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As the largest island in the Caribbean, Cuba is packed with some of the most distinct cultural and natural wonders to be found in the region. Here’s International Expeditions' guide for making the most of your time in Havana.
Hit the Streets (Especially at Night!)
Cubans congregate outdoors, and on a pleasant evening, there’s no better place to mingle with the locals than one of the many lively pedestrian boulevards. Havana’s Calle Obispo, Malecón and Paseo del Prado are popular places for burgeoning musicians to gather and strum guitar, young families to bring their children, and travelers and natives alike to browse the eclectic museums, shops and cafes that line the roads.
Channel Papa Hemingway
Lovers of literature will want to pay homage to Ernest Hemingway, and there’s no shortage of opportunities to channel your inner “Papa.” Start at Hotel Ambos Mundos, home-base while writing For Whom the Bell Tolls. Take a peek at Room 511 before sipping a mojito at the hotel’s rooftop terrace. From there, it’s a short stroll to the Floridita, where Hemingway was known to sample a daiquiri (or several). Just outside of Havana is Finca Vigia, Hemingway’s former home, which has preserved almost as it was on the day of his death.
Dance to the Music
Music is a staple of life in Cuba. From the ever-present blare of a trumpet and Spanish guitar in the atmospheric squares to jazz, salsa, Afro-Cuban beats and the famed Buena Vista Social Club, your time in Cuba will move to a different beat. Dance-and-performing-arts centers are a great chance to meet performers and learn about rhumba and folkloric dance forms, but don’t be afraid to grab a partner and dance in the streets if the rhythm moves you!
Turn Down the Right Alley
Havana boasts a surprise at every turn, and El Callejon de Hamel is no exception. This funky alleyway is an open-air museum of vibrant murals created by Salvador Gonzales Escalona depicting Afro-Cuban culture and religion, further proof that an art appreciation class can happen anywhere! On Sundays, this is the epicenter of a street party honoring the deities of Santeria. Entire neighborhoods in Havana have been used as canvas, so ask your guide to see some of the local street art.
Sample the Fare. Support a New Economy.
Looking for exciting cuisine options AND a way to support private industry while traveling in Cuba? Family-run paladares are perfect for chatting with Cuba’s new breed of entrepreneurs while savoring creatively crafted foods using fresh, local ingredients in a festive atmosphere. Some of our favorites include Paladar Dona Eutimia, just off Cathedral Square, and Il Divino, where you can step outside to visit the restaurant’s garden after lunch.
Discover a Time Machine
The ubiquitous classic cars, Art Deco architecture, iconic cocktails and hand-rolled artisanal cigars — along with the slower-paced Caribbean lifestyle — are hallmarks of every photo and story of travel to Cuba. And you should take advantage of your time in-country to enjoy the time machine! Classic car buffs will relish seeing the pre-1960 American automobiles present in Cuba — with an estimated 60,000 of them still driving the island’s roads today. One International Expeditions group even met-up with Amigos de Fangio, a Havana classic car club, for drinks. If you want to “drink-up” some history, visit the Rum Museum in Old Havana or enjoy a cocktail at the historic Hotel Nacional’s Bay View Bar, which has hosted everyone from royalty to Annette Benning and Danny Glover since opening in 1930. Don’t forget: New rules for American travelers allow you to bring back $100 worth of Cuban cigars and rum!
Go There Now!
Want to experience Havana and the other wonders of Cuba before the inevitable changes that increased tourism are bound to bring? International Expeditions offers three Cuba travel options – plus options for bespoke travel that still adheres to the people-to-people rules for travel. Through meaningful daily interactions and free-ranging discussions, our Complete Cuba, Classic Art & Culture and Cuba Cruise programs offer you a way to connect with the warm, generous people of Cuba.
Jeff Corwin initially rose to fame as a TV host in the late ‘90s, first on the Disney Channel’s Going Wild With Jeff Corwin and later on the Animal Planet shows Jeff Corwin Experience and Corwin’s Quest.
But Corwin also walks the walk of protecting wildlife off screen as well. He’s got a Bachelors degree in bachelor of science degrees in Biology and Anthropology, a Masters in Wildlife & Fisheries Conservation, an honorary doctorate in public education, and a history of working with the United Nations Environmental Program that dates back to his teens.
For the past five years he’s been focused on hosting and executive producing ABC’s Ocean Mysteries with Jeff Corwin, which won a Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Travel Program in 2014. Later this year he’ll also be giving enriching lectures and accompanying Serengeti National Park game drives for a special International Expeditions Tanzania safari in September.
We recently spoke with Corwin about his early interest in wildlife conservation, his love of Tanzania, and what he enjoys most about interacting with nature-lovers.
How did you originally fall in love with animals and nature?
I’ve always been a nature buff. When I was five years old I made a make-shift nature museum in the apartment building where we lived in Massachusetts. As soon as I could get out into the wilderness, that was the catalyst that inspired my love for nature and wildlife. Growing up and seeing the poor relationship people had with the wildlife around them inspired my interest in conservation.
When you went to the University of Massachusetts, you primarily focused on bats and snakes. What fascinated you about them?
The snake was the first wild creature I ever saw. I don’t know if it was the influence of seeing something like that so young, but I knew I’d be studying snakes for the rest of my life. By the time I worked my way through college, I’d become very strong with field experience, life experience and then an education in biological sciences. I further developed that in graduate school, where I did graduate work in bats. I felt that these creatures were misunderstood, and also important. It all sort of came to a head when I went to graduate school.
