Travel Gear of the Year 2013

This post is part 1 of 4 in the series Best of 2013

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 to flip flops. Now it’s time to present our travel gear of the year 2013 including a data backup solution, really clean teeth on the road and one tough and versatile travel skirt. Here’s what earned the right to be called…

Travel gear of the year 2013

Travel tech

Crashplan backupLike most digital nomads one of our biggest logistical issues is how to keep all of our data backed up. Because we travel in a truck we have the option of carrying a small flotilla of Seagate hard drives, but in 2013 we added cloud backup to our backup plan via Crashplan. In the past we had used both Mozy and Carbonite as a cloud backup solution but, shockingly, both of these services lost some of our valuable data and the customer support we received after the fact ranged from poor to appalling. The hurdle in adopting a new cloud back up service is getting the initial chunk of data (think terabytes of images) into the cloud. With often limited bandwidth on the road this could take months. Luckily one of the things that sets Crashplan apart is their seeded drive option. The company sends customers a 1TB drive which you load up directly from your computer and ship back to Crashplan. Viola! A terabyte of data is added to your backup without actually having to upload it. Why is this so great for travelers you ask? At the average upload bandwidth we generally have available while traveling in Central and South America, that terabyte would have taken at least 200 days of 24/7 uploading to get into the cloud.

 

Logitech m525 mouse

 

We love our Logitech M525 wireless mice (mice? mouse? never mind) because they work on nearly any surface, the battery lasts (nearly) forever and they save our wrists from the aches and pains of using trackpads while we work in contorted positions in yet another deskless room.

 

 

In our Travel Gear of the Year 2011 post we raved about our Targus Chill Mats which provide a laptop perch for our computers and help keep them (and our laps) cool and comfortable on our laps. However, they have one big drawback: the USB power cord which powers the internal fan is poorly constructed and eventually breaks rendering the fan useless. Enter the Targus Space Saving Chill Mat which not only solves the power cord vulnerability problem with an improved design but collapses down flat when not in use so it takes up less space.

Targus Laptop Chill Mat travel

2013 was the year we decided to finally get a smart phone (we know, we know). The Google Nexus 5 is as good as anything out there but at a fraction of the price at US$350 for an unlocked contract-free phone. Spending less on your smart phone means you can spend more on travel. Our only complaint is the lack of an external memory card slot.

Google Nexus 5 phone

Travel health

Oscillo cold & flu reliefGetting sick while traveling sucks. We’re generally pretty healthy on the road but whenever we feel a twinge of aches, fatigue or chills we pop open a tiny, lightweight single-dose tube of Oscillo homeopathic flu fighter and pour the yummy-tasting pellets under our tongue. No need for water, just let the pellets dissolve. Oscillo isn’t a liquid so it can’t leak which means we keep the stuff in our packs and in the glove compartment of our truck so it’s always handy. The all-natural ingredients are non-drowsy (so it’s safe to take while driving) and won’t interact with other medicines. Did we mention that it doesn’t taste like medicine either?

 

waterpik-traveler-water-flosserBasic dental health maintenance while traveling can be tricky. We’ve been lucky over the years, finding affordable, high-quality dentists for annual check ups but in 2013 we added another tool to our dental health care kit: a Waterpik Traveler Water Flosser which is a mini, packable version of the Waterpik Karen used as a teenager with braces. When packed up in its zippered case it’s just over 5 inches square and weighs less than two pounds.  It’s easy to assemble and disassemble, totally adjustable and comes with various cleaning and flossing heads. Just remember to fill it with purified water in areas where the tap water is not safe to drink and give it ample time to dry out before packing it up again.

Karen’s battle with the injury in her right leg and hip continued in 2013, aided by the addition of Arnicare to her routine. This stuff is full of arnica, a natural topical pain reliever, and can be rubbed into any aches and pains. It comes in a cream, ointment and a gel but the gel seems to absorb faster and there’s no old-lady smell. Eric has been caught using it as well, particularly after horseback riding or working on the truck in awkward positions.

