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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

Read more about travel in Colombia

Read more about travel in Ecuador

 

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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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