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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
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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.
How can your next trip leave your destination a little better off than before you arrived? Check out IE's 10 Simple Green Travel Tips!
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Costa RIca's natural wonders draw birding enthusiasts and herpetologists alike. Home to more than 500,000 species of flora and fauna, Costa Rica is widely considered to have the highest density of biodiversity of any country on the planet. Despite comprising just one-third of a percent of the earth’s landmass, this tropical isthmus contains a whopping 5% of all species estimated to exist across the planet. Here are just a few examples of the many species you’re likely to catch sight of during your Costa Rica tour…
Amphibians and Reptiles of Costa Rica
More than 200 species of reptile (half of them snakes) and over 150 species of amphibian call the forested landscapes of Costa Rica home. Here are some of the more alluring examples of the country’s cold-blooded inhabitants:
The most commonly sighted reptile in Costa Rica thanks to their apparent indifference to human presence, the dragon-like green iguana can be found in a wide range of forested envi-ronments below 2,500 feet. Growing up to two meters in length and sporting an armor of spines, they will aggressively defend their territory if threatened. But, in truth, they’re actual-ly harmless vegetarians.
Poison Dart Frogs
Defining a group of dendrobatidae frogs that reside in Central and South America, poison dart frogs are easily recognizable thanks to their vibrant colorings and aposematic patterns, which advertise their unpalatable nature to predators. Endemic to humid, tropical environments, these tiny amphibians (sometimes measuring less than 1.5cm in length) can usually be found on or close to the ground, and also in trees.
Known locally as the Cocodrilo, the American Crocodile can be found in abundance along sections of the Tárcoles River, which boasts as many as 240 crocodiles per square mile. Living for 80 years or more, these relics of prehistoric times spend their days basking on mud banks and their nights snapping, catching, tearing and devouring their daily catch of fish in a terrifying display of power and agility.
Olive Ridley Sea Turtle
Named for its green-grey appearance, the Olive Ridly is the most abundant species of turtle in the world. Despite nesting en masse at twice-yearly events known as arribadas (which are considered one of Costa Rica’s natural wonders), they’re listed as endangered and are under threat from illegal egg-gathering and destructive fishing practices.
Insects of Costa Rica
Often found scuttling along the decomposing forest floor and marching up and down tree trunks, leaf-cutter ants are the gardeners of the rainforest. Rather than eating the leaves, the ants use them to cultivate a soft, spongy fungus which grows deep within their underground colonies.
Blue Morpho Butterfly
The most common species of butterfly in Costa Rica, the blue morpho is an adaptive beauty that can be found living along the edge of a range of habitats including forest, field, river and ocean. Its iridescent blue wings flap in a flight-and-fall pattern, highlighting its chocolate-brown underside and perplexing potential predators.
Of the 14 species of Scorpion found in Costa Rica, none are equipped with a deadly poison. They live in a variety of environments, however most individual species are adapted to that of one particular location. The Centruroides limbatus (a bark scorpion) is the most common in Costa Rica. Although its sting is not considered life-threatening to humans, being stung by this eight-legged arachnid is certainly no picnic.
Check-out IE's Brief Guide to Birds & Mammals of Costa Rica
Photos: Sea Turtle Bernard Gagnon; Scorpion Shantanu Kuveskar; Crocodile Charles J. Sharp
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Amazon cruise Expedition Leader Angel checks-in from the Peruvian Amazon with updates on this week's exciting wildlife sightings.
Sunday, July 12
Time for our first outing on the skiffs along The Amazon River! Almost immediately we stopped at a tree with lots of Southern Martins coming from Patagonia.
Got tons of photos of our first Green Tree Iguana posing for us in a bare tree, along with Gray Breasted Martins, Ringed Kingfisher, Turkey Vulture and a troop of Common Squirrel Monkeys.
Continuing along Yarapa Channel, we saw a pair of Paid Lapwings and Collared Plover running next to them, Great Egrets and Black Vultures eating death fish. Guests also checked Black Caracara, Black Collared Hawk, Great Black Hawk, Umbrella Bird, White Headed Marsh Tyrant, Oriole Blackbird, Yellow Hooded Blackbird, Black Capped Donacobious, Shiny Cowbirds and more off of their list.
