Travel Gear of the Year 2011

This post is part 1 of 4 in the series Best of 2011

We’re still using (and loving) the travel gear we focused on in last year’s Travel Gear of the Year 2010 post, but a few new additions to our road trip proved to be indispensable in 2011.

 

Part slingback backpack, part full service camera bag, the Lowepro SlingShot 202 AW Camera Bag holds Eric’s Canon D50 camera body, four Canon lenses, one Flip video camera, one Canon S95 (see below), extra batteries, memory cards, filters and one GorillaPod tripod. When a zipper broke on Eric’s first SlingShot bag after years of use, Lowepro didn’t just fix it they replaced the bag with a brand new SlingShot 202 without asking any questions or requesting a receipt. Incredible! Improvements in the latest version of this bag include an outside tripod hook, a slightly roomier design, a few more convenient small pockets and cushier, more durable strap padding. Plus that outstanding Lowepro customer service.

 

Eric’s Canon PowerShot S95 camera combines the convenience of a compact, lightweight camera with professional features like the ability to shoot in RAW format and full manual control. The result is pro quality pictures with less schlepping. We’ve come to rely on the S95 as a replacement for Eric’s large Canon D50 in circumstances when it’s smart to be low key and inconspicuous (like night shooting in cities) or during outdoor activities (like volcano trekkking and white water rafting) when a smaller camera is easier to carry and use. The only weak point is the (short) battery life and the less-than-exact battery meter. Invest in a spare and keep it charged.
Note: The Canon PowerShot S95 has recently been updated and the current model is the Canon PowerShot S100. And Lowepro also makes the perfect hard-sided case for these cameras. This compact case is sturdy and it comes with a loop that allows you to thread it onto a belt and carry it inconspicuously underneath a shirt.

Shortly after purchasing a Canon PowerShot S95 (Eric’s first compact digital camera) we decided not lug his full size cameras and lenses up Santiaguito Volcano in Guatemala and take the compact instead. It produced great long exposure images (like the one above) with very little “digital noise” (those annoying speckles left behind by lesser compact digital cameras when shooting in low light situations ). It was also a heck of a lot easier to carry up the steep volcano.

 


Buy GoPro HERO Camera at GoPro.com
For years now our web site homepage and our monthly Where We’ve Been posts have featured a detailed map showing our exact driving route made using GPS data from our SPOT Satellite Messenger. A few months ago we added a video component to our monthly wrap ups thanks to our GoPro Hero HD camera. Mounted on our windshield, it takes a picture every ten seconds which we then turn into a time-lapse video which shows you what we see as we drive through The Americas. We can now show you roughly two hours of real-time driving in one minute of GoPro video. In 2011 look for GoPro generated time-lapse videos of us zip lining, ATVing, surfing and more. We do find that the battery doesn’t last as long as we’d like (something they’ve apparently addressed with the new model) and when the battery does run out during use it resets the date so your footage is undated.

 

First we bought just one Targus Lap Chill Mat. When we started fighting over who got to use it we decided we needed two. The Chill Mat acts as a base for a laptop, cooling it with two small fans and providing a stable “desk” when we work in bed with our computers on our laps (like we’re doing right now). Our only complaint is that the little rubber feet come out too easily. We’ve already lost two…

 

 

We’re often in circumstances where the internet signal is very, very weak. Our Alfa wireless USB Wi Fi singal booster can usually boost an insufficiently strong signal into something that actually allows us to connect and get some online work and research done.

 

Sadly, our truck was manufactured in 2007, a year before the radios came with a direct iPod input. Also sadly, the XM Satellilte radio service we subscribed to petered out in Southern Mexico and then the iPod connector we’d been using conked out. That means that for more than year we’ve been a road trip without road trip music. Not anymore! We recently installed a PIE GM12-POD/S Digital iPod Interface Adapter which allows us to connect our iPods (we have two) and use our factory-installed stereo system to control the iPods and listen to everything on them.

