Archive for the ‘Tours’ Category

The Remote Land of Patagonia

Friday, February 7th, 2014

688_thumbnailPepper Trail has traveled around the world in the course of his studies on the ecology, behavior and conservation of birds. After receiving his Ph. D. from Cornell University, Pepper did post-doctoral research at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and the California Academy of Sciences. An expert photographer and writer, his work has appeared in publications ranging from National Geographic and American Birds to Science, Evolution and Conservation Biology. Pepper has led natural history tours in Africa, Costa Rica, Brazil and the Amazon, and his enthusiasm and sense of humor always convert a few ‘non-birders’ to ‘birder’s every trip. He is the ornithologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service National Forensics Laboratory in Ashland, Oregon.

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The very word “Patagonia” conjures up images of untamed wilderness, windswept and remote.  And indeed, that is what our group of intrepid travelers experienced again and again on this journey – climbing to the base of the Martial Glacier in Tierra del Fuego; standing on the cliffs of Cape Horn, looking south toward Antarctica; walking among a herd of wild guanacos beneath the towering spires of Torres del Paine National Park; hiking above treeline on the Osorno Volcano in Chile’s Lake District.  All this adventure was cushioned by our nightly return to luxurious lodgings, where we relived the day’s events over gourmet meals.

In the finest Smithsonian tradition, we learned as we traveled, with lively discussions on topics ranging from how Gondwanaland lives on in Patagonia, to how Darwin’s explorations of the region shaped his theory of evolution, to the extraordinary adaptations of albatross and penguins to their challenging world.

Finally, our experiences in two great South American capitals, Buenos Aires and Santiago, were the perfect prelude and postscript to our Patagonian journey. Whether we were watching a stunning tango show in Buenos Aires or creating our own special red wine blends at the Verramonte Winery outside Santiago, these cities provided a sophisticated and glittering frame to our wilderness adventures.

For all of us, “Patagonia” is no longer terra incognita, the uttermost end of the earth.  It is a place filled with memories, of adventures with an extraordinary group of fellow travelers, and of transcendent landscapes which will remain part of us forever.

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To learn more about our Patagonian Explorer tour, click here.

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.

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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!

Diwali Fervour

Wednesday, December 4th, 2013

251_thumbnailMinhazz Majumdar is a writer and curator of Indian art, and co-founder of the Earth & Grass Workshop, an organization promoting arts and crafts as livelihood. Minhazz has served as a development consultant for the government of India and for many Indian NGOs and has extensive experience leading groups through India.

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Coming to India is a sure tryst with colour, verve and vibrancy. And if you come in time for the biggest Hindu festival, Diwali (held in October or November as per the lunar calendar), you are in for a super-sized magnificent celebration that exceeds your imagination.  Diwali or Deepavali is one of India’s most well-known festivals and is celebrated with gaiety and pomp throughout the country. The name Deepavali comprises of two words – deep meaning light and avali referring to a row -   the name thus translates to a row of lights.  A festival of bright lights, fireworks, beautiful floor paintings called rangolis, beautiful new clothes, mouth-watering delicacies and sweets, Diwali is an opportunity to spend wonderful moments with loved ones.

Like many other Indian festivals, Diwali has its roots in ancient times when it must have started off as an important harvest festival. Several myths revolve around Diwali and thus it is a celebration with multiple meanings spread over five days. In North India, Diwali celebrates the return of Lord Rama, the hero of the Indian epic Ramayana who was banished to 14 years of exile by his father King Dashrath to fulfil a wish made to Rama’s step-mother Queen Kaikeyi. Rama, the heir to the throne, is a dutiful son and leaves for the forest accompanied by his wife Sita and younger brother Lakshmana. In the forest, Sita is abducted by the demon-king of Sri Lanka, Ravana and taken away to his island kingdom. Rama, aided by his devotees including Hanuman, the monkey-god, wages a battle with Ravana and brings Sita back. Diwali marks the night Rama comes back to Ayodhya, the capital of his kingdom with Sita and Lakshmana after 14 long years. The people of Ayodhya are joyous and light up the night with row upon row of oil lamps to celebrate his return, a practice followed even today.

Diwali also symbolizes the victory of Lord Krishna over the demon Narakaasura who troubled the gopis ( milk-maids) of Vrindavan. In the south of India, Diwali celebrates the defeat of Bali, a demon king by Lord Vishnu who appeared before him in his avatar as Vamana, the dwarf. The king offered to fulfil any wish and Vamana asked for three paces of land. The moment Bali agreed, Vishnu assumed his magnificent form – with one stride, he covered heaven, with the second, the nether-world. Bali in humility offered his head for the third stride and in doing so, attained immortality. Vishnu made him the king of the underworld and Diwali is the one day Bali is allowed to return to Earth so that his devotion to Lord Vishnu and his good deeds can be celebrated.

