Located 18 miles north of the coast of Venezuela at the western edge of the Leeward Antilles, Aruba is not the sort of place most people picture when they envision a traditional Caribbean hotspot.
Formerly part of the Netherlands Antilles along with Bonaire and Curaçao (which are collectively known as “the ABC Islands”), the island’s Dutch history and proximity to South America give it a unique appeal that’s truly unlike any other place on the planet.
Of course, Aruba does offer many of the familiar features that make the best exotic islands so cool. There are long stretches of glistening white sand beach that have been ranked among the world’s most beautiful, hammocks swinging in the shade of palm trees, picture postcard-worthy ocean views, and a diverse array of lively cultural influences.
But the tiny (69 square mile) island also offers myriad distinctive elements that separate it from the tropical destination pack. On the natural side, Aruba’s attractions include strange windswept trees and rugged shorelines on the northeast coast, dramatic rock formations and desert-like landscapes in the interior, and an arid climate that virtually ensures warm, sunny weather 365 days a year.
While it may be best known in the U.S. as a honeymoon destination, there are also a diverse array of things to do in Aruba for nature and history lovers that are well worth discovering. Here are a few of our favorites…
The museum is located inside a renovated historic home in downtown Oranjestad (Aruba’s capital city) and houses artifacts dating back over 4000 years.
Three periods of Amerindian habitation of Aruba are documented in the impressive collection– the Pre-Ceramic period (2500 BC– 1000 AD), the Ceramic Period of the Caquetio Indians (900–1515), and the Historic Period (1515–1880).
My daughter especially loved the life-sized reproduction of an Arawak indian hut. The hands-on, interactive exhibits are a great way to educate kids on the country before they explore it.
Established in the 1980s, Arikok is a hiking hotspot that features cool lava formations, abandoned gold mines, and historic plantation ruins. It’s also home to indigenous wildlife such as the Baker’s cat-eyed snake, Aruban whiptail lizard, Aruban burrowing owl, and the prikichi (or Aruban parakeet)
There are numerous caves within the park’s boundaries, including Quadirikiri Cave (which features an impressive bat colony) and Fontein Cave (which features ancient Arawak cave paintings dating back to the pre-columbian era).
The park is also home to the sea turtle nesting grounds of Boca Prina and the calm waters of Dos Playa. On Mount Jamanota, the highest point on the island at 620 feet, wild goats and donkeys can be seen roaming free.
Birdwatchers will enjoy a visit to the Bubali Bird Sanctuary, which provides fertile breeding grounds for more than 80 different types of birds.
The sanctuary’s lush vegetation and man-made bird ponds– which were created by runoff from the nearby water treatment facility– provides a welcome oasis for numerous different types of migratory birds.
Species you might see during your visit include several types of herons, egrets, coots, cormorants, ducks, parakeets, scarlet macaws, and more.
For a true bird’s-eye view of the facility, climb to the top of the observation tower.
Photo by Quistnix via CC BY 1.0
CLIMB THE AYO & CASIBARI ROCK FORMATIONS
Hardy hikers who don’t mind more rugged terrain will want to visit the Ayo and Casibari Rock Formations.
These two scenic viewpoints are located north of Hooiberg in the center of the island, and are said to resemble birds and dragons.
These massive reddish rocks seem to rise up out of nowhere in the middle of a harsh, barren landscape surrounded by cacti, and nobody really understands for certain how they got there.
Ayo is best known for its ancient cave paintings, which were made by the Arawak people while performing religious rites at the sacred site. Casibari is a bit larger, and climbing it provides impressive panoramic views of the desert-like surroundings.
Photo by Serge Melki via CC BY 2.0DIVE THE SS ANTILLA WRECK
Among nature lovers, Aruba is perhaps best known for its excellent Scuba diving opportunities.It’s even been recognized as one of the top wreck diving destinations in the Caribbean by Scuba Diving magazine.
The SS Antilla– the largest shipwreck in the Caribbean– is a 400-foot cargo boat believed to be supplying German U-Boats in the Caribbean during World War II. When the Dutch Marines ordered the captain to surrender the ship, he intentionally sank it instead.
Now, divers can explore its large compartments, cargo holds and boiler rooms, alongside the copious marine life that congregates there.
The century-old California is another popular Scuba diving site.The ship sunk off Aruba’s coast in 1910, and rests at a depth of approximately 45 feet.
Immersing yourself in local culture is one of the central tenets of the ecotourism ethos. In Aruba, there’s no better place to get a a lively taste of the island’s colorful history and traditional music and dance than the Bon Bini Festival.
Held every Tuesday night at 6:00 pm in downtown Oranjestad (in Fort Zoutman’s outdoor courtyard), the celebration offers a great introduction to Aruban culture.
There’s lively Aruban music, gorgeous dancers in traditional costumes from different eras in Aruba’s history, and even a brief introduction to the local Spanish Creole language, Papiamento.
There are also vendors selling handmade arts and crafts, and food is available at an additional charge. The entry fee is just $10 for adults and $5 for children, and includes admission to the Historical Museum of Aruba.
Aruba’s California Lighthouse
TAKE A 4X4 BACKCOUNTRY TOUR
For an in-depth exploration of Aruba’s wild side, take a 4×4 Backcountry Tour via Jeep or UTV.
They typically start on the island’s northernmost tip at the California Lighthouse, which was named after the S.S. California. The Lighthouse is arguably among the island’s best spots for catching the sun setting over the Caribbean Sea.
One of the country’s most popular landmarks, Natural Bridge, unfortunately collapsed back in 2005. But you can still visit other natural attractions in the area, such as Andicuri Beach (a popular spot for surfers).
The highlight of our backcountry tour was Natural Pool, which is known locally as “Cura di Tortuga.” This tranquil pool was formed naturally in the volcanic rocks, where dramatic sprays of water crashing into the shoreline provide a picturesque backdrop for a soothing midday soak.
Thanks to the near-constant breeze coming in from offshore, Aruba offers some of the world’s best conditions for learning how to ride the waves.
Whether you’re interested in traditional surfing, stand up paddleboarding, windsurfing or catching some air via kitesurfing, there are numerous schools on the island that offer short or multi-day lessons to help you get your sea legs.
Many of them can be found on Hadicurari Beach at the Fisherman’s Huts, where the Aruba High Winds Tournamentattracts some of the world’s best windsurfers and kiteboarders every July.
But fair warning: The winds in this area can get awful gusty at times. I’ll never forget the day my daughter (who was seven years old at the time) got blown nearly 100 yards off course before jumping off the board during her first windsurfing lesson!
For a more expansive panorama of the country than you can get from the water, visit the Hooiberg, one of Aruba’s most beloved natural attractions.
More commonly known as Haystack Mountain, or simply “the Haystack,” this volcanic formation in the center of the island requires climbing 561 steps up to reach breathtaking views of Aruba (and, in the distance, Venezuela).
Located at 541 feet above sea level, the adrenaline-pumping climb will give you an excellent overview of the surrounding rugged landscape and nearby scenic coastline.
The Aruba Aloe Museum & Factory is another historical gem.
Aloe was first introduced on the island back in 1840. At one point, the islands of Aruba (which was the world’s largest aloe exporter at the time) was about 66% covered in aloe vera plants.
The 150-acre plantation on which the first aloe vera was planted is still in use today. It now features a state-of-the-art factory and a museum with exhibits on the industry’s ancient tools and equipment.
After the guided tour, there’s also a factory store offering an upscale line of products that help to heal skin seared by the fierce Caribbean sun.
Located less than 10 minutes off the coast of Aruba, De Palm Island is a family-friendly attraction complete with a colorful water park, beaches, banana boat rides, volleyball courts, and more.
You can snorkel right off the beach on one of Aruba’s coolest coral reefs, where massive parrot fish come in schools of brilliant blue.
For an extra charge, you can also don a specially designed diving helmet (see photo above) for their Sea Trek Tour. The experience allows people who haven’t been Scuba certified to walk the ocean floor with no prior training whatsoever.
It’s pretty cool to stroll underwater on a 375-foot walkway that takes you past a sunken Cessna 414 airplane to shoot hilariously cheesy photos at the underwater “Sea Trek Cafe.”
Sure, it’s a bit of a tourist trap. But it’s a ridiculously fun one!
Like most Caribbean islands, Aruba is serious about its rum and other spirits. And what Mount Gay Rum is to Barbados, Palmera Rum is to Aruba (a.k.a. a national treasure).
The Palmera Rum Factory has been an Aruba staple for more than 50 years now. Located on L.G. Smith Boulevard behind the Divi Golf Course, the local landmark offers free samples of locally distilled flavors such as Chocolate, Coconut, and even Almond Joy Rum.
A visit to the Balashi Beergarden is also a must for beer lovers, because it offers the island’s only locally-made brews. Balashi is Aruba’s national beer, and its name is derived from words meaning “near the sea.”
Animal lovers will find plenty of things to do in Aruba, despite the fact that there aren’t a lot of endemic wildlife species to be found on the island.
Founded by Philip Conrad Merryweather, the non-profit Philip’s Animal Garden is a foundation that focuses on rescuing exotic animals from throughout the Caribbean region. The attraction is home to more than 50 different species, from alpacas and axis deer to bengal cats, pythons, and white-faced capuchin monkeys.
The Aruba Ostrich Farm is one of the island’s more unusual attractions, offering educational tours that include up-close encounters with around 80 of the world’s largest bird species.
The Donkey Sanctuary in Santa Lucia features around 40 adorable donkeys, with floppy ears and inquisitive personalities. Arrive early enough and you and your kids can even volunteer, helping to feed and care for the cuddly nuzzlers!
Located on the southern coast near the island’s western end, downtown Oranjestad features a number of lovingly restored historical landmarks that are easy to see on a self-guided walking tour.
Start at Fort Zoutman, the capital city’s oldest building, which was built in 1798 by the Dutch army to protect the city from pirates. It was named after was named after Dutch Rear Admiral Johan Arnold Zoutman, who never actually visited the island. The current walls date back to 1936, and the building now houses the Historical Museum of Aruba.
