THE SECRET GARDEN COTOPAXI ECUADOR

A SYMPHONY OF COLOR, THE BACKDROP OF HEAVEN, MYSTICAL, ENCHANTING, UNIQUE AND SPECIAL. NO WONDER IT IS CALLED THE SECRET GARDEN.

Yes they have tiny homes called Playhouses to stay in with tiny furniture and they have Hobbit Homes slightly larger and built into the mountain plus dorms and private houses surrounded by gardens.

Yes they have a forest filled with waterfalls behind you and incredible views of Cotopaxi and Rumiñawi in front of you.

Yes they have gentle streams, little ponds, gardens of flowers and other magical treats for your eyes to feast upon.

 

Yes they have a jacuzzi and hammocks to lounge around on plus family style meals, banana bread to die for, among other delectable dishes, as well as dogs to hike with or cuddle up with next to the fireplace.

Yes they have llamas and sheep and horses to love on and play with.

Click here to see some of the daytime beauty of the Secret Garden.

Click here to see some of the tranquil yet fun action at night at the Secret Garden.

They have everything your little heart could desire. Beauty and tranquility abound here at Secret Garden Cotopaxi. Come experience the utter bliss and the adventure for yourself.

The outdoor activities include, without limitation, hiking to waterfalls, biking down the mountain, ice trekking to the summit of Cotopaxi (which by the way is a traditional Quechua word meaning “Neck of the Moon”) and horseback riding in the National Park with mesmerizing views everywhere you look.

And for you photographers out there, welcome to a place where you will never set your camera down. Both the sun and the moon dance with the clouds decorating the valley below and the volcanoes above with rays of light and shadows.

So how do you get to heaven and what is the cost you might ask? Go to Secret Garden Cotopaxi and book your 3 day/2 night promo. The price is $97 for three days and 2 nights for a bed in the dormitory. If you book early you might be lucky enough to get a Hobbit Home. Keep in mind that the price includes all your food, a hike to the waterfalls and a hike to Pasochoa as well as your incoming shuttle transport. Meet your fellow travelers at Secret Garden Quito (the sister property) by 10:00 a.m. on your date of departure and take the approximate 2.5 hour shuttle ride deep into the mountains to the land of enchantment. The other activities range in price depending on whether you are going alone or with a group. And Tony or one of the volunteers here will handle scheduling all of your activities for you and your transportation to your next location.

I did the waterfall hike on Day 1 which was a lovely trudge through a forest full of trees and icy rivers. In fact, you must wear the water boots they provide for free because the river crossings can get quite deep. The hike requires you to cling to the sides of rock walls periodically bringing with it a thrill or two and certainly a sense of adventure and jumping in the freezing water near naked when you arrive at the final waterfall is part of the tradition for those of you who are brave enough to do it. Click here to see some of the waterfall hike.

I did the horseback riding in Cotopaxi National Park on Day 2. I had forgotten how at home I am straddling a horse until my guide Christina handed me the reigns and I hoisted myself on Carbonera’s back. Surprisingly, given my lifelong experience with horses as I grew up on a horse farm and rode equestrian hunter jumpers all through my formative years, Carbonera was still the most comfortable, smooth ride of my life. His gallop equates to a gentle massage rather than your typical bounce fest on trail horses for tourists making this excursion even more pleasurable. And because I have experience and was alone with the guide, we got to gallop over the beautiful terrain, stomp across fast flowing rivers and reach heights I had never been before – at least not on a horse. And breathtaking doesn’t cover the views. There are no words brilliant enough to describe the views from here.  You MUST come see. Click here to see some of the action.

As I turned my ankle on Day 1 in the aforementioned water boots, I was unable to hike either Rumiñahui or Pasochoa but all my new friends would recommend either of these activities and if you are into real challenges then the overnight ice trek to the summit of Cotopaxi is right up your alley. And, by the way, the water here must be magical too as after I soaked in the jacuzzi my sprained foot began to heal. No joke.

In the late afternoons and evenings, there was card playing, yoga, jacuzzi and even a few folks who played guitar and sang. Tranquility was mostly the name of the game here at Secret Garden after about 3:00 p.m. each day (except for the new arrivals) given the exciting adventures during the first part of the day.

Things to know are as follows:

Children are welcome. We had 2 year old Lily with us and 11 year old Wilhom. There were also some local kids hanging about who were just as darling as could be. And despite being a summer camp for adults, we loved having the little ones with our group.

There is no WiFi and your Ecuadorian SIM card will not work here so go outside and play and you can brag to your friends and family on social media later.

Help fertilize the garden and use the composting toilet. Believe it or not this eco friendly bathroom is private, has a view and even a little waterfall to get “things” flowing but watch where you walk as some of the dogs at the Secret Garden haven’t figured out how to use the composting toilet!

Bring sunscreen, a balaclava to cover your ears while horse riding or climbing, bring your Kühl waterproof pants and jacket as you might get some rain, your The North Face thermal ball jacket too (although they have lovely ponchos for you to wear here), bring some gloves, some bug spray, bring CASH as they ONLY take cash, bring your Swell Bottle and any Red Bull or specialty drinks you may want (you can use the pond as a frig to keep your drinks cold – that’s what I did) and definitely bring a good book to read or your Kindle as there is little out there more relaxing than kicking back with a good read in one of the indoor or outdoor hammocks they have here. AND, OF COURSE, BRING YOUR CAMERA!! I again cannot recommend anything more than I recommend the Olympus Digital SP-100EE as it is so light and has a fantastic zoom and takes just as good, if not better, photos than all those huge heavy lenses people weigh themselves down with. Evidence of that is included in all my recent blog posts including this one. And, if you have one, don’t forget your Go Pro.

Also, the chefs prepared some of the best meals I’ve ever had the pleasure of tasting so bring your appetite.

I have traveled far and wide my friends and can name on two hands some of the most charming and magical experiences I’ve had and Secret Garden made it on the list. Write me if you want to know about the others as I’m happy to share them as well and then go unlock the Travelirvana in you.

 

 

Semuc Champey, Guatemala: Day 5

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

If you have that little devil inside of you whose thirst for adrenaline and adventure must be quenched, then today is a day for you

If you have an incessant little angel inside of you, seeking tranquility, beauty and perhaps some rest for your body, mind and soul then today is a day for you.

If you have both, well lucky you because this will be one of your favorite travel days ever. It is in the top five for me!

IMG_5465

I awoke to the sound of birds singing and a glorious sunrise from my outdoor bunk bed at Utopia in the mountains of Semuc Champey, Guatemala.  Had breakfast overlooking none other than the epitome of tranquility. The theme, however, for the day was “Uno, dos, tres” as I must have repeated these 3 words today more than ever prior to jump uno, jump dos, jump tres and so on and by the end of the day I wasn’t certain whether today ranked uno, dos or tres in the best days of my journey thus far.  Indiana Jones himself would have been jealous.

 

We (Sam, Stephanie, Suzy, Clemence, Tomas and I) started with a 45 minute hike to Maria’s restaurant for none other than a swing from a platform to flying in the air and jumping into the river – Jump Uno. Suzy and I then proceeded to enter -with nothing other than a candle – a cave where we swam and climbed in pitch blackness. Jump Dos at the end of the cave, while scary, had nothing on Jump Tres because in Jump 2 our guide lit up the pool of blackness below with a headlamp while at Jump 3 (which was several meters higher) he decided to go first leaving me to jump with no light whatsoever. In a situation like this all you’ve got is one way down and the courage to murmur uno, dos, tres before following suit 😉 Do this. No matter what. There is nothing in this world more liberating. Jump Cuatro was the seated swing outside the cave. Again, uno, dos, tres and swing, jump, fly.

IMG_5464

We went from high flying adventure to rest and relaxation in the radiance of the cerulean infinity pools before tubing through the sometimes calm and sometimes raging rapids and ended our ride right at the door of Utopia.

IMG_5466

Utopia is the perfect name for this hostel and even more perfect name for Semuc Champey. The 12 or more hours to get there and out of there was worth it. As I said, today is one of my favorite days of travel after 15 months and 69 countries which is saying an awful lot.

That’s all for now with a “DON’T SKIP SEMUC!” reverberating throughout my entire body.

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

Copan Ruinas, Honduras: Day 7

IMG_5382I’m in love with travel, hiking and exploring the natural beauties of the world, learning new languages, trying things like surfing, scuba and skiing and getting all sweaty dancing to sexy Latin music in the form of bacchata, among others, so you can only imagine what happened when I met an American working in Honduras who has been traveling the world for years like me, can ski, surf and scuba, is hands down the best dancer I’ve ever danced with in my life, whispers song lyrics in Spanish in my ear, is strong and smart and well, in essence, the male version of me. Yes that would be correct! I smothered him from head to toe in mud at the Jaguar Hot Springs outside of Copan. How did you guess? 😉

