Travel Gear of the Year 2012

This post is part 1 of 4 in the series Best of 2012

We’re still using (and loving) the travel gear we focused on in our previous Travel Gear of the Year posts and Product Reviews, from WiFi extenders to sunscreen to flashlights to travel pillows.

Now it’s time to present the travel gear that proved to be indispensable in 2012. Weirdly, lots of clothing this year.

Travel Gear of the Year 2012

 

Chaco Eco Tread Flip Flops

Karen has had her Chaco Flip Eco Tread flip flops on her feet nearly every single day for the past couple of years. A strap finally broke while we were exploring Masaya Volcano in Nicaragua and she had to buy a new pair. That’s when she realized just how fabulous these flip flops are. The durable, non-slip soles (in the foot bed and on the bottom) resist odors and are prefect in the water or on slippery or rocky trails. The soft, pliable, nylon upper straps are easy to clean with a bit of liquid soap and an old toothbrush and they dry fast. And they’re tough as hell. Sure, one pair bit the dust (check out her old pair on the left above next to her brand new pair on the right) but only after years of daily use . The few days during which Karen had to wear cheap plastic flip flops while she waited for her new Chacos to arrive were hell. Now Eric has a pair too. Another thing we love? The size is clearly and durably printed on the back of the heel of your Chacos which lets you re-ordering online worry free even without the chance to try them on before buying.

4g ipod woth Otterbox Defender caseWe left on our Journey the year before the iPhone was introduced. While we did have an early incarnation of a smartphone in the early days of our Journey, it was pretty stupid compared to today’s iOS and Android phones, since “smart” back then meant your phone also had email. It took a while, but 2012 was the year we finally joined the smartphone club…almost. The addition of an iPod Touch 4th generation to our tech arsenal means we have a “smart device” but not a smartphone since the touch isn’t a phone. Still, as long as we have a Wi-Fi signal, we can get email, connect to the web and use any iPhone app without having to drag out our computers. We have not been immune to the allure of all of those tasty iPod accessories either and our new gadget is now housed in an Otterbox Defender Case. These colorful and beefy case have three layers of protection including a clear panel over the screen. While we have no plans to toss around our new iPod or drop it in the bathtub the rugged, smart design of this case does inspire confidence that it would survive such shenanigans. We only have one criticism: in order to mount our iPod onto speakers we have to remove it from the Otterbox case entirely–no easy feat.

ITMB maps - Nicaragua

The extremely well-traveled folks at the award-winning International Travel Maps and Books (ITMB) are fanatics. They have a team of cartographers and the itch to explore and their combo of artistry, OCD and travel passion has resulted in travel-centric maps covering just about anywhere you want to go (they currently publish more than 425 different maps). We began relying on ITMB maps in Nicaragua and Costa Rica and will stick with them all the way to Tierra del Fuego. The company spent 22 years mapping South America, so we think we’re in pretty good hands.

Just when you thought the sweat-wicking/smell-resisting/SPF-giving/insect-repelling materials used to make outdoor clothing couldn’t get any smarter, along comes Sol Cool, a fabric which contains Xylitol, a scary-sounding name for something that occurs naturally in birch trees. When added to clothing, Xylitol cools you off by up to five degrees when the fabric comes into contact with moisture (like sweat), which is then wicked away. The Sol Cool fabric also gives you SPF 50+ protection. ExOfficio is using Sol Cool in a line of clothes for men and women. Karen is practically living in her Sol Cool Sleeveless Sun Dress and Eric swears he feels cooler every time he puts on his Sol Cool t-shirt.

Seagate GoFlex 1TB portable drive

Over the past six years of our Trans-Americas Journey Eric has taken more than 80,000 photos which take up nearly 1TB of space. That’s a lot of vital data to keep backed up and safe in dusty, bumpy,hot and humid conditions on the road. Through the years we’ve lived through the nightmare of having drives from LaCie, Western Ditigal and Maxtor fail on us at one point or another. So, in 2012, we made the switch to Seagate drives, including their smaller size, higher capacity and (so far) tougher portable drives (like the one above in use in Panama). Before switching to these drives Eric had to split his photo library between two 500MB drives—not exactly convenient or organized. Now his entire photo library fits on one Seagate FreeAgent GoFlex 1TB drive. (Note that this line was recently updated to the BackupPlus Portable l line.)

