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When people talk about the Brazilian Pantanal, it usually doesn't take long for someone to mention the fact that it's among the most biodiverse places on the planet. But what does that even mean? It means that there are more different types of flora and fauna found in the Pantanal than just about anywhere else in the world.
Obviously, with such a wealth and variety of species, no blog-length wildlife guide can be 100% complete. So instead, we’ll look at a few popular favorites, as well as some rare animals that lucky visitors might have a chance of spotting.
The Mammals of the Pantanal
Visitors will definitely be rewarded with mammal sightings in the Pantanal. But most people will only see a small fraction of what's out there. There are 236 different mammals species recorded in the Pantanal, including 75 small species, 68 medium-large species, and an incredible 90 different varieties of bats.
These are some of the most fascinating animals found in the Pantanal:
Typically weighing in around 75 to 150 lbs, the Capybara is the world's largest rodent. But, from a distance, the animal looks much more like a cross between a hippo and a pig than it does an oversized rat. Capybara generally live in large groups of between 10-20 and spend much of their lifetime in the water, where they feed on aquatic vegetation.
One of the area’s biggest draws is its high concentration of cats. The Jaguar is the third largest cat species on the planet, weighing between 130 and 220 pounds. There are only around 15,000 Jaguars left on the planet, which makes the high concentration in the Pantanal incredibly important. These large cats feed on a variety of meats, such as deer, capybara, peccary, agoutis, monkeys, and even tapir. There are three other cat species found in the Pantanal – Ocelot, Margay, and Jaguarundi – but they’re even more difficult to spot.
International Expeditions' Pantanal tour spends three nights region of Brazil - Meeing of the Waters State Park - where high jaguar density and increasing rates of habituation combine to give you a good chance at viewing these majestic cats in their natural wild habitat.
The Tapir is a favorite oddity for almost everyone lucky enough to spot one. But their erratic movement throughout the Pantanal makes them incredibly hard to find. They can show up almost anywhere… or nowhere. The Tapir looks like an Elephant crossed with an Anteater, but actually belongs to the same suborder as Rhinoceros. It’s also the largest animal in the Pantanal, weighing in at a hefty 500 to 800 pounds.
The Birds of the Pantanal
The Brazilian Pantanal is renowned as a birder's paradise. Its 75,000 square miles of land is temporary or permanent home to a whopping 1,000+ endemic and migratory bird species.
These are a few of the more prominent ones:
The beautiful (yet awkward) Jabiru is the second largest flying bird in the Americas after the Andean Condor. They can often be seen stomping away at muddy shallows of water in the Pantanal, hoping to force insects to the surface for feeding. The Jabiru can grow as tall as 55 inches and have a wingspan as large as nine feet.
Perhaps the most prevalent of the Pantanal’s smaller bird species, there are 4 types of Kingfishers that spend time swooping the waters of the wetland region’s rivers and ponds.
The Amazon Kingfisher – green with an orange breast and standing up to a foot tall – is the largest and most common.
The Green Kingfisher is also a common sight, looking like a smaller (around seven inches) version of its aforementioned relative. Much more rarely spotted are the Green-and-Rufous and American Pygmy Kingfishers, which come in at about nine and six inches tall, respectively.
Two species of Macaw are frequently spotted in the Pantanal, although five may be found in the region. Visitors are most likely to see the beautiful Blue-and-Yellow Macaw, which grows to be about 30 inches tall. But if you’re lucky, you might also see the Hyacinth Macaw, which is a bright blue bird with yellow markings around the eye and beak. These birds are usually found in pairs, as Macaws generally mate for life.
Reptiles of the Brazilian Pantanal
As with the birds, reptiles are fairly ubiquitous in the Pantanal. There are around 80 different species of reptiles in the region, although you'll likely only see four or five of them on a visit.
There are an estimated 20 million Caiman living in the Pantanal, which is about half the total human population of Canada. From extremely small babies to full-grown adults, they can typically be found lazing around nearly any pool of water in the wetlands. A member of the Alligatoridae family, the most prevalent species of Caiman is the Yacare, which grow up to eight feet in length. Amazingly, despite their size and imposing image, Caiman remain among the Jaguar’s favorite meal choices.
A medium-sized lizard, the Northern Caiman Lizard is a great find if you can spot one. These beautiful snake-like lizards can grow up to four feet in length. What makes the Caiman Lizard so interesting is that it spends the vast majority of its life in the water, with a diet that consists almost entirely of snails.
Big-Headed Swamp Turtle
One of the few turtle species that survive in the region, the Big-Headed Swamp Turtle wasn’t discovered until 1984. As its name suggests, it’s known for its disproportionately large head. If you see a young one, you’d be forgiven for thinking it looks more like a cartoon character than a living animal. Growing to around nine inches in length, this bizarre beauty is arguably one of the Brazilian Pantanal’s most colorful characters.
