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Newly installed WiFi onaboard on our new riverboat means we are lucky to now receive almost daily updates on wildlife sightings from our Amazon River cruises. Expedition leader Freddy Avalos is reporting and sending photos from our small-group excursions deep into the Pacaya-Samiria Reserve.
Tuesday morning we set out on the Sapote, a creek that feeds from the Rio Ucayali. We left La Estrella Amazonica early to give guests the chance to experience nature with a picnic breakfast. They loved it! We had a cloudy morning. Among the things we observed were a couple of Masked Tityra, Plum-throated Cotinga, Long-billed Woodcreeper. Here is a couple of a couple Lineated Woodpeckers.
During the excursion we also spotted two troops of monk saki monkeys...about 25 total. We were having so much fun that we tied to the riverbank and had our picnic breakfast with the monkeys! It was so cool. Rains sent us back to the riverboat, but we'll be out again soon.
Have a great day. - Freddy Avalos
La Estrella Amazonica, IE’s Amazon riverboat, is the first vessel in the Peruvian Amazon with onboard internet service! That means we are lucky to now receive almost daily updates on wildlife sightings from our Amazon River cruises. Expedition leader Freddy Avalos is reporting and sending photos from our small-group excursions deep into the Pacaya-Samiria Reserve.
Last night’s night excursion on the Pacaya River in the National Reserve was very productive for wildlife viewing. Last night we caught a spectacled caiman, allowing guests to see him up close before releasing back into the water. Other species observed included many frogs — both polkadot frog and giraffe frog — and a vine snake.
On our way back to the boat, we passed under some renaco, the local name for Ficus trees, and we spotted this great potoo.
After rain last night, this morning was perfect chance for swimming with dolphins next to the Rangers Station #2 on the Pacaya River. We were lucky to see a troop of squirrel monkeys and some red howler monkeys, plus blue-and-yellow macaws overhead.
I'm ready for another happy day on the Amazon! - Freddy
As the largest island in the Caribbean, located just a stone’s throw away from the sunny shores of Florida, Cuba is packed with some of the most distinct cultural and natural wonders to be found in the region.
Having been closed off to American citizens for decades, Cuba’s borders have finally been opened for travelers from the United States via licensed people-to-people programs, offering an amazing opportunity to discover this beautiful country through the eyes of the local people who know it best.
Cuba’s nine confirmed UNESCO sites (and three tentative ones) are a fine testament to the island’s rich and varied heritage. Here are a few of our favorites:
As the cultural epicenter of Cuba, it’s no surprise Havana’s Old Town — known locally as La Habana Vieja — was awarded UNESCO status in 1982. Don’t be fooled by its rough-around-the-edges exterior: There’s a lot of passion in Old Havana, and the somewhat tattered character only adds to its charm. Here you can walk through squares surrounded by impressive baroque and neoclassic-style buildings, which have made Havana one of the most historically significant cities in the Americas. Can’t-miss activities include taking a ride around the city in a vintage car and sampling a daiquiri in El Floridita, one of Ernest Hemingway’s favorite bars. These stops are ideal for chatting with your local guides about Havana’s past and future!
TRINIDAD & VALLE DE LOS INGENIOS
Sugar has played a huge role in Cuba’s cultural heritage in terms of both production and trade. The Valle De Los Ingenios (“Valley of the Sugar Mills”) is in the southern central section of Cuba. Here you can see dozens of ruins of sugar mills that were important for business back in the 19th century. Nearby is the vivacious town of Trinidad, which was founded in the 16th century and acted as a central hub for the sugar industry. Trinidad’s signature colonial architecture is an essential sight for any trip to Cuba, and it’s a great place to catch some authentic live Cuban music as well.
On the west side of the island lies the 51-square mile Viñales Valley, which is filled with small towns and villages, miles of karst landscape and vast stretches of farmland. Traditional agricultural methods have been used here for hundreds of years, primarily in the production of tobacco (another of Cuba’s most famous exports). It was named a UNESCO World Heritage site for this reason, helped along by the signature undulating hills you’ll find here, which burst from the ground in giant mounds measuring up to 1,000 feet high.
