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The island of Cuba is colorful and diverse, so it will come as no surprise to learn that its variety of bird species is much the same. Birdwatchers in Cuba will find endemic, Caribbean endemic and more common North American birds all over the island. But the most popular places for to find many birds of Cuba are the wooded areas of the Guanahacabibes peninsula, the Zapata peninsula and to the far southeast.
Here are a few examples of Cuba’s beautiful birds that you might see while traveling to Cuba:
Bee Hummingbird: The Bee Hummingbird, Cuba’s endemic hummingbird species, is commonly known as the smallest bird in the world, weighing up to around 1.8 grams and measuring 5 or 6cm in length. Breeding males have a stunning upper plumage of red-pink and blue, which sheds after breeding season. Females have an upper plumage of green/blue, and her lower part is white/grey. Outside of breeding season the two look similar, but outer tail feathers are white-tipped on females and blue/black-tipped on males. Distribution of this hummingbird in Cuba is a little patchy, but sightings have occurred on the Guanahacabibes Peninsula, Zapata Swamp, and to the very far east of the island.
Cuban Grassquit: One of the country’s more exotic-looking endemic birds, the Cuban Grassquit is a must-see when you search for birds in Cuba. Males are identified by their black masked faces and bright yellow collars, with grey crowns and lower plumage and a darker yellow upper plumage. Females are similar, but not quite as brightly colored. The Grassquit can be found all across Cuba, although it is thought that numbers have been dropping in recent years. Head to Cuba’s eastern, dry regions for the highest chance of a sighting.
Cuban Parrot: The Cuban Parrot is characterized by its green body, white upper face, red lower face and neck, and blue on its primary wing feathers. These parrots are large, growing up to 33cm long in adulthood. Not only can it be found in Cuba, but also other Caribbean spots such as the Bahamas and Cayman Islands. This parrot can be most commonly found in Cuba on the Zapata peninsula, but also dotted around south central and western areas. The species is thought to be in decline, but stable, with around 10,000 pairs left in Cuba.
Cuban Parakeet: The endemic Cuban Parakeet can be identified by its green color, with a smattering of red feathers on the bend of its wings. It is also the only parakeet found on the island of Cuba. Its population is in decline, known to have dropped below 5,000. As a result, this species is classified as Vulnerable. The Parakeet’s population is scattered across the island, most commonly found in the Zapata Peninsula, Trinidad Mountains and the Sierra de Najasa.
Cuban Pygmy Owl: This pygmy owl is another of Cuba’s endemic species. But, unlike a few of the other local birds, Cuban Pygmy Owls are found all over the island. These tiny birds, whose feathers are a mixture of grey, brown and white and which grow up to 16cm in height in adulthood, can be seen in various kinds of woodland and forest areas in Cuba. The population is stable, so this is a fairly likely spotting if you’re looking for birds in Cuba.
Cuban Bare-legged Screech Owl: This small owl, endemic to Cuba, can be identified by its brown, grey and white plumage, which is dark on top and light underneath, with some streaks of brown. It has large, dark eyes and differs from most owl species with its long, bare legs. This owl inhabits wooded areas and can be found all over the island of Cuba. But, as they are nocturnal, your best bet for seeing one during the day is looking out for holes in the trees, where the owls commonly roost.
Cuban Emerald: Despite having “Cuban” in its name, the Emerald Hummingbird is actually native to both this island and a number of spots in the Bahamas and Turks and Caicos. The male of this species is black with iridescent green/blue on top, while the females are much the same but with a grey-brown belly. Sightings of the Cuban Emerald Hummingbird have been known to occur all over Cuba. As they are solitary creatures, you are like to only see one at a time.
Gundlach’s Hawk: This medium-sized hawk is one of Cuba’s endemic species and is classified as Endangered, with roughly 150-200 pairs remaining. There are now only five areas in the country where you can see Gundlach’s Hawk, including the northeast regions of Zapata National Park, the wooded areas to the west of Santiago de Cuba, and north of Guantanamo. But even in these parts sighting are rare. The hawk is characterized, when adult, by its grey-blue upper and white lower plumages, with a black cap and a rust color around its legs. It almost exclusively feeds on other birds, including chickens, which is why it is sometimes considered a pest by locals in Cuba.
Cuban Oriole: Until recently, this Oriole was part of the Greater Antillian Oriole species. But it has since been given its own classification and is now considered one of Cuba’s endemic birds. Adult Cuban Orioles are nearly all black except for bright yellow patches on the side of the neck and at the base of its tail, and they grow up to around 20cm long. The Cuban Oriole inhabits forest areas and parks, often near palms, and are a common sighting.