This afternoon, we passed the confluence and headed out along the Ucayali River. Traveling in our excursion boats, we passed a sandbar seeing Wattle Jacana, Paid Lapwing and Collared Plover. Then we spotted a Green Tree Iguana swimming in the river. We were in its way, and the iguana tried to climb aboard! We continued to explore Yarapa River's "black water," where there were so many birds: Plum Throated Cotinga, Black Tailed Trogon, Paradise Tanager, Lineated Woodpecker, Black Caracara, Green Kingfisher, Amazon Kingfisher, Capped Heron, Mealy Parrot, Blue and Yellow Macaw, Green and Rufous Kingfisher and other birds.
Guests also saw a large troop of Common Squirrel Monkeys mixed with Bolivian Squirrel Monkeys and few Brown Capuchin Monkeys. Then we had an incredible view of a Three Toed Sloth sleeping on a tree and Long Nosed Bats.
A great first day in The Amazon! On the way back to La Estrella Amazonica we were treated to a beautiful sunset.
Monday, July 13
During a sunrise excursion along the Ucayali River, near Yanallpa, we found lots of death palm trees with Bellied Macaw perched on top. During the excursion along the creek, we saw so much: Oriole Blackbirds, Lemon Throated Barbet, Purple Throated Cotinga, Purple Throated Fruitcrow, Paradise Tanager, Lineated Woodpecker, Plumbeous Kite, Capped Heron and more.
Midway up a tree, our naturalist found a hole a Yellow Crowned Brush Tailed Tree Rat watching us pass. A nearby tree had four Night Owl Monkeys and on the other side of the creek were two Monk Saki Monkeys!
At "11 de Agosto" Village we met river people, chatting and seeing their homes and school.
Even walking around the village we saw Stripped Cuckoo, Barred Antshrike, Chestnut Bellied Seedeater, White Winged Parakeet, Dusky Headed Parakeet, House Wren and Silver Beaked Tanager.
While exploring Faucet Creek this afternoon we saw: Hook Billed Kite, Orange Winged Parrot, Slate Colored Hawk, White Tufted Woodpecker, Southern Rough Winged Swallow, Buff Throated Woodcreeper, Masked Crimson Tanager, Red Capped Cardinal, Capped Heron, Jabiru, Great Black Hawk and other birds.
Plus, we found a large troop of Saddle Back Tamarin Monkeys.
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Home to more than 500,000 species of flora and fauna, Costa Rica is widely considered to have the highest density of biodiversity of any country on the planet. Despite comprising just one-third of a percent of the earth’s landmass, this tropical isthmus contains a whopping 5% of all species estimated to exist across the planet.
Tropical rainforests, deciduous forests, canal networks, Atlantic and Pacific coastline, cloud forests, mangrove forests, coral reefs and volcanic rims all offer sanctuary to the remarkable wealth of wildlife in Costa Rica. Here are just a few examples of the many mammal and bird species you’re likely to catch sight of during your Costa Rica tour…
Mammals of Costa Rica
Despite Costa Rica’s wealth of biodiversity, just 200 mammal species (half of which are bats) call the lush green landscapes and warm temperate waters of the country home. Of these, some of the more intriguing species include:
Native to Mexico, Central America and northwestern South America, the tapir can be identified by distinctive cream-colored markings across its chin and dark spots on each cheek. Often found close to water, these solitary herbivores are good swimmers and can actually sink to the bottom of a riverbed to feed on submerged vegetation.
Costa Rica has three species of anteater– lesser, giant and silky– the most common of which is the lesser (a.k.a. collared anteater). A tree-dwelling species that nimbly navigates through the treetops using its prehensile tail, it extends its long, sticky, barbed tongue to collect termites and ants from their nests and underground colonies. Visit the Osa Peninsula to catch a glimpse of the elusive giant anteater, which is threatened by loss of its native habitat.
Consuming a diet of fruits, insects and ants, the kinkajou also feeds on nectar and is an important disperser of pollens from various species of plants. Covered in dense, soft, short fur, kinkajous are reddish to smoky grey-brown in color and boast curved claws and a distinct tapered tail that allows them to live high in the forest canopy. Though they’re nocturnal creatures, sightings are common in Monteverde National Park.
Birds of Costa Rica
Around 600 species of bird reside in Costa Rica. Of those, eight are endemic and 19 are globally threatened. During your visit you’re likely to see:
Ubiquitous throughout Central America, the clay-colored thrush is the national bird of Costa Rica, where it is known as the yigüirro. Recognizable thanks to its brownish plumage (somewhat lighter on its breast), which appears darker on those living in humid regions, its throat is faintly streaked and its bill is greenish-yellow with a dark base.
