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Did you know that hippos have a "T" shaped pupil, which allows them to see above and below water at the same time? But that is not the only fascinating fact about the hippo's specialized eyes. Hippos can see under the water with excellent precision, and a clear layer of membrane protects their eyes from underwater debris.
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International Expeditions' small-group tours are perfect for getting to know both the environment and your fellow travelers. Guests always like to quiz their guides and each other abotu favorite travels. Our own naturalist and Expedition Leader Greg Greer weighed in on the question: What is your favorite place?
As a naturalist who has traveled extensively both on my own and with International Expeditions, I am frequently asked where my most favorite place is. People often ask this as they are looking for a destination for their next vacation.
Well, as a naturalist, this is an unbelievably difficult question to answer and my most common response is “any place that I happen to be at the time.” In many ways, this is very true and I am truly not trying to avoid the question. All international destinations have their own unique appeal. It may be its awesome topography of volcanoes, forests, mountains, deserts etc., or it could be some form a endemic wildlife or great magnitudes of wildlife in vast herds in open areas. It may be a combination of many things such as travels into the neotropics where the diversity of life is absolutely overwhelming. I can easily be engulfed in interest in some of the smallest forms of life. Little thrips and pseudo-scorpions in the leaf litter are wonderfully entertaining. And ants…well, there is great excitement in watching army ants on the move or watching the less gruesome leaf-cutters, common throughout the neo-tropics. Of course one can work their way up to finding tarantulas, most often at night but in areas like the Amazon, they are often found during the day, especially in the tangles of strangler figs. All of these little creatures, as well as many large creatures are frequently observed in places like Belize, Costa Rica, Panama, and especially on our Peruvian Amazon cruises and new Nicaragua tours.
Then there are the islands where endemism is at its greatest. The islands most notorious for this are the Galapagos Islands. My goodness, I have hosted many Galapagos Islands cruises, and each has been extremely different. The giant tortoises, marine iguanas, land iguanas and lava lizards are found nowhere else on the planet. The sea lions and birds have lost much of their fear of humans and thus close encounters often occur. Then there are the Komodo Islands in the Lesser Sunda Island chain. A place that time forgot and where the world’s most massive lizards, the Komodo dragons still reign as the supreme predator. On the ridge lines are lone-tar pines and within the forests are dracos (flying lizards) and the very vocal tokay geckos. Snorkeling here is some of the world’s best.
Then how about Africa -- a continent with too many destinations to mention. But nowhere else can massive herds of large hoofed animals be observed in such diverse form during an Africa safari. A place where elephants, giraffe, rhino and antelope from the size of a very small dog (dik dik) to the huge giant eland and about 60 other species in between can be observed in a day’s time. Then, there are the primates. Uganda has a tremendous abundance of primates and it is here and Rwanda where guest can trek for mountain gorillas. Sitting alongside of a mountain gorilla as it forages on leaves, its stare as it looks into your eyes is very human like and these sorts of experiences have always brought tears to my eyes. I believe that sitting amongst gorillas in their mountain retreat is one of the most cherished things I have ever experienced. This being said, the thrill of watching a humpback breach at close quarters, diving with great white sharks off Southern Africa, having a leopard seal attack the stern of a zodiac, or being challenged by a mother grizzly with cubs. These are all life long memories of many world adventures.
From Iceland and Greenland to the Antarctica unique wildlife and geologic treasures abound. I have bathed in natural hot tubs in Iceland as well as in Antarctica. While taking a dip in Antarctica, I had a one on one encounter with a brown skua as it came within a foot of my face. If the bird could have spoken, we would have exchanged many stories; instead the bird showed trust and told me stories with its posture and eye contact.
So, what is my most favorite destination! For years it has been the same answer: whereever I happen to be at any given time. I cherish areas from the Tundra of Northern Alaska to Tierra del Fuego and the Antarctica. From Mongolia to Southern Australia and from Timbuctu to Capetown……the world is a wonderful place with all sorts of incredible wildlife and cultures to observe. WHERE DO YOU WANT TO GO NEXT?