Then there’s the Willem III Tower, which was built in 1966-1868 and was once a lighthouse and public clock tower. Named after King William III of the Netherlands, the tower and the fort were both renovated extensively from 1974 to 1980.
One of the city’s most distinctive buildings is the green “stadhuis” that houses Oranjestad City Hall, where many of Aruba’s legal marriages are performed. Along with many of the pastel-colored buildings that line Plaza Daniel Leo, it’s a fine example of classic Dutch colonial architecture.
My wife Emma and I have spent the better part of the last decade in and out of Guatemala. It’s a place that we refer to as home even today, much more so than England (where she’s from) or the United States (where I’m from).
Guatemala is a country that’s steeped in rich traditional cultures, from the ancient Maya to the Garifuna that live in settlements along its coast.
The art and traditions of Guatemalan culture move through millennia and cover terrain that, in a country smaller than Louisiana, includes belching volcanoes, sweltering tropical coasts, dense jungles, and chilly highlands.
There is such a wide array of cool culture in Guatemala to appreciate, it just feels right to share these 50 fascinating facts about it.
• Guatemala is widely considered the hearth of the Maya civilization, and many of its greatest cities, such as Tikal and El Mirador, were built and abandoned in the country. Mayans ruled the area that is now Guatemala until around 1000 AD.
• No one is quite sure what caused the downfall of the great Mayan cities throughout Guatemala. The Spanish did not arrive for about another 500 years.
• Today, nearly 40% of the population of Guatemala is indigenous, with the vast majority of those being of Mayan descent. K’iche, Kaqchikel, Mam, and Q’eqchi’ are the most prominent four of the 23 recognized Mayan groups in the country. Additionally, a non-Mayan group, the Xinca, makes up about 0.5 % of the population.
• Though Guatemala’s official language is Spanish, there are over 20 other languages still commonly spoken throughout the country. Twenty-one different Mayan languages are spoken throughout the highlands, and there are also two non-Mayan languages spoken along the Caribbean coast.
•Even in metropolitan areas, indigenous people usually use their native language to converse. However, these languages weren’t officially recognized by the government until 2003.
• In the 1500s, an unidentified man wrote Popol Vuh, which is considered Guatemala’s greatest literary work. It’s also recognized as the Sacred Book of the Ancient Maya Quiché, recounting the history of Maya-Quiché from the beginning of time until the Spanish conquest. The story is said to have been passed down orally and via hieroglyphics for generations.
• Rigaberta Menchú, a Quiché woman, was born in 1959, a year before the Guatemalan Civil War began. She grew up in an impoverished indigenous family and later became an activist, resisting the oppression of the Guatemalan government and fighting for indigenous rights.
She eventually told her story in a book,I, Rigaberta Menchú (1983), describing her life of struggle. She also narrated a documentary, When the Mountains Tremble (1987), about the civil war. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in the early 1990s.
• Corn features prominently in Guatemalan cuisine. It is ground into meal and fashioned into fresh tortillas daily. Corn tortillas accompany just about every meal, from fried chicken to soup. But it is mostly served with beans and rice. Corn masa, a dough, is also used to make traditional dishes such as tamales. But corn on the cob (a.k.a. sweet corn) is not really part of the Guatemalan culture.
• Tamales are a beloved, traditional Guatemalan food. They come in many varieties, but all recipes start with masa. The dough is stuffed with a featured ingredient, such as meat or vegetables. Guatemalan tamales are usually wrapped in a special green leaf called maxan. A similar dish, called chuchitos, are wrapped in corn husks, as Mexican tamales generally are.
• Pepian is a stew with chunky meat, typically chicken, and potatoes in it. The sauce is largely made of ground pepitos (pumpkin seeds) and sesame seeds. It also has a dizzying assortment of dried chilies in it, most of which are not regularly found outside of Guatemala. The stew is usually served over rice. It’s a common meal around Christmas and other special occasions.
• The Mayan people were the inventors of chocolate. It started off with hot chocolate, usually spiked with an assortment of spices such ascardamom, chilies, and cinnamon. The beverage was part of many rituals and something the Maya elite got to enjoy. The chocolate tradition also extended into modern times: Guatemala is where chocolate bars were invented.
• Fruit features largely in Guatemalan cuisine as well. There’s an abundance of tropical fruits, like pineapple, bananas, papayas, and mangoes. They are mostly served as licuados, which is more or less a smoothie. Licuados are a mixture of fruits and a choice of liquids, which is usually either water, milk or juice. They are offered in just about every restaurant, big or small, in the country.
• Guatemala is well known for its jade, which has been treasured since pre-Colombian times. During those times the only site from which you could get jade was in the Montagua River valley. Consequently, it was jade almost exclusively enjoyed by the elites and was very symbolic in ancient rituals. Nowadays, Guatemala is a huge exporter of jade.
• Guatemala is the world’s greatest producer of cardamom, by nearly double the amount of the next largest producer (India). While cardamom is an oft-used ingredient in Indian cooking, the spice isn’t so widely used in Guatemala today. For the rest of the world, it’s not uncommon to find it in specialty drinks, such as mulled wine, eggnog, and Arabic coffee.
• One need only visit a Starbucks (or any other gourmet coffee shop) to discover that Guatemalan coffee is widely considered some of the best coffee in the world. Coffee exporting is actually the country’s largest economic engine. It’s mostly grown in the central highlands of the country, and beans from around Antigua are the most prized. It’s possible to tour coffee fincas in that area, from luxury outfits to small co-ops.
• Guatemala’s second largest moneymaker is tourism. Over 1.2 million people visit the country each year, and many NGOs come from all over the world to work on projects in Guatemala. The county’s most visited destinations are Tikal (the country’s premier Mayan site); Lake Atitlan (arguably the most beautiful lake in the world); and Antigua, the country’s tourism capital. Of course, these only scratch the surface of what there is to see.
• Despite the fact that the US remains its chief export destination, Guatemala has a very difficult past with the United States. The CIA helped to overthrow the Guatemalan government in the 1950s, spurring the country’s monstrous civil war. The interference is linked to the United Fruit Company, whose exploitative practices suffered under the liberal government. Guatemala was (and, some would say, remains) a banana republic.
• During the six weeks of lent and especially Semana Santa, when festival processions are at their peak, Guatemala comes alive with sound. Somber wind and percussion music accompanies groups of people who suffer under the weight of large floats carried through town. Typically, there is an abundance of incense, costumes, and crosses as well.
• What is known about the music of the Maya is that they played a variety of (surprise, surprise!) wind and percussion instruments. The wind instruments were mostly made of cane or bone and consisted largely of whistles and ocarinas, a sort of pocket-sized flute. Percussion instruments included wooden drums with deer hides, rattles, and guiros, which are open-ended gourds that are rubbed to create a ratcheting effect.
• The instrument Guatemala is most famous for is the marimba. The first documentation of the existence of marimbas comes from the late 17th century in what is now Antigua. These look very much like large xylophones, but they are constructed mostly of wood. Diatonic rows of wooden bars are struck with mallets, often by multiple players, usually either three or four.
• It’s hugely important not to overlook the Garifuna culture when considering the music of Guatemala. Though they have much more of a Caribbean-influenced tradition, the Garifuna have villages up and down coasts of Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras. The music is a mixture of African-style drumming ensembles, rhythmic singing, and circular dances.
• Though it didn’t originate in Guatemala (but rather Puerto Rico), reggaeton is the pop music you’ll mostly hear coming from cell phones, out of car windows, and in dance clubs throughout the country. Not to be mistaken with reggae, reggaeton does have a reggae-like rhythm to it. But it’s mostly produced via percussion instruments, with Spanish lyrics rapped over them. The music is definitely associated with dancing.
• Ancient Mayan art mostly consisted of large murals and stelae, which are large, free-standing stone carvings. Today’s best example of Mayan murals are found at the Mexican site of Bonampak, but there are some in Guatemala as well. Quirigua, which is located in southern Guatemala, is arguably the most impressive collection of Maya stelae left in the region.
• In the centuries immediately following colonialism, most Guatemalan artists remained anonymous. However, there are two of note: Thomas de Merlo’s paintings can be seen in Antigua’s Museo de Arte Colonial; and Quirio Cataño’s sculpture, the Black Jesus of Esquipulas, receives visitors from all over Central America.
• Guatemala’s best-known artist, Carlos Mérida, lived to be nearly 100 years old (1891 to 1984). Though he studied painting in Paris, his style blended European influences with American themes to make Indigenista art. His art went through various phases—figurative, surrealist, geometric— over the course of his lifetime. Much of it is in Guatemala City’s Museum of Modern Art. He also painted murals in Guatemala City.
• Worry dolls are more folk art than high-brow, but they are a very common tradition that originates and continues in Guatemala. These are tiny, handmade dolls constructed of wire, wool, and leftover textiles. The figures are dressed in traditional Mayan clothing. They are given to children, who tell the doll about their troubles before putting it under their pillow and then sleeping over it. The dolls are sometimes used in child psychiatry today.
• The ancient Mayan people worked with two types of cotton, one white and one brown. In both cases the cotton was typically dyed, and it was largely enjoyed exclusively by the elites. The preparation process for the cotton was intense, including cleaning buds and removing seeds. Elite women were primarily the ones who took on these tasks.
• Most artisan weaving in Guatemala today comes from a rather rudimentary back-strap system. One end of the fabric is tied to a stationary object, such as a tree or a post, and the other end is looped around the back of the weaver, allowing her to adjust tension as needed. Typically, the weaver sits on the ground. But, with age, many begin using a small stool.
• Colors for yarn in Guatemala has customarily come from natural plant materials. Nowadays, yarn is still done this way, but artificially dyed yarns are not uncommon. Some of the plants used to make natural colors are carrots for orange, coconut shell for brown, hibiscus flower for pink, and achiote (a native spice) for orange.
• Tapestry crochet in Guatemala began with men in small villages making bags for personal use. Each bag’s colors and design reflected the town from which it came. These bags were constructed of the same cotton thread and natural dyes used for back-strap weaving. Now tapestry-crocheted bags, produced by both men and women, are a major item in tourist areas.
