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Costa RIca's natural wonders draw birding enthusiasts and herpetologists alike. Home to more than 500,000 species of flora and fauna, Costa Rica is widely considered to have the highest density of biodiversity of any country on the planet. Despite comprising just one-third of a percent of the earth’s landmass, this tropical isthmus contains a whopping 5% of all species estimated to exist across the planet. Here are just a few examples of the many species you’re likely to catch sight of during your Costa Rica tour…
Amphibians and Reptiles of Costa Rica
More than 200 species of reptile (half of them snakes) and over 150 species of amphibian call the forested landscapes of Costa Rica home. Here are some of the more alluring examples of the country’s cold-blooded inhabitants:
The most commonly sighted reptile in Costa Rica thanks to their apparent indifference to human presence, the dragon-like green iguana can be found in a wide range of forested envi-ronments below 2,500 feet. Growing up to two meters in length and sporting an armor of spines, they will aggressively defend their territory if threatened. But, in truth, they’re actual-ly harmless vegetarians.
Poison Dart Frogs
Defining a group of dendrobatidae frogs that reside in Central and South America, poison dart frogs are easily recognizable thanks to their vibrant colorings and aposematic patterns, which advertise their unpalatable nature to predators. Endemic to humid, tropical environments, these tiny amphibians (sometimes measuring less than 1.5cm in length) can usually be found on or close to the ground, and also in trees.
Known locally as the Cocodrilo, the American Crocodile can be found in abundance along sections of the Tárcoles River, which boasts as many as 240 crocodiles per square mile. Living for 80 years or more, these relics of prehistoric times spend their days basking on mud banks and their nights snapping, catching, tearing and devouring their daily catch of fish in a terrifying display of power and agility.
Olive Ridley Sea Turtle
Named for its green-grey appearance, the Olive Ridly is the most abundant species of turtle in the world. Despite nesting en masse at twice-yearly events known as arribadas (which are considered one of Costa Rica’s natural wonders), they’re listed as endangered and are under threat from illegal egg-gathering and destructive fishing practices.
Insects of Costa Rica
Often found scuttling along the decomposing forest floor and marching up and down tree trunks, leaf-cutter ants are the gardeners of the rainforest. Rather than eating the leaves, the ants use them to cultivate a soft, spongy fungus which grows deep within their underground colonies.
Blue Morpho Butterfly
The most common species of butterfly in Costa Rica, the blue morpho is an adaptive beauty that can be found living along the edge of a range of habitats including forest, field, river and ocean. Its iridescent blue wings flap in a flight-and-fall pattern, highlighting its chocolate-brown underside and perplexing potential predators.
Of the 14 species of Scorpion found in Costa Rica, none are equipped with a deadly poison. They live in a variety of environments, however most individual species are adapted to that of one particular location. The Centruroides limbatus (a bark scorpion) is the most common in Costa Rica. Although its sting is not considered life-threatening to humans, being stung by this eight-legged arachnid is certainly no picnic.
Check-out IE's Brief Guide to Birds & Mammals of Costa Rica
Photos: Sea Turtle Bernard Gagnon; Scorpion Shantanu Kuveskar; Crocodile Charles J. Sharp
Amazon cruise Expedition Leader Angel checks-in from the Peruvian Amazon with updates on this week's exciting wildlife sightings.
Sunday, July 12
Time for our first outing on the skiffs along The Amazon River! Almost immediately we stopped at a tree with lots of Southern Martins coming from Patagonia.
Got tons of photos of our first Green Tree Iguana posing for us in a bare tree, along with Gray Breasted Martins, Ringed Kingfisher, Turkey Vulture and a troop of Common Squirrel Monkeys.
Continuing along Yarapa Channel, we saw a pair of Paid Lapwings and Collared Plover running next to them, Great Egrets and Black Vultures eating death fish. Guests also checked Black Caracara, Black Collared Hawk, Great Black Hawk, Umbrella Bird, White Headed Marsh Tyrant, Oriole Blackbird, Yellow Hooded Blackbird, Black Capped Donacobious, Shiny Cowbirds and more off of their list.
This afternoon, we passed the confluence and headed out along the Ucayali River. Traveling in our excursion boats, we passed a sandbar seeing Wattle Jacana, Paid Lapwing and Collared Plover. Then we spotted a Green Tree Iguana swimming in the river. We were in its way, and the iguana tried to climb aboard! We continued to explore Yarapa River's "black water," where there were so many birds: Plum Throated Cotinga, Black Tailed Trogon, Paradise Tanager, Lineated Woodpecker, Black Caracara, Green Kingfisher, Amazon Kingfisher, Capped Heron, Mealy Parrot, Blue and Yellow Macaw, Green and Rufous Kingfisher and other birds.
Guests also saw a large troop of Common Squirrel Monkeys mixed with Bolivian Squirrel Monkeys and few Brown Capuchin Monkeys. Then we had an incredible view of a Three Toed Sloth sleeping on a tree and Long Nosed Bats.
A great first day in The Amazon! On the way back to La Estrella Amazonica we were treated to a beautiful sunset.
Monday, July 13
During a sunrise excursion along the Ucayali River, near Yanallpa, we found lots of death palm trees with Bellied Macaw perched on top. During the excursion along the creek, we saw so much: Oriole Blackbirds, Lemon Throated Barbet, Purple Throated Cotinga, Purple Throated Fruitcrow, Paradise Tanager, Lineated Woodpecker, Plumbeous Kite, Capped Heron and more.
Midway up a tree, our naturalist found a hole a Yellow Crowned Brush Tailed Tree Rat watching us pass. A nearby tree had four Night Owl Monkeys and on the other side of the creek were two Monk Saki Monkeys!
At "11 de Agosto" Village we met river people, chatting and seeing their homes and school.
Even walking around the village we saw Stripped Cuckoo, Barred Antshrike, Chestnut Bellied Seedeater, White Winged Parakeet, Dusky Headed Parakeet, House Wren and Silver Beaked Tanager.
While exploring Faucet Creek this afternoon we saw: Hook Billed Kite, Orange Winged Parrot, Slate Colored Hawk, White Tufted Woodpecker, Southern Rough Winged Swallow, Buff Throated Woodcreeper, Masked Crimson Tanager, Red Capped Cardinal, Capped Heron, Jabiru, Great Black Hawk and other birds.
Plus, we found a large troop of Saddle Back Tamarin Monkeys.
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Home to more than 500,000 species of flora and fauna, Costa Rica is widely considered to have the highest density of biodiversity of any country on the planet. Despite comprising just one-third of a percent of the earth’s landmass, this tropical isthmus contains a whopping 5% of all species estimated to exist across the planet.
Tropical rainforests, deciduous forests, canal networks, Atlantic and Pacific coastline, cloud forests, mangrove forests, coral reefs and volcanic rims all offer sanctuary to the remarkable wealth of wildlife in Costa Rica. Here are just a few examples of the many mammal and bird species you’re likely to catch sight of during your Costa Rica tour…
Mammals of Costa Rica
Despite Costa Rica’s wealth of biodiversity, just 200 mammal species (half of which are bats) call the lush green landscapes and warm temperate waters of the country home. Of these, some of the more intriguing species include:
Native to Mexico, Central America and northwestern South America, the tapir can be identified by distinctive cream-colored markings across its chin and dark spots on each cheek. Often found close to water, these solitary herbivores are good swimmers and can actually sink to the bottom of a riverbed to feed on submerged vegetation.
Costa Rica has three species of anteater– lesser, giant and silky– the most common of which is the lesser (a.k.a. collared anteater). A tree-dwelling species that nimbly navigates through the treetops using its prehensile tail, it extends its long, sticky, barbed tongue to collect termites and ants from their nests and underground colonies. Visit the Osa Peninsula to catch a glimpse of the elusive giant anteater, which is threatened by loss of its native habitat.
Consuming a diet of fruits, insects and ants, the kinkajou also feeds on nectar and is an important disperser of pollens from various species of plants. Covered in dense, soft, short fur, kinkajous are reddish to smoky grey-brown in color and boast curved claws and a distinct tapered tail that allows them to live high in the forest canopy. Though they’re nocturnal creatures, sightings are common in Monteverde National Park.
Birds of Costa Rica
Around 600 species of bird reside in Costa Rica. Of those, eight are endemic and 19 are globally threatened. During your visit you’re likely to see:
Ubiquitous throughout Central America, the clay-colored thrush is the national bird of Costa Rica, where it is known as the yigüirro. Recognizable thanks to its brownish plumage (somewhat lighter on its breast), which appears darker on those living in humid regions, its throat is faintly streaked and its bill is greenish-yellow with a dark base.
Blue Throated Toucanet
Commonly spotted in Costa Rica’s humid mountain forests, blue-throated toucanets are cavity nesters and often make use of abandoned woodpecker holes to lay their clutch of eggs. Easily distinguished from their cousins, the emerald toucanets, by their distinctive sapphire-blue throats, their plumage is a palette of green hues apart from a chestnut brown tail-lip and crissum.
Roughly 50 species of hummingbird live or breed in Costa Rica’s lowlands and lush cloud forests. Vibrant in color and energetic in flight, their fearless nature and remarkably small size have made them a favorite among birders and wildlife enthusiasts. Co-evolving with the region’s flora by developing long, slender bills and even longer tongues with which to harvest the crop of nectar, hummingbirds will aggressively defend nectar sources from rival hummers, bees and butterflies.
Discover the Wildlife of Costa Rica
Join International Expeditions' Master Naturalist Jonathan Sequeira in Costa Rica. International Expeditions has offered small-group Costa Rica tours for 35 years. Choose between naturalist-guided adventures encompanssing the natural and cultural history of Costa Rica, or enjoy our bespoke journeys, ideal for families.
British travel writer Charli Moore is a digital nomad blogging at Wanderlusters.com. An avid Scuba diver and adventure traveler, she advocates sustainable experiences in off- the-beaten-path destinations.
Photos: Clay colored thrush Andy Morffew; Kinkajou Carol Farneti Foster; Bluethroated toucanet Francesco Veronesi
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Are there places where even the wild animals are as playful and curious as your dog? With abundant food readily available and isolation from predators, Galapagos sea lions — along with a wealth of other species — never learned to flee when approached. In fact, surprising to many of International Expeditions' first-time visitors to the archipelago, these sea lions are far from blasé as they welcome you to these enchanted isles.
Galapagos sea lions basically act like your average dog. Don't believe us? Here are favorite shots from our Galapagos cruise guests of sea lions doing their best pet impressions!
They LOVE going on rides
There aren’t many cars in Galapagos, so this friendly sea lion had to settle for hitching a ride on Jennifer’s kayak (alas, no window to feel the breeze blowing through his whiskers!)
They demand attention!
It’s not quite the same as walking through your door at home, but sea lions are likely to take up residence anywhere in the islands…and there’s no moving along the path until you’ve lavished them with lots of attention.
They love to sniff, lick and investigate your camera (instead of posing!)
Even underwater they love to get nose-to-nose with your camera!
They'll take up the ENTIRE couch (or sea-side bench!)
Think Rover is a little smelly? Try cozying up to a pinniped with a serious case of fish breath!
They never let you relax and read your book without being interrupted
But let's think about the real issue: Why are you ignoring these adorable Galapagos sea lions and the white-sand beaches of this extraordianry archipelago? What book could be THAT good?
They miss you when you're gone
How could you possibly walk away from that sweet face?
Note About Responsible Tourism: For the health and protection of both animals and you, please keep the following in mind whenever you are near wildlife. Do not startle or chase animals from their resting or nesting spots. Flash photography disturbs them, so do not use it. Do not touch or feed wildlife...although obviously, sometimes curious species may approach you.
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Uganda's natural beauty has hardly escaped notice. In 1909, Sir Winston Churchill famously called it “the Pearl of Africa,” a sentiment echoed more prosaically today whenever contemporary travelers ooh and ahh over the country's diversity of people, wildlife and ecosystems.
Uganda occupies a special geographical position, spanning the land where western and eastern Africa come together. Its rainforests are home to the famous mountain gorillas and teeming with beautiful birds, with savannas populated by big game nearby. This also explains the wide range of habitats, including woodlands, wetlands, moorlands, mountains, rivers and lakes (approximately 20% of the country is covered by water).
No wonder Lonely Planet ranked Uganda first on its Best in Travel list for 2012, the 50th anniversary of the country's independence.
It's easy to get overwhelmed by its 10 national parks, its status as one of Africa’s most popular birding destinations (with around 1,050 species – 50% of those on the continent and 11% in the world), its 18 primate species and its impressive panoply of outdoor activities. But in a country of superlatives – the world's largest free-standing volcano, the world's second-largest freshwater lake, African's highest mountain range, the headwaters of the world's longest river– how did International Expeditions choose what's essential to see on safari?
Here's a look at the primary attractions of some of Uganda's best national parks:
Queen Elizabeth National Park
Located in the southwest about 400 km from Kampala, Queen Elizabeth National Park is Uganda's most popular conservation area. Its 1,978 square kilometers were first gazetted in 1952 as Kazinga National Park, but its name was changed two years later in honor of a visit by the British monarch.
The park's popularity is principally due to its breathtaking biodiversity. Spread across the Albertine Rift Valley, the park offers savanna, acacia woodlands, tropical forests, fertile wetlands and lakes within its borders, providing safe haven to over 600 bird species and 95 mammals (including 10 species of primates). No wonder the QENP has been recognized by Birding International as an International Birding Area.
Two of the park's unique wildlife experiences are chimpanzee tracking in the Kyambura Gorge and sighting the unusual tree-climbing lions, which perch in the giant fig and acacia trees of the Ishasha sector. Other highlights are the two-hour boat ride along the Kazinga Channel; guided walks through the dark Maramagambo Forest; and cultural encounters with local communities, like the salt workers at the Lake Katwe evaporation pans.
Murchison Falls National Park
The sprawling 3,840 square kilometers of Murchison Falls National Park, found 300+ kilometers northwest of Kampala, make it Uganda's largest protected natural area. It is also the oldest, originally established in 1952.
Famous as the location of Murchison Falls – the thunderous cataract where the Nile River squeezes through a six-meter gap and then plunges 43 meters – the park is also a magnet for birders and animal lovers.
The 450 species of fowl recorded here include the rare shoebill stork and many endemics, while the 76 mammals include four of the Big Five (all but the rhinoceros, which live in special protected isolation at the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary).
Although game drives are a customary means of scouting for wildlife here, a special game cruise along the Nile is a relaxing way to take in the park’s changing landscape. The views of the water's edge and up to the falls are not to be forgotten, as is the hike from the boat landing to the falls, which are visible from below and then above.
Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park
Although small – just 321 square kilometers – Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park is of crucial importance as home to the world's largest population of critically endangered mountain gorillas. The park contains half of the 900 or so alive today, with the remainder in the Virunga conservation area shared by Rwanda and Congo. (For more about the gorillas and the experience of visiting one of Bwindi’s 10 habituated gorilla groups, see Tracking Gorillas: The Bigger Conservation Picture.)
Preserved on the edge of the Rift Valley in southwest Uganda, Bwindi was established in 1991 as part of the conservation effort to save the mountain gorillas. Three years later, this island of remnant forest– one of Africa's richest and oldest (dating back about 25,000 years) – was recognized by UNESCO as a natural World Heritage Site.
Beyond the gorillas, Bwindi is full of other life, including 120 species of mammals, 350 species of birds (earning it the title of the Best Birding Destination in Africa by Travel Africa magazine), 200 trees, 310 butterflies, 88 moths and 51 reptiles.
The humans of Bwindi are also notable. The indigenous Batwa people were exiled from their historic lands when the park was created. They now reside in an adjacent buffer zone, from which they lead tours that teach visitors about their age-old hunting, hut-building, honey-harvesting, agricultural and trapping practices, as well as sharing traditional music and dance.
How to Explore Uganda's National Parks
International Expeditions offers ecologically sensitive, small-group Uganda tours which feature the opportunity to track mountain gorillas and chimpanzees in five national parks, including Murchison Falls, Queen Elizabeth, Kibale, Bwindi and Lake Mburo.
After decades of hardship under politically oppressive regimes, Uganda is finally coming back into its own and trying to right many wrongs. Tourism plays a big part in that, as one of the core sectors driving the country's socio-economic transformation.
With this in mind, remember that the Uganda Wildlife Authority, which oversees Uganda's parks, gives 20% of all park collections to communities that border the parks to develop facilities such as schools, hospitals, water infrastructure and roads. Any money spent on appreciating wildlife is also helping to improve quality of life and establish a more stable equilibrium between humans and animals.
As a writer, Ethan Gelber has agitated tirelessly for responsible/sustainable travel practices, a focus on keeping things local, and quality and relevance in publishing and destination marketing. He started The Travel Word blog and is co-founder of travel content curation site Outbounding.
As goodwill ambassador to the San Diego Zoo’s Zoological Society of San Diego, Joan Embery has been one of the world’s most high-profile wildlife conservation advocates for over three decades now.
A professional Fellow of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, she founded the American Association of Zoo Keepers and hosted numerous TV series on wildlife education. But she is perhaps best known for her thousands of appearances with animals on talk shows such as The Tonight Show (both the Johnny Carson and Jay Leno versions), Good Morning America and Live With Regis & Kathy Lee.
Joan Embery currently lives on a 50-acre ranch in Lakeside, California, where she keeps show horses as well as a variety of around 30 “wildlife ambassadors” (including a cheetah, lemur, zebra, toucan and more) she uses in her talks on the importance of environmental education. She also guides tours to East Africa, home to one of the world’s greatest natural wonders.
Here, we talk to Embery about her lifelong love of animals, the role of ecotourism in wildlife conservation, and why she keeps going back to East Africa over and over again.
When did you first fall in love with wildlife?
As a child I spent summers with my uncle, who was a veterinarian, in Santa Cruz. That was my early inspiration to go to vet school. I applied at the San Diego Zoo in my first year of college. The only position available to women was working in the children’s zoo, hand-rearing young animals.
A year or two later they were hiring a spokesperson to represent the zoological society in the process of building a wild animal park. Over 600 people applied, and the PR Director gave it to a model with no animal experience. That didn’t work out so well. When the opportunity arose, the Director stepped in and offered me the job on a trial basis. Within a year we were appearing on The Tonight Show.
At what point did you understand the connections between animals and the health of the environment?
In my early years, I was training elephants. Elephants are poached and under extreme pressure because they require lots of water and land to forage, and can be destructive in close proximity to people. It’s not long in working with animals before you realize that the very thing you love has serious challenges for the future. As I transitioned into conservation education and traveled all over the world, I saw tremendous impact to the environment. Animals that have existed for eons are declining in incredible numbers due to growing human populations, competition with livestock, deforestation, political instabilities, disease, etc.
In countries like Madagascar, where they have the highest number of endemic species on the planet, you see the destruction of 85% of the forest habitat. It’s scary, because the birds, reptiles and animals are their resources. At some point, you have to find sustainability. People who are economically challenged look at selling resources as an immediate fix, but the long-term is disastrous for wildlife, plant communities, and ultimately the human populations that rely on those resources. We sell our today at the detriment of our future. It’s not something we can replace.
What role do you think ecotourism will play in conserving these places and species?
The tourism market, if properly managed, can have a huge positive effect by educating people who become ambassadors when they come home and talk about their experiences. For many countries, it’s a major source of revenue, giving value to the resources we want to protect.
That has been proven with the mountain gorillas. I don’t think that Dian Fossey really wanted people coming into her gorilla habitat, but she realized that people would be their salvation. Until the tourism market was built, their greatest value was to be removed, poached and sold in the market. But gorilla tourism has provided a major source of revenue, because people pay big dollars to see them. It put Rwanda on the map.
Now you have people from all over the world that have been to Rwanda and seen these gorillas who have such a deep connection that they want to support efforts to conserve the gorillas. If Rwanda steps out of line with the gorillas, there is this whole constituency of people who feel connected to those animals and will stand up for them.
You’ve been guiding trips to East Africa for years. What keeps you going back to the region?
I’ll never forget the first time I saw the Great Migration, which is really awe-inspiring. To see animals in such numbers – a million wildebeest, zebras and all the hooved animals – is hard for anybody to imagine. Along with it, to hit the Ngorongoro Crater as well as the Serengeti… these are some of the best wildlife viewing opportunities on the planet.
I always enjoy taking people there because you can’t be disappointed. There is always something to see – the sights, the sounds, the sunsets, the landscape, and just the expanse of it. It’s mind-boggling to realize that that still exists, and yet there are tremendous pressures. Taking trips over time, I’ve see the population growth and the threat to the wildlife migration corridors. It’s hard to go back once you’ve lost habitat.
Every time I go, I want to shout, “You’ve got to see while it still exists, before it’s too late!” I hate to say that, yet I’ve seen the populations decline just in the short time since my first trip there. Anyone who has the capability to experience that in their lifetime – almost everyone I’ve traveled with – will want to go back over and over again.
Travel to East Africa with Joan Embery!
Join Joan Embery on a Tanzania Safari with International Expeditions in 2016! Discover East Africa’s quintessential wildlife frontier – a landscape brimming with the “Big Five” as well as a colorful host of birdlife – all while accompanied by this true champion of environmental, conservation and preservation issues.
This week, International Expeditions Director of Operations, Tara, and Peru Destination Manager, Tracey, are exploring Peru's famed Sacred Valley and Cusco. Here are photos and a notes from their day in touring Cusco.
This morning we toured Qorikancha, The Cathedral and St. Catherine's Monasterio. Those are places you can't take pictures so you'll just have to one to Cusco and experience them yourself - don't worry I can help you with that. But the afternoon was spent watching the Festival of Corpus Christi.
In this festival participants make a pilgrimage to a sacred mountain where they give their offerings to the moon and the sun. Then they return to Cusco and carry their patron saints from their local churches through the streets to The Cathedral.
The city will be shut down tomorrow and then after eight more days of celebration everyone will carry their saints back to their churches with even more dancing and parties. This festival is a mixture of Incan and Catholic religion.
These boys are practicing and when they grow up they will carry the actual saint from their church.
How to Travel to Machu Picchu & Cusco
Join International Expeditions' Machu Picchu & Cusco Tour for a survey of vibrant Andean markets, a community program teaching traditional art and textile-making techniques and, of course, a chance to take-in events like the Festival of Corpus Christi.
For many people, discovering the beauty of a country’s culture can be the original spark for lifelong dreams about traveling there. Before December 2014, when President Barack Obama announced that he would finally restore full U.S. diplomatic relations with Cuba, most Americans could only fantasize about traveling to Cuba.
But through the music of Buena Vista Social Club, the art of Wilfredo Lam, and dance styles such as the cha-cha and mambo, we were able to get a sense of the character of Cuban culture long before we could legally set foot upon its shores.
Now that restrictions on travel to Cuba are being lessened, it’s a great time to learn more about the country’s culture as a way to enhance our experiences when we visit.
The art of Cuba is wildly diverse, reflecting the island’s rich melange of cultures. African, European, North and South American influences all blended together over the 19th and early 20th centuries, before the economic embargo cut off most contact with the outside world.
The country’s influential innovators included avant-garde muralist Amelia Peláez; painter Wilfredo Lam, who studied under Salvador Dalí’s teacher and specialized in surrealist-style hybrid figures; photographer Alberto Korda, best known for his pictures of Che Guevera in the early days of the Cuban Revolution; and Corso de Palenzuela, whose folksy paintings depicted icons such as Che, Celia Cruz and Ruben Gonzalez in a vibrant Cuban landscape.
After the revolution in 1959, the Cuban art scene became somewhat divided. Some artists chose to leave the island and pursue their careers in exile, tapping into the sociopolitically charged movements of the United States and Europe. Others remained in the country, where art was sponsored by the government, enduring the censorship that inherently comes with “state-sponsored” territory.
Cuba’s thriving arts scene today reflects myriad styles and influences. From Havana’s Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes and the prestigious National School of Art to independent artists with studios in Havana and Trinidad and a burgeoning street art movement, the visual medium is an essential element of Cuban life. And as the Cuban travel boom begins, more and more connoisseurs are visiting the island in hopes of adding to their collections.
Few countries have had more influence on the world of dance than Cuba. Most of the major Cuban dance styles can be traced back to the Danzón, which evolved out of a dance with English origins that was probably introduced by the Spanish, and then later mixed with Afro-Caribbean influences.
The official musical genre and dance of Cuba, Danzón updated traditional sequence dances of the 18th and 19th centuries, which pre-dated the intricate choreography of modern ballroom dancing. The Danzón became controversial due to its slow and sexy, African-style hip movements, which were deemed obscene partly because they were popular among a young, mixed-race crowd.
By the mid-20th century, Danzón was evolving into new forms of music and dance that resonated far beyond Cuba’s shores. Mambo (which means “conversation with the gods”), named after a song written in 1938 by legendary brothers Orestes and Cachao Lopez, added African folk rhythms. The cha-cha-cha, named after a 1953 song by composer Enrique Jorrín, syncopated the fourth beat as dancers shuffled their feet to the scraping rhythm of the güiro. Salsa, which originated in New York City in the ‘70s, incorporated elements of swing dancing and The Hustle with these Afro-Caribbean styles.
Cuba is also home to the world’s biggest ballet school, the Cuban National Ballet School, which has around 3,000 students.
The music of Cuba has had an enormous influence on global culture relative to the size of the island, especially when you consider its longtime political isolation.
The 18th and 19th centuries were largely dominated by European classical music and the more folksy bolero and guaracha styles favored by itinerant musicians known as trovadors (whose compositions continue to be adapted to various genres of Cuban music today. But it was Son Cubano, which married Spanish guitar with African percussion, that rose to popularity in the 1930s and put Cuba on the world’s musical map.
Son, which has many stylistic variations, has roots in the mountainous regions of the Cuban province of Oriente. But it was perfected in the progressive city of Havana during the Prohibition era, when Big Band instruments were added to the traditional ensemble of tres guitar, double bass, claves and maracas. It was Son that gave birth to Cuban jazz, and ultimately made artists such as Compay Segundo, Rubén González and Ibrahim Ferrer famous as leaders of the Buena Vista Social Club.
Many of these legends have passed away, but their influential legacy lives on in the music of Cuba today. You can hear their spirits resonating in the streets of Havana and Trinidad, in the music that provides the soundtrack to the everyday lives of Cuba’s people.
Experience the Culture of Cuba...Now!
International Expeditions offers three Cuba travel options – plus options for bespoke travel that still adheres to the legal “people-to-people” rules for travel. Through meaningful daily interactions and free-ranging discussions, our Complete Cuba, Cuba Cruise and Classic Art & Culture itineraries offer you a way to connect with the warm, generous people of Cuba.
Bret Love is a journalist/editor with 21 years of print and online experience, whose clients have ranged from the Atlanta Journal Constitution to Rolling Stone. He is the co-founder of ecotourism website Green Global Travel and marketing agency Green Travel Media.
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At its zenith, the Inca Empire was a highly advanced society with an economy based on agriculture, pottery, metallurgy and textiles. By 1533, rumors of Inca cities filled with unimaginable riches had reached the Spanish conquistadors.
Lusting after precious metals and jewels, they rode into Cusco, where they found temples covered from floor to ceiling with sheets of hammered gold. The Spaniards killed the Inca leader, subjugated the masses, and set about stripping the kingdom of what, to them, was the most precious commodity in the world.
Textiles as Currency
To the Incas, gold was merely an adornment. Far more valuable were their alpacas and vicuñas, which produced an ultra-soft fleece that they wove into clothing, rugs and tapestries. These textiles – not gold – were used as currency throughout the empire. Soldiers and high-ranking officials were paid in alpaca garments, and clothing woven from vicuña wool was so highly prized that only members of the royal family were allowed to wear it.
The Inca had developed this ultra-fine fleece through centuries of selective breeding. They culled all but the best male alpacas and separated vicuñas and alpacas from llamas and guanacos, whose wool was much coarser. So obsessed were the Spaniards with gold that they failed to recognize the value of Inca husbandry traditions. They cross-bred alpacas with llamas, destroying centuries of genetic fine tuning. Decimated by European diseases against which they had no defense, Inca society gradually collapsed and the secrets of their breeding practices were lost to the world.
The Textiles of Peru Today
Although today’s alpaca fleece is of lesser quality than that produced by the ancient Inca, it is still one of the most desirable wools in the world. Of the four million alpacas that exist, 80% live in the central and southern regions of Peru at elevations between 10,000 feet 15,000 feet, where temperatures can swing more than 50 degrees in a single day.
As a result, they grow dense coats composed of fleece that’s extremely durable, with a high thermal quality. The herds are cared for by indigenous shepherds and breeders, who have passed their techniques down from generation to generation. Once a year, they shear the animals, harvesting five pounds of wool from each female and eight pounds from males, for a total of around 5,000 tons. Female villagers retain a portion to make sweaters, rugs, hats, gloves and coats using ancient weaving techniques. The excess is sold to textile manufacturers in the cities.
Alpaca is sorted by hand, separating the fiber by origin, quality, color and length of the fiber. Alpacas come in 22 natural earth tone colors, but white is preferred because it’s the easiest to dye. The fiber is further sorted by thickness, with the thinnest strands being the softest and most valuable. Finest of all is baby alpaca hair, the fleece from the first sheering of an alpaca.
Vicuña fleece is even finer than baby alpaca. This diminutive progenitor of the alpaca lives in wild herds scattered across the Andes highlands. Once a year, Quechua-speaking villagers round up and shear the vicuña, reaping a mere three tons of fleece. Scant supply means vicuña wool is valued between $180 and $272 per pound – higher than any other specialty fiber in the world!
Shopping for Textiles in Cusco
Today, Cusco and the villages surrounding the old Inca capital are the undisputed epicenter of Peru's textile industry, with both alpaca and vicuña goods in high demand. But this popularity has given rise to a proliferation of bogus goods. In every market, on every street corner, vendors hawk “100% baby alpaca” products. In many cases, these garments contain only a small amount of alpaca. Fortunately, there are simple methods for determining whether an item is genuine:
- True alpaca is buttery soft, with a feel similar to human hair.
- Garments knit from 100% alpaca/vicuña do not have sewn seams. Turn the piece inside out: If you see a seam, it is likely a blend.
- The outside of garments is sometimes brushed to make the fabric feel softer, but true alpaca/vicuña needs no brushing because it is naturally soft. Compare the outside with the inside: Both should be equally soft and show no pilling, which occurs from brushing.
- Baby alpaca products are very heavy. Regular alpaca is a little less heavy, but still much heavier than synthetics or blends.
- Alpaca exhibits a silky sheen, but is not not shiny.
- Real alpaca feels cold when you touch it, where wool, synthetics and blends do not.
- Real alpaca is usually dyed in natural, earth tone colors. Brighter, gaudy colors are often a sign that a garment may be a synthetic blend.
- Since alpaca fleece does not contain Lanolin, 100% Alpaca garments are hypoallergenic and should not itch.
As for the cost of Peruvian textiles, the finer the yarn, the higher the price. You can expect to pay around $60 for an alpaca sweater and up to $80 for a baby alpaca sweater (considerably less than in the U.S. or Europe). The same sweater made from vicuña can set you back $600 or more.
It may be tempting to buy for less at markets or from street vendors, but keep in mind that textiles made from real alpaca or vicuña will last a lifetime and should be considered an investment. To ensure that your purchase is pure, it is best to buy from the reputable large mill stores in central Cusco or rely on your tour operator to introduce you to legitimate indigenous weavers in the villages around Cusco.
How to Travel to Machu Picchu & Cusco
Join International Expeditions' Machu Picchu & Cusco Tour for a survey of vibrant Andean markets, a community program teaching traditional art and textile-making techniques and, of course, the famed ruins of Machu Picchu.
In 2007, Barbara Weibel felt like the proverbial “hole in the donut,” solid on the outside but empty on the inside. She walked away from corporate life and set out to see the world. Eight years later, she’s still traveling and sharing stories on her blog, Hole in the Donut Cultural Travels.
The Galapagos Islands are best known for the distinctive wildlife found on their shores, and the impact animals such as the Galapagos Tortoise and Galapagos Finches had on Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Significantly less discussed are the remarkable wonders to be found in the surrounding waters.
The Galapagos Islands are blessed with extraordinary marine biodiversity thanks to their location on the Equator, about 560 miles west of Ecuador. Nutrient-rich water runs off from the rain forests of Papua New Guinea, travels east across the Pacific Ocean (known as the Cromwell Current), and is churned up by the warm California current from the north and the cooling Peru (or Humbodlt) Current from the south.
The upwelling of deep water to the surface caused by this current collision brings with it nutrients that stimulate the growth of algae, or phytoplankton, which are the base of the ocean’s food chain. When they flourish, so does the area’s marine life. And since many of the volcanic islands do not offer enough nutrients on land, some of the Galapagos’ most intriguing species have adapted to live off the bounty to be found in its waters.
Here are four favorites you’re fairly likely to see while snorkeling the Galapagos:
The Flightless Cormorant is among the most rare bird species in the world, with around 900 individuals living on the Galapagos Islands in 2009.
It’s an odd bird, with black and brown feathers, turquoise eyes, low growling voices, and wings about 1/3 the size that would be required in order for the bird to fly. Their feathers aren’t waterproof, so they spend a lot of time drying their short, stubby appendages in the sun.
But while they may not be able to fly, in the water they’re like feathered rockets, using their webbed feet and powerful legs to dive down to the bottom of the ocean in search of fish, eels and other small prey. Seeing a bird feeding on the ocean floor below you is a sight you won’t soon forget.
Their mating dance is an elegant aquatic waltz, with the male and female shaking their heads dramatically while circling one another as other suitors try to cut in. Later they build a seaweed nest above the high-tide mark, with the male bringing his lady friend gifts of flotsam from the ocean. She’ll lay 3 eggs, with only one likely to survive, and they share parenting responsibilities until the chick leaves the nest.
The Galapagos may be the only place in the world you can snorkel with penguins, and the Galapagos Penguin is the only penguin known to live north of the equator. They’re also extremely rare and endangered, with less than 1,000 breeding pairs left.
Found primarily on the western islands of Fernandina and Isabela, the tiny Galapagos Penguin measures just 19 inches long and weighs around five pounds, making them the second smallest penguin species in the world. Scientists have surmised that their Antarctic ancestors got caught in the Humboldt Current and wound up in the Galapagos, where they genetically adapted to the heat (which ranges from 59º-82ºF).
They cool themselves off via thermoregulation, stretching out their flippers, hunching forward to keep the sun from shining on their feet, and panting to cool themselves. They can typically be found right by the water, relishing frequent dips in the surprisingly cold water.
Snorkeling with them is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, as they dive and dart through the waves like tiny torpedoes while hunting the schooling fish that make up the bulk of their diet.
Galapagos Sea Lions
These sea lions may officially be on the IUCN endangered species list, but they’re ubiquitous in the Galapagos. You can find them almost everywhere– in public parks, on the San Cristobal docks, and on every beach of every island.
Distinguishable from fur seals by their earflaps, Galapagos Sea Lions seem awkward and clumsy on land, with a lurching side-to-side gait, loud barks and an array of odd bodily noises. But once they reach the water, they transform into something magical, like elegant ballet dancers of the oceanic world.
They also prove eminently playful and curious, swimming fast as lightning and ignoring the rule of keeping six feet of distance from all Galapagos wildlife. With their huge eyes, cute faces and funny flippers, the sea lions’ charms prove impossible to resist.
Española Island’s beautiful Gardner Bay is a special place to wind down a Galapagos adventure. Here, on a white sandy beach, hundreds of sea lions live in large colonies. Pups nurse from their mothers, juveniles frolic in the cerulean blue surf, and male bulls battle for dominance over their harems.
Marine iguanas look like little miniature Godzillas, hissing and sneezing (in order to expel excess salt from their nasal glands) and tending to clutter en masse like kittens.
Marine Iguanas can be found almost everywhere in the Galapagos, but they love congregating on the lava-strewn shores, where they can rapidly absorb heat from the sun to warm their bodies after a swim. They vary greatly from island to island in terms of size and color, from the teal green-tinged adult males on Española to the brick red colors of the subspecies on Fernandina.
On land they appear graceless and clumsy, but their flattened tails and spiky dorsal fins make them a wonder to behold in the water. It’s bizarre to be snorkeling and see a 4-foot long lizard feeding on algae 25 feet below you, then shimmying their prehistoric-looking bodies to swim to the surface for air.
But their crusty cuteness and their puppy-like penchant for being constantly underfoot ultimately proves endearing.
See These Creatures and MORE!
Inspired to explore the famed Galapagos Islands and snorkel among curious wildlife? International Expeditions offers year-round Galapagos cruises along with land-based options in the islands. Check out IE's incredible Galapagos tours and money-saving travel specials.