Cuban Trogon: As Cuba’s national bird, the Cuban Trogon is a must-see. This medium-sized bird can be found all over Cuba in dry or moist forests, and is identified by its blue upper plumage, white breast, and red feathers in the lower part of its body around the legs. These colors correspond to those of the Cuban flag, which is why it was named the national bird pf Cuba. Its nickname with the locals is Tocororo because of its “toco-toco-tocoro-tocoro” call.
Antillian Palm Swift: With a population that spreads out over Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Jamaica, the Antillian Palm-Swift is a common bird in Cuba. It can be identified by its arching wings, forked tail and black and white colorings. These swifts can normally be found in lowlands and wet grasslands, feeding on insects. They are quite well-adapted to humans, so you shouldn’t find them too shy or inconspicuous, which is a blessing considering how beautiful they are when seen swooping through the skies.
Cuban Tody: Another of Cuba’s endemic bird species, the Cuban Tody is widely found all across the island and its barrier islands. This tiny bird, which only grows up to 11cm in adulthood, is characterized by its wonderful bright colors– green on top, white underneath, with blue hints around and under the wings and a vivid red streak on its beak and neck. The Cuban Tody is an avid hunter, found burrowing for insects for most of the day.
La Sagra’s Flycatcher: With a population that spreads across Cuba, the Bahamas, the Cayman Islands, Turks and Caicos and even the US, La Sagra’s Flycatcher is not exactly elusive in this part of the world. Still, it’s one of Cuba’s most charming common birds, with a white breast and brown-beige upper body, striped in part down the wings. This flycatcher is found in forests and woodlands, where it’s easiest for it to nest.
Cuban Green Woodpecker: The Cuban Green Woodpecker is one of a few species of woodpeckers with similar traits and colorings. But this is one of only two endemic to the island. This medium-sized bird is streaked with color– a green upper plumage and green stripes behind the eyes, white underneath, black stripes lining the tips of the wings and tail, and a red streak down its head and neck. They can be commonly found all over Cuba in forest regions, usually alone or in a very small group.
Fernandina's Flicker: The second of Cuba’s endemic woodpecker species, this bird’s signature striped brown/black and yellow feathers are well worth looking out for when birdwatching in Cuba. This species is far rarer than Cuba’s other woodpecker (it’s classified as Vulnerable, with fewer than 900 remaining), with fragmented populations in a handful of places on the island. They’re most commonly found in the Zapata Swamp area, usually sighted in palms, around the edges of woodlands, or feeding on the ground.
Summer Tanager and Scarlet Tanager: These two species are both common North America songbirds, but always a joy to see due to their bright red plumage. The Summer Tanager is medium-sized and males are mostly red, with a few black streaks in its wings. The Scarlet Tanager is also medium-sized, and in the summer breeding season males have a scarlet body with black wings and tail. The females of both species are a dull yellow, making them a little harder to spot, especially as these species usually inhabit high forest canopy.
Greater Antillian Grackle: This medium-sized, jet black bird with yellow eyes is endemic to the Antilles, found on Cuba, Jamaica, Puerto Rico and in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Its population is stable and considered common in this region, and sightings have also occurred on the Cayman Islands. The Great Antillian Grackle is known to be noisy and confident, and they’re often found scurrying across the ground looking for insects to feed on.
Cuban Pewee: Although it may not look as impressive as the more colorful birds of Cuba, the Cuban Pewee is nonetheless charming. This small bird– with dark grey upper plumage, white under plumage, a tufted crest and a tiny white crescent behind the eyes– is commonly found in Cuba and the Bahamas, although rare sightings have been known to occur in the US. The Cuban Pewee habitats forests and swamp areas and feeds on insects: It’s sometimes known to capture prey in the air with a brisk snap of the bill.
Loggerhead Kingbird: The medium-sized Loggerhead Kingbird is found across the West Indies, in the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Cuba, to name a few. There have also been a few rare sightings of this bird in Florida, in particular the Florida Keys. It can be identified by its white chest and neck, black/grey upper plumage with lines of white around the wing feathers, and black crown and beak. In Cuba, it can be found in forest, lowland, mangroves and swamp edges.
Cuban Vireo: The Cuban Vireo is another of the country’s endemic species, commonly found all over the island. The tops of its head and back are a dull grey, while its lower plumage blends into a light yellow, and stripes of white and darker grey line its wings and tail. They inhabit various forest areas in Cuba, including dry and moist lowland forest, mostly at a low altitude, but some can be found in the high forest regions on the island.
Red-legged Thrush: This small thrush is endemic to the Caribbean region, and can be found in Cuba, the Bahamas, Dominican Republic and Haiti. As the name suggests, it is characterized by its red legs, blue/grey upper plumage and a red ring around its eyes. There are a number of different variations in terms of color, but these features are common. Some also have a red beak, for example. The Red-legged Thrush is usually found in forested areas on the ground, where it likes to walk or run while looking for food.
