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Eating Our Way Through Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants (Part 2)

When we published our first post about eating our way through Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants we included a hit list of ranking restaurants that we hoped to visit soon. We’re delighted to report that our travels have taken us to three of the heavy hitters on that wish list including Maido which is the #1 restaurant in Latin America according to the 2017 list.

Eating our way through Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants

When the 2017 list of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants was released we were happy to see Colombian chef Leonor Espinosa’s Restaurante Leo continued to rank high. She also took home honors as the Best Female Chef in Latin America for 2017. Harry Sasson Restaurant, also in Bogotá, moved WAY up the list and in Lima, Central dropped one spot to #2 to make room for Maido to rise up to #1.

Maido restaurant Lima Peru

Maido – Lima, Peru

We were excited to finally get a tasting menu reservation at Maido just a few months before it took over the #1 spot (and #8 on the list of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants). Unfortunately, that excitement didn’t last long.

We’ve had a lot of tasting menu meals in Lima and around the world and they’ve all had one thing in common: a story that’s subtly told as the meal becomes a journey guided by the hand of a chef with a point of view. Sadly, our 13-course tasting menu at Maido (one of the most expensive in Lima) was little more than a long series of small plates (you can see some of them above) brought quickly and mostly without much explanation, context, or a sense of Chef Mitsuharu Tsumura or his vision.

Don’t misunderstand. The food was very good. The famous fish hot dog was playful and satisfying and the raw fish courses (toro nigiri topped with a quail egg, for example) were so outstanding that we wished we’d skipped the tasting menu and booked two seats at the bustling sushi bar instead. The skill and top-notch ingredients in the kitchen were very apparent. What was missing was soul.

Even great restaurants can have a bad night and we’re willing to attribute our disappointment at Maido to an off night and, perhaps, a touch of over hype.  But no customer should leave one of world’s most highly acclaimed restaurants feeling rushed so they could turn the table. 

 

Casa do Porco - Sao Paulo, Brazil

A Casa do Porco – Sao Paulo, Brazil

This place rose to #8 from its debut last year at #24. That’s a big jump but we’re not surprised. When we ate at A Casa do Porco we were blown away by the porky goodness being created by Chef Jefferson Rueda (pictured above with some of his plates) who cooks a pig (porco in Portuguese) like no one else.

Pork sushi rolls (yes! raw pork!), pig foot soup, his take on steamed pork buns, meaty deep-fried chicharron cubes topped with guava pepper jelly and micro greens, succulent whole-roasted pig served chopped with grilled greens, polenta, and creamy beans…We could go on and on.

Insider tips: Go for lunch in the late afternoon for the best chance of getting a table (A Casa do Porco does not close in the afternoon like many restaurants do and they do not take reservations). And though all menu prices are remarkably reasonable, if you’re on a tight budget, grab a fantastic pork sandwich on a homemade ciabatta roll from the restaurant’s to-go window on the street. At R$15 (about US$4.50), it’s a delicious steal.

And find a way to save room for dessert. Saiko Izawa, the pastry chef at A Casa do Porco, was named Best Pastry Chef in Latin America for 2017.

 

La Mar – Lima, Peru

This chicly casual cebicheria, created by Peruvian celebrity chef Gastón Acurio, is an institution in Lima. And for good reason. The ceviche we ate at La Mar puts all other ceviches on notice. The Tiradito Andino (sliced marinated raw trout with artichokes, bamboo sprouts, and avocado), sizzling huge shrimp in clarified butter, grilled octopus…it was all amazing (as you can see, above).

The inventive chilcanos (a classic Peruvian cocktail made with pisco and ginger ale) were fun without being foofy. The restaurant, #15 on the 2017 list of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants, only serves fresh and sustainable fish and seafood sourced from like-minded fishermen and co-ops, so chef Andrés Rodríguez’s menu changes based on what’s available. The sommelier was amazing and the waiters were knowledgeable and proficient in English (if you need that). We would eat at La Mar every day if we could.

 

Astrid y Gastón – Lima, Peru

Gastón Acurio is the only chef with two restaurants on the 2017 list of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants. In addition to La Mar, his flagship restaurant, Astrid y Gastón is ranked at #7. This place is an enduring classic for a reason: historic building, eclectic design, great people watching, and impeccable Peruvian favorites. Standouts from our nine-course tasting menu (some of which you can see, above) included guinea pig Pekinese, confit suckling pig, and a ceviche made with sour orange.

It’s a lot of rich and complex food and at one point we were so stuffed that we took a break and wandered around the 300-year-old mansion to marvel at original tiles and breezy gardens. Then came an avalanche of desserts created by Gastón’s wife Astrid (the box in the photo above is bursting with chocolates). This is not a complaint, just fair warning.

 

Gustu - La Paz, Bolivia

Gustu – La Paz, Bolivia

The #14 restaurant is in La Paz, Bolivia and is that country’s only ranking restaurant. Gustu is almost militantly Bolivian, using and serving only ingredients grown or made in Bolivia. This is not a limitation but a challenge to the talented staff, many of them trained at culinary schools opened by the philanthropic arm of Gustu.

We ate at Gustu twice, first for their 10-course tasting menu (many of those courses are pictured above) which featured raw llama, quinoa, dry aged beef, amaranth “caviar”, and much more in dishes that were somehow rustic and polished at the same time. We later returned for lunch which offers a choice of three appetizers and three mains including meat, fish and veg options, then dessert for 95BS (about US$14). It’s an incredible value. Eat lunch at the bar to be closer to Gustu’s excellent selection of Bolivian craft beers, spirits, and wines.

 

Rafael restaurant Lima

Rafael – Lima, Peru

It took us a strangely long time to get to Peruvian chef Rafael Osterling’s eponymous Rafael restaurant, even though there’s one in Bogota and one in Lima. Rafael in Lima is #24 on 2017 list of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants and during a recent dinner visit we fell in love with the casual, modern decor including a pleasingly rambling collection of modern art (loved the 1960s canvas folding beach chair folded and hung on the wall in all it’s graphic and utilitarian splendor).

The bar (where a tapas menu is available) has an impressive selection of libations including a number of bourbons (a rarity in much of Latin America). This inspired us to order a Wonder Woman cocktail with Buffalo Trace bourbon and smoky Laphroaig Scotch. It was splendid. The menu is wide-ranging with something for everyone and a long list of daily appetizer and main course specials. The eating started with a basket of chewy bread with topping choices including organic butter, goat cheese cream, and thin slices of mild pastrami pork.