SAN PEDRO DE LA ROCA CASTLE
Rivalry tore through the Caribbean in the 17th and 18th centuries, which made the fortifications of San Pedro de la Roca Castle in Santiago de Cuba one of the region’s most important defense points. This majestic fort still stands proudly today as a shining example of Spanish-America military architecture. It’s one of the most historically significant sites in Cuba’s rich history, added to the UNESCO list in 1997. Some of the best views in all of Santiago de Cuba can be found atop the castle walls, looking out over the ocean. There’s also a small museum inside the fort where visitors can learn a little more about its history.
Located just up the west coast from Trinidad, Cienfuegos is another of Cuba’s most mesmerizing cities. When the sugar trade boomed during the 19th century, Cienfuegos began to emerge as a vital urban hub for Cuba’s economy. The town’s architecture is of particular significance: Cienfuegos was heralded as a pioneer for modernity in Latin America during the 19th century. Walking through the city today makes for a captivating experience, with colonial buildings, public squares and monuments, some of which are whitewashed and others splashed with bright Caribbean colors.
CIÉNAGA DE ZAPATA NATIONAL PARK
Currently on UNESCO’s tentative list for Biosphere Reserve status, Ciénaga de Zapata National Park offers a staggering variety of flora and fauna. Located around 90 miles southeast of Havana, these swampy wetlands are very similar to the Florida Everglades, rich with the most diverse wildlife to be seen in Cuba. There are over 30 reptile species and 175 bird species found there, from crocodiles, boars and manatees to flamingoes, Cuban trogons and the world’s smallest bird (the bee hummingbird).
It's Time to Explore Cuba
International Expeditions offers two Cuba travel options. 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.
Ecotourism – "Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people”– wasn’t established as a firmly-defined travel philosophy until The International Ecotourism Society was founded in 1990, with International Expeditions as one of the organization's founding members.
But the core principle of conserving the natural environment and the wildlife that inhabit it for the benefit and enjoyment of the people has been around ever since the establishment of the first national parks in the United States (Mackinac National Park) and Australia (Royal National Park) back in the late 1870s.
It took another 50 years before the creation of Africa’s first national parks – Virunga was established in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1925, with South Africa’s Kruger National Park designated the following year. But few nature-lovers would argue against the assertion that the continent (particularly East Africa) now boasts many of the most impressive national parks and nature reserves in the world:
AMBOSELI NATIONAL PARK
Originally known as Maasai Amboseli Game Reserve, this 151-square mile ecotourism hotspot in Kenya’s Rift Valley was first set aside for preservation in 1906, established as a national park in 1974, and declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1991.
Although primarily known as the best place in the world for viewing free-ranging elephant herds, Amboseli also offers opportunities for cultural interactions with the indigenous Maasai people, extraordinary views of Mount Kilimanjaro, and a vast array of wildlife ranging from the “Big 5” mammals to over 400 species of birds.
Located 150 miles southeast of Nairobi, Amboseli is Kenya’s second most popular national park, attracting around 120,000 visitors annually.
MAASAI MARA NATIONAL RESERVE
A “bucket list” dream for practically every traveler with a passion for wildlife, the Maasai Mara is part of the massive Serengeti ecosystem, which covers approximately 12,000 square miles in northern Tanzania and southwestern Kenya.
The Maasai Mara is a prime destination for witnessing the annual Great Migration, which is widely considered among the world’s Top 10 Natural Wonders. Every year millions of gazelles, wildebeest and zebras make the arduous 500-mile trek northwest to Kenya in search of water and fresh grass. The famous crossing at the Mara River, where hungry crocodiles lie in wait, is unlike any other safari spectacle you’re likely to see.
Of course the Mara also offers numerous attractions at other times of the year, including lions, leopards, cheetahs, elephants, buffalo, hyenas, and more than 470 species of birds.
