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Skipping Santa Marta – Totumo Volcano & Taganga Beach, Colombia

Within an hour of leaving the Colonial city of Cartagena we were in the countryside and our truck was surrounded by small, frantic yellow butterflies and it felt like being inside a Gabriel García Márquez novel: eery, fragile, pre-destined. It got even more surreal as our full day of travel took us to the crater mud pit at Totumo Volcano, the city of Santa Marta and on to Taganga Beach.

The muddy miracle of Totumo Volcano

We were still surrounded by yellow butterflies when we arrived at Totumo Volcano. Totumo is a tiny little volcano, just 50 feet (15 meters) tall. Rickety wooden stairs lead up its flanks to the crater which is filled with milk-chocolate-colored mud. The story goes that a local priest was offended by the hell-like fire and brimstone that came out of the crater and started sprinkling the thing with holy water until the fire and brimstone turned into thick mud. Improvement? You be the judge.

Tutomo Volcano Colombia

Totumo is an actual volcano but it’s just 50 feet tall, so it looks more like a big ant hill.

Now visitors pay a couple of dollars to climb into the Totumo crater and bob around in the mud like strawberries in chocolate fondue. This is appealing to some because, hey, you’re bobbing around in a volcanic crater and because the volcanic mud is full of minerals that have medicinal properties. No word on the current holy water content and whether or not that’s good for your skin.

Tutomo mud Volcano Colombia

The crater of Totumo volcano is filled with mud which you can climb down into for a soak.

The air temperature was about one million degrees celcius when we were at Totumo, however, so the idea of getting into hot mud was completely unappealing as was the idea of the long, dusty walk from the crater to the nearby lagoon where the mud is washed off.

Skipping Santa Marta

From Totumo we drove to the city of Santa Marta but despite the good things we’d heard about it (coastal location, laid back vibe, South America’s second oldest surviving Colonial city), we found it hot and dusty and mostly un-Colonial and wholly uninspiring (if you disagree you’re welcome to do your best to change our minds in the comments section, below).

Cathedral Santa Marta, Colombia

The cathedral in Santa Marta was closed when we visited.

One of the things we value most about our peripatetic lives is the freedom we have to stay or go as we choose so, after a disappointing and pricey lunch and a visit to the (closed) cathedral in Santa Marta, we moved on to nearby Taganga Beach.

We did ultimately discover a fantastic budget breakfast place in Santa Marta. It’s called Merka Welcome Restaurant and it’s on Calle 10C No. 2-1. For 5,000 COP (about US$2) we got huge plates of eggs, etc. Another 4,000 COP (about US$1.50) got us an enormous pitcher of amazing fresh made fruit juice. The only weak point, literally, was the coffee.

Merka Welcome Restaurant Santa Marta, Colombia

Our favorite thing about Santa Marta? the great, cheap breakfasts and terrific seafood at Merka Welcome Restaurant.

This simple restaurant (fans, mismatched tables and chairs) is famous for well-priced seafood dishes as well so we returned one night for dinner and Carlos, the night-time waiter, assured us that the food was “fucking good”. He was right and we feasted on huge plates of tasty, fresh fish for 15,000 COP (about US$6). Carlos hugged Eric when we left.

Do NOT confuse Merka Welcome Restaurant with a place in Santa Marta called Welcome Restaurant. It’s much more expensive. And you should probably skip the place called Pizza Vomito. We did.

Taganga Beach bums

Though Taganga is less than three miles (5 km) from Santa Marta it seemed like another world. The drive there, up and over the undulating coastline, felt a very small bit like driving along the Amalfi coast with impossible drops, blue water below and buildings clinging to hillsides.

Taganga, Colombia

The bay near the beach town of Taganga, Colombia.

The beach town of Taganga itself, however, feels nothing like the Amalfi coast. Beach front eateries, people selling handicrafts from blankets and hostels and hotels in all shapes and sizes give Taganga the look of a burgeoning traveler ghetto but it still, thankfully, attracts Colombian travelers, especially on weekends. Taganga was a must-visit years ago then fell into disarray but new construction and lots of travelers gave Taganga a comeback vibe when we were there.

After checking out a lot of different accommodations we made a real budget hotel find in Casa D’mer hotel. Located right on the beach at the far end of the malecon, this hotel has clean, spacious private doubles with fans and good mattresses for 70,000 COP (about US$27) including free coffee, free ice water, great staff owners and use of a small but satisfying plunge pool. The furnished roof deck has great sea views.

sunset Taganga, Colombia

Fishing boats at sunset in Taganga, Colombia.