• Aside from cotton, maguey (which is also known as agave), is another plant that was commonly used for making fiber (as well as liquor) throughout Mesoamerica. The cords produced from this fiber were prized, used for things such as equestrian equipment, fishing nets, and hammocks.
Although the city has become synonymous with the world famous Taj Mahal, there’s more to Agra than this fascinating architectural wonder. In fact, there is an emperor’s wealth of things to do in Agra, especially for those who love history, nature, and wildlife.
With three UNESCO World Heritage Sites (the Taj Mahal, Agra Fort, and Fatehpur Sikri), Agra is a haven for history lovers. In fact, the city is as old as India’s ancient epic tale, the Mahabharata.
It originally became famous as Akbarabād, when the Mughal ruler Sultan Sikandar Lodī made it the capital of the Mughal Empire from 1556 to 1658. Having undergone many changes after the decline of the Mughal Empire, it fell under the influence of Marathas and then the British Raj.
For nature and wildlife lovers, the city (part of India’s “golden triangle” tourism circuit) offers an array of botanical gardens to explore and wildlife rescue/rehabilitation facilities you can visit.
Local NGO Wildlife SOS even has a volunteer program working with amazing animals such as Sloth Bears and Asian Elephants. Volunteers stay in a beautiful area of the SOS sanctuary, surrounded by birds and animals, and all proceeds help to fund their conservation efforts.
Here’s a look at our picks for 10 of the best things to do in Agra, India for nature and history lovers.
Wildlife SOS put the final nail in the coffin of this cruel, centuries-old practice of capturing juvenile Sloth Bears in the wild and training them to “dance” using torture and cruel training practices.
It was to the NGO’s credit that they achieved this without punishing the practitioners, the marginalized Kalandar community. Instead, the community-based tourism initiative helps the Kalandar people find alternative sources of sustainable income through the Kalandar Rehabilitation Program.
Established in 1999, the Agra Bear Rescue Facility currently houses around 200 sloth bears and other species of wildlife in large forested enclosures with ponds and shady trees. All of them were rescued from horrific lives as dancing bears, poaching, or situations of human conflict.
A 2-hour visit includes a guided tour, a documentary about India’s dancing bears, and a discussion with experts about the challenges of bear conservation in India. In addition, you’ll watch the rescued bears as they play, forage, climb trees, dig, and interact with their keepers.
If you volunteer with Wildlife SOS, you’ll have the unique opportunity to work alongside these incredible animals. You’ll spend five days building hammocks for Sloth Bears to rest in, constructing enrichment structures for play, and assisting keepers on daily afternoon feedings.
A visit to the Taj Mahal is essentially a must for any traveler who passes through Agra. Built by Shah Jahan in 1631 as a memorial for his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, the Taj is the reason why most tourists visit Agra in the first place.
A testament to Shah Jahan’s grief after his wife died giving birth to their 14th child, it’s a marvel of classic Mughal architecture.
Unfortunately for the emperor, his own son Aurangzeb ultimately imprisoned him in the Agra Fort. There, he spent his last days gazing at his beloved’s shrine until he joined her in death and was buried in the tomb right next to hers.
The platforms beneath the structure are made from sandstone and marble. Small domes, numbering 22 to commemorate the years it took to build the monument, adorn the top of the gate. The inscriptions in the walls represent verses from the Quran.
Red sandstone structures- mirror images of one another- bookend the Taj on either side. On the left is a Mosque, and on the right is a guest house called the Mehman Khana.
Mehman Khana by Priya Florence Shah
There are minor differences in each structure. For instance, in the mosque, the flooring is designed to simulate 596 prayer mats.
The Wuzu water tank in front of the mosque is for the purpose of cleansing one’s body parts before namaz, or worship.
There are gardens, residential quarters, the Gateway, and two other tombs (belonging to the emperor’s other wives) that make up the other structures surrounding the main structure. These are also well worth a visit.
New restrictions have recently been put in place in an effort to protect the ancient site from the negative impacts of overtourism. Entry to the monument has been restricted to 40,000 tourists daily, and a three-hour cap imposed on each visit.
Sheesh Mahal by Ronakshah1990 CC BY-SA 4.0 , from Wikimedia Commons
Reflect at Sheesh Mahal in the Agra Red Fort
Built by Shah Jahan, the Sheesh Mahal (Mirror Palace) was a Royal dressing room located inside the Agra Fort, which was the domain of the emperor’s queens.
It is a stunning hall of mirrors, well-preserved and detailed. The intricate glass work in the ceiling reflects light to illuminate the room beautifully.
When occupied by the queens of old, these walls were inlaid with precious gems and diamonds. Unfortunately, those were stolen by the British when they occupied it. But the marks on the walls where the gems were removed are still visible.
Usually closed to the public, it is sometimes possible to catch a view of this unique room.
Located close to the Sheesh Mahal, you’ll find the Musamman or Shah Burj (an octagonal tower) and Anguri Bagh (a sprawling historical courtyard, with a formal charbagh-style garden). These are also worth a visit while you’re exploring the historic Agra Fort.
Mehtab Bagh Garden at the Taj Mahal by Narender9 CC BY-SA 3.0 , from Wikimedia Commons
Wander in the Mehtab Bagh Garden
The Mehtab Bagh (Moonlight) Garden is a square complex, built by Emperor Babur, that actually predates the Tāj Mahal.
This was the last of 11 Mughal gardens created along the Yamuna, opposite the Taj Mahal and the Agra Fort. It lies north of the Taj and in perfectly alignment with it, on the opposite side of the Yamuna River.
Created as a moonlit pleasure garden, the Mehtab Bagh was identified by Emperor Shah Jahan as an ideal location for viewing the Taj Mahal. So the garden was designed as an integral part of the complex in the riverfront terrace pattern.
Legend has it that Shah Jahan intended to build a Black Taj Mahal (a twin to the Taj Mahal) as a tomb for himself, but failed to do so before he was imprisoned by his son, Aurangzeb. The remains of what is thought to be the foundation of the Black Taj Mahal can be seen near the garden’s pond.
Entry to the garden is free, and security is tight. The garden is partially flooded during the rainy season, so the best time to visit is winter and early summer.
You can also see plenty of birds along the river and in the gardens. But do note that the garden gets crowded in the evenings, when the setting sun showcases the Taj Mahal in its most gorgeous light.
Ram Bagh Mughal Garden via C.P.R. Environmental Education Centre, Chennai
Explore the Aram (Ram) Bagh
This is the first Mughal garden of its type, laid out by the Mughal ruler Babur in 1528. He was buried here briefly, before his removal to Kabul. It is said that Akbar I (the third Mughal Emperor) proposed to his third wife, who was a gardener here, by lying idle for 6 days until she relented.
The garden is the first tourist attraction you can see when coming to Agra via the Yamuna Expressway. Originally called Aram Bagh (Garden of Repose), it was changed to Ram Bagh by the Marathas.
The garden is based on the Persian ideal of Paradise – an abundant garden through which rivers flow– and is divided by geometric water channels and water pools.
It is local adjacent to the Yamuna River bank and has a long, raised, red sandstone walkway stretching to the banks of the river, with steps leading down to it. A variety of birds, monkeys, squirrels, and butterflies abound here.
Apparently Babur installed a Takkhana– an underground room which kept him cool in the heat of Agra’s unbearable summers– here.
Located about five kilometers northeast of the Taj Mahal, Aram Bagh is another great place from which to view and photograph the iconic monument. The garden is open on all days from sunrise to sunset, and you can visit it for an hour at a time.
Tomb of Itmad-ud-Daulah, Agra by Royroydeb CC BY-SA 4.0 from Wikimedia Commons
See the Tomb of Itimad Ud Daulah
This Mughal mausoleum was commissioned by Nūr Jahān, the wife of Jahangir, for her father Mirzā Ghiyās Beg. He was originally a Persian Amir living in exile, on whom had been conferred the title of I’timād-ud-Daulah (Pillar of the State).
Sometimes referred to as the “Baby Taj,” the monument was built between 1622 and 1628, and is often regarded as a draft of the Taj Mahal.
Like most Mughal structures, it consists of numerous outbuildings and is set in a large cruciform garden criss-crossed by water courses and walkways.
Architecturally, it represents a transition between the first phase of monumental Mughal architecture (which was built from red sandstone with marble decorations) and its second phase (which was based on white marble and pietra dura inlay).
The walls are white marble sourced from Rajasthan and encrusted with semi-precious stones. Delicate jālī screens of intricately carved white marble allow light to penetrate into the interior.
The cenotaphs of Nur Jahan’s parents are also placed side-by-side, in a fashion similar to that of Shah Jahan and and his wife’s tombs in the Taj Mahal.
Main Gate to Akbar’s Tomb by *_*, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Visit Akbar’s Tomb at Sikandra
Akbar I was one of the most well-known Mughal Emperors, and his tomb is a significant Mughal architectural masterpiece.
Built in 1604–1613, Akbar’s Tomb is situated on 119 acres of grounds in Sikandra (a suburb of Agra) on the Mathura road (NH2).
The tomb is a four-tiered pyramid constructed from a deep red sandstone, enriched with features in white marble. It is surmounted by a marble pavilion containing the false tomb. As in other mausoleums, the true tomb is located in the basement.
The panel designs are geometric, floral, and calligraphic, heralding the complex and subtle designs later incorporated in Itmad-ud-Daulah’s Tomb.
The construction of the tomb was planned by Akbar himself, who selected a suitable site for it. It was completed by his son, Prince Salim (Jahangir). During the time of Mughal ruler Aurangzeb, the rebellious Jats ransacked this intricate tomb, plundering and looting all the gold, jewels, silver, and carpets.
The Jat ruler, Raja Ram, didn’t even leave Akbar’s tomb intact, instead opening the grave and dragging out the late emperor’s bones. This made Aurangzeb so furious that he captured Raja Ram and killed him. Over the last few centuries, the tomb has undergone extensive repairs.
Buland Darwaza Gate by Marcin Białek via CC BY-SA 3.0 from Wikimedia Commons
Traverse Buland Darwaza & Fatehpur Sikri
Measuring around 176 feet from ground level, Buland Darwaza (the “Gate of Magnificence”) is the tallest gate in the world. This majestic 15-story gateway was built in 1601 AD by Mughal Emperor Akbar I to commemorate his victory over the state of Gujarat.
