Archive for the ‘Central America’ Category

Pura Vida and the Delights of Costa Rica

Friday, January 24th, 2014

687_thumbnailBob Szaro grew up fascinated by nature and started bird-watching while in grade school. His love of birds has led to travels and research around the world including many trips to Central and South America. His passion for different cultures, natural history and photography has led to his exploring the variety of landscapes found in Costa Rica starting in 1982 from the cloud forests of Monteverde to the dry forests of Guanacaste. Bob retired in 2008 as Chief Scientist for Biology for the US Geological Survey in Reston, Virginia. Bob received a Dual Bachelors Degree in Wildlife and Fisheries Biology from Texas A&M University (1970), a Masters Degree in Zoology from the University of Florida (1972), and a Doctoral Degree in Ecology from Northern Arizona University (1976). He also completed the Senior Executive Fellows program at Harvard University (1993). Bob currently serves as a consultant to the Smithsonian Institution on biodiversity, climate change, and tiger conservation.

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January 6-17, 2014

Traveling through Costa Rica you learn to expect the unexpected.  Everyday something new and exciting was waiting for us as we drove through the mountainous volcanic region of Costa Rica ending with a few days on a gorgeous beach along the Pacific Coast of Guanacaste.  Our journey was one long treasure hunt for cultural highlights and natural wonders.

One of those cultural highlights was spending time talking with Marvin Rockwell (now 91). He was one of the original Quaker settlers of Monteverde. His story amazed us all with how they came to Costa Rica in 1951 and settled their “Green Mountain.” They were attracted by the beauty of the country and the fact that in 1948 Costa Rica abolished its Army to fund schools.  The journey was not easy as several decided to travel from Fairhope, Alabama by land in a few vehicles to bring some of their belongings.  At that time, the Pan American Highway was more myth than reality.  When they traveled through Nicaragua and reached the Costa Rican border they found no road at all.  It took 3 months to travel the 12 miles to the nearest settlement. The Quakers chose Monteverde in particular because of the high elevation and the sizable area of relatively flat land.

Max Vindas (our tour director) and Marvin Rockwell at the Bat Jungle in Monteverde (Photo by R. Szaro)

Max Vindas (our tour director) and Marvin Rockwell at the Bat Jungle in Monteverde (Photo by R. Szaro)

The fabled nature reserve they helped start is now a major destination for those seeking to experience the cloud forest. With its many vines, epiphytes, and trees it is one of the natural wonders of Costa Rica. It is also famous for the Resplendent Quetzal and hundreds of other bird species. One of the features of the cloud forest that is hard to miss is, of course, the clouds. Walking through the forest with the mist swirling around us was truly a magical experience. And if that was not enough, we found ourselves at the end of the rainbow.

Don Gerardo Montoya Traditional Mask-maker (Photo by R. Szaro)

Don Gerardo Montoya Traditional Mask-maker (Photo by R. Szaro)

Visit to Elementary School (Centro Educativo Cerro Alegre) near La Fortuna (Photo by R. Szaro)

Visit to Elementary School (Centro Educativo Cerro Alegre) near La Fortuna (Photo by R. Szaro)

Enjoying the wonders of the cloud forest (Photo by R. Szaro)

Enjoying the wonders of the cloud forest (Photo by R. Szaro)

Waterfall and lush vegetation in Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve (Photo by R. Szaro)

Waterfall and lush vegetation in Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve (Photo by R. Szaro)

Resplendent Quetzal at the entrance of the cloud forest reserve (Photo by R. Szaro)

Resplendent Quetzal at the entrance of the cloud forest reserve (Photo by R. Szaro)

At the end of the rainbow in Monteverde (Photo by R. Szaro).

At the end of the rainbow in Monteverde (Photo by R. Szaro).

But many other natural wonders were waiting around every corner.  It is tough to only highlight a few as we saw so many. They included the Three-toed Sloth crossing the road near Arenal National Park, the crocodiles and monkeys along the Tempisque River, and the many butterflies and iguanas we saw everywhere we went.

Three-toed Sloth crossing road near Luna Nueva private rainforest reserve (Photo by R. Szaro)

Three-toed Sloth crossing road near Luna Nueva private rainforest reserve (Photo by R. Szaro)

Green Iguana displaying for a mate (Photo by R. Szaro)

Green Iguana displaying for a mate (Photo by R. Szaro)

American Crocodile relaxing along the banks of the Tempisque River (Photo by R. Szaro).

