IE Blog

kelp goose - claudio vidalAt first glance, it appears that the entire population of Kelp geese is male...but wait, on closer inspection of the rocky shorelines of Patagonia, there is a female kelp goose accompanying every male. The reason for this first glance discrepancy is the sexual dimorphism between males and females of this species. Males are brilliant white, standing out on the black shoreline, while females are brown and aptly camouflaged in the vicinity of a male. What are most apparent on the hen are her yellow legs and feet and white tail.

Kelp geese are very appropriately named as their diet is largely comprised of kelp, which is a form of algae that grows prevalently in tidal zones of Patagonia. During high tide, much of the rocky shoreline is under water and it is at that time that Kelp Geese roost or just relax until the ebbing tide once again exposes food for the geese. Kelp geese nest in fairly close proximity to the ocean and the young of kelp geese as well as all forms of waterfowl are extremely precocial. That is upon hatching, they are able to walk, run (waddle fast) swim and they feed themselves as well. The young, numbering as many as seven goslings follow the parents to the edge of the sea where they amble over rocks, mimicking the adults in feeding on algae. Large rocks can be quite an obstacle for tiny goslings but the birds have very sharp toenails and they can climb rocks quite well. This is a necessity for a bird that needs to survive at the shoreline. The young goslings, however, are extremely vulnerable to the risks of being small. Predation by skuas is a common occurrence and not many of the goslings survive through their first couple of months post hatching. Skuas are a brown colored bird, similar in shape to a large sea gull, but their wings are quite pointed and they are extremely agile flyers. Skuas will take eggs and young birds and they are one of the most feared bird species in the Patagonia region.

After the nesting season, Kelp geese form loose flocks and it is during this time that flocks of around 20 kelp geese can be seen in one area where they feed very amiably during low tide. I take great pleasure in observing these lovely geese and on Patagonia tours through the Straits of Magellan I have seen many hundreds of these geese…lots of white ones and upon close inspection, just as many brown ones.

Photo © Claudio Vidal

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.

September 22 is World Rhino Day, and wildlife celebrity Joan Embery was good enough to talk to International Expeditions about the current state of elephant and rhino conservation efforts in Africa.

"Being the largest animals on land, elephants are a sight to behold roaming the plains of Africa. I’ll never forget my first trip to Africa after years of handling and caring for elephants at the San Diego Zoo. I was overwhelmed at the sight of these amazing creatures – large herds of females with calves and the immense, lone bulls.

"Having no natural predators and a lifespan of 60 years, it is unthinkable the elephant population has plummeted at the hands of human-induced activities. While once numbering in the millions, elephants now number in the thousands due to poaching, conflict with humans and habitat loss and degradation.

"If you can imagine a majestic animal weighing up to 15,000 pounds but having skin so sensitive it can feel a fly landing, that has a trunk with 40,000 muscles useful for uprooting trees or picking up a blade of grass, one who’s extremely intelligent, social and plays a key role in maintaining the balance of all other species in the community, you have the African elephant. What a tragedy it would be if rather than having actual elephants to celebrate and be in awe of, we have only our imaginations.

elephant-ngorongoro-crater"Like elephants, rhinos too are in serious decline as victims of poaching and habitat loss. Since 1960, the black rhino has been reduced by 97.6%. Rhinos are killed almost exclusively for their horns, which are inaccurately thought to possess medicinal qualities and are revered as a status symbol. The horns are simply keratin – the same material found in your hair and fingernails.  Also like elephants, rhinos are integrally tied to biodiversity – when rhinos are protected, many other species interacting with them and sharing the same habitat are too.

"Since my first trip to Africa I have seen the steady decline of rhino and the need to engage the public for spreading awareness and supporting conservation. Conservation efforts do work! The Southern white rhino would not exist today if not for it.

"Together we as humans can navigate the issues and alter the landscape in a positive direction for both these animals and ourselves."