 

It wasn’t all about new tech tools in 2010. We finally ditched the full-size pillows we’d been carting around since embarking on the Trans-Americas Journey back in 2006 and replaced them with Hummingbird Travel Gear compressible travel pillows. Read more about why we love them (small! comfy! clean!) in our full product review.

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Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2011 – Best Adventures & Activities

This post is part 2 of 4 in the series Best of 2011

Welcome to Part 1 in our “Best Of 2011″ series of posts. Part 1 is all about the top Adventures & Attractions of the year (from falconing in El Salvador to diving in Honduras). Part 2 covers the Best Food & Beverages of 2011 and Part 3 covers the Best Hotels of the year.

Yes, end of year round-ups can be lame. On the other hand, they can also be a valuable chance for us to look back on the year that was and remember just how damn lucky we are.

Done right, an end of year round-up can also be a quick and easy way for you to get a dose of the best tips, tricks and truths that made our Trans-Americas Journey travels so special in 2011. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll hit the road yourself in 2012 (or 2013, no pressure).

First, a few relevant stats:

In 2011 the Trans-Americas Journey…

…thoroughly explored four, albeit very small, countries (Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador)

…drove 8,055 miles (we said they were small countries)

…spent $2,300 on fuel (yes, that’s in US dollars)

…had one flat tire (after driving over a nail in Copan, Honduras)

…bounced over about a billion topes/tumulos (vicious Latin American speed bumps) and through twice that many pot holes

We did manage to spend some time outside of our truck doing and seeing exciting things. In no particular order, here are some of the adventures and activities that made all that time on the road even better. Enjoy!

 Best Adventures & Activities of 2011

Best adventure surprise: There are only a handful of falconers in all of Central America and only one who’s certified to guide guests. That would be Roy Beers, owner of Cadejo Adventures. We walked through the hills above San Salvador with Roy and his Harris Hawk Chucky (named after the horror movie character). We strolled through coffee plantations and forested hillsides as Chucky followed along from tree to tree, landing on our gloved hands when we called and half-heartedly hunting (he wasn’t very hungry). Somehow the forest looks and feels different with a hiking buddy who can fly and the experience made hiking without a bird of prey in tow seem downright boring.

Best natural swimming pool: Guide books and travelers rave about the descending pools of water called Sumac Champay in Guatemala. We are happy to report that these pools, totally created by Mother Nature, lived up to the hype and were worth the serious side trip to get there. Crystal clear water (except in the rainy season), a perfect warm temperature, dramatic surrounding cliffs, not crowded (though avoid weekends) and we even got free pedicures thanks to gazillions of tiny fish intent on removing every last scrap of dead skin as we soaked.

Best adventure we did for the first time:  We love to SCUBA dive and we’ve done it hundreds of times all around the world. However, we’d never been on a liveaboard dive boat until we boarded the Aggressor III in Belize in 2011. Specially built and equipped to accommodate just 18 divers with plush cabins and a huge dive deck. Even better? The swanky SCUBA services including hot showers and warm towels post dive, freshly made snacks all day long (hey, diving is hard work) and great dive masters. Bonus:The 3-D dive site maps drawn by the staff on-board the Aggressor III were colorful, informative and playful (sometimes they even featured plastic sea creatures stuck on the white board for effect). Best of all, the maps were clear. Even directionally-challenged Karen could quickly understand the layout of the site and navigate around during our awesome underwater adventures.

Best National Park name: Parque Nacional El Imposible in El Salvador.

Best guide: We don’t usually hire guides. However, when we wanted to get an authentic glimpse of the FMLN perspective on the decades of war between the El Salvadoran army and FMLN guerrilla fighters which started with genocide in the ’30s and really flared up in the ’70s and ’80s we went straight to Bar El Necio in Suchitoto and asked for the bartender. Luis Carrera is a treasure (and not just because rum cocktails and ice-cold beer are just $1.50 at this revolutionary-themed bar). Luis has since quit his job as a bartender to focus full time on guiding. He will take you to nearby villages that were obliterated during the war and introduce you to elderly people and translate when they recount their often horrifying first hand experiences during the country’s darkest moments. He’ll even take you home to meet his mom, an infectiously bubbly woman who survived a massacre, fled into the jungle and quite literally gave birth to Luis on the trail while she was on the run. Contact Luis at [email protected] (dot) com.

