Travel Goals Master Checklist: Part II – South America and Antarctica

In this second installment of the Travel Goals Master Checklist series of blog posts, I’ll cover the destinations from South America and Antarctica that made the list, along with the reasons why. If you haven’t done so already, I invite you to read Part I – North America & the Caribbean, which will give you more of the backstory. But if your attention span is as tiny as mine, suffice to say that the destinations and imagery to follow are taken from the list of 72 world-class bucket list destinations that make up my signature design: The Travel Goals Master Checklist, available exclusively from my Etsy store.

Angel Falls, Venezuela

As the tallest waterfall on the planet, I couldn’t leave off Venezuela’s Angel Falls from the list, even if the country has been so unstable in recent years that visiting it is a no-go. It’s hard to pity myself for not being able to visit when the residents of Venezuela are suffering so badly despite having more natural wealth and resources than most countries combined. But if the political disaster ever gets reversed, don’t be surprised to see a check mark next to this remote but worthy entrant on my own copy of the travel goals master checklist.

Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

The Galapagos, located off the western coast of Ecuador, are a unique ecosystem with many natural wonders. Though a trip here involves a hefty price tag and the environment is under threat, there’s no question that it is a world-class destination, and therefore deserves a place on the list.

Amazon Rain Forest, Ecuador/Brazil

Making up the bulk of the South American continent, the Amazon basin and its namesake rainforest spans across many national borders. The flooded jungle and myriad tributaries are still full of mystery, and you never know what you’re going to come across with every bend of the river. This massive natural feature is a world treasure and easy winner of a place on the list.

Fernando de Noronha, Brazil

Occupying a spot on my own bucket list, the remote Atlantic island of Fernando de Norohna is an island enthusiast’s dream. From its pristine reefs, a barely touched landscape, and one of the world’s best beaches, this little-known destination has found its way onto the master checklist ahead of locations with greater star power.

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Of the 72 destinations on the full list, only a dozen of them are cities. Of these, only one is found in South America, but there’s no question that Rio de Janeiro, with its stunning harbor, iconic landmarks and festive vibe, is the city to see on the continent. Rio checks all the boxes for an elite world-class destination, so it was a no-brainer to include it on the list while trying to capture the dazzling energy superimposed over the city’s dramatic natural setting in the artwork.

Machu Picchu, Peru

Few images of South America are as recognizable as the ruins of Machu Picchu, perched high up in the Peruvian Andes. Though bad weather thwarted my own attempt to see it firsthand, the entire land of the Incas – from the Sacred Valley to the capital of Cuzco – is a breathtaking panorama and feather in any world traveler’s cap.

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

This massive salt pan is the largest on Earth, though the desolate landscape would seem more at home on the moon. This is a major tourist draw for visitors to landlocked Bolivia, and if I ever get the chance, I can’t wait to take in the stark beauty of this immense (over 3,900 square miles) natural attraction.

Iguazu Falls, Argentina

As one of the Top 3 waterfalls in the world, Iguazu Falls, separating Argentina from Chile in a raging collection of frothing cataracts, was an absolute must-have on the travel goal master checklist. I haven’t personally been there yet, and it’s the kind of place you have to go out of your way to see, but by all accounts this is a breathtaking natural wonder that earns its spot in the top 72.

Torres del Paine, Chile

Though I’ve been to Chilean Patagonia, I didn’t have time to visit this iconic mountain destination in the lower reaches of the South American continent. But from photos I’ve seen, it is definitely a landmark worthy of inclusion on the travel goals master checklist, and well-encapsulates the alpine scenery that typifies the region.

Gerlache Strait, Antarctica

This narrow channel of water between the Antarctic Peninsula and a series of icy coastal islands is a common feature on Antarctic cruises, and therefore more “accessible” than other spots on this exceedingly difficult to visit continent. My fondest memories were of icebergs hued in shades of electric blue, and the antics of penguins who used them as their personal jungle gym, so coming up with the artwork was a labor of love.

How Many Have You Visited?

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So far I’ve covered 24 out of the 72 destinations on the master checklist. How many can you check off? Even if that number is zero, the beauty of the checklist is that it inspires a person to new adventures and specific travel goals. If you’ve enjoyed the artwork and want a Travel Goals Master Checklist to display in your home or office, please visit my Etsy store to order a copy for yourself or the traveler in your life.

Stay tuned for Part III . . .

Have you been to any of these destinations? Or do you have a favorite in South America and Antarctica that you feel should have made the list? Share it with your fellow travel lovers by leaving a comment!

Get Off the “Chain” in Quito: Review of Casa Alquimia

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.

Casa Alquimia Quito
Old meets new at the refurbished Casa Alquimia, Quito

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 courtyard
The interior courtyard of Casa Alquimia, Quito

The Location

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.

La Ronda
La Ronda is a bit more subdued in daylight hours, but still literally just around the corner

The Service

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.

Breakfast views, Casa Alquimia
Views from a breakfast table, Casa Alquimia, Quito

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.

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Cuyabeno? More Like Cuya-Bueno! Review of Ecuador’s Cuyabeno Reserve & Caiman Eco Lodge

Cuyaben River Sunset
Sunset Swim on the Cuyabeno River

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?

River Ride Cuyabeno Reserve
Rolling on the River – Cuyabeno Reserve, Ecuador

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?

Caiman Eco Lodge
A birds-eye view of Caiman Eco Lodge as seen from the tower

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?

Cuyabeno Wildlife Viewing
Cruising for Wildlife on the Cuyabeno River

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?

Cuyabeno Anaconda
Why hello Mr. Anaconda

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.

Other Considerations

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?

Final Thoughts

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.

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