Travel road trip gear

Fellow road trippers George and Teresa of Road Adventure turned us on to Maps with Me in Colombia after it saved our butts as we navigated through a maze of tracks in the desert at night on our way to Cabo de la Vela. We’ve been using it ever since. So far in Coolmbia and Ecuador Maps with Me has a number of back roads that don’t even exist on Google Maps and, most importantly, Maps with Me works totally offline so there’s no need for an internet connection. This is definitely our APP of the Year.

Steering is important. When ours started going (too many rough roads, potholes and killer speed bumps) we upgraded our factory steering components to heavy duty tie rods from Rare Parts. These things are no joke and neither are the roads ahead of us.

For years our transmission has been heating up during climbs. In 2013 we did something about it by installing a Performance Transmission Cooler made by Pacific Performance Engineering (PPE). This thing was easy to install and keeps our transmission about 30 degrees farenheit cooler simply by increasing air flow. Bring on the Andes!

Travel accessories

Platypus PlatyPreserve travel wine preserverGlass bottles are heavy. PlatyPreserve bags are a lightweight solution when you want to carry booze with you on a hike or in circumstances when you have luggage weight limits (like taking small planes to remote locations like the Galapagos Islands). Though they’re marketed for carrying wine (and they’ll hold an entire wine bottle), we got multiple PlatyPreserve bags and use some for wine and some for rum or other liquors. They never leak, never puncture, they’re easy to clean (though they take ages to dry) and they take up about the same amount of space as a sheet of paper when they’re empty. We’re not sure we buy claims that PlatyPreserve “eliminates exposure to air” thus preserving wine but the bags have come in handy while traveling as an alternative to heavy bottles.

Karen’s ExOfficio Nomad travel skirt provides UV protection, is stain resistant and quick-drying, has secure zippered pockets, a comfy fleece-line waistband and it’s cute. That’s why it’s become her go-to warm weather wardrobe staple. When ordering bear in mind that this skirt runs a bit small so you may need to go up a size.

 

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Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2013 – Best Adventures & Activities

This post is part 2 of 4 in the series Best of 2013

Welcome to Part 1 in our Best Of the Trans-Americas Journey 2013 series. Part 1 is all about the Best Adventures & Activities we enjoyed during the past year of travels on our little road trip through the Americas including SCUBA diving in Panama with a man named Herbie Sunk (true story), some truly adventurous jungle horseback riding in Costa Rica and paragliding over one of Colombia’s largest canyons. Part 2 covers the Best Food & Beverages of 2013 and Part 3 covers the Best Hotels of the year.

First, a few relevant road trip stats: In 2013 the Trans-Americas Journey spent time exploring Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia and Ecuador through which we drove 8,546 miles (13,753 kms) spending US$2,400 on fuel and crossing four overland borders.

Now, in no particular order, here are the…

Best adventures & activities of 2013

Best thing we tried for the very first time: Paragliding really is the best way to appreciate Colombia’s Chicamocha Canyon which is one of the largest in the world. When Parapente Chicamocha (parapente is the Spanish word for paragliding) offered to take us up, up and away we said yes. Quickly. Before “I hate heights” Karen could change her mind. We arrived at the launch site with owner Sergio and a team of wing wranglers and pilots then stood around and watched  the birds waiting for them to catch thermals so we could too. Then we ran of the top of the hill (well, Karen dragged her feet a bit) and the thermals took us up a few thousand feet above the canyon floor. We spent about half an hour rising, circling, dropping and rising again over the canyon. Eric says the view was great. Karen never had her eyes open long enough to really appreciate it and her forearms are still sore from the death grip she had on her harness.

