IE Blog

April 25, 2014

Hello Heliconias

Heliconias are a common flower in the cut flower industry but most people have no idea where they are naturally found. Heliconias are found throughout the Neotropics as well as on many Pacific Islands west to Indonesia. Because of the beautiful, often long draping flowers of the heliconias, the plants are also very desirable as garden plants in regions where it does not get cold. In areas of the U.S., that includes South Florida, South Texas and Southern California. 

Heliconia are a very diverse group of plants with over 100 species. Most are exquisitely shaped and brightly colored, with reds, orange and yellow. The shape of the flowers, in most species is quite unique and they almost appear to not have an opening to the individual flower. Upon close examination, they do have an opening at the bottom of each flower and there are certain species of birds that are responsible for pollinating many of the Neotropical species...the hermit hummingbirds. There are a number of species of hermit hummers but all have rather long curved beaks that neatly fit up and into the flowers of heliconia. Long-tailed hermits are beautiful birds that frequent stands of heliconia along the Amazon River. It is not uncommon to be admiring a picturesque stand of heliconia flowers during an excursion on IE's Amazon River cruise and have a long-tailed hermit fly in for a visit. Lucky observers gasp at the site of a big hummingbird with a long slender tail and often the bird disappears as quickly as it arrived.

Heiconias are also related to bananas and gingers. In this regard, the large and very long leaves of these plants serve as a nice diurnal roost for tent making bats. Whenever a sharp-eyed naturalst guide sees a banana, ginger or heliconia leaf, cut at the vein and folded is the indicator that possibly a small group of tent bats are in residence. They are gorgeous little bats and upon looking under the leaf, there may be three or four little faces staring back at you. A very special treat, indeed, for lucky observers.

One last note that may be worth mentioning is the presence of a predator that occasionally can be found on or near heliconia flowers in Costa Rica. That is the venomous eye-lash viper. Eye-lash vipers are a small arboreal pit-viper that exhibits great diversity in coloration. Most of somewhat greenish with red spots but one color morph is brilliant yellow. These little pit-vipers hang out at the heliconia and ginger flowers as they catch prey, like hummingbirds, coming to the flowers. In fact, eye-lash vipers can often be found during our Costa Rica tours on excursions at the Arenal Hanging Bridges. There are wonderful photographs of a yellow eye-lash viper in action striking at a hummingbird. Yet another reminder of the wonderful adaptations exhibited in nature.

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.


Special thanks to Mary Ceren, a guest on International Expeditions' Colombia tour, for the following trip review and photos.

"As a participant in International Expeditions' premier trip to Colombia, I am filled with graphic memories and anticipation of a return visit. Colombia is a country whose biodiversity is as rich as its civil history is tumultuous. It’s a birder’s paradise and our cozy group of six included two expert birdwatchers and a leader, Greg Homel, who has seen more than half of all of the world’s species of birds.  We scoped, chased, trekked and tasted our way through the country under Greg’s expert guidance.

"The itinerary planned by IE took us from Bogota to the velvet-carpeted slopes of Valle de Cocura, through more foothills of the Andes, a 14,000 foot dormant volcano, and finally to the bustle, beaches and mangrove swamps of Cartagena. Our first stop was in Armenia, the coffee growing region of Colombia.  Here we traveled by willis jeep to see the giant wax palm trees, the tallest palm in the world and the nesting foundation for the endangered,  yellow-eared parrot.At lunch we feasted on fresh trout and palatenos, or fried plantains.

"More touring of the zona cafetera uncovered Parque Natural Otun Quimbaya, Quindio Botanical Gardens and its butterfly sanctuary, and Los Nevados National Park. The summit of Nevado del Ruiz is more than 14,000 feet high and experienced its last eruption in 1985. At the Rio Blanco Reserve we photographed a local naturalist hand feeding antpittas, and later fueled ourselves with huevos pericos, Colombian scrambled eggs, and arepas. Our group munched happily as tourmaline sunangel, buff-tailed coronet, and speckled hummingbirds darted around us. An endemic spectacled bear splashed in a pool nearby.La Casana a former convent in the town of Minca, beckoned us next.  Its location in the humid eminence of Sierra Nevada attracts more than 260 species of birds. Joe, a local naturalist, graciously guided us on a night hike through the jungle where we saw black and white striped owls and heard scampering monkeys. 

