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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.
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This week, International Expeditions Director of Operations, Tara, and Peru Destination Manager, Tracey, are exploring Peru's famed Sacred Valley and Cusco. Here are photos and a notes from their day in touring Cusco.
This morning we toured Qorikancha, The Cathedral and St. Catherine's Monasterio. Those are places you can't take pictures so you'll just have to one to Cusco and experience them yourself - don't worry I can help you with that. But the afternoon was spent watching the Festival of Corpus Christi.
In this festival participants make a pilgrimage to a sacred mountain where they give their offerings to the moon and the sun. Then they return to Cusco and carry their patron saints from their local churches through the streets to The Cathedral.
The city will be shut down tomorrow and then after eight more days of celebration everyone will carry their saints back to their churches with even more dancing and parties. This festival is a mixture of Incan and Catholic religion.
These boys are practicing and when they grow up they will carry the actual saint from their church.
How to Travel to Machu Picchu & Cusco
Join International Expeditions' Machu Picchu & Cusco Tour for a survey of vibrant Andean markets, a community program teaching traditional art and textile-making techniques and, of course, a chance to take-in events like the Festival of Corpus Christi.
For many people, discovering the beauty of a country’s culture can be the original spark for lifelong dreams about traveling there. Before December 2014, when President Barack Obama announced that he would finally restore full U.S. diplomatic relations with Cuba, most Americans could only fantasize about traveling to Cuba.
But through the music of Buena Vista Social Club, the art of Wilfredo Lam, and dance styles such as the cha-cha and mambo, we were able to get a sense of the character of Cuban culture long before we could legally set foot upon its shores.
Now that restrictions on travel to Cuba are being lessened, it’s a great time to learn more about the country’s culture as a way to enhance our experiences when we visit.
The art of Cuba is wildly diverse, reflecting the island’s rich melange of cultures. African, European, North and South American influences all blended together over the 19th and early 20th centuries, before the economic embargo cut off most contact with the outside world.
The country’s influential innovators included avant-garde muralist Amelia Peláez; painter Wilfredo Lam, who studied under Salvador Dalí’s teacher and specialized in surrealist-style hybrid figures; photographer Alberto Korda, best known for his pictures of Che Guevera in the early days of the Cuban Revolution; and Corso de Palenzuela, whose folksy paintings depicted icons such as Che, Celia Cruz and Ruben Gonzalez in a vibrant Cuban landscape.
After the revolution in 1959, the Cuban art scene became somewhat divided. Some artists chose to leave the island and pursue their careers in exile, tapping into the sociopolitically charged movements of the United States and Europe. Others remained in the country, where art was sponsored by the government, enduring the censorship that inherently comes with “state-sponsored” territory.
Cuba’s thriving arts scene today reflects myriad styles and influences. From Havana’s Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes and the prestigious National School of Art to independent artists with studios in Havana and Trinidad and a burgeoning street art movement, the visual medium is an essential element of Cuban life. And as the Cuban travel boom begins, more and more connoisseurs are visiting the island in hopes of adding to their collections.
Few countries have had more influence on the world of dance than Cuba. Most of the major Cuban dance styles can be traced back to the Danzón, which evolved out of a dance with English origins that was probably introduced by the Spanish, and then later mixed with Afro-Caribbean influences.
The official musical genre and dance of Cuba, Danzón updated traditional sequence dances of the 18th and 19th centuries, which pre-dated the intricate choreography of modern ballroom dancing. The Danzón became controversial due to its slow and sexy, African-style hip movements, which were deemed obscene partly because they were popular among a young, mixed-race crowd.
By the mid-20th century, Danzón was evolving into new forms of music and dance that resonated far beyond Cuba’s shores. Mambo (which means “conversation with the gods”), named after a song written in 1938 by legendary brothers Orestes and Cachao Lopez, added African folk rhythms. The cha-cha-cha, named after a 1953 song by composer Enrique Jorrín, syncopated the fourth beat as dancers shuffled their feet to the scraping rhythm of the güiro. Salsa, which originated in New York City in the ‘70s, incorporated elements of swing dancing and The Hustle with these Afro-Caribbean styles.
Cuba is also home to the world’s biggest ballet school, the Cuban National Ballet School, which has around 3,000 students.
The music of Cuba has had an enormous influence on global culture relative to the size of the island, especially when you consider its longtime political isolation.