The Feminine is not forgotten on Diwali – Goddess Lakshmi, the consort of Lord Vishnu who is the goddess of wealth and prosperity is worshipped in every home. In India, ‘spring cleaning’ happens in autumn before Diwali as homes are renovated, painted and cleaned thoroughly in Goddess Lakshmi’s honour. Beautiful floor patterns called rangolis are made with rice-flour, coloured powders or flowers in different parts of the country. In the eastern Indian state of West Bengal, Diwali brings the worship of Goddess Kali, the fierce deity who represents power.

For our group, what better place to await Diwali than the holy city of Varanasi, one of the most sacred pilgrimage centres for Hindus all over the world. Even though Diwali was the day after the group was leaving for US, all of India was caught up in anticipation of this amazing festival. In fact, from the moment the trip started in New Delhi, Diwali ‘fever’ was in the air. The road to Jama Masjid, the biggest mosque in India was lined with shops selling fireworks and guests were able to see people buying up myriad crackers for Diwali. Colourful banners advertising the major firework brands lined the narrow streets of Chandi Chowk where we went for our rickshaw ride – a spell-binding ride if ever there was one.

En-route to the Dera Village retreat and thereafter to the city of Jaipur, the highway was punctuated by colourful stalls selling brightly hued yarn and tinsel-embellished truck decorations as well as black tassels to remove the evil eye, beautiful scarves, pennants, etc. For a truck driver, the truck is not just a machine – she is a beautiful woman, precious to the truck-driver and deserves to be gifted with ornaments. The stalls were a photographer’s delight – row upon row of intense colour and bling, a quintessential India image.

As our trip progressed, so did the Diwali ‘fever’ accelerate across the cities we visited. In Jaipur, all the markets were being decorated with strings of bright silver and gold tinsel spread out like a canopy overhead. Loops of lights were being festooned from one building to another and colourful fabric gates were being erected on all major roads – the bamboo scaffolding for the gates were like gigantic art installation in themselves. Stalls selling terracotta lamps or diyas  were prominent in all the markets. Stores dealing in electric lights and lamps were not far behind in advertising their wares by stringing up these lamps right out in the street from trees, bamboo poles or street-lights. Clothing stores, showrooms for cars and electric goods, furniture shops – each shop was bedecked as a bride with bright flowers, fabric pennants and fairy lights beckoning customers to come over. Customarily, most Indians invest in new appliances, clothing and vehicles at Diwali and it is a bountiful time for these stores.

Our last stop, Varanasi, was especially brightly lit up for Diwali was just a day away. Our boat-ride was magical that evening with the lights on the ghats. Early in the morning, there was a mile-long queue of devotees waiting to get into the Vishvanath temple as it was the auspicious day of Dhanteras, the day to worship Goddess Lakshmi and Lord Kubera, the deities representing wealth and prosperity. It is also a day to buy metal – precious ones like gold and silver  or less expensive ones such as steel and iron. During our bus ride through the city, we saw utensil store display a wealth of steel vessels, containers, pitchers and lunch-boxes. Another interesting and eye-catching display seen across the city were temporary stalls selling clay images of Lakshmi and Ganesha, ranging from plain terracotta colour to poly-chrome painted ones. Everyone in the group could not resist clicking pictures of these statues. Varanasi was well and truly geared up to celebrate Diwali and so were we!!

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To learn more about our Mystical India tour, click here!

A Sumptuous Tour of Peru

Tuesday, November 12th, 2013

681_thumbnailJames Kus recently retired after forty one years at California State University, Fresno, where he taught courses on South American geography and archaeology. He first traveled to Peru in 1966; since then he has lived in that country for more than eight years, taught at Peru’s leading university, and carried out archaeological research on ancient agriculture in the northern coastal region. Jim has led more than twenty tours to Peru and has published widely on Andean archaeology and geography, in both popular media and professional journals. Jim is particularly excited to introduce Smithsonian travelers to Andean culture and food; he notes that Peruvian cuisine has recently become very popular worldwide.

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When people hear that I’m going to Peru again, they often assume that it is to visit archaeological sites such as Machu Picchu or others in the Cuzco area.  Or perhaps it’s to see some of the spectacular scenery – snowcapped peaks, the rainforest, or Lake Titicaca.  But more and more these days, when asked why I go to Peru, my answer is “for the food.”

In recent years, Peruvian cuisine has become world famous, thanks to the work of such noted chefs as Gaston Acurio and his wife Astrid Gutsche, who have several restaurants in Lima and elsewhere around the world (several of our tour participants have been lucky enough to secure reservations for one of their Lima spots – but this takes much planning well in advance of the tour).  But every one of the hotels that we use on the Smithsonian Journeys tours have great restaurants, so it is possible to sample a wide variety of typical dishes as well as some of the new eclectic fusion plates and the local wines.