Blue Throated Toucanet
Commonly spotted in Costa Rica’s humid mountain forests, blue-throated toucanets are cavity nesters and often make use of abandoned woodpecker holes to lay their clutch of eggs. Easily distinguished from their cousins, the emerald toucanets, by their distinctive sapphire-blue throats, their plumage is a palette of green hues apart from a chestnut brown tail-lip and crissum.
Roughly 50 species of hummingbird live or breed in Costa Rica’s lowlands and lush cloud forests. Vibrant in color and energetic in flight, their fearless nature and remarkably small size have made them a favorite among birders and wildlife enthusiasts. Co-evolving with the region’s flora by developing long, slender bills and even longer tongues with which to harvest the crop of nectar, hummingbirds will aggressively defend nectar sources from rival hummers, bees and butterflies.
Discover the Wildlife of Costa Rica
Join International Expeditions' Master Naturalist Jonathan Sequeira in Costa Rica. International Expeditions has offered small-group Costa Rica tours for 35 years. Choose between naturalist-guided adventures encompanssing the natural and cultural history of Costa Rica, or enjoy our bespoke journeys, ideal for families.
British travel writer Charli Moore is a digital nomad blogging at Wanderlusters.com. An avid Scuba diver and adventure traveler, she advocates sustainable experiences in off- the-beaten-path destinations.
Photos: Clay colored thrush Andy Morffew; Kinkajou Carol Farneti Foster; Bluethroated toucanet Francesco Veronesi
Are there places where even the wild animals are as playful and curious as your dog? With abundant food readily available and isolation from predators, Galapagos sea lions — along with a wealth of other species — never learned to flee when approached. In fact, surprising to many of International Expeditions' first-time visitors to the archipelago, these sea lions are far from blasé as they welcome you to these enchanted isles.
Galapagos sea lions basically act like your average dog. Don't believe us? Here are favorite shots from our Galapagos cruise guests of sea lions doing their best pet impressions!
They LOVE going on rides
There aren’t many cars in Galapagos, so this friendly sea lion had to settle for hitching a ride on Jennifer’s kayak (alas, no window to feel the breeze blowing through his whiskers!)
They demand attention!
It’s not quite the same as walking through your door at home, but sea lions are likely to take up residence anywhere in the islands…and there’s no moving along the path until you’ve lavished them with lots of attention.
They love to sniff, lick and investigate your camera (instead of posing!)
Even underwater they love to get nose-to-nose with your camera!
They'll take up the ENTIRE couch (or sea-side bench!)
Think Rover is a little smelly? Try cozying up to a pinniped with a serious case of fish breath!
They never let you relax and read your book without being interrupted
But let's think about the real issue: Why are you ignoring these adorable Galapagos sea lions and the white-sand beaches of this extraordianry archipelago? What book could be THAT good?
They miss you when you're gone
How could you possibly walk away from that sweet face?
Note About Responsible Tourism: For the health and protection of both animals and you, please keep the following in mind whenever you are near wildlife. Do not startle or chase animals from their resting or nesting spots. Flash photography disturbs them, so do not use it. Do not touch or feed wildlife...although obviously, sometimes curious species may approach you.
Uganda's natural beauty has hardly escaped notice. In 1909, Sir Winston Churchill famously called it “the Pearl of Africa,” a sentiment echoed more prosaically today whenever contemporary travelers ooh and ahh over the country's diversity of people, wildlife and ecosystems.
Uganda occupies a special geographical position, spanning the land where western and eastern Africa come together. Its rainforests are home to the famous mountain gorillas and teeming with beautiful birds, with savannas populated by big game nearby. This also explains the wide range of habitats, including woodlands, wetlands, moorlands, mountains, rivers and lakes (approximately 20% of the country is covered by water).
No wonder Lonely Planet ranked Uganda first on its Best in Travel list for 2012, the 50th anniversary of the country's independence.
It's easy to get overwhelmed by its 10 national parks, its status as one of Africa’s most popular birding destinations (with around 1,050 species – 50% of those on the continent and 11% in the world), its 18 primate species and its impressive panoply of outdoor activities. But in a country of superlatives – the world's largest free-standing volcano, the world's second-largest freshwater lake, African's highest mountain range, the headwaters of the world's longest river– how did International Expeditions choose what's essential to see on safari?
