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Juan Venado Island (located near Las Penitas, Nicaragua) is a very special place. Here, you’re more likely to find sea turtles relaxing on the beaches than the sun-seeking tourists seen on almost every other strip of sand in the region. In fact, the beach – known locally as Playa Tamarindo – is considered one of the most important sea turtle nesting sites found anywhere on the Pacific Coast.
From a traveler’s perspective, it's a great place to watch nature take form and evolve. From an ecological perspective, it's a beacon of hope for a broad variety of flora and fauna, including (but not limited to) the sea turtles that nest here.
About Juan Venado Island Nature Reserve
Juan Venado Island Nature Reserve is situated 21km west of the city of León. The island is uninhabited by humans, but visitors can enter via the nearby coastal village of Las Penitas. The nature reserve is protected as a part of the Nicaraguan National Parks system, but an NGO has been brought in to oversee the care of this delicate piece of land.
Juan Venado Island is a sliver of land, measuring around 22 km long, but with an average width of just 0.5 km. On the eastern side, an estuary carves through a large swath of mangrove forest, while the Pacific side of the island is highlighted by a long strip of pristine beach. However, the nature reserve also extends farther into the mainland and includes a protected marine reserve as well.
The island is home to a number of wildlife species. The swampy mangrove ecosystem provides sanctuary for a broad variety of birds, including pelicans, egrets, herons and terns. In the waters, there are cayman and the occasional crocodile. But it's the sea turtles that have made Juan Venado Island the top tourist attraction in Las Penitas.
The Sea Turtles of Juan Venado Island
Juan Venado Island Nature Reserve is one of the most important turtle sanctuaries anywhere along the Pacific Ocean, with four types of turtles coming here to nest.
The most commonly sighted sea turtle on Juan Venado is the Olive Ridley, which can grow up to 75cm long and weigh as much as 50kg. Both Hawksbill and Leatherback turtles – each of which are designated as critically endangered species – also come to these beaches to nest. Green Sea Turtles occasionally find their way to the beach as well, but they’re the most rarely seen of the four species.
Typically, nesting season starts in August and ends in December, with the busiest months being in September and October. The eggs are buried by their mother and take approximately two months to hatch.
Once the babies crack through the shell, they're not done: They’ll have up to 50cm of sand to dig out of before they reach the surface, which can take 4-5 days. One of the things that makes Juan Venado Island so special is that you can actually be there to witness the young turtles’ first steps on the beach, and watch it scamper into the confines of the sea.
Threats to the Sea Turtles of Juan Venado Reserve
Of course, one of the biggest reasons for the dwindling population of sea turtles in the world is human-related. It's hard enough for a baby sea turtle to survive in the ocean without human interference (only an estimated 1 in 500 baby sea turtles live to adulthood). Not only do sea turtles have to contend with people descending on nearly every beach in the Las Penitas region, but they are also often captured and sold as pets. Moreover, in Nicaragua, turtle eggs are still harvested for food.
When visiting the sea turtles of Juan Venado Island, please give them the respect and privacy they deserve to help ensure the survival of these beautiful animals.
Tips for Observing Nesting Sea Turtles Responsibly
If you're out on Playa Tamarindo viewing the eggs being laid or babies hatching, it's extremely important to remember that you are a spectator in the phenomenon, and not a participant. There are some guidelines that should be followed to protect the animals from becoming distressed and allow nature to take place… well, naturally.
- Keep your distance from the animals. Always give them a personal space of at least 3 or 4 meters.
- Never, under any circumstances, should you touch the animals.
- Stay as quiet as possible. It gives the animal peace and keeps them from seeing you as a threat.
- It's understandable that you may want to capture the moment. But using flash photography or even a flashlight is a big no-no, as it can cause distress.
- Finally, never get in between the nesting mother and the water.
Discover NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC TRAVELER'S Nicaragua Tour of a Lifetime
Ready to explore Nicaragua and Juan Venado? Come see why National Geographic Traveler named International Expeditions' Nicaragua tour one of the world's best escorted tours.
Amazon cruise Expedition Leader Angel checks-in from the Peruvian Amazon with updates on this week's exciting wildlife sightings.
We were a little delayed by rain this morning, but had a great time exploring Atun Poza, a huge lake in the Pacaya-Samiria Reserve. Our small group was very close to us three different troops of Squirrel Monkeys. One troop was mixed with Brown Capuchin Monkeys!
Later on we came across Monk Saki Monkeys. One of them was so busy eating fruits that we didn't scare him away...he posed for our photos. Near the same spot we we also found a Three Toed Sloth in very low an a cecropia tree.
