Sometimes a trip is all about relaxation. While the majority of my adventures are a little too active to fall under that category, there are a precious few whose primary purpose was simply just to get away and decompress. My 2013 jitney to Brazil was just such a trip, and I’m happy to share and relive the highlights with you now.
Destination: Brazil (Rio de Janeiro and the Costa Verde)
What Brought Me There
The winter of 2013 was a rough one for my wife and I, culminating in my father-in-law’s passing away. Between the stress, loss and freezing cold, never was it more apparent that we needed a break. Fortunately, we were able to use airline miles to book flights to Rio, which was the perfect gateway for the relaxation that lay ahead.
We started with a brief two days touring the city’s main sites such as Sugarloaf Mountain and the amazing beaches, before moving on to the gorgeous, pedestrian-only island of Ilha Grande. Next it was the too-charming-for-words cultural town of Paraty, situated in a paradisaical nook of the Costa Verde coastline for a few days until the inevitable return to Rio, home and a New York winter.
What I Loved
I’m not a big fan of city living, but my time in Rio, with access to such incredible beaches, made it more appealing. But even better were the lush mountain landscapes that stretch down the coast toward Sao Paolo state, with emerald green bays, abundant waterfalls and beaches galore.
On Ilha Grande I loved the sandy streets, dining on the beach by candlelight and the shady lane through the jungle leading up to our pousada. In Paraty, the whitewashed buildings trimmed with bright colors and festive lighting made every night feel like a fiesta. The comfortable accommodations caught between the mountains and the sea was the perfect place to be for the aforementioned relaxation we had come for.
What I Would Do If I Went Back
My travels in Brazil were limited to one tiny region. That is way too little time and range for a country so richly blessed with so many natural and cultural treasures.
If I were to return, I’d love to expand my explorations, from seeing Iguazu Falls in the South, the picturesque adventure town of Bonito on the border with Bolivia, and most of all the remote Atlantic island of Fernando de Noronha.
Sometimes it’s a good idea to look back and reflect, unless of course, you’re driving. When it comes to travel, those glances into the rear-view mirror can do more than show you where you’ve been, they can bring back the feelings you experienced while you were there. In this first installment of my Bite-Size Destination Throwback series, I’ll be spotlighting my epic trip to Zimbabwe and Southern Africa in the summer of 2014. In it, I will follow a simple formula: what brought me there, what I loved, and what I would do if I ever went back. So let’s get started.
What Brought Me There
The primary reason for my visit was to attend an international convention being held in the capital, Harare. But there was no way I was going to miss out on seeing one of the seven natural wonders of the world (Victoria Falls) while I was in the ‘neighborhood’. As my plans solidified, after a week in and around Harare for the convention, we were off to Victoria Falls with excursions into Zambia, Botswana, and even just barely into Namibia’s Caprivi Strip.
What I Loved
Foremost among the things I loved were the people. Despite abject poverty, political insecurity and little prospect for improvement, the Zimbabweans I met were welcoming, courteous and even outright generous. I’d be willing to say that most were actually happier than your average person in a developed land, which is saying a lot in view of the obstacles they face on a daily basis.
I also loved the African landscape, with its abundant wildlife, rugged interior and breathtaking sunsets evening after evening. Africa has an entrancing effect on me, and memories of sipping a sundowner while the sun sinks in a blazing orange sky to a symphony of insects while the stately silhouettes of elephants graze in the distance is truly a mental ‘happy place’ for me.
What I Would Do If I Went Back
My limited timeframe forced me to fly directly to Victoria Falls from Harare. Given another visit to the country, I would rather take the rails down to the Motobo Hills to enjoy the unique landscape of stacked boulders that characterize this corner of the world. I would then make my way back toward Victoria Falls via Hwange National Park, with its healthy elephant populations in full display.
Have you been to Zimbabwe? Share your thoughts by commenting. And if you want a great Zimbabwe souvenir, check out the Zimbabwe Rugged Country Code Collection unisex t-shirt by clicking here.