Fish-based meals can be had from simple vendors on the beach in Taganga for around 10,000 COP (about US$4) and there are an increasing number of international eateries in town too. Intifada Cafe serves up great falafel, if you can stomach the anti-Israel propaganda on the walls, and Pacahamama is an actual French restaurant with an actual French chef.

Taganga-juice

Fresh juice on the beach in Taganga.

A shop called Casa Amarilla has tailors who will make you a custom swimsuit in 24 hours and another shop in town was cleverly incorporating bright, handmade, traditional mulas (or molas) made by the Kuna people into modern handbags, shoes and more.

The curved bay and beach in Taganga itself is nothing spectacular. The water is murky and the shoreline is cluttered with fishing boats. But a 20 minute walk along a trail that takes you up and over a bluff delivers you to Long Beach with snack shacks, chairs and umbrellas for hire and a much more inviting beach and clear water. Add in cold beer for 3,000 COP (about US$1.50) and you’ve got yourself a nice day. Water taxis make the short trip to and from Taganga too.

Long beach, near Taganga, Colombia

Long Beach, with clear water and beach vendors, is a short walk from the town of Taganga.

One warning: muggings, sometimes with machetes involved, are an increasing problem in Taganga, so be aware. However, we liked it in Taganga so much that we used it as a base for a long day trip to Tayrona National Park which we’ll cover in our next post.

Taganga street art

Street art in Taganga.

Colombia travel tip

Despite their generally dismal condition, many roads in Colombia have tolls. These tolls are particularly frequent and costly in northern Colombia. We paid more than US$25 in tolls just to drive the 145 miles (233km)  from Cartagena to Santa Marta. You have been warned.

 

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Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2014 – Best Adventures & Activities

This post is part 1 of 4 in the series Best of 2014

Welcome to Part 1 in our Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2014 series of posts. Part 1 is all about the Best Adventures & Activities of the past year of travel on our little road trip through the Americas including SCUBA diving with whale sharks and hammerheads in the Galapagos Islands, rescuing a drowning monkey in the Amazon and being spit on by a shaman in the Andes. Part 2 covers the Best Food & Beverages of 2014, Part 3 covers the Best Hotels of the year and Part 4 tells you all about our Travel Gear of the Year.

In 2014 the Trans-Americas Journey explored Colombia and Ecuador and we drove 7,074 miles (11,385 km) doing it. Want more road trip numbers? Check out the Trip Facts & Figures page.

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

Best adventures & activities of 2014

Best river trip: First of all, its nickname is the “Liquid Rainbow.” Second of all, it’s in an area of Colombia that’s only recently became FARC-free enough to visit. Third? Who needs a third? In 2014 we made it to this one-of-a-kind river on assignment for BBC Travel with Eco Turismo Macarena. The destination lives up to the hype with flowing water filled with waves of vibrant reds, greens, yellows and blues caused by a water plant unique to this area (check it out, below). We were also impressed with the quality of the local guides, the environmental protections that are in place and the truly community-based tourism that’s going on in the gateway town of La Macarena.

Cano Cristales Colombia

Best adventure destination: 2014 was the year that we got to travel to the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador not once but TWICE. During the first visit we spent nine days in the islands including a week on board the M/Y Grace yacht so that we could produce a story about the yacht, once owned and honeymooned on by Grace Kelly, for the Biography channel’s website. A highlight of that trip was the discovery of the best snorkeling site of the year: Punto Vicente Roca off Isabela Island where we bobbed in the water as sea turtles, penguins, sea lions, dozens of species of fish, a shark or two and much more investigated us and went about their watery lives all around us. It was like being in our own interactive aquarium. Our second visit to the Galapagos Islands took an even more adventurous turn with a week on board the very, VERY good value M/Y Eric followed by a week on board her sister ship, the M/V Galapagos Sky live aboard dive boat. That’s when we discovered the best SCUBA diving site of the year: Darwin and Wolf Islands, in the far north of the archipelago, where we spent hours underwater with hundreds of scalloped hammerhead sharks and, incredibly, even a few whales sharks and manta rays even though it wasn’t prime season for spotting those species. We’d go back in a minute because we’re sure this wonderful place has many, many more adventures in store.

