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Beautiful, Embattled Lake Tota – Sogamoso, Colombia

The city of Sogamoso is certainly not going to win any beauty contests. It does, however, make a great base for travelers who want to visit one of the few wineries in Colombia, check out a museum devoted to the country’s Muisca culture, tour Andean villages and admire Lake Tota (Laguna de la Tota in Spanish). The highest and largest lake in Colombia is a stunner despite the environmental battle that’s raging around it.

Lake Tota Colombua Laguna de Tota

Lake Tota is the highest and largest lake in Colombia. It’s also facing serious environmental challenges.

Beautiful, embattled Lake Tota

We don’t know about you but we’d never seen a mountain lake with a white sand beach before we arrived on the shores of Lake Tota in the Andes above Sogamoso. At 9,891 feet (3,015 meters) and covering 21 square miles (55 square km), it’s the highest and largest natural lake in Colombia and the second highest navigable lake in South America (after Lake Titicaca in Perú & Bolivia). It’s also very, very beautiful and that’s part of the problem.

Playa Blanca Lake Tota Colombia

This sandy white beach surrounds part of Lake Tota in Colombia.

The deep lake doesn’t look polluted. The water is clear, green reeds flourish around the edges and provide haven for birds. The beach-like sandy shore is so white it’s called Playa Blanca (White Beach). Locals brave the cold, high altitude temperatures to take a dip and the lake supplies water for thousands of area residents.

That water, it turns out, might not be safe to drink. Local conservationist Felipe Velasco says he wouldn’t touch the stuff. He’s been borderline obsessed with the water quality and general environmental well-being of the lake since 2009 when he unwittingly rented a plot of land he owns on the lake shore to a trout farmer. At that time he says he was unaware of the polluting effects of trout farming and when he became aware of the environmental impact of fish farming he tried to get out of the lease. Years late he was still trying to end the lease.

Lake Tota Colombia

Despite its beauty, Lake Tota is under serious environmental pressure.

The champion of Lake Tota

Since entering into the trout farm lease, Felipe has learned about other environmental threats to the lake and, in 2010, he formed Fundacion Montecito, a non-profit org focused on protecting Lake Tota and the area around it.

Felipe Velasco Fundacion Montecito Lake Tota

Felipe Velasco is fighting to stop pollution in Lake Tota and the surrounding areas.

One of the main polluting elements in the lake is trout farming. When we spoke to Felipe he said there were eight caged trout farms in Lake Tota producing millions of trout a year and resulting in concentrated organic pollution and pollution from fish food in the lake. In 2013 one million trout died from oxygen deprivation in Lake Tota, according to Felipe.

Felipe believes local onion farmers are an even bigger threat than the trout farms. Farmers have been growing onions on the shores of the lake and nearby hillsides for decades. The majority of onions consumed in Colombia come from farms around the lake. There are so many onion farms that the place smelled like onions when we were there.

Lake Tota Onions

Farms around Lake Tota produce most of the onions consumed in Colombia. It’s big business and an important part of life in the local communities as this onion statue in the main plaza in Aquitania, the principal town on the lake, attests. However, pesticides and fertilizer used on the fields are polluting the lake.

When we spoke to Felipe he said that chemicals from pesticides and fertilizer used in the onion fields inevitably find their way into the lake, polluting the water even more . “I see the lake as a living body that can’t talk for itself,” Felipe told us.

Over the years, Felipe and others have managed some environmental victories for Lake Tota, including international recognition and some protections and the implementation of environmental education in local schools, but commercial scale fish farming and onion farming continue.

Muisca Temple of the Sun Sogamosa

A recreation of the Temple of the sun at the Archeological Museum Elicer Silva Celis Suamox museum (often just referred to as the Temple of the Sun) in Sogamoso.

Other things to do around Sogamoso

The Archeological Museum Elicer Silva Celis Suamox (better known simply as the Temple of the Sun), on the outskirts of Sogamoso (6,000 COP/about US$2 per person, exhibits all in Spanish), is one of the few (some say the only) museums focused on the Muisca people. There are various rooms with displays of baskets, pottery and other relics but the highlight, for us, was the chance to check out recreations of the culture’s elaborate round buildings including the Sun Temple which the Muisca used for religious ceremonies before it was destroyed by Spanish conquistadors in 1537.

Temple of the Sun Museum Sogamosa

The Archeological Museum Elicer Silva Celis Suamox (aka the Temple of the Sun) in Sogamoso.

Further outside of town you will find one of the few wineries in Colombia. The Marquesa de Puntalarga winery manages to grow grapes and make a wide variety or wines at 8,400 feet (2,560 meters). We found most of the wines produced here to be too sweet for our taste, but we had to admire owner Marco Quijano’s success with grapes at this altitude.

Marquesa de Puntalarga winery Sogamosa Colombia

Grapes growing at 8,400 feet at the Marquesa de Puntalarga winery near Sogamoso.