Yellow-headed Warbler: As the name suggests, this bird can be identified by its bright yellow head. The rest of its feathers are grey on top and light grey/white on the bottom. This is another of Cuba’s endemic species. While it is not endangered, its population is limited to Cuba’s western regions, from the Gunanahacabibes Peninsula to Zapata, stretching slightly down to Cienfuegos and over the Isle de la Juventud. The Yellow-headed Warbler inhabits all kinds of forest regions, as well as semi-arid landscapes.
Ready to See the Birds of Cuba?
Join Cuban birders and naturalists on International Expeditions' Complete Cuba adventure to experience the "green side" of this island while connecting with the warm, generous people of Cuba.
British travel writer Emma Higgins has been traveling for three years and has lived in Spain, Canada and Thailand, collecting tales along the way and sharing them on her blog, Gotta Keep Movin'.
As the largest island in the Caribbean, Cuba is packed with some of the most distinct cultural and natural wonders to be found in the region. Here’s International Expeditions' guide for making the most of your time in Havana.
Hit the Streets (Especially at Night!)
Cubans congregate outdoors, and on a pleasant evening, there’s no better place to mingle with the locals than one of the many lively pedestrian boulevards. Havana’s Calle Obispo, Malecón and Paseo del Prado are popular places for burgeoning musicians to gather and strum guitar, young families to bring their children, and travelers and natives alike to browse the eclectic museums, shops and cafes that line the roads.
Channel Papa Hemingway
Lovers of literature will want to pay homage to Ernest Hemingway, and there’s no shortage of opportunities to channel your inner “Papa.” Start at Hotel Ambos Mundos, home-base while writing For Whom the Bell Tolls. Take a peek at Room 511 before sipping a mojito at the hotel’s rooftop terrace. From there, it’s a short stroll to the Floridita, where Hemingway was known to sample a daiquiri (or several). Just outside of Havana is Finca Vigia, Hemingway’s former home, which has preserved almost as it was on the day of his death.
Dance to the Music
Music is a staple of life in Cuba. From the ever-present blare of a trumpet and Spanish guitar in the atmospheric squares to jazz, salsa, Afro-Cuban beats and the famed Buena Vista Social Club, your time in Cuba will move to a different beat. Dance-and-performing-arts centers are a great chance to meet performers and learn about rhumba and folkloric dance forms, but don’t be afraid to grab a partner and dance in the streets if the rhythm moves you!
Turn Down the Right Alley
Havana boasts a surprise at every turn, and El Callejon de Hamel is no exception. This funky alleyway is an open-air museum of vibrant murals created by Salvador Gonzales Escalona depicting Afro-Cuban culture and religion, further proof that an art appreciation class can happen anywhere! On Sundays, this is the epicenter of a street party honoring the deities of Santeria. Entire neighborhoods in Havana have been used as canvas, so ask your guide to see some of the local street art.
Sample the Fare. Support a New Economy.
Looking for exciting cuisine options AND a way to support private industry while traveling in Cuba? Family-run paladares are perfect for chatting with Cuba’s new breed of entrepreneurs while savoring creatively crafted foods using fresh, local ingredients in a festive atmosphere. Some of our favorites include Paladar Dona Eutimia, just off Cathedral Square, and Il Divino, where you can step outside to visit the restaurant’s garden after lunch.
Discover a Time Machine
The ubiquitous classic cars, Art Deco architecture, iconic cocktails and hand-rolled artisanal cigars — along with the slower-paced Caribbean lifestyle — are hallmarks of every photo and story of travel to Cuba. And you should take advantage of your time in-country to enjoy the time machine! Classic car buffs will relish seeing the pre-1960 American automobiles present in Cuba — with an estimated 60,000 of them still driving the island’s roads today. One International Expeditions group even met-up with Amigos de Fangio, a Havana classic car club, for drinks. If you want to “drink-up” some history, visit the Rum Museum in Old Havana or enjoy a cocktail at the historic Hotel Nacional’s Bay View Bar, which has hosted everyone from royalty to Annette Benning and Danny Glover since opening in 1930. Don’t forget: New rules for American travelers allow you to bring back $100 worth of Cuban cigars and rum!
Go There Now!
Want to experience Havana and the other wonders of Cuba before the inevitable changes that increased tourism are bound to bring? International Expeditions offers three Cuba travel options – plus options for bespoke travel that still adheres to the people-to-people rules for travel. Through meaningful daily interactions and free-ranging discussions, our Complete Cuba, Classic Art & Culture and NEW Cuba Cruise programs offer you a way to connect with the warm, generous people of Cuba.
