Eco Escapes from Medellin – Rio Claro & Tierra de Agua, Colombia

We love Medellin (and not just because of its growing craft beer scene). We’ve spent many months in the city exploring, working and soaking up the laid back vibe and great weather. However, sometimes a little eco escape from Medellin is just what the travel doctor ordered. Here are three very different ways to get a nature fix near Colombia’s second largest city.

Reserva Natural Cañón del Río Claro

It doesn’t take long to leave hectic Medellin behind and find yourself on a mountain road. Near the tiny town of San Francisco we pulled off and headed to a nearby waterfall that’s reached via a very short trail and has a lovely swimming hole. Then we stopped for lunch at Todo Rico roadside restaurant which is spotless, has great service and serves good, cheap traditional plates (look for the boulder painted bright yellow) before continuing on to Reserva Natural Cañón del Río Claro.

Cascada San Francisco

Cascada San Francisco near Medellin, Colombia.

Located about three hours from Medellin, this is a protected chunk of land where the Rio Claro has cut a deep swath through the marble bedrock creating a dramatic canyon. As the name would imply, Rio Claro is famous for crystal clear water…..except during the height of the rainy season which is when we visited.

Reserva Natural Cañón del Río Claro

A view of Rio Claro (which is not so clear in the rainy season) as it runs through the Reserva Natural Cañón del Río Claro near Medellin, Colombia.

Even without clear water (quite the opposite, actually), the place is still gorgeous. The canyon is very steep and dramatic and there’s a lovely mostly flat trail that meanders along the river’s edge. You can go tubing or kayaking, swim in the river at various entry points including Playa de Marmol (Marble Beach) which features a huge slab of exposed marble or cross the river and explore a cave called Boca Caiman (Caiman Mouth) which has stalagmites that look like rows of caiman teeth.

Boca Caiman Rio Claro

In the dry season, when water levels are lower, you can cross the Rio Claro and explore the Boca Caiman (Caiman Mouth) cave which has stalagmites that resemble rows of caiman teeth.

The area is also a great place for bird watching. We heard the call of the chestnut-mandibled tucan many times while we were there but we never caught a glimpse.

The hotel run by the Reserva is called El Refugio and it offers a variety of different types of rooms in a variety of different buildings. There are hotel rooms in a building called Ecohotel Blue Morpho which is close to the entrance and the restaurant. Further down the river about 10 minutes are another group of buildings called Cabanas El Refugio, but they aren’t cabins at all–just another bunch of more remote rooms. There are a few true cabins for families or large groups.

El Refugio Hotel Rio Claro

Some of the rooms at Reserva Natural Cañón del Río Claro have (intentionally) missing walls.

All rooms (starting at 80,000 COP/about US$35 per person) are basic but clean and have private bathrooms and electricity but no TVs, Wi-Fi or cell service. Some rooms in the Blue Morpho building have A/C too. Mediocre breakfast and dinner is available for around 25,000 COP/about US$9 per person.

We were in room #11 in the Cabanas El Refugio section and our room was (intentionally) missing an entire wall to maximize the view and the feeling of being on the river. The sound of the raging water was almost too loud at night and, miraculously, we had no trouble with bugs or bats. Honestly. Our modern bathroom had a shower that was built around a boulder and a rain shower head.

If you continue a short way down the highway toward Bogota you’ll find a turn off that takes you to a small bridge with views of the impressive Cascada el Cuba (Cuba Waterfall). It’s another worthy nature stop traveling to or from Rio Claro.

Cascada el Cuba

The lower portion of Cascada el Cuba near Medellin, Colombia.

Eco Hotel Tierra de Agua

Our friend Kjeld told us about Eco Hotel Tierra de Agua Hotel and we’re glad he did. Located just outside the mountain town of Corcona, about two hours in a private car or the direct bus from Medellin, this place is just the right kind of eco hippie.

Eco Hotel Tierra de Agua was started in 2007 when the family that owned the land finally felt that the local FARC guerrillas had been expelled and it was safe to return to their 30 acre (12 hectare) property. Instead of putting cattle on the land or farming crops their enterprising son Camilo Velasquez decided to turn the land into an eco hotel. He started small with just one building but now the place has a large building for groups or families and a honeymoon bungalow with a private Jacuzzi along with nine bungalows, each of them different.

Eco Hotel Tierra de Agua

The Moon Bungalow at Eco Hotel Tierra de Agua with some of the chemical-free river-fed pools below.

