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The Galapagos Islands have a total population of around 25,000 now. But when Bolivar Sanchez was growing up on the island of Santa Cruz in the ‘70s and ‘80s, there were far fewer.
The International Expeditions naturalist recalls an idyllic childhood, swimming with Galapagos Islands animals and exploring the area on his father’s boat. Now an Expedition Leader on IE's Galapagos cruises, his life’s mission is introducing visitors to the myriad wonders of his native land and educating them about the importance conservation and ecotourism plays in its future.
We recently caught up with Boli for a conversation about how the islands have changed, why he loves the wildlife found in the water as much as that found on land, and what he hopes guests will take away from their trip to his island home.
What was childhood like for you growing up in the Galapagos Islands? Where did you live, and what are some of your early memories of interacting with nature?
My childhood in the Galapagos was a very special one. It was a very small, natural environment, with many close friends and no danger of any kind. We lived on Santa Cruz island, but I was blessed to have the opportunity to spend time in the highlands at my parents’ and grandparents’ farm. I also spent time traveling with my father, who was the captain of his own boat and used to take tourists around the islands in the ‘70s and ‘80s. I have many wonderful memories of swimming and playing with Galapagos Islands animals – sea lions, sharks, turtles and penguins – and going fishing for lobster and tuna. The water was, and still is, my favorite part of the islands.
How have the Galapagos Islands changed since you were a boy?
I don't think the islands have changed that much, but the conditions have changed a lot. There are so many more visitors now, and therefore many more restrictions of all types. The Galapagos became an important tourist destination. Of course that implies more travelers coming and more money for the communities, but also more pressure on the surrounding ecosystems.
Can you tell me a bit about your education in Earth Sciences, and how you originally became a naturalist guide?
I always loved the outdoors, so studying Environmental Science was great because it gave me an opportunity to be out there doing – and looking at – the things I really like. The outdoors for me means freedom. I guess I was born a naturalist, since I was born in a natural environment with no modern luxuries at all. So this naturalist thing was always in me.
I've traveled all over the world and have never been any place like the Galapagos. What makes these islands so special in your eyes?
There are many wonderful places on our planet, but there is only one Galapagos. Galapagos is special because it’s the only place I know where mankind and nature can co-exist in a friendly way. It’s the only place where humans can approach nature in a natural way, and nature shows no fear or concern. It is easy to love and respect nature after visiting these islands.
Can you explain the important role ecotourism has had, and continues to have, in Galapagos conservation?
Ecotourism is an important education and conservation management tool. It is the only concrete way to educate the world about having a love and respect for nature. It’s the best way to show our natural environment to the public, so that they can see it and love it more. People protect what they love, and you can't love what you have not seen yet.
One of the things that surprised me most about the islands was the amazing diversity of wildlife you see in the water. Can you talk about the Galapagos Islands animals guests will see while snorkeling?
The underwater world is an important component of our trip. It is closely associated to the land part, since the water provides the food for most of the Galapagos Islands animals. We have opportunities to enjoy the water and snorkel on every day of our IE trips. We swim with penguins and Galapagos sea lions, little sharks, sea turtles and rays. We have more and more scuba divers coming to the region, attracted by the friendly underwater conditions and the amount of sea life they find here.
As an Expedition Leader, what do you hope that people take away from visiting the Galapagos?
My goal is that every guest we have will go home, not only with thousands of pictures of the islands’ creatures, but with the best memories of our country and our people. But, beyond that, my real goal is to contribute to their education and love for nature. Hopefully they go home with a better understanding of the importance of protecting our planet and its creatures. Hopefully they will go home with a conservation message about all the good things we are doing in the Galapagos. Despite economic complications, Ecuador is putting a lot of money and effort into trying to protect our natural resources. We only have one known home – our wonderful blue planet – and we had better take good care of it!
Veteran freelance writer/editor Bret Love is the co-founder of ecotourism/conservation website Green Global Travel and Green Travel Media.
With expertise spanning four decades, International Expeditions is working harder than ever to be your quintessential source for immersive travel to Earth’s most compelling natural areas. But after all these decades, we thought it was time to make a few changes.
The first thing we needed was a new look – a fresh, clean design that would look as great on our brochures and website as it does on the shirts and hats our guides wear in the field and the flags flying over our ships in the Galapagos Islands, Amazon and Earth’s other wild waters. IE’s new logo features symbols of nature, an ancient motif and even our initials.
Most importantly, our updated motto speaks more directly to you! So now, we invite you to Discover Your True Nature.
This is more than a new tagline. On International Expeditions’ experiential adventures, you’re afforded deeply authentic nature and cultural immersion, and journeys that are truly transformative as you discover things about yourself and our world.
In the coming months, you'll also see a new, more functional website and enhanced benefits added to our loyalty program.
What’s not changing at International Expeditions?
Maintaining the high level of service and experience you have come to expect from us
Maintaining the same phone number, same physical address and the same web address
Maintaining the same ownership and dedicated team you've come to count on for great service
While you can always count on IE for an unrivaled experience, exceptional guides and superior itineraries, the real reward is in discovering your true nature…gaining something valuable from your travels, becoming a more informed person, and being empowered to protect Earth’s natural wonders.
