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Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2016 – Best Hotels

This post is part 2 of 2 in the series Best of 2016

An RV hotel on the beach in Peru, the best luxury sleep in the Galapagos, a floating budget hotel in Brazil, the most over-the-top honeymoon suite we’ve ever seen, and more great hotels in South America! Welcome to Part 2 in our Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2016 series–our guide to the Best Hotels of the year. Part 1 covers the Top Travel Adventures of 2016, Part 3 covers the Best Food and Beverages of the year and Part 4 tells you all about our favorite Travel Gear of the year. But now, in no particular order, here’s our travel guide to…

The best hotels of 2016

Hotel Unique Sao Paulo

The appropriately named Hotel Unique in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Best check-in

Best check-in Hotel Unique Sao Paulo

Staff at Hotel Unique in Sao Paulo, Brazil get check in (and so many other things) right.

Checking into a hotel is tedious. Didn’t you already give all of that information when you made your reservation? Some hotels think the answer is to forego check-in for some kind of check-in light as if answering the same questions in your room instead of the lobby makes it better. We think the answer is to simply improve the check-in experience in order to make a stellar, tone-setting first impression. Hotel Unique in Sao Paulo, Brazil gets it right with capable, amenable staff plus champagne along with a bowl of beloved Brazilian sweets. Check-in on a Friday and there will also be trays of popcorn. And we all know how well popcorn and champagne go together. Believe it or not, the Hotel Unique experience just gets better from there.

Best rooms with three walls

Rainforest Expeditions Tambopata Amazon Peru

The owners of the Amazon lodges operated by Rainforest Expeditions know that you want to be in the jungle, so rooms only have three walls.

Rainforest Expeditions runs three lodges in the Tambopata Reserve in the Amazon in Peru and each of them offers a lot of things: excellent guides (including Paul, our favorite guide of the year), comfortable facilities, great staff and terrific food. What they don’t offer is rooms with four walls. Every room at every Rainforest Expeditions lodge has only three walls. The fourth wall is left open to the jungle which means macaws can fly into your room if they feel like it (and they do). Beds have good nets over them and, honestly, bugs were never a big problem so don’t freak out. The idea is to really immerse yourself in the sounds, sights, and smells of the jungle. That’s what you’re there for, after all.

Best view from bed

hotel-el-crater-quito

Admiring the crater from bed at Hotel El Crater in Ecuador.

Hotel El Crater near Quito, Ecuador was built right on the rim of the extinct Pululahua volcano (which is one of only two volcanic craters in the world that are inhabited). To take full advantage of the view, rooms have a wall of windows facing the crater and the bed is placed just so. When the fog lifts in the morning, the crater reveals itself and you don’t even have to get out of bed to see it.

Best hotel if you still mourn Mad Men

Brasilia Palace Hotel

Cold, hard, Mad Men modernism at the Brasilia Palace hotel in Brasilia, Brazil.

The first hotel built in Brasilia, the capital of Brazil, still looks, feels, and acts like it’s the late 1950s when the Brasilia Palace Hotel opened its doors. Designed by Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer (who also oversaw its renovation after the building was abandoned and looted following a major fire), the 156 room hotel is all about modernism, open space, angles, and a kind of cold, hard futurism. Room 201, known as the Oscar Suite, has an Eames lounge chair and some truly groovy blue beading in the bathroom. Don Draper would approve.

Best problem solving

Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel

Rooms like this and a polished staff make the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel the best choice in Aguas Calientes, Peru.

We had a problem. Potentially a BIG problem. The date on our entry tickets for Machu Picchu did not match the day we intended to enter the Incan archaeological site. We were being assured by random ticket agents and tour operators that it didn’t matter, but we weren’t buying it. We returned to the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel, where we were staying as part of our Lares trek to Machu Picchu with Mountain Lodges of Peru, and asked the staff what we should do. They gave the correct answer: we should do nothing. They would handle everything. They called the regional tourism authorities, verified that the date discrepancy would not matter, and laid our fears to rest in a matter of moments.

Best breakfast buffet

Casarao Villa do Imperio in Pirenopolis, Brazil

Breakfast is served and the champagne is flowing at Casarao Villa do Imperio in Pirenopolis, Brazil.

Hotel breakfasts in Brazil are almost always a buffet affair, usually heavy on cakes. Hotel Casarao Villa do Imperio in Pirenopolis, Brazil takes the beloved Brazilian breakfast buffet to new heights with a very wide range of house-baked sweet and savory treats, eggs to order, good coffee and free-flowing champagne. 

Best hotel room in a boat

The newest room at the Angermeyer Waterfront Inn, on Santa Cruz Island in the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador, was built into a beached wooden boat and offers a queen size bed, a jetted tub in the bathroom, and a private furnished deck with ocean views. 

Best X-rated room

Room 69 at Anaconda Lodge, in Puerto Maldonado, Peru

Room 69 at Anaconda Lodge in Puerto Maldonado, Peru.