UV skins 50 SPF sun protection shirt SUP

UV Skinz made it into our travel arsenal literally in the final days of 2012 but we’re already sure we’ll be swearing these sun protection shirts every time we’re in the sun for extended periods of time from here on out. With styles cut specifically for men, women and children the fit is good–not too clingy and not too baggy. And despite a fairly heavy feel to the elastene fabric our UV Skinz aren’t too hot and they dry quickly. How do we know? We took our new UV Skinz for a virgin run during a stay at Nitro City Panama Action Sports Resort. This newly-opened place less than two hours from Panama City, Panama is owned by Travis Pastrana, a motocross/X-Games/Red Bull extreme athlete and stunt man turned Nascar driver along with his equally amped-up partners. They all have one goal: give guests a taste of adrenaline and a luxe place to rest and recover after the rush. Nitro City has a top-shelf activities staff (many of them champs in their sports) offering kite boarding, wake boarding, stand up paddle boarding, dirt bike riding, skate boarding and more to newbies and budding pros alike. We fell into the former category as we enjoyed wake boarding and stand up paddle boarding at Nitro City, always wearing our UV Skinz. After four days we were sunburn free. We also like that the seams are flat so UV Skinz don’t rub under life vests or SCUBA equipment or other gear and the fabric is impregnated with SPF 50 protection and it’s chlorine resistant.

We’re not going to go into it. Suffice to say that Karen’s right hip has been in open revolt ever since she hiked up Santiaguito Volcano in Guatemala carrying a too-heavy pack two years ago. We’ve been carrying Leki trekking poles with us in the truck since day one of our Trans-Americas Journey back in 2006 but in 2012 they become a necessary hiking accessory for Karen providing balance and support.

 

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Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2012 – Best Adventures & Activities

This post is part 2 of 4 in the series Best of 2012

Welcome to Part 1 in our Best Of the Trans-Americas Journey 2012 series of posts. Part 1 is all about the Best Adventures & Activities from the past year on the road including SCUBA diving with hammerhead sharks in Costa Rica and perfecting the art of doing nothing on a (nearly) deserted beach in Panama. Part 2 covers the Best Food & Beverages of 2012 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 the best tips, tricks and truths that made our Trans-Americas Journey travels so special in 2012. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll hit the road yourself in 2013 (or 2014, no pressure).

First, a few relevant stats:

In 2012 the Trans-Americas Journey…

…thoroughly explored Nicaragua, Costa Rica and northern Panama

…drove 8,349 miles

…spent $2,608 on fuel

…made seven overland border crossings

We did manage to spend some time outside of our truck doing and seeing exciting things. In no particular order, here are the…

Best adventures & activities of 2012

Best adventure of the year: SCUBA diving with dozens of sharks including scalloped hammerheads, tiger sharks, reef sharks and all kinds of rays with Undersea Hunter off Cocos Island in Costa  Rica. Find out more about this adventure and what it feels like to be 100 feet (33 meters) underwater surrounded by sharks in the Cocos Island feature we did for the Sunday travel section of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

SCUBA diving with Hammerhead sharks - Cocos Island

A hammerhead making a quick underwater u-turn as it spots Eric clinging to a rock while diving in the waters around Cocos Island, Costa Rica. Photo courtesy of Rodrigo Roesch de Bedout.

Best extreme tubing: There’s a reason they give you a life vest, helmet and elbow guards when you go tubing with Blue River Resort & Hot Springs at the base of Rincon de la Vieja Volcano in the Guanacaste region of Costa Rica. This trip down the Rio Azul (which really is an incredible shade of blue) is no lazy float. Best to think of it as white water rafting without the raft.

Best (nearly) deserted beach bumming: Playa Bluff on Isla Colon in the Bocas del Toro region of Panama (below) will take your breath away with truly golden sand (and not the icky sticky kind), Caribbean blue water, shockingly powerful waves, chairs and hammocks and just a handful of visitors. Add in the recently opened Playa Bluff Lodge directly opposite the beach with US$1.50 icy cold Panama beers, a restaurant and even stylish rooms (US$95 including breakfast) and it’s really, really hard to leave. Totally worth the 5.5 mile (9 km) bike or taxi ride from Bocas town.

Playa Bluff on Isla Colon in the Bocas del Toro

Best all-around rafting trip: The Pacuare River in Costa Rica is a glorious combination of peaceful floats (ample time to appreciate the densely-jungled riverbanks and steep hillsides) punctuated with plenty of white-knuckle moments over exciting stretches of white water. Book your Pacuare River rafting trip with RiosTropicales and your time off the river is just as spectacular thanks to an amazingly rustic yet comfy river lodge they’ve built for their guests.

