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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.
Though not as popular as the Andean highlands or Torres Del Paine National Park, the Chilean fjords are simply marvelous. In fact, many visitors consider this “edge of the world” location at the southern tip of Patagonia to be one of the most underrated places on the continent. One visit to the area and you’ll quickly understand why.
Here, the Andes Mountains rise dramatically from icy waters; icebergs float along in the shape of a camel, an elephant or a bear; and glaciers as tall as the New York City skyline crash into the sea as they calve.
Due to its remoteness and occasionally extreme weather conditions, many might imagine these fjords to be a barren, desolate destination. But that couldn't be further from the truth. Wildlife is abundant here, with whales piercing the surface for air between dives for meals, seals barking on the rock outcroppings, bird swooping and swirling around the ships, and vast colonies of penguins lining many of the beaches.
A trip to the Chilean fjords isn't just a visit, but a journey into one of the world’s most stunning landscapes.
The History of Cape Horn
Located on Isla Hornos, Cape Horn is the southernmost point in continental South America. The terrain on the island has no trees and can be incredibly harsh, especially in the winter months, when winds can be extremely forceful and destructive. But it remains home to a vast array of sea birds, including a number of species of gulls, and boasts a surprising diversity of vegetation.
Cape Horn is extremely important historically. In 1615 the Dutch decided to search for a new route west, because the Strait of Magdalena was extremely narrow. The Eendracht successfully made the discovery of Cape Horn and swiftly named the point after its companion, the Kaap Hoorn. Until the construction of the Panama Canal, the vast majority of ships “rounded Cape Horn,” because it was the fastest way to get from Europe or the east side of the Americas to the west coast of the Americas.
In April 1832, Charles Darwin made a voyage to Cape Horn. His journey was undertaken aboard a ship called the H.M.S. Beagle, for which the channel in Southern Patagonia would later be named. Of course, if it had not been for the rounding of Cape Horn by Darwin, his great discoveries at the Galapagos Islands later on “The Voyage of the Beagle" would have never happened.
The Glaciers of Patagonia
Some of Patagonia's most striking features are its incredible glaciers, most of which end up tumbling into a body of water at their terminus.
Glaciers are formed when snow gathers, gradually becoming heavier and heavier. This weight compresses the snowfall into ice, which accumulates in flat or bowl-shaped areas. Eventually this accumulation becomes so heavy that the ice is squeezed out of the bottom and middle, moving into valleys and down slopes.
During the heat of summer, glaciers tend to melt, causing a “retreat” in the ice. Then, in the winter, as snow accumulates, they press out into the valleys once again. Over time, this grinding of earth can carve out entire valleys. Most glaciers in the world are retreating (thanks in part to global warming), meaning that each year they shrink a little. The amazing thing about Patagonia, however, is that many of the glaciers here are still growing and expanding.
Unlike the ice you put in your favorite beverage, glacial ice does not float, because it is void of air. So, if you were to drop a bit of glacial ice into your drink, it would fall to the bottom, just like a rock. Some of this ice has been in a frozen state for tens of thousands of years.
Glaciers in the Chilean Fjords
There are hundreds of these impressive glaciers in the southern Patagonian region, and many in the Chilean Fjords are fairly accessible.
One of the most popular is called Pia Glacier, which is only accessible by boat. Zodiaks transport guests from expedition ships to the beach nearby, where they can watch the massive glaciers calve into the sea. A short hike to a lookout point provides exceptional views stretching from the mountains down to the sea.
Flowing down from another mountain, Garibaldi Glacier is as impressive as the come. Not only is there a tranquil forest and a beautiful glacial waterfall here, but you can also get spectacular views of the Darwin Range of mountains rising out of the fjords.
Though less accessible, the Piloto Glacier is a favorite among photographers for its stunning blue color, caused by a combination of age and compression.
And while Aguila Glacier is the closest to Punta Arenas, it’s also one of the more interestingly-shaped glaciers in the region, looking as if it's covering rolling hills rather than mountains. It makes for a stunning stop when exploring one of the world’s most remote and remarkable landscapes.
How to Cruise the Chilean Fjords
Ready to explore Patagonia and the Chilean Fjords? International Expeditions offers a comprehensive cruise in Southern Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego.
Hailing from Alberta, Brendan Van Son is the professional travel photographer and writer behind Brendan’s Adventures. His work has been seen in outlets such as the BBC, National Geographic Traveler and The Guardian.
Photos: Claudio Vidal & Enrique Couve
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The world has been fascinated by the Galapagos Islands ever since Charles Darwin published his groundbreaking book on evolutionary theory, On the Origin of Species, in 1859. But the fragile ecosystems of this extraordinarily unique archipelago have been in danger even longer, dating back to the 17th and 18 centuries, when whalers and pirates began depleting the whale and tortoise population.
Fortunately, the Charles Darwin Foundation has been actively working since 1959 to conserve this unique ecological treasure. The privately-funded NGO has helped to save the Galapagos Tortoise, helped create the Galapagos Marine Reserve, eradicated invasive animals that were endangering endemic species, and advised the Ecuadorian government on how to protect Galapagos National Park for future generations.
International Expeditions recently spoke with Charles Darwin Foundation Executive Director Swen Lorenz, covering the history and evolution of the organization, its conservation successes, and the challenges it faces with increased tourism to the islands.
Let's start off talking about the Foundation's background.
The Charles Darwin Foundation is scientific advisor to the Government of Ecuador when it comes to conservation of the Galapagos Islands. Operating the Charles Darwin Research Station in Santa Cruz Island, we have 150 scientists working with us to create the knowledge necessary to protect this UNESCO World Heritage Site.
CDF has been holding that role since 1959, with all our work being privately funded through donations. CDF was founded the same year the Galapagos National Park was established. Its founding was the result of a collaboration between the IUCN, UNESCO, the Ecuadorian Government, and a number of individuals.
Can you discuss the Foundation's most important projects?
Among our most successful projects is the breeding of giant tortoises, which started in the 1960s. These animals, which have given Galapagos their name, were on the brink of extinction. Today, the population is at around 50,000 animals and not a single giant tortoise species is facing the risk of extinction. Visitors can see them in large numbers in the wild, just as Charles Darwin did when he arrived in Galapagos.
We researched the baseline data necessary to create the Galapagos Marine Reserve, the world's 4th largest. We have trained more than 2,000 Ecuadorian students. We’ve eradicated invasive species that harmed local biodiversity, which – in the case of the rampant goat population – involved the largest eradication project ever undertaken. And all that is privately funded, without any financial support from the government.
What makes the Galapagos Islands such a unique attraction?
What few people realize is that Galapagos was the first place to be designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. That says a lot! This is a treasure that needs to be preserved for mankind.
Anyone who has ever visited will understand why it should be kept intact for future generations: You can wander around animals that have no fear of man, who will simply ignore you. Experiencing pristine, untamed nature is an experience most visitors describe as life-changing.
The Galapagos Islands are also a microcosm of the social, political, economic and ecological changes occurring throughout the world. As such they not only teach us about where things have come from, but they can also show us a path into the future.
Striking a balance between the needs of humans and the natural world is particularly important in the Galapagos Islands because of their fragile ecosystems. At the same time, the relatively small, contained nature of the archipelago means that solutions are within our grasp. And these solutions can serve as models for the rest of the world!
There are some critics who suggest that tourism to pristine ecosystems such as the Galapagos is harmful. How would you respond?
The Galapagos Islands do get a fair amount of press, and one common theme is that tourism is hurting the islands. I feel this needs to be put into context. It was the great Sir David Attenborough who said that, without tourism, the Galapagos wouldn't even exist anymore. Tourism provides a powerful incentive to preserve these islands.
Of course there are problems with tourism, and there remain many questions that need to be looked into. Increasing visitor numbers do bring additional challenges.
I would like to see the tourism industry evolve in a way that sees stronger engagement of Galapagos visitors in getting their support for funding conservation solutions. If a larger number of visitors make a contribution to CDF or other entities, we can work to find suitable solutions to the islands' problems. Tourism can be a problem, but it can also be part of the solution.
What restrictions are there to ensure that Galapagos ecotourism is responsibly managed?
There are great regulations in place, such as the system developed by the Galapagos National Park to manage the visitor sites that cruise ships can go to. I salute every tourist who books through the International Galapagos Tour Operators Association and its member comapnies (like IE) as this leads to funding coming our way, which we invest into science for conservation.
There is a real shared responsibility among all players to work together to improve the existing systems further. There is only one Galapagos, and we need to pull together. Our organization’s view is, “Visit, but please visit responsibly.”
Can you talk about the role the Charles Darwin Foundation plays in educating visitors about the Galapagos and responsible wildlife management?
The CDF operates the Charles Darwin Research Station, one of the top visitor sites on the island of Santa Cruz. We’ve been doing a lot to improve the quality of visitor experience there, including creating a trail for visitors to walk around, plenty of interpretation material, and installing a statue of Darwin as a young man.
We also have by far the most often visited social media channel of the Galapagos, which we use to inform and educate the public, both in English and Spanish. Follow us on www.facebook.com/darwinfoundation and www.twitter.com/darwinfound. Further investments along those lines are planned, and we are currently discussing this with the Government of Ecuador.
The CDF has very ambitious plans in the pipeline. I’d like to have the entire world aware of what is being achieved in Galapagos, not just those lucky ones who get to visit the Galapagos.
What goals do you have for the future of the Charles Darwin Foundation?
To achieve financial sustainability. For more than 50 years, the organization has lived hand-in-mouth. At times its survival was in question. I’ve been building up the foundation's ability to earn more income, and if we continue on this path for a few more years the Charles Darwin Foundation will become financially sustainable. This will significantly improve the way we can provide science for the conservation of the Galapagos Islands.
How to Responsibly Tour the Galapagos Islands
Inspired to explore the famed Galapagos Islands? International Expeditions offers year-round Galapagos cruises along with land-based options in the islands. Check out IE's incredible Galapagos tours and start planning.
How to Help Fund Projects like CDF
International Expeditions was a founding member of IGTOA, a non-profit group dedicated to funding projects to combat invasive species and illegal activities within the Galapagos National Park, and promoting ecological education. Read here for more on Galapagos Islands conservation projects.
Bret Love is a journalist/editor with 21 years of print and online experience, whose clients have ranged from the Atlanta Journal Constitution to Rolling Stone. He is the co-founder of ecotourism website Green Global Travel and creative services agency Green Travel Media.
Ninety-eight percent. That's the number you’ll read or hear about as you prepare for tracking gorillas in Uganda. In 2012, after four years of research, geneticists from the U.K.'s Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute published a study declaring a 98% overlap between the human and gorilla genomes. "Most of our genes are very similar, or even identical to, the gorilla version of the same gene," said a researcher.
One look into the eyes of a gorilla in its natural habitat and you instinctively know this to be true. There’s something uncanny about the core resemblances that’s both deeply unsettling and profoundly reassuring.
But the options for observing a gorilla in its native environment are limited. This is especially the case for the critically endangered mountain gorilla, only 880 of which survive in the wild today, all of them hemmed into either the Virunga highlands or about 20 miles to the north, in Uganda's Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.
It’s the 400+ gorillas in Bwindi that have drawn the most attention lately, and with good reason. Home to approximately half the world's population of mountain gorillas, Bwindi also boasts a large number of "habituated" gorilla groups – those that, through careful, repeated exposure to humans, continue to behave normally even when people are nearby. These are some of the gorillas that travelers from around the world come to observe.
Mountain gorilla protections that allow for both growing populations and carefully managed tracking are relatively new, but old enough to have proven their worth.
Until 1902, when German army Captain Friedrich Robert von Beringe presented the bones and skin of an ape he shot to document their existence, mountain gorillas were unknown in the Western world. They had lived unmolested by human diseases, traps or weapons for centuries. The misty highlands of east-central Africa were theirs, as yet unthreatened by expanding farms.
Slowly but surely, poaching, baby gorilla abductions, human and animal diseases, war and unrest, and the degradation or loss of habitat to rapidly growing human communities impacted the health of these uniquely large primates.
In the late 1980s, mountain gorilla numbers began to rebound, thanks in large part to Dian Fossey's 18-year study of them and her creation of conservation practices that have since been pursued with vigor by the national park authorities in Rwanda, Congo and Uganda, as well as the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, the International Gorilla Conservation Programme and their partners.
Habitat and wildlife conservation efforts continue to yield positive results today, despite high human population densities and severe poverty throughout the region.
Rules of Engagement
In Bwindi, travelers gather every morning to hike into the jungle and gawk at their genetic cousins. But before plunging into the woods, a careful introduction by park staff makes clear some of the most important rules of thumb.
Primary among them is the need to keep at least seven meters from any ape to prevent the transmission of diseases. With so much genetic material in common, gorillas are known to be susceptible to human pathogens. In 1988, six mountain gorillas in Rwanda perished from a disease that looked a lot like measles. With the lives of 65 others at stake, veterinarians used dart guns to vaccinate them with a human serum. It worked. Careful enforcement of the seven-meter rule has minimized the impact of other diseases, as has constant monitoring.
During the pre-trek introduction, emphasis is placed on the controlled nature of the experience. Though your tracker/guide may machete a path through the dense underbrush, mountain gorilla habitat is fragile. It can absorb only so many human footprints. Also, the habituation of and respect for mountain gorilla groups are not taken lightly. In Bwindi, 10 different gorilla groups can be visited, but only for one hour per day and only by groups of eight people or less.
Even in their secure habitats at Bwindi, gorillas follow their own whims. Sometimes they’re easily reached, right at the forest’s edge. At others they’re deep in the woods, requiring several hours of trekking up and down steep, muddy slopes thick with primeval growth. But trackers know where they are, and visitors are 95% certain to meet the gorillas of Uganda. Of course, there’s much to admire along the way, including more primates and myriad endemic bird and butterfly species.
When you reach your gorilla group, you never know who will be visible or active. The dominant silverback may be snoozing out of sight, or bore a hole into your soul with his determined black-eyed gaze. The secondary blackback might lurk nearby, hidden but heedful, or perch purposefully right before you. The moms might take a moment to feed the youngsters, who otherwise tumble mischievously in the tangle of branches overhead.
Whatever the case, your unforgettable hour with these gentle-but-wild in-laws will pass in a flash. And the overwhelming desire to stay longer will give way to the persistent reminder from your guides that you’re a visitor and should not overstay your welcome.
The costs of maintaining gorilla-centered wildlife and ecological safeguards are significant. Responsibly managed conservation requires pressure at local and international levels, and involves research and education as much as it does protection and law enforcement.
As a high-value activity capable of generating significant revenue, tourism has been tapped to offset this heavy financial burden. At present, the hefty fees charged for tracking gorillas in Uganda cover the cost of park management, pay into community-development trust funds benefiting localities in the buffer zones surrounding parks, and contribute to the overall budget of the Uganda Wildlife Authority.
So, as expensive as a gorilla-tracking permit may seem, it’s more than just an expensive ticket to view animals in the wild. It is a contribution to the preservation of an imperiled habitat and its critically endangered inhabitants. As a thrilling added bonus, you’re invited to briefly witness the world you are helping to protect for future generations of human and primates alike.
How to Responsibly Track Gorillas
International Expeditions offers ecologically sensitive, small-group Uganda tours which feature the opportunity to track mountain gorillas and chimpanzees.
How can your next trip leave your destination a little better off than before you arrived? Check out IE's 10 Simple Green Travel Tips!
Ethan Gelber is a professional writer who has agitated tirelessly for responsible/sustainable travel practices and quality in publishing and destination marketing. He started The Travel Word blog, and is co-founder of the travel content curation site Outbounding.
Juan Venado Island (located near Las Penitas, Nicaragua) is a very special place. Here, you’re more likely to find sea turtles relaxing on the beaches than the sun-seeking tourists seen on almost every other strip of sand in the region. In fact, the beach – known locally as Playa Tamarindo – is considered one of the most important sea turtle nesting sites found anywhere on the Pacific Coast.
From a traveler’s perspective, it's a great place to watch nature take form and evolve. From an ecological perspective, it's a beacon of hope for a broad variety of flora and fauna, including (but not limited to) the sea turtles that nest here.
About Juan Venado Island Nature Reserve
Juan Venado Island Nature Reserve is situated 21km west of the city of León. The island is uninhabited by humans, but visitors can enter via the nearby coastal village of Las Penitas. The nature reserve is protected as a part of the Nicaraguan National Parks system, but an NGO has been brought in to oversee the care of this delicate piece of land.
Juan Venado Island is a sliver of land, measuring around 22 km long, but with an average width of just 0.5 km. On the eastern side, an estuary carves through a large swath of mangrove forest, while the Pacific side of the island is highlighted by a long strip of pristine beach. However, the nature reserve also extends farther into the mainland and includes a protected marine reserve as well.
The island is home to a number of wildlife species. The swampy mangrove ecosystem provides sanctuary for a broad variety of birds, including pelicans, egrets, herons and terns. In the waters, there are cayman and the occasional crocodile. But it's the sea turtles that have made Juan Venado Island the top tourist attraction in Las Penitas.
The Sea Turtles of Juan Venado Island
Juan Venado Island Nature Reserve is one of the most important turtle sanctuaries anywhere along the Pacific Ocean, with four types of turtles coming here to nest.
The most commonly sighted sea turtle on Juan Venado is the Olive Ridley, which can grow up to 75cm long and weigh as much as 50kg. Both Hawksbill and Leatherback turtles – each of which are designated as critically endangered species – also come to these beaches to nest. Green Sea Turtles occasionally find their way to the beach as well, but they’re the most rarely seen of the four species.
Typically, nesting season starts in August and ends in December, with the busiest months being in September and October. The eggs are buried by their mother and take approximately two months to hatch.
Once the babies crack through the shell, they're not done: They’ll have up to 50cm of sand to dig out of before they reach the surface, which can take 4-5 days. One of the things that makes Juan Venado Island so special is that you can actually be there to witness the young turtles’ first steps on the beach, and watch it scamper into the confines of the sea.
Threats to the Sea Turtles of Juan Venado Reserve
Of course, one of the biggest reasons for the dwindling population of sea turtles in the world is human-related. It's hard enough for a baby sea turtle to survive in the ocean without human interference (only an estimated 1 in 500 baby sea turtles live to adulthood). Not only do sea turtles have to contend with people descending on nearly every beach in the Las Penitas region, but they are also often captured and sold as pets. Moreover, in Nicaragua, turtle eggs are still harvested for food.
When visiting the sea turtles of Juan Venado Island, please give them the respect and privacy they deserve to help ensure the survival of these beautiful animals.
Tips for Observing Nesting Sea Turtles Responsibly
If you're out on Playa Tamarindo viewing the eggs being laid or babies hatching, it's extremely important to remember that you are a spectator in the phenomenon, and not a participant. There are some guidelines that should be followed to protect the animals from becoming distressed and allow nature to take place… well, naturally.
- Keep your distance from the animals. Always give them a personal space of at least 3 or 4 meters.
- Never, under any circumstances, should you touch the animals.
- Stay as quiet as possible. It gives the animal peace and keeps them from seeing you as a threat.
- It's understandable that you may want to capture the moment. But using flash photography or even a flashlight is a big no-no, as it can cause distress.
- Finally, never get in between the nesting mother and the water.
Discover NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC TRAVELER'S Nicaragua Tour of a Lifetime
Ready to explore Nicaragua and Juan Venado? Come see why National Geographic Traveler named International Expeditions' Nicaragua tour one of the world's best escorted tours.
Amazon cruise Expedition Leader Angel checks-in from the Peruvian Amazon with updates on this week's exciting wildlife sightings.
We were a little delayed by rain this morning, but had a great time exploring Atun Poza, a huge lake in the Pacaya-Samiria Reserve. Our small group was very close to us three different troops of Squirrel Monkeys. One troop was mixed with Brown Capuchin Monkeys!
Later on we came across Monk Saki Monkeys. One of them was so busy eating fruits that we didn't scare him away...he posed for our photos. Near the same spot we we also found a Three Toed Sloth in very low an a cecropia tree.
Also found lots of birds: Orange Winged Parrot, Dusky Headed Parakeet, Red Throated Caracara, Tui Parakeet, Festive Parrot, Black Collared Hawk, Black Capped Donacobious and others.
Aboard La Estrella Amazonica this afternoon, guests joined one of our chefs for a cooking lesson.
On the blackwater El Dorado River, we found one most interesting birds we have in the Amazon: The pre-historic looking Hoatzin. While some of our guests were swimming in the river, the rest of us saw Blue-and-Yellow Macaws flying above. We capped off our day in a fishing hot spot. Even though it's not the season for fishing, we really caught a lot, including Piranhas, Paku (fruit eating Piranha), Sabalo and Tetra fish. What do you think of my catch?
It wasn’t until 1910 that the outside world first discovered Komodo dragons. For millions of years these ancient reptiles had ruled supreme on their Indonesian islands. Without any natural predators, they dominated the ecosystem, and their survival was virtually guaranteed.
The Komodo dragons are a relic of a time when enormous reptiles lived all across this region of the world, from Indonesia down to Australia. Most were wiped out over the years, but this species somehow survived. For scientists, they are now a critical piece of evidence of evolution.
Where to Find Komodo Dragons
The majority of the world’s remaining Komodo dragons are found on two small islands– Komodo Island and Rinca Island– which are all accessible within two hours by boat from the nearest major town of Labuan Bajo, on Flores.
There are less than 5,000 of the species left in total, but they’re easily spotted up close by visitors on both these islands. Their only protection is a local ranger with a stick, who will keep an eye out for any animals getting too close. These ancient animals have free reign over the land: They generally won’t attack humans, but it has happened in the past.
Komodo dragons are vicious and lazy predators. Unlike most reptiles, they often hunt in packs and will surround an animal before attacking it. Sometimes they will bring down their prey with one bite but, if larger animals get away, it doesn’t mean the hunt is over. The saliva of the Komodo dragon contains bacteria that will eventually kill the animal it has bitten. The ancient predators can smell blood from up to 10 kilometers away, and will just track their target for days until it dies.
Life on Komodo and Rinca Island
For being home to such a dangerous species, Komodo and Rinca Islands give off a sense of calm. The blue waters around them are still and the sun shines brightly for most of the year. Birds in the trees tweet happily, perhaps unaware of the monsters below. The Komodo dragons spend most of the day lazing in the sun, conserving their energy. Wild water buffalo, deer, horses and pigs graze on the land while macaques play near the shoreline.
On Rinca Island, the star attractions generally gather on one side, where the rangers can easily keep an eye on them. On the other side, visitors arrive by boat to enjoy the beautiful pristine waters and beaches. One, known as Pink Beach, has become famous in its own right for the color of its sand. Red coral in the water has become mixed with the grains of sand to give off a hue that glimmers in the sunlight.
The Wildlife of Indonesia
Indonesia is the world’s largest archipelago, with more than 17,000 islands stretching across an area about 5,000 kilometers wide. This isolated chain has cultivated one of the richest levels of diversity on the planet, both for fauna and indigenous cultures. The general sense of harmony between the two is one of the reasons so many types of animals have been able to flourish for so long in their own small ecosystems.
Like Komodo dragons, many of the animals found in Indonesia are endemic to very small regions within the country, cut off by water from the rest of the archipelago. These species include the Orangutans in Kalimantan, the Javan Rhinoceros on the western tip of Java, the Drongos of Sumatra, and the Tamarau on Celebes.
Some of these species are endangered (the Javan Rhino in particular), and measures have been put in place to protect them. However, human intervention in the natural world poses a threat to many of the country’s animals.
Bali Barat National Park
Indonesia has 50 national parks across the archipelago, covering land and sea areas. Even on the popular tourist island of Bali, you can still find untouched and protected wilderness. While large hotel developments and nightlife strips have expanded on the island’s southern tip, 158 square kilometers of land in the northwest has been protected as Bali Barat National Park.
The park’s landscapes are a mixture of monsoon forest, mangrove forest, rainforest, savannah and even marine areas. The main aim of Bali Barat is to protect the Bali Starling, one of the most endangered birds in the world. But it’s not the only attraction here: There are more than 150 species of birds found within the park’s perimeter.
Fortunately, Indonesia has not seen the same level of tourism that nearby neighbors such as Thailand have. In general, tourism development has been focused on a small number of areas that have grown rapidly in the past few decades. This means there are still large parts of the country that remain relatively untouched, with natural habitats and native flora and fauna still accessible for travelers.
Some were protected by circumstance, such as the Komodo dragons. Some have been protected more recently by regulation, like the Javan rhinoceros and the Bali Starling. Unfortunately, animals like the Orangutan are still under threat as their land is encroached upon by farmers looking for an income from palm oil.
Explore Indonesia's Wildlife Hotspots
For eco-minded travelers, there is a whole world of fauna to discover across the Indonesian archipelago that takes visitors on a journey through diverse landscapes and millions of years of evolution. Internaitonal Expeditions' Bali to Komodo tour features ranger-led nature walks, snorkeling and more.
As a broadcast journalist, Michael Turtle worked for 10 years in the Australian media. He now runs the award-winning travel blog, Time Travel Turtle, which focuses on culture, history and people.
Photos by Michael Turtle courtesy of Time Travel Turtle.
Amazon River cruise Expedition leader Freddy Avalos checks-in from the heart of the Peruvian rainforest with an update on wildlife sightings.
What a week of wildlife we've exeperienced! After brief morning rains, we had a great afternoon excursion. There were many fork-tailed flycatchers around us, greater anis, white-winged parakeets and yellow-headed blackbirds. We were lucky to spot an Amazonian umbrellabird in the Yarapa River. Traveling into a narrow creek, we found a long-billed woodcreeper.
Our photos from Sapuena Creek are fabulous. Clear sky and good light really set off this photo of a male orange-winged parrot. Other sightings included red-bellied macaw and chesnut-fronted macaw. The rain even held off until we reached La Estrella in the Ucayali River! After a little rain, we made our way to the Sapote River. BINGO! We were lucky to see a yellow-crowned brush-tailed rat and tamandua anteater.
On more excursions along the banks of the Ucayali, we spotted a colorful caiman lizard resting on the top of a bush (he posed so long that everyone got lots of good photos for their scrapbook). The monkeys were also out to play this morning, with our small group seeing both monk saki monkeys and saddle-backed tamarin.
It was tough getting deep into the Pacaya-Samiria Reserve this week because watery plants clogged the creeks and streams we usually explore. Fortunatley, our naturalists Usiel and Julio found the way to our destination! While in a lake, we found this male ferruginous owl. These are the smallest owls we have in the Amazon rainforest and our only diurnal owl. Also, we found a black-tailed trogon. In fact, guests were actually looking at a white-eared jacamar and the trogon was just opposite, so guests had the chance to see it well!
In Flor de Castaña Creek we had a great interaction with a family who was harvesting yuca (manioc esculenta). We bought some from them and we cooked at dinner...guests loved it! Many travelers don't know that we buy a lot of the fruits consumed on the trip from villages and families we encounter along the way. So our naturalist and the kitchen staff took time to do a display of native fruits and have a tasting with Amazon guests.