Room 69 at Anaconada Lodge, in Puerto Maldonado, Peru (gateway to the Tampopata area), features a wooden bed with four enormous penises carved into the bed posts, bedside tables with boobs that serve as drawer handles, and a table supported by the bent over legs and backsides of two women instead of traditional legs. The furniture was carved by a local artist based on designs by the owners, Donald and Wadee, who swear the artist wasn’t too shocked. The other bungalows at Anaconda Lodge are all totally G-rated, by the way, and the Thai food made by Wadee and her daughter (they’re from Thailand) is the best we’ve had, so far, in Latin America.

Best new place to sleep with jaguars

Pousada do Rio Mutum have debuted the Mutum Expediciones boat hotel

The new Mutum Expediciones boat hotel offers the chance to spend the night on a river whose banks are frequented by jaguars in Brazil’s Pantanal.

During the dry season, jaguars are routinely seen on the banks of the Cuiabá River in the Pantanal grasslands of Brazil. There are plenty of lodges on dry land which offer boat trips on the river to look for jaguars. Now there’s a new way to sleep on the river too. The team behind Pousada do Rio Mutum have debuted the Mutum Expediciones boat hotel. It has six small cabins with bathrooms, air conditioning, TV, and a mini-fridge plus a roomy common area and ample outdoor lounging areas. Rates include all meals and a fridge full of cold beer.

Best luxury hotel with a heart

Sol y Luna Hotel, in the Sacred Valley of Peru

Style, space, and a real sense of civic duty make Sol y Luna a special luxury hotel in Peru’s Sacred Valley.

Sol y Luna Hotel, in the Sacred Valley of Peru, was started in 2000 as a way to fund the owner’s primary passion: the Sol y Luna Intercultural Colegio which was created to give a better level of education to students of all backgrounds, including many from poor families in communities with weak or no schools at all. Both the hotel and the school are thriving. The school has educated hundreds of students, including more than 150 enrolled right now, and the hotel is now part of the exclusive Relais & Chateaux group of boutique hotels and gourmet restaurants. And for good reason. The hotel is an art-filled oasis with a spa, lovingly tended grounds, excellent service, a fabulous stable of horses and some truly stunning rooms. An outdoor solar-heated pool was unveiled this year.

Best city hotel that feels like a country home

Second Home Peru - Lima

Welcome home to Second Home Peru in Lima.

Lima, Peru is a big, bustling city but you leave all that behind the moment you step through the garden gate at Second Home Peru. This eight room hotel in Lima’s Barranco neighborhood feels like a country home, because that’s what it was. Built in 1911, the Tudor style house was a summer home for rich city folk who took a trolley to Barranco from Lima. Most recently it was the family home of Peruvian artist Victor Delfin. He still lives there and has his studio there, but the main Tudor home was turned into a hotel and spectacular ocean view rooms were added on the edge of the property as well. There’s a Second Home in Cusco as well which creates a similar “city haven” atmosphere in Cusco’s San Blas neighborhood.

Best floating budget hotel

Abare SUP & Food - Manaus, Brazil

Abare SUP & Food draws weekend crowds near Manaus, Brazil and now a new budget hotel floats right beside it.

Diogo de Vasconuelo has a winner on his hands with Abare SUP & Food, a popular floating restaurant and standup paddle board spot on the Turuma River which feeds into the Amazon River near Manaus, Brazil. At the end of 2016 he added Abare Hostel, a floating budget hotel, to the operation. Private rooms with double bunks, air-conditioning, and private bathrooms go for R$180 (about US$55) and there are also beds in a men’s dorm and a women’s dorm with air-conditioning, lockers, and a shared bathroom for R$80 (about US$25) per person. Breakfast at Abare SUP & Food, floating right next door, is included. 

Best hotel with its own Incan terraces

Explora Valle Sagrado Peru

Designers of the Explora Valle Sagrada luxury base camp changed their plans when Incan terraces were discovered on the all-inclusive hotel’s construction site.

When the property was being leveled for the new Explora Valle Sagrada in Peru’s Sacred Valley, a startling discovery was made: Incan terraces. Lots of them. The government stepped in and put the hotel project on hold until archaeologists could do careful excavation. Ultimately, the footprint of the Explora Valle Sagrada project was shifted and now the all-inclusive, luxury adventure base camp hotel is arranged around the terraces which are still being excavated by experts. Read our full review of the impressive Explora Valle Sagrada for LuxuryLatinAmerica.com.

Best luxury hotel in the Galapagos

Pikaia Lodge Galapagos

Pikaia Lodge, the best luxury hotel in the Galapagos.

These are the facts. We’ve been to the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador three times in the past two years and we’ve been on assignment so we’ve stayed at or at least toured most of the existing luxury hotels in the Galapagos. Nothing holds a candle to Pikaia Lodge. Yes, there’s a chance that a new luxury hotel could open in the Galapagos that would best the Pikaia, but we doubt it. See why in our full review of Pikaia Lodge for LuxuryLatinAmerica.com.

Best new Amazon suite

Juma Amazon Lodge - Manaus, Brazil

Inside the panorama suite at Juma Amazon Lodge in Brazil.

Juma Amazon Lodge, outside of Manaus in the Brazilian Amazon, debuted a panorama suite in 2016. Built on stilts over the water, it’s a spacious round room with floor-to-ceiling screens (no glass) on all sides and a wrap around deck with hammocks, a table, and chairs.

