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Dangerous Beauty – Los Nevados National Park & Ruiz Volcano, Colombia

Los Nevados National Park in central Colombia is a dangerous beauty full of high altitude landscapes carved by glaciers and volcanoes, including the Ruiz Volcano which has proven deadly in the past and is currently making its mighty presence felt again.

El Cisne PNN Los Nevados Colombia

Dangerously beautiful Los Nevados National Park in Colombia.

The dangerous beauty of Los Nevados National Park

Los Nevados National Park (Parque Nacional Natural Los Nevados in Spanish) was created in 1974. The park gets its name from a Spanish word commonly used for snowcapped mountains or volcanoes (nevado means snowcapped). There are a number of volcanoes within the 144,000 acre (58,300 hectare) park but the Nevado del Ruiz (Ruiz Volcano) is the biggest and baddest of them all.

In 1985 the 17,547 foot (5,389 meter) volcano erupted in the night and the glaciers and snowcap on its peak melted with devastating results. More than 25,000 people, mostly in the town of Armero, were killed as a river of mud and debris flowed down from the flanks of the Ruiz Volcano. It was the second deadliest volcanic eruption in history.

Nevado Ruiz vocano from El Cisne Los Nevados National Park

One of three vents on the Ruiz volcano shows off a dusting of snow in Los Nevados National Park.

The beauty of the park comes from those same volcanoes whose peaks we want to glimpse and whose glaciers and eruptions have created the landscape within the park. In 2009 Los Nevados National Park was the third most visited park in Colombia with more than 50,000 visitors (COP 57,000 or about US$18 entry fee including a mandatory guide) coming to see all that beauty. However, the park opens at the whim of its namesake volcanoes. If they are too active then the park is deemed too dangerous to visit and access can be restricted or stopped altogether.

Nevado Ruiz volcano Colombia

Wind, weather and seismic activity sculpt the landscape in weird ways in Los Nevados National Park. Here, rock and ash combine to create a moonscape on earth.

The park was in restricted access mode when we were there and the higher elevations, roads, lakes, trails and the El Cisne Refugio were all closed to visitors because of activity within the Ruiz Volcano. But that did not stop us.

Our all access park pass

Colombian national park officials kindly assigned us a park employee who took us on an overnight trip through the park, but first we had to deliver some condor food. Instead of taking the usual route into the park’s main Las Brisas entrance near the town of Las Esperanza, we drove in from Villa Maria along a rough back road carrying a dead calf in a bucket.

Paramo PNN Los Nevados Colombia

The high altitude páramo landscape in the park acts like a sponge and forms many small ponds and lakes.

Los Nevados park is home to a dozen or so Andean condors which were bred at the San Diego Zoo. The species is considered threatened as populations decrease and while park officials say the Los Nevados condors are thriving, they still support the community with food drops like the dead calf.

Frailejon Espeletia plant paramo Colombia

Frailejon, which remind us of Joshua trees, are a mainstay of the páramo landscape in the park.

About five hours later we finally entered the park. Los Nevados is a high altitude park and a kind of alpine tundra called páramo, which only exists in the northern Andes of South America, thrives here. The ground is covered with rugged tufts of grass, Joshua tree-like flowering frailejón plants and a weird low-growing, dark green dome cushion plants which, upon closer inspection, is made up of thousands of tiny plants. We also saw hundreds of rabbits but, sadly, not the puma or the tigrillo that also live here.

Paramo plants Colombi

Though it is called a cushion plant, this massive green dome is solid as a rock and made up of thousands of tiny, prickly star-shaped plants.

It was getting late so we headed straight for the El Cisne Refugio (named for one of the other volcanoes in the park) which is a huge building capable of housing up to 70 people. When the park is fully open there’s a restaurant as well. Because the park wasn’t officially open the normal dorm building was locked up tight. So we settled into a much smaller and more rustic building behind the larger structure. This is where park rangers and employees stay and it was our home for the night. There was a kitchen, a cold water bathroom and bunk beds plus electricity and, weirdly, a TV but no method of heating.

Centro de Visitantes El Cisne PNN Los Nevados

The El Cisne Refugio offers rooms and a restaurant.

Our park escort Hector explained that Los Nevados offers more than just views. There are hiking trails in the park as well including a three hour round trip hike to a glacial lake called Lake Otún at 12,800 feet (3,900 meters). The lake is full of trout and is a breeding ground for many types of ducks. There’s a cabin on the lakeshore as well and camping opportunities.

Los Nevados paramo frailejon

More páramo in the park.

The El Cisne Refugio is located at more than 13,000 feet (4,000 meters) and at this altitude it gets very cold the moment the sun goes down. As evening came we stayed outside as long as we could to watch the light change on the páramo and the hills that surround the small bowl where the buildings are located. Soon we retreated back inside where we bundled up in layers of wool and climbed into our sleeping bags for the night.