Best adventure we never thought we’d have: While SCUBA diving with sharks around Cocos Island we got an unexpected bonus with the chance to dive to 300 feet below the surface of the ocean in Undersea Hunter’s DeepSee submersible. You know how they say it’s another world down there? They’re right.

DeepSee submarine under the surface - Cocos Island

Best perseverance-pays-off animal encounter: We’ve been trying to see whale sharks for years and either our timing is all wrong for spotting these seasonal giants or our timing is right but our luck sucks, as was the case when we spent three days diving at the right time in the right place in Belize but we still didn’t see a single whale shark. This is why we returned to Mexico for three days in 2012 just to try to see whale sharks. And it worked. Not only did we finally get in the water with whales sharks we snorkeled around with more than 100 of the giants as they cruised by feeding on plankton with their VW-Beetle-swallowing mouths agape.

Swimming with Whale Sharks Isla Mujeres, Mexico

Best swimming hole: Ojo de Agua on Ometepe Island in Lake Nicaragua where two bucks gets you access to chairs, tables, benches, hammocks and sun or shade (you choose) around roomy, crystal clear, refreshingly cold, spring-fed pools. The bottoms have been left natural but the sides have been built up in stone and concrete to create depth. There’s even a rope swing and a few enterprising vendors selling snacks and cold beer.

Best adventure activity we’d never heard of: Topless Sport Fishing in Costa Rica. And, no, we didn’t do it.

Find out which one of these adventures made the 25 Epic Adventures by Travel Bloggers in 2012 list as compiled by TravelingCanuck.com.

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Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2012 – Best Food & Beverages

This post is part 3 of 4 in the series Best of 2012

Welcome to Part 2 in our Best Of the Trans-Americas Journey 2012 series of posts. Part 2 is all about the Best Food & Beverages from the past year on the road from a gourmet surprise on a volcanic island in Nicaragua to the best chifrijo in Costa Rica. Part 1 covers the Best Adventures & Activities of 2012 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  the best tips, tricks and truths that made our Trans-Americas Journey travels so special in 2012. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll hit the road yourself in 2013 (or 2014, no pressure).

First, a few relevant stats:

In 2012 the Trans-Americas Journey…

…thoroughly explored Nicaragua, Costa Rica and northern Panama

…drove 8,349 miles

…spent $2,608 on fuel

…made seven overland border crossings

We’ve also eaten nearly all of 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 our picks for…

The best food & beverages of 2012

Best iced coffee: The talented baristas at the Café Las Flores coffee shops around Managua, Nicaragua turn the organic coffee grown and roasted by Café Las Flores into rich, satisfying coffee drinks of all descriptions including hard-to-find properly made iced coffee (US$2). No hot coffee watered down with ice cubes here!

Best pizza in Nicaragua: The kitchen at Al Cielo Hotel & Restaurant is run by Xavier, a young French chef-slash-surfer who ditched the bustle of Paris in favor of the views and vibe at the ridge top place he helped create minutes from super surf in the town of Aposentillo on the northern coast of Nicaragua. Before he left Paris, a mentor gave him his pizza dough recipe as a going away present. Xavier has perfected it to suit the water and the oven in his new kitchen and, among other tasty dishes, he now offers authentic gourmet pizzas for 180 cordobas (US$7.50).

Pizza Al Cielo Restaurant in Aposentillo, Nicaragua

 

Best cinnamon roll: They bake a lot of things at La Casa de Don Colacho in Jinotega, Nicaragua but stay focused on the cinnamon rolls which have the sticky sweetness to rich pastry ratio dialed in.

Best casual gourmet surprise: Café Campestre in the village of Balgue on Ometepe Island in the middle of Lake Nicaragua is owned by chef Ben Slow. He turns local, organic ingredients (much grown on his own nearby permaculture farm) into delights including homemade tagliatelle (seen drying, below), chicken curry, real chilli, humus (made with locally sourced jackfruit seeds instead of imported chickpeas—you’ll never know the difference) and much more all for less than many of the run-of-the-mill eateries on the island. His lovely and well-trained local staff and rustic/chic décor are also welcome surprises. Find out more about traveling to Ometepe Island in this feature we did for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Cafe Campestre - Balgue, Ometepe Island, Nicaragua

Best ice cream: It’s best to think of the frozen treat that’s been sold at La Sorbetera de Lolo Mora in San José’s 130 year old Central Market for more than 100 years as frozen egg nog with all the nutmeg, cinnamon, clove and rich, custardy goodness that entails. It’s even the same color as egg nog. Locals like it even more with cubes of red Jell-O in it. We liked it so much (sans Jell-O) that we made it one of our 17 Reasons Not to Blow Off the Capital.

