Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2016 – Top Travel Adventures

This post is part 1 of 4 in the series Best of 2016

Jaguar spotting in Brazil, trekking the Andes in Peru, mud slogging and (really) close-encounters with condors in Ecuador, tapir sex, and more! Welcome to Part 1 in our Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2016 series–our guide to the Top Travel Adventures of the year. Part 2 covers the Best Hotels of 2016, Part 3 covers the Best Food and Beverages of the year, and Part 4 tells you all about our favorite Travel Gear of the year. But now, in no particular order, here are our…

Top travel adventures of 2016

Raimbow Mountain Ausangate Peru

Peru’s Rainbow Mountain which we visited during the Apu’s Trail hike around Ausangate.

Best mountain trek

Andean Lodges Ausangate Trek Peru

Karen hoofing it up an other Andean slope during the Apu’s Trail hike around Ausangate in Peru.

Everybody knows about the Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu, that’s why it’s so crowded you have to make your plans and reservations months in advance. But Peru is full of other even more spectacular ways to trek in the Andes. If you’re seeking time in the mountains, spectacular scenery, and difficult but rewarding trails then trekking around 20,945 foot (6,384 meter) Ausangate Mountain is hard to beat.

There are many ways to get into this region which is not far from Cusco. We went with Andean Lodges, which has built a string of comfortable lodges (wood stove for heat, no electricity, good beds in private rooms with bathrooms that offer hot water during certain hours), on their 4-day/5-night Apu’s Trail route around this massive and sacred mountain. It delivered everything we were looking for and then some, including visiting Peru’s increasingly popular Rainbow Mountain, then continuing down the trail to an even more spectacular high-altitude landscapes which nearly no one visits.

We haven’t loved a multi-day hike this much since we were tramping around the Himalayas.

Best slog through the mud

El Altar Trek Ecuador

The crater lake in El Altar volcano, our reward (plus condors!) for the muddy slog up.

El Altar is an extinct volcano so named because someone thought its nine peaks looked like nuns and friars worshiping. Nuns or not, it is a beautiful volcano with a lovely crater lake and it sits at the head of a wide, wind-swept valley. It’s the kind of beauty that needs to be earned, which may explain why the hike to El Altar (there are no roads, though you may see left over materials from one ill-fated attempt) is so difficult.

The trail starts from Hacienda Releche in the tiny town of Candelaria and almost immediately it is a steep, slippery slog up an increasingly muddy trail. We wore our rubber boots  (and you should too) and there were points on the trail when they were almost sucked off our feet by mud. The stuff was nearly knee-deep in places. Around six hours later we arrived at the Collares plain with El Altar just ahead of us.

This is where the owners of Hacienda Releche have built Refugios Capac Urcu (Capac Urcu is another name for El Altar) with plenty of dorm rooms with bunk beds and shared bathrooms and a big kitchen. You can carry up what you need (sleeping bag, food, etc) or hire a horse and horseman from the hacienda. After such a slog up we recommend spending at least two nights in the refugio. The plain and the volcano are lovely places to explore on foot but the weather at more than 11,000 feet (3,400 meters) is changeable so you’ll want to hang around for good weather for as long as you can.

Did we mention that El Altar is also condor country? When we hiked up the flank of the volcano to the crater lake we had an extremely close encounter with a condor that flew by at eye level no more than 10 feet (3 meters) from Eric. Check out our condor fly by video, for proof.

Best XXX wild animal encounter

Tapir sex

You can’t unsee this: tapir sex.

We hadn’t been in the boat for more than five minutes when our boatman from Pousada do Rio Mutum in Brazil’s Pantanal Norte cut the engine and our guide pointed out two tapirs swimming a few hundred feet in front of the boat. Though big and clumsy looking, tapirs are great swimmers and we watched in silence as they made it to shore. That’s when the male decided it was sexy-time and, after appearing to give the female a kiss (truly), he got down to business. Turns out they’re way more graceful in the water than they are in the bedroom. Cue Barry White.

Best horseback riding to an archaeological site

horseback riding ruins chiclayo peru

Riding easy-gaited Peruvian horses through protected dry forest to an archaeological site.

Peru is full of archaeological sites and we visited most of them by car and on foot. However, at Rancho Santana, near Chiclayo, you can visit way off-the-beaten-path sites on horseback. Swiss owner Andrea has about a dozen Peruvian Paso horses and offers a variety of rides (S/55, about US$17, for a three-hour ride to one site; S/75, about US$23, for a five-hour ride to three sites, or multi-day rides).

We chose the three-hour ride to Huaca Sontillo (sometimes written Santillo), passing through the Pómac Forest Historical Sanctuary, an enormous protected dry forest, via a private entrance that Andrea has special permission to use. It was hot and dry but the scenery was great and it was fun to experience the unique ultra-smooth gait of these horses (when horse and rider click it’s like riding a moving sofa).

The Sontillo site is only minimally excavated and when we walked to the top of the only visible structure there were still a lot of bits of pottery around. There is also basic accommodation at Rancho Santana (fan, bathroom) for those who want to hang out or do multiple rides.

 Best mystery from the air

nazca lines

The Nazca Lines are a unique combination of art, culture, and mystery and they’re best seen from the air – something their creators could never do (unless you subscribe to the alien artist theory).

No one truly understands how the Nazca Line in Peru were made or what they were for. That mystery makes them even more compelling. The best way to see massive earth art like the lines is from the air. Our thanks to Alas Peruanas for taking us on a 30 minute flight over the lines. The plane was small, the altitude was low, the turns were many, and the lines were amazing. We recommend staying at the new B Hotel Nasca Suites. It’s right across the highway from the airport and out of the hub-bub of central Nasca. A pool was going in when we were there too.

Best cave float

Bola do Quebo is about a 1-hour drive each way from Bom Jardim town in northern Brazil (about 40 minutes of the drive is on a dirt road, parts of which are very washboarded). The small operation at Bola do Quebo supplies beefy and smartly designed tubes, helmets, life vests, and water shoes for a 30 minute adventure down a 1.2 mile (2 km) stretch of the clear and fairly shallow River (R$75, about US$23 per person).