The Moon bungalow, for example, is round. We stayed in the Sun bungalow which has an outdoor shower embedded with river stones. Structures are made, primarily, from guadua (a type of bamboo) and there’s truly something for everyone.

Hanging bridge Tierra de Agua hotel

This suspension bridge is part of Eco Hotel Tierra de Agua.

Most of the bungalows and the lovely river fed plunge pools and Jacuzzis are reached via a swing bridge over there river. The pools are all flushed and cleaned daily and are chemical free, which is a treat for your skin and for the environment.

River-fed pools Tierra de Agua

A chemical-free river-fed plunge pool at Eco Hotel Tierra de Agua.

Besides enjoying the various pools and lying around in hammocks you can watch how panela is made, ride a three platform zip line, go hiking, look for birds, have a massage, go horseback riding or even go paragliding with an outside company located nearby.

swimming cascada Tierra de Agua hotel

Hiking to this waterfall and swimming hole is one of the activities offered to guests of Eco Hotel Tierra de Agua.

The food is great (everything from falafel to trout) and this place also makes a fantastic break journey if you’re traveling from Medellin to Bogota (or vice versa).

blue-necked tanager Cocorna Colombia

A blue-necked tanager spotted at Eco Hotel Tierra de Agua.

Waterfall hiking in a half day hit

We like Palenque Tours because the co-owners combine the best of their German and Colombian heritage which means their tours work efficiently and reliably, but with a free-wheeling love of all things Latin that keeps things fun.

A great way to get a nature fix in just a day trip from Medellin is to sign up for their half  day Nature Experience and Waterfall Hike (150.000 COP/about US$50 per person but the price goes down substantially the more people are added to the trip;  includes English/Spanish speaking guide, transport from your hotel, insurance and water and snacks). A 90 minute hike along a river through cloud forest delivers you to 65 foot (20 meter) Cascada La Miel (Honey Falls) for a quick hit of nature in just a half day.

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

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

Cascada San Rafael Ecuador pre Coca Coda Sinclair Hydro Project

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

A new dam threatens the biggest waterfall in Ecuador

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

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

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

Sinohydro Coco Coda Sinclair signs Spanish and Chinese

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

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

Sinohydro Coco Coda Sinclair dam capatacion

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

Changes are already visible

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

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

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

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

San Rafael Falls, largest waterfall in Ecuador Ecuador

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

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

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

Go Now! Visiting San Rafael Waterfall

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

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

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

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A Whale of a Welcome – Ojochal, Costa Ballena, Costa Rica

The Pacific Coast of Costa Rica has more than its share of beach towns but many of them are too full of gringos (looking at you Play Jacó) or too full of surfers (looking at you Dominical) to hold our attention for long. Travel a bit further south past Uvita to a stretch of coastline known as the Costa Ballena (Whale Coast) and you’ll find Ojochal where locals, expats and a handful of travelers mix to create a tiny, welcoming charmer of a town with a laid back pace, great places to stay and some awesome unexpected foodie finds. It’s the perfect base from which to explore this stretch of coast which got its name because its the site of twice yearly humpback whale migrations and awesome whale watching.

Costa Ballena, Costa Rica

Mountains meet the sea on Costa Rica’s Costa Ballena (Whale Coast).

Honestly, we probably wouldn’t have even stopped in Ojochal at all if we hadn’t met Mac McIver. He was part of the awesome group of SCUBA divers onboard Undersea Hunter’s M/V Argo liveaboard dive boat during our fantastic trip to Cocos Island to dive with hammerhead sharks.

Being the generous and proud Texas transplant that he is, Mac invited us to his home, which is also home to his Bali Rica Casitas guesthouse in Ojochal. We, of course, called him up when we were passing by. That’s when we got to meet his awesome wife, Sharon, and the two of them quickly made us love Ojochal as much as they do.

Eating in Ojochal

Who knows why these things happen, but Ojochal has experienced a big influx of French Canadians. They (and foodie transplants from other parts of the world) brought their love of good food with them and now Ojochal has a higher density of noteworthy places to eat per capita than any other place we visited in Costa Rica during our more than 5 months in the country. Yes, that includes the capital, San Jose.

