December 5, 2013

Family Reunions – Five Ways to Make it Work

Together in Peru

Together in Peru

The holidays have always been a time for families to come together, and more than ever families are meeting up in a new location, to share new experiences as well as each others’ company.  Whether it’s holiday time, a hard earned graduation, a milestone anniversary or birthday or just an excuse to get away, a family reunion can be a legacy trip of a lifetime. So how do you ensure your time and financial investment don’t go to waste?

1) Plan ahead! If your family is flexible and has an excellent sense of humor, a regrettable last minute decision to ‘wing-it’ may give you material to laugh about for years to come.  But if you prefer to not spend your vacation troubleshooting and negotiating every day, you’ll take your time and start planning for next year. The perfect villa, the right hotels, the ideal guide – those things don’t wait for late planners.

2) Support, Support, Support . Leave yourself unfettered to nonstop planning. Whether your familiy is 6 people or 26, knowing someone else is managing tasty on-time meals, arranging safe and reliable transportation, and showing you the best things to do – this is the gift of freedom to enjoy every minute with your family without a care in the world.

3) Use local expertise on the ground. Don’t try to guess how long it takes to get somewhere or what activity will be best when, or how to find the special secrets of your destination. Make use of a local guide experienced in family, and committed to showing you the way while managing every detail in advance. An unexpected plus: a terrific guide makes everything more fun!

4) Make every day count. Instead of unscheduled days wandering aimlessly while bored kids glue themselves to their video games, try experiencing new things together.  One terrific group outing to start each day gives you a framework, and something to talk about forever. Your afternoons can be more restorative or more active, depending on each person’s desire – hang by the pool, playing board games – or head out shopping or hiking. Then everyone unites again over a wonderful dinner, to reflect on the day. Plenty of together time, plenty of flexibility!

5) Consider a thread of special meaning to weave throughout your vacation. For some it’s a community project, or starting a family journal together. It might mean creating a treasure hunt (we can do this!), or a quest to check off your list of flora and fauna. With the help of your reunion planners and guide these things can be simple for you to include, and inspiring for your family to do together.

During this 2013 holiday season start dreaming of what can blossom for you and your loved ones in 2014. Maybe it is hiking at Machu Picchu, zip lining in Costa Rica, or snorkeling in the Galapagos.Imagine the flora, fauna and music of Brazil, the souks and mountains in Morocco, or breathtaking wildlife in Tanzania… Whatever your dream, enjoy it with your family!



November 4, 2013

Chris Gamel Pro Photo Tip – Rule of Thirds

Capuchin monkey in Costa Rica, by Chris Gamel

Quick Tip for better photographs: Use the rule of thirds.

When creating a picture, many photographers place the subject right in the middle of the frame.  It’s easy, but it is rarely the best option.  Instead, consider using the rule of thirds.

The rule of thirds is a simple, yet powerful way of placing a subject in the frame.  To apply the rule of thirds, imagine a tic-tac-toe grid over your image.  This gives you 4 intersection points; places where two lines intersect each other.  Photographers call these intersections “points of power.”  The key to the rule of thirds is to place the most important part of your image on one of the points of power.

This image of a capuchin monkey (taken in Costa Rica) is a perfect example of the rule of thirds in action.  The monkey is the most important part of the image, so I placed her directly on top of the top, left point of power.  Why does it work?  I have no idea, but artists have been using the rule of thirds for hundreds, if not thousands of years.

So, how can you use the rule of thirds to improve your next photograph?

Join Chris on a special family photography adventure in Costa Rica or Peru and put the rule to use!

For more photography tips and wildlife images, visit Chris Gamel’s website.



October 25, 2013

The Wild Wonders of Brazil – Part two

Jaiburu, the largest stork in the world, nesting in the Pantanal

The Pantanal. I know you’ve never heard of it, but this is the coolest place you’ll ever go. I’ve ruffled a few feathers here in the office with my suggestion it just might be more awesome than the Serengeti….

For starters, the Pantanal is the world’s largest tropical wetland covering as much as 75,000 sq miles, 80% of which is submerged during the flooding season. All of this water nurtures an astonishing collection of flora and fauna. Without the dense jungle of the Amazon, your ability to actually witness this population is guaranteed. Imagine 1000 different kinds of birds, 300 types of mammal, 480 reptile species…. right in your back yard.

