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Ecotourism has become far more than a simple buzzword for the travel industry. Individual travelers and industry operators alike are adopting the principles of responsible travel at an increasingly greater pace. As they do so, the benefits of ecotourism to the natural environment are becoming increasingly obvious.
But what is ecotourism, and why does it matter? The International Ecotourism Society (of which International Expeditions was a founding member) originally defined ecotourism as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education.” In other words, ecotourism is specifically designed to improve the economy and the ecology of a destination, benefitting the local people, wildlife and ecosystems in equal measure.
Here’s a look at six important ways ecotourism is helping to conserve nature and making a positive impact on local people and places we love to travel:
Ecotourism helps travelers appreciate nature.
One of the many benefits of traveling around the world is getting the chance to see up close some of the awe-inspiring landscapes and natural wonders our planet has to offer. The Amazon rainforest, Galapagos Islands, East Africa’s Great Rift Valley… the list of stunning natural locations travelers have to choose from is almost endless.
With nature-based activities and destinations accounting for a significant portion of international tourism industry profits, the allure of nature is a powerful and growing force in the sector. Ecotourism is helping to fuel that.
By showcasing nature at its finest and declaring that these are natural wonders worth protecting, ecotourism is helping nature become an actual focal point in and of itself. More and more travelers take trips specifically to see the beauty of nature, rather than it being a mere backdrop for sipping piña coladas on the beach. As a result, travelers appreciate the natural beauty of the wonderful world we live in so much more.
Ecotourism is fueling a desire to protect the natural environment.
The growing appreciation of nature is a wonderful thing in and of itself. But it’s also fueling an increasing desire among travelers eager to help protect the natural environment. The simple act of seeing nature and wildlife up close often leads to an innate desire to help conserve these natural wonders for future generations.
Why? As Jacques Cousteau famously said, “People protect what they love.” The need to be close to something – to see it in person and have a direct rather than an abstract connection to it – is a vital part of the human condition. And it’s essential in fostering that desire and passion to care about, and for, something greater than ourselves.
True ecotourism provides that sense of personal connection that makes travelers care on a deeper emotional level. And when travelers become interested (and personally invested) in the conservation issues surrounding nature, they’re much more likely to want to do something about it.
Ecotourism promotes awareness of environmental issues.
This increased appreciation of the natural environment through ecotourism also makes travelers much more aware of and interested in the wider issues surrounding nature and wildlife conservation.
Ecotourism, by its very definition, is the most ethical form of travel. It provides an informal setting for teaching curious minds the most responsible way to interact with the natural environment when we travel. The more ecotourism thrives, the more awareness there is of the environmental issues facing our planet, and the more positive impact tourists can have on nature. Ecotourism actively promotes asking questions about the impact tourism is having, leading to a more transparent tourism industry in which issues and challenges are addressed head on. Today’s travelers are becoming far more savvy about the connections between local cultures and the environment.
As a result, these travelers are increasingly likely to police their own behavior and make more ethical and responsible choices. Ecotourism breeds awareness, and increased awareness boosts ecotourism. It’s a perfect symbiotic relationship!
Ecotourism finances the protection of the natural environment.
The protection and conservation of the natural environment – including national parks, nature reserves, and wildlife preserves – is a costly business. It’s an unfortunate reality that the day-to-day costs of running and managing these sanctuaries has to be met somehow, as does the opportunity cost of foregoing less sustainable industries, such as logging or agriculture. In short, ecotourism needs to be profitable for everyone involved.
Unfortunately, government subsidies and other forms of funding are often not enough to make the conservation of our natural environment financially viable. This explains why natural resources are often exploited in the form of palm oil plantations, logging, digging for fossil fuels, and other profitable (but unsustainable) industries. This is where ecotourism comes in.
Ecotourism is both one of the fastest-growing and most profitable sectors in an already booming global travel industry. Increased revenue from travelers who demand the preservation of the natural environment through responsible tourism can go a long way towards filling the financial gap involved. This means that protecting and conserving the natural environment actually has an economic value.
By choosing ecotourism, travelers are pumping a lot of money into the responsible tourism industry and ensuring that it is increasingly profitable. As a result, they’re not only funding the costs of increased conservation efforts, but they’re also ensuring that there’s an economically viable alternative to irresponsible and exploitative industries. Ecotourism ensures that local communities and international companies become economically invested in protecting the forests, jungles, marine habitats, and other protected natural areas.
Ecotourism is saving entire species.
Not only does ecotourism help conserve the natural environment, but it’s also proving essential to wildlife conservation efforts for the species that live within those habitats. Responsible tourism ensures that travelers can see (and, to a limited extent, interact with) their favorite animals in the wild in the least intrusive and damaging ways possible. As ecotourism becomes increasingly popular, travelers are shunning irresponsible tourism options such as elephant trekking or dolphin rides in favor of responsible alternatives that put the needs of the animals first.