The 18th and 19th centuries were largely dominated by European classical music and the more folksy bolero and guaracha styles favored by itinerant musicians known as trovadors (whose compositions continue to be adapted to various genres of Cuban music today. But it was Son Cubano, which married Spanish guitar with African percussion, that rose to popularity in the 1930s and put Cuba on the world’s musical map.
Son, which has many stylistic variations, has roots in the mountainous regions of the Cuban province of Oriente. But it was perfected in the progressive city of Havana during the Prohibition era, when Big Band instruments were added to the traditional ensemble of tres guitar, double bass, claves and maracas. It was Son that gave birth to Cuban jazz, and ultimately made artists such as Compay Segundo, Rubén González and Ibrahim Ferrer famous as leaders of the Buena Vista Social Club.
Many of these legends have passed away, but their influential legacy lives on in the music of Cuba today. You can hear their spirits resonating in the streets of Havana and Trinidad, in the music that provides the soundtrack to the everyday lives of Cuba’s people.
Experience the Culture of Cuba...Now!
International Expeditions offers three Cuba travel options – plus options for bespoke travel that still adheres to the legal “people-to-people” rules for travel. Through meaningful daily interactions and free-ranging discussions, our Complete Cuba, Cuba Cruise and Classic Art & Culture itineraries offer you a way to connect with the warm, generous people of Cuba.
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 marketing agency Green Travel Media.
At its zenith, the Inca Empire was a highly advanced society with an economy based on agriculture, pottery, metallurgy and textiles. By 1533, rumors of Inca cities filled with unimaginable riches had reached the Spanish conquistadors.
Lusting after precious metals and jewels, they rode into Cusco, where they found temples covered from floor to ceiling with sheets of hammered gold. The Spaniards killed the Inca leader, subjugated the masses, and set about stripping the kingdom of what, to them, was the most precious commodity in the world.
Textiles as Currency
To the Incas, gold was merely an adornment. Far more valuable were their alpacas and vicuñas, which produced an ultra-soft fleece that they wove into clothing, rugs and tapestries. These textiles – not gold – were used as currency throughout the empire. Soldiers and high-ranking officials were paid in alpaca garments, and clothing woven from vicuña wool was so highly prized that only members of the royal family were allowed to wear it.
The Inca had developed this ultra-fine fleece through centuries of selective breeding. They culled all but the best male alpacas and separated vicuñas and alpacas from llamas and guanacos, whose wool was much coarser. So obsessed were the Spaniards with gold that they failed to recognize the value of Inca husbandry traditions. They cross-bred alpacas with llamas, destroying centuries of genetic fine tuning. Decimated by European diseases against which they had no defense, Inca society gradually collapsed and the secrets of their breeding practices were lost to the world.
The Textiles of Peru Today
Although today’s alpaca fleece is of lesser quality than that produced by the ancient Inca, it is still one of the most desirable wools in the world. Of the four million alpacas that exist, 80% live in the central and southern regions of Peru at elevations between 10,000 feet 15,000 feet, where temperatures can swing more than 50 degrees in a single day.
As a result, they grow dense coats composed of fleece that’s extremely durable, with a high thermal quality. The herds are cared for by indigenous shepherds and breeders, who have passed their techniques down from generation to generation. Once a year, they shear the animals, harvesting five pounds of wool from each female and eight pounds from males, for a total of around 5,000 tons. Female villagers retain a portion to make sweaters, rugs, hats, gloves and coats using ancient weaving techniques. The excess is sold to textile manufacturers in the cities.
Alpaca is sorted by hand, separating the fiber by origin, quality, color and length of the fiber. Alpacas come in 22 natural earth tone colors, but white is preferred because it’s the easiest to dye. The fiber is further sorted by thickness, with the thinnest strands being the softest and most valuable. Finest of all is baby alpaca hair, the fleece from the first sheering of an alpaca.
Vicuña fleece is even finer than baby alpaca. This diminutive progenitor of the alpaca lives in wild herds scattered across the Andes highlands. Once a year, Quechua-speaking villagers round up and shear the vicuña, reaping a mere three tons of fleece. Scant supply means vicuña wool is valued between $180 and $272 per pound – higher than any other specialty fiber in the world!
Shopping for Textiles in Cusco
Today, Cusco and the villages surrounding the old Inca capital are the undisputed epicenter of Peru's textile industry, with both alpaca and vicuña goods in high demand. But this popularity has given rise to a proliferation of bogus goods. In every market, on every street corner, vendors hawk “100% baby alpaca” products. In many cases, these garments contain only a small amount of alpaca. Fortunately, there are simple methods for determining whether an item is genuine:
- True alpaca is buttery soft, with a feel similar to human hair.
