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Ecuador’s Other Amazon – Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve, Ecuador

Ecuador is blessed with several ways to access the Amazon Basin. The most well-known and most popular way is via a river town called Coca and then along the Napo River (which is a major tributary of the Amazon River) where travelers find a wide range of tours, river boat hotels and the most upscale Amazon lodges in the country. Those seeking a more affordable and, in some ways, more intimate Amazon experience should head to the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve instead. Here’s why, including our drone aerial travel video over the area.

Sunset Cuybeno Reserve Ecuador

A sunset paddle on the Cuyabeno River in the Amazon Basin in Ecuador.

Exploring Ecuador’s other Amazon

Founded in 1979, Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve covers 1,490,000 acres (603,380 hectares) and is the second largest preserved natural area in Ecuador. Most of that area is tropical forest which goes through annual cycles of flooding and then receding water. In the wetter season (which varies from year to year), thousands of acres flood. In the dryer season (December to March) the water recedes.

Paddling waterways of Cuybeno

The river is the road through the vast Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve in the Amazon Basin in Ecuador.

The only road through the Cuyabeno area is the Cuyabeno River itself. It’s much narrower than the Napo River which gives a more intimate feeling since the banks of the river are much closer together and, therefore, the wildlife is much closer at hand. Unlike the area around the Napo River, the Cuyabeno region has not been opened up for oil exploration so animals are much more plentiful as well.

There are also far fewer visitors to Cuyabeno than the number of people who visit the Amazon basin via the Napo River, so other boats and other travelers are few and far between.

Cuybeno Lake

Entering Laguna Grande.

The wild animals of Cuyabeno

While humans are scarce there is no shortage of other animals. The number of registered bird species in the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve is under currently being debated. Some say 530 species exist in the area while others believe more like 580 species have been observed. Suffice to say, there are a LOT of birds. There are a lot of other critters in Cuyabeno too like the lowland tapirs, two species of deer, all of the Amazon cats, including jaguars and pumas, capybaras and two species of river dolphins (one is vaguely pink).

Blue & Yellow Macaw Cuybeno

Like all macaws, these blue and yellow macaws mate for life.

Juvenile Potoo Cuybeno

We spotted a juvenile pygmy potoo bird at night while in Cuyabeno – one more species we saw for the first time while in the reserve.

White Throated Toucan Cuybeno

A white throated toucan in Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve.

Hoatzin Cuybeno Ecuador

Hoatzin birds along the Cuyabeno River.

There are also manatees and two types of river otters including imposing giant otters. Monkeys are everywhere as well with 10 species living in the area. There are dozens of species of rodents and bats, 350 fish species (including massive and delicious paiche), two species of caymen, boa constrictors and anacondas plus many vociferous types of frogs and toads.

Saki Monkey Cuybeno

Ladies and gentlemen, our first Saki monkey.

Black Manteled Tamarin Cuybeno

A black mantled tamarin.

Pigmy Marmost Cuybeno

This little guy is a pygmy marmoset – the smallest monkey in the world. We saw one for the first time in Cuyabeno.

Spis's night monkey Cuybeno

These are Spix’s night monkeys – the only nocturnal monkeys in the world. I think we were interrupting their daytime beauty sleep.

We visited the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve during low water and saw dozens of different species. Though we’ve spent a lot of time in jungles around Latin America we also saw many species for the very first time including Saki monkeys, a pygmy potoo, Spix’s night monkeys (the only nocturnal monkey in the world) and tiny pygmy marmosets, the smallest monkeys in the world, which were busy sucking sap from tree trunks.

Insects Cuybeno

We have no idea what these insects are but they sure are pretty.

Frog Cuybeno

There are frogs and toads of all shapes and sizes in Cuyabeno and at certain times of the day they make the jungle sing.

Spiders Cuybeno

Um, spiders.

The people of Cuyabeno

Humans also live in the Cuyabeno area including members of the Siona, Sequoya and Cofan indigenous groups who were allowed to stay in their villages and maintain their way of life even after the reserve was created.

Sona people of Cuybeno

Locals on the Cuyabeno River.

So, in addition to hiking on dry land and paddling in small boats through the Cuyabeno River, tributaries and flooded forest areas to see wildlife, it’s also possible to visit villages and see a little bit of the local ways of life. We visited a village where a woman demonstrated how to make a cracker-like bread from yucca that’s been grated and pressed into a kind of flour before being cooked on a massive clay disc. It’s a labor intensive but delicious staple of the diet.

Preparing Yuca bread Cuybeno Ecuador

This woman made it look easy, but making yucca bread is a real process which involves grating fresh yucca root then squeezing the water out to create a kind of flour which is then cooked into a tasty flat bread.

