SANTA MARTA - TOLU
If you're coming from the splendid beach at El Rodadero in Santa Marta or visiting the Quinto de San Pedro Alejandrino where Simón Bolívar spent his last days, go west young packer on this Caribbean coastal route that involves just a couple hours ride at a time.
While most bypass the big industrial port of Barranquilla, it is South America's second Carnival capital (first being Río de Janeiro) at a much better bargain. It also is a great spot for art deco fans, including the Metropolitan Cathedral and the famous Teatro Amira de la Rosa museum and library.
Before you get to Cartagena, stop for an unforgettable experience at the Volcan de Lodo Totumo, a real volcano only about 30 feet high, that bubbles up lukewarm medicinal mud you can bathe and receive massages in, and then get yourself washed off in the nearby water -- very therapeutic and fun!
Cartagena itself is to die for, what I call the New Orleans French Quarter on Steroids! Old, full of pirate history, sultry and exotic. Sit on top of the old town wall at night with a pitcher of coco-limon and enjoy the gentle ocean breezes, visit the old maritime antique stores and the colossal fort Castillo de San Felipe, dance with strangers in the streets, visit the countless museums including the creepy Palace of the Inquisition, and take a boat ride out to the archipelagos around Playa Blanca including an aquarium in the middle of the bay.
However, don't waste your energy on beaches yet, the best is in store just a couple hours further south from Cartagena
This is a splendid route that takes you from the capital (constitutional) of Bolivia through breathtaking highlands all the way to the gorgeous wine country of Tarija.
But before you leave Sucre going south, take a side trip east to what I think is Bolivia's best traditional market town, Tarabuco. On your way there, make sure to stop and walk with the dinosaurs at Cal Orcko, which contains over 5,000 tracks of 294 species of ancient beasts.
Going southward, your major "pitstop" worth spending at least a day in is Potosi, a town of intricately colored doorways and some of the best museums in South America thanks to its affluent history from mining. Climb the little hill of Tarapaya and find a natural thermal hot spring on the top waiting to give you a dip with a great view. Potosi is also a major
My sweet spot for happy returns is to actually start this route in Misahuallí, a small town to the east of Tena where monkeys stroll around as casually as the people do. Then head north from Tena to go spelunking in the Jumandy Caves outside Archidona and some beautiful lodges and waterfall walks in nearby Cotundo.
If you want to imagine yourself in legendary adventure of Francisco Orellana and Pizarro to discover the source of the Amazon, hike the famous stone Guacamoyas Trail in Cosanga where they began.
Not much farther up the road is Ecuador's highest falls of San Rafael Falls near Salado, as well as Ecuador's most elusive and cranky volcano, El Reventador.
Great white water river rafting trips await you in the Quijos river region, and the best spot to scout for a local outfitter is Baeza (which is also the connecting point if you want to go back to Quito).
In Lago Agrio, which is mostly the entrance point for hiking into the huge Amozonian Cuyabeno Reserve, try to get there on a Sunday for the street market in which you can see the colorfully dressed Cofán people
If you're coming to Bolivia for the first or a short time, this route is likely the best pick. Cochabamba itself is a central hub for all directions, which makes it a good starting point, but we won't cover what to do there in this route.
Mizque is worth getting off the bus at least for a lunch break. It has a beautiful pink-trimmed church and a lazy river, and will give you a good idea of typical Bolivian highland life.
Next down the road is Aiquile, which is the center of making the small guitars used for Charango, a musical style very typical in this part of the Andes.
Your first big city stop will be Sucre, the constitutional capital of the country. Outside the city to the east is Cal Orkco, a collection of dinosaur footprints impressioned on a 70 degree wall of a cement quarry, which used to be a lake floor. "Dino Trucks" go there at 9:30AM, 12:00PM (noon), and 2:30PM from the corner of Plaza 25 de Mayo in front of the cathedral if they have a quota of 4 people. The guided visit takes about 1 hour, where from a viewing platform you can use binoculars to see the display of footprints on the landscape and some models of dinosaurs to give you context.
From alpine lakes to Incan ruins to the pulse of the big city, Cuenca - Salinas has something for everyone.
Take a note on this, guys. There are actually two routes west from Cuenca, but the one you want for more scenic beauty is through Las Cajas, a park of alpine trails amid stunning lagoons and lakes. Continue further west and you come to Molleturo, a small community with some quiet and lonely Inca ruins, including vestiges of a pyramid, two complexes, temple grounds, and a plaza.
Duran, just on the other side of the bridge from Guayaquil, is the place where you want to catch the train to Yaguachi, which is a feast for the eyes for bird lovers. Yaguachi is also an important local shrine for pilgrimages.
Ecuador's largest city, Guayaquil, holds much in store, but the best bets are the Riverfront (Malecón Simón Bolívar), the playful and colorful Barrio Las Peñas district, and the sprawling Parque Histórico de Guayaquil which is a world of its own urban and forest reserves. A second boardwalk (Malecon del Salado) is less touristed and popular with the university crowd. Hang out with iguanas at a park in front of the Cathedral.