We heard persistent rumors (and even saw a flyer) about a brewery called 1516 in Sogamoso. However, the website doesn’t open and multiple emails to the owner went unanswered. If you find and visit 1516 brewery, please tell us all about it in the comments, below.

Sogamoso also makes a good base for visiting Andean villages including Mongui which is part of Colombia’s exclusive group of Pueblos Patrimonios. We toured many of the towns during Christmas when each village creates a nativity scene in the main plaza. Check out our Christmas in the Andes post to see more.

Plaza in Sogamosa Colombia

Sogamoso is not a beautiful city, but the main plaza and cathedral aren’t bad.

Where to sleep in Sogamoso

It’s no contest: Finca San Pedro is the best place to stay in Sogamoso. Located a short distance out of the city itself, this economical and homey place is set in a large and tranquil garden. There are private rooms and a dorm and a shared kitchen. Yoga retreats are also offered.

This is also a great place to learn more about Lake Tota. Felipe’s brother Juan runs Finca San Pedro and is very knowledgeable about the area and the issues affecting Lake Tota.

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Go Now! A New Dam Threatens the Biggest Waterfall in Ecuador – Cascada San Rafael, Ecuador

Cascada San Rafael (San Rafael Waterfall) is the tallest waterfall in Ecuador at 430 feet (131 meters). It’s also the biggest waterfall by volume in the country and 24th biggest by volume in the world with an estimated water flow of 14,125 cubic feet (400 cubic meters) per second according to this site for waterfall geeks. But that’s about to change. Environmentalists fear that a new dam will affect the flow of this monster falls. We’ve visited the biggest waterfall in Ecuador three times, most recently just a few days ago, to see what’s going on. There will be drone footage…

Cascada San Rafael Ecuador pre Coca Coda Sinclair Hydro Project

Cascada San Rafael is the biggest waterfall in Ecuador. For now.

A new dam threatens the biggest waterfall in Ecuador

Though Ecuador is a major oil producer, the country, like many of its Latin neighbors, is eager to begin harnessing its rivers to produce hydroelectric power. That sounds great, but there’s a twist.

In recent years China has established an enormous trade presence in Latin America where Chinese companies are buying up natural resources. In some major Latin markets China is now a bigger trading partner than the US or Europe. In Ecuador, China has signed contracts to buy much of the country’s crude oil which comes from controversial drilling operations in the Amazon–in part as payment for public works projects that China is completing inside Ecuador, including a collection of dams to produce hydro power.

The Coca-Codo Sinclair Hydroelectric Project on the Coca River is being built by a Chinese company called Sinohydro. So many workers were brought in from China to work on the  massive project that entire towns in the region have become sinofied. Road signs and safety signs now appear in Spanish and Chinese.

Sinohydro Coco Coda Sinclair signs Spanish and Chinese

An influx of Chinese workers building dams across Ecuador have turned this town bilingual.

Part of the project, which includes multiple dams, can be seen from the road and it’s this installation, about 11 miles (19 km) from the San Rafael Waterfall that may impact the flow. Some environmental groups, like International Rivers, fear San Rafael could be nearly dried up by the hydro project and point to Ecuador’s second highest falls, Agoyan Waterfall, which has already been severely reduced by a different hydro project.

Sinohydro Coco Coda Sinclair dam capatacion

Environmentalists fear that this portion of the massive Coca-Codo Sinclair Hydroelectric Project dam and hydro project in Ecuador could mean the end of the biggest waterfall in the country.

Changes are already visible

The first time we visited San Rafael Waterfall in February 2014 the trail was closed because of a recent landslide. The second time we visited the falls, in late December 2014, it looked like the image below left.

Comparison of Cascada San Rafeal Falls before after landslide and Coca Coda Sinclair Hydro project

A view of San Rafael Waterfall in February 2014 is on the left and a view of the same waterfall from September 2015 is on the right.

The third time we visited the waterfall, in late September 2015 (above right), landslides around the falls had changed the flow and there seemed to be less water in general coming over he edge. The top of the falls is clearly a few feet higher on the left. This could be seasonal or from the dam, who knows.

San Rafael Falls, largest waterfall in Ecuador Ecuador

San Rafael Waterfall in September 2015. A new dam and hydro project, expected to be completed and online in 2016, could alter things dramatically.

During our most recent visit we were able to put our DJI Phantom 3 Professional quadcopter up in the air to get some aerial drone footage of San Rafael Waterfall. Check it out below.

The Coca-Codo Sinclair Hydroelectric Project is expected to be completed in 2016 and when it’s in full operation it will undoubtedly alter the flow that feeds the San Rafael Waterfall. The question is: how much?