NGORONGORO CONSERVATION AREA
Based on fossil evidence found at the nearby Olduvai Gorge, where Louis and Mary Leakey began their famous archaeological excavations in 1931, the Ngorongoro area of Tanzania has been inhabited by various hominid species for approximately 3 million years.
Separated from Serengeti National Park in 1959, Ngorongoro became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. It’s unique because it’s the only conservation area in Tanzania that protects wildlife while allowing human habitation, prohibiting cultivation of the land at all but subsistence levels.
The park’s most famous feature is Ngorongoro Crater, the largest intact, inactive and unfilled volcanic crater in the world. Formed when a volcano exploded and collapsed on itself, the crater is 2,000 feet deep and 100 square miles wide, providing home to more than 25,000 large animals (buffalo, hippos, gazelles, wildebeests, etc.), a dense lion population, and thousands of lesser flamingos flocking to Lake Magadi.
SERENGETI NATIONAL PARK
The Maasai people had been grazing their animals on Tanzania’s vast plains for around 200 years before the first European explorer showed up in 1892. They described the area as siringet, meaning “the place where the land runs on forever.” Although it was made a game reserve in 1921, it didn’t become a national park until 1951.
The Great Migration that ends in the Maasai Mara begins in this 5,700-square mile haven, which is divided into three regions– the grassland of the Serengeti plains, the riverine forest of the Western corridor, and the bushy savannah and open woodlands of the Northern Serengeti.
The park boasts staggering wildlife diversity, from the elephants and giraffes of the north and the Nile crocodiles and colobus monkeys of the western swamps to the huge herds of wildebeest, zebra, gazelle, impala and buffalo that crowd the plains during the wet season. It’s no wonder the UNESCO World Heritage Site is also Tanzania’s #1 tourist attraction.
TARANGIRE NATIONAL PARK
Though significantly less well-known than Serengeti National Park, Tarangire (the sixth largest park in Tanzania at 1,100 square miles) attracts an impressive array of animals thanks to the Tarangire River, which becomes the only source of water for wildlife during the dry season.
The park also has a number of other unique features, including many monolithic Baobab trees, massive termite mounds that often serve as home to dark mongooses, and tree-climbing lions. It’s also a major draw for bird-watchers, as the swamps on Tarangire attract one of the world’s most stunning arrays of breeding birds (over 550 species).
Ready to Experience Africa?
International Expeditions has a 35-year safari travel tradition, offering distinct small-group safaris and endless customizable private safari options. Start planning your Kenya & Tanzania Safari or private African safari today!
Located off the southeast coast of India, Sri Lanka has only recently begun to emerge as a burgeoning ecotourism hotspot. But the wildlife of Sri Lanka is remarkable for an island measuring just 25,332 square miles, boasting a impressively high rate of endemic species (16% of the fauna and 23% of the flowering plants).
With over 120 species of mammals, 171 species of reptiles, 106 species of amphibians, 227 species of birds, and one of the world’s largest populations of blue whales and sperm whales, Sri Lanka is truly an animal-lover’s dream come true. Here are a few of the more intriguing species you might find there:
Sloth Bear: These medium-sized (average 290 pounds) bears evolved during the early Pleistocene era, and can be distinguished from Asian black bears by their lanky builds, shaggier coats, pale muzzles and white claws. They also have a specially adapted lower lip and palate, which the nocturnal insectivores use to feed on termites, honeybee colonies. The isolated Sri Lankan population is a subspecies, and currently classified as vulnerable by the IUCN.
Dugong: Related to the elephant, the dugong looks like a manatee, but with the fluke tail of a whale. Currently listed as vulnerable to extinction by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), these gentle underwater grazers are believed to have been the original inspiration for seafaring sailors’ tales of mermaids and sirens.
Indian Pangolin: Often referred to as “scaly anteaters” because they’re covered in a thick protective armor of overlapping scales, pangolins are among the world’s most endangered groups of mammals. Nocturnal and usually resting in deep burrows during the day, the pangolin is tough enough to curl into a ball and defend itself from a tiger or leopard attack.