This demand for wildlife welfare and conservation provides a significant layer of protection for animals who would otherwise be killed or exploited for profit. As a direct result of ecotourism, local guides and international tour operators alike are becoming more invested in responsible and sustainable wildlife tourism. There are certain destinations (such as Uganda) where endangered species such as mountain gorillas are the primary tourism draw, and that tourism provides the vast majority of funding for research and conservation of the species. In short, there is a lot of profit to be made in protecting the animals that travelers desperately want to see.
Ecotourism provides an alternative.
One of the biggest ways ecotourism helps to protect and preserve nature is simply by providing an alternative to irresponsible tourism practices. One of the main arguments against responsible tourism in the past was all about the bottom line: How will locals make a living without offering elephant treks, lion cub petting, or leading uncontrolled masses to areas of outstanding natural beauty?
The answer is ecotourism. Ecotourism offers a more ethical alternative form of travel while also providing a profitable, long-term sustainable economic model. As the demand for ecotourism grows, so, too, does the profit to be made by travel industry providers, both local and international, who are giving responsible travelers what they want.
So when people ask, “what is ecotourism,” we say it is the future of travel. And we believe that the growing success of ecotourism will ultimately help to make the world a better place for travelers and locals alike.
International Expeditions also makes it easy to protect the world as you explore. Learn more about our commitment to conservation and about our partnership with The Nature Conservancy.
Michael Huxley is the founder of Bemused Backpacker, a travel blog devoted to responsible travel. After 15 years of backpacking around the world, Michael is passionate about ecotourism and is a strong advocate for ethical wildlife tourism. He’s also a published author whose work has been featured in the BBC, the Guardian, and Green Global Travel.
Traveling with children is fun, engaging and I believe a true gift to your children’s development. The incredible amount of knowledge and understanding they get from the experience will prepare them to become responsible global citizens. I’m talking about experiences like the ones below, which we were lucky enough to enjoy with our young children.
Our first adventure tour as a family was to Costa Rica with International Expeditions. This was when our children were aged six and eight.
The kids loved every minute of it, and we learned the "essentials" of an adventure trip with children:
- Take it easy. A half-day activity is enough, the other half is well spent at a swimming pool, river or beach. When driving, try to plan a three-hour drive as the maximum.
- Don’t underestimate how interesting even tiny animals can be. Our children were very excited to watch leaf cutter ants on “ants” highways and look for (not to touch!) small poisonous dart frogs.
- A guided walk with someone who is used to inspire children, who can stimulate their thinking and interest, is a huge plus.
- A guided night jungle walk is the ultimate delight. It offers a fun combination of learning, exploring and excitement. And as the sun sets early in countries close to the equator, this does not have to start late at all.
- Kids love “exploring by action”. Even at this young age, they love activities like zip lining and horseback riding.
Our second trip is a major bucket list location for many! We went on a Galapagos Islands cruise (again with International Expeditions). A perfect children’s destination and definitely one of the most exciting open-air class rooms in the world. The kids were able to observe animals at very close range, even animals nesting and with young are not afraid of humans. They encountered sharks while snorkeling and learned to value and respect rather than fear them.
Initially we were not sure how they would like the experts’ lectures, so we equipped them with iPads for the first session. Our fear was unfounded; we actually had to stop them asking questions after they fired five questions to the presenter within 10 minutes. The lecture topics are very interesting for children and their imagination; how volcanoes are created, unique Galapagos animals and Darwin’s theory of evolution.
A couple of suggestions from our trip about traveling with children:
- An expedition cruise is a perfect family trip. It gives you a comfortable ‘home base’ (your cabin), so no need to pack and unpack. At the same time, it is adventurous and offers a different environment and experience every day.
- A smaller boat like the Evolution we went on allows for a pleasant, almost family-like atmosphere.
- The guides and crew love to have children on board and create fun and interesting activities for and with them. For example, to join the captain at the bridge, the chef in the restaurant and the lecturer in the library are great experiences for kids.
Earlier this year we went with Quark Expeditions to Antarctica. This also was an unforgettable experience for all of us; seeing the penguins, seals and whales, the snow and so many different beautiful colors and shapes of icebergs, standing on the 7th continent, visiting an actual research facility, going on zodiac cruises – Antarctica has so much to offer. On board, the team organized activities that are fun for kids too, like an Antarctica dress-up party and a barbecue on the outer deck. The kids also found me taking the (optional) ‘polar plunge’ highly amusing. Just a few weeks after the trip our kids asked me, “Daddy, can we please go to Antarctica again”? Clearly they had loved the once-in-a-lifetime experience as much as we did!
