October 6, 2014

Wildlife in the Amazon Selva and Las Pampas

A spider monkey up close

A squirrel monkey up close

By: Noemi Gamel 

In our last post, I described our remote, ultra-rustic camp and all the unplugged activities we did in the jungle, or “selva”. This week, I want to focus on the wildlife we saw in the selva as well as the “pampas” or swamp section of the Bolivian Amazon.

In the selva, finding wildlife is not easy. While we heard a lot of wildlife like wild pigs, howler monkeys, and birds, we did not actually get to see many animals. As we hiked through the selva, Adalid, our guide told us that there were probably animals watching us through the trees. The canopy is so thick, that you cannot see the animals even if they are just a few feet away. Nevertheless, we were thrilled when we woke up to the sound of howler monkeys every morning, even if we did not get to see them.

Our experience in the pampas was completely different. One hour into the 2-½ boat hour ride to get to our camp, we saw hundreds of alligators, multiple capybara, pink river dolphins, countless birds, and a band of very friendly squirrel monkeys. The vegetation is a lot more open, so the animals are much easier to spot.

The camp was a little more “upscale”. We had flush toilets and running water and actual honest to goodness mattresses on the beds! I felt we were staying at the Ritz. There was a deck at the edge of the river from where we could watch the animals. At night, however, I was unnerved going to the toilet hearing the grunt of the alligators and seeing their eyes shine just a few feet away.

I actually enjoyed the selva more than pampas even though the conditions were more rustic and we did not see many animals. I loved being in such a remote area with no other people except the cook, the guide, and us.



Enjoying the wild jungle setting

lodge 1

Lounging in front of the jungle lodge on the river

September 29, 2014

Surviving in the Amazon Jungle

Learning to drink water out of tree branches in the jungle

Learning to drink water out of tree branches in the jungle

By: Noemi Gamel

We spent three days in the Amazon Jungle in a remote corner of Bolivia. We arrived to our camp on the Tuichi River via a 3-hour boat ride from the gateway town of Rurrenebaque.

Our camp had no electricity, running water, Internet, or even mattresses. We slept on sleeping bags thrown over a “bed” made of slabs of tree bark under a plastic sheet roof. The toilet was a pit latrine under a thatched roof with no walls. Using the toilet in the jungle knowing that monkeys are probably staring at you is a rather humbling experience. During our time in the jungle, we did not encounter any other people. The howler monkeys woke us up each morning.

Our guide, Adalid, and our cook, were knowledgeable and friendly locals. We spent the whole time going on hikes in the Amazon jungle. The kids did not miss Wi-Fi one bit as they marked their faces with “war paint” made from the juice of leaves and swung from swings that our guide made from tree vines. Adalid taught us all about the important trees and plants of the jungle that the South American natives used for survival. They used the plants for food, medicine, clothing, and shelter. Most important, they also used plants to find water. Some of the tree branches, such as the one in this picture, are a valuable source of clean water in the jungle. A quick cut with the machete, and fresh water flows out. Just be careful, because some branches look similar to this one but carry toxic water that can make you very sick. Fortunately, the one Kara drank from was sweet, non-toxic water.

During your travels, what has been the most impressive fact you have learned from the local flora? Let us know in the comments below.

September 23, 2014

The Day the Motors Did Not Run

An impromptu game of soccer in the street

An impromptu game of soccer in the street

By: Noemi Gamel

What would happen if the mayor of your city declared that for one day motor vehicles were not allowed on the road? You could not drive or ride a bus, car, or motorcycle. The only way you could get from one place to the other was walking, biking, or skating.

I can tell you that this would not have flown over well in any of the cities where I have lived in the US. Revolts would certainly have ensued. Nevertheless, that was not the case in Sucre, Bolivia. One fine, sunny Sunday morning, we walked into the main square for Salteñas and noticed there were no cars on the street. People walked in the middle of the roads. Children rode their bikes on the street without a care in the world. We thought perhaps there was a race or event so the streets were closed off. When we got to the main plaza, we found out what was happening. The city was celebrating “Día del Peatón” or Day of the Pedestrian. No motor-operated vehicles were allowed until 6 pm that day!