Growing up in Nicoya, Costa Rica as the son of a botanist and anthropologist, Jonathan Sequeira comes by his love of nature honestly. After heading off to Sri Lanka to get his PhD in Alternative Medicine, he headed back to his native country, where he balances life as a naturalist guide with breeding poison dart frogs and growing medicinal plants on his property in Sarapiqui. Here, we catch up with IE’s beloved expedition leader to learn more about his passion for plants, animals and people.
Tell me about your childhood in Costa Rica.
I was born in the town of Nicoya in 1966. My father was a botanist and anthropologist, and my mother grew up in the countryside and was a nature lover. In 1977, I heard concerns about deforestation in my province. Somebody from the Cousteau crew said, “If we keep cutting the forest, by the year 2000 Guanacaste will be a desert.” I knew at that moment that I wanted to be involved in the conservation of nature.
You went to Sri Lanka to get a PhD in Alternative Medicine, specifically the use of medicinal plants from the rainforest. What drew you to that field of study?
My study of medicinal plants was probably influenced by my father, who did some work for different universities. The Open International University for Complementary Medicine in Sri Lanka allowed me to continue my studies in Costa Rica, as it focused on plants from the rainforest. I was inspired by how plants found a way to defend themselves by developing compounds that stop predation. Through understanding the potential medicinal properties of those substances, we can find a way to improve our quality of life.
What are some interesting examples of medicinal plants in Costa Rica?
1) Almendro, or Beach almond (Terminalia catappa) - This non-native ornamental tree has fruits that are one of the most important sources of food for the scarlet macaw. The leaves are astringent and therefore antidiarrheal; they have antimicrobial and antifungal agents; and some substances found on the leaves have effects on HIV replication.
2) Carao, or Sandal (Cassia grandis Fabaceae) - This medium-sized tree is known for the honey-like liquid from the large bean-shaped fruit, which can be used to treat anemia. For best results, it shouldn’t be mixed with milk.
3) Papaya (Carica papaya) - The sap of the unripe fruit is used as a meat tenderizer, because of its papain enzyme. A test on an injection of the enzyme into the spine to dissipate pains of the intervertebral disc had a 60% success rate, and a minimum risk of allergy. But the FDA is not approving the use of products with papain until more research has been done.
4) Indio Desnudo, or Naked Indian (Bursera simarouba) - This common tree secretes a natural resin that can be used to stop blood flow from wounds. The sap can also be used as an antidote for poison-wood. You can also use it in a tea for rheumatism or in a bath for back pain, and a poultice of crushed leaves can soothe bee and wasp stings.
How did you wind up becoming a naturalist guide?
Being a naturalist guide is a way to teach how important it is to preserve nature, and my love for nature have been part of my life since I was a child. I started guiding in Guayabo National Monument as a volunteer. It was there that I started learning about plants and birds, as well as the archeology of the area. After that I went to Corcovado National Park to work in a biological station call Marenco, where representatives of International Expeditions first contacted me. Later on, I started working for them.
You have a farm in Sarapiqui, where you breed Poison Dart Frogs. Can you talk about the environmental challenges facing amphibians around the world, and what their struggle tells us about the planet?
In 1988, during my first visit to Monteverde, I was lucky to see and photograph Bufo periglenes and Atelopus sp, a toad and frog species that later went extinct. Later on I learned about the illegal international traffic of frogs to supply a market in some countries in Europe. I tried to breed frogs in captivity to supply that market and send the price of those frogs down to the point of stopping the illegal trade. But I could not get permission from the government to manipulate specimens of endangered species. So what I am doing right now is keeping a piece of land in the rainforest, where I protect frog habitat. It is like my own little reserve, with monkeys frogs, birds, etc.
What do you hope IE guests will take away from their Costa Rica tours in terms of knowledge and experience?
I see guiding like converting people into a new religion. It’s a great pleasure when people tell me, “I will go home inspired and appreciating nature, being more alert about what we have in our backyards at home.” Hearing that they will teach their children, and that this experience has changed their life… these kinds of comments make me enjoy my work even more. It’s my goal for all our guests!
Travel to Costa Rica with Jonathan!
Join IE's Master Naturalist 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.
Amazon River cruise Expedition leader Freddy Avalos is reporting from our small-group excursions this week.
We’ve had wonderful weather in the Amazon Basin this week! The whole day on the lake was so beautiful, perfectly reflecting the trees. Our nighttime excursion on the Ucayali River allowed our small group to do some stargazing. The clear sky made it possible to see the Milky Way.
One of our travelers this week in an expert in bats. Working with the other naturalists, we found a group of long nose bats. The guest was able to do an impromptu talk about Amazonian bats.
This has been a great week to see babies! Twice we saw monk saki monkeys with babies, as well as hoatzins during our picnic breakfast in the Sapote River. Breakfast was exciting! In addition to the monkeys, we observed hook-billed kites flying over us, snail kite, lineated woodpecker, kiskadees, turquoise tanager and red-throated caracara.
While we were piranha fishing in El Dorado Creek, we spotted this three-toed sloth. She was just hanging down sleeping. I estimate that she is only about one year old, and just left by her parents. So so cute! Everyone was able to take many pictures
A whole family of night or owl monkeys was checking out our group in Yanallpa Creek. This is the same creek where we saw saddle-backed tamarin with some babies.
This Amazon cruise isn’t over yet! Excited to see what we find tonight. - Freddy
Rhinos all around the world are in serious trouble. Poaching is at an all-time high, rising from 333 rhinos killed in South Africa for their horns back in 2010 to more than 1,200 killed last year. And the bloodshed shows no signs of stopping.
The last Vietnamese rhino was shot and killed in 2009, and in November of 2011 the western black rhinoceros was declared extinct by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature & Natural Resources (IUCN). The black rhino, Javan rhino and Sumatran rhino are all currently listed as critically endangered, with less than 100 of the latter two species left.
The white rhinoceros, of which an estimated 20,000 remain in the wild, is not on the Endangered Species yet. But some rhino conservation experts suggest that, if poaching continues at its current rate, rhinos may disappear from the wild entirely within the next 30 years.
The Root of the Rhino Poaching Problem
At the beginning of the 20th century there were more than 500,000 rhinos spread across Africa and Asia. A century later, less than 30,000 remain. And the reason why basically boils down to a lie.
Rhino horn has historically been used to cure a variety of ailments throughout Asia. In traditional medicine, the horn is shaved or ground into a powder and dissolved in water, then used to treat fever, rheumatism, headache, gout and myriad other disorders (including cancer). As supply went down and demand went up, so did the prices: Rhino horns are currently worth around $45,000 a pound on the black market, making them more valuable than gold.
Unfortunately there’s not a single scientific study to back up the claims that rhino horn has any medicinal properties whatsoever. Rhino horn is actually made of keratin – the same protein found in hair, fingernails, horse hooves and turtle beaks. And yet still these majestic creatures continue to be killed at an increasingly alarming rate.
Why Rhinos Matter
There are around 25,000 rhinos left in Africa, where they are considered one of the “Big Five” animals that travelers want to see on safari (along with lions, leopards, elephants and Cape buffalo).
For the 11 countries that feature the “Big Five” as a tourist attraction – including Botswana, Zambia, Uganda, Namibia, Ethiopia, South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Malawi – these iconic species are at the top of an ecosystem that ultimately cannot survive without them.
“Africa generates about $80 billion in ecotourism revenue each year,” explains conservation advocate and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Dereck Joubert. “Most of that is focused on seeing big cats, elephants and rhinos. If we have beautiful lodges in pristine landscapes, but no big wildlife, that model would collapse immediately. Without those tourism dollars, we’d see increased poverty in many countries and, as a result, increased poaching for bush meat. It’s like a plague that ends in the total eradication of natural wildlife structures, and further damage to sustainable economics in Africa.”
Some Good News for Rhino Conservation
If there’s good news for rhinos, it’s that they have one of the most outspoken and politically active networks within the wildlife conservation community. Organizations such as Save The Rhino, World Wildlife Fund and the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust are all extremely active in raising awareness and funds for rhino conservation initiatives.
Great Plains Conservation, a foundation started by Dereck Joubert and his wife Beverly, has also launched Rhinos Without Borders, an initiative to save the rhino by translocating 100 of them from South Africa to Botswana in order to protect them from the tragic rise in poaching. To do this, they’ll need to raise nearly $5 million, as the costs to capture, transport, quarantine and release these animals will average about $45,000 per rhino.
Fortunately, these grassroots conservation initiatives are gradually making a difference in fighting back against the rise in poaching. The black rhino population in Africa has more than doubled since 1993, when it reached a low of just 2,300 animals. And the southern white rhino is one of the world’s great Cinderella stories: From a population of around 50 in the wild in the early 1900s, this subspecies has grown in numbers to over 20,000, making it the most populous of all rhino species.
But, with rhinos being poached at an average rate of one every seven hours, the time for action is now.
See Rhino in the Wild
International Expeditions offers a range of small-group African safaris in both East and Southern Africa. You can also take advantage of IE's 35 years of Africa travel expertise by allowing our experts to plan a private safari.
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Everyone knows that the Amazon River basin is home to some of the most impressive biodiversity on the planet, including more than one-third of all known wildlife species in the world. But significantly less well known are the ribereños, who inhabit villages spread out along the banks of the mighty river.
