Joe

August 30, 2013

Another Miraculous Day in the Galapagos

A male blue-footed booby performs his mating dance

Following a 6:45 wakeup call and a 7:00 breakfast, my third day in the Galapagos started with a 10-minute panga ride to Cerro Dragón, Santa Cruz Island’s “Dragon Hill.” After a dry landing, we set out on a two-hour walk through dry, rocky trails bordered by cacti and trees oozing a delightfully fragrant sap that actually works as natural insect repellent.

This area of Santa Cruz gets the name “Dragon Hill” from the Galapagos land iguanas that make their home here, and they are definitely a sight to see. The land iguanas are enormous and very prehistoric looking – quite representative of the unique wildlife and cycle of evolution in the Galapagos.

Depending on age and gender, these dinosaur-esque reptiles are different shades and combinations of yellow, orange, brown, and red.

The Galapagos land iguanas lounged on desert-like hills and in the shade provided by cacti and other plants, and some could be seen attempting (clumsily) to climb trees and get at higher vegetation to eat – a behavior our guide told us has been a recent adaptation born out of necessity that they’re still working on. During our walk around Cerro Dragón, we also came upon lagoons inhabited by flamingos picking around for foods like shrimp and algae, high in the keratin that’s responsible for the bright pink/orange color of their feathers.

We returned to the ship to relax, and I opted to tag along for an optional deep water snorkeling excursion. We took the pangas out into open water along the lava rocks at the edge of the island and jumped straight over the side. This excursion was recommended only for reasonably strong swimmers, as the water was somewhat choppy, but the encounter I had here ended up being the highlight of my time in the Galapagos. Two adult sea lions and a pup were lounging on a rocky ledge hanging over the water, and decided to hop in and go for a swim. All three sea lions then approached the other snorkelers and I and started playing with us. They would come up to within a foot or two of me, then dart away and circle around myself and each other. Having only really had the chance to see them rest lazily onshore, I was stunned by the incredible speed and agility with which they were capable of moving all that bodily mass underwater. This is what I came to the Galapagos for.

Later, the group took the pangas out to North Seymour Island for a two-hour walking tour. As was completely expected by this point, this island was another totally new experience, and it was dominated largely by birdlife. There were plenty of sea lions around, chilling on the brownish-red dirt paths, but the real show was put on by the frigate birds and blue-footed boobies.

All around us, they put on elaborate social displays to attract mates and looked after their eggs. Male frigate birds had the giant red air sacks on their chests inflated in hopes of catching the attention of a female flying by. My guide explained that the female’s decision isn’t actually based on the pouch itself; it’s based on the location and quality of the male’s nest, and the red pouch acts as a beacon to indicate his presence and to provide the female with a chance to come down and check out the nest. After she does this, the male flies away in search of a stick to bring back as an offering. If the female approves of the stick, she agrees to mate with him, and if not, she keeps looking, and he keeps trying. Love stinks.

However, the most remarkable thing about the visit to North Seymour was the display put on by the blue-footed boobies. Myself and the other people in my group were standing a foot away from mothers looking after their eggs, and they were so comfortable with our presence that they weren’t even suspicious of us in a situation as delicate as this. Equally close to us were male boobies doing their elaborate mating dances, ruffling their feathers, hopping around and letting out loud, competitive bellows. If I haven’t made this clear yet, the Galapagos Islands archipelago is a enchanting place.



August 29, 2013

Unreal Wildlife & Volcanic Terrain

My second day in the Galapagos began with a romantic Latin pop song, very gradually increasing in volume as it came over the ship’s speakers.  Just as I slipped peacefully out of my sleep and acknowledged that the music wasn’t simply a soundtrack to my dream, the ship coordinator softly informed the passengers that this was our 6:45 wakeup call, and breakfast would be ready in 15 minutes.

After a nice buffet breakfast in the main dining area, we prepared for the 10-minute panga (a small, motorized boat) ride to Puerto Egas on the island of Santiago. It didn’t take long to notice that this island was drastically different from anything I had seen on Santa Cruz. We spent about an hour and a half walking along a shoreline characterized by volcanic black sand, lagoons, and lava rocks, all harboring a magical array of birds, mammals, reptiles and crabs.

Sea lions lounged on the rocks and the sand. Galapagos marine iguanas rested on top of each other and made their way into the water, while brightly-colored Sally Lightfoot crabs scurried all around them. Fur seals (according to our expert naturalist guide, actually a type of sea lion, as opposed to true seals) kept each other company on rocky ledges overlooking pools of sparklingly blue water. Blue-footed boobies and American oystercatchers scanned the surface of the water for tasty sea life, yellow warblers and Darwin’s prized finches hopped around nimbly, and a mockingbird actually flew out of a nearby tree and landed on top of the backpack of a man in my group.

