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Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve ranks among the most beloved ecotourism attractions in Costa Rica, drawing around 70,000 visitors each year.
It’s easy to see why: With six different ecological zones (including 90% pristine forest habitat), the reserve boasts extraordinary biodiversity, containing around 100 mammal species, 120 reptilian and amphibian species, 400 bird species, and more than 2,500 plant species. It also has a Nature Center, bat jungle, butterfly gardens, frog pond, serpentarium, and an array of hiking trails, suspension bridges and ziplines.
But, long before the reserve was established in 1972, the nearby town of Monteverde had been settled by American expats who moved to Costa Rica in search of a more peaceful way of life. And it was these people who originally decided to protect the forest habitat from development.
THE GREAT QUAKER ESCAPE
The roots of what became known as Monteverde, Costa Rica date back to the late 1940s. Quakers – also known as the Religious Society of Friends – are a notoriously peaceful, anti-war people. After four young men from their community were imprisoned for a year as conscientious objectors to the Korean War draft, a group of 44 Quakers (comprised of 11 families) moved from Fairhope, Alabama (just hours from IE's home offices south of Birmingham) to the San Jose area in 1950 in search of a better life.
They were drawn to Costa Rica in part due to its climate and the agricultural possibilities it offered, and in part by President Pepe Figueres’ invitation for foreigners to help develop his Central American country. But perhaps most important of all was the fact that Costa Rica had recently disbanded its military entirely, offering the Friends (as Quakers call themselves) an opportunity to start fresh and live peacefully.
THE BIRTH OF MONTEVERDE
The Friends relocated to the San Jose area briefly while searching for a permanent home in Costa Rica. They eventually found a 3500-acre swath of land straddling the Continental Divide in the Cordillera de Tilarán mountain range, near Puntarenas. They named it Monteverde, which means “Green Mountain,” for the verdant plants that grew there.
After purchasing the land, they divided sections of it up to create farms for the individual families, while reserving a central area for their mutual use. This was where they eventually built the Monteverde Friends School, a Meeting House and a community-driven business, the Monteverde Cheese Factory. Tours of the Factory, where you can learn about the area’s history and sample their 17 cheeses and delicious homemade ice creams, are still available daily.
By the late 1960s biologists had begun to conduct research in the Monteverde area at the request of Costa Rica’s National Planning Office. After Quaker leader Hubert Mendenhall took conservation scientists from San Jose’s Tropical Science Center to see the primary forests that surrounded the community, they recommended that the Friends should preserve them in order to protect their homes and water sources.
The Quakers soon set aside 1300 acres they called the Watershed Property, which ultimately became among the first private nature reserves in Costa Rica.
MONTEVERDE CLOUD FOREST RESERVE
In 1972, George Powell came to Monteverde to do doctoral research on the birds of the area, which include species such as the swallow-tailed kite, the piratic flycatcher and the resplendant quetzal. Amazed by the remarkable biological diversity of the cloud forest, Powell was equally alarmed by the damage being done to Monteverde by hunters and land squatters.
The young grad student subsequently arranged a deal with the Guacimal Land Company (from whom the Quakers had bought their land) to donate land if he could form a civic association to help oversee the property. Coincidentally, the Tropical Science Center had a program to create private reserves for purposes of research and ecological education. With their help, Powell used his personal money to buy out several squatters and ultimately acquired 810 acres from GLC for a grand total of 1 colón (less than one U.S. dollar) in 1973.
Now, more than 40 years later, Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve has grown to encompass more than 46,000 acres of cloud forest, providing protection to a diverse array of flora and fauna. But it might never have happened if it weren’t for a small group of Friends from Alabama simply searching for a more peaceful way of life.
TRAVEL TO COSTA RICA & MONTEVERDE
International Expeditions has offered small-group Costa Rica tours for 34 years. Choose between naturalist-guided adventures encompassing the natural and human history of Costa Rica, or enjoy our bespoke journeys, ideal for families.
Amazon River cruise Expedition leader Angel Cardenas is reporting from our small-group excursions this week.
Early in the morning we went out along Supay River. Along the river's mouth we found giant water lilies, including one with a flower. Our first stop for photos and we weren't even into the river!