The highlight of the float is a 1,000 foot (304 meter) long cave which the river flows through. The heart-pumping entry into the cave takes you over two small but startling rapids which plunge you into the darkness of the cave. The combination of the bumpy ride and the sudden pitch blackness is dramatic and disorienting.

Need to know: As with 99% of the amazing watery attractions around Bom Jardim, you really need your own vehicle to get there. There is no food or beverages available on site. There is a passable toilet. Put on sunscreen. Don’t take anything that’s not waterproof with you on the tube. Put your sunglasses on a lanyard because you’ll want to take them off while you are in the dark cave. Wear a long-sleeve shirt or a skin for sun protection and to keep your arms from chafing on tube as you paddle and steer.

 Best drive for wildlife

Jabiru stork Transpantaneira Highway Pantanal Brazil

Huge jabiru storks, just one of the many species we saw at very close range while driving the Transpantaneira Highway in Brazil.

It took us eight hours to complete the 90 mile (145 km) Transpantaneira Highway from Pocone to Porto Jofre in the Pantanal Norte in Brazil. Why? Well, this dirt road is in pretty rough shape even under the best conditions. But the main reason the drive took so long was that we spent a lot of time stopped to look at and photograph wildlife. Here’s a short list of what we saw: hyacinth macaws, about 500 caiman, capybaras, great black hawks, cappuchin monkeys, cocoi herons, black-collared hawks, white-capped herons, jabiru storks, wood storks, crab eating foxes, rhea… We felt like Marlon Perkins (look him up, millennials). This critter-filled drive was worth every pothole, rut, and all 120+ of the (often super sketchy) wooden bridges along the way. 

 Best wild animal first

Jaguar pantanal brazil

You never forget your first time.

We spend a lot of time and energy trying to see wildlife. It’s one of our favorite things. Yet, despite years of looking and hundreds of miles of walking, we had never seen a jaguar in the wild. The pantanal region of Brazil is said to be one of the few places on earth where jaguar sightings are virtually guaranteed. We are skeptical of wildlife guarantees. Still, we headed to Hotel Pantanal Norte in Porto Jofre on the Cuiabá River at the end of the Transpantaneira Highway with high hopes. We were not disappointed. After a few hours on the river we saw a female jaguar and two older cubs on the bank in tall grass and we were able to observe them from our boat for a few minutes before the trio slipped deeper into the forest and out of sight. Sometimes you can believe the hype.

 Best drive for scenery

Sondondo Valley Peru

Part of the Sondondo Valley including slopes with Incan terraces which the locals still use to grow crops.

On our way to Puquio we missed the turn off for the Sondondo Valley and we’re very glad we returned later to explore it. The road into the valley is narrow but well paved and the valley itself varies from wide and semi-lush with herds of llamas and alpacas roaming around to narrow and cliff-lined, perfect for the condors who live here. There are also Incan terraces still being used by farmers, hot springs, and waterfalls. The tiny town of Andamarca seemed to have basic guest houses. The road through the valley appears to go all the way to Ayacucho, but we did not go that far so we don’t know if the paving continues or if the road quality worsens.

Best South American safari vehicle

 Refugio Ecologico Caiman safari vehicle

Safari in style at Refugio Ecologico Caiman in Brazil.

The open-sided, high clearance vehicles used for driving excursions and night safaris at eco lodges in Latin America are usually cobbled together rattletraps with uncomfortable seats and jarring suspensions. Not so at Refugio Ecologico Caiman in the Pantanal Sur in Brazil. The custom trucks used to transport guests on wildlife spotting excursions at this extraordinary private protected area  and eco lodge are brand new customized Toyota’s that are quiet, have comfortable padded seats, good suspension and are rugged enough to go off-roading where the animals are. There’s even a cool guide/spotters seat off the right hand corner of the front bumper. Seems like the jaguars like the vehicle too. We saw loads of them during our stay at Caiman.

 Best guide

Puma Tambopata Reserve Peru

Look closer. No, CLOSER. There’s a young puma looking back at you.

Rainforest Expeditions has been leading the eco way in the Tambopata area of southern Peru since they started as a macaw research and rescue center in 1989. The organization continues to do serious science (including brand new interactive Wired Amazon programs) and now operates three surprisingly upscale lodges in the area.

With chops like that it was no surprise that we had the best guide of the year during our stay with Rainforest Expeditions. His name is  Paul. He  grew up in remote village nearby on the Manu River and he knows Tambopata and its inhabitants intimately. True story: he had a pet jaguar growing up. He’s also funny and easy-going and willing to go the extra mile. For example, when he noticed cat prints and scat on a trail during a morning walk he suggested that we return to the same trail for a night walk to increase our chances of seeing the animal that left the pug marks.

The return visit paid off and we all got a (fleeting) glimpse of a young puma at night, something we never would have seen without Paul.

 Best THIRD visit to the Galapagos

Mating Blue Footed Boobies Galapagos

Blue footed boobies doing their bill-clacking mating dance in the Galapagos Islands.

Yeah, it was a Galapagos embarrassment of riches in 2016 with our third visit to Ecuador’s most iconic destination. You won’t believe us when we tell you it was work, but it was. Look! We did this travel guide to the Galapagos for Travel + Leisure magazine and this review of the fantastic Pikaia Lodge plus this piece about a new extra eco luxury boat.

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Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2016 – Best Hotels

This post is part 2 of 4 in the series Best of 2016

An RV hotel on the beach in Peru, the best luxury sleep in the Galapagos, a floating budget hotel in Brazil, the most over-the-top honeymoon suite we’ve ever seen, and more great hotels in South America! Welcome to Part 2 in our Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2016 series–our guide to the Best Hotels of the year. Part 1 covers the Top Travel Adventures of 2016, Part 3 covers the Best Food and Beverages of the year and Part 4 tells you all about our favorite Travel Gear of the year. But now, in no particular order, here’s our travel guide to…

The best hotels of 2016

Hotel Unique Sao Paulo

The appropriately named Hotel Unique in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Best check-in

Best check-in Hotel Unique Sao Paulo

Staff at Hotel Unique in Sao Paulo, Brazil get check in (and so many other things) right.