You’re coming up on the 20th anniversary of your influential Disney Channel series, Going Wild With Jeff Corwin. How do you feel people’s understanding of conservation-related issues has changed over that time?
Good people make bad decisions because they lack good information. My interest [in doing TV] was to inspire them to understand and protect this world. When I started with my first series in 1997, it was a big leap for Disney to build a show around a guy who likes snakes.
There are people who watched my show as kids and are now adults! I still feel like that 27-year-old kid in the jungle. But you’re reminded of how old you are when you see someone in their twenties who just got their Veterinary degree, and they’re telling you they became a vet partially because of the experiences they had with you on TV when they were growing up. So I think people are becoming much more aware of these environmental issues, and care more about them than they did 20 years ago.
Later this year you’re giving lectures and accompanying game drives on an International Expeditions trip in Tanzania. What is it about Tanzania that makes it a special place for you?
I wanted to pick a place that both guests and I would enjoy. I love Tanzania – the Ngorongoro Crater, the Serengeti, Zanzibar… East Africa provides an iconic, culturally rich and naturally dynamic experience that is truly unrivaled. If it’s done right, you can not only get a feeling for the conservation challenges Africa is currently facing, but you also get this timeless experience of how it hasn’t changed for millennia.
You see these charismatic creatures moving by the thousands during the Great Migration, but then you also see issues with water and climate change and species exploitation, which will give you the information to empower you to be a part of the solution.
What do you get out of this hands-on, face-to-face interaction with travelers who clearly care deeply about nature and wildlife?
I’m very fortunate because, when I do these experiences, I often get to get out of the Range Rover/Land Cruiser and do something that a lot of folks couldn’t do. I get to help collar a lion, or track a poacher, or move a rhino out of harm’s way to a sanctuary. Those experiences I’ve had as a conservationist and television presenter have provided me with an understanding that I get very excited about sharing with people. Whether I’m on that game drive with you, or whether it’s an intimate lecture in the evening about how a Dung Beetle is vital to the web of life in this environment, how the venom of a Black Mamba works, or the energy infusion that comes with a generation of protein-packed antelope in the ecosystem, I get very excited about sharing that experience.
I’ll never forget the first time I went to East Africa in my early twenties, and then going back as a television presenter many times. Every time I go there, it brings something new and something great. It never gets old. So I’m really excited about sharing my passion and the inspiration I’ve gotten from East Africa with International Expeditions’ travelers.
There are obviously a lot of people who care about conservation and want to make a positive difference in the world. What can the average person do to help?
I think the greatest threat to conservation is a sense of being void of power. The most important step is to recognize your power as a consumer and your civic power within your community. It truly begins in your backyard– a local river, a local ecosystem, a regional species that’s in trouble. It is your responsibility to be a good steward.
We lose an entire species from our planet approximately every 20 minutes. Ultimately, the world we inhabit today, we’re not just inheriting it from our ancestors. We’re also borrowing it from our children.
See the Serengeti with Jeff Corwin!
Enjoy your own Jeff Corwin experience on a Tanzania Safari with International Expeditions in 2016! Discover East Africa’s quintessential wildlife frontier – a landscape brimming with the “Big Five” as well as a colorful host of birdlife – all while accompanied by this true champion of environmental, conservation and preservation issues.
Bret Love is a journalist/editor with 23 years of print and online experience, whose clients have ranged from the Atlanta Journal Constitution and Rolling Stone to National Geographic and Yahoo Travel. He is the co-founder of ecotourism website Green Global Travel and Green Travel Media.
The endemic birds of the Galapagos Islands are bold and beautiful. Galapagos sea lions are playful and full of personality. But of all the hundreds of species of Galapagos Island animals, it’s often the reptiles that are the most iconic and intriguing.
There is the world-renowned Galapagos tortoise, which can weigh up to 500 pounds and live over 150 years. There are the freaky marine iguanas, which look like tiny dinosaurs and tend to cluster in masses on the rocky shores, hissing and sneezing in order to expel excess salt from their nasal glands. There are even six species of snakes, all of which are only mildly poisonous and completely non-aggressive constrictors.
Sure, they may not be the cutest or cuddliest of the Galapagos Islands animals: baby sea lions win that award, hands down. But we find these reptiles endlessly fascinating, not to mention remarkably photogenic…
Geckos & Lizards
Commonly spotted on Fernandina, Isabela, Santa Cruz, North Seymour, and Baltra islands, these ancient-looking iguanas are among the most colorful of all Galapagos Island animals. Growing 3-5 feet long and weighing up to 25 pounds, they come in colors ranging from vivid yellow and rusty orange to red. The pink land iguana native to northern Isabela was officially declared a separate species in 2009. Land iguana populations were nearly decimated by invasive species during the 20th century, but breeding efforts at the Charles Darwin Research Station in the 1990s led to a successful reintroduction campaign. Nearly 10,000 iguanas roam the islands today, living 50-60 years and feeding primarily on prickly-pear cactus.
With six endemic species in the Galapagos, lava lizards are a common sighting, particularly on Fernandina, Isabela, Santa Cruz, Santa Fe, and Santiago. Though considerably smaller than most of the reptiles covered here (around 3 inches long), they’ll nevertheless get your attention due to their striking markings. Males are blue gray to brownish, spotted with black and ash gray, with dark crossbands on their neck and back. Females often have light speckles, with a distinctive “cheek patch” of salmon, orange, or brick red that extends to the base of the front legs. Both sexes exhibit eye-catching, body-bobbing threat displays that make for great photos.