To find out how you can learn more and make a difference, please visit

September 16, 2014

The Nuances of Birding

Our friend and expedition leader Greg Greer shares more about his passion for birding, and how he has seen the transformation of a traveler into a true birding enthusiast.

"Oh no...we have a birder on this trip!"

How many times have I heard this over the years? More times than I can count! Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your own interest in birds, I AM A BIRDER! I guess admitting one's addictions is the first step in either a cure or further obsession. Birders are a unique assemblage of people from an amazing assortment of careers. For some people, I think birding is a huge distraction from what may be a very stressful job, a person with a propensity to list things (such as bird checklists), or it can simply be an average student, airline pilot or taxi driver who caught the "birding" bug.

For me, the challenge of looking for a particular species, learning everything you can about it and then being successful in finding the species is a very real high. Probably similar to the high that runners talk about and kayakers describe when shooting down a waterfall, is the high a birder feels when they hit the milestone of 300 birds, 400 birds, 500 birds, 600 birds and 700 birds for North America. There is a tremendous sense of accomplishment, and birders love to meet high goals that they set for themselves. 

What is so wonderful about birding is that a person can look at birds anywhere they happen to find themselves. It often starts out in one’s own backyard or it may have its beginning on a trip. I have been an expedition leader on many International Expeditions nature tours over the years, and I have frequently had guests that found a new sense of excitement while on an international trip - the excitement of birds. The birds that take people by surprise are not the little brown birds nor the big ostriches and often not the mighty birds of prey. The birds that capture a person’s heart are usually birds like lilac-breasted roller in East Africa, cock-of-the rock at Machu Picchu, paradise tanager in the Amazon Basin or a lovely vermillion flycatcher perched on the carapace of a giant tortoise in the Galapagos. These smaller spectacular species are what often provides the “hook” in a person becoming interested in birds. Of course, not everyone goes stark-raving mad over their new found obsession but for some reason birding often becomes quite addictive. There should probably be warnings posted on bird books, in binocular cases etc that the use of those products may cause obsession in a certain percentage of the population and users need to be aware of such precautions before jeopardizing the rest of their life and possibly friends, family, relatives and certainly other travel companions. (Tongue inserted firmly in cheek!)

One thing that I have learned over the years is to never impose my passion on someone else unless they seek your same interest. While on trips, it is very easy to determine who likes birds, who likes flowers, who likes reptiles and who likes everything around them. I love the folks who want to take in everything as they never set themselves up for disappointment.  Some birders, on the other hand, can have an amazing day in the field but because they did not see one particular species, they are disappointed. Thank goodness I am not of that mindset as a day in the field is always a day to treasure...whether you are or are not a birder.

Afterall, a bad day in the field is better than a good day in the office!

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.

Arhuaco-weavers-colombia-tourThough they comprise just 3.5% of the population, with around 1.5 million people representing 87 different tribes, the indigenous peoples of Colombia have had a major impact on the history and evolution of the country’s cultural heart. Known in Spanish as pueblos indígenas, these tribes are distributed widely across Colombia’s landscape, from Amazonia and the Andean highlands to the Caribbean and Pacific lowlands.

Archaeological evidence suggests that Colombia had well-established hunter-gatherer cultures by the late Pleistocene era, with the earliest human inhabitants concentrated along the Caribbean coast and the Andes. The cave system of the El Abra archeological site, located just north of Bogota, is considered among the very first human settlements in the Americas, with research conducted in the 1960s uncovering ancient petroglyphs and mastodon bones carbon dated to around 11,400 years BCE.

By the time the Spanish arrived in 1509, Colombia’s Amerindian population numbered between 1.5 and 2 million. Most of them evolved from three main cultural groups — the Quimbayas, who inhabited the western slopes of the Cordillera Central; the Chibchas, who were skilled in farming, mining and metal work; and the war-like Caribes, who ultimately migrated to eastern South America and the Caribbean islands. Their social organization and technological advances varied greatly, from class-divided agricultural chiefdoms to nomadic hunter-gatherers.