Best key chain

Inkaterra Hacienda Urubamba - Sacred Valley, Peru

It’s in the details at the Inkaterra Hacienda Urubamba hotel in Peru’s Sacred Valley.

This year the Inkaterra group of hotels in celebrating 40 years in Peru where they now have seven properties. Their newest is the Inkaterra Hacienda Urubamba in the Sacred Valley. While service was still an issue when we were at the hotel, there was a remarkable level of attention to detail in other aspects including the extremely comfortable, spacious, and stylish stand-alone casitas and in executive chef Rafael Casin’s “earth to plate” cuisine using ingredients from the valley.

Even room keys were given their due with keys dangling from a gorgeous ring adorned with braided strands of alpaca and wool yarn in a rainbow of natural dye colors. The key rings were handmade by workers at Threads of Peru, a Cusco-based not-for-profit organization focused on preserving and promoting traditional Peruvian textile arts around the world.

Best rural homestay

Q’eswachaka bridge building festival

Now there are some simple but charming places to stay near the site of the annual Q’eswachaka bridge festival during which a rare Incan grass bridge is re-built by villagers.

Every June, communities near Quehue in northern Peru re-build a traditional Incan bridge that’s made entirely out of grass. It’s one of the last remaining bridges of its kind and even though a modern vehicle bridge was put in nearby, the Q’eswachaka bridge building festival remains an important cultural event. Travelers who want to see the festival have to two choices: make the long drive from Cusco to the site of the bridge, stay for a few hours, then make drive back, or camp in the cold in a few locations near the bridge. Now there’s a third choice.

A small network of Casas Habitantes have been built in villages near the bridge. Funded by BanBif Bank, locals made simple rooms to rent to visitors with electricity, real mattresses, shared bathrooms with flushing toilets and a simple shared kitchen. We stayed in a room built by Justo Callasi which was cozy and clean and warm and just a 5-minute drive from the bridge (US$12 double occupancy, bring your own food and take out all of your trash). This allowed us to experience the whole 3-day festival with ease. To book, contact the Patronato de Cultura Machu Picchu which administers these Casas Habitantes and others around Peru (info@patronatomachupicchu.org in Spanish).

Best RV hotel

Bamboo Paracas Eco Bungalows RV hotel

Bamboo Paracas Eco Bungalows on the beach in Paracas, Peru is the country’s first RV hotel.

Despite the name, there are no bungalows at Bamboo Paracas Eco Bungalows. That’s because it’s the first hotel in Peru that uses RVs for rooms. Thirty custom-built RVs are permanently parked on the beach. Each has electricity, a plumbed toilet and shower, a full kitchen and a sandy front yard with your own grill and picnic tables. There’s a communal pool, a small snack bar and stand up paddle boards plus kitesurfing and windsurfing to take advantage of the area’s legendary coastal winds. This year, owners Pablo and Felix Gilardi and their partners have also opened the Paracas 360 Eco Hostel in central Paracas offering shared RV accommodation with shared bathroom and kitchen facilities for those on a tighter budget.

Best presents

DCO Suites, Lounge & Spa - Mancora, Peru

DCO Suites, Lounge & Spa just south of Mancora, Peru is a shot of chic right on the beach.

When you check into the sexy and chic DCO Suites, Lounge & Spa on the beach south of Mancora, Peru you are showered with gifts. First, a glass of champagne, then a beach kit including a cotton sarong and a bottle of after-sun soothing gel, then an iPod nano loaded with music to play in your room. Though the sound of crashing waves was enough of a soundtrack for us.

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Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2016 – Top Travel Adventures

This post is part 1 of 2 in the series Best of 2016

Jaguar spotting in Brazil, trekking the Andes in Peru, mud slogging and (really) close-encounters with condors in Ecuador, tapir sex, and more! Welcome to Part 1 in our Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2016 series–our guide to the Top Travel Adventures of the year. Part 2 covers the Best Hotels of 2016, Part 3 covers the Best Food and Beverages of the year, and Part 4 tells you all about our favorite Travel Gear of the year. But now, in no particular order, here are our…

Top travel adventures of 2016

Raimbow Mountain Ausangate Peru

Peru’s Rainbow Mountain which we visited during the Apu’s Trail hike around Ausangate.

Best mountain trek

Andean Lodges Ausangate Trek Peru

Karen hoofing it up an other Andean slope during the Apu’s Trail hike around Ausangate in Peru.

Everybody knows about the Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu, that’s why it’s so crowded you have to make your plans and reservations months in advance. But Peru is full of other even more spectacular ways to trek in the Andes. If you’re seeking time in the mountains, spectacular scenery, and difficult but rewarding trails then trekking around 20,945 foot (6,384 meter) Ausangate Mountain is hard to beat.

There are many ways to get into this region which is not far from Cusco. We went with Andean Lodges, which has built a string of comfortable lodges (wood stove for heat, no electricity, good beds in private rooms with bathrooms that offer hot water during certain hours), on their 4-day/5-night Apu’s Trail route around this massive and sacred mountain. It delivered everything we were looking for and then some, including visiting Peru’s increasingly popular Rainbow Mountain, then continuing down the trail to an even more spectacular high-altitude landscapes which nearly no one visits.

