Archive for the ‘Central America’ Category

Sampling Exotic Fruits in Costa Rica

Friday, May 25th, 2012

James Karr, Smithsonian Journeys 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. In the post below, the first of two about the trip, Karr provides a guide to some of the exotic fruits encountered (and sampled) by the group along the way.

Volcan Poas

Looking down into the crater of Poas Volcano. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Carlos Reusser Monsalvez.

Poas Volcano, the primary destination for our first day in Costa Rica, is one of several active volcanoes in the country. After a short walk to the caldera rim at 8,740 feet, we descended the mountain and encountered the roadside fruit markets so characteristic of the Costa Rican countryside. A quick stop yielded a basket of plump, sweet strawberries grown in the rich soils on the slopes of the volcano. The strawberries disappeared within a few minutes!

The next day, en route to our hotel at the base of the Arenal Volcano, we again stopped at a roadside market to see and taste fresh tropical fruits. The group recognized many familiar supermarket staples. Even familiar fruits, however, picked locally at the peak of ripeness, provided unexpected taste sensations: pineapples, bananas, mangoes, papayas, and others.

Papaya and Guanabana (soursop) fruit

Papaya and Guanabana (soursop) fruit. Photos by Jim Karr.

Other fruits were unknown to most on the trip. A refreshing drink from guanabana (soursop) tempted us often over the two week trip, and we sampled the soft flesh of cacao to find the seeds, which are ground to yield chocolate.

Cacao fruit

Cacao fruit. Photos by Jim Karr.

Another exotic fruit, the marañón has two distinct segments, a soft apple-like fruit and an appendage that includes the nut we know as a cashew. One can make a jam, a refreshing drink, or ferment the fruit to produce wine. The attached shell contains the cashew nut, but it must be roasted to avoid its naturally toxic content.

Marañón (cashew nut) fruit

Marañón (cashew nut) fruit.

Read Jim Karr’s second post from the trip, “In Search of the Resplendent Quetzal,” and learn more about Smithsonian Journeys’ Costa Rica adventure trip here.

Q&A with Panama Study Abroad Program Leader, Aly Dagang

Monday, March 5th, 2012

SIT and Smithsonian Journeys have come together to offer a four-week summer study abroad program in Panama for students age 18 and older. The program will provide firsthand experience in biodiversity, sustainability, and conservation in Central America’s southernmost nation.

Amy Kotkin, Director of Smithsonian Journeys, speaks with Aly Dagang, program leader and Associate Dean for Latin America at SIT, a division of World Learning.

Aly Dagang, Smithsonian Journeys Study Leader

Aly Dagang in the field with students

Amy Kotkin: This June, Smithsonian will partner with World Learning on a month-long program for college students who would like to study tropical ecology and sustainability issues in Panama. Why is Panama a particularly important place to study these issues?

Aly Dagang: Panama is an outstanding place to study tropical ecology due to the range of vastly biodiverse ecosystems that occur within close distances. Per square area, Panama is the most biodiverse country in the Neotropics. The proximity of terrestrial, marine, and coastal ecosystems allows students to experience multiple, unique environments throughout their studies.

AK: The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI), located in Panama, is regarded as one of the world’s foremost centers for long-range studies in tropical ecology. Will students enjoy access to some of STRI’s research facilities during their stay?

AD: Yes, students will have the opportunity to spend one week at Smithsonian’s Bocas del Toro Research Station on Colon Island on Panama’s northern Caribbean coast where they will attend the marine ecology and fisheries module of the program, taught by a Smithsonian staff scientist. In the Panama Canal Watershed, students will visit Smithsonian’s Barro Colorado Island research station and become familiar with active research experiments undertaken by Smithsonian and Smithsonian-affiliated scientists.

AK: The program encompasses stays in both Panama City and David. Can you tell us why it is structured in this way? What are the advantages?

AD: The program is structured in this manner to provide students with the broadest access to tropical ecosystems as well as to natural resource use projects that students will be introduced to and where they will spend time. In David, on Panama’s Pacific coast, students will attend Spanish classes at the national university while engaging in field experiences in the cloud forest of the La Amistad UNESCO World Heritage Site (PILA). In the PILA buffer zone, students will live and work with rural families engaged in sustainable cottage industries aimed toward the conservation of PILA’s natural resources. In the capital, students will engage in the climate change module and meet with practitioners and scientists who are actively working on projects seeking to broaden the knowledge base with a particular focus on the effects of climate change in the tropics. Students will also visit projects that are exploring integration into the international carbon market.

AK: Homestays are a key element to all of SIT’s programs. Why do you house students in homes rather than dormitories for a segment of their stay, and can you tell us anything about the homestays in Panama?

AD: Homestays are one of the hallmarks of the SIT experiential learning model. Living with a local family allows students to become immersed into the local culture, to forge relationships with people from the area in which they are living, and become much more familiar with local norms, customs, and lifestyle. On the Panama program, students live in homestays while in David, in the PILA buffer zone, and sometimes in Panama City. In David and Panama City, our hosts are working class families who tend to have long-standing roots in their neighborhoods. In the PILA buffer zone, families are rural agriculturalists who have lived for many years in the mountain region where students are based. Most host families in general have children and large, extended families.

