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What You Need to Know About the Santa Cruz Trek – Cordillera Blanca, Peru

The classic Santa Cruz trek through the Cordillera Blanca in northern Peru is one of the most popular multi-day hikes in the region. It delivers lush valleys, a daunting chain of enormous, jagged, and snow-capped peaks that combine the most dramatic elements of the Alps and the Himalayas, and challenging and satisfying trails. Here’s what you need to know about this spectacular Peruvian adventure. And don’t miss our awesome drone travel footage and time-lapse starry sky video for added inspiration.

Santa Cruz Mountain 20,535 ft (6,259 m) Cordillera Blanca Peru

The Santa Cruz trek is named for this peak, 20,535 foot (6,259 meter) Santa Cruz mountain.

What is the Santa Cruz trek?

The classic Santa Cruz trek, named for 20,535 foot (6,259 meter) Santa Cruz mountain, is a 32 mile (51 km) one-way trail that can be trekked from either end in either direction in three or four reasonable days. It travels through Huascarán National Park which protects a huge portion of the Cordillera Blanca area of the Andes including nearly 20 peaks over 19,000 feet (6,000 meters), all covered with more 700 glaciers (hence the name Cordillera Blanca which means white mountain range in Spanish). Walking the Santa Cruz trail from Cashapampa to Vaqueria (as we did) you’ll ascend about 13,000 feet (3,900 meters) and descend about 10,000 feet (3,000 meters), reaching a high point of 15,616 feet (4,760 meters). Ready?

We hadn’t even hit the trail yet, but our guide, Yumer, was already psyched.

Finding a trekking company in Huaraz

You can do the Santa Cruz trek on your own. No guide is required, the trail is clear, and the camping areas are obvious. But to do that you’ve got to be happy carrying your tent, food, stove, and fuel (water is available in streams at camping areas, but must be boiled or purified). We’ve spent many months of our lives schlepping fully loaded packs through big mountains, but not this time.

Instead, we started sifting through the dozens of trekking tour companies in Huaraz that provide varying levels of support and service including tents and food and pack animals to carry it all.

Up, up, up into the Cordillera Blanca.

We ultimately found Orlando Quito, owner of Eco Ice Peru. Orlando is a certified mountain guide who was born near Huaraz and he also worked and trained in tourism in Lima. He was offered a tourism job in Germany but he wanted to return home and do something in Peru so he started Eco Ice Peru in Huaraz a few years ago.

Eco Ice Peru is not the cheapest tour company in Huaraz, but we liked that since you get what you pay for and once you’re out on the trail that can mean bad food, bad guides, bad tents, and, ultimately, a bad trek. Eco Ice Peru is also far from the priciest company in town. They occupy a middle ground that allows for traveler’s expectations and needs to be met without frills.

Santa Cruz Trek Artesonaraju

On the Santa Cruz trail through Peru’s Cordillera Blanca with Mt. Artesonaraju in the background. A different face of this very pointy mountain is said to have been the inspiration for the peak in the Paramount Pictures logo.

We also liked Orlando’s commitment to hiring local guides (including a female guide-still a rarity on the trail), and his more than passing concern for the environment.

So, how did it go?

The classic Santa Cruz trek: day by day on the trail

Here’s a map of the classic Santa Cruz trekking route followed by details about each day on the trail.

Day 1: Cashapampa to Llamacorral camp

  • Total distance and time: 6.7 miles (10 km) / 5 hours
  • Total climb: 4,719 feet (1,438 meters)
  • Total descent: 1,987 feet (605 meters)
  • Max elevation: 12,549 feet (3,824 meters)
Cashapampa beginning Santa Cruz trek

Our first steps along the Santa Cruz trek from Cashapampa were deceptively flat and friendly. That soon changed.

Our first day started with an on time early am pickup from our hotel (Villa Valencia) in Huaraz in a comfortable private van just for our group of seven trekkers. Some of Orlando’s steps to do what he can to protect the environment were also apparent from day one when we were each given a reusable, washable, locally made fabric bag full of trail snacks which we used every day instead of plastic bags.

An important thing to remember about the first day of this trek is that it begins with quite a drive out of Huaraz to the trail head. We left the city around 6 am and didn’t start walking until 11:30. Our starting point, Cashapampa, is also at a relatively low elevation of just 9,550 feet (2,910 meters) which means temperatures can get hot–especially with a start time of high noon and a 2 mile (3 km) uphill climb to kick things off. The hot, sweaty work was exacerbated by a nearly shade-free trail. Be prepared for heat and sun.

Santa Cruz trek Jatuncocha lake

Lake Jatuncocha, just one of the gorgeous bodies of water we passed during the classic Santa Cruz trek through the Cordillera Blanca in Peru.

The slow climb is part of the reason this relatively low mileage day took nearly five hours. Camp was all set up when we arrived and we were happy to find new Doite tents (a solid Chilean brand). We were also delighted to see that Orlando provides three person tents but only puts two people in them so there’s plenty of room for bodies and bags. Orlando’s sleeping mats were great too. Instead of inflatables, he provides thick foam pads inside a grippy fabric sleeve that helped keep our sleeping bags in place and really kept out the ground cold.

Santa Cruz trek Tuallipampa campground icy Doite tents

Our icy tents in the Tuallipampa campground at daybreak.

Add in a basin of warmed water to wash hands and face, tea time with hot drinks and snacks, and chocolate balls for dessert after dinner and we could get used to this…

Below you’ll find our time-lapse video, shot with our Brinno camera, which we set up overnight at the Llamacorral campground where the valley walls framed the sky perfectly.

 

Day 2: Llamacorral camp to Arhuaycocha Lake then Taullipampa camp

  • Total distance and time: 12.5 miles (20 km) including the side trip to Arhuaycocha Lake /  9 hours
  • Total climb: 3,501 feet (1,067 meters)
  • Total descent: 2,308 feet (703 meters)
  • Max altitude: 14,492 feet (4,417 meters) at Arhuaycocha Lake  
Santa Cruz Trek Alpomayo

Alpomayo peak looms in the distance during the classic Santa Cruz trek.

This was the longest day of the trek that started with a lovely gentle walk up a valley followed by a switchback climb to a stunning picnic site. Then it was onward and upward to Arhuaycocha Lake, fed by one of the more than 700 glaciers in the Cordillera Blanca. This side trip is not always included and all trekkers in the group need to be well acclimatized and reasonably fit to get there.

Arhuaycocha Lake Santa Cruz Trek

Arhuaycocha Lake is a very, very worthy side trip during the classic Santa Cruz trek in Peru.

Luckily, Orlando did a fantastic job of compiling our group to ensure that the seven of us (three Canadians and four from the US) were like-minded with pretty much comparable fitness and experience levels. This is not an easy thing to do and a mismatched group of trekkers with mismatched desires and abilities can make for an awkward trip. Everyone in our group, however, had the will and the way to get to Arhuaycocha Lake which turned out to be a highlight.       

Arhuaycocha Lake Santa Cruz Trek

The color of Arhuaycocha Lake comes from minerals in the glacial water that feeds it.

Santa Cruz trek Artesonaraju

Another angle on the needle sharp peak of Artesonaraju which is said to be the model for the Paramount Pictures peak.

 

Day 3: Taullipampa camp to Punta Union Pass to Ranger Station camp

  • Total distance and time: 9.7 miles  (15.6 km) / 8 hours
  • Total climb: 2,602 feet (793 meters)
  • Total descent: 4,128 feet (1,258 meters)
  • Max altitude: 15,616 feet (4,760 meters) at Punta Union Pass
Santa Cruz trek Tuallipampa campground

Our tents set up at the Tuallipampa campground with the Punta Union Pass taunting us in the distance.

The third day of our trek started with views of Punta Union Pass looming over our campsite as we packed and hustled to get warm and get on the trail. The climb up to the pass was long and filled with switch backs along a trail that was pretty chewed up by pack animal hooves. The pass itself rewarded with great views before we crossed over and began the steep descent down which was far longer than the ascent.

Santa Cruz trek Rinrijirka mountain & Tawliquicha lake

Rinrijirka mountain and Tawliquicha Lake on the classic Santa Cruz trek.

Punta Union Santa Cruz trek

The high point of the classic Santa Cruz trek, 15,616 feet (4,760 meters) Punta Union Pass.

Throughout the trek the food was plentiful and tasty and cooked with love by Orlando’s sister Domi who was usually laughing in the kitchen tent. Domi hiked with us each day carrying a pack full of lunch and a thermos of coca tea. On this day she had pasta salad with tuna in her pack and it got us down the rest of the day’s long trail which continued steeply, then slowly eased to a gentle valley descent to our final campground just beyond a small national park ranger station where we had to show our entrance tickets again (so don’t leave them behind).

Santa Cruz trek Punta Union panorama

Our guide Yumer giving us the thumbs up as we come over the Punto Union Pass. See a full-size version of this panorama.

At camp, enterprising women from nearby villages set up “pop-up shops” on blankets on the ground to sell hand-made socks, hats, and even bottles of beer. We were clearly getting closer to “civilization.”

Santa Cruz trek Tullparaju

A surprisingly lush valley on the classic Santa Cruz trek with Tullparaju peak in the distance.

 

Day 4: Ranger Station camp to Vaqueria

  • Total distance and time: 3.3 miles (5.3 km) / 4 hours
  • Total climb: 1,630 feet (496 meters)
  • Total descent: 1,495 feet (455 meters)
  • Max altitude: 11,930 feet (3,636 meters)
Santa Cruz trek Peru reflection

A mountain lake become a mirror for the surrounding peaks.

This relatively short and gentle day was bittersweet as we left the mountains and national park behind and walked through a few tiny villages including the home village of our guide Yumer. It was great to watch him interact with his neighbors and family members and it was fun to meet his mother. Yumer is 27 and has been guiding for about four years. He’s enthusiastic, knowledgeable, and easy-going with good English skills. The fact that he grew up on the edge of the national park added a lot of context and passion along the way.

Vaqueria beginning or end of Santa Cruz trek

Back to “civilization” after four days on the classic Santa Cruz trek.

Then it was time for the five hour drive back to Huaraz along the shamefully bad main road through Huascarán National Park (though there were signs of road work about to begin, so fingers crossed that this trip might be faster and more pleasant soon).

All in all, this trek was just the right combination of challenge and comfort for us with world-class scenery and all of our food, shelter, comfort, and safety expectations well met.

Check out our drone video, below, for a gorgeous new perspective on the classic Santa Cruz trek.

Trail tips for the Santa Cruz trek

At these altitudes it gets cold the minute the sun goes down. On the other hand, at these altitudes the sun is blazing strong whenever it’s out. So, layers are the answer and don’t forget the sunscreen (minimum SPF 30) on anything exposed (that includes lips, ears, and hands). And speaking of altitude…do yourself a favor and allow at least a few days in Huaraz (or nearby and much more charming Caraz – we recommend Los Pinos Lodge) to acclimatize before you start any trek.

Be sure to talk to your trekking tour company about including the side trip (about four hours extra, round trip) to Arhuaycocha Lake as part of your Santa Cruz experience. It’s a highlight.

Santa Cruz trek Alpomayo and Quitaraju mountains

Alpomayo and Quitaraju peaks.

In addition to the fee paid to your trekking tour company you will need to purchase your own entry to Huascarán National Park. We paid 65 soles each (about US$20) for a park pass that was good for 21 days. You can buy the entrance ticket at the park on the first day of the trek, or get it at the national park office in Huaraz near the main plaza.

Be aware that on January 1, 2018 Huascarán National Park entrance fees are set to double. We can only hope that part of that increased income will be put toward repairing and maintaining toilet facilities at camping areas on popular trekking routes like the Santa Cruz trek. Years ago round stone squat toilet facilities were built at the major camping areas, but they were never maintained and quickly became revolting, unsafe, and impossible to use.

Now trekking groups dig shallow holes inside narrow toilet tents for trekkers to use. Some areas of some camping sites are a mine filed of divets from dozens of toilet holes. This is clearly unsanitary and unsustainable and best replaced with well-maintained composting toilets. Unfortunately, none of the guides or locals we talked to were very hopeful that park officials in Lima would approve the construction of such toilets.

Santa Cruz trek Huaraz peru

Dramatic landscapes everywhere you look on the classic Santa Cruz trek in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca.

Glad we had

Each trekker is limited to 10 pounds (5 kilos) of gear (including your own personal sleeping bag) for the donkeys to carry in addition to whatever you want or need to carry each day in your day pack. So, it’s important to only take only the most vital things and your trekking company should provide a solid list of must-brings.

Santa Cruz trek Punta Union Tullparaju

Tullparaju peak seen from Punta Union Pass.

We can vouch for the importance of the following items that we were really glad we had: plenty of Point6 merino wool socks to keep feet blister-free while walking and warm and cozy in camp, body wipes (unless you don’t mind trail stink or you’re brave enough for a dip in the freezing cold streams at camp), our fleece mini pillow cases which we stuffed with our down coats to create comfy pillows, a PlatyPreserve booze bag full of Macchu Pisco pisco to share with everyone on the last night, our Crocs to put on with socks in camp, and, of course, the OruxMap app for Android that allowed us to track each day’s walk to get the geeky stats in this post. We also brought along some Farbar energy bars which are  made by the folks behind Cerveceria Sierra Andina craft brewing company. Look for Farbars at Trivio restaurant or Casa de Guias all around Parque Ginebra in Huaraz (4.50 soles or about US$1.40 each). Our DJI drone and Brinno time-lapse camera were indispensable as well.

Alpomayo Farbar

Farbar energy bars are made in Huaraz by the folks behind Sierra Andina craft beer.

We also picked up a great new must-pack trail trip from fellow trekker Allison. She brought a can of Pringles with her. After enjoying the addictive snack on the first day of the trek, she used the sturdy yet lightweight can with the secure lid as a trash container. Genius.

Eco Ice Peru hosted us on a 4 day/3 night Santa Cruz trek so that we could experience the company’s service, gear, and guides and tell you about it.

 

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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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What We’ve Learned About Traveling with a Drone

In July of 2015 we got a DJI Phantom 3 Professional drone (aka UAV or quadcopter if the word “drone” sounds too military for you). So far we’ve used it to shoot nearly 12 hours of aerial footage during 82 flights covering 66.8 miles (108 km) in four countries. Our skills are being honed so that we can enhance more travel blog posts with drone footage and so we can offer aerial photography services to hotels, tour operators etc (if you’re interested in that, visit our Hire Us page and get in touch). After a year on the road with our Phantom 3, here’s what we’ve learned about traveling with a drone.

Lares-trek-drone

Eric manning the controls of our drone at Lake Ipsaycocah at 14, 212 feet in the Andes of Peru as local women and other trekkers look on.

Drone travel tips

Never drone alone. Always drone with someone who can help keep their eyes on the aircraft and use their hands as human landing pads to catch the drone if the terrain is uneven. If you land the drone on uneven ground it can easily tip over and break a propeller (been there).

DJI Phantom 3 Professional

Our DJI Phantom 3 drone kit.

GPS is key. Unless you are a VERY skilled pilot avoid flying without GPS, which can happen if you’re flying in an area where satellites are hard to secure such as a steep canyon or around tall buildings, especially if there’s any wind. When hovering with a GPS lock, the drone stays pretty much locked in place even in a strong wind. Lose the GPS and the drone doesn’t know where it is so it can’t hold position. This lack of control in flight is terrifying.

Practice, practice, practice. If you want to hone your skills a cheap practice drone like this under $50 SYMA X5C is a great tool. It’s cheap, so losing or crashing it isn’t a crushing blow to your ego or your wallet, and since this cheapo model doesn’t have the brains and GPS of the DJI Phantom it takes real skill to fly it.

Buy spare propellers. Then buy more. They’re easier to break than you think.  Luckily they’re also the cheapest drone accessory. You’ll find fancy carbon fiber propellers out there, but they’re more expensive and, most importantly, more dangerous. Drone propellers can rotate at more than 7,000 rpm and at that speed even the standard plastic props can do some damage. The carbon fiber props can easily take off a finger.

Buy spare intelligent flight batteries. We have three. In the Phantom 3, DJI states a flight time of approximately 23 minutes per fully charged battery (the new Phantom 4, with it’s slightly bigger batteries, has an approximate flight time of 28 minutes). However, we rarely get a flight time of more than 18 minutes since running the batteries too low can cause the aircraft to crash so we usually return with at least 25% of the battery life left. After the flight the battery must then be allowed to cool down before recharging which takes about 45 minutes with the 100W charger that comes with the Professional model. No one wants to wait around for a battery to recharge before flying again and if you’re shooting in a remote area, as we often are, you won’t have any electricity anyway.  So extra batteries are vital.

Safety first. Though the DJI batteries are generally safe, Li-Po batteries must be handled with care. There are many videos on YouTube which show how mishandling these batteries can cause them to explode or burn up violently. To be on the safe side, we keep ours in LiPo battery fireproof bags. Also note that according to the TSA and the IATA, you cannot put these batteries in checked luggage when you board a plane.

Manfrotto DJI drone bag

Our drone bag.

Bags matter. There are many drone bags out there. Some are soft sided. Some are hard sided. We chose the Manfrotto Pro-Light 3N1-35 Camera Backpack since it’s the very same backpack that DJI sold with their name on it (and a few drone specific modifications) for $100 more. The drone is held securely in the main compartment along with the remote controller, tablet, propellers, charger and other accessories. In the upper compartment there’s enough space for my SLR camera with a large lens attached. The backpack is comfortable enough to wear while hiking and it has a laptop compartment which I use to hold my Camekback water bladder while hiking. Manfrotto now makes a new tailor-made drone bag called the Manfrotto MB BP-D1 DJI Drone Backpack and it’s the bag I’d purchase now.

Wind is a killer. According to DJI, the Phantom 3 Professional can fly in wind up to 22 mph. We’ve seen videos of people putting their drones up in even crazier winds. Personally, we like to be conservative as we’re not eager to lose this flying machine. Remember that wind speed a few hundred feet up can be double the speed on the ground. Also keep in mind which direction the wind is traveling. Though the remote control gives an accurate real-time status of how much flying time you have left and, therefore, when you need to return, it doesn’t account for headwind which could make the return trip longer and more energy intensive. Crashing your drone because the battery ran out due to a stiff head-wind would be pretty foolish.

Invest in a good tablet. You can use an android or iOS phone as the display screen on your remote control, but you’re going to want a much bigger screen. We took the money-saving route and bought a $150 Samsung Galaxy Tab 4. Though perfectly functional, the screen is not the same quality as the screens found on more expensive tablets and it can be difficult to see the screen in sunny conditions. Next time around, I’d go for either the Nexus 9, Samsung Galaxy Tab S2, or an iPad. Oh, and you’re going to want a sunshade no matter which tablet you buy.

Neutral density (ND) filters are a must and here’s why. While there’s no problem using fast shutter speeds when taking still photos, when shooting video a fast shutter speed from a moving camera can cause a “jello” effect. This can be particularly problematic when shooting bright scenes such as around water, beaches and snow. ND filters darken the scene allowing you to shoot video using a slower shutter speed. We’ve been happy with the PolarPro ND filters made specifically for the Phantom 3.

Yaw is tricky. The yaw (rotation) of the camera can be very difficult to control smoothly when you’re trying to capture a panning shot. This simple plastic and rubber-band contraption gives the resistance that’s needed to have more control over fine stick movements that control camera rotation.

Don’t forget memory cards. High definition video makes for large files. When shooting in 4K mode we can shoot 7GB of video in one flight. The Phantom 3 Professional accepts  micro-SD cards up to 64GB  and they need either a Class 10 or UHS-1 rating. We’re partial to these Lexar Professional Micro SDXC cards because we really like the USB-3 adapter that comes with them which allows for easy transfer of videos to your computer.

Know the local laws. A drone registration law went into effect in the US in December of 2015 which means all drones in the US must receive a registration number from the National Drone Register. Note that even if you are just passing through a US airport you must register your drone with the National Drone Register or customs can confiscate it.

Drone regulations are less organized in other parts of the world. In October of 2015 we were told about a photographer who arrived in Peru via plane and had his drone confiscated at the airport and held until special governmental permission was received. Once inside Peru, drones are banned at all archaeological sites (not just Machu Picchu). Chile was the first country in South America to formalize drone regulations and requirements in that country include registration of the drone and licensing of the operator with civil aviation authorities, insurance, no flights over 425 feet (130 meters) and, most absurd of all, a parachute. In India drones are illegal everywhere until they figure out their own regulations (in February of 2016 a tourist was arrested in India for flying a drone). It’s illegal to enter Nicaragua with a drone or fly it inside the country.

Clearly drone laws in many countries are still evolving. Sites including UAVCoach.com, TheDroneInfo.com and UAVSystemsInternational.com list drone laws by country but we encourage you to independently verify the regulations in the country you’re headed to.

Which DJI Phantom to buy?

There are three models in the Phantom 3 line ranging from $499-$999, along with the newer Phantom 4 which costs $1,399. We have the Phantom 3 Professional. If you’re interested in the Phantom 3, you’re in luck since prices have dropped by about $300 since we bought ours following the introduction of the Phantom 4.

Unless your budget is very limited I wouldn’t recommend the Phantom 3 Standard ($499). As compared to the Phantom 3 Advanced ($799) and Professional ($999), its camera is inferior, it doesn’t have the same GPS capabilities and its range is a fraction of the other models. The Advanced and Professional models are identical in many ways, however, the Professional can take 4K video while the Advanced is limited to 2.7K. The Advanced comes with a faster charger so the batteries more quickly.

We haven’t flown the newer Phantom 4, but its primary advantage is its collision avoidance system. The Phantom 4 is also a little faster, has a longer range and has a larger battery that allows for slightly longer flight times.

NOTE: DJI is currently offering $200 off the Phantom 4. Click the banner below for details.

If you think all of this sounds like serious business, check out the intersection of taxidermy and drones for a drone-driven laugh.

Drone shopping List

DJI Phantom 3 Professional  –  Buy on Amazon, or the  DJI Store

DJI Phantom 3 Advanced  –  Buy on Amazon, or the DJI Store

DJI Phantom 4  –  Buy on Amazon, or the DJI Store

Manfrotto MB BP-D1 DJI Drone Backpack

Lexar Professional Micro SDXC cards

Yaw control plastic thingamajig

LiPo battery fireproof bags

Tablet – Nexus 9, Samsung Galaxy Tab S2, or an iPad.

Sunshade

Practice drone – under $50 SYMA X5C

Note, The following accessories are for the Phantom 3 model only

Phantom 3 intelligent flight battery – Amazon & DJI Store

Spare Propellers

PolarPro ND filters

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Photo Essay: The Best Wax Palms in Colombia Aren’t in the Cocora Valley

The Cocora Valley near Salento is famous for its wax palms which are the tallest palms on the planet and the national tree of Colombia. However, the best wax palms in Colombia exist one valley over and you can see them during a bouncy, dusty jeep ride from Salento along the road to Finca La Carbonera. We visited the area twice and here are our favorite photos of these amazing stands of wax palms. Don’t miss our drone footage at the end of the post for a birds-eye-view of these awesome palms.

Finding the best wax palms in Colombia

To get to these wax palms, hire a Jeep taxi in the square in Salento for the three hour round trip drive up above Salento along a dirt road toward La Carbonera and back down again (150,000 COP or about US$50 round trip for the whole jeep which will seat five people in addition to the driver, allow four to five hours for the full excursion). Here you’ll find much larger, denser groups of palms than you’ll ever see in the more famous Cocora Valley. Enjoy!

Willy's Jeep Yipao from Salento, Colombia to La Carbonera Wax Palms Salento La Carbonera

Wax Palms La carbonera Salento Cocora Valley Colombia

Wax Palms La carbonera, Colombia

Palma de cera Cocora valley La Carbonera Colombia

Wax Palms Palma de Cera Colombia

Salento La Carbonera, Colombia Colombia Wax Palms Salento La Carbonera, Colombia

La Carbonera, Colombia Hillside of wax palms

Finca La Carbonera, Colombia Palma de cera, Colombia

Wax Palms Colombia Wax Palms La carbonera Cocora Valley Colombia

Armadillo Colombia

If you’re lucky your Jeep taxi driver may find and capture a wild armadillo along the way too.

Get a birds-eye-view of these amazing trees in our drone travel footage, below, taken over the wax palms near La Carbonera.

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Insider’s Travel Guide to Paradise – Salento, Cocora Valley, Colombia

Salento is not a secret. Lots of travelers to Colombia visit the mountain town above the gorgeous Cocora Valley every year. Locals love it too. After spending weeks in Salento over four separate trips, we’ve got your insider’s travel guide to paradise including a great new hotel, the smartest days to visit and where and how to see the best of the area’s famous wax palms (it’s not where you think).

Salento Colombia

Traditional architecture and a laid back vibe bring many travelers–foreign and Colombian–to the mountain town of Salento.

Salento, a Colombian paradise

Salento was founded in 1850 and proudly wears its badge as one of the oldest towns in Quindio province. The more charming parts of town take you back in time with cobble stone streets, meticulous traditional paint jobs on original adobe buildings with terracotta roof tiles and fire-engine-red geraniums everywhere. In 2011 UNESCO named a large swath of Quindio province, including Salento, as a “Coffee Cultural Landscape”.

Salento Colombia plaza

The main plaza and church in Salento, Colombia.

Salento is like a smaller, more tranquil version of the town of Jardin except on weekends when Salento bursts at the seams as Colombian visitors descend on town creating traffic jams in the main plaza, filling hotels (some charge higher rates on weekends) and jamming the pedestrian street lined with shops selling everything from coffee to hats. On weekdays the town slips back into a sleepy pace, so our first Salento travel tip is: avoid weekends if you want a more peaceful experience.

Salento colors

The road into the Cocora Valley from the town of Salento, and it just gets more and more gorgeous from here.

Finding the (best) wax palms in Salento

There are plenty of things to do in Salento including hiking, biking, horseback riding, shopping, coffee touring and tasting, playing an explosive (literally) Colombian bar game called tejo and there’s even a zip line now. But the real reason you’re there is to see the famous wax palms of Salento, right?

Wax palms Cocora valley Salento

Wax palms in the Cocora Valley below Salento.

Wax palms are a distinct species found only in the Andes in parts of Colombia and Peru. They are the tallest palm in the world and most grow to about 150 feet (45 meters) but some shoot up to 200 feet (60 meters). They’re also the national tree of Colombia.

Cocora Valley

The Cocora Valley unfurls below Salento.

Salento sits on a ridge above the Cocora Valley which is home to some of the few remaining stands of wax palms. Most visitors take a shared jeep taxi from town down into the picture perfect valley a few miles away: green pastures, rolling hills, an ambling narrow road, babbling brooks, historic haciendas – it’s got it all. See what we’re talking about in our drone travel footage of the Cocora Valley, below.

At the head of the Cocora Valley there’s a five hour loop trail which winds through small stands of the palms. It’s picturesque and the palms are stunningly tall, like the giraffes of the palm world, but these most famous wax palms are not the best examples on offer.

Wax Palms cocora Salento Colombia

Wax palms in the Cocora Valley.

It wasn’t until our second or third visit to Salento that we learned that the Cocora Valley wax palms are nothing compared to the even more amazing palms that exist in a neighboring valley on and around a finca called La Carbonera. How do we know this? Because we’ve been adopted by a magical Colombian auntie (Hi B! We miss you!) and her family owns La Carbonera.

Willys Yipao Salento Colombia

Classic Willys Jeeps are used as taxis in Salento.

 

She took us to La Carbonera, which is located about about 1.5 hours from Salento on a road that includes parts of the Camino Real which Latin revolutionary hero Simón Bolívar traveled along between Ecuador and Nicaragua. So here’s our next Salento travel tip: hire a jeep taxi and driver in the main square to take you to La Carbonera. Be ready for a bumpy, dusty ride, but it’s worth it (150,000 COP or about US$50 round trip for the whole jeep which will seat 5 people in addition to the driver).

Wax palms Carbonera, Colombia

Travel tip: the wax palms on the road to a finca called La Carbonera are much denser and more impressive than those in the Cocora Valley and we can tell you how to get there.

Right from the road to La Carbonera you will see thousands of wax palms clumped in large, swaying stands which blow the palms in the Cocora Valley out of the water.

 What to eat and drink in Salento

Small trout farms are abundant in the area and many restaurants sell trout in various forms. Another Salento travel tip: you will see trucha al ajillo (trout with garlic) on menus everywhere. Be aware that this dish is not simply trout cooked in garlic. Your fish will come smothered in a milky, mildly garlicy sauce. Just so you know.

Trucha y patacon Salento Colombia

Fried trout on a platter-sized patacon is a common (and delicious) dish in Salento.

Dairy products are also huge in Salento thanks to sprawling cattle farms. Get some local cheese, then head to the small supermarket on the main square, walk to the back near the produce section and look for baskets of small baguettes made daily by a local woman. Yep, that’s another tip.

Milk bar Salento Colombia willys

Many diary products are produced in and around Salento and some are sold at this creative road side stand on the way into town.