American Crocodile relaxing along the banks of the Tempisque River (Photo by R. Szaro).

White-headed Capuchin drinking along the Tempisque River (Photo by R. Szaro).

White-headed Capuchin drinking along the Tempisque River (Photo by R. Szaro).

But I would be remiss if I did not mention the birds. We saw and heard birds at every stop including toucans, tanagers, trogons, jays and hummingbirds.  In fact, we were even able to have hummingbirds land on our fingers at the hummingbird gallery at Monteverde.

 humingbird

Collared Araçari along Lake Arenal (Photo by R. Szaro)

Collared Araçari along Lake Arenal (Photo by R. Szaro)

Yet, best of all, we were able to meet some wonderful people and make many new friends. Enjoying travel with others makes great times even better.  Pura Vida!

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For more information on our Costa Rica’s Natural Treasures, click here!

Costa Rica’s Natural Heritage

Wednesday, June 19th, 2013

James Karr, Smithsonian Study LeaderSmithsonian Study Leader Jim Karr is professor emeritus of ecology at the University of Washington, Seattle, specializing in tropical ecology, ornithology, water resources, and environmental policy. He also served as deputy director of Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama for four years in the 1980s. On his most recent trip with Smithsonian Journeys, he guided a group to some of his favorite locations in Costa Rica. Below is the second of two posts about the trip. Smithsonian Study Leader Jim Karr is professor emeritus of ecology at the University of Washington, Seattle, specializing in tropical ecology, ornithology, water resources, and environmental policy. He also served as deputy director of Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama for four years in the 1980s. On his most recent trip with Smithsonian Journeys, he guided a group to some of his favorite locations in Costa Rica. Below is the second of two posts about the trip.

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A Smithsonian Journeys expedition to Costa Rica is like a birthday party: you know you’ll get gifts, but you don’t know what. You can guess some gifts from the itinerary, but the best ones are the surprises—the unexpected encounters, the memorable experiences.

People. The camaraderie of our groups is always a gift: It’s a pleasure to meet travelers, who, no matter what their backgrounds and reasons for choosing a Smithsonian trip, inevitably form a cohesive and communal group. The enthusiasm of fellow travelers is contagious and enriches all of us. But nothing matches the welcoming smiles and friendliness of the Costa Ricans themselves.

Visits to a local school are a highlight of our travels in Costa Rica.

Visits to a local school are a highlight of our travels in Costa Rica.

Places. Two volcanoes have star billing on our Costa Rican itinerary, yet both can be hard to see as clouds swirl up their slopes and around their peaks. But in February 2013, we had clear skies from horizon to horizon and got a spectacular view inside the caldera of Poas Volcano.  This was the first time in eight trips that I saw Poas in full splendor. Wow! What a gift!

Fog characteristic of cloud forests often partially or, as in this case, completed obscures the volcanic caldera of Poas Volcano only a few hundred feet away. March 15, 2013. Photo by Jim Karr.

Fog characteristic of cloud forests often partially or, as in this case, completed obscures the volcanic caldera of Poas Volcano only a few hundred feet away. March 15, 2013. Photo by Jim Karr.

Poas Volcano caldera unobscured by clouds and fog. February 15, 2013. Photo by Jim Karr.

Poas Volcano caldera unobscured by clouds and fog. February 15, 2013. Photo by Jim Karr.

As we travel, we crisscross the Continental Divide, the ridgeline splitting rainfall flowing to the Caribbean from rain flowing to the Pacific. The scenery is magnificent, with forests—often protected in national parks and reserves—giving way to cattle ranches and farms growing bananas, plantain, pineapple, coffee, sugar cane, mangos, and more. The last days of our trip, we walk a sheltered Pacific Coast beach, feeling relaxed, meditative.

A special dinner on the beach during our last night at the Hotel Casa Conde del Mar. March 232, 2013. Photo by Edward Getley.

A special dinner on the beach during our last night at the Hotel Casa Conde del Mar. March 232, 2013. Photo by Edward Getley.

Plants and Animals. The multicolored splendor of flowering trees in the tropics is rarely matched in any temperate forest. And when the fruits ripen, we find many mammals and birds lured to the fruiting tree. White-faced and howler monkey troops travel along treetop highways, seeking food, defending territories, and watching over their young.

A curious white-faced monkey encountered during a boat trip on the Tempisque River. March 22, 2013. Photo by Jim Karr.