International Expeditions co-founder Richard Ryel is headlining our October 4 Amazon River cruise aboard the new La Estrella Amazonica riverboat. As he prepares to return to the Peruvian Amazon, a destination that he pioneered travel to 33 years ago, we asked Richard to talk to us about his deep passion for the Amazon rainforest.
The Amazon is more than a destination, it is the heart and soul of our planet. My wife Patricia and I spent five weeks on our honeymoon in 1979 in the Columbian and Peruvian Amazon. It was an absolute life-changing experience that altered our thoughts about how we wanted to spend our life together. All we could think about was sharing our experience in the Amazon with others. I think of the Amazon as “Mother” as it was the place our first child was conceived and it gave birth to International Expeditions soon after.
The Amazon, the greatest wilderness area on Earth, has often been referred as the “Green Hell,” when in fact it is a place of great wildlife diversity, inner peace and tranquility. IE began sharing that inner peace with our guests in September 1980, and it was received with such enthusiasm that it put the fledgling company’s Amazon expedition on the nature travel bucket list for tens of thousands of people over the next 30 plus years. It was the platform that provided International Expeditions the wherewithal to expand its travel programs worldwide and become known as the “World Leader in Nature Travel.”
More About Richard
Dr. Richard Ryel has explored the world’s tropical regions in search of natural phenomena for more than five decades. After studying biology at the University of Southern California, Richard went on to earn a master’s in zoology with a minor in botany at California State College at Los Angeles. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Alabama in Birmingham where he studied physiology, biophysics, physical chemistry and pathology. Read More
This week’s travel inspiration comes courtesy of Outside magazine founder Tim Cahill. Over the past 33 years, International Expeditions has learned that some of the most enriching part of our small-group tours is the people our guests meet along the road – from our guides to the warm, welcoming locals who invite us into their homes and lives every week.
“A journey is best measured in friends, rather than miles.”
Have you met someone special while traveling? Tell us about it in the comments below.
A new Andean bird species — the Junin Tapaculo — was discovered in Peru by a University of Kansas graduate student working in Junin, a remote department north of Cusco. The new tapaculo’s range is limited to heavily vegetated band of Andean cloud forest between about 8,000 and 10,500 feet
Following up on leads from fellow birders and ornithologists, Peter Hosner tracked down this new species by following its distinctive vocalization.
“I'd spent a lot of time traveling and working with birds in the Andes before I enrolled at KU, and I had never heard anything like it before. We made voice recordings and collected specimens that are needed in all scientific species descriptions. Tapaculos are extremely difficult to identify, so at this point we weren't sure if it was a new species, or if we just happened to record a rarely given vocalization by an already described species."
The small Junin tapaculo resembles a wren, and is known to stick its tail straight up in the air.
Read the complete story.
IE Director of Program Development, Bill Robison has been checking in from Colombia, where he has spent a week finding the best naturalist guides, hotels and nature travel experiences for our guests. How do you feel about travel to Colombia and other previously "taboo" places - let us know.
"A great week in Colombia is coming to an end. Up in El Dorado, above Minca, we observed lots of endemic species. But I have to say the birding in Minca itself was wonderful, especially just around the hotel. Minca is a lovely little town too. I got to Cartagena the night before last and went out to the mangroves early yesterday morning. Great species there! During my boat excursion in the mangroves I saw lots of different herons, diving ducks, fishing martins and eagles. In fact, 97 species of birds are found there at any time, more during migration season. Sadly, the area where we embark/disembark the canoe is quite dirty, but locals have begun a great project to clean the entire area. I saw the men out there with the burlap bags cleaning the shore line...that is wonderful! The area we birded was not dirty...so, it looks like they are taking the conservation of the area very seriously.