Sri Lankan Leopard: This endemic subspecies, which is smaller than the Indian leopard (average 94 pounds and around four feet body length), is currently listed as endangered by the IUCN. But the southeastern coastal arid zone of Yala National Park boasts the world’s highest density of wild leopards, with studies estimating an adult population of 18 individuals on one 39-square mile block of the park.
Red Slender Loris: This small, nocturnal primate is a focal species of the EDGE (Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered) conservation project – a distinction reserved for animals with few close evolutionary relatives. Found only in Sri Lanka’s rainforests, their small size (7-10 inches tall, weighing around onr pound), huge eyes and prominent ears give them an endearingly odd appearance.
Golden Palm Civet: Appearing on the country’s three-rupee postage stamp, the golden palm civet is an endemic species found only in a 7,000-square mile area of Sri Lanka that includes lowland rainforest, evergreen mountain forests and dense monsoon forests. Currently listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN’s endangered species list, the animal is often confused with the Ruddy Mongoose by locals.
Purple-faced Langur: Once commonly found in Sri Lanka’s wet zone villages and the suburbs of Colombo (the capital city), this endemic Old World monkey is now on the IUCN’s Endangered list due to habitat loss caused by rapid urbanization. Primarily found in densely populated rainforests, their distinctive vocalizations (which include harsh barks and whoops) have been mistaken for leopards.
Sri Lankan Elephant: Yala National Park is renowned as one of the best places to see this endangered endemic species, which can also be seen in Udawalawe, Lunugamvehera, Wilpattu and Minneriya National Parks, as well as unprotected areas. In fact, Sri Lanka is estimated to have the highest density of elephants in all of Asia, despite the population decline caused by habitat loss and fragmentation.
Sri Lankan Jackal: This golden jackal subspecies, which is also known as the Southern Indian jackal, grows to be slightly larger than their mainland cousins (which average 28 inches long and weigh around 15 pounds). Their winter coat is also shorter, smoother and not as shaggy, with speckled black-and-white backs and colors that range from a warm tan to a rusty ochre.
Sri Lankan Spotted Chevrotain: Fairly common in forests throughout Sri Lanka’s dry zone (both protected and otherwise), this striped and white-spotted chevrotain is frequently seen in coconut plantations and home gardens. Also known as the mouse-deer, these tiny creatures are among the smallest ungulates in the world, weighing just 10-15 pounds and measuring around 21 inches in length.
How to Go
Inspired to explore the exotic wildlife and historic monuments of Sri Lanka? International Expeditions offers travel to Sri Lanka focusing on exploration of the natural highlights of the island while being immersed in nature. Check out IE's incredible Sri Lanka tours and start planning your adventure.
If the Galapagos Islands had an official mascot, it would probably have to be the Galapagos tortoise. These ancient-looking creatures can weigh over 500 pounds and live over 150 years, and they’ve played a vital role in the history of the archipelago.
The Galapagos Islands’ natural resources have been exploited ever since their accidental discovery in 1535, from the marauding pirates of the 17th-18th centuries to 19th century whalers. Able to live for up to a year without food or water, the Galapagos Tortoise was nearly hunted to extinction for its meat.
The species’ situation grew even more dire after fishermen brought goats to the island of Española around the dawn of the 20th century. The feral goats’ feeding habits destroyed the native vegetation, and the Galapagos tortoise population along with it. Their total numbers dwindled down to around 3,000 in the 1970s, including just 15 of the Española sub-species.
The Galapagos tortoise was in serious trouble. But it laid the groundwork for one of the greatest success stories in the history of wildlife conservation.
DARWIN & THE THEORY OF EVOLUTION
These land-based reptiles were a key influence on Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. During the five-year Voyage of the Beagle (as his book on the expedition came to be known), the young naturalist observed that tortoises from different islands clearly differed in size and appearance, suggesting that they genetically adapted to their respective environments.
Tortoises on islands with ample water and short, close-cropped vegetation had curved front edges to their dome-shaped shells. Tortoises from arid islands had much longer necks and a high front peak on their shells, allowing them to stretch their heads vertically in order to reach branches of cactus and other plants.
