Hostels, Houseboats and Hip Hangouts: 12 Top Hotels in Panama

We spent seven months traveling across Panama. That’s a lot of nights in hotels. While Panama has seen a recent rush of international chain hotels, including the only Trump Hotel in Latin America and many of the other top end business chains in Panama City, we are not interested in those. As usual, we sought out the best locally owned accommodations, including hostels, houseboats and hip hangouts and these are our 12 top hotels in Panama.

Jungle Land Panama is Panama’s only houseboat hotel. It’s located in a secluded section of Lake Gatún which forms a crucial part of the Panama Canal. It’s the creation of Captain Carl, an expat from the US who has connected two houseboats (below), crafted a handful of simple but comfortable rooms and leads boat and kayak tours on the lake for wildlife watching and fishing. The food is terrific and Carl’s stories are entertaining but the best part is sleeping in a totally wild and peaceful arm of the lake just a short distance from the world’s busiest shipping channel. Jungle Land Panama Lodge Panama Canal In 2012, Travis Pastrana, the stunt man/motocross/X-Games/Red Bull-sponsored extreme sports icon, gathered some of his equally amped up friends and opened Nitro City Panama Action Sports Resort in Punta Chame near Panama City. With world class wakeboarding, kiteboarding and BMXing facilities, champion instructors plus a luxury hotel, Nitro is a unique adventure resort. We learned to wakeboard and SUP here and made ample use of our deck jacuzzi to nurse sore muscles. Nascar fans should not miss the Miller Lite theme room (below). We wish the food was better, but you’ll be so hungry from your daily dose of extreme sports that you’ll be ready to eat anything.

Nitro City Panama NASCAR room

Al Natural Resort, on Bastimentos Island in the Bocas del Toro Archipelago, offers stand-alone, water-front, wood and bamboo bungalows on stilts which were built using techniques and materials that the indigenous Ngöbe-Buglé people have used for decades. Bungalows (below) are mostly open air with very, very few walls. Heavy canvas curtains can be pulled shut if you must. Great mattresses, custom-made super-bug-proof nets, cooling fans inside the nets (why doesn’t everybody do it this way?), plus the sound of the Caribbean ensure restful nights. Despite the semi-remote location (it’s a 30 minute boat ride to Al Natural from Bocas Town), the food is amazing–from fresh juices to buttery soft grilled octopus to fragrant chicken cooked with mushrooms and orange peel. All meals, which are included in room rates including wine at dinner, are served family style with the gregarious Belgian owner at the head of the table telling stories and making friends.

Al Natural Resort bungalow - Bocas del Toro, Panama

The hippest of the hip hotels in Panama is Tantalo Hotel in the Casco Viejo neighborhood of Panama City. There’s a living wall next to the lobby bar. Art installations (below) change on a regular basis. The rooftop bar is one of THE places to hang out. Each room was decorated by a different artist. They even have an on staff creative director and it shows. The lobby restaurant is surprisingly nicely priced and you can linger and soak up the cool for as long as you like. Read our full review of Tantalo for iTraveliShop for more.

Tontalo-Hotel

If you want hip but in a more budget friendly price point, check out Casa Nuratti. Also in Panama City’s Casco Viejo neighborhood, this place was built as an inn in the 19th century and the building was restored into a 14 room, design-centric, mid-range bargain (doubles from US$100). Furniture was made using wood from the original building. There’s a small but appealing roof bar with a long, narrow pool (there for sex appeal, not swimming) and a club-like bar and small plates restaurant in the lobby where a DJ sometimes spins.

Walk into Las Clementinas Chambers & Cafe in Panama City’s Casco Viejo neighborhood and you might forget, just for a minute, that you’re in Panama. The ground floor cafe looks straight out of Paris and the rooms-aptly called chambers–are full apartments that channel the style of Manhattan but with far, far more space (below). Both the atmosphere and the square footage are true luxuries in the city. Read our full review of Las Clementinas for iTraveliShop for more reasons to stay.