Made of red and buff sandstone, and decorated with white and black marble, this imposing structure is the main entrance to the palace at Fatehpur Sikri, a town located 26 miles from Agra. The approach to the gate is via a flight of 42 steps that sweeps down the hill, giving the gateway additional height.
The gate is topped by large free standing kiosks, called chhatris. It is semi-octagonal in design, with two smaller triple-storied wings on either side. The principal arch forms the focal point of three projecting sides, topped by a dome and broken into three tiers, with rows of smaller arches and flat brackets.
A Persian inscription on the eastern archway records Akbar’s conquest over Uttar Pradesh and the victory in Gujarat in 1601. An inscription on the central face describes Akbar’s religious tolerance.
When most people think of Thailand, they probably envision white sandy beaches, tasty tropical cocktails, stunning temples, and crumbling archaeological sites. They probably also conjure up images of delicious food and friendly people.
Those were certainly the visions I had of Thailand before I visited the Southeast Asian nation. And thankfully, they all turned out to be true!
But, after three months of exploring the country, I ultimately realized that Thailand has a lot more to offer travelers than just gorgeous beaches, temples, and people.
There are also plentiful opportunities for getting up close to nature in some fantastic national parks, where the local wildlife comes front and center to the experience.
To that end, check out our picks for the best National Parks in Thailand, to give you an idea of what the country has to offer for nature lovers…
This park has limestone islands, karst mountains, and other dramatic rock cliffs which rise from the sea. You can explore caves, find hidden lagoons, and even go island-hopping to many different white sand beaches.
Ang Thong Park is a protected area with more than 100 square kilometers of land and sea. It can easily be visited on a day trip from Koh Samui on a speedboat, or you can join group tours on Thailand’s famous long tail boats.
If you want to stay longer, there are simple bungalows and campingtents available on the main island, where the park headquarters is located. There are many activities to do there, like snorkeling, Scuba diving, kayaking, hiking or even just relaxing on one of the beaches.
One activity you can’t miss is to climb up to the park’s scenic viewpoint, from which you can see most of the islands in the area. There are steps for the first few parts of the climb, and rest areas where you can stop to see the fantastic view along the way.
The climb can become a bit tough, especially on the last leg of the hike. But you’ll definitely be rewarded with an awesome view from the top! –Angie Ibarra of Travel Moments
Doi Inthanon view from Kew Mae Pan trail byLaurence Norah
DOI INTHANON NATIONAL PARK
The northern part of Thailand is much cooler (temperature-wise) and hillier than the plains of the center or the beaches of the south.
It’s here that the foothills to the massive peaks of the Himalayas begin. It is also where you can find Thailand’s highest mountain– Doi Inthanon- which sits in the heart of Doi Inthanon National Park.
Doi Inthanon is home to fascinating micro-climates that you won’t find anywhere else in Thailand. There are also hill tribes (who will welcome you to their villages with copious amounts of homegrown coffee), gorgeous waterfalls, and superb hiking opportunities.
These include a 3-kilometer hike through a cloud forest and along the edge of the mountain, and a 1-kilometer nature trail through dense, moss coated forests. All of which are unforgettable ecotourismexperiences. -Laurence Norah of Finding The Universe
Erawan National Park Thailand Waterfalls by Michael Meraner
ERAWAN NATIONAL PARK
Erawan National Park is located in the Kanchanaburi Province, west of Thailand’s capital in Bangkok. The park was founded in 1975 and covers a total area of 550 square kilometers.
Erawan is one of the most visited national parks in Thailand, mostly thanks its main attraction, the Erawan Waterfalls. The falls have seven tiers, which can be accessed with a short walk through the jungle of the park from the main parking area.
The national park can easily be visited on a day trip from Bangkok. If you have time, it is best to spend a night at Kanchanaburi and then head to the falls in the morning. You’ll want to beat the crowds and have a much better experience.
At the fourth tier you’ll find a large stone, from which you can slide into the clear water below. If you feel adventurous, you should definitely give it a try.
Warning: Don’t carry any food or water bottles on the outside of your bags and backpacks. There are numerous monkeys lurking in the treetops, and they will jump down to grab anything that looks remotely like a food item.
But don’t worry: The monkeys are harmless, and nothing bad happens even if they do jump on you. It’s all part of the adventure! –Mike Meraner of 197 TravelStamps
Dugong by By Julien Willem via CC BY-SA 3.0 from Wikimedia Commons
HAT CHAO MAI NATIONAL PARK
If you prefer your nature experience to be more of the bird- and sea-based variety, you’ll want to head to Hat Chao Mai National Park.
The marine park is located down in the southwestern corner of Thailand, in the Trang Province on the world-famous Andaman coast. Established in 1981, its 89 square miles include some impressive, protected coral reef systems.
Here, the environmental conditions (which include vast expanses of sea grass and tidal mudflats) are perfect for both birds and aquatic animals, including the increasingly rare dugong.
Beyond the national park, this area is also superb for enjoying empty beaches, gorgeous sunsets, and spicy southern Thai food. You can also go hopping amongst some of Thailand’s least well-known and most beautiful islands. -Laurence Norah of Finding The Universe
This park is ideal for hikers, boasting numerous hiking trails of various lengths as well as several impressive waterfalls. Bang Pae is the largest waterfall in the Phuket area, while Ton Sai is a smaller waterfall that’s located near the park entrance.
Entrance to the national park costs 200 THB (around $6.30 US), but is well worth it considering the sheer number of hikes available to visitors.
Numerous types of Asian wildlife can be seen in the park, such as langurs, deer, and monkeys. You’ll also find more than 100 different bird species and countless trees. But the park is perhaps best known as the home of the world renowned Gibbon Rehabilitation Center.
Located near Bang Pae Waterfall, the center’s goal is to rescue and rehabilitate injured and orphaned gibbons before returning them to their natural habitat. Visitors to the park can contribute to the project by visiting the center and donating.
With so many trails to visit, make sure to wear comfortable water shoes with a good gripping sole. Trekking uphill in sandals may not be the most comfortable option. -Anika Chaturvedi
Elephant Hills in Khao Sok National Park by Kavita Favelle
KHAO SOK NATIONAL PARK
There are many National Parks in Thailand that protect swathes of beautiful countryside and marine habitat. But Khao Sok National Park is among the most popular with visitors.
One of the main reasons is because of the park’s easy accessibility. You can reach Khao Sok from coastal hotspots such as Phuket and Krabi as well as local airports at Phuket and Surat Thani, both of which are just over an hour from Bangkok.
Along with its lush green jungle and towering limestone mountains, Khao Sok National Park is best known for the man-made Cheow Lan Lake. This beautiful lake was formed in 1987 by the building of the Ratchaprapha Dam.
There’s lots of wildlife to be spotted in the jungles of the national park, including several species of monkeys, deer, and birds. We particularly loved our visit to one of Thailand’s most well-run ethical elephant sanctuaries, Elephant Hills.
Another huge attraction is the lake itself. Boat trips allow visitors to appreciate the beauty of the exceptionally clean and clear water (which appears emerald green in the sunlight) and the imposing limestone peaks.
Visitors can stay overnight at many locations within the park, including a number of options in the forest. I personally loved our stay at a Cheow Lan Lake floating camp, with its tents built on decks that float at the lake’s edge.
Swimming and kayaking are the main activities here, as well as day hikes in the jungle. Floating in the cooling waters on a hot Thailand day was a magical experience we’ll never forget. –Kavita Favelle of Kavey Eats
The third largest national park in Thailand, Khao Yai features stunning grasslands and forests, which reminded me very much of Africa.
It’s one of the few places in Thailand where Asian elephants can still be seen in the wild, and we were lucky enough to see some as part of a guided hike.
You can also take nighttime wildlife spotting tours, where you might see deer, wild pigs, porcupines, and more. The national park is also home to the rare Asiatic black bear and even tigers, although these are very difficult to spot!
This nature-lover’s wonderland covers 615,000 hectares and is home to over 800 different species of fauna. Around 20 of these are considered vulnerable, four are currently listed as endangered, and one is critically endangered. –Laurence Norah of Finding The Universe
Wild Elephants in Kui Buri National Park by KOSIN SUKHUM CC BY-SA 4.0 , from Wikimedia Commons
KUI BURI NATIONAL PARK
A highlight of any visit to Thailand, Kui Buri is another of Thailand’s national parks that offers visitors good chances to see Asian elephants in the wild.
Here, you’re almost guaranteed to see elephants, none of which are subjected to harsh treatment or exploitation. Instead of being ridden or painting photos for tourists, you’ll see these majestic animals herding as matriarchal families through evergreen forests and grasslands.
You’ll also have a chance to see other rare species of Asian wildlife, including the bison-like gaur, Asian leopards, muntjacs, Malaysian tapirs, golden jackals, leopards, bantengs, and langurs.
Visitors can take day-trip safaris though the park or camp overnight. We recommend booking a guided tour, which will give you the best chance of spotting wildlife. Local guides keep in contact with one another to share information on where animals have been spotted.
If you do self-drive, note that private vehicles are not allowed to pass beyond the Huai Leuk substation wildlife viewing area. The best time to spot wildlife is the late afternoon. But you must enter the wildlife-watching areas before 5PM, and will be allowed to remain there until sunset.
Due to strict conservation regulations, hiking is not allowed within the park at all. But short walks from vehicles to the wildlife viewing areas are permitted. –Meg and Mike Jerrard of MappingMegan
However, creating your own permaculture garden is not a bad way to start yourself down the road to sustainable living.
It was how my wife Emma and I began our journey, and how we like to introduce and share the practice with others.
So here, using Permaculture co-founder David Holmgren’s 12 principles of permaculture, I’m going to walk you step-by-step through the process of using permaculture design in your own garden, including tips on how to make it low-maintenance and waste-free.
Where is it sunny? Shady? Does water congregate at a certain point? Are there certain areas where it doesn’t reach? Is there a drip line? Are there existing plants?
