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Desert Convoy – Cabo de la Vela, Guajira Peninsula, Colombia

We were warned about the epic heat in the coastal deserts of the Guajira Peninsula heading to Cabo de la Vela and the most northerly point in all of South America. However, we couldn’t resist the pull of the ocean, (mostly) deserted beaches and the distinct culture of the local Wayuu people. Egged on by George and Teresa, whom we were traveling with after having successfully shared the cost and hassle of shipping our trucks together from Panama to Colombia, our two truck desert convoy headed northeast from Minca. Our journey included a slight wrong turn, destructively bad roads and wandering through criss-crossing desert tracks at night. In return we got beach camping, kiteboarding and the biggest grasshoppers we’ve ever seen.

Driving to Cabo de la Vela - Guajira, Colombia

Our desert convoy navigating tracks through the sand near Cabo de la Vela on the Guajira Peninsula in Colombia.

Getting to the Guajira

We left Minca and drove 112 miles (181 km) to the small city of Riohacha. From there it’s another 110 miles (180 km) to Cabo de la Vela but our Garmin GPS told us there was a shorter route that followed the coast. We went for it only to have the “road” peter out near the outskirts of Riohacha, forcing us to backtrack to the highway.

We were heading toward the border with Venezuela and the closer we got the harder it was to find gas stations that actually had fuel. Instead, contraband fuel is sold by people on the side of the road who happily fill your tank with gas or diesel from large drums filtered through dirty t-shits into funnels. It’s real fuel and it’s a steal. We didn’t fully trust the quality of the roadside fuel so we finally found a station with fuel and got diesel for 6,500 COP which was at least 50 cents cheaper per gallon than in stations further away from the border.

Buying Venezuela gas in Colombia

George takes advantage of cheap roadside gas, contraband from nearby Venezuela, to fill his truck Vida (aka Taco) as we travel to Cabo de la Vela.

We continued west then north to Uribia and the highway began a slow deterioration, getting worse the further north we drove. It finally became a “maintained” dusty dirt highway that seemed to be in place mainly for vehicles servicing a rail line built to transport coal through the region.

Finally we saw a sign that said “Cabo de la Vela 17 km”.  However, by the time we reached the sign and the turn off toward the coast and the village of Cabo de la Vela it was getting dark. Worse, the turn off wasn’t really a road at all.

As the sun continued its inevitable setting, the four of us were faced with a criss-cross of rough tracks through the desert. It looked like a herd of drunk camels had recently stumbled home through the sand, leaving confounding and conflicting trails behind them. Which one would take us to Cabo was anyone’s guess. So we did what any reasonable overlanders would do: we turned to technology.

Road to Cabo de la Vela - Guajira, Colombia

There are goats in the Guajira. Lots and lots of goats…

Our paper maps were all but useless because they had little or no information for the area and we were miles away from cellular service so Google Maps was of no use either. However, George had an app on his phone called Maps with Me. We’d never heard of it but he explained how it uses previously downloadable open-source country map and works well even without a cell or internet signal.

Though the “track” to Cabo de la Vela wasn’t exactly on the map, George was able to use the Maps with Me app and his GPS to guide us in the general direction of the village.  Still, it took more than an hour to navigate the 10 miles (17 km) to Cabo and by the time we arrived it was well and truly dark and we were well and truly fans of Maps with Me which we’ve used ever since (thanks, George!).

Beach camping in Cabo de la Vela-Guajira, Colombia

Home sweaty home…our two beach shelters in Cabo de la Vela.

We found the local owner of a string of empty, simple, three-sided beach huts and arranged to rent two of them (US$4 each per night, showers in a nearby bathroom were about US$1 and hammocks were available for an additional cost). We used one shelter as a camp kitchen for the four of us to share and we set our tent up in the other one. George and Teresa sleep in the pop up tent on top of their truck, so they were set. We parked our trucks next to our selected huts, set up camp in the dark and fell into bed already sandy and wind-blown.

Camping in Cabo de la Vela - Guajira, Colombia

Our truck parked next to George and Teresa’s at our beach camp site in Cabo de la Vela.