Our small group continued into the Supay looking for wildlife. During the excursion we found a beautiful plum throated cotinga, three toed sloth, long nosed bats, dusky titi monkeys and the smallest monkey on Earth, pygmy marmoset. A glass tree frog jumped on the excursion boat and took a short ride on a guest!
This morning we also visited a local village "11 de Agosto" along Ucayali River. The president of the community welcomed us and walked with us through the village. Along the way, he showed us how he is making a canoe using cedar and catahua wood. Plus, he showed guests how to harvest yuca (manioc). During our visit, we had a chance to visit a local family and see their house.
Our last stop in the village was the school house where we have a great time with some interaction between kids and our guests.
After an afternoon map orientation and review of our wildlife checklist, we set off into the Ucayali River again. This was a productive excursion where we spotted oriole blackbird and green tree iguana. But our best find was macaws on top of dead palm trees. We found a flock of red bellied macaws and a blue-and-yellow macaw before heading back to La Estrella Amazonica.
Another interesting day!
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India is a remarkable place to visit for many reasons, but one of the most compelling is the richness of its culture. This is one of the few countries left on Earth with a living classical culture, unbroken since ancient times. You can visit an ancient Hindu temple and watch rituals that have been performed in the same place, in the same way, since the dawn of time.
But India is also a thriving, bustling, modern country. The same pandit (or priest) who performed the ancient ritual might very well take a smart phone out of the pocket of his robe and check his email.
It's this juxtaposition of old and new that makes the culture of India so fascinating. Here's a look at some traditions in India that still flourish today:
Mumbai is India's most densely-packed, fast-paced and westernized city. Like New York, it throbs with life night and day, but the beat moves to a time-honored rhythm. Mumbai offers an intriguing juxtaposition of old and new culture, and you can spend days just wandering the city, soaking it all up.
If you’re lucky, you may stumble upon the tiffin-wallahs (delivery boys who ferry stacked stainless-steel bowls of food home-cooked by wives to their husbands’ office) outside Churchgate train station. Often illiterate, these delivery men were made famous by the movie The Lunch Box, which centers around a rare meal mix-up.
The dhobis of Dhobi Ghat wash clothes in open-air tubs and hang them out to dry (as they have been for about 140 years), right within sight of one of the city's main train stations, Mahalaxmi. While there, you can visit the 200-year-old Mahalaxmi Temple, one of the most famous in the city, and partake of traditional Hindu rituals, such as offering lotus flowers to the goddess Lakshmi.
Colorful Rajasthan is India's most popular state with tourists for a reason. It's everyone's idea of "fantastical India.” The men wear out-sized turbans, the women wear neon-bright saris, camels and peacocks abound, and fairytale forts rise from the baked earth of the desert.
In Rajasthan, the traditional culture of India is very much alive and well, showcased in lots of lively festivals. Many people know of the Pushkar Camel Fair, but Jaipur is party town for the Elephant Festival on Holi and during the three-day Teej Festival in summer. Teej is a woman's festival that celebrates marital bliss and the onset of the monsoon rains. Women dress up, dance, sing and enjoy swinging on traditional swing seats.
The desert state is also home to a cornucopia of traditional crafts. Block printing on cotton dates back to the 12th century, and you can visit block-printing workshops and buy beautiful clothing made with this technique. Jaipur is an important center for gem stones and several types of jewelry making, including enamel work. You can even visit a wholesaler, custom-making your own jewelry from semi-precious stones as a treasured souvenir.
Delhi is India's capital, and the favorite city of many Indian travelers. A lot of it has to do with the city's wealth of historical riches.
At least seven major empires have made their capital in this strategic spot on north India’s Yamuna River. Each has left behind monuments, tombs, forts and, in the case of the British, an entire planned city: Lutyens Delhi. There are three UNESCO World Heritage Sites here – Qutab Minar, Humayun's Tomb and Red Fort – and Delhi recently applied for the prestigious tag of a World Heritage City.
As in all of India's metropolitan areas, the traditional and modern co-exist in a state of dynamic harmony here, and you can easily find traditional culture. This is especially true when you visit the historical monuments, during festivals, at special occasions like weddings, and in particularly colorful neighborhoods (such as Old Delhi).
Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, famous as the builder of the Taj Mahal, moved his capital from Agra to Delhi in the mid-17th century. He built the Red Fort as his power base directly opposite the Chandni Chowk (a.k.a. Moonlight Square). Whatever poetic intention he had for Chandni Chowk has been obfuscated by the masses of people, tangled webs of electrical wires and a profusion of shops, as well as every conceivable vehicle known to man.
But it's here in crowded Chandni Chowk that you will find so much of traditional Indian culture. It's here that all brides venture for wedding paraphernalia. It's here that foodies gather for famous street snacks, such as parathas at Paranthe Wali Galli, freshly made jalebis, and sweets and chaat at Haldiram's.
There is an old saying about Delhi: Whosoever builds their capital here will lose it. It has proved true over and over again. But luckily for us, all those lost empires left behind a wealth of rich traditions for those who are open to the magic of India’s culture to enjoy.
How to Go
Inspired to explore the fascinating cultures of India? 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 India tours and start planning your adventure.
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This morning on our Amazon cruise we went to explore the Sapote River. Since it was cloudy and with a soft morning drizzle the wildlife activity was great!
We found a Tamandua Anteater, often called the Lesser Anteater because it is much smaller than its relative, the giant anteater. The Anteater we observed this morning was a melanistic (all-black) one that is even harder to find. Of course, one of the most distinguishing qualities of the Tamandua is its awful smell! A gland at the base of its tail releases a smell similar to a skunk to protect it from predators. On our excursion we also saw three Caiman Lizards. - Dennis
Newly installed WiFi onboard on our new riverboat means we are lucky to now recieve frequent updates on wildlife sightings from our Amazon River cruises. Expedition leader Angel Cardenas is reporting from our small-group excursions this week.
This morning heavy rain kept us onboard La Estrella Amazonica until lunch, but there was still so much to do, starting with a lecture by guest expert Ed Smith. Ed is an Amazonia Biologist for Smithsonian's National Zoo, where he studies and cares for hundreds of Amazonian plants and animals, and involved with a variety of research. We also took the time to review the list of wildlife we've already observed, learn more about the IE-supported clean water project and enjoy a cooking lesson with our chef.
After the morning rain the sun finally came our! It was the perfect time to explore Dorado River, an interesting black water tributary in the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve. While here we found a variety of interesting wildlife: Plum Throated Cotinga, White Throated Toucan, Hoatzin, Festive Parrot, Blue Crowned Parrot, Cream Colored Woodpecker, Horned Screamer, Muscovy Duck, Caiman Lizard, White Spectacle Caiman, Fringe Lipped Tree Frog, Giant Cane Toad and other species.
Time for a fun happy hour with our Amazon band and a tasty cocktail before dinner! - Angel
Up in the cloud forest, near the northern Nicaraguan city of Matagalpa, sits a private nature reserve dating back over 120 years. Selva Negra (which translates to “The Black Forest”) was founded in the late 1800s by German-born immigrants who were encouraged to settle the area by the Nicaraguan government. The 300-acre reserve is home to a wild array of flora and fauna, as well as one of the country's most prestigious coffee plantations.
Most of the Selva Negra Cloud Forest Reserve is situated above 3000 feet in a tropical forest that receives about 10% of its total moisture directly through contact with the clouds rather than traditional rainfall. Cloud forests like Selva Negra are intense biological districts that contain an incredibly diverse and intense arrangement of life, both vegetative and animal.
THE FLORA OF SELVA NEGRA
The name Selva Negra likely comes from the fact that the canopy of the forest is so thick that it allows just a tiny fraction of light to reach the forest floor. The result is an extremely dark place, even in the daytime.
Among those canopy-creators is the most important tree in Selva Negra – the strangler fig – which grows to 160 feet tall and casts a massive net over the sky. Incredibly important to this particular cloud forest, the strangler fig’s fruit is consumed by around 70% of the area's animal population.
There are also some 50 species of orchids that grow within the nature reserve. The most prominent of those orchids is the Arpophyllum Giganteum, which sprouts from from dead fig trees. Also found in the cloud forest of Selva Negra are nearly 40 species of mushrooms.