Are there any spots we need to keep clear for human use? Are wind tunnels or frost pockets an issue? What elements might be advantageous or problematic? For now, just use your basic knowledge to think it through.
Before we begin to modify our space, we think through things and make educated choices on where certain plants might work best.
For example, mint is going to be very thirsty, so it might be perfect for spots that get waterlogged. Other plants, such as root vegetables, would likely rot in the same area. It’s a classic “square peg in a round hole” type of thing.
Your permaculture garden will benefit from maximizing the space you use, including the vertical areas and the garden bed layout.
Planting in rows is extremely wasteful, as the dip between every row is empty.
We often use keyhole garden designs to create more planting area per square foot. You can also have hanging pots of dangling tomatoes and planters of green beans that careen up the patio post.
Herbs and Salad Greens Right Outside the Kitchen
Principle 2: Harvest and Harness Energy
In permaculture, we strive to responsibly take advantage of what resources are already there, and use them effectively and efficiently.
When we’re designing our permaculture gardens, there are many ways for us to do this.
A daily kitchen garden should ideally be as close to the stove as possible. It’s best when located near our outdoor patios and seating areas, where we’re likely to spend the most time.
Some of it may even be inside, as pots on the windowsills and/or the corners of our breakfast nook. This means it takes little to no energy to care for and harvest from our garden.
But “harvesting and harnessing energy” means much more. Composting is a great example. Organic matter such as food scraps (especially fruits, vegetables, eggshell, and coffee grounds) give us the opportunity to make rich, fertile soil. So they should never be thrown away.
Compost systems should be set up in (or near) the garden in order to take advantage of this household waste and to make it easier to transport to the garden beds.
Another example that is especially applicable to gardens is harvesting and storing water. We can catch rainwater from our rooftops and store it in rain barrels, which can later be used to water our garden.
This not only conserves the cost of using water from the city or county, but it also is better for the garden because it hasn’t been treated with chemicals.
Keyhole Garden by Isabell Schulz via CC 2.0
Principle 3: Get Production
It’s very easy to get overly excited by a project and go all in on creating our permaculture garden right off the bat.
But things tend to go much more smoothly when we ease into our garden designs, testing the water before taking the plunge. In other words, let an area or design idea show some results before investing a lot of time and effort in it.
Before building the beds, we usually plant our seeds and get our cuttings rooted. It takes anywhere from two weeks to a month before most things can handle being planted into a garden.
After they have two or three adult leaves (roughly a month), then they can go into the beds.
We like to grow plenty of easy yield veggies, such as salad greens. We start early and try to get results before proceeding.
Once a certain crop proves successful, expand from there. Grow more of that crop and other crops like it.
This is how we avoid planting ten tomato plants in a row in the wrong location and getting nothing from them. Before going all the way with an idea, it’s generally a smart idea to let it provide rewards first.
When the garden is productive, the effort of tending it becomes infinitely easier. It’s no bother to walk through the garden every other day when you get back to the kitchen with a basket full of stuff to eat. A little production goes a long way!
Use found wood and objects for trellises and borders
Principle 4: Regulate and Adjust
Though we want production, it’s equally important that we get there sustainably. This requires regulating ourselves and adjusting when we notice that we might be causing damage, either now or in the future.
Modern agricultural systems are often the antithesis of this principle. Growing large monocultures completely disrupts ecosystems and depletes the land.
Instead of adjusting methodology, the custom has become to simply throw more chemicals and technology at it. Then the next problem (such as superbugs) comes along.
Factory farms do a similar injustice. There is a high concentration of animals, which creates a high concentration of manure.
In older systems, manure from small numbers of farm animals would have gone straight into the farm’s gardens or pastures. Nowadays, these systems are all so separated that we’ve instead created health hazards, such as feedlots.
Our garden design should regulate the inputs and outputs. Essentially, we want a garden that works in the natural cycles of life.
For example, plants use the soil to grow. People eat the plants. The kitchen scraps go to the compost to decompose. The compost (decomposed organic matter) feeds the soil. And the plants grow again. It’s a no-waste system!
But it’s important to understand that rarely do systems work perfectly on the first try. The idea is to avoid overabundance that becomes waste we can’t deal with. We should never permanently harm our gardens for impermanent results.
Compost Bin, photo by Bruce McAdam via CC 2.0Principle 5: Use Renewable Resources
With so many products out there to buy, it’s not difficult to forget that nature actually provides us with what we need. This is even more true in the garden.
One needs only look at a forest to realize it can all be grown with renewable, natural resources. One of the important permaculture principles is to be less consumptive, using what we have on hand before buying something else.
This includes gathering the materials needed for creating our permaculture garden, such as soil, mulch, trellises, borders and so on.
This is much easier than it seems, and rarely do we need to buy garden materials from the nursery. We just have to be more imaginative with and more accepting of what’s already there.
Spring is a great time to capture fallen leaves, twigs, and limbs that have decomposed over the winter. Start piling up your grass clippings for making mulch. Old corners of garden beds and forgotten potted plants can serve as rich earth for new raised bed construction.
Hold on to things like bottles and cans that might make for good upcycled planters, or spare pieces of wood that can be converted into cool garden borders.
Keep an eye out for old newspapers and cardboard toilet rolls to use for seedling pots. When the time is right, plant these free, biodegradable pots directly into the soil, which will help to ease the shock of transplanting.
Creating a home seed bank falls right in line with this. Many plants can be started from clippings as well. There’s no need to buy it all new every year. We can be our own free source of garden materials, crop seeds, and organic food!
Mixed Seedlings by Irene Knightley via CC 2.0Principle 6: Make Waste-Free Cycles
In permaculture, the old adage “Waste not, want not” is crucial.
There is a constant striving to eliminate waste by creating cycles in which seemingly useless objects become valuable resources. By creating cyclical systems, we are able to use our waste for more productivity, just as natural systems do.
Trees are a fantastic example of a productive cycle: Trees feed themselves, and entire ecosystems. They drop leaf litter, seeds, and dead limbs, which feed the microorganisms in the soil and nearby animals, such as squirrels and birds.
In turn, the microorganisms and animals feed the trees with their processing of those organic materials, and the tree grows larger, continuing the cycle. Nothing goes to waste.
We can do the same thing in our gardens. Nothing should be disregarded as unimportant.
The weeds we pull can become mulch or compost. The scraps of food we harvest can go into the same compost, as can the residue of crop plants or rotten vegetables.
The garden needs all of these waste items in order to continue its cycle. Nothing in it or from it should be thrown away.
In fact, any kind of yard work yields a plethora of good stuff for the garden. Pruned branches become compost. Raked leaves create leaf mold. Cut grass can be used as mulch. And even fallen trees can be transformed into garden borders.
Toilet Paper Seedling Cup by Stacie girlingearstudio via CC 2.0Principle 7: Move from patterns to details
It’s important when designing a permaculture garden to note successful patterns in nature and use those as inspiration.
We have to envision a holistic approach (the forest) before getting down to the individual implications (the trees). Permaculture always shoots for big picture results.
With gardens, this includes zoning. Permaculture designs are zoned so that those elements that need the most attention– be it care, feeding, or harvesting– are put closest to the center of activity (which is typically a house or barn).
When we design our gardens in this way, by making the process more convenient as opposed to building a plot in the far corner of the backyard, we set ourselves up for success.
The first zone (the one nearest to the house) typically has salad greens, herbs, and other crops that are used daily in the kitchen.
Beyond those, in zone two, more substantial crops are grown, including fruit trees, staple vegetables, and so on. These things don’t necessarily need daily attention. And on it goes.
Designing your garden in this pattern– keeping what needs the most attention closer– makes our gardens more efficient and easier to tend.
Every gardener has different priorities, so every garden should be different. If salad greens are of no interest, they shouldn’t be in the garden.
Perhaps they’ll be replaced with a more desirable daily crop, such as strawberries for breakfast smoothies. But the overall pattern should work much the same.
Permaculture design is built around the idea that biodiversity is what leads to healthy environments.
Designs are holistic, using the house to capture rainwater, passive solar heating to stay warm, and productive gardens to supply shade, food, beauty. Everything is better off when working together rather than being forced into competitive roles.
Gardens are definitely better off being a mix of things rather than large monocultures, because the latter approach brings several inherent problems with it.
Monocultures are vast feeding grounds for whatever pests like that crop. Whatever nutrients that crop needs from the soil becomes quickly depleted. And balanced diets do not come from fields filled with one type of food.
Permaculture gardens are designed around the idea of many different components working together. Many plants make great friends.
Traditionally used by Native Americans, the “three sisters” (corn, beans, and squash) worked extremely well together.
The beans fix nitrogen into the soil for the corn and squash. The squash protects the soil with its leaves and deters animals with its spiny stems. And the corn provides a stalk for the beans to climb. Codependent teams like this are abundant in the plant kingdom.
Permaculture gardeners strive to create dynamic, interactive communities– little ecosystems within themselves– which makes for healthier, happier plants. Healthier, happier plants equate to a healthier, happier planet and healthier, happier humans.
The other day, during a conversation about the places we’ve traveled to and would never re-visit, we were flabbergasted when a friend suggested that Costa Rica had nothing further to offer her.
We’ve explored ecotourism in Costa Rica three times now. We’ve traveled its nooks and crannies, ranging from the rivers of Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge (near the Nicaragua border) to the remote Caribbean coast of Tortuguero National Park.
We’ve seen thousands of different Costa Rican animals, from massive mammals and reptiles to remarkably colorful birds, butterflies, and frogs.
With the country’s impressive array of ecosystems– from sunny beaches and volcano-fed hot springs to the world’s most bio-diverse rainforests– we honestly couldn’t imagine anyone getting bored with exploring Costa Rica.
Called “the most biologically intense place on Earth” by National Geographic, the park contains approximately 5% of all wildlife species found on the planet.
Truth be told, the entire country is a wildlife-lover’s dream come true. To illustrate that point, we collaborated with our Green Travel Media pals to create this epic photo gallery of 40 Costa Rican wildlife species.