Shamans remain an important part of life in most villages and we also had the chance to visit one while in the Cuyabeno reserve. We’ve had many encounters with shamans over the years but our time with a shaman named Tomas was the most informative and authentic yet. As a sudden rain storm opened up overhead, Tomas happily described his journey to shaman-hood in the footsteps of his father and grandfather and answered all of our questions.

Amazon shamen Cuybeno Ecuador

Tomas the shaman.

Tomas also performed a “cleansing” for one of the members of our group. This involved a thrashing with a bundle of sticks, blowing and other rituals meant to expel bad energy from the body. We were the only tourists there and we never got the feeling that Tomas was “putting on a show” for us.

Curado shamen Cuybeno Ecuador

Tomas concentrates and works his medicinal branches during a cleansing ceremony.

Where to stay in Cuyabeno

The dozen or so Amazon river lodges in Cuyabeno are simpler and cheaper than the lodges located along the Napo River. A few Cuyabeno lodges are located on Laguna Grande, but see our travel tip below before booking. The rest are scattered along the banks of the river. Lodge rates include meals and guided exploration of the reserve.

View from Tapir Lodge Cuybeno

Tapir Lodge has a bamboo and thatch tower of rooms right on the riverbank. This could be the view from your room.

We stayed at Tapir Lodge which has solar panels and a back up generator, good food and a great tower of simple thatch roof rooms with private bathrooms near the bank of the Cuyabeno River. Though rooms are well-screened, some critters do get in. There was a (relatively) small tarantula on our ceiling until Karen insisted that someone give it its own room…

Tarantula Tapir Lodge Cuybeno Ecuador

One of us really, really, REALLY wanted this guy out of our room.

The best amenity at Tapir Lodge is owner Kurt Beate. He’s been exploring the area for more than 40 years, first as a guide and later as the creator of Tapir Lodge which he opened almost 20 years ago. It was one of the first lodges in the area and the very first to offer private bathrooms, hot water and electricity based on solar power.

Kurt’s enthusiasm for the region has not dimmed over the years and you really want to be at Tapir Lodge when he is on site and available to explore with you, which is about 70% of the time. Ask if Kurt will be at the lodge when booking.

For more Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve and Tapir Lodge inspiration check out our drone travel footage, below.

Cuyabeno travel tips

Be wary of booking a lodge that’s located on Laguna Grande. The lagoon is beautiful, but during dry times the water level can drop to the point where boats can’t enter the lagoon. That means you’ll be in for a long, hot slog to and from your lodge.

Here are some other things to ask before booking a Cuyabeno lodge:

Is there 24 hour electricity and is it supplied, at least in part, by solar power?

How many guides will be available and what is their certification and experience?

Do you provide binoculars and/or spotting scopes to your guides?

Do you provide real coffee or instant coffee (most adventures start early in Cuyabeno)?

Do your boats have lightweight paddles or heavier wooden paddles?

Do you provide drinking water to guests?

Oh, and we heard Cuyabeno pronounced two different ways: “Kwai-ah-ben-oh” and “Koo-ya-ben-oh”. Go figure. Really. Go figure it out.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tsgf8w5CAtM

This massive jungle tree is a major jungle attraction. It even has its own sign. Climbing up its vines: optional.

Getting to Cuyabeno

From Quito you can fly, drive or take a bus to the dismal oil town of Lago Agria. Then it’s 1.5 hours by road to the Cuyabeno bridge where your roughly two hour journey on the river in a motorized canoe will begin to reach your lodge in the reserve. In times of low water the trip takes longer. Entry to all parks and reserves in Ecuador is free except for the Galapagos Islands National Park.

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Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2015 – Best Adventures & Activities

This post is part 1 of 4 in the series Best of 2015

Welcome to Part 1 in our Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2015 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 cruising the Amazon River in Peru (in luxury and in a hammock), playing with gunpowder in a bar in Colombia and sky biking through the treetops in Ecuador (don’t miss our Amazon drone footage). Part 2 covers the Best Food & Beverages of 2015, Part 3 covers the Best Hotels of the year and Part 4 tells you all about our Travel Gear of the Year.

In 2015, the Trans-Americas Journey explored Colombia, Ecuador and Peru and we drove 7,210 miles (11,603 km) doing it. Want more geeky road trip numbers like how much money we’ve spent on gas and how many borders we’ve driven over? Check out the Trip Facts & Figures page on our website.