Best voluntourism opportunity: Love and Hope Children’s Home in the hills above San Salvador lives up to its name providing a truly homey home for children whose own families are unfit or unwilling to care for them. Rachel Sanson, a native of Ohio, has been in El Salvador since 2001 and she helped start the home in 2004. She’s still there and she can use all the help she can get. Volunteers are accepted for short or long-term stays (room and board included). We visited the home and a friend of ours still raves about his experiences during a brief volunteer stint. We were impressed with Rachel and with the home’s policy of putting all volunteers through a background check before allowing them through the doors to help heal and teach her needy kids.

Best zip line: In the hills above Metapan in El Salvador, just shy of the Montecristo National Park, lies Hostal Villa Limon. In addition to a handful of lovely, multi-bedroom cabins with kitchens Villa Limon has one hell of a zip line. Eight different sections criss-cross the slopes up to 300′ (91 meters) above the jungle and coffee plantations below. One particularly steep stretch is 1/4 mile (.40 km) long. It’s almost enough to distract you from the awesome views of volcanoes in the distance.

Best private waterfall: For $120 you can reserve your own private waterfall, swimming hole and rustic picnic pavilion in the vast protected area around Hidden Valley Inn in the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve in Belize. They’ll even bring you a four-course champagne lunch and string a handmade Do Not Disturb sign across the trail to ensure complete privacy.

Best hot springs: Just outside Ahuachapan in El Salvador lies Termales Santa Teresa, a paradise for anyone who likes to soak in water super-heated and full of healing minerals. Huge, deep pools ($10 pp for a full day of access) already exist in the shade of a well tended garden surrounded by a vast coffee plantation. A few large villas are also available for rent right around the pools and a new hotel and reasonably priced dorms are being constructed right now. Our thanks to Claudia and Roberto from the lovely La Casa de Mamapan hotel in Ahuachapan for taking us to this hidden gem!

Best borrachos: The pro partiers in the town of Todos Santos in Guatemala know how to drink and these borrachos (Spanish for drunks) don’t let a little inebriation get in the way of a good time either. A popular regional pass time is drunken horse racing which is every bit as baffling (and dangerous) as it sounds…

Best tour operator: Miguel Huezo of Suchitoto Tours in El Salvador. He knows the most unique places, the most enjoyable activities, the most innovative guides and tour operators and he devoted a tremendous amount of time, effort and passion to make sure that we got acquainted with all of them. And he’ll do the same for you: [email protected] (dot) com

Best adventure honeymoon suite: Eric and I well past the honeymoon stage but if we weren’t we might consider spending part of our honeymoon inside a cave owned by Ian Anderson’s Caves Branch in Belize. First, you hike for an hour into the jungle then you rappel nearly 300′ (91 meters) down a cliff face called the Black Hole Drop (we did this as part of our awesome cave adventures with Ian Anderson’s Caves Branch). After the rappel, a short walk leads you to the mouth of a cave where a real bed has been set up and strewn with flowers, candles have been lit and champagne has been chilled. Your guides cook you a romantic dinner, then wander off to leave you two alone. In the morning, they cook breakfast and guide you back out.

Best jungle hike: We were hot. Our feet were sore. Our minds were blown. Hiking through the jungle to reach El Mirador in northern Guatemala isn’t easy, but the remains of one of the biggest and hardest to reach Mayan cities is worth it–as is adding a day onto your adventure so you can hike back out via Nakbe and La Florida archaeological sites (where we finally saw a jaguar, sort of). Our thanks to Manuel of Tikal Connection for providing us with the gear and guides needed to have this amazing experience.