"On to my impressions of Cartagena itself. What a wonderful city! Every avenue of the old town is filled with hotels, shops and restaurants. And it's so large, not just a small portion of a much larger city but it's a large portion of a large city. Cartagena is so charming and it's safe to stroll these flower and vine-lined avenues and squares. Fortunately, I found just the right place for our guests to have lunch and just the right hotel to enjoy this wonderful city.
"So, now comes the fun part. I will get back home and finalize our plans with our Colombian partners, our Expedition Leaders, and the boss of course. I am chomping at the bit to present our Colombia travel program to guests, but need to make sure all the pieces are in the right places so we can be sure this tour lives up to the IE standards of quality. So, keep an eye out for our new Colombia tour to be announced soon!
"Sad to leave Colombia, but as always, happy to get home. My wife tells me my 14-month-old son is learning new words every day. It has been just a week, but it seems like he is a different kid than I left. I think you'll agree that the joys of travel include the joys of returning home.
"So, that is all from Colombia. Take care my friends!"
The diminutive Cuban pygmy owl lives exclusively on Cuba, but they make their homes in a variety of forest habitats across the Caribbean island. The IUCN Red List classifies this species as one of Least Concern, which means there is a healthy number of these endemic winged creatures living all over the island of Cuba. So there's a good chance you'll spot at least one of these tiny birds when you join IE’s people-to-people Cuba tour.
Cuban pygmy owls can live comfortably in dry or tropical forests as well as in more terrestrial habitats such as farmlands and plantations. This makes it pretty easy to come across these birds when you're traveling through the lush countryside with International Expeditions. Plus, unlike many other owl species, the Cuban pygmy owl is not strictly nocturnal. These birds will hunt for food pretty much whenever it suits them, whether the sun's up or it is the middle of the night. Their menu is eclectic considering they are strictly carnivores. The diet of the Cuban pygmy owl consists mostly of insects, lizards and smaller birds.
These birds have very distinct features that will make it easy to spot them, even though there are other species of owls that live in Cuba. The bird's chest is mostly white with vertical bars of alternating light and dark brown patches. In fact, this almost-striped appearance extends to the bird's shoulders and wings. The top of its head is dark chocolate brown with flecks of white that look almost like sesame seeds atop a bun, and this pattern continues on the cheeks and neck. If you see the owl from behind, you may think you're staring into a set of very angry, dark eyes. However, these are simply a defense mechanism to scare off predators and make it easier to pick the bird out from the crowd. It also has a set of large, bright yellow eyes that match its thin yellow beak and feathered talons.
Cuban pygmy owls are just one of the birds you may encounter when you travel to Cuba. Many other birds call the island nation home, making it an exciting destination for nature enthusiasts and bird watchers alike. Check out this bird list from IE’s March 28, 2013 Complete Cuba program.
Bill Robison, IE Director of Program Development, often has the “difficult” task of scouting a county for the best naturalist guides, hotels and to uncover extraordinary nature travel experiences for our guests. This week he is researching a Colombia tour, part of International Expeditions' 2014 line-up. How do you feel about travel to Colombia and other previously "taboo" places - let us know.
"Muy buenos dias amigos! I just arrived to the town of Minca, just above Tayrona National Park. Yesterday was exciting...I got to practice my Spanish quite a bit! My flight from Armenia to Bogota was delayed, and I had a connection to get to Santa Marta. English is not widely spoken here, and that goes double for the airports! Still, you can get along with those few words and the fact that the staff/people in general are so kind and eager to help.
"Why are Colombians so friendly? My guide tells me that comes from the days of transporting coffee by mule. Thousands of coffee growers would make long processions to the coast - a journey that took many weeks of walking - to sell their coffee. So, everyone knew everyone along the way and they continue that friendliness today.
"Tayrona National Park was wonderful! My guides and I headed out early this morning to see a mess of woodpeckers giving each other trouble. Plus, some capybara, a wild pig and lots of other bird species...and some poison dart frogs that are common in this area. That was just the start to my day! We got to Minca, mid-day (worst time for birding), and we still spotted more than 12 species on a short walk along the main road. Among our species list were the wonderful squirrel cuckoo, sacred bird of the Kogui people, a few species of hummingbirds and flycatchers along with another species of woodpecker. We could hear a toucan in the trees but could not locate him.... And that was during the worst hours of the day for birding! We are going out again this afternoon and my guide is eager for tomorrow. We are going to head further up the mountains to where most of the endemic species can be found. So, hasta manana amigos!