Eric took our GoPro up with him and our video, below, shows the gorgeous scenery and the thrill of flying during our paragliding adventure above Chicamocha Canyon in Colombia. Don’t miss the acrobatics Eric goes through just before landing…

Best controversial tour: Like many Colombians we struggle to find a middle ground between Pablo Escobar fascination and Pablo Escobar revulsion. When we got an assignment to write an SATW award-winning piece about Pablo Escobar tourism in Colombia for the awesome travel/food/sports/world journalism site RoadsandKingdoms.com we booked one of the half-dozen or so Pablo Escobar Tours offered in Medellin, Colombia. We’re still struggling to find a healthy middle ground when it comes to this narco terrorist (pictured below during a rare and short-lived stint in jail), but taking the controversial Pablo Escobar tour helped a little bit thanks to a guide willing to share personal stories and his own struggles with Escobar’s legacy.

Selling Pablo Escobar - Roads 7 Kingdoms & Slate magazine

Best SCUBA diving: The water around Panama’s Coiba National Park (which used  to be a penal colony and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site) is full of rocky formations and sea mounts which attract the big stuff like sharks and rays. We spent two days SCUBA diving in the area with Herbie Sunk (real name) who is the owner of Scuba Coiba based out of Santa Catalina. There was lots of current and not much viz when we were there (March) but we still had a ball and even in the less-than-perfect conditions we could appreciate these unique dive sites. On the surface we saw dolphins, leaping mobula rays, bobbing turtles and even a whale shark.

SCUBA diving with Manta Rays - Coiba National Park, Panama

Best horseback riding: If you’re gonna call it “Adventure Horseback Riding” and charge US$60 for 2.5 hours you’d better deliver. Selva Bananito Eco Lodge & Preserve on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica did just that with super sure footed horses, varied and challenging terrain and even a boa constrictor sighting (there she is, below). This is not a ride for beginners, as we found out one heart-pounding, thrill-packed, fabulous afternoon.

Boa Constrictor - Selva Bananito Eco Lodge, Costa Rica

Best nearly deserted wind sport beach: Cabo de la Vela in the Guajira peninsula of northern Colombia is hard to reach and hot as hell but it’s also one of the best places in the region for wind sports as our traveling companion at the time, an avid kiteboarder who travels with not one but two kites, verified. As we sought the shade on shore he spent hours in the water (that’s him kiting, below) and raved about the consistently kiteable winds and the often deserted water.

Guajira Kite Surfing -  Cabo de la Vela, Colombia

Best white knuckle landing: Any time you get into a small plane you know that take off and landing are going to be extra exciting. Still, we weren’t quite prepared for the fly-straight-at-the-mountain-bank-hard-then-drop-straight-down-onto-the-“runway” landing that the pilot of our Air Panama flight artfully made into the dinky, waterside Playon Chico airstrip in Panama. The extra gray hairs were worth it, however, since this is the only way you can get to Yandup Island Lodge where we learned a lot about the area’s Kuna people, the largest indigenous group in the country.

Fasten your seat belts, stow your tray tables and check out this epic landing in our video, below.

Best festival: We attended/survived our first Carnaval (aka Carnival) in 2013 and while annual celebrations in Rio and New Orleans hog all the limelight we’re here to tell you that the festivities in Las Tablas, Panama hold their own with gorgeous, dueling, foul-mouthed Carnaval Queens, relentless water cannons during the day and fireworks that approach the noise, mayhem, and danger levels of a combat zone at night.  Go inside the madness of this five-day non-stop mega-party in our series of posts about Carnaval 2013 in Las Tablas, Panama.

Calle Abajo queen pollera carnival Tuesday night

Best border crossing adventure: Going from Panama to Colombia (or vice versa) may be the most difficult overland border crossing in Latin America. Shipping our truck from Panama to Colombia was an adventure in and of itself. This border crossing also lead to an enjoyable adventure when we got on board a sailboat and spent five days sailing through the postcard-perfect San Blas Islands (below) from Panama to Cartagena, Colombia where we reunited with our truck. Blue, blue water. White, white sand. Dolphin escorts. Even our open-water passage into Cartagena went pretty smoothly.