Best religious festival: Turns out, there are very good reasons why the Semana Santa (Holy Week) celebrations in Antigua, Guatemala are world famous. In 2011 we were lucky to spend the entire week leading up to Easter in Antigua (huge thanks to Gene and Judy for letting us stay in their gorgeous home). We watched elaborate religious floats paraded through the streets. We saw artistic but temporary alfombras (carpets) created on the streets and even got to help make one thanks to Evelyn of Hotel San Jorge.

 

 

Best National Park entrance: The swing bridge that gets you into Parque Nacional Pico Bonito in the Cangrejal Valley in Honduras.

Best (easy) bird sighting: Quetzals are known for three things: the technicolor plumage and extravagantly long tails of the males, their shy nature and their love of a narrow swath of remote cloud forest. In other words, they are exciting to see but usually very difficult to see.  During their mating season (roughly March to June) all you have to do is manage to wake up at dawn and stumble from your basic room at Ranchito del Quetzal Hotel on the edge of the Biotopo del Quetzal in the Alta Verapaz region of Guatemala and head down to the hotel’s humble comedor. There, you will find a hot cup of coffee and quetzals waiting for you. You almost don’t even have to leave your seat to watch the extraordinary birds dip and dive from tree to tree, tails streaming and feathers glinting.

Best (worth the effort) bird sighting: The resplendant quetzals we saw during our morning at Ranchito Quetzal came so easily that we almost felt like they didn’t count. So we made the rough journey to a remote privately run nature preserve called the Chelemha Cloud Forest Reserve. In addition to a stylish, sustainably handcrafted guesthouse and gourmet, organic, locally grown food you will find quetzals here, but you’re going to have to hike for it. We walked for three hours high into the protected cloud forest where our guide finally pointed out a known nest site inside the hollow stump of a dead tree. After sitting silently nearby, camera at the ready, the male emerged from the nest and obligingly posed on a branch for a while.

Best dive site: During a few days of diving with Utopia Dive Resort on the island of Utila in Honduras we visited a dive site called The Pinnacles. In the course of a 55 minute dive in warm, crystal clear water we saw dramatic coral and rock pinnacle formations, the most enormous green moray we’ve ever seen (easily 6′ long) plus spotted morays, golden morays and a turtle feeding serenely on a coral head with a bevy of colorful angel fish scavenging around it.

Best camp site: We spent our very last nights in Guatemala camped on the shores of Lake Ipala, a lake in the crater of the Ipala volcano. The road up was wicked, it rained like hell and some dude stole our cooler, camp stove and camp chairs (which were all recovered with the help of our friend George Boburg of Guatemala’s awesome Proatur tourist assistance organization). Still, what we really remember was the scenery and serenity of this spot.

Best bird watching platform: Belize Lodge & Excursions has a lot going for it including three of the most unique lodgings in Belize and an equally unique approach to conservation.  Jungle Camp, a lodge so deep in protected jungle that it’s only accessible by boat, offers one more superlative to add to the list: epic bird watching platform hung around the girth of a sacred ceiba tree 100′ off the ground.

Best National Park infrastructure: Parque Nacional Cerro Azul in Honduras was developed in partnership with a Canadian NGO. This helps explain the extraordinary infrastructure which makes it such a pleasure to explore this park. In addition to a variety of very comfortable rooms, the park has a covered camping area with running water, flush toilets, cold showers and electricity. The park’s nine miles (15 km) of trails through the jungle and past waterfalls are all well marked and well maintained. And the restaurant even has WiFi service. Well worth a night or two.

Best church: We’ve seen hundreds of churches during our Trans-Americas Journey but the most memorable and unusual one so far is the irreverent, controversial, absolutely compelling Church of the Rosary (Iglesia el Rosario in Spanish). The church, located in downtown San Salvador, was created in 1971 by artist and architect Ruben Martinez who tweaked everything you normally associate with a Catholic church in Latin America. The exterior looks like a particularly ugly crumbling airplane hangar. The cross looks like a rudimentary ship mast. Inside there are no pillars or columns. Stained glass windows have been created by randomly imbedding hunks of colored glass into the curved, bare concrete walls and ceiling. The stark, simple altar is on the same level as the pews. To the right of the altar is an area that houses the remains of brother Nicolas Vicente, and Manuel Aguilar (heroes of El Salvadorean independence) and representations of the stations of the cross. So often melodramatic and predictable, the stations of the cross in the Iglesia el Rosario are depicted in thoroughly modern, enticingly abstract sculptures created by Martinez in carved stone, wrought iron and re-bar. If you see just one thing in the capital of El Salvador it should be this ground-breaking church.