One item that surprises many first-time visitors to Peru is cuy (guinea pig) – usually served roasted, and frankly not an everyday dish for most Peruvians .

Photo courtesy of James Kus

Photo courtesy of James Kus

Consumption of cuyes is most often associated with special celebrations for Peruvian families, but tourists may have a chance to sample roasted cuy at a restaurant in Cuzco.

A very typical Andean food is the potato – several hundred varieties are grown in mountain regions.  Although baked, boiled, or fried potatoes are part of many meals, a great introduction to the Peruvian potato is a dish called causa – essentially cold mashed yellow potatoes, stuffed with chicken, seafood, or vegetables.  Kus-photo-two515My favorite is a causa stuffed with mariscos (shellfish), but some restaurants, such as the dining room at the Inka Terra hotel, feature three different causas as an entrée. Kus-photo-three515 Another typical entrée is ceviche – often a white fish, shrimp, or shellfish prepared in a strong lime/onion/chili pepper mixture (the citric acid “cooks” the fish).  Usually thought of as a coastal dish, some highland restaurants now serve a ceviche done with local trout.

One of the most typical main courses found on dinner menus is lomo saltado – thin slices of meat stir-fried with french fries and vegetables and served with a side of rice.

Photo courtesy of James Kus

Photo courtesy of James Kus

Other dishes that you might find on the menu include lots of varieties of chicken (my own favorite is aji de gallina – shredded chicken in a mild spicy sauce over rice) – or try pollo a la brasa (whole chicken roasted on a spit).

Then there are desserts – a whole range of sweet treats made with local fruits –try lucuma ice cream for something distinctly different.  But my all-time favorite has to be the messy sundae at the Inka Terra restaurant.  That’s the name for it (although on the menu it’s called the “miskey sundae”) – vanilla ice cream, homemade brownies, and a fudge sauce to die for, with the serving glass dipped in the sauce to create the “messy” name.   !Kus-photo-five515

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Read more about upcoming departures of our Legendary Peru tour here.

A Journey Through Southern Spain

Friday, November 8th, 2013

_DSC6039_1140H. Rafael Chacón is Professor of Art History and Criticism at The University of Montana-Missoula where he lectures on a broad range of art historical subjects. He received his doctorate in art history with honors from the University of Chicago, having been awarded numerous research fellowships to study in Europe, including an award from the Spanish Ministry of Culture for his dissertation on Michelangelism in renaissance sculpture. He has written on a range of topics related to renaissance and baroque art, both in Europe and in the Americas, most recently focusing on Spanish-style revival architecture in the U.S. northwest during the late 19th century. In 2002, he completed the full pilgrimage from France to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain and in 2010 one of the four principal routes across southern France leading to the “camino.” Dr. Chacón has led numerous successful travel abroad trips with students and has been a speaker for the Smithsonian Journeys program.

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The evening sun is casting long shadows across the vast Andalusian plain and from the vantage point, high on the balcony of the Parador in Carmona, it is easy to contemplate the rich history of the Iberian peninsula. It is autumn, yet the air is still warm and redolent with the scent of boxwood. It is also harvest time and row after row of the silvery blue olive trees hang dense with the promise of another season. Gold begins to tinge the leaves in the vineyards also ready for harvest. In the distance, we see thin wisps of smoke as farmers clear brush and prepare their fields for the rainy season still to come. Portugal-and-Spain-2013-188515

From this perch, it is easy to imagine the thunderous sounds of horses’ hooves on the plain and the clang of steel as armies of Romans, Visigoths, Arabs, and Christians clashed over centuries to seize the promontories and thus take control of these precious agricultural lands. The very stones we have tread on our walk around the charming town of Carmona evoke Roman soldiers marching across ancient Hispania and merchants haggling over the prices of fruits and vegetables: “No thank you, Tullius! Your oranges are much too bitter, only good for decorating the garden or marinating that suckling pig I intend to roast next week!” Today’s faithful enter churches populated by the subtly carved saints and richly embroidered tapestries of renaissance- and baroque-era bishops, but whose foundations were laid by Visigothic kings or Moorish emirs.Portugal-and-Spain-2013-187515
In fact, as we enter through the horseshoe arches of the gates of our parador, once a fortified palace, and walk past the courtyard with its lovely portico of slender marble columns, patterned stucco walls, and bubbling fountains, we cannot help but think of the Moorish kings who built and defended these very walls and spaces for centuries or of King Pedro I, whose love of Islamic ornament guaranteed that mudejar workers would continue to elaborate and expand the palace after it fell into the hands of Christian conquerors.Portugal-and-Spain-2013-183515
But now as the sun begins to set, we finish sipping our glass of sherry from the nearby Jerez region; it is time to retire and our minds turn to the gifts of art and culture that this amazing peninsula will reveal to us tomorrow.

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To learn more about our Treasures of Southern Spain and Portugal tour, click here.