Checking into a hotel is tedious. Didn’t you already give all of that information when you made your reservation? Some hotels think the answer is to forego check-in for some kind of check-in light as if answering the same questions in your room instead of the lobby makes it better. We think the answer is to simply improve the check-in experience in order to make a stellar, tone-setting first impression. Hotel Unique in Sao Paulo, Brazil gets it right with capable, amenable staff plus champagne along with a bowl of beloved Brazilian sweets. Check-in on a Friday and there will also be trays of popcorn. And we all know how well popcorn and champagne go together. Believe it or not, the Hotel Unique experience just gets better from there.

Best rooms with three walls

Rainforest Expeditions Tambopata Amazon Peru

The owners of the Amazon lodges operated by Rainforest Expeditions know that you want to be in the jungle, so rooms only have three walls.

Rainforest Expeditions runs three lodges in the Tambopata Reserve in the Amazon in Peru and each of them offers a lot of things: excellent guides (including Paul, our favorite guide of the year), comfortable facilities, great staff and terrific food. What they don’t offer is rooms with four walls. Every room at every Rainforest Expeditions lodge has only three walls. The fourth wall is left open to the jungle which means macaws can fly into your room if they feel like it (and they do). Beds have good nets over them and, honestly, bugs were never a big problem so don’t freak out. The idea is to really immerse yourself in the sounds, sights, and smells of the jungle. That’s what you’re there for, after all.

Best view from bed

hotel-el-crater-quito

Admiring the crater from bed at Hotel El Crater in Ecuador.

Hotel El Crater near Quito, Ecuador was built right on the rim of the extinct Pululahua volcano (which is one of only two volcanic craters in the world that are inhabited). To take full advantage of the view, rooms have a wall of windows facing the crater and the bed is placed just so. When the fog lifts in the morning, the crater reveals itself and you don’t even have to get out of bed to see it.

Best hotel if you still mourn Mad Men

Brasilia Palace Hotel

Cold, hard, Mad Men modernism at the Brasilia Palace hotel in Brasilia, Brazil.

The first hotel built in Brasilia, the capital of Brazil, still looks, feels, and acts like it’s the late 1950s when the Brasilia Palace Hotel opened its doors. Designed by Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer (who also oversaw its renovation after the building was abandoned and looted following a major fire), the 156 room hotel is all about modernism, open space, angles, and a kind of cold, hard futurism. Room 201, known as the Oscar Suite, has an Eames lounge chair and some truly groovy blue beading in the bathroom. Don Draper would approve.

Best problem solving

Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel

Rooms like this and a polished staff make the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel the best choice in Aguas Calientes, Peru.

We had a problem. Potentially a BIG problem. The date on our entry tickets for Machu Picchu did not match the day we intended to enter the Incan archaeological site. We were being assured by random ticket agents and tour operators that it didn’t matter, but we weren’t buying it. We returned to the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel, where we were staying as part of our Lares trek to Machu Picchu with Mountain Lodges of Peru, and asked the staff what we should do. They gave the correct answer: we should do nothing. They would handle everything. They called the regional tourism authorities, verified that the date discrepancy would not matter, and laid our fears to rest in a matter of moments.

Best breakfast buffet

Casarao Villa do Imperio in Pirenopolis, Brazil

Breakfast is served and the champagne is flowing at Casarao Villa do Imperio in Pirenopolis, Brazil.

Hotel breakfasts in Brazil are almost always a buffet affair, usually heavy on cakes. Hotel Casarao Villa do Imperio in Pirenopolis, Brazil takes the beloved Brazilian breakfast buffet to new heights with a very wide range of house-baked sweet and savory treats, eggs to order, good coffee and free-flowing champagne. 

Best hotel room in a boat

The newest room at the Angermeyer Waterfront Inn, on Santa Cruz Island in the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador, was built into a beached wooden boat and offers a queen size bed, a jetted tub in the bathroom, and a private furnished deck with ocean views. 

Best X-rated room

Room 69 at Anaconda Lodge, in Puerto Maldonado, Peru

Room 69 at Anaconda Lodge in Puerto Maldonado, Peru.

Room 69 at Anaconada Lodge, in Puerto Maldonado, Peru (gateway to the Tampopata area), features a wooden bed with four enormous penises carved into the bed posts, bedside tables with boobs that serve as drawer handles, and a table supported by the bent over legs and backsides of two women instead of traditional legs. The furniture was carved by a local artist based on designs by the owners, Donald and Wadee, who swear the artist wasn’t too shocked. The other bungalows at Anaconda Lodge are all totally G-rated, by the way, and the Thai food made by Wadee and her daughter (they’re from Thailand) is the best we’ve had, so far, in Latin America.

Best new place to sleep with jaguars

Pousada do Rio Mutum have debuted the Mutum Expediciones boat hotel

The new Mutum Expediciones boat hotel offers the chance to spend the night on a river whose banks are frequented by jaguars in Brazil’s Pantanal.

During the dry season, jaguars are routinely seen on the banks of the Cuiabá River in the Pantanal grasslands of Brazil. There are plenty of lodges on dry land which offer boat trips on the river to look for jaguars. Now there’s a new way to sleep on the river too. The team behind Pousada do Rio Mutum have debuted the Mutum Expediciones boat hotel. It has six small cabins with bathrooms, air conditioning, TV, and a mini-fridge plus a roomy common area and ample outdoor lounging areas. Rates include all meals and a fridge full of cold beer.

Best luxury hotel with a heart

Sol y Luna Hotel, in the Sacred Valley of Peru

Style, space, and a real sense of civic duty make Sol y Luna a special luxury hotel in Peru’s Sacred Valley.