Go Now! Visiting San Rafael Waterfall

The San Rafael Waterfall is within the massive Cayambe-Coca National Park and the trail head is just off the highway that runs between Quito and Tena, Coca or Lago Agrio (which are all jumping off points for Amazon and Cuyabeno trips). Like all national parks and reserves in Ecuador (except Galapagos Islands National Park), entry is free. There are clean bathrooms and an enormous stuffed fake Andean Bear (aka, spectacled bear) at the small ranger station. You’ll need to present your passport and get checked in.

There’s a well-made, mostly shaded trail (more like a small dirt road) that travels down to an elevated platform with excellent views of the entire waterfall. Allow about 30 minutes each way at a reasonable pace.

Check out the Hosteria El Reventador as a place to spend the night. It’s just a stone’s throw from the trail head.

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More Jungle In the Jungle – Mamoní Valley Preserve, Panama

Nearly 13 years ago Nathan Gray, founder of the ground-breaking Earth Train  peer-to-peer student activism movement in the US, was looking for a new home base for his seemingly boundless philanthropic efforts. A friend recommended Panama as a place with lots of land just waiting for Earth Train to protect it and lots of young people in need of empowerment. So Nathan got on a plane, then he got on a bus, then he got on a truck taxi and soon he found himself in Mamoní Valley. That’s when a Panamanian woman sitting next to him mentioned that her family was selling a chunk of property nearby. Nathan toured the property later that day and soon he was the owner of 198 acres (80 hectares). The Mamoní Valley Preserve was born – part nature reserve, part environmental education center, part eco adventure travel destination.

Mamoni Darien Panama

Earth Train’s Mamoní Valley Preserve works to turn cleared farm and ranch land back into this: lush jungle and vibrant waterways.

From ranch land to reforestation

Like so much of the land in the area, the property had been cleared for cattle pasture so Nathan, a growing Panamanian Earth Train team and a crew of volunteers began reforesting the 198 acres (80 hectares) with indigenous plants and trees. Soon the streams cleared up and wild animals returned.

Bamboo was planted and it quickly began providing building materials for a true environmental retreat and education center where Nathan’s dreams of educating and empowering young people to lead other young people into a better environmental future could be realized.

Mamoní Valley Preserve , Panama

Reforested land around Centro Mamoní is criss-crossed with trails like this one.

Now Centro Mamoní has four two-level, mostly open-air wood and bamboo sleeping structures with room to pitch tents on the upper floor and bathrooms with showers and composting toilets on the ground floor. There’s also a large kitchen and a dining/meeting area with satellite internet all powered by a hydroelectric generator on the grounds.

Centro Mamoní, Darien Panama

One of the two-level, open air bamboo and wood sleeping structures at Centro Mamoní.

Hiking at Mamoní

We visited Centro Mamoní with Nathan and hiked a loop trail that took us up and down through the lush jungle and across creeks. We dove into swimming holes and stopped at lofty viewpoints where we could see the Caribbean Coast and the famed Kuna Yala, homeland of the Kuna (sometimes called Guna) people.

Dart Frog, darien jungle, Panama

We saw this dart frog (named for the shape of its head) while hiking on trails around Centro Mamoní in Panama.

Along the way we saw a dart frog (not a poison dart frog – this one is named for the shape of its head, red spider monkeys, helicopter dragonflies, tiny black frogs, a centipede that smelled like almonds because it protects itself by secreting cyanide (cyanide smells like almonds) and a rare caecilan which is an amphibian that looks like a worm or snake. It amazed us all, even Nathan. Cougars and harpy eagles have also been spotted at Mamoní since reforestation started taking hold.

 caecilan Darien Panama - giant worm

This rarely spotted caecilan, an amphibian which looks like a worm or really weird snake, was spotted on a trail in the Mamoní Valley Preserve in Panama.

You can also go kayaking within the Mamoní Valley Preserve and even hike from ocean to ocean through the preserve since it exists in the narrowest part of the Panamanian Peninsula.

Modern Mamoní

Mamoní now protects more than 12,000 acres (48,567 hectares) including most of the vital Mamoní watershed, six of its tributaries and more than 50 miles (80 km) of streams.

The legendary Dr. Jane Goodall has visited Mamoní and the center has hosted her Roots & Shoots environmental program for 70 students.

bumpy tree Darien jungle Panama

This tree with an odd bumpy trunk is just one of the native species that have been brought back in the Mamoní Valley Preserve thanks to reforestation efforts by Earth Train.

Mushrooms darien Jungle Panama

With few visitors and air-tight environmental protection all kinds of species flourish in Panama’s Mamoní Valley Preserve.

Mamoní abuts he Chagres National Park and an area inhabited by the Kuna (also called Guna) people, Panama’s largest indigenous group, and Earth Train works closely with the Kuna Congress (the indigenous group’s autonomous government) to promote environmental protection.

Junglewood, a program run by Grammy award-winning producer Rob Griffin, brings musicians to an outdoor amphitheater on the Mamoní property for outdoor concerts that are truly in tune with nature.

Panama-Flower

Wild beauty in the Mamoní Valley Preseve in Panama.