"Colombia has three branches of the Andes, but Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is a separate mountain range and has the snow-capped mountain peak closest to the ocean anywhere in the world. If the sky is clear tomorrow I'll get a shot of it.
"I snapped this picture of a poison dart frog in Tayrona National Park. They can be found in good numbers near any puddle of water or wet ground."
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As International Expeditions searches for the next great nature travel adventure, Bill Robison, IE Director of Program Development, often has the “difficult” task of scouting a county for the best naturalist guides, hotels and to uncover extraordinary experiences for our guests. This week he is researching a Colombia tour. How do you feel about travel to places like Colombia - let us know.
“Colombia is off to a great start. What a beautiful country and sweet people! The Andes are gorgeous, and Bogota is quite the cosmopolitan capital. I explored Bogota with a wonderful guide — very proud of her country and culture...and her orchids and roses for which Colombia is famous. We had great views of the Volcano Ruiz from Los Nevados National Park and a brilliant visit to a coffee plantation. Hummingbirds are everywhere and my guide here in the coffee triangle is superb.
Yesterday was Colombia's Independence Day so the blue, red and yellow were everywhere. Tomorrow we'll explore Otun Quimbaya National Park and the Cocura Valley, home of the wax palm (world's tallest and highest growing species) and the endemic parrots that live amongst them. I have been so pleasantly — no, wonderfully — surprised by Colombia.”
“Spent the entire day at the other end of Colombia’s coffee triangle. I got to experience the magnificent Valley of Cocura and Otun Quimbaya National Park...scenery like I have never seen and yet more sweet people. In all the times I have traveled in Latin America, I cannot recall hearing "bienvenido" (welcome) so many times....and "con much gusto" (it was a pleasure). Saw falcons, endemic parrots that live only in the wax palms but both were too far for my camera — I need a longer lens! Hummingbirds were everywhere today...too many to name. I saw the sun set over the coffee region and Los Nevados National Park. This area is simply spectacular...photos cannot capture it. Off to Tayrona National Park tomorrow to explore the Caribbean coast and discover new species. I was sad to say goodbye to Juan, my superb guide and now great friend. If you travel with Juan on IE’s upcoming Colombia tour, be sure to ask him about his time biking in Connecticut.”
Who is Bill?
After studying biology at the University of Missouri, Bill Robison has spent the past 14 years involved in tour planning, research, operations and tour leadership around the world. In the past six years he has traveled throughout Africa, South America, Europe and Asia for program research, and has served on the National Geographic’s Destination Stewardship panel.
While Havana is the major city on many travelers' minds when envisioning a trip to Cuba, the town of Trinidad on the southern side of the island offers an alternative to the hustle and bustle of the Cuban capital. Trinidad has been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and those who travel to Cuba on International Expeditions’ people-to-people spend two nights exploring.
Like so many other parts of Cuba, Trinidad seems frozen in time. But even the modern features that have come to the rest of Cuba can't be found in the quiet town of Trinidad. The stunning Colonial architecture coupled with horse-drawn carts and a laid-back atmosphere give this town a peaceful serenity.
“Trinidad was very picturesque, and the people we encountered were all very friendly,” said Patricia Dischinger of Baltimore, who joined IE’s legal Cuba travel program.
Trinidad is often referred to as an "outdoor museum" simply because of the way every building seems like it should be preserved for all time. Those who have been to the "old town" sections of major European cities will likely have an idea of what to expect in Trinidad.
During our time strolling through the heart of city, we meet local artists such as the family of traditional potters at Casa Santander. This studio has been in the same family for decades, and the Santanders share their family history while inviting us to take a turn at the wheel.
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