Apartment-like room Las Clementinas - Casco Viejo, Panama

Yandup Island Lodge is not your average island getaway. For starters, it’s located on one of the 350+ islands in a chain known as the Kuna Yala or San Blas archipelago because the region belongs to Panama’s autonomous Kuna (aka Guna) indigenous group. It’s Kuna owned and Kuna run and the luxuries here are silence, free time and views not swim up bars and beach loungers. The raised, waterfront bungalows (below) are rustic but comfortable. The food (the place is all-inclusive minus beverages) is simple but tasty. The biggest luxury at Yandup is the chance to get a glimpse into the proud culture of the largest indigenous group in Panama through guided visits to nearby Kuna villages (also on their own islands) and in conversation with Yandup’s Kuna staff. To reach the lodge you have to take a flight from Panama City to the “airport” at Playon Chico on a 6-seater Air Panama plane and that’s an adventure in and of itself given the short runway and its orientation to the nearby coastal hills. See for yourself in our scary landing in this video.

Yandup Island Lodge Kuna San Blas Islands, Panama

We spent around 50 nights in Hostal Amador Familiar during multiple trips through Panama City. Conveniently located in a renovated house in the city’s “American Zone”, the Amador is spotlessly clean thanks to the best housekeeper we’ve seen at any hotel in any price point.There’s a big, semi-outdoor, also-spotless shared kitchen. Breakfast is included. There’s a large and secure parking area. Laundry is US$1 per load (to wash and dry). And room rates are cheap by Panamanian standards with dorm beds from US$15 per person per night and private rooms with a fan for US$30 for two people. Rooms with A/C are just US$5 more and worth it.

 

Canopy Tower bridwatching PanamaIn the late ’90s a decommissioned US Air Force radar tower on the banks of the Panama Canal was renovated into a distinctive round hotel called Canopy Tower (below). Located within the Soberanía National Park, in which more than 500 species of birds have been identified, Canopy Tower has become a magnet for bird watchers. We spent a lot of time gawking at toucans, tanagers and tityras as well as small groups of mantled howler monkeys, Geoffroy’s tamarins, sloths and a bunch of stuff we’re not smart enough to identify right from the window-filled public spaces, rooftop deck (where you can also see the nearby Panama Canal) and even from the huge window in the shower in our room at Canopy Tower which was simple and comfortable with fans and good screens to keep critters out. Electric towel heaters and clothes drying areas help keep the jungle damp at bay. There’s an ear plug dispenser because the all-metal structure can creak and groan but you’re more likely to hear frogs and owls in the night.

The 10 rooms at Boquete Garden Inn in Boquete, Panama are a comfortable bargain but the best part of this place is the garden which attracts dozens of species of colorful birds which flit around bird baths and fruit-filled platforms nearly oblivious to your presence (below). Bring your binoculars to breakfast (included in rates) and enjoy some of the best lazy bird watching in Panama.

Male Red-legged honeycreeper & Male Flame-colored tanager - Boquete, Panama

Naturalmente Boutique Bungalows, opened near Las Lajas beach in 2013, has a handful of stylishly bohemian bungalows (below), a small pool and a great open-air restaurant where owners Chantal and Gabriel, both from Modena, let their Italian roots show with pizzas (baked in an oven imported from Italy), great pasta dishes, homemade bread and homemade Italian sausage. Naturalmente makes a great break journey for anyone making the long haul on the Pan-American Highway between David and Panama City.

Naturalmente Boutique Bungalows - Las Lajas, Panama

Playa Venao, on Panama’s Azuero Peninsula, has a perfect crescent of a beach and some of Panama’s most enticing surfing breaks (below). It also has a new beachfront hotel option. Opened in 2013 by Italian owners, the 14 room Beachbreak Surf Camp (from US$77 private double including A/C and WiFi) is sparkling clean, located right on the beach and guests can use the pool and a large and well-appointed kitchen (a good thing since dining options on this beach are limited). Surf school packages are also available.