- Garments knit from 100% alpaca/vicuña do not have sewn seams. Turn the piece inside out: If you see a seam, it is likely a blend.
- The outside of garments is sometimes brushed to make the fabric feel softer, but true alpaca/vicuña needs no brushing because it is naturally soft. Compare the outside with the inside: Both should be equally soft and show no pilling, which occurs from brushing.
- Baby alpaca products are very heavy. Regular alpaca is a little less heavy, but still much heavier than synthetics or blends.
- Alpaca exhibits a silky sheen, but is not not shiny.
- Real alpaca feels cold when you touch it, where wool, synthetics and blends do not.
- Real alpaca is usually dyed in natural, earth tone colors. Brighter, gaudy colors are often a sign that a garment may be a synthetic blend.
- Since alpaca fleece does not contain Lanolin, 100% Alpaca garments are hypoallergenic and should not itch.
As for the cost of Peruvian textiles, the finer the yarn, the higher the price. You can expect to pay around $60 for an alpaca sweater and up to $80 for a baby alpaca sweater (considerably less than in the U.S. or Europe). The same sweater made from vicuña can set you back $600 or more.
It may be tempting to buy for less at markets or from street vendors, but keep in mind that textiles made from real alpaca or vicuña will last a lifetime and should be considered an investment. To ensure that your purchase is pure, it is best to buy from the reputable large mill stores in central Cusco or rely on your tour operator to introduce you to legitimate indigenous weavers in the villages around Cusco.
How to Travel to Machu Picchu & Cusco
Join International Expeditions' Machu Picchu & Cusco Tour for a survey of vibrant Andean markets, a community program teaching traditional art and textile-making techniques and, of course, the famed ruins of Machu Picchu.
In 2007, Barbara Weibel felt like the proverbial “hole in the donut,” solid on the outside but empty on the inside. She walked away from corporate life and set out to see the world. Eight years later, she’s still traveling and sharing stories on her blog, Hole in the Donut Cultural Travels.
The Galapagos Islands are best known for the distinctive wildlife found on their shores, and the impact animals such as the Galapagos Tortoise and Galapagos Finches had on Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Significantly less discussed are the remarkable wonders to be found in the surrounding waters.
The Galapagos Islands are blessed with extraordinary marine biodiversity thanks to their location on the Equator, about 560 miles west of Ecuador. Nutrient-rich water runs off from the rain forests of Papua New Guinea, travels east across the Pacific Ocean (known as the Cromwell Current), and is churned up by the warm California current from the north and the cooling Peru (or Humbodlt) Current from the south.
The upwelling of deep water to the surface caused by this current collision brings with it nutrients that stimulate the growth of algae, or phytoplankton, which are the base of the ocean’s food chain. When they flourish, so does the area’s marine life. And since many of the volcanic islands do not offer enough nutrients on land, some of the Galapagos’ most intriguing species have adapted to live off the bounty to be found in its waters.
Here are four favorites you’re fairly likely to see while snorkeling the Galapagos:
The Flightless Cormorant is among the most rare bird species in the world, with around 900 individuals living on the Galapagos Islands in 2009.
It’s an odd bird, with black and brown feathers, turquoise eyes, low growling voices, and wings about 1/3 the size that would be required in order for the bird to fly. Their feathers aren’t waterproof, so they spend a lot of time drying their short, stubby appendages in the sun.
But while they may not be able to fly, in the water they’re like feathered rockets, using their webbed feet and powerful legs to dive down to the bottom of the ocean in search of fish, eels and other small prey. Seeing a bird feeding on the ocean floor below you is a sight you won’t soon forget.
Their mating dance is an elegant aquatic waltz, with the male and female shaking their heads dramatically while circling one another as other suitors try to cut in. Later they build a seaweed nest above the high-tide mark, with the male bringing his lady friend gifts of flotsam from the ocean. She’ll lay 3 eggs, with only one likely to survive, and they share parenting responsibilities until the chick leaves the nest.
The Galapagos may be the only place in the world you can snorkel with penguins, and the Galapagos Penguin is the only penguin known to live north of the equator. They’re also extremely rare and endangered, with less than 1,000 breeding pairs left.