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Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2011 – Best Food & Beverages

This post is part 3 of 4 in the series Best of 2011

Welcome to Part 2 in our “Best Of 2011″ series of posts. Part 2 is all about the Best Food & Beverages of the year from the necessary (homemade bread) to the not so necessary (cow udder). Part 1 covered the Best Adventures & Activities of 2011 and Part 3 covers the Best Hotels of the year.

Yes, end of year round-ups can be lame. On the other hand, they can also be a valuable chance for us to look back on the year that was and remember just how damn lucky we are.

Done right, an end of year round-up can also be a quick and easy way for you to get a dose of the best tips, tricks and truths that made our Trans-Americas Journey travels so special in 2011. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll hit the road yourself in 2012 (or 2013, no pressure).

First, a few relevant stats:

In 2011 the Trans-Americas Journey…

…thoroughly explored four countries (Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador)

…drove 8,055 miles (we said they were small countries)

…spent $2,300 on fuel (yes, that’s in US dollars)

…had one flat tire (we drove over a nail in Copan, Honduras)

…bounced over about a billion topes (viscious Latin American speed bumps) and through twice that many pot holes

We’ve also eaten nearly all our meals in restaurants of one description or another from street food stalls to bustling markets to multi-star restaurants. In no particular order, here are some of the best bites and top tipples that made all that time on the road even tastier.

You will notice that this list is significantly shorter than our Best Food & Beverages of 2010 list. Honestly, that’s because we didn’t spend any time in Mexico this year. You just can’t beat Mexico for spectacular food. Still, we managed to eat all right. Here are our picks for…

The best food & beverages of 2011

Best ice cream: Sin Rival truly is without rival. With locations all over El Salvador, this mini-chain, which started out as one street cart, offers all-natural flavor bombs of goodness that comes satisfyingly close to gelato.

Best beer in Central America: Tomas Wagner is serious about beer. Serious enough to drive 10 miles for his spring water. Serious enough to wear a lab coat while he brews. Serious enough to import all of his gear and ingredients from his native Germany (where he’s won awards for his beers). None of that would be remarkable in Amsterdam or Portland or Sydney but Tomas is brewing artisanal, strictly German style beer in Copán, Honduras—a small town best known for its neighboring Mayan ruins of the same name. Sol de Copán Brew Pub is not in your guidebook (yet) and the sign is easy to miss so ask anyone in town and look for the building with the turrets. We were tipped off to the existence of this truly delicious micro-brewed beer by the border agent we made friends with when I crossed into Honduras from Guatemala. He made me promise we would go see “the German” while in Copán and that we did, three nights in a row. 

Best steak: Overall, the food in Guatemala did not thrill us. Except for the steak served at a restaurant called Guajimbo on the main drag in the town of Panajachel on Lake Atitlán. It’s not the cheapest restaurant in town by a long shot, but for 72Q (about US$9) the tender, juicy expertly grilled beef with chimichuri and vegetables is so worth it. And did we mention the awesome basket of garlic bread that comes with it?  Add that in and you’ve got all the fixin’s for a five star steak sandwiches.

Best ceviche: Okay, there was one more dish that wowed us in Guatemala. What started out as a humble street cart has morphed into not one but two Los Chavos restaurants (both in Zone 5) in Guatemala City. They serve up plenty of cooked seafood dishes but the real reason to come is the ceviche. You choose your ingredients (fish, shrimp, calamari, etc) and your size and they whip up a bowl of unbelievably fresh fish perfectly seasoned and marinated. A tiny bowl of seafood bisque is the perfect amuse bouche. At 100 quetzales (US$13) for a large ceviche which is big enough to share, it’s reasonably priced too.