Sol y Luna Hotel, in the Sacred Valley of Peru, was started in 2000 as a way to fund the owner’s primary passion: the Sol y Luna Intercultural Colegio which was created to give a better level of education to students of all backgrounds, including many from poor families in communities with weak or no schools at all. Both the hotel and the school are thriving. The school has educated hundreds of students, including more than 150 enrolled right now, and the hotel is now part of the exclusive Relais & Chateaux group of boutique hotels and gourmet restaurants. And for good reason. The hotel is an art-filled oasis with a spa, lovingly tended grounds, excellent service, a fabulous stable of horses and some truly stunning rooms. An outdoor solar-heated pool was unveiled this year.

Best city hotel that feels like a country home

Second Home Peru - Lima

Welcome home to Second Home Peru in Lima.

Lima, Peru is a big, bustling city but you leave all that behind the moment you step through the garden gate at Second Home Peru. This eight room hotel in Lima’s Barranco neighborhood feels like a country home, because that’s what it was. Built in 1911, the Tudor style house was a summer home for rich city folk who took a trolley to Barranco from Lima. Most recently it was the family home of Peruvian artist Victor Delfin. He still lives there and has his studio there, but the main Tudor home was turned into a hotel and spectacular ocean view rooms were added on the edge of the property as well. There’s a Second Home in Cusco as well which creates a similar “city haven” atmosphere in Cusco’s San Blas neighborhood.

Best floating budget hotel

Abare SUP & Food - Manaus, Brazil

Abare SUP & Food draws weekend crowds near Manaus, Brazil and now a new budget hotel floats right beside it.

Diogo de Vasconuelo has a winner on his hands with Abare SUP & Food, a popular floating restaurant and standup paddle board spot on the Turuma River which feeds into the Amazon River near Manaus, Brazil. At the end of 2016 he added Abare Hostel, a floating budget hotel, to the operation. Private rooms with double bunks, air-conditioning, and private bathrooms go for R$180 (about US$55) and there are also beds in a men’s dorm and a women’s dorm with air-conditioning, lockers, and a shared bathroom for R$80 (about US$25) per person. Breakfast at Abare SUP & Food, floating right next door, is included. 

Best hotel with its own Incan terraces

Explora Valle Sagrado Peru

Designers of the Explora Valle Sagrada luxury base camp changed their plans when Incan terraces were discovered on the all-inclusive hotel’s construction site.

When the property was being leveled for the new Explora Valle Sagrada in Peru’s Sacred Valley, a startling discovery was made: Incan terraces. Lots of them. The government stepped in and put the hotel project on hold until archaeologists could do careful excavation. Ultimately, the footprint of the Explora Valle Sagrada project was shifted and now the all-inclusive, luxury adventure base camp hotel is arranged around the terraces which are still being excavated by experts. Read our full review of the impressive Explora Valle Sagrada for LuxuryLatinAmerica.com.

Best luxury hotel in the Galapagos

Pikaia Lodge Galapagos

Pikaia Lodge, the best luxury hotel in the Galapagos.

These are the facts. We’ve been to the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador three times in the past two years and we’ve been on assignment so we’ve stayed at or at least toured most of the existing luxury hotels in the Galapagos. Nothing holds a candle to Pikaia Lodge. Yes, there’s a chance that a new luxury hotel could open in the Galapagos that would best the Pikaia, but we doubt it. See why in our full review of Pikaia Lodge for LuxuryLatinAmerica.com.

Best new Amazon suite

Juma Amazon Lodge - Manaus, Brazil

Inside the panorama suite at Juma Amazon Lodge in Brazil.

Juma Amazon Lodge, outside of Manaus in the Brazilian Amazon, debuted a panorama suite in 2016. Built on stilts over the water, it’s a spacious round room with floor-to-ceiling screens (no glass) on all sides and a wrap around deck with hammocks, a table, and chairs.

Best key chain

Inkaterra Hacienda Urubamba - Sacred Valley, Peru

It’s in the details at the Inkaterra Hacienda Urubamba hotel in Peru’s Sacred Valley.

This year the Inkaterra group of hotels in celebrating 40 years in Peru where they now have seven properties. Their newest is the Inkaterra Hacienda Urubamba in the Sacred Valley. While service was still an issue when we were at the hotel, there was a remarkable level of attention to detail in other aspects including the extremely comfortable, spacious, and stylish stand-alone casitas and in executive chef Rafael Casin’s “earth to plate” cuisine using ingredients from the valley.

Even room keys were given their due with keys dangling from a gorgeous ring adorned with braided strands of alpaca and wool yarn in a rainbow of natural dye colors. The key rings were handmade by workers at Threads of Peru, a Cusco-based not-for-profit organization focused on preserving and promoting traditional Peruvian textile arts around the world.

Best rural homestay

Q’eswachaka bridge building festival

Now there are some simple but charming places to stay near the site of the annual Q’eswachaka bridge festival during which a rare Incan grass bridge is re-built by villagers.

Every June, communities near Quehue in northern Peru re-build a traditional Incan bridge that’s made entirely out of grass. It’s one of the last remaining bridges of its kind and even though a modern vehicle bridge was put in nearby, the Q’eswachaka bridge building festival remains an important cultural event. Travelers who want to see the festival have to two choices: make the long drive from Cusco to the site of the bridge, stay for a few hours, then make drive back, or camp in the cold in a few locations near the bridge. Now there’s a third choice.

A small network of Casas Habitantes have been built in villages near the bridge. Funded by BanBif Bank, locals made simple rooms to rent to visitors with electricity, real mattresses, shared bathrooms with flushing toilets and a simple shared kitchen. We stayed in a room built by Justo Callasi which was cozy and clean and warm and just a 5-minute drive from the bridge (US$12 double occupancy, bring your own food and take out all of your trash). This allowed us to experience the whole 3-day festival with ease. To book, contact the Patronato de Cultura Machu Picchu which administers these Casas Habitantes and others around Peru ([email protected] in Spanish).