The ribereños of the Peruvian Amazon are an ethnically diverse people made up of the descendants of Europeans, detribalized native and their mixed-race (or mestizo) offspring. Because they live on a floodplain subject to remarkable environmental changes, these “river people” are notoriously adaptable and resilient.
Their life revolves around the river– washing clothes in it, bathing in it, using its water for cooking, and reaping its harvest for sustenance. And, since there are no roads, the ribereños use the river to get everywhere they need to go.
Despite being the most significant population in the Peruvian Amazon outside Iquitos, in terms of numbers, the ribereños remain virtually unknown. But here are five reasons why they will ultimately prove to be one of the most memorable aspects of an Amazon River Cruise:
The arrival of a ship in a Ribereños village always feels a bit like Christmas morning. All of the children seem excited to come out to welcome their visitors, but some hang back shyly while the bolder ones immediately begin using the boat as their personal jungle gym. Their energy proves incredibly infectious.
Younger kids may not ever have seen pictures of themselves before, so posing for photos and politely asking to see the results quickly becomes a popular past time.
Visiting the village’s one-room schoolhouse is an experience you’ll never forget, offering an opportunity for engaging cultural interactions that usually result in big smiles all around. After all, is there anything more amusing to a kid than watching grown-ups do “The Hokey-Pokey”?
LEARNING ABOUT RIBEREÑOS LIFE
As you stroll through the village, you gradually learn more about the typical Ribereños way of life. These communities are often focused on farming, but fishing, hunting, extraction of forest products, and waged labor are also common ways of making a living.
The women traditionally do most of the work at home, cleaning house, minding the children and roasting manioc (also known as yuca or cassava), a root vegetable that has been a staple of the Peruvian diet for thousands of years. Because it contains residual cyanide, manioc must be roasted over a fire for six hours, turning constantly to avoid burning.
It’s a special treat to be welcomed inside a typical Ribereños home– simple but well-kept wooden houses with a thatch roof, elevated on stilts in case the rising river waters come up over the bank. Most have just two bedrooms for the parents and their children, along with simple kitchens where they cook up fish, manioc and apple snails, a local delicacy.
RECEIVING A SHAMAN’S BLESSING
Arguably the most unique experience you can have in the Peruvian Amazon is the opportunity to consult with a local shaman.
This oral tradition, passed down from generation to generation for thousands of years, is in danger of dying out, as there are few young people willing to undergo the strict regimen required to study shamanic practices. Every plant in the Amazon rainforest serves a purpose, and most ribereños will go to a shaman for healing first before seeking help from traditional Western medicine.
At the end of your meeting, the shaman may offer to perform a sacred blessing ceremony, which involves him waving a small bundle of herbs above your head and chanting melodically, blowing tobacco smoke (known as a purifying agent) on your head, and then blowing it into your hands for your to rub over your body. It’s an exhilarating and indescribably powerful experience.
SHOPPING FOR HANDMADE CRAFTS
Fortunately, there are no malls or stores along the Amazon River. But that doesn’t mean you have to go home without a souvenir. Most ribereños villages are home to exceptional craftsmen, and sometimes you even meet families selling goods from canoes along the river.
Traditional crafts include elaborately carved gourds featuring images of the Amazon’s indigenous wildlife, woven baskets made from colorfully dyed textiles, tribal jewelry fashioned from local seeds and beads, and even miniature boats made to look just like IE’s ship, La Estrella Amazonica.
SUPPORTING CONSERVATION OF THE PERUVIAN AMAZON
As part of International Expeditions’ 35-year commitment to preserving natural habitats and improving the welfare of local communities, we have created numerous programs in the Peruvian Amazon.
These include creating water treatment plants in numerous ribereños villages to provide them with clean drinking water; co-creating an Adopt-A-School program with CONAPAC to provide rural students with school supplies while promoting environmental education in their communities; and funding the Las Malvinas Garden at a public school in Iquitos, which is used to teach environmental awareness, biology and language arts, and is integrated into the school’s curriculum.
So perhaps the best aspect of visiting the ribereños is knowing that your trip helps to support efforts to conserve the precious flora, fauna and cultural traditions of this incredible region.
TRAVEL TO THE AMAZON
Inspired to meet the riberenos people and explore the famed waters of the Amazon River? International Expeditions offers year-round Amazon River cruises along with land-based options. Check out IE's signature 10-day Amazon Cruise or the 7-day Amazon River & Rainforest Tour, named one of Fodor's Best River Cruises of 2014.
Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve ranks among the most beloved ecotourism attractions in Costa Rica, drawing around 70,000 visitors each year.
It’s easy to see why: With six different ecological zones (including 90% pristine forest habitat), the reserve boasts extraordinary biodiversity, containing around 100 mammal species, 120 reptilian and amphibian species, 400 bird species, and more than 2,500 plant species. It also has a Nature Center, bat jungle, butterfly gardens, frog pond, serpentarium, and an array of hiking trails, suspension bridges and ziplines.