There are 10 species of leaf-toed gecko that have been recorded in the Galapagos Islands, with three newly introduced and one (the Rabida leaf-toed gecko) possibly extinct. The most common of these, the Galapagos leaf-toed gecko, is found on Fernandina, Isabela, Santa Cruz, Santiago, and several smaller islands. Unfortunately, because they are nocturnal creatures, your chances of seeing them on a Galapagos Islands cruise are fairly slim. You can tell them apart from lava lizards by their more vivid colors, thicker tails, broader heads, and larger eyes (with vertical slit pupils).
Charles Darwin was famously repulsed by these miniature Godzillas, referring to them as “large, disgusting, clumsy lizards” and “imps of darkness.” But after spending enough time around marine iguanas (and trust me, if you travel to the Galapagos, you will!), you’re likely to find them oddly endearing, if not adorable. You’re likely to see them on nearly every island you visit, swimming down to feed on algae at the bottom of the sea or sunning themselves for warmth on rocks by the shore. Look for the Christmas iguana subspecies on Española, which are named for their gorgeous green and red coloring.
There are four species of racer snakes found in the Galapagos Islands, all of them distinguished by geographical location. The slender hood racer is found only on Española, with dark brown backs and two yellow stripes that extend back from the snout. There are three subspecies of Galápagos racer, all dark brown with striped or spotted patterns: The Eastern is primarily found on San Cristóbal; the Western on Isabela and Fernandina; and the Central on Baltra, Bartolomé, Santa Cruz, Santa Fé, and Santiago.
Banded Galapagos Snake
The smallest snake in the Galapagos Islands at an average measurement of 19 inches, these beauties boast broad bands of dark brown and pale creamy yellow running almost the entire length of their bodies. Your best chance of seeing them during an IE trip is in Punta Espinosa on Fernandina Island and Punta Moreno, Tagus Cove, or Urvina Bay on Isabela Island.
Striped Galapagos Snake
Just slightly larger than their banded cousins, the males of this species can reach up to 24 inches long. They’re easily identifiable by the two pale, creamy yellow stripes that run vertically along the length of their dark brown bodies, from head to tail. They’re most often seen in Puerto Egas or Sullivan Bay on Santiago Island, or in Tortuga Bay on Santa Cruz.
Turtles & Tortoises
The Hawksbill sea turtle isn’t endemic to the Galapagos Islands. But that fact that it is listed as Critically Endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and you can occasionally see it feeding among the archipelago’s coral reefs makes it worthy of note. You can identify hawksbills fairly easily by their distinctive sharp, curving beaks and the serrated margin on their carapace. Their gorgeous shells, which change color depending on water temperature, were often used to make tortoiseshell products, which led to an 80% population decline over the course of three generations.
Galápagos Green Turtle
Although they were once classified as a subspecies of the green sea turtle, this endemic species is smaller (up to around 33 inches long), with a more domed shell than its cousins. They’re also known as the black sea turtle due to their darker shell color. Though they are currently listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List, they are a fairly common sighting when snorkeling or Scuba diving the Galapagos Islands, and can occasionally be seen emerging from the water after sunset to make their nests and lay their eggs on the archipelago’s beaches.
Galápagos Giant Tortoise
Lonesome George made this iconic species famous, but these ancient tortoises (which can live over 150 years) have played a vital role in Galapagos history. They were key to Darwin’s Theory of Evolution: The naturalist observed that tortoises from different islands differed in size and appearance, and surmised that they had genetically adapted to their environments. They were nearly hunted to extinction, with population numbers dwindling to 3,000 in the 1970s. But conservation efforts overseen by the Charles Darwin Foundation have helped the population rebound considerably. Today there are 10 subspecies of Galapagos Tortoises in the wild, with current population numbers estimated at around 20,000.
Spot Wildlife as You Tour the Galapagos Islands!
Ready to tour the famed Galapagos Islands and observe incredible wildlife? International Expeditions offers year-round Galapagos cruises along with land-based options in the islands. Check out IE's Galapagos tours and start planning.
Bret Love is a journalist/editor with 23 years of print and online experience, whose clients have ranged from the Atlanta Journal Constitution and American Airlines to National Geographic and Yahoo Travel. Along with his wife, photographer/videographer Mary Gabbett, he is the co-founder of ecotourism website Green Global Travel and Green Travel Media.
For most travelers, spotting an endangered sea turtle or two turns into the highlight of any trip. Luckily, most species (except for the elusive leatherback) return to the very same beach on which they were hatched in order to lay their own eggs. This predictability makes knowing when and where to see them much easier. But it has also played a role in endangering sea turtles to increased poaching and other human conflicts.
Central America and the Caribbean islands are home to some of the world’s top spots for seeing sea turtles in the wild, and the waters around these areas are home to six of the seven known species. With the right travel strategy, it’s possible to visit these regions at any time of the year and have a high likelihood of encountering at least one species of sea turtle. In some places, there are even opportunities for helping hands-on to protect sea turtle eggs and release baby turtles back into the wild.
But from a conservation perspective, it’s vital that we appreciate sea turtles responsibly. As with most wildlife observation, there are some simple rules it’s important to follow.
- Never use bright lights or camera flash around nesting sea turtles. In fact, in nesting situations, it’s best to give them a wide berth of 10 feet or more, and to just sit quietly and watch.
- Watch your step
- NEVER drive on beaches where sea turtles are known to nest.
Now, let’s talk about specific places to see endangered Sea Turtles in Latin America.
Costa Rica is a great location to start looking for sea turtles. It has extensive coastlines on both the Atlantic and Pacific sides, and its shores are also host to five different species: leatherback, Atlantic green, hawksbill, Pacific green and Olive Ridley. This diversity makes it possible to find sea turtles on your Costa Rica tour virtually any month of the year.