When booking lodging for a trip abroad, I always struggle with a bit of uneasiness. By far my fondest stays have historically been at privately-owned, unique properties across the globe. But there’s always that uneasy sense of the unknown, and the equal temptation to stay at a chain hotel, just to put any suspense to bed (pun intended).
However, as was the case so many times in the past, having the courage to get off the “chain” resulted in a rich reward during my stay in Ecuador’s capital of Quito in June 2019. The aforementioned reward came in the form of a thoroughly enjoyable sojourn in the newly refurbished Casa Alquimia, and I’ll tell you more about it in the event that you too could use a nudge to select a local property, over the less-interesting but safer bet of a chain hotel.
About the Property
Casa Alquimia is a heritage residence dating back over 400 years. To put that in perspective, the country in which I live isn’t even that old by nearly half. Some elements of the original structure remain (mostly in the shape of stone pillars) but the property has been lovingly restored by owners Isaias and Silvana, who as I will describe, are what makes this property more than just a nice place to spend a night.
With a large internal courtyard, guests can take in the sometimes eclectic, sometimes historic décor bathed in warm natural light. As an old mansion, each room is a bit unique, decorated in Andean style weavings and heavy wooden furniture. Bathrooms have a bit more modern design and both the water pressure and temperature were just as good as any hotel chain. There are various seating areas, both in designated guest areas and random chairs on the second floor balcony. Wi-Fi was refreshingly strong in the room, but the best views are from the charming rooftop breakfast room, replete with kitschy decorations, quaint furniture, and an unobstructed perch looking out at the massive statue of the Virgin Mary atop the nearby hill known as Panecillo. While the views are indeed quite nice, the hearty breakfast on offer is even better, and when I say it seems like the secret ingredient is love, I’m not just being cheesy, although there are, in fact, several tasty cheeses included.
Casa Alquimia is a great base of operations for anyone looking to experience the World Heritage listed historic center of Quito firsthand. It is cattycorner to Plaza Santo Domingo – home of a giant church, and a well-known square in the historic area of Quito that is also well-served by public transport. It’s worth mentioning that in the historic center of Quito, getting around by any sort of vehicle is slow-going at best, and there were occasions where I literally stepped out of my taxi and made better time. If you’re visiting Plaza San Francisco or the government seat at Plaza Grande, or really anywhere in the historic core, I highly recommend just walking. Not only will you make better time, but you’ll also get to experience the nuanced architecture and vibe far better than in a cab or bus.
Perhaps the real appeal (or drawback) to Casa Alquimia’s location is that it is quite literally around the corner from the area known as La Ronda – a charming street lined with shops, restaurants and plenty of live music – much of which will continue loudly and unabated all night long during weekends. There’s a real festive atmosphere, and the food, which is good if not terribly imaginative, can be consumed from tiny balconies looking over the streams of pedestrians filing by just below. It’s a bit on the touristy side, but it certainly is a spot not to be missed while visiting Quito.
As I alluded to before, the owners are what push Casa Alquimia over the top as far as making the decision to stay there. At breakfast they were most attentive, and would take the time to chat with guests who welcomed the conversation. When I needed advice on what to see and how to get there, they were quick to share. And when I needed a tour operator to bring me out to Cotopaxi for a day, Silvana – a former environmental lawyer, spent an hour with me working out every detail, filling in the gaps with lovely conversation – which still ranks as my longest conversation in Spanish to date. Without exaggerating, I truly felt as if we were treated like long-lost relatives – welcome ones at that – and that’s just not something I’ve ever seen at a chain.
Wrapping it Up
So if your travels bring you to the culturally rich capital of Quito (and they should), I can confidently recommend staying at the Casa Alquimia. It’s a great value, in a great location, with great service. If you’re going to go “unchained”, I’d suggest that this is the place to do it.
Would you like to see more photos of my travels around the globe? Click here to see my many images available to browse or purchase.
I know I’m not the first to be captivated by a fascination with the Amazon Rain Forest. For anyone with even a slight case of wanderlust, the very concept of an ecosystem so large that it dominates the majority of an entire continent is traveler’s catnip. So when my circumstances led me to travel to Ecuador, I made it a specific point to see this mysterious landscape for myself.