Be sure to check out the shockingly authentic Indonesian food at Ylang Ylang, homemade pasta at Fabrizio’s Cocina Italiana and absolutely passable pizza at Mamma e Papa. Ojochal also has not one but two outstanding bakeries. Sadly Citrus Restaurante and Exotica were closed when we were there. Next time…

The food scene is Ojochal is so vibrant that a regional nonprofit organization called El Sabor de Ojochal was started in 2013 to promote local cuisine with food festivals, a restaurant week and other seasonal events.

Drinking (in the views) in Ojochal

Ojochal is not on the beach (it’s on the inland side of the Costenera Highway), but many of it’s hilltops provide sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean. Hotel El Castillo occupies one such rise. The hotel was recently taken over by Scott Dinsmore and David Russell, creators of the successful Restaurante Azul in Dominical (which now operates out of the hotel) and its six spacious rooms (from US$99), lobby, bar, restaurant and pool have all benefited from a refurbishment.

Even if you’re not staying at El Castillo, we recommend that you head to to the hotel’s dramatic lobby and pool for sunset cocktails. It’s the best ocean view in the area and the bar tender knows what he’s doing.

Hotel El Castillo, Ojochal, Costa Rica

A moody sunset from the pool bar at Hotel El Castillo in Ojochal, Costa Rica on the Costa Ballena.

What to do on the Costa Ballena when you’re not eating

Ojochal makes a great base for exploring nearby natural attractions including Playa Ventanas (Windows Beach), one of the most unique beaches in Costa Rica thanks to a rock formation through which the surf has worn away twin tunnels (or windows) which fill and empty dramatically (and a bit dangerously) with the tides.


One of the dramatic ventanas (windows) the sea has carved through solid rock at Playa Ventanas on the Costa Ballena in Costa Rica.

Marino Ballena National Marine Park (US$10 per person) is home to one of the most iconic beaches in Costa Rica. Playa Ballena (Whale Beach) is so named because at low tide this spit of sand looks amazingly similar to a whale’s tail. Be sure to check the tide tables before you visit this park since this beach is the centerpiece and it closes to visitors at high tide.

Whales Tail - Marino Ballena National Marine Park, Costa Rica

That spit of a beach jutting out into the Pacific Ocean looks like a massive whale’s tail at low tide and it’s the centerpiece of Marino Ballena National Marine Park on the Costa Ballena in Costa Rica.

And then there’s Cascada el Pavon waterfall, a lovely cascade through a rock chute that’s been worn so smooth it almost looks man made. Water tumbles into a delicious swimming hole reached via an easy,short trail right off a back road around Ojochal. While you’re out there, be sure to stop at a nearby open-air restaurant called Tilapias El Pavon for the lightest, fluffiest fried yucca we ate in all of Costa Rica. Yep, you’re eating again.

Cascada el Pavon waterfall - Ojocjal, Costa Rica

Let us know if that rock is still in place above Cascada el Pavon waterfall near Ojochal on the Costa Ballena in Costa Rica.

Sleeping in Ojochal

For romance, relaxation and value for money you can’t beat Bali Rica Casitas, plus you’ll be in the gracious hands of our friends Mac and Sharon McIver. Choose from just two stand-alone casitas with kitchens positioned for privacy on the garden property where toucans will be your only neighbors.

Spa Bali Rica Casitas, Ojochal, Costa Rica

The dramatic (and very, very relaxing) soaking tub at the spa at Bali Rica Casitas in Ojochal, Costa Rica.

Casa Bambú charms with a private jacuzzi and a cozy jungle cabin feel ($85 double). Bali House (US$125 double) is a traditional Balinese structure which was shipped over piece by piece from Bali. It’s larger and even more romantic with a private plunge pool and private Balinese wooden gazebo. There’s also an on-site spa with one of the most dramatic soaking tubs in Costa Rica and a pavilion for yoga, meditation, painting, whatever.


The Bali House casita at Bali Rica Castias in Ojochal, Costa Rica is a traditional Balinese structure that was shipped piece by piece from Bali.

After our time in Ojochal we were ready to explore more of the hidden corners of the Pacific Coast so we jumped at the chance to do some house sitting for a homeowner with a spectacular home in the hills above tiny Playa Matapalo further north up the coast where sloths, toucans and spectacular Pacific Coast views greeted us every day.

On our way to that house sit we paused not far from Ojochal to check out the best new luxury hotel in Costa Rica. Read our full review of Kura Design Villas for iTraveliShop.com.

Pool at Kura Design Villas, Uvita, Costa Rica

Kura Design Villas above Uvita in Costa Rica.