"As we cruised to our final destination we were buoyed by the smell of fresh, Caribbean air. Our tastes were satisfied, too, by coconut lemonade, coconut rice, pandebonos and fish stew from a roadside eatery. Castillo San Felipe de Barajas rose before us on our approach to Cartagena The city’s colonial architecture below the castle revealed bright colors, graceful balconies and abundant flora. Exploration of La Boquilla outside the city concluded our Colombian sightseeing. 

"This swamp with its unique ecosystem shelters many nesting and migratory birds.  Kingfishers, common lauras, pink spatulas and herons posed for our cameras, while our Cartagenian canoeists refreshed us with coconut milk. Overflowing with happy memories, beautiful pictures and recipe ideas our group sadly bade farewell to Colombia."

Click here to learn more about IE's 2014 Colombia tours.

Peru certainly doesn’t lack for world-class restaurants and its renowned chefs and fresh cuisine are making this country a “must see” destination for foodies. But a few, rare experiences stand out for those who want to combine a memorable meal in Lima with a survey of Peru’s pre-Inca history.

Treat yourself to a divine meal and taste of history at Huaca Pucllana. Your fresh ceviche or chifa — Peru’s version of Chinese food — is only topped by the view of a pre-Inca temple complex! This is the perfect way to relax before or after our Peru tours.

The Site

Turn the corner of Avenue Larco Herrera and a huge, mud-brick pyramid seems towers above the balconies and homes of this nondescript residential neighborhood. Archaeologists are still working on this site, which dates back to at least the 4th century, hundreds of years before the Inca. Originally, the complex stretched over 16 acres and included multiple smaller pyramids. Recent findings include mummies, and a small on-site museum highlights pottery and other artifacts.

The Meal

Nestled at the edge of the complex is an airy, open restaurant provides a lovely oasis with a view of the temple and the Miraflores skyline. I’m alone with my guide on the breezy patio, free to walk around for views of the complex and to eavesdrop on the guided tours. A refreshing Pisco sour and trout tapas starts our lunch, which includes a ceviche appetizer and paiche – a local fish – with mashed potatoes and sweet sauce for our main course. For dessert, I chose a lacuma mouse. Guests from IE’s Amazon cruises will recognize lacuma as one of our most popular ice cream flavors. This rainforest fruit has a light, almost caramel flavoring. 

Insider’s Tip: While dinner is a popular time to dine at Huaca Pucllana, we suggest visiting at lunch. The crowds are lighter and you enjoy a more intimate experience at the complex. Make a morning of the experience by starting your day browsing at the nearby Indian Market for handicrafts before the 15-minute walk through Miraflores to Huana Pucllana.

Interested in adding a meal at Huaca Pucllana to your Amazon cruise of Northern Peru tour? Contact our Custom Travel Planners at


Varzea. Igapo. Terra firma. These terms, while unfamiliar to most people, are extremely important in the types of habitats they describe. While on IE's Amazon River cruises, guides will occasionally use these terms and explain the meanings but rarely is there time to more fully describe how important and why these terms are meaningful.

Terra firma is upland habitat where the elevation does not allow water, even during high water season, to inundate the forest. The soils are often clay soils with very minimal top soil as the heat and humidity allows for amazing biological action and rather than building much soil, the dead leaves, trees and other organic matter is consumed. An intriguing feature of terra firma is the plants and animals that thrive in that habitat and many species are entirely dependent on terra firma. Because of my interest in amphibians, I am going to use a species of frog as an example. The beautiful reticulated poison-dart frog which is a diminutive creature is reddish with black spots on its sides. These bright little jewels of the forest are only found in terra firma habitats. As the elevation drops to the level of water inundation during high water, other poison-dart frogs may be found but not the reticulated species. This is just one of many hundreds if not thousands of species dependent on terra firma. There are countless insects as well as birds, primates, big cats, reptiles and amphibians that cannot exist in any other habitat.