In the Main Plaza, the festivities went beyond simply not driving a car. Music, food stands, street soccer games, and jump rope competitions turned the main square into one big party. Tristan joined one of the soccer games and had a blast. After he got a few kicks in, we walked to the Cemetario General where we learned about the history of Sucre in the context of the families buried in the cemetery.

We had a lovely time that day. I was left with the feeling of wishing that in the future, any city where I live can do something similar.

September 18, 2014

Futbol, Migas, and a Hailstorm: Our Bolivian Homestay Adventure

Tristan and his new futbol-loving friend!

Tristan and his new futbol-loving friend!

By: Noemi Gamel

In Sucre, we decided to do something different. Instead of renting an apartment, we participated in a homestay. For those who have never done one, a homestay means living with a local family, in their home.

Our Bolivian homestay has been one of our most positive experiences of the trip! We are staying in a typical Bolivian home where all the rooms open to a central courtyard. We are sharing this home with a family of five and any other guests that happen to be there (ranging from 1-4 people). While we have two private bedrooms, we share a bathroom, kitchen, and the patio.

Our host family is lovely, sweet, and inviting. They have been helpful and friendly from the start and give us privacy when we need it. These are some of the best aspects of the homestay:

1. The family only speaks Spanish, so Chris and the kids have been practicing their language skills. In fact, our landlords own the Spanish school Chris and the kids have been attending during our 3 weeks in Sucre.

2. We are getting a glimpse into how a real Bolivian family lives. Our host family is part of a large, multi-generational family. One weekend, they had a birthday party for one of the uncles, so we were able to experience the local food and culture first hand.

3. Tristan has been thrilled because he plays futbol (soccer) with the son of our landlords every day.

4. Our host family has cooked typical Bolivian meals for us a few times as a kind gesture (meals are not included in the price), and we have cooked for them too (they loved the traditional Mexican Migas, though it took a bit of running around town to find all of the ingredients). Sharing meals has been a great way to learn more about each other’s life and culture.

5. Like most typical Sucre homes in this neighborhood, all rooms open to an enclosed outdoor courtyard. This means that if you have to go into the kitchen or bathroom when it is raining or cold, you have to prepare for an adventure. This has not been a problem at all, except during the brief hailstorm that came down upon us one day.

Even though I was initially reluctant to book a homestay because I feared the lack of privacy, I am so glad I did. We will all be leaving with great memories and wonderful new friends.

Do you have previous homestay experiences? Share them with us in the comments below!

September 8, 2014

Bolivian Street Food

Digging into some salteñas in Bolivia

Digging into some salteñas in Bolivia

By: Noemi Gamel

When it comes to eating, Americans are used to two choices: eating at home or going to a restaurant. The idea of walking up to a cart on the street and grabbing a bite to eat is scary. Is it safe? What if I end up in the hospital? I could die!

Street food is a huge part of the culture throughout much of the world, especially in South America. While restaurants are fine, avoiding street food would have meant missing out on two Bolivian delights: papas rellenas and salteñas. Both of these delicacies are traditional Bolivian mid-morning snacks. In other words, you have to snatch them by noon or they will be gone!

Papas rellenas are “stuffed potatoes.” Think fried ball of mashed potatoes stuffed with meat, cheese, or a hard-boiled egg. Chris and the kids would often have a papa rellena for breakfast from a vendor that literally operated from an open window on the wall of a building.

Salteñas are heaven in a pastry pocket. They look like football-shaped empanadas. Originally made by a family exiled to Bolivia from Salta, Argentina (which is how they got their name), these snacks consist of sweet dough filled with either meat or vegetable stew. We ate our salteñas from an “upscale” street vendor. They actually had indoor seating, but all they served were saltenas and fresh fruit juice. These little pockets of goodness were the most delicious food I have had in Bolivia.

While eating street food is a fun way to experience the local cuisine and tend to be much less expensive than tourist restaurants, you should not throw caution to the wind. Here is a little secret: eat where the locals eat. If lots of locals are eating at a street vendor, it is a safe bet that it is safe to eat there.

What are your favorite street foods? Let us know in the comments below.

September 5, 2014

From Bhutan to Boston: Kinley’s Story!

Below is a post written by Kinley, who has been interning here at TFA for the summer while visiting the US from her home country of Bhutan!