Found primarily on the western islands of Fernandina and Isabela, the tiny Galapagos Penguin measures just 19 inches long and weighs around five pounds, making them the second smallest penguin species in the world. Scientists have surmised that their Antarctic ancestors got caught in the Humboldt Current and wound up in the Galapagos, where they genetically adapted to the heat (which ranges from 59º-82ºF).
They cool themselves off via thermoregulation, stretching out their flippers, hunching forward to keep the sun from shining on their feet, and panting to cool themselves. They can typically be found right by the water, relishing frequent dips in the surprisingly cold water.
Snorkeling with them is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, as they dive and dart through the waves like tiny torpedoes while hunting the schooling fish that make up the bulk of their diet.
Galapagos Sea Lions
These sea lions may officially be on the IUCN endangered species list, but they’re ubiquitous in the Galapagos. You can find them almost everywhere– in public parks, on the San Cristobal docks, and on every beach of every island.
Distinguishable from fur seals by their earflaps, Galapagos Sea Lions seem awkward and clumsy on land, with a lurching side-to-side gait, loud barks and an array of odd bodily noises. But once they reach the water, they transform into something magical, like elegant ballet dancers of the oceanic world.
They also prove eminently playful and curious, swimming fast as lightning and ignoring the rule of keeping six feet of distance from all Galapagos wildlife. With their huge eyes, cute faces and funny flippers, the sea lions’ charms prove impossible to resist.
Española Island’s beautiful Gardner Bay is a special place to wind down a Galapagos adventure. Here, on a white sandy beach, hundreds of sea lions live in large colonies. Pups nurse from their mothers, juveniles frolic in the cerulean blue surf, and male bulls battle for dominance over their harems.
Marine iguanas look like little miniature Godzillas, hissing and sneezing (in order to expel excess salt from their nasal glands) and tending to clutter en masse like kittens.
Marine Iguanas can be found almost everywhere in the Galapagos, but they love congregating on the lava-strewn shores, where they can rapidly absorb heat from the sun to warm their bodies after a swim. They vary greatly from island to island in terms of size and color, from the teal green-tinged adult males on Española to the brick red colors of the subspecies on Fernandina.
On land they appear graceless and clumsy, but their flattened tails and spiky dorsal fins make them a wonder to behold in the water. It’s bizarre to be snorkeling and see a 4-foot long lizard feeding on algae 25 feet below you, then shimmying their prehistoric-looking bodies to swim to the surface for air.
But their crusty cuteness and their puppy-like penchant for being constantly underfoot ultimately proves endearing.
See These Creatures and MORE!
Inspired to explore the famed Galapagos Islands and snorkel among curious wildlife? International Expeditions offers year-round Galapagos cruises along with land-based options in the islands. Check out IE's incredible Galapagos tours and money-saving travel specials.
Though not as popular as the Andean highlands or Torres Del Paine National Park, the Chilean fjords are simply marvelous. In fact, many visitors consider this “edge of the world” location at the southern tip of Patagonia to be one of the most underrated places on the continent. One visit to the area and you’ll quickly understand why.
Here, the Andes Mountains rise dramatically from icy waters; icebergs float along in the shape of a camel, an elephant or a bear; and glaciers as tall as the New York City skyline crash into the sea as they calve.
Due to its remoteness and occasionally extreme weather conditions, many might imagine these fjords to be a barren, desolate destination. But that couldn't be further from the truth. Wildlife is abundant here, with whales piercing the surface for air between dives for meals, seals barking on the rock outcroppings, bird swooping and swirling around the ships, and vast colonies of penguins lining many of the beaches.
A trip to the Chilean fjords isn't just a visit, but a journey into one of the world’s most stunning landscapes.
The History of Cape Horn
Located on Isla Hornos, Cape Horn is the southernmost point in continental South America. The terrain on the island has no trees and can be incredibly harsh, especially in the winter months, when winds can be extremely forceful and destructive. But it remains home to a vast array of sea birds, including a number of species of gulls, and boasts a surprising diversity of vegetation.
Cape Horn is extremely important historically. In 1615 the Dutch decided to search for a new route west, because the Strait of Magdalena was extremely narrow. The Eendracht successfully made the discovery of Cape Horn and swiftly named the point after its companion, the Kaap Hoorn. Until the construction of the Panama Canal, the vast majority of ships “rounded Cape Horn,” because it was the fastest way to get from Europe or the east side of the Americas to the west coast of the Americas.
