Manuel Antonio National Park

Manuel Antonio National Park on the pacific coast of Costa Rica is home to primary and secondary rain forest, mangrove swamps, lagoons and beautiful white sand beaches. With over 100 mammal species and almost 200 bird species it was listed by Forbes as one of the world’s most beautiful national parks.

The park is home to three of Costa Rica’s four monkey species – the Mantled Howler Monkey, the Central American Squirrel Monkey and the White-headed Capuchin Monkey. In fact, the park was specifically created to protected the Squirrel Monkey, a species that had dropped to under 1,000 individual in the area. The park reclaimed pasture area and new forest was planted – hence the relatively large area of secondary forest observed inside. The Squirrel Monkey population rebounded and they are now a common site, not only inside the park, but also in the town and along the road to Quepos.

Hiking the Pipeline Road, Panama

The Pipeline Road (Camino del Oleoducto) is a 6 kilometer stretch of disused road cut through the Panamanian rain-forest close to the Panama Canal and one of the most renowned places in the world for bird watching. In fact, it was here that in 1985 the Audubon Society set a record for 385 bird species identified in the same place in 24 hours.

The Pipeline Road was cut through the forest to allow easy maintenance of an oil pipeline that was to run parallel with the Panama Canal and be used to transport oil in the case of destruction of the canal during the Cold War. The road is now disused and provides fantastic access to wildlife – the forest around the Pipeline Road is home to 525 species of birds, 105 species of mammals and 79 species of reptile.

Armero

Armero, situated close to the River Magdelena, was the home of 29,000 people until November 13th 1985 when the nearby Volcano Nevado del Ruiz erupted.

The pyroclastic flows leaving the volcano melted nearby glaciers and caused a mudslide. Two hours later the mud arrived at Armero, covering the town and killing 20,000 of its inhabitants. The first rescue workers didn’t arrive for over 12 hours, held back by the mud-field which was almost impossible to cross.

Today Armero is abandoned, its surviving residents having created a new town further up the river, outside the danger area.

Patagonia – Ruta 40 and the Carretera Austral

We were on a quest to drive from Punta Arenas in the far south of Chile to the capital Santiago. It would be a journey of 5,000km through some of the most beautiful terrain in the world. We had reached El Chaltén in Argentina and, unable to cross the border to Chile (for lack of a road), we planned to continue north through Argentina on Ruta 40 and then cross the border to find the famous Carrera Austral.

The Carretera Austral starts at Villa O’Higgins in the south of the Zona Austral and finishes at Chaiten alongside the Chilean island of Chiloe. We were keen to drive the whole length but, other than arriving in O’Higgins by ferry, the only way to get to the start of the road is to drive down it. So we were heading north up Argentina’s famous Ruta 40 in search of the border crossing at Los Antiguos, hoping to join the road further north.

Parque Nacional Torres del Paine

The fifth most beautiful place in the world according to National Geographic, and it’s not hard to see why. The Paine Massif soars over lakes of crystal blue water and glaciers that wind down from the Southern Patagonian Ice cap. Standing proudly overhead are the towers themselves, three 2,500m giants of granite.

Torres del Paine (meaning “Blue towers” in a mixture of Spanish and the native Tehuelche language) is a 250,000 hectare national park in the far south of Chile, part of a network of protected land that extends to almost seven million hectares, or over half of the region’s land. The park attracts 150,000 visitors a year and is one of the most popular destinations in South America. We visited the park during our five thousand kilometre drive from Punta Arenas to Santiago and it was one of the true highlights of the trip.

Patagonia – Punta Arenas to El Chalten

“How long to Lago Yelcho?” we asked the owner of our hotel over breakfast, expecting the answer to be the six hours we had planned. He paused, in that way that people do before they tell you the only road is closed for three months. “Ten hours. At least.” Great. We wouldn’t arrive until 7pm. And that was only if we didn’t stop all day.

At midday, three hours but two thirds into our journey, we were confident that we knew more than our helpful hotelier. We passed through the small town of Puyuhuapi confident that we would finish in under five hours. That was, until we tried to leave. “The road is closed”, said a road worker who blocked our way. It would be closed most of the afternoon. A quick recalculation put our arrival time at 7pm. Exactly as he had said.

Villa de Leyva

Villa de Leyva, is an ancient colonial seat of power situated deep in the Andes Mountains in the Colombian department of Boyacá. Visitors are greeted with white walls, cobbled streets and beautifully preserved colonial buildings.

Famous for its cobbled square (the largest in South America) and as the birthplace of independence hero Antonio Ricaurte (a captain in Simon Bolivar’s army, Ricaurte died in Venezuela in an act of self-sacrifice), Villa de Leyva is a beautiful setting for a weekend away from Bogotá and offers plenty to do.