Here's a look at the primary attractions of some of Uganda's best national parks:
Queen Elizabeth National Park
Located in the southwest about 400 km from Kampala, Queen Elizabeth National Park is Uganda's most popular conservation area. Its 1,978 square kilometers were first gazetted in 1952 as Kazinga National Park, but its name was changed two years later in honor of a visit by the British monarch.
The park's popularity is principally due to its breathtaking biodiversity. Spread across the Albertine Rift Valley, the park offers savanna, acacia woodlands, tropical forests, fertile wetlands and lakes within its borders, providing safe haven to over 600 bird species and 95 mammals (including 10 species of primates). No wonder the QENP has been recognized by Birding International as an International Birding Area.
Two of the park's unique wildlife experiences are chimpanzee tracking in the Kyambura Gorge and sighting the unusual tree-climbing lions, which perch in the giant fig and acacia trees of the Ishasha sector. Other highlights are the two-hour boat ride along the Kazinga Channel; guided walks through the dark Maramagambo Forest; and cultural encounters with local communities, like the salt workers at the Lake Katwe evaporation pans.
Murchison Falls National Park
The sprawling 3,840 square kilometers of Murchison Falls National Park, found 300+ kilometers northwest of Kampala, make it Uganda's largest protected natural area. It is also the oldest, originally established in 1952.
Famous as the location of Murchison Falls – the thunderous cataract where the Nile River squeezes through a six-meter gap and then plunges 43 meters – the park is also a magnet for birders and animal lovers.
The 450 species of fowl recorded here include the rare shoebill stork and many endemics, while the 76 mammals include four of the Big Five (all but the rhinoceros, which live in special protected isolation at the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary).
Although game drives are a customary means of scouting for wildlife here, a special game cruise along the Nile is a relaxing way to take in the park’s changing landscape. The views of the water's edge and up to the falls are not to be forgotten, as is the hike from the boat landing to the falls, which are visible from below and then above.
Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park
Although small – just 321 square kilometers – Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park is of crucial importance as home to the world's largest population of critically endangered mountain gorillas. The park contains half of the 900 or so alive today, with the remainder in the Virunga conservation area shared by Rwanda and Congo. (For more about the gorillas and the experience of visiting one of Bwindi’s 10 habituated gorilla groups, see Tracking Gorillas: The Bigger Conservation Picture.)
Preserved on the edge of the Rift Valley in southwest Uganda, Bwindi was established in 1991 as part of the conservation effort to save the mountain gorillas. Three years later, this island of remnant forest– one of Africa's richest and oldest (dating back about 25,000 years) – was recognized by UNESCO as a natural World Heritage Site.
Beyond the gorillas, Bwindi is full of other life, including 120 species of mammals, 350 species of birds (earning it the title of the Best Birding Destination in Africa by Travel Africa magazine), 200 trees, 310 butterflies, 88 moths and 51 reptiles.
The humans of Bwindi are also notable. The indigenous Batwa people were exiled from their historic lands when the park was created. They now reside in an adjacent buffer zone, from which they lead tours that teach visitors about their age-old hunting, hut-building, honey-harvesting, agricultural and trapping practices, as well as sharing traditional music and dance.
How to Explore Uganda's National Parks
International Expeditions offers ecologically sensitive, small-group Uganda tours which feature the opportunity to track mountain gorillas and chimpanzees in five national parks, including Murchison Falls, Queen Elizabeth, Kibale, Bwindi and Lake Mburo.
After decades of hardship under politically oppressive regimes, Uganda is finally coming back into its own and trying to right many wrongs. Tourism plays a big part in that, as one of the core sectors driving the country's socio-economic transformation.
With this in mind, remember that the Uganda Wildlife Authority, which oversees Uganda's parks, gives 20% of all park collections to communities that border the parks to develop facilities such as schools, hospitals, water infrastructure and roads. Any money spent on appreciating wildlife is also helping to improve quality of life and establish a more stable equilibrium between humans and animals.
As a writer, Ethan Gelber has agitated tirelessly for responsible/sustainable travel practices, a focus on keeping things local, and quality and relevance in publishing and destination marketing. He started The Travel Word blog and is co-founder of travel content curation site Outbounding.
As goodwill ambassador to the San Diego Zoo’s Zoological Society of San Diego, Joan Embery has been one of the world’s most high-profile wildlife conservation advocates for over three decades now.