Also found lots of birds: Orange Winged Parrot, Dusky Headed Parakeet, Red Throated Caracara, Tui Parakeet, Festive Parrot, Black Collared Hawk, Black Capped Donacobious and others.
Aboard La Estrella Amazonica this afternoon, guests joined one of our chefs for a cooking lesson.
On the blackwater El Dorado River, we found one most interesting birds we have in the Amazon: The pre-historic looking Hoatzin. While some of our guests were swimming in the river, the rest of us saw Blue-and-Yellow Macaws flying above. We capped off our day in a fishing hot spot. Even though it's not the season for fishing, we really caught a lot, including Piranhas, Paku (fruit eating Piranha), Sabalo and Tetra fish. What do you think of my catch?
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It wasn’t until 1910 that the outside world first discovered Komodo dragons. For millions of years these ancient reptiles had ruled supreme on their Indonesian islands. Without any natural predators, they dominated the ecosystem, and their survival was virtually guaranteed.
The Komodo dragons are a relic of a time when enormous reptiles lived all across this region of the world, from Indonesia down to Australia. Most were wiped out over the years, but this species somehow survived. For scientists, they are now a critical piece of evidence of evolution.
Where to Find Komodo Dragons
The majority of the world’s remaining Komodo dragons are found on two small islands– Komodo Island and Rinca Island– which are all accessible within two hours by boat from the nearest major town of Labuan Bajo, on Flores.
There are less than 5,000 of the species left in total, but they’re easily spotted up close by visitors on both these islands. Their only protection is a local ranger with a stick, who will keep an eye out for any animals getting too close. These ancient animals have free reign over the land: They generally won’t attack humans, but it has happened in the past.
Komodo dragons are vicious and lazy predators. Unlike most reptiles, they often hunt in packs and will surround an animal before attacking it. Sometimes they will bring down their prey with one bite but, if larger animals get away, it doesn’t mean the hunt is over. The saliva of the Komodo dragon contains bacteria that will eventually kill the animal it has bitten. The ancient predators can smell blood from up to 10 kilometers away, and will just track their target for days until it dies.
Life on Komodo and Rinca Island
For being home to such a dangerous species, Komodo and Rinca Islands give off a sense of calm. The blue waters around them are still and the sun shines brightly for most of the year. Birds in the trees tweet happily, perhaps unaware of the monsters below. The Komodo dragons spend most of the day lazing in the sun, conserving their energy. Wild water buffalo, deer, horses and pigs graze on the land while macaques play near the shoreline.
On Rinca Island, the star attractions generally gather on one side, where the rangers can easily keep an eye on them. On the other side, visitors arrive by boat to enjoy the beautiful pristine waters and beaches. One, known as Pink Beach, has become famous in its own right for the color of its sand. Red coral in the water has become mixed with the grains of sand to give off a hue that glimmers in the sunlight.
The Wildlife of Indonesia
Indonesia is the world’s largest archipelago, with more than 17,000 islands stretching across an area about 5,000 kilometers wide. This isolated chain has cultivated one of the richest levels of diversity on the planet, both for fauna and indigenous cultures. The general sense of harmony between the two is one of the reasons so many types of animals have been able to flourish for so long in their own small ecosystems.
Like Komodo dragons, many of the animals found in Indonesia are endemic to very small regions within the country, cut off by water from the rest of the archipelago. These species include the Orangutans in Kalimantan, the Javan Rhinoceros on the western tip of Java, the Drongos of Sumatra, and the Tamarau on Celebes.
Some of these species are endangered (the Javan Rhino in particular), and measures have been put in place to protect them. However, human intervention in the natural world poses a threat to many of the country’s animals.
Bali Barat National Park
Indonesia has 50 national parks across the archipelago, covering land and sea areas. Even on the popular tourist island of Bali, you can still find untouched and protected wilderness. While large hotel developments and nightlife strips have expanded on the island’s southern tip, 158 square kilometers of land in the northwest has been protected as Bali Barat National Park.
The park’s landscapes are a mixture of monsoon forest, mangrove forest, rainforest, savannah and even marine areas. The main aim of Bali Barat is to protect the Bali Starling, one of the most endangered birds in the world. But it’s not the only attraction here: There are more than 150 species of birds found within the park’s perimeter.
Fortunately, Indonesia has not seen the same level of tourism that nearby neighbors such as Thailand have. In general, tourism development has been focused on a small number of areas that have grown rapidly in the past few decades. This means there are still large parts of the country that remain relatively untouched, with natural habitats and native flora and fauna still accessible for travelers.