The scene was astounding, and unlike anything I had ever seen before. At this point, I was still utterly amazed at the fact that I could stand a foot away from any animal here and evoke no reaction of fear of defensiveness whatsoever.

After our guided walk, we descended upon a peaceful little beach and spent about an hour snorkeling. I saw vibrant schools of tropical fish, and legitimately almost crashed straight into two massive sea turtles by accident as they swam contently and occasionally breached the surface. Another optional snorkeling excursion a bit later in the waters around the famous Pinnacle Rock presented us with an ocean floor populated by starfish far bigger than I knew existed.

With the day’s snorkeling behind us, we made our way to the island of Bartolomé. As I was quickly coming to expect, this island was starkly distinct from the ones before. Its relatively recent formation is resoundingly evident, with fascinating, Mars-like terrain stretching vastly and only very new pioneer plants growing out of the volcanic ash covering the hillsides. Natural, black and gray rock structures stick out dramatically and beautifully all over the place, and the groove marks left by lava flows cut through the compacted ash.

We trudged up about 400 steps to the island’s scenic lookout point, and the heaving and panting was more than worth it. The iconic Galapagos view provided was absolutely stunning, with glassy blue waters surrounding the piece of the island that juts out, with Pinnacle Rock looming proudly on the right side, and the much larger island of Santiago in the background.

The group returned to the ship, and an unforgettable day was capped off with a delectable churrasco-style barbecue buffet and some stargazing on the top deck.



August 23, 2013

Fearless Tortoises and Endless Craters

Santa Cruz is only one of the 14 islands in the Galapagos archipelago, but this island alone harbors an incredible diversity of landscapes and ecosystems. A drive up into the highlands of Santa Cruz to see the giant tortoises that make their home here was my first activity, and it absolutely set the tone for my unbelievable Galapagos adventure.

Our pangas pulled into the rocky shore, and we stepped out amid cacti and bone-dry, gnarled shrubs baking in the sun. Here, we boarded a bus and started the drive up into the highlands. I can’t begin to describe how quickly and dramatically the landscape began to change; the forested mountain terrain grew lusher and lusher as we reached higher elevations, and it soon looked like we had reached a completely different island than the one we had only recently disembarked at.

Within ten minutes, the air coming in through the open windows was substantially cooler. The dry plant life of sea level gave way to lush, tropical vegetation. We made our way up through misty mountains, passing secluded houses with roosters and banana and guava trees in the front yards, and started to come upon small farms and grazing cattle. The place was like a one-stop microcosm of all the beautiful green places in the world, where jungle meets farmland and tropical meets comfortably temperate.

After the half-hour bus ride, we set off on a leisurely walk through the giant tortoise habitat. These gentle creatures were roaming slowly all around us, some as old as 100 and quite enormous. They spend the first part of their lives trying to make their way up into these highlands, so we were really exploring the tortoises’ land of milk and honey. The most striking thing about these tortoises (even more evident in the iguanas, sea lions and birds of the Galapagos) is their total lack of any kind of fear of humans.

Unlike anywhere else on earth, you can stand a foot away from an animal in the Galápagos Islands and it won’t show the slightest bit of apprehension, because they have been so perfectly protected that they don’t associate the human form with any kind of threat. We’re not their natural predators, and tireless efforts have gone into making sure these islands represent only the natural circle of life and evolution, so they’re perfectly content ignoring our presence and going about their business.

On the way back down from the highlands, we stopped off at the site of “Los Gemelos,” or “The Twins,” which are two vast collapsed volcanic craters. We stepped off the bus and started walking down a path surrounded by lush moss and scalesia trees (found only in the Galapagos) when, all of the sudden, the earth opened up. The path dropped off into a deep sea of rich vegetation, bordered by a sheer rock face stretching all the way around. The mist made its way across the crater and sent shivers down my spine and I thought to myself: “This is just day one.



August 16, 2013

I wish I wasn’t in the Aisle Seat…

Flying to the Galapagos Islands

That’s a thought I never expected to cross my mind, but I realized a few days ago that to be two seats away from the window on a flight into the Galapagos Islands feels like a tragedy. Before I left for this trip to Ecuador, my highly general expectations associated wildlife with the Galapagos, and scenery and culture with the Andean Highlands – it didn’t take long for me to learn that the striking landscapes of the Galapagos are most definitely not to be overlooked as a huge part of what makes this natural paradise so extraordinary.

As we flew over the islands, it looked like someone had combined Mars and the US Southwest and plopped the result into the middle of the Pacific. Still, looking down on these arid, craggy, cacti-dotted masses of hardened lava on a deep blue backdrop, I had no idea just how unique this undisturbed ecological sanctuary would prove to be.