Darwin subsequently theorized that species such as the Galapagos tortoise evolved over time in order to survive in their surroundings, and that natural selection determined which hatchlings would develop the physical ability to survive. And while science has considerably enhanced our understanding of animal behavior, genetics, molecular biology and population dynamics, Charles Darwin’s discoveries remain the key to our understanding of the natural world 150+ years later.
GALAPAGOS TORTOISE CONSERVATION
Fortunately, modern-day Galapagos tortoise conservation efforts have proven remarkably effective, with an estimated population of around 20,000.
They started by eradicating all the goats on Española, bringing in trained gunmen on helicopters to shoot them. Then they began a captive breeding program at the Charles Darwin Research Station on the island of Santa Cruz. Scientists use incubators to control the sex of each egg, turning it warmer to make “hot babes” and colder to create “cool dudes.” Once hatched, the babies are labeled with numbers, which makes them look like a reptilian NASCAR race waiting to happen.
The Station was once home to the most famous celebrity in the Galapagos Islands, Lonesome George, who passed away in 2012 and was the last of his Pinta Island subspecies. But equally deserving of acclaim is Diego, a Galapagos tortoise originally from Española. When Diego was returned to the Station from the San Diego Zoo in the 1970s, there were two males and 12 females of his subspecies at the station, but they weren’t breeding. Diego taught the others how to mate, and has since produced more than 1700 offspring, earning him the nickname “The Professor.”
Eventually the Galápagos National Park Service reintroduced these captive-bred tortoises to Española island, marking and occasionally recapturing them over the years. As a result of these efforts, today 10 subspecies of Galapagos tortoises survive in the wild, with thousands of captive-bred juveniles released onto their native islands and strict laws in place to ensure their protection. Experts recently revealed that the tortoise population is now stabilized and may not need further human intervention.
It’s difficult to describe the feeling of being within a few feet of a creature four times your age and at least twice your size, but the experience is both humbling and heartwarming. Here, mankind and animals are learning how to co-exist peacefully and sustainably. And the Galapagos tortoise stands tall as a symbol, not just of the islands they call home, but of wildlife conservation efforts all around the world.
How to Go
Inspired to explore the famed Galapagos Islands and walk among the giant tortoises? International Expeditions offers year-round Galapagos cruises along with land-based options in the islands. Check out IE's incredible Galapagos tours and start planning.
How to Help
International Expeditions was a founding member of IGTOA, a non-profit group dedicated to funding projects to combat invasive species and illegal activities within the Galapagos National Park, and promoting ecological education. Read here for more on Galapagos Islands conservation projects.
La Estrella Amazonica, IE’s Amazon riverboat, is the first vessel in the Peruvian Amazon with onboard internet service! That means we are lucky to now receive almost daily updates on wildlife sightings from our expedition leaders!
Expedition leader Angel Cardenas reporting from our November 7, 2014 Amazon River cruise. Each picture below was taken by Angel during our excursions over the past two days.
Yesterday and today have been amazing days in the rainforest! All our guests are happy and we are having good weather.
Today on our excursion we saw an incredibley rare HARPY EAGLE!
During our morning jungle walk we observed a Fer-de-lance Snake! Both sightings made our morning!
In the afternoon, along Pacaya River, we saw Red Howler Monkeys, Ferruginous Pygmy Owl, Orange Backed Troupial and Scarlet Macaw.
Learn more about the wildlife of the Amazon and common sightings during our Amazon Voyage by clicking here to see a wildlife checklist.
Colombia expedition leader Greg Homel checks-in from the road, where his group is enjoying time in Otun Quimbaya. This 489-hectare nature sanctuary was established in 1996 and provides much of the water to aqueducts throughout the famed Coffee Triangle.
NOVEMBER 9, 2014: Group Photo from my International Expeditions Colombia tour during our expedition to this expedition to this wonderful Central Andean Reserve in Risaralda, Colombia.