In April 1832, Charles Darwin made a voyage to Cape Horn. His journey was undertaken aboard a ship called the H.M.S. Beagle, for which the channel in Southern Patagonia would later be named. Of course, if it had not been for the rounding of Cape Horn by Darwin, his great discoveries at the Galapagos Islands later on “The Voyage of the Beagle" would have never happened.
The Glaciers of Patagonia
Some of Patagonia's most striking features are its incredible glaciers, most of which end up tumbling into a body of water at their terminus.
Glaciers are formed when snow gathers, gradually becoming heavier and heavier. This weight compresses the snowfall into ice, which accumulates in flat or bowl-shaped areas. Eventually this accumulation becomes so heavy that the ice is squeezed out of the bottom and middle, moving into valleys and down slopes.
During the heat of summer, glaciers tend to melt, causing a “retreat” in the ice. Then, in the winter, as snow accumulates, they press out into the valleys once again. Over time, this grinding of earth can carve out entire valleys. Most glaciers in the world are retreating (thanks in part to global warming), meaning that each year they shrink a little. The amazing thing about Patagonia, however, is that many of the glaciers here are still growing and expanding.
Unlike the ice you put in your favorite beverage, glacial ice does not float, because it is void of air. So, if you were to drop a bit of glacial ice into your drink, it would fall to the bottom, just like a rock. Some of this ice has been in a frozen state for tens of thousands of years.
Glaciers in the Chilean Fjords
There are hundreds of these impressive glaciers in the southern Patagonian region, and many in the Chilean Fjords are fairly accessible.
One of the most popular is called Pia Glacier, which is only accessible by boat. Zodiaks transport guests from expedition ships to the beach nearby, where they can watch the massive glaciers calve into the sea. A short hike to a lookout point provides exceptional views stretching from the mountains down to the sea.
Flowing down from another mountain, Garibaldi Glacier is as impressive as the come. Not only is there a tranquil forest and a beautiful glacial waterfall here, but you can also get spectacular views of the Darwin Range of mountains rising out of the fjords.
Though less accessible, the Piloto Glacier is a favorite among photographers for its stunning blue color, caused by a combination of age and compression.
And while Aguila Glacier is the closest to Punta Arenas, it’s also one of the more interestingly-shaped glaciers in the region, looking as if it's covering rolling hills rather than mountains. It makes for a stunning stop when exploring one of the world’s most remote and remarkable landscapes.
How to Cruise the Chilean Fjords
Ready to explore Patagonia and the Chilean Fjords? International Expeditions offers a comprehensive cruise in Southern Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego.
Hailing from Alberta, Brendan Van Son is the professional travel photographer and writer behind Brendan’s Adventures. His work has been seen in outlets such as the BBC, National Geographic Traveler and The Guardian.
Photos: Claudio Vidal & Enrique Couve
The world has been fascinated by the Galapagos Islands ever since Charles Darwin published his groundbreaking book on evolutionary theory, On the Origin of Species, in 1859. But the fragile ecosystems of this extraordinarily unique archipelago have been in danger even longer, dating back to the 17th and 18 centuries, when whalers and pirates began depleting the whale and tortoise population.
Fortunately, the Charles Darwin Foundation has been actively working since 1959 to conserve this unique ecological treasure. The privately-funded NGO has helped to save the Galapagos Tortoise, helped create the Galapagos Marine Reserve, eradicated invasive animals that were endangering endemic species, and advised the Ecuadorian government on how to protect Galapagos National Park for future generations.
International Expeditions recently spoke with Charles Darwin Foundation Executive Director Swen Lorenz, covering the history and evolution of the organization, its conservation successes, and the challenges it faces with increased tourism to the islands.
Let's start off talking about the Foundation's background.
The Charles Darwin Foundation is scientific advisor to the Government of Ecuador when it comes to conservation of the Galapagos Islands. Operating the Charles Darwin Research Station in Santa Cruz Island, we have 150 scientists working with us to create the knowledge necessary to protect this UNESCO World Heritage Site.
CDF has been holding that role since 1959, with all our work being privately funded through donations. CDF was founded the same year the Galapagos National Park was established. Its founding was the result of a collaboration between the IUCN, UNESCO, the Ecuadorian Government, and a number of individuals.
Can you discuss the Foundation's most important projects?
Among our most successful projects is the breeding of giant tortoises, which started in the 1960s. These animals, which have given Galapagos their name, were on the brink of extinction. Today, the population is at around 50,000 animals and not a single giant tortoise species is facing the risk of extinction. Visitors can see them in large numbers in the wild, just as Charles Darwin did when he arrived in Galapagos.
