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Beautiful, Embattled Lake Tota – Sogamoso, Colombia

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

Lake Tota Colombua Laguna de Tota

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

Beautiful, embattled Lake Tota

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

Playa Blanca Lake Tota Colombia

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

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

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

Lake Tota Colombia

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

The champion of Lake Tota

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

Felipe Velasco Fundacion Montecito Lake Tota

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

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

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

Lake Tota Onions

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

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

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

Muisca Temple of the Sun Sogamosa

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

Other things to do around Sogamoso

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

Temple of the Sun Museum Sogamosa

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

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

Marquesa de Puntalarga winery Sogamosa Colombia

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

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

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

Plaza in Sogamosa Colombia

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

Where to sleep in Sogamoso

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

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

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The Enduring Legend of El Dorado – Lake Guatavita, Colombia

You probably know at least the basics of the legend of El Dorado which tells of a lake filled with gold and jewels whose secrets and treasures eluded Spanish conquistadors and modern day treasure hunters for centuries. Like most good stories, this one survives despite a profound lack of proof and Lake Guatavita in Colombia is ground zero for the enduring legend of El Dorado.

The enduring legend of El Dorado

This part of Colombia is home to the Muisca people. In their heyday they were ruled by kings who were appointed only after going through a tough vetting process and those ultimately chosen were celebrated in an elaborate ceremony which, legend has it, involved the newly minted king covering himself with gold and paddling out into a lake before jumping in and washing the gold into the water.That habit earned the king the nickname “El Dorado” or, The Golden One.

It’s said that more gold and jewels were tossed into the lake for good measure and you can see an elaborate hand made rendering of a Muisca raft in solid gold at the fantastic Gold Museum in Bogotá.

Muisca god Guatavita Bogota Gold Museum

This solid gold recreation of part of the mythical Muisca lake ceremony is on display in the Gold Museum in Bogotá.

Needless to say, a shiny legend like that got the gold-hungry Spanish conquistadors all in a tizzy. In their inimitable style they suppressed the Muiscas and forced them to form a macabre bucket brigade to try to drain the lake. After months of effort the water level had gone down just a few feet. Then the Spanish shifted gears and forced thousands of men into the task of cutting a notch in the rim of the crater to drain the lake.

That effort dropped the water level by about 20 feet (six meters), revealing some paltry trinkets before the support system collapsed killing many.

And it wasn’t just the Spanish that were desperate to get their hands on the El Dorado treasure. A British group arrived with a steam pump and dug tunnels to try to drain the lake and failed. Treasure hunters were arriving as recently as the 1930s when hard-hat divers schlepped up to the crater, dove in and explored the lake’s muddy bottom for treasure. Nada.

 Travel to Lake Guatavita

These days Lake Guatavita is a protected are (so leave your SCUBA equipment and pick axes at home). You can travel there to see it for yourself during an easy day trip from Bogotá (about two hours and 35 miles (56 km) each way along a scenic but windy and narrow paved mountain road). If you don’t have your own wheels there are plenty of tour companies in Bogotá that offer group outings.

Lake Guatavita Legend of El Dorado Bogota, Colombia

Lake Guatavita, where the legend of El Dorado lives.

In 2000 a conservation group took over Lake Guatavita and the surrounding area and created a protected zone. Workers spent six years putting in excellent brick and stone trails and letting most of the protected area regenerate after years of clearing, farming and hunting.

You must enter with a guide during one of the timed tours (last entry is at 4 pm; the site is closed on Mondays except during long weekends when they open on Monday but close on Tuesday; 14,000 COP/about US$4 for foreigners). Our tour took about an hour during which we stopped in a replica of a traditional Muisca roundhouse for a cultural cram session, then walked slowly along a short, easy trail (with a few steep sections) during which our guide explained more about the region, the lake and the legend (all in Spanish).

Once we reached the crate’s edge our guide pointed out the and could look down into the lake our guide left us to our own devices to  hike higher up to other view points. Gold or no gold, Lake Guatavita, with its green water, swirling mists, tenacious vegetation and lingering legend, is a lovely spot as you can see in our drone footage from Lake Guatavia, below.

 

Travel tip: We struck real gold when we were tipped off to a restaurant called Le Petit Alsace in the nearby town of Guasca (look for the French flag flapping in the breeze shortly after you turn off the main road toward Guasca, cash only, only open on weekends).