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

10 Best Adventures & Activities of 2015

 

Best walk through the tree tops: It’s more than a third of a mile (500 meters) long and up to 115 feet (35 meters) above the ground. It sways and creaks as it connects more than a dozen different platforms. It’s supported by enormous rain forest trees and there’s nothing else like it in the Peruvian Amazon basin. We’re talking about the Ceiba Tops Canopy Walkway at Explorama Lodge from which you can see toucans, tree frogs, monkeys and more all at eye level. Check out our Amazon drone footage from above the Canopy Walkway, above.

 

Caceria del Zorro horse race - Ibarra, Ecuador

Best insane horse race: Every October the town of Ibarra in northern Ecuador hosts a race that includes hundreds of horses and riders who parade around town, then leap down a series of steep cliffs (see above) before taking part in a track race in pursuit of a rider dressed as Zorro. Yes, that Zorro. It is breathtaking in more ways than one. Learn more about the annual Caceria del Zorro in our story about Ecuador’s craziest horse race for Afar.

 

Cock-of-Rock

Best cock sighting: The national bird of Peru is called the Cock of the Rock. It is a crazy looking thing, but not how you’re thinking (check it out, above). It’s also pretty rare and seeing one is not a guarantee. Seeing five in one day without a guide is pretty extraordinary, but that’s exactly what happened when we hiked the trail to the Gocta Waterfall in northern Peru. Just after reaching the 4km mark on the 5km trail we heard a really weird noise–like alien frogs. We stopped and looked around and soon saw a bright red flash in the rain forest. We hung around and looked and listened some more and then we saw three male Cock of the Rocks in the same tree just off the trail. They hung around for more than five minutes before flying off. On our way back out we saw another Cock of the Rock alone in a tree around the 3km trail marker. Our advice is to keep your eyes and your ears open on this trail. And even if you don’t see any Cock of the Rocks the waterfall is worth is. At 2,530 feet (771 meters) Gocta Waterfall is one of the tallest free-falling waterfalls in the world.

 

Amazon Ferry Iquitos Peru Hammock

Best bare bones Amazon River trip: At an average up river speed of less than 10 miles (15 km) per hour, it takes more than three days to travel up the Amazon River by cargo ferry from Iquitos to Yurimaguas, Peru (you can hack off a day or so going downstream in the other direction). We slept on the deck in hammocks (Karen is demonstrating, above), spent a lot of hours spotting blue and yellow macaws and pink river dolphins with our binoculars and generally slowed down to river time. It was like taking a multi-day trip on the Mississippi but with rarer wildlife.

 

Aria Amazon river boat - Iquitos, Peru

Best super luxe Amazon River trip: On the extreme other end of the Peruvian Amazon River Trip experience scale you will find the Aria Amazon river boat. This floating luxury hotel and fine dining restaurant lived up to the substantial hype with some of the best food we’ve had in Peru so far (the menu was created by Executive Chef Pedro Miguel Schiaffino who runs the award-winning Malabar restaurant in Lima), exceptional service, chic rooms with floor to ceiling windows, great guides and, of course, all that Amazon. Did we mention the air conditioning and the hot tub?

 

Playin Tejo - Salento, Colombia

Best explosive bar game: It’s called tejo and it involves a heavy metal disc (called a tejo) which you toss underhand toward an angled board covered in wet clay. Your goal is to hit pieces of paper stuffed with gun powder which are arranged around a metal ring pressed into the clay. You know you’re doing it right when the reaction between your tossed tejo, the gun powder and the metal ring causes an explosion. We played it in the otherwise tranquil mountain town of Salento, Colombia at the Los Amigos bar where they have a massive open air tejo area set up in the back. Pay 1,000 COP (about US$0.40) per person, grab a cold beer for 3,000 COP (about US$1.00), choose one of the half dozen or so tejo set ups and start tossing. You earn one point for the tejo which lands closest to ring. You get three points for an explosion. You get six points for landing in the center of the metal ring and causing an explosion. You get nine points for landing in center of metal ring without causing an explosion. The first person who racks up 25 points first wins. Though Karen hates loud noises, she somehow won anyway. Check out her winning form, above.

 

Masphi Eco Lodge sky baike jungle canopy

Best place to bicycle through the air: Masphi Eco Lodge in Ecuador is remarkable for a number of reasons, including top luxury deep in the rain forest and breathtaking architecture. Mashpi is also home to the only sky bike in the country. What is a sky bike? It’s an ingenious contraption that allows you to pedal your way across a taught line high above the ground (above). Think of it as horizontal zip lining on a bike. At Mashpi they’ve installed their sky bike through a particularly lovely patch of cloud forest and a leisurely round trip between two platforms gives sky bikers eye level views of the tree tops and the flowers and critters that live there.

