December 1, 2014

Wildlife in Antarctica

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By Noemi Gamel

Last post I discussed the breathtaking landscape vistas available in Antarctica. This week, I wanted to focus on the unique wildlife opportunities the frozen continent has to offer.

Antarctica is a birder’s paradise. Skuas, terns, and albatross are some of the pelagic bird species found here. There is something humbling about seeing some of these amazing birds ride the winds and hunker down during a storm.

While Antarctic wildlife is not particularly diverse, given that few species have adapted to survive in these harsh conditions, the animals found here are abundant. We were fortunate enough to visit several different colonies of penguins and observe a few seals. Because they have no land predators, these animals are not afraid of people. While we respected the rules regarding keeping a respectable distance from the penguins and seals, the animals are not aware of these rules, so they often come up to the people for a closer look (closer as in touching distance).

The kids loved the penguins. They are cute and cuddly but also awe inspiring because of the innate toughness that they must have to survive in Antarctica. We were there during mating season, so of course the kids got a kick at watching the penguins’ mating rituals. If you take your kids to Antarctica, make sure you have “the talk” with them first to prepare.

I was surprised with how much wildlife viewing we had during our Antarctica trip. My preconceived notion that it was a frozen wasteland was quickly dissipated when I saw the pelagic birds, penguins, and seals that made this place their home. 

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November 24, 2014

Antarctica: The Landscape of the Frozen Continent

Antarctica 1

By: Noemi Gamel

I never planned to go to Antarctica. Going there was never on my bucket list and I thought setting foot on Antarctica was as likely for me as setting foot on the moon. So you can imagine my surprise when I found myself on a boat across the violent Drake Passage on my way to this frozen continent with Chris and the kids.

We booked a last minute deal to Antarctica while we were in Ushuaia, Argentina, and I am so glad we did. I had imagined that Antarctica was a flat land mass covered in snow and surrounded by a charmless ocean. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Character and color define Antarctica’s dramatic landscape and the surrounding ocean. The sapphire blue icebergs floating on the surface of the ocean like jewels on a velvet blanket are breathtaking. The snow-covered mountains and awe-inspiring glaciers tower over the ice and mist with a soul-stirring mood. I actually sat on the boat looking out at the landscape and wrote poetry.

If you ever have a chance to visit Antarctica, take it! You will feel like you are visiting another planet without leaving the atmosphere.

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November 19, 2014

Don’t forget the camera—and your travel insurance!


Ushuaia 3It’s pretty easy to talk yourself out of buying travel insurance, especially when you’ve just spent a substantial amount of money on travel. When I was a young traveler, I never gave it a second thought. Now though, with a longtime career in travel under my belt—and after a few unavoidable travel pitfalls and 20/20 hindsight—I wouldn’t dream of heading to the airport without a travel insurance policy tucked away with my travel documents.

I’ve been incredibly lucky to have a family that loves to travel. My boys took to it right from the start, and now they’re practically pros at every part of it. I’m proud to say I’d take a trip they planned out any day! Whenever we set out on our trips, at the top of our packing checklist is: travel insurance—whether we’re headed to St. Louis to spend Thanksgiving with the kids’ grandparents, or heading to Turkey to explore the underground cities of Cappadocia.

As we veteran travelers know, unpredictability might be the only predictable thing about travel. No one plans on coming down with the flu the night before you’re due to fly to Costa Rica for your family vacation. Or, your dad, who isn’t traveling with you, takes a fall and you have to stay behind to help him out. What if your flight to Miami is delayed and you were supposed to catch that last connection to Lima, Peru? There are an infinite number of Murphy’s Laws that can get in the way of that perfect trip… lost luggage and no change of clothes for a week, an accident on a wilderness trail that nothing short of an air evacuation can fix, or that trip-of-a-lifetime that gets completely cancelled because a volcano erupts or a hurricane blows in. I hardly mean to sound like doom and gloom here, because there is little that will keep me, and my family, from traveling as much as possible. But a basic, inclusive policy can, and does, go a long way toward making things “better” in the long run if it’s needed.

Here at Thomson, whenever one of our staff heads out on the road, we require that they have travel insurance—it’s our company policy (pun intended!). And, because we feel so strongly about it, we include it in every one of our adventures for every family that travels with us.

So, when you’re making your personal plans to go anywhere—a flight a few hours away here in the U.S. to visit friends, or a group tour with another company that doesn’t include trip insurance—be sure to purchase that coverage for you and your family. If everything goes smoothly (and likely it will), you may momentarily feel bad about those few extra dollars spent. But if something should happen and that wonderful investment you made for your family vacation goes awry, you can take all the credit for your brilliant decision to purchase travel insurance.

November 17, 2014

Serendipity at the End of the World

Ushuaia 1

By: Noemi Gamel

I have previously posted that many of our most amazing experiences during this round the world trip have happened serendipitously. Well, we had another such moment when visiting Ushuaia, Argentina, the southern-most city in the world.