Kinley's American adventure

Kinley’s American adventure

My name is Kinley. I LOVE traveling! I have come all the way around the globe from Bhutan to California and have settled down in Boston, Massachusetts, for three months. The time has passed so fast, everything has been so fun. Now I only have a few shorts weeks left.

I graduated with a degree in Travel and Tourism Management this summer from Calcutta. Many years of study in India have made me independent. It was always my dream to come to the States to experience and learn more about American culture and its tourism industry. My biggest thrill is meeting people from different places and learning about new cultures. Soon I head back home and begin leading adventure tours myself.

But how did I get here all the way from Bhutan? The story is quite fascinating. There are two families who visited Bhutan last winter through my father’s adventure travel company. I met the two families on the last day of their visit which happened to be my birthday. I was so lucky to get an invitation from them to host me for the summer. Great! It was like my birthday gift. I feel fortunate to be here and they are wonderful people. I even got an internship opportunity at Thomson Family Adventures. I am gaining experiences, building my confidence and learning many new things. The working environment at Thomson Family is far more advanced than ours in every way. I am excited to learn as much as I can so that I may bring new ideas and skills back to Bhutan.

Working at TFA has been a great experience and more fun than I expected. Jim Kackley, the General Manager, has been a really considerate person. He often came up with new projects, and I was able to experience a vibrant and busy American work environment. It’s difficult to describe how much I appreciate their taking a chance on me. I will miss everyone at the office.

My home country of Bhutan is a small, peaceful Buddhist constitutional monarchy, south of Tibet and north of India. There are many Himalayan mountains, but not one traffic light! We don’t have skyscrapers, but our sky dances with fluttering prayer flags.

I have been to many states in India, Singapore and Thailand. This is my first time in the United States. I LOVE being here. The most exciting part for me is every weekend I get to experience a new adventure at a new location. You guys won’t believe me! I have been to many more places than I ever expected just within these two months. Lucky me! I have been to Maine, Cape Cod, Westport, MA, Martha’s Vineyard and “The Big Apple.” I have enjoyed it all. Being an outgoing person, I have had many exciting adventures, including boogie boarding, learning to drive, learning to swim, hiking on the dunes in Cape Cod, riding the bus to work, crazy biking in New York City and even getting lost on occasion.

Some of the fun things I have experienced were watching American old movies, baking a cake, toasting s’mores over a bonfire at night on the beach, watching the play “Finding Neverland,” a whale watch tour, riding bikes, drinking margaritas, trying lobsters and shrimp (Yuck!) and of course my trip to New York.

Over all, my visit has been a marvelous experience and I will return to Bhutan with wonderful memories. The American people have been amazingly friendly. I miss my family and friends and I am almost ready to head home. But I cannot wait to someday return to the United States!

September 2, 2014

Why We Loved Salar de Uyuni

By: Noemi Gamel

We spent four glorious days traveling through the Bolivian Altiplano and the Salar de Uyuni (salt flats). Six weeks into our yearlong round the world trip, we all agree that the Salar de Uyuni is our favorite part so far. Interestingly, we all have different reasons why we enjoyed traveling through Uyuni and we want to share them with you.


As a wildlife photographer, Chris loved the biscachas (squirrel-like bunnies) of the Inca corridor, zorros (fox) near our rock hotel, and flamingoes in the Red lake. No other place we have visited so far had as much wildlife as this highland desert. Since we were on a private tour, he was able to ask the driver to stop whenever we had a good wildlife sighting. At one point, I told Raul, our driver, and Carla, our guide, that we had to pull him back in the car or he would stay shooting biscachas all day long.


I loved learning about the history, archeology, and geological intricacies of the area. The tour was also a culturally eye-opening experience because we learned how the Andean people live in this harsh environment. Next time I feel like complaining about slow Wi-Fi, I will remember the huts with no running water or electricity in the Altiplano desert. I also enjoyed getting to know our guide and driver, Carla and Raul. They were wonderful.


Kara’s favorite part of the Salar Uyuni trip was taking the “crazy pictures” in the middle of the salt flat. Because there is no way to gage distance, you can come up with some funky images with your camera. We took a picture of a gorilla eating us, Tommy the Frog chasing us, driving inside a boot, and Chris stepping on us with his shoe.