Los Nevados Frailejon Espeletia

Frailejon up close.

By 7 am the next morning we were back on the road, headed to a point from which we hoped to catch a clear view of the top of the Ruiz Volcano before clouds descended. We only got brief teases of the top as the clouds came and went, carried by strong winds. We’re told that July and August are the clearest months in the park, but even then cloud-free views of the high peaks are not guaranteed.

Nevado Ruiz panorama

When was the last time you drove to 15,512 feet? Here’s our truck at that altitude on the flanks of the Ruiz Volcano in Los Nevados National Park. Click here to see a larger version of his panoramic shot.

Ruiz Los Nevados altitudeWhat we did get was a milestone on our little road trip. As the surprisingly good dirt road through the park climbed and climbed we reached 15,512 feet (4,728 meters) on a cinder covered pass just below Ruiz Volcano–the highest elevation we’d driven to on the journey at that point. We also saw one of those San Diego condors and a páramo eagle soaring above us. Hector told us that the condors sometimes swoop down the snowy hillsides and brush their chests against the snow to clean their feathers.

PNN Los Nevados Colombia

Clouds descend over a craggy mountainside cut by glaciers and shaped by volcanic eruptions in Los Nevados National Park in Colombia.

Leaving Los Nevados was no less dramatic

The terrain in Los Nevados is constantly shifting due to wind, weather and seismic activity. When we were there a section of road was only marginally passable. The area had recently been crudely cleared so small park vehicles could get through, but there was no guarantee that our monster truck would be able to pass. We decided to take our chances and push forward through the park toward the main Las Brisas entrance anyway rather than backtrack over the terrible dirt road we’d taken into the park the previous day.

bad road Los Nevados National Park

There used to be a road in there somewhere…

This meant driving along a notorious stretch of road called “The Ss” because you have to navigate 17 switchback turns, some of them very, very tight for our long-wheel-base truck.Then we reached the semi-rebuilt wash-out area and managed to power through narrow spaces and deep ash to get through. This is the sort of stuff that Eric finds adventurous and Karen finds arduous.

Driving Los Nevados park Colombia

Our truck after Eric successfully negotiated his way through a sketchy roadless section. You can see the 17 switchbacks of “The Ss” in the background.

Just short of the main Las Brisas entrance we stopped at Chalet Arenales. The original structure burned down in 2010 and a new building (which is not in the chalet style) opened in 2014. It’s surprisingly modern and offers  a warm interior, free hot coffee and large windows which give great views onto the moonlike landscape of the park.

Chalet Arenales Los Nevados

Chalet Arenales in Los Nevados National Park offers free coffee and great views.

Many people only travel as far as the new chalet when they visit Los Nevados but we’re grateful to Colombian national park officials for finding a way for us to visit more of the heart of the park even during a time of restricted access. The unique páramo, extreme landscapes, rare wildlife and fleeting glimpses of the Ruiz Volcano made Los Nevados one of our favorite national parks on the journey so far.

Los Nevados National Park Colombia

This entrance to Los Nevados National Park can be closed whenever seismic activity within the park is deemed too high. Check the status before planning your visit.

The Ruiz Volcano is very, very active

And speaking of the Ruiz Volcano, it’s still very, very active. Most recently, Ruiz erupted again this month. No deaths have been reported so far, but the airport in nearby Manizales was closed. Check park status before planning a visit to Los Nevados.

Travel tip

Smart visitors to Los Nevados National Park combine it with a warm and relaxing visit to one of the many hot springs in the area where you can soak in water that’s naturally heated by the area’s volcanoes. These places range from basic pools to full service hotels. We soaked our bones at Termales El Otoño which has three big, clean pools surrounded by a large hotel with standard rooms and traditionally painted stand-alone cottages.

Termales El Otoño - Manizales, Colombia

One of the soaking pools at Termales El Otoño.

 

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Flying Over a National Park – Chicamocha Canyon, Colombia

The Chicamocha Canyon, between the cities of San Gil and Bucaramanga in central Colombia, was formed more than 46 million years ago and covers more than 100,000 acres (404,685 hectares) and is up to 6,500 feet (2,000 meters) deep. In other words, it’s one of the largest canyons in the world. There are a number of ways to explore Chicamocha Canyon, including two that involve traveling through the air.

Chicmocha Canyon Bucamaranga

Colombia’s Chicamocha Canyon, one of the largest in the world.

 

Paragliding over Chicamocha Canyon in Colombia

You can hike it, raft it, kayak it or visit the theme-parky Chicamocha National Park and ride a cable car over it (more on that later). But perhaps the best way to explore the Chicamocha Canyon is to paraglide over it. It’s certainly the most dramatic way.