 

 

Best death road: There are two ways to travel between Macoa to Pasto in Colombia: via a normal highway or via something called the Trampoline of Death. Guess which one we chose…To assuage her nerves, Karen crushed the pre-drive to do list. Water bottles were filled. Tire pressure was checked. The oil level was monitored. We were ready for the steep grades, blind corners, narrow stretches where two vehicles can’t possibly pass, potholes, rock slides and whatever else something called the Trampoline of Death might have in store. What we weren’t ready for was a recently graded surface, helpful safety signs and guardrails. Guardrails? We still had fun on the road and it is still challenging and requires even more concentration then usual, but the moral of this adventure is: don’t judge a road by its nickname. Check out the time lapse video from our death road drive, above.

 

Animals of Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve, Ecuador

Best Amazon adventure destination in Ecuador: Ecuador is blessed with a number of different areas from which travelers can access the Amazon Basin. We spent weeks exploring the Amazon along the Napo River out of a town called Coca which is the most popular gateway. Then we visited the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve in the Amazon Basin and it blew our minds. The waterways in the Cuyabeno area of Ecuador are much smaller and they flood and recede throughout the year. There are also far fewer lodging options in the Cuyabeno area then there are along the Napo which means fewer humans. This means the animals are more common and much easier to see. In three days we saw pink river dolphins, the smallest monkey in the world (the pygmy marmoset), huge tracts of primary rainforest, toucans, a pygmy potoo (look it up) and more. We saw so many animals we had to make a wildlife montage for you, above. Lodges in the Cuyabeno area of the Amazon Basin are fairly basic with varying degrees of electricity, hot water, etc. We recommend Tapir Lodge where the food is great, the solar and generator electricity is reliable and the private rooms are clean and comfortable. The biggest asset at Tapir Lodge is Kurt the owner. He is passionate about his slice of paradise and works hard to make sure his guests fall in love with it too.

 

Kuelap Fortress archaeological site - Chachapoyas, Peru

Best first Incan archaeological site: During the course of our Trans-Americas Journey we’ve explored more than 100 archaeological sites through the US, Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. None of them have been Incan sites, however, until we crossed into Peru and headed straight for the Kuelap Fortress, which is actually a pre-Incan site that was built by the Chachapoyas people in 1500s. The massive stone wall that encloses this site is nearly 2,000 feet (600 meters) long by nearly 400 feet (119 meters) wide. In places the wall is 62 feet (19 meters) high (check it out, above). Kuelap held thousands of people at it’s peak in distinctive round stone houses with thatch roofs. Despite its name, some archaeologists believe that Kuelap probably wasn’t a fortress at all but more of a sacred area used for ceremonies and rituals. Visiting Keulap is about to get even more adventurous. In late 2015 work began on a massive cable car system, the first in Peru, which will transport visitors from the village of Tingo Nuevo to the Kuelap site covering 2.5 miles (4 km) and rising more than 2,400 feet (730 meters) in 20 minutes. The new Kuelap cable car is expected to be finished in 2017.

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Doing Nothing, Seeing Everything – Mompox, Colombia

In this age of travel itineraries packed to the gills with “experiential” and “immersive” experiences it’s easy to return home exhausted but still somehow lacking any real insight into the destination you visited. Santa Cruz de Mompox, Colombia (referred to simply as Mompox or Mompos) is the perfect place to remember the joy and value of doing nothing as a way of seeing everything and letting the culture, history and idiosyncracies of a place sink in naturally.

Diving into the Magdelena Ricver - Mompox, Colombia

Kids enjoying the Magdalena River in Mompox, Colombia.

“You don’t travel in space in Mompox, you travel in time.”

A local Momposian shared those romantic words with us and they turned out to be true. Founded by the Spanish in 1540 in the middle of the mighty Magdalena River, Mompox became an important port town and way station for traders in the 17th-19th centuries. Mompox flourished. And then the river silted up. However, the town didn’t shrivel up and die when river trade stopped. It simply took a nap.

IMG_5386

La Iglesia San Agustin in Mompox, Colombia was built in 1606 and is part of the Colonial heritage and architecture that have made Mompox a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Mompox stirred a bit in the 1990s when it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in recognition of its historical economic importance, remarkably unchanged Colonial center and collection of churches. The pace in town, which is also part of Colombia’s exclusive Pueblos Patrimonios group, is still best described as sleepy though it’s never boring thanks to a long list of local quirks and characters.

Mompox, Colombia UNESCO World Heritage site

The center of Mompox is filled with intact Colonial streets like this one.

Quirks and characters in Mompox

The blindingly white Mompox cemetery is located right in the center of town and is worth a roam around. You can’t miss the grave of a local man nicknamed El Gato (The Cat). As the nickname would imply, he loved cats and after his death his family kept a fresh supply of cat food at his grave. There are now more than 45 cats living in the cemetery.

Mompox cemetery

The cemetery in Mompox is home to the grave of a local man nicknamed El Gato and more than 40 cats who continue to be fed by El Gato’s relatives.

The Hospital San Juan de Dios is said to be the oldest hospital in the Americas still operating in its original location. Swing by City Hall where the Act of Independence from Spain was signed in 1810, making Mompox the first Colombian city to declare freedom from Spain.

Built in 1660, the beautifully restored Municipal Palace, aka Cloister of San Carlos, was the site of the first secondary school in Mompox. In 1809 the Universal School of Saint Peter the Apostle was founded on the site which is said to be the first university established in the Caribbean.

Cloister of San Carlos - Mompox, Colombia

The beautifully restored Cloister of San Carlos is on the site of the first university in the Caribbean.

All of that sight-seeing is best done in the mornings or evenings as mid day temperatures soar in Mompox. The good news is that the streets are remarkably car-free (in part because of how hard it is to reach Mompox, more on that later). If it weren’t for a proliferation of small motorcycles, there would be more donkeys pulling carts than motorized vehicles in Mompox.

slow paced Mompox, Colombia

Donkeys are still a common sight in the streets of Mompox, Colombia.

Liberator and Latin hero Simón Bolívar first arrived in Mompox in 1812 when he recruited hundreds of local men to join him on his triumphant march to Caracas. Bolívar subsequently returned to Mompox many more times as he traveled up and down the Magdalena, spawning a local version of the “George Washington slept here” legend.

Piedra de Bolivar - Mompox, Colombia

Piedra de Bolivar records the eight visits that Simón Bolívar made to Mompox between 1812 and 1830.

Always a political town, residents reacted to decades of tensions between Colombia’s rich Conservative Party and the poor Liberal Party in a unique way. The two parties were established in 1849. The Liberal party ruled between 1861 and 1885 and established separation of church and state. In 1885 the elite Conservative Party took power and re-established the influence of the church in Colombian politics. That, in part, lead to the “War of 1,000 Days” which raged between the two partied from 1899 to 1903. More than 120,000 Colombian died.

In Mompox, these political tensions became so fierce that town was literally divided in two with proponents of the Conservative Party living on one side of town and proponents of the Liberal Party living on the other.

Those divisions have eased, though political opinions remain strong, and Mompox today seems tranquil and united, as we saw when we stumbled upon a group of Momposians practicing a traditional dance in Plaza Concepcion. Check out our video, below.

Modern Mompox is a pleasing version of Southern US bayou country as imagined by Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Colombia’s only Nobel prize winner, who was inspired by his time in Mompox. His wife was born near here and a movie version of his novel Chronicle of a Death Foretold was shot in Mompox. But that’s not surprising. In Mompox time doesn’t seem to have simply stood still, it seems to have gone backward in a feat worthy of the “magical realism” the author helped to perfect. Learn more about exploring Gabriel García Márquez’s Colombia, including Mompox, in the piece we did for the Biography channel’s website.

Magdelena River Mompox, Colombia

Colonial architecture on the riverfront of the Magdalena River in Mompox, Colombia.

Hotels in Mompox

The town’s existing selection of budget to mid-range family-run guest houses, which seem to outnumber actual visitors, has been augmented in post UNESCO status times by more polished (but still under US$100) offerings. The pioneer is La Casa Amarilla which is run by British expat and journalist Richard McColl and his Colombian wife Alba. The hotel is homey and fully appointed and has an enviable location on the riverfront right next to La Iglesia Santa Barbara. Guest benefit from the owners’ local knowledge.

Iglesia Santa Barbara - Mompox, Colombia

La Iglesia Santa Barbara, built in 1630,  is right on the recently-restored waterfront and right next to La Casa Amarilla hotel in Mompox, Colombia.

Richard was the only gringo in Mompox until the recent arrival of a second one who opened an Italian restaurant near the hotel and planted a nine foot tall fork in the ground in front of it.

Two boutique hotels have also recently opened in Mompox. Portales de la Marquesa opened in 2013 after a 14 month renovation of a house that dates back to 1735.  Located on the riverfront, the hotel is now a chic haven with air conditioning, WiFi, fine art, original tile floors, a small pool and a lush central courtyard. You can rent individual rooms or the whole property.

 Portales de la Marqueza Hotel - Mompox, Colombia

The enormous suite at Portales de la Marqueza boutique hotel in a restored Colonial building in Mompox, Colombia.