Kura Design Villas - Uvita, Costa Rica

Kura Design Villas above Uvita in Costa Rica. Be sure to check out our full review of Kura Design Villas to see inside these amazing rooms.

Infinity pool - Kura Design Villas, Uvita, Costa Rica

Karen enjoying the mind-blowing four-way infinity edge pool at Kura Design Villas above Uvita in Costa Rica.

Infinity pool - Kura Design Villas, Uvita, Costa Rica

Yes, that’s fire inside the pool at Kura Design Villas above Uvita in Costa Rica.

Mom & baby sloth - Costa Ballena, Costa Rica

And we leave you with the mother and baby sloth that moved into a guaruma tree just a few yards from the patio of the home we were house sitting in the hills above Matapalo along Costa Rica’s Costa Ballena.




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Shockingly Blue, Shockingly Green – Tenorio Volcano National Park, Costa Rica

After spending more than six months traveling in Costa Rica we can tell you that it takes some doing to feel like you’ve made it off the beaten path. We got that pleasant feeling–plus a shockingly blue river and a shockingly green lodge–when our road trip took us to Tenorio Volcano National Park.

Hiking in Tenorio Volcano National Park

There are only three hiking trails in Tenorio Volcano National Park (US$10 per person) and one of them requires a guide. We were warned that the park’s trails are often a muddy, slippery mess since the place gets around 200 inches (5,000 millimeters) of rain every year. However, when we were in the park big trail improvements were under way, including a much needed set of stairs down the steep slope that leads to the base of the impressive Rio Celeste waterfall.

Rio Celeste waterfall Tenorio National Park Costa Rica

The Rio Celeste Waterfall in Tenorio National Park in Costa Rica is much more easily reached now thanks to a newly improved trail.

Though only one volcano made it into the park’s name, Tenorio Volcano National Park actually encompasses four different volcanic peaks. None of them are climbable unless you’re a researcher, but we didn’t come to see the volcanoes. We came to see what the volcanoes have done to the river.

To reach the river in question we hiked the four mile (six kilometer) round trip Sendero Misterio del Tenorio (Tenorio Mystery Trail) which climbed steadily but gently through the cloud forest. It really was one of the best short day hikes we did in Costa Rica with varied scenery, plenty of peace and quiet and, finally, that shocking blue river.

Rio Celeste Tenorio National Park Costa Rica

This is NOT photoshop: the Rio Celeste, which runs through Tenorio National Park in Costa Rica, really, truly is that blue thanks to a unique cocktail of natural volcanic minerals.

Is the Rio Celeste the most beautiful river in Costa Rica?

The Rio Celeste (sky blue river) achieves a blue like we’ve never seen in any other body of water thanks to sulfur and calcium carbonates from the volcanoes. Picture a white Russian cocktail made with a splash of Blue Curacao (just picture it, don’t drink it…ick) and you’re pretty darn close to the color of the Rio Celeste

Rio Celeste trail Tenorio Volcano National Park Costa Rica

Karen on part of the trail to (and over) the shockingly blue Rio Celeste in Costa Rica’s Tenorio National Park.

We’ve seen eerily-hued crater lakes before but the color achieved in this river is even more surreal. Look at the Rio Celeste long enough and it does begin to resemble a ribbon of sky down here on earth.

Rio Celeste Tenorio Volcano National Park Costa Rica

The Rio Celeste (Sky Blue River) lives up to its name in Tenorio National Park in Costa Rica.

At one point on the trail we reached a spot where two streams converged turning the water blue. The spot is called Los Tenideros or Borbollones and though it looks like magic, it’s really science that’s at work.

One stream contains sulfur from the volcanoes in the area, the other contains calcium carbonate. When those two streams mix, the substances create a natural reaction which  instantaneously transforms the water to a shockingly blue color. It was mesmerizing to watch and we really, really wanted to jump in for a swim in what just might be the most beautiful river in Costa Rica. Sadly, that’s not allowed.

Los Tenideros Borbollones Rio Celeste Tenorio Volcano National Park Costa Rica

One stream containing sulfur meets another containing calcium carbonate and, voila!, instant blue water.

You used to be able to swim in one specific natural hot spring within the park but now there are signs up all over the place making it clear that no one is allowed in the water anywhere in the park, presumably for safety reasons since many of the springs, like the one boiling away, below, are dangerously hot.