We hope you love our new look and logo, and that you’ll join us soon to discover your true nature!
One of the main reasons people love nature travel is the allure of seeing wildlife in its natural habitat.
When traveling with International Expeditions, chances are you’re hoping to bring home a suite of stunning images that capture the essence of the place you’re visiting and the wildlife you encounter. You want images that help you remember your experience in greater detail, and perhaps share those details with others.
Practice ultimately makes perfect. But these 10 simple wildlife photography tips can help improve your pictures dramatically:
Get outside and have fun!
We’ll get to the technical stuff in a second. But if you’re not going out and using your camera on a regular basis, you’re not getting the shot. It’s important to be both physically on the ground and mentally and emotionally in the moment. Your senses must be attuned to the environment around you. Great wildlife photography starts with truly being in the moment and experiencing the power of nature all around you.
Patience is Your Friend
Nature is unpredictable. If you want “the perfect shot,” plan to wait for it. Patience is by far your greatest ally when going for great wildlife shots. You may even need to come back day after day in order to get what you want. Sometimes animals need to get used to you before they’ll act normal with you around.
Know Your Subject
To capture that special image, it helps to be familiar with the animal’s habits. What kind of habitat do they like? At what time of year are they most active? When are they breeding and nesting? What do they eat? You want to be able to predict your subject’s behavior to some degree, so you can find it and be ready for that perfect shot.
Be Aware of Their Habitat
Many times, wildlife photos look like they could’ve been taken in a zoo. Not only do you want to know where to find your subject, but it helps to integrate their habitat into your photo to help tell a story. All too often, budding wildlife photographers bemoan that they don’t have the biggest, longest lens available. A 500mm or greater lens will help you get certain incredible shots. But don’t forget the power of stepping it back a bit to showing them in their native habitat.
Take Advantage of “The Golden Hour”
Photography is all about the light. Remember to use it to your advantage. The“golden hour” is that 30 minutes before and after sunrise and sunset, when rays of sunlight are slanted and full of interesting reds and yellows that add richness to your picture. In general, wildlife tends to be on the move – and therefore more visible – around sunrise and sunset. If the light isn’t coming in from the right direction, try moving around to see how you can re-compose your shot to take advantage of that less-than-ideal situation.
Don’t Hesitate to Press That Button… Repeatedly!
Remember that even the most experienced photographers may take hundreds of photos to get “the perfect shot.” So shoot a lot! Many animals move fast, and you might miss some incredible action if you’re too conservative in the number of pictures you take. With the incredible number of images that can be stored on one 16 or 32GB memory card these days, you shouldn’t hesitate to press that button over and over again. You can always edit/delete later.
Know Your Camera Gear
Your best wildlife photography opportunities aren’t going to last long. You’ve typically got 10-30 seconds at most to get an action shot before everything changes. It helps to know your camera and lenses well, so that you can make quick adjustments. What is the minimum shutter speed that will give you a sharp image? What about your aperture? Play around and practice with your equipment as much as possible beforehand so you’re ready to capture that instant when the action happens.
Understand Rules of Composition
Learn about the “Rule of Thirds” and the “Golden Ratio,” and practice them until they’re embedded in your sub-conscience. Also, consider ahead of time what kind of shots you want. Do you want to frame the animal in its larger habitat, do you want a close-up portrait that fills the frame, or perhaps both? It always helps to have a general idea of what you want to accomplish before you’re on the ground.
It’s Not ALL About the Megafauna
Photographs of big, awe-inspiring animals are incredible, and something every wildlife photographer treasures. But remember that there is a lot more to Nature than just Bald Eagles, Elephants, Lions or Grizzlies. Some of the very best wildlife photographers use Macro or Zoom lenses to focus in on the little things that often go unnoticed. Having an eye for detail can really help your shots stand out.
Make Yourself Comfortable
You’re going to be out in nature, and you’re going to have to be there for a while to get the shot you want. Dress appropriately, use sunscreen and remember to bring plenty of water. If you’re completely comfortable, you’re that much more likely to stick around and be there for that perfect shot.
One final note about responsible wildlife photography: Remember that these are wild animals you’re photographing. Getting your desired image should NEVER impact an animal’s well-being or sense of comfort, its right to survival, or the survival of the habitat on which it depends.
Personally, I frown on using captive animals for photography. Likewise, feeding them or baiting them is considered an unethical practice and could land you in jail or see you on the receiving end of a stiff fine.
Finally, keep in mind the impact you’re having on their habitat just by being there, and work to minimize that impact. Your goal as a wildlife photographer should be to capture the best image possible of wild animals living their lives naturally, without harming them in any way. Take only pictures, and leave only footprints!
A former archaeologist, Jim O’Donnell has consulted on community natural resource planning issues, permaculture development projects and wilderness protection movements. In addition to his blog, Around the World in Eighty Years, his writing and photography have appeared in National Geographic Maps, New Mexico Magazine, Perceptive Travel and more.