Beach camping in Cabo de la Vela

At day break we got our first good look at our new temporary home. The fishing village of Cabo de la Vela used to consist of little more than a few beat up fishing boats, fences made from cactus, skinny dogs, herds of free range goats and a collection of traditional huts scattered among the desert beach scrub. All that still exists, but a recent attempt to attract more tourists has seen the construction of an optimistic number of simple guest houses (US$4 to US$16 per night) and basic restaurants and even a kiteboarding business (more on that later).

The beach road in Cabo de la Vela

Despite the presence of power poles and lines electricity was still being made using generators when we were in Cabo de la Vela.

Despite the presence of massive concrete electrical line poles all along the sandy main street, power in Cabo is supplied by generators and most business turn them off at night. If you want the fan in your guesthouse room to work all night (and you do), be sure confirm the generator hours before you choose a room.

Fishermen Cabo de la Vela Guajira Colombia

Fishing is a crucial way of life for the Wayuu people who somehow survive in the harsh conditions of the Guajira.

All in all, Cabo is still a kind of Mad Max set by the sea, all wind, heat, sand, monochrome colors and goats. Lots of goats, which are raised by the local autonomous indigenous group called the Wayuu. Why goats? Because nothing else can live in such a harsh environment. The place is like a tumbleweed factory with even more wild west flavor thanks to its proximity to the Venezuelan border.

Fishing boat in in Cabo de la Vela, Colombia

Fishing boat (and pelican) at rest.

Seeking shade in the Guajira

Now, we’ve been hot before. Really hot. But there’s something about the combination of wind and sun in the Guajira that makes you feel like your brain is boiling. For most of the three days we spent beach camping in Cabo de la Vela we were busy simply trying to stay in the shade by moving our camp chairs around in our rented beach shelters whenever the sun shifted, which was often. At certain points in the day we were all crowded together in the lone shady corner like vampires at high noon.

All of us except George, that is. He was busy. Very, very busy.

Hiding in the shade Cabo de la Vela

Eric demonstrating what a Guajira heat coma looks like.

Kiteboarding in Cabo de la Vela

George is a passionate kiteboarder. So passionate that he’d been overlanding for months with not one kiteboard canopy in the back of his none-too-spacious Toyota Tacoma, but two.  He was practically beside himself with excitement at the opportunity to use his gear and in conditions that, according to George, were world-class: consistent wind, not too choppy and almost no one else in the water.

Kite boarding in Guajira, Colombia

George getting his kiteboard on and loving it.

Kiteboarding conditions in Cabo are so good that diehards from all over the world come here to kite. Recently, a kiteboarding shop and school called Kite Addict opened up in Cabo as well offering gear and instructors and everything.

George didn’t need any of that and he kited on his own for hours and hours and hours as we watched his blissed out antics from the precious shade of our three-sided beach hut facing the water.

Kite boarding Cabo de la Vela Guajira, Colombia

Consistent wind, calm seas and few people make Cabo de la Vela an emerging kiteboarding hot spot.

The ways of the Wayuu

The Guajira is the domain of the indigenous Wayuu people who have their own language, their own dress and their own customs (including women who paint their faces black). They’re a distinct and very proud and independent culture within Colombia who number more than 140,000 and have autonomy in the Guajira region. They are tough and industrious and seem to be a product of their environment. In many ways they remind us of Tibetans, but more persistent when it comes time to sell handicrafts…

Wayuu Cabo de la Vela - Guajira, Colombia

Once these Wayuu woman realized Karen wasn’t going to buy any of their handicrafts they settled in for some people watching.

It was incredible to us that anyone, even the Wayuu, could live in the harsh conditions of the Guajira where some areas get only 11 inches (300 mm) of rain per year. Lately, things have gotten even harsher thanks to ongoing drought. First, hundreds of livestock died and more recently members of the Wayuu community have begun dying as well, including at least 15 children.

The World Food Programme recently warned of more drought-related deaths in the Guajira, particularly among children. As we write this the region is experiencing clashes between local residents and government officials whom they feel are not doing enough to help the communities through the drought which has officially been blamed on El Nino but some believe may also have links to the area’s lucrative coal mines. It remains a complicated and dangerous situation which some call a humanitarian disaster.