AK: Spanish instruction is also included in the program. Do students need any particular level of proficiency in order to register?

AD: No, there are no language pre-requisites for the Spanish classes. Students of all language levels are accommodated within the program.

AK: What can you tell us about the faculty for this program?

AD: Faculty are drawn from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, the national university, local NGOs, and one international NGO. Instructors are highly regarded and are considered experts in their fields. In addition to the program’s Academic Director, each module is taught by an individual expert providing students the opportunity to interact with specialists in each of the fields of study.

Students explore Panama’s cloud forests

AK: The Panama program includes 6 college credits. What are the requirements for credit?

AD: To earn all six credits, students must complete satisfactorily all requirements of the two three-credit courses, Spanish and Sustaining the Earth in the 21st Century, as articulated in the course syllabi.

AK: The program was first offered in 2011. What did last year’s college students particularly value about the experience?

AD: I believe student’s were most captured by the homestay experiences, both rural and urban, as they allowed students to integrate into society as well as provided them with new perspectives and visions of Panama and its environmental resources. Also students seemed to find the field excursions to the mountain forests and to the Caribbean coast particularly engaging and unique due to the hands-on, experiential learning they engaged in there.

More About Aly Dagang, Ph.D.:
Dr. Dagang, a California native, completed her B.A. in international development with an emphasis in Latin American Studies at American University in Washington, D.C. She obtained her Ph.D. from the School of Forest Resources and Conservation at the University of Florida, Gainesville. Her research was carried out with local farmers and examines biophysical and socioeconomic aspects of wood and fruit tree repopulation of grazed, extensive pastures in Central Panama. Dr. Dagang was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Panama in the province of Panama Oeste. She has worked on numerous projects in Panama with foci that include gender, agroforestry, sustainable agriculture, community development, environmental education, forestry, and conservation.  Dr. Dagang was academic director of the SIT Panama program from 2002 to 2009 and now serves as associate academic dean for the SIT Latin America portfolio. She is also the agroecology professor for the SIT Study Abroad Panama semester program.

Want to learn more? Click here for more information on Smithsonian Journeys’ Study Abroad Programs.

Book: Columbus, The Four Voyages

Friday, October 21st, 2011

Cover image - Columbus - The Four Voyages.This week’s travel read is Columbus, The Four Voyages. Most of us remember Columbus’ famous expedition of 1492, but many of us have forgotten that Columbus returned to the Americas three more times.

In these later voyages, Columbus continued to try to prove that he could get to China, where he wanted to convert the people he met there to Christianity. These three later voyages, all to the Caribbean and nearby regions of the Atlantic, were more violent than his first and contribute to his controversial legacy.

Biographer Laurence Bergreen captures each voyage in rich detail, recreating these adventures and providing the context and perspective needed for each of us to draw our own understanding of what Columbus’ expeditions mean to the world at large.

If you’d like to sail some of the waters Columbus sailed, now’s a great time to book your adventure in the Caribbean with Smithsonian Journeys.

A Costa Rican Adventure

Wednesday, August 31st, 2011

Suzan Murray is the Chief Veterinarian and the Smithsonian National Zoo. She’s also a world-class Study Leader on our Smithsonian Journeys tours. Here, she shares a day in Costa Rica with Smithsonian travelers, and with you.

The violet sabrewing hummingbird

The violet sabrewing hummingbird. Photo: Kate Desvenain

Today was our first full day in Costa Rica. The group had breakfast together and it gave us a chance to get to know each other. From our breakfast table we could see numerous brightly colored birds outside as we chatted and got to know each other. Our tour guide, Herman, has been working in Costa Rica for over 30 years. He is a warm, knowledgeable and friendly man and our group immediately took to him. We also immediately bonded with our driver, Marco, who not only was an incredibly safe driver, but personally took the time to help everyone on and off the vehicle every day. He also took a great liking to my personal traveling companion, Evan, my 10-year-old son. Marco and Evan became fast friends on this day.

Our trip for the day was to visit a close by, beautiful volcano, which from the base appeared to be shrouded in clouds. As Herman explained, the weather in Costa Rica changes rapidly, and one minute it could be cloudy with poor visibility, particularly at higher altitudes, while the next minute there could b excellent visibility. The bus dropped us off just a short distance from the crater’s edge, but at the high altitude the short hike to the rim created an excellent way to get our hearts pumping. Herman showed us plants along the way and pointed out various biological and volcanic features. When we arrived at the rim, the clouds had moved in and we were not able to see the rim of the crater. Although we were somewhat disappointed, in the end, we all appreciated the beautiful walk and the early morning exercise. It was the perfect way to start our trip.