Earth Train recently opened a campus, designed by a protégé of architect Frank Gehry, near Panama City in order to offer even more environmental education to even more people.

Pre arrange your visit to Mamoní Valley Preserve and Centro Mamoní, just two hours from Panama City, by contacting Earth Train by email at info AT earthtrain DOT org. The cost of your visit will help fund the purchase and protection of more land and the creation of more environmental education programs.

Fireworks-flower-tree-Panama

Bursts of color in the green, green, green Mamoní Valley Preserve.

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Catching Up With One That Got Away – Los Tuxtlas, Veracruz, Mexico

During the course of our Trans-Americas Journey road trip we spent 18 months driving in Mexico, covering nearly 25,000 miles and telling you all about it in more than 250 posts about travel in Mexico. And yet some parts of the country eluded even us, including the Los Tuxtlas region of southern Veracruz state. With its witches and waterfalls, this region is one that got away.

When we attempted to visit the Los Tuxtlas area Mother Nature got in the way in the form of devastating floods which created water so high that the army stopped our truck and sent us right back to Veracruz City. We consoled ourselves by watching Veracruz’s soccer team, the Tiburones (Spanish for Sharks), lose to the team from Cancun while drinking enormous cups of beer and going slightly deaf.

So we were thrilled when we were invited to attend the recent Adventure Travel Mexico (ATMEX) conference in Veracruz (put on by the Adventure Travel Trade Association) and take part in a pre-conference trip through the Los Tuxtlas region of the state. This time for sure!

A tour van is like kryptonite to us

As fans of our little road trip know, we’re all about independent adventure travel. We’re used to having the freedom of our own vehicle with just the two of us inside it so we can go where we want when we want. We can count the number of times we’ve been on a guided, group trip on half a hand. We haven’t been on a tour bus in years. We consider three people a crowd.

Our trip through Los Tuxtlas was being hosted by a local tour operator called Totonal. It involved a tour bus, multiple guides and 10 other people. We braced ourselves. Happily, the van, the guides and even all those other people turned out to be terrific–outdone only by the satisfaction of finally getting to see some of the Los Tuxtlas area.

Lazing on Sontecomapan Lagoon

Even when the Los Tuxtas region isn’t experiencing destructive and deadly flooding the area is still wet, wet, wet with hundreds of miles of rivers and streams plus sprawling lakes and coastline.

One of the main watery attractions is Sontecomapan Lagoon which dumps into the Gulf of Mexico. The presence of fresh and salt water attracts birds and marine life that like both. Turtles nest on area beaches while freshwater birds and fish thrive in the lagoon.

Sunset  Laguna Sontecomapan, Veracruz Mexico

A lone fisherman on Sontecompan Lagoon in Veracruz state, Mexico.

Nestled on the shores of Sontecomapan Lagoon is Los Amigos, a collection of dorm rooms and private stand-alone cabins for couples or families, all with lake views and hammocks (from 210 pesos/US$18 per person and all rates include full breakfast).

The only way to reach Los Amigos is by boat (US$45 round trip for the whole boat) which gave us a chance to check out the mangroves and bird life on the lake before pulling up to the Los Amigos dock where managers Valentina and Antonio greeted us with a refreshing mixture of coconut water and lychee juice garnished with a slice of star fruit, all from their land.

Los Amigos Hotel Laguna Sontecomapan, Veracruz Mexico

Los Amigos, an eco haven with rooms and terrific food on the shores of Sontecomapan Lagoon in Veracruz state, Mexico.

Back in the late ’80s Valentina’s father, Don Juan Vega, had an early-adopter epiphany when he decided that he wanted to have the most beautiful ranch in the area and realized that the clear-cutting he was doing in order to create cattle pastures was not getting him any closer to his goal. So he started re-foresting his land with native trees and plants.Tens of thousands of them have been planted on his hilly hunk of land.

Today, the forested slopes show very few signs of their previous incarnation as denuded grazing land. Today it truly is a beautiful ranch. While many of Don Juan’s neighbors still graze cattle, more and more ranches are re-foresting. This, coupled with the fact that much of the Los Tuxtlas area is set aside as the Biósfera Los Tuxtlas, is very, very good news for the local flora and fauna.

Fisherman boat Laguna Sontecomapan - Veracruz, Mexico

Sontecomapan Lagoon is full of freshwater fish but because it spills into the Gulf of Mexico salt water fishing is also possible.

A kayaking tour of the lake had been planned after we arrived at Los Amigos, but the siren song of the hammock on the porch of our private, simple, comfortable cabin with a view got the better of us and we didn’t emerge until it was time for dinner. The food at Los Amigos is worth leaving your hammock for. Ingredients, mostly grown on their permaculture farm, are lovingly turned into delicious reasonably-priced dishes in an open air kitchen.