Here are a few of the more important Colombian tribal cultures, many of which continue to thrive today:

Arhuaco: With a population of 27,000, these Chichan-speaking people are descendents of the ancient Tairona culture. Concentrated in northern Colombia, they believe the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is the heart of the world, and that the planet’s well being depends on it. Focused on subsistence agriculture, they also make knapsacks– Arhuaca mochila– that have become a cultural symbol for Colombian identity.

Awá: This ancient tribe of around 32,000 inhabits the forests of northern Ecuador and southern Colombia. The Awa Reserve is in the Chocoanos Forest (located in the Tumbes-Chocó-Magdalena) region, which is considered among the most biodiverse places on the planet. Though they were traditionally hunter-gatherers, today they also farm livestock and grow a broad variety of vegetables.

Kogi:  Alternately known as the Cogui or Kágaba (which means “Jaguar” in their language), the Kogi have lived in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta since the Pre-Columbian era. Their population of 20,000 still lives in much the same way their Tairona ancestors did, living in stone and thatch huts, worshiping Aluna (a.k.a. Mother Nature), and viewing the Earth as a living being and humanity as its children.

Muisca: One of the great cultures of the pre-Columbian era, the Muisca civilization occupied around 18,000 square miles in Colombia’s Eastern Range before the Spanish conquest. In 2002 they formed the Great Council of the Muiscan People (which number approximately 10,000 now), and have since remained active defenders of the region’s natural resources as well as the rights of its indigenous peoples.

Nukak- Although their numbers are small (around 500 total), this tribe of nomadic hunter-gatherers from the fringe of the Amazon basin became famous as an “uncontacted people” discovered in the early ‘80s. They’re expert hunters, using blowguns and darts coated with curare manyi, a poison made from various plants. Endangered by disease and guerilla encounters, the Nukak are a focus of indigenous rights campaigns by the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia.

Wayuú: Easily the nation’s largest indigenous tribe, the Wayuú population numbers around 450,000, with nearly a third of them based in northern Colombia (the rest live in northwest Venezuela). Inhabiting the arid La Guajira Peninsula, the matriarchal Wayuú were among the few tribes never successfully subjugated by the Spanish…and not for lack of trying. Their language, wayuunaiki, is related to the Arawak family of language predominant in the Caribbean, and remains in regular usage today. As do many of their traditional cultural elements, from musical rituals and dances such as the Yonna and Majayura to the rancherias-style settlements typically made up of five or six houses.

Bret Love is the co-founder and Editor-In-Chief of Green Global Travel and Green Travel Reviews, and is a passionate advocate for ecotourism, environmental conservation and sustainable living. He’s also a veteran freelance writer whose work has appeared in American Way, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Atlanta Magazine and Rolling Stone.

Dear Traveler,

Every day I hear from our travelers — usually as they’ve just returned from time abroad with International Expeditions. It is gratifying to hear their praise for our guides and itineraries, but it is equally important to listen to their constructive comments as our staff continuously refines our adventures. While I’m fortunate to have experienced the Peruvian Amazon numerous times in my tenure and during the construction of our new riverboat, the benefit of seeing “our” corner of the Amazon through the new eyes of our guests is immeasurable.

Our guests offer such fresh perspectives on the destinations IE explores. So I wanted to share their feelings about two of our most popular programs — Amazon and Cuba.

“Your people aboard the ship were the stars. Johnny and Segundo were simply better than I could have believed. Their expertise is stunning, and the friendly competition between them gave everyone a chuckle!” - Leonard Kolins

While our new riverboat, La Estrella Amazonica, certainly shines, we are proud knowing our naturalist guides continue to be the “stars” of our Amazon cruises.