Some of the notable sightings here are Red-ruffed Fruitcrow, Andean Cock-of-the-Rock and Cauca Guan. Happy to report that we were successful in seeing all of them and many other great natural sights, including a troop of Red Howler-Monkeys!
Tomorrow we visit Parque Nacional Los Nevados and climb to over 13,000' elevation! We hope to see Yellow-Eared Parrot, Andean Condor and the endemic Bearded Helmetcrest.
The puma — or mountain lion — is a large yet very secretive cat. Often, the presence of these cats is only made visible in finding tracks. Even tracks bring on excitement and a little apprehension as it means there is a large predator in your vicinity.
The mountain lion is found from North America through Central America and down the length of South America to its extreme southern tip — Patagonia. Amazingly, the mountain lion is fairly common in Patagonia and a person’s chances of seeing one during International Expeditions' Patagonia tours is far better than observing one anywhere else within it very extensive range.
The mountain lion is a stealth predator that is extremely patient and a stalk of its favorite prey, guanaco may take hours. Remaining out of sight of the sharp-eyed guanaco is a challenge and guanacos prefer to stay in “wide open” habitats where their eyes can serve them well in watching for lions. A mountain lion stalking prey may travel well around a herd of guanacos to get up-wind and to a better place of concealment where the guanacos may be more likely to pass by much closer. Pumas rely on a very quick but brief burst of speed to leap on the back of a fleeing guanaco and a bite on the back of the neck of its victim is usually the death blow.
Recent research on the pumas of Patagonia has revealed some really amazing differences in these southern most cats compared to their kin in North America. In North America, mountain lions will make a kill and return to feed on it numerous times until it is either completely consumed or other predators such as wolves or bears force it to leave its food cache.
In Patagonia, there are no other large predators, but pumas here kill 50% more prey per year due to being forced off of prey by an unlikely species — Andean condor.
It has been well documented that condors arrive in mass to the kill site of pumas. This makes the pumas nervous and they sacrifice their kill to the multitude of scavengers. Mountain lions typically require about 5-7 pounds of meat per day and not being able to return to cached food due to big condors consuming the remainder of meat, results in mountain lions in Patagonia having to kill prey much more frequently. In Patagonia, male mountain lions may reach 150 pounds while females only achieve weights of around 80-100 pounds.
Due to the wide open spaces of Patagonia, and especially the area of Torres del Paine National Park, where International Expeditions travels on our Patagonia tours, there is a very good chance for patient observers to view a mountain lion. A good vantage point, a guide with a spotting scope and knowledge of puma behavior and, with luck, an observation of a mountain lion could be the reward.
Naturalist Greg Greer is a favorite among IE travelers, and has gained a reputation for his friendliness and good humor, along with his incomparable knowledge of natural history. Greg's photos and articles have been widely published in books and magazines, including Georgia Outdoor News, Bird Watcher’s Digest, Alabama Outdoor News, Riversedge and Southern Wildlife.
Friend of International Expeditions Bret Love, editor of GreenGlobalTravel.com and a finalist for USA Today’s Best Couple Travel Bloggers award, sat down to interview Ana Maria Perez, the Expedition Leader for our people-to-people Cuba tours. Following is an excerpt from his original story.
We were excited to get a chance to speak with one of IE's Expedition Leaders, Ana Maria Perez, about growing up in Cuba, the evolution of Cuban attitudes towards the U.S., the richness of Cuban culture, and the wealth of natural and historical attractions the island nation has to offer.
What are your favorite memories of your childhood in Cuba?
I grew up with my grandma in a small town of eastern Cuba called Chaparra, in the province of Las Tunas. Mom was working in the province capital to support us all. Every time I close my eyes looking for a happy memory to better my day, I remember family gatherings.
On August 18 every year, we would all come to my grandma’s to celebrate her birthday. No matter how old she was turning and how scarce things were, there would always be cake, ensalada fria (a macaroni salad with ham or chicken and pineapple), and bocaditos (little sandwiches). Sometimes a roast pork on a spit if we could afford it. And always music and laughter and gifts. Family is the most important asset to Cubans.