My two new friends, Lisa and Sean, and I took the 45 min shuttle ride from Copan to Jaguar at a cost of $22/each for entry into the hot springs and roundtrip transport all the while questioning our collective sanity as it was over 100 degrees outside and we are going to get in water that is like 80 degrees at the springs or something borderline unbearable like that. When the water is steaming and the sun is burning, get your head checked. In fact, we probably should “just say no” to getting third degree burns from two

separate sources at the exact same time. But march on we did and it was actually amazing. The springs were shaded by the jungle trees and there was a cool breeze that enveloped us. It was quiet out there. Not many, if any, people were in the various springs we entered. One of the springs was like the Thai ocean – a very luke warm water likeIMG_5385 bath water. One turned my skin hot pink and I laughingly pretended to claw my way out of that one. The mud bath was extremely nourishing to the skin not to mention how entertaining it was slathering each other with mud. We ended the perfect outdoor day excursion with an outdoor massage. The massage tables are way on top of the hill above the hottest spring out there so the steam opens all your pores and permeates your nostrils and lungs while you lay there in the middle of a jungle being serenaded by the surrounding wildlife drifting into a state of utter euphoria with each rub of your tired muscles.  Not a shabby way to spend a Saturday if I do say so myself.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

After dinner we three got are proverbial dancing shoes on and I got to try out my new bacchata and salsa lessons on some of the locals but, more importantly, on Sean. And when I say on, I mean on. If you have never seen these folks dance then you haven’t seen sex between two people with their clothes on. It is quite something. In fact, the Honduran and Cuban dancers I’ve seen could infiltrate and take over the porn industry. Watch them and no one will ever need to rent porn again 😉 Anyway, hard to believe a muscular man with unparalleled masculinity like Sean could move like that and to bacchata ballads no less, but suffice it to say I got swept off my feet for sure.

But you know the old saying  – “nothing good happens after midnight (unless you are already in bed of course which none of us were)? Well we proved this once again to be true. Being the only gringos, it’s not surprising that we attracted a bit of a crowd leaving the Sky Bar and a drunk crowd at that. The walk to the hotel was short but a lot can happen in a block or two in a foreign country after 2:00 in the morning. We, of course, were followed by the winners of “The Drunkest Loser” – Honduras Edition. I think the goal was to get a rise out of the strong guy to my right which I absolutely did not want to happen, however, some things can’t be avoided. One of the drunk Honduran guys actually grabbed me in between my legs and tried to lift me off the ground. I’ve been here before – sad to say – when I was a young child – and the fighter in me emerged. I kicked him in his ass and hard (sounds silly and when I think back on it more like a scene from a cartoon, but he was a drunk punk and that’s what I did) and I yelled at him loudly and assertively to go away and never touch me or anyone like that again but he wasn’t stymied in the slightest and came back at me. Sean had no choice but to lay him out and with a “tap” on the nose he went down like a sack of potatoes. SOOOOO much blood! I thought he hit his head on the concrete but it turns out when you are that drunk you bleed profusely. If he was hurt, it didn’t show except in his even more pronounced stagger. As I said though, my fear was that was exactly their goal i.e. to enrage Sean and the next thing you knew, all the locals would come to defend their Honduran brother and distract Sean fighting and attack us girls or something. Or that Sean would get picked up by the policia and thrown in some third world cell, key thrown away for good type thing. The good news is my worst fears did not come to fruition. The guys in the pick up truck in front of us saw the whole thing and stopped their “brother” from causing any more trouble and we calmly returned to the hotel. Whew what a night!

That’s all for now from a special production of Honduran MMA – Mud Fights and Street Fights.

 

Santa Ana, El Salvador: Day 3

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Early wake up call to catch the 248 bus from Santa Ana centro station (if you can call it a station as it’s really just a street) at 7:30 a.m. to the Santa Ana Volcano with my new friend Eric who I met at my hostel yesterday. The bus ride was $.90 cents and approximately a 2 hour transport. There are these 3 volcanoes right next to each other (Izalco, Cerro Verde and Santa Ana) so we started at the top of Cerro Verde and hiked down to El Tibet in the valley between Cerro Verde and Santa Ana and then hiked up the bit more treacherous side of the valley to the top of Santa Ana. It took 4 hours round trip and probably a 13 km hike to summit at approximately 2380 meters or 7800 feet but that stunning panoramic view was really worth the work and the nasty bee sting I received. (Not allergic I learned which is good given I was on top of a volcano when it happened! The real question is do bees hang out on top of volcanoes…I guess so.)