But, long before the reserve was established in 1972, the nearby town of Monteverde had been settled by American expats who moved to Costa Rica in search of a more peaceful way of life. And it was these people who originally decided to protect the forest habitat from development.
THE GREAT QUAKER ESCAPE
The roots of what became known as Monteverde, Costa Rica date back to the late 1940s. Quakers – also known as the Religious Society of Friends – are a notoriously peaceful, anti-war people. After four young men from their community were imprisoned for a year as conscientious objectors to the Korean War draft, a group of 44 Quakers (comprised of 11 families) moved from Fairhope, Alabama (just hours from IE's home offices south of Birmingham) to the San Jose area in 1950 in search of a better life.
They were drawn to Costa Rica in part due to its climate and the agricultural possibilities it offered, and in part by President Pepe Figueres’ invitation for foreigners to help develop his Central American country. But perhaps most important of all was the fact that Costa Rica had recently disbanded its military entirely, offering the Friends (as Quakers call themselves) an opportunity to start fresh and live peacefully.
THE BIRTH OF MONTEVERDE
The Friends relocated to the San Jose area briefly while searching for a permanent home in Costa Rica. They eventually found a 3500-acre swath of land straddling the Continental Divide in the Cordillera de Tilarán mountain range, near Puntarenas. They named it Monteverde, which means “Green Mountain,” for the verdant plants that grew there.
After purchasing the land, they divided sections of it up to create farms for the individual families, while reserving a central area for their mutual use. This was where they eventually built the Monteverde Friends School, a Meeting House and a community-driven business, the Monteverde Cheese Factory. Tours of the Factory, where you can learn about the area’s history and sample their 17 cheeses and delicious homemade ice creams, are still available daily.
By the late 1960s biologists had begun to conduct research in the Monteverde area at the request of Costa Rica’s National Planning Office. After Quaker leader Hubert Mendenhall took conservation scientists from San Jose’s Tropical Science Center to see the primary forests that surrounded the community, they recommended that the Friends should preserve them in order to protect their homes and water sources.
The Quakers soon set aside 1300 acres they called the Watershed Property, which ultimately became among the first private nature reserves in Costa Rica.
MONTEVERDE CLOUD FOREST RESERVE
In 1972, George Powell came to Monteverde to do doctoral research on the birds of the area, which include species such as the swallow-tailed kite, the piratic flycatcher and the resplendant quetzal. Amazed by the remarkable biological diversity of the cloud forest, Powell was equally alarmed by the damage being done to Monteverde by hunters and land squatters.
The young grad student subsequently arranged a deal with the Guacimal Land Company (from whom the Quakers had bought their land) to donate land if he could form a civic association to help oversee the property. Coincidentally, the Tropical Science Center had a program to create private reserves for purposes of research and ecological education. With their help, Powell used his personal money to buy out several squatters and ultimately acquired 810 acres from GLC for a grand total of 1 colón (less than one U.S. dollar) in 1973.
Now, more than 40 years later, Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve has grown to encompass more than 46,000 acres of cloud forest, providing protection to a diverse array of flora and fauna. But it might never have happened if it weren’t for a small group of Friends from Alabama simply searching for a more peaceful way of life.
TRAVEL TO COSTA RICA & MONTEVERDE
International Expeditions has offered small-group Costa Rica tours for 34 years. Choose between naturalist-guided adventures encompassing the natural and human history of Costa Rica, or enjoy our bespoke journeys, ideal for families.
Amazon River cruise Expedition leader Angel Cardenas is reporting from our small-group excursions this week.
Early in the morning we went out along Supay River. Along the river's mouth we found giant water lilies, including one with a flower. Our first stop for photos and we weren't even into the river!
Our small group continued into the Supay looking for wildlife. During the excursion we found a beautiful plum throated cotinga, three toed sloth, long nosed bats, dusky titi monkeys and the smallest monkey on Earth, pygmy marmoset. A glass tree frog jumped on the excursion boat and took a short ride on a guest!
This morning we also visited a local village "11 de Agosto" along Ucayali River. The president of the community welcomed us and walked with us through the village. Along the way, he showed us how he is making a canoe using cedar and catahua wood. Plus, he showed guests how to harvest yuca (manioc). During our visit, we had a chance to visit a local family and see their house.
Our last stop in the village was the school house where we have a great time with some interaction between kids and our guests.
After an afternoon map orientation and review of our wildlife checklist, we set off into the Ucayali River again. This was a productive excursion where we spotted oriole blackbird and green tree iguana. But our best find was macaws on top of dead palm trees. We found a flock of red bellied macaws and a blue-and-yellow macaw before heading back to La Estrella Amazonica.