Le Petit Alsace - Guasca, Colombia

A typical (and delicious) plate at Le Petit Alsace.

Here, French chef Gilbert Staffelbach turns out escargot, beef Bourguignon, duck ala orange, rabbit in wine and more in a rustic cabin as accordion music plays and he floats from table to table wearing full chef whites and a toque. Be sure to order the cheese plate which comes loaded with options made in-house using milk from his own herds of goats and water buffalo.

Chef Gilbert Staffelbach, Le Petit Alsace - Guasca, Colombia

Chef Gilbert Staffelbach of Le Petit Alsace with just some of the cheeses he produces.

 

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How to Explore the Panama Canal – Panama

Traveling to Panama without visiting the Panama Canal is like going to New York City without seeing the Statue of Liberty. There are many ways to explore the Panama Canal including dramatic canal-side observation facilities, a nearby fort reached via a bridge that lets your drive over the Panama Canal at Gatún Locks and, of course, you can cruise the canal. We did it all since one of us (guess which one) is certifiably canal obsessed.

Cruise Ships Miraflores locks Panama Canal - Princess Cruises Seven Seas Cruises

Princess Cruises Line’s Island Princess and Regent Seven Seas Cruises’ Seven Seas Mariner enter the Miraflores Locks on the Panama Canal.

How the Panama Canal moves ships from ocean to ocean

The original Panama canal consists of six lock chambers. Three are on the Pacific side (there are two locks at Miraflores and a third at Pedro Miguel) and three locks are on the Atlantic side (all of them at Gatún). Massive Lake Gatún lies in the middle.

Ships enter the first three locks and are raised a total of 87 feet to reach Lake Gatún which they slowly travel across. Then they enter the second set of three locks which lowers them back to sea level. Think of locks as water-powered escalators.

Our time-lapse video, below, shows two cruise ships passing through the Miraflores Locks and will demonstrate how this engineering wonder works.

Another time-lapse video, below, shows a container ship being lowered through the Miraflores Locks.

 

At the top of the two lock chambers of the Miraflores Locks we are lifted 54 feet over mean sea level of the Pacific Ocean

At the top of the two lock chambers at Miraflores we are lifted 54 feet over mean sea level during our tourist transit on board the Pacific Queen departing the Pacific Ocean.

Panama Canal smack down: Miraflores vs Gatún Locks

The Miraflores Visitors Center (US$15 adult, US$10 children) includes a museum, snack bars and observation platforms that allow you to watch mega ships pass gracefully through the Miraflores Locks right in front of your very eyes.

Ship transiting Miraflores locks, Panama Canal Visitors center

A ship transits through the Miraflores Locks and past the visitor center and observation decks there.

The Miraflores Visitor Center is located just outside Panama City and is a popular stop for tourists. Their restaurant lunch buffet is said to be as terrific as the views. However, Miraflores isn’t the only way to get close to the action in the Panama Canal.

The Gatún Visitor Center (US$5, children free), located close to Colon on the Atlantic side, has an observation area over Gatún Lock which is the longest lock in the whole canal since all three lock chambers are together here. It’s a simpler facility but it’s also the cheapest observation point on the canal, you can get closer to the action here and it doesn’t get nearly as crowded as Miraflores which can be wall to wall at times.

Gatun locks visitors center, PanamaCanal

The small grandstand on the right lets visitors to Gatún Lock get close to the action.

really close

Massive ships pass THIS close at the Gatún Visitor Center.

Now there’s a third observation option. It’s called the Agua Clara Visitor Center  (US$5 adult, US$2 children) and it’s the only place where you can get a good look at the newly opened larger locks. The Agua Clara Visitor Center also includes a restaurant, gift shop, snack bar and short nature loop trail.

The new Panama Canal

The new Panama Canal locks are the size of four football fields and able to accommodate larger so-called “NeoPanamax” ships which are so big they can carry 12,000 containers as opposed to the older “Panamax” ships which carry just 5,000 containers. 

When we were there this massive expansion project was still underway. Even after seeing the enormous machinery and massive engineering challenges involved in the canal expansion project it was still difficult to comprehend the scale of the work.

Panama Canal Expansion Project

The work being done to create much larger parallel locks at the Panama Canal is on such a large-scale that it’s hard to comprehend even when you’re standing there looking at it.