We researched the baseline data necessary to create the Galapagos Marine Reserve, the world's 4th largest. We have trained more than 2,000 Ecuadorian students. We’ve eradicated invasive species that harmed local biodiversity, which – in the case of the rampant goat population – involved the largest eradication project ever undertaken. And all that is privately funded, without any financial support from the government.
What makes the Galapagos Islands such a unique attraction?
What few people realize is that Galapagos was the first place to be designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. That says a lot! This is a treasure that needs to be preserved for mankind.
Anyone who has ever visited will understand why it should be kept intact for future generations: You can wander around animals that have no fear of man, who will simply ignore you. Experiencing pristine, untamed nature is an experience most visitors describe as life-changing.
The Galapagos Islands are also a microcosm of the social, political, economic and ecological changes occurring throughout the world. As such they not only teach us about where things have come from, but they can also show us a path into the future.
Striking a balance between the needs of humans and the natural world is particularly important in the Galapagos Islands because of their fragile ecosystems. At the same time, the relatively small, contained nature of the archipelago means that solutions are within our grasp. And these solutions can serve as models for the rest of the world!
There are some critics who suggest that tourism to pristine ecosystems such as the Galapagos is harmful. How would you respond?
The Galapagos Islands do get a fair amount of press, and one common theme is that tourism is hurting the islands. I feel this needs to be put into context. It was the great Sir David Attenborough who said that, without tourism, the Galapagos wouldn't even exist anymore. Tourism provides a powerful incentive to preserve these islands.
Of course there are problems with tourism, and there remain many questions that need to be looked into. Increasing visitor numbers do bring additional challenges.
I would like to see the tourism industry evolve in a way that sees stronger engagement of Galapagos visitors in getting their support for funding conservation solutions. If a larger number of visitors make a contribution to CDF or other entities, we can work to find suitable solutions to the islands' problems. Tourism can be a problem, but it can also be part of the solution.
What restrictions are there to ensure that Galapagos ecotourism is responsibly managed?
There are great regulations in place, such as the system developed by the Galapagos National Park to manage the visitor sites that cruise ships can go to. I salute every tourist who books through the International Galapagos Tour Operators Association and its member comapnies (like IE) as this leads to funding coming our way, which we invest into science for conservation.
There is a real shared responsibility among all players to work together to improve the existing systems further. There is only one Galapagos, and we need to pull together. Our organization’s view is, “Visit, but please visit responsibly.”
Can you talk about the role the Charles Darwin Foundation plays in educating visitors about the Galapagos and responsible wildlife management?
The CDF operates the Charles Darwin Research Station, one of the top visitor sites on the island of Santa Cruz. We’ve been doing a lot to improve the quality of visitor experience there, including creating a trail for visitors to walk around, plenty of interpretation material, and installing a statue of Darwin as a young man.
We also have by far the most often visited social media channel of the Galapagos, which we use to inform and educate the public, both in English and Spanish. Follow us on www.facebook.com/darwinfoundation and www.twitter.com/darwinfound. Further investments along those lines are planned, and we are currently discussing this with the Government of Ecuador.
The CDF has very ambitious plans in the pipeline. I’d like to have the entire world aware of what is being achieved in Galapagos, not just those lucky ones who get to visit the Galapagos.
What goals do you have for the future of the Charles Darwin Foundation?
To achieve financial sustainability. For more than 50 years, the organization has lived hand-in-mouth. At times its survival was in question. I’ve been building up the foundation's ability to earn more income, and if we continue on this path for a few more years the Charles Darwin Foundation will become financially sustainable. This will significantly improve the way we can provide science for the conservation of the Galapagos Islands.
How to Responsibly Tour the Galapagos Islands
Inspired to explore the famed Galapagos Islands? 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.
How to Help Fund Projects like CDF
International Expeditions was a founding member of IGTOA, a non-profit group dedicated to funding projects to combat invasive species and illegal activities within the Galapagos National Park, and promoting ecological education. Read here for more on Galapagos Islands conservation projects.
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.
Ninety-eight percent. That's the number you’ll read or hear about as you prepare for tracking gorillas in Uganda. In 2012, after four years of research, geneticists from the U.K.'s Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute published a study declaring a 98% overlap between the human and gorilla genomes. "Most of our genes are very similar, or even identical to, the gorilla version of the same gene," said a researcher.