Here are some suggestions based on our trip to Antarctica:
- Although in Antarctica’s summer it never gets really cold (around 32 degrees Fahrenheit), it is important to dress for snow (our kids loved rolling and diving in the most snow they had ever seen) and some splashes of water on the zodiacs. Quark provided parkas and advice for other clothes to bring on the trip, so we were nice and warm.
- Kids enjoy both big and small surprises: Our kids loved watching the animals, big (whales, seals, orcas, penguins and more) and small (our son was excited to hold and release some tiny krill from his hands). They also liked to look for ten thousand years old “black ice” while zodiac cruising – as it will melt anyway, they were allowed to bring some black ice back to the ship to enjoy in their drinks.
- We traveled on a “fly-cruise” program, which meant we flew across the Drake Passage (which can be uncomfortably choppy) to Antarctica. Flying in a small plane and landing on a gravel runway was a great start to our adventure.
We will keep exploring...our next adventure will be a Tanzania safari. Where will you go next?
Hans Lagerweij is the portfolio managing director for International Expeditions, Quark Expeditions and a host of other adventure travel companies, including Zegrahm Expeditions, Exodus Travel and Headwater.
India is a vastly diverse country that pulses with cultural tones ranging from ancient rituals to modern metros. Because the country is so large – 1,269,346 square miles, to be precise – there are an incredible number of things to do on an India tour beyond major tourist attractions such as the Ganges River, Goa and Taj Mahal.
From exploring UNESCO-preserved caves and searching for tigers in the wild to seeing ancient archaeological sites, here are our picks for five fantastic things to do in India.
Cruise the Holy Brahmaputra River
While most explorers have heard of India's sacred Ganges River, the mighty Brahmaputra in remote Assam boasts an array of incalculable natural wonders! Named for the god Brahma, this is the only river in India with a male name, and while the Ganges steals the headline, since it is prayed to by members of four religion groups - Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and Bonpas - the Brahmaputra is perhaps Earth's holiest river.
A cruise on the secluded and unspoiled Brahmaputra takes in one of the last parks to find the Asian one-horned rhino – Kaziranga. Additionally, wildlife enthusiasts can spot seven species of primate, including endangered western hoolock gibbon, and gangetic dolphin.
International Expeditions' new river cruise aboard the boutique, 23-cabin M/V Mahabaahu is one of the few ways to explore this realm of blue hills, temples, rare wildlife, tea plantations and tribal villages.
Explore the Ellora and Ajanta Caves
Located near Aurangabad, the Ellora and Ajanta Caves are arguably India's most underrated UNESCO sites. While very different from each other, they are both spectacular.
The Ellora Caves are closer to Aurangabad. Built between the 5th and 10th centuries, there are 34 caves in all, representing the Hindu, Buddhist and Jain religions. The word "cave" is a serious understatement here. Many of them are intricately carved into the rock face, and the Kailash Temple in particular is a showstopper. More than 220,000 tons of rock were removed to create a mammoth solid block, into which this magnificent temple was carved.
The Ajanta Caves are much smaller in size, older, and feature primarily Buddhist paintings. Dating from the 2nd century BC, these caves were neglected and water-damaged until a British soldier stumbled upon them in the 19th century. Even though they’re damaged, they are still sublime cultural masterpieces.
Search for Wild Tigers
India is home to more than half of the world's wild tiger population. The big cat is India's national animal symbol, and the focus of ecotourism in many states throughout the subcontinent.
Though still in a precarious conservation position due to their rapidly dwindling habitat, the number of tigers in the Indian wild has increased in the past eight years, from 1,411 in 2006 to 2,226 in 2014.
There are currently 47 tiger reserves in India, with Pench, Kanha, Bandhavgarh, Ranthambhore and Corbett all considered among the best places to spot a tiger in the wild. Ranthambhore National Park is located in Rajasthan, not far from India's "Golden Triangle" of tourism (Delhi-Agra-Jaipur), making it the most well-known tiger reserve. There are currently around 45 adult tigers and 10 cubs in Ranthambhore, which is the highest number ever recorded in the park.
Madhya Pradesh, a state in central India, is home to several of India's most popular tiger reserves, including Pench, Kanha and Bandhavgarh. This region of lush jungles inspired the setting of Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book.
Savor the Beaches and Backwaters of Kerala
Located in southern India, Kerala is often referred to as "God's Own Country" in reference to the lushness of the tropical state, the abundance of its natural treasures, and the richness of its culture. Kerala is the ideal place to start a journey in India, as it provides a soft landing for visitors.
While there are many reasons to visit Kerala (including hill stations, spice plantations, and Ayurvedic resorts), the palm-lined beaches and fascinating backwaters are arguably the two prime attractions.
Excellent beaches can be found along the length of the coastal state, with spots such as Varkala and Marari attracting travelers seeking a little rest and relaxation. The best way to access the backwaters is by houseboat. Southern India is a particular favorite of IE Custom Travel Planner Kim, who loves planning trips here!