On the Caribbean coast, Tortuguero is a must-see for sea turtle enthusiasts. Here you'll find Atlantic greens (July-September), hawksbills (year-round) and leatherbacks (March and April) nesting.
Located right next door to Costa Rica, Nicaragua also plays host to some serious sea turtle action, both for nesting and feeding. Five different species — Pacific greens, hawksbill, leatherback, loggerhead, and Olive Ridley — are known to frequent its waters. Though many Nicaraguans still use them for meat and eggs, NGOs such as Fauna & Flora International and the Eastern Pacific Hawksbill Initiative working to stop poaching and protect endangered Sea Turtles.
Because Nicaragua is also bi-coastal, it’s possible to spot sea turtles here year-round. But the arribada of nesting Olive Ridleys is the big attraction. It occurs from late summer to early winter on the Pacific coast, specifically at La Flor in Rivas and Juan Venado Island, which are both protected areas. Sea turtles (especially Loggerheads) live and feed year-round on the Caribbean side, which makes spotting them less frequent but possible at almost any time of year.
Politically speaking, the U.S. trade embargo might not have been the best thing for Cuba. But the silver lining is that the lack of shipping to/from the island has helped to preserve the country’s relatively pristine coral reef system. Now, it’s a great site for seeing sea turtles, with the Atlantic green, hawksbill and loggerhead all nesting on Cuban shores. And the Cuba Marine Research & Conservation Program has gotten a head-start on the travel industry with regards to protecting Cuba’s coastlines.
The best turtle-spotting in Cuba is on Cayo Largo del Sur (an island south of the main island, which is host to all three local species), and Guanahacabibes National Park, the westernmost peninsula (which has green and hawksbill turtles). Both sites are part of International Expeditions' people-to-people Cuba cruises. Sea turtle population numbers are actually on the rise in Cuba, with over 900 nests and 14,000 hatchlings recorded in 2013 — more than double the previous year.
Nesting for the Atlantic greens happens between June and November, with hatchlings arriving all the way into December. Loggerheads (which are found only in Cayo Largo) usually nest between April and September.
Guatemala has quickly become one of the most popular travel destinations in Central America, largely for its Mayan ruins, indigenous cultures, and volcanoes. But, along the black sand beaches of the Pacific coast, there are also a number of sea turtle conservation projects, with ARCAS and Akazul among the leading NGOs.
Unfortunately, selling turtle eggs is not yet illegal in Guatemala, and trawling for shrimp is also decimating the local populations. Because sea turtles are considered to be a keystone species — meaning they are integrally tied to the health of coastal habitats — many Guatemalan locals and foreigners alike have recognized the need to protect them.
Three species and one subspecies of turtles — Olive Ridley, leatherback, hawksbill and Eastern Pacific green — frequently visit the Pacific coast of Guatemala. The coastline is one of the major sites for arribadas of Olive Ridleys, from August to November. Eastern Pacific greens (a.k.a. black turtles) often feed in the estuary and related inland bodies of water in Sipacate National Park.
Elsewhere in the Americas
Despite most species being endangered, and some of them critically, sea turtles are found all over the world. Here are a few other travel destinations in the Americas that should certainly be mentioned:
Though it is home to only one endemic species, the Galapagos green turtle, snorkeling excursions on IE's Galapagos Islands cruises pretty much guarantee sea turtle sightings. That’s not to mention their land-loving cousins, giant tortoises, of which there are 11 species.
Rosalie Bay Resort is an award-winning hotel in Dominica that has been a driving force for sea turtle conservation on the island. During the nesting season, leatherbacks, hawksbills and green sea turtles lay eggs on their beach.
In the US, top sea turtle sites include Texas’s South Padre Island, the Georgia Sea Turtle Center on Jekyll Island and Laniakea Beach on Oahu.
Sea turtles roam the world's warm waters from Florida to Galapagos to Borneo! Discover which important nesting site calls to your inner turtle with this fun quiz.
Jonathon Engels is a traveler, writer and teacher who’s been living abroad as an expat since 2005. He’s currently on a slow travel trip from Central America to Patagonia, volunteering his way throughout the journey. He’s the founder of The NGO List, a compilation of grassroots NGOs seeking international volunteers, and his work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life Abroad.
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.
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.
Visit The Hill Stations
If you ever find yourself in India during the scorching heat of summer (May-August), you will come to appreciate the hill stations. Built during colonial times by the British as a refuge from the oppressive heat, most hill stations are located at an altitude of 3,500 to 7,500 feet.
Today, while the hill stations retain a patina of Raj-era charm, they are mostly very busy, very beloved holiday destinations for Indian families. There are literally hundreds of hill stations in India, but some of the most popular are Shimla, Darjeeling, Mussoorie, Nainital, Ooty, Manali and Rishikesh.
Added to the charm of visiting Darjeeling, Ooty and Shimla are the "toy trains" that you can take to get there. The journeys are slow, but the mountain scenery makes for a remarkably picturesque ride.
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 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.
Nature makes you smarter — that’s what all the research says. But what does that mean, actually?
One view: Staring for just 40 seconds at a computer screen picture of a green roof will increase your ability to focus, according to one new study.
But another experiment found only mixed cognitive benefits from a 50 minute walk in actual nature.