Boiling Hot Springs Tenorio Volcano National Park Costa Rica

No swimming allowed: a natural hot spring, heated by nearby volcanoes, boils away in Tenorio National Park in Costa Rica.

Check out Tenorio Volcano National Park highlights, including the incredible mixing of streams to create that shockingly blue water, in our video, below.

Looks are deceiving at Tenorio’s shockingly green eco lodge

We’ve noted before that Costa Rica is bursting with places to stay that call themselves eco or green and we’ve checked into many of them during our road trip through Costa Rica. Some have earned the title (like Selva Bananito Eco Lodge & Preserve). Others, not so much.

Joel Marchal, the French creator of Celeste Mountain Lodge (from US$170 double including three gourmet meals a day, though specials and lower walk-in rates are sometimes available), has earned the right to fly the eco flag.

At first glance, Joel’s 18 room, two story lodge looks too modern, too high-concept to be eco as well with stark angles, shots of vivid color (lime green, cobalt blue, tangerine orange) and lots of open-air spaces to make the most of the views. It’s chic but is it eco chic?


Eco chic Celeste Mountain Lodge on the doorstep of Tenorio National Park in Costa Rica.

Rooms Celeste Mountain Lodge Tenorio Costa Rica

Eco chic Celeste Mountain Lodge on the doorstep of Tenorio National Park in Costa Rica.

What you can’t see at a glance is that most of the materials used to construct the lodge were recycled or cast off, including an incredible number of old tires that have been given a new life (and kept off the burn pile). It was also built on stilts to limit its foot print and reduce the need to excavate.

Views Celeste Mountain Lodge Tenorio Costa Rica

The open-air dining room and lounge area at Celeste Mountain Lodge near Tenorio National Park in Costa Rica features many smart eco touches, including plastic slip covers filled with fine coconut hull fibers to create comfortable and natural bean-bag style seating.

Inside, almost every clever and chic design element is also green. Fine coconut husk fibers fill clear plastic slip covers to create biodegradable bean bag style seating and ottomans. Bed side lamps are made from old corrugated sheet metal. The boxes they pack a to-go lunch in are made from recycled materials. Meals in the open-air restaurant are served on wooden cutting boards covered in a banana leaf which is simply composted when you’re done eating, eliminating the need to wash dozens of dishes. The hot tub is filled with rain water which is heated using a customized energy-saving gas-fueled system.


The chef at Celeste Mountain Lodge turns out gourmet farm to table meals (included in your rate), served on wooden boards covered with banana leaves to reduce water and soap use in the kitchen.

Restaurant Celeste Mountain Lodge Tenorio Costa Rica

The elegant dining room at Celeste Mountain Lodge is the perfect setting for the lodge’s gourmet food.

Joel also created an innovative process when he built a small network of hiking trails through his cloud-forest-covered property which involves the use of a protective, flexible, durable material laid over the surface of the trail which limits erosion. Officials from Costa Rica’s national park system have considered adopting the process on park trails.

But don’t take our word for it. Shortly after it opened Celeste Mountain Lodge earned five green leaves, the highest level of eco certification that the government’s CST regulating body hands out. Then Joel began to feel constrained by what he felt were one-size-fits-all rules and goals of the CST and he opted out of the program.

His eco efforts, continue, however, with a big emphasis on educating guests and locals, especially children, about green issues. One of the most charming elements of Celeste Mountain Lodge (and the list is long) are the in-room eco messages to save water and turn off lights drawn by local school children.

Miravalles Volcano Costa Rica

Celeste Mountain Lodge is sandwiched between Tenorio Volcano National Park and Miravalles Volcano National Park of which the lodge has commanding views.

Tenorio National Park Travel  Tip

Though Tenorio National Park is still one of the least visited in Costa Rica, useage has been surging in recent years and we hear that the Costa Rican government is considering a proposal which would invest heavily in Tenorio Volcano National Park to add services and infrastructure–like improved and expanded trails, a camping area (camping is currently prohibited), a welcome center and more–which would mimic US national parks. If it goes well in Tenorio other national parks in Costa Rica could be similarly improved. Stay tuned.

Oh, and don’t be put off by what you might read about the road conditions to Tenorio Volcano National Park. Yes, it’s a rocky, bumpy dirt road but all but the lowest vehicles will do just fine as long as you take it slow. If you’re renting a car in Costa Rica you should always go for the 4X4 option anyway precisely for access to places like this.