See the Khajuraho Group of Monuments
The Khajuraho Group of Monuments was lost to the verdant jungles of central India for eons, until a British soldier stumbled across them in 1838. Now considered among the finest masterpieces of Indian art, Khajuraho is also one of India's most stimulating UNESCO sites due to the extensive erotic carvings on some of the temples.
The temples were built during the Chandella dynasty (900-1100 AD) and represent both Hindu and Jain religions. There are about 20 temples in all, though it is believed there were originally 85. The complex covers about 9 square miles near the small, remote town of Khajuraho in Madhya Pradesh.
But it's well worth the visit to see and experience these three-dimensional works of art, especially if you time it to be there in February during the Khajuraho Dance Festival. One of the most popular festivals in India, this gives visitors the soul-stirring opportunity to see Indian classical dance set against the backdrop of the ancient temples.
Tour India and Discover Your Favorite Things to Do!
International Expeditions offers travel to India focusing on exploration of the cultural highlights while being immersed in the nature of multiple national parks. Check out IE's incredible Explorer's India tours and India Wildlife adventure or new Brahmaputra River Cruise to start planning your adventure.
Though travel writer Mariellen Ward is Canadian by birth, she feels more at home in India, the country of her soul culture. She writes for many publications and publishes an India-inspired travel blog, Breathedreamgo.
When most people think of Patagonia, the first things that come to mind are stunning scenic vistas, dramatic mountain landscapes and mammals such as foxes, guanacos and pumas.
But the birds of Patagonia are equally impressive, surprisingly abundant and relatively easy to spot amongst the region’s open plains and sparse foliage.
Here are 10 of our favorite avian species you’re likely to see on a Patagonia tour:
With a maximum wingspan of over 10 feet, this New World vulture strikes an imposing silhouette as it soars above the plain in search of carrion on which to scavenge. With a lifespan of around 70 years, the Andean condor is black with a white ruff at the base of the neck and, in males, large white patches on the wings and a dark red comb on the crown of the head.
Also known as the Austral conure or emerald parakeet, this colorful bird can be found in woods and scrubland ranging from the southern tip of South America north to Temuco, making it the world’s southernmost parrot species. Measuring nearly 14 inches tall and found in flocks of 10-15 birds, the Austral parakeet is green and lightly barred, with red markings on the forehead, belly and tail.
Closely related to the American flamingo and greater flamingo, this endemic species is large (measuring 43-51 inches), has grey legs with pink joints, a bill that’s more than 50% black, and pinker plumage than the greater flamingo (but less pink than flamingos found in the Caribbean. They prefer large flocks and crowded conditions for breeding, laying one egg in a pillar-shaped mud nest on the ground.
Found in isolated lakes in the southern part of South America, this medium-sized (around 13 inches long) grebe is one of the most critically endangered birds of Patagonia due to climate change, the introduction of trout and salmon, and predation by kelp gulls. These beauties are easy to identify, with a white and dark grey back extending up to a black head with contrasting white forehead, bright red eyes and a reddish-brown peaked fore-crown.
Also known as the lesser rhea, this large (35-39 inches tall, weighing up to 63 pounds) flightless bird is a frequent (and unusual) sight along the roads to/through Torres del Paine National Park. Like their cousins, the ostrich and emu, they have small heads and bills and long necks and legs, with spotted brown and white feathers and large wings that help them run at speeds up to 37 miles per hour!
Native to southern South America and the Falkland Islands, the long-tailed meadowlark is easily mistaken for its much more endangered cousin, the pampas meadowlark. Measuring 10-11 inches, with long tails and pointed bills, the males are strikingly colorful – dark brown with black streaks, bright red breast and throat, and white and red markings around the eyes and head. They’re commonly spotted in the open grassland, where they nest and forage for invertebrates.
Lesser Horned Owl
Also known as the Magellanic horned owl, this relative of the great horned owl measures around 18 inches long, with broad wings and plumage in varying shades of grey and brown. The large head includes a black border around the face, white stripes above the yellow eyes, and two ear tufts. Smaller than the great horned owl, the Patagonian species has a distinctively deep hooting call consisting of a double-note follow by a loud vibrating sound.
One of four penguin species found in Patagonia, Magellanic penguins are medium-sized (24-30 inches tall, weighing 6-14 pounds), with white abdomens, black backs, two black bands between their head and breast, and black heads with white bands that run from their eyes to their throat. Nesting under bushes and in burrows on sandy, rocky shores, these penguins have seen a steady population decline and are listed as Near Threatened by the IUCN.