Welcome to the messy, far-from-settled science of smarter-by-nature. A bevy of studies does say that people just emerging from a “nature experience” (the definition of which ranges from a days-long hike to merely looking at an image of a natural landscape) do better than control groups on memory tests or other kinds of cognitive tasks. But we’re a long way from those results being confirmed, understood or actually making anyone smarter — much less making nature more of a habit for anyone.
“There’s a ton more work to be done,” says Greg Bratman, a Stanford researcher whose project is digging into the mechanisms behind nature’s psychological benefits, both cognitive and affective.
“We’re all measuring differences according to little concentration tests or working memory tests — we’re not being very specific about the causal mechanisms,” Bratman says. “And replication is a huge issue. Nailing all this down is very important to integrating it into ecosystem services like urban design and prescribing length of urban walks, for instance.”
Not to mention the problem of whether people want to think about nature as, say, a quick-fix to boost our productivity, versus just making us feel better.
More Dosage Required?
As reported on Cool Green Science, Bratman has found that just a 50-minute walk in a natural setting gives people much stronger affective benefits when compared to the same duration walk along a busy multilane urban boulevard. But his results were not as compelling for the cognitive benefits of the same nature walk.
The nature walkers were superior to their urban counterparts in a complicated working memory test known as operation span or OSPAN. OSPAN sounds a bit sadistic: Subjects are forced to solve math equations and simultaneously repeat back a chain of letters they were shown for only 800ms at a time. (This is the first time nature’s been looked at as a variable in such a test.)
However, on three other cognitive tests for which Bratman reported results, he found little or no performance difference between nature and urban walkers. And two of these tests (attention network task and backward digit span) had shown positive results in previously published experiments. (Part of Bratman’s project is to replicate previous study results on nature’s psychological benefits.)
Bratman says there are numerous explanations for his results — chief among them, test-taker fatigue through 70 minutes of intense tests. And a null result, he adds, doesn’t invalidate previous findings.
“If anything, the OSPAN effects are conservative,” Bratman says.
However, Ben Levy, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of San Francisco who studies learning and memory and who was a co-author on Bratman’s new paper, says the results might also reflect the need for larger nature doses to make a difference to memory performance.
“The dosage of nature Greg did was pretty minimal,” says Levy. “Maybe you need to go spend a day or two in nature. I am optimistic that there might be some cognitive changes there, but they are weaker in my assessment than the affective changes.”
Can Cognitive Benefits Ever Be as Appealing as Affective Ones?
The 40-second green-roof-image test, on the other hand, produced very striking benefits for attention — prompting the study’s lead author, Kate Lee of the University of Melbourne, to tell Chris Mooney of the Washington Post that the findings could have immediate impact on workplace productivity.
“Modern work drains attention throughout the day, so providing boosted ‘green micro-breaks’ may provide mental top-ups to offset declining attention,” Mooney quoted an email from Levy.
“Heavy demands are placed on attention in the workplace and this research suggests a simple strategy to enhance concentration,” Lee also told Kate Ashford at Forbes. “Our results suggest attention boosts that could have meaningful implications for any number of vital work tasks that involve executive functioning, such as strategizing, planning, reading and writing.”
Lee’s comments mirror a hunger among many in the environmental community, who have seized on the smarter-by-nature research as a mantra to motivate more outdoors participation.
But larger questions about the implementation and consequences of research such as Lee’s and Bratman’s remain unanswered.
Will people use nature in this way — in essence, to boost their productivity? Instead of, say, a coffee with their colleagues?
Will computerized images of green roofs (or even green roofs themselves) actually strengthen workers’ affinity for nature? Or its conservation?
Might they even come to resent this use of nature as manipulative?
Contrast that with Bratman’s findings on the substantial benefits that 50-minute nature walk can give to your mood and tendency to ruminate — a known precursor to depression. One in approximately every 20 people worldwide suffers from clinical depression — so interest in a solution to these findings is already high.
In addition, affective benefits are immediately and universally appealing. As Bratman says, there’s much more science to be done to turn them into true ecosystem services — tailored to different groups and different landscapes, and implementable into urban planning. But one can see that path being much more populist.
Bratman argues that more research can overcome that bias.
“The idea that nature makes us feel better is more intuitive than the idea that nature makes us smarter,” he says. “You need to break that down with evidence.”
‘There’s Something Going On Here…Let’s Just Tackle It’
Levy lauds Bratman’s research project for helping to bring rigor to the smarter-by-nature literature.
“Most of this [previous research] is correlational, which I didn’t find that compelling — a kid who has a view of nature outside his window will perform a little bit better than another kid who doesn’t have that view,” Levy says.
“The interesting question is: Why do we get these effects?” he continues. “Is it something about nature per se, or could you get the same benefits from going to a museum — a place that might inspire the same sense of wonder or interest?”
“Experimental research, like what we did here, where we have control over who gets exposed to nature and over other variables — like amount of exercise — is quite rare. Greg was very careful here, he included more measures of affect and cognition to see what is actually influenced.”
Bratman defends the state of the literature, arguing that it is a convincing mix of correlative, experimental and natural studies.
“If these studies are all pointing in the same direction — and they are — then there’s something going on here,” he says.
His next steps are helping to refine that “something” with a series of experiments that he hopes will lead to customized implementation of his findings to different groups and environments.
For instance, he and Heather Tallis, a lead scientist at The Nature Conservancy, are studying how density of trees and shrubs might impact test scores in schools — and whether planting more greenery near those schools might be a low-cost way of boosting average scores.
“It’s just such a data-starved area right now,” Bratman says. “My approach is: Let’s just tackle it.”
This blog originally appeared on Cool Green Science, the science blog of The Nature Conservancy.