La Sorbeteria de Lolo Mora - central Market, San Jose, Costa Rica

Best chifrijo in Costa Rica: Pull into a road side stand just a few miles after you exit the new pay highway from San Jose onto the Costanera highway on Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast near Playa Jaco and get ready for the best example of Costa Rica’s national dish that we had during our 5+ months in the country. The chifrijo here (shown below), made with white rice and whole red beans topped with chopped tender pork then crumbled with chopped chicharon (fried pork skin) then doused with pico de gallo and a squeeze of lime juice, is sublime.

Chifrijo Costa Rica

Best restaurant name: Claro Que Seafood Grill, the formal restaurant for the iconic Si Como No hotel near Manuel Antonio National Park in Costa Rica, wins this one hands down with its clever play on the common Spanish phrase claro que si (which means “clearly” or “of course”).

Best French fries: 9 Degrees Restaurant & Lounge in Bocas Town on Isla Colon in the Bocas del Toro Archipelago of northern Panama serves up thick cut, freshly made fries dusted in chunky salt and served on a chic waterfront outdoor deck.

Best chocolate: Sibu Chocolate near San Jose, Costa Rica is heaven for chocolate lovers and lovers of the environment. Innovative owners Julio Fernandez Amon and George Soriano not only produce top drawer organic hand-made chocolates they do it with local ingredients from small-scale farmers, they offset their carbon emissions and their elegant packaging is made from recycled materials. Find out more about Costa Rica’s organic chocolate pioneer in this piece we did for TheLatinKitchen.com.

Making chocolate - Sibu Chocolate, Costa Rica

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Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2012 – Best Hotels

This post is part 4 of 4 in the series Best of 2012

Welcome to Part 3 in our Best Of the Trans-Americas Journey 2012 series of posts. Part 3 is all about the Best Hotels from the past year on the road including boutique hotel bargains, a mind-boggling pool and a room with (nearly) no walls. Part 1 covers the Best Adventures & Activities of 2012 and Part 2 covers the Best Food & Beverages 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 the best tips, tricks and truths that made our Trans-Americas Journey travels so special in 2012. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll hit the road yourself in 2013 (or 2014, no pressure).

First, a few relevant stats:

In 2012 the Trans-Americas Journey…

…thoroughly explored Nicaragua, Costa Rica and northern Panama

…drove 8,349 miles

…spent $2,608 on fuel

…made seven overland border crossings

We also spent nearly all 365 nights of 2012 in hotels (when we weren’t lucky enough to be staying with new friends, old friends or family). In no particular order, here are some of the hotel moments that stand out.

The best hotels of 2012

Best infinity edge pool: We took one look at the infinity pool at the newly opened Kurà Design Villas in the hills above Uvita on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast and we knew we had our winner. As the name would imply, design is a major element of this super-stylish, super-romantic place and it’s the first time we’ve ever seen a pool with an infinity edge on all four sides (check it out, below). Toss in a flame that shoots out of the deep end, underwater speakers and breath taking views and you’ve got one spectacular swim.

Kurà Design Villas -  Uvita, Costa Rica

Best accommodation with a sense of place: Little Corn Island is like no other place in Nicaragua thanks to a serious Caribbean cultural and culinary influence and the quirks that come from island life. Farm Peace & Love, created on the north side of the island by a Little Corn native named Bing and his Italian wife Paola, is a stellar reflection of the island’s unique personality. Two stand-alone bungalows with kitchens come complete with freshly laid eggs,homemade coconut bread and fruit from the surrounding organic farm. Live like a local for a few days with ocean breezes on your porch, resident land crabs in the yard and no TVs or cell service.

Best bed with a view: Room 5532 at Parador Resort & Spa near Manuel Antonio National Park Costa Rica would be a stunning over-size suite even if the bed wasn’t angled to give you a perfectly unobstructed view of the Pacific Ocean, a sandy arc of beach and the occasional whale.

Best rooms with no walls: Okay, there are partial walls, but all seven traditionally built wood and thatch bungalows at Al Natural Resort on Isla Bastimentos in the Bocas del Toro Archipelago in Panama opens up completely to the sea. You can pull curtains closed if you want, but with a view like that why would you?