Galapagos Islands Blue footed booby, penguins, marine iguana

Best under-visited national park: Ecuador has more than 30 national parks, ecological preserves and wildlife refuges. In 2012, President Rafael Correa waived the entry fee to all of them (except Galapagos Islands National Park) in an effort to get more Ecuadorans out into their wild spaces. It’s a great idea and we certainly appreciate breezing right through the entry gates to national parks, but many parks in Ecuador are still virtually visitor free. Take El Angel Ecological Reserve in northern Ecuador, for example. Despite containing some of the country’s most gorgeous high-altitude páramo (pictured below), including three of the four species of Seuss-like frailejon plants on the planet, and the world’s only known stand of a certain species of polylepis tree, we saw a grand total of five other people in this stunning park.

Parano El Angel park  Ecuador

Best wild animal rescue: We were motoring slowly along the Napo River in Ecuador’s Amazon Basin, happily observing a large troupe of squirrel monkeys in the trees at the water’s edge, when we heard a small splash followed by frantic screeching. For a moment it seemed as if a child had fallen into the fast-moving, current-filled river. Then we saw a tiny monkey being swept down river. Our guide, Fredy Alvarado, who operates Pangea Expeditions and was working as our guide on the Anakonda Amazon river boat we were traveling on, dipped an oar into the water just as the monkey was pulled underwater once again. When it’s drenched, furry head finally popped up the animal reached for the oar in exactly the way a drowning human would. Safely on our boat, the dripping monkey scrambled to a far corner as we motored to the shore where his troupe was waiting for his return. Fredy had to pry the frightened monkey off the boat in order to release him and he got a bite on the hand for his trouble. However, we are happy to report that both monkey and guide are fine.

Monkey rescue Napo River Ecuador Amazon

Best adventure in alternative healing: Sacha Ji Wellness Hotel, near Otavalo, Ecuador, is a rare example of eco-friendly construction (living roofs, rain water collection, solar panels, tire foundations) and a posh yoga and wellness retreat all in the shadow of massive volcanoes. The innovative owner has also harnessed the power of the local Kichwa community’s holistic healing traditions and guests can sign up for a cleansing by a local female shaman named Rosa.  Karen took off her shoes as Rosa arranged the tools of her trade: volcanic rocks, river rocks, kindling, two huge bunches of local herbs and branches, a pot for burning aromatic wood, a small gourd with liquid in it and two plastic bottles. Rosa spit liquid into Karen’s face and gently whacked her with herbs and branches. Wood was burned and smoke was read to determine the amount of “bad energy” that needed to be cleaned out (apparently, a lot) followed by more spitting before Rosa put some oil on Karen’s scalp and clasped her head while chanting about strong, clean energy. The whole thing was over in 15 minutes and was oddly relaxing despite the smoke and spit.

Andean Clensing Sacha Ji Ecuador

Best reason to get up early: Napo Wildlife Center Ecolodge, built, run and managed by members of the local Kichwa Anangu community in the Yasuni region of the Amazon Basin in Ecuador, offers many ways to get close to the toucans, giant otters, caimans and monkeys on their vast jungle property. One of the best is their canopy observation platform. A 10 minute canoe paddle and 15 minute jungle walk takes you from the lodge to the foot of a 130 foot (40 meter) tower. Climb the metal stairs to the platform at the top, carefully built around a massive ceiba tree, and you’ve reached the perfect place to look into the tree tops and down into the jungle (below). In the early morning hours we saw ivory billed toucans, a three-toed sloth, blue and yellow macaws in flight, squirrel monkeys, white front capuchin monkeys and more. Bring your binoculars and take advantage of the spotting scopes provided by the guides.

Napo Wildlefe Center Ecolodge canopy platform

Best national park drive: It’s not every day that you get the chance to drive your vehicle to over 15,500 feet (4,724 meters). To put that into perspective, that’s more than 1,000 feet (300 meters) higher than the top of Mount Whitney which is the highest point in the lower 48 in the US. In Los Nevados National Park in Colombia you can drive that high while checking out the Nevado del Ruiz Volcano (one of the most active in the world) and Andean condors (many of whom were transplanted from the San Diego Zoo to repopulate the park) soaring overhead.

PNN Nevados Colombia

Best feeding frenzy: There are a number of clay licks, where birds congregate to greedily eat soil rich in essential minerals, in the Amazon Basin in Ecuador. The one that attracts both parrots and macaws requires a short hike inland from the Napo River to a comfortable shelter/blind where we waited silently for two hours while the skittish birds worked up the courage to come to the ground to take in the minerals they need. Eventually hundreds (thousands?) of mealy parrots and some scarlet-shouldered parrotlettes descended. The sound of their wings and calls was deafening and even though the macaws remained safely in the trees above our heads, the spectacle was impressive.