Sail San Blas Islands, Panama aboard MS Independence

Best difference of opinion: You can choose to explore the Panama Canal on a small tourist boat during a partial transit trip, which takes five hours and travels through three of the six locks, or during a full transit trip, which takes more than eight hours and gets you through all six locks traveling from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean (or vice versa). ONE of us had his heart set on the full transit from ocean to ocean. The other one of us spent the day wondering when the boat ride and subsequent interminable bus ride back to Panama City would end. Adventure really is in the eye of the adventurer. One man’s awesome day is another woman’s hostage crisis.

Our adventure/hostage crisis on the Pacific Queen booked through Adventure Life resulted in one awesome time lapse travel video, below, that will take you from ocean to ocean through the Panama Canal in just 10 minutes.

Best milestone: 2013 was also the year that finally entered the Southern Hemisphere when we crossed the equator in Ecuador as the photo of our Garmin GPS, below, proves.

0 latitude - Crossing the Equator - Equador

 

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Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2013 – Best Food & Beverages

This post is part 3 of 4 in the series Best of 2013

Welcome to Part 2 in our Best Of the Trans-Americas Journey 2013 series of posts. Part 2 is all about the Best Food & Beverages we had while traveling during the past year of our road trip through the Americas including where to eat the best of Colombia all in one place (thanks Anthony Bourdain), a mobile restaurant in Ecuador and shockingly good local beer and wine. Part 1 covers the Best Adventures & Activities of 2013 and Part 3 covers the Best Hotels of the year.

First, a few relevant road trip stats: In 2013 the Trans-Americas Journey spent time exploring Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia and Ecuador and we drove 8,546 miles (13,753 kms) spending US$2,400 on fuel and crossing four overland borders to do it.

That’s hungry work. Luckily, 2013 was another year full of some great eats and drinks. Now, in no particular order, here are our picks for…

Best food & beverages of 2013

Best patriotic restaurant: We’re fans of Anthony Bourdain’s food/travel shows and we often take notes as we’re watching. That’s what happened when we saw his No Reservations episode about Colombia a few years ago. This year we finally visited a highlight of that program. Queareparaenamorarte, near Medellin, was created to uncover, resuscitate and preserve the recipes and ingredients of Colombia. We sat down to talk and eat with the passionate owner, who has so far collected more than 200 recipes and located more than 40 artisanal food providers for his restaurant (pictured below), then wrote all about it for TheLatinKitchen.com.

Queareparaenamorarte Restaurant Medellin Colombia Anthony Bourdain

Best mobile restaurant: Is it a tour bus? It is a restaurant? Eric calls it a bustaurant, so let’s just leave it at that. Whatever you call it, Casa 1028 combines the best of an after-dark guided tour of three top sights in Quito, Ecuador (that’s the Casa 1028 bustaurant at Plaza San Francisco, below), including the legends and quirks attached to each sight, with and a rolling restaurant serving traditional Ecuadoran snacks and small dishes. Get on the bus with us in this piece we did for TheLatinKitchen.com.

Casa 1028 mobile restaurant Quito Ecuador

Best hotel lunch experience: The thing that sets Hotel LM in Cartagena, Colombia apart from the other hotels in town is its home-like atmosphere. Okay, if your home is in a Colonial era building with two swimming pools and a nice modern art collection. Anyway, part of that hominess is an open air kitchen which is exclusively for guests. Breakfast is superb, but the real fun comes at lunch when guests can get into the kitchen a bit by booking a cooking lesson with the hotel’s chef Javier Diaz Daza. Lubricated with plenty of wine, we watched and learned as Chef Diaz and a staff of smiling women took us through the preparation of beef lomo in a traditional creole preparation involving onions and Coca Cola, coconut rice with caramelized sugar and coconut milk and plantains softened and sweetened in Colombia’s impossibly pink Kola Roma soft drink which tastes like cream soda. Then of course, we ate. The fun and the food are pictured below.

LM Hotel Cartagena Cooking School

Best local wine: Sure Chile and Argentina hog all of the South American wine spotlight and we can’t wait for our little road trip to get that far south so we can try it all. In the meantime, we found excellent Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc at Marques de Villa de Leyva winery in Colombia (pictured below). This 25 year old winery, owned by a Colombian with a degree in viticulture and enology from UC Davis in California (one of the best grape growing and wine making programs in the world), has the looks, facilities and (most importantly) taste of wineries in Paso Robles, California wine country where Karen comes from. Read more in our story about Marques de Villa de Leyva for TheLatinKitchen.com.