One of our favorite Patagonian sightings, these stunning birds are among the largest woodpecker species in the world, averaging 14-18 inches in length and weighing up to 13 ounces. Found in forests along the Andes in Chile and southwest Argentina, both the males and females have black bodies with white wing patches and grey bills. But the male has a vivid red head and crest, while the female has a black head with crimson at the base of the bill.
Southern Crested Caracara
The second largest species of falcon in the world (average 20 to 26 inches long, 2 to 3.5 pounds, with a 47 to 52 inch wingspan), this brilliant bird of prey is fairly common in Torres del Paine National Park. They’re mostly dark brown, with yellow-orange legs and bill, white throat and nape, and white/brown-barred chest, mantle and tail. It’s distinguished from the similar Northern Caracara by the extensive barring on its chest, lightly mottled or barred shoulders, and dark barring on the pale lower back (which is black on the northern species).
Talk to IE's Patagonia Wildlife Tour Experts
Ready to see the birds Patagonia first hand? International Expeditions offers comprehensive Patagonia Tours, exploring both Chile and Argentina, a cruise into the Northern Archipelago as well as a Puma, Penguins & Whales tour and birding-intensive options.
Bret Love is a journalist/editor with 21 years of print and online experience, whose clients have ranged from the Atlanta Journal Constitution to Rolling Stone. He is the co-founder of ecotourism website Green Global Travel and Green Travel Media.
Photos courtesy of Claudio Vidal, Enrique Couve and Charlie Weaver.
Raised in California, Greg Homel has been a nature lover from a very early age, but birds have always held a special place in his heart. The avid ornithologist has been guiding birding tours since the late ‘80s, establishing himself as an award-winning photojournalist, documentary film producer and lecturer.
He’s traveled to all seven continents and seen more than half of the world’s 9,800 or so bird species in their native habitats. So when he describes Colombia as “the world's most bird-rich nation,” the man knows what he’s talking about!
Here, we take time to get to know a little more about IE’s Colombia Tour Expedition Leader, from his early interest in nature and his fascination with birds to his favorite places for bird-watching in Colombia.
How did you originally become interested in nature?
I'm a fortunate "victim of geography," having grown up in Sherman Oaks, California, with the chaparral-clad Santa Monica Mountains foothills as my backyard! Even though I've been lucky enough to visit all seven continents and most of the world's major biomes in my career, those wonderful hills I explored during my formative years still stand out as some of the most natural and inspiring places I've ever seen.
At what age did you realize you had a particular fascination with birds?
It was early, and one of my first memories of wild nature. Nesting Cliff Swallows were visible right outside my second story bedroom window one summer. I asked my mother what kind of birds they were. She replied, "They're swallows!" At first I tried to correct her on the ID, because they didn't have forked-tails like the swallows depicted in my children's nature guides (including A Golden Guide to Birds). Alas, she was correct... and the rest is history!
What is it about birds – as opposed to butterflies or frogs or some other species – that speaks to you?
Birds are an important part of the natural world and, because many are migratory– they're natural emissaries from distant and alluring biomes far and wide– they offer a connection to the same! But my interest in nature is not at all limited to birds. It would be remiss to intellectually limit myself in such a way. But to be good at anything, you need to have a specialty. For me, birds are that specialty!
Let's talk about Colombia. Most people are familiar with big cities like Cartagena or Bogota, but know very little about the country's natural beauty. When did you take your first trip to Colombia, and what made the place so special to you?
My first visit to Colombia was in the mid-1990s, when I reached the border from Estado Merida, Venezuela, in the Northern Andes. I was on the trail of the Bearded Helmetcrest – a high-Andean hummingbird found only in Colombia and Venezuela – and luckily succeeded in finding this wonderful bird. The allure of being on the border of the world's most bird-rich nation was so strong that I knew I’d be back one day to explore the country. I've since had the privilege of leading a half-dozen birding expeditions to all three of Colombia's Andean cordilleras, the Caribbean, the Llanos and the Amazon, and the Santa Marta massif, seeing nearly 1,000 species in the process. The country is so bio-diverse, and so rich in ornithological delights and natural history, that I’ve still only scratched the surface
Can you talk about a few of your favorite places in Colombia that IE travelers will be able to experience for themselves?
I'm particularly drawn to Sanctuario De Flora y Fauna Del Otun Quimbaya (a.k.a. Otun Quimbaya Natural Park) and Reserva Ecologica Rio Blanco (a.k.a. Rio Blanco Ecological Reserve). You can often see the endangered Cauca Guan (which was considered possibly extinct when I first started studying Colombian birds), the difficult to find Red-ruffed Fruitcrow, and the Torrent Duck at Otun Quimbaya. And it's possible to see and photograph up to seven species of the normally elusive antpittas at Rio Blanco’s feeders! The reserve's manager, a good friend of mine, has worked for years to bring the dream of viewing these feathered will-o-the-wisps from dream to reality. These birds are the ambassadors for their cloud-forest environment. Once seen, they'll never be forgotten!
