Archive for the ‘Central America’ Category

Highlights of Costa Rica

Tuesday, June 28th, 2011

Smithsonian Study Leader James Karr is the Director of the Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Washington. He specializes in tropical ecology, ornithology, and environmental policy and has done extensive field work in Central and South America. Here, he shares some thoughts on his recent travel through Costa Rica with Smithsonian travelers.

Costa Rica's pristine beach

Costa Rica’s pristine beach

As study leader on two trips to Costa Rica with Smithsonian Journeys in March-April of this year, I spent time in one of the most delightful and easily accessible parts of the tropical world. At the end of each trip, I asked each member of the group to name three of the trip’s most memorable experiences. Whenever I do this I am impressed by the common themes that emerge, as well as each person’s unique perspectives.

Everyone’s highlights centered on Costa Rica’s well-deserved reputation as a nature tourism destination. People recalled walking in the “awesome diversity” of cloud forest, especially the hanging bridges that take one into and above the forest canopy. They talked about peering into the fuming crater of the Poas Volcano or seeing the smoking cone of the Arenal Volcano at sunrise and sunset. Others were delighted to see legendary birds such as the jewel-like resplendent quetzal, scarlet macaws, and magnificent frigatebirds. During a boat trip along the Tempisque River, we saw herons, egrets, crocodiles, monkeys, and even a large boa in a tree. Daily nature walks on the grounds of our hotels allowed us to see numerous orchids and other flowers as well as tropical butterflies and birds. On top of everything, we feasted on a wide diversity of tropical fruits and delicious local dishes.

The violet sabrewing hummingbird.

The violet sabrewing hummingbird.

Many in our groups appreciated the warmth of the Costa Rican people and the chance to learn about growing and processing coffee before it reaches our coffee cups. Others were delighted to learn about the connections among sugar cane, molasses, and rum; the cultivation of pineapple; vanilla from an orchid; and the odd fruit that provides cashews. We learned about making (and also tasted) a wine from palms and visited a factory that makes delicate, beautiful wood products. We also visited the shop of a local artisan where he creates unique masks and bigger than life-size costumes for local parades and other celebrations.

Others were struck by the geological and topographic diversity of Costa Rica from high mountains to the Pacific Ocean beaches. Some took the opportunity to sit and read in the tropical garden outside their room while others delighted in the Pacific coastline, where they walked the beach or swam or snorkeled in warm ocean waters. Still others had the thrill of a lifetime gliding on ziplines in the cloud forest at Monteverde.

People join Smithsonian Journeys expeditions with their own unique blend of expectations and even fears about what they will encounter. Many have personal bucket lists. But all seemed to find revisiting the trip by recalling their top three memorable events a refreshing reminder of trip experiences. Some even noted that they would change their list as a result of our discussion, because it reminded them of things that hadn’t come to mind as they wrote their top three.

Click here for more on James Karr and traveling with him, and here for more on travel to Costa Rica.

What do you love about travel? Please share.

A Visit to Tikal

Thursday, June 2nd, 2011

Study Leader Dr. Andrew R. Wyatt is a Visiting Assistant Professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Currently he is working at Lake Mendoza in western Guatemala, studying the lives of the ancient Maya living in the far hinterlands of Maya society. Here, he shares a bit of Guatemala’s history and his reflections on a recent trip to Guatemala with Smithsonian travelers.

The city of Tikal, Guatemala. Photo: Daniel Loncarevic

In the 8th century A.D. the ruler of Tikal, Jasaw Chan K’awiil, embarked on a massive building campaign resulting in the construction of two of the largest temples at the site, a large palace and residential compound, and much of the grand architecture that awaits visitors at the central plaza at Tikal. These stone temples would have been covered with a fine plaster made of limestone and painted a brilliant red, blue, and yellow, while the surrounding plazas would have gleamed a brilliant white. Temple 1, the most imposing structure in this central plaza and the eventual tomb of Jasaw Chan K’awiil, was topped by a large limestone and plaster image of the king himself looking down upon the assembled populace. At its peak, the population of Tikal would have exceeded 100,000 souls and the city itself would have been a colorful oasis in the unrelenting green of the Petén, itself dotted with small farms to the distant horizon.Our group walked the 2 kilometers from the entrance of the Tikal National Park in Guatemala to the central plaza along the same route that ancient travelers and visitors might have arrived when Tikal was a thriving urban center over 1,000 years ago. Now, rather than temples, houses, and gardens greeting the visitor, the path was lined with mahogany trees, breadnut trees, and chicle trees, the sap of which is still used to manufacture chewing gum. Howler monkeys growled in the distance, and the calls of chachalacas and motmot birds echoed through the high branches. Our guide pointed out a line of leaf-cutter ants carrying small leaf pieces back to their nest to later be used to grow a fungus that is the ant’s main food. Although less than ¼ inch in size, the relentless march of the ants created a visible trail that emerged from the dense underbrush on one side of the trail and back into the jungle on the other.

