IE Blog

Camels in the Americas? How crazy is that? Many millions of years ago, camelids (the camel family) were part of the fauna of North America. They existed and gradually evolved from tiny creatures the size of a domestic cat to animals the size of a goat...and eventually even much larger. The camels of North America survived until about 12,000 years ago, when humans crossed the Bering land bridge into North America. In fact, theories suggest that humans were the reason for extinction of these animals in North America. However, before that took place, camelids spread into South America where they still exist today. The llama, alpaca and vicuna are quite familiar animals to many of us, but these species are not nearly as commonly known is the guanaco, found in the extreme southern tip of South America. 

The guanaco is a lovely looking creature with very thick “weather-proofing“ hair of soft brown and white. Guanacos are fairly abundant in Torres del Paine National Park, so you are almost sure to see them suring International Expeditions' Patagonia tours. Guanacos are usually found in small herds and are very alert animals. Herd animals are afforded greater protection from predators by having many more eyes to keep watch on the horizon. The guanaco’s most feared predator is the puma also known as the mountain lion.

Guanacos give birth every other year. This is due to a gestation of almost one year. Baby guanacos are known as chulengos.  They are able to stand very shortly after birth and are then able to walk and run within hours of birth. A few other interesting adaptations allow guanacos to survive in a very windy and rocky region: 

  • Their padded feet that do very little to disturb the landscape and give the animal amazing traction
  • Extremely long eye-lashes protect their eyes from wind and blowing sand and soil
  • Guanacos have the ability to go without water for very long periods of time. In fact, guanacos can derive all of their moisture needs from the vegetation they consume, typical of all camelid species.

I've had the great pleasure of traveling throughout Patagoina many times during my years with International Expeditions.  I always enjoyed observing guanacos as they are not only gorgeous creatures but they truly remind me of place. They are an iconic species of Patagonia, the end of the world at the southern tip of South America.

Naturalist Greg Greer is a favorite among IE travelers, and has gained a reputation for his friendliness and good humor, along with his incomparable knowledge of natural history. Greg's photos and articles have been widely published in books and magazines, including Georgia Outdoor News, Bird Watcher’s Digest, Alabama Outdoor News, Riversedge and Southern Wildlife.

Art Director Charlie Boyd shares his favorite memories and photos from his recent Amazon Voyage.

Having recently traveled again to the Amazon, the wonderful people and experiences are still fresh in my mind. I’ve worked for International Expeditions for over 12 years, daily creating materials for our Amazon River cruises. I was very much looking forward to experiencing the Amazon aboard our new riverboat first hand with my wife Pam. It was a little surreal for me at first… meeting the talented guides and crew that I already “knew” from pictures, seeing the beautiful new La Estrella Amazonica, and anticipating the daily activities and wildlife sightings. Soon, I got caught in the daily rhythms of the river and this voyage.

A few standout moments:

Our guides: Escorted by Expedition Leder Angel Cardenas and expert local naturalists Johnny Balarezo and Usiel Vasquez, we traveled over 600 miles on this mighty river. Along the way we spotted seven primate species, 125 bird species, fish, reptiles and amphibians, and met many of the friendly people who live along the Amazon River. Every day was different but equally exciting.

Pink dolphins: As our excursion boats entered the mouth of the Pacaya River, we noticed that there were pink river dolphins everywhere. The water was moving quickly and they were taking advantage of the “open buffet” of fish moving with the swift current. We were able to watch them for about 30 minutes, and take plenty of photos. 

School visit: We stopped in the village of Nueva York for an un-announced visit. Everyone was so happy to see us. It was lunch time and many people came out of the houses to greet us as we walked through the village. A couple invited us in to see what they were cooking. Their fresh fish, cooked over an open fire, looked delicious. We visited the school, and delivered some supplies that IE guests had brought along to Peru. The kids were so full of energy and curiosity — and excitement for the soccer balls, pencils and books we’d brought. The grand prizes were backpacks — one for a boy, and one for a girl. After correctly answering some history and math questions a boy and a girl were each given a new backpack.

My private balcony: A favorite part of the wonderful new La Estrella Amazonica was the private balcony. I spent a lot of time during our daily siesta sitting out there, watching “earth’s greatest wilderness" pass by. Early June was beautiful time to be to be in the Amazon. The water was on it’s way down after the high season and the dark, rich soils were exposed on the riverbank. Planted rice crops were starting to sprout and I saw many birds feeding amongst them… black-necked stilts and large-billed terns, with colorful yellow-headed and oriole blackbirds feeding in the tall grass behind them. Seeing the passing scenery, wildlife and ever-changing cloud formations from my private balcony was something I looked forward to every day.

We made so many friends along the way — from the fishermen we met each day, to the extraordinary crew and amazing band, to the IE guests that we shared our days with. This part of the Amazon is a magical place, and our expedition was truly the “greatest voyage in natural history.”  This great experience lived up to, and surpassed every expectation I had… when do we go back?

While iconic places like Machu Picchu and the Parthenon are hot spots for travelers, lesser known sites across the globe offer insight into our past without the pesky crowds. The Inca and Maya left their archaeological mark on Latin America with fascinating sites that are “must sees” for travel connoisseurs. International Expeditions’ small-group treks take in a variety of these lesser known sites under the guidance of seasoned historian guides.


  1. Cuenca is quickly gaining a reputation as a city combining Spanish style with French influences, but a quick turn through town will reveal both Inca and pre-Inca Cañari ruins. Cuenca was actually connected to the Pacific coast and Amazon rainforest off an extension of the Inca Trail – which of course runs to Machu Picchu.
  2. Scattered through the Ecuadorian countryside are restored archaeological sites like the Baths of the Inca, once used in purification rituals before ceremonies of religious significance.
  3. Travelers can venture to Ingapirca, a complex network of stone structures that surround a circular sun temple used by both the Inca and Cañari, constructed in the late 15th century. Here you may walk around the ruins, climb the stairs up to the temple and even sit where the Inca did during their ceremonies.


  1. While Machu Picchu is undoubtedly the best-known of Peru’s abandoned cities, explorers should make it a point to explore Tucume, in Northern Peru. This vast complex of Lambayeque ruins — first excavated in the 1930s — is home to an impressive, prehistoric urban site which encompassed 26 pyramids. Guests wander through the labyrinth of courtyards or can head to an overlook still used by local shamans in healing ceremonies – Tucume is renowned locally for having magical power.
  2. The adventurous can take the 45-minutes hike/climb to the plateau where the Kuelap complex is perched. Older than the Inca Empire, Kuelap was home to the “Cloud People.” The area’s remoteness has kept the fortress relatively unknown, but in addition to hundreds of ancient stone homes, within the walls travelers can also find air plants, bromeliads and orchids.
  3. Winay Wayna may very well have served as an ancient rest stop for travelers walking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. The ruins consist of upper and lower house complexes connected by a staircase and fountain structures.


What are your favorite lesser-known ruins in Latin America? Let us know in the comments. 

Like many Latin American countries, Colombia offers a rich hodgepodge of ethnic influences, most of which date back to the 16th century conquest by Spain. Along with the country's magical natural wonders, International Expeditions' Colombia tours also expose you to the region's rich culture.

As indigenous native populations (primarily the Muisca, of what is now the country’s Eastern range, and the Tairona of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta region) mixed with the Spanish criollos, slaves brought over from Africa, and European-born whites, a distinctively Colombian culture gradually began to emerge.

By the end of the era of regional isolation and racial segregation in the late 19th century and early 20th century, the rise of mixed-race zambos coincided with the increasing popularity of pan-cultural Carnival celebrations to create a thriving Colombian arts scene.


Archaeologists believe ceramic art was produced on Colombia’s Caribbean coast earlier than anywhere else in the Americas outside the lower Amazon basin, with relics dating back to 3100 BC. The Piartal culture (750-1250 AD) created vessels with patterns inspired by animal and snakeskins, which were used in burials to hold relics and jewelry.

The San Agustín culture (200 BC-800 AD) were stonecutting artisans, erecting anthropomorphic and zoomorphic monoliths up to five meters high. Gold ultimately played a pivotal role in luring the Spanish to Colombia, and the Quimbaya and Zenú people were both masters of intricate gold work. To see stunning examples of their ancient craftsmanship, visit the Zenú Gold Museum in Cartagena.

After the Spanish invasion, 16th to 18th century Colombian art was largely devoted to Baroque-style religious depictions. But by the early 20th century a more distinctive style of modern art had begun to emerge.

Influenced by the Mexican muralists, painters such as Santiago Martinez Delgado and Pedro Nél Gomez fused neoclassic and Art Nouveau elements. Alejandro Obregon mixed Andean and European influences such as surrealism and Cubism, emerging in the 1950s as one of “The Big Five” Colombian artists. But perhaps the most famous Colombian artist is Fernando Botero, who’s known internationally for his large, exaggerated figures. His famous sculpture “La Gordita” can be found in Cartagena’s Plaza Santa Domingo.


Dancing has been an integral aspect of Colombian cultures for centuries, and you can see numerous traditional and modern styles performed Cartagena.

Bambuco is a traditional folkloric dance most popular in the country’s Andean region. Though you’re unlikely to see anyone rocking this style at a nightclub, its influence can be seen in numerous modern dance forms. Porro, which originated in Sucre, is more formal, resembling a military march. Merengue and Salsa are both very popular, but they’re not native to Colombia: They were imported from the West Indies and New York, respectively.

Mapale is a style you’re likely to see on the streets of Cartagena, with colorfully costumed troupes of drummers and dancers performing around Parque Bolivar, Plaza Santa Domingo and the Plaza de las Coches. Originally brought to the region by slaves from Angola, the energetic dance represents an erotic couples’ courtship that resembles the movements of the Mapale fish when it’s taken out of water.

colombia-tou-musicCOLOMBIAN MUSIC

The country’s most popular dance style is Cumbia, which also happens to be one of the most popular music forms in all of Latin America.

Originating as a courtship dance among West African slaves in Colombia’s Caribbean coastal region and Panama in the early 19th century, the Cumbia was originally performed using only drums and claves. Eventually the music incorporated influences from the indigenous Kogui and Kuna tribes (including flutes and percussion), the Spanish (European guitars), and even German immigrants (who brought the accordion to Barranquilla in the 19th century).

By the mid-20th century (a.k.a. “The Golden Age”), Colombian artists such as Pablo Galán and Lucho Bermúdez had crafted a refined form of Cumbia, which helped the music spread to Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Peru and beyond.

These days, traditional Cumbia is often blended with dancehall reggae, hip-hop and electronic musical influences to create a more modern, accessible sound. And while the pop music of Shakira and Rock en Espanol of Juanes may be more widely known in the U.S., it’s Cumbia that is the epitome of Colombia’s rich, distinctive cultural fusion. 

Covering nearly 143,000 square kilometers and representing more than 11% of the country’s total area, Colombia’s 58 nationally protected areas are home to a diverse array of flora and fauna. From protected coral reefs off the Caribbean coast and the 18,700-foot altitude of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range to the tropical rainforest of the southern Amazonía Region, the country boasts an impressively broad range of ecosystems to explore. International Expeditions' nature-based Colombia tours are an in-depth way to explore Colombia's rich nature while adding an impressive number of species to your "life list."


Situated in the Cordillera Central, the highest branch of the Colombian Andes, this national park was shaped over the centuries by continuous glacial activity. There are eight volcanoes there, but the 17,400 feet high Nevado del Ruiz volcano dominates the landscape. Home to 1250 species of vascular plants and myriad trees, the park also offers a cornucopia of beautiful birds (including the Bearded Helmetcrest hummingbird (pictured right) and the endangered Yellow-eared and Fuertes’s Parrots) and mammals (including the Mountain Tapir, Spectacled Bear, Cougar, and more).


On the outskirts of Barranquilla, where the fresh water of the Magdalena River meets the salt water of the Caribbean Sea, Salamanca Island Road Park was created in 1964 to protect the abundant bird life that inhabits the coastal mangroves there. Designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 2000, the park boasts an impressive array of wildlife despite its dry, arid climate, including 33 mammal species, 35 species of reptiles, 9 species of amphibians, 140 species of fish, and nearly 200 species of migratory and endemic birds, many of which are endangered.


Located in western central Colombia, this 489-hectare nature sanctuary was established in 1996 and provides much of the water to aqueducts throughout the famed Coffee Triangle, which has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Long inhabited by the legendary goldsmiths of the Quimbaya culture, the Andean rainforest is also home to massive trees, bromeliads, orchids, birds, butterflies, spectacled bears, tapirs, deer and the more frequently spotted howler monkeys, whose distinctive, booming shrieks often echo throughout the park around sunrise and sunset.


A perennial favorite amongst avid birdwatchers, this central Andes nature reserve is operated by Fundacion Ecologica Gabriel Arango Restrepo (FUNDEGAR) and owned by a local water company. Several hiking trails provide opportunities to spot species such as the Rusty-faced Parrot, Golden-plumed Parakeet, Rufous-banded Owl, White-capped Tanager and Black-billed Mountain Toucan. But their feeders virtually guarantee you’ll see hordes of hummingbirds and Chestnut-crowned and Brown-banded Antpittas (pictured right).


Reaching an altitude of 18,700 feet, but located just 42 km (26 miles) from the Caribbean Sea, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Maria is the highest coastal mountain range in the world. Encompassing around 6,600 square miles and isolated from the Andes, the range serves as the source for 36 of Colombia’s rivers. Established as a national park in 1964 (making it the nation’s second oldest) and as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1979, the Sierra Nevada was named the most irreplaceable park in the world for threatened species by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Its tropical rainforests are home to 44 of  Colombia’s 340 endemic species, and there are 440 different species of birds (including the Andean Condor, Santa Marta Parakeet, and the Black-fronted Wood-quail). There are also numerous mammals, such a brocket deer, otters, tapir, cougar and jaguar. 


Located less than an hour by boat from Cartagena, the Rosario Islands are an archipelago of more than 40 islands established as a National Park in 1977 in order to protect the most important coral reefs off of Colombia’s Caribbean coast. There are daily tours that take visitors to the largest of these islands, Isla Rosario (which has a small aquarium) and Isla Grande (which has a free private bird sanctuary). But the main attraction here is snorkeling and diving amongst the vividly colored coral and tropical fish.

Want to learn more about ecotravel in Colombia? Watch a webinar on IE's trip led by Colombia Expedition Leader Greg Homel.

All photos ©Greg R. Homel/Natural Elements Productions

Bret Love is the co-founder and Editor-In-Chief of Green Global Travel and Green Travel Reviews, and is a passionate advocate for ecotourism, environmental conservation and sustainable living. He’s also a veteran freelance writer whose work has appeared in American Way, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Atlanta Magazine and Rolling Stone.


Last week, the Transportation Security Administration has announced that travelers on international flights to the U.S. may be asked to prove that their electronic devices are powered before boarding at the discretion of TSA security officers. Devices with no power won't be allowed on the aircraft. The new security effort is said to be a response to fears that dead electronic devices could be used to conceal a bomb.This goes for phones and other communication electronic devices, like a tablet.

"As the traveling public knows, all electronic devices are screened by security officers. During the security examination, officers may also ask that owners power up some devices, including cell phones. Powerless devices will not be permitted onboard the aircraft. The traveler may also undergo additional screening," the TSA announced. "TSA will continue to adjust security measures to ensure that travelers are guaranteed the highest levels of aviation security conducted as conveniently as possible."

The Associated Press reports that a Department of Homeland Security official told confirmed that, while the TSA cannot implement policy in other countries, it does have the power to set screening criteria and processes for flights to the U.S.

Reaction around the web to this news has predictably varied. Some travelers are concerned that they'll miss connecting flights if their children spend too much time on their device during a flight, while others wonder if airports will begin adding more charging stations in terminals. Our tip: Avoid a farewell scene with your phone or tablet by making sure your phone is fully charged and double-check that you've packed a charger (or two!).

Today, there are tremendous threats to the Galapagos Islands. Many of them are quite tangible and recognizable while others are more difficult to grasp and determine the impact of a particular alien species. Some of the recognized threats include poaching of natural resources (wildlife mainly) disturbances during critical nesting times of some birds species, the impacts of a very large tourism base and of course the introduction of non-native species. This last item, introduced species, has had an unbelievable affect on native flora and fauna and we still have much to learn about the long term affects of some of the more recent introductions to the islands.

Introductions in the past that have proven to be extremely problematic both in the devastation of habitat (flora and fauna) include goats, pigs, cats, dogs, donkeys and non-native rats. There have been many eradication programs that have been successful in removing these vertebrates from many of the islands. Once again, natural plant growth is prospering but now it seems that more tortoises are required to keep the native vegetation in check so that it can be used as nesting sites for ground nesting birds. The best example of this is on Espanola, where vegetation is becoming extremely thick and reducing the optimal area for nesting waved albatross. Today, a number of tortoises have been released so hopefully this problem will be remedied in the near future by grazing tortoises.

According to the Galapagos Conservancy, non-native introductions have included: 36 vertebrate species, one fish (tilapia), two amphibians (both are frogs), four reptiles (all are geckos), 10 birds and numerous insects and the most astounding, 543 species of plants. Insects and plants can have extremely devastating effects on ecosystems. Included in the insects introduced to the islands: scale insects that suck nutrients from their plant host, two wasps that predate upon native insect species, a parasitic fly that primarily predates on nestling birds, mosquitoes that potentially may spread West Nile Virus to both humans and birds, and fire ants. Fire ants can be devastating to ground nesting birds and reptiles as when the bird or reptile eggs hatch, the ants immediately sense this and descend upon the helpless young still in their eggs. Fire ants are the same creatures that are equally devastating to fauna in the Southern part of the U.S.

So, it is of extreme importance that cargo ships are checked for stow-aways and tourists are checked for “hitchhikers” (seeds) on their socks or shoes as they arrive from mainland Ecuador.

This will continue to be an on-going process and problem, as flora and fauna are accidentally and at times intentionally released on the islands. Nothing good comes from these introductions other than stress on an already fragile environment. Everyone can play a role in the prevention of non-native species. One easy step: Please be aware of what may be on your shoes, socks or in your luggage prior to boarding a Galapagos Islands cruise.

Learn how International Expeditions, through our partnership with IGTOA is funding the fight against introduced species.  

Naturalist Greg Greer is a favorite among IE travelers, and has gained a reputation for his friendliness and good humor, along with his incomparable knowledge of natural history. Greg's photos and articles have been widely published in books and magazines, including Georgia Outdoor News, Bird Watcher’s Digest, Alabama Outdoor News, Riversedge and Southern Wildlife.

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While this picture of Camaguey is familiar to our travelers on our people-to-people Cuba tours, the atmospheric city itself was originally closer to the coast. Camaguey was founded in 1514, and originally named Santa Maria del Puerto Del Principe. Its Colonial Historical Center is the largest UNESCO World Heritage Site. The constant pirate attacks forced the first residents to move the city in 1516 to the border of the Caonao River, in 1528 the city finally settled in the center of the province and today everybody calls it Camaguey.

Special thanks to IE's Cuba Destination Manager April Springer for the photograph.

Is there such a thing as a nocturnal monkey? Yes, and only in the New World tropics and they go by two different names, both of which are very fitting: the Owl Monkey or Night Monkey.

The Peruvian Amazon boasts a tremendous diversity in primates and in areas of the Upper Amazon Basin from Iquitos to the Pacaya-Samiria Reserve there are 13 species. There is greater diversity in this region, where we conduct our 10-day Amazon River cruises, than any other place in the world. The owl monkey is a pretty little monkey with extremely large eyes -- the better to see you with (at night) my pretty! In the beam of a spotlight, the eyes reflect back very brightly and it allows for easy spotting these otherwise very elusive and cryptic monkeys. Only on occasion may a visitor to the area be lucky enough to see an owl monkey or owl monkeys peering from a tree cavity during daylight hours; however, Amazon tour guests frequently see these guys during the day on our rainforest hikes around Ranger Station #2. Usually daytime is a time for sleep and slumber and at dusk is when the owl monkeys alarm goes off. Owl monkeys live in small groups, usually within the same tree cavity and often in a cavity that has a riverfront view. As night descends on the forest, owl monkeys begin to stir and they often call to one another with a three-hoot call, much more owl sounding than what one might think a monkey should sound. 

Owl monkeys feed on a variety of fruits as well as insects and small vertebrates. The long tail is used mainly for balance and unlike some other New World primates owl monkeys do not have a prehensile tail. In addition, due to their nocturnal behavior, owl monkeys do not have other primate competitors for in foraging but certainly other mammals, such as opossums, kinkajous and arboreal bamboo rats may compete for the same ripe fruits. Baby owl monkeys are extremely adorable creatures with huge liquid brown eyes. Because of large eye size, owl monkeys always appear to be staring. The blink of the eye is extremely quick and almost is undetectable to the human eye, thus the appearance of staring. In regards to vision, quite a bit of research has been done with owl monkeys due to their nocturnal behavior. It appears that owl monkeys are basically color blind, but their eyes respond much better to movement, such as fleeting insects and of course superior vision in very low light, unlike any other primate.

Unfortunately, owl monkeys as well as other primate species in the Amazon, are under a tremendous amount of hunting pressure from the ever expanding population of riberenos people in cities, towns and villages. It is quite apparent when visitors to the Amazon see baby animals in villages, sometimes lots of animals from parrots to caiman and monkeys to turtles. Visitors are usually asked a nominal fee to have their picture taken with an endearing animal. Usually these animals are said to be orphaned and that typically is the case, but only because the parent or parents were killed for the food pot and then the terrified baby animal or bird is brought back to the village for commercial gain. It is always best to avoid contact with animals in villages and certainly do not promote the practice by paying to have your photo taken with a cute baby monkey or any other wildlife species.  

Naturalist Greg Greer is a favorite among IE travelers, and has gained a reputation for his friendliness and good humor, along with his incomparable knowledge of natural history. Greg's photos and articles have been widely published in books and magazines, including Georgia Outdoor News, Bird Watcher’s Digest, Alabama Outdoor News, Riversedge and Southern Wildlife.

As much of the world turns its attention to Brazil for World Cup 2014, we’re looking at the iconic wildlife of the teams facing off. Our Round 1 match-up pits Chile’s guanaco, a favorite species observed on our Patagonia tours, against Australia’s iconic kangaroo. 

Chile: Guanaco

Described by Charles Darwin as “an elegant animal, with a long, slender neck and fine legs,” the guanaco is the largest wild member of the camelid family in South America. Four subspecies of guanaco have been described in the past, based on differences in skull measurements, coat coloration and body size. However, genetic studies recognize only two subspecies, Lama guanicoe guanicoe and the more northerly Lama guanicoe cacsilensis.

Did You Know?

  • Several native groups of Andes and southern region of South America used to consider guanacos as a chief source of protein.

  • A guanaco spits when it gets angry or hurt.

  • A guanaco has llamas and alpacas as its domestic descendants and is closely related to camels and vicunas.

  • Guanaco has a specially acclimatized heart and blood cells which help it fight with the atmosphere at high altitude where air does not have sufficient amount of oxygen.

  • A teaspoon blood of a guanaco contains nearly 68 million red blood cells, which is four times the number of red blood cells present in human blood.

  • Guanacos have eyes on the sides of their heads that allow them to look all around for threats.

Australia: Kangaroo

An iconic symbol of the Australian outback, the red kangaroo is the largest living marsupial, and one of the most abundant and striking of all kangaroos. And while many recognize the red kangaroo, grey kangaroos are actually the most commonly seen species when you’re in-country.

Where the Kangaroos Roam

  • Red Kangaroos are adapted to the big open plains covering the dry interior.

  • Eastern and Western Grey Kangaroos prefer moister forests and scrublands of eastern, southern and south western Australia, but their habitat also overlaps with the Red Kangaroos.

  • Common Wallaroos can be found throughout inland Australia. Their preferred habitat is stone country and rocky outcrops.

  • Rock wallabies are more extreme. They live in piles of boulders, on rocky hills and even in cliff faces.

  • Tree kangaroos are adapted to living in trees (sort of, they are still clumsy). They live in the rainforests of northern Queensland (and further north in Papua New Guinea).

Who do you think wins? Leave your vote for favorite "team" in the comments below!

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