If you travel to the Guajira, bring as much of your own water as possible.

Playa del Pilón - Guajira, Colombia

Just a bit of the natural beauty of Playa del Pilón near Cabo on the Guajira Peninsula.

Despite our best intentions, we never made it to from Cabo to Punta Gallinas, the most northerly point in South America. The heat and multiple warnings about the crappy and confusing quality of the desert tracks that pass for roads from Cabo to Punta Gallinas deterred us. The idea of hours on even worse roads (the rough journey to Cabo had already snapped off one of our PIAA lights) and being told repeatedly that we’d have to take a guide with us were the final straws. Besides, George had more kiteboarding to do…

Playa del Pilón - Guajira, Colombia

More from Playa del Pilón.

We did take a few short excursions including a drive to Playa del Pilón, a beautiful beach and viewpoint near Cabo, and El Faro a nearby lighthouse that’s a popular spot for watching sunset and checking out the biggest grasshoppers we’ve ever seen.

Giant South American grasshopper - Cabo de la Vela, Guajira, Colombia

The aptly-named giant South American grasshoppers were all over the place and averaged about six inches long.

We never made it to the Los Flamingos Nature Sanctuary near Riohacha, but saw a few scattered flamingos and many roseate spoonbills in a small pond beside the railroad tracks.

roseate spoonbills Guajira, Colombia

Roseate spoonbills near the road and rail line that runs through the Guajira Peninsula.

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Worth the Hype and High Prices? – Tayrona National Park, Colombia

Tayrona National Park is Colombia’s first national park and it protects a string of beautiful beaches. The park is one of Colombia’s top five most talked about travel destinations, but is Tayrona worth the hype and high prices?

beach-PNN-Tayrona-Colombia

El Cabo Beach, just one of the beautiful coastal spots that are protected within Tayrona National Park in Colombia.

The hype about Tayrona

Established in 1969, Tayrona National Park is located in Northern Colombia. The mainland beaches around Cartagena, another top travel destination in Colombia, are not very nice so the promise of postcard-perfect beaches within the park, about a four-hour drive away, is very enticing. In 2012, almost 294,000 people believed the hype about Tayrona and visited the park, making Tayrona the second most visited of the more than 50 national parks in Colombia.

Beaches Tayrona National Park

A red flag warns of dangerous conditions in the water. Rip tides plague much of the coastline in Tayrona National Park.

Tayrona National Park protects a long stretch of coastline including a string of beaches that are truly beautiful–blue/green water, white arcs of sand, shoreline palms and vegetation. These famous beaches are reached via a rolling trail that meanders along, sometimes slightly inland, sometimes on the beaches themselves. Be prepared for lots of walking in sand and lots of sun exposure.

From the parking lot at the Canaveral entrance we hit the trail and about 45 minutes later we came to Arrecifes Beach where the water was too rough for swimming (rip tides plague much of the coastline within Tayrona). After admiring the view and cooling off in a patch of shade, we moved on to the next beach.

Arricifes beaches Tayrona National Park Colombia

Arricefes Beach is lovely to look at but the water here is too rough to swim in.

As the name would imply, swimming is possible at La Piscina (the pool) Beach. About a dozen locals had basic snack stands set up at La Piscina too and they were doing a moderate business in overpriced junk food and beverages (more on that later).

About three leisurely hours after leaving the parking lot we reached Cabo San Juan de la Guia Beach (aka, El Cabo), the most popular and developed of the bunch. Here we found an open air restaurant, a huge camping area (more on that below) and a beach full of backpackers and locals. A bit more poking around revealed an informal nude beach around a rocky elbow in the coastline here. Just sayin’.

Cabo San Juan PNN Tayrona Colombia

El Cabo Beach is the most built up and most crowded beach within Tayrona, drawing locals and travelers with its long beach and relatively calm water.

Cabo San Juan Tayrona National Park Colombia

There’s a camping area slightly inland from El Cabo Beach or you can rent a hammock in the thatch roof Hammock Hut on the rocky outcrop in the distance.