We haven’t loved a multi-day hike this much since we were tramping around the Himalayas.

Best slog through the mud

El Altar Trek Ecuador

The crater lake in El Altar volcano, our reward (plus condors!) for the muddy slog up.

El Altar is an extinct volcano so named because someone thought its nine peaks looked like nuns and friars worshiping. Nuns or not, it is a beautiful volcano with a lovely crater lake and it sits at the head of a wide, wind-swept valley. It’s the kind of beauty that needs to be earned, which may explain why the hike to El Altar (there are no roads, though you may see left over materials from one ill-fated attempt) is so difficult.

The trail starts from Hacienda Releche in the tiny town of Candelaria and almost immediately it is a steep, slippery slog up an increasingly muddy trail. We wore our rubber boots  (and you should too) and there were points on the trail when they were almost sucked off our feet by mud. The stuff was nearly knee-deep in places. Around six hours later we arrived at the Collares plain with El Altar just ahead of us.

This is where the owners of Hacienda Releche have built Refugios Capac Urcu (Capac Urcu is another name for El Altar) with plenty of dorm rooms with bunk beds and shared bathrooms and a big kitchen. You can carry up what you need (sleeping bag, food, etc) or hire a horse and horseman from the hacienda. After such a slog up we recommend spending at least two nights in the refugio. The plain and the volcano are lovely places to explore on foot but the weather at more than 11,000 feet (3,400 meters) is changeable so you’ll want to hang around for good weather for as long as you can.

Did we mention that El Altar is also condor country? When we hiked up the flank of the volcano to the crater lake we had an extremely close encounter with a condor that flew by at eye level no more than 10 feet (3 meters) from Eric. Check out our condor fly by video, for proof.

Best XXX wild animal encounter

Tapir sex

You can’t unsee this: tapir sex.

We hadn’t been in the boat for more than five minutes when our boatman from Pousada do Rio Mutum in Brazil’s Pantanal Norte cut the engine and our guide pointed out two tapirs swimming a few hundred feet in front of the boat. Though big and clumsy looking, tapirs are great swimmers and we watched in silence as they made it to shore. That’s when the male decided it was sexy-time and, after appearing to give the female a kiss (truly), he got down to business. Turns out they’re way more graceful in the water than they are in the bedroom. Cue Barry White.

Best horseback riding to an archaeological site

horseback riding ruins chiclayo peru

Riding easy-gaited Peruvian horses through protected dry forest to an archaeological site.

Peru is full of archaeological sites and we visited most of them by car and on foot. However, at Rancho Santana, near Chiclayo, you can visit way off-the-beaten-path sites on horseback. Swiss owner Andrea has about a dozen Peruvian Paso horses and offers a variety of rides (S/55, about US$17, for a three-hour ride to one site; S/75, about US$23, for a five-hour ride to three sites, or multi-day rides).

We chose the three-hour ride to Huaca Sontillo (sometimes written Santillo), passing through the Pómac Forest Historical Sanctuary, an enormous protected dry forest, via a private entrance that Andrea has special permission to use. It was hot and dry but the scenery was great and it was fun to experience the unique ultra-smooth gait of these horses (when horse and rider click it’s like riding a moving sofa).

The Sontillo site is only minimally excavated and when we walked to the top of the only visible structure there were still a lot of bits of pottery around. There is also basic accommodation at Rancho Santana (fan, bathroom) for those who want to hang out or do multiple rides.

 Best mystery from the air

nazca lines

The Nazca Lines are a unique combination of art, culture, and mystery and they’re best seen from the air – something their creators could never do (unless you subscribe to the alien artist theory).

No one truly understands how the Nazca Line in Peru were made or what they were for. That mystery makes them even more compelling. The best way to see massive earth art like the lines is from the air. Our thanks to Alas Peruanas for taking us on a 30 minute flight over the lines. The plane was small, the altitude was low, the turns were many, and the lines were amazing. We recommend staying at the new B Hotel Nasca Suites. It’s right across the highway from the airport and out of the hub-bub of central Nasca. A pool was going in when we were there too.

Best cave float

Bola do Quebo is about a 1-hour drive each way from Bom Jardim town in northern Brazil (about 40 minutes of the drive is on a dirt road, parts of which are very washboarded). The small operation at Bola do Quebo supplies beefy and smartly designed tubes, helmets, life vests, and water shoes for a 30 minute adventure down a 1.2 mile (2 km) stretch of the clear and fairly shallow River (R$75, about US$23 per person).

The highlight of the float is a 1,000 foot (304 meter) long cave which the river flows through. The heart-pumping entry into the cave takes you over two small but startling rapids which plunge you into the darkness of the cave. The combination of the bumpy ride and the sudden pitch blackness is dramatic and disorienting.