By weaving historical anecdotes from these fascinating lives into his travelogue, author Kim MacQuarrie makes both the ancient cultures and the present-day people of South America sing, transforming swan songs historians can’t forget into siren songs travelers can’t resist.
In his new meditation on South America, Life and Death in the Andes, Kim MacQuarrie follows the spine of the world’s longest mountain chain, exploring the lives of legendary characters like Charles Darwin, Pablo Escobar and Che Guevara. Picking through remnants and ruins, he muses on indigenous cultures’ disappearance and searches for the true uniqueness of the South American continent.
Each chapter works as an extended essay on a historical figure, such as Hiram Bingham and his strained relationship with the Peruvians after his discovery of Machu Picchu. Many of the characters explored are the outlaws and revolutionaries that often kick up in South American history, societal outcasts like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the drug lord Pablo Escobar and the passionate rebel Che Guevara. MacQuarrie shapes their stories by re-imagining scenes from their lives, from moments of triumph and discovery to an often tragic demise.
In a chapter on the Incas, MacQuarrie even brings to life an anonymous “Ice Maiden” of Peru, whose body was preserved at the time she was sacrificed, at the age of fourteen, to the Incan gods. He gives voice to some fast-disappearing native cultures, visiting the last living speaker of the Yamana language. In a fascinating chapter on Kon-Tiki and the raft-builders that made the famous voyage possible, he meets the natives who make their home on the floating islands of Lake Titicaca.
You can order this book at Longitude.com.
Despite its small size (around 110,000 square miles), Ecuador is one of the most diverse travel destinations in the world. There are an incredible array of things to do on an Ecuador tour, with sights, activities and attractions to suit just about any travel style.
From the Amazon River Basin and Andes Mountains to the Galapagos Islands, the country offers a wide variety of ecosystems within its borders. Their relative proximity makes it fairly easy to see a number of Ecuador’s finest natural and historical attractions in a fairly short time.
As a result, narrowing down a list of the best things to do in Ecuador is a bit of a task. Here are a few of our favorites:
Adventure Time in Baños de Agua Santa
Locals know Baños de Agua Santa simply as Baños. The town gets its name (which means “baths of sacred water”) from the natural hot springs that flow to the edge of town from active Tungurahua Volcano.
But Baños is also the jumping-off point for a wealth of activities around the region. This is the place for white water rafting, which runs the Paztasa River down towards the Amazon Basin. There are also a number of canyons nearby, and rappelling, climbing, and hiking through them is extremely popular.
For those seeking more subdued adventures, a wander down the valley of the waterfalls will take you to some of the most beautiful waterfalls in all of South America, including the stunning Manto de la Novia and the powerful Pailon del Diablo.
Colonial Architecture in Cuenca
In many ways, Cuenca is arguably Ecuador's most beautiful colonial city.
The Historic Centre of Santa Ana de los Ríos de Cuenca, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was founded in 1557 on rigorous planning guidelines issued in 1527 by the Spanish king Charles V. Cuenca. Much of the city’s architecture dates back to the 18th century, and the cathedral in Cuenca ranks among the most impressive buildings in Ecuador.
Because it’s a safe place with a very high standard of living, Cuenca is one of the most popular cities in South America for expats coming from the United States. There are loads of retirees here, and a great international community as well.
Explore the Galapagos Islands
The Galapagos Islands are unlike any other place in the world. The myriad wildlife species are a highlight of any nature-lover’s Galapagos Islands cruise, and many of the animals living on the islands are endemic.
Marine Iguanas, Flightless Cormorants, Giant Tortoises and Galapagos Penguins are just a few of the many species you'll find in the Galapagos Islands that don't exist anywhere else in the world. The fact that you can get within a few feet of these wild animals without them seeming to care about your presence at all is amazing.
Beyond the wildlife, the geology of the volcano-birthed islands is something to behold. The landscapes look as if they're from another planet, leaving even the most well-traveled visitor completely awestruck.
Perhaps what's most amazing about these landscapes is the variety of ecosystems found among them. For example, Santa Cruz Island is extremely arid on the northern edge. However, when you drive towards the south, you’ll find increasingly heavy humidity and a lush green rainforest.
Get Some R&R in Montañita
Just a decade ago, Montañita was a quiet fishing village with a small population of South American hippies. But in recent years it has sprung to life as the country's most popular beach destination. Sure, the town is still home to its fair share of hippies and beach bums, but Montañita has also come alive with tourists visiting from all over the world.
To provide some scale on the town’s growth, a decade ago there was just one hostel in Montañita. Today, there are at least a dozen. Nearly the entire beachfront has given way to hotels, shopping and restaurants.
But despite the growth on a tourism front, Montañita has remained a relaxed little spot for a beach getaway, with a permanent population of a little over 1,000 people.
Hike Cotopaxi National Park
Located just an hour's drive from Quito, the Cotopaxi volcano is often visible from the city. It’s an imposing sight: Standing at around 19,347 ft above sea level, it is the highest active volcano in the world. It's also one of the few places on the planet where you’ll find glaciers so close to the equator.
Cotopaxi National Park is easily accessible by car, and open to the public when the volcano is not extremely active. (It was closed to hikers briefly after a 2015 eruption.) Climbing the great snow-capped volcano is one of the most popular things to do in Ecuador among adventure-seekers, but it does require a licensed guide. Those who reach the top will find an impressive 820-foot deep crater at the peak.
Ride the Devil's Nose Train
Most of Ecuador’s train lines have now fallen into disrepair and remain unused. But riding a section of the track called “The Devil's Nose” has become one of the most popular things to do in Ecuador among tourists.