Igapo — what a great word! I even enjoy saying the word as it sounds cool!  Igapo is a term that describes lowland forest that is seasonally flooded (high water) in a blackwater system. The blackwater systems of rivers, streams, lakes and oxbows are prevalent in sandy soil regions and the water takes on the color of tea. It is very clear but tannin rich from the decomposition of leaves and wood and is fairly acidic. These waterways are also fairly slow flowing and at times the flow rate may be unperceivable. It is in these habitats that the gorgeous reflections of trees and sky are mirrored on the surface of the water and in photographs it is often difficult to determine where the highly reflective water meets the surroundings. It is also in these areas where, during low water, tremendous numbers of fish eating birds (egrets, herons and cormorants) congregate in massive feeding flocks to fatten up on the bounty of fish entering the rivers as water recedes from the flooded igapo forest.
Varzea. Another wonderful word and it is similar in meaning to Igapo but varzea is seasonally flooded forest areas in whitewater habitats. The term whitewater in the Amazon does not have the same meaning that we are familiar with in the U.S. Whitewater, for many of us refers to high turbulence areas, such as rapids in our rivers. In the Amazon Basin, whitewater is actually best described as brown water. These waters are extremely turbid from sediment (especially from erosion) and typically fairly swift flowing which allows for particulate matter to remain suspended in the water column. In these habitats, many of the fishes have reduced vision but rely heavily on tactile senses, like the whiskers on cat fish. 

Of significance to mention, where blackwater and whitewater mix, such as where blackwater tributaries flow into the Amazon, there is a very distinctive demarcation where the waters flow along side of each other and then gradually downstream, the waters mix and the whitewater takes over.  As far as we know, where the two waters mix is some of the highest aquatic biodiversity in the Amazon. For that reason, local fisherman as well as birds, pink river dolphins and gray river dolphins converge on those “mixing” confluences as there is an abundance of food for all.

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.

You’ve planned and packed and you’re all ready for your expedition, but you may have overlooked one of the key ingredients for successful nature travel: taking the necessary steps to make sure you and your family take a few simple steps to keep yourselves safe. Our friends at MedJetAssist have great travel tips for ensuring your own safety while exploring.


  • Stay in hotels on well-traveled streets in safer areas of any city. The more expensive hotels usually have better security.
  • Stay on lower-level floors in case of fire or other need to evacuate quickly.
  • Avoid the first floor, as it may not be safe from burglars.


  • Your tour operator can arrange for transfers from the airport or port if necessary, and International Expeditions includes arrival and departure transfers in the cost of our ecotours. Taxis or private car hires are recommended as you are more insulated. Most airports, ports and train stations have areas clearly marked for taxis and car service pick-up.
  • Do not enter any vehicle that does not have a proper license or does not pick you up from the designated area.
  • If you will be renting a car, get maps in advance and clearly write out the directions from the airport to your hotel.
  • If you need to stop for directions, go to well-lit public areas.
  • Keep the phone numbers of your destinations with you.

Keep a Low Profile

  • Do not discuss your travel plans or itinerary publicly...we know, it's hard not to share everything on social media, but it will keep you safer. 
  • Vary your schedule if possible and vary travel routes when you can.
  • Maintain a low profile and dress down if possible.
  • Leave the expensive jewelry and watches at home and do not display large amounts of cash.
  • Look like a person of modest means and do not leave your itinerary or other sensitive business information in your hotel room.

Out and About

  • Keep your valuables including passports, etc., in a money belt concealed or use the hotel safe to store valuables.
  • Keep a copy of your passport with you at all times, but separate from where you are carrying your passport.
  • In high-risk countries it is a good idea to check in with the American Embassy and provide them with a copy of your passport in case you need to have it replaced.
  • When using your credit card, keep an eye on it until it is returned to you. Always verify that it is your credit card before storing it again.

As always, trust your gut. If you feel uncomfortable in a restuarant, shop or area of a city, do what you would even if not in a foreign country - leave. 

What are your best tips for staying safe when you travel? Let us know in the comments below. 

To most people, the words “giant hairy spider” send chills down the spine and basically give people the "heebe geebees.” For me, as a naturalist, I love finding big hairy spiders and it gives me great pleasure in finding a ficus tree (strangler fig type) full of holes with lots of tarantulas prowling under the hours of darkness. 

The pink-toed tarantula is a common resident in the Upper Amazon Basin, but most travelers to the region never see one. Of course there are certain trees where International Expeditions' guides know they can find a tarantula if in the area at dusk or on a night excursion during our Amazon River cruises. Most of the guides prefer to just shine a light on them for folks to observe them, but I actually enjoy doing a little impromptu program with a nice female pink-toed as they are wonderful subjects for education and spiders need all of the help they can get in this regard. Spiders, like reptiles get a pretty bad rap as being ugly, dangerous and thoroughly disgusting. Often, with just a little help from your IE naturalist guide, that impression can be “somewhat” altered or completely reversed in some people.

The pink-toed tarantula is indeed a large and very hairy spider. Each hair is tipped in silver so it makes for a glistening appearance and makes the hairs actually look longer than they truly are. As their name suggests, each leg is tipped in a pink-colored toe. Spiders are extremely important creatures as they are predators of a great variety of creatures: everything from insects and other arachnids to amphibians, reptiles and small birds. Pink-toed tarantulas are large enough to feed on a big variety of insects, common in the Upper Amazon Basin, but they are also capable of taking small frogs and lizards as well. The pink-toed tarantula has formidable fangs that can easily penetrate and subdue prey. The venom is not extremely toxic, but due to the size of the fangs a tarantula bite does hurt (first hand experience!). Of course, if you are not handling or “messing around” with a big spider you certainly do not run the risk of being bitten.

These spiders are often found on dead trees containing cavities even during high-water season. There are a few trees in the Pacaya-Samiria where I know I can find a few pink-toes, especially if the water is high. The spiders come out at dark and just hang out of the tree trunk waiting for an unsuspecting insect or frog to appear within reach of the eight-legged predators. The last little trick that guides have in regards to looking for spiders is their eye shine. Spiders eyes reflect in the beam of a light and the golden sparkles that glisten in the beam of light may just be a very big and hairy spider.

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.

March 04, 2014

Room with a River View

International Expeditions staff member Emily shares photos and memories taken during her Amazon tour aboard our new riverboat. 

When choosing accommodations, do you look for a great view or a stellar location? How about a room that offers both? It was morning #2 on my Amazon River cruise aboard La Estrella Amazonica, and I had yet to fully take advantage of my jungle-adjacent, private balcony. La Estrella Amazonica is the only riverboat on the Amazon offering a private balcony for every cabin, and this is the perfect place to watch the river pass and get to know the locals. This became my retreat before afternoon excursions to simply sit and think - something that I rarely get to do with a full-time job and young kids!

Helpful hint: Our riverboat's small size and large windows offer an intimate view of life along the river; however, area fishermen often paddle past in their dug-out canoes during early morning fishing excursions. Please close your curtains accordingly!

What do you look for when choosing a vacation spot: location, view or both? Let us know by leaving a comment below. 

Whether you travel with International Expeditions' Level 3 naturalists on a Galapagos cruise, certified Master Naturalists on a Costa Rica tour, or discover Myanmar with our experienced expedition leader Charlie Babault, you can be sure you'll be traveling with a passionate guide who is sure to stand out as a highlight of your travels. In fact, strong leadership is a hallmark of IE tours and built into each of our journeys. So it is no wonder that guests often ask: "What does it take to be an IE guide?"

Knowledge: IE's naturalist tour guides and expediiton leaders are highly educated locals - experts in history, archeaology, geology, geography and biology. Naturalist guides have a tremendous grasp on the ecology of a region (how things interact) as well as a wealth of knowledge in the proper identification of insects, arachnids, reptiles, birds and mammals.

Experience: Your expedition leaders, naturalists and safari guides combine for hundreds of years of experience guiding nature tours to Earth's most interesting places.

Humor: Of course you want to learn, but an IE journey is also FUN - with music, storytelling and bonding over excursions, meals and drinks in the wild.

Sharp Eyes: Can you spot a red howler at 150 yeards? Our sharp-eyed guides are sure to help you spot wildlife you never thought possible. Plus, IE's guides know where the squirrel monkeys roost or an pride's favorite hunting ground, and ensure that guests are at the right place at the appropriate time to see them.

Meet some of IE's experienced expedition leaders and naturalist guides who accompany our nature tours.

February 21, 2014

The Cuban Trogon: Guest Poetry

Travel to Cuba impacts everyone differently. International Expeditions’ guest James Blackburn wrote a series of poems about his experiences on our people-to-people Cuba tour. James’ poetry includes stars of Cuba's endemic bird species.

The Cuban Trogon

In the mountains
North of Trinidad Cuba
On the trail of Che and Fidel and Raul.

The Cuban Trogon sits on the cicopia branch
Perched above the concrete path
Now travelled by Russian war machines
Drafted in the service of the natural ecosystem.

The trogon watches as the former army truck
From the former Soviet Union
Brings discoverers and adventurers
To see this lovely Cuban bird –
To see its rosy breast –
To see its regal self.

How poetic is the justice
Overseen by the all-knowing trogon
Who sends out his haunting call
Across the gorge,
Telling all who will listen
Of how once upon a time in Cuba,
A social political change occurred.
Not the revolution of 27 de Julio
But the transformation of mal-intent
The change from violence to respect for life
That is now witnessed by all who ride
The eco-war machines.
And Raul smiles content with the revolution.

Learn more about Cuba’s endemic birdlife.

There is little in nature as enduring as a penguin. They somewhat resemble little humans in tuxedos and walk like Charlie Chaplain of the silent movie era. Actually, penguins were walking on earth and ice and swimming in the southern Oceans long before the days of Charlie Chaplain, so it should be said he walked like a penguin as opposed to the other way around. There are a few species of penguins known to occur at the Southern tip of South America but only the Magellanic penguin is a common resident.  

The Magellanic penguin is a fairly small penguin and quite closely resembles other species like Humboldt, African and the Galapagos penguin. These species are all similar in appearance and size and the call is somewhat like the bray of a donkey. In fact, the African penguin was named “jack-ass” penguin until a decade or so ago, when it was changed to African as it is the only penguin found in Africa.

The Magellanic penguin nests in large colonies during the Austral summer. Pairs of these taxa are monogamous and the Wildlife Conservation Society has data reporting a pair of Magellanic penguins with the same partner for 16 straight years. Quite a testimony considering the penguins head to sea each fall and remain at sea separated until the following spring when they arrive at the same shore, find each other, most likely by call, only to pair bond, mate, incubate eggs and raise chicks once again.

Magellanic penguins nest on the ground under bushes and in many locations they dig a burrow which they use as a nesting chamber. Here, the incubating adult is protected from the sun and heat of the Austral summer and the burrow also allows for greater protection of their eggs and chicks from marauding skuas. Two eggs are typically laid and the chicks are fed copious amounts of regurgitated food and the chicks grow rapidly.  If food is not readily available during chick rearing, only one chick may be successfully fledged. Fledging of penguins, which are non-flying birds, is when the chicks learn to swim. Penguin chicks actually appear larger than their parents as the first feathers to grow in are the down feathers and thus they make the penguin appear like a “Michelin” penguin. On adults, the mature feathers hold the down feathers underneath, thus the adults resemble slick black and white torpedoes in the water. The down feathers of the young make them look much larger than the adults until their outer feathers grow in.

The Magellanic penguin spends the entire Austral winter at sea. They feed on a variety of prey species including fish, krill, squid and crustaceans.  

I've spent many hours in penguin colonies and never tire of such incredible experiences. Watching hundreds or even thousands of young Magellanic penguins learning to swim or adults returning from the sea, bulging with food for their chicks, only to run a gauntlet of pecking neighbor penguins in order to proceed from the water to their burrow, which may be deep in the colony. The noise, the activity and the smell of a penguin colony will not soon be forgotten. Your excursion to the Magellanic penguin colony and to see South America's most accessible colony of King penguins during International Expeditions' Patagonia tours may well be one of the highlights of your trip!
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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