In what ways has Cuba changed over the years?
Progress is undeniable, although slow. The 21st century Cuba has evolved to a more open and accepting society, partially because of the need to survive and the loosening of restrictions by the government. Cubans don’t see foreigners, especially Americans, as evil anymore. Visitors are welcome and treated like family.
Despite restricted use of the internet, most Cubans find access to information and technology from the rest of the world. Some own 3D TV sets and other “gadgets” that some of us in North America still don’t have. The Cuban community abroad is so huge, and these expats take care of their families on the island with remittances and goodies they bring. The entrepreneurial mindset is rapidly developing, as a result of the government legalizing small private enterprises to some extent. The growing number of paladares (private restaurants) is amazing.
Social discipline is one aspect that needs urgent attention - keeping the streets clean and garbage free, recycling, and doing jobs right without expecting any kind of extra compensation are some of the issues that need to be addressed.
Can you explain how “People-to-People Cuba Travel” is different from a typical vacation?
The People to People way of traveling focuses on human interaction that allows Americans to understand the side of Cuba they don’t completely get, while also allowing Cubans to see the other side of the coin and compare their reality to that of the rest of the world. There are priceless experiences from the trips I have led.
One time, when interacting with students in an arts school in Matanzas after a magnificent spontaneous performance, one of the students dared our group to play something for them. Herm, a teacher and musician traveling with our group, went to the piano and played a classic American song. We were all in awe, silently singing to his music.
You’ve led several IE expeditions to Cuba. What do the American travelers you’ve led seem most surprised by during their time in Cuba?
Americans find it hard to understand how Cubans can be so happy with so little. I think that’s their biggest shock. By the end of the tour, most of our guests have found their own answers.
Most people don’t think of Cuba as a nature-lover’s paradise. What can travelers expect to see in places like Topes de Collantes National Park and the Zapata Peninsula’s UNESCO Biosphere Reserve?
Nature is particularly impressive in Cuba. When Cuba comes to mind, most people think of music, cigars, rum and vintage cars. But, as we move away from Havana and the other cities, to the mountainous areas of Topes de Collantes and the Zapata swamps, our guests realize that there’s much more to Cuba.
The beauty and diversity of the bush, the fascinating endemic bird species (including the world’s smallest, the bee hummingbird), and the masterful ways in which our naturalist guides bring it all to life help draw a broader picture.
There’s a lot of history in Valle De Los Ingenios and the city of Trinidad. What makes these places such important UNESCO Heritage Sites?
When we get to Trinidad, it is time to close our eyes and go back in time while our guide tells us the history behind this beautifully preserved colonial town and its cobblestone streets. What Trinidad and the Valle de Los Ingenios meant to Cuba, and to the world economy, as the world’s number one exporter of sugar, and the rich history of its ingenios, give it a special place in the history of humankind. Thus the well-deserved title of Patrimonio de la Humanidad.
I originally fell in love with Cuba via the country’s rich cultural traditions. Can you talk about the importance of music and art to the Cuban people?
Music and art are essential to every Cuban. Art is thoroughly encouraged by the government. Talent is developed in art schools – any age, any form – for free.
Kids grow up seeing their parents play music and dance and sing to the rhythm while they clean the house, cook, or do laundry. Music, from reggaeton to salsa to classical, is everywhere. You get on an almendron (the old American cars that serve as taxis) and music is playing. A party is not a party without music and dancing!
Some people may be nervous to travel to Cuba because it was off-limits to American for so long. What words of advice would you have for those who are considering a visit?
Open your mind and your heart to Cuba, and you will understand, accept, and inevitably let Cuba captivate you. Life as you know it will not be the same after Cuba. You’ll learn not to take everyday facts for granted, like running water on tap, a shelf full of products in a grocery store, and new shoes every time the old pair is getting uncomfortable. At the same time, you’ll likely get back to work and want to hug your colleagues and play music to spice up your day. You will hopefully become an even better human being, and do even more for our common Mother: Planet Earth.
Read Bret's complete story on GreenGlobalTravel.com.