Need to know: As with 99% of the amazing watery attractions around Bom Jardim, you really need your own vehicle to get there. There is no food or beverages available on site. There is a passable toilet. Put on sunscreen. Don’t take anything that’s not waterproof with you on the tube. Put your sunglasses on a lanyard because you’ll want to take them off while you are in the dark cave. Wear a long-sleeve shirt or a skin for sun protection and to keep your arms from chafing on tube as you paddle and steer.

 Best drive for wildlife

Jabiru stork Transpantaneira Highway Pantanal Brazil

Huge jabiru storks, just one of the many species we saw at very close range while driving the Transpantaneira Highway in Brazil.

It took us eight hours to complete the 90 mile (145 km) Transpantaneira Highway from Pocone to Porto Jofre in the Pantanal Norte in Brazil. Why? Well, this dirt road is in pretty rough shape even under the best conditions. But the main reason the drive took so long was that we spent a lot of time stopped to look at and photograph wildlife. Here’s a short list of what we saw: hyacinth macaws, about 500 caiman, capybaras, great black hawks, cappuchin monkeys, cocoi herons, black-collared hawks, white-capped herons, jabiru storks, wood storks, crab eating foxes, rhea… We felt like Marlon Perkins (look him up, millennials). This critter-filled drive was worth every pothole, rut, and all 120+ of the (often super sketchy) wooden bridges along the way. 

 Best wild animal first

Jaguar pantanal brazil

You never forget your first time.

We spend a lot of time and energy trying to see wildlife. It’s one of our favorite things. Yet, despite years of looking and hundreds of miles of walking, we had never seen a jaguar in the wild. The pantanal region of Brazil is said to be one of the few places on earth where jaguar sightings are virtually guaranteed. We are skeptical of wildlife guarantees. Still, we headed to Hotel Pantanal Norte in Porto Jofre on the Cuiabá River at the end of the Transpantaneira Highway with high hopes. We were not disappointed. After a few hours on the river we saw a female jaguar and two older cubs on the bank in tall grass and we were able to observe them from our boat for a few minutes before the trio slipped deeper into the forest and out of sight. Sometimes you can believe the hype.

 Best drive for scenery

Sondondo Valley Peru

Part of the Sondondo Valley including slopes with Incan terraces which the locals still use to grow crops.

On our way to Puquio we missed the turn off for the Sondondo Valley and we’re very glad we returned later to explore it. The road into the valley is narrow but well paved and the valley itself varies from wide and semi-lush with herds of llamas and alpacas roaming around to narrow and cliff-lined, perfect for the condors who live here. There are also Incan terraces still being used by farmers, hot springs, and waterfalls. The tiny town of Andamarca seemed to have basic guest houses. The road through the valley appears to go all the way to Ayacucho, but we did not go that far so we don’t know if the paving continues or if the road quality worsens.

Best South American safari vehicle

 Refugio Ecologico Caiman safari vehicle

Safari in style at Refugio Ecologico Caiman in Brazil.

The open-sided, high clearance vehicles used for driving excursions and night safaris at eco lodges in Latin America are usually cobbled together rattletraps with uncomfortable seats and jarring suspensions. Not so at Refugio Ecologico Caiman in the Pantanal Sur in Brazil. The custom trucks used to transport guests on wildlife spotting excursions at this extraordinary private protected area  and eco lodge are brand new customized Toyota’s that are quiet, have comfortable padded seats, good suspension and are rugged enough to go off-roading where the animals are. There’s even a cool guide/spotters seat off the right hand corner of the front bumper. Seems like the jaguars like the vehicle too. We saw loads of them during our stay at Caiman.

 Best guide

Puma Tambopata Reserve Peru

Look closer. No, CLOSER. There’s a young puma looking back at you.

Rainforest Expeditions has been leading the eco way in the Tambopata area of southern Peru since they started as a macaw research and rescue center in 1989. The organization continues to do serious science (including brand new interactive Wired Amazon programs) and now operates three surprisingly upscale lodges in the area.

With chops like that it was no surprise that we had the best guide of the year during our stay with Rainforest Expeditions. His name is  Paul. He  grew up in remote village nearby on the Manu River and he knows Tambopata and its inhabitants intimately. True story: he had a pet jaguar growing up. He’s also funny and easy-going and willing to go the extra mile. For example, when he noticed cat prints and scat on a trail during a morning walk he suggested that we return to the same trail for a night walk to increase our chances of seeing the animal that left the pug marks.

The return visit paid off and we all got a (fleeting) glimpse of a young puma at night, something we never would have seen without Paul.

 Best THIRD visit to the Galapagos

Mating Blue Footed Boobies Galapagos

Blue footed boobies doing their bill-clacking mating dance in the Galapagos Islands.

Yeah, it was a Galapagos embarrassment of riches in 2016 with our third visit to Ecuador’s most iconic destination. You won’t believe us when we tell you it was work, but it was. Look! We did this travel guide to the Galapagos for Travel + Leisure magazine and this review of the fantastic Pikaia Lodge plus this piece about a new extra eco luxury boat.