Bioma Boutique Hotel opened in 2011 after a year of sometimes controversial renovations which included a fair amount of demolition and hand washing the original terracotta roof tiles. New ironwork was all produced locally and the view from the roof deck is amazing. Don’t miss the small niche to the left of the front door, a remnant of the days when the building was used as a movie theater and tickets were sold through the niche.

Bioma Boutique Hotel - Mompox, Colombia

A guest room at Bioma Boutique Hotel in Mompox, Colombia.

Hotel reservations are not normally necessary except during Christmas, Semana Santa and the annual Jazz Festival in Mompox which is held every October.

IMG_5518

A view of Mompox rooftops from the roof deck a the Bioma Boutique Hotel.

Eating and drinking in Mompox

Head for the square in front of the Santo Domingo Church and look for the cooks and waiters wearing shirts that say Asadero Donde Chepa. Here you’ll eat the best US$4 steak you’ll ever have along with homemade chimichurri and fantastic hot sauce.

Asadero Donde Chepa - Mompox, Colombia

Head to Asadero Donde Chepa in front of the Santo Domingo church in Mompox for tasty grilled meat meals at economical prices.

Then head to Plaza Concepcion and Cafe Ti where you can claim a rocking chair out front, enjoy a cold beer and watch local boys play chess on fold-up mats as bats swoop overhead and the Magdalena slowly meanders by. Look for the saxaphone on the wall outside the front door and look forward to hearing New Orleans style jazz and ragtime as you enjoy the breeze.

IMG_7055

Locals play chess on fold out boards in front of Casa Ti on Plaza Concepcion in Mompox, Colombia.

A great economical lunch can be had at Comedor Costeña where around US$4 gets you a full plate of meat, salad, rice and a cold beverage right next to the river.

Things to do in Mompox

If you insist on “doing something” in Mompox you can visit the Museo de Arte Religioso (about US$2) for a guided tour of religious paintings and statues, silver pieces and portraits of Bolívar. The Casa de Cultura (about US$1) can also be visited. Keep your eyes open for original frescoes peeking through some walls. Just be aware that you may have to wake somebody up to let you.

Local crafts include delicate filigree jewelery and brutally sweet fruit wine but that’s about the extent of your shopping options.

You can also book a river trip on the Magdalena or to small islands within the sprawling, Mississippi-like flow.

Iglesia de la Concepcion - Mompox, Colombia

The end of another lazy day in Mompox, Colombia as the sunset lights up the sky behind La Iglesia Concepcion.

Getting to Mompox

Getting to Mompox is tricky because the town sits in a giant depression in the Magdalena River and is surrounded by mile after mile of river, wetlands, swamps and flood plains. However, reaching Mompox has gotten easier since we were there.

When we made the trip from Aracataca it took seven hours of driving including more than 40 miles (65 km) over rough unpaved road and a “ferry” over the Magdalena River itself which consisted of three pontoons tied together with a platform on top for people and vehicles.

Our heavy truck made the whole contraption groan and pitch as we pulled on along with seven motorcycles and about a dozen people. Check it out in our video, below.

Our truck got stuck getting off the ferry on the other side of the river when a rear tire pushed the ferry backward, trapping the tire between the ferry ramp and the riverbank. It took four men to push us out in four-wheel drive. After another 20 miles (32 km) of bad road we finally reached Mompox.

Travel tip: If the route you choose takes you past a town called La Gloria make time for a brief visit because this is the birthplace of the Biblioburro, a mobile lending library on the back of a donkey.  We regret not stopping.

The trip to Mompox has recently gotten much easier. The route from Aracataca is now entirely paved and a new eight mile (12 km) long bridge is scheduled to open in December 2015 which will ease access even more. A nearby airport is also being upgraded to be able to welcome more internal flights.

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River Rising – Rio San Juan, San Carlos & El Castillo, Nicaragua

The whole southeastern chunk of Nicaragua is set for rising tourism. A fantastic new road has greatly reduced the drive/bus time from Managua to San Carlos on the banks of the Rio San Juan, there’s now better boat trip service to El Castillo and a new airport in Greytown makes reaching that far-flung southern destination easier than ever. No more excuses. Here’s our travel guide to Rio San Juan, San Carlos town and river trips to the historic fort in El Castillo.

El Castillo Fort Rio San Juan Nicaragua

El Castillo Fort above the Rio San Juan was built by the Spanish to help keep pirates from navigating the river to Granada where they stored their gold.

Getting to San Carlos and the Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

Forget what you’ve read about the hellish journey required to reach the town of San Carlos, gateway to the Rio San Juan region in southern Nicaragua. A new amazing paved road now whisks you from Managua to San Carlos in about four hours. For much of the drive we had the wide, smooth road all to ourselves and conditions were so good we even used the cruise control for a bit, something that is generally impossible on crumbling Central American “highways”.