Tristan’s favorite thing to do in the world is to climb trees. While there are no trees in the Bolivian highland desert, we encountered many rock formations that he wasted no time in climbing, including the Army of Corals, the Stone Tree area, Valle de las Rocas, and Pia Pia Island.
Whenever you are afraid to travel to a remote and harsh place such as the Altiplano with the whole family, set your fears aside. The whole family can have fun and extract different joys from the experience.

Kara and Tristan playing with perspective at Salar de Uyuni

Kara and Tristan playing with perspective at Salar de Uyuni

The striking landscape at Salar de Uyuni

The striking landscape at Salar de Uyuni

August 25, 2014

Welcome to the Witches’ Market

This week’s post from the Gamel family’s yearlong journey around the world, written by Noemi Gamel, with photography by Chris Gamel:

Dried llama fetuses

Dried llama fetuses

We spent two nights in La Paz, Boliva to break up the traveling between Copacabana/Isla del Sol and Salar de Uyuni. We meant to use those days to catch up on work and rest. On arriving, we learned that our hotel was just one block away from the Mercado de Brujas, or Witches’ Market. So shortly after breakfast, we took the opportunity to visit this offbeat and wickedly delightful shopping area.

The Mercado de Brujas is not a typical market. It is a single street lined with shops dedicated to meeting your supernatural needs as well as materials to participate in the worship of the traditional Inca gods. You will find mummified llamas to burn as an offering to Pachamama (Mother Earth) and stone toad effigies to pray for good fortune. You will find all sorts of oils to alleviate any ailment imaginable or to enhance, ahem, your performance in the bedroom.

As I was walking down the Mercado de Brujas with Chris and the kids, a woman presented a dried llama fetus to me…twice! The llama fetus is supposed to bring you fertility, an important feature in a culture where the more children a person has, the more their blessings from the old gods (Pachamama and company) and the new (Catholicism). Apparently, she thought two children were not enough to bring me a blessed life. I declined to purchase this souvenir, as I did not know how customs agents would react to a llama fetus in my backpack, and I did not want to contribute to the llama fetus market.

For those who are faint of heart, you can also purchase scarfs, handbags, and clothes at the Mercado de Brujas that have nothing to do with the supernatural. If you are ever in La Paz, make sure to visit this place!

What is the strangest souvenir you have purchased or encountered on your travels?

August 19, 2014

Wait! I Thought I Spoke Spanish!

This week’s post from the Gamel family’s yearlong journey around the world, written by Noemi Gamel, with photography by Chris Gamel:

Practicing local Spanish at the market

Practicing local Spanish at the market

While traveling through Peru and Bolivia, I have experienced some comical results using my native Mexican Spanish in South America. Just as my British friends look at me quizzically when I say “y’all” and I do not understand them when they say “lorry” instead of truck, I am finding that different colloquialisms can cause confusion in Spanish.

When we first arrived in Lima, Peru to start our Round the World trip, I went to a small Mercado (market) to find dinner items. I found tomatoes, bananas, bread, and cheese. In Spanish, I asked the woman if she had “aguacates” or avocados. She looked at me as if I had asked for chilled monkey brains. I described the avocado as a black vegetable with a “hueso” (which literally translates to bone) or large seed inside. She said she did not know what I was talking about.

I panicked at the notion that we would not eat avocadoes for 5 weeks while in Peru. My panic struck further when I thought that maybe there were no avocadoes in South America! The horror!

At a restaurant the next day, I found out that avocados are called “paltas” in South America and that they are green, not black. I also found out that the large seed inside is called a “pepa” or “semilla.” I can only imagine what that poor woman at the market in Lima thought about the crazy Mexican-American asking about a black vegetable with a bone inside!

I also found out that “ya” means “yes” or “certainly”. In my native Mexican Spanish, “ya” translates to “be quiet” or “stop it”. It is not a nice phrase. I was jarred by how often Peruvians and Bolivians say “ya” until I realized it was a positive, friendly term.

The lesson learned? Not all Spanish is created equal. And don’t punch the waiter when he says “ya” in Peru or Bolivia.
In future blog posts, I will list some useful Spanish phrases to know when traveling through Latin America, except Brazil of course, where they try to confuse you by speaking Portuguese.

Have you ever had a comical experience due to a misunderstanding withregional language? Share it with us in the comments below!

August 13, 2014

An Abbreviated Guide to Seasonal Galapagos Wildlife


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:

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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

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

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.