Once the flight touched down, it was evident that this place was going to waste NO time establishing itself as a destination like no other. After a 5-minute shuttle from the airport to the dock I was about to embark from, the sea lions of the Galapagos greeted me with a nice initiation to the next few days of my life. I hadn’t even boarded the small boat (called a “panga”) that would take me to the ship I would be staying on when I almost tripped over a sea lion lounging – carefree as could be – on the dock. A few moments later, a few more sea lions hanging out on the rocks beneath the dock started up a symphony of playful barks. Not a bad how-do-you-do from the most well-preserved ecosystem on earth…



July 30, 2013

A Heartwarming Tale of Rescue on Safari!

The magic of an African safari is something no family can fully prepare for. Everyone’s experience is different, loaded with spontaneous cultural and wildlife encounters that couldn’t possibly have been written into an itinerary – that’s what makes a safari in Tanzania remarkable.

A prime example is the unplanned wildlife rescue mission undertaken by the Hartz family on their recent Tanzania Active Safari for Families with Teens. Jennifer, Eric, and their four teens were riding along in their safari vehicle, wildlife viewing in the Eastern Serengeti Ecosystem, in the private nature refuge that Thomson guests have exclusive privileges to visit. Suddenly, they spotted a Kori Bustard (a large, mostly ground-dwelling bird) hobbling along with something sticking out of its back.

They followed the bird in their rover, hoping to help in any way they could. Upon closer inspection, the Hartz family and their driver realized that the poor thing had been struck between the shoulder blades by a Maasai arrow. Hunting on this property is strictly prohibited, but somebody had attempted to make an illegal dinner out of this Kori Bustard. The family, along with their guide and driver, removed the arrow as carefully as possible, applied Neosporin to the wound, and patched it up to the best of their ability. Afterwards, they sat back and watched as the bird went on its way, concerned but gratified in the knowledge that they probably just saved its life.

That uplifting tale of chance and compassion is exactly the type of thing that makes a safari such a special family adventure. In addition to saving an unfortunate Kori Bustard, the Hartz family had plenty of other wonderful experiences… a bike ride into a village quarry near Gibb’s Farm where bricks are hand-made by local workers, and a rewarding encounter with friendly and enthusiastic Maasai children, to name a couple. But this unexpected act of kindness and teamwork is something that will surely stick out as a particularly fond travel memory!



July 23, 2013

Grace’s Family Adventure Tradition!

Grace’s finished quilt top, using the “French Roast” pattern!

Grace, our newest salesperson, just returned from a trip to Texas revolving around a great family tradition. She went down to her birthplace of Georgetown, Texas, to stay at her grandmother’s house and get back to her down-home roots.

From there, Grace, her grandmother, her sister, and 3 of her cousins (15, 16, and 18 years old) headed to the Compass Centre in Mount Calm, Texas for a quilting retreat. It’s a wonderful opportunity for grandmothers and great aunts to bond with their granddaughters and grandnieces, design some beautiful quilts, and enjoy an abundance of delicious comfort food – Texas style!

The first time Grace experienced the quilting retreat was in 2010, and she’s only missed one year since; it’s definitely become a family tradition that Grace, her grandmother, her sister and her cousins all cherish.



June 19, 2013

Our New 2014 Pricing Explained

For 2014, our pricing structure will be changing to a system of tiered pricing. For example, a trip may have one per-person price for groups with 10 or more travelers, another price for groups with 6 to 9 travelers, and then a third price for groups with 2 to 5 travelers.

There are some definite advantages to this new tiered pricing structure. We know that families have busy schedules, and you can’t change when your available vacation times are, so we guarantee that your trip will run, even if it’s just your small group. Unlike other companies, we don’t set large minimum traveler amounts, so small groups will essentially be getting private, or semi-private trips.

When more families join and the group gets larger, we’re spreading the costs of our guides, drivers, mentors and vehicles, over a larger group of people and passing the savings on to you – so the per-person costs will be lower.

Go ahead and take advantage of this great new pricing system by getting a large group of family and friends together for a spectacular adventure – family reunion in Costa Rica, anyone?



May 10, 2013

A Worldwide Celebration of Mothers

My mother and I in Madrid (excuse the facial hair; Mom did NOT approve)

If there’s one thing that’s pretty much universal, it’s appreciation for mothers and all that they do for us. Almost every place in the world has some sort of Mother’s Day celebration; they’re not all on the same day, and every country approaches it differently, but  the general sentiment of love and appreciation for our mothers is something unhampered by cultural differences. I’m going to highlight a few particularly noteworthy Mother’s Day traditions from some of our favorite destinations:

In Mexico, Mother’s Day is no joke. Mothers are highly venerated in Mexican culture, and people really go all out to honor the women who raised them. For example, it’s customary for kids to greet their mothers with a morning serenade – the traditional song selection for special occasions like this is “Las Mañanitas.” In addition to the serenade, Mexican mothers are given cards, flowers, chocolates and gifts, and families usually celebrate with a morning meal together; typical dishes include tamales and atole.