The broad summit of Santa Ana has these concentric craters with crescent shaped rims which we actually got to hike on. The mouth of the volcano is massive and filled with a Robin Egg Blue colored water (according to Crayola) akin to that which I saw at Mirador Del Torres in Chile but here you can see actual steam venting off the water caused by the volcano’s heat. I wondered whether there was more steam today as a result of the earthquakes from yesterday and will have to check up on that.  The last real eruption occurred a little over a decade ago on October 1, 2005 when Santa Ana spit out car-sized lava rocks and a flood of boiling mud killing several people and causing the evacuation of thousands.

After a few Kodak moments, we finished the trek back at the top of Cerro Verde where for the first hour during our tamale snack (so good) we had the most incredible view of Izalco including its concentric crater but while sitting there I witnessed this magical and eery fog drift in and the volcano and the valley below disappeared right in front of my eyes and for that matter my camera lens as did we – at least to the rest of the world. From the peak I was sitting on, the clouds appeared to be dancing around to the beat playing in my ear phones. It was increíble and my favorite part of the day…dancing in the clouds.  Now that’s saying a lot because the view into Santa Ana’s belly and the view of the picturesque Lago de Coatepeque were magnificent. The cost for this adventure today was $3.00 for entry into National Park, $1.00 for wristband and $4.00 for tour guide and the policia turismo. Plus $1.50 for breakfast (pupasas and fresh mango and bottled water). I spent another $1.50 for the tamales and a Coca Cola was an additional $.50 cents. This whole budget travel thing is amazing! I’m actually enjoying a little contest with myself to see how cheap I can make this trip and pass the data on to you.  FYI – you can just get off bus 248 at El Tibet, join a group going up at approximately 11:00 a.m. and avoid the $3.00 entry fee and a portion of the hike if you have a car or private transfer and want to sleep in a little.

Now back on the $.90 chicken bus back to my hostel for work and then SLEEP. Last couple days have been exhausting but oh what a view! Very different than the Masaya volcano with the flowing lava and very different from the volcano boarding at Cerro Negro – both in Nicaragua. This one you must see. It’s astonishing! And unless you are really disabled, grab a walking stick tailored made by the nearby trees and go. You can make it!

That’s all for now with a wow or two from Santa Ana, Cerro Verde and Izalco.

Léon, Nicaragua: Day 5

Someone says second most dangerous thing you should do before you die and I say where do I sign up! Today we hiked to the top of Cierro Negro, an active volcano, 750 meters high just to throw all sanity to the wind and volcano board down. Record is 95kmph. Today our friend Jonas did it in 76 kmph but almost killed himself when he came off the board flipping at least 3 or 4 times. I did it in 54 kmph – the second fastest female time eating lava the whole way down. Not sure I will ever get it out of certain crevices of my body. Was it the craziest, scariest thing I’ve done to date? Yes! Absolutely. I volunteered to go first as I didn’t want the anxiety to build up too much. It’s a good thing to as if I would have seen the others wipe out it might have skewed my resolve. There was a moment however going down where I had to just let go and let what happens happen. If I had any advice it would be just let the board do what it’s going to do. If it gets too fast it gets too fast. If you try to slow down or stop that is a mistake and that’s when you get injured. It is the closest I’ve been to true faith because it is so scary and so fast (if you go as fast as I did) that all you have left is faith.

So what is the first most dangerous thing to do you ask? Pilot a fighter plane for one day in Russian airspace.  The cost of volcano boarding is $40. The cost of flying is $72,000 USD.

That’s all for now. Lots of love from lava land.

Cabo Polinio, Uruguay: Day 1

I headed to Cabo Polinio – the place where time stands still – via Rutas del Sol bus. It’s 4.5 hours and 598 Uruguayan pesos or approximately $20 USD from Montevideo and worth every minute and every penny and believe it or not even the loss of my new Go Pro Hero 5.  Yes, after saving it a mere three days ago from a Mack truck on the Paraguayan Bridge and promising we would be so “Happy Together” until we had visited all 196 countries, someone else had a different opinion. I turned my back for literally 60 seconds to meet Ines and Susanna from Spain and someone on the bus stole it. But as I said my heartbreak was short lived. God reminded me that just like everything else, the Go Pro is just a thing. It doesn’t matter. Someone clearly needed the money they would get for selling it more than I needed it and I needed a lesson on what is truly valuable and I got it in Cabo Polonio. In fact, I learned another valuable lesson in Cabo Polinio from an Italian  friend, Olivia, which goes hand in hand with the prior lesson and that is that the more things you travel with, the more insecurities you have. As such, I left a handful of really cute clothes behind for my new friends and will look yet again for yet another smaller pack moving forward as I’m clearly insecure!! Didn’t think I was but my suitcase/pack is huge. Not as big as the suitcase I carried for the first 9 months of this journey – which I lovingly call the Hulk as it was green, huge and physically abused my poor tiny frame carrying it up cobblestone steps like those in Granada, over beaches like those in Thailand and those darn train stations in Southern France with only stairs.