A professional Fellow of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, she founded the American Association of Zoo Keepers and hosted numerous TV series on wildlife education. But she is perhaps best known for her thousands of appearances with animals on talk shows such as The Tonight Show (both the Johnny Carson and Jay Leno versions), Good Morning America and Live With Regis & Kathy Lee.
Joan Embery currently lives on a 50-acre ranch in Lakeside, California, where she keeps show horses as well as a variety of around 30 “wildlife ambassadors” (including a cheetah, lemur, zebra, toucan and more) she uses in her talks on the importance of environmental education. She also guides tours to East Africa, home to one of the world’s greatest natural wonders.
Here, we talk to Embery about her lifelong love of animals, the role of ecotourism in wildlife conservation, and why she keeps going back to East Africa over and over again.
When did you first fall in love with wildlife?
As a child I spent summers with my uncle, who was a veterinarian, in Santa Cruz. That was my early inspiration to go to vet school. I applied at the San Diego Zoo in my first year of college. The only position available to women was working in the children’s zoo, hand-rearing young animals.
A year or two later they were hiring a spokesperson to represent the zoological society in the process of building a wild animal park. Over 600 people applied, and the PR Director gave it to a model with no animal experience. That didn’t work out so well. When the opportunity arose, the Director stepped in and offered me the job on a trial basis. Within a year we were appearing on The Tonight Show.
At what point did you understand the connections between animals and the health of the environment?
In my early years, I was training elephants. Elephants are poached and under extreme pressure because they require lots of water and land to forage, and can be destructive in close proximity to people. It’s not long in working with animals before you realize that the very thing you love has serious challenges for the future. As I transitioned into conservation education and traveled all over the world, I saw tremendous impact to the environment. Animals that have existed for eons are declining in incredible numbers due to growing human populations, competition with livestock, deforestation, political instabilities, disease, etc.
In countries like Madagascar, where they have the highest number of endemic species on the planet, you see the destruction of 85% of the forest habitat. It’s scary, because the birds, reptiles and animals are their resources. At some point, you have to find sustainability. People who are economically challenged look at selling resources as an immediate fix, but the long-term is disastrous for wildlife, plant communities, and ultimately the human populations that rely on those resources. We sell our today at the detriment of our future. It’s not something we can replace.
What role do you think ecotourism will play in conserving these places and species?
The tourism market, if properly managed, can have a huge positive effect by educating people who become ambassadors when they come home and talk about their experiences. For many countries, it’s a major source of revenue, giving value to the resources we want to protect.
That has been proven with the mountain gorillas. I don’t think that Dian Fossey really wanted people coming into her gorilla habitat, but she realized that people would be their salvation. Until the tourism market was built, their greatest value was to be removed, poached and sold in the market. But gorilla tourism has provided a major source of revenue, because people pay big dollars to see them. It put Rwanda on the map.
Now you have people from all over the world that have been to Rwanda and seen these gorillas who have such a deep connection that they want to support efforts to conserve the gorillas. If Rwanda steps out of line with the gorillas, there is this whole constituency of people who feel connected to those animals and will stand up for them.
You’ve been guiding trips to East Africa for years. What keeps you going back to the region?
I’ll never forget the first time I saw the Great Migration, which is really awe-inspiring. To see animals in such numbers – a million wildebeest, zebras and all the hooved animals – is hard for anybody to imagine. Along with it, to hit the Ngorongoro Crater as well as the Serengeti… these are some of the best wildlife viewing opportunities on the planet.
I always enjoy taking people there because you can’t be disappointed. There is always something to see – the sights, the sounds, the sunsets, the landscape, and just the expanse of it. It’s mind-boggling to realize that that still exists, and yet there are tremendous pressures. Taking trips over time, I’ve see the population growth and the threat to the wildlife migration corridors. It’s hard to go back once you’ve lost habitat.
Every time I go, I want to shout, “You’ve got to see while it still exists, before it’s too late!” I hate to say that, yet I’ve seen the populations decline just in the short time since my first trip there. Anyone who has the capability to experience that in their lifetime – almost everyone I’ve traveled with – will want to go back over and over again.
Travel to East Africa with Joan Embery!
Join Joan Embery on a Tanzania Safari with International Expeditions in 2016! Discover East Africa’s quintessential wildlife frontier – a landscape brimming with the “Big Five” as well as a colorful host of birdlife – all while accompanied by this true champion of environmental, conservation and preservation issues.