Some were protected by circumstance, such as the Komodo dragons. Some have been protected more recently by regulation, like the Javan rhinoceros and the Bali Starling. Unfortunately, animals like the Orangutan are still under threat as their land is encroached upon by farmers looking for an income from palm oil.
Explore Indonesia's Wildlife Hotspots
For eco-minded travelers, there is a whole world of fauna to discover across the Indonesian archipelago that takes visitors on a journey through diverse landscapes and millions of years of evolution. Internaitonal Expeditions' Bali to Komodo tour features ranger-led nature walks, snorkeling and more.
As a broadcast journalist, Michael Turtle worked for 10 years in the Australian media. He now runs the award-winning travel blog, Time Travel Turtle, which focuses on culture, history and people.
Photos by Michael Turtle courtesy of Time Travel Turtle.
Amazon River cruise Expedition leader Freddy Avalos checks-in from the heart of the Peruvian rainforest with an update on wildlife sightings.
What a week of wildlife we've exeperienced! After brief morning rains, we had a great afternoon excursion. There were many fork-tailed flycatchers around us, greater anis, white-winged parakeets and yellow-headed blackbirds. We were lucky to spot an Amazonian umbrellabird in the Yarapa River. Traveling into a narrow creek, we found a long-billed woodcreeper.
Our photos from Sapuena Creek are fabulous. Clear sky and good light really set off this photo of a male orange-winged parrot. Other sightings included red-bellied macaw and chesnut-fronted macaw. The rain even held off until we reached La Estrella in the Ucayali River! After a little rain, we made our way to the Sapote River. BINGO! We were lucky to see a yellow-crowned brush-tailed rat and tamandua anteater.
On more excursions along the banks of the Ucayali, we spotted a colorful caiman lizard resting on the top of a bush (he posed so long that everyone got lots of good photos for their scrapbook). The monkeys were also out to play this morning, with our small group seeing both monk saki monkeys and saddle-backed tamarin.
It was tough getting deep into the Pacaya-Samiria Reserve this week because watery plants clogged the creeks and streams we usually explore. Fortunatley, our naturalists Usiel and Julio found the way to our destination! While in a lake, we found this male ferruginous owl. These are the smallest owls we have in the Amazon rainforest and our only diurnal owl. Also, we found a black-tailed trogon. In fact, guests were actually looking at a white-eared jacamar and the trogon was just opposite, so guests had the chance to see it well!
In Flor de Castaña Creek we had a great interaction with a family who was harvesting yuca (manioc esculenta). We bought some from them and we cooked at dinner...guests loved it! Many travelers don't know that we buy a lot of the fruits consumed on the trip from villages and families we encounter along the way. So our naturalist and the kitchen staff took time to do a display of native fruits and have a tasting with Amazon guests.
The island of Cuba is colorful and diverse, so it will come as no surprise to learn that its variety of bird species is much the same. Birdwatchers in Cuba will find endemic, Caribbean endemic and more common North American birds all over the island. But the most popular places for to find many birds of Cuba are the wooded areas of the Guanahacabibes peninsula, the Zapata peninsula and to the far southeast.
Here are a few examples of Cuba’s beautiful birds that you might see while traveling to Cuba:
Bee Hummingbird: The Bee Hummingbird, Cuba’s endemic hummingbird species, is commonly known as the smallest bird in the world, weighing up to around 1.8 grams and measuring 5 or 6cm in length. Breeding males have a stunning upper plumage of red-pink and blue, which sheds after breeding season. Females have an upper plumage of green/blue, and her lower part is white/grey. Outside of breeding season the two look similar, but outer tail feathers are white-tipped on females and blue/black-tipped on males. Distribution of this hummingbird in Cuba is a little patchy, but sightings have occurred on the Guanahacabibes Peninsula, Zapata Swamp, and to the very far east of the island.
Cuban Grassquit: One of the country’s more exotic-looking endemic birds, the Cuban Grassquit is a must-see when you search for birds in Cuba. Males are identified by their black masked faces and bright yellow collars, with grey crowns and lower plumage and a darker yellow upper plumage. Females are similar, but not quite as brightly colored. The Grassquit can be found all across Cuba, although it is thought that numbers have been dropping in recent years. Head to Cuba’s eastern, dry regions for the highest chance of a sighting.
Cuban Parrot: The Cuban Parrot is characterized by its green body, white upper face, red lower face and neck, and blue on its primary wing feathers. These parrots are large, growing up to 33cm long in adulthood. Not only can it be found in Cuba, but also other Caribbean spots such as the Bahamas and Cayman Islands. This parrot can be most commonly found in Cuba on the Zapata peninsula, but also dotted around south central and western areas. The species is thought to be in decline, but stable, with around 10,000 pairs left in Cuba.