We did the usual tourist attractions in Ushuaia such as exploring the beautiful forests of the Tierra del Fuego National Park. We visited the Prison Museum (Ushuaia started as a penal colony) and read the gruesome tale of the “Big-Eared Short Man” of Argentina, who committed his first act of violence at age 8 and his first murder at age 13. The kids drank “submarinos”, which are hot glasses of milk dunked with a chocolate bar, at a local coffee shop. Argentines know chocolate, that is for sure!

During our walk through town, we saw a sign on the window of a travel agency that said, “Last Minute Antarctica Deals – Boat Leaves November 7”. Chris and I looked at each other, smiled, and walked in. By the end of the day, we had decided we were going to Antarctica on the expedition ship Ushuaia.

Our next few posts will feature details and pictures of our Antarctica trip. I am very excited, because I am actually writing this article the day before we depart. Keep tuned to Thomson Family Adventures for more!

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November 13, 2014

Glaciers: Impressive, Dynamic, Blue Giants

By: Noemi Gamel

Glacier 2I remember learning about glaciers in my fourth grade science class. I thought it was cool that they were so big and crushed mountains. Unfortunately, glaciers are hard to find in Texas, so I was never able to fully appreciate their majesty.

Fast forward a few decades. I find myself in El Calafate at the base of Perito Moreno Glacier. The Perito Moreno Glacier is an imposing river of solid ice where the Patagonian forests meets the mountains and the Canal de los Tempanos (the channel between Lago Argentino and Brazo Rico). The glacier is 5 km across and reaches heights of 74 meters (that’s 242 feet for my fellow American). It is impossible to stand before this wonder of the world and not feel somewhat insignificant.

I expected the glacier to be white, but it turns out that blue is one of the most prominent colors. Blue has the highest energy photons in the color spectrum. When sunlight hits the glacier, blue penetrates the deepest into the ice. Perhaps the feature of the glacier that struck me the most was its constant activity. As glaciers advance, the “ablation zone” ruptures and recedes. We witnessed massive chunks of ice larger then a house break off from the wall and fall into the water, causing impressive sounds to ring out over the silence of nature. The splash into the water was terrifying and beautiful at the same time.

Over the years, the glacier has advanced across the channel enough to form an ice bridge upon making contact with the Peninsula Magellanes. This causes the level of the Lago Argentino to rise and its waters churn against the bridge, leading to awe inspiring ruptures. We will have to come back some day to witness this spectacular event.


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November 5, 2014

Glacial Lakes

By: Beth O’Donnell

You know that gorgeous green-blue color of the lakes in all the pictures from the Canadian Rockies?   It is even MORE beautiful in person!  And the color comes from the sediment of the glaciers, called “glacier flour”.  What happens is glacial erosion causes tiny particles of bedrock to enter the meltwater (water released by melting glacial ice).  This enters the rivers which flow into the glacial lake and create colors ranging from milky white to bright turquoise.  This phenomenon is particularly observed in the Canadian Rockies.  See this for yourself on our newest itinerary – beginning in July 2015!

lake with trees


November 3, 2014

Whales: Spectacular Giants of the Sea

By: Noemi GamelWhale 1

Why do whales fascinate us? Is it their immense size? Is it their ability to live in a world so foreign to us land dwellers? Or, could it just be their simple, raw, power and beauty?

If you ever find yourself in Argentina, be sure to visit the town of Puerto Madryn to go whale watching. I had been on a couple whale and dolphin excursions in Vancouver Island and Mexico, but this one blew them all out of the water…literally and figuratively. The tour started with a stop at a beach to watch right whales from the shore. I was highly skeptical of this setup at first. How many whales could we possibly watch from the beach and how close could we get? I wasn’t expecting much.

I was wrong! The whales were hanging out just offshore. We saw them without the need for binoculars. I did not count the number of whales, but a minute did not pass where one was in our direct line of sight. After this, our driver took us to the town of Puerto Piramides, where we took a whale watching boat around Peninsula Valdes.

Wow! We were all at a loss for words. We saw our first right whale less than fifteen minutes into the boat ride, and pretty much had one in our sight the entire time, often more then one. They swam very close to the boat. We were able to see exquisite displays of behavior such as breaching. We were fortunate enough to witness a mother with a baby.  She even brought the baby up to the boat to check us out. Kara and Tristan were speechless, which if you know our kids, is a huge deal.

What has been your favorite whale or dolphin watching experience? Let us know in the comments below.


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October 27, 2014

Futbol in Argentina

Futbol 2By: Noemi Gamel

While we were in Buenos Aires, we decided to go to a futbol (aka soccer to you Americans) match. Tristan loves futbol but had never been to a live game before.

Argentina has the reputation for having some of the most devout and passionate futbol fans in the world. In fact, that might be an understatement. When we posted on FaceBook that we were attending a game, our futbol-fanatic Salvadorian friend commented, “I bow down to your courage.”