“I enjoyed the opportunity to really sample Cuba — the country, the scenery, the people. I left feeling like I could finally answer the question — what is Cuba really like?” – Rebecca Shedd

van-amazon-cruise-guestsIE’s people-to-people Cuba tours are an opportunity to experience this cloistered island through the eyes of its people — to penetrate a guarded society in a land most Americans know so little about. Perhaps our free ranging discussions with Cuban naturalists, musicians, artists and ordinary people will even challenge your expectations and assumptions. For 35 years we’ve helped travelers develop a deeper understanding of the world and know first-hand how much it means to form a personal connection to a country and its people.

Because International Expeditions’ travelers are an adventurous group, we’re thrilled to announce we’ve taken your suggestions to heart when planning our new journeys for 2015. While you’ll still find classic favorites like our Galapagos cruises, our expanded lineup includes destinations like Sri Lanka, Colombia and Myanmar, plus additional options for exploring the vast continent of Africa.

Join us this year and see how the experts at International Expeditions can help you see the wonders of our world through new eyes!    




Van Perry


Camels in the Americas? How crazy is that? Many millions of years ago, camelids (the camel family) were part of the fauna of North America. They existed and gradually evolved from tiny creatures the size of a domestic cat to animals the size of a goat...and eventually even much larger. The camels of North America survived until about 12,000 years ago, when humans crossed the Bering land bridge into North America. In fact, theories suggest that humans were the reason for extinction of these animals in North America. However, before that took place, camelids spread into South America where they still exist today. The llama, alpaca and vicuna are quite familiar animals to many of us, but these species are not nearly as commonly known is the guanaco, found in the extreme southern tip of South America. 

The guanaco is a lovely looking creature with very thick “weather-proofing“ hair of soft brown and white. Guanacos are fairly abundant in Torres del Paine National Park, so you are almost sure to see them suring International Expeditions' Patagonia tours. Guanacos are usually found in small herds and are very alert animals. Herd animals are afforded greater protection from predators by having many more eyes to keep watch on the horizon. The guanaco’s most feared predator is the puma also known as the mountain lion.

Guanacos give birth every other year. This is due to a gestation of almost one year. Baby guanacos are known as chulengos.  They are able to stand very shortly after birth and are then able to walk and run within hours of birth. A few other interesting adaptations allow guanacos to survive in a very windy and rocky region: 

  • Their padded feet that do very little to disturb the landscape and give the animal amazing traction
  • Extremely long eye-lashes protect their eyes from wind and blowing sand and soil
  • Guanacos have the ability to go without water for very long periods of time. In fact, guanacos can derive all of their moisture needs from the vegetation they consume, typical of all camelid species.

I've had the great pleasure of traveling throughout Patagoina many times during my years with International Expeditions.  I always enjoyed observing guanacos as they are not only gorgeous creatures but they truly remind me of place. They are an iconic species of Patagonia, the end of the world at the southern tip of South America.

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.

Art Director Charlie Boyd shares his favorite memories and photos from his recent Amazon Voyage.

Having recently traveled again to the Amazon, the wonderful people and experiences are still fresh in my mind. I’ve worked for International Expeditions for over 12 years, daily creating materials for our Amazon River cruises. I was very much looking forward to experiencing the Amazon aboard our new riverboat first hand with my wife Pam. It was a little surreal for me at first… meeting the talented guides and crew that I already “knew” from pictures, seeing the beautiful new La Estrella Amazonica, and anticipating the daily activities and wildlife sightings. Soon, I got caught in the daily rhythms of the river and this voyage.

A few standout moments:

Our guides: Escorted by Expedition Leder Angel Cardenas and expert local naturalists Johnny Balarezo and Usiel Vasquez, we traveled over 600 miles on this mighty river. Along the way we spotted seven primate species, 125 bird species, fish, reptiles and amphibians, and met many of the friendly people who live along the Amazon River. Every day was different but equally exciting.

Pink dolphins: As our excursion boats entered the mouth of the Pacaya River, we noticed that there were pink river dolphins everywhere. The water was moving quickly and they were taking advantage of the “open buffet” of fish moving with the swift current. We were able to watch them for about 30 minutes, and take plenty of photos. 