Best RV hotel

Bamboo Paracas Eco Bungalows RV hotel

Bamboo Paracas Eco Bungalows on the beach in Paracas, Peru is the country’s first RV hotel.

Despite the name, there are no bungalows at Bamboo Paracas Eco Bungalows. That’s because it’s the first hotel in Peru that uses RVs for rooms. Thirty custom-built RVs are permanently parked on the beach. Each has electricity, a plumbed toilet and shower, a full kitchen and a sandy front yard with your own grill and picnic tables. There’s a communal pool, a small snack bar and stand up paddle boards plus kitesurfing and windsurfing to take advantage of the area’s legendary coastal winds. This year, owners Pablo and Felix Gilardi and their partners have also opened the Paracas 360 Eco Hostel in central Paracas offering shared RV accommodation with shared bathroom and kitchen facilities for those on a tighter budget.

Best presents

DCO Suites, Lounge & Spa - Mancora, Peru

DCO Suites, Lounge & Spa just south of Mancora, Peru is a shot of chic right on the beach.

When you check into the sexy and chic DCO Suites, Lounge & Spa on the beach south of Mancora, Peru you are showered with gifts. First, a glass of champagne, then a beach kit including a cotton sarong and a bottle of after-sun soothing gel, then an iPod nano loaded with music to play in your room. Though the sound of crashing waves was enough of a soundtrack for us.

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Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2016 – Best Food & Beverages

This post is part 3 of 4 in the series Best of 2016

Crunchy ceviche in Peru, a chart-topping steal in Brazil, an epic Bloody Mary in Ecuador, a big surprise burger in Bolivia and more! Welcome to Part 3 of our Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2016 series–our guide to the Best Food & Beverages of the year. Part 1 covers the Top Travel Adventures of 2016, Part 2 covers the Best Hotels of the year and Part 4 tells you all about our Travel Gear of the Year. But now, in no particular order, here’s our guide to the…

Best food and beverages of 2016

Casa do Porco Sao Paulo San Ze pig

Chopped pork and sides at A Casa do Porco in Sao Paulo, Brazil – our chart-topping steal of the year.

Best chart-topping steal

Casa Do Porco restaurant Sao Paulo Brazil

Chef Jefferson Rueda with some of the porky goodness at his A Casa do Porco restaurant in Sao Paulo.

A Casa do Porco in downtown Sao Paulo, Brazil debuted on the list of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2016 at number 24. There’s a reason for that remarkably high entry: chef Jefferson Rueda (pictured above) cooks a pig (porco in Portuguese) like no one else and his nose-to-tail dishes are inventive yet never overworked. He’s not a meddler. Pork sushi roll with raw pork (top right), pig foot soup, his take on steamed pork buns, meaty deep-fried chicharron cubes (top left) which he tops with guava pepper jelly and micro greens, succulent whole-roasted pig served chopped with grilled greens, polenta, and creamy beans. We could go on and on.

Prices are remarkably affordable (on par with many ho-hum eateries in Sao Paulo) which is why there’s usually a line out the door at this no reservations place. Insider tips: go for lunch in the late afternoon for the best chance of getting a table (A Casa do Porco does not close in the afternoon like many restaurants do). And even if you’re really on a budget, grab a fantastic pork sandwich on a homemade ciabatta roll from the restaurant’s to-go window on the street. At R$15 (about US$4.50), it’s the biggest sandwich bargain in the city–perhaps the whole country.

Best reinvention of a beloved classic

Ceviche crocante - Restaurante Bilbao Tumbes, Peru

Crunchy ceviche. Repeat. Crunchy ceviche.

Peru is the land of ceviche and if you ask a Peruvian, no one else does it right. At Restaurante Bilbao in Tumbes, Peru, Spanish chef David Saez has daringly put his own twist on the classic. To make his award-winning ceviche crocante (crunchy ceviche) he prepares classic Peruvian ceviche with fish, crab and shrimp. Here comes the twist. He dices up the seafood and squeezes out as much liquid as possible. Then he makes balls out of the seafood mixture, mixes it with egg and panko, then flash fries the balls. The result is a citrusy take on a crab cake.

Best bartender

Leonardo Massonni bartender Acougue Central restaurant Sao Paulo

Açougue bartender Leonardo Massoni and some of his meat-friendly cocktail creations.

Leonardo Massoni (pictured above) is just 28-years-old but he’s already caught the eye of Brazilian star chef Alex Atala whose Sao Paulo restaurant  D.O.M. is  #3 on the 2016 list of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants. Atala installed Massoni behind the bar at his newest restaurant, Açougue Central which opened in the city’s Vila Madalena neighborhood in 2016. Açougue means butcher in Portuguese and the restaurant is all about using all parts of the animal, including cuts that are usually considered inferior.

Massoni has taken that mission to heart, invading the kitchen frequently to consult with chef Alejandro Peyrou about ingredients and flavor profiles which he then incorporates into his bar work to create cocktails that compliment the food like wine. For example, ossobucco infused vodka which Massoni uses to make a splendidly meaty Bloody Mary. There’s a classic robo de galo and a cachaça and tonic and so much more including a fantastic glassware collection.

The creative tide flows both ways too. The crispy pig ears (pictured top right), which the kitchen produces by simmered pig ears for hours in water flavored with onion and spices, then pressing them before deep-frying, are the best bar snack of the year.

Best burger

Baracus Burger - Santa Cruz, Bolivia

A great burger in Bolivia.

We were only in Bolivia for eight days in 2016, but that was enough time to find something delicious to eat. There are only four burgers on the menu at Baracus Burger in central Santa Cruz, Bolivia (from around Bs42, or about US$6). We went for the classic cheeseburger with lettuce and tomato. The patty was hefty, tasty, and not over cooked. The bun had sesame seeds on it. And all burgers come with fresh-cut, skin on fries which were crispy and moist (if over salted). Our runner-up burger of the year: Hamburgueria do Barão in Uberlandia, Brazil which has the added benefit of having a selection of Brazilian craft beers to choose from.