Best pupusas: Take a palm-full of masa (corn or rice paste), form it into a ball, spoon in a dollop of filling, then flatten it and grill it on a hot griddle and you’ve got yourself a pupusa. It’s basically the national food of El Salvador, usually filled with chicharon (fried pork), beans, cheese, loroco (see below) or a shredded squash called ayote or any combination of said ingredients. After nearly three months in El Salvador (and hundreds of pupusas later) we can say that (in our humble opinion) the best made, best priced examples of this ubiquitous food are found at La Unica, a large, bustling, bright pupuseria which hunkers down behind the church in the square in Antigua Cuscutlan, a neighborhood in the capital San Salvador. Antigua Cuscutlan is known for having some of the best pupusas in El Salvador and there must be a dozen or more pupuserias competing for your attention within a 10 block area. Many swear by a nearby much fancier pupuseria that is certainly the place to go if you want ingredients that go beyond the usual suspects (like jalapeños and mozzarella cheese). They’ll even give you a knife and fork (!?!?) to eat your gourmet pupusa with. However, we’re traditionalist who prefer the classic ingredients and using our hands.

Best chic bar surprise: There are many reasons to visit Gracias, Honduras, including great hiking in Celaque National Park and great culture in the heart of an area still inhabited by the Lencas, the largest indigenous group in Honduras. What we weren’t expecting was a cool bar. Then we were tipped off to Kafe Kandil which has a loungy vibe, good music, original art on the walls and properly made cocktails which attracts a fascinating crowd of young local hipsters, Peace Corps volunteers and couples on dates. Read more about travel to Gracias, Honduras in this feature we did for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Best unlikely combination: Steam some yuca (aka cassava), make a spicy sauce, pickle some shredded squash then pile it all onto a banana leaf and top it with chunks of rich, juicy chunks of fried pork and you’ve got yuca y chicharrón (pictured below), a staple in El Salvador.

Best bread: So the Kafe Kandil bar in Gracias, Honduras was a surprise. Equally unexpected? A whole-grain, nutty, chewy loaf of crusty home made bread (available in whole or half loaves). You can thank Lizeth Perdono, owner and chef at Rincon Graciana which is the only restaurant in town that serves traditional Lencan food and the only place in all of Honduras to get bread like this.

Best food we’ll never eat again: Grilled cow udder. We had it in Metapán, El Salvador. Tasted like foie gras. Sort of.

Best everyday local ingredient: Loroco. This flower bud is a staple in El Salvador, particularly in pupusas. It tastes like asparagus.

 

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Best Of the Trans-Americas Journey 2011 – Best Hotels

This post is part 4 of 4 in the series Best of 2011

Welcome to Part 3 in our  “Best Of 2011″ series of posts. Part 3 is all about the Best Hotels of the year (from showers with a view to urban eco hotels). Part 1 covers the Best Adventures & Attractions of 2011 and Part 2 covers the Best Food & Beverages.

Yes, end of year round-ups can be lame. On the other hand, they can also be a valuable chance for us to look back on the year that was and remember just how damn lucky we are.

Done right, an end of year round-up can also be a quick and easy way for you to get a dose of the best tips, tricks and truths that made our Trans-Americas Journey travels so special in 2011. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll hit the road yourself in 2012 (or 2013, no pressure).

First, a few relevant stats:

In 2011 the Trans-Americas Journey…

…thoroughly explored four countries (Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador)

…drove 8,055 miles (we said they were small countries)

…spent $2,300 on fuel (yes, that’s in US dollars)

…had one flat tire (we drove over a nail in Copan, Honduras)

…bounced over about a billion topes/tumulos (viscious Latin American speed bumps) and through twice that many pot holes

We also spent nearly all 365 nights of 2011 in hotels (when we weren’t lucky enough to be staying with new friends, old friends or family). In no particular order, here…

The best hotels of 2011

Best private plunge pool: The Honeymoon Cabana at Francis Ford Coppola’s Blancaneaux Lodge in Belize has many romantic touches. The most irresistible one is the private plunge pool. It’s roomier and deeper that most plunge pools and it’s ultra-private with sweeping views over the hills and forests of the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve and Privassion Creek below.