 Marques de Villa de Leyva winery Colombia

Best new restaurant, best business card & best ice cubes: In March of 2013 Demente Tapas Bar opened in the hip/artsy Getsemani neighborhood of Cartagena, Colombia just a short stroll from the historic center. Check out our full review of Demente for TheLatinKitchen.com to see why we love the space and the food so much. Icing on the cake? Demente’s business cards are customized beer bottle caps in the restaurant’s signature turquoise blue and staff members make ice cubes by hand using special molds to ensure patrons don’t suffer from “watered down cocktail” syndrome. Now that’s attention to detail. See it all, below.

Demente Tapas Bar Medellin, Colombia

Best boutique restaurant group: The concept of a boutique restaurant development and management company that operates a number of restaurants under one umbrella has yet to really take off in Latin America. One exception we found in 2013 is the Henesy Rodriquez Group (HRG) in Panama City which is nearly 10 years old and continues to gain fans at its restaurants including Market, La Posta and La Chesa. All are reliably delicious and good value (not cheap, but you get quality food, service and ambiance for your money).  A new HRG restaurant and a new HRG gourmet market were both opening after we left Panama. We await your reports. Bonus: co-owner David Henesy is a New Yorker who used to be an actor, most famously in nearly 300 episodes of the TV series Dark Shadows.

Best popsicles: La Paletteria in Cartagena, Colombia is an institution and for good reason. Though the historic center of this city is jammed with ice cream and paletta (Spanish for popsicle) shops, La Paletteria stands out thanks to hand-craftsmanship with the freshest all-natural ingredients from fruits to nuts to chocolate. If you’re lucky the owner’s precocious son will be there showing the world what customer service is all about. Don’t miss out on having your paletta dipped in chocolate before you dig in. The palettas here (pictured below) are almost too good to eat. Almost.

 La Paletteria in Cartagena, Colombia

Best (and best value) authentic Italian food: Naturalmente Boutique Bungalows & Restaurant opened in 2013 just inland from Playa Las Lajas, a largely untouristed beach in northern Panama which makes a great break-journey stop for anyone traveling the long haul from David to Panama City (or vice versa). The handful of bungalows are stylish but the real reason to visit is the open-air restaurant where owners Chantal and Gabriel, both from Modena, let their Italian roots show. Everything from the pizzas (baked in an oven imported from Italy) to the pasta dishes to the homemade bread and homemade Italian sausage shines and the prices are very reasonable.

Best brew pub: It’s a tie between La Rana Dorada in Panama and Bogota Beer Company in Colombia but that’s not a surprise since the owners of both are friends and mentors. Both are pictured below and both offer a true brew pub atmosphere and menu, with some local twists (try the plantain pizza at La Rana Dorada) and, most importantly, the beer is fresh and delicious.

Bogota Beer Company Colombia

La-Rana-Dorado-Cerveceria

Best bread: We’ve happily given up many foods that were staples of our diet back in the US. Things like asparagus, baby artichokes and proper parmesan cheese are either crazy expensive or simply unheard of in much of Latin America. Good artisanal bread, however, is something we’re willing to spend both time and money to get. In Medellin, Colombia our search for crusty carbs lead us to the recently opened Eduardo Madrid bakery in the Envigado neighborhood. The large sourdough loaf is pricey at US$5 but worth every penny with a flavorful, chewy interior wrapped in a proper crust. You will be sorely tempted by the cakes, pies, rolls and sweets in the display case as well.

Best supermarket: The Riba Smith mini chain in Panama is the closest we’ve come to a North American style gourmet market since leaving the US. Consider this one good side effect of all the expats living in Panama these days.