So you should know right off the bat that there is no place on earth like this place. You are dropped at the terminal 7km from your actual destination where you purchase a ticket forIMG_7067.JPG 300 Uruguayan pesos ($10/USD) to take a huge dual level white and red or yellow 4×4 truck to your final destination as this is all that can drive through the massive sand dunes. Ride on the top deck just because it is a little scary and a bit dangerous which inevitably means could be fun. Ten minutes or so later you enter a different world where there is no running water (only comes from wells), no electricity (the locals obtain from renewable energy sources), about 70 inhabitants, mostly wooden rustic and very colorful shacks (some adobe -the newer, more modern ones – but not to worry as new construction is now completely prohibited under the law which I’m truly grateful for).

Cabo Polinio is on a sliver of sand extending into the ocean and is surrounded by water img_6926on three sides. You will find welcoming laid back locals, a handful of horses grazing on the green grass, a beautiful white and red lighthouse which has the only steady supply of electricity and which you can climb for 20 pesos, a rocky seaside home to a colony of hundreds of lobos (sea lions), perhaps an eccentric expat or two and a eclectic few handfuls of tourists in November. Está muy tranquilo.   In the dead of summer i.e. December and January there will be many more tourists; however, less than you will find anywhere else is my guess as this place still remains mostly a secret and part of me didn’t want to tell you about it but then what kind of blogger would I be if I didn’t share.

Your first order of business will be to find accommodations. I chose Lobo Hostel because a handful of people who I met on my bus were headed there. The cost for a bed in the 8 person dorm was $18USD, 4 person dorm $21USD and your own room with a double bed in the attic is $41/USD. There are hostels that are newer and bigger for half the price but Marianna and Gaston are iconic fixtures in Cabo Polinio. Plus you will love love love that paint job. And yes Lobo Hostel has a generator if needed but put your damn phones away or you will miss the most authentic and natural experiences of your existence where the stars, moon light and the faro will guide your way in the night. Second only to the Saharan desert (perhaps even better than) is the Cabo Polinio night sky. Wishing on a falling star and constellation naming is found around the cozy campfire over a glass of wine or a beer, some mota (if you are into this), with a guitar or two, an eccentric harmonica player and, of course, your new lifelong friends which you will meet there. It is impossible not to make a connection with people in this environment where there is little, if any, interference with God and nature from the outside world and peace is the name of the game. My new friends are Susanna and Ines from Spain (students of business administration), Simon from Chile (neurosurgeon), Juan and Weather from Spain (global travelers), Olivia from Italy (child psychologist), Claudia and Caroline from Germany (mid-wives), Matio and Maya from France, Anna from Germany, Mauro from Montevideo (accountant), Manuel from Argentina (engineer) and several others from São Paulo and other nearby places. It is hard to remember and spell all of their names correctly but I will never forget them.

For longer-term stays, rent your own house. That’s what I will do when I go back. See if you can get one seaside with a balcony facing the sunset. You won’t regret it. And for groceries or other sundries, head to one of the two mercados where you will find wine, beer, water, fresh eggs and vegetables, etc. so you can make your own meal. If not, then head to Leon’s for an incredible pizza milanese and some of the best tasting papas fritas you can find. Trust me! Keep in mind that pizza in Uruguay and Argentina can be more like carne con queso con carne. In other words, instead of bread, your pizza toppings are on top of fried meat! For activities, in addition to sunbathing, swimming, walking on the beach or hiking through the forest trees, you can ride horses, fish and surf.  I just wanted to soak it all in too just be.

img_7112While I know God (or whatever you call your omnipotent being) is ubiquitous, his presence during my trek to see the sea lions, my climb to the top of the lighthouse, the sunset on the beach, the swim with the dolphins, the camaraderie over seaside meals and the sunrise strolls on the playa was certainly more palpable here than any place I’ve been since perhaps Bali and India.

Know this – you will emerge with a few mosquito or other insect bites (and in my case all over my face!), a new appreciation for the niceties in the modern world, a fervent desire to return to this special place and perhaps emerge a more enlightened man or woman…changed for the better.

That’s all for now. With love and peace from Cabo Polinio.