A curious white-faced monkey encountered during a boat trip on the Tempisque River. March 22, 2013. Photo by Jim Karr.

Our daily bird walks usually produce a group list of 140 to 160 species. The resplendent quetzal, a species considered one of the world’s most beautiful birds, is a must-see for many traveling with us, and we are often lucky enough to find one. Sometimes, we’ll also spot the tiny six-inch ferruginous pygmy owl, which hunts insects at dawn and dusk, and hummingbirds feeding their young in the nest.

A ferruginous pygmy owl forages in the trees on the grounds of the Hotel Casa Conde del Mar. February 22, 2013. Photo by Jim Karr

A ferruginous pygmy owl forages in the trees on the grounds of the Hotel Casa Conde del Mar. February 22, 2013. Photo by Jim Karr

We rarely see snakes, but the five-to-six-inch orange-kneed tarantula sometimes startles us.

An orange-kneed tarantula observed on a night walk at Monteverde. March 21, 2013. Photo by Jim Karr.

An orange-kneed tarantula observed on a night walk at Monteverde. March 21, 2013. Photo by Jim Karr.

 

Experiences. Some of our most memorable events are serendipitous. Once, a restaurant lunch stop led to an invitation to visit a server’s relative, who was harvesting a local palm wine, and  we were treated to an impromptu wine tasting.

A Costa Rican farmer and his son filter and bottle palm wine collected from the trunks of palm trees. March 31, 2013. Photo by Jim Karr.

A Costa Rican farmer and his son filter and bottle palm wine collected from the trunks of palm trees. March 31, 2013. Photo by Jim Karr.

Another time, our tour director invited us to his family home, where the garden overflowed with 800 species of orchids. We met his family,  including his grandfather, who, at more than 100 years of age, tends the orchids every day.

Orchid expert and tour director Randall Obsney (right) with his parents and grandfather at the family home and orchid garden. February 15, 2013, Photo by Jim Karr.

Orchid expert and tour director Randall Obsney (right) with his parents and grandfather at the family home and orchid garden. February 15, 2013, Photo by Jim Karr.

Then, pausing in a shelter to avoid an afternoon downpour, we found a gift of artwork: motorbike tires crafted into toucans!

Toucan art crafted from a motorbike tire. February 15, 2013. Photo by Jim Karr.

Toucan art crafted from a motorbike tire. February 15, 2013. Photo by Jim Karr.

 

Each trip gives new gifts to everyone, not least of which is the chance to share them with fellow Smithsonian Journeys travelers.

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To learn more about out our Costa Rica’s Natural Treasures tour click here.

The Perfect Finale to a Caribbean Cruise

Thursday, April 18th, 2013

douglas_long-140Douglas Long is the Chief Curator of Natural Sciences at the Oakland Museum of California and a Research Associate at the California Academy of Sciences. Most of his studies focus on sharks, marine mammals, and deep sea fish. He is also involved in wildlife conservation and is on the Research Board for Island Endemics International, an organization involved in saving and restoring habitat for rare island animals. He has taught college courses in the biological and earth sciences for over 21 years and has appeared on CNN, BBC, PBS, and the Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week.”

Read a Q&A with Douglas Long here

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The Beautiful View from

The beautiful vista of the Caribbean. Photo credit: Douglas Long

Our Smithsonian Journey through the Lesser Antilles and the Caribbean Sea aboard the Silver Cloud was a beautiful cruise adventure from start to finish. When in port, the diversity of land excursions provided a wide range of activities to suit just about anything one might like to do. On our last day, in the port of Spanish Town on the British Virgin Island of Virgin Gorda, we decided to take an overview tour of the island. We climbed into a comfortable open-air tour van with an affable driver and guide, and embarked on an end-to-end island journey. What first struck me about Virgin Gorda was the lack of development and the abundance of native vegetation. The natural beauty of other Caribbean islands is often impacted by resorts or graze livestock, but Virgin Gorda offered a glimpse of what those other islands may have been like in the past. As we toured over the hills and along the coast, we took in the numerous white-sand beaches, sapphire-blue waters, and stunning vistas that bring people back to the Caribbean again and again.