Best ice cream: Granclament, in the bohemian Casco Viejo neighborhood of Panama City, has been serving up homemade, all-natural, French–style ice cream and sorbet for years and it remains a must-visit. Be prepared to elbow your way to the counter (pictured below) and they do give out tastes if you’d like to try the more offbeat flavors (like basil) before you buy.

Granclament, ice cream Casco Viejo Panama City

Best pizza: We expected many things when we visited Santa Catalina, Panama, including some great SCUBA diving around Coiba National Park (which made it onto our list of Best Adventures & Activities of 2013). We were NOT expecting excellent brick oven pizza but that’s exactly what we got at Jammin’ Pizza (located within Casa Maya). This was easily the best pizza of the year and not to be missed.

 

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Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2013 – Best Hotels

This post is part 4 of 4 in the series Best of 2013

Welcome to Part 3 in our Best Of the Trans-Americas Journey 2013 series of posts. Part 3 is all about the Best Hotels from the past year of travel on the road including an epic shower in Bogota, a riverside room with missing walls in Colombia, an amazing adventure resort in Panama, a houseboat hotel and more. Part 1 covers the Best Adventures & Activities of 2013 and Part 2 covers the Best Food & Beverages of the year.

First, a few relevant stats. In 2013 our Trans-Americas Journey road trip through the Americas explored Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia and Ecuador, driving 8,546 miles (13,753 kms) spending US$2,400 on fuel and crossing four overland borders to do it.

For the seventh year in a row we were on the road full time and nearly every night of the year was spent in a hotel of some sort. Here, in no particular order, are our picks for…

Best hotels of 2013

Best shower: B.O.G. Hotel is one of the few fine boutique hotels in Bogota, Colombia. There are many boutique-y touches including a polished design inspired by the city’s amazing Gold Museum. Our favorite touch? The shower (pictured below). This thing had three adjustable shower heads, gold tiles, fabulous Calima amenities made just for the hotel, plenty of pressure and heat and a glassed-in design that turned the thing into your own private sauna. The only thing missing was a seat or bench. Then again, we’d probably still be in that shower had there been a place to sit down…

BOG Hotel shower - Bogota Colombia

Best adventure resort: You may know Travis Pastrana as the stunt man/motocross/X-Games/Red Bull-sponsored extreme sports icon. We know him as the guy who got our butts up on wakeboards then gave us a swish bed and private Jacuzzi to recover in. In 2012 Travis, and a bunch of his amped-up friends, opened Nitro City Panama Action Sports Resort near Panama City. With world class wakeboarding, kiteboarding and BMXing facilities, champion instructors and a luxury hotel Nitro is a unique concept in adventure resorts. Nitro City Panama is the first in what the gang hopes will be a global revolution in the way thrill-and-skill-seeking travelers play and stay. Check out their Miller Lite theme room, below.

Nitro City Panama Action Sports Resort

Best eco hotel: One of the very last hotels we stayed at in Costa Rica ended up being the greenest. Selva Bananito Eco Lodge & Preserve scored points right from the start when the dedicated owner pointed out a rarely seen potoo bird just off the deck of our bungalow. Toss in some of the most serious eco and sustainable practices in all of Costa Rica, the absolute best adventure horse back riding trip in Central America (check it out on our list of Best Adventures and Activities of 2013) and you’ve got a great stay that’s doing great good.

CabinSelva Bananito Eco Lodge, Costa Rica

Best room with (intentionally) missing walls: It’s sensible. If you’ve built riverside rooms in one of the most spectacular canyons in Colombia why not take out an entire wall in order to maximize the view? It’s risky as well. What about bugs? And bats? We can’t explain it, but when we spent a night in the partially open rooms at El Refugio along the Rio Claro (pictured below) there were no bats and remarkably few bugs in our room. All the missing wall let in was that spectacular view and the sound of the rushing Rio Claro river below.