Though it contains only a fraction of the amazing animals you might see during your visit (sadly, we got no shots of hard-to-spot species such as jaguars, anteaters, pumas, and harpy eagles), it should give you a taste of why we keep going back to Costa Rica over and over again.
Black-Throated Trogon in Corcovado National Park, by Bret Love & Mary Gabbett
A black throat stands out against the green or golden-colored body of the Black-Throated Trogon, which is found in lowland forest ecosystems throughout Central and South America.
These beautiful birds consume insects and fruit, and are relatively small (weighing 54-58 grams).
Despite their diminutive size, Black-Throated Trogons make deep sounds and whistles similar to other trogons.
These birds are frequently seen perching for lengthy periods of time when they’re not hunting for food. Thankfully, unlike some other Costa Rican animals, this bird is quite widespread and has a large population distribution.
Broad-Billed Motmot at La Selva Biological Research Station, by Jim O’Donnell
Native to forests with humid climates, Broad-billed Motmots are slightly smaller than Rufous Motmots, a similar-looking yet unrelated bird.
Despite their size, these birds also make harsh, deep noises. Broad-billed Motmots have bright coloring, with rufous-orange on the head and neck and blue and green on the back.
These birds are mostly found in South America and Costa Rican forests, feeding on insects and small reptiles.
They hunt their prey by waiting in the middle layers of the trees, and are very territorial.
Chestnut-Mandibled Toucan in Corcovado National Park, by Bret Love & Mary Gabbett
The Toucan family includes around 40 different species, ranging from the 11.5-inch tall Lettered Aracari to the 29-inch Toco Toucan.
Sightings are fairly frequent, and they generally rank among the most popular birds of Costa Rica. Perhaps it’s because of their bright markings and huge colorful bills. Or maybe it’s just the fact that it reminds people of a favorite childhood breakfast cereal.
The Chestnut-Mandibled Toucan, also known as Swanson’s Toucan, is a subspecies of the Yellow-throated Toucan, which is common from Honduras south to northern Colombia and western Ecuador.
These beautiful birds boast black bodies offset by vivid colors ranging from maroon (on their head, back, bill, and breast) and yellow (face, bill, breast) to green (eyes) and blue (legs). Look for them in flocks of 3 to 12 members, feeding on fruit in the treetops.
Crimson Collared Tanager in Tirimbina Biological Reserve, by Bret Love & Mary Gabbett
Crimson Collared Tanager
Standing out from the crowd with red and black feathers, the Crimson-collared Tanager is named for the bright red feathers around its neck and along its tail.
Referred to as a mystery bird by The Guardian, these birds do not have a “sister species.” Its DNA is not closely related to other birds, despite having basic physical similarities to some species.
They are sometimes confused with the similarly-named Crimson-collared Grosbeak, but ultimately stand alone.
The tanager lives in the humid forests of Central America, usually in the higher levels of foliage.
Golden-Browed Chlorophonia near Rio Savegre, by Jim O’Donnell
These striking birds (which are also known as the Rualdo Bird) are bright blue, green, and yellow in color. But they’re not very commonly seen, as they live in the upper canopy of the forest.
There is an intriguing local legend surrounding the Golden-Browed Chlorophonia and its voice. It is believed that the bird befriended a young girl who lived near Costa Rica’s temperamental Poas Volcano.
When the girl was going to be sacrificed in order to save the village, the bird intervened by singing its beautiful song to the volcano and sparing the girl’s life.
This folk tale is considered a testament to the beloved bird’s inner and outer beauty.
Resplendent Quetzal Near Rio Savegre, by Jim O’Donnell
These tiny, brightly-colored birds are sure to grab people’s attention, easily ranking at the top of most Costa Rican birdwatchers’ bucket lists.
The Resplendent Quetzal’s bright green feathers have a dazzling sort of radiance to them, especially in contrast to the plain white and black feathers on its stomach. Other species of Quetzal can’t quite compare.
These birds like to spend most of their time in tall cloud forests near the growth of fruit, which it eats along with insects. This tends to make spotting them all the more difficult, and special
Although these birds are small, they are quite powerful. About 20 percent of their body mass comes from their flight muscles, which makes foraging while they’re in flight an easy task.
Roseate Spoonbills in Tortuguero National Park, by Bret Love & Mary Gabbett
The Roseate Spoonbill is part of the distinctive-looking spoonbill family, with five other subspecies being found outside the Americas.
This bird feeds in an unusual way, by swinging its spoon-shaped bill side to side in the water with its mouth open to find prey.
They reside in marshes and other wetlands, and can often be found feeding around mangrove estuaries.
In addition to its bizarre bill, the bird is named for its coloration. Much like flamingoes, their feathers are pink due to the consumption of fish and crabs that contain carotenoids, a natural pigment that’s also found in shrimp.
Located on Costa Rica‘s remote Osa Peninsula, Corcovado National Park has been referred to by National Geographic as “the most biologically intense place on Earth in terms of biodiversity.”
At 164 square miles, it’s the largest national park in Costa Rica, the largest primary forest on the American Pacific coastline, and one of the few remaining large areas of lowland tropical rainforests in the world.
It’s also one of the most pristine nature sanctuaries we’ve ever visited. Corcovado offers an impressively diverse array of ecosystems, ranging from montane forest and cloud forest to prairie and mangrove swamp.
The park provides a home for more than 500 tree species and a dizzying array of Costa Rican animals, including the endangered Baird’s Tapir, the rare Harpy Eagle, Jaguar, Puma, and four Monkey species.
In short, it’s a veritable Garden of Eden for nature-lovers like us.
There’s a change that washes over me every time we venture away from the city and into the remote wilderness of a place like Corcovado. It’s a feeling I’ve gotten every single time we’ve explored the wealth of ecotourism activities and attractions in Costa Rica.
It’s a mental, emotional, spiritual and physiological transformation. It feels as if the Universe is taking the myriad pieces of the puzzle of my soul– which often feels discombobulated and disconnected by the daily complexities of “civilization”– and reassembling them into a perfectly congruous whole.
My senses come alive. My eyes, heart, and mind are wide open. My spirit is filled with an almost childlike awe and wonder.
It is in moments like these that I feel most like the man I was always meant to be. I connect with the NATURAL me, perfectly in tune with myself and the world around me. Perhaps this explains why places like Corcovado make me feel so at home, and at peace.
Bird’s-Eye View of the Seaside Near Palmar Sur, Costa Rica
GETTING TO CORCOVADO NATIONAL PARK
The easiest way to get to Corcovado is to fly out of the airport in San Jose. Numerous carriers offer flights for around $80-$100 each way. If money is no object, you can even charter a private flight that will take you directly to the Sirena Ranger Station, in the heart of the park.
It’s also possible to drive to the park, but a sturdy 4WD vehicle is highly recommended. There are two main routes: The Pan American Highway heads east from San José, climbs over the Cerro de la Muerte mountains, then eventually gets you to Puerto Jimenez around 4 hours later.
The Caldera Rd (Hwy 27) is more scenic, taking you along the Coastal Route (Hwy 34) to Palmar, where it meets the Pan American Highway. Both routes require travelers to take an inexpensive ferry from Puerto Jimenez to reach the park.
As our Nature Air flight heads southeast of San Jose towards the tiny town of Palmar Sur (in the Osa region of Puntarenas), I can already feel the stress being shrugged from my shoulders. It’s as if I were shedding filthy work clothes and taking a hot shower at the end of a long day.
We pass over remote mountain villages, winding rivers and, finally, the Pacific Ocean. All thoughts of deadlines and other responsibilities begin to fade from my mind.
My breathing slows, my body relaxes, and I start to notice all the beautiful details. I see cotton-fluff clouds caressing a verdant hillside, the vibrant hues of water where the river meets the sea, the impeccable symmetry of an oceanside palm plantation.
Though I’ve been working like a dog and am going on less than 5 hours sleep, I find myself feeling renewed and refreshed. Or maybe that’s just the strong Costa Rican coffee…
10-Foot Crocodile on the Bank of the Sierpe River
EXPLORING THE SIERPE RIVER
If you’re not in a rush, the most exciting way to get to Corcovado National Park is to fly into the Palmar Sur airport and head to the town of Sierpe.
There, we rendezvoused with our new blogger friends Dan & Casey (of A Cruising Couple); our guide, Freddy; and our boat captain, Roberto, who is better known as “Eagle Eye.”
As we put our gear into waterproof bags for the 2-hour boat journey to the lodge, that familiar Costa Rica climate kicked in. The heat, humidity, and dazzling play of sunlight on the water of the Sierpe River combined to create a pleasant, fuzzy-brained feeling I can only compare to a fever dream.
We’re less than two minutes into our journey to Corcovado when “Eagle Eye” spots our first Costa Rican wildlife. It’s a gargantuan American Crocodile(which average 12-16 feet in length) sunning himself on the muddy river bank just a few hundred yards from the dock.
He holds his ground as the captain slowly navigates the boat closer to shore, providing exceptional views of his exceptionally sharp teeth and prehistoric-looking form.
After posing perfectly while we snap our camera shutters frantically in an effort to capture his fearsome presence, he slips into the river’s murky waters, eyeing us suspiciously.
Little Blue Heron in the Térraba-Sierpe National Wetlands
THE HISTORY OF SIERPE, COSTA RICA
Long before the town of Sierpe existed, the Sierpe River was considered sacred by Costa Rica’s indigenous natives. They named it after the Spanish word for “snake” because of the way it winds its coils through the Térraba River.
Local legend holds that shaman apprentices, during their last week of training, were required to go on a vision quest.
The apprentices would climb seven mountain cascades in order to collect fungus they would use to make a hallucinogenic tea. Then they’d spend seven days drinking and fasting, spending one night at each of the river’s seven different mouths (the heads of the snake).
Spending time in each of these different locations was believed to impart different fields of knowledge, from astronomy and other sciences to spirituality and medicine.
Only after going through this ancient rite of passage could the men of the Sierpe region hope to become a shaman.
Mangroves in the Terraba-Sierpe National Wetlands
WATCHING FOR WILDLIFE ON THE SIERPE
As we venture off the broad expanse of the main river and back into the mangrove estuary, it’s easy to see why the native peoples believed this enchanting area to have magical, mystical properties.