The Ruins of

The ruins of the historic Copper Mine. Photo credit: Douglas Long

We visited a wide range of sights from the ruins of a historic copper mine, to the massive granite boulders of The Baths, to panoramic views of the other British Virgin Islands from our spot atop Gorda Peak. Each of the passengers was simultaneously enjoying different facets of the tour: feeling the warm Caribbean sun, smelling the sweet trade-winds, listening to the history of the island, settling into the gentle comfort of a rum punch, or in my case, sharing bird-watching tips as we journeyed along. It was one of those instances of being in the blissful ‘now’ of a gorgeous place on a fine day, a relaxing appreciation of the beauty and restoration travel can bring, and how any single place can be enjoyed in so many different ways. As we rolled back into Spanish Town to catch the tender ship back to the Silver Cloud, the first passenger who got off our van belted with gusto “That was GREAT!” Another chimed in, “The best tour yet!” It was the perfect grand finale to a fantastic journey.

Photo credit: Douglas Long

Photo credit: Douglas Long

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A Smithsonian Traveler’s Cuban Experience

Thursday, February 28th, 2013

Written by Smithsonian traveler and last year’s Smithsonian Magazine’s photo contest grand prize winner photographer, Jia Han Dong.

Photographed by Jia Han Dong

Photographed by Jia Han Dong

Photographed by Jia Han Dong
Photographed by Jia Han Dong

Cuba is truly a dream destination for every photographer. I am glad to have had the chance to participate in the program: “Discover Cuba: It’s People and Culture” People-To-People Exchange Journey. The very day I received the invitation from Smithsonian, I just knew I had to be a part of it. It didn’t look like your typical “touristy,” sight-seeing only trip; it seemed to me like it would be an adventure filled with the promise of cultural exchange and meeting people from all walks of life in Cuba.

Photographed by Jia Han Dong

Photographed by Jia Han Dong

Photographed by Jia Han Dong

Photographed by Jia Han Dong

The program accounted for all of our meals, save for one dinner and one lunch. For dinner, we were given a sheet of recommended “paladares” – privately owned restaurants, which were underground establishments a mere ten years ago. After Raul Castro called for “actualization of the economic model” (ie. economic reform), the Cuban government began encouraging self-employment, and more budding chefs received permits to run paladares. I, along with six other fellow travelers, chose a paladar owned by Fidel Castro’s ex chef. When ordering, we asked about Castro’s favorite dish. It turns out that he really liked fried shrimp, so a few of us decided to order some for ourselves.

Photographed by Jia Han Dong

Photographed by Jia Han Dong

Photographed by Jia Han Dong

Photographed by Jia Han Dong

While we were waiting for our food, I took the opportunity to head to the kitchen and spend some time with the chef. I noticed at one point that he pulled off all the shrimp heads and set them aside, deep frying only the bodies. I commented that the head was the best part (many may disagree, but I’m in the company of Anthony Bourdain!). Everyone in the kitchen laughed in surprise and the chef deep fried a few for me. It was delicious: crispy on the outside and still quite juicy inside; I loved them. The chef patted my shoulder amicably and grinned. Later, he sent a plate of shrimp heads to our table.

Photographed by Jia Han Dong

Photographed by Jia Han Dong

Photographed by Jia Han Dong

Photographed by Jia Han Dong

The entire meal was absolutely delightful and well prepared. The paladar was beautifully decorated, showcasing a picture of Fidel Castro with the chef displayed on the wall. Even with a bit of a language barrier, everyone there was incredibly accommodating and friendly. We spent a few wonderful hours with great food and even better company.

Photographed by Jia Han Dong

Photographed by Jia Han Dong

Photographed by Jia Han Dong

Photographed by Jia Han Dong

During a separate excursion, we were introduced to the traditional Afro-Cuban Rumba dance. Developed in Mantanzas, Cuba, it is entirely different from ballroom Rumba. We were fortunate enough to be treated to a private performance by the world-renowned rumba group “Los Muñequitos de Matanzas” in their rehearsal hall.

Photographed by Jia Han Dong

Photographed by Jia Han Dong

Photographed by Jia Han Dong

Photographed by Jia Han Dong

The group was formed in 1952 at a bar in Barrio Marina in Matanzas, Cuba, rather spontaneously: a group of youths had begun dancing with dishes and bottles to the rhythms of a playing song by Arsenio Rodríguez, emulating a style of what has come to be known as the “kitchen rumba.” The group “Los Muñequitos de Matanzas” is part of the living legend of African music in Cuba, famous not only throughout Cuba, but also worldwide. The gentleman you see here was helping to set up the drums and other props. He told me he was 93 and still dancing, right before giving me a killer handshake. I could only revel in his incredible physical strength at such an advanced age.