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One Lucky Wolf – Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

We’ve been to Yellowstone National Park more than once but it’s an exciting arrival every time.  The park is enormous (Yellowstone is located primarily in Wyoming, but the park’s boundaries extend into parts of Montana and Idaho too) so there’s always a new nook or cranny to explore. Yellowstone is most famous for its thermal geysers and hot pools (think Old Faithful) but during a visit early in our Trans-Americas Journey we chose to focus on the west side of the park and the animal-rich Lamar Valley. As this iconic national park celebrates its 141st year (it was founded on March 1, 1872), here’s a look back at the Lamar Valley and the fortunes of one lucky wolf.

Bison in Lamar Valley - Yellowstone National Park

Bison roam the Lamar Valley in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming.

Wolves on the rebound

As we entered the park (proudly flashing our annual National Parks Pass), a ranger told us that a pack of 11 wolves was being seen most mornings and evenings in the Lamar Valley. This was remarkable news given the fact that there were no wolves in Yellowstone in 1994. Wolves were reintroduced in 1995 and 1996 and park officials estimate there are now more than 300 wolves in the Greater Yellowstone Area.

Flowers - Blacktail Plateau, Yellowstone National Park

Early summer wildflowers in Yellowstone National Park.

Wolves rebounded enough to be taken off the endangered species list a couple of years ago prompting the passage of a law legalizing hunting near park boundaries. Ranchers believe it’s necessary to keep wolf numbers low to prevent them from killing their livestock. However, in December of 2012, an alfa female known as 832F or Rock Star, which had been collared by Yellowstone researchers, was shot and killed when she wandered outside the park’s boundaries. Eight collared wolves from Yellowstone were among dozens of wolves shot near Yellowstone in 2012 and Montana has temporarily revoked the right to hunt them.

Bison Buffalo - Yellowstone National Park

While we didn’t see the packs of wolves that we were hoping for we did see plenty of these guys in the Lamar Valley area of Yellowstone National Park.

Meet the wolf geeks of Yellowstone

Even though we were visiting Yellowstone during peak tourist season we found a camp site at the Pebble Creek Campground less than half a mile from where the wolves had been rendezvousing regularly.

Black Bear Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park

A black bear on the move through the Lamar Valley in Yellowstone National Park.

Black Bear - Yellowstone National Park

A black bear in Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park.

With camp set up and evening approaching we drove down the road to see what we could see. Almost immediately we spotted three bison and a black bear all happily eating away in their own separate areas of the Lamar Valley. Then we joined a group of vehicles parked along the road that runs along the valley and watched as drivers began setting up obviously expensive spotting scopes. Yellowstone’s wolf geeks had arrived.

One of them told us he’d been camped in the park for a month doing precious little besides watching wolves. Over the years, these wolf geeks have even become an important part of the park’s own wolf monitoring efforts by sharing sightings and other information with rangers and naturalists.

Joining the pack

They were just as willing to share their knowledge and their scopes with us. It turned out that the ranger at the entrance had the facts slightly wrong. There had been a pack of wolves in the valley but the group had moved off a day or two earlier leaving behind a pup. What the obviously concerned wolf geeks were hoping for was a sighting or a yelp to prove that the abandoned pup was still alive. We waited with them, straining our eyes and ears but none of us saw or heard anything. With hope fading and spirits dropping faster than the sun, we returned to camp. The next day we heard that the pup showed himself, briefly, about 20 minutes after we left, but he was still alone and still in a tremendous amount of danger.

 A lone abandoned pup

Worried about the wolf pup left behind by its pack, we got up at 5:15 and parked on the Lamar Valley road hoping for a sighting. The wolf geeks were there too and they told us that we’d just missed an amazing rescue. As the wolf geeks looked on through high powered scopes and slightly dewy eyes, a pair of female wolves returned to the Lamar Valley and collected the abandoned pup, which was now out of danger, but probably grounded for wandering away and scaring his mother like that.

Black bear and cub Yellowstone National Park

Seeing a wild bear is always exciting but the addition of a cub made this duo special.

With wolf worries off our minds, we had another stunning day in Yellowstone, sighting a black bear with a cub, our very first grizzly in the wild–way off across the valley on a hillside–and many, many elk.

Lower Yellowstone Falls and Canyon

Lower Yellowstone Falls tumbles through the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River in Yellowstone National Park.

Lower Yellowstone Falls

Lower Yellowstone Falls in Yellowstone  National Park in Wyoming.