Whatever you do, don’t leave town until you’ve tried a patacon. Usually, patacones are thick discs of boiled, pressed, then fried plantain which come as a common side dish. In Salento, a patacon is a very thin, crispy version the size of a dinner plate which is topped with cheese, chicken, trout, etc. and garnished with rich hogao which is a common Colombian sauce of chopped and simmered vegetables. You won’t find this delicious dish in many other parts of Colombia and we still crave it from time to time.

Salento patacon

Don’t leave Salento without trying a thin, crispy patacon topped with meat, cheese and hogao.

Salento is in the so-called “coffee triangle” so there are lots of area coffee producers (some offering tours of their farms and facilities) and many cafes in town. We liked Cafe Bernabe Gourmet because the coffee was good and so was the art on the walls. Another solid place to caffeine up is Cafe Jesus Martin.  We liked their coffee so much that we bought a few bags of beans to keep with us in the truck for future use in our beloved Bonjour insulated French Press.

Jesus Martin coffee Salento

Excellent coffee at the Jesus Martin cafe in Salento.

 

On weekends, open air bars open around the square under tents and they’re a great place to grab a beer and watch Colombian families. Speaking of beer, if you’ve been looking for an opportunity to play tejo, Colombia’s beloved bar game, you can do it in Salento. Here’s where to play tejo in Salento.

kiddy rides Salento Colombia

On the weekends enterprising locals push Colombian kids around the main plaza while their parents relax in the casual restaurants and bars around the square.

Where to sleep in Salento

There are more than 70 hostels and hotels in little tiny Salento, so choice is not the problem. During our very first visit we stayed at the stylish and peaceful Hostel Tralala, just off the main square, which has a dorm, two lovely shared kitchens which include free coffee, there’s a casita off the garden and a handful of and private rooms (70,000 COP or about US$24 for a private double with bathroom/60,000 COP or about US$20 with shared bathroom).

Salento, COlombia

Classic Salento.

We also spent a few days in a one room apartment outside of town which is rented by Maria Clara who also bakes those baguettes we recommended above. It’s sunny, clean and comfortable with a large porch with a hammock. It’s a great option for families or those staying longer term, but her current rates are a bit steep for us at 120,000 COP or about US$40 per night, contact Maria Clara at claragarciamar AT hotmail DOT com or call 3133717249, she speaks English).

We also stayed at La Floresta Hostel which has a parking lot and basic but fairly clean rooms and a pretty filthy shared kitchen (55,000 COP or about US$17 per night for a private double with bathroom, there’s also a camping area and dorms).

Hacienda Cairo Cocora Valley Salento Colombia

Reserva El Cairo Hotel is a lovely new addition just a few miles from town in the Cocora Valley.

During our most recent visit to Salento we were delighted to tour the new seven room Reserva El Cairo Hotel. Located two miles (3 km) outside of town in the Cocora Valley (taxis are common and cheap), this hotel is peaceful and combines sustainability with traditional architecture. The restored building, formerly a private house, is more than 100 years old and rooms now have modern bathrooms and good beds plus a basket full of locally-made snacks. Staff members speak English and they’re passionate about service. They grow their own organic fruits and vegetables and produce their own milk, butter, eggs and chickens on their 100 acres (40 hectares) of land.

Other good accommodation options in Salento include Hostal Ciudad de Segorbe, The Plantation House and La Posada de Cafe which is located right on the pedestrian street off the main square.

New threats to Salento

Despite the importance of Salento and the Cocora Valley as a tourist destination, the area’s UNESCO site status, and it’s standing as home to the country’s rare national tree, there’s a new plan afoot that would allow open pit mining for gold in the region. There is local backlash, so stay tuned.

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The Enduring Legend of El Dorado – Lake Guatavita, Colombia

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

The enduring legend of El Dorado

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

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

Muisca god Guatavita Bogota Gold Museum

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

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

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

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

 Travel to Lake Guatavita

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

Lake Guatavita Legend of El Dorado Bogota, Colombia

Lake Guatavita, where the legend of El Dorado lives.

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

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

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

 

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

Le Petit Alsace - Guasca, Colombia

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

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

Chef Gilbert Staffelbach, Le Petit Alsace - Guasca, Colombia

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

 

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