Parrot Salt Lick Nap River Yasuni Ecuador Amazon

Best adventure on rails: Train trips don’t generally fall into the category of adventure unless you’re on a train that somehow navigates its way over a massive stone obstacle ominously called the Devil’s Nose and includes stops that let you meet the last glacial ice collector in the country and watch traditionally dressed women haggle for guinea pigs (aka, dinner) in a local weekly market. Passengers on Ecaudor’s Tren Crucero  (below) get all that and more during the four-day journey from the Andes to the Pacific (or vice versa). More details are in the story we did about our Tren Crucero adventure for the Dallas Morning News.

Tren Crucero Ecuador

Best horseback riding: Hacienda Zuleta, a historic farm-turned luxury hotel dating back to the 1600s in northern Ecuador, should be on every hotel and food lovers’ list. If you’re also a horse lover then make your reservation now. Zuleta’s stable is filled with their own breed, called Zuleteños, which are a mix of thoroughbred, quarter horse and Andalusian carefully crafted over the years to produce smart, gentle and beautiful horses. The tack is all hand made locally, the volcano-filled geography is gorgeous to ride through and the guides are capable and fun to be with whether you’re out for an hour or a week. Bonus: sore muscles are easily soothed by the hot water bottles and bath salts provided in each guest room at Hacienda Zuleta.

Hacienda Zuleta Ecuador Horseback Riding

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Western Beaches of Panama – Isla Boca Brava & Playa Las Lajas

While not exactly untouched, Isla Boca Brava and Playa Las Lajas are not nearly as visited as Panama’s more well-known beach destinations like the islands in the Bocas del Toro Archipelago and that’s part of the charm of traveling to the western beaches of Panama.

Isla Boca Brava Hotels

To get to the 30 square mile (77 square km) island of Boca Brava you have to first get to the fishing village of Boca Chica. After leaving our truck under an avocado tree on the property of a family that’s decided to use part of their land as an informal parking service, we got into a water taxi for the ten minute ride to Cala Mia Pacific Hotel for a dose of secluded romance.

Cala Mia Hotel, Boco Brava, Panama

Plunge pool with a view at Cala Mia Pacific Hotel on Isla Boca Brava in northern Panama.

Cala Mia’s 11 thatch-roof accommodations, private horseshoe bay beach and cliff side location make you feel like you’ve got the island to yourself. Rooms have all the mod cons including A/C and private patios with ocean views, especially nice from August through November when humpback whales migrate through.

Private Beach Cala Mia , Boca Brava, Panama

A shady perch on the private beach at Cala Mia Pacific Hotel on Isla Boca Brava, Panama.

When we were at Cala Mia a new owner had just taken over and we believe there’s been a new owner since then. Hopefully one of them upgraded Cala Mia’s dramatic Spa Cielo which is accessed via a swinging bridge which connect the mainland of the island to a nearby rocky outcrop but needed some serious TLC.

On the other end of the accommodation spectrum (and the other end of the island) is Hotel Boca Brava with 17 rooms ranging from privates (around US$30 double) to dorms. The food in the open air restaurant is almost as good as the view of the Pacific. Room #10 was our favorite with curved walls, a small private patio with chairs and a water view. Water can be scarce on the island in the dry season and the hotel’s gregarious owner, Brad, keeps occupancy to just half  in order to make sure everyone has enough water. Still, conserve as much as you can.

Boca Brava Office of the Day

Karen’s office of the day on the patio of or room at Cala Mia Pacific Hotel on Isla Boca Brava in Panama, though we still don’t fully understand why hammock seats exist…

What to do around Boca Brava

Boca Brava, and more than 20 other islands, are all protected within the Gulf of Chiriqui National Marine Park, so it’s not surprising that most of the things to do around Boca Brava involve getting wet.

As we already mentioned, August through November is whale watching season in northern Panama with migrating humpbacks crowding the water and plenty of tour companies waiting to take you out to see them. Isla Ladrones, 27 miles (43 km) from Boca Brava, is a SCUBA diving hot spot all year round with the chance to see sharks, rays and more. Our plans to dive around Ladrones were thwarted, however, by bad weather which created rough conditions and very limited visibility in the water so our trip was cancelled. The deep-sea fishing is said to be terrific around Boca Brava as well, if you’re into that kind of thing.

Iguana Boca Brava Panama

Local resident on Panama’s Isla Boca Brava.

Exploring Playa Las Lajas

Playa Las Lajas is most famous for its 12 mile (20 km) long stretch of beach. You can walk for ages and you’re likely to have the place to yourself except on weekends. Just don’t have your heart set on a funky beach bar or awesome seaside seafood shack. Playa Las Lajas was eerily free of any sort of service like that.