The expansion project, which cost more than US$6.5 billion so far, was started in 2007 and was expected to be done in 2015. The new locks were finally opened in June of 2016.

How to cruise the Panama Canal

If you’ve got the time and the money (at least half a day and around US$135 per adult and US$85 per child) you can experience the Panama Canal by traveling through the locks on a tourist boat. On board guides do a good job of explaining the engineering wonders of the canal and the process of moving safely through the locks.

The tourist boats are some of the smallest vessels that travel through the Panama Canal and it’s quite dramatic to be on board when the boat is squeezed into a lock along with massive cargo ships for the ride up (or down) inside the lock as water rushes in or is drained out.

Panamax ships in Gatun locks, Panama Canal

Cargo ships making their way through the Gatún Locks on the Panama Canal.

One-way canal cruises depart from either Panama City or Colon with bus transport one way. Half day cruises take passengers through three locks while full day cruises include all six locks taking you from the Atlantic to the Pacific, or vice versa.

We, of course, did the full day cruise through all six locks. You can take the trip through the Panama Canal from ocean to ocean in under 11 minutes in our video, below, from on board our Pacific Queen canal cruise tourist boat.

A free way to travel through the canal is to volunteer to be a deck hand on a small boat scheduled to move through the locks. The Panama Canal authority requires a minimum number of line handlers on all vessels traveling through the Panama Canal and many small boats simply don’t have enough hands in their normal crew. Captains looking for volunteers through the canal post notices at area marinas.

Sea dragon, Pangea expedition research yacht in panama canal

Though most of the vessels in the Panama Canal are enormous ships, some small craft like this pass through as well and they often need volunteers to be line handlers during the transit which represents a chance to make the journey for free.

Driving over the Panama Canal

The San Lorenzo Fort (US$5) is cool. The Spanish finished the fort in 1599 and its position at the mouth of the Chagres River where it meets the Atlantic Ocean allowed the Spanish to stay vigilant against pirates who were on the hunt for the treasures the Spanish were hoarding.  Today you can see massive stone walls, turrets and domes plus great views down the Chagres. The fort was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980.

San Lorenzo Fort, Panama Canal

San Lorenzo Fort, a UNESCO World Heritage Site on the Chagres River where it meets the Atlantic Ocean, is accessed by driving over a section of the Panama Canal.

Fort San Lorenzo, Panama Canal

San Lorenzo Fort, a UNESCO World Heritage Site on the Chagres River where it meets the Atlantic Ocean, is accessed by driving over a section of the Panama Canal.

Getting to San Lorenzo Fort is even cooler than the fort itself because it involves waiting for the massive, metal gates at Gatun Locks to close then watching as a metal swinging bridge rotates to create a roadway over the canal. Then you drive over the Panama Canal.

Our truck gingerly entered the small bridge and we crept right past massive metal lock doors which were so close we could almost touch them as we passed. Water actually sprayed out from cracks and crevices in the doors which made the drive even more dramatic.

Drive over tha Panama Canal, Gatun Locks bridge

This shot was taken through the windshield of our truck as we drove onto a swing bridge over the Panama Canal. The thing marked 06 on the left is a massive metal lock door holding back tons of water so we can drive safely past.

Locked up on the Panama Canal

You can’t actually visit it, but there’s a prison on the banks of the Panama Canal. It’s called El Renacer Prison and Manuel Noriega, former dictator of Panama and nemesis to the US, calls it home.Though Noriega was on the CIA’s payroll at one time, he ultimately became the first foreign head of state to be convicted in a US court. The US wanted him so bad we even launched a short-lived but bomb-filled invasion of Panama to get this guy which pretty much destroyed the Casco Viejo area which is now the hippest neighborhood in Central America.

Panamanians call Noriega la cara piña (pineapple face) because of his famously bad complexion. Given the nasty stuff Noriega was involved in and the bad things he did to his own people (murder, money laundering, corruption, drug trafficking) you’d think they could come up with something meaner.

Panama Canal fast facts

  • More than 14,000 vessels a year use the 48 mile (80 km) long Panama Canal to cut 8,000 miles (13,000 km) and millions of dollars off their transport costs by short-cutting through the isthmus of Panama between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans instead of navigating the long and dangerous route through the Strait of Magellan or around Cape Horn at the southernmost tip of South America.
Regent Seven Seas Cruise Princess Cruise transit Panama canal Miraflores Locks

The largest cruise ships pay more than US$300,000 per Panama Canal transit.