On the drive from the city of Cuiaba to the lodge we didn’t have to go far before stopping to gasp at  hundreds of caiman and storks and egrets, just enjoying life right there on either side of the road. When I arrived at the lodge a Hyacinth Macaw swept in as if to greet me.. A wild one. Hundreds of birds – cardinals, parrots, finches, chacalacas,  currasow, herons, jacana – flit through the property. Five paces outside my cozy room was a marshy pond overflowing with caiman and capybara. One of those capybara kept moseying on over to the pool area for a nap on the warm pavement. And all around was an open vista of fields, with towering termite mounds, palms, and many trees in brilliant bloom. Somewhere out there were deer and tapir and bats and jaguar and puma and armadillo and giant anteaters, and I got to see many of these species over the next couple of days. This is magic-land!



October 19, 2013

The Wild Wonders of Brazil, Part One

Blue Skies and Rainbows!

Brazil is such a huge country, it’s no wonder I really didn’t know what to expect before I went the end of the summer. OK, I kind of knew that Iguassu Falls was designated one of the new Seven Wonders of the World. Now I know why!

Starting with the facts, consider that Iguassu is wider than famed Victoria Falls in Africa, and higher and twice as wide as Niagara Falls. (Eleanor Roosevelt saw it and declared “Poor Niagara!”) It has the second greatest annual flow of water of any waterfall in the world. And because of its shape, like a horseshoe, it offers better vistas and views than any other waterfall (Vic Falls can only be seen in its entirety from the air!). The National Park tops that off with a terrific infrastructure – plenty of food and bathrooms, good walkways and balconies, and on the Argentina side much of it handicapped accessible.

Yes, there are two sides and it is totally worth seeing the falls from both vantage points. In Argentina I began with the trail to Devil’s Throat where a half mile walk takes you past vast amounts of water flowing at an ever increasing rate towards the falls. Think: a raised walkway across a giant lake. And then up ahead, the sound becomes greater, the current runs faster, the spray of water more dense…until you are getting soaked from the explosion of mist created by the crashing falls. Wow! This required several minutes of speechlessness during which I became pretty much soaked and didn’t care a bit.

On the Argentina side there is also a walk along the Lower Circuit where you feel a part of the pounding of the falls, and on the Upper Trail with its dramatic views of the long veils of water from over 200 falls. Both of these walks are easy, though there are a lot of steps on the Lower Trail.

On the Brazil side – the next day – I found I was really ready for more. From this vantage point you get a better panoramic view (since most of the falls are on the Argentina side), but still there are viewing platforms where you can get up close to feel the massive power of the water – and get wet too! Again, the paths are well maintained and easy to navigate.

Breathtaking, magnificent, other-worldly, magical, spiritual, musical… it’s hard to find the words to describe the power Iguassu Falls will have over you. Don’t miss it!



October 14, 2013

Photo Tips From Our Expert, Chris Gamel

Click the photo to see trips with Chris

How many times have you come back from a trip, but been disappointed by the photographs you captured?  You are not alone.  Creating images that accurately capture your adventures is difficult, but it can be done.  Here is a quick photography tip that is guaranteed to improve your images.

Quick Tip for better photographs: Fill the frame with your subject.

Too often we try to include too much in our images.  Amazing events are unfolding in front of us and we want to capture everything.  The problem is that while our eyes are great at ignoring visual distractions, our cameras are terrible at it.  To greatly improve your images, try this little trick.  Ask yourself what you are taking a picture of.  The fewer words you use to answer that question, the better.  Once you have identified your subject, fill the image frame with it.  Usually this means getting closer.  Fascinated by the dexterity of a local artist’s hands, get closer.  Want to capture the look of joy on your child’s face just before she zip lines through the rainforest, get closer.  Want to document that hungry look in the lion’s eye, get closer…..well maybe not.  In this case, it might be better to not get closer and to use a longer lens (you didn’t think wildlife photographers were crazy, did you?).

For example, look at this elephant image.  As she approached, I asked myself what it was that captured my interest.  The answer was obvious, an elephant was walking directly towards me!  Once I decided that the elephant was the subject, I zoomed so that her face and ears filled the frame.  There result is an image with impact that reflects my personal experience.

Now back to you.  How can you fill the frame to create better photographs?



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!