To avoid the complex ticket buying process, we went with a tour group whose sole purpose is to buy tickets and escort tourists to futbol matches. Our guide, Santiago, confirmed that Argentinian fans have a checkered past: due to violent outbursts during games, the government no longer allows “away” fans in the stadiums. Imagine attending a sporting event in the states and only the home team was allowed to have fans in the stands. Needless to say things were a little different. Also, no alcohol is permitted inside the futbol stadiums.

Without the fear of fistfights or lynchings (though we were advised which team to cheer for), we attended the game with cautious optimism. Santiago reassured us constantly, but also insisted on the group (made up of non-BA Argentinians, Australians, and us) sticking close to him. We had a blast! The kids enjoyed their snacks of sugared peanuts and “gaseosa”, which is essentially soda. We were up in the “cheap seats” but the energy of the stadium permeated all the way up to our stands.

The enthusiasm emanating from the crowed was unrivaled. This was a rival match between two of Argentina’s top teams and the fans sang and cheered non-stop during the entire game. Like a unified choir, they sang out and danced coordinated chants. It was impossible not to be infected by their energy.

The fans, though energetic, were polite and well behaved. Of course, the armed police may have done a lot to quell passions. In the end, we had a great time and Tristan is eagerly awaiting his next game.

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October 20, 2014

Iguazu Falls

By: Noemi Gamel

Kara and Tristan by the falls

Kara and Tristan by the falls

There is something magical about waterfalls. Perhaps it is the power they convey, the crystalline beauty of the curtain of water, or the deafening roar they produce.  You can imagine our delight to witnessing arguably the most spectacular waterfalls in the world, in Puerto Iguazu, Argentina.

When we first entered Iguazu National Park, I felt like we were in an Argentinian version of Disney World. The place felt commercial, very well organized and clean. There was even a little train to take us around the park. All concerns that we were going to be met by a mechanical band of bears melted when I turned the corner and caught my first glimpse of Iguazu Falls.

Words cannot describe the majesty and beauty of this wonder of nature, but Chris’s photos sure do. Almost 300 individual waterfalls merge together to create Iguazu Falls, resulting is a waterfall that is taller and twice as wide as Niagara Falls, with 3,300,000 gallons of water flowing over the falls every second!

Kara and Tristan loved getting as close as possible to the falls in the lower paths to get drenched by its mist. I have to admit we were coming up with some pretty gruesome speculations of what would happen to the human body if one were to fall on the rocks below.  It is no wonder there is a strict rule forbidding parents from carry their children piggy back on the paths near the falls.

The view from the upper paths was equally stunning, but more crowded. The tour buses arrived around 10 am, so we were very glad we had arrived early to enjoy the views with some semblance of solitude.

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The falls from above

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Iguazu Falls

October 13, 2014

Tips for More Pleasant Bus Travel

By Noemi Gamel

Bus Ride

Kara and Tristan – 12 hours into a 13 hour bus ride in Argentina

Growing up in the United States, we tend to view bus rides with trepidation. They are uncomfortable, slow, and rarely seem to run at  the time or along the route we need. We knew that buses would be part of our around the world trip, but it wasn’t a form of  transportation we were looking forward too.

Imagine our surprise when we boarded our first extended bus ride in Peru (20 hours).  Many of the buses in South America are  amazing. Huge, comfortable seats that recline a full 180 degrees (think first class on a plane and you get the picture of what a “cama”  seat is like). They even provide decent food service.

After three months of using buses in South America, we have some tips to make bus travel more comfortable. These will be especially useful if you have kids.

Use a backpack instead of a suitcase. A backpack is easier to maneuver around bus stations that may not have elevators or ramps. It is also easier to carry in case you can’t use the luggage compartment under the bus, which sometimes you can’t do if your final destination is not that route’s end of the line.

Pack entertainment. Chris and I have a “carry-on” bag where we make sure to keep materials to keep the kids (and us) entertained on the bus, especially the long ones such as our 20 hour bus ride to Cusco, Peru or our 12 hour ride to Puerto Iguazu, Argentina. We carry Uno cards, a standard deck of cards, and yes, their iPADs (loaded with books, movies, and games). Make sure those electronics are fully charged before you get on the bus, as most of them do not have plugs.

Pack snacks. Many of the longer, upscale buses will provide meals, but options are limited and they can be unappealing to kids. Other times, you will not have time to buy food at the bus stops or your options may not be good. Pack snacks like fruit, crackers, or empanadas to prevent hunger-related meltdowns.

Bring antibacterial gel and toilet paper. In countries outside the United States, sometimes you will not find soap or toilet paper in public bathrooms such as the ones in bus stations. One time, in Bolivia, the bus stopped at a remote rest area and when I asked where the toilet was, I was directed to an open field with grazing llamas. It helps to have a sense of humor.

What useful tips do you have for using public transportation in Latin America? Share your advise, tips, and tricks in the comments!