Al Natural Resort on Isla Bastimentos in the Bocas del Toro Archipeligo in Panama

 

Best re-birth of a hotel: Poas Volcano Lodge near Poas Volcano National Park in Costa Rica was heavily damaged after an earthquake in 2009. The owners turned tragedy into an opportunity to re-invent their operation, turning what was a basic, homey lodge into a chic boutique property with style and service. For more, read the full review of Poas Volcano Lodge that we did for iTraveliShop.com.

Best B&B for bird watching over breakfast: The 10 rooms at Boquete Garden Inn in Boquete, Panama are a comfortable bargain and the owners are dedicated, charming and info-filled. 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. Bring your binoculars to breakfast and enjoy some of the best (and laziest) bird watching in Panama.

Boquete birds

Best turn down treat: The locally made dark chocolates spiked with delicious ground coffee from their own estate grown beans at Finca Rosa Blanca Coffee Plantation & Inn in Costa Rica topped all other turn down treats of the year. For more, read the full review of Finca Rosa Blanca Coffee Plantation & Inn that we did for iTraveliShop.com.

Best boutique hotel bargain: The city of Granada in Nicaragua has more than its share of hotels, most of them in the classic colonial style. Los Patios Hotel takes a refreshingly different approach, blending Spanish colonial architecture with minimalist Scandinavian decor from the homeland of the hotel’s owners. Los Patios is so polished and well-appointed that we still can’t believe that rates start a US$90 double including a fabulous full breakfast and you can take 15% off that if you stay more than three  nights. If you need more reasons to book a stay, read the full review of Los Patios Hotel that we did for iTraveliShop.com.

Los Patios Hotel - Granada, Nicaragua

Best truly eco hotel: After 20 years in the green hotel business the owners of  Lapa Rios Eco Lodge in the Osa Peninsula of southern Costa Rica have learned a thing or two. For example, the original buildings were constructed using lumber harvested from fallen trees on the lodge’s 1,000 acre (400 hectare) private reserve. Then they realized that the nutrients in the fallen trees are best left to leach back into the soil so new constructions and furniture are now made using bamboo. Here are more ways they scored green points with us:

  • 58 out of the lodge’s 60 employees are from local villages and all of those employees who commute on motorcycles (the preferred mode of transport) have four-stroke engines.
  • The lodge is moving to fake palapa instead of natural thatch on all roofs to avoid the need to cut down palm when the roofs need to be replaced or repaired.
  • Kitchen garbage is fed to pigs (some of the most impeccably clean ones we’ve ever seen) and methane is collected from their waste and used to fuel the employee kitchen.
  • All water is cleaned with natural bacteria and plant filtration.
  • The pool is chlorine free and kept clean with ionization instead. Housekeeping staff really adhere to the towel and sheet replacement rules.
  • Biodegradable soap and shampoo is supplied along with biodegradable conditioner and lotion.
  • And, yes, they recycle.

Best value city hotel: Hotel Aranjuez in San Jose, Costa Rica where US$30 gets you an antique-filled double room with a shared (spotless) bathroom (only slightly more for rooms with a private bathroom and dorms are available too) plus parking, Wi-Fi and the most mouth-watering and diverse hotel breakfast buffet we’ve ever seen. Choose from freshly baked breads and cakes, made to order eggs, fruit and juice galore, homemade jams, a table full of salads and more. Reservations HIGHLY recommended.

Best beach bungalow: Aguas Claras in Puerto Viejo de Talamancas on the Caribbean Coast of Costa Rica has four simple wood bungalows with kitchens and porches. Each one is built in a breezy Caribbean style and painted in joyful bright colors. It’s a one minute walk to one of the most beautiful stretches of beach in this part of Costa Rica but we were so charmed by our bungalow that we basically didn’t leave it for three whole days.

Aguas Claras Beach Bungalows - Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica

Best healing spa treatments: Pura Vida in Costa Rica is well-known yoga retreat and healing center offering many experiences and treatments not found elsewhere in the country. Eric had never even heard of Korean Hand Therapy (US$105 per hour) so he booked it with a renowned blind practitioner named Olman. The mega-massage was powerful and painful but it effectively de-kinked the knots in his muscles (some he didn’t even know he had) and generally straightened him out. Karen booked her first Watsu treatment (US$125 per hour) with Sergio who managed to alleviate the chronic pain in her hip during an hour of weightless manipulation and stretching in a silent, soothing pool. We both wish we could have these treatments weekly.

Best un-hotel experience: We completed our first house sitting gig in 2012 through Trusted Housesitters and our experiences looking after a house (and dog and cat) in the hills above Playa Matapalo in Costa Rica for a few weeks have us hooked on this fun and free way to put down temporary roots. More to come in 2013.

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