THE FAUNA OF SELVA NEGRA
In the cloud forest, animals are more often heard than seen. Not only is the vegetation extremely dense and the light very low, but most of the wildlife that calls Selva Negra home are well-camouflaged and nocturnal.
The most commonly-seen mammal in the reserve is the howler monkey, which is typically heard long before you spot it. The rousing call of this species, which is found throughout Central and South America, can be heard for up to a mile away. The howler monkey is one of the more intimidating alarm clocks you'll be sure to hear at dawn in the cloud forest.
With all the decaying organic matter throughout the cloud forest, there’s a significant insect population there, the most interesting of which are the beetles. There are also 19 species of amphibians and 33 species of reptiles found in the park. The butterflies of the reserve are always popular, especially the famed blue morpho.
But it’s primarily the birds that draw people into this beautiful nature reserve. Selva Negra is home to over 200 different bird species and is, in many ways, the crossroads and meeting ground for birds from the northern and southern hemispheres. Within the bounds of the reserve, you can spot everything from egrets to kingfishers, and from hawks to hummingbirds.
OTHER THINGS TO DO IN SELVA NEGRA
Visit the Coffee Plantation: The Selva Negra Estate has been producing coffee since the 1890s, when German immigrants founded the establishment. Some of their descendants are still here, planting and plucking coffee beans today. Their coffee is grown around 4,000 feet above sea level and under shade, and is 100% organic and sustainable. International Expeditions' guests have an opportunity to watch the process of coffee production in a program called “From Seed to Cup.” Harvest season for the coffee beans runs from November to February.
- Hiking: If you're looking to explore the nature reserve on foot, there are 14 superb trails of varying length and difficulty that carve through the cloud forest. Visitors are welcome to enjoy the trails on their own, but it’s even more rewarding when IE's highly trained naturalist guides show you a little bit about the forest and the critters that live within it.
- Horseback Riding: Of the 14 hiking trails within the reserve, six are also made available to horse riders. Getting out on horseback and exploring the Selva Negra gives visitors a beautiful perspective of the forest without having to get their feet too muddy.
DISCOVER NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC TRAVELER'S NICARAGUA TOUR OF A LIFETIME
Ready to explore Nicaragua and the Selva Negra Reserve? Come see why National Geographic Traveler named International Expeditions' Nicaragua tour one of the world's best escorted tours.
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Born and raised in Lima by a family of Andean descent, Dennis Osorio spent his childhood traveling to Cusco, Machu Picchu and his grandparents’ farm, located at 13,000 feet above sea level in Puno.
Though often afflicted with altitude sickness as a boy, these journeys inspired a love of exploration. He ultimately got a Masters Degree in hotel and tourism management (with a concentration in Sustainable Tourism), then headed to South Africa’s Inkwazi Ranger Training School and became a naturalist guide.
But his heart soon led him back to his native country, and now he serves as an Expedition Leader for International Expeditions. We spoke to this expert Peruvian Amazon guide to learn about his passion for sustainable ecotourism, birding, and everything the Amazon has to offer.
How did you originally become interested in nature and wildlife?
As a Peruvian Boy Scout, I learned to appreciate and respect nature, and enjoyed looking for lizards, frogs and birds with my friends. I was so impressed the first time I saw an Andean Condor flying very close in one of the camps.
In Machu Picchu, during my training in birding, we found a Golden-headed Quetzal, an Andean Motmot and an Andean Cock of the Rock, all in the same tree. After that I decided to continue birding for the rest of my life.
Why is sustainable ecotourism is important to you?
The tourism industry needs to be sustainable, because each activity we do leaves a footprint. IE’s Amazon cruise visits the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve, which benefits the area instead of polluting and using up the resources.
We set a plan which helps to preserve and improve the quality of life of the population in the Amazon: Our guests bring school supplies for donation to local schools, we have water treatment programs in the communities we visit, we support an environmental education program (overseen by CONAPAC) in a school in Iquitos, and we hire locals villagers as trackers so they can increase their incomes by protecting and guiding visitors in the forest instead to hunting and logging.
There are a lot of amazing rivers in the world. What makes the Amazon so special?