Costa Rica considers Mother’s Day a national holiday, so banks, schools, government buildings and other offices are closed, and mothers are showered with gifts and flowers.

Panamanians take a very religious approach to their celebration of this special day (not surprising, given the extremely strong Catholic influence on all aspects of life in Latin America). Mother’ Day in Panama is celebrated on the same day as the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, as a way of drawing a connection between the Virgin Mary and mothers everywhere. There are festivals, dances and religious parades throughout the day honoring the mother of Jesus and all moms in general.

Egypt and Turkey are two of the countries with the strongest historical ties to Mother’s Day, both serving as partial inspirations for the origins of the holiday. One of the earliest known records of people celebrating a mother figure as a deity comes from the ancient Egyptians, who would hold a yearly festival to honor the goddess Isis. Isis is considered the divine mother of the pharaohs, and of the land of Egypt.

Turkey, however, probably gave us the most direct inspiration for the global celebration of Mother’s Day: the goddess Cybele. She came from the Turkish region of Anatolia and is revered as a mother goddess, representing things like fertility, the earth’s bounty, and motherhood in general. Celebrations honoring Cybele have been taking place since about 250 years before the birth of Jesus.

Perhaps the most unique take on Mother’s Day is the Thai tradition. The Thais first dedicated this day to birthday celebrations for Queen Sirikit, considered the “First Mother” of Thailand. She became Queen of Thailand in 1950, and has since been held in very high regard for her tireless work and endless devotion to her people. Queen Sirikit has become a symbolic mother figure for the Thai nation, and her birthday is commemorated each year with elaborate festivals, ceremonies, fireworks, charitable activities, etc. The Thai people take the opportunity to appreciate their beloved queen, as well as their gratitude for the unconditional love shown by mothers in general.

If you know of any other interesting cultural Mother’s Day traditions, or if your family does something special, please share it with us! Happy Mother’s Day, all!



May 9, 2013

Act Now and Save Big! Book Early for 2014!

2014 may seem far away, but doesn’t each new year always creep up and take you by surprise? Stay ahead this year and plan your travel early – there’s a BIG reward! On May 15th, our 2014 trip prices will be released, and they will be increasing by as much as 5-10%. But not to worry – if you book a 2014 family adventure before the 15th, we’ll honor our current 2013 prices. Between the huge savings and the peace of mind that comes with getting the planning out of the way early, why wait?

We already have families booked; just give us a call now so we can help you find the perfect adventure for your family in 2014 at a heavily discounted rate!



April 3, 2013

A Spotlight on David Jaffe, Mentor Extraordinaire!

The legend himself, David Jaffe

Families traveling with us to Alaska this summer have the privilege of being accompanied by our friend David Jaffe, a brilliant scientist, wildlife enthusiast and all-around rugged outdoorsman. This guy’s the real deal, and his presence is a HUGE asset to the trip. So in order to effectively promote the adventure, I wanted to get some info straight from David about the kinds of things he does to engage the kids on the trips he joins. I emailed him and asked for a few words that I could use to write something up… as it turns out, the response he took the time out of his busy life of adventure to provide for me is pretty much perfect as is:

Howdy Joe,

Thanks for the thought and the enthusiasm. I just got out of a two week silent meditation retreat. Trips I have worked with TFA have really been quite remarkable with last year’s being SUPREME. The kids were awesome, the adults were so supportive and the staff on the boat amazingly cooperative. So, from my side…hmmm….As an environmental educator and outdoor wilderness-expedition guide for 13+ years, I have developed various curricula that cater to various environments to engage a diversity of backgrounds and capabilities. I incorporate fun, engaging activities that involve sensory exploration as well as a more academic side. I begin with some ‘sense of place’ activities (maps, where are we, get out and look around type games and activities). More central to the trip would be more about “interconnections” (activities that illustrate how natural environments and components of diverse ecosystems are interrelated). Towards the end of the trip, I try to instill a sense of “stewardship” (activities and games that exemplify the “so what?” of the trip. How can I bring what I learned here in Alaska, Peru, Belize…to my home city and maintain a sense of cultural and environmental stewardship and awareness)…Of course all this more curriculum based stuff is mingled with a healthy dose of riddles, arts and crafts, jokes, storytelling and jumping off the deck of the boat into glacially clad waters…

I am excited about this opportunity. Hope all is well, please send hellos to Moo and others!

David

I think David’s email speaks for itself – he’s great with kids, an expert naturalist, beyond intelligent and full of personality!