Of course, being so large, there are countless areas from which to begin an exploration. Even in Ecuador itself, there are many reserves and national parks preserving wide swathes of rain forest as it descends from the eastern slopes of the Andes mountains. After researching my options, I decided that the Cuyabeno Reserve in the northeastern part of the country – just a few miles from the border with Columbia – would be my point of entry, and my gateway to one of the most exotic of all exotic destinations.
In the course of my research I learned a lot about the region, what to expect, transportation options and accommodations. If you’re one to hear the call of the wild, I invite you to read on for a detailed rundown of planning a trip to the jungle.
Where is Cuyabeno Reserve?
As I just mentioned, it is in the northeastern section of the country, close to the borders of Columbia and Peru. The nearest commercial airport would be Lago Agrio (LGQ) in the gritty oil town of Nueva Loja, which can be reached via an 8 hour bus ride, or a 45 minute flight (I highly recommend the flight).
How Do I Get There?
Even if you just spent the night on a bus getting to Nueva Loja, your travels are far from over. From the city it takes a two hour bus ride through jungle-clad hills awash in green to a place called “El Puente”. As the names suggests, this a bridge, where you will then disembark, use the facilities at a snack bar/visitor center, then be loaded onto a canoe for another two hours of travel down the river. Most accommodation is centered around Laguna Grande – a large lagoon with various ‘resorts’ tucked away along its tributaries. Outsiders are not allowed to visit the reserve without being accompanied by a guide, so it’s important to book a tour (usually including accommodations, meals and the aforementioned guide) with one of the many outfitters that offer them – including many agencies in the capital city of Quito. As for me, I booked directly through the Caiman Eco Lodge website.
What Are Accommodations Like?
In general, the lodges in Cuyabeno are not ‘luxury’ properties by most people’s standards. While costing quite a bit more than staying in a hostel – a pastime highly favored among young backpackers – the facilities are still on the rustic side. But have I mentioned that you’re in the middle of the Amazon jungle? What else do you expect?
The Caiman Eco Lodge was par for the course as far as Cuyabeno accommodations go. You arrive at a long wooden dock where there is an unused lobby and steps leading up into an open area lined by thatched roofed huts that house several bedrooms apiece. Anchoring each end of the clearing are larger buildings. At the far end is a tower containing more hotel rooms until you reach the top, where you can relax in a small lounge or climb up to the roof for a canopy-eye view of the lodge (and apparently the next one over as well). Near the dock is the main building, which houses the open kitchen, a large dining area, some comfortable seating and the tiny bar. Connected to this via a raised walkway is the building near the dock, which on its upper floor houses a room full of hammocks overlooking the river. Personally, this was my favorite place on the property.
The room comes standard with screened windows, a tiny porch with a clothesline that would be useful if the sun decided to show up, and mosquito netting to go over the beds. There’s a private bathroom and shower, but bear in mind that the toilets are for organic materials only. So if it didn’t come out of you, it shouldn’t go in there. There’s a small trash can for any paper used, which honestly should be changed more often than it was.
Though cramped, rustic, and not at all soundproof, the accommodations did not disappoint. A trip like this is supposed to make you feel like you’re on an island of civilization in the middle of the wild – mainly because it is. And while I personally didn’t have too much of the ‘wild’ come into my room to visit – besides a pair of frogs that took us by surprise – I should mention that the potential is there. I’m not going to lie – every trip to the bathroom was first accompanied by a sweep with my flashlight for any unwanted visitors.
How Is the Food?
Since you’re literally hours from the nearest town, it’s not like you can just go out for a bite to eat. Meals are included in all packages and served at set times, usually just before or after included activities – which I’ll go into more in a second.
At the Caiman Eco Lodge I found the food to be far better than expected. Breakfasts were full and tasty, lunch usually consisted of a soup, main dish and dessert and dinners were much fancier fare than one would suspect to find so far out in the jungle. As an added bonus, there’s lots of opportunity to mingle with other guests during meals, and the camaraderie created makes for a greater shared experience.
What is There To Do & See in Cuyabeno?
Each lodge offers its own guided activities, but generally speaking they break down into a few basic universal offerings.