The next morning, after freshly brewed coffee, we took a boat tour of the lake spotting kingfishers, Caracaras, parakeets, parrots and a cuckoo before returning for breakfast featuring farm fresh eggs and hand made tortillas. Then it was back on the tour bus…

Beach Laguna Sontecomapan - Veracruz, Mexico

This beach stretches out along the Gulf of Mexico near where Sontecomapan Lagoon spills into it.

Sand Dollars Gulf of Mexico Veracruz, Mexico

Area beaches were full of sand dollars.

 

Our own private waterfalls

All that water gets into Sontecomapan Lagoon somehow–often by tumbling down a mountain. A loose network of community tourism projects, a specialty of Totonal, has been set up to provide food, accommodation and access to some spectacular waterfalls that you’ll have all to yourself.

El Salto de Eyipantla waterfall - San Andres Tuxla, Veracruz Mexico

This is El Slato de Eyipantla waterfall outside of San Andrés Tuxtla, a bustling warm up for the deserted waterfalls we were about to visit.

Near the village of Miguel Hidalgo a local family welcomed us with fortifying homemade sopes (extra-thick tortillas topped with sauce and cheese and beans) and then we hit the trail to Cascada Cola de Caballo (Horse Tail Waterfall). An easy, well-defined trail took us past two fantastic swimming holes, but they were just appetizers.

Sopes, Mexico

Delicious homemade sopes.

Cola de Caballo waterfall - Miguel Hidalgo, Veracruz mexico

Horse Tail Waterfall lives up to its name.

After 10 minutes of walking the trail delivered us to the base of the waterfall itself. The long, thin, straight waterfall lived up to its name. A rocky perch provides a good diving point into the deep pool below the falls and a natural smooth rock slide connects the upper pool with a calmer swimming hole below. 

After a cool dip in the crystal clear water we went into the village of Miguel Hidalgo for lunch at a community tourism project that includes six surprisingly well-appointed rooms (electricity, private bathrooms) and a basic outdoor kitchen that turned out a fabulous meal which included bean soup spiked with fennel, terrific hand made tortillas and succulent chicken cooked in banana leaves. Fully fed, we hit the trail (briefly) again, this time to check out Apompal crater lake.

El Apompal crater lake tour - Miguel Hidalgo, Veracruz Mexico

A local guide explaining the wonders of the jungle, like that crazy vine, during a short hike near the village of Miguel Hidalgo in Veracruz state, Mexico.

Even more impressive than the lake, which locals claim rarely changes its water level, is the amazingly well-constructed and well-placed bird watching tower nearby. We climbed the stairs (no swaying!) and immediately spotted toucans. 

In the village of Benito Juarez another eco-tourism project, the lakeside Cabinas y Cascadas Encantada, was the starting point of a well-made trail past five waterfalls (about 1.5 hours for the loop). The view of Lake Catemaco from the open air restaurant was only topped by the view from most of the cabins further up the hillside (150 pesos per person all with private cold water bathroom). The best room in the house is #9 which has corner windows and a particularly good vantage point on the lake.

Cascada Arcoiris - Benito Juarez Veracruz

Cascada Arco Iris near Benito Juarez in Veracruz state, Mexico.

Waterfall - Benito Juarez, Veracruz, Mexico

Another waterfall you'll have to yourself near Benito Juarez. Someone cleverly cut foot holds in the tree trunk in the pool to create an easy jumping off point.

Waterfall - Benito Juarez, Veracruz, Mexico

Yet another private waterfall near Benito Juarez in Veracruz state, Mexico.

 

Island of the (creepy) macaques in Lake Catemaco

Water is also a major attraction in Catemaco, a small city that’s popular with Mexican travelers which means it feels festive and hasn’t become entirely tourist priced yet.

Catemeco church plaza veracruz, Mexico

The church and main plaza in Catemaco, Veracruz.

Catemaco is anchored by Lake Catemaco which is dotted with green islands. If the lake looks slightly familiar to you that’s because many movies (including parts of Apocalypto and Medicine Man) have been shot on and around the lake, many of them on the lakeside property of Reserva Ecológica Nanciyaga.

 Lake Catemaco - Veracruz, Mexico

Lake Catemaco which has been used as a set during filming of two movies you've probably seen.

Most of the islands in Lake Catemaco are gorgeous and lush and peaceful as you slip past them in small boats. However, we found the lake’s famous Monkey Island a bit creepy. The tiny island is inhabited by a band of macaque monkeys which were allegedly left there by a research facility in the 1970s. As we drifted past the fat, mottled monkeys our imaginations ran wild trying to figure out exactly what sort of terrible lab experiment had befallen them. Shiver.

Monkey Island -  Lake Catemaco - Veracruz, Mexico

We were creeped out by the macaques that are marooned on Monkey Island in Lake Catemaco.

Boat Lake Catemalco, Veracruz, Mexico

Just one of the festive boats waiting to take you on a tour of Lake Catemaco.