Best business card

Cerveza Zenith - Cusco, Peru

Cerveza Zenith in Cusco, Peru is making great craft beer and handing out clever bottle-shaped business cards.

We really, really liked the craft beer being made by Cerveza Zenith in Cusco, Peru. We also liked the owner’s business card. Tip: On most Friday and Saturday nights Aussie founder Zac Lanham opens the brewery as an informal bar. Stop by and check out the beers. He might even give you a card.

Best way to play with your food

Jambu Restaurant Brasillia

A really playful palette cleanser in Brazil.

Young Brazilian chef Leandro Nunes, who is Cordon Bleu trained and worked at Noma, serves a very playful palette cleanser at his Jambu Restaurante in Brasilia, Brazil. First, you pop a fresh, bright yellow jambu flower in your mouth and chew the Amazonian herb until your mouth starts to water and gets all tingly like a low volt electrical current (in a good way). Then you pop in a piece of Brazil nut wrapped in pear leather and let the oil from the nut and the sugar from the fruit cancel out the effects of the jambu. Then pop in a crunchy, completely natural, and totally untreated ant which burst with lemongrass flavor. It’s so much fun.

Best cocktail as a meal

Bloody Mary @ Zfood Pescaderia - Quito, Ecuador

Zfood combines a Bloody Mary with a seafood cocktail in Quito, Ecuador.

It’s a Bloody Mary. It’s a seafood cocktail. It’s both! Just order one (US$15) at Zfood Pescaderia in Quito, Ecuador. 

Best chef on a mission

chef Palmiro Ocampo 1087 Bistro - Lima Peru

Keep your eye on Peruvian Chef Palmiro Ocampo.

At 1087 Bistro in Lima, owner and chef Palmiro Ocampo practices what he preaches about using the whole ingredient to reduce food waste and alleviate hunger using “culinary recycling” techniques (learn more in our story about Ocampo’s mission for Good magazine). Dishes like cartilage grilled chicken (yes, made using cartilage that would normally be thrown away) are elegant, unexpected, and delicious. He can even make plantain peels taste great. That’s why Ocampo was in charge of Peru’s famous Mistura food festival in 2016. Keep your eye on this rising star.

Best wine bar

Ovo e Uva wine bar - Sao Paulo, Brazil

Get serious about wine in a casual atmosphere at Ovo e Uva in Sao Paulo.

Ovo e Uva, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, is a relaxed place that’s serious about wine. The wine list runs to nearly 200 bottles coming from all over the world including the usual suspects plus Greece, Hungary, Lebanon, Uruguay and, of course, Brazil. More than 20 bottles are offered by the glass (R$19 to R$38 per glass or about US$6 to US$11) and Ovo e Uva has a large wine-preservation system to keep all those open bottles fresh. There’s also a menu of wine-friendly food like a charcuterie plate and grilled octopus over risotto. The restaurant also hosts monthly themed wine get togethers for a maximum of 15 people and it’s also a wine store. Pick up a bottle to take away and get 10% off the price.

Best Italian food

Chef Massimo Ristorante Trastavere - Cuenca, Ecuador

Chef Massimo brings Roman food traditions to Cuenca, Ecuador.

Chef Massimo, who was born in Rome, opened Ristorante Trastavere in Cuenca, Ecuador in 2015. He makes homemade pasta, gnocchi, bread, and sauces. He makes his own mozzarella, smokes his own fish, and cures his own meats too. The food, served on red and white checked tablecloths in a small dining room above his even smaller open kitchen, is extraordinary as is Massimo’s passion for what he does. Rumor has it he’s opening a pizza joint in Cuenca too.

Best old man bar

Juanito Bodgea Bar - Barranco neighborhood of Lima

Time stands still in Juanito Bodega Bar in Lima.

You know what an old man bar is, right? It’s a place that’s been around forever, probably always owned by the same family, and certainly frequented by the same patrons (and their offspring). Old man bars are usually short on ambiance but long on history and some intangible something that makes up for the iffy bathroom and mostly non-existent service. Prices and tolerance for BS are both low.

Beloved by starving artists and politicians alike, Juanito Bodgea Bar in the Barranco neighborhood of Lima, Peru is a quintessential old man bar. Opened in 1937, it’s still owned by the same family, albeit next door to the original location where an exact replica of the original bar was re-created. The ceiling is high, the lights are bright, the insect zapper works overtime.

Drink prices are, by far, the cheapest in the area. There are, of course, pisco sours but we prefer chilcanos (pisco and ginger ale) which can be had for as little as PEN7 (about US$2) depending on which pisco you choose, and there are many to choose from. And if you get hungry, don’t worry. Juanito’s (as everyone calls it) is also know for its sandwiches. 

Best extreme dessert

King Kong - Lambayeque, Peru

One of many shops around Lembayeque, Peru selling the beloved King Kong dessert.

A King Kong, made mainly in and around the city of Lambayeque in northern Peru, is a regional treat comprised of rectangular sheets of a crisp and moist cake/cookie hybrid layered with a gooey spread called manjarblanco, which is similar to dulce de leche, and fruit paste. This beloved sugar bomb has been made since the early 1900s and was first baked as a more elaborate and much larger version of an alfajor. It was so large that appreciative customers nicknamed the dessert King Kong.

Best brew pub

Cervezeria del Valle - Valle Sagrada, Peru

Peru is having a beer moment with lots and lots of quality craft brews across the country. Cervezeria del Valle in the Sacred Valley is a relatively young operating but is already one of the country’s most awarded and most ambitious breweries. Big bonus: they have a simple and inviting brew pub next to a river where beers are poured, food is cooked, and good music is played.

Best fried bread on the street

Yuquitas Martin - Barranoc, Lima

Peru’s most famous chef loves these fried breads and we did too.