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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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Where We’ve Been: March 2016 Road Trip Driving Route in Ecuador & Peru

Once a upon a time there was a popular recurring feature on our travel blog called “Where We’ve Been.” These posts included a quick rundown of the area’s we’d traveled through on our little road trip during the previous month along with a time-lapse travel video taken by a GoPro camera mounted to our dashboard. Unfortunately, the GoPro doesn’t actually take time-lapse video. It takes thousands of stills which Eric then had to painstakingly knit into a  time-lapse video.  It was extremely tedious and time consuming and that’s why we abandoned the “Where We’ve Been” posts about four years ago.

Recently we learned about a new camera from a company called Brinno that’s designed specifically to take time-lapse video. Game changer. Once we figured out how to mount it on our dash (more about that in our upcoming full review of our Brinno TLC200Pro), we were good to go. Now our Brinno takes time-lapse video as we drive and we can reinstate our “Where We’ve Been” posts.

Our road trip driving route for March 2016

We started the month in Cuenca, Ecuador then traveled to nearby Cajas National Park then south to Saraguro, Loja, Podocarpus National Park and the Puyango Petrified Forest before crossing the border into Peru where we explored Tumbes, Mancora, Chiclayo, Lembayeque, Sipan, Tucume, Pacasmayo, Cajamarca and Trujillo.

Check out our road trip driving route in Ecuador and Peru in March 2016 in our time-lapse travel video, below, brought to you by Brinno.

And here’s a map version of our road trip driving route in Ecuador and Peru during the month of March 2016.

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Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2015 – Best Hotels

This post is part 3 of 4 in the series Best of 2015

Welcome to Part 3 in our Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2015 series of posts. Part 3 is our guide to the Best Hotels we stayed at during the past year of travel on our little road trip through the Americas including where to sleep in Mick Jagger’s bed in Peru,  the most dramatic check-in in Ecuador and the best Bed & Beer in Colombia. Part 1 covers the Best Adventures & Activities of 2015, Part 2 covers the Best Food & Beverages 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’s our travel guide to the best hotels in Colombia, Ecuador and Peru of 2015.

Best Hotels Guide for 2015

Kentitambo Hotel - Leymebamba, Peru

Best bohemichic hotel: The indigenous quechua word “kenti” means “hummingbird”. The Quechua word “tambo” means inn. The Kentitambo Hotel, just outside Leymebamba in Peru, lives up to the name with a hummingbird filled garden surrounding its two large suites. Cobblestone paths wind through the lush flowers. Owner Adriana Von Hagen has created two relaxed and stylish suites, one upstairs (pictured above) and one downstairs, which feature vibrant textiles, lots of sunlight, a porch with a hammock, small deer antlers used as towel hooks and gleaming wood floors. Right across the street is the excellent Museo Leymebamba which houses a collection of artifacts, including 200 mummies.

 

Zen Suites Hotel Quito

Best new mid range hotel in Quito: Hotel Zen Suites, opened in late 2015, is conveniently located between the La Floresta and Mariscal neighborhoods of Quito, Ecuador just 10 minutes by (very affordable) taxi to the city’s colonial center which was part of the very first group of cities inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site way back in 1978. Most of the 47 rooms at the hotel feature great views of the city skyline and surrounding Andes mountains from a wall of floor to ceiling windows and some rooms have private patios. All rooms have plush bedding, rain shower heads and mini fridges. Rooms on the 8th floor have small balconies.There’s also a small but effective gym and a business center. Coffee and tea are available all day and the staff speaks English (not always a given in Ecuador). Rates, from US$97 per night, include a full breakfast buffet, which is much cheaper than similarly appointed hotels in the area.

 

Gocta Lodge, Peru

Best view from bed: The 2,531 foot (771 meter) high Gocta Waterfall, in the town of Cocachimba in northern Peru, has the fifth longest free-falling waterfall drop in the world, which is to say it’s an impressive sight. Make the most of it by booking a room at the sleek and stylish Gocta Lodge where all 10 rooms afford views of the cascade right from bed. Get a room on the second floor for more privacy so you can keep your curtains open all the time.

 

Buga Hostal, Buga Colombia

Best bed and beer: The town of Buga, Colombia is most famous as the site of what some perceive as a miracle. Pilgrims come to the church in Buga regularly. Those who worship good beer should visit as well because Buga is home to Buga Hostal and the Holy Water Ale Cafe, Colombia’s only Bed & Beer. The hostal is affordable and fine. The brew pub attached to the hostal is great, offering a range of delicious beers on tap made by German owner and brew master Stefan Schnur. Bonus: the pizza is legit too.

 

Masphi Eco Lodge - Mindo, Ecuador

Best curtains: The 22 rooms at Masphi Eco Lodge, the most luxurious way to stay in the rain forest in Ecuador, each have a different, vibrantly colored, massive remote-control operated curtain over a wall of windows. Upon check in, the curtain is raised to reveal a stunning view of the rain forest (and its inhabitants) just outside your room (pictured above). Your stay just gets more stunning from there.