The gem of Chilean Patagonia, Torres del Paine National Park is part of the Sistema Nacional de Áreas Silvestres Protegidas del Estado de Chile (National System of Protected Forested Areas of Chile), bordered by Bernardo O'Higgins National Park to the west and Argentina’s Los Glaciares National Park to the north. Encompassing 242,242 hectares and averaging around 150,000 annual visitors, it’s one of the largest and most visited parks in Chile.
Here are five reasons why the park should be on every nature-lover’s bucket list:
Grey Glacier & Lago Grey
Grey Glacier is part of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, the world’s second largest contiguous ice field outside of the poles. At just 270 square km, Grey Glacier is one of the smallest in the region. But, as you walk along the shore of Lago Grey, it looks massive, feeding into the opposite end of the lake. Calved icebergs float all around, glowing with a brilliant blue hue that seems to radiate from within. Blue ice is formed from the compression of pure snow, which ultimately develops into glacial ice over centuries of extreme pressure. When sunlight hits an iceberg, the light is absorbed, and what little light is refracted appears blue to the naked eye. You’ll be spellbound watching these massive floating gems changing color with the shifting of shadows and light, as they mirror the majestic peaks of the famed Paine Massif behind them.
The Birds of Patagonia
With its myriad lakes, alkaline ponds and reed-fringed lagoons, Torres del Paine offers plenty of opportunities for avid birdwatchers to get their fix, with around 120 different species to be found. Colorful species such as the Austral pygmy owl, Austral parakeet, Long-tailed meadowlark, Magellanic woodpecker and Thorn-railed Rayadito can often be seen surprisingly close-up. Predatory birds such as Caracaras and massive Andean Condors are also regularly spotted in the area, soaring overhead in search of an easy opportunity to scavenge the remains of carcasses left behind after a Puma kill. For rarer sightings, the aptly-named Laguna Los Flamencos is one of several places within the park where you may see pink flamingoes feeding in the shallows. And the odd, emu-like Rhea (which is related to the ostrich) can often be seen as you drive along the park’s scenic roads.
The Flowers of Patagonia
The Patagonian flora is not the first thing you’ll notice during a visit to Torres Del Paine National Park, whose larger-than-life scenic vistas are dominated by massive mountains, expansive blue skies, vast fields and huge animals (including Guanacos and the soaring Andean Condor). But those who take time to notice the little details will see many of the 400+ plant species sprinkled across the Patagonian steppe, forest and Andean desert found within the park. From the blazing red hues of Chilean Firetree and Common Sorrel to the vivid yellows of the Dwarf Paramela and Lady Slippers, from the sweet purple tones of Fuegian Edelweiss and Lupine to seven different orchid species, the colorful flowers of Torres del Paine prove big things come in small packages.
From Red and Grey Foxes to Huemul Deer and Pumas, Torres del Paine offers more than its fair share of fauna to keep wildlife watchers on their toes. But the most ubiquitous species by far is the Guanaco, also known as the Patagonian Llama. With heights that can reach over four feet and weight of up to 200 pounds, Guanacos are the largest of all Chilean wildlife. Their reddish-brown coats stand in striking contrast to the park’s green flora, and their fur is prized for its warmth and soft, woolen feel. Guanaco herds are a frequent Torres del Paine sighting, typically made up of around 10 females, a dominant male, and their offspring. Winter (which is summertime in Patagonia) is a wonderful time to visit the park, as you’ll likely get lucky and spot a baby Guanaco feeding amongst the grasses, sticking very closely to its mother.
The Paine Massif
Everywhere you go in Torres Del Paine, its three granite peaks loom large, rising 9,350 feet above sea level and joining with the Cuernos (“Horns”) del Paine. The surrounding valleys, rivers, glaciers and lakes may be in the scenic foreground, but these “Towers of Blue” for which the national park is named dominate every view, exerting a magical, magnetic pull that’s difficult to describe. Watching the sunrise painting these majestic mountains in vivid hues of red and orange, as the lightening sky turns a deep shade of blue and reflects on the milky surface of Blue Lake and Sarmiento Lake, it’s impossible to ignore the overwhelming grandeur of Patagonia’s most monolithic natural wonder.
Talk to IE's Patagonia Tour Experts
Ready to explore Torres del Paine National Park and more of Patagonia? International Expeditions offers comprehensive Patagonia Tours, exploring both Chile and Argentina, as well as a Puma, Penguins & Whales tour. Our Travel Planners, like Charlie Weaver (above), can also create custom travel options
This summer we sent Green Global Travel blogger Bret Love and his daughter Alex on our Galapagos Island cruise. Here is their journal of the myriad wildlife species they saw along the way:
We began our first day in Pangas, exploring Isabela Island’s Punta Vicente Roca. An adorable Galapagos Sea Lion pup was the first to greet us, swimming curiously beside our boat. He was the first of the morning’s exciting sightings, which included Nazca Boobies, Blue-Footed Boobies, Flightless Cormorants, Marine Iguanas and a Galapagos Penguin.
Later, while snorkeling, we got our first glimpses of Sea Turtles and swam with a Marine Iguana and Flightless Cormorant who were feeding along the shore.
In the afternoon we moved to Fernandina, the youngest island in the archipelago, for our first hike. There was a steady stream of wildlife, including numerous playful Sea Lion pups, a Galapagos Hawk, Lava Lizards and two Galapagos snakes. But the evening’s most intriguing scene was two colorful Sally Lightfoot Crabs playing tug-of-war over a scrap of food.