Drawing closer to the main plaza, more and larger temples and structures came into view as we approached the religious, political, and economic center of the site. Faces of gods gazed out from the limestone walls of the temples, moss-covered and silent. Some of the temples hinted at an early construction of the site. Although much of the visible construction at Tikal was from the 8th and 9th centuries, numerous temples appeared to have been built in the 4th and 5th centuries when the massive site of Teotihuacan, over 500 miles to the west in central Mexico, exerted its influence. In fact, settlement at Tikal began in the first millennium B.C. when small groups of farmers settled on the edges of the nearby swamps. The city grew to its height in the first millennium A.D., only to be abruptly depopulated after A.D. 900. Small groups of settlers continued to occupy the site over the years, including Lacandon Maya villages and chiclero camps, the temporary encampments of the men who harvested the chicle from ancient trees to make chewing gum. Even today, Maya still come to Tikal to take part in rituals hearkening back thousands of years.

The imposing 154 foot high Temple 1 appeared suddenly in our view as we rounded a bend in the forest; even the largest structures often materialize unexpectedly as the dense forest obscures many of the ancient remains until you are nearly right upon them. As we rounded the corner of the temple we emerged into the large central plaza, flanked on the east and west with pyramid shaped temples and on the north and south with the houses and governmental offices of the kings, queens, nobility, and priests. Now, rather than brilliantly painted plaster, the grey limestone walls, heavy with age, seemed to breathe with history.

In the year A.D. 692, Jasaw Chan K’awiil presided over a ritual marking the end of a k’atun, a roughly 20 year period of time that held great importance for the ancient Maya, similar in many ways to a decade in our calendar. At the completion of this and other k’atuns, temples were constructed and rituals were enacted to mark the end of the previous period as well as welcome the upcoming k’atun. Jasaw Chan K’awiil likely ascended the steps of these very temples, resplendent in his quetzal feather headdress and kingly garb, to perform sacrifices to the deities dwelling in the heavens.

We could only imagine what occurred here 1200 years ago. As it was, we witnessed a different kind of Tikal than the people who lived here in the past. Our Tikal was populated only by the ghosts of the past and visitors from the present, and bustling activity of an urban center was replaced by the flora and fauna of the ever-encroaching rainforest.

What do you think of Tikal? Click here to learn more about traveling to Guatemala with Smithsonian.

A Fantastic day at Machu Picchu

Thursday, May 26th, 2011

Study Leader David Scott Palmer recently led a group of Smithsonian Travelers to Macchu Pichu, most of whom were exploring Peru for the first time on our Legendary Peru tour. Palmer was also among the first group of Peace Corps Volunteers to work in Peru. Today, he shares his most recent trip with us.

Smithsonian travelers visit Machu Picchu, many for the first time. Photo: David Scott Palmer.

Smithsonian travelers visit Machu Picchu, many for the first time. Photo: David Scott Palmer.

Peru is a remarkable place in so many ways, with Machu Picchu, voted one of the seven wonders of the world, on just about everyone’s “bucket list.” “Awesome!” Fantastic!” “I can’t believe it!” “How could anyone ever have built this?” are just a sample of the impressions of my first-time visitor companions.

The hills of Machu Picchu. Photo: David Scott Palmer

Yet as extraordinary as that first sight of the 15th century ruins are to everyone, it is not long before we realize how much more there is to this beautiful and rugged country. Terraces line the hillsides of the Sacred Valley, with the Moray agricultural research station close by, both testaments to the ingenuity of the Incas in being able to meet the food needs of all of their subjects. Range after range of snowcapped mountains stretch to the horizon, leaving us in wonderment over how either indigenous cultures or Spanish conquerors could have overcome such daunting physical obstacles to leave their stamp.

Machu Picchu. Photo: David Scott Palmer

Photo: David Scott Palmer

And as impressive as the physical beauty and the six to sixteen centuries-old ruins are, we also see all around us the vibrant presence of living cultures and are able to experience a small part of their daily routines. We meet with a community of women in traditional garb who dye their alpaca wool with the same variety of local materials as their ancestors and weave an array of colorful goods.

Woman weaving alpaca wool.

Photo: David Scott Palmer

We watch a lively Sunday parade in Cuzco’s main square and lunch in homes of local families, who share their culinary gifts and their warm hospitality.

We also cross the waters of Lake Titicaca to share a morning with the Uru people on the islands they have made from the reeds of the lake for centuries, since fleeing to the water in the 1400s to avoid Inca domination.

The Uru people live on lake Titicaca

Photo: David Scott Palmer.

In Peru there is so much to see and appreciate, to savor, and to reflect. With such an interested and interesting group of travelers, we learn so much more together than we ever would separately. Amazing country, wonderful people, unforgettable experiences…What more could one ask?

You can join our group tours or create your own experience.


How the Isthmus of Panama Changed the World

Wednesday, April 13th, 2011

Tony Coates is a Smithsonian geologist, Senior Scientist Emeritus, and former Deputy Director of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. Currently, he is working with a team of scientists to unravel the geological history of the Panamanian isthmus over the last 12 million years, and preparing to lead our January, 2012 departure of Around the World by Private Jet. Here, Dr. Coates answers some great questions about the Isthmus of Panama, the narrow strip of land that lies between the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean, which connects North and South America.