From traveling I learned that every place in the world has its charm. The Amazon is full of life, so wherever you look you’ll see or hear something. Because it’s remote, you don’t have to worry about anything other than enjoying the simple things– sunsets, the sounds of the forest, the friendliness of the people and the amazing wildlife. Each excursion has a highlight, from Poison Dart Frogs to Red Howler Monkeys. Every day we know what we are looking for, but we never know what we’re going to find.
Can you talk about your connection with the Ribereños (or River People) and their culture?
The Ribereños play a very important role, as they are the main ones responsible for preserving or destroying the forest. In Loreto and the Pacaya Samiria surroundings, the Ribereños seems to understand their importance to the forest better than in other parts of the Peruvian Amazon.
These people are very friendly. When we visit a village, they always greet us as old friends. They share almost everything, and help each other all the time. When we visit a school, the kids get so excited watching tall guests with colorful clothes and big shoes. They’re very happy children: During the day they go to school, paddle canoes, fish, swim and are very obedient with their parents and grandparents.
Their culture is based around the forest and everything it provides to them, including food, medicine, and wood, among others. Shamans are an important part of their culture, but the number of shamans is decreasing. Most of the time people think of the Amazon’s big rivers, dense forests and wildlife. But the contact with the people is one of the best parts of the experience.
You're an avid birder. What's the best thing about birdwatching in the Amazon?
The Amazon is one of the best places in the world for birdwatching. The new World Record for one day of birdwatching was in the Peruvian Amazon, with 354 species spotted in 24 hours.
The best thing is that you can really challenge your skills, identifying birds in certain habitats by sight or sound. But it’s also possible to enjoy birding as a beginner, because lots of them are easy to see.
Birding in the Amazon is never boring: You can find noisy macaws, colorful tanagers, flycatchers, woodpeckers, hawks, eagles and owls, among others. My favorite species include the Plum-throated Cotinga, Amazonian Umbrellabird, Great Potoo, Ornate Hawk-Eagle and the Harpy Eagle.
What do you hope travelers who visit the Amazon will take away from their experience?
I hope they go home knowing that their visit was not only enjoyable, but also generated benefits for the local people and wildlife. Travelers seem to be getting more conscious of their impact, and choosing the right tour operator is an important factor.
People often ask whether it’s better to visit the Amazon during the high water or low water season. But really, each season has its advantage. Lots of guests come back to see how both seasons are, sometimes even during the same year!
In the end, I just hope they come away with a once-in-a-lifetime experience they will never forget.
How to Go
Inspired to join Dennis and explore the famed waters of the Amazon River? International Expeditions offers year-round Amazon River cruises along with land-based options. Check out IE's signature 10-day Amazon Cruise or the 7-day Amazon River & Rainforest Tour, named one of Fodor's Best River Cruises of 2014.
Newly installed WiFi onboard on our new riverboat means we are lucky to now receive frequent updates on wildlife sightings from our Amazon River cruises. Expedition leader Freddy Avalos is reporting and sending photos from our small-group excursions this week.
The weather has been perfect today...a little rain before we left La Estrella Amazonica for our morning excursion. We started our day at Cocona Lake and boating along the creek, where we spotted this beautiful Saddle Back Tamarin climbing a cecropia tree.
When kids are in our group, one of the cruise highlights is catching a piranha. We spent time fishing in one of the tributaries of the Ucayali River, and I'm thrilled to say that every child caught a piranha (the youngest guest on our trip was eight)!
We threw back all of the small fish of course. Some of the kids asked if they could have their piranha for dinner, so Chef Rafael Zevallos and his assistant Cesar deep fried the piranha to serve on the buffet!
Patagonia – the sparsely populated region of South America that stretches across Chile and Argentina, from the southern tip of the Andes to deserts, steppes and grasslands in the east– is known for its larger-than-life natural attractions.
Everywhere you go in Torres del Paine National Park, big blue skies, massive glaciers, expansive lakes, lush fields of green, megafauna (including guanacos and Andean condors), and the majestic peaks of the Paine massif compete for your attention, providing an impressive WOW!-per-hour ratio.
But equally worthy of note are the smaller-scale wonders of the Patagonia flora. Flowers in this region tend to be tiny– many of our favorites are about the size of your thumbnail. But these miniature marvels come in a variety of vivid colors and shapes, working their way up through the arid soil of this harsh climate, where winds frequently whip at speeds of up to 80 mph.