Any personal advice you can offer to IE guests about getting the most out of their Colombia travel experience?
Come with an active mind, a flexible spirit of adventure and an eye for the beauty of nature, and you can't go wrong! I think the naturally gracious hospitality and friendliness of the Colombian people will not only impress, but serve to dispel any anxieties one might have had about the former state of affairs of this now readily accessible natural history treasure. Like me, you'll want to return again and again…
Bret Love is the co-founder and Editor-In-Chief of Green Global Travel and Green Travel Reviews, and is a passionate advocate for ecotourism, environmental conservation and sustainable living. He’s also a veteran freelance writer whose work has appeared in American Way, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Atlanta Magazine and Rolling Stone.
All photos ©Greg R. Homel/Natural Elements Productions
The gem of Chilean Patagonia, Torres del Paine National Park is part of the Sistema Nacional de Áreas Silvestres Protegidas del Estado de Chile (National System of Protected Forested Areas of Chile), bordered by Bernardo O'Higgins National Park to the west and Argentina’s Los Glaciares National Park to the north. Encompassing 242,242 hectares and averaging around 150,000 annual visitors, it’s one of the largest and most visited parks in Chile.
Here are five reasons why the park should be on every nature-lover’s bucket list:
Grey Glacier & Lago Grey
Grey Glacier is part of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, the world’s second largest contiguous ice field outside of the poles. At just 270 square km, Grey Glacier is one of the smallest in the region. But, as you walk along the shore of Lago Grey, it looks massive, feeding into the opposite end of the lake. Calved icebergs float all around, glowing with a brilliant blue hue that seems to radiate from within. Blue ice is formed from the compression of pure snow, which ultimately develops into glacial ice over centuries of extreme pressure. When sunlight hits an iceberg, the light is absorbed, and what little light is refracted appears blue to the naked eye. You’ll be spellbound watching these massive floating gems changing color with the shifting of shadows and light, as they mirror the majestic peaks of the famed Paine Massif behind them.
The Birds of Patagonia
With its myriad lakes, alkaline ponds and reed-fringed lagoons, Torres del Paine offers plenty of opportunities for avid birdwatchers to get their fix, with around 120 different speciesto be found. Colorful species such as the Austral pygmy owl, Austral parakeet, Long-tailed meadowlark, Magellanic woodpecker and Thorn-railed Rayadito can often be seen surprisingly close-up. Predatory birds such as Caracaras and massive Andean Condors are also regularly spotted in the area, soaring overhead in search of an easy opportunity to scavenge the remains of carcasses left behind after a Puma kill. For rarer sightings, the aptly-named Laguna Los Flamencos is one of several places within the park where you may see pink flamingoes feeding in the shallows. And the odd, emu-like Rhea (which is related to the ostrich) can often be seen as you drive along the park’s scenic roads.
The Flowers of Patagonia
The Patagonian flora is not the first thing you’ll notice during a visit to Torres Del Paine National Park, whose larger-than-life scenic vistas are dominated by massive mountains, expansive blue skies, vast fields and huge animals (including Guanacos and the soaring Andean Condor). But those who take time to notice the little details will see many of the 400+ plant species sprinkled across the Patagonian steppe, forest and Andean desert found within the park. From the blazing red hues of Chilean Firetree and Common Sorrel to the vivid yellows of the Dwarf Paramela and Lady Slippers, from the sweet purple tones of Fuegian Edelweiss and Lupine to seven different orchid species, the colorful flowers of Torres del Paine prove big things come in small packages.
From Red and Grey Foxes to Huemul Deer and Pumas, Torres del Paine offers more than its fair share of fauna to keep wildlife watchers on their toes. But the most ubiquitous species by far is the Guanaco, also known as the Patagonian Llama. With heights that can reach over four feet and weight of up to 200 pounds, Guanacos are the largest of all Chilean wildlife. Their reddish-brown coats stand in striking contrast to the park’s green flora, and their fur is prized for its warmth and soft, woolen feel. Guanaco herds are a frequent Torres del Paine sighting, typically made up of around 10 females, a dominant male, and their offspring. Winter (which is summertime in Patagonia) is a wonderful time to visit the park, as you’ll likely get lucky and spot a baby Guanaco feeding amongst the grasses, sticking very closely to its mother.
The Paine Massif
Everywhere you go in Torres Del Paine, its three granite peaks loom large, rising 9,350 feet above sea level and joining with the Cuernos (“Horns”) del Paine. The surrounding valleys, rivers, glaciers and lakes may be in the scenic foreground, but these “Towers of Blue” for which the national park is named dominate every view, exerting a magical, magnetic pull that’s difficult to describe. Watching the sunrise painting these majestic mountains in vivid hues of red and orange, as the lightening sky turns a deep shade of blue and reflects on the milky surface of Blue Lake and Sarmiento Lake, it’s impossible to ignore the overwhelming grandeur of Patagonia’s most monolithic natural wonder.