Cuban Parakeet: The endemic Cuban Parakeet can be identified by its green color, with a smattering of red feathers on the bend of its wings. It is also the only parakeet found on the island of Cuba. Its population is in decline, known to have dropped below 5,000. As a result, this species is classified as Vulnerable. The Parakeet’s population is scattered across the island, most commonly found in the Zapata Peninsula, Trinidad Mountains and the Sierra de Najasa.
Cuban Pygmy Owl: This pygmy owl is another of Cuba’s endemic species. But, unlike a few of the other local birds, Cuban Pygmy Owls are found all over the island. These tiny birds, whose feathers are a mixture of grey, brown and white and which grow up to 16cm in height in adulthood, can be seen in various kinds of woodland and forest areas in Cuba. The population is stable, so this is a fairly likely spotting if you’re looking for birds in Cuba.
Cuban Bare-legged Screech Owl: This small owl, endemic to Cuba, can be identified by its brown, grey and white plumage, which is dark on top and light underneath, with some streaks of brown. It has large, dark eyes and differs from most owl species with its long, bare legs. This owl inhabits wooded areas and can be found all over the island of Cuba. But, as they are nocturnal, your best bet for seeing one during the day is looking out for holes in the trees, where the owls commonly roost.
Cuban Emerald: Despite having “Cuban” in its name, the Emerald Hummingbird is actually native to both this island and a number of spots in the Bahamas and Turks and Caicos. The male of this species is black with iridescent green/blue on top, while the females are much the same but with a grey-brown belly. Sightings of the Cuban Emerald Hummingbird have been known to occur all over Cuba. As they are solitary creatures, you are like to only see one at a time.
Gundlach’s Hawk: This medium-sized hawk is one of Cuba’s endemic species and is classified as Endangered, with roughly 150-200 pairs remaining. There are now only five areas in the country where you can see Gundlach’s Hawk, including the northeast regions of Zapata National Park, the wooded areas to the west of Santiago de Cuba, and north of Guantanamo. But even in these parts sighting are rare. The hawk is characterized, when adult, by its grey-blue upper and white lower plumages, with a black cap and a rust color around its legs. It almost exclusively feeds on other birds, including chickens, which is why it is sometimes considered a pest by locals in Cuba.
Cuban Oriole: Until recently, this Oriole was part of the Greater Antillian Oriole species. But it has since been given its own classification and is now considered one of Cuba’s endemic birds. Adult Cuban Orioles are nearly all black except for bright yellow patches on the side of the neck and at the base of its tail, and they grow up to around 20cm long. The Cuban Oriole inhabits forest areas and parks, often near palms, and are a common sighting.
Cuban Trogon: As Cuba’s national bird, the Cuban Trogon is a must-see. This medium-sized bird can be found all over Cuba in dry or moist forests, and is identified by its blue upper plumage, white breast, and red feathers in the lower part of its body around the legs. These colors correspond to those of the Cuban flag, which is why it was named the national bird pf Cuba. Its nickname with the locals is Tocororo because of its “toco-toco-tocoro-tocoro” call.
Antillian Palm Swift: With a population that spreads out over Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Jamaica, the Antillian Palm-Swift is a common bird in Cuba. It can be identified by its arching wings, forked tail and black and white colorings. These swifts can normally be found in lowlands and wet grasslands, feeding on insects. They are quite well-adapted to humans, so you shouldn’t find them too shy or inconspicuous, which is a blessing considering how beautiful they are when seen swooping through the skies.
Cuban Tody: Another of Cuba’s endemic bird species, the Cuban Tody is widely found all across the island and its barrier islands. This tiny bird, which only grows up to 11cm in adulthood, is characterized by its wonderful bright colors– green on top, white underneath, with blue hints around and under the wings and a vivid red streak on its beak and neck. The Cuban Tody is an avid hunter, found burrowing for insects for most of the day.
La Sagra’s Flycatcher: With a population that spreads across Cuba, the Bahamas, the Cayman Islands, Turks and Caicos and even the US, La Sagra’s Flycatcher is not exactly elusive in this part of the world. Still, it’s one of Cuba’s most charming common birds, with a white breast and brown-beige upper body, striped in part down the wings. This flycatcher is found in forests and woodlands, where it’s easiest for it to nest.
Cuban Green Woodpecker: The Cuban Green Woodpecker is one of a few species of woodpeckers with similar traits and colorings. But this is one of only two endemic to the island. This medium-sized bird is streaked with color– a green upper plumage and green stripes behind the eyes, white underneath, black stripes lining the tips of the wings and tail, and a red streak down its head and neck. They can be commonly found all over Cuba in forest regions, usually alone or in a very small group.