Q. What would happen if the Isthmus was not there? What do you think the world be like today?
Locks along the Panama Canal

A. If the Isthmus of Panama was not there, the world would be very different today. All the animals of South America would be unique marsupials, like in Australia, very different to today because they would never have been invaded and overtaken by all the species that colonized from North America. The Caribbean and the East Pacific would be one ocean with similar species; today they are very different with corals reefs abundant in the Caribbean but without large supplies of commercial fish, whereas the Pacific has few small coral reefs and large important commercial fisheries. Humans from Asia might not have reached South America via the Bering Land Bridge from the north so different kinds of humans might have arrived, say, from Polynesia. Columbus might have sailed on to Asia! The Ice Age would have been different and Europe’s ports might freeze every winter like the Saint Laurence seaway does. El Niño and climates in other parts of the world might have been different in ways that we still do not fully understand.

Q. Do you feel that the formation of the Isthmus of Panama has anything to do with causing the El-Niño phenomenon?

A.  The formation of a land barrier between the Atlantic (Caribbean) and the Pacific certainly changed the patterns of ocean circulation in both oceans. It is very likely that this change helped to set up the oceanic conditions in the eastern Pacific which allows the El Niño to develop every few years.
Q. How did the diversion of the Gulf Stream, following the development of the Isthmus of Panama, cause man to begin to walk upright?

A.  Many scientists think that the closure of the Isthmus of Panama strengthened the warm Gulf Stream Current. This current took warm waters high into northern latitudes providing moisture to the atmosphere so that snow formed to build the glaciers of the ice age. At the same time a strong current also flowed south along the eastern side of the Atlantic Ocean and affected the climate of north Africa causing it to become drier so that savannahs and open grasslands developed which provided the habitats that previously arboreal (tree living) primates then colonized. In the process one group became more socially organized, had their front limbs freed up for tool making, caring for young, and for other tasks, and in the process started to walk upright.

Q. Animals that traveled south over the land bridge did better than the animals that traveled north. Can you please tell us why?

A. Yes. Some 50-60% of the mammals of South America, including cats, deer, mice, bears, and many others were not known in South America until about 3 million years ago. Why there are only three species that remain from the migration from south to north is not known certainly. Many scientists think that because the North American animals had already evolved in competition with animals from Asia, which had crossed the Bering Land Bridge during the Ice Age and had then survived within North America, they were in some way “hardened” or more robust when they met and competed with the South American animals which had been isolated on that continent for millions of years and had never faced competition from other regions before. But this is just speculation.

Q. Who first came up with idea of making the canal? About how many miles long is the canal from Panama City to the Caribbean Sea? About how long does it take for a boat to travel all the way through the canal?

A. The idea of a canal across the Central American Isthmus is quite old historically. The Spanish early in their conquest wrote about the possibility, the British surveyed the San Juan River between Costa Rica and Nicaragua and the route over to the Pacific in the early 19th century or late 18th century, and of course the French started to build the canal in Panama in the late 1800s but failed. Their route was successfully taken over by the USA and the canal was completed by 1914.

It is about 65-70 kilometers as the crow flies from Panama City (the Pacific entrance to the canal) to Colón (where the canal reaches the Caribbean). Ships usually allow about 24 hours to complete the crossing of the canal; about half this time is spent navigating the canal and its locks. The remainder is spent at anchor with other ships, waiting to be notified by the Panama Canal Authority that a pilot is ready to take them through. The Panama Canal is the only place in the world where the pilot takes complete control of the vessel and the captain cannot countermand him.

Dr. Coates will be leading the January, 2012 departure of our Around the World by Private Jet tour. Click here for information on travel to Panama and check out the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.

The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute

Thursday, October 14th, 2010
Scientists at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute work with the local animal populations.

Scientists at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute work with the local animal populations.

Between bats, birds, and coral reefs, the folks studying biodiversity at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) in Panama stay pretty busy. In fact, if you’re a college student, your chance to help them out with their research (and get college credit for it) comes in the summer of 2011. Here’s a few more things to know about our friends at STRI.

1) They’re using using radio telemetry  to track the routes and interactions of animals around – and across – the Panama Canal. They’ve also discovered that sloths aren’t as lazy as we thought. Click to read more from Smithsonian Magazine.

2) They’ve set up an underwater reef webcam at the Galeta Marine Laboratory in Panama. Click to check out the action.

3) They study bats, lots of bats – in fact, there are 74 species of bats living on Panama’s Barro Colorado Island, not far from STRI. Thanks to the Smithsonian Channel, you can meet the Smithsonian scientists who study them.

4) STRI  has a great interactive web site for kids, where they can learn (in English and Spanish) all about sharks.

There’s plenty more where that came from. Click here for STRI’s main page, here for more information on our college summer program, Exploring Panama: Biodiversity in the Tropics, and here for all of our travel opportunities in Panama

Where would you like to go next summer? Please share.