Talk to IE's Patagonia Tour Experts
Ready to explore Torres del Paine National Park and more of Patagonia? International Expeditions offers comprehensive Patagonia Tours, exploring both Chile and Argentina, as well as a Puma, Penguins & Whales tour. Our Travel Planners, like Charlie Weaver (above), can also create custom travel options
Widely considered among the most remarkable natural attractions on the planet, the Amazon River Basin is home to the world’s largest tropical rainforest and at least 10% of its known biodiversity.
There are around 30 million species in the 6.7 million square kilometer biome, with thousands of new species discovered there each year. One acre of Amazon Rainforest is estimated to contain as many as 70,000 species of insects (scientists once found 700 different species of beetle on just one tree).
The birds, monkeys, reptiles and amphibians of the Amazon may get most of the attention from wildlife lovers. But we think these 10 creepy crawlies are equally cool, and well worth watching out for as you venture out into the rainforest.
These alien-looking predators are related to the plant-eating shield bug. But they’ve adapted a piercing proboscis with which they feed upon their victims (ants and bees are their favorites). The assassin skills for which they are named include coating themselves with ant carcasses to disguise their pheromones and covering their legs with tree sap and grabbing bees out of mid-air with their sticky claws. They may not look like much, but these clever carnivores have some seriously deadly moves.
Commonly found in wet neotropic areas throughout Central and South America, these ants are well-known for their massive size (up to 1.2 inches in length) and its venomous sting. It’s also known as the 24-hour ant, because that’s how long it typically takes to get over the pain. Brazil’s Sateré-Mawé people use these ants in an initiation rite for male warriors, putting hundreds of them in a glove made of leaves that the wearer is encouraged to wear for 10 minutes.
Sometimes referred to as “the nudibraches of the forest,” these vividly colored wonders are rarely seen because they’re so tiny (about a half-inch long) and quick (for a caterpillar). Their gorgeous glass-like colors belie the fact that they’re actually quite gooey, with protective “spikes” that provide defense from predators. While the ant or wasp is dealing with a mouthful of gummy gunk, the future moth makes his hasty getaway.
This skinny beanpole looks like the more common giant walking stick insect. But it’s more closely related to the Locust, and is named for its ability to jump and kick like a kung fu master. Its hind legs are 2.5 times as long as its front and middle legs, allowing it to propel its 2.6-inch body up to 3 feet in a single bound. They’re also known for their odd, elongated faces, with a grasshopper-like mouth and large eyes on a stalk that help it look for predators and attract mates.
Don’t let the name fool you: This odd-looking insect looks more like a moth than a fly, and their massive peanut-shaped heads don’t light up. They have vivid spots on their wings that some people believe help to scare off predators by mimicking the eyes of a much larger animal. There’s also a myth in certain local populations that if the bug bites someone (which it doesn’t), they’ll die if they don’t have sex within a day. I wonder how many young Amazonian men have tried using that line?
This Amazon species is both big and beautiful, growing up to 8 inches and boasting a green, gold and white body. Semi-aquatic, they’re most often found waiting at the edge of a pool or stream. They wait for ripples that advertise prey (insects, tadpoles and even small fish), then run across the surface to grab it and inject their venom. Some species can even encase themselves in a silver air bubble and climb beneath the water.
There are 47 species of leaf-chewing ants. By the time you leave the Amazon, you may feel as if you’ve had to sidestep every one of them. You’ll most often see them crossing paths while carrying the large pieces of fresh vegetation by which they earned their name. They use them as nutritional substation for fungal gardens for their underground colonies. Containing up to 8 million individuals and stretching up to 6,400 square feet, they’re the second largest and most complex animal societies on the planet (after humans).
Closely related to crickets and grasshoppers, katydids get their name from the noises both sexes make by rubbing their legs together (which sounds like “kay-tee-did”). The tempo of this stridulation is dictated by ambient temperature: It’s said that you can count the number of chirps heard in 15 seconds, add 37, and get a fairly accurate temperature reading on the Fahrenheit scale. With veined bodies resembling a green leaf, they’re masters of the art of camouflage.
There are over 26,000 species in the Cerambycidae family, which are occasionally referred to by the awesome nickname “longicorns.” They’re characterized by their extremely long antennae, which are typically as long or even longer than the beetle’s body. They’re often vividly colorful, with some mimicking ants, bees and wasps. The most impressive species, the rare titan beetle, is widely considered the world’s largest insect, with a maximum body length of around 6.6 inches.