With so much choice, placing our meal order took some time, but wait staff was patient and helpful (including English) and we never felt rushed. We shared a tuna tiradito started that came already split onto two beautifully presented plates. The sauce was lively and the sliced, raw fish nearly melted in our mouths. The most beautiful plate we ordered was cloud-like gnocchi (the pastas are homemade too) in a goat cheese sauce with cherry tomato halves and thin-sliced radishes. Confit pork came in two luscious squares on a bed of creamed cauliflower. The confit grouper on squid ink rice with scallops and shrimp was the most surprising and satisfying dish – essentially an elegant deconstructed paella.

The extensive dessert menu is full of temptations. Go for it, but leave room for the small bites of elegant sweets brought before your check.

 

Next up: Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants hit list

We’re still hungry. Here are some of the restaurants on the 2017 list that we’re looking forward to visiting soon.

Lima has 10 restaurants on the 2017 list – the most of any city in Latin America. We’ve eaten at seven of them. Other Lima restaurants that are squarely in out sights: Amaz (#47) and Malabar (#30), both from Chef Pedro Miguel Schiaffino, and Fiesta from Chef Hector Solís (#46).

Sao Paulo, Brazil has six restaurants on the 2017 list and we’ve only eaten at one of them. On the top of our Sao Paulo hit list is D.O.M. at #3 on the Latin list and #16 on the 2017 list of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants. But we’ll be saving room for Maní (#9), Mocotó (#27),  Esquina Mocotó (#41), and Tuju (#45) as well when we return to Sao Paulo.

 

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Our Latest Work: Manaus, Lima, the Galapagos, Machu Picchu & More…

We just realized that we haven’t published a post about Our Latest Work in a really, really long time. We can fix that. Our most recent freelance travel stories are about Lima, Peru for the Delta Sky Magazine, Manaus, Brazil for CNN Travel, and the Che Guevara trail in Bolivia for the website for the Biography channel.

Delta Sky Magazine - Lima

If you’re on a Delta Airlines flight this month, check our first story for Delta Sky Magazine which where to eat, sleep, and enjoy in three great neighborhoods in Lima. Or read it here

CNN Manaus

This guide to the best things to do in Manaus, Brazil is our first story for CNN Travel. 

 

Bio.com che in Bolivia

On the eve of the 50th anniversary of the death of Che Guevara, Bio.com published our story about touring the tiny Bolivian town where he was secretly buried

 

T+L Guide to galapagos Islands

Here are some favorite stories of ours which were published earlier in the year, including our all new Travel Guide to the Galapagos Islands for Travel + Leisure

 

Good - Peruvian chef Ocampo

We were delighted to write about Peruvian Chef Palmiro Ocampo and his quest to reduce food waste and hunger for Good magazine. 

 

T+L Guide to Machu Picchu

We also updated Travel+ Leisure’s Travel Guide to Machu Picchu, Peru’s most famous (and most complicated) destination. 

 

Afar - Travel Fails

Then there was our quick and funny (we hope) piece about real-life Travel Fails for Afar magazine. 

 

And if going green (er) is your thing, check out our story about cutting-edge eco measures in the Galapagos which was published in newspapers across Canada. 

 

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A Watery Wonderland – Bonito, Brazil

Bonito would be just another sleepy town in the southern Pantanal region of Brazil if it weren’t surrounded by rivers of crystal clear spring-fed water which are home to so many docile (and delicious) fish that it seems you might be able to walk on water after all. Here’s our travel guide to the watery wonderland in Bonito, Brazil including floating, swimming, snorkeling, and diving (plus a few dry adventures too).

Municipal Swimming Area Bonito, Brazil

The Municipal Swimming Area is the closest and cheapest way to enjoy the crystal clear water that Bonito, Brazil is famous for.

Bonito started out as a rural collection of enormous farms (called fazendas in Portuguese). Slowly, landowners realized that the rivers and waterways on their land were not like other rivers. In Bonito, the water is supernaturally clear. So clear that it almost creates an optical illusion, as if you’re looking at a mirror or just thin air, not water.

When tourists started coming to see the natural beauty of the place some landowners stopped farming and created an infrastructure to make it easier for visitors to access rivers and waterfalls and Bonito’s tourism industry began.

Estancia Mimosa waterfall Bonito, Brazil

One of eight waterfalls on the hiking and swimming circuit at Estancia Mimosa.

Today, there are dozens of tour agencies selling dozens of tours and those in the business have even begun to self-regulate with visitor caps and other measures meant to limit the human impact on their amazing waterways.

Red & Green Macaw, Buraca das Araras - Bonito, Brazil

A red and green macaw hanging out in the enormous Buraco das Araras crater.

What to do in Bonito, Brazil

It’s (almost) all about getting wet in Bonito. Most sites are a 30-60 minute drive from town except for the Municipal Swimming area (Balenario Municipal) which is right on the outskirts of Bonito. That’s where we started (30 BRL entry, about US$9.50 per person, buy a voucher at any tour operator in town or at the entrance to the swimming area). This is the cheapest and easiest way to enjoy the amazing water in Bonito and no guide is required.

Balenario Municipal Bonito, Brazil

The Municipal Swimming Area in Bonito is very popular, especially on weekends.

Floating Rio Formosa Bonito, Brazil

Yes, the water really is that clear in the Formosa River around which Bonito’s Municipal Swimming Area is built.

The Municipal Swimming area accesses the spring-fed Formosa River which flows through a series of wide, deep swimming areas connected by sections of river which you can float down. The water was full of big fish too which were fun (and disconcerting) to swim with.

There are surprisingly good outdoor restaurants too. We got great chicken Milanese with potatoes, salad, and rice for 18 BRL (about US$5.75). Cold beer is available too for 5 BRL (about US$1.50). Other facilities include a large parking area, changing rooms, and bathrooms. It gets very busy with locals on weekends.

Rio da Prata is one of the most popular destinations in Bonito and for good reason: it’s the longest continuous snorkeling stretch in the region at more than a mile (2 km). The road from Bonito to Rio da Prata is mostly paved but allow about an hour to reach the main complex. From there you take a short drive in an open-air vehicle, then walk along a 1 mile (2 km) trail for about 30 minutes to reach the river which is full of fish including many golden dorado.

Rio da Prata snorkeling - Bonito, Brazil

A flashy golden dorado, and other species of fish, in the Rio da Prata.

As we floated downstream in the swift current we also saw monkeys in branches over the river as we passed under them which was a unique perspective. Facilities at the main complex, where you start and finish, include (weak) WiFi, shaded seating, bathrooms, showers, lockers, and an area full of hammocks.

Parrots and Macaws feeding Rio da Prata - Bonito, Brazil

Visitors who arrive to Rio da Prata in the morning have the best chance of seeing the most species of birds, like these wild parrots and macaws who come to the feeder.