 

Witch hunting

Luckily, Catemaco has other attractions. Like witches! Over the years, the town has become famous for its brujos, a Spanish word that means witch. Every March the town hosts a “witch festival.” But the word brujo also means “alternative healer” and that’s a much more apt (though less sexy) definition of the brujos of Catemaco who are more likely to be leading purification ceremonies than riding broomsticks.

Brujo witch Catemaco - Veracruz, Mexico

Catemaco is famous for its brujos--a Spanish word that means witch or alternative healer--and they milk it for all it's worth.

Brujo witch store Catemaco - Veracruz, Mexico

Virtually every market in Mexico has at least one stall selling lotions and potions that claim to do everything from attract love and money to repel back luck and loud mouths. Catemaco, famous for its "witches" and alternative healers, is certainly no exception.

We rubbed shoulders with some of those alternative healers while taking part in a traditional temazcal ceremony behind the Playa Azul hotel. Marisol, owner of Totonal, is well-versed in local traditions and she defines temazcal as “a steam bath with chants and herbal cleanses that make us come back to life symbolically. The way in which the temazcal room is built and its profound meaning recreate the mother womb. It is a place for reconciliation and interacting with the elements of the earth.”

Our temazcal, which is a type of sweat lodge which dates back to pre-hispanic times, started with a massage during which volcanic mud was applied to our skin then aloe was worked into our hair. Next, we assembled in a small round area like a tiny ampitheater where members of a local family, brujos all, chanted, sang and purified each of us with smoke and bundles of herbs.

Grandma was particularly fastidious about the purification process, visibly willing toxins and bad energy out of each body she focused on. Sadly, her purifications were taking quite a while so another family member grabbed some herbs and took up the slack, including our purifications. We can’t help but feel we’d be just a bit purer if we’d gotten Grandma…

Following our purification we were fit to enter the sacred temazcal structure. Picture an igloo made of adobe with an area in the middle for red-hot rocks and you’ve pretty much got it. Though temazcal structures are traditionally small and low, sometimes requiring participants to sit or lie on the dirt floor, this one was roomy enough to stand up in and stumps had been arranged in a circle for us to sit on.

Before entering the temazcal structure we kneeled at the entrance and asked Mother Earth for permission to go inside. As we all took a seat on a stump as the last of the 40 or so red-hot rocks were carefully added to a pile in the center.  We were instructed to greet and thank each rock. Finally, a heavy blanket was lowered over the door followed by a wood slab to keep light out and heat in.

In the pitch black, steamy space another member of the brujo family sang more songs, lead us in introspective sharings of what we hoped to gain from the temezcal experience and periodically said the magic word: Puerta! Over the course of the next hour or so our brujo guide called out puerta (Spanish for door) four times, each time symbolizing an element. The rush of light and cool air as the door was momentarily opened was a relief but also an intrusion as the “real” world rushed in too.

After the temazcal was concluded we marched our muddy, sweaty selves a short distance and bobbed under the stars in the warm water of Lake Catemaco until we were clean. 

We’ve experienced a temezcal before but this one was much more nuanced and involved and it made us curious to experience an even more authentic temazcal if we ever get the chance.

 

Little known fact about Veracruz: La Bamba, the song made famous by Ritchie Vallens, is based on a folk song written in Veracruz in the 17th century. For more bombs about La Bamba, check out the song sleuthing done by Scott Valor of the surf site Burning Pier who was on this trip through Los Tuxtlas with us. 

High speed La Bamba - Catemalco, Veracruz, Mexico

A band called Son Jorachos belting out a super-fast version of La Bamba, which, we learned is based on a folks song written in Veracruz in the 17th century.

Our thanks, again, to Totonal Tour Company owner Marisol Herrara who helmed our Los Tuxtlas expedition with knowledge, passion, flexibility and flair. Think of her as the anti-guided tour guide.

This was our third pass through Veracruz state and there are still a few things we have yet to  see including the Olmec ruins at Tres Zapotes and the beautiful pueblo magico town of Tlacotalpan, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Ah, Mexico. Just when you think you’re out she pulls you right back in…

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Drink Responsibly (or, why we love our SteriPEN)

We’re just going to come right out and say it (again): Every responsible traveler should carry a water purification system if they want to be healthy, thrifty and environmentally responsible. That’s why we love our SteriPEN.

The shocking reality is that more than 8% of the earth’s population still doesn’t have access to safe drinking water. However, in much of the developed world (ie where most travelers come from) bottled water is no better than tap water which is treated and safe to drink to begin with. Yet bottled water costs up to 2,000 times more than tap water.

The environmental cost is even higher with millions of pounds of plastic bottles dumped into the trash annually. Furthermore, the production of all those plastic bottles and the act of transporting them consumes tens of millions of barrels of oil a year in the US alone.

According to the Beverage Marketing Corporation, global sales of bottled water increased 4.1% from 2010 to 2011. Many of you have probably ditched bottled water when you’re at home. However, when we travel to places with unsafe tap water (which includes some of the most compelling places on earth), our needs and behaviors change.