Every year Lima hosts the massive Mistura food festival. During that festival, Peruvian food both high and low is prepared, eaten, and judged. This includes the humble yuquita which is a beloved fried bread made with yuca flour. Think of yuquitas a longer, lighter doughnut s. In the Barranco neighborhood of Lima you will find a cart emblazoned with the name Yuquitas Martin (it’s usually on Grau Street across from a store called DeliFrance). Here, for PEN1.50 (about US$0.50), you get a bag of five fresh, light, delicious yuquitas. Martin’s humble fried bread on the street has won awards at Mistura (as noted on his cart) and Peruvian superstar chef Gaston Acurio endorses them (also noted). Martin usually sells out by 11am, so be quick. We suggest getting two bags. 

Best bar on a budget

Boteco Paramount bar - Sao Paulo, Brazil

Barman Neto with his daughter on the business end of his new budget bar Boteca Paramount in Sao Paulo.

Jose Francisco Neto (whose business card awesomely says “Barman Neto”) opened Boteco Paramount in 2016 on the edge of the Pinieros neighborhood in Sao Paulo, Brazil. His idea was to make high quality, handcrafted cocktails at a fraction of the cost most city bars charge. He has accomplished just that. In his tiny, basic bar (it still looks pretty much like the simple tienda it no doubt previously was) you can get a classic caprinha for R$10 (about US$3) or splurge and get an artesenal caprinha, made with fresh chili peppers or muddled tangerine, for example, for R$14 (about US$4.30). All the standard cocktails are also on offer at similarly bargain prices. Whatever you order, enjoy while listening to Jose’s eclectic playlist (Paula Abdul, Led Zeppelin, Kate Bush). If you’re lucky, Jose’s daughter Beatriz will be around drawing pictures and generally being adorable.

Best cure for what ails you

Leche de Tigre @ Al Toke Pez - Lima, Peru

Get the cure for what ails you at this hole-in-the-wall in Lima.

You could easily drive right past Al Toke Pez which is a closet-sized establishment on a busy street in Lima. Sandwiched between auto part stores, this six stool eatery dishes up amazing leche de tigre with sliced onions and a bit of fresh ceviche and a fried fish strip or two on top. It comes to you in a Styrofoam cup with a plastic spoon and they do a roaring take away business (probably because it only has six stools) (PEN3 to PEN5 or about US$0.90 to US$1.50). It’s zippy and energizing and the guy on the stool next to us assured us it’s also full of vitamins and pure protein. Many say its the best hangover cure in the city.

Best food with rules

Tiesto's - Cuenca, Ecuador

Diners at Tiesto’s in Cuenca, Ecuador need to be ready to play with flavors and follow a few rules.

Juan Carlos Solano, owner and chef at Tiesto’s in Cuenca, Ecuador, knows what’s best. While there is a menu at his restaurant, the self-taught chef is just as likely to tell you what you’re having for dinner and then leave it to the well-trained waiters at this Cuenca institution to tell you how to eat it. House made condiments on the table are meant to be eaten in a specific order and in specific combinations, for example. No willy nilly dipping of bread allowed. That’s because Solano is all about playing with flavors and whether he’s cooking prawns or pork, at his restaurant the flavor game has rules.

Best pizza

Bassano Italian Pizzeria - Huncahco, Peru

At Bassano Italian Pizzeria in Huanchaco, a small beach town in Northern Peru, they make pizza in a wood-fired oven and it shows. The thin crust is crunchy and chewy with just enough salt and wood char. A wide range of toppings are offered including cherry tomatoes and arugula the owners grow themselves. Prices are reasonable too–from PEN25 to PEN38 or about US$7.50 to US$11 (depending on toppings) for a large, 14” pie that yields eights slices. Personal size pizzas are also available. Plus it’s BYOB. Hours are unpredictable, so send a message through the pizzeria’s Facebook page before arriving.

Best unexpected star

chef Samuel Ortega. Shamuico Espai Gastronomic - Saraguro, Ecuado

Chef Samuel Ortega has brought skills learned in Europe back home to Saraguro, Ecuador.

We did not expect to find remarkable food in  Saraguro, Ecuador a small remote town an hour from Loja. Then we walked into Shamuico Espai Gastronomic run by local chef Samuel Ortega. Ortega moved to Spain with his family when he was 12 and honed his kitchen skills in Europe including time working at Il Bulli.

When Ortega was 24 he returned to Saraguro and opened his own place in a 160 year old building on the square that he restored with his architect sister. Ortega says 90% of the ingredients he uses come from the rich agricultural area around Saraguro or from his own small kitchen garden. His sometimes unorthodox needs have even inspired local farmers to experiment with different crops. Grab a table inside a modern dining room with skylights and a view into the open kitchen or outdoors in the traditional central courtyard and enjoy drinks, snacks, or polished full plates at incredibly reasonable prices. We did.

Best original cocktail

La Chalupa restaurant - Cuenca, Ecuador,

You can taste the wildness in this cocktail inspired by Cajas National Park near Cuenca, Ecuador.

Bernardo, the bartender at La Chalupa restaurant in Cuenca, Ecuador, wanted to create a cocktail that embodies the wild earthiness of nearby Cajas National Park. His Cajas Spirit cocktail is made with rum or tequila that he infuses with herbs harvested from the park plus tonic water, lime juice, and Angostura bitters (around US$5). It’s bracing and refreshing, just like a hike in its namesake park.

Best tasting menu

Central Restaurant Lima

You can believe the hype about Central in Lima.

Few restaurants or chefs have generated more hype in the past couple of years than Virgilio Martinez and his Lima restaurant Central. Central is #1 on the 2016  list of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants for the third year in a row and #4 on the 2016 list of The World’s Best Restaurants. You can’t talk about top restaurants without mentioning Central and Martinez just released another book. Luckily, you get served more than hype and book reviews at Central.

We sat down to face the 12 course Mater Ecosystems tasting menu and for the next three hours we got schooled in just how good cuisine can be when skill and vision meet. In Martinez’s case, his vision is to celebrate and explore Peruvian ingredients from all altitudes and geographic locations, honoring their provenance. His skill is in being able to re-invent them as well. At one point we were eating bark and clay. And loving it.