Many macaws, parrots, ibis, jays, and other birds congregate at the feeders and in the trees around the complex (especially in the morning). Some staff members speak some English and neoprene booties, short wet suits, and masks and snorkels are provided. Horseback riding is also available. Lunch is a huge buffet of traditional favorites, including some vegetarian options, cooked over a wood fire and served in a rustic kitchen. To help control environmental impact, there’s a self-imposed limit of 150 people per day at Rio da Prata.

waterfall Estancia Mimosa - Bonito, Brazil

Waterfalls in the spring-fed Mimosa River are the main attraction at Estancia Mimosa.

waterfall swimming Estancia Mimosa - Bonito, Brazil

Eric swimming in a waterfall in the spring-fed river at Estancia Mimosa near Bonito.

Estancia Mimosa is about 30 minutes from  Bonito and the main attraction on this farm turned nature reserve is a section of river that is punctuated by a series of eight waterfalls. Opened to tourists in 1999, this place now has a trail (about 2 miles or 3.2 km) which connects eight waterfalls where wooden platforms and stairs make getting into the water easy. Or you can just jump.

One particularly deep natural pool has a platform 20 feet (6 meters) above it. Horseback riding and bird watching (claim 250 species have been seen on the property) are also offered. A life jacket and a guide are included along with a massive post adventure lunch buffet. Neoprene booties, which you can walk in and swim in, are available for rent. Or just wear a sturdy pair of flip-flops or Crocs. 

SCUBA Lagoa Misteriosa

Eric after his dive in the Lagoa Misteriosa flooded sink hole.

Lagoa Misteriosa offers something entirely different: SCUBA diving in a flooded sinkhole that is 246 feet (75 meters) deep. The water is clearest between April and October. During the rest of the year plankton makes the water murky. Our dive master, Joao, told us that the water was never murky until local farmers began using pesticides. We were there when the water was murky, which meant Eric and Joao had to dive deeper in search of clearer water (Karen didn’t dive because she was still healing from emergency surgery in Campo Grande to remove her appendix).

When conditions are murky divers must have advanced level certification or higher. In clear water conditions basic open water certification is enough. To help control environmental impact only 28 divers per day are allowed in clear conditions. In murky conditions, just four divers a day are allowed. Honestly, visibility was really poor in the murky conditions so it’s worth planning to be there between April and October for the spectacularly clear water. SCUBA gear is provided.

SCUBA Lagoa Misteriosa - Bonito, Brazil

Eric diving in the flooded sink hole at Lagoa Misteriosa – as you can see, it’s worth planning to be there in the months when the water is clear.

Let’s say you want to stay dry…

Not every adventure in Bonito takes place in the water. For example, you will stay perfectly dry during a visit to Buraco das Araras (65 BRL or about US$20 per person including a mandatory guide, 7 am to 5 pm) where a loop trail around a sinkhole provides ample vantage points for viewing the resident red and green and red and blue macaws.

Red & Green Macaw, Buraca das Araras - Bonito, Brazil

A pair of red and green macaws at Buraco das Araras near Bonito.

Allow about an hour to finish the guided walk and you must wear closed shoes (no flip flops or sandals). We saw lots of macaws and the birds come and go and make a racket all day long as they fly into and out of the sinkhole which 330 feet (100 meters) deep and about 1,650 feet (500 meters) around – large enough to have a small forest growing inside it.

Buraca das Araras - Bonito, Brazil

A viewing platform over the Buraco das Araras.

More hardcore adventure tourism is beginning to take off in Bontio as well. The rappel from a steel platform at Boca da Onca, for example, is said to be the highest in Brazil. There are zip lines on offer and cave adventures too.

Where to sleep in Bonito, Brazil

We stayed at Pousada Galeria Artes where owner Maria Pires has created a well-run oasis using her natural Brazilian hospitality and experiences gained when she lived in Europe (including great English skills). Located about 10 blocks from the center of Bonito, the hotel has a big and peaceful central garden that’s full of mango trees, a pool, a parking area, and a range of very comfortable rooms in two separate buildings. Breakfast is amazing as is Maria who (literally) saved Karen’s life when her appendix needed to be removed.

Maria’s new place, Hotel Fazenda Beija Flor, just opened and offers seven rooms, plenty of hammocks, and a country house feeling that invokes old Bonito. This is the place to go if you’re a bird watcher (more than 100 species have been spotted) or orchid lover. There’s also a small beekeeping and honey producing operation on the property which is just outside of town.

Pousada Muito Bonito

Pousada Muito Bonito in Bonito, Brazil.

We also spent a few nights at Pousada Muito Bonito which is centrally located. Opened in 1994, it was one of the first hotels in Bonito. It’s been renovated and upgraded through the years but it’s still owned by the same family. There’s a parking area, a small pool (added in 2016), and small but comfortable rooms. In addition to the area’s natural beauty, the owners also want to promote the area’s culture, including the indigenous groups that once thrived in the area. For example, check out the tiles around the pool, above, which pay homage to the iconography in the art of the Kadiweu people. 

No matter which accommodation you pick, be aware that Bonito gets very busy during holidays and weekends, so make reservations during those times.

Where to eat in Bonito, Brazil

Bonito Beer Cervejas Especiais opened in late 2016 in a small, stylish space about a half block off the main plaza. They’ve got dozens of craft beers, mostly from Brazil. Communal wooden tables encourage conversation and there are also tables on the sidewalk outside. Snacks, including a charcuterie plate, are also available.

For lunch, head to the simple but clean and welcoming Jacquie restaurant also near the main plaza. Lunch buffet is 25 BRL (about US$7.80) and includes a wide range of fresh food with plenty of vegetarian options and nice desserts.

Jacquie’s sister runs Juanita Restaurante which is known for heaping platters of grilled whole fish in various sizes cooked in capers. Meant for sharing, the platters also include rice, potatoes, and vegetables. The food is delicious and reasonably priced and the outdoor tables are a breezy place for a beer.

Animal phone booths - Bonito, MS, Brazil

Karen hates talking on the phone unless it’s an oversized version of a jungle animal.

The best way to imagine a Brazilian pastel is to picture a huge, rectangular fried wonton with a filling. At Pastel Bonito they whip up a wide-range of pastels (5 BRL to 15 BRL or about US$1.50 to US$4.75) including one filled with caiman.

One more travel tip…

To get the most out of Bonito you really need a vehicle. Public transportation doesn’t really service the sights you want to see and tour companies offer van transport as part of their group tours, but they can be pricey. You may have read that there is no way to rent a car in Bonito, but that’s not correct. You can rent a car in Bonito through Localiza and Unidas in Bonito.

