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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.
“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.
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.
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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.
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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.
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.