The road was built in anticipation of increased traffic to a new, more direct border crossing between Nicaragua and Costa Rica following the construction of the Santa Fe bridge across the Rio San Juan. The bridge, which is four lanes wide, 1,187 feet (362 meters) long, 131 feet (40 meters) high and was built by the Japanese at a cost of US$30 million, is now finished. However, the bridge and the border remain closed due to bad relations between Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Stay tuned…

Construction of Santa Fe Bridge over Rio San Juan Nicaragua Costa Rica

Construction of a US$30 million dollar bridge across the Rio San Juan to create a new border crossing between Nicaragua and Costa Rica. The bridge is now completed but the border remains closed.

Where to sleep in San Carlos

San Carlos is a typical river town. Dirty, slow and unavoidable. It smelled a bit like fish, stale river water and boredom. Everybody seemed to have a dearth of free time. We looked at a few accommodations in San Carlos and quickly realized that Hotel Cabinas Leyko was the budget hotel choice for us. For US$25 we got a private double room with a bathroom, Wi-Fi and parking which is key for us. The hotel even let us leave our truck in their lot while we took a boat trip on the Rio San Juan to spend a night in El Castillo.

San Carlos, Nicaragua

San Carlos on the Rio San Juan is a typical river town: slow, dirty and unavoidable.

Boat trip on the Rio San Juan to El Castillo

There are two ways to get from San Carlos to the small riverside town of El Castillo: slow boat and fast boat. We chose the slow boat (US$4 per person each way) which was a clean, basic motorized boat with a roof and seating. Fast boats, which do the trip in about half the time, are US$11 per person each way.

Transportation on the Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

This is how you’ll travel on the Rio San Juan between San Carlos and El Castillo.

Our slow boat was full but not packed and the four-hour journey on the Rio San Juan was pleasant and even included some animal sightings (kingfishers, osprey, howler monkeys, egrets). We made a handful of stops to pick up or drop off passengers at riverbank docks serving the handful of people who live along the river.

The Rio San Juan is sometimes called El Desaguadero (The Drain) because its 120 mile (192 km) length drains Lake Nicaragua into the Caribbean.

Fortress of the Immaculate Conception - El Castillo, Nicaragua

The El Castillo Fort was recently refurbished by the Spanish, who built it in the first place.

The town of El Castillo, only accessible by river, almost feels like an island town – small, contained, protective. Or maybe that’s just the vibe coming off the demurely-named Fortress of the Immaculate Conception (aka the El Castillo  Fort), which is the one and main attraction in town.

The hulking stone fort overlooks the Rio San Juan and was completed by the Spanish in 1675 as part of a string of forts meant to stop pirates from navigating the river to Granada. Since 1995 the fort has been on a tentative list for consideration as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Rio San Juan Fort - El Castillo, Nicaragua

The Rio San Juan snakes past the formidable El Castillo Fort.

The fort (US$1.75 per person), nicely rebuilt by the Spanish to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Spanish conquest of the Americas, includes a tidy little museum where a guide informed us that “The bravery does not depend on the sex” as he was explaining how the daughter of a Spaniard managed to defend an attack on the fort after her father was killed during the battle. Sex-based bravery aside, the fort was a great place to wander around near dusk with good views of the river. We had the place to ourselves.

view of Rio San Juan from Fort El Castillo, Nicaragia

The El Castillo Fort overlooks treacherous rapids in the Rio San Juan which the Spanish hoped would slow pirate ships long enough for cannons to take them out.

As impressive as the fort are the Raudal del Diablo (Devil Torrent) rapids which rage away directly below it. That’s no accident. The fort was placed in this spot precisely because of the rapids which represented a natural barrier which forced pirate ships to slow down and navigate carefully at this notorious spot in the river giving the Spaniards a fighting chance to pick them off from above.

Devils Torrent rapids  Rio San Juan - El Castillo, Nicaragia

The Devil Torrent rapids as seen from the El Castillo Fort.

Canon El Castillo Nicaragua

We swear that flower was in that cannon when we got there.

Sleeping and eating in El Castillo

El Castillo is a tiny town but there are a surprising number of hotels and a handful of eateries to choose from. We intended to stay in the Hotel Albergue el Castillo directly behind the fort. Our Lonely Planet described the place as feeling like a Swiss chalet, however, the room we were shown felt more like  a stall so we moved on.