The forest canopy glows a brilliant green, with the gnarled tangles of roots creating stunning reflections on the mirror-like surface of the water. There’s a quiet stillness here, and a subtle feeling of being watched by things unseen.
The narrow channels prove to be teeming with wildlife. “Eagle Eye” earns his nickname by spotting a veritable cornucopia of endemic Costa Rican species. Many of them are tucked so far back into the woods that it takes several moments to spot them, even through my 500 mm lens.
A napping Potoo (nocturnal insectivores related to Nightjars and Frogmouths) is so imperceptible, it might as well be The Predator, with camouflage allowing it to blend perfectly into the branch upon which it currently sleeps.
A young Spectacled Caiman (the much smaller relative of the crocodile) is considerably closer, lurking hidden from view under the grass along the shore less than five feet from our boat.
A flock of 5-6 Chesnut-Mandibled Toucans peers down from the trees, wary of our every shutter click. And a family of Spider Monkeys leaps like daredevils through the treetops, utterly oblivious to our presence.
Not all of the area’s animals prove quite so reclusive. A Basilisk (commonly known as the Jesus Christ Lizard for its ability to run on water) suns himself on a log at eye level, right by the river.
A Little Blue Heron perches on a branch directly above the water, watching for easy prey. And a troop of White-Headed Capuchins skitters busily in the trees along the riverbank, testing our patience (and photography skills) as they hop busily in and out of view in their quest for fruit.
We leave the dim light of the mangroves, emerge back onto the broad main river, and make our way through increasingly choppy waters that make it clear the ocean is near. Yet still the wildlife welcome wagon continues to impress.
Osprey, Magnificent Frigatebirds, and Brown Boobies soar overhead and alongside us, and a small pod of Pantropical Spotted Dolphins frolics playfully in front of our boat, like giddy horses leading us to some grand fete.
A Rare Photo of a White-Headed Capuchin Actually Sitting Still
CASA CORCOVADO JUNGLE LODGE
Eventually we disembark with a wet landing on the rocky beach at Casa Corcovado Jungle Lodge, a Rainforest Alliance-verified eco lodge located right on the fringe of Corcovado National Park.
By this time, my transformation from bleary-eyed workaholic to wonder-filled nature-lover is finally complete.
The Capuchins romping on the shore elude my lens, and the skies suddenly open up with the sort of intense tropical deluge you rarely experience outside the rainforest. But still my spirit feels lighter, more carefree than it has in months.
And as we sit in the lodge’s bar– savoring a welcome drink, watching hummingbirds flit about, and listening to Howler Monkeys calling in the distance– I know that, finally, I am home.
Hiking into Corcovado National Park
MY FIRST STUPID MISTAKE IN CORCOVADO
I’ve done some truly dumb things before on my travels. But I partly blame what happened in Corcovado on advice I got when I interviewed National Geographic photographer Peter Essick.
When I asked him for some wildlife photography tips we could share, he said, “The first one is to have a good tripod. In my photography workshops, I get people who have $10,000 worth of cameras and a $79 tripod. That’s the first thing that will improve your nature/landscape pictures quite a bit.”
I’d just gotten a Manfrotto Carbon Fiber Tripod, and had been disappointed with the quality of our past jungle photos in the past. So I was anxious to follow Essick’s advice when we hiked to Corcovado National Park’s San Pedrillo Ranger Station. But I soon came to regret it.
The problems began right from the get-go. We’d planned to start our first day of hiking at 7AM to avoid the hottest part of the day. (Keep in mind that “hot” in the rainforest is a hundred-and-Hades degrees, with 6000% humidity).
But we woke up an intense tropical deluge that made you think about building an Ark, and waited until after 9AM for a break in the downpour.
We briefly considered canceling the hike, knowing that the slog through the mud would be anything but pleasant. But then we thought, “How many times do you get a chance to hike through one of the world’s most biodiverse rainforests?”
I ultimately decided it was time to buck up and carpe the diem. And that was my first mistake.
A Chestnut Mandibled Toucan Watches From the Treetops
MY SECOND STUPID MISTAKE IN CORCOVADO
The hike was slow-going from the very beginning: We stopped before we even set foot off the lodge’s property to take photos of a Chestnut-Mandibled Toucan perfectly posed in the treetops.
This involved setting up the tripod, attaching the long-range lens to the camera, getting the angle and composition just right, and then packing everything up again. I was drenched in sweat before we even got to the park.
We traipsed through muddy jungle that squelched every time we took a step, eventually making our way onto a picturesque beach strewn with rocks.
I stopped frequently to photograph things– a Mangrove Hawk here, a scenic beach vista there. Then I’d have to double-time it to catch up with Mary and our guide, Freddy Cruz.
To speed the process up a bit, I left the camera and MASSIVE 500mm lens attached to the tripod, using it as a walking stick. This was my second mistake.
But while 2015’s fires were worse than usual, the slash and burn agricultural process occurs annually, and many time these fires burn out of control.
Palm oil is one of the most profitable crops and grows well in hot, humid climates. Slash and burn agriculture is the quickest way to clear the land, appealing to corporations and impoverished small-scale farmers alike.
An estimated 3.5 million hectares of rainforest in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Papua New Guinea have already been lost to make way for palm oil plantations.
The rainforest floor contains peat and other organic materials, so it often keeps burning after the fires have been extinguished.
Yayasan International Animal Rescue, Indonesia
In 2015 the result was a toxic cloud that enveloped most of Southeast Asia for nearly two months, affecting the lives of millions and killing 10 people in Indonesia.
The long-term health effects and impact on global warming are predicted to be severe.
For some reason the world remains largely silent about this catastrophe. Palm oil interests run deep, and major corporations have done little or nothing to halt the environmental destruction.
The RSPO (Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil) was established in 2004 with the aim of promoting “certified sustainable” palm oil. Unfortunately, this initiative was too little, too late, with lax membership criteria and only two members thrown out for non-compliance to date.
Suppliers (many of which are small-scale farmers) are often not checked thoroughly. Corners have been cut in order to show that memberships are on the increase. Sadly, it seems like the RSPO is doing little more than adding greenwashed buzzwords to a product that is the opposite of “sustainable.”
Some of them contain “Palm,” including octyl palmitate, palmytil alcohol, palm kernel, Palm kernel oil, Palm fruit oil, Palm stearine, and many others.
So if you see the word Palm in any form, it’s best to avoid it. Other known Palm Oil pseudonyms include cetyl alcohol, emulsifiers, glyceryl stearate, lauryl sulphate, sodium kernelate and stearic acid (see full list in image above).
The biggest problem is that Palm Oil is often listed as “Vegetable Oil,” deceptively appealing to vegetarians and other health-conscious types.
In the United States, “Vegetable Oil” is a generic term also used to describe oils that are far less detrimental (both to the environment and to people’s health), including coconut, sunflower and olive oil. Makes the EU’s compulsory labeling law seem like a smart idea, doesn’t it?
50% of all packaged products contain palm oil.
Products Made From Palm Oil Are Everywhere!
It has been estimated that over half of the products in your local supermarket include Palm oil. Snacks, cookies, candy bars and potato chips are common examples.
But Palm Oil is also found in beauty products such as lipsticks, shampoo and soap. It’s found in several brands of packaged bread, because it allows loaves to remain soft on supermarket shelves for longer.
It’s found in instant noodles, packaged ice cream, chocolate, detergents, industrial pizza dough and margarine… basically just about every processed, packaged product that most of us use daily.
Here’s a brief list of brands and products that include palm oil as an ingredient:
You’ll note that many of these products are unhealthy anyway, as most types of junk food and candy contain Palm Oil. Eliminating these products from our diets will not only benefit the environment in the long term, but also our health.
A Few of the Thousands of Products with Palm Oil
How to Avoid Products With Palm Oil
So how can we avoid products with Palm Oil altogether? It starts with taking time to study the labels and try to stop buying the aforementioned products.
We’re not suggesting you should go cold turkey on ALL your favorite snacks. But if each of us consumed just half as much Palm Oil as we do now, the agricultural industry would get the message loud and clear.
Start by gradually replacing store-bought snacks with homemade. When that’s not possible (we’re not suggesting you should start making all your own lipsticks and detergents!), shop at organic stores.
Just make sure you ask them for an ingredient list: Something labeled “vegan” or “organic” might still contain Palm Oil or its derivates.
5-Ingredient (No Bake) Granola Bar by MinimalistBaker.com
Fantastic Foods You Can Make Yourself
There are several Palm Oil-free Nutella alternatives on the market, but they can be a little pricy for our budget. You can also make your own homemade Nutella in about the same time it’d take to drive to the grocery store and back.
Baking your own bread and making your own ice cream may be time-consuming and difficult, especially if you have children. But smaller local artisan stores– hand-made ice cream shops and family bakeries– are far less likely than supermarket brands to make use of Palm Oil.
The bottom line is that we can all do something to reduce our usage of products with Palm Oil.
Don’t let news of the devastating Indonesian fires go unnoticed. Don’t think that this is too big an issue, or that one person can’t make a difference. Every little bit helps.
Share this article with your friends and help spread the word about the environmental consequences of Palm Oil. The rainforest and its inhabitants will thank you! –Margherita Ragg
Margherita Ragg is a freelance writer and English teacher from Milan, Italy. She is passionate about wildlife, ecotourism and outdoor activities, and runs nature and adventure travel blog The Crowded Planet with her husband Nick Burns, an Australian travel and wildlife photographer.Margherita has an MA in Travel and Nature Writing from Bath Spa University, and was runner-up to the 2012 Guardian Travel Writer of the Year competition. She is one of the hosts of the @WednesdayRoamers weekly Instagram competition. Her other passions (in no particular order) are rock climbing, skiing, homebrewing and her cat Tappo. Follow Margherita on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest.
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San Vicente, Palawan is a lesser-known town tucked about halfway between Puerto Princesa City and El Nido, in the northern part of the island.
Unlike those more popular tourism hotspots (which undoubtedly helped Palawan earn its place on the list of best islands in the world), San Vicente is largely devoid of luxury trappings. Instead, the town’s homespun and relaxed tropical pleasures offer a very different kind of luxury for those prefer peace and tranquility.