Here’s more about travel in Brazil

 

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Photo Essay: Grand Tour of Oscar Niemeyer Modernist Architecture in Brasilia, Brazil

In 1956 the newly elected president of Brazil, Juscelino Kubitschek, spoke with the Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer:  “I am going to build a new capital for this country and I want you to help me,” he said. With that, Oscar Niemeyer became the planner and chief architect of Brazil’s new capital. In April of 1960, Brasilia, the purpose-built modernist city in the middle of the highland jungles of Brazil, became the country’s capital. More than 25 of the monumental and government buildings in Brasilia were ultimately designed by Oscar Niemeyer. UNESCO made Brasilia a World Heritage Site in 1987 due to its modernist architecture and premeditated urban planning. Here’s our grand tour of Oscar Niemeyer modernist architecture in Brasilia.

Modernist Architecture of Oscar Niemeyer in Brasilia, Brazil

Oscar Niemeyer National Congress Brasilia, Brazil

The National Congress (Supremo Tribunal Federal) of Brazil, pictured above, is home to the national legislature and is the centerpiece of Brasilia’s “Monumental Axis” which is the grand avenue that the city of Brasilia was built around. This avenue is where most of the government buildings and monuments (including all but the last two buildings mentioned in this post) were built.

 

Monumental Axis Brasilia

In the middle of the Monumental Axis (Eixo Monumental), pictured above, stands the TV Tower (Torre de TV). From its observation deck you get a great overview of the Monumental Axis and Brasilia’s modernist design (pictured above).

 

Oscar Niemeyer Planalto Palace

Oscar Niemeyer Planalto Presidential Palace

The Planalto Palace (Palácio do Planalto) is the official office of the President. It stands on Three Powers Plaza (Praça dos Três Poderes) because the plaza represents the meeting of the three governmental branches of powers: the executive branch represented by the Planalto Palace, the legislative branch represented by the National Congress (pictured above), and the judiciary branch represented by the Supreme Federal Court (pictured below).

 

Oscar Niemeyer Supreme Federal Court Brasilia

The Supreme Federal Court (Supremo Tribunal Federal) is the highest court in Brazil.

 

Oscar Niemeyer Cathedral of Brasilia

Oscar Niemeyer National cathedral Brasilia

The Cathedral of Brasilia, more formally known as the Metropolitan Cathedral of Our Lady of Aparecida (Catedral Metropolitana Nossa Senhora Aparecida) is one of Brasilia’s signature buildings and an iconic Niemeyer design both inside (pictured above) and out (pictured above that).

 

Oscar Niemeyer Tancredo Neves Pantheon

Tancredo Neves Pantheon of the Fatherland and Freedom (Panteão da Pátria e da Liberdade Tancredo Neves) also sits on the Three Powers Plaza. Following the 1984 death of Tancredo Neves, the first civilian president elected to office after twenty years of military rule in Brazil, the Tancredo Neves Pantheon of the Fatherland and Freedom was built to honor national heroes.

 

Oscar Niemeyer Ministry of Foreign Affairs

The Ministry of External relations is based out of the Itamaraty Palace (Palácio Itamaraty). The building is also known as the Palace of the Arches and is seen above with the National Congress towers in the background.

 

Oscar Niemeyer Ministry of Justice

The Palace of Justice (Palácio da Justiça) is home to the Ministry of Justice.

 

Oscar Niemeyer National museum

Part of the Cultural Complex of the Republic. along with the National Library, the National Museum of the Republic (Museu Nacional Honestino Guimarães), pictured above, hosts temporary art exhibits.

 

Oscar Niemeyer Memorial JK

Niemeyer’s JK Memorial, pictured above, is a museum and memorial dedicated to Juscelino Kubitschek who was President of Brazil between 1956 and 1961. Kubitscheck is viewed as the father of modern Brazil and he was responsible for the creation of Brasilia.

 

Oscar Niemeyer Brasilia Palace Hotel

The Brasilia Palace Hotel, pictured above, was one of the first buildings to be built in Brasilia. It was nearly destroyed by fire in 1978 and was abandoned for nearly a decade after that before Niemeyer was brought in to oversee a gorgeous restoration of his original design.

 

Oscar Niemeyer Brasilia Alvorada PalaceThe Palace of Dawn (Palácio da Alvorada), pictured above, is the official residence of the President of Brazil. Though recent reports in Brazilian newspapers say the current president no longer lives there because of ghosts in the building.

 

Below is a little dash-cam time-lapse video shot while driving around the Monumental Axis in Brasilia.

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Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2016 – Best Food & Beverages

This post is part 3 of 4 in the series Best of 2016

Crunchy ceviche in Peru, a chart-topping steal in Brazil, an epic Bloody Mary in Ecuador, a big surprise burger in Bolivia and more! Welcome to Part 3 of our Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2016 series–our guide to the Best Food & Beverages of the year. Part 1 covers the Top Travel Adventures of 2016, Part 2 covers the Best Hotels of the year and Part 4 tells you all about our Travel Gear of the Year. But now, in no particular order, here’s our guide to the…

Best food and beverages of 2016

Casa do Porco Sao Paulo San Ze pig

Chopped pork and sides at A Casa do Porco in Sao Paulo, Brazil – our chart-topping steal of the year.

Best chart-topping steal

Casa Do Porco restaurant Sao Paulo Brazil

Chef Jefferson Rueda with some of the porky goodness at his A Casa do Porco restaurant in Sao Paulo.

A Casa do Porco in downtown Sao Paulo, Brazil debuted on the list of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2016 at number 24. There’s a reason for that remarkably high entry: chef Jefferson Rueda (pictured above) cooks a pig (porco in Portuguese) like no one else and his nose-to-tail dishes are inventive yet never overworked. He’s not a meddler. Pork sushi roll with raw pork (top right), pig foot soup, his take on steamed pork buns, meaty deep-fried chicharron cubes (top left) which he tops with guava pepper jelly and micro greens, succulent whole-roasted pig served chopped with grilled greens, polenta, and creamy beans. We could go on and on.

Prices are remarkably affordable (on par with many ho-hum eateries in Sao Paulo) which is why there’s usually a line out the door at this no reservations place. Insider tips: go for lunch in the late afternoon for the best chance of getting a table (A Casa do Porco does not close in the afternoon like many restaurants do). And even if you’re really on a budget, grab a fantastic pork sandwich on a homemade ciabatta roll from the restaurant’s to-go window on the street. At R$15 (about US$4.50), it’s the biggest sandwich bargain in the city–perhaps the whole country.

Best reinvention of a beloved classic

Ceviche crocante - Restaurante Bilbao Tumbes, Peru

Crunchy ceviche. Repeat. Crunchy ceviche.

Peru is the land of ceviche and if you ask a Peruvian, no one else does it right. At Restaurante Bilbao in Tumbes, Peru, Spanish chef David Saez has daringly put his own twist on the classic. To make his award-winning ceviche crocante (crunchy ceviche) he prepares classic Peruvian ceviche with fish, crab and shrimp. Here comes the twist. He dices up the seafood and squeezes out as much liquid as possible. Then he makes balls out of the seafood mixture, mixes it with egg and panko, then flash fries the balls. The result is a citrusy take on a crab cake.