Our second day began with a wet landing on the black sand beach in Isabela’s Urbina Bay. The morning hike brought us our first sight of the colorful Land Iguanas and the famed Galapagos Tortoises, several of which were alongside, and a couple even blocking, our path!
Afterwards we snorkeled Tagus Cove, which brought our first swim with Sea Lions, more Sea Turtles, a brief glimpse of a Penguin rocketing through the water, and a beautiful Sea Horse hidden amongst the vegetation about 12 feet down.
That evening we took a Panga ride around the picturesque cove, where we spotted Brown Pelicans, Boobies, Brown Noddy Terns, and five juvenile Penguins perfectly posed together right by the water.
Day three began with an invigorating hike up the 370-foot volcanic cone of Bartolomé, which afforded spectacular views of the iconic Pinnacle Rock and surrounding islands. By the time we made it back down, we were anxious to get back in the water.
Today’s snorkeling was absolutely extraordinary! A pair of Galapagos Penguins surprised us by slipping into the water off and diving around us, then slowly swimming beside us for 20 minutes as we made our way around the island. Our guide, Christina, said she’d never seen anything like it in her 19 years of leading Galapagos tours. It was one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life.
We begin day four on Santa Cruz, with a relaxing hike along the gorgeous white sand of Bachas Beach, a major Sea Turtle nesting site. We saw a few nests, but no turtles, but we did Marine Iguanas, Oystercatchers, Pelicans and even an Octopus in the shallow tide pools. But the main attraction was a trio of Galapagos Flamingos in the lagoon, which fed in the waters right near shore.
Santa Cruz’s Dragon Hill is famous for its healthy Land Iguana population, which has rebounded well thanks to a conservation program from the National Park and the Charles Darwin Foundation. Our 2-mile hike through the cactus forest also brought our first sightings of Darwin’s Finches, Galapagos Doves and more Marine Iguanas.
Our busiest day to date took us to Santa Cruz’s bustling Puerto Ayora, the economic capital of the Galapagos. At Mr. Cabrera’s Farm, we learned about (and participated in) the process of harvesting and grinding sugar cane and roasting coffee beans in the traditional way. We also got a chance to taste moonshine made from the cane: I was the guinea pig who got to spit some into the fire to make a fireball!
From there we went to Los Gemelos – two humongous pit craters – for a cloud forest hike that brought myriad Darwin’s Finches, Galapagos Mockingbirds and a Flycatcher. Then it was on to Rancho Manzanillo for a short hike to see more Galapagos Tortoises in their natural habitat and a delicious barbecue lunch.
The afternoon was spent at the Charles Darwin Research Station, where we learned about the captive breeding program that helped bring the Galapagos Tortoise back from the brink of extinction. We saw tons of cute little baby tortoises, as well as Land Iguanas, more Darwin’s Finches and the second most famous tortoise (after Lonesome George), Professor Diego, who sired more than 1,500 offspring.
Our last full day in the islands began with a landing at Punta Suarez on Española, the oldest and southernmost island in the archipelago. There were Sea Lions, Christmas Iguanas (known for their bright red colors) and a Galapagos Hawk waiting to greet us during our dry landing. But we were here to see the massive bird colonies further inland. We weren’t disappointed: The rocky terrain led us to hundreds, perhaps thousands of Nazca Boobies, Blue-Footed Boobies and Waved Albatross, including more than a few amusing mating dances. It was an incredible sight for bird lovers.
Our final snorkeling excursion was another memorable experience. After a slow start in rough waves, we made our way around Gardner Island to calmer waters and found a group of 8-10 Sea Lions of varying ages and sizes eager to engage. The more we dove and flipped underwater to film them with our GoPro, the more excited they seemed to get.
We ended the day with a sensational sunset stroll on the Gardner Bay beach, which is known for its massive Sea Lion colony. Adorable babies frolicked in the surf as the older ones sprawled out next to one another sleepily, covering themselves with sand to ward off bugs. It was the perfect way to wind down our once-in-a-lifetime Galapagos adventure, and a memory my daughter and I will never forget.
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International Expeditions’ President Van Perry spent part of July in East Africa, hosting our small-group safari. Once back in the office, Van reflected on his first trip to Africa.
“This was my first safari, and it was an incredible experience to see not only the wildlife and people but also the surprising variety of ecosystems in such a relatively compact area. You can always read about the Great Migration, but to see hundreds of thousands of wildebeest and zebras on the move is just awe-inspiring!
“I was excited for us to achieve a sighting of the Big 5 — lion, leopard, elephant, Cape buffalo and rhino. Actually, our small group observed the Big 5 twice…maybe we’ll call it the Big 10. Unfortunately, we didn’t see all of the Little 5 — rhinoceros beetle, Buffalo weaver, elephant shrew, leopard tortoise and ant lion — so I guess I’ll need to return. There were days that we lost count on the number of zebras, giraffes and hippos that we sighted.