Las Lajas beach

Playa Las Lajas is 20 miles (12 km) long and at low tide this beach is incredibly wide as well.

If you ask us, the town of Las Lajas, inland from the beach, should also be equally famous for is flamboyant, sculpture-filled bus stops, each depicting a different marine scene. You almost hope the bus never comes.

Mermaid bus stop Las Lajas, Panama

This is a bus stop, Las Lajas style.

Swordfish bus stop Las Lajas, Panama

Another impressive bus top in Las Lajas. The roof reads “Looking for Paradise? It’s in Las Lajas.”

Naturalmente Boutique Bungalows, opened in Las Lajas in 2013, is not on the beach but it’s close enough and you can’t beat it for its style bungalows and small pool. The real reason to visit Naturalmente, however, is the open-air restaurant where owners Chantal and Gabriel, both from Modena, let their Italian roots show with pizzas (baked in an oven imported from Italy), great pasta dishes, homemade bread and homemade Italian sausage.

Naturalmente Boutique Bungalows - Las Lajas, Panama

A bungalow at Naturalmente Boutique Bungalows near Playa Las Lajas, Panama.

If you’re making the very long haul on the Pan-American Highway between Panama City and David, Boquete, Cerro Punta or the border with Costa Rica at Paso Canoas or Sixaola, Playa Las Lajas makes a great place to break your journey.

Geographical note about the screwy compass in Panama

Countries in Central and South America unfurl in a tidy north-to-south trajectory except for Panama which takes a sharp turn and ends up sitting perpendicular to its neighbors.This means that, in Panama, “north” refers to the long Atlantic/Caribbean coast and “south” indicates the long Pacific coast of the country. If you want to talk about the end of the country nearest the city of David and the border with Costa Rica, as we do within this post, you’re really talking about the west end of the country.

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Bocas del Toro Travel Guide Part 2: Where to Sleep – Bocas del Toro, Panama

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

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

Beautiful beaches Isla Colon - Bocas del Toro, Panama

This is why you want to travel to the Bocas de Toro Archipelago in Panama.

Getting to Bocas del Toro and Bocas town

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

Bocas Town wouldn’t exist if not for the United Fruit Company  (now known as Chiquita Brands) which created the town as part of its now-defunct banana operations in the area. Today, Bocas Town still has more bicycles than cars, though a vehicle ferry makes the run between Isla Colon and the mainland daily.

Hotels & hostels - Isla Colon, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Bocas Town on Isla Colon has many hostels like this one.

The number of buildings in Bocas Town has increased, but they’re still mostly small, wooden structures (there’s a five story maximum) simply built and brightly painted in true Caribbean style. Electricity is supplied from massive, and massively unreliable, diesel generators.

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

Where to sleep in Bocas del Toro

We spent two weeks exploring Bocas del Toro which gave us plenty of time to try lots of different accommodation options including a hostel and a boutique hotel on Isla Colon (Bocas Town), over the water bungalows in the middle of the Caribbean and a real stunner on Isla Bastimento.

Sunset Bastamientos Island - Bocas del Toro, Panama

Tropical sunset, Bocas del Toro style.

Beach boutique:  Take the best of a small waterfront apartment and add in attentive hotel staff and you’ve got Tropical Suites. The hotel was built in 2005 and renovated in 2010 by new owners Jamie and Chip, a couple from the southern US. They’ve crafted the perfect balance of laid back island style with spot-on North American service and southern hospitality.

All of the 16 suites (six have ocean views) at this waterfront hotel right on main street just a few blocks from the ferry docks are sunny, large and have air conditioning, furnished patios and fully equipped kitchens. Breakfast at Lili’s (one of the highlights of our previous post about what to do and what to eat in Bocas del Toro) is included in rates.

Tropical Suites also has good quality bikes for hire (around US$15 per day) which is how we got out to Playa Bluff (another travel highlight in our previous post about what to do in Bocas del Toro). Since we were at the hotel, they’ve opened up a “glass bottom Starfish suite” which sounds totally intriguing too. Tell us how it is…

Bocas del Toro, Panama

Bocas Town, on Isla Colon in the Bocas del Toro Archipelago.