Though the park is said to harbor more than 50 endangered species, we did not see much wildlife in the park–really just two caracaras, some lizards and a frog.

The high prices of Tayrona

We entered the park at the Canaveral entrance and paid the entrance fee (39,500 COP or about US$16.50 pp and entrance fees seem to go up every year). We’d been warned that visitors to Tayrona are not allowed to bring in plastic bags, alcohol or anything in glass and park officials did half-heartedly look in the cargo area in the bed of our truck but they never looked in the cab or in the backpacks we had with us. We drove on to the (free and guarded) parking lot and could have easily entered the park from there with backpacks full of bottles and plastic bags. In fact, we saw plenty of other visitors with plastic bags and bottled beverages in the park. And who can blame them?

Cabo San Juan Tayrona Park

Rocks, cactus, white sand and a protected bay for swimming make El Cabo the top spot in Tayrona National Park.

Prices for food and beverages from vendors inside Tayrona are at least double what they’d be outside the park, so expect to pay at least 5,000 COP (US$2) for a beer or soda. That probably sounds like a bargain based on prices in your home country and we do realize that park prices are high due to the effort and expense vendors incur to bring goods into Tayrona. We’re merely pointing out that, by Colombian standards outside the park, prices are high within the park.

If you get hungry, expect to pay park premiums too. For example, the restaurant at El Cabo Beach charges about US$10 per plate for any meals including seafood. Basic breakfast is more than US$5. To avoid paying the inflated prices, we carried in our own water and snacks and bought beverages from a local Kogi Indian family selling fresh coconut water in a shady spot along the trail.

Kogi indigenous indians Santa Matrta Tayrona

The only thing we purchased inside Tayrona National Park were fresh coconuts from this Kogi family that had set up a makeshift stall along the trail through the park.

We visited Tayrona National Park as a day trip from Taganga Beach (about a 30 minute drive from the park entrance) because we enjoyed Taganga and because we found a value-for-money hotel there and we knew that accommodations any closer to Tayrona are pricey. Ecohabs Tayrona, for example, offers rooms for US$102 to US$321 per night inside the park and even “mid-range” and “budget” accommodations close to the park have jacked up prices.

Ecohabs Hotel Tayrona National Park Colombia

The thatch roofs you can see along the shore are part of Ecohabs, a pricey place to stay inside Tayrona.

There are slightly more economical ways to spend the night in Tayrona National Park, but even the park’s camping options come with a hefty mark up that make them pricey by Colombian standards. For example, one of the camping areas at Arrecifes Beach charges about US$10 per person per night including tent rental, about US$4 per person per night if you bring in your own tent or about $US7.50 for a hammock and mosquito net.

PNN Tayrona Park Colombia

Tayrona is the first national park established in Colombia and protecting shoreline like this is a big reason why the park was created back in 1969.

Camping at El Cabo Beach is even more expensive. The most coveted way to spend the night in Tayrona National Park is in one of the hammocks in the Hammock Hut, a huge, open air, thatch roof structure built on a rocky outcrop on El Cabo Beach overlooking the sea. That will cost you about US$12.50 per hammock per night and reservations are highly recommended.

The Hammock Hut at El Cabo is so picturesque that it’s on the cover of the 2012 Lonely Planet guide to Colombia.

Tayrona National Park Colombia

The trail through Tayrona National Park alternates between inland scrub and sandy shoreline.

If you plan on camping inside Tayrona you’re probably going to have camping gear and supplies with you which means you may want to consider non-hiking options to get into the park. You can rent horses to ride and/or carry your gear in or you can take a small open water taxi boat from Taganga or from Santa Marta to El Cabo beach for 25,000 COP/US$10 per person to the beach and 45,000 COP/US$18 per person back to town.

Beach trail Tayrona National Park Colombia

Part of the trail through Tayrona National Park.

So, is Tayrona worth the hype and high prices?

Tayrona was the first Colombian national park that we visited and it was certainly beautiful and we’re glad we saw it but, in our opinion, other less famous parks in the country deliver more bang for the buck and we’ll be telling you about them soon.

What do you think? Is Tayrona worth it? Let us know in the comments section, below.

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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.

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