Fernandina's Flicker: The second of Cuba’s endemic woodpecker species, this bird’s signature striped brown/black and yellow feathers are well worth looking out for when birdwatching in Cuba. This species is far rarer than Cuba’s other woodpecker (it’s classified as Vulnerable, with fewer than 900 remaining), with fragmented populations in a handful of places on the island. They’re most commonly found in the Zapata Swamp area, usually sighted in palms, around the edges of woodlands, or feeding on the ground.
Summer Tanager and Scarlet Tanager: These two species are both common North America songbirds, but always a joy to see due to their bright red plumage. The Summer Tanager is medium-sized and males are mostly red, with a few black streaks in its wings. The Scarlet Tanager is also medium-sized, and in the summer breeding season males have a scarlet body with black wings and tail. The females of both species are a dull yellow, making them a little harder to spot, especially as these species usually inhabit high forest canopy.
Greater Antillian Grackle: This medium-sized, jet black bird with yellow eyes is endemic to the Antilles, found on Cuba, Jamaica, Puerto Rico and in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Its population is stable and considered common in this region, and sightings have also occurred on the Cayman Islands. The Great Antillian Grackle is known to be noisy and confident, and they’re often found scurrying across the ground looking for insects to feed on.
Cuban Pewee: Although it may not look as impressive as the more colorful birds of Cuba, the Cuban Pewee is nonetheless charming. This small bird– with dark grey upper plumage, white under plumage, a tufted crest and a tiny white crescent behind the eyes– is commonly found in Cuba and the Bahamas, although rare sightings have been known to occur in the US. The Cuban Pewee habitats forests and swamp areas and feeds on insects: It’s sometimes known to capture prey in the air with a brisk snap of the bill.
Loggerhead Kingbird: The medium-sized Loggerhead Kingbird is found across the West Indies, in the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Cuba, to name a few. There have also been a few rare sightings of this bird in Florida, in particular the Florida Keys. It can be identified by its white chest and neck, black/grey upper plumage with lines of white around the wing feathers, and black crown and beak. In Cuba, it can be found in forest, lowland, mangroves and swamp edges.
Cuban Vireo: The Cuban Vireo is another of the country’s endemic species, commonly found all over the island. The tops of its head and back are a dull grey, while its lower plumage blends into a light yellow, and stripes of white and darker grey line its wings and tail. They inhabit various forest areas in Cuba, including dry and moist lowland forest, mostly at a low altitude, but some can be found in the high forest regions on the island.
Red-legged Thrush: This small thrush is endemic to the Caribbean region, and can be found in Cuba, the Bahamas, Dominican Republic and Haiti. As the name suggests, it is characterized by its red legs, blue/grey upper plumage and a red ring around its eyes. There are a number of different variations in terms of color, but these features are common. Some also have a red beak, for example. The Red-legged Thrush is usually found in forested areas on the ground, where it likes to walk or run while looking for food.
Yellow-headed Warbler: As the name suggests, this bird can be identified by its bright yellow head. The rest of its feathers are grey on top and light grey/white on the bottom. This is another of Cuba’s endemic species. While it is not endangered, its population is limited to Cuba’s western regions, from the Gunanahacabibes Peninsula to Zapata, stretching slightly down to Cienfuegos and over the Isle de la Juventud. The Yellow-headed Warbler inhabits all kinds of forest regions, as well as semi-arid landscapes.
Ready to See the Birds of Cuba?
Join Cuban birders and naturalists on International Expeditions' Complete Cuba adventure to experience the "green side" of this island while connecting with the warm, generous people of Cuba.
British travel writer Emma Higgins has been traveling for three years and has lived in Spain, Canada and Thailand, collecting tales along the way and sharing them on her blog, Gotta Keep Movin'.
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Cuba. You’ve seen it on television, read the books, and maybe even heard your parents/grandparents tell stories about traveling there as children. Now it is time for you to discover this enigmatic island that has been essentially forbidden to US tourists for the past 50 years. 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, and here’s our 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. Enitre 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!
You don’t have to be Conan O’Brien or American “royalty” to enjoy a celeb-worthy experience in Cuba! International Expeditions offers two Cuba travel options – plus options for bespoke travel that still adheres to the legal “people-to-people” rules for travel. Through meaningful daily interactions and free-ranging discussions, our Complete Cuba and Classic Art & Culture itineraries offer you a way to connect with the warm, generous people of Cuba.