Playa Venao, Panama

The ones that got away: Even after seven months in Panama there were two enticing hotels that we never made it to. The first is The Resort at Isla Palenque which seems to have come enticingly close to truly marrying “eco” and “luxury”. The second is the American Trade Hotel in Casco Viejo which was still under construction when we were there but was shaping up to be another cool option in that ‘hood. It’s now open and being run by the very cool Ace Hotel group, so our hopes remain high. If you’ve stayed at either (or both!) of those places let us know your opinion in the comments section below. If we’ve somehow left your favorite hotel in Panama off this list, let us know that too.

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Want to Own a Top Rated Amazon Lodge CHEAP?

The owners of Ecuador’s #1 rated specialty lodge near Tena in the Amazon are selling the place along with its great relationship with the locals, superb facilities, loyal guests and international tour company relationships. If you’ve ever wanted to own a top rated Amazon lodge CHEAP, now’s the time. Here’s why.

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#1 Tripadvisor rating

Anaconda Lodge has been ranked #1 out of 24 specialty lodges in Tena in Ecuador’s Amazon region almost since the day it opened in 2011. As we write this more than 100 guests, from the US, Turkey, Bolivia, the UK and more, have left comments like this:

If you are going into the Amazon Jungle, this place is a MUST! My daughter and I stayed for 3 nights and really enjoyed it. The food was fantastic! The jungle walks, river excursions, and interactions with the local people were informative and fun. We were there almost a year ago and still carry with us the feeling of being in the jungle.”

Anaconda Lodge Amazon Ecuador

But it’s more than just ratings

The Tripadvisor rating is not surprising since Anaconda Lodge was created with love and care and respect for the environment and its local indigenous employees and neighbors. It’s easily accessible even though it’s located on an island in the Napo River in the Amazon region of Ecuador. The food is terrific, the local staff and guides are charming and knowledgeable and the jungle is gorgeous. Meticulously built and maintained rooms (one is pictured below) are simple but stylish and have everything you need for a comfortable stay in the jungle.

How do we know all of this? We spent New Year’s Eve at Anaconda Lodge with its wonderful owners, Francisco and Silvia. The entire place is infused with their passion for giving visitors the chance to understand the flora, fauna and unique human cultures of their slice of the Amazon and the environmental and political challenges that currently threaten the region.

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How you can own a top rated Amazon lodge

Francisco and Silvia have done the hard work for you and the fruits of their labor–pristine facilities, a great relationship with the locals, solid relationships with international tour companies, a reputation for outstanding value for money and that #1 Tripadvisor rating–can be yours. The asking price for the place is a steal at US$650,000 and the owners can be contacted directly at info@anacondalodgeecuador.com.

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Travel Gear of the Year 2014

We’re still using (and loving) the travel gear we’ve told you about in previous Travel Gear of the Year posts and Product Reviews, from KINeSYS sunscreen to Chaco flip flops to Seagate external hard drives to Rare Parts tie rods. Now it’s time to present our travel gear of the year 2014 including a taxi app we love (and it’s NOT Uber), a genius (and cheap) way to keep mosquito coils from breaking, a laptop surprise for Karen, two retro gadgets that will keep you warm at night, Eric’s new favorite (small) camera, prescription sunglasses that look badass not bifocal, the perfect smartphone for travelers and more. All road tested. All road approved.

Here’s what earned the right to be called…

Travel Gear of the Year 2014

Travel tech

There are many times during our Trans-Americas Journey when we need to take high quality photos but it’s just not safe or cool to carry around Eric’s big, flashy Canon SLR camera and lenses. In 2010 he added a Canon Powershot S95, about the size of a pack of cards, to his arsenal and it quickly became his go-to camera in dodgy cities, when it was important to take pictures discretely and when he just didn’t want to haul around his heavy camera bag full of tricks. In 2014, after four years of pretty extreme use, the S95 no longer focused properly when it was zoomed in so Eric started researching all of the high quality compact cameras that were high quality, but not quite SLR replacements. The problem is that most of them aren’t exactly pocket-sized or affordable or high quality enough, so his search lead him straight back to Canon. He now uses a Canon Powershot S120 (below) which is the updated version of the S95. Like its predecessor, it can shoot fully manual and RAW images and has a sharp and fast lens covering a solid zoom range. It’s also very ruggedly built but still lightweight and truly pocket-sized all for under $400. Eric loves the new touch screen on the S120 and the camera’s ability to change focus while shooting video. In October Canon came out with a pricey but even better pocket-sized camera option too. It’s called the G7X. Maybe next year…

Canon Powershot S120

 

We see a lot of wild animals. We also see a lot of wild animals that we can’t identify. Enter Project Noah, a deliciously geeky website where people way smarter than us (biologists, ornithologists, entomologists, etc) can help us id what we see. Just post a photo of the critter in question and other site users can weigh in about what they think you’ve seen.

 

We are fans of Dell computers not only because their high-quality products are usually substantially less expensive than an equivalent Mac product but also because of their international warranty service that has allowed us to have computers fixed right in our hotel rooms by authorized Dell technicians in Mexico and Nicaragua. In 2014 Eric got an updated version of his 17 inch Inspiron and Karen changed from the heavy ruggedized Dells she’s had in the past to a Dell XPS 12 2-in-1 Ultrabook (below). It weighs just over three pounds (1.3 kilos) and is a drop smaller than the 13 inch MacBook Air. It’s got a sleek aluminum and carbon fiber shell and the 12.5 inch high-definition touch screen is stellar, the 256 GB flash hard drive is fast and reliable and with eight GB of memory Karen’s computer no longer crawls along when asked to do more than two things at once. It also has a flip screen that allows the laptop to be used like a tablet, that’s where the “2-in-1” comes in. The XPS 12 specs are nearly identical to the MacBook Air except that the Dell has a much better screen and can be used as a tablet. Most crucially, Apple’s “global” warranty (its version of what Dell has offered for years) still has many gaping geographical wastelands where the warranty does not cover you — ie, many of the places you want to go. Also, Apple’s global coverage is only available for two years and Dell’s is available for up to four years.

 Dell XPS 12 2-in-1 Ultrabook

 

In many parts of the world, including many Latin American cities, hailing a taxi on the street is not recommended since taxi crimes (usually involving being driving around town to ATMs against your will until you bank account is empty) can happen. Therefore, it’s a good idea to call for a taxi because then there is a record of the name of the driver who was sent to pick you up. However, this requires a phone, an often lengthy wait on hold and the ability to understand the mumbling dispatcher who finally picks up the line. Easy Taxi, a free app for iOS or Android, solves all of those problems. You request a ride using the app which transmits your exact location. A drivers near your location claims the job and usually arrives at your location within minutes. You are sent the driver’s name, plate number, phone number and a photo so you have multiple ways of verifying that the person in the taxi is, indeed, your driver. You can also track the driver’s journey to you via a map on the app which is updated in real time. It’s wonderfully simple and safe and, unlike some other taxi apps, you pay the driver directly so there are no additional fees. Like most taxi apps, Easy Taxi only works in select cities primarily in South America, Mexico, the Middle East and Asia.

Easy Taxi App

 

The Nexus 5 by Google (below) is the perfect smartphone for travelers. Every Nexus is unlocked so you can travel anywhere in the world with it and have a local telephone just by dropping a local SIM chip in. Plus, the Nexus is a fraction of the price (US$349 with 16GB  of storage) of similar high-end phones from Samsung, LG, Motorola and Apple whose smartphones cost well more than US$600 for an unlocked, contract-free model. Our Nexus also has a large, bright display screen and one of the best processors around so nothing slows it down. **Not to mention we’re fans of Android over iOS as an operating system and the new Android upgrade, 5.0 (Lollipop) has some fantastic new features. Our only complaint is the less than stellar battery life of our Nexus 5 (a complaint many users have). Sadly, the new Nexus 6 costs a more typical US$649. However, frugal travelers like us can still find a more moderately priced new Nexus 5 on Amazon and eBay.