If you’re afflicted with arachnophobia (fear of spiders), be forewarned that the Amazon is relatively filled with these fuzzy-legged phenoms. The good news is that the most commonly seen species, the pinktoe tarantula, is relatively harmless and rarely bites. Look for them in trees everywhere, especially during nighttime tours. The largest species, the Goliath Tarantula, can grow up to a 12-inch leg span and is considered a treasured delicacy by some indigenous tribes.
Ready to discover the variety of creepy crawlies found in the Amazon rainforest? International Expeditions offers year-round Amazon River cruises along with land-based options. Check out IE's signature 10-day Amazon Cruise or 7-day Amazon River & Rainforest Tour.
Bret Love is a journalist/editor with 23 years of print and online experience, whose clients have ranged from the Atlanta Journal Constitution to National Geographic. He is the co-founder of ecotourism website Green Global Travel and Green Travel Media.
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“Some philanthropist should endow every state school biology lab in the country with a copy.”
Charles Darwin’s book The Voyage of the Beagle remains a singular achievement, not just in the travel literature canon, but in modern science. Yet few are aware how unique the Beagle’s voyage was, who brought Darwin on board and how the Beagle shaped Darwin’s career. This gorgeously produced book by maritime historian James Taylor brings all the strands of the Beagle’s story into a single volume (of the same name). It pairs the firsthand commentary of letters, diary entries, official narratives and shipboard charts with over 200 full-color photographs, drawings and paintings for an engrossing read.
Taylor delves into the ship’s design and mission while also shedding light on Darwin’s mentor, Robert FitzRoy, who he claims has been “unfairly overshadowed by the achievements of Charles Darwin.” Not only was FitzRoy the Beagle’s captain, explains Taylor, he was also a weather forecaster, a pioneer of lifeboat design and an important figure in the calibration of world time. FitzRoy and Darwin co-authored the official four-volume record of voyage, the tome that would eventually become The Voyage of the Beagle. Taylor writes with authority of the two men’s relationship while explaining their landmark discoveries.
Taylor’s beautiful book has been called “essential” by Peter McGrath of The Beagle Project who writes that “some philanthropist should endow every state school biology lab in the country with a copy.” His sentiment was echoed by The Friends of Charles Darwin, and we agree too; it pairs a momentous historical event with the special attention it deserves.
You can order this book at Longitude.com.
Did you miss our latest webinar? Check out the recording below. International Expeditions naturalist, ornithologist, author and photographer Claudio Vidal:
- Offers tips for improving your outdoor photography
- Answers guest questions on gear
- Chats about his favorite places to photograph macro, landscapes and wildlife in his native Chile.
Watch the entire session, or simply scroll through the table of contents on the left to navigate to the topic you want to know more about!
International Expeditions offers an incredible variety of ways to photograph and tour Patagonia and other regions of Chile.Our small-group and private tour options allow you to hike the famed steppe of Torres del Paine National Park, meet the people of remote Chiloe Island and even search for wildlife in the incredible Atacama.
Anyone who has ever wanted to travel to Cuba has envisioned themselves sipping a famed mojito or Cuba libre. After all, what could be more Cuban than rum except for perhaps a cigar. The popularity of rum also means you can find a variety of other umbrella drinks like daiquiris and piña coladas. But the country has so many more libations to explore, including local beer and juices.
Canchanchara: This “official” drink of Trinidad is historically a forerunner of the daiquiri, and was popular among Cuban revolutionaries fighting off the Spanish at the end of the 19th century. Like the mojito, it combines rum and citrus, but it also includes honey, giving the drink a warm sweetness.
Guarapo: Sample this frothy summer classic in the Valle De Los Ingenios — Valley of the Sugar Mills — an UNESCO Cultural Heritage Site where we see the ruined hulls of 19th century sugar estates. The drink is made from fresh-pressed sugar cane juice served over cracked ice.
Beer: Cuba boasts a variety of popular local beers, including lagers like Cristal, Bucanero fuerte and an award-winning pilsner La Tropical Pilsener. And don’t forget, while legal travel to Cuba is rare for Americans, both Canadians and Europeans visit the island extensively so you are sure to find some familiar brews such as Heineken.
Soda: Sure you can sample Cuban cola brands like TropiCola, but be sure to also pick-up unusual flavors offered by Materva, a soda with herbs, and Jupino pineapple soda. Another soda you are sure to run across is Ciego Montero, which comes in naranja (orange), Tu Kola (cola) and limón (lemon-lime).
Coffee: Cuba has been growing coffee since the mid-18th century, and impromptu stops at locally owned cafes are not only a chance to sample some of the delicious brew, but to chat with these Cuban entrepreneurs. You may even spot a familiar face in the chocolate powder sprinkled on you cappuccino!
Water: Don’t drink the tap water! During your Cuba tour, International Expeditions will be providing plenty of bottled water plus two drinks your choice of local beer or soft drinks at group lunches and dinners.
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