours which is owned and run by two political scientists who believe Pablo must be presented in context. After gawking at the refurbished concrete dinosaurs which were originally built by Escobar for his son (though there’s no mention of that) we headed for the carcass of Escobar’s hacienda.

Dinosaurs Pablo Escobar Hacienda Napoles

The King of Cocaine has a collection of giant concrete dinosaurs built for his son on the property of Hacienda Napoles. These are now part of the theme park that was developed on the property, but minus any mention of Escobar.

Ravaged by shovel-wielding locals looking for riches allegedly buried under the pool and inside the concrete walls, the surprisingly modest hacienda is now a shell. Its gutted rooms have been turned into the Museo Memorial (Memorial Museum) which presents a grisly visual timeline of Escobar’s life, rampage and death. There are no guides or staff and all displays are in Spanish.

Pabo Escobar casa museum destroyed Hacienda Napoles

Escobar’s surprisingly modest house at Hacienda Napoles has been gutted by people looking for hidden riches. It now houses photos and media reports which chronicle the narco terrorist’s life and death.

As the piped-in, never-ending narration explains “Pablo Escobar’s blood trail is part of our history. We have chosen to follow that trail in reports the media made…to remind the new generation what we must not forget.”

Pablo Escobar killed Hacienda Napoles casa museum

This display inside Escobar’s former house at Hacienda Napoles is from a newspaper report about his death on a rooftop in Medellin in 1993.

A Colombian family with two young sons were the only other visitors at the memorial. They did not enter the building or view the disturbing displays of bombings, corpses and fires but as they circled the algae-filled pool their oldest son said “Pablo Escobar killed people.” Then they left, perhaps to go toss carrots into the waiting maw of Vanessa, a nearly tame hippo who now lives just steps away.

Hippo Vanessa Hacienda Napoles

This is Vanessa. She like carrots.

For more, check out our award-winning piece about controversial Pablo Escobar narco tourism in Colombia which was published by RoadsandKingdoms.com.

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How to Buy the Best Binoculars for Travel

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

lizard on Steiner binoculars

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

How to buy binoculars: key terms

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

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

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

Steiner binoculars - Cotopaxi volcano, Ecuador

Karen and her Steiners in Cotopaxi National Park in Ecuador.

How to buy binoculars: lens coatings

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

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

Steiner binoculars - Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

Karen and her Steiners in the Galapagos Islands.

How to buy binoculars: focus

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

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

Steiner-binoculars-searching-for-whales

Karen and her Steiners in the Galapagos Islands.

How to buy binoculars: durability

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

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

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

How to buy binoculars: worthy accessories

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

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

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

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

Steiner binoculars - TatacoaDesert, Colombia

Karen and her Steiners in the Tatacoa Desert in Colombia.

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

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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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