School visit: We stopped in the village of Nueva York for an un-announced visit. Everyone was so happy to see us. It was lunch time and many people came out of the houses to greet us as we walked through the village. A couple invited us in to see what they were cooking. Their fresh fish, cooked over an open fire, looked delicious. We visited the school, and delivered some supplies that IE guests had brought along to Peru. The kids were so full of energy and curiosity — and excitement for the soccer balls, pencils and books we’d brought. The grand prizes were backpacks — one for a boy, and one for a girl. After correctly answering some history and math questions a boy and a girl were each given a new backpack.

My private balcony: A favorite part of the wonderful new La Estrella Amazonica was the private balcony. I spent a lot of time during our daily siesta sitting out there, watching “earth’s greatest wilderness" pass by. Early June was beautiful time to be to be in the Amazon. The water was on it’s way down after the high season and the dark, rich soils were exposed on the riverbank. Planted rice crops were starting to sprout and I saw many birds feeding amongst them… black-necked stilts and large-billed terns, with colorful yellow-headed and oriole blackbirds feeding in the tall grass behind them. Seeing the passing scenery, wildlife and ever-changing cloud formations from my private balcony was something I looked forward to every day.

We made so many friends along the way — from the fishermen we met each day, to the extraordinary crew and amazing band, to the IE guests that we shared our days with. This part of the Amazon is a magical place, and our expedition was truly the “greatest voyage in natural history.”  This great experience lived up to, and surpassed every expectation I had… when do we go back?

While iconic places like Machu Picchu and the Parthenon are hot spots for travelers, lesser known sites across the globe offer insight into our past without the pesky crowds. The Inca and Maya left their archaeological mark on Latin America with fascinating sites that are “must sees” for travel connoisseurs. International Expeditions’ small-group treks take in a variety of these lesser known sites under the guidance of seasoned historian guides.


  1. Cuenca is quickly gaining a reputation as a city combining Spanish style with French influences, but a quick turn through town will reveal both Inca and pre-Inca Cañari ruins. Cuenca was actually connected to the Pacific coast and Amazon rainforest off an extension of the Inca Trail – which of course runs to Machu Picchu.
  2. Scattered through the Ecuadorian countryside are restored archaeological sites like the Baths of the Inca, once used in purification rituals before ceremonies of religious significance.
  3. Travelers can venture to Ingapirca, a complex network of stone structures that surround a circular sun temple used by both the Inca and Cañari, constructed in the late 15th century. Here you may walk around the ruins, climb the stairs up to the temple and even sit where the Inca did during their ceremonies.


  1. While Machu Picchu is undoubtedly the best-known of Peru’s abandoned cities, explorers should make it a point to explore Tucume, in Northern Peru. This vast complex of Lambayeque ruins — first excavated in the 1930s — is home to an impressive, prehistoric urban site which encompassed 26 pyramids. Guests wander through the labyrinth of courtyards or can head to an overlook still used by local shamans in healing ceremonies – Tucume is renowned locally for having magical power.
  2. The adventurous can take the 45-minutes hike/climb to the plateau where the Kuelap complex is perched. Older than the Inca Empire, Kuelap was home to the “Cloud People.” The area’s remoteness has kept the fortress relatively unknown, but in addition to hundreds of ancient stone homes, within the walls travelers can also find air plants, bromeliads and orchids.
  3. Winay Wayna may very well have served as an ancient rest stop for travelers walking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. The ruins consist of upper and lower house complexes connected by a staircase and fountain structures.


What are your favorite lesser-known ruins in Latin America? Let us know in the comments. 

Like many Latin American countries, Colombia offers a rich hodgepodge of ethnic influences, most of which date back to the 16th century conquest by Spain. Along with the country's magical natural wonders, International Expeditions' Colombia tours also expose you to the region's rich culture.