Sleepy San Vicente boasts unspoiled beaches, fertile coral reefs, beautiful waterfalls, rich marine biodiversity, verdant forests, mangroves, and an array of endemic wildlife species. As such, it is being dubbed the next big thing in Palawan.
Getting to the island from Puerto Princesa takes around 3 to 4 hours of land travel via public van or bus. If you’re coming from El Nido, it takes 2 to 3 hours to reach San Vicente by van.
Motorized boats also leave from Sabang, Puerto Princesa and Port Barton, San Vicente. The boat ride takes about 4 hours. From El Nido, boats can also be chartered to bring you to Poblacion, San Vicente.
In San Vicente, nature-loving travelers have a chance to enjoy the sun, sea, sand, marine life, and lush rainforest while relishing rustic tranquility. Read on to learn more about the history of San Vicente, the best places to stay, and my recommendations for the Top 10 things to do there.
The inhabitants of San Vicente can be traced to several different cultural groups, with the indigenous Tagbanuas believed to be the earliest settlers. Also among the first migrants are the Cuyunens, from Manamoc Island in Cuyo (one of the oldest settlements in Palawan), and the Agutaynens from Agutaya Island.
During the arrival of these ethnic groups, San Vicente was still a part of Puerto Princesa and Taytay, which is located north of San Vicente.
Close to one-fourth of the town’s 31,000+ current inhabitants are Tagbanuas, and are spread over all barangays of San Vicente. As more settlers arrived, San Vicente was declared a separate municipality in 1969. The town was named after Saint Vincent Ferrer, the town’s patron saint.
Following the end of Spanish occupation, a logging concession was opened when Americans came to rule the Philippines. It started in Taytay, through an American soldier named Tomas Wales. A greater demand for lumber led the loggers to move to Itaytay.
A decade later, Englishman Col. Burton surveyed the islands and made Itaytay his home base, giving Port Barton its current name. Settlers from the nearby Visayan Islands began to migrate to San Vicente during the early 1980s, at the peak of commercial logging activities. It wasn’t until 1992 that a total logging ban took effect in the area.
The rich beauty of San Vicente’s natural resources has begun to earn the town a place on the tourism map. The annual rate of tourist arrivals rose sharply starting in 2011, and is still steadily increasing today. Hopefully, the creation of the San Vicente Flagship Tourism Enterprise Zone and a Tourism Master Plan will lead towards sustainable tourism development.
San Vicente’s Long Beach is considered to be the longest white sand beach in the Philippines. Traversing a picturesque expanse of 9.1 miles (14.7 kilometers), the Long Beach is a peaceful stretch of paradise far removed from the hustle and bustle of mass tourism.
Beachfront accommodations along Long Beach are sparse. Most of the accommodations that are currently available are in Poblacion, which is a 10 to 15-minute tricycle ride from the beach.
We were lucky to have found a vacant room at the Turublien Long Beach Inn and Beach Bar, where the beach is within easy walking distance.
At the beach, you can spend the entire day just lounging by the ocean, taking a long, leisurely walk, cooling off in the crystal clear waters, reading a book, listening to the waves, or just chatting with the friendly locals.
Island-hopping will probably prove to be among most travelers’ favorite things to do in San Vicente. Inexpensive tours can be reserved at the booking office at Brgy. Poblacion, near the public market. The package often includes a picnic lunch, snorkeling gear, and all entrance fees.
If you’re staying in Port Barton (one of the villages in San Vicente), instead of staying near the Long Beach, you can ask for an island-hopping boat rental from the Boatman’s Association Office.
Your boatmen will be your best buddies for the island-hopping tour, as they will wear several hats for you. They’ll buy your lunch from the market (after you tell them your preference) before leaving, drive the boat, cook your food, and serve as your guides along the way.
There are a bunch of exotic islands to visit, and plenty of exciting snorkeling sites to dive into along the way. So it’s generally best to start your island-hopping day early and, if possible, spend more than one day exploring the area’s offerings.
Devoting at least two days to island-hopping, as we did, is a great choice if you just can’t get enough of the beautiful tropical beaches in Palawan.
The relatively pristine marine environment of San Vicente is one of the best places in Palawan for spotting sea turtles, which are locally known as pawikans. You’ll get a chance to see two endangered species of sea turtles in San Vicente, the Green sea turtle and the Hawksbill.
I was elated when our boatman pointed out a sea turtle swimming in shallow water while we were still on the boat making our approach to Boayan Island.
I was honestly expecting to see more off the coast of Inaladelan Island Resort, which is a well-known hotspot for pawikan sightings. Unfortunately, the current was strong during that time, which decreased our chances of spotting one.
Nevertheless, we were still lucky enough to swim with one sea turtle after our boatmen patiently searched and found the underwater star we were looking for. With the crystal clear water and favorable weather, it was easy to watch from the surface as the precious pawikan foraged amongst the sea grass.
There’s also a turtle sanctuary located in Turtle Bay (near Port Barton), which is under the protection and management of Secret Paradise Resort. The peak sea turtle nesting season lasts from October to March.
Unfortunately we did not have a chance to visit the sanctuary during our time in San Vicenete. But that just gives us a great reason to go back!
Inaringan Island, reached by kayak or paddle board from Thelma and Toby’s Island Camping Adventure
4. TRY A GLAMPING ADVENTURE
Thelma and Toby’s Island Camping Adventure is a glamping (a.k.a. luxury camping) site owned by a Canadian man (Toby) and his Filipina wife (Thelma).
It features rustic tent gazebos, each of which is large enough for two people. The campsite also features a central hut for dining, a camp kitchen, and a small store.
You can have a real camping experience here, meaning there’s no wifi and limited hours of available electricity. But you do get the “luxury” of a comfortable bed, furniture, a native shower hut, delicious food, and stunning views of incredible natural beauty.
They also have an impressive library of books, allowing guests to select their book of choice before settling down into one of the enticing hammocks overlooking the beach.
Among the outdoor activities you can enjoy in this little paradise are kayaking, snorkeling, swimming, and paddle boarding. This was our last stop on our first day of island-hopping, before getting back to the Long Beach.
Sadly, ominously dark clouds started to hover over the beach and rain started pouring down just as we docked in this nature-lover’s haven. We found that a glass of cold beer was the best fix to counter the gloomy atmosphere.
A beach adventure just wouldn’t be complete without several servings of fresh seafood. You will not find any fancy restaurants in San Vicente. But that definitely doesn’t mean you cannot find good food here.
Fishing is a major economic activity in this town. In fact, the locals told us that most of the fish caught in San Vicente are ultimately transported to nearby Roxas and to Puerto Princesa, due to the higher demands in these areas.
If you get a chance while you’re in Palawan, treat yourself to a “boodle fight.” This popular meal consists of a bounty of food spread out on a table covered in banana leaves. A typical boodle fight includes rice, clams, crab, fish, mussels, shrimp, squid, meats, and a variety of vegetables.
The Filipino military custom has diners standing shoulder to shoulder on either side of the table, chowing down once the the command is given.
It’s designed to be messy, mushing the rice and ulam (the Filipino word for the main dish) into a ball. But it’s also delicious, especially when you eat it while gazing out over gorgeous ocean views!
Peaceful Sunset at Port Barton
6. WATCH THE SUNSET AT PORT BARTON
Port Barton is an idyllic fishing village in San Vicente that, thanks to its remote location, has yet to fall victim to tourism development. Many travelers choose to stay in the area and use it as their base for island-hopping.
Although Port Barton is technically part of San Vicente, it is often referred to as if it is a separate town all its own. This might be due to the area’s relative seclusion from the other, more accessible parts of San Vicente.
From Puerto Princesa, Port Barton can be reached using the same road you take to get to San Vicente town proper. Before reaching Roxas, you have to turn left on a 14-mile (22-kilometer) road, some of which is dirt.
From El Nido, the best way to reach Port Barton is via a 5 hour-boat ride. Our itinerary involved going from Puerto Princesa to the Long Beach in Poblacion, San Vicente. On the second day of our island-hopping from Poblacion, we asked to be dropped off at Port Barton.
Apart from island-hopping, Port Barton can be enjoyed simply by strolling along its coast. You can watch the sky change colors at sunset, with birds flitting across the sky in the backdrop and the fishing boats in the foreground.
Mangroves and other maritime forests serve as fertile breeding and nursing grounds for fishes, crustaceans, and mollusks. In this way, they enrich the supply of aquatic resources.
Mangroves are magical, with the power to be mesmerizing, eerie and peaceful all at the same time. They act like natural filters that trap sediments, preventing those sediments from choking corals and seagrass.
For a better appreciation of the important ecological roles that mangroves play in the maritime ecosystem, explore them via a river cruise along Inandeng River. Tours depart from the village of New Agutaya, near the Long Beach.
I didn’t have the chance to do this cruise, but Turublien Long Beach Inn and Bar (where we stayed) is actually located near the banks of the Inandeng River. The staff..
The exploitation of elephants all over Asia is nothing new. For the enjoyment of tourists, they are being subjected to begging in the streets, carrying heavy loads during treks, and forced to perform circus tricks.
The domestication of these beautiful creatures just so that they’re fit to interact with humans is heartbreaking. From taking them away from their mothers while they’re young, to beating and starving them until they are submissive to mahouts, it’s unthinkable once you learn about the abusive practices of the phajaan.
Through the efforts of conscious travelers, a high-profile blogger campaign and social media, people are beginning to understand the detrimental effects of elephant riding. One of my favorite conservation programs in Asia is the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Its founder, Lek Chailert,has established a 250-hectare haven, rescuing Asian elephants from the hands of trekking camps, circus acts and street begging.
Volunteering Opportunities: You can visit Elephant Nature Park for a day or, if you’re really serious, volunteer for a week. I did the Karen Experience with them, where we trekked into the jungle to see a group of rescued elephants wandering free in the wild. It was an incredibly uplifting adventure that I will never forget.
The BSBCC is a bear rescue and rehabilitation facility in Sabah, Borneo. