Travelers

August 13, 2014

An Abbreviated Guide to Seasonal Galapagos Wildlife

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A blue-footed booby performs his ritual mating dance on North Seymour

If you’ve heard of the Galapagos Islands, you probably know they’re famous for their spectacular wildlife, as unique as it is abundant. This staunchly protected archipelago was Charles Darwin’s ecological playground – the place where he made discoveries that led to our modern understanding of evolution and natural selection.

So, in terms of wildlife, which months are best for seeing which animals? There’s no bad time to visit the Galapagos, but here’s a quick breakdown of some key seasonal wildlife trends:

January:
Green sea turtles begin laying eggs on the beaches of the Galapagos, land birds start their nesting process, Isabela Island’s land iguanas begin their reproductive cycles, and adult marine iguanas become brightly colored.

February:
Flamingos start nesting on Floreana Island, marine iguanas nest on Santa Cruz, and nesting season for Galapagos doves is at its peak.

March:
Marine iguanas nest on Fernandina, the waved albatross begins to arrive on Española, and the snorkeling is excellent – waters are warm, and tropical fish can be observed right next Galapagos penguins.

April:
Española sees a massive influx of waved albatrosses, and they start their courtship. Giant tortoise hatching season ends, green sea turtles and land iguanas begin to hatch, and visibility is high for snorkeling around the islands.

May:
North Seymour’s blue-footed boobies begin courting, sea turtles are still hatching at Gardner Bay, Punta Cormorant, and Puerto Egas, and most of Española’s waved albatrosses start laying their eggs.

June:
Santa Cruz Island’s famous giant tortoises migrate from the lush highlands to the drier, warmer lowlands in search of nesting sites, and nesting season begins. The frigate birds of North Seymour start to puff up their red neck pouches in order to attract mates.

July:
Blue-footed boobies, flightless cormorants, and other birds around the Galapagos perform courtship rituals and breeding/nesting activities.

August:
Galapagos hawks court, Nazca boobies nest on Genovesa, and migrant shorebirds arrive on the island, where they’ll stay until March. The giant tortoises of Santa Cruz return to the temperate highlands, and sea lion pupping (birthing) season begins.

September:
Galapagos penguins are very active on Bartolomé, sea birds are active at their nesting sites, and sea lions throughout the islands are abundant, playful, and competitive.

October:
Lava herons start nesting, Galapagos fur seals (actually a type of sea lion) begin mating, and blue-footed boobies raise their chicks.

November:
Sea lion pupping season continues, and the adorable pups swim playfully next to snorkelers.

December:
Giant tortoise eggs begin to hatch, and green sea turtles begin mating. With the start of the rainy season, the Galapagos Islands become beautiful and green, as the plants in dry zones produce leaves. The first young waved albatrosses fledge, and the weather in the islands is ideal.



August 4, 2014

A Few Handy Galapagos & Ecuador Tips

130The cornerstone of many a traveler’s bucket list, the Galapagos Islands archipelago provides a once-in-a-lifetime experience for any nature or wildlife enthusiast. And the gorgeous, culturally rich, and vastly underrated Andean highlands of mainland Ecuador deliver family adventure memories unparalleled by any other place on earth.

A trip to Ecuador and the Galapagos is much different from anything else most people have done before, and travelers may find themselves wondering how and what to pack for such a journey.

Firstly, forget fashion – dress on a family adventure to Ecuador and the Galapagos is casual, and functionality is key. You may want to pack one or two nicer outfits for dinners, such as a dress or skirt for women and khakis for men. Otherwise, bring comfortable, lightweight, and fast-drying clothing with fabrics designed to wick away moisture. While days can be warm and sunny, nights tend to be cooler, so it’s imperative to dress in layers and to always have some dry clothes available – camping or outdoors stores like L.L. Bean, Patagonia, EMS, and REI tend to carry some great stuff for this. Footwear is awkward and bulky to pack, so you’ll want to avoid bringing too many pairs, but count on one pair of boots/shoes getting wet or muddy during the day and have a dry pair available for the evening. Some essential items to bring along include: an assortment of plastic and zip-lock bags to keep gear clean, dry, and sorted; plenty of sunscreen; a wide-brimmed hat; plenty of socks and underwear; bathing suit; comfortable, sturdy walking or hiking shoes; a fleece or light jacket; and water shoes or similar shoes that will be safe and effective for wet landings in the Galapagos. Also, you’ll certainly want a camera for all the spectacular wildlife and scenery you’re sure to come upon!

In addition to smart packing, another useful way to prepare is to get at least a basic grasp of some common Spanish words and phrases:

Buenos días = Good morning (said before noon)
Buenas tardes = Good afternoon (said after noon)
Buenas noches = good night (said after 5 or so)
= Yes
No = No
Hola = Hello
Hasta luego = See you later (literally “until later”)
¿Cómo está usted? = How are you?
Por favor = Please
Gracias = Thank you
De nada = You’re welcome
¿Habla usted español? = Do you speak Spanish?
¿De dónde es usted? = Where are you from?
Los Estados Unidos = the United States
¿Qué hora es? = What time is it?
¿Dónde está el/la…? = Where is the… ?
¿Cuánto cuesta esto? = How much does this cost?
Muy caro = Very expensive

If people speak too rapidly for comprehension, try saying, “Más despacio, por favor,” which means “Slower, please.”

There are many more helpful tips to help you get the most out of a family adventure to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands – just call and ask (800-262-6255). And remember, space is limited, so book soon!



July 31, 2014

Peru’s Delicious Huancaína Sauce

Watch this video to see how Huancaina sauce is made!

Watch this video to see how Huancaina sauce is made!

Peruvian cuisine is quickly gaining worldwide esteem for its bold flavors and the increasing diversity of international influences. Despite recent culinary innovation, the traditional staples are still a huge part of daily life in Peru; authentic dishes combining native ingredients with both indigenous and colonial cooking methods remain common fare.

The country’s Andean highlands benefit from an unbelievable variety of potatoes and corn, as well as grains like the quinoa that has grown so popular among health nuts in the U.S.

But one particularly delicious staple of traditional Peruvian cuisine is Huancaína (wahn-kah-ee-na) sauce. It’s a thick, spicy (due to yellow aji peppers), yellow cheese sauce that every Peruvian knows intimately and every visitor falls in love with. The name just means that the sauce originated in the Huancayo region in the central highlands, but it’s now typical of the country in general.

The most common usage of Huancaína is in the dish “Papa a la Huancaína,” which consists of boiled and sliced potatoes, placed atop a salad and smothered with a generous helping of the addictive sauce. It would be difficult to find a home or restaurant in which Papa a la Huancaína isn’t served.

On her recent Peru Family Trek, our Family Travel Advisor Grace was lucky enough to watch our friend Cristina preparing the classic sauce — check out the video she recorded of the process!



July 30, 2014

The Kackleys in Cuba

Jim and his family just returned from Cuba and had a tremendous, eye-opening experience! Below are some photos with interesting comments from Jim and his son, Christian.

 

I remember walking up to the man who owned this car and was surprised by how willing he was to let us sit in it and talk all about it. He even opened up the hood and showed us the engine.

“I remember walking up to the man who owned this car and was surprised by how willing he was to let us sit in it and talk all about it. He even opened up the hood and showed us the engine.” – Christian

This and the other dinner with a local family were tied for first with the beach day we had with some local college kids. I had so much fun talking to them, practicing my spanish and basically just having normal conversations with someone who spoke a different language. Although Amalia did know some English so she would ask me a question in English and I would try and answer in Spanish or vice versa.

“This and the other dinner with a local family were tied for first with the beach day we had with some local college kids. I had so much fun talking to them, practicing my spanish and basically just having normal conversations with someone who spoke a different language. Although Amalia did know some English so she would ask me a question in English and I would try and answer in Spanish or vice versa.” – Christian

"This was the other family we had dinner with, the mom actually spoke French so Josh talked to her in French a little bit. This was a lot of fun just like the other dinner, possibly even more so because the girl knew English almost fluently. She got frustrated by my bad Spanish so we talked in English the whole night."

“This was the other family we had dinner with, the mom actually spoke French so Josh talked to her in French a little bit. This was a lot of fun just like the other dinner, possibly even more so because the girl knew English almost fluently. She got frustrated by my bad Spanish so we talked in English the whole night.” – Christian

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".  Here is a great one of two Cuban girls who wandered into Café de Maria after 9pm to sit and have their espresso.  In my family I am the only able to drink coffee in the afternoon." - Jim

“Here is a great one of two Cuban girls who wandered into Café de Maria after 9pm to sit and have their espresso. In my family I am the only one able to drink coffee in the afternoon.” – Jim

"This was quite possibly one of the coolest things I've ever done. This is a live bee hive with very real bees flying around it. The lady opened it up and fearlessly started drinking honey from the hive. We were all shocked until she explained that the bees had no stinger."

“This was quite possibly one of the coolest things I’ve ever done. This is a live bee hive with very real bees flying around it. The lady opened it up and fearlessly started drinking honey from the hive. We were all shocked until she explained that the bees had no stinger.” – Christian



July 18, 2014

PERFECTAMUNDO

On what I deemed Machu Picchu Monday, I had the opportunity to walk with our guide, Fabrizzio, on our way back from the Gate of the Sun, Inti Punku. We weren’t discussing the Incan Empire, the design of the terraces or the fact that you can tell the level of a importance of a place in the citadel by the construction of the wall, which honestly is an entire blog post in itself. Instead, Fabrizzio asked how I was feeling after our five-in-the-morning wakeup call and long day of hiking both Huayna Picchu and the Gate of the Sun, a total of at least 10 miles of stair climbing. I answered with a simple, “Todo bien,” or, in English, “It’s all good.”

My knees and quads were tired as could be and my backpack, though getting lighter with every gulp of water, weighed on my shoulders. The heat of the sun radiated off my back and I could only hope that my sunscreen had done its job. At the same time, I could not have been anything but completely and absolutely content. Our day in the cloud forest was absolutely unbelievable. We had watched in awe as the morning sun burned off those low-lying clouds, revealing the mountains that surround Machu Picchu. We caught our breath while resting on rocks at the summit of Huayna Picchu, taking in the 360-degree views of the Andes and snacking on pretzels. And at that moment, a cool mist with floating raindrops was giving us new energy for our final descent to the valley.

So yes, todo bien.

Fabrizzio then taught me a new phrase, a Peruvian phrase he said was popular and suited that moment exactly. “Perfectamundo,” he said, “describes what you are feeling.” Perfect world. It couldn’t have been more true. At Machu Picchu, todo es perfectamundo.

Huayna Picchu hike

Huayna Picchu hike

Fabrizzio explaining the terrace farming

Fabrizzio explaining the terrace farming

Walking down from the Gate of the Sun

Walking down from the Gate of the Sun



July 16, 2014

5 Reasons Guatemala is Ideal for Traveling with Children

agua volcano- antigua

Antigua Guatemala

The travel bug is incurable – that’s a simple fact. So when you’ve lived a life of exploration and can’t imagine it any other way, you’re not going to stop when you have children. Sure, the dynamic of your adventures with change, but family travel is an absolute blast with its own invaluable benefits.

Does having kids mean you have to shift from off-the-beaten path journeys around the world to purely domestic travel and uneventful beach vacations? NO WAY. Bringing your children along makes international travel and meaningful cultural interactions even better than they were when you were single.

One destination that’s particularly well-suited for traveling with children is Guatemala. Why? Here are 5 reasons (There wasn’t enough space for infinity):

Endless opportunity for outdoor activities and hands-on engagement: Every parent knows kids need to be actively involved to be entertained; Guatemala is the perfect place for that sort of involvement. There’s an opportunity at every turn for you and your kids to explore the wild outdoors and to roll up your sleeves and jump into the action, from kayaking around Lake Atitlan to hiking a path to Pacaya Volcano, learning to make chocolate from scratch and enjoying painting workshops to ziplining through lush jungle… and so much more!

Warm people and rich local culture: The most rewarding aspect – by a longshot – of introducing your children to a new culture is through unplanned interaction with regular people. Guatemalans are a pleasant, inviting bunch, eager to share their customs and traditions with visitors. Impressionable kids soak up these experiences in a way adults just can’t do quite as well, and every little encounter can make a world of difference in their development as open-minded citizens of the world. Whether they’re meeting local children they’ve written to ahead of time, taking a Spanish lesson in Antigua, or helping their parents barter for indigenous crafts at Chichicastenango Market, the little interactions will mean the world to them.

Excellent nature and wildlife: A child that isn’t fascinated by monkeys is about as common as an ice cream shop that doesn’t carry vanilla. Not to worry – Tikal National Park’s dense rainforest is teeming with spider monkeys and howler monkeys, as well as 52 other species of mammals and 333 species of birds, including a whole host of vibrantly colored exotic birds.

Amazing landscapes: In addition to the aforementioned rainforest in Tikal, Guatemala boasts a myriad of other enchanting landscapes. The brilliantly blue Lake Atitlan is the deepest in Central America and is considered by many to be the most beautiful lake in the world. Atitlan was formed by volcanic activity long ago, as evidenced by the three striking volcanoes that still surround it. If the kids are enthralled by the papier-mâche and baking powder volcanoes they make in class, they’ll be blown away witnessing the real thing!

Ancient Mayan archeological sites: A child’s imagination is powerful and limitless. Kids have a certain something many of us adults have somewhat lost along the way – an ability to put themselves in a vivid imaginary moment. When an adult stumbles upon the ancient Mayan ruins at Tikal or Iximche, he/she will be thoroughly impressed and probably cherish the moment forever. But when a child discovers a site like this and learns a bit about the history of this once-glorious civilization, it resonates in a realer, more poignant way. Visions of the elaborate ceremonies, games, and rituals that once took place here will take over and bring that little mind on a journey us grownups may be too jaded to experience in quite the same way.

Let those 5 reasons hold you over for now… if you want to discover the rest of the infinite list of reasons Guatemala is the ideal spot to bring your kids, you’ll have to go see for yourself!

 



July 16, 2014

New UNESCO World Heritage Sites and a Bit About Selection

South China Karst

South China Karst

After a recent 10-day meeting of the World Heritage Committee, a number of sites have been updated or newly added to the UNESCO World Heritage List. We’re proud to say that many of these sites are found within countries we have the pleasure of visiting on our family adventures – but before we get into which ones those are, you may be wondering what goes into the process of selecting a site for such an illustrious honor.

According to UNESCO, “To be included on the World Heritage List, sites must be of outstanding universal value and meet at least one out of ten selection criteria.” These criteria range from naturally occurring phenomena to sites of vital cultural significance and shining beacons of human ingenuity. The decision process is not taken lightly; every site on the list has very rightfully earned its place, whether for “exceptional natural beauty” or “conservation of biological diversity,” cultural/historical significance or for being a quintessential example of human creativity.

At this recent meeting, an extension was added to China’s “South China Karst” World Heritage Site, praised for its unique and breathtaking karst formations, “including tower karst, pinnacle karst and cone karst formations, along with other spectacular characteristics such as natural bridges, gorges and large cave systems.”

Among the cultural sites newly added to the distinguished list: the “Andean Road System” that runs through Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru; the “Grand Canal” in China; the “Precolumbian Chiefdom Settlements with Stone Spheres of the Diquís” in Costa Rica; and two sites in Turkey – “Pergamon and its Multi-Layered Cultural Landscape” and “Bursa and Cumalikizik: the Birth of the Ottoman Empire.”



July 11, 2014

Who In the World Are the Gamels?

around the world

The Gamels all set to begin their journey!

Our friend Chris Gamel, professional photographer and educator, is officially off on his yearlong journey around the world with his family. While Chris documents the adventure in photography, his wife, Noemi — a pediatrician and children’s fantasy writer — will be providing weekly blog posts for all you adventure lovers out there to follow along! Below is the first of many:

Standing at the passenger drop-off curb at Cincinnati Airport with just a carry-on backpack and small shoulder bag, I turn to wave goodbye to my sister. My husband, two children, and I are left on the curb feeling excited and terrified at the same time. We are catching the evening flight to Miami, and then headed to Lima, Peru on the red eye. I am filled with a sense of irony knowing that the day after celebrating America’s Independence Day, we leave the country to embark on a year-long trip round the world (RTW). We will not step foot on American soil until next July.

I will be writing a weekly blog post for Thomson Family Adventures documenting our adventures. Chris, my husband, will provide the photography. Before we embark on this journey, we wanted to introduce ourselves.

Chris is an award-winning nature photographer and digital media educator. His varied skill set and PhD in wildlife biology will provide a unique perspective of the natural history and cultural experiences we encounter on this trip.

Kara, our 12-year-old daughter, is an aspiring filmmaker who loves science, writing, and drawing. She is looking forward to visiting Japan.

Tristan, our 7-year-old son, is an avid tree climber who loves futbol (aka soccer). He is looking forward to seeing the Great Wall of China.

Noemi (that’s me) is a pediatrician taking a break from the rat race to write diverse children’s fantasy novels, travel the world, and reconnect with family.

I hope you will virtually join us on our RTW experience. Who knows? You may just catch our wanderlust bug!

More posts from the Gamel family:

Serendipity in Huacachina, Peru

Shopping at the “Mercado” in Cusco, Peru 

Axo Pachamama! 

Cristo Blanco in Cusco, Peru

Machu Picchu

Wait! I Thought I Spoke Spanish!

Welcome to the Witches’ Market

Why We Loved Salar de Uyuni



June 25, 2014

Cuba’s Culinary Revolution

Arroz-con-Pollo

Arroz con pollo — a Cuban staple

Currently in the middle of an exciting cultural shift that will someday be a notable chapter in world history, Cuba is an intriguing place – to say the least. Its increasingly celebrated cuisine serves as a microcosm of this momentous shift, and of the curious little island nation’s culture in general.
At its core, Cuban food is a medley of elements from cultures around the world, much like the Cuban identity in general. Its flavors are influenced by the culinary traditions of the island’s indigenous Taínos (a branch of the Caribbean’s native Arawak people), colonial Spanish settlers, the large population of people brought from Africa, and other more recent additions. As in many Latin American countries, rice and beans are common staples, as are chicken, beef, and pork. Many dishes also feature plantains and one of several varieties of root starches like yuca or potatoes. Soups and stews are also favorites, and the fact that Cuba is an island results in a heavy dose of fresh, deliciously prepared seafood.

The Republic of Cuba has seen its share of government restrictions. Those restrictions, while certainly still there, have been loosening lately – making way for some remarkable changes in the art, music, tourism, and gastronomical scenes. For a long time, the supply of ingredients was rigidly controlled by the government, as well as who was and wasn’t allowed to own and operate private restaurants. Given the tropical crops found on the island and the cooking influences from all over the world, the potential for a top-notch culinary scene was always there, but until recently, your family would have had a much easier time finding tasty Cuban food at an expatriate-run restaurant in Miami than in Havana.

Well, the doors are opening now… Varied meats and produce that recently weren’t available are now plentiful, herbs and spices are finding their way into local dishes, and the paladares (private restaurants typically operated out of families’ homes) are increasing their once-limited selections. Talented chefs that left Cuba for more professional freedom in other countries are returning to be a part of this culinary revolution, and more Cubans are choosing to pursue cooking careers in their native country. There are countless factors that make right now a thrilling time to discover Cuba – with the transforming world of Cuban cuisine undoubtedly high on the list.



June 16, 2014

Brazil: More than Soccer and Supermodels

Christ the Redeemer overlooking Rio de Janeiro

Christ the Redeemer overlooking Rio de Janeiro

With the World Cup underway, Brazil is very much in the global spotlight. The choice to host such an enormous international event here is a controversial one that has drawn plenty of opposition. Regardless, all this attention is a reminder that there’s a lot to love – and a lot to learn – about Brazil.

Brazil is a vast nation boasting a rich history and an astonishing degree of cultural diversity from region to region. Before the arrival of the Portuguese in 1500, there were a very large number of distinct indigenous groups, lumped (in very general terms) into four major overarching groups: the Tupi (speakers of the many languages in the Tupi-Guarani family) and the Tapuia inhabiting the coastal regions, and the Carib and Nuaraque peoples in the interior.

The Brazil of today is an amazing melting pot whose vibrant culture benefits tremendously from a convergence of ethnic influences including indigenous Amerindian, Portuguese, African, and more recent immigration from all over the world. The friendly people, renowned for their striking looks, boast skin tones and hair colors of every imaginable hue. They dance to the rhythm of samba, jazz-inspired bossa nova, indigenous wooden flutes, Afro-Brazilian drum beats, and so many other fascinating styles. They parade down the bustling streets of tropical Rio de Janeiro in elaborate costumes and bring the spirit of Carnival alive. In the vibrant state of Bahia and its capital of Salvador, they carry on the captivating tradition of capoeira – a martial art full of movement and dancing invented by Brazilians of African descent.

The people of Brazil eat delicious and immensely varied cuisine influenced by indigenous crops, animals, and cooking methods, European and African recipes and ingredients, and so much more. They eat their national dish of feijoada (a stew of beans, salted and smoked meats, and vegetables cooked in a clay pot), a savory cheese bread called pão de queijo, and churrasco, an assortment of barbecued meats known for fueling the work of the South American cowboys known as gauchos.

Brazilians are a welcoming, resilient people who make up for the financial riches they may not have with the heart and personality that radiate from their kind souls.

In addition to its wonderful population, Brazil is home to unforgettable landscapes and wildlife. The city of Rio de Janeiro has quite deservedly been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with an urban landscape nestled snugly between forested mountains and blue bays. There’s no better place to people watch than on the lively beaches of the Copacabana waterfront. Nearby, in the lush Atlantic Forest outside Rio, primate conservationists work tirelessly to reintroduce endangered golden lion tamarins to their natural habitat.

Then there’s the Pantanal, a different world altogether. This enormous tropical wetland harbors a stunning array of creatures; the vast expanses of open grasslands here actually provide far better wildlife viewing opportunities than a place like the Amazon, because the abundant animals aren’t hidden by high, dense vegetation. This is the perfect environment to ride on horseback like a pantaneiro – a cowboy of the Pantanal – and spot wildlife at every turn.

And at Iguassu Falls, hiking trails and catwalks offer views of these mighty natural wonders that are higher than Niagara Falls and wider than Victoria Falls.

Long story short, there’s a LOT more to Brazil than could ever be captured in a blog post… you may just have to come see for yourself.