Paraglide-Chicmocha-canyon

Paragliding is a great way to see Chicamocha Canyon.

When Parapente Chicamocha (parapente is the Spanish word for paragliding) offered to take us up, up and away we said yes. And we said it quickly before “I hate heights” Karen could change her mind.

Karen Paraglide Chicamocha Canyon

Karen wondering how she got herself into this paragliding mess just moments before take off over the Chicamocha Canyon.

We arrived at the launch site with owner Sergio and a team of wing wranglers and pilots. Then we stood around and watched the birds, waiting for them to catch thermals so that we could too. When the pros saw enough birds catching thermals it was time for us to try it too.

This involved getting into the paragliding harness in front of the paragliding pilot (you didn’t think they’d send us up alone, did you?) and then running off the edge of the canyon. Truth be told, Karen dragged her feet a bit. But even she ended up in the air where the thermals, bless them, carried us up a few thousand feet above the canyon floor.

Parapente chicamocha Canyon

You have to run off the edge of the canyon to begin paragliding over Chicamocha.

We spent about half an hour rising, circling, dropping and rising again over the canyon as the pilots worked the wing to direct us. Eric says the view was great. Karen never had her eyes open long enough to really appreciate it and her forearms are still sore from the death grip she had on her harness.

See what Eric saw, in our video from our paragliding adventure over Chicamocha Canyon, below.

 

National park or theme park?

Parque Nacional de Chicmocha National Park

They call it the Chicamocha National Park, but it’s more like the Chicamocha Theme Park.

The Chicamocha National Park (15,000 COP/about US$5) protects a section of the Chicamocha Canyon, but instead of spotlighting its natural beauty in the typical peaceful, passive way of most parks, this one shows off its considerable natural attributes in a theme park environment. There are ice cream shops, a synthetic ice skating ring, a goat park, some really, really strange sculptures and monuments and some zip lines.

Chicamocha National Park

These imposing statues at the Chicamocha National Park have something to do with the history and traditions of the Santander province in Colombia.

Chicamocha National Park

This enormous, spiky, modern sculpture greets visitors to Chicamocha National Park and is a monument to local Santanderean culture. We don’t know why there are goats.

There’s even a theme park ride of sorts. In 2009 the park debuted a four mile (6.3 km) cable car system, one of the longest in the world, which takes visitors from one edge of the canyon to the other and back again (40,000 COP/about US$13.50).

Teleferico Chicamocha Cable Car

One of the world’s longest cable car systems takes passengers across Chicamocha Canyon.

Check out the cable car ride over Chicamocha Canyon in our video, below.

Travel tip

San Gil may be the self-proclaimed adventure capital of the region, but unless you like a noise, dirty town with a bunch of hostels, skip it. Instead, continue past San Gil about 30 minutes to Barichara, the prettiest town in Colombia where preserved Colonial architecture, historic stone streets, peace, quiet and a wide range of hotels and restaurants (including budget-minded ones) await.

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Photo of the Day: Mount McKinley No More, President Obama Makes Denali Official (again)

Even before we laid eyes on the mountain when our Trans-Americas Journey explored Alaska back in 2007 we were calling it Denali as the Athabascan native people have for generations. In 1886 a gold prospector christened the mountain Mount McKinley after President William McKinley and the US government recognized the name in 1917. The renaming sparked plenty of controversy and a serious push to reinstate the native name has been going on since 1975. In 1980 Mount McKinley Park became Denali National Park and Preserve but the mountain was still called McKinley. But no more. President Barack Obama has reinstated Denali as the official name of the iconic mountain, ditching Mount McKinley for good.

Any way you look at it, the tallest mountain in North America–which the USGS just re-surveyed and declared to be 20,310 feet (stripping 10 feet/3 meters off the previous height–is one gorgeous bump on the map.

Denali from the National Park

Denali

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

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

beach-PNN-Tayrona-Colombia

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

The hype about Tayrona

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

Beaches Tayrona National Park

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

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

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

Arricifes beaches Tayrona National Park Colombia

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

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

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

Cabo San Juan PNN Tayrona Colombia

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

Cabo San Juan Tayrona National Park Colombia

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

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

The high prices of Tayrona

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

Cabo San Juan Tayrona Park

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

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

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

Kogi indigenous indians Santa Matrta Tayrona

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

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

Ecohabs Hotel Tayrona National Park Colombia

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

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

PNN Tayrona Park Colombia

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

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

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

Tayrona National Park Colombia

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

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

Beach trail Tayrona National Park Colombia

Part of the trail through Tayrona National Park.

So, is Tayrona worth the hype and high prices?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best adventures & activities of 2014

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

Cano Cristales Colombia

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

Galapagos Islands Blue footed booby, penguins, marine iguana

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

Parano El Angel park  Ecuador

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

Monkey rescue Napo River Ecuador Amazon

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

Andean Clensing Sacha Ji Ecuador

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

Napo Wildlefe Center Ecolodge canopy platform

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

PNN Nevados Colombia

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

Parrot Salt Lick Nap River Yasuni Ecuador Amazon

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

Tren Crucero Ecuador

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

Hacienda Zuleta Ecuador Horseback Riding

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Better Than Boquete? – Cerro Punta, Panama

Boquete is beautiful. The coffee plantations. The bird watching. The hiking trails and natural climbing walls. The refreshing weather. The expats (or at least the diverse restaurants they attract). However, Cerro Punta–with its awesome agriculture, Swiss chalet architecture and proximity to Volcán Barú National Park (home to the tallest mountain in Panama) and La Amistad International Park (a UNESCO World Heritage Site that’s shared with Costa Rica which is the largest nature reserve in Central America)–may be even better than Boquete for travelers who are into nature and bird lovers.

Quetzal Cerro Punta Rainforest Panama

Just one of the resplendent quetzal birds that we saw in the cloud forest around Cerro Punta, Panama.

Fastidious farmers

There’s something rejuvenating and reassuring about being surrounded by fields of thriving fruits and vegetables. Potatoes, tomatoes, carrots, onions, some mysterious green stuff we couldn’t identify, strawberries (which are sold in town by vendors who whip up strawberry smoothies, strawberries and cream, strawberry bread, etc) and more deliciousness blanket the slopes around Cerro Punta like edible carpets. No risk of starving to death here.

Everything you shove into the ground seems to flourish in the rich soil and tender climate at 5,905 feet (1,800 meters). However, Cerro Punta farmers don’t just shove things into the ground. Each field is tidier and more picturesque than the last. With neat rows, not a weed in sight and borders planted with flowers, they all seem to have been groomed by the world’s most fastidious farmers in prep for a Martha Stewart photo shoot.

Adding to the agricultural bliss of Cerro Punta is Haras Cerro Punto, a five-star horse farm which opened in 1977 and has produced top of the line race horses and show horses. Even if you’re not in the marketing for a million dollar horse you can take a tour of the pristine paddocks for about US$5.

Los Quetzales Lodge Spa Panama

Los Quetzales Lode & Spa offers everything from camping to private forest houses and has great value spa treatments.

Sleeping and spa-ing in Cerro Punta

Speaking of horses, a brand new colt was frolicking in the central lawn at Los Quetzales Lodge & Spa, in the town of Guadalupe just a few miles from Cerro Punta, when we arrived. Good sign.

The lodge offers something for everyone from camping to motel-style rooms to stand alone cabins. The place looks and feels like a cross between a Swiss chalet and a boy scout camp and is run as sustainably as possible. Most produce comes from their own organic garden (their salad bar is famous). Dairy products come from their own cows. More than 7,000 trees have been planted on the lodge’s 980 acre (400 hectare) private reserve. No plastic water bottles are sold. More than 90% of the staff lives within walking or biking distance of the lodge.

Hiking in Los Quetzales rainforest

Lush cloud forest in and around Cerro Punta, Panama.

Resplendant-quetzal

Another quetzal spotted near Cerro Punta. This is a male but he doesn’t have the bird’s signature long tail feathers because it’s not mating season.

Every morning at 8:30 am there’s a free guided tour so guests can see some of the lodge’s property in a super bad ass custom-built vehicle. We had the added bonus of seeing resplendent quetzal birds in the lush cloud forest which butts right up against Volcán Barú National Park.

During this tour you will also see the lodge’s best kept secret: About 10 minutes up a rough dirt road beyond the main lodge Los Quetzales also offers spacious wooden cabins built into areas of the cloud forest that were deforested decades ago so no new trees had to be cut down.

Quetzal with nest Panama

Yet another quetzal bird in the cloud forest around Cerro Punta.

Los Quetzales Rainforest Cabins Cerro Punta, Panama

Los Quetzales Lodge & Spa also offers a handful of large wooden homes in the cloud forest.

Each cabin has multiple bedrooms, WiFi, full kitchens and fireplaces (at over 7,260 feet/2,200 meters it gets chilly up there). They’re the perfect family or romantic hideaway. Bring your own groceries or arrange for the chef from the main lodge to come cook for you.

Hummingbird Panama

It’s easy to get distracted by the flamboyant quetzal birds, but the cloud forest around Cerro Punta is home to any other species as well.

Los Quetzales Lodge & Spa also has a top value spa which uses all natural products. It’s not fancy but you can get a superb deep tissue massage for 1.5 hours for US$45 in an open air spa room with the sound of a creek gurgling by.

Read more about travel in Panama

 

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