Another interesting day!
India is a remarkable place to visit for many reasons, but one of the most compelling is the richness of its culture. This is one of the few countries left on Earth with a living classical culture, unbroken since ancient times. You can visit an ancient Hindu temple and watch rituals that have been performed in the same place, in the same way, since the dawn of time.
But India is also a thriving, bustling, modern country. The same pandit (or priest) who performed the ancient ritual might very well take a smart phone out of the pocket of his robe and check his email.
It's this juxtaposition of old and new that makes the culture of India so fascinating. Here's a look at some traditions in India that still flourish today:
Mumbai is India's most densely-packed, fast-paced and westernized city. Like New York, it throbs with life night and day, but the beat moves to a time-honored rhythm. Mumbai offers an intriguing juxtaposition of old and new culture, and you can spend days just wandering the city, soaking it all up.
If you’re lucky, you may stumble upon the tiffin-wallahs (delivery boys who ferry stacked stainless-steel bowls of food home-cooked by wives to their husbands’ office) outside Churchgate train station. Often illiterate, these delivery men were made famous by the movie The Lunch Box, which centers around a rare meal mix-up.
The dhobis of Dhobi Ghat wash clothes in open-air tubs and hang them out to dry (as they have been for about 140 years), right within sight of one of the city's main train stations, Mahalaxmi. While there, you can visit the 200-year-old Mahalaxmi Temple, one of the most famous in the city, and partake of traditional Hindu rituals, such as offering lotus flowers to the goddess Lakshmi.
Colorful Rajasthan is India's most popular state with tourists for a reason. It's everyone's idea of "fantastical India.” The men wear out-sized turbans, the women wear neon-bright saris, camels and peacocks abound, and fairytale forts rise from the baked earth of the desert.
In Rajasthan, the traditional culture of India is very much alive and well, showcased in lots of lively festivals. Many people know of the Pushkar Camel Fair, but Jaipur is party town for the Elephant Festival on Holi and during the three-day Teej Festival in summer. Teej is a woman's festival that celebrates marital bliss and the onset of the monsoon rains. Women dress up, dance, sing and enjoy swinging on traditional swing seats.
The desert state is also home to a cornucopia of traditional crafts. Block printing on cotton dates back to the 12th century, and you can visit block-printing workshops and buy beautiful clothing made with this technique. Jaipur is an important center for gem stones and several types of jewelry making, including enamel work. You can even visit a wholesaler, custom-making your own jewelry from semi-precious stones as a treasured souvenir.
Delhi is India's capital, and the favorite city of many Indian travelers. A lot of it has to do with the city's wealth of historical riches.
At least seven major empires have made their capital in this strategic spot on north India’s Yamuna River. Each has left behind monuments, tombs, forts and, in the case of the British, an entire planned city: Lutyens Delhi. There are three UNESCO World Heritage Sites here – Qutab Minar, Humayun's Tomb and Red Fort – and Delhi recently applied for the prestigious tag of a World Heritage City.
As in all of India's metropolitan areas, the traditional and modern co-exist in a state of dynamic harmony here, and you can easily find traditional culture. This is especially true when you visit the historical monuments, during festivals, at special occasions like weddings, and in particularly colorful neighborhoods (such as Old Delhi).
Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, famous as the builder of the Taj Mahal, moved his capital from Agra to Delhi in the mid-17th century. He built the Red Fort as his power base directly opposite the Chandni Chowk (a.k.a. Moonlight Square). Whatever poetic intention he had for Chandni Chowk has been obfuscated by the masses of people, tangled webs of electrical wires and a profusion of shops, as well as every conceivable vehicle known to man.
But it's here in crowded Chandni Chowk that you will find so much of traditional Indian culture. It's here that all brides venture for wedding paraphernalia. It's here that foodies gather for famous street snacks, such as parathas at Paranthe Wali Galli, freshly made jalebis, and sweets and chaat at Haldiram's.
There is an old saying about Delhi: Whosoever builds their capital here will lose it. It has proved true over and over again. But luckily for us, all those lost empires left behind a wealth of rich traditions for those who are open to the magic of India’s culture to enjoy.
How to Go
Inspired to explore the fascinating cultures of India? 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 India tours and start planning your adventure.
This morning on our Amazon cruise we went to explore the Sapote River. Since it was cloudy and with a soft morning drizzle the wildlife activity was great!
We found a Tamandua Anteater, often called the Lesser Anteater because it is much smaller than its relative, the giant anteater. The Anteater we observed this morning was a melanistic (all-black) one that is even harder to find. Of course, one of the most distinguishing qualities of the Tamandua is its awful smell! A gland at the base of its tail releases a smell similar to a skunk to protect it from predators. On our excursion we also saw three Caiman Lizards. - Dennis