We finally chose Hotel Victoria where US$25 got us a spotless (if small) private double with bathroom and full breakfast. A torrential downpour arrived as we were checking in so we retreated to hammocks on the covered patio of the riverfront hotel and listened to the water flow and fall. We were not alone. Colorful birds darted between leafy tree hideouts to nearby platforms which the hotel’s perky owner kept stocked with tempting fruit.

El Castillo, Nicaragua

Main street in El Castillo town which is only accessible by river and has no cars.

When the rain finally let up we reluctantly hauled ourselves out of the hammocks and found Border’s Coffee. Owner Yamil Obregón is a young and talented Nicaraguan chef. He’s also a gay man and, he told us, had to fight the government for his right to open the place. We enjoyed perfectly cooked (from scratch) shrimp over pasta (US$7.50), terrific fresh fruit juices with no ice or sugar and wonderful organic Nicaraguan coffee made using real espresso  machines.

Unfortunately Border’s Coffee was not open early enough to get another one of those coffees before our very early morning boat ride back to San Carlos.

Bus stop El Castillo, Nicaragua

Waiting for our river boat back to San Carlos.

 

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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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A Remote Float – Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge, Costa Rica

To say Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge is remote is an understatement. Located in Northern Costa Rica less than 10 miles (16 kilometers) from the border with Nicaragua, travelers usually get here as part of group tours. Because we’re on a road trip (and we hate group tours, just sayin’) we drove ourselves to Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge from Rincon de la Vieja National Park, but that doesn’t mean it was easy.

Though the area is reached via a numbered highway (#4 to be exact) it was well into the process of crumbling apart leaving gaping potholes in the beleaguered pavement which required radical swerving and slow speeds to avoid the most cavernous of them. Welcome to Costa Rica where even the numbered highways will kill your car.

Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre Caño Negro

The humble entrance to Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge in northern Costa Rica.

After such a jarring overland journey it was a relief to get into a boat. There are no trails in the Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge because it’s made up of 12 lagoons connected by waterways and Lake Caño Negro which is fed by the Rio Frio. Volcanoes loom in the distance (including Tenorio, Maravillas and Arenal). Animals surround you. And there’s not a pothole in sight.

Boat tour Cano Negro National Wildlife Reserve, Costa Rica

There are no trails in Costa Rica’s Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge so boats are the only way to go.

Birding boat tour Cano Negro Costa Rica

On a clear day a whole string of volcanoes can be seen from Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge in Costa Rica, including Tenorio (seen here), Maravillas, Rincon de la Vieja and Arenal.

The animals of Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge

Volcanoes are cool and all, but the real highlight of any tour of Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge (US$35 per person including a guide/boatman, roughly 1.5 hours) is the wildlife. We saw caimans, a whole host of birds, huge fish, frogs, trees full of monkeys, cool lizards and more (though the area’s pumas and jaguars took the day off).

Here are some Caño Negro wildlife highlights.

Birdwatching Jicana Cano Negro, Costa Rica

A jicana hunts for lunch in Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge in Costa Rica.

Caiman crocodile Cano Negro National Wildlife Reserve, Costa Rica

This was one of the smaller caimans we saw in Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge.

Birding juvenile Tiger Heron Cano Negro Costa Rica

We saw or first juvenile tiger heron in Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge and its stripy coloration (which they lose in adulthood) made their name make sense.

Basilisk Cano Negro National Wildlife Reserve, Costa Rica

Can a lizard be sexy? We think this basking baselisk in Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge comes close.

Birding Egret  Cano Negro Costa Rica

An egret glides through Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge in Costa Rica.

Purple Gallinule birds of Cano Negro Costa Rica

This bird’s name, purple gallinule, is as impressive as its look.

Bird watching juvenile Jicana Cano Negro Costa Rica

A juvenile jicana tries its wings on for size in Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge in Costa Rica.

Mantled Howler Monkey Cano Negro Costa Rica

This male mantled howler monkey was just hanging out on a branch over the water in Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge.

Touring waterways of Cano Negro Costa Rica

The shores of the waterways in Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge are a haven for all kinds of critters.

Birding boat tour in Cano Negro National Wildlife Reserve Costa Rica

The trail left behind by our boat as we toured Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge in Costa Rica.

 

 

Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge Travel Tips

We stayed at Caño Negro Natural Lodge (US$120 double including continental breakfast) which is located just a short stroll from where the tour boats depart from. The lodge has its  own wildlife-filled grounds and a pool along with 42 motel-style rooms. Some have been recently renovated so be sure you get one of those.

During the dry season (November to March) the wetlands of the Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge dry up considerably, shrinking the boatable area. For maximum access visit in the wet season. Skies are clearest in October, affording the best views of Arenal Volcano, Tenorio Volcano, Maravillas Volcano and Rincon de la Vieja Volcano in the distance.

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