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone National Park

The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River in Yellowstone National Park cuts an impressive course through the landscape.

As we meandered out of the park we stopped at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River and watched a bald eagle shade and fan her chicks with her enormous, elegant wings. It looked like she was doing ballet while perched high above the raging river.

Turquise pool hot springs Yellowstone National Park

The color and clarity of the geothermally-heated water in this natural pool in Yellowstone National Park is tempting but this is no Jacuzzi.

And, of course, we couldn’t resist a return visit to a few of the park’s amazing thermal formations which deposit minerals that make some of the land yellow, giving the park its name.

Colorful Hot Springs - Yellowstone National Park

Minerals in geothermally-heated water from deep inside the earth cause intense discoloration including the yellow tint for which Yellowstone National Park is named.

Mammoth Hot Springs formations - Yellowstone National Park

Mammoth Hot Springs formations and discoloration caused by centuries of mineral deposits left behind by tumbling water.

Mammoth Hot Springs - Yellowstone National Park

Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park.

Boling mud pit hot springs Yellowstone National Park

Boiling mud pots are part of the geothermal features for which Yellowstone National Park is famous.

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Supermodels and Surf – Malpais & Santa Teresa, Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica

Malpais means “bad country” and the place got the name because all of the rivers that flow into the area dry up in the dry season. However, we found plenty of good in Malpais and Santa Teresa during our travels in the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica. Surfers descended on the Malpais area first, as they so often do, but now these neighboring towns are well-stocked with tourists of all types–from surfers to families to celebrities to supermodels.

Sunset Malpais - Santa Teresa beach, Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica

Sunset on the beach in Malpais, Costa Rica.

Supermodel Gisele Bündchen married quarterback Tom Brady during a second ceremony in Santa Teresa and the couple have returned many times to her spread there, including after Brady’s team, the New England Patriots, lost its Super Bowl bid to the New York Giants in 2012.

The supermodel set stays at flash places like Florblanca Resort, but there are still relatively cheap hostels in town and even a few places to get a relatively affordable local meal once you sift through the sushi restaurants and tapas bars.

A small splurge that’s worth it? A perpetually packed joint called The Bakery right on the main drag. Yes, they do fabulous baked goods–from real croissants to awesome cakes.  But they also make a mean quiche and other breakfast/brunch treats plus salads and sandwiches. There’s also WiFi and A/C.

Tambor Punarenas - Paquera Nicoya Peninsula Ferry, Costa Rica

Getting to the Nicoya Peninsula on board the car ferry from Puntarenas cuts out more than 100 miles (160 kilometers) of driving.

Despite the fact that Costa Rica is a small country, it’s full of geographical hurdles (and terrible roads) that make it unexpectedly tricky to travel around sometimes. Santa Teresa and Malpais, for example, are at the southern tip of the Nicoya peninsula and can only be reached in one of two ways. We chose to take the car ferry from the hot and grotty town of Puntarenas to Paquera (US$24 for a car and driver, US$1.70 per person).

The 1.5 hour ride was scenic and relaxing. Compared to driving all the way to Malpais, taking the ferry saved us about three hours of driving and roughly 110 miles (160 kilometers), nearly half of that on unpaved roads.

Even though we’re not surfers, the beaches around Malpais and Santa Teresa did not disappoint. We spent hours walking on the flat, white sand.

Beach Malpais, Santa Teresa, Costa Rica

Surfers and strollers love the beaches near Malpais, Costa Rica.

The nearby town of Montezuma is more of a backpacker magnet with lower price tags, a smaller scale and an arty vibe that succeeds at feeling beach bohemian much more so than Santa Teresa. After giving Montezuma a drive through one afternoon on our way to visit the Montezuema Waterall we wished we’d planned to spend a few nights there as well.  Next time.

Montezuma waterfall, Costa Rica

Montezuma Waterfall which fills a series of refreshing natural pools below its base.


White Faced Capuchin monkey - Montezuma Waterfall, Costa Rica

We saw our first white faced capuchin monkey on the trail up to Montezuma Waterfall in Costa Rica.

After so much time in and around salt water it was nice to jump into the natural fresh water pools at the base of Montezuma waterfall, an 80 foot (24 meter) high cascade. A trail leads up to the waterfall, passing many small, swimable pools on the way. Be aware: the hike up to the falls itself takes you over slippery rocks, rough hillsides and through the water. Wear water shoes and watch your step.





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