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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.
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.
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.
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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!