El Refugio Hotel Rio Claro reserve Colombia

Best cabins in the cloud forest: Los Quetzales Ecolodge & Spa, in the town of Guadalupe near Cerro Punta in the cool hills of Panama, has a secret. About 10 minutes up a rough dirt road beyond the main lodge and rooms are a handful of spacious wooden cabins tucked in the cloud forest (one is pictured below). They each have multiple bedrooms, WiFi, full kitchens and fireplaces (at over 7,260 feet/2,200 meters it gets chilly). They’re the perfect family or romantic hideaway. Bring your own groceries or arrange for the chef from the main lodge to come cook for you. Los Questzales Ecoldge & Spa also gets the award for best hotel spa of 2013. It ain’t fancy but you can get a superb deep tissue massage for 1.5 hours for US$45 in an open air spa room with the sound of a creek gurgling by.

Los Quetzales Ecolodge & Spa Volcan Panama

Best for bird watchers: Canopy Tower, just outside Panama City, used to be a US military radar station watching over the former Canal Zone hence the tall, circular design. After the US abandoned it, the tower was converted into a lodge (pictured below) with large windows and patios which provide nature lovers (including Martha Stewart) with 360 degrees of jungle watching. Birds and monkeys can be seen from almost every spot in Canopy Tower, including the showers. If that’s not enough for you, their guided bird watching tours are also excellent.

Canopy Tower bridwatching Panama

Best hotelier slash city guide: Claude Pimont would be fascinating even if he didn’t own and manage two noteworthy hotels in Cartagena, Colombia (Casa Pestagua and Casa Pombo). He’s a relaxed but elegant Frenchman who has made his home in Colombia where, in addition to running hotels, he has established an acting career. He is also one of the most enthusiastic and connected proponents of Cartagena and our time in the city was greatly enhanced by his guidance, recommendations, introductions and lively company and conversation.

Best bathroom amenities: There can be no doubt that freshly-opened Hotel Casa San Agustin has raised the bar for all boutique hotels in Cartagena, Colombia. There are many things to love about this place, from the pool under the remains of an ancient aqueduct to the suites with private patios and plunge pools, but it was the little details that we loved most, including the Ortigia shampoo, conditioner, lotion and bath/shower gel (pictured below). Straight from Italy, these amenities were indulgent, large (nearly four oz./120 mls) and pleasantly masculine. We have to admit, we pocketed more than a few and we break them out whenever we want to be reminded of the best boutique hotel experience of the year.

Ortiga bathroom amenities - Hotel Casa San Agustin Cartagena, Colombia

Best houseboat hotel: There is only one houseboat hotel in Panama and it’s a doozy (pictured below). Located in a secluded section of Lake Gatun, which forms the central portion of the Panama Canal, Jungle Land Panama Lodge is the creation of Captain Carl. He’s connected two houseboats, crafted a handful of simple but comfortable rooms and leads boat and kayak tours on the lake. You can go fishing, look for monkeys and crocs or just relax in the hammocks or on the two astro-turfed “lawns” onboard.

Jungle Land Panama Lodge Panama Canal

Best value city hotel: We arrived in Cartagena, Colombia after a five-day crossing via sailboat from Panama and we were facing at least of week of red tape in front of us as we navigated our way through the process of getting our truck out of customs after its journey by container ship from Panama. We needed a comfortable and affordable base to operate from. After an uncharacteristic misstep (don’t check into a new hostel in Cartagena called The Roof) we got some sage advice from David Lee of GoBackpacking.com and MedellinLiving.com who steered us directly to Hotel Villa Colonial in the Getsemani neighborhood of Cartagena. Villa Colonial does not have dorm rooms but its prices for private rooms (doubles or  triples) is the same as or even cheaper than area hostels and there’s a kitchen for guest use. Martha greeted us as we arrived and her “Glenda the Good Witch” personality and optimism got us through the next week of paperwork as much as our clean and comfortable A/C room did.

Best alterna-hotel: We tried our first vacation rental in 2013 and it combined the best of a hotel and the best of a home. FlipKey set us up in a chic, fully appointed apartment in the historic center of Quito, Ecuador. We used it as a base for exploring the world’s first UNESCO World Heritage city before returning “home” to cook, relax and work in peace.

 

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