Growing up in Nicoya, Costa Rica as the son of a botanist and anthropologist, Jonathan Sequeira comes by his love of nature honestly. After heading off to Sri Lanka to get his PhD in Alternative Medicine, he headed back to his native country, where he balances life as a naturalist guide with breeding poison dart frogs and growing medicinal plants on his property in Sarapiqui. Here, we catch up with IE’s beloved expedition leader to learn more about his passion for plants, animals and people.
Tell me about your childhood in Costa Rica.
I was born in the town of Nicoya in 1966. My father was a botanist and anthropologist, and my mother grew up in the countryside and was a nature lover. In 1977, I heard concerns about deforestation in my province. Somebody from the Cousteau crew said, “If we keep cutting the forest, by the year 2000 Guanacaste will be a desert.” I knew at that moment that I wanted to be involved in the conservation of nature.
You went to Sri Lanka to get a PhD in Alternative Medicine, specifically the use of medicinal plants from the rainforest. What drew you to that field of study?
My study of medicinal plants was probably influenced by my father, who did some work for different universities. The Open International University for Complementary Medicine in Sri Lanka allowed me to continue my studies in Costa Rica, as it focused on plants from the rainforest. I was inspired by how plants found a way to defend themselves by developing compounds that stop predation. Through understanding the potential medicinal properties of those substances, we can find a way to improve our quality of life.
What are some interesting examples of medicinal plants in Costa Rica?
1) Almendro, or Beach almond (Terminalia catappa) - This non-native ornamental tree has fruits that are one of the most important sources of food for the scarlet macaw. The leaves are astringent and therefore antidiarrheal; they have antimicrobial and antifungal agents; and some substances found on the leaves have effects on HIV replication.
2) Carao, or Sandal (Cassia grandis Fabaceae) - This medium-sized tree is known for the honey-like liquid from the large bean-shaped fruit, which can be used to treat anemia. For best results, it shouldn’t be mixed with milk.
3) Papaya (Carica papaya) - The sap of the unripe fruit is used as a meat tenderizer, because of its papain enzyme. A test on an injection of the enzyme into the spine to dissipate pains of the intervertebral disc had a 60% success rate, and a minimum risk of allergy. But the FDA is not approving the use of products with papain until more research has been done.
4) Indio Desnudo, or Naked Indian (Bursera simarouba) - This common tree secretes a natural resin that can be used to stop blood flow from wounds. The sap can also be used as an antidote for poison-wood. You can also use it in a tea for rheumatism or in a bath for back pain, and a poultice of crushed leaves can soothe bee and wasp stings.
How did you wind up becoming a naturalist guide?
Being a naturalist guide is a way to teach how important it is to preserve nature, and my love for nature have been part of my life since I was a child. I started guiding in Guayabo National Monument as a volunteer. It was there that I started learning about plants and birds, as well as the archeology of the area. After that I went to Corcovado National Park to work in a biological station call Marenco, where representatives of International Expeditions first contacted me. Later on, I started working for them.
You have a farm in Sarapiqui, where you breed Poison Dart Frogs. Can you talk about the environmental challenges facing amphibians around the world, and what their struggle tells us about the planet?
In 1988, during my first visit to Monteverde, I was lucky to see and photograph Bufo periglenes and Atelopus sp, a toad and frog species that later went extinct. Later on I learned about the illegal international traffic of frogs to supply a market in some countries in Europe. I tried to breed frogs in captivity to supply that market and send the price of those frogs down to the point of stopping the illegal trade. But I could not get permission from the government to manipulate specimens of endangered species. So what I am doing right now is keeping a piece of land in the rainforest, where I protect frog habitat. It is like my own little reserve, with monkeys frogs, birds, etc.
What do you hope IE guests will take away from their Costa Rica tours in terms of knowledge and experience?
I see guiding like converting people into a new religion. It’s a great pleasure when people tell me, “I will go home inspired and appreciating nature, being more alert about what we have in our backyards at home.” Hearing that they will teach their children, and that this experience has changed their life… these kinds of comments make me enjoy my work even more. It’s my goal for all our guests!
Travel to Costa Rica with Jonathan!
Join IE's Master Naturalist in Costa Rica. International Expeditions has offered small-group Costa Rica tours for 35 years. Choose between naturalist-guided adventures encompanssing the natural and cultural history of Costa Rica, or enjoy our bespoke journeys, ideal for families.
Amazon River cruise Expedition leader Freddy Avalos is reporting from our small-group excursions this week.
We’ve had wonderful weather in the Amazon Basin this week! The whole day on the lake was so beautiful, perfectly reflecting the trees. Our nighttime excursion on the Ucayali River allowed our small group to do some stargazing. The clear sky made it possible to see the Milky Way.