Best bartender

Leonardo Massonni bartender Acougue Central restaurant Sao Paulo

Açougue bartender Leonardo Massoni and some of his meat-friendly cocktail creations.

Leonardo Massoni (pictured above) is just 28-years-old but he’s already caught the eye of Brazilian star chef Alex Atala whose Sao Paulo restaurant  D.O.M. is  #3 on the 2016 list of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants. Atala installed Massoni behind the bar at his newest restaurant, Açougue Central which opened in the city’s Vila Madalena neighborhood in 2016. Açougue means butcher in Portuguese and the restaurant is all about using all parts of the animal, including cuts that are usually considered inferior.

Massoni has taken that mission to heart, invading the kitchen frequently to consult with chef Alejandro Peyrou about ingredients and flavor profiles which he then incorporates into his bar work to create cocktails that compliment the food like wine. For example, ossobucco infused vodka which Massoni uses to make a splendidly meaty Bloody Mary. There’s a classic robo de galo and a cachaça and tonic and so much more including a fantastic glassware collection.

The creative tide flows both ways too. The crispy pig ears (pictured top right), which the kitchen produces by simmered pig ears for hours in water flavored with onion and spices, then pressing them before deep-frying, are the best bar snack of the year.

Best burger

Baracus Burger - Santa Cruz, Bolivia

A great burger in Bolivia.

We were only in Bolivia for eight days in 2016, but that was enough time to find something delicious to eat. There are only four burgers on the menu at Baracus Burger in central Santa Cruz, Bolivia (from around Bs42, or about US$6). We went for the classic cheeseburger with lettuce and tomato. The patty was hefty, tasty, and not over cooked. The bun had sesame seeds on it. And all burgers come with fresh-cut, skin on fries which were crispy and moist (if over salted). Our runner-up burger of the year: Hamburgueria do Barão in Uberlandia, Brazil which has the added benefit of having a selection of Brazilian craft beers to choose from.

Best business card

Cerveza Zenith - Cusco, Peru

Cerveza Zenith in Cusco, Peru is making great craft beer and handing out clever bottle-shaped business cards.

We really, really liked the craft beer being made by Cerveza Zenith in Cusco, Peru. We also liked the owner’s business card. Tip: On most Friday and Saturday nights Aussie founder Zac Lanham opens the brewery as an informal bar. Stop by and check out the beers. He might even give you a card.

Best way to play with your food

Jambu Restaurant Brasillia

A really playful palette cleanser in Brazil.

Young Brazilian chef Leandro Nunes, who is Cordon Bleu trained and worked at Noma, serves a very playful palette cleanser at his Jambu Restaurante in Brasilia, Brazil. First, you pop a fresh, bright yellow jambu flower in your mouth and chew the Amazonian herb until your mouth starts to water and gets all tingly like a low volt electrical current (in a good way). Then you pop in a piece of Brazil nut wrapped in pear leather and let the oil from the nut and the sugar from the fruit cancel out the effects of the jambu. Then pop in a crunchy, completely natural, and totally untreated ant which burst with lemongrass flavor. It’s so much fun.

Best cocktail as a meal

Bloody Mary @ Zfood Pescaderia - Quito, Ecuador

Zfood combines a Bloody Mary with a seafood cocktail in Quito, Ecuador.

It’s a Bloody Mary. It’s a seafood cocktail. It’s both! Just order one (US$15) at Zfood Pescaderia in Quito, Ecuador. 

Best chef on a mission

chef Palmiro Ocampo 1087 Bistro - Lima Peru

Keep your eye on Peruvian Chef Palmiro Ocampo.

At 1087 Bistro in Lima, owner and chef Palmiro Ocampo practices what he preaches about using the whole ingredient to reduce food waste and alleviate hunger using “culinary recycling” techniques (learn more in our story about Ocampo’s mission for Good magazine). Dishes like cartilage grilled chicken (yes, made using cartilage that would normally be thrown away) are elegant, unexpected, and delicious. He can even make plantain peels taste great. That’s why Ocampo was in charge of Peru’s famous Mistura food festival in 2016. Keep your eye on this rising star.

Best wine bar

Ovo e Uva wine bar - Sao Paulo, Brazil

Get serious about wine in a casual atmosphere at Ovo e Uva in Sao Paulo.

Ovo e Uva, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, is a relaxed place that’s serious about wine. The wine list runs to nearly 200 bottles coming from all over the world including the usual suspects plus Greece, Hungary, Lebanon, Uruguay and, of course, Brazil. More than 20 bottles are offered by the glass (R$19 to R$38 per glass or about US$6 to US$11) and Ovo e Uva has a large wine-preservation system to keep all those open bottles fresh. There’s also a menu of wine-friendly food like a charcuterie plate and grilled octopus over risotto. The restaurant also hosts monthly themed wine get togethers for a maximum of 15 people and it’s also a wine store. Pick up a bottle to take away and get 10% off the price.

Best Italian food

Chef Massimo Ristorante Trastavere - Cuenca, Ecuador

Chef Massimo brings Roman food traditions to Cuenca, Ecuador.

Chef Massimo, who was born in Rome, opened Ristorante Trastavere in Cuenca, Ecuador in 2015. He makes homemade pasta, gnocchi, bread, and sauces. He makes his own mozzarella, smokes his own fish, and cures his own meats too. The food, served on red and white checked tablecloths in a small dining room above his even smaller open kitchen, is extraordinary as is Massimo’s passion for what he does. Rumor has it he’s opening a pizza joint in Cuenca too.

Best old man bar

Juanito Bodgea Bar - Barranco neighborhood of Lima

Time stands still in Juanito Bodega Bar in Lima.

You know what an old man bar is, right? It’s a place that’s been around forever, probably always owned by the same family, and certainly frequented by the same patrons (and their offspring). Old man bars are usually short on ambiance but long on history and some intangible something that makes up for the iffy bathroom and mostly non-existent service. Prices and tolerance for BS are both low.

Beloved by starving artists and politicians alike, Juanito Bodgea Bar in the Barranco neighborhood of Lima, Peru is a quintessential old man bar. Opened in 1937, it’s still owned by the same family, albeit next door to the original location where an exact replica of the original bar was re-created. The ceiling is high, the lights are bright, the insect zapper works overtime.

Drink prices are, by far, the cheapest in the area. There are, of course, pisco sours but we prefer chilcanos (pisco and ginger ale) which can be had for as little as PEN7 (about US$2) depending on which pisco you choose, and there are many to choose from. And if you get hungry, don’t worry. Juanito’s (as everyone calls it) is also know for its sandwiches. 

Best extreme dessert

King Kong - Lambayeque, Peru

One of many shops around Lembayeque, Peru selling the beloved King Kong dessert.

A King Kong, made mainly in and around the city of Lambayeque in northern Peru, is a regional treat comprised of rectangular sheets of a crisp and moist cake/cookie hybrid layered with a gooey spread called manjarblanco, which is similar to dulce de leche, and fruit paste. This beloved sugar bomb has been made since the early 1900s and was first baked as a more elaborate and much larger version of an alfajor. It was so large that appreciative customers nicknamed the dessert King Kong.

Best brew pub

Cervezeria del Valle - Valle Sagrada, Peru

Peru is having a beer moment with lots and lots of quality craft brews across the country. Cervezeria del Valle in the Sacred Valley is a relatively young operating but is already one of the country’s most awarded and most ambitious breweries. Big bonus: they have a simple and inviting brew pub next to a river where beers are poured, food is cooked, and good music is played.

Best fried bread on the street

Yuquitas Martin - Barranoc, Lima

Peru’s most famous chef loves these fried breads and we did too.

Every year Lima hosts the massive Mistura food festival. During that festival, Peruvian food both high and low is prepared, eaten, and judged. This includes the humble yuquita which is a beloved fried bread made with yuca flour. Think of yuquitas a longer, lighter doughnut s. In the Barranco neighborhood of Lima you will find a cart emblazoned with the name Yuquitas Martin (it’s usually on Grau Street across from a store called DeliFrance). Here, for PEN1.50 (about US$0.50), you get a bag of five fresh, light, delicious yuquitas. Martin’s humble fried bread on the street has won awards at Mistura (as noted on his cart) and Peruvian superstar chef Gaston Acurio endorses them (also noted). Martin usually sells out by 11am, so be quick. We suggest getting two bags. 

Best bar on a budget

Boteco Paramount bar - Sao Paulo, Brazil

Barman Neto with his daughter on the business end of his new budget bar Boteca Paramount in Sao Paulo.

Jose Francisco Neto (whose business card awesomely says “Barman Neto”) opened Boteco Paramount in 2016 on the edge of the Pinieros neighborhood in Sao Paulo, Brazil. His idea was to make high quality, handcrafted cocktails at a fraction of the cost most city bars charge. He has accomplished just that. In his tiny, basic bar (it still looks pretty much like the simple tienda it no doubt previously was) you can get a classic caprinha for R$10 (about US$3) or splurge and get an artesenal caprinha, made with fresh chili peppers or muddled tangerine, for example, for R$14 (about US$4.30). All the standard cocktails are also on offer at similarly bargain prices. Whatever you order, enjoy while listening to Jose’s eclectic playlist (Paula Abdul, Led Zeppelin, Kate Bush). If you’re lucky, Jose’s daughter Beatriz will be around drawing pictures and generally being adorable.

Best cure for what ails you

Leche de Tigre @ Al Toke Pez - Lima, Peru

Get the cure for what ails you at this hole-in-the-wall in Lima.

You could easily drive right past Al Toke Pez which is a closet-sized establishment on a busy street in Lima. Sandwiched between auto part stores, this six stool eatery dishes up amazing leche de tigre with sliced onions and a bit of fresh ceviche and a fried fish strip or two on top. It comes to you in a Styrofoam cup with a plastic spoon and they do a roaring take away business (probably because it only has six stools) (PEN3 to PEN5 or about US$0.90 to US$1.50). It’s zippy and energizing and the guy on the stool next to us assured us it’s also full of vitamins and pure protein. Many say its the best hangover cure in the city.

Best food with rules

Tiesto's - Cuenca, Ecuador

Diners at Tiesto’s in Cuenca, Ecuador need to be ready to play with flavors and follow a few rules.

Juan Carlos Solano, owner and chef at Tiesto’s in Cuenca, Ecuador, knows what’s best. While there is a menu at his restaurant, the self-taught chef is just as likely to tell you what you’re having for dinner and then leave it to the well-trained waiters at this Cuenca institution to tell you how to eat it. House made condiments on the table are meant to be eaten in a specific order and in specific combinations, for example. No willy nilly dipping of bread allowed. That’s because Solano is all about playing with flavors and whether he’s cooking prawns or pork, at his restaurant the flavor game has rules.

Best pizza

Bassano Italian Pizzeria - Huncahco, Peru

At Bassano Italian Pizzeria in Huanchaco, a small beach town in Northern Peru, they make pizza in a wood-fired oven and it shows. The thin crust is crunchy and chewy with just enough salt and wood char. A wide range of toppings are offered including cherry tomatoes and arugula the owners grow themselves. Prices are reasonable too–from PEN25 to PEN38 or about US$7.50 to US$11 (depending on toppings) for a large, 14” pie that yields eights slices. Personal size pizzas are also available. Plus it’s BYOB. Hours are unpredictable, so send a message through the pizzeria’s Facebook page before arriving.

Best unexpected star

chef Samuel Ortega. Shamuico Espai Gastronomic - Saraguro, Ecuado

Chef Samuel Ortega has brought skills learned in Europe back home to Saraguro, Ecuador.

We did not expect to find remarkable food in  Saraguro, Ecuador a small remote town an hour from Loja. Then we walked into Shamuico Espai Gastronomic run by local chef Samuel Ortega. Ortega moved to Spain with his family when he was 12 and honed his kitchen skills in Europe including time working at Il Bulli.

When Ortega was 24 he returned to Saraguro and opened his own place in a 160 year old building on the square that he restored with his architect sister. Ortega says 90% of the ingredients he uses come from the rich agricultural area around Saraguro or from his own small kitchen garden. His sometimes unorthodox needs have even inspired local farmers to experiment with different crops. Grab a table inside a modern dining room with skylights and a view into the open kitchen or outdoors in the traditional central courtyard and enjoy drinks, snacks, or polished full plates at incredibly reasonable prices. We did.

Best original cocktail

La Chalupa restaurant - Cuenca, Ecuador,

You can taste the wildness in this cocktail inspired by Cajas National Park near Cuenca, Ecuador.

Bernardo, the bartender at La Chalupa restaurant in Cuenca, Ecuador, wanted to create a cocktail that embodies the wild earthiness of nearby Cajas National Park. His Cajas Spirit cocktail is made with rum or tequila that he infuses with herbs harvested from the park plus tonic water, lime juice, and Angostura bitters (around US$5). It’s bracing and refreshing, just like a hike in its namesake park.

Best tasting menu

Central Restaurant Lima

You can believe the hype about Central in Lima.

Few restaurants or chefs have generated more hype in the past couple of years than Virgilio Martinez and his Lima restaurant Central. Central is #1 on the 2016  list of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants for the third year in a row and #4 on the 2016 list of The World’s Best Restaurants. You can’t talk about top restaurants without mentioning Central and Martinez just released another book. Luckily, you get served more than hype and book reviews at Central.

We sat down to face the 12 course Mater Ecosystems tasting menu and for the next three hours we got schooled in just how good cuisine can be when skill and vision meet. In Martinez’s case, his vision is to celebrate and explore Peruvian ingredients from all altitudes and geographic locations, honoring their provenance. His skill is in being able to re-invent them as well. At one point we were eating bark and clay. And loving it.

Best sushi

Tsuri Peixaria Sushi Bar - Sao Paulo, Brazil

Fresh fish is king and the chef knows it at Tsuri in Sao Paulo.

Brazil has the largest population of citizens of Japanese descent of any country outside Japan and Brazil is full of Japanese restaurants, including in the city of Sao Paulo. Tsuri Peixaria Sushi Bar, opened in 2016 by the same family behind the wildly popular Aragón Mediterranean restaurant, could have been just one more, but it’s not. More than just sushi, the inventive menu also includes edamame with truffle oil, scallops with foi gras, tempura, and more. But sushi is where Tsuri really excels, in part because Japanese Brazilian chef Sergio Kubo knows that his real job doesn’t start until the restaurant closes for the night. That’s when, fortified with saki, he heads to the city’s fish market to find the best products for the following day. And all that saki? Chef Kubo says it helps him pick the best fish because it enables him to see the freshest ones winking at him.

Best dream-come-true meal

Osso Carniceria & Salumeria - Lima, Peru

Finally.

We’ve been dreaming about eating at Osso Carniceria & Salumeria in Lima, Peru ever since we read this amazing story about its creator, Renzo Garibaldi (pictured below). In 2016 we sat down with Garibaldi for a long lunch that included amazing tartare and small bites of exquisitely aged and sliced beef. Even better, Garibaldi told us about his latest projects (read our piece about Garibaldi’s two new restaurants in Lima for NewWorlder.com), so now we’re dreaming about eating there too. Good thing we’re returning to Lima later this year…

Renzo Garibaldi Osso restaurant - Lima, Peru

 

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Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2016 – Top Travel Adventures

This post is part 1 of 4 in the series Best of 2016

Jaguar spotting in Brazil, trekking the Andes in Peru, mud slogging and (really) close-encounters with condors in Ecuador, tapir sex, and more! Welcome to Part 1 in our Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2016 series–our guide to the Top Travel Adventures of the year. Part 2 covers the Best Hotels of 2016, Part 3 covers the Best Food and Beverages of the year, and Part 4 tells you all about our favorite Travel Gear of the year. But now, in no particular order, here are our…

Top travel adventures of 2016

Raimbow Mountain Ausangate Peru

Peru’s Rainbow Mountain which we visited during the Apu’s Trail hike around Ausangate.

Best mountain trek

Andean Lodges Ausangate Trek Peru

Karen hoofing it up an other Andean slope during the Apu’s Trail hike around Ausangate in Peru.

Everybody knows about the Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu, that’s why it’s so crowded you have to make your plans and reservations months in advance. But Peru is full of other even more spectacular ways to trek in the Andes. If you’re seeking time in the mountains, spectacular scenery, and difficult but rewarding trails then trekking around 20,945 foot (6,384 meter) Ausangate Mountain is hard to beat.

There are many ways to get into this region which is not far from Cusco. We went with Andean Lodges, which has built a string of comfortable lodges (wood stove for heat, no electricity, good beds in private rooms with bathrooms that offer hot water during certain hours), on their 4-day/5-night Apu’s Trail route around this massive and sacred mountain. It delivered everything we were looking for and then some, including visiting Peru’s increasingly popular Rainbow Mountain, then continuing down the trail to an even more spectacular high-altitude landscapes which nearly no one visits.

We haven’t loved a multi-day hike this much since we were tramping around the Himalayas.

Best slog through the mud

El Altar Trek Ecuador

The crater lake in El Altar volcano, our reward (plus condors!) for the muddy slog up.

El Altar is an extinct volcano so named because someone thought its nine peaks looked like nuns and friars worshiping. Nuns or not, it is a beautiful volcano with a lovely crater lake and it sits at the head of a wide, wind-swept valley. It’s the kind of beauty that needs to be earned, which may explain why the hike to El Altar (there are no roads, though you may see left over materials from one ill-fated attempt) is so difficult.

The trail starts from Hacienda Releche in the tiny town of Candelaria and almost immediately it is a steep, slippery slog up an increasingly muddy trail. We wore our rubber boots  (and you should too) and there were points on the trail when they were almost sucked off our feet by mud. The stuff was nearly knee-deep in places. Around six hours later we arrived at the Collares plain with El Altar just ahead of us.

This is where the owners of Hacienda Releche have built Refugios Capac Urcu (Capac Urcu is another name for El Altar) with plenty of dorm rooms with bunk beds and shared bathrooms and a big kitchen. You can carry up what you need (sleeping bag, food, etc) or hire a horse and horseman from the hacienda. After such a slog up we recommend spending at least two nights in the refugio. The plain and the volcano are lovely places to explore on foot but the weather at more than 11,000 feet (3,400 meters) is changeable so you’ll want to hang around for good weather for as long as you can.

Did we mention that El Altar is also condor country? When we hiked up the flank of the volcano to the crater lake we had an extremely close encounter with a condor that flew by at eye level no more than 10 feet (3 meters) from Eric. Check out our condor fly by video, for proof.

Best XXX wild animal encounter

Tapir sex

You can’t unsee this: tapir sex.

We hadn’t been in the boat for more than five minutes when our boatman from Pousada do Rio Mutum in Brazil’s Pantanal Norte cut the engine and our guide pointed out two tapirs swimming a few hundred feet in front of the boat. Though big and clumsy looking, tapirs are great swimmers and we watched in silence as they made it to shore. That’s when the male decided it was sexy-time and, after appearing to give the female a kiss (truly), he got down to business. Turns out they’re way more graceful in the water than they are in the bedroom. Cue Barry White.

Best horseback riding to an archaeological site

horseback riding ruins chiclayo peru

Riding easy-gaited Peruvian horses through protected dry forest to an archaeological site.

Peru is full of archaeological sites and we visited most of them by car and on foot. However, at Rancho Santana, near Chiclayo, you can visit way off-the-beaten-path sites on horseback. Swiss owner Andrea has about a dozen Peruvian Paso horses and offers a variety of rides (S/55, about US$17, for a three-hour ride to one site; S/75, about US$23, for a five-hour ride to three sites, or multi-day rides).

We chose the three-hour ride to Huaca Sontillo (sometimes written Santillo), passing through the Pómac Forest Historical Sanctuary, an enormous protected dry forest, via a private entrance that Andrea has special permission to use. It was hot and dry but the scenery was great and it was fun to experience the unique ultra-smooth gait of these horses (when horse and rider click it’s like riding a moving sofa).

The Sontillo site is only minimally excavated and when we walked to the top of the only visible structure there were still a lot of bits of pottery around. There is also basic accommodation at Rancho Santana (fan, bathroom) for those who want to hang out or do multiple rides.

 Best mystery from the air

nazca lines

The Nazca Lines are a unique combination of art, culture, and mystery and they’re best seen from the air – something their creators could never do (unless you subscribe to the alien artist theory).

No one truly understands how the Nazca Line in Peru were made or what they were for. That mystery makes them even more compelling. The best way to see massive earth art like the lines is from the air. Our thanks to Alas Peruanas for taking us on a 30 minute flight over the lines. The plane was small, the altitude was low, the turns were many, and the lines were amazing. We recommend staying at the new B Hotel Nasca Suites. It’s right across the highway from the airport and out of the hub-bub of central Nasca. A pool was going in when we were there too.

Best cave float

Bola do Quebo is about a 1-hour drive each way from Bom Jardim town in northern Brazil (about 40 minutes of the drive is on a dirt road, parts of which are very washboarded). The small operation at Bola do Quebo supplies beefy and smartly designed tubes, helmets, life vests, and water shoes for a 30 minute adventure down a 1.2 mile (2 km) stretch of the clear and fairly shallow River (R$75, about US$23 per person).

The highlight of the float is a 1,000 foot (304 meter) long cave which the river flows through. The heart-pumping entry into the cave takes you over two small but startling rapids which plunge you into the darkness of the cave. The combination of the bumpy ride and the sudden pitch blackness is dramatic and disorienting.

Need to know: As with 99% of the amazing watery attractions around Bom Jardim, you really need your own vehicle to get there. There is no food or beverages available on site. There is a passable toilet. Put on sunscreen. Don’t take anything that’s not waterproof with you on the tube. Put your sunglasses on a lanyard because you’ll want to take them off while you are in the dark cave. Wear a long-sleeve shirt or a skin for sun protection and to keep your arms from chafing on tube as you paddle and steer.

 Best drive for wildlife

Jabiru stork Transpantaneira Highway Pantanal Brazil

Huge jabiru storks, just one of the many species we saw at very close range while driving the Transpantaneira Highway in Brazil.

It took us eight hours to complete the 90 mile (145 km) Transpantaneira Highway from Pocone to Porto Jofre in the Pantanal Norte in Brazil. Why? Well, this dirt road is in pretty rough shape even under the best conditions. But the main reason the drive took so long was that we spent a lot of time stopped to look at and photograph wildlife. Here’s a short list of what we saw: hyacinth macaws, about 500 caiman, capybaras, great black hawks, cappuchin monkeys, cocoi herons, black-collared hawks, white-capped herons, jabiru storks, wood storks, crab eating foxes, rhea… We felt like Marlon Perkins (look him up, millennials). This critter-filled drive was worth every pothole, rut, and all 120+ of the (often super sketchy) wooden bridges along the way. 

 Best wild animal first

Jaguar pantanal brazil

You never forget your first time.

We spend a lot of time and energy trying to see wildlife. It’s one of our favorite things. Yet, despite years of looking and hundreds of miles of walking, we had never seen a jaguar in the wild. The pantanal region of Brazil is said to be one of the few places on earth where jaguar sightings are virtually guaranteed. We are skeptical of wildlife guarantees. Still, we headed to Hotel Pantanal Norte in Porto Jofre on the Cuiabá River at the end of the Transpantaneira Highway with high hopes. We were not disappointed. After a few hours on the river we saw a female jaguar and two older cubs on the bank in tall grass and we were able to observe them from our boat for a few minutes before the trio slipped deeper into the forest and out of sight. Sometimes you can believe the hype.

 Best drive for scenery

Sondondo Valley Peru

Part of the Sondondo Valley including slopes with Incan terraces which the locals still use to grow crops.

On our way to Puquio we missed the turn off for the Sondondo Valley and we’re very glad we returned later to explore it. The road into the valley is narrow but well paved and the valley itself varies from wide and semi-lush with herds of llamas and alpacas roaming around to narrow and cliff-lined, perfect for the condors who live here. There are also Incan terraces still being used by farmers, hot springs, and waterfalls. The tiny town of Andamarca seemed to have basic guest houses. The road through the valley appears to go all the way to Ayacucho, but we did not go that far so we don’t know if the paving continues or if the road quality worsens.

Best South American safari vehicle

 Refugio Ecologico Caiman safari vehicle

Safari in style at Refugio Ecologico Caiman in Brazil.

The open-sided, high clearance vehicles used for driving excursions and night safaris at eco lodges in Latin America are usually cobbled together rattletraps with uncomfortable seats and jarring suspensions. Not so at Refugio Ecologico Caiman in the Pantanal Sur in Brazil. The custom trucks used to transport guests on wildlife spotting excursions at this extraordinary private protected area  and eco lodge are brand new customized Toyota’s that are quiet, have comfortable padded seats, good suspension and are rugged enough to go off-roading where the animals are. There’s even a cool guide/spotters seat off the right hand corner of the front bumper. Seems like the jaguars like the vehicle too. We saw loads of them during our stay at Caiman.

 Best guide

Puma Tambopata Reserve Peru

Look closer. No, CLOSER. There’s a young puma looking back at you.

Rainforest Expeditions has been leading the eco way in the Tambopata area of southern Peru since they started as a macaw research and rescue center in 1989. The organization continues to do serious science (including brand new interactive Wired Amazon programs) and now operates three surprisingly upscale lodges in the area.

With chops like that it was no surprise that we had the best guide of the year during our stay with Rainforest Expeditions. His name is  Paul. He  grew up in remote village nearby on the Manu River and he knows Tambopata and its inhabitants intimately. True story: he had a pet jaguar growing up. He’s also funny and easy-going and willing to go the extra mile. For example, when he noticed cat prints and scat on a trail during a morning walk he suggested that we return to the same trail for a night walk to increase our chances of seeing the animal that left the pug marks.

The return visit paid off and we all got a (fleeting) glimpse of a young puma at night, something we never would have seen without Paul.

 Best THIRD visit to the Galapagos

Mating Blue Footed Boobies Galapagos

Blue footed boobies doing their bill-clacking mating dance in the Galapagos Islands.

Yeah, it was a Galapagos embarrassment of riches in 2016 with our third visit to Ecuador’s most iconic destination. You won’t believe us when we tell you it was work, but it was. Look! We did this travel guide to the Galapagos for Travel + Leisure magazine and this review of the fantastic Pikaia Lodge plus this piece about a new extra eco luxury boat.

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