As indigenous native populations (primarily the Muisca, of what is now the country’s Eastern range, and the Tairona of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta region) mixed with the Spanish criollos, slaves brought over from Africa, and European-born whites, a distinctively Colombian culture gradually began to emerge.

By the end of the era of regional isolation and racial segregation in the late 19th century and early 20th century, the rise of mixed-race zambos coincided with the increasing popularity of pan-cultural Carnival celebrations to create a thriving Colombian arts scene.


Archaeologists believe ceramic art was produced on Colombia’s Caribbean coast earlier than anywhere else in the Americas outside the lower Amazon basin, with relics dating back to 3100 BC. The Piartal culture (750-1250 AD) created vessels with patterns inspired by animal and snakeskins, which were used in burials to hold relics and jewelry.

The San Agustín culture (200 BC-800 AD) were stonecutting artisans, erecting anthropomorphic and zoomorphic monoliths up to five meters high. Gold ultimately played a pivotal role in luring the Spanish to Colombia, and the Quimbaya and Zenú people were both masters of intricate gold work. To see stunning examples of their ancient craftsmanship, visit the Zenú Gold Museum in Cartagena.

After the Spanish invasion, 16th to 18th century Colombian art was largely devoted to Baroque-style religious depictions. But by the early 20th century a more distinctive style of modern art had begun to emerge.

Influenced by the Mexican muralists, painters such as Santiago Martinez Delgado and Pedro Nél Gomez fused neoclassic and Art Nouveau elements. Alejandro Obregon mixed Andean and European influences such as surrealism and Cubism, emerging in the 1950s as one of “The Big Five” Colombian artists. But perhaps the most famous Colombian artist is Fernando Botero, who’s known internationally for his large, exaggerated figures. His famous sculpture “La Gordita” can be found in Cartagena’s Plaza Santa Domingo.


Dancing has been an integral aspect of Colombian cultures for centuries, and you can see numerous traditional and modern styles performed Cartagena.

Bambuco is a traditional folkloric dance most popular in the country’s Andean region. Though you’re unlikely to see anyone rocking this style at a nightclub, its influence can be seen in numerous modern dance forms. Porro, which originated in Sucre, is more formal, resembling a military march. Merengue and Salsa are both very popular, but they’re not native to Colombia: They were imported from the West Indies and New York, respectively.

Mapale is a style you’re likely to see on the streets of Cartagena, with colorfully costumed troupes of drummers and dancers performing around Parque Bolivar, Plaza Santa Domingo and the Plaza de las Coches. Originally brought to the region by slaves from Angola, the energetic dance represents an erotic couples’ courtship that resembles the movements of the Mapale fish when it’s taken out of water.

colombia-tou-musicCOLOMBIAN MUSIC

The country’s most popular dance style is Cumbia, which also happens to be one of the most popular music forms in all of Latin America.

Originating as a courtship dance among West African slaves in Colombia’s Caribbean coastal region and Panama in the early 19th century, the Cumbia was originally performed using only drums and claves. Eventually the music incorporated influences from the indigenous Kogui and Kuna tribes (including flutes and percussion), the Spanish (European guitars), and even German immigrants (who brought the accordion to Barranquilla in the 19th century).

By the mid-20th century (a.k.a. “The Golden Age”), Colombian artists such as Pablo Galán and Lucho Bermúdez had crafted a refined form of Cumbia, which helped the music spread to Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Peru and beyond.

These days, traditional Cumbia is often blended with dancehall reggae, hip-hop and electronic musical influences to create a more modern, accessible sound. And while the pop music of Shakira and Rock en Espanol of Juanes may be more widely known in the U.S., it’s Cumbia that is the epitome of Colombia’s rich, distinctive cultural fusion. 