By far the most popular activity is to head out on a motorized boat or canoe to search for wildlife (more on that soon). Another popular option are guided hikes through the jungle with explanations of the various flora and its use by native peoples. In my case, we didn’t see a whole lot of wildlife on the hike, but the trek through the swamp due to early flooding left a lasting impression on both me and my pants.
While I decided to sit it out in favor of some rest, the package also included a visit to an indigenous tribe to sample the native lifestyle and consult with a shaman. Also included was a night hike to see the vast array of giant creepy-crawlies that emerged unnervingly close to the lodge. Remind me never to run through the Amazon in the dark.
My favorite activity – animal encounters aside – was when we finally had an evening with no cloud cover and were able to take a sunset swim on the lagoon. We were offered the use of a paddle board and splashed around as the golden light faded into an amalgam of orange, blues and pinks. Watching the sunset from the water was a truly satisfying moment – the kind that motivates a traveler to come so far in the first place and to treasure the gift of life and the amazing experiences to be had. It was also helpful to forget about whatever dangerous marine life might have been swimming all around me at that very moment. Like I said, this is the Amazon Rain Forest . . .
What Kind of Wildlife Will I See?
This was the foremost question on my mind as we took off from El Puente and curved around one bend in the river after another. Fortunately, we didn’t have to wait long to see a flock of macaws in flight, squirrel monkeys leaping through the branches and even a sloth – which are much easier to photograph in action than the others for obvious reasons.
During the rest of the trip, we got up early for birdwatching, and while I can’t recall the name of every bird I saw – the majority of which decided to stay inconveniently high up in the canopy so that I wouldn’t get a clear shot with my camera – there were plenty to see. From the lodge itself I saw adorable tamarinds playing in the trees, caught sight of a caiman in the creek behind us and there’s no mistaking the disturbingly loud howls of howler monkeys as they pass by – especially when it’s four in the morning.
On the river we caught glimpses of pink river dolphins, who sadly are not as curious or playful as their open water brethren. Every so often there would also be disturbances in the water from what our guide assured us were very big fish, so keep an eye out for real life river monsters.
In addition, we saw lots of other types of monkeys, more sloths, and even caught a glimpse of an anteater who was in a hurry. During the night walk there were some hand-sized fisherman spiders, and just as scary-looking smaller ones that are still bigger than the biggest spiders where I’m from. I didn’t see any tarantulas but was assured that they’re out there. We even saw a scorpion spider, which is neither scorpion nor spider, but still gave off the whole heebie-jeebie vibe.
A highlight for me was seeing not just one but two anacondas on our ride back, as well as a black snake whose body disappeared into the brush. Apparently after rainy days they’ll sun themselves on tree branches along the river, and thus make great subjects for up close photos.
Since this kind of trip is all about immersion in nature, bear in mind that electric power is only available at certain times, so be sure to charge those cameras and batteries when you can. Speaking of cameras, much of the wildlife you’ll see will be beyond the normal zoom range of your lens, so if you come looking for National Geographic type shots, you’d better invest in a dedicated zoom lens if you’re going to capture the facial expressions of a troop of capuchin monkeys in the upper canopy.
Considering how much time and effort it takes to get to Cuyabeno, I highly recommend a stay of at least 3 nights or even more if you really want to take your time without the threat of a few bad days of weather ruining your trip. This is the rain forest, so expect some rain, which literally puts a damper on wildlife viewing trips and sort of defeats the purpose of a sunset swim. Ponchos and rubber boots are provided, but long pants and long sleeved shirts for night walks – as well as a flashlight – are your own responsibility. Note too that due to the ‘black’ water surrounding the area, which is high in organic materials and acids, mosquitoes are not an issue and there’s no real threat of malaria – but you never can be too sure, can you?
Getting to the Amazon was high on my list of travel goals. This sort of natural immersion was just what I needed and exactly what I wanted. Honestly, aside from that amazing sunset swim, my favorite experience was lounging in a hammock and listening to the cacophony of noise from a myriad of insects and who knows what else as night approached. That’s the mystique of the Amazon region: you never know what’s just around the next bend in the river, and in my book, such mystery will forever be considered muy bueno.