Take us, for example

We recently completed day 1,900 of our Trans-Americas Journey road trip. Well more than half of that time has been spent in areas where it’s not safe for us to drink the tap water. Conservatively speaking, let’s say we purchased four liters of bottled water per day for 1,000 of our days on the road. In this scenario we would have spent around $4,000 on water and thrown away at least 4,000 plastic bottles. Lined up end to end, that’s a trash trail nearly a mile long.

Luckily, we have a SteriPEN which uses UV light to purify a liter of water in 60 seconds with no additives, after taste or bottles to throw away.

 

 

Good for your travel budget and the environment

SteriPEN was one of our very first product partners and we’ve been using their Adventurer water purifier since day one of our Journey. If we hadn’t been using our SteriPEN we estimate that we would have spent at least $4,000 on bottled water. Subtract the price of our SteriPEN ($90) and the cost of the batteries (about $0.10/liter) and, so far, we’ve saved more than $3,500 by using our SteriPEN instead of buying bottled water as we travel.

Even better, we have not added our 4,000 empty plastic water bottles to the billions that are discarded every year. And if you think those bottles are all being turned into lovely new Patagonia fleeces, think again.

The International Bottled Water Association admits that just 31% of the 85 million bottles of water which are consumed in the United States every day are recycled (itself an energy inefficient, polluting process). That recycling percentage number dips into the single digits or disappears altogether in developing countries where so many of us spend time traveling.

 

 

And what happens to unrecycled plastic bottles in Calcutta or Cartagena? We’ve all seen (and smelled) them burning on trash heaps, slowly releasing toxins into the air.

Though we love our SteriPEN, it’s not perfect. It failed on us once when we were camping near Half Dome in Yosemite National Park (it was below freezing and we believe that conditions were too cold for the batteries). And though the company says fresh batteries will purify 50 liters, we don’t usually get through that much water before we have to change the batteries.

And speaking of batteries, we’re aware that throwing out our spent batteries is an environmental hazard. If you can’t reconcile yourself to that check out the SteriPEN Sidewinder that’s powered by a hand crank, the new Freedom which can be charged via USB or add on a solar charger for your SteriPEN batteries.

Be part of the bottled water solution

Another reason travelers need to commit to a sustainable and money-saving  alternatives to the financially and environmentally unsustainable cycle of buying and tossing plastic bottles water bottles? The places you want to travel to are starting to make it harder to get your hands on bottled water. For example, Grand Canyon National Park, where our SteriPEN easily purified enough water to fuel our hikes to the canyon floor from both rims, banned the sale of plastic water bottles in early 2012.


Be A Responsible Traveler, Buy a SteriPEN:

       
                   

SteriPEN supplied an Adventurer water purification wand to us to use and review.

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Valley of the Dammed? – Cangrejal Valley, Honduras

We arrived in the Cangrejal Valley at a bad time. A company called Hydro Honduras had their eye on the Cangrejal River which is the heartbeat of this valley outside the grotty town of La Ceiba in Northern Honduras. For more than a decade businessmen had been sniffing around the valley with plans to dam the river in order to produce hydroelectric power. A fresh batch of greased palms had suddenly spurred the project into overdrive and concerned locals were circling the wagons.

Congrejal Valley, Honduras

The Cangrejal River–target of hydroelectric dam builders–in the Cangrejal Valley in Honduras.

 

Damn the dam

Local children in the Cangrejal Velley, Honduras

Local children in the Cangrejal Valley in Honduras.

We sat in on a meeting of hotel and tour company owners as they shared the latest information and consolidated their position against the dam which would alter the  Cangrejal River and would include diversion pipelines that would cut through adjacent jungle.

The tourism business owners (a mix of locals and long-time expats) worried that the dam would mean the end of rafting trips, a primary source of tourist income in the region. A dam would change the natural dynamics of the Pico Bonito National Park, through which the Cangrejal River currently flows. A dam would affect access to fresh water and fish for the people living in the scrappy little villages in the valley.

Up to this point the dam project in the Cangrejal Valley had progressed pretty much like dam projects everywhere: the dam’s proponents had all the political sway, cash and organization while the dam’s opponents struggled to have their voices heard (mainly alleging that the Cangrejal dam project did not meet environmental sensitivity standards). The meeting we attended seemed like a turning point with valley residents putting their money where their mouths were, pooling funds to retain a lawyer to help level the playing field and keep them in the loop regarding developments in far away board rooms.

We hope a reasonable outcome can be reached, but it might be best to move the Cangrejal Valley up a bit higher on your travel to-do list if you want to enjoy all of its watery fun.

Your own private waterfall

Las Cascadas Lodge - Congrejal Valley, Honduras

The pool at Las Cascadas Lodge in the Cangrejal Valley in Honduras is lovely, but it’s over-shadowed by the waterfalls on the property.