“Our guides were incredibly well-versed on the wildlife. One day, as we were among a ‘small’ herd of a couple thousand wildebeest, our guide said, 'Watch this male. He is about to lose his small herd of females.' They were in the open between the water and trees. He did not want them to go to the water for fear of losing them to another male. Our guide knew that within a few minutes the females would run for the water to get away, and directed our group to watch as the male wildebeest tried to corral his females. The sequence played out exactly as our guide predicted. Our inconsiderate male wildebeest lost his entire harem of 50 females in a matter of 10 minutes.
“Other memories are the little tails wagging straight up in the air as the warthogs ran away from a lion, and watching baboon troupes moving through the grass.
“A highlight or myself and everyone who elected to do the balloon safari was the view of the Masai Mara while floating over the tree tops, seeing elephants along the river and drifting over hippo pools. The Champagne breakfast after landing in the middle of the Mara is also etched in my memory bank. We all had a chuckle out of the chef using hot air balloon burners to prepare the eggs and crepes!
“East Africa is truly one of the world's epic destinations, and I would honestly encourage anyone who has ever considered Africa to make sure they take those steps to go. You will not be disappointed!"
While Costa Rica is beloved for its natural treasures, there’s another cache of riches lurking back in those lush jungles. The country’s archaeology may not be quite as well known as its ecology, but an exploration of Costa Rica’s ruins and museums ultimately proves equally fascinating as its famous rainforests.
For around 15,000 years the Central American isthmus has been a highway for human migrations between North and South America and a home for myriad indigenous civilizations. The result is a wealth of precious artworks, crumbling cities in the jungle, puzzling mysteries, and a timeline of archaeological treasures ranging from the depths of history, to the conquistadors, to recent days.
Costa Rica's Early History
The year of human arrival in the Americas is hotly disputed, but archaeological evidence found thus far suggests people arrived in Central America around 12,000 years ago. Ancient hunting sites near Volcan Turrialba hint that the earliest arrivals in the area hunted sloths, mastodons and giant armadillos.
As the Ice Age ended and the climate shifted dramatically, humans organized themselves in small, highly mobile groups that could take advantage of the region’s varied ecosystems. The Turrialba and Guanacaste regions saw higher population densities than the rest of the country. By 5000 BC agriculture was well under way, with communities planting tubers such as yuccas and yams and cultivating fruit and palm trees. Later ,corn and ayotes became vital parts of their diets.
These agricultural communities built permanent settlements that would, over time, grow into impressive cities run as hierarchical chiefdoms. These societies built roads, irrigation systems and large structures. They were deeply into astronomical observations and the production of masterful works made with jade, opal and gold. By 500 AD they were wide-ranging and socially stratified, with designated political and religious leaders, specialized artisans, warriors and a farmer class.
Until the Spanish arrived in the 1520s, these cultures came and went, expanded and shrank, and warred against each other on and off. To understand these varying cultures and their accomplishments, there are a number of archaeological ruins and museums no Costa Rica visitor should miss.
The Best Costa Rican Ruins
East of San Jose you’ll find El Guayabo National Monument, the largest archaeological site in the country, whose ruins lie on a plateau on the southern flank of Volcan Turrialba. At one time upwards of 5,000 people may have lived in Guayabo, which had plumbing and an engineered municipal water supply, whose channels were lined with stones and sand to filter drinking water. The center of the town was a cluster of tapered wooden structures topping elevated rock platforms and capped with massive conical roofs towering tens of meters into the sky. Carbon dating suggests Guayabo was built 1200 years ago. From Guayabo, you can easily reach the stunning Orosi Valley and Las Ruinas de Ujarrás, a colonial church site built around and over an ancient village.
For sheer mystery, you simply must see the stone spheres of Costa Rica at Archaeological Zone Finca 6, an incredible site in Palmar Sur. The massive man-made stone balls found there are perfectly spherical and range in weight up to 16 tons! These mysterious balls have attracted a lot of attention from archaeologists, astrologists and mystics alike. No one is quite sure how old these spheres are (some estimates put them at about 2300 years), how they were made or what purpose they served. But studies suggest they were an important part of Costa Rica’s ancient culture for over 1000 years.
Out on the Caribbean slope east of Guayabo lies Las Mercedes, another architectural marvel boasting 15 massive platforms, numerous plazas, terraces, funeral sites, ramps and the famous Causeways. Archaeologists estimate this site was occupied from about 1500BC until the arrival of the Spanish, with the monumental architecture constructed around 1000 years ago.
Back in the center of the country you’ll find Rivas, a former residential complex comprised of round structures (which were made of large river cobbles) with rectangular patios outside. Notable finds at this site include ceramic musical instruments, ceramic beads and whistles, some of which were created in the shape of human heads.
Costa Rica's Archaeological Museums
Along your journey to these Costa Rican ruins, be sure to drop in to see San Jose’s impressive archaeological museums. The best of the bunch include the Gold Museum, the Jade Museum and the National Museum, which offers an exceptional overview of the nation’s history running from deep pre-historic times to La Entrada and on to present day.
The Gold Museum features more than 2,600 impressive artifacts, as well as a section on the history of Costa Rica’s currency. Precious green gems rule at the Jade Museum, where you’ll also find other artifacts ranging from ceramics to carved wooden pieces and much more.