See the Wildlife of the Brazilian Pantanal
Join International Expeditions' naturalist-guided Pantanal tours on hiking, boating and even horsebackriding excursions designed to help you observe the rich wildlife of Brazil's Pantanal!
Hailing from Alberta, Brendan Van Son is the professional travel photographer and writer behind Brendan’s Adventures. His freelance work has been seen in outlets such as the BBC, National Geographic Traveler and The Guardian.
Scientists have just confirmed the existence of the 14th species of giant tortoises in Galapagos! The new species, Chelonoidis donfaustoi, is known locally as “Don Fausto.” The tortoises were named after a recently retired ranger, Fausto Llerena Sánchez, who spent 43 years at Galapagos National Park. About 250 of these tortoises live on the eastern side of Santa Cruz Island in an arid lowland called Cerro Fatal (Deadly Hill). Guests on IE's Galapagos cruises visit the highlands of Santa Cruz to observe another species of tortoises in the wild.
According to the study published in journal PLOS One, the Cerro Fatal tortoises are smaller than other tortoises found on Santa Cruz, the Reserva species, but those differences were simply considered variations. Peaked scutes — the bony plates of the shell — are among the unique characteristics of the newly-identified tortoise species. Further genetic analysis led by Yale scientists revealed that the Cerro Fatal tortoise was not only its own species but also that although two tortoise types shared one island, they are not each other’s sister species. The closest relatives are from San Cristóbal, the easternmost island in the archipelago.
One-third of the 40 square kilometers the Cerro Fatal occupies is outside of the national park, which puts the tortoises living there at risk to dangers from agriculture and tourism. Their classification as new species will push the Galapagos Conservancy to prioritize their protection.
In recent years the cruise industry has been favoring a “bigger is better” approach, with heaps of publicity surrounding so-called mega-ships that carry 5,000 to 6,000 passengers. These “mega-ships” certainly have their place, and many make cruising an attractively affordable alternative for travelers on a tight budget.
But there’s also a booming cottage industry of small ships and boutique cruise lines that offer a very different sort of travel experience from the mega-ships. From cruising the world’s most iconic rivers in India and Amazon to voyages in the Galapagos, Cuba and Patagonia, there are myriad options to choose from, with prices ranging from ultra luxury to budget-friendly.
Here are five reasons why journalist and editor Bret Love believes that small ship cruises are the best cruises:
More Elbow Room
The first (and only) time I took a big cruise – which was actually fairly small by industry standards, with around 700 passengers – I was so overwhelmed by the crowds that I actually felt a little claustrophobic for the first time in my life. Avoiding the jostling crowds at the buffet line, the ship disembarkation points and during excursions became an annoying distraction.
But the best small ship cruises carry less than 300 passengers, and International Expeditions’ small ship cruises to the Galapagos Islands, Peruvian Amazon, Ecuadorian Amazon and Northern Patagonia allow no more than 18-32 people total.
The experience is so different that it’s virtually impossible to compare the two. With one you feel like a nameless face among the huddled masses; with the other you feel like a treasured guest with room to roam. Which makes it much easier to find your own personal space to have quiet time or memorable moments.
Everybody Knows Your Name
When you’re just one of over 5,000 passengers crowded onto a massive floating city, it’s unreasonable to expect four-star service.
For some travelers, sacrificing luxury and comfort in exchange for all-inclusive convenience and budget-friendly affordability is a fair trade-off. There’s also a lot to be said for the value of experiences where everyone from the restaurant staff to the cruise director knows your name (and, more importantly, your preferences).
Having a bartender who knows you want a Pisco Sour with your Happy Hour appetizers may not make or break your trip. But traveling with a company who makes you feel like more than just a number on a sign can definitely go a long way towards making your trip feel special.
Connecting with Fellow Passengers
One of our favorite things about small ship cruises is the lasting friendships we’ve made on our travels over the years.
When you’re on a ship with just 30-40 passengers for a week to 10 days, you tend to get to know everyone on board to some degree. There almost seems to be an unspoken agreement that passengers will swap dining tables like a game of musical chairs, giving you plenty of opportunity to find out who you click with and who you don’t.
Inevitably, you’re bound to meet a handful of folks that share your same ideals. Especially on a nature-focused cruise, which tends to attract a certain type of traveler. Going on life-changing adventures with perfect strangers can create some surprisingly strong bonds. Perhaps you’ll even meet future travel buddies!
You Can Go Where the Big Ships Can’t
I must admit to getting a perverse sense of pleasure from our small ship being able to slip into a tiny port and our entire group being able to disembark while the big cruise ships were still waiting for their Zodiacs to get lined up so they could transport passengers to shore.
But it’s even better when you’re cruising in places like the Amazon River and the Galapagos Islands, where those massive ships aren’t even allowed.
Trust me, there a few things that can make your shore excursion more stressful than trying to rush through it before teeming hordes of 5,000-6,000 people descend on a port city like vultures on a kill.
Because companies like International Expeditions severely limit the number of people on their small ship cruises and typically have at least one naturalist guide for every 15 passengers, you’re virtually guaranteed to have intimate, once-in-a-lifetime experiences.
Whether you’re visiting a tiny village or ecotourism attraction that no other tour operator travels to, getting to see a rare endangered Amazon manatee that rangers rescued from poachers, swimming alongside Galapagos penguins or simply savoring a spectacular view with no other travelers in sight, the best small ship cruises create memories you’ll be telling friends and family about for years to come.
The only downside? Once you’ve experienced the alternative to mass market travel, you’ll probably never want to travel any other way again.
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 Green Travel Media.
The Galapagos Islands have a total population of around 25,000 now. But when Bolivar Sanchez was growing up on the island of Santa Cruz in the ‘70s and ‘80s, there were far fewer.
The International Expeditions naturalist recalls an idyllic childhood, swimming with Galapagos Islands animals and exploring the area on his father’s boat. Now an Expedition Leader on IE's Galapagos cruises, his life’s mission is introducing visitors to the myriad wonders of his native land and educating them about the importance conservation and ecotourism plays in its future.
We recently caught up with Boli for a conversation about how the islands have changed, why he loves the wildlife found in the water as much as that found on land, and what he hopes guests will take away from their trip to his island home.
What was childhood like for you growing up in the Galapagos Islands? Where did you live, and what are some of your early memories of interacting with nature?
My childhood in the Galapagos was a very special one. It was a very small, natural environment, with many close friends and no danger of any kind. We lived on Santa Cruz island, but I was blessed to have the opportunity to spend time in the highlands at my parents’ and grandparents’ farm. I also spent time traveling with my father, who was the captain of his own boat and used to take tourists around the islands in the ‘70s and ‘80s. I have many wonderful memories of swimming and playing with Galapagos Islands animals – sea lions, sharks, turtles and penguins – and going fishing for lobster and tuna. The water was, and still is, my favorite part of the islands.
How have the Galapagos Islands changed since you were a boy?
I don't think the islands have changed that much, but the conditions have changed a lot. There are so many more visitors now, and therefore many more restrictions of all types. The Galapagos became an important tourist destination. Of course that implies more travelers coming and more money for the communities, but also more pressure on the surrounding ecosystems.
Can you tell me a bit about your education in Earth Sciences, and how you originally became a naturalist guide?
I always loved the outdoors, so studying Environmental Science was great because it gave me an opportunity to be out there doing – and looking at – the things I really like. The outdoors for me means freedom. I guess I was born a naturalist, since I was born in a natural environment with no modern luxuries at all. So this naturalist thing was always in me.
I've traveled all over the world and have never been any place like the Galapagos. What makes these islands so special in your eyes?
There are many wonderful places on our planet, but there is only one Galapagos. Galapagos is special because it’s the only place I know where mankind and nature can co-exist in a friendly way. It’s the only place where humans can approach nature in a natural way, and nature shows no fear or concern. It is easy to love and respect nature after visiting these islands.
Can you explain the important role ecotourism has had, and continues to have, in Galapagos conservation?
Ecotourism is an important education and conservation management tool. It is the only concrete way to educate the world about having a love and respect for nature. It’s the best way to show our natural environment to the public, so that they can see it and love it more. People protect what they love, and you can't love what you have not seen yet.
One of the things that surprised me most about the islands was the amazing diversity of wildlife you see in the water. Can you talk about the Galapagos Islands animals guests will see while snorkeling?
The underwater world is an important component of our trip. It is closely associated to the land part, since the water provides the food for most of the Galapagos Islands animals. We have opportunities to enjoy the water and snorkel on every day of our IE trips. We swim with penguins and Galapagos sea lions, little sharks, sea turtles and rays. We have more and more scuba divers coming to the region, attracted by the friendly underwater conditions and the amount of sea life they find here.
As an Expedition Leader, what do you hope that people take away from visiting the Galapagos?
My goal is that every guest we have will go home, not only with thousands of pictures of the islands’ creatures, but with the best memories of our country and our people. But, beyond that, my real goal is to contribute to their education and love for nature. Hopefully they go home with a better understanding of the importance of protecting our planet and its creatures. Hopefully they will go home with a conservation message about all the good things we are doing in the Galapagos. Despite economic complications, Ecuador is putting a lot of money and effort into trying to protect our natural resources. We only have one known home – our wonderful blue planet – and we had better take good care of it!
Veteran freelance writer/editor Bret Love is the co-founder of ecotourism/conservation website Green Global Travel and Green Travel Media.
With expertise spanning four decades, International Expeditions is working harder than ever to be your quintessential source for immersive travel to Earth’s most compelling natural areas. But after all these decades, we thought it was time to make a few changes.
The first thing we needed was a new look – a fresh, clean design that would look as great on our brochures and website as it does on the shirts and hats our guides wear in the field and the flags flying over our ships in the Galapagos Islands, Amazon and Earth’s other wild waters. IE’s new logo features symbols of nature, an ancient motif and even our initials.
Most importantly, our updated motto speaks more directly to you! So now, we invite you to Discover Your True Nature.
This is more than a new tagline. On International Expeditions’ experiential adventures, you’re afforded deeply authentic nature and cultural immersion, and journeys that are truly transformative as you discover things about yourself and our world.
In the coming months, you'll also see a new, more functional website and enhanced benefits added to our loyalty program.
What’s not changing at International Expeditions?
Maintaining the high level of service and experience you have come to expect from us
Maintaining the same phone number, same physical address and the same web address
Maintaining the same ownership and dedicated team you've come to count on for great service
While you can always count on IE for an unrivaled experience, exceptional guides and superior itineraries, the real reward is in discovering your true nature…gaining something valuable from your travels, becoming a more informed person, and being empowered to protect Earth’s natural wonders.
We hope you love our new look and logo, and that you’ll join us soon to discover your true nature!
One of the main reasons people love nature travel is the allure of seeing wildlife in its natural habitat.
When traveling with International Expeditions, chances are you’re hoping to bring home a suite of stunning images that capture the essence of the place you’re visiting and the wildlife you encounter. You want images that help you remember your experience in greater detail, and perhaps share those details with others.
Practice ultimately makes perfect. But these 10 simple wildlife photography tips can help improve your pictures dramatically:
Get outside and have fun!
We’ll get to the technical stuff in a second. But if you’re not going out and using your camera on a regular basis, you’re not getting the shot. It’s important to be both physically on the ground and mentally and emotionally in the moment. Your senses must be attuned to the environment around you. Great wildlife photography starts with truly being in the moment and experiencing the power of nature all around you.
Patience is Your Friend
Nature is unpredictable. If you want “the perfect shot,” plan to wait for it. Patience is by far your greatest ally when going for great wildlife shots. You may even need to come back day after day in order to get what you want. Sometimes animals need to get used to you before they’ll act normal with you around.
Know Your Subject
To capture that special image, it helps to be familiar with the animal’s habits. What kind of habitat do they like? At what time of year are they most active? When are they breeding and nesting? What do they eat? You want to be able to predict your subject’s behavior to some degree, so you can find it and be ready for that perfect shot.
Be Aware of Their Habitat
Many times, wildlife photos look like they could’ve been taken in a zoo. Not only do you want to know where to find your subject, but it helps to integrate their habitat into your photo to help tell a story. All too often, budding wildlife photographers bemoan that they don’t have the biggest, longest lens available. A 500mm or greater lens will help you get certain incredible shots. But don’t forget the power of stepping it back a bit to showing them in their native habitat.
Take Advantage of “The Golden Hour”
Photography is all about the light. Remember to use it to your advantage. The“golden hour” is that 30 minutes before and after sunrise and sunset, when rays of sunlight are slanted and full of interesting reds and yellows that add richness to your picture. In general, wildlife tends to be on the move – and therefore more visible – around sunrise and sunset. If the light isn’t coming in from the right direction, try moving around to see how you can re-compose your shot to take advantage of that less-than-ideal situation.
Don’t Hesitate to Press That Button… Repeatedly!
Remember that even the most experienced photographers may take hundreds of photos to get “the perfect shot.” So shoot a lot! Many animals move fast, and you might miss some incredible action if you’re too conservative in the number of pictures you take. With the incredible number of images that can be stored on one 16 or 32GB memory card these days, you shouldn’t hesitate to press that button over and over again. You can always edit/delete later.
Know Your Camera Gear
Your best wildlife photography opportunities aren’t going to last long. You’ve typically got 10-30 seconds at most to get an action shot before everything changes. It helps to know your camera and lenses well, so that you can make quick adjustments. What is the minimum shutter speed that will give you a sharp image? What about your aperture? Play around and practice with your equipment as much as possible beforehand so you’re ready to capture that instant when the action happens.
Understand Rules of Composition
Learn about the “Rule of Thirds” and the “Golden Ratio,” and practice them until they’re embedded in your sub-conscience. Also, consider ahead of time what kind of shots you want. Do you want to frame the animal in its larger habitat, do you want a close-up portrait that fills the frame, or perhaps both? It always helps to have a general idea of what you want to accomplish before you’re on the ground.
It’s Not ALL About the Megafauna
Photographs of big, awe-inspiring animals are incredible, and something every wildlife photographer treasures. But remember that there is a lot more to Nature than just Bald Eagles, Elephants, Lions or Grizzlies. Some of the very best wildlife photographers use Macro or Zoom lenses to focus in on the little things that often go unnoticed. Having an eye for detail can really help your shots stand out.
Make Yourself Comfortable
You’re going to be out in nature, and you’re going to have to be there for a while to get the shot you want. Dress appropriately, use sunscreen and remember to bring plenty of water. If you’re completely comfortable, you’re that much more likely to stick around and be there for that perfect shot.
One final note about responsible wildlife photography: Remember that these are wild animals you’re photographing. Getting your desired image should NEVER impact an animal’s well-being or sense of comfort, its right to survival, or the survival of the habitat on which it depends.
Personally, I frown on using captive animals for photography. Likewise, feeding them or baiting them is considered an unethical practice and could land you in jail or see you on the receiving end of a stiff fine.
Finally, keep in mind the impact you’re having on their habitat just by being there, and work to minimize that impact. Your goal as a wildlife photographer should be to capture the best image possible of wild animals living their lives naturally, without harming them in any way. Take only pictures, and leave only footprints!
A former archaeologist, Jim O’Donnell has consulted on community natural resource planning issues, permaculture development projects and wilderness protection movements. In addition to his blog, Around the World in Eighty Years, his writing and photography have appeared in National Geographic Maps, New Mexico Magazine, Perceptive Travel and more.
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This summer we sent Green Global Travel blogger Bret Love and his daughter Alex on our Galapagos Island cruise. Here is their journal of the myriad wildlife species they saw along the way:
We began our first day in Pangas, exploring Isabela Island’s Punta Vicente Roca. An adorable Galapagos Sea Lion pup was the first to greet us, swimming curiously beside our boat. He was the first of the morning’s exciting sightings, which included Nazca Boobies, Blue-Footed Boobies, Flightless Cormorants, Marine Iguanas and a Galapagos Penguin.
Later, while snorkeling, we got our first glimpses of Sea Turtles and swam with a Marine Iguana and Flightless Cormorant who were feeding along the shore.
In the afternoon we moved to Fernandina, the youngest island in the archipelago, for our first hike. There was a steady stream of wildlife, including numerous playful Sea Lion pups, a Galapagos Hawk, Lava Lizards and two Galapagos snakes. But the evening’s most intriguing scene was two colorful Sally Lightfoot Crabs playing tug-of-war over a scrap of food.
Our second day began with a wet landing on the black sand beach in Isabela’s Urbina Bay. The morning hike brought us our first sight of the colorful Land Iguanas and the famed Galapagos Tortoises, several of which were alongside, and a couple even blocking, our path!
Afterwards we snorkeled Tagus Cove, which brought our first swim with Sea Lions, more Sea Turtles, a brief glimpse of a Penguin rocketing through the water, and a beautiful Sea Horse hidden amongst the vegetation about 12 feet down.
That evening we took a Panga ride around the picturesque cove, where we spotted Brown Pelicans, Boobies, Brown Noddy Terns, and five juvenile Penguins perfectly posed together right by the water.
Day three began with an invigorating hike up the 370-foot volcanic cone of Bartolomé, which afforded spectacular views of the iconic Pinnacle Rock and surrounding islands. By the time we made it back down, we were anxious to get back in the water.
Today’s snorkeling was absolutely extraordinary! A pair of Galapagos Penguins surprised us by slipping into the water off and diving around us, then slowly swimming beside us for 20 minutes as we made our way around the island. Our guide, Christina, said she’d never seen anything like it in her 19 years of leading Galapagos tours. It was one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life.
We begin day four on Santa Cruz, with a relaxing hike along the gorgeous white sand of Bachas Beach, a major Sea Turtle nesting site. We saw a few nests, but no turtles, but we did Marine Iguanas, Oystercatchers, Pelicans and even an Octopus in the shallow tide pools. But the main attraction was a trio of Galapagos Flamingos in the lagoon, which fed in the waters right near shore.
Santa Cruz’s Dragon Hill is famous for its healthy Land Iguana population, which has rebounded well thanks to a conservation program from the National Park and the Charles Darwin Foundation. Our 2-mile hike through the cactus forest also brought our first sightings of Darwin’s Finches, Galapagos Doves and more Marine Iguanas.
Our busiest day to date took us to Santa Cruz’s bustling Puerto Ayora, the economic capital of the Galapagos. At Mr. Cabrera’s Farm, we learned about (and participated in) the process of harvesting and grinding sugar cane and roasting coffee beans in the traditional way. We also got a chance to taste moonshine made from the cane: I was the guinea pig who got to spit some into the fire to make a fireball!
From there we went to Los Gemelos – two humongous pit craters – for a cloud forest hike that brought myriad Darwin’s Finches, Galapagos Mockingbirds and a Flycatcher. Then it was on to Rancho Manzanillo for a short hike to see more Galapagos Tortoises in their natural habitat and a delicious barbecue lunch.
The afternoon was spent at the Charles Darwin Research Station, where we learned about the captive breeding program that helped bring the Galapagos Tortoise back from the brink of extinction. We saw tons of cute little baby tortoises, as well as Land Iguanas, more Darwin’s Finches and the second most famous tortoise (after Lonesome George), Professor Diego, who sired more than 1,500 offspring.
Our last full day in the islands began with a landing at Punta Suarez on Española, the oldest and southernmost island in the archipelago. There were Sea Lions, Christmas Iguanas (known for their bright red colors) and a Galapagos Hawk waiting to greet us during our dry landing. But we were here to see the massive bird colonies further inland. We weren’t disappointed: The rocky terrain led us to hundreds, perhaps thousands of Nazca Boobies, Blue-Footed Boobies and Waved Albatross, including more than a few amusing mating dances. It was an incredible sight for bird lovers.
Our final snorkeling excursion was another memorable experience. After a slow start in rough waves, we made our way around Gardner Island to calmer waters and found a group of 8-10 Sea Lions of varying ages and sizes eager to engage. The more we dove and flipped underwater to film them with our GoPro, the more excited they seemed to get.
We ended the day with a sensational sunset stroll on the Gardner Bay beach, which is known for its massive Sea Lion colony. Adorable babies frolicked in the surf as the older ones sprawled out next to one another sleepily, covering themselves with sand to ward off bugs. It was the perfect way to wind down our once-in-a-lifetime Galapagos adventure, and a memory my daughter and I will never forget.
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International Expeditions’ President Van Perry spent part of July in East Africa, hosting our small-group safari. Once back in the office, Van reflected on his first trip to Africa.
“This was my first safari, and it was an incredible experience to see not only the wildlife and people but also the surprising variety of ecosystems in such a relatively compact area. You can always read about the Great Migration, but to see hundreds of thousands of wildebeest and zebras on the move is just awe-inspiring!
“I was excited for us to achieve a sighting of the Big 5 — lion, leopard, elephant, Cape buffalo and rhino. Actually, our small group observed the Big 5 twice…maybe we’ll call it the Big 10. Unfortunately, we didn’t see all of the Little 5 — rhinoceros beetle, Buffalo weaver, elephant shrew, leopard tortoise and ant lion — so I guess I’ll need to return. There were days that we lost count on the number of zebras, giraffes and hippos that we sighted.
“Our guides were incredibly well-versed on the wildlife. One day, as we were among a ‘small’ herd of a couple thousand wildebeest, our guide said, 'Watch this male. He is about to lose his small herd of females.' They were in the open between the water and trees. He did not want them to go to the water for fear of losing them to another male. Our guide knew that within a few minutes the females would run for the water to get away, and directed our group to watch as the male wildebeest tried to corral his females. The sequence played out exactly as our guide predicted. Our inconsiderate male wildebeest lost his entire harem of 50 females in a matter of 10 minutes.
“Other memories are the little tails wagging straight up in the air as the warthogs ran away from a lion, and watching baboon troupes moving through the grass.
“A highlight or myself and everyone who elected to do the balloon safari was the view of the Masai Mara while floating over the tree tops, seeing elephants along the river and drifting over hippo pools. The Champagne breakfast after landing in the middle of the Mara is also etched in my memory bank. We all had a chuckle out of the chef using hot air balloon burners to prepare the eggs and crepes!
“East Africa is truly one of the world's epic destinations, and I would honestly encourage anyone who has ever considered Africa to make sure they take those steps to go. You will not be disappointed!"
While Costa Rica is beloved for its natural treasures, there’s another cache of riches lurking back in those lush jungles. The country’s archaeology may not be quite as well known as its ecology, but an exploration of Costa Rica’s ruins and museums ultimately proves equally fascinating as its famous rainforests.
For around 15,000 years the Central American isthmus has been a highway for human migrations between North and South America and a home for myriad indigenous civilizations. The result is a wealth of precious artworks, crumbling cities in the jungle, puzzling mysteries, and a timeline of archaeological treasures ranging from the depths of history, to the conquistadors, to recent days.
Costa Rica's Early History
The year of human arrival in the Americas is hotly disputed, but archaeological evidence found thus far suggests people arrived in Central America around 12,000 years ago. Ancient hunting sites near Volcan Turrialba hint that the earliest arrivals in the area hunted sloths, mastodons and giant armadillos.
As the Ice Age ended and the climate shifted dramatically, humans organized themselves in small, highly mobile groups that could take advantage of the region’s varied ecosystems. The Turrialba and Guanacaste regions saw higher population densities than the rest of the country. By 5000 BC agriculture was well under way, with communities planting tubers such as yuccas and yams and cultivating fruit and palm trees. Later ,corn and ayotes became vital parts of their diets.
These agricultural communities built permanent settlements that would, over time, grow into impressive cities run as hierarchical chiefdoms. These societies built roads, irrigation systems and large structures. They were deeply into astronomical observations and the production of masterful works made with jade, opal and gold. By 500 AD they were wide-ranging and socially stratified, with designated political and religious leaders, specialized artisans, warriors and a farmer class.
Until the Spanish arrived in the 1520s, these cultures came and went, expanded and shrank, and warred against each other on and off. To understand these varying cultures and their accomplishments, there are a number of archaeological ruins and museums no Costa Rica visitor should miss.
The Best Costa Rican Ruins
East of San Jose you’ll find El Guayabo National Monument, the largest archaeological site in the country, whose ruins lie on a plateau on the southern flank of Volcan Turrialba. At one time upwards of 5,000 people may have lived in Guayabo, which had plumbing and an engineered municipal water supply, whose channels were lined with stones and sand to filter drinking water. The center of the town was a cluster of tapered wooden structures topping elevated rock platforms and capped with massive conical roofs towering tens of meters into the sky. Carbon dating suggests Guayabo was built 1200 years ago. From Guayabo, you can easily reach the stunning Orosi Valley and Las Ruinas de Ujarrás, a colonial church site built around and over an ancient village.
For sheer mystery, you simply must see the stone spheres of Costa Rica at Archaeological Zone Finca 6, an incredible site in Palmar Sur. The massive man-made stone balls found there are perfectly spherical and range in weight up to 16 tons! These mysterious balls have attracted a lot of attention from archaeologists, astrologists and mystics alike. No one is quite sure how old these spheres are (some estimates put them at about 2300 years), how they were made or what purpose they served. But studies suggest they were an important part of Costa Rica’s ancient culture for over 1000 years.
Out on the Caribbean slope east of Guayabo lies Las Mercedes, another architectural marvel boasting 15 massive platforms, numerous plazas, terraces, funeral sites, ramps and the famous Causeways. Archaeologists estimate this site was occupied from about 1500BC until the arrival of the Spanish, with the monumental architecture constructed around 1000 years ago.
Back in the center of the country you’ll find Rivas, a former residential complex comprised of round structures (which were made of large river cobbles) with rectangular patios outside. Notable finds at this site include ceramic musical instruments, ceramic beads and whistles, some of which were created in the shape of human heads.
Costa Rica's Archaeological Museums
Along your journey to these Costa Rican ruins, be sure to drop in to see San Jose’s impressive archaeological museums. The best of the bunch include the Gold Museum, the Jade Museum and the National Museum, which offers an exceptional overview of the nation’s history running from deep pre-historic times to La Entrada and on to present day.
The Gold Museum features more than 2,600 impressive artifacts, as well as a section on the history of Costa Rica’s currency. Precious green gems rule at the Jade Museum, where you’ll also find other artifacts ranging from ceramics to carved wooden pieces and much more.
Costa Rica’s past is richer than most people know. And while its ecological treasures may always be the primary draw for visitors, you can easily combine your Costa Rica ecotour with a journey into the depths of history.
How To See Costa Rica's Archaeological Sites & Museums
International Expeditions' Custom Travel Planners can help arrange time before or after your Costa Rica tour to explore the cultural history and archaeology accompanied by expert local guides.
A former archaeologist, Jim O’Donnell has consulted on community natural resource planning issues, permaculture development projects and wilderness protection movements. In addition to his blog, Around the World in Eighty Years, his writing and photography have appeared in National Geographic Maps, New Mexico Magazine, Perceptive Travel and more.
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The Galapagos Islands have their fair share of mammals, reptiles and amphibians, from Sea Lions and Sea Turtles to Galapagos Tortoises and Land Iguanas.
But it also features 56 native bird species – 45 of which are endemic and 11 of which are indigenous – as well as 29 migratory species. These sea birds, shore birds and land birds have been a highlight ever since the days of Charles Darwin’s famous Voyage of the Beagle.
Here is a brief guide to some of the species you might see during International Expeditions' Galapagos cruise.
The three booby species rank among the most popular birds of the Galapagos. Red-footed boobies are the smallest and most abundant, nesting in huge colonies in trees and shrubs of the outer-most islands, as they feed far out to sea. Blue-footed boobies feed close to shore, making spectacular dives into the sea to feed, and are widely distributed in small ground-nesting colonies.
Nazca Boobies, formerly known as Masked Boobies due to their distinctive facial markings, are known for siblicide – they lay two eggs, but the oldest chick typically kills the youngest.
Also known as Galápagos Finches, these 14 species belong to the tanager family and are not closely related to true finches. They played a crucial role in Darwin’s theory of natural selection, as each species has a distinctive beak size and shape and specialized feeding behavior. Collective, these species fill the roles of seven different families of birds found on mainland South America.
One of the world’s rarest bird species, with less than 1000 left. They have black and brown feathers, brilliant turquoise eyes, low growling voices, and wings 1/3 the size that would be required to fly. Their feathers aren’t waterproof, so they spend a lot of time drying their short, stubby appendages in the sunlight. They’re found only on the islands of Fernandina and Isabela, where you frequently see them diving down deep into the ocean in search of fish, eels and other small prey.
The Magnificent Frigate is not endemic to the Galapagos, but it is one of its most impressive inhabitants. With bodies up to 45 inches long and a massive wingspan, they soar (often in the updraft created by ships) aloft, never touching water, feeding by either snatching fish from the ocean’s surface or forcing other birds to regurgitate their meal so they can steal it. During mating season, males inflate their red throat pouches dramatically to attract females, making for fantastic photos.
Endemic to the Galapagos, this dove boasts a large population and a small range, making them one of the islands’ most common species. Their plumage includes varying shades of brown, red, grey and white, with pink feet and bright blue rings around the eyes. They inhabit dry, rocky lowlands, where they feed on seeds, caterpillars and cacti blossoms.
With few natural predators in the Galapagos, these raptors play a vital role in the local ecosystem. Similar in size to a red-tailed hawk, they use their sharp beaks and claws to prey on lizards, snakes, rodents, marine iguanas and the occasional turtle hatchling. They also feast on carrion, even that which is too rancid for other animals to eat.
With six endemic subspecies spread across the archipelago, this long-tailed, long-legged, long-beaked bird is the most widespread of the mockingbird species found in the Galápagos. The omnivore eats almost everything– seeds, eggs, fruit and more– and studies show that they distribute viable seeds across the islands after digesting them.
Found mainly on Fernandina and Isabela, where there are fewer than 1,000 breeding pairs left, this equatorial Penguin measures around 19 inches long and weighs just five pounds. They’ve genetically adapted to the heat (which ranges from 59º-82ºF), thermoregulating by stretching out their flippers, avoiding the sun, panting and swimming in the islands’ cooler waters.
Breeding in the humid highlands on large islands (Floreana, Isabela, San Cristobal, Santa Cruz and Santiago), these large seabirds nest in burrows and natural cavities on hillsides. Unfortunately this made them vulnerable to invasive species such as cats, pigs and especially rats, which feed on their eggs and hatchlings. Although the population is recovering (estimated between 10,000-20,000 individuals), the species remains listed as Critically Endangered due to impacts from agriculture, invasive plants and El Niño events.
With less than 350 individuals, the Galapagos Flamingo is the world’s smallest, and is listed as Endangered by the IUCN. They can be found is saltwater lagoons near the sea, feeding on the brine shrimp whose aqueous bacteria and beta carotene give them their pink color. Where populations elsewhere require large groups for successful breeding, Galápagos Flamingos can breed with just a few pairs present, producing chicks with grey plumage.
Also known as the Large-Billed Flycatcher, this endemic species is found on all of the islands, primarily in tropical dry forests and tropical arid shrubland. The smallest member of its genus, with an average length of 5.9-6.3 inches, long legs, and bright yellow bellies on the male of the species. They’re also very curious, and are known for being attracted to tourists with large camera lenses.
Endemic to the Galapagos, this is the rarest gull species in the world, with a population of 900-1,200 leading to their IUCN listing as Vulnerable. Adult plumage is mostly grey with black and white accents, which are believed to help with camouflage. Typically seen in single pairs rather than colonies, nesting on sandy beaches and low outcroppings, these scavengers feed on seabird eggs, juvenile marine iguanas and turtles, fish and small crustaceans.
Another endemic species, which also happens to be the only fully nocturnal seabird in the world, feeding primarily on squid and fish. Mating pairs– which nest on steep slopes, ledges, and just above the wave line on gravelly beaches– frequently stay together, breeding year after year. Their red-ringed eyes are a striking defining feature.
Classified as Critically Endangered due to their small breeding range, the Waved Albatross is only found on Española Island. Pairs mate for life, typically arriving in late March and doing an elaborate mating dance to ensure they have the right partner. They lay eggs from mid-April to late June, with chicks fledging at the end of the year. During non-breeding season, they move to the waters off the coast of Ecuador and Peru.
Spot Birdlife as You Tour the Galapagos Islands
Inspired to explore the famed Galapagos Islands and observe endemic birdlife? International Expeditions offers year-round Galapagos cruises along with land-based options in the islands. Check out IE's incredible Galapagos tours and start planning.
Bret Love is a journalist/editor with 21 years of print and online experience, whose clients have ranged from the Atlanta Journal Constitution to Rolling Stone. He is the co-founder of ecotourism website Green Global Travel and creative services agency Green Travel Media.
Flycatcher photo Charles J. Sharp