Photographed by Jia Han Dong

Photographed by Jia Han Dong

Photographed by Jia Han Dong

Photographed by Jia Han Dong

On our last night in Havana, I was about to grab a taxi back to the hotel with two of my new friends from the tour when this gentleman came over and asked if I am Chinese. Once he got the confirmation, he was so excited that he gave me a warm hug and told me that he himself was half Chinese. Originally from Guang Dong Province in China, his father came to Cuba to look for tuna. Instead, his father found a wife in Havana. I was asked to wait just a moment, and he came back within moments carrying his family’s photo album. He showed me his father’s picture as well as a newspaper clip about his family’s history. There was an obvious and quick bond between us, and it was a shame that we didn’t have more time to talk and more common ground in languages we speak. But I had to get back to my friends waiting for me in the taxi. Looking back, I should have sent them off first and gotten to know my new friend.

Photographed by Jia Han Dong

Photographed by Jia Han Dong

Photographed by Jia Han Dong

Photographed by Jia Han Dong

Thinking back on my time in Cuba, I’ve found that Cubans are an incredibly friendly yet proud people. Smithsonian’s tour was truly a once in a lifetime opportunity to go to Cuba, see it with my own eyes, meet everyday people living out their lives, and to gather insight into their culture, heritage, history, pride, and how, despite countless barriers, we are inescapably similar.

For more pictures by Jia Han Dong and his Cuba adventure, check out our Facebook photo gallery here.***

To learn more about our Discover Cuba: Its People and Culture click here.

In Search of the Resplendent Quetzal

Friday, May 25th, 2012

James Karr, Smithsonian Study LeaderSmithsonian Study Leader Jim Karr is Professor Emeritus of Ecology at the University of Washington, Seattle, specializing in tropical ecology, ornithology, water resources, and environmental policy. He also served as deputy director of Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama for four years in the 1980s. On his most recent trip with Smithsonian Journeys, he guided a group to some of his favorite locations in Costa Rica. Below is the second of two posts about the trip.

At our welcome meeting in San José, several participants spoke of their hope to see the legendary quetzal, the near mythical trogon with an iridescent emerald green back and, in the male, a ruby red breast and belly. Making the male even more gaudy, he sports on his 15-inch body, iridescent green feathers that extend up to 30 inches beyond his tail.

The group had its chance to look for the quetzal a few days later while visiting the Monte Verde forest. The search for quetzals often involves finding a fruiting tree in the avocado family, a favorite food of quetzals; the search also involves listening for their characteristic “kyow, kyow” call. To our dismay, we reached the end of our trail at a waterfall without finding a fruiting tree or hearing the call of the quetzal. Local workers even noted that the quetzals had moved out of the area.

But fear not, we had an even better treat ahead. Shortly after we turned back to return to the visitor’s center, we found a pair of quetzals, with the male working diligently to excavate a tree cavity for a nest site. After watching the birds for an extended period, we moved down the trail. As a bonus, our return route took us past yet another pair of quetzals, also excavating a nest cavity. In this case, the female was excavating while the nearby male called. By the end of our walk, we saw as many as 8 to 10 quetzals. I have visited this area of Costa Rica many times, but this was the first visit giving an opportunity to see adults excavating nest cavities.

Quetzals, Costa Rica

Quetzals excavating nest cavities. (The dark forest made it difficult to obtain high quality photographs without disturbing the energetic birds only a few feet away.) Photos (left and bottom right) by R. Tinko-Russell; photo (top right) by Jim Karr.

A Resplendent Quetzal, Costa Rica.

A Resplendent Quetzal. Photo by Jim Karr.

Another highlight of our travels in Costa Rica was seeing a male green basilisk lizard sunning on a streamside rock.

Basilisk lizard

A male green basilisk lizard. Photo by Jim Karr.

Throughout the trip, the tour director, coach driver, and I were able to show participants things that I have seen many times before. But I was also delighted to see plants and animals not seen on earlier trips. We saw more in two weeks than many early explorers were able to see in months of demanding travel.

Smithsonian Journeys group by a waterfall in Costa Rica

The Smithsonian Journeys group near a waterfall at Monte Verde before the first quetzal spotting. Photo by Jim Karr.

Read Jim Karr’s previous post, “Sampling Exotic Fruits in Costa Rica,” and learn more about Smithsonian Journeys’ Costa Rica adventure trip here.