Bocas on a budget: If you’re on a tighter travel budget don’t worry. Bocas Town is full of hostels, but if you’re not interested in a party atmosphere head to Hostal Hansi (big thanks to our friends at Globetrotter Girls for tipping us off about this place). Located just off Main Street, Hostal Hansi has a wide range of different room types from singles with shared bath (from US$11) to private doubles (from US$25). WiFi and use of a spotless kitchen is included. It’s a quiet and clean (there is a resident cat) and it’s extremely popular. Hansi does not take reservations so get there as early as you can to see about available rooms.

When we were in Bocas an absolutely enormous building was going up next door to the Hansi and the rumor was that was going to be a 100 bed hostal. That sounds like hell on earth to us, but fyi.

Eco immersion: The place is called Al Natural Resort and it really is one of the most stunning places we’ve stayed at on our Trans-Americas Journey. For starters, stand-alone stilted bunglaows, built using techniques and materials the indigenous Ngöbe-Buglé people have used for decades, are mostly open air with very, very few walls. Heavy canvas curtains can be pulled shut it you want.

Al Natural Resort bungalow - Bocas del Toro, Panama

Our virtually wall-free bungalow at Al Natural in Bocas del Toro, Panama.

Each wood, bamboo and thatch bungalow was built by local Ngöbe-Buglé workers, many of whom had forgotten the traditional techniques until they were asked to resurrect them to build Al Natural.

Bathrooms were covered in tiles in designs inspired by Ngöbe-Buglé weaving patterns. Bungalows were intentionally placed near the high tide line, giving the feeling of being in the calm Chiriqui Bay when you’re really just lazing around in your hammock. Again. Great mattresses, custom-made super-bug-proof nets and cooling fans inside the nets plus the sound of the Caribbean ensure restful nights.

Over water Bungalow View Al Natural Resort - Bocas del Toro, Panama

Bungalows at Al Natural are built at the high-tide line giving you the feeling of begin in the peaceful bay right from your room.

Al Natural’s owner, Michel, a reformed NYC lawyer from Belgium, calls his bungalows “natural houses” and they range from single rooms with a small bathroom to a three bedroom house. He says he created Al Natural to be “the place I always hoped I’d find in my travels but never did.” He explored Madagascar, Costa Rica and other countries looking for the right location for his vision before he returned to Bocas del Toro (a place he’d visited nearly 20 years earlier) and was shown beach front property on the southern tip of Bastimentos Island.

Michel Natalis owner of Al Natural Resort - Bocas del Toro, Panama

Owner Michel during the commute to his remarkable Al Natural eco bungalow hideaway in Bocas del Toro, Panama.

Michel bought the land directly from the local owners who still live on an adjoining piece of property. Don’t miss the chance to take a short jungle walk with Michel to visit Niato,and his family. When we visited Niato he told us how a friend had just drowned while free diving for lobster. Niato was convinced that his friend’s death had been foretold in a dream and that an evil mermaid had lured him deeper with visions of giant lobsters. He said many local men see mermaids all the time but the secret is not to pursue them. Good advice.

Bocas

Niato told us local men see mermaids all the time. The secret, he said,  is not to follow them deeper to a watery grave.

Despite the semi-remote location (it’s a 30 minute boat ride to Al Natural from Bocas Town), the food at Al Natural rivals anything in the region. Every single thing we ate was delicious from fresh juices to buttery soft grilled octopus to fragrant chicken cooked with mushrooms and orange peel. Even better, all meals, which are included in room rates including wine at dinner, are served family style with Michel at the head of the table telling stories and making friends.

Restaurant Al Natural Resort - Bocas del Toro, Panama

Pre-dinner drinks at Al Natural.

Over-rated over-the-water: To say we were excited to be staying at Punta Caracol Acqua Lodge would be an understatement. This long-standing place is basically the poster child for over-the-water bungalows and classic Caribbean island accommodation in Panama and photos of the place are used in many tourism promotional materials.

Pulling up to Punta Caracol Acqua Lodge, after a 10 minute boat ride from a private dock on Isla Colon, was dramatic.The whole thing is built over the water a short distance from a mangrove-covered shoreline. We disembarked and got settled into our over-the-water bungalow, one of nine at the lodge.

Punta Caracol Resort - Bocas del Toro, Panama

The over-water bungalows at Punta Caracol just might be the most photographed hotel rooms in Panama.

All are two-storey affairs built out of wood with thatch roofs and powered by the sun. They’re romantic in a rustic, castaway kind of way. Conch shells are used instead of door handles. Your back deck has loungers, hammocks and a ladder directly into the clear Caribbean below you. It’s certainly not basic, but the only truly luxurious thing is privacy, views and lack of WiFi/TV.