One look into the eyes of a gorilla in its natural habitat and you instinctively know this to be true. There’s something uncanny about the core resemblances that’s both deeply unsettling and profoundly reassuring.
But the options for observing a gorilla in its native environment are limited. This is especially the case for the critically endangered mountain gorilla, only 880 of which survive in the wild today, all of them hemmed into either the Virunga highlands or about 20 miles to the north, in Uganda's Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.
It’s the 400+ gorillas in Bwindi that have drawn the most attention lately, and with good reason. Home to approximately half the world's population of mountain gorillas, Bwindi also boasts a large number of "habituated" gorilla groups – those that, through careful, repeated exposure to humans, continue to behave normally even when people are nearby. These are some of the gorillas that travelers from around the world come to observe.
Mountain gorilla protections that allow for both growing populations and carefully managed tracking are relatively new, but old enough to have proven their worth.
Until 1902, when German army Captain Friedrich Robert von Beringe presented the bones and skin of an ape he shot to document their existence, mountain gorillas were unknown in the Western world. They had lived unmolested by human diseases, traps or weapons for centuries. The misty highlands of east-central Africa were theirs, as yet unthreatened by expanding farms.
Slowly but surely, poaching, baby gorilla abductions, human and animal diseases, war and unrest, and the degradation or loss of habitat to rapidly growing human communities impacted the health of these uniquely large primates.
In the late 1980s, mountain gorilla numbers began to rebound, thanks in large part to Dian Fossey's 18-year study of them and her creation of conservation practices that have since been pursued with vigor by the national park authorities in Rwanda, Congo and Uganda, as well as the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, the International Gorilla Conservation Programme and their partners.
Habitat and wildlife conservation efforts continue to yield positive results today, despite high human population densities and severe poverty throughout the region.
Rules of Engagement
In Bwindi, travelers gather every morning to hike into the jungle and gawk at their genetic cousins. But before plunging into the woods, a careful introduction by park staff makes clear some of the most important rules of thumb.
Primary among them is the need to keep at least seven meters from any ape to prevent the transmission of diseases. With so much genetic material in common, gorillas are known to be susceptible to human pathogens. In 1988, six mountain gorillas in Rwanda perished from a disease that looked a lot like measles. With the lives of 65 others at stake, veterinarians used dart guns to vaccinate them with a human serum. It worked. Careful enforcement of the seven-meter rule has minimized the impact of other diseases, as has constant monitoring.
During the pre-trek introduction, emphasis is placed on the controlled nature of the experience. Though your tracker/guide may machete a path through the dense underbrush, mountain gorilla habitat is fragile. It can absorb only so many human footprints. Also, the habituation of and respect for mountain gorilla groups are not taken lightly. In Bwindi, 10 different gorilla groups can be visited, but only for one hour per day and only by groups of eight people or less.
Even in their secure habitats at Bwindi, gorillas follow their own whims. Sometimes they’re easily reached, right at the forest’s edge. At others they’re deep in the woods, requiring several hours of trekking up and down steep, muddy slopes thick with primeval growth. But trackers know where they are, and visitors are 95% certain to meet the gorillas of Uganda. Of course, there’s much to admire along the way, including more primates and myriad endemic bird and butterfly species.
When you reach your gorilla group, you never know who will be visible or active. The dominant silverback may be snoozing out of sight, or bore a hole into your soul with his determined black-eyed gaze. The secondary blackback might lurk nearby, hidden but heedful, or perch purposefully right before you. The moms might take a moment to feed the youngsters, who otherwise tumble mischievously in the tangle of branches overhead.
Whatever the case, your unforgettable hour with these gentle-but-wild in-laws will pass in a flash. And the overwhelming desire to stay longer will give way to the persistent reminder from your guides that you’re a visitor and should not overstay your welcome.
The costs of maintaining gorilla-centered wildlife and ecological safeguards are significant. Responsibly managed conservation requires pressure at local and international levels, and involves research and education as much as it does protection and law enforcement.
As a high-value activity capable of generating significant revenue, tourism has been tapped to offset this heavy financial burden. At present, the hefty fees charged for tracking gorillas in Uganda cover the cost of park management, pay into community-development trust funds benefiting localities in the buffer zones surrounding parks, and contribute to the overall budget of the Uganda Wildlife Authority.
So, as expensive as a gorilla-tracking permit may seem, it’s more than just an expensive ticket to view animals in the wild. It is a contribution to the preservation of an imperiled habitat and its critically endangered inhabitants. As a thrilling added bonus, you’re invited to briefly witness the world you are helping to protect for future generations of human and primates alike.
How to Responsibly Track Gorillas
International Expeditions offers ecologically sensitive, small-group Uganda tours which feature the opportunity to track mountain gorillas and chimpanzees.
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!
Ethan Gelber is a professional writer who has agitated tirelessly for responsible/sustainable travel practices and quality in publishing and destination marketing. He started The Travel Word blog, and is co-founder of the travel content curation site Outbounding.
Juan Venado Island (located near Las Penitas, Nicaragua) is a very special place. Here, you’re more likely to find sea turtles relaxing on the beaches than the sun-seeking tourists seen on almost every other strip of sand in the region. In fact, the beach – known locally as Playa Tamarindo – is considered one of the most important sea turtle nesting sites found anywhere on the Pacific Coast.
From a traveler’s perspective, it's a great place to watch nature take form and evolve. From an ecological perspective, it's a beacon of hope for a broad variety of flora and fauna, including (but not limited to) the sea turtles that nest here.
About Juan Venado Island Nature Reserve
Juan Venado Island Nature Reserve is situated 21km west of the city of León. The island is uninhabited by humans, but visitors can enter via the nearby coastal village of Las Penitas. The nature reserve is protected as a part of the Nicaraguan National Parks system, but an NGO has been brought in to oversee the care of this delicate piece of land.
Juan Venado Island is a sliver of land, measuring around 22 km long, but with an average width of just 0.5 km. On the eastern side, an estuary carves through a large swath of mangrove forest, while the Pacific side of the island is highlighted by a long strip of pristine beach. However, the nature reserve also extends farther into the mainland and includes a protected marine reserve as well.
The island is home to a number of wildlife species. The swampy mangrove ecosystem provides sanctuary for a broad variety of birds, including pelicans, egrets, herons and terns. In the waters, there are cayman and the occasional crocodile. But it's the sea turtles that have made Juan Venado Island the top tourist attraction in Las Penitas.
The Sea Turtles of Juan Venado Island
Juan Venado Island Nature Reserve is one of the most important turtle sanctuaries anywhere along the Pacific Ocean, with four types of turtles coming here to nest.
The most commonly sighted sea turtle on Juan Venado is the Olive Ridley, which can grow up to 75cm long and weigh as much as 50kg. Both Hawksbill and Leatherback turtles – each of which are designated as critically endangered species – also come to these beaches to nest. Green Sea Turtles occasionally find their way to the beach as well, but they’re the most rarely seen of the four species.
Typically, nesting season starts in August and ends in December, with the busiest months being in September and October. The eggs are buried by their mother and take approximately two months to hatch.
Once the babies crack through the shell, they're not done: They’ll have up to 50cm of sand to dig out of before they reach the surface, which can take 4-5 days. One of the things that makes Juan Venado Island so special is that you can actually be there to witness the young turtles’ first steps on the beach, and watch it scamper into the confines of the sea.
Threats to the Sea Turtles of Juan Venado Reserve
Of course, one of the biggest reasons for the dwindling population of sea turtles in the world is human-related. It's hard enough for a baby sea turtle to survive in the ocean without human interference (only an estimated 1 in 500 baby sea turtles live to adulthood). Not only do sea turtles have to contend with people descending on nearly every beach in the Las Penitas region, but they are also often captured and sold as pets. Moreover, in Nicaragua, turtle eggs are still harvested for food.
When visiting the sea turtles of Juan Venado Island, please give them the respect and privacy they deserve to help ensure the survival of these beautiful animals.
Tips for Observing Nesting Sea Turtles Responsibly
If you're out on Playa Tamarindo viewing the eggs being laid or babies hatching, it's extremely important to remember that you are a spectator in the phenomenon, and not a participant. There are some guidelines that should be followed to protect the animals from becoming distressed and allow nature to take place… well, naturally.
- Keep your distance from the animals. Always give them a personal space of at least 3 or 4 meters.
- Never, under any circumstances, should you touch the animals.
- Stay as quiet as possible. It gives the animal peace and keeps them from seeing you as a threat.
- It's understandable that you may want to capture the moment. But using flash photography or even a flashlight is a big no-no, as it can cause distress.
- Finally, never get in between the nesting mother and the water.
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Ready to explore Nicaragua and Juan Venado? Come see why National Geographic Traveler named International Expeditions' Nicaragua tour one of the world's best escorted tours.