The Ecuadorian train line was originally built back in 1901 by workers that were brought into Ecuador from Jamaica and Puerto Rico. The name for this section of the track was given due to the staggering number of deaths that occurred while constructing the switchbacks.
It's through this section that the train drops around 1,640 ft in altitude over a stretch of just 7.4 miles. To make the drop, the train cuts down a steep section and rolls past a junction on the track, then stops and rolls backwards down the next bit. It's an impressive bit of engineering, and a must-do adventure for train-lovers.
Shop at Otavalo Market
Perhaps the friendliest and most accessible local market in all of South America, Otavalo Market is a brilliant place to wander and explore.
Located about an hour's drive from Quito, this Andean town is built upon trade. On Sundays, locals come to town from nearly every village in the area to trade goods such as fruits and vegetables, and farm animals like goats and llamas.
Of course, in the center of town there is also a tourist market, which is open every day of the week. The vendors here are friendly, and always happy to chat. If you've had enough shopping, hike to the beautiful Peguche Waterfall, which is on the outskirts of town.
Take a Boat Down the Amazon
Ecuador's share of the Amazon Basin is wild and beautiful. It is also completely unique to shares of the forest held by other countries. Where else in the Amazon could you sit and overlook the rainforest jungle while also having the backdrop of a snow-capped volcano?
The Ecuadorian Amazon is one of the best places in the country for wildlife lovers. There are over 1,600 different species of birds, over 350 species of reptiles (including Caiman and Anacondas), and plenty of mammal species as well (including Jaguars, Howler Monkeys, and the endangered Cotton-headed Tamarin).
Quito is the capital of Ecuador, and a bustling hub in the heart of the country. With most of the city located at just under 9,842 feet above sea level, it will take your breath away in more ways than one!
Quito was founded around 980AD by the Caras people, long before the arrival of Europeans. In the 1460s the city was conquered by the Inca, and integrated into their kingdom. When the Spanish arrived in Ecuador, Quito was serving as the northern capital in an Inca Kingdom that was deeply conflicted. The Spanish finally seized control of the city for good in 1534.
Today, there is plenty to love about Quito. The old city offers stunning examples of colonial Latin American architecture. There’s also a cable car which takes passengers up to about 13,779 feet above sea level for amazing views of the city, and, on a clear day, the Cotopaxi volcano.
There are plenty of attractions just outside Quito as well. One of the most popular is the Mitad del Mundo (“Center of the Earth”), a monument and museum for the equator. There’s also a line drawn along the equator, so you can get a photo standing with one foot in the southern hemisphere and the other in the northern.
Walk Around Quilotoa Lagoon
The Quilotoa Lagoon is one of the most overlooked destinations in all of Ecuador. The fact that it sits just off the traditional tourist trail (and the paved Pan-American Highway) means that only a handful of privileged people visit this incredible place each year.
Quilotoa, with a summit at 12,841 feet, is a massive volcanic crater some 820 feet deep that’s filled with water. The crater was created about 800 years ago during a massive eruption that collapsed the peak of the volcano.
Today, the volcano lies dormant and a beautiful hiking trail encircles the lagoon, which is colored green-ish blue due to heavy amounts of mineral deposits left behind in the water after the eruption.
Hailing from Alberta, Brendan Van Son is the professional travel photographer and writer behind Brendan’s Adventures. His freelance work has been seen in outlets such as the BBC, National Geographic Traveler and The Guardian.
The rise of new world wines that began about 15 years ago has brought an increased influx of wine tourism to Chile and Argentina. But these two countries have a wine industry that stretches back nearly 500 years.
Grape cuttings were first brought to Chile, then Argentina by Spanish missionaries in order to produce wine for the celebration of Mass. The favorable climate, abundance of water from the melting glaciers of the Andes, and higher altitude compared to Europe (which meant a reduced risk of insects, fungi and grape diseases) allowed the Patagonian wine industry to flourish over the centuries.
The arrival of European immigrants during the 19th century brought new grape varieties and winemaking techniques. Chile has been exporting wines to Europe since the 1880s, while Argentina primarily focused on producing for the domestic market until quite recently.
In Chile, the main wine-producing regions are the Colchagua Valley, the Aconcagua Valley and the Maipo Valley. The largest wine region in Argentina is Mendoza, followed by La Rioja (which, curiously, is also a winemaking region in Spain), Salta and San Juan.
International Expeditions has two distinct options combining wine and wildlife in these spectacular countries! Here is a brief overview of where to taste the best wines of Chile and Argentina:
WINES OF CHILE
Maipo Valley Region
This is Chile's most established wine region, located just south of Santiago on the other side of the Andes from Mendoza. It was here that the first vine cuttings were planted in the 1540s, and by the mid-19th century the industry was already flourishing.
Red wines reign in the Maipo region, especially Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenere and Merlot, which are all widely exported abroad. As one of the oldest wine producing regions, it's possible to visit some of Chile's best known wineries in the Maipo Valley, including:
- Concha y Toro: This is the Maipo region’s flagship winery, and the ideal place to start learning about Chilean wines. It's a good place to see a large winery in action, and visits on International Expeditions' Birds & WInes of Argentina & Chile tour include entrance to the Casillero del Diablo, the cellar that gives its name to a famous brand of Concha y Toro wines.
- Santa Rita: One of Chile's aristocratic wineries, founded at the end of the 19th century. The great wines are matched by the beauty of the winery itself, which is set in a 200-year-old house. The adjacent Doña Paula restaurant offers a great lunch experience.