Snorkel gear (including fins) is provided and you can jump in for a snorkel right off your deck. We saw parrot fish, pipefish, starfish and even some coral without ever venturing too far away from the lodge and that was pretty awesome as was kayaking through nearby mangroves.

Punta Caracol Resort Kayaking  Bocas del Toro, Panama

Kayaking through nearby mangroves and snorkeling right off your back deck are just some of the activities at Punta Caracol in Bocas del Toro, Panama.

However, our food at Punta Caracol was mediocre at best and some dishes, like rubber-tough squid, were downright terrible. The service was even worse. Staff members spent more time on their phones than doing anything constructive or helpful. Morning coffee was repeatedly delivered to the bungalow without the benefit of cups.

To be fair, Punta Caracol was for sale when we were there and that sort of limbo invariably creates an environment where employees feel like they don’t have to be on top of their game. However, that’s an excuse not a justification and with rates starting from US$330 (including breakfast and dinner but not lunch for some reason) let’s hope this place finds the owner and management that it and its guests deserve.

Hammock-life-Bocas-del-Toro-Panama

Karen testing out the hammock on the back deck of our bungalow at Punta Caracol.

 

Weird Bocas del Toro

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

Bocas del Toro travel budget tip

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

Read more about travel in Panama

 

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

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

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

Getting to Bocas del Toro and Bocas town

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

Bocas del Toro, Panama

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

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

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

Panama Beer  - Bocas del Toro, Panama

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

What to do in Bocas del Toro, Panama

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

Playa Bluff  - Bocas del Toro, Panama

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

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

Starfish Beach - Bocas del Toro, Panama

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

Playa Estrella - Bocas del Toro, Panama

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

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

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

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

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

Starfish - Bocas del Toro, Panama

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zapatilla Island - Bocas del Toro, Panama

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

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

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

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

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

Sunset Bastamientos Island - Bocas del Toro, Panama

Sunset in Panama’s Bocas del Toro Archipelago.

What to eat in Bocas Town

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

Eating in Bocas del Toro, Panama

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

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

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

Cute - Bocas del Toro, Panama

Opening hours can be unpredictable in Bocas Town.

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

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

Main street, Isla Colon - Bocas del Toro, Panama

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

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

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

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

Super-Gourmet-Bocas-del-Toro

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

Weird Bocas del Toro

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

Bocas del Toro travel budget tip

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

Read more about travel in Panama

 

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Beach Bungalows, Perfect Pizza & the Best Road in the Country – Mechapa & Northern Pacific Coast, Nicaragua

Few  travelers make it to León, Nicaragua which is just one reason why León was our favorite city in Nicaragua. Even fewer people travel to the northern Pacific coast north of León, but they should. In fishing villages like Mechapa and on beaches like Aposentillo you’ll find great beach bungalows, perfect pizza and the best road in the country.

Driving on the beaches of Northern Nicaragua

Karen hanging out on the tailgate during a break in our epic beach drive in Mechapa, Nicaragua.

Mechapa, gateway to Nicaragua’s Northern Pacific Coast

Thanks to the completion of a fantastic new paved road, replacing one of the most notoriously brutal dirt roads in the country, you can now drive yourself to Mechapa from Leon in 1.5 hours or 3.5 hours from Managua (it’s tricky and slow by bus as service is limited and stops are many).

Fisherman, Machapa, Nicaragua

Fishermen plying their trade in Mechapa, Nicaragua.

There are around 600 people living in Mechapa, most of them involved in fishing or working on the area’s sprawling peanut farms. There are a handful of small closet-sized shops in the dirt-road-town and they peddle the basics. There are no restaurants or coffee shops or nightlife or tour companies of any kind but there is one friendly and comfortable beachfront hotel and, really, that’s all you need.

Redwood Beach Resort & Restaurant, Nicaragua

Beach view from the porch of one of the bungalows at Redwood Beach Resort & Restaurant in Mechapa.

The Redwood Beach Resort  was originally built in 2000 by a man from Managua who planned on building 32 bungalows, a large swimming pool and 16 condominiums. Only a handful of bungalows every got built and he never opened the property.

In 2006 Mike and Stacy Vogelsang, a metal worker and psychologist from Illinois, bought the 22 acre (nine hectare) property, sold everything in the US and became hoteliers. There was no running water, no electricity and no plumbing.

Bungalows Redwood Beach Resort - Mechapa, Nicaragua

Redwood Beach Resort & Restaurant in Mechapa on Nicaragua’s Pacific Coast north of León.