  • More than one million vessels have gone through the Panama Canal so far.
  • The existing Panama Canal locks can accommodate ships up to 106 feet (32 meters) wide by 950 feet (290 meters) long. Many ships are built exactly to these specifications and they are called “Panamax” ships.  The expanded Panama Canal locks are able to take ships up to 160 feet (49 meters) wide and 1,200 feet (365 meters) long. Those larger ships are called “NeoPanamax” ships.
Miguel-lock_Panama-Canal.jpg Septe

It’s a tight fit for Panamax-size ships in the existing Panama Canal locks which is why billions are being spent to create new, larger locks to accommodate even larger ships.

  • Average transit time is between 8 and 10 hours.
  • 5% of the world’s maritime traffic goes through the Panama Canal.
  • The countries that ship the most goods through the Panama Canal are the US and China.
  • The concrete walls of the Panama Canal locks are 55 feet (17 meters) thick.
  • In 2013, 12,045 ships traveled through the Panama Canal generating US$1.8 billion in tolls.
  • Cruise ships pay US$134 per occupied berth which is over US$300,000 for a Panamax-size cruise ship. Container ships pay US$82 per full container and a Panamax ship can carry 5,000 containers. Vessels must also pay a myriad of additional charges and handling fees.
Zim New York entering Culebra Cut. Panamax sized container ships like this one can carry more than 5,000 containers. It costs full panamax cargo and cruise more than $450,000 in tolls and fees to transit the canal.

Ships like this one can carry more than 5,000 containers and pay more than US$400,000 in tolls and fees to transit the Panama Canal when fully loaded.

  • It cost US$375 million to build the Panama Canal including US$10 million paid to Panama and US$40 million paid to the French Canal Company for the rights to the canal which they’d originally started and abandoned.
  • The Panama Canal celebrated its 100th birthday on August 15, 2014. A lot of the original infrastructure, including the massive lock doors which hold back tons and tons of water, are still being used today.
Panamal canal giant lock gates doors

Lock doors on the Panama Canal are 47 to 82 feet (14.3 to 25 meters) high, seven feet (2.1 meters) thick and they’re hollow and buoyant which means that even though they weight up to 662 tons each it only takes a pair of 25 horsepower motors to move them. Did we mention that they’re also 100 years old?

  • Scientists learned the hard way that malaria is caused by mosquitoes, not bad air (mal aire), during the building of the Panama Canal. More than 5,600 workers died during the US completion of the canal and as many as 22,000 died during the failed French attempt at the canal, many of them from malaria.
  • In 2011 Gary Saavedra, a champion surfer from Panama, rode a static wave through the Panama Canal for more than five hours covering more than 40 miles (64 km) and setting a Guinness Book of World Records milestone for the longest wave surfed in open water.
Panama canal Mitre gates of gatun locks opening

Lock gates at Gatún opening to let a ship pass.

  • In 1928 Richard Halliburton, an adventurer from the United States, paid 36 cents for the right to swim through the Panama Canal. He’s still in the Guinness Book of World Records as having paid the lowest toll ever on the Panama Canal and it’s a record that’s likely to stand since swimming through the canal was promptly banned.
  • The United States had jurisdiction over the Panama Canal until full control went to Panama on December 31, 1999.
Centennial Bridge Panama canal Pedro miguel locks

Centennial Bridge in the background as a ship heads for the Pedro Miguel Locks during its journey through the Panama Canal.

  • The Panama Canal, which employs more than 10,000 people, operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

Still want to know more about the Panama Canal? Read “The Path Between the Seas” by David McCullough, you big geek.

Princess Cruise Island Princess exiting Miraflores locks.

Princess Cruise Lines’ Island Princess exiting Miraflores Locks and entering the Pacific Ocean.

Bonus: There are two ways to sleep on the Panama Canal including in an abandoned US Army Radar Tower turned into a hotel on the banks of the canal and in Panama’s only houseboat hotel, right on canal waters. We’ll tell you all about that in our next post.