Costa Rica’s past is richer than most people know. And while its ecological treasures may always be the primary draw for visitors, you can easily combine your Costa Rica ecotour with a journey into the depths of history.
How To See Costa Rica's Archaeological Sites & Museums
International Expeditions' Custom Travel Planners can help arrange time before or after your Costa Rica tour to explore the cultural history and archaeology accompanied by expert local guides.
A former archaeologist, Jim O’Donnell has consulted on community natural resource planning issues, permaculture development projects and wilderness protection movements. In addition to his blog, Around the World in Eighty Years, his writing and photography have appeared in National Geographic Maps, New Mexico Magazine, Perceptive Travel and more.
The Galapagos Islands have their fair share of mammals, reptiles and amphibians, from Sea Lions and Sea Turtles to Galapagos Tortoises and Land Iguanas.
But it also features 56 native bird species – 45 of which are endemic and 11 of which are indigenous – as well as 29 migratory species. These sea birds, shore birds and land birds have been a highlight ever since the days of Charles Darwin’s famous Voyage of the Beagle.
Here is a brief guide to some of the species you might see during International Expeditions' Galapagos cruise.
The three booby species rank among the most popular birds of the Galapagos. Red-footed boobies are the smallest and most abundant, nesting in huge colonies in trees and shrubs of the outer-most islands, as they feed far out to sea. Blue-footed boobies feed close to shore, making spectacular dives into the sea to feed, and are widely distributed in small ground-nesting colonies.
Nazca Boobies, formerly known as Masked Boobies due to their distinctive facial markings, are known for siblicide – they lay two eggs, but the oldest chick typically kills the youngest.
Also known as Galápagos Finches, these 14 species belong to the tanager family and are not closely related to true finches. They played a crucial role in Darwin’s theory of natural selection, as each species has a distinctive beak size and shape and specialized feeding behavior. Collective, these species fill the roles of seven different families of birds found on mainland South America.
One of the world’s rarest bird species, with less than 1000 left. They have black and brown feathers, brilliant turquoise eyes, low growling voices, and wings 1/3 the size that would be required to fly. Their feathers aren’t waterproof, so they spend a lot of time drying their short, stubby appendages in the sunlight. They’re found only on the islands of Fernandina and Isabela, where you frequently see them diving down deep into the ocean in search of fish, eels and other small prey.
The Magnificent Frigate is not endemic to the Galapagos, but it is one of its most impressive inhabitants. With bodies up to 45 inches long and a massive wingspan, they soar (often in the updraft created by ships) aloft, never touching water, feeding by either snatching fish from the ocean’s surface or forcing other birds to regurgitate their meal so they can steal it. During mating season, males inflate their red throat pouches dramatically to attract females, making for fantastic photos.
Endemic to the Galapagos, this dove boasts a large population and a small range, making them one of the islands’ most common species. Their plumage includes varying shades of brown, red, grey and white, with pink feet and bright blue rings around the eyes. They inhabit dry, rocky lowlands, where they feed on seeds, caterpillars and cacti blossoms.
With few natural predators in the Galapagos, these raptors play a vital role in the local ecosystem. Similar in size to a red-tailed hawk, they use their sharp beaks and claws to prey on lizards, snakes, rodents, marine iguanas and the occasional turtle hatchling. They also feast on carrion, even that which is too rancid for other animals to eat.
With six endemic subspecies spread across the archipelago, this long-tailed, long-legged, long-beaked bird is the most widespread of the mockingbird species found in the Galápagos. The omnivore eats almost everything– seeds, eggs, fruit and more– and studies show that they distribute viable seeds across the islands after digesting them.
Found mainly on Fernandina and Isabela, where there are fewer than 1,000 breeding pairs left, this equatorial Penguin measures around 19 inches long and weighs just five pounds. They’ve genetically adapted to the heat (which ranges from 59º-82ºF), thermoregulating by stretching out their flippers, avoiding the sun, panting and swimming in the islands’ cooler waters.
Breeding in the humid highlands on large islands (Floreana, Isabela, San Cristobal, Santa Cruz and Santiago), these large seabirds nest in burrows and natural cavities on hillsides. Unfortunately this made them vulnerable to invasive species such as cats, pigs and especially rats, which feed on their eggs and hatchlings. Although the population is recovering (estimated between 10,000-20,000 individuals), the species remains listed as Critically Endangered due to impacts from agriculture, invasive plants and El Niño events.
With less than 350 individuals, the Galapagos Flamingo is the world’s smallest, and is listed as Endangered by the IUCN. They can be found is saltwater lagoons near the sea, feeding on the brine shrimp whose aqueous bacteria and beta carotene give them their pink color. Where populations elsewhere require large groups for successful breeding, Galápagos Flamingos can breed with just a few pairs present, producing chicks with grey plumage.
Also known as the Large-Billed Flycatcher, this endemic species is found on all of the islands, primarily in tropical dry forests and tropical arid shrubland. The smallest member of its genus, with an average length of 5.9-6.3 inches, long legs, and bright yellow bellies on the male of the species. They’re also very curious, and are known for being attracted to tourists with large camera lenses.
Endemic to the Galapagos, this is the rarest gull species in the world, with a population of 900-1,200 leading to their IUCN listing as Vulnerable. Adult plumage is mostly grey with black and white accents, which are believed to help with camouflage. Typically seen in single pairs rather than colonies, nesting on sandy beaches and low outcroppings, these scavengers feed on seabird eggs, juvenile marine iguanas and turtles, fish and small crustaceans.
Another endemic species, which also happens to be the only fully nocturnal seabird in the world, feeding primarily on squid and fish. Mating pairs– which nest on steep slopes, ledges, and just above the wave line on gravelly beaches– frequently stay together, breeding year after year. Their red-ringed eyes are a striking defining feature.
Classified as Critically Endangered due to their small breeding range, the Waved Albatross is only found on Española Island. Pairs mate for life, typically arriving in late March and doing an elaborate mating dance to ensure they have the right partner. They lay eggs from mid-April to late June, with chicks fledging at the end of the year. During non-breeding season, they move to the waters off the coast of Ecuador and Peru.
Spot Birdlife as You Tour the Galapagos Islands
Inspired to explore the famed Galapagos Islands and observe endemic birdlife? 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.
Bret Love is a journalist/editor with 21 years of print and online experience, whose clients have ranged from the Atlanta Journal Constitution to Rolling Stone. He is the co-founder of ecotourism website Green Global Travel and creative services agency Green Travel Media.
Flycatcher photo Charles J. Sharp
Picture this: It's early morning in a lush forest in Kanha National Park or Bandhavgarh National Park. You're in an open jeep, riding along rutted dirt roads, enjoying the fresh morning air and the way the sun slants through the canopy.
A troop of large, gray langurs swings by, jumping through the air with amazing agility. The jeep rounds a bend and you see a small herd of chital, or spotted deer. The graceful animals raise their heads and stand in alertness, just for a moment, as you snap a photo.
Then, a call comes from another jeep further ahead. "Tiger!" This one word is enough to electrify the forest. Your hair stands on end as you strain to catch sight of the elusive cat, hoping to be one of the lucky few who ever get to see a tiger in the wild.
Tiger Conservation in India
India is home to more than half of the world's wild tiger population. The big cat is India's national animal symbol and the focus for tiger tourism.
But it is also an endangered species, managed under the watchful eye of the National Tiger Conservation Authority of India (formerly known as Project Tiger). Under the leadership of the NTCA, India has taken steps to protect the tiger through the creation of tiger reserves, corridor protection, anti-poacher legislation and awareness campaigns.
There are currently about 47 tiger reserves in India, and Kanha and Bandhavgarh are considered two of the best places to spot a tiger in the wild. It is estimated there are currently about 1,706 wild tigers in India – a 20% increase from the 2006 census, which showed 1,411.
But of course the tiger is not the only endemic wildlife of India. The subcontinent is extremely rich, containing many different climates and habitat zones, from the highest mountains in the world to one of the largest deserts, from tropical rainforests to the world's largest river delta, and much more. These terrains host an incredibly diverse array of flora and fauna.
India is heaven for birdwatchers. Of the world's 8,650 species of birds, more than 1,300 can be seen in India. Plus, at least 100 more species migrate to India annually, especially in winter. The colorful kingfisher, elegant egret and fantastic flycatcher are just a few of the beautiful birds that can easily be spotted in India.
Perhaps most thrilling is to see the country's state bird, the peacock, in full feather, or flying low over the desert at sunset. It is a particularly exciting sight to see such a magnificent bird wandering freely in cities, parks and among the pink deserts and golden forts of Rajasthan.
They’re so ubiquitous, visitors become accustomed to the peacock’s screechy cry as part of the fantastic wild and cultural landscape of India.
The Asian elephant is smaller than the African variety, with smaller ears and a larger trunk. Like the cow, the elephant is considered sacred in India.
One of India's most beloved gods, Ganesh, is elephant-headed, and elephants are used in religious rituals throughout India. In Jaipur, there is an Elephant Festival held each year on Holi, and in Kerala a spring festival called Thrissur Pooram features an astonishing display of elephants decorated with gold trappings.
It is exciting to see elephants lumbering down the road in India, or painted and decorated. However, the Asian elephant has been listed as endangered since 1986, and they are often kept in inhumane conditions, working in construction or tourism, or chained within enclosures to serve as temple elephants.
In places like Jaipur and some of the national parks, visitors are given the opportunity to ride elephants, but it's worthwhile asking yourself whether riding an elephant is ethical. Many animal activists and sustainable tourism enthusiasts do not think so, and are encouraging operators to end this practice.
Another one of the big cats found in India, the leopard roams all over the subcontinent in large numbers. It’s extremely good at adapting to a wide variety of habitats, and is a skillful and stealthy hunter. Though populous, leopards are highly elusive and hard to spot without an experienced guide. Both Kanha and Bandhavgarh National Parks are great places to see them in the wild. Leopards – especially the mysterious and rarely-seen snow leopards – feature in many local myths and stories.