Today the Vogelsangs offer a full restaurant and six homey, comfortable beach bungalows (from US$65 per person per night including three meals a day). All are just steps away from the beach (#4 has the best view) with hammock strewn porches.

It’s the perfect comfy castaway base and your hosts can arrange horseback riding, kayaking, boat tours, fishing and more. Sea turtles also nest here  between November and January. Cold beers are abundant and thoughtfully served in beer cozies.

Redwood Beach Resort - Mechapa, Nicaragua

Sunset on Nicaragua’s Northern Pacific Coast.

The best road in Nicaragua

While Nicaragua’s roads are far superior to those in many of the neighboring countries thanks to the fellow-socialists in Venezuela who provide cheap petroleum (asphalt is made from a mixture high in petroleum), we took one look at the 15 mile (24 km) long wide, flat, hard-packed black sand beach in front of Redwood  Beach Resort and asked one question: can we drive on that?

Come along on our epic 30 mile (48 km) beach drive in Mechapa in our seven minute high-speed recap video.

 

Turns out, the owners enjoy a good beach drive too and assured us that as long as we timed the tides right we could drive for miles. Which we did, driving all the way down to the largest estuary in Central America. We saw plenty of birds along the way and no more than five other people.

Mechapa Beach Nicaragua

Our happy truck unleashed on the beach in Mechapa, Nicaragua.

End of the beach lies Reserva Natural Padre Ramos, Nicaragua

This end of the 15 mile (24 km) beach in Mechapa is home to the Padre Ramos Nature Reserve.

Mechapa Beach Redwood resort, Nicaragua

One of the bungalows at Redwood Resort & Restaurant peaks out of the jungle toward the beach in Mechapa, Nicaragua.

This is yet another reason to explore this part of Nica in your own vehicle.

Perfect pizza by way of Paris

Tipped off by Stacy and Mike from Redwood Beach Resort we made a point of stopping at Al Cielo Cabañas & Restaurant just above the surf breaks at Aserradores Beach while we were in the area. It was created by two friends from France, Xavier and William, who decided to ditch the pace in Paris for the surf in Central America.

Al Cielo Cabanas & Restaurant Nicaragua

Rooms with a view at Al Cielo Cabañas & Restaurant on Nicaragua’s Northern Pacific Coast.

The pair were traveling and surfing along the Nica’s Northern Pacific Coast when they fell in love with a patch of land above Aserradores Beach which had been used to grow cotton. They bought it, cleared it and did much of the construction themselves.

Menu at Al Cielo Cabanas & Restaurant - Aserradores Beach Nicaragua

Everything on the menu at Al Cielo is homemade and delicious but do not miss the pizza.

Al Cielo has eight basic but comfortable wooden cabanas, some with shared bath (from around US$30 per night). All have views of the Pacific and breezy porches and there’s a pool. One of the country’s top surf beaches is just a few minutes away. However, the best thing about Al Cielo is the restaurant.

Pizza at Al Cielo Cabanas & Restaurant - Aserradores Nicaragua

Behold, REAL pizza made from scratch by the French-trained chef who co-owns Al Cielo Cabañas & Restaurant on Nicaragua’s Pacific Coast north of León.

Xavier trained in the culinary arts in Paris and, thankfully, he did not want to abandon his chef whites entirely. The restaurant at Al Cielo is now one of the most exciting casual restaurants in Nicaragua, attracting locals from the nearby city of Chinandega who make the 20 minute drive to the place just to enjoy the food and the views from the open air, thatch roof dining room.

Xavier - Al Cielo Cabanas & Restaurant - Aserradores Nicaragua

Meet Xavier: French-trained chef, baker of bread, surfer of waves and co-owner of Al Cielo Cabañas & Restaurant on Nicaragua’s Pacific Coast north of León.

The menu is small, featuring one pasta dish, one fish dish, one meat dish (like pepper steak for US$8.50), a real salad (for around US$5) and pizzas. And what pizzas! Thin crust made using a slightly modified recipe given to Xavier by a mentor in Paris before he left, real Italian cheese, inventive toppings and all cooked up in a real pizza oven for around US$7. No wonder Al Cielo made our list of Best Food & Beverages of the year. Oh, and don’t miss their Flor de Caña rums infused with goodies like hot peppers, vanilla and ginger.

Infused Flor de Cana Rums - Al Cielo Cabanas & Restaurant Nicaragua

Flor de Cana rum naturally infused with ginger, hot chilies and more at Al Cielo Cabañas & Restaurant on Nicaragua’s Pacific Coast north of León.

 

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