One of our travelers this week in an expert in bats. Working with the other naturalists, we found a group of long nose bats. The guest was able to do an impromptu talk about Amazonian bats.
This has been a great week to see babies! Twice we saw monk saki monkeys with babies, as well as hoatzins during our picnic breakfast in the Sapote River. Breakfast was exciting! In addition to the monkeys, we observed hook-billed kites flying over us, snail kite, lineated woodpecker, kiskadees, turquoise tanager and red-throated caracara.
While we were piranha fishing in El Dorado Creek, we spotted this three-toed sloth. She was just hanging down sleeping. I estimate that she is only about one year old, and just left by her parents. So so cute! Everyone was able to take many pictures
A whole family of night or owl monkeys was checking out our group in Yanallpa Creek. This is the same creek where we saw saddle-backed tamarin with some babies.
This Amazon cruise isn’t over yet! Excited to see what we find tonight. - Freddy
Rhinos all around the world are in serious trouble. Poaching is at an all-time high, rising from 333 rhinos killed in South Africa for their horns back in 2010 to more than 1,200 killed last year. And the bloodshed shows no signs of stopping.
The last Vietnamese rhino was shot and killed in 2009, and in November of 2011 the western black rhinoceros was declared extinct by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature & Natural Resources (IUCN). The black rhino, Javan rhino and Sumatran rhino are all currently listed as critically endangered, with less than 100 of the latter two species left.
The white rhinoceros, of which an estimated 20,000 remain in the wild, is not on the Endangered Species yet. But some rhino conservation experts suggest that, if poaching continues at its current rate, rhinos may disappear from the wild entirely within the next 30 years.
The Root of the Rhino Poaching Problem
At the beginning of the 20th century there were more than 500,000 rhinos spread across Africa and Asia. A century later, less than 30,000 remain. And the reason why basically boils down to a lie.
Rhino horn has historically been used to cure a variety of ailments throughout Asia. In traditional medicine, the horn is shaved or ground into a powder and dissolved in water, then used to treat fever, rheumatism, headache, gout and myriad other disorders (including cancer). As supply went down and demand went up, so did the prices: Rhino horns are currently worth around $45,000 a pound on the black market, making them more valuable than gold.
Unfortunately there’s not a single scientific study to back up the claims that rhino horn has any medicinal properties whatsoever. Rhino horn is actually made of keratin – the same protein found in hair, fingernails, horse hooves and turtle beaks. And yet still these majestic creatures continue to be killed at an increasingly alarming rate.
Why Rhinos Matter
There are around 25,000 rhinos left in Africa, where they are considered one of the “Big Five” animals that travelers want to see on safari (along with lions, leopards, elephants and Cape buffalo).
For the 11 countries that feature the “Big Five” as a tourist attraction – including Botswana, Zambia, Uganda, Namibia, Ethiopia, South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Malawi – these iconic species are at the top of an ecosystem that ultimately cannot survive without them.
“Africa generates about $80 billion in ecotourism revenue each year,” explains conservation advocate and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Dereck Joubert. “Most of that is focused on seeing big cats, elephants and rhinos. If we have beautiful lodges in pristine landscapes, but no big wildlife, that model would collapse immediately. Without those tourism dollars, we’d see increased poverty in many countries and, as a result, increased poaching for bush meat. It’s like a plague that ends in the total eradication of natural wildlife structures, and further damage to sustainable economics in Africa.”
Some Good News for Rhino Conservation
If there’s good news for rhinos, it’s that they have one of the most outspoken and politically active networks within the wildlife conservation community. Organizations such as Save The Rhino, World Wildlife Fund and the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust are all extremely active in raising awareness and funds for rhino conservation initiatives.
Great Plains Conservation, a foundation started by Dereck Joubert and his wife Beverly, has also launched Rhinos Without Borders, an initiative to save the rhino by translocating 100 of them from South Africa to Botswana in order to protect them from the tragic rise in poaching. To do this, they’ll need to raise nearly $5 million, as the costs to capture, transport, quarantine and release these animals will average about $45,000 per rhino.
Fortunately, these grassroots conservation initiatives are gradually making a difference in fighting back against the rise in poaching. The black rhino population in Africa has more than doubled since 1993, when it reached a low of just 2,300 animals. And the southern white rhino is one of the world’s great Cinderella stories: From a population of around 50 in the wild in the early 1900s, this subspecies has grown in numbers to over 20,000, making it the most populous of all rhino species.
But, with rhinos being poached at an average rate of one every seven hours, the time for action is now.