Las Cascadas Lodge - Congrejal Valley, Honduras

Privacy and a lovely natural plunge pool make this waterfall, on the Las Cascadas Lodge property, an ideal skinny-dipping spot (Karen kept her clothes on for this picture, don’t worry).

If you had a rich uncle with a vacation spread in the Cangrejal Valley it would probably be something like Las Cascadas Lodge. This elegant retreat near the head of the valley has a main house (originally built as a residence) with an open kitchen/dining/living area and two rooms. An adjacent thatch-roof bungalow with a screened patio, built-in tub and outdoor shower was built later.

The place is aptly named. There’s a cascada (the Spanish word for waterfall) tumbling and rumbling just a few feet away from the main house. A 20 minute walk up a pleasant trail delivers you to another waterfall with the privacy and natural plunge pool that make it perfect for skinny dipping.

 

 

Riverside yoga

Built on the banks of the Cangrejal River, Casa Verde uses the valley’s tumbling water as a backdrop for their yoga and raw food retreats. Through a series of serendipitous, meant-to-be “accidents,” Wendy Green (a successful yoga instructor from New Jersey) purchased Casa Verde, then sold her home to the previous owner.

She now offers yoga classes (200L or about US$10) and full-on yoga/raw food/wellness retreats with her partner Garth. Casa Verde has a supremely peaceful setting, a wonderful outdoor shower constructed like the inner spiral of a conch shell, loads of fruit trees and the best composting toilet we’ve ever seen.

We took an early morning yoga class with Wendy and she managed to give even lapsed beginners like us a glimpse of the benefits she’s offering on the banks of the river. It didn’t hurt that our hour-long class was quietly observed by a toucan in a nearby tree.

Over the river and through the woods

Swinging bridge - Pico Bonito National Park, Honduras

This swinging bridge above the Cangrejal River is a dramatic way to enter Pico Bonito National Park in Honduras.

It’s always fun entering a national park, but the Cangrejal Valley entrance to Pico Bonito National Park, home to 7,988 foot (2,435 meter) Pico Bonito and a mind-boggling list of wildlife (including jaguars), takes the cake.

To enter the second largest protected area in Honduras you have to walk across a 395 foot (120 meter) long swinging bridge suspended across a gorge above the roiling Rio Cangrejal. Before the bridge was built the only way into the park at this entrance was in a bucket pulled across on pulleys.

 

 

 

 

River rafting pioneers

Twenty years ago a big German rafter named Udo came to the Cangrejal Valley to scout the Cangrejal River to determine if rafting trips could be run on it. The answer was yes and Udo and his wife Silvia decided to stay. They started Omega Tours and pioneered river rafting in the Cangrejal Valley.

Rafting - Cangrejal River, Honduras

Rafting on the Cangrejal River in Honduras with Omega Tours.

Udo and Silvia’s river trips are still the most popular in the region. When we were there water levels were slightly low but guides kept the rafting trip adrenaline level high by incorporating canyoneering, bouldering and dramatic jumps into the river as well as traditional rafting. We also loved the fact that Udo and Silvia are working hard to train valley locals as river guides instead of just hiring guides from overseas.

Canyoneering - Cangrejal River, Honduras

Bouldering and canyoneering up the adrenaline level of river rafting trips with Omega Tours in the Cangrejal Valley in Honduras. That’s Eric leaping into the Cangrejal River.

Boulder jumping - Cangrejal River, Honduras

We climbed up this house-sized boulder then jumped off into the river as part of our rafting trip on the Cangrejal River with Omega Tours.

Over the years Omega has expanded to include a wide range of accommodations (from super-clean dorms to two fancy two-story bungalows), a delicious (if a bit pricey) restaurant, a lively bar and a wonderful river-fed swimming pool (no chlorine!).

If rafting isn’t your thing, Silvia also keeps a small stable of horses and she loves to lead rides through the valley.

Omega Tours Rafting - Cangrejal River, Honduras

Eric and his brother Jeff, ready for the rapids. 

Though the word cangrejal means crab in Spanish, we didn’t see any when we were in the valley. We did see a lot of toucans, however, including one sitting next to the dirt road which runs through the valley–by far the closest sighting we’ve had.

The nearby Lodge at Pico Bonito was undergoing a management shift and general overhaul when we were there but the place was still a bird-watching hot spot. We saw dozens of species and, yes, more toucans including a nesting pair which we were able to observe as they used that massive bills to clean out the mess made by a nest full of toucan chicks.

Toucan Nest - Lodge at Pico Bonito, Honduras

This toucan was busy cleaning house on the bird-filled grounds of the Lodge at Pico Bonito hotel in Honduras.

Northern Potoo - Lodge at Pico Bonito, Honduras

Yes, those two drab lumps are birds. Northern potoos, to be exact. Just one of the fabulous bird species we saw on the grounds of the Lodge at Pico Bonito hotel in Honduras.

 

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