Covering nearly 143,000 square kilometers and representing more than 11% of the country’s total area, Colombia’s 58 nationally protected areas are home to a diverse array of flora and fauna. From protected coral reefs off the Caribbean coast and the 18,700-foot altitude of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range to the tropical rainforest of the southern Amazonía Region, the country boasts an impressively broad range of ecosystems to explore. International Expeditions' nature-based Colombia tours are an in-depth way to explore Colombia's rich nature while adding an impressive number of species to your "life list."


Situated in the Cordillera Central, the highest branch of the Colombian Andes, this national park was shaped over the centuries by continuous glacial activity. There are eight volcanoes there, but the 17,400 feet high Nevado del Ruiz volcano dominates the landscape. Home to 1250 species of vascular plants and myriad trees, the park also offers a cornucopia of beautiful birds (including the Bearded Helmetcrest hummingbird (pictured right) and the endangered Yellow-eared and Fuertes’s Parrots) and mammals (including the Mountain Tapir, Spectacled Bear, Cougar, and more).


On the outskirts of Barranquilla, where the fresh water of the Magdalena River meets the salt water of the Caribbean Sea, Salamanca Island Road Park was created in 1964 to protect the abundant bird life that inhabits the coastal mangroves there. Designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 2000, the park boasts an impressive array of wildlife despite its dry, arid climate, including 33 mammal species, 35 species of reptiles, 9 species of amphibians, 140 species of fish, and nearly 200 species of migratory and endemic birds, many of which are endangered.


Located in western central Colombia, this 489-hectare nature sanctuary was established in 1996 and provides much of the water to aqueducts throughout the famed Coffee Triangle, which has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Long inhabited by the legendary goldsmiths of the Quimbaya culture, the Andean rainforest is also home to massive trees, bromeliads, orchids, birds, butterflies, spectacled bears, tapirs, deer and the more frequently spotted howler monkeys, whose distinctive, booming shrieks often echo throughout the park around sunrise and sunset.


A perennial favorite amongst avid birdwatchers, this central Andes nature reserve is operated by Fundacion Ecologica Gabriel Arango Restrepo (FUNDEGAR) and owned by a local water company. Several hiking trails provide opportunities to spot species such as the Rusty-faced Parrot, Golden-plumed Parakeet, Rufous-banded Owl, White-capped Tanager and Black-billed Mountain Toucan. But their feeders virtually guarantee you’ll see hordes of hummingbirds and Chestnut-crowned and Brown-banded Antpittas (pictured right).


Reaching an altitude of 18,700 feet, but located just 42 km (26 miles) from the Caribbean Sea, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Maria is the highest coastal mountain range in the world. Encompassing around 6,600 square miles and isolated from the Andes, the range serves as the source for 36 of Colombia’s rivers. Established as a national park in 1964 (making it the nation’s second oldest) and as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1979, the Sierra Nevada was named the most irreplaceable park in the world for threatened species by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Its tropical rainforests are home to 44 of  Colombia’s 340 endemic species, and there are 440 different species of birds (including the Andean Condor, Santa Marta Parakeet, and the Black-fronted Wood-quail). There are also numerous mammals, such a brocket deer, otters, tapir, cougar and jaguar. 


Located less than an hour by boat from Cartagena, the Rosario Islands are an archipelago of more than 40 islands established as a National Park in 1977 in order to protect the most important coral reefs off of Colombia’s Caribbean coast. There are daily tours that take visitors to the largest of these islands, Isla Rosario (which has a small aquarium) and Isla Grande (which has a free private bird sanctuary). But the main attraction here is snorkeling and diving amongst the vividly colored coral and tropical fish.

Want to learn more about ecotravel in Colombia? Watch a webinar on IE's trip led by Colombia Expedition Leader Greg Homel.

All photos ©Greg R. Homel/Natural Elements Productions

Bret Love is the co-founder and Editor-In-Chief of Green Global Travel and Green Travel Reviews, and is a passionate advocate for ecotourism, environmental conservation and sustainable living. He’s also a veteran freelance writer whose work has appeared in American Way, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Atlanta Magazine and Rolling Stone.


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