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Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2014 – Best Hotels

This post is part 3 of 4 in the series Best of 2014

Welcome to Part 3 in our Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2014 series of posts. Part 3 is all about the Best Hotels of the past year of travel on our little road trip through the Americas including a salsa theme hotel in Colombia, the smartest amenity in the Amazon, the best budget hotel of the year, an outstanding eco hotel and the best luxury boutique hotel in Ecuador (by far). Part 1 covers the Best Adventures & Activities of 2014, Part 2 covers the Best Food & Beverages and Part 4 tells you all about our Travel Gear of the Year.

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

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

Best Hotels of 2014

Best luxury boutique hotel in Ecuador: It’s no contest. Casa Gangotena in Quito, Ecuador is the best luxury boutique hotel in Ecuador. It’s also the most expensive hotel in Ecuador with all the expected niceties of a world-class luxury boutique hotel. On top of all that, here’s what you get for your US$420 (and up) per night:

  • prime location in the Colonial heart of Quito, the world’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site city, right on Plaza San Francisco
  • a five year renovation transformed the art nouveau and art deco home of the Gangotena family into a hotel, preserving original details like pressed tin ceilings and an incredible curved marble staircase
  • some of the 31 spacious and light-filled rooms (one is pictured, below) have original wall frescoes
  • impeccable service – staff will even burn a CD of your digital camera images for free to clear up card space so you can take more photographs
  • delectable freshly made turn down treats every night
  • complimentary afternoon tea with plates of savory and sweet treats
  • an enormous and varied complimentary breakfast buffet
  • in-room materials in English or Spanish (changed to suit the needs of each new guest) and TVs that are programmed to the appropriate language too

 Casa Gangotena Quito Ecuador

Best bohemian hotel in Ecuador: Pantavi Hosteria & Spa, not far from the northern city of Ibara, was a sprawling cotton plantation with a hacienda home on the property. The cotton is gone and the original home has slowly been transformed into the best bohemian hotel in Ecuador. New owners, artist Camilo Andrade and his wife Adriana Ramirez, meticulously restored the original buildings which took on fresh life with Camilo’s modern art on the walls. A new wing of rooms shows off Camilo’s massive wall murals (below) and is home to four roomy suites which are worth the splurge (from US$115 including a fantastic full breakfast). Every piece of the art was created by Camilo and there are hundreds of diverse pieces giving the place an intimate gallery feel. Don’t miss the photos of Camilo, who’s also an avid mountain climber, with legendary mountaineer Reinhold Messner near the reception desk.

 Pantavi Hosteria & Spa Salinas Ecuador

Best hotel in a national park: Tambopaxi Lodge (below) is the only hotel that’s actually inside Ecuador’s Cotopaxi National Park, home to the Cotopaxi Volcano, one of the highest volcanoes in the world. Locals and travelers planning to climb 19,347 foot (5,897 meter) Cotopaxi cram the dorm rooms at Tambopaxi. Though mysteriously not represented on Tambopaxi’s website, the lodge also offers eight multi-bed suites with walls of windows and epic views of the perpetually snow-capped volcano. Six small private double rooms are also now available. At press time a refugio at 15,900 feet (4,800 meters) on the flanks of the volcano was being completely renovated and should re-open in 2015 offering additional lodging.

Tambopaxi Lodge Cotopaxi National Park Ecuador

Best view from bed: Speaking of volcanoes, Hacienda Manteles, near the town of Baños in Ecuador, is the place to go if you want to keep an eye on the very active Tungurahua Volcano without bothering to get dressed. The hotel recently added edgy, modern suites which were built with nearly floor to ceiling windows that give guests an unobstructed view of Tungurahua right from bed (below). The volcano, just a few miles from the hotel, has been spewing and erupting with some regularity lately and when the clouds part the view is awesome. Hacienda Manteles also gets the nod for best view from the tub since the suites also have big Jacuzzi tubs placed in front of corner windows that offer another view of the volcano.

Hacienda Manteles Ecuador

Best hotel eco initiative: Hotel Bambu was one of the first hotels on the beach in Canoa on Ecuador’s central Pacific Coast and it currently offers a wide range of comfortable, clean dorms and private rooms. As Canoa became more popular and more built up the Swiss/Ecuadorean owners became concerned about the growing problem of trash on the beach so they decided to offer a free cocktail to anyone who collects a large bag of trash from the beach. More bags mean more cocktails. We saw plenty of people taking them up on the offer and we love this simple, effective eco initiative.

Hotel Bambu Canoa, Ecuador

Best budget hotel: Here’s what you get for US$10 pp at Hostel Chimenea in Baños, Ecuador: a spotless private room with wood floors, lots of light, a hot water (mostly) bathroom, small patio with partial view of a nearby waterfall, a TV, living plants, a desk and chairs, WiFi and parking. Just be sure you reserve an upstairs private room (our favorite is number 23) because the private rooms off the small pool on the ground level are not the same quality. Shared dorm rooms are also available for even less money. 

Best cabins in the (really rare) woods: The fireplace-heated cabins at Polylepis Lodge, inside El Angel Ecological Reserve in northern Ecuador, have seen better days and are best thought of as bunking down in a family cabin that no one has visited in a few years. The real reason to book a night or two here lies outside your door. Polyepis Lodge is located smack in the middle of a forest of a species of weird, gnarled, peely-barked polylepis trees that is only found here. If ever there was a Tolkein forest, this is it (below).

 Polylepis Lodge El Angel Ecuador

Best hostel you could own right now: There’s only one riverfront hostal in Mocca, Colombia and only one tennis court and you can thank Filip Goemaere for both. A few years ago he fell in love with Mocoa and decided to build Casa del Rio, a relaxed, clean and comfortable place with private rooms and dorms and an awesome riverfront location. It’s generally full of travelers on their way to or from the nearby Ecuador border. Then Filip became a tennis fiend and decided to build a tennis court in Mocoa too. Now Filip is getting itchy feet so both businesses are for sale. If you’ve ever considered getting into the hostel business contact Filip at [email protected] You will not find another hostel in Colombia with such high construction standards or attention to detail. We’re pretty sure this place would pass code in the US. Oh, and the resident night monkeys (below) come with the property.

Casa del Rio - Mocoa, Ecuador

Best eco hotel: Whether you come for the yoga and wellness retreats or just to relax in the shadow of volcanoes and with awesome views of San Pablo Lake, you can feel good about your stay at Sacha Ji Wellness Hotel, near Otavalo, Ecuador, because its Ecuadorean owner/architect created the serene and swanky retreat with a remarkable amount of environmentally friendly initiatives, including:

  • more than 2,000 old tires were recycled and used in the foundations of the structures at Sacha Ji for insulation and earthquake proofing
  • rain water is collected in blue tarps, arranged like outdoor sculpture, which funnel the precious moisture into a cistern
  • a waterfall two miles (three km) away supplies the rest of the water and all water is filtered and then purified with UV light so it’s potable
  • a huge organic garden supplies vegetables, fruits, herbs and medicinal plants
  • a large portion of the six acre (2.5 hectare) property was covered in invasive non-endemic eucalyptus trees but has now been cleared and reforested with native species
  • solar panels, used to heat the water at Sacha Ji, are super efficient because of Ecuador’s proximity to the equator where the sun’s rays slant straight down to earth which means panels can be laid at a five degree angle
  • wood burned in Sacha Ji’s heating stoves is collected only from fallen trees
  • all kitchen waste is composted
  • all grey and black water is filtered
  • solar windows absorb and trap the sun’s heat to keep rooms warmer longer
  • living roofs (below) provide insulation
  • the eight rooms are heated with wood burning stoves but only four rooms have actual stoves – the other four are heated by stove pipes which pass through them and give off heat

Sacha Ji Wellness Hotel - Otovalo, Ecuador

Best beach hotel: Playa Escondido, near Punta Galera, was our favorite beach on the entire Pacific Coast of Ecuador: petite, secluded, only lightly visited and clean. The beach is part of the Playa Escondido Ecological Refuge which was created by Canadian expat and life-long traveler Judith Barett. For US$25 pp you can stay in the ecolodge which is a massive, traditionally built building of bamboo and thatch that has breezy, mostly open-air rooms with good nets over the beds, private showers and sinks, sea views and hammocks. Rooms on the top floor have the best design and best views. All rooms share a pristine composting toilet. You can also camp in a large, flat sandy area just off the beach with a covered picnic table with electricity, WiFi and shared showers and composting toilets (US$7 pp per night). Judith is planning to have camping gear to rent soon, in the meantime bring your own (that’s our campsite/office, below). Or you can rent the Round House, a bohemian, private, two-level hideaway with sky blue tile, white washed walls, a huge kitchen and private yard (US$100 per night, sleeps up to six).

Playa Escondido Ecological Refuge Ecuador

Best bohemian hotel in Colombia: As you approach it, Hotel Akawanka Lodge in San Agustin looks like a traditional Colombian building: two stories of white-washed earthen walls with exposed beams and accents of red and plenty of blooming plants. Inside, however, the place is thoughtfully filled with sculpture and found-object art made by the owner plus wonderful, whimsical murals and small-space paintings by the talented on-site manager Yorleny. Each of the 20 rooms at Akawanka (which means eagle in a local dialect) are uniquely painted and decorated (that’s our room, below) and each room is named after a local animal (Andean bear, armadillo, etc). The traditional wide, inviting porches double as galleries for more and more charming artwork and don’t miss the hammocks made from woven strips of cow hide (it works). The place is funky, hippie, arty but never cutesy or cloying or over the top.

Hotel Akawanka Lodge - San Agustin, Colombia

Best community-run hotel: The Kichwa Añangu Community in the Amazon Basin in Ecuador wanted a tourism project. An NGO put in two million dollars and, over the next five years, community members built the Napo Wildlife Center Ecolodge. In 2009, after paying back the NGO’s investment, ownership, management and operation of Napo reverted fully to members of the Kichwa Añangu community and the place has flourished under their guidance. The capable staff of the gorgeous, comfortable lodge (below), which is located on its own wildlife-filled lagoon and large tract of protected jungle, is 100% from the community. Thirty percent of profits are distributed to the more or less 30 Kichwa Añangu families in the area. The lodge also uses part of its profits to pay for better teachers and better doctors for their community and they’ve built a traditional architecture high school that serves students in the whole region. A community recycling and water system were in the works too when we were there.

Napo Wildlife Center Ecolodge Amazon Ecuador

Best theme hotel: We know, we know: “theme hotel” sounds really scary and possibly gross. Not so in the case of Posada Salsa Boutique in Cali, Colombia. Cali is littered with salsa clubs and salsa schools and the self-proclaimed “salsa capital of the world” also hosts two massive annual festivals. Festival Mundial de Salsa attracts the world’s best salsa dancers and La Feria de Cali focuses on the music. Posada Salsa Boutique in the up-and-coming El Peñon area of the city, offers six comfortable rooms with A/C and all of that but the real reason to stay is to soak up some salsa. Owner Ara Kazarians is of Armenian decent but has lived all over the world and currently splits his time between Cali and Brazil. An accomplished salsa DJ in his own right, Ara has turned Posada Salsa Boutique into a mini museum to the music and dance he adores. There are portraits, album covers and posters on the walls (below), many signed by salsa greats and all rooms are named after salsa stars. It doesn’t take much to get Ara talking about salsa and you’ll learn a lot even during in a short stay.

Posada Salsa - Cali, Colombia

Best luxury hacienda hotel in Ecuador: There’s a reason Hacienda Zuleta, in northern Ecuador, is the most famous (and most expensive) of the country’s many hacienda hotels. Actually, there are four reasons: history, luxury, food and horses. The place dates back to the 1600s and has been owned by just a handful of the country’s most powerful families (current owners count two Presidents among their ranks). Traditional buildings (like the one below) have been carefully renovated to offer impeccable style and all modern comforts, plus some unexpected niceties like staff who light your in-room fireplace each evening and a hot water bottle at turn down. Meals are made using family recipes and many ingredients are grown right on the hacienda, including a range of noted cheeses. They’ve even bred their own strain of horse (a cross between thoroughbred and Andalusian) and there’s a mount for every type of rider. If we could return right now to just one hotel that we stayed at in 2014 it would be Zuleta.

Hacienda Zuleta - Ecuador

Best hotel amenity: We were surprised by many things about travel in the Amazon, including how much less hot and humid the climate was than we’d feared. That said, the Amazon is still a humid place and your camera, smart phone, laptop, etc. can get ruined if that ambient moisture gets inside. That’s why we were so delighted by the homemade dry box in each room at La Selva Amazon Lodge in Ecuador (below). After each day’s excursions we just put our cameras and other electronics inside a simple wood box and turned on the light bulb built into the top. Overnight, the heat from the bulb gently did away with any accumulated moisture.

La Selva Amazon Lodge Ecuador

Best The Shining hotel: Some call the area around La Cocha Lake the “Little Switzerland” of Colombia (it’s remarkable how many countries have their own “Switzerlands”). The area is beautiful, but that claim is a bit of a stretch. Still, the Hotel Sindamanoy has taken the high alps theme to heart with Swiss chalet architecture right down to the red and white color scheme. However, what struck us about this lake shore hotel was less Switzerland and more The Shining. With its long hallways, riotous retro colors and patterns, overly cheerful curtains and absolutely vacant, stuck in time feeling we half expected to see Jack Nicholson’s psycho face around every corner. In a good way.

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Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2014 – Best Food & Beverages

This post is part 2 of 4 in the series Best of 2014

Welcome to Part 2 in our Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2014 series of posts. Part 2 is all about the Best Food & Beverages of the past year of travel on our little road trip through the Americas including the most over the top dessert we’ve ever eaten, a pork sandwich showdown, gourmet guinea pig, why you should eat at a place called Ugly American and a little dish we like to call Fanny’s Frijoles that you can make at home. Part 1 covers the Best Adventures & Activities of 2014, Part 3 covers the Best Hotels of the year and Part 4 tells you all about our Travel Gear of the Year.

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

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

Best Food & Beverages of 2014

Best gin and tonic: Colombia is nuts for gin and tonics at the moment. Bars like Gordo in Bogota are making their own tonic water and the gin selection in good bars finally includes more than just Beefeater, Tanqueray and Bombay Sapphire. Most bars serve their gin and tonics in huge snifters lined with thinly sliced cucumber. At Bar al Lado, inside La Escuda de Quijote restaurant in the El Peñon hood of Cali, the bartender has half a dozen gins to choose from (including Gin Mare and others I’d never heard of) and makes his G&T with hand crushed juniper berries and garnished with a carefully flamed sprig of fresh rosemary (below). The result is the crispest, freshest, most “ginny” version we had all year.

Gin & Tonic - Bar al Lado,  La Escuda de Quijote restaurant, Cali, Colombia

Best pizza: It was a veritable pizzapalooza in 2014 with not one but two outstanding examples tied for best pizza of the year. D’Baggio Pizza in Riobamba, Ecuador turns fresh, delicious thin crust pizzas with homemade sauce from a real wood-fired pizza oven (US$13.50-US$23.50 for a 12 slice pie, smaller sizes available). On the Pacific Coast of Ecuador, on the coastal highway between the towns of Sua and Same, you will see a sign for Simons Carne. Make a stop for great square pizza (US$7 to US$25) and decent locally made craft beer on tap.

Best pizza in Ecuador

Best wacky breakfast: Years ago in the small town of Salamina, part of Colombia’s exclusive group of Pueblos Patrimonio, the owner of El Polo Bakery devised a way to add eggs to his menu without installing a stove: he used the milk steamer arm on his monolithic coffee machine to steam eggs, chopped ham and butter inside a coffee cup (below). The results, huevos al vapor (steamed eggs), are still offered today. They are hot, fluffy, rich and, yes, a bit wacky.

steamed eggs  El Polo Bakery Salamina, Colombia

Best meal, period: Leonor Espinosa is not the only chef claiming to be “reinventing traditional Colombian cuisine” but she is the only one who’s doing it this well. At her chic, acclaimed Bogota restaurant, Leo Cocina y Cava, local, traditional and often obscure ingredients and techniques are the cornerstones of elegantly presented dishes. You can order ala carte, but do yourself a favor and choose one of the two tasting menus (US$70 for nine courses). Every one of the plates was gasp worthy in presentation and flavor. Truly creative, but never silly, dishes included Chinese potato dusted cones filled with creamy crab with olive oil pearls on top (below), succulent dollops of rich, slow-cooked beef tail served on a bed of creamy manioc with basil foam and ant-encrusted seared tuna. The female sommelier (the chef’s daughter) provided excellent wine pairings and the service was informed and smooth. Oh, and say yes to the fresh lemonade with coffee. It was complex and refreshing and an improvement on both beverages. No wonder Leo Cocina y Cava was added to the list of 50 Best Restaurants in Latin America in 2014.

Leo Cocina y Cava - Bogota, Colombia

Best bargain burger in Ecuador: Dios no Muere, in a 400 year old building on a short pedestrian street between the historic center of Quito and the San Marcos neighborhood, is owned by Mathieu Charles Guillory P. He’s a dapper dresser who came to Ecuador from Louisiana 13 years ago to grow coffee and chocolate, which he still does. He opened Dios no Muere in 2011 and, in addition to New Orleans classics like gumbo and jambalaya, he dishes up the best bargain burger in Ecuador (below). Generous patties are hand shaped with fresh spices, they’re not overcooked and they come on tasty seeded buns with real spicy mustard, onion , tomato and lettuce and fresh made yucca fries plus a non-alcoholic beverage for US$4.

best Quito Hamburger

Best over-the-top dessert: Criterion, from Colombia’s famously foodie Rausch brothers, is number 19 on the 2014 list of 50 Best Restaurants in Latin America and one of the swankest, most sophisticated restaurants in Bogota (and that’s saying something these days). However, when it comes time for dessert the pastry chef unleashes his inner child, creating something called the Dessert Placemat. First, a silicone mat is placed over the table top. Next, the pastry chef arrives with cart heavy with the tools of his trade–rich sauces, fresh berries, at least two flavors of home made ice cream and half a dozen fresh made indulgences including tiramisu, key lime pie, cheesecake and more. Trading toque for technique, the pastry chef proceeds to artfully place these ingredients on the mat until you are faced with edible art so ample that it comes with a deep spatula for mixing and grabbing. Watch the creation of our Dessert Placemat in our video, below.

Best sandwich: Ladies and gentlemen, we have another tie! Sanduches El Primo in Guayaquil, Ecuador (on the corner of Rocafuerte and Mindiburu streets, 10am to 7pm every day) does not look like much – just a round, closet-sized kiosk plunked down on the sidewalk. However, this is where proprietor El Primo (cousin in Spanish) has been serving up one of the country’s best sanduches de pernil (pork leg sandwiches) for the past 20 years. For less than US$2 you get a sandwich made on a yucca bread roll (like a denser, smaller sub roll) packed with hand sliced roasted pork leg (marinated in yogurt for extra moistness), pickled onion and chopped iceberg lettuce topped with some chicharon pork crackling and, if you like, a few drops (careful!) of fiery homemade pepper sauce all moistened with a spoonful of hot pork drippings (below, right). El Primo (below, left) goes through seven huge pork legs a day to satisfy a constant crowd of in-the-know Guayaqueños and, now, you. Quito, Ecuador has no shortage of pork sandwich sellers either and we tried many of them during the three weeks we spent in the city in 2014. For our money, the best version, hands down, is from El Sanduches on Plaza Independencia in the historic center of the city. Here US$4.90 gets you a crusty baguette cut into three length-wise slices and filled with sliced smoky pork, cole slaw and avocado. Add as much homemade (medium) hot sauce as you like and you’ve got something close to an Andean po’boy.

Pierna  Sanduches El Primo in Guayaquil, Ecuador

Best North American favorites in Colombia: From chicken and waffles at a place called Ugly American to real BBQ and perfectly respectable hot dogs, Bogota, Colombia is the place to be for awesome renditions of North American favorite foods. Get the lowdown about what to eat where in this piece we did for TheLatinKitchen.com.

Hot Dogs in Bogota Colombia

Best pie: You may be planning to visit the town of Otavalo in northern Ecuador for its famous Saturday market. Don’t. The market has seen better days. Instead, visit Otavalo for the pie. The Shenandoah Pie Shop, on Plaza de Ponchos, serves more than 10 types of pie daily including apple (below), blackberry, blueberry, chocolate, lemon meringue and many more. They are all filled with fresh ingredients nestled in flaky crust. At less than US$2 per generous slice, it’s the cheapest way to bring back memories of childhood treats from grandma’s kitchen. Thanks to Laurence and Vera of Finding the Universe for the tip and the awesome pie eating company.

Best pie Otavalo, Ecador

Best happy hour: La Xarcuteria in Bogota throws an epic happy hour. Every day (except Sundays and holidays) from 4:00 to 7:30 then again from 10:30 to closing time  all cocktails (which start at around US$6 full price) are 50% off and bottles of wine and all beer (including locally made Chelarte craft brew on tap) are 30% off. They cure and smoke their own meats (below) and turn out an awesome burger too, so come hungry not just thirsty.

La Xarcuteria - Bogota, Colombia

Best Italian: Barichara is, by far, the most beautiful Colonial town in Colombia, that’s why it’s part of the country’s elite network of officially recognized Pueblos Patrimonio. Another reason to visit? The best home made Italian food we had all year. Restaurante Al Cuoco is run by an Italian transplant who dishes up homemade pasta (below) in a simple but welcoming restaurant he set up in the garage of his home. It can be difficult to find and hours are erratic but your efforts will be rewarded.

Italian Restaurante Al Cuoco - Barichara, Colombia

Best gourmet rodent: Guinea pig, aka cuy in Spanish, is a delicacy in many places in the Andes where it’s common to see the flayed rodents spinning slowly on roadside rotisseries. What is slightly less common is to see cuy on the menu at a fancy restaurant, but at La Gloria in Quito, Ecuador, cuy is featured proudly and deliciously. Unlike at roadside restaurants, the cuy here is not served whole. Instead, pieces are  fried in vegetable oil before being pan fried and served on a  bed of peanut and chilli sauce (US$16.50). The result (below) is moist, tender, crispy and rich–like fried duck instead of fried chicken.

Guinea Pig gourmet cuy

Best new dish we learned how to cook: While renting an apartment in Medellin, Colombia so we could catch up on work we hired a wonderful woman named Fanny to come in once a week and clean. Like most housekeepers in Latin America, Fanny offered to cook a meal as part of her day hire and one day Karen asked her to teach us how to make one of her family’s favorite dishes instead. She gave us a grocery list and the next week Fanny taught us how to make a Colombian staple: slow cooked beans rich with spices, sweet carrots and sausage. We dubbed them Fanny’s Frijoles and the recipe is below. You’re welcome.

Colombian frijoles

Fanny’s Frijoles

(serves 6)

INGREDIENTS

1 pound (500grams) dried Red Cargomata beans (or any large, meaty, red bean you can find)

2 large carrots, peeled

8 links of your favorite sausages

1 yellow or white onion, diced

3 large tomatoes, blanched and peeled

Turmeric to taste

Half a bouillon cube

Salt and pepper to taste

3 tbs of olive oil

Half a bunch of cilantro, chopped

Avocado for garnish

METHOD

Soak beans in water overnight. Drain and inspect them, discarding any damaged beans. Peel and trim carrots and put them into a pressure cooker whole. Add the sorted, drained beans. Cover with 2-3 inches of fresh cold water and secure the pressure cooker lid. Bring to a boil and simmer until beans are tender (about one hour, depending on the type of beans you are using). There will still be ample water left in the pot even after the beans are cooked.

While beans are cooking, blanch and peel the tomatoes and smash them. Dice the onion and add it to a small frying pan with the turmeric, bouillon cube and oil. Sautee until the spices are incorporated and the onion is browned. Add the smashed tomato at the end and stir, breaking up the tomato as you go.

Remove the cooked carrots from the bean pot and puree them in a blender or food processor along with some bean water. Return the blended mixture to the pot with the beans.

Add the sautéed onion, tomato and spices to the pot with the beans and stir.

Slice your sausage into bite size pieces and add them to the pot with the beans. Return the pot to the heat and simmer for 15-20 minutes to cook the meat then stir in the chopped cilantro and add salt and pepper to taste.

Serve immediately over white rice garnished with sliced avocado.

 

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

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

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

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

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

Best adventures & activities of 2014

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

Cano Cristales Colombia

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

Galapagos Islands Blue footed booby, penguins, marine iguana

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

Parano El Angel park  Ecuador

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

Monkey rescue Napo River Ecuador Amazon

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

Andean Clensing Sacha Ji Ecuador

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

Napo Wildlefe Center Ecolodge canopy platform

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

PNN Nevados Colombia

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

Parrot Salt Lick Nap River Yasuni Ecuador Amazon

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

Tren Crucero Ecuador

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

Hacienda Zuleta Ecuador Horseback Riding

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Hot New Year’s Eve Traditions in the Amazon – Ecuador

Way back when we were still living in New York City, one of the world’s top Year’s Eve celebration locations, we usually stayed home on December 31 leaving the streets to the yahoo tourists in town to watch the ball drop through beer goggles mashed in with thousands of strangers. But this year we took part in New Year’s Eve traditions with new friends at their awesome Anaconda Lodge on an island in the Napo River in the Amazon where we toasted with champagne, watched fireworks on the horizon and burned the Ecuadorean President (sort of).

 

Selling New years Eve effigies Quito Ecuador

A woman works on effigies at her temporary road side stand in Quito, Ecuador in the days leading up to New Year’s Eve.

 It’s not New Year’s Eve without a burning effigy

They may drop a big glittery ball in New York City every December 31 at midnight but in much of Latin American the night is illuminated by the burning of tens of thousands of monigotes which are effigies that represent the año viejo (old year) and are burned in homage or in disdain to make way for the año nuevo (new year).

Other hot new year’s eve tradition involves underwear. Women may choose to wear yellow underwear to attract money in the new year or red underwear to attract love. It seems like clever women would hedge their bets by wearing a read bra and yellow panties (or vice versa).

Yellow underwear Ecuador New Years

Yellow underwear for money and red underwear for love…just one of the many New Year’s Eve traditions in Ecuador and around Latin America.

If it’s more travel you want in the new year just run around the block carrying an empty suitcase. You can also register a wish for each month by thinking of what you desire while eating one grape for each month. If you haven’t had too much champagne, you can jump over the effigy fire 12 times registering a wish for each month as you leap. Many people also write down something that they hope to leave behind with the old year and jam the paper into the effigy to be burned along with it.

The tradition of burning away the worst of the old year may date back to the late 1800s when a yellow fever epidemic swept through Guayaquil, Ecuador prompting many to burn things in order to eradicate the contagion. To this day Guayaquil is home to the most elaborate monigotes in the country which can be more than 30 feet (9 meters) tall and are paraded through the streets before being burned.

Torching Rafael Correa

Before we left Quito and headed for the Amazon we picked up a less than life-size version of Rafael Correa, the President of Ecuador, from one of many roadside effigy stalls that pop up this time of year.

Ecuador President Corea effigy

Karen and Rafael Correa, the President of Ecuador, before heading to the Amazon.

Our Correa was wearing cast off pin-striped pants and a jaunty lavender striped business shirt with a (formerly) white-collar. The old clothes had been stuffed with balled up paper to fill out the shape of a body, including a bit of a spare tire around the President’s mid section. We covered his head with a mask which exaggerated the President’s devilishly arched eyebrows, vast under-eye bags and general menacing pallor.

Burning effigies Ecuador New Years Eve

Our New Year’s Eve effigy of Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa on the banks of the Napo River in the Amazon before and after ignition.

Burning President Correa in the Amazon was fitting since many fear his policies disproportionately favor the interests of international companies that want to extract oil and other valuable resources from the region over the interests of the indigenous communities (and the flora and fauna) that call the Amazon home.

It was also fitting that we burned our effigy at Anaconda Lodge since owners Francisco and Silvia are passionate about sharing the beauty of the Amazon and the challenges its flora, fauna and unique human cultures face.

The prez, for his part, went up like a champ, but he left a big mess of ash behind.

Amazon effigy aftermath

The messy morning after remains of our New Year’s Eve effigy in the Amazon.

Not-so-hot cross-dressing New Year’s Eve widows

Burning effigies and wish-granting underwear are not the only New Year’s Eve traditions in Ecuador (and in many other Latin American countries). Oh, no. The New Year is also marked by a less hot tradition: young men dressed as women representing the widows of the old year or the widows of the burned effigies.

We got caught up in that madness last year when we were driving near Quito and found ourselves stopped in traffic by a posse of positively dreadful versions of women (mostly just young guys flouncing around in their mothers’ cast off clothes). They humped car hoods, flashed fake cleavage and generally carried on in ways no self-respecting actual woman ever would. The winch on the front of our truck attracted special attention. Ick.

New Years Eve trannies Ecuador

A new year “widow” assaults the front bumper of our truck.

Drivers, laughing nervously and desperate to get the heck out of the hussie huddle, deposited loose change in the palms of very masculine hands as the “widows” solicited their way through the traffic jam they created. Eventually we were all allowed to pass (good thing too since we’d run out of change) and the widows, no doubt, headed to nearby shops for some cold beer. Flouncing is sweaty work.

This year we were spared the widows since the Quichua people who live in this part of the Amazon, quite sensibly, don’t go in for that particular tradition.

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Don’t Hate Us Because We’re Going BACK to the Galapagos

We’re almost embarrassed to tell you this, but we’re going BACK to the Galapagos Islands. In early 2014 we fulfilled a travel dream and explored Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands for a week on board the M/Y Grace (honeymooned on by Grace Kelly) to produce a feature about the historic boat and iconic islands for the Biography Channel’s website. We felt privileged to have those nine days in one of the world’s top dream destinations under our belts, then this!

Nazca Booby - Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

Our next trip to the Galapagos

In December we will be returning to the Galapagos for an additional two weeks in order to cover another week-long cruise, this time on board one of the yachts operated by Ecoventura. Then we’re getting on the M/V Galapagos Sky liveaboard dive boat (run by diving legend Peter Hughes) for a week of SCUBA diving in the Galapagos way out at Wolf Island and Darwin Island for a brand new assignment.

That’s one dream destination, three different boats, 24 days in total and two very, very lucky, grateful, and hard-working travel journalists. We’re looking forward to seeing new creatures under water (fingers crossed for hammerheads, whale sharks and our first ever manta ray sightings) and we’ll be sharing our increasingly comprehensive knowledge about travel to the Galapagos Islands in upcoming posts.

In the meantime, here are some of the friends we made during our first adventure in the Galapagos.

Blue-footed Booby - Galapagos Islands, Ecuador Seal Lions - Galapagos Islands, Ecuador Marine Iguanas - Galapagos Islands, Ecuador Giant Galapagos Tortoise Galapagos Penguin - Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

Going to the Galapagos

We’ve now spent more time in the Galapagos than Charles Darwin did. That doesn’t mean we’ve come up with a revolutionary scientific theory, but it does mean that we know our way around the place. For more insights and inspiration about going to the Galapagos, check out the stories we’ve reported and written about traveling to the Galapagos Islands.

How to Travel to the Galapagos Islands published by Travel + Leisure

Galapagos Islands Dive Boat Luxury published by Luxe Beat

Going Greener in the Galapagos published by The Toronto Sun

This is the Most Luxurious New Way to Tour the Galapagos Islands published by Bravo Jet Set

Cruising the Galapagos with Grace Kelly published by Bio.com

Pikaia Lodge luxury hotel review published by Luxury Latin America

 

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Our Latest Work: An SATW Win, Colombia’s “Liquid Rainbow”, Best Bed in Bogota & Luxury on the Rails in Ecuador

You know what makes freelance travel journalists like us happy? New outlets for our latest work and we’ve got two to tell you about this month. But first, something that makes us even happier: We’re delighted to let you know that the Selling Pablo feature we did about Pablo Escobar tourism in Colombia just won an Honorable Mention in the Foreign Travel category of the prestigious Society of American Travel Writers 2014 Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Awards! We want to thank the awesome editors at the wonderful Roads & Kingdoms website for the chance to tell this story.

2014 Society of American Travel Writers (SATW) Foundation 30th Annual Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Award winner logo

And now, our latest work

Our very first piece for the BBC Travel website is all about a stunning natural wonder in Colombia that’s been off limits for years. See why Caño Cristales, aka the “Liquid Rainbow,” is like no other river in the world.

travel to Cano Cristales on BBCCano Cristales on BBC

We’re also thrilled to be contributing hotel reviews to Luxe Beat Magazine. Our first is all about the beautiful B.O.G. Hotel in Bogota, Colombia – inspired by the city’s amazing gold museum and home to the most luxurious showers in Colombia.

BOG-Hotel-1

Speaking of luxurious, we spent four days on the Tren Crucero in Ecuador with white glove service on board and culture-rich stops along the way from Quito in the Andes down to the Pacific. See for yourself in our piece for the Dallas Morning News.

Travel Tren Crucero Ecuador - Dallas Morning News

Our work for our latest corporate partner, Boiron (makers of all-natural health remedies including Oscillo and Arnicare) continues to roll out as well. Check out the video we made for Boiron from some of our favorite locations in Colombia and Ecuador. Bonus: we crash an Andean wedding…

 

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