CHILEAN FIRETREE (Embothrium coccineum): Alternatively known as Chilean Firebush or Notro in Spanish, this evergreen grows in the temperate forests of Chile and Argentina, with a dense root mass that allows it to access normally inaccessible forms of various nutrients. Its vidid red flowers bloom in spring, and are pollinated by hummingbirds and insects. Their color provides a striking contrast against the water and glaciers around Lago Grey.
COMMON SORREL (Rumex acetosa): This perennial herb, also known as spinach dock or narrow-leaved dock, is common in grassland habitats and cultivated gardens. The arrow-shaped leaves are often puréed for use in soups and sauces or added to salads, with an acidic, fruity flavor that’s been compared to kiwifruit or sour wild strawberries. One of the first plants to grow back after a fire, the sorrel’s brilliant red flowers create a picturesque carpet of color in the fields around Paine massif.
DWARF PARAMELA (Adesmia salicornioides): Part of an expansive genus of flowering plants in the legume family, this tiny flower is typically found at elevations of 2,000-3,500 meters throughout Patagonia. Smaller than the bush-like Adesmia boronioides (the leaves of which are used as an anti-inflammatory in local traditional medicine), the Dwarf Paramela grows low to the ground, boasting tiny golden flowers streaked with crimson.
FACHINE (Chiliotrichum diffusum): Part of a genus of flowering plants in the daisy family, this native Chilean species (which can also be found in the Falkland Islands) is locally known as Mata Verde because it grows from a lush green bush. It typically grows to a height of four to five feet, topped by hundreds of bright white flowers with yellow stamens.
FUEGIAN EDELWEISS (Perezia azul): Made famous in the U.S. by The Sound of Music, Edelweiss is a hardy mountain flower in the Asteraceae family (related to daisies and sunflowers). Although Edelweiss is typically associated with the Alps of Austria and Switzerland, this tiny South American variation’s periwinkle leaves and golden stamens add a pastel splash of color to the Patagonian landscape.
LADY SLIPPER (Calceolaria uniflora): Originating in Tierra del Fuego, these diminutive mountain plants typically grow to be less than four inches tall. Part of a genus alternatively referred to as a lady’s purse, slipperwort or pocketbook flower, this vivid variation boasts flowers comprised of yellow, white and brownish red. They’re a commonly seen burst of color along the hiking trails of Torres del Paine.
LUPINE (Lupinus): Seeds of this genus of flowering plants from the legume family have been used as a food source in the Andean Highlands for over 6000 years. Lupinus mutabilis (known as tarwi or chocho) was extensively cultivated by the Incas. Users would soak the seeds in running water to remove bitter alkaloids, and then either cooked them to make them edible or boiled and dried them. They’re coming back into fashion as an alternative to soybeans.
MATA NEGRA (Escallonia virgata): Native to South America, these flowering evergreens are beautiful high mountain shrubs, but they’re also widely cultivated (the Royal Horticultural Society has awarded six different hybrids) and often used as a hedge plant. They love sun and can grow up to 5-10 feet in height, typically flowering in the summer and early autumn. They bloom in masses of small pink or red flowers, with a sweet honey smell.
PORCELAIN ORCHID (Chloraea magellanica): Torres del Paine National Park features seven documented orchid species, with the Porcelain Orchid among the most often seen. Measuring around a afoot in height, the flower’s crackled green and white pattern earned it the nickname “Mosaic Orchid.” But it’s the bright yellow “tongue” that truly catches the eye, standing out against the greens that dominate the fields of Patagonia.
STREAKED MAIDEN (Olsynium biflorum): Dormant in summer and related to the iris, this evergreen perennial is native to Argentina, growing on sunny hillsides throughout Patagonia. The delicate, bell-shaped white flowers are lined with lilac stripes leading to gorgeous golden stamens, which are small and conjoined. The flowers only last a few days: If you see these beauties in bloom, consider yourself lucky.
HOW TO GO
Ready to explore Torres del paine National Park and more of Patagonia? International Expeditions offers comprehensive Patagonia Tours, exploring both Chile and Argentina. Avid photographers can also join IE's Chile Photography Tour.
All photos courtesy of Bret Love and Mary Gabbett, GreenGlobalTravel.com.
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Cuba’s “off-limits” aura of mystique has given it an undeniable appeal among American travelers. From Ernest Hemingway’s 1952 novel The Old Man and the Sea to the success of the Buena Vista Social Club in the mid-‘90s, our fascination with Cuba’s rich history and culture has only grown deeper over time.
But, until recently, when the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control granted a select number of tour operators licenses to offer trips to Cuba under the People to People program, Americans had very few legal means of visiting the Caribbean country.
On December 17, President Barack Obama announced that he would finally restore full U.S. diplomatic relations with Cuba – including opening an embassy in Havana – for the first time since the Cuba missile crisis of 1962. But what does this deal, which ended with a phone call between Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro, mean for American travelers? Although the recent announcement does not completely remove restrictions on traveling to Cuba from the U.S., it is certainly going to make it easier. Within the next few weeks the Department of the Treasury will issue new regulations about license requirements with the details of how Americans may travel to Cuba and for what purposes they are authorized to go.
Here are five things to know before you go:
1. This doesn’t mean you can just hop on a plane to Cuba.
If you’re picturing yourself jumping on a plane for a tropical beach getaway filled with mojitos, Cuban cigars and dancing to lively salsa music, think again. Travelers still have to be authorized to visit Cuba, with the White House listing 12 categories in which they could be approved:
“(1) family visits; (2) official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations; (3) journalistic activity; (4) professional research and professional meetings; (5) educational activities; (6) religious activities; (7) public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions; (8) support for the Cuban people; (9) humanitarian projects; (10) activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes; (11) exportation, importation, or transmission of information or information materials; and (12) certain export transactions that may be considered for authorization under existing regulations and guidelines.”
2. There are still rules in place once you get to Cuba.
Although the White House statement suggests restrictions on Cuba travel may loosen over time, independent travel to the island isn’t on the agenda anytime soon. For now, all people-to-people trips will remain highly scheduled so that there is a full agenda of activities that engage American travelers with Cuban people. These trips include all meals, guides, transportation, activities and more. In other words, don’t expect to be able to roam the streets of Havana at your leisure.
3. Cuba will need time to catch up to the increased tourism demand.
International Expeditions executive director Steve Cox explained in an interview with USA Today that it’s a good thing the floodgates of Cuban travel from the U.S. are not being thrown wide open just yet, because Cuba doesn’t have the infrastructure to handle an influx of Americans swarming its shores. “Cuba really isn't ready for travel by mass Americans," he said. "There are some excellent hotels in Cuba but not enough. They're at almost full capacity for six months out of the year now."
4. Licensed Cuba travelers can bring back some long-banned imports.
Along with history and culture, Cuba is known for its indulgence in the simple pleasures, including delicious food, a good hand-rolled cigar and Havana Club rum (which has been distilled in Cuba off-and-on since the 19th century). But, until now, Americans couldn’t bring these things back to the U.S. legally.
Under the new White House policy, "licensed U.S. travelers to Cuba will be authorized to import $400 worth of goods from Cuba, of which no more than $100 can consist of tobacco products and alcohol combined.” And pundits predict that these limitations may be loosened even more as our diplomatic relations with Cuba continue to improve.
5. If you want to see “the real Cuba,” the time is now.
As restrictions on U.S. travel to Cuba become increasingly relaxed, it’s a given that the tourism industry will invest in building up the infrastructure of an alluring tropical destination located just 90 miles away from Key West. It’s not a question of if there will be an explosion of Cuban tourism, but WHEN.
Historically speaking, such an influx of investment in mass market tourism brings with it elements of homogeneity. What this means for U.S. travelers to Cuba is that, if you want to explore a rare Caribbean destination that has remained largely untouched by globalization, there’s no time like the present.
How to Explore Cuba Now
35-year-old tour operator International Expeditions offers people-to-people Cuba travel that is licensed (CT-2013-299822-1) by the US Office of Foreign Assets Control. Through meaningful daily interactions and free-ranging discussions, the Complete Cuba, focusing on the island's natural areas and countryside, and Classic Art & Culture, based in Havana and the colonial-era port of Matanzas, itineraries offer you a way to connect with the warm, generous people of Cuba.