See Rhino in the Wild
International Expeditions offers a range of small-group African safaris in both East and Southern Africa. You can also take advantage of IE's 35 years of Africa travel expertise by allowing our experts to plan a private safari.
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Everyone knows that the Amazon River basin is home to some of the most impressive biodiversity on the planet, including more than one-third of all known wildlife species in the world. But significantly less well known are the ribereños, who inhabit villages spread out along the banks of the mighty river.
The ribereños of the Peruvian Amazon are an ethnically diverse people made up of the descendants of Europeans, detribalized native and their mixed-race (or mestizo) offspring. Because they live on a floodplain subject to remarkable environmental changes, these “river people” are notoriously adaptable and resilient.
Their life revolves around the river– washing clothes in it, bathing in it, using its water for cooking, and reaping its harvest for sustenance. And, since there are no roads, the ribereños use the river to get everywhere they need to go.
Despite being the most significant population in the Peruvian Amazon outside Iquitos, in terms of numbers, the ribereños remain virtually unknown. But here are five reasons why they will ultimately prove to be one of the most memorable aspects of an Amazon River Cruise:
The arrival of a ship in a Ribereños village always feels a bit like Christmas morning. All of the children seem excited to come out to welcome their visitors, but some hang back shyly while the bolder ones immediately begin using the boat as their personal jungle gym. Their energy proves incredibly infectious.
Younger kids may not ever have seen pictures of themselves before, so posing for photos and politely asking to see the results quickly becomes a popular past time.
Visiting the village’s one-room schoolhouse is an experience you’ll never forget, offering an opportunity for engaging cultural interactions that usually result in big smiles all around. After all, is there anything more amusing to a kid than watching grown-ups do “The Hokey-Pokey”?
LEARNING ABOUT RIBEREÑOS LIFE
As you stroll through the village, you gradually learn more about the typical Ribereños way of life. These communities are often focused on farming, but fishing, hunting, extraction of forest products, and waged labor are also common ways of making a living.
The women traditionally do most of the work at home, cleaning house, minding the children and roasting manioc (also known as yuca or cassava), a root vegetable that has been a staple of the Peruvian diet for thousands of years. Because it contains residual cyanide, manioc must be roasted over a fire for six hours, turning constantly to avoid burning.
It’s a special treat to be welcomed inside a typical Ribereños home– simple but well-kept wooden houses with a thatch roof, elevated on stilts in case the rising river waters come up over the bank. Most have just two bedrooms for the parents and their children, along with simple kitchens where they cook up fish, manioc and apple snails, a local delicacy.
RECEIVING A SHAMAN’S BLESSING
Arguably the most unique experience you can have in the Peruvian Amazon is the opportunity to consult with a local shaman.
This oral tradition, passed down from generation to generation for thousands of years, is in danger of dying out, as there are few young people willing to undergo the strict regimen required to study shamanic practices. Every plant in the Amazon rainforest serves a purpose, and most ribereños will go to a shaman for healing first before seeking help from traditional Western medicine.
At the end of your meeting, the shaman may offer to perform a sacred blessing ceremony, which involves him waving a small bundle of herbs above your head and chanting melodically, blowing tobacco smoke (known as a purifying agent) on your head, and then blowing it into your hands for your to rub over your body. It’s an exhilarating and indescribably powerful experience.
SHOPPING FOR HANDMADE CRAFTS
Fortunately, there are no malls or stores along the Amazon River. But that doesn’t mean you have to go home without a souvenir. Most ribereños villages are home to exceptional craftsmen, and sometimes you even meet families selling goods from canoes along the river.
Traditional crafts include elaborately carved gourds featuring images of the Amazon’s indigenous wildlife, woven baskets made from colorfully dyed textiles, tribal jewelry fashioned from local seeds and beads, and even miniature boats made to look just like IE’s ship, La Estrella Amazonica.
SUPPORTING CONSERVATION OF THE PERUVIAN AMAZON
As part of International Expeditions’ 35-year commitment to preserving natural habitats and improving the welfare of local communities, we have created numerous programs in the Peruvian Amazon.
These include creating water treatment plants in numerous ribereños villages to provide them with clean drinking water; co-creating an Adopt-A-School program with CONAPAC to provide rural students with school supplies while promoting environmental education in their communities; and funding the Las Malvinas Garden at a public school in Iquitos, which is used to teach environmental awareness, biology and language arts, and is integrated into the school’s curriculum.
So perhaps the best aspect of visiting the ribereños is knowing that your trip helps to support efforts to conserve the precious flora, fauna and cultural traditions of this incredible region.
TRAVEL TO THE AMAZON
Inspired to meet the riberenos people 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.