Google Nexus 5 phone

 

Travel accessories

2014 was the year we finally ditched plastic bottles made with increasingly suspect BPAs and moved to insulated stainless steel Hydro Flask bottles (pictured below in our truck). Here’s why we loved our Hydro Flask bottles when we first got them and all of this still holds true many months down the road.

hydro-flask-in-the-truck

 

Prescription sunglasses. Shudder. But it was no longer possible for Eric to deny that he needed a prescription lenses in all of his glasses, not just his reading glasses. Luckily, he didn’t have to ditch the Costa del Mar sunglasses that we’ve worn and loved since the very beginning of our Trans-Americas Journey because a wide range of Costa frame styles are available with prescription lenses. Now Eric can see what’s out there while still looking like a badass, not a grandpa in bifocals (he wears Zane frames, by the way).

Costa prescription sun glasses

 

Mosquito coils are a smart thing to pack for travel to many parts of the world. Not so smart is just tossing a box of coils into your backpack or luggage, unless you enjoy the challenge of making bits and pieces of broken coils stay in the coil holder long enough to burn. It took us a few years to figure it out, but you can keep mosquito coils from breaking by putting them inside a hard, reusable plastic sandwich container (below). Bonus: these tightly sealed container keeps coils from getting damp too and there’s room inside for the little metal stand and some matches.

Mosquito coil protection

 

After years of pretty much being hot all day every day while we traveled through Central America, our Trans-Americas Journey has now entered South America where the presence of things like mountains (hello Andes!) means we can go from sweltering hot at sea level to freezing cold at well over 10,000 feet (3,000 meters) within the same day. That’s why we now travel with an enamel cup and an electric hot water coil. This allows us to crank out gallons of tea right from our room and this has gotten us through many a cold night. We recommend a 24 ounce (700 ml) enamel cup, like this one, because you can make a lot of tea (or instant noodle soup or hot chocolate or whatever) in it but it’s still light and durable. We bought an electric immersion coil at a hardware store but there’s also this cool dual voltage coil (120 and 240) with a pouch that would be perfect for travel. Tip: The metal handle of enamel cups can get hot so you might want to wrap it in handlebar tape.

 

One-DropEric’s brother’s girlfriend, Lisa, gave us our first bottle of One Drop. We’re not sure if it was a hint or what, but we love the stuff because it magically covers up even the most egregious bathroom atrocities which comes in handy if we get traveler’s tummy or find ourselves sharing bathrooms in hostels, etc. In Colombia we found a local version, called Oseaan Goticas Aroma, in the toilet paper aisle for US$4 but the label suggested four drops, not just one, and we didn’t think it worked as well as One Drop.

 

Road trip gear of the year

When the “check engine” light on the dashboard suddenly goes on it’s impossible to know what the problem might be and whether it’s minor or urgent without taking your vehicle into the dealer and paying the mechanics to read the engine error code which set off the “check engine” light in the first place. That’s usually not an option when you’re driving through countries where dealerships are few and far between. Plus, who wants to pay a mechanic when you can check engine error codes yourself. Yep.  OBD  or “on-board diagnostics” is a standardized port that every vehicle has. The trick is reading it. We’ve had an OBD reader with us since Day 1 of our Trans-Americas Journey and in 2014 we upgraded to an OBDLink MX, which has enhanced information for GM and Ford models (the LX model covers all other makes). It not only reads our Silverado’s diagnostic codes but turns our Nexus 5 smartphone into the ultimate performance monitoring tool, providing all sorts of information about our truck like instant mpg, torque, mass air flow and dozens of other things we don’t really understand. And, yes, it will read that engine error code and tell you what the problem is so you know if you need to “check engine” immediately or not.

OBDLink MX

 

 

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Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2014 – Best Hotels

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 casadelriomocoa@gmail.com. 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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