 

La Casa Fitzcarraldo hotel - Iquitos Peru Mick Jaggers bed

Best place to sleep in Mick Jagger’s bed: Actors, crew and director Werner Herzog descended on the Peruvian Amazon to film the movie “Fitzcarraldo” which tells the crazy real life tale of Peruvian rubber baron Carlos Fermín Fitzcarrald who moved a 320 ton ship over a mountain to reach a different Amazon tributary. Shooting in the jungle took years. Cast members, including Mick Jagger, came and went.  Somehow, the movie was made (if you haven’t seen it you should fix that). Through it all, cast and crew used a sprawling house in Iquitos, Peru as their base. Today, the executive producer of the movie, Walter Saxer, runs the house as La Casa Fitzcarraldo hotel. You can sleep in Mick Jagger’s room (above) or in the bungalow where Werner Herzog and his wife lived and fought. Don’t miss the chance to chat with Walter to gain even more incredible insights into the making of the movie.

 

Reserva El Cairo Hotel - Salento, Cocora Velley, Colombia

Best new hotel in Colombia: Reserva El Cairo Hotel (above) brings the right mix of modern sustainability and Colombian traditional architecture (the restored and converted house is more than 100 years old) to the Salento area of central Colombia. Nestled in the Cocora Valley, a few miles away from the fray in the picturesque town of Salento, the hotel is surrounded by the storybook beauty of this valley which is home to stands of wax palms which are Colombia’s national tree and the tallest palm on the planet.

 

Tucan Suites in Tarapoto, Peru

Best headboard: The awesome graphics of tucans perched on urban power lines behind the luxe beds at Tucan Suites (above) in Tarapoto, Peru are arresting, playful and the perfect embodiment of this super-chic retreat in the gateway to Peru’s northern Amazon which is a haven for tucans and tourists alike.

 

Aria Amazon Cruise Peru

Best floating luxury hotel: There are many ways to float down the Amazon river but nothing reaches the level of luxury, cuisine and service offered by Aqua Expeditions which operates the Aqua Amazon River Boat and the Aria Amazon River Boat. We spent four days on the Aria which is, essentially, a floating world-class boutique hotel (above). Suites are elegantly designed. Staff members are polished and English-speaking. The food is fantastic with a cuisine program lead by Executive Chef Pedro Miguel Schiaffino who runs the award-winning Malabar restaurant in Lima. The on-board experience is so good that you almost don’t want to leave the mother ship for guided excursions into the Amazon. Almost.

 

Geisha Love Motel Cali

Best love motel: A love motel is a discreet place, often on the edge of big cities, where lovers (covert or not) can shack up by the hour. They’re ubiquitous, popular and largely without stigma in Latin America were it’s common for couples to live at home where privacy is at a premium.  You can pull into a love motel, park your vehicle in a garage so no one can see your plates, enter your room and register all without ever being face to face with another human. Room service is delivered via a revolving lazy Susan in the wall to retain anonymity. Guests are often supplied with condoms and the better love motels have porn on the TV, Jacuzzis, condoms and even sex toys. The best love motel of 2015, by far, were the Geisha Love Motels in Cali, Colombia with their random, Japanese theme, sex chairs in the rooms which “accommodate 3” plus available “medical assistance” all for 60,000 cop (about US$20) for eight hours. For your convenience, there are two locations in Cali, one north of the city and one south of the city.

 

Egypt themed motel Peru

Best budget hotel with a random Egypt obsession: Rates at Hostal El Aribalo in Catacoas, Peru are a big draw – at just 70 soles (about US$20) for a private room with WiFi, fan,  TV, hot water bathroom and an enormous parking lot it’s a bargain. The other draw is the unique decor. Never mind that the street out front is noisy and there was no mirror in our bathroom (only a huge one in front of the bed…) and the shower didn’t work properly and they’re using a bed skirt as a top sheet…We had King Tut in front of our door and a 14 foot tall sphinx looking over our truck in the parking lot (above). Why, pray tell, are the grounds, halls and rooms at this Peruvian hostal full of Egypt motifs? We have no idea. Frankly, we were a bit scared to ask.

 

W Hotel Bogota bathrobe Estaban Cortazar

Best cold weather bathrobe: Guests in the massive Extreme Wow Suite at the W Bogotá Hotel in Colombia’s capital are treated to robes designed by Bogotá –born fashion designer Estaban Cortazar who was head designer at Ungaro before famously storming out after Lindsey Lohan was brought on board as a consultant (who wouldn’t?). The lush hooded robes, unveiled in August of 2015, are emerald green with gold accents and come with a slim hook-and-clasp belt as well as the usual sash belt (ours are pictured, above) for those of us not quite as svelte as the designer is.

Best hot weather bathrobe: The light, high quality cotton robes on board the Aria Amazon River Boat (see above) come in a chic shade of river stone grey, fit like a dream and aren’t too hot to wear in the Amazon.

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Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2015 – Best Food & Beverages

This post is part 2 of 4 in the series Best of 2015

Welcome to Part 2 in our Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2015 series of posts. Part 2 is our guide to the Best Food & Beverages we enjoyed during the past year of travel on our little road trip through the Americas including giant Amazon fish, reinvented arepas and the best tacos south of Mexico. Part 1 covers the Best Adventures & Activities 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’s our guide to the best food in Peru, Colombia and Ecuador in 2015.

Best Food & Beverages of 2015

Best food city: It’s no contest. Bogotá, Colombia blew our minds, culinarily speaking, and we should know. We spent weeks eating our way through the city, meeting chefs and generally falling in love with the food that’s going on there. There was so much to love that we wrote a comprehensive post about where to eat in Bogotá including 29 amazing places (and one to skip) and then we published another post all about drinking in Bogotá.

 

Aria Amazon River Cruise dining room

Best floating food: The Aria Amazon River Boat is a floating five-star hotel and restaurant that takes guests through the Amazon and its tributaries in northern Peru. The food lives up to the hype thanks to a menu created by Executive Chef Pedro Miguel Schiaffino who runs the award-winning Malabar restaurant in Lima. Meal after meal presented an amazing array of choices, many of them incorporating Amazonian ingredients like paiche fish, yuca and camu camu fruit. About 70% of the menu’s ingredients are sourced from the Amazon basin.  About 100% of it was delicious. In 2016 the company is offering special chef-hosted cruises that include tutorials and visits to local markets. That’s the elegant dining room, above.

Fabianos Pizza Cuenca, Ecuador

Best every day pizza: Fabiano’s Pizza in Cuenca, Ecuador serves legit pizza (see above) at great prices to a crowd that’s heavy on the expats (the place had a festive nursing home vibe). The most expensive 12 slice pizza was around US$17.00 and a generous glass of wine was US$3.50. Cash only. English is spoken (did we mention the expats?).

 

Fabiano’s Pizza Cuenca, Ecuador

Best fish and chips: The beachfront road through Puerto Lopez on the Pacific Coast of Ecuador is home to a string of restaurants that look and smell pretty much the same. We randomly chose one called Carmelitas and, for about US$7, we got a massive plate of fabulous fish and chips (called pescado chicharron on the menu, pictured above). the food was so light, fresh and delicious that we returned the next day for more.

 

 El Comedor Comfort Food in Bogotá li

Best comfort food: El Comedor Comfort Food in Bogotá lives up to its name with their salt encrusted whole chicken, a succulent bird that’s served with roasted potatoes (above) and avocado salad. It’s a local’s favorite and must be ordered ahead.

 

La Fama Barbeque Bogota best pastrami sandwich

Best pastrami sandwich: 2015 was the year that La Fama Barbecue added a pastrami sandwich to the menu (27,000 COP or about US$8.50). The pastrami is brined for 14 hours then slow cooked and smoked. The meat has a perfect patina, it’s thin sliced, super tender and delivers great flavor. The pastrami is served on buttered and toasted rye bread from El Arbol de Pan bakery along with Swiss cheese. A great slaw is served on the side. Au jus dipping sauce also comes with it for some mysterious reason.

 

Apache Burger Bar in Bogotá

Best to-go cup: We love to-go cups because they provide a way for you to take your unfinished drink with you when you leave a bar instead of forfeiting it. We’ve rarely seen to-go cups outside of New Orleans, so we were thrilled when staff at Apache Burger Bar in Bogotá handed us a high quality, high design to-go cup (above) on our way out the door.

 

Arepas Moliendo Café Cuenca, Ecuador

Best reinvented dish: The Colombian owners of Moliendo Café in Cuenca, Ecuador have re-invented the (very) humble arepa by turning the basic ground corn patty into a vessel to be topped with extremely well made Colombian favorites like beans, hogao (a rich sauce of chopped and simmered vegetables), chorizo, chicharron (fried cubes of meaty pork skin), ribs, etc. Orders are around US$3.50 and portions are huge (as you can see above). They also import Postobon soda and Aguila and Poker beer from Colombia.

 

Tacos Cantina y Punto Bogotá

Best taco south of Mexico: Readers of our travel blog know that we miss the food in Mexico every single day. So we were thrilled to get the chance to sample some dishes from Chef Roberto Ruiz in the days before he opened Cantina y Punto in Bogotá, Colombia in late 2015. Chef Ruiz is from Mexico and his Punto MX restaurant in Madrid is the only Mexican restaurant in Europe with a Michelin star. Working with a brand new staff in a brand new kitchen as construction went on around him, Chef Ruiz proceeded to exceed our expectations with a plate of tuna chicharron tacos on hand made tortillas, his famous guacamole and a fiery, flavorful salsa made from freshly roasted chilies sourced from a Mexican farmer near Medellin (above).

 

Demente - Cartagena, Colombia

Best new beer garden: In November of 2015 Demente Beer Garden opened on Plaza de la Trinidad in the Getsemani neighborhood of Cartagena, Colombia right next to Demente Tapas Bar. The new beer garden serves Colombian craft beer (including Bogotá Beer Company, Apostol, 3 Cordilleras and Sierra Nevada) and pizzas cooked in a wood-fired oven and is every bit as cool as its older sibling.

Best falafel: United Falafel Org (UFO), located next to the weirdly sterile church in the center of Vilcabamba, Ecuador, serves up fluffy falafel balls, great tahini, delicious hot sauce and homemade pitas (US$3.50 for a two ball falafel sandwich or US$6 for a five ball falafel platter). Not into falafel? Rotating specials including eggplant wraps and curries are also on the menu at this tiny, bohemian space where tables are made from old pallettes.

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