Best sushi

Tsuri Peixaria Sushi Bar - Sao Paulo, Brazil

Fresh fish is king and the chef knows it at Tsuri in Sao Paulo.

Brazil has the largest population of citizens of Japanese descent of any country outside Japan and Brazil is full of Japanese restaurants, including in the city of Sao Paulo. Tsuri Peixaria Sushi Bar, opened in 2016 by the same family behind the wildly popular Aragón Mediterranean restaurant, could have been just one more, but it’s not. More than just sushi, the inventive menu also includes edamame with truffle oil, scallops with foi gras, tempura, and more. But sushi is where Tsuri really excels, in part because Japanese Brazilian chef Sergio Kubo knows that his real job doesn’t start until the restaurant closes for the night. That’s when, fortified with saki, he heads to the city’s fish market to find the best products for the following day. And all that saki? Chef Kubo says it helps him pick the best fish because it enables him to see the freshest ones winking at him.

Best dream-come-true meal

Osso Carniceria & Salumeria - Lima, Peru

Finally.

We’ve been dreaming about eating at Osso Carniceria & Salumeria in Lima, Peru ever since we read this amazing story about its creator, Renzo Garibaldi (pictured below). In 2016 we sat down with Garibaldi for a long lunch that included amazing tartare and small bites of exquisitely aged and sliced beef. Even better, Garibaldi told us about his latest projects (read our piece about Garibaldi’s two new restaurants in Lima for NewWorlder.com), so now we’re dreaming about eating there too. Good thing we’re returning to Lima later this year…

Renzo Garibaldi Osso restaurant - Lima, Peru

 

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Top Travel Gear of the Year 2016

This post is part 4 of 4 in the series Best of 2016

We’ve come to love and rely on a lot of tried and tested travel gear over the years–from Karen’s Kaikuna hoodie to Eric’s prescription Costa del Mar sunglasses to this nifty thing that lets us take booze in a backpack. Now we present our short but sweet list of top travel gear of the year 2016 including a game-changing lens, a really cool cool bag and hiking boots that were perfect straight out of the box.

Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM Lens

Top Travel Gear of the Year 2016

Canon-100-400mm-zoom-animals

There’s no question that the most valued new piece of travel gear in 2016 was Eric’s Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens. He got a tease with this lens in the Galapagos when another passenger on our M/V Origin cruise let him use his lens. The difference in the quality of the wildlife shots was stunning, so we scraped together our pennies (more than 200,000 of them) and got one. This lens has helped Eric get great shots all year-long (a few of his favorites are above) and though it’s big and heavy and pricey it’s already proven its value time and again.  

Buy on B&H Photo  |  Buy on Amazon

 

Three Legged Thing carbon fiber Brian evolution 3 tripod

It’s hard to find a good travel tripod which combines durability and versatility in a compact and lightweight package. After years of looking, we found one. Don’t let the goofy name of 3 Legged Thing tripods fool you. They really do rock (in more ways than one). See why in our full review of our 3 Legged Thing Evolution 3  Brian tripod.

BUY ON B&H PHOTO  |  BUY ON AMAZON

 

colombia-thermal-tote

Sometimes we need to keep snacks and leftovers cold, for example, when we have a long day on the road with no chance of a lunch stop. Enter our Columbia insulated cold bag. It stays cold, doesn’t leak or sweat, holds more than you’d think, is easy to clean, dries out fast after use, and folds up small and compact when not in use. The only bummer is that the Velcro, which holds the bag snugly folded up when it’s empty, is located on the bottom, so if you fill the tote and then put it down on the ground the Velcro picks up grit. It looks like the specific model we have has been discontinued and only the bigger and beefier Columbia PFG Perfect Cast 45L Thermal Tote is available now.

Buy on Amazon

 

Brinno TLC200 Pro drivelapse timelapse camera

Time-lapse video is great, unless you’re the one who has to shoot and edit it. For years Eric spent hours every month piecing together then speeding up images taken by a GoPro mounted to the dash of our truck so that we could show readers a month’s worth of driving in just a few minutes. It was such a time-consuming pain the neck that we stopped making the videos altogether and then stopped publishing our end-of-the-month driving posts. Then we heard about Brinno cameras which automatically take time-lapse footage. It was a bit tricky mounting the camera on our dashboard (you can see our workaround, above), but ever since Eric figured that out this camera has made making time-lapse video so easy that we started publishing our end of the month Where We’ve Been driving posts again, complete with Brinno footage.

Buy on Amazon

 

merrill

There’s a cardinal rule about hiking boots. It goes like this: ALWAYS break them in on the trail before you really, really need them. Karen ignored that rule. She had a new pair of boots from a maker she’d worn before. They seemed like good boots. They felt fine on her feet when she tried them on. She settled. Then she wore them on one simple short hike and her feet were in agony. Luckily, there are some fairly well-stocked outdoor gear stores in Cusco, Peru so we were able to find a pair of Merrell Capra Mid Sport Gore-Tex hiking boots at the same price we would have paid in the US. Karen loved them straight out of the box and they proved comfortable and rugged during the multi-day Andean treks we did in 2016.

Buy on Amazon

 

Curaprox 5460 Ultrasoft toothbrush

Even the lightest packers need to bring a toothbrush. In 2016 a dentist in Sao Paulo recommended that we try toothbrushes made by a Swiss company called Curaprox. She raved about how gentle yet efficient they were, so we splurged, paying about US$7 per toothbrush in Brazil. We were immediately hooked. So soft! So easy to use! So effective! So many great colors! We’ve now stocked up just in case we don’t find Curaprox in other countries. Also, don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t get good medical care when traveling. These toothbrushes have been around for years but this Brazilian dentist was the first to tell us about them.

Buy on Amazon

 

Rubber boots El Altar Ecuador

Sometimes the most humble piece of equipment ends up being key. This was the case with our ordinary rubber boots which got us through the muddy, muddy trail to El Altar volcano in Ecuador which would have made short work of regular hiking boots.

Buy on Amazon

 

 

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