Our next adventure was a visit to a coffee farm. During this trip we learned everything you every wanted to know about coffee. We learned about the types of beans used (arabica only in Costa Rica), how the plants are cared for, when the seeds are collected and how they are first separated into different grades based upon several factors, including size, we were able to observe the drying and roasting process, and the tour ended with a taste test and an opportunity to buy samples as souvenirs. Evan was able to take part in the coffee bean drying process while the rest of us were able to relax and taste the coffee samples. This was a big hit with the coffee drinkers in the group. The plantation also had a butterfly garden through which we walked prior to resuming our journey.

Click here for more on travel to Costa Rica and here for more about Costa Rica on the Journeys Blog.

Q&A on Small Ship Cruising

Saturday, July 16th, 2011

Nancy Blount is President of Blount Small Ship Adventures, one of our esteemed travel partners specializing in small ship cruising, talks with Smithsonian Journeys staff member MaryBeth Mullen about several cruises scheduled for 2012.  We look forward to welcoming you on a Smithsonian Small Ship Adventure in the near future.

Q.     Nancy, your family has been in the cruise business for a very long time.  You must have some pretty wonderful memories of time spent aboard your ships.  How many ships do you operate and how are they different from other ships in the marketplace?

Sailing towards shore in Belize.

A.     Our family has been in the cruise industry for 45 years but also in the shipbuilding/operating business since 1949…62 years! We have many fond memories of our family vacations onboard a variety of cruising vessels as well as a lot of summer time fun spent swordfishing with my Dad off of Block Island. We currently have three vessels in our fleet. Our vessels are built to enable our passengers to experience things you can’t on a big cruise ship. Things like navigating narrow rivers and canals, or bow landing on remote beaches. Our amazing small ships are specially designed to take you closer to the places and people often out of reach.

Q.    What are some of the most popular destinations?

A.    This is a great question but the answer is also a moving target and changes with the seasons. Currently our more popular destinations include Belize, New Orleans to Chattanooga and Lake Michigan, all destinations that Smithsonian travelers can explore this coming year.

Q.     Can you describe the accommodations and amenities aboard your ships?  

A.     Blount ships have never stopped evolving.  Through the years, we’ve added many features and refurbished the décor. But one thing has stayed the same – a dedication to a casual cruising experience. There’s no white glove dining service, no formal attire, and no luxurious staterooms. But there is a 180-degree vista-view lounge —the ideal place to get to know your fellow passengers as glorious, scenic landscapes unfold before you. Go upstairs, and you’ll find the upper deck, the perfect place to catch a breathtaking view, or catch a few rays.

When it comes time for a good night’s sleep, our ships offer four categories of small-ship cruising cabins. Each feature individual air conditioning, which continuously brings fresh air into your room, day and night. Your room also features a private shower and washrooms, and a fresh, smoke-free environment. Add the refurbished staterooms onboard our Grande class ships and you get a casual, relaxing, welcoming place to end the day.

It’s all a part of what makes cruising on a Blount ship so amazing. The kind of innovations that make adventure possible, open up new places to exploration, and make your journey as comfortable as possible.


The Grand Mariner at port in Milwaukee.

The Grand Mariner at port in Milwaukee.

Q.     How are meals handled?  Do guests get to choose who they dine with?  What is the cuisine like?


A.    Single -sitting meals with an open seating policy allows you the freedom to meet many traveling companions. With a maximum of 96 passengers aboard, you can meet and dine with nearly everyone over the course of your trip.  Our chef-prepared meals are delicious, healthy, and often reflective of the region in which you are traveling.

Q.     Will there be Smithsonian study leaders and tour managers to handle logistics aboard each cruise?

A.     Yes, there will be Smithsonian study leader and a Blount Small Ship Adventures Cruise Director onboard to handle logistics aboard each cruise.

Q.     On average, how many ports are visited throughout a cruise?  Essentially, how active are these trips? 

A.     There is no “average” number of ports visited on a cruise as “ports” visited are determined by length of itinerary and distance traveled.  We have a variety of activities available for our passengers to participate in and our passengers can pick all or none depending on what level of activity appeals to them.  There are rental bikes and kayaks onboard most cruises; other programming options may include photography workshops as well as naturalists and lecturers. On our Caribbean itineraries we also have snorkeling, swimming and the glass bottom boat.

Q.     Where are you traveling this year?  Do you have a favorite destination?

A.     I will be traveling to the Caribbean this winter on our Caribbean Spectacular: St. Maarten to Antigua.  Last year it was the Virgin Islands and the year before Belize! I try to get aboard different itineraries every year but I have to admit that one of my absolute favorites is the Best of Belize and the Barrier Reef.  I am an avid snorkeler and the Barrier Reef provides superb snorkeling…the itinerary is also a wonderful mix of water sports (snorkeling, swimming, kayaking) as well as a splash of cultural mixed in. I always learn something new on the trips to the Mayan ruins of Quirigua in Guatemala as well as Xunantunich and the fabulous Belize Zoo.

Click for more information on our small ship expeditions.