Visiting wild animals in well-managed national parks under the guidance of licensed guides can help build India’s sustainable tourism infrastructure. It also helps raise awareness about the threats facing endangered animals, contributes to local economies and, of course, gives visitors incredible memories of the wildlife of India that will last a lifetime.
How to Go
International Expeditions offers travel to India focusing on exploration of the cultural highlights while being immersed in the nature of multiple national parks. Check out IE's incredible Explorer's India tours and India Wildlife adventure to start planning your adventure.
Black rhinos are gentle giants — herbivores who do not kill except in self-defense. Seeing them amble around the savannah in search of roots and grasses to chew on or water to drink is a quintessential African experience. Sadly, it’s an experience that our grandchildren may never have, as black rhinos (alongside their white and Asian cousins) are critically endangered and increasingly under threat.
Black rhinos have no natural predators, except for man. However, the black rhino population is down 97% since 1960, reaching an all-time low of just 2,300 individuals in 1993. Three black rhino species were declared extinct in 2011.
Now, thanks to extensive black rhino conservation efforts across Africa, their population has risen to over 5,500, 98% of which is concentrated in four countries – South Africa, Zimbabwe, Kenya and Namibia.
Black Rhino Facts
Black rhinos are not actually black. Just like white rhinos, they vary in color between brown and grey. The distinction between these two African rhino species is due to the shape of their upper lip. White rhinos have a wide, square upper lip, while the lip of black rhinos is narrow and pointed. The word “wide” in Afrikaans is wyd, which was misinterpreted as meaning white, and black rhinos got their name by contrast.
There’s one thing both rhino species have in common: They face extinction due to the rise in poaching. Rhinos have been hunted since 1200 BC for their horn (which was used to make wine cups and ceremonial daggers) and skin (to make armor). But rhino poaching exploded in the late 20th century due to the use of rhino horn in traditional Chinese medicine.
Ground up rhino horn has been fallaciously touted as a cure for cancer, impotence, hangover and fevers. But rhino horns are made of keratin– the same material as our fingernails and hair. The AWF famously argued that “rhino horn is as effective at curing cancer as chewing on your fingernails.”
Black Rhino Conservation in Namibia
The black rhino population in Namibia reached a critically low number in the 1980s due to aggressive poaching and a prolonged drought, which caused habitat loss. Save the Rhino Trust was established in 1982 in Namibia’s Kunene area, a remote and hard-to-access mountainous desert region.
When Blythe and Rudi Loutit moved to the Skeleton Coast, they were horrified to learn that the local black rhino population had dwindled to less than 30 individuals. Many corpses were found with horns ripped off by poachers. Botanical artist Blythe and her husband created Save the Rhino Trust to help conserve the local species, the desert-adapted black rhino.
Tackling poaching was their first priority. With rhino horns fetching tens of thousands of dollars per pound, they needed to find alternative employment for poachers. Many were hired to be trackers and wildlife guards. The program was largely successful, and the black rhino population in the Kunene area has since quintupled in size.
Rhino Conservation and Tourism
In 2003, SRT opened Desert Rhino Camp, an ecotourism initiative designed to support black rhino conservation efforts. Support of local communities is essential to responsible ecotourism: it’s necessary to ensure that conserving wildlife is more economically beneficial than poaching. So SRT established a revenue-sharing system with the local communities, and offered them opportunities for employment.
SRT also worked to develop a tourism model that minimized the chances of any rhino disturbance that could lead to their displacement. Rhinos tend to avoid areas with high vehicle traffic, so SRT kept their visitor numbers low. They divided the tourist area into sections and rotated tourist traffic between them in order to give the rhinos “rest days.” Thanks to this approach, no rhinos have been displaced.
Since 2007, local communities have received over $500,000 through tourism-related revenue-sharing programs. The SRT model proves that responsible ecotourism has the potential to conserve endangered species while providing benefits to locals.
Visiting Desert Rhino Camp
Desert Rhino Camp strongly believes in The 4Cs – commerce, community, conservation and culture. Commerce refers to the creation of a sustainable business model, and one of their key values is giving back to the community via revenue-sharing and charitable initiatives.
Desert Rhino Camp is set in a fragile desert environment, so special attention was given to minimize environmental impact. Showers are heated by solar power and waste water is broken down with the use of eco-friendly systems.
Accommodation consists of eight raised luxury tents, with verandas offering sweeping views over the Etendeka Mountains. The dining tents have open sides offering panoramic views, and there is a swimming pool to cool off in after a day of rhino tracking. Evening meals are often served under the stars, around the fire pit.
There’s a wealth of activities available at Desert Rhino Camp. The most popular activity on International Expeditions' Namibia safaris at the camp is definitely rhino tracking alongside guides and conservationists from SRT. You can also opt for game drives to take in the rest of the Big Five, and full-day outings with picnic lunch to explore this desert wonderland while searching out wildlife.
It’s possible to take nature walks to take a closer look at smaller plants and animals that have adapted to the harsh conditions of the desert. Birdwatchers are well catered to, with special outings to explore the bird life of the area.
Whether it’s your first or tenth time to Africa, a stay at Desert Rhino Camp will contribute to the ongoing struggle against black rhino poaching, so that our grandchildren will one day be able to see these gentle giants in real life.
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