Colchagua Valley Region
If there ever was a perfect wine-growing climate, it's in the Colchagua Valley. The climate is Mediterranean – warm with a gentle ocean breeze, mostly dry, but refreshed by rivers. The western boundary of the region is formed by coastal hills, while the east is limited by the foothills of the Andes.
Red wines prefer warmer conditions. As such, most reds (especially Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Merlot) are produced in the warmer east, while whites (Chardonnay and Sauv Blanc) benefit from the ocean breezes of the cooler west.
Some of the best wineries to visit are:
- Lapostolle: This is the Colchagua region's most prestigious winery, set up by the granddaughter of the creator of Grand Marnier liqueur. Lapostolle offers small-group tours of the stunning winery, which includes a roof garden and a glass-topped tasting table, allowing visitors to appreciate the color nuances of the wine.
- Viu Manent: Set in wonderfully retro surroundings, a visit here includes a horse-cart tour of the vineyard and an outdoors tasting area with a view over the valley.
WINES OF ARGENTINA
The majority of Argentinian wines come from Mendoza, in the central part of the country. It’s a place that’s well worth visiting for the stunning Andean scenery alone. The variety of microclimates in the region helped achieve a varied terroir. Malbec is the star of the show in Mendoza, but Bordeaux-style Reds such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, and local whites such as Torrontes, also fare well.
The Mendoza region is highly focused on wine tourism, so there's something for everyone here, from five-star wineries and celebrity restaurants to locally-owned vineyards offering vino patero (foot-pressed) and homemade food. Here are a couple of wineries we recommend visiting if you are in the Mendoza region:
- Bodegas Lopez: This is one of the oldest working wineries in the Mendoza region. The tour takes you through the history of Argentinian winemaking, from wooden presses and delivery trucks dating back to the 1920s to the modern champagne-making plant.
- Bodega Carmelo Patti: Owner Carmelo Patti started picking grapes as a 10-year-old, then sold his car to finance his winemaking enterprise. He often leads the tours himself, and afterwards invites visitors for a drink in his office.
Nestled in the Andes near the northwestern city of Salta at 5,600 feet, Cafayate is one of the highest wine-producing regions in the world. Around Cafayate the scenery is to die for: The barren peaks of the Andes offset the greenery of the vines, and the crisp high-mountain air means that views stretch for miles. Unlike Mendoza, which is really spread out, the Cafayate region is reasonably small, making it possible to tour many vineyards.
The most popular grapes produced in the Cafayate regions are Torrontes (a native crisp white with floral undertones), Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon.
We recommend visiting:
- Bodega Nanni: This is a small organic winery, conveniently located in Cafayate city center, producing an excellent Torrontes Tardio.
- Bodega Etchart: This is one of the largest winemaking operations in the region, dating back to the 1850s. The tour will allow you to understand what is special about the Cafayate wine region.
Margherita Ragg is one of the creators of The Crowded Planet, a blog whose motto is “Finding nature and adventure everywhere.” She has an MFA in Creative Writing and a background of literary non-fiction writing, and her freelance work has included editing for National Geographic.
Summer vacation doesn’t have to be synonymous with simply sitting on a beach! For those who like to combine their relaxation with a healthy dose of adventure, International Expeditions offers a range of experiences. From the Far North to Southern Africa, here are our favorite “Must Try” travel adventures!
Tubing Through Caves & Belize’s Lush Rainforests
Hop on an inner tube for a guided tour on an underground river through a series of caves and towering rainforest. The Mayans regarded these cave systems as a sacred underworld and home to powerful gods. With lush tropical rainforests, mystical Mayan ruins and the largest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere—nowhere else in the world can you experience a greater diversity of environments, wildlife and culture than Belize.
Sea Kayaking with Beluga Whales in the Canadian Arctic
Paddle among icebergs, looking out for ring and bearded seals as well as beluga whales in the shallow waters of the Cunningham River estuary as you travel 500 miles north of the Arctic Circle to Arctic Watch Wilderness Lodge. During this distinct Canada adventure, you also hike the tundra, spot polar bears roaming the Northwest Passage, investigate the mysterious Thule ruins crafted from giant whale bones, fish for Arctic char and more.
Hiking To Alaska’s Massive Exit Glacier
Enjoy Alaska’s changing vegetation on a hike for vistas of Exit Glacier’s blue ice spilling down from the Harding Icefield. Your accompanying naturalist explains what’s really happening inside the blue crevasses. On our Alaska tour, enjoy an immersive exploration of two distinct national parks: Kenai Fjords and Denali. Explore Alaska's spectacular Kenai Fjords National Park by kayak and small boat tours before venturing deep into the heart of Denali National Park.
Tracking Namibia’s Rhinos on Foot
Join researchers from Save the Rhino Trust to track rhino on foot through the rocky and desolate landscape of Namibia’s stark northwest. This region is home to the country’s last free-roaming black rhinos. Survey the stark beauty and rich wildlife of one of Africa’s most unusual countries on a small-group safari limited to just eight guests. Plus, explore the dunes of Sossusvlei — climbing some of the world’s tallest dunes — along with shipwrecks and abandoned diamond mines on the rugged Skeleton Coast.
Zip-lining in the Costa Rican Canopy
Fly through the rainforest canopy like a super hero before enjoying horseback riding, rafting and hiking. . Love fishing? Try to land a record-breaking tarpon, sailfish or marlin on a private fishing excursion. Few countries offer this incredible combination of nature, culture and adventure all close to home, and IE's experts can arrange your ideal Costa Rica tour.
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