Best eco hotel: Sure Hotel Arbol de Fuego in San Salvador (the capital of El Salvador) has made all the usual eco moves like long life bulbs and “please re-use your towels” signs. But this homey, tranquil boutique guesthouse has also adopted a ton of other initiatives (low-flow showers for example) that have resulted in epic reductions in energy use, water consumption and pollution.The owner, a passionately green woman named Carolina, has kept meticulous records of the profitable side effects her eco efforts. Her success has been so big and so well documented that Carolina is now helping other small hotels in El Salvador take the environmental plunge. BONUS: Hotel Arbol de Fuego is within walking distance of the pupuseria La Unica which serves what we consider to be the best pupusas in El Salvador.

Best massage room: The petite spa at Belcampo Belize (formerly Machaca Hill Rainforest Lodge) near Punta Gorda in Belize has just one massage room but it’s a doozy. An entire wall is floor to ceiling windows  with views into some of the 13,000 acres of jungle that surrounds the resort. Book a treatment in the morning or evening for the best chance of seeing toucans and howler monkeys right outside.

Best hostel kitchen: The shared kitchen at Casa Verde in Santa Ana, El Salvador has more tools and gadgets than the kitchen in our old apartment. It’s also spotless and there are two refrigerators–one entirely filled with ice-cold beer. Related thought: we’re loving this website that dishes about easy recipes that can be made in even the most basic hostel kitchen using cheap, available ingredients (and gadgets) with delicious results.

Best unexpected hotel moment: We were thrilled at the chance to witness the epic Semana Santa celebrations in Antigua, Guatemala. Then the owner of Hotel San Jorge (large, spotless rooms from $50 with fireplaces and Wi-Fi arranged around a meticuously maintined and super-serene garden) invited us to take it one step further. And so we found ourselves helping her create a traditional temporary street decoration called an alfombra on the road in front of her hotel. We don’t know of any other hotel in Antigua that offers this experience. Our advice is to book your Semana Santa room now.

Best beach house: It’s a perfect recipe: a rustic chic private beach house with four bedrooms, two bathrooms, small pool, hammock-filled deck, open air kitchen and living room all mere steps from the waves on a secluded beach. Even better, Los Caracoles, on Maculis beach in El Salvador, is owned and run by the same guys who operate the stunning Los Almendros hotel in Suchitoto–one of the best hotels in the country.

Best hotel for Mayanists: Hacienda San Lucas is a lovingly restored 100 year old family home which now oozes rustic charm in the foothills above Copán in Honduras which is home to the epic remains of the Mayan city of Copán. But you need not leave the hillside to get close to one of the most fascinating civilizations that ever existed. Hacienda San Lucas is run by Doña Flavia Cueva who is the daughter of a man roundly credited with preserving Copán and creating the archaeological discipline in Honduras.  Doña Flavia’s daughter, Frida Larios, has turned her artists’ eye to Mayan glyphs, transforming the traditional ancient stone carvings into modern graphic art which decorates the hotel. The kitchen turns out traditional Mayan dishes during five-course gourmet dinners and the hacienda is just a short walk away from a small, mysterious cluster of Mayan remains called Los Sapos.

Best outdoor shower: The outdoor “jungle showers” on the decks of the plush hillside suites at Ian Anderson’s Caves Branch in Belize are spacious and beautiful but odds are you’ll be too busy admiring the view of the Caves Branch River, karst hills and sprawling orange groves in this bucolic section of Western Belize to  notice the tile work and charming use of a tin bucket. The perfect way to wash off your cave adventures!

Best boutique hotel newcomer: Newly opened five room Casa ILB in San Salvador, El Salvador is minimal, elegant and (for now) shocking affordable with rates from $110 double including a lovely breakfast buffet. We did not want to leave.

 

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