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9 Great Big Amazon Travel Myths – Ecuador

We just spent a few weeks traveling around the Amazon Basin and Yasuni National Park in Ecuador. We’ve been on boats, canoes and trails up and down the Napo River and its side channels exploring the rain forest, oxbow lakes and flora and fauna that make this area one of the  most biologically diverse in the world. The place was full of surprises (and not just the kind with wings, fur or scales) and our full reports will be coming soon. In the meantime, here are 9 great big Amazon travel myths to get straight before you plan your own Amazon adventure.

Napo River Amazon adventure

Motoring through the Amazon Basin in Ecuador.

Amazon Travel Myth #1: You have to go to Brazil to see the Amazon

The Amazon River is 4,345 miles (6,992 kms) long and its associated basin covers 2,720,000 square miles (7,050,000 square kms) through Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela and Bolivia. That’s almost the same area as the lower 48 states in the US. The Amazon River has over 1,100 tributaries, 17 of which are over 930 miles (1,500 kms) long. The Napo River in Ecuador is one of these major tributaries.

Napo River Amazon sunset

Sunset over the Napo River in the Amazon Basin in Ecuador.

 Amazon Travel Myth #2: The heat will be epic

We were prepared for the type of steamy weather in which just breathing makes you sweat. Imagine our surprise when we were putting on pants and long-sleeve shirts during boat rides and in the evenings to ward off what can only be described as a chill in the air. Yes, the temperature and humidity can rise to uncomfortable levels in the Amazon and you’re gonna sweat whenever you’re exerting yourself. However, temperatures can dip too (especially after the clouds roll in post-rain) and the average Amazon high is only in the mid 80s. Pack accordingly.

Amazon Travel Myth #3: You’ll be tripping over wildlife

The Amazon Basin is one of the most bio-diverse places on the planet and home to a mind-blowing cast of characters. New species are discovered here every year, but it’s very hard to see most of them. For one thing, the Amazon rain forest is wicked thick. Also, in many areas wild animals were hunted as recently as five years ago and some indigenous communities continue to hunt on a subsistence level so the critters still have a healthy fear of humans. That said, with persistence and the help of guides we saw dozens of species we’ve never seen before including a tiny, brightly plumed bird called a wire-tailed manakin, red howler monkeys, endangered giant river otters, many new types of macaws and a porcupine with a prehensile tail.

Amazon White fronted Capuchin Monkey Yasuni

A white-fronted capuchin monkey in Yasuni National Park in Ecuador’s Amazon Basin.

Amazon Travel Myth #4: You’ll never see the oil exploration in the Amazon

We thought the controversial oil exploration activity in the Amazon Basin would be hidden deep in the jungle, however, international oil companies from the US and China are looking for oil all over the place in the Amazon Basin. You’ll see evidence of oil camps, pumping stations, natural gas burn-offs and barges and helicopters transporting heavy equipment up and down the Napo River and all along the riverbank.

Yasuni oli exploration Amazon

Natural gas is burned off 24-hours-a-day at this oil exploration operation on the bank of the Napo River in Ecuador’s Amazon Basin.

Amazon Travel Myth #5: Everything in the Amazon is huge

If all of the animals in the Amazon were weighed, some scientists think ants and termites would account for one-third the total weight. Some things do get big, however, including endangered giant river otters which can be more than six feet (two meters) long, anacondas which have been documented at 60 feet (15 meters) long and then there’s that 12 foot (four meter) long black caiman we saw.

Amazon black caiman

Black caimans grow big and mean in the Amazon but it’s the small stuff that makes up the bulk of the animal life.

Amazon Travel Myth #6: It’s hard to get to the Amazon

Actually, to get to the lodges, trails, lagoons, Yasuni National Park and rain forests of the Amazon Basin in Ecuador all you have to do is take a 30 minute flight from Quito to Coca then get on a motorized canoe for a 2 hour trip down the Napo River to your lodging of choice.

Amazon Travel Myth #7: Piranhas are vicious killers

Blame Hollywood for the piranha’s man-eating reputation. Everyone in the Amazon Basin does. There are three species of piranha in the area, none of which are considered dangerous. In fact, Eric went swimming in a lagoon full of the things and exactly zero feeding frenzies ensued.

Not a world record Piranha Amazon

Eric catching his first piranha in Ecuador’s Amazon Basin. Yes, we threw him back.

Amazon Travel Myth #8: If the piranhas don’t get you the insects will

Readers of this travel blog know that if there’s an insect within half a mile it will find and bite Karen. With visions of a rain forest (and, probably, our room) full of mosquitoes the size of Smart Cars and lord know how many other hungry biters we packed enough Deet to defend the entire population of Ecuador. We used very, very little of it. As we’ve found in other fairly pristine natural areas, an ecosystem in balance usually doesn’t have too much of anything. In the case of the Amazon Basin we were pleasantly surprised by the relative lack of biting bugs.

Tarantula Yasuni National Park Amazon

A tarantula in Yasuni National Park in the Amazon Basin in Ecuador.

 Amazon Travel Myth #9: Monkeys are good swimmers

Most species of monkeys do just fine with short swims in relatively calm the water. Wide rivers with swift currents, like the Napo River in Ecuador’s Amazon Basin, are another story as we witnessed when a squirrel monkey fell into the river near our boat one day. Despite its best efforts the monkey was clearly drowning. As the current swept it down stream its head began to sink below the surface and we maneuvered the boat near enough to the monkey for our guide, Fredy, to reach it and get it on the boat. It was drenched, exhausted and scared but at least it wasn’t drowning. The monkey “thanked” Fredy by biting his hand as he pried him off the boat and placed it safely back on shore.

Drowning squirrel monkey Amazon Basin Ecuador

This tiny squirrel monkey was no match for the swift current of the Napo River in Ecuador’s Amazon Basin. Don’t worry. We saved it.

 

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Around Granada – Lake Nicaragua, Mombacho Volcano & Lake Apoyo, Nicaragua

Granada isn’t just another pretty face you know. When you get done appreciating Granada’s Colonial ambiance, shockingly good value boutique hotels and super-friendly locals Granada also makes a good base for exploring nearby natural attractions including Lake Apoyo, Mombacho Volcano and Lake Nicaragua (aka Lake Cocibolco).

The weird waters of Lake Apoyo

Just 20 minutes or so from Granada lies the Apoyo Lagoon Natural Reserve not far from the Pueblos Blancos handicrafts region. Established in 1991, the reserve protects 8,648 acres (43 km²) of jungle and geology including Lake Apoyo, a crater lake formed in the extinct Apoyo Volcano more than 200 years ago.

Laguna de Apoyo Mombacho Volcano panorama

Lake Apoyo, near Granada, Nicaragua, with Mombacho Volcano in the background to the right.

Lake Apoyo is said to be the cleanest place to swim in all of Nicaragua (but you still can’t drink the water) and it’s home to some species of fish that are found nowhere else. Despite the fact that the lake is more than 600 feet (200 meters) deep at its deepest point, the water is warm since the lake is fed by active fumaroles below it. The water is also slightly salty and is said to contain healing minerals. It just felt like slimy bath water to us.

You can hike, kayak, swim, go bird watching and get real familiar with the dinosaur-like call of the areas many howler monkeys. Thankfully, motorized craft (jet skis, boats) were recently banned on the lake. There are also some volunteer opportunities, Spanish schools and a few restaurants and hostels and hotels around the lake.

Laguna de Apoyo Mombacho Volcano Nicaragua

Lake Apoyo with Mombacho Volcano in the background near Granada, Nicaragua.

We stayed at Apoyo Resort (which used to be called Norome Resort & Villas) in one of their 60 villas in the jungle, all with full kitchens. We watched a small troop of howler monkeys pluck flowers off a tree near our deck as homemade pasta sauce simmered on the stove. Heaven.

Our timing at Lake Apoyo was accidentally perfect and one night we got to enjoy views of a rare super moon from the hillside pool without the interference of any light pollution.

Laguna de Apoyo Full Moon, Nicaragua

A rare Supermoon in the dark skies above Lake Apoyo in Nicaragua.

An epic drive up Mombacho Volcano

The Mombacho Volcano is considered extinct. Its last eruption was in 1570. That’s given the cloud forest in the area plenty of time to re-forest the slopes of the volcano which means that unlike more recently active volcanoes, the hiking trails around Mombacho are shaded and travel through more than just rocks and scree. But first you have to get there.

Reserva Natural Volcan Mombacho, Nicaragua

Entering the Mombacho Volcano Natural Reserve near Granada, Nicaragua with one epic road in front of us.

We paid US$5 per person to enter the Mombacho Volcano Nature Reserve that surrounds the volcano itself. You can pay an additional US$15 per person to take official transportation up the paved road from the entrance to the volcano or you can pay US$18 and drive yourself and a carload of friends up to the top as long as you have a 4X4.

They aren’t joking about that 4X4 part. Though the road is paved and in good shape it is wicked steep climbing more than 3,000 feet (900 meters) in four miles (6.5 kms). Even in 4-low our truck huffed and puffed all the way up and down was no easier.

Once at the top we found a respectable visitor center with an impressive diorama of the area.  There are a number of trails up to four miles (6.5 kms) long that you can hike alone. The longer trails require a guide (US$10).

View from Mombacho Volcano Nicaragua

Lake Nicaragua seen from one of the trails around Mombacho Volcano near Granada, Nicaragua.

We hiked the crater trail down to some fumaroles along a shaded trail that was in excellent shape. At various points on the trail we also got excellent views of Granada and of Masaya Volcano in the distance.

Mombacho Volcano Nicaragua

Mombacho Volcano in Nicaragua.

Volcan Mombacho Nicaragua

Clouds stream off the top of Mombacho Volcano near Granada, Nicaragua.

Eco luxury on Lake Nicaragua

Granada was settled on the shoreline of Lake Nicaragua, aka Lake Cocibolca. It’s possible to book a boat tour of the lake and its dozens of small islands or even kayak around.  We toured the lake on our way out to Jicaro Island Ecolodge which occupies its own small island. Jicaro Island is one of our favorite green boutique hotels in the country and home to one of the best pools in Nicaragua. There are more tempting reasons to make a reservation in our full Jicaro Island Ecolodge review.

Jicaro Island EcoLodge, Nicaragua

Welcome to Jicaro Island Ecolodge in Lake Nicaragua.

Jicaro Island Lodge pool, Nicaragua

Lake Nicaragua still has a few bull sharks in it so we stuck to the pool at Jicaro Island Ecolodge.

Villas at Jicaro Island Lodge, Nicaragua

We’re not carpentry geeks, but the woodworking in the structures and furniture at Jicaro Island Ecolodge stunned us.

 

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Adventure Island – Ometepe Island, Nicaragua

We arrived on Ometepe Island like most travelers: pretty unaware of the range of eco, outdoor and food adventures that have been quietly developing on this spot in the middle of 3,000 square mile (8,264 square km) formerly bull-shark-infested Lake Nicaragua. Sure we were expecting the island, which is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, to have plenty of nature and island-y quirks. What we got was Adventure Island.

Lake Nicaragua (aka Lake Cocibolca) is the largest lake in Central America and home to Ometepe Island, whose name in the Nahuatl language means two hills. Those two hills are actually two volcanoes: the very active 5,100 foot (1,544 meter) Concepción Volcano and dormant 4,573 foot (1,394 meter) Maderas Volcano. Both can be climbed. Neither is easy.

two volcanos of Ometepe Island Nicaragua

Ometepe Island’s name translates to “two hills” for the pair of volcanoes that dominate its geography. That’s Concepción on the left and Maderas on the right.

Concepcion volcano  - Ometepe Island, Nicaragua

You can climb Concepción Volcano on Nicaragua’s Ometepe Island even though it’s still active.

Getting to Ometepe Island

While the rest of Nicaragua slowly gets its act together in terms of tourism and tourist activities things on Ometepe have been moving right along. They even have a brand new international airport, though no one seems able to say when it will open to flights–if ever. Welcome to Nicaragua.

New airport with Volcan Concepcion - Ometepe Island, Nicaragua

Construction of the new airport on Ometepe Island (now complete but yet to be used) with Concepción Volcano in the background.

Never mind. You can still get to Ometepe Island the old-fashioned way: by ferry. Passenger ferries leave from a large dock in the town of San Jorge just a few miles from Rivas. A number of ferries travel between the dock and the island. We chose to travel on the newer, bigger Rey del Cocibolca ferry because it also takes vehicles (US$16 for one driver and the vehicle; US$3.50 per passenger).

The ferry was clean and only moderately crowded (though the vehicle deck can get packed so make a reservation by calling 8833-4773 or 86913669 if you have a vehicle with you). Our one hour crossing was pretty smooth, though locals will tell you that the lake can sometimes get whipped up to white caps due to high winds.

Lake Cocibolca Ferry to Ometepe Island, Nicaragua

Taking a ferry across Lake Cocibolco (aka Lake Nicaragua) to Ometepe Island. You can see our truck at the front of the line on the left on the cargo deck.

Getting around Ometepe Island

The roads on Ometepe were notoriously bad but a recent frenzy of repaving with interlocking pre-fab paving stones is slowly changing that. When we were on the island the road connecting the main port town of Moyogalpa and the village of Balgue was in perfect condition and crews and supplies were in place to continue extending the repaving.

The island is big–19 miles (31 kms) long and up to six miles (10 kms) wide–and the things you’re gonna want to do, see and eat are spread out. If you don’t have a vehicle you can use the public buses or rent a motorcycle from many shops and vendors in Moyogalpa. Check in with Gary and Laura, owners of the Cornerhouse B&B, Restaurant and Coffee Shop, for a recommendation about the most reputable renters and for the best eggs Benedict (and more) in Nicaragua. Cornerhouse also has four stylishly stark rooms for US$30 double.

Cornerhouse B&B Ometepe Island, Nicaragua

Gary Long, co-owner of Cornerhouse B&B, Restaurant and Coffee House in the town of Moyogalpa, is your source for good travel advice about Ometepe and some of the best food on the island.

Moyogalpa with Volcan Concepcion - Ometepe, Nicaragua

You can almost always see at least one of the two huge volcanoes on Ometepe Island, even when you’re walking down the street in the town of Moyogalpa.

Eating and sleeping on Ometepe Island

As you enter Balgue look for the school bus on your right. This is El Zopilote, an artisenal shop selling handmade jewelry, bread, chocolate, soap, granola (you get the picture). That all happens in the bus. A short hike up the hill takes you to the El Zopilote Hostel, a lofty, free-form hangout where they also bake a mean pizza and offer yoga.

El Zopilote Hostal  Ometepe Island, Nicaragua

Free bananas at the reception hut at El Zopilote Hostel on Ometepe Island in Nicaragua.

Finca Magdalena also has budget accommodation and one of the best cups of coffee we had in all of Nicaragua made with beans grown on their property on the slopes of Maderas Volcano above the village of Balgue.

Finca Magdalena Ometepe Island, Nicaragua

Finca Magdalena, above the town of Balgue on Ometepe Island, is a working coffee farm with budget rooms, a simple restaurant and some of the best coffee we had in all of Nicaragua.

Concepcion volcano  - Ometepe Island, Nicaragua

Sunset over Concepción Volcano on Ometepe Island, Nicaragua.

Your complete adventure guide to Ometepe Island

By the time our week on the island was up we were so excited about the place that we wrote a feature about Ometepe Island for the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune focusing on the latest and greatest adventures on the island.

Check it out for even more about eating, sleeping and adventuring on Nicaragua’s adventure island, including Totoco Eco-lodge, the swishest digs on the island, nighttime kayaking, becoming a permaculture volunteer at Project Bona Fide, some of the best horseback riding in Nicaragua, a blissful swimming hole, a private museum full of artifacts you won’t see anywhere else in Nicaragua and Chef Ben Slow’s fabulous farm to fork food at Cafe Campestre.

Totoco Eco Lodge pool with Volcan Concepcion - Ometepe, Nicaragua

Concepción Volcano as seen from the pool at Totoco Eco Lodge on Ometepe Island in Nicaragua.

Project Bonafide sustainable farm Ometepe, Nicaragua

You can volunteer at Project Bona Fide, a permaculture farm and agro education operation on Ometepe Island.

Cafe Campestre - Ometepe Island, Nicaragua

Yes, that’s home made pasta at Cafe Campestre, a shockingly stylish and gourmet restaurant in the town of Balgue on Ometepe Island.

Humus Cafe Campestre food - Ometepe Island, Nicaragua

Home made humus with home-made bread at Cafe Campestre on Ometepe Island.

Playa Santo Domingo & Volcano Maderas - Ometepe, Nicaragua

Playa Santo Domingo with the Maderas Volcano in the distance.

Volcano evacuation route - Ometepe Island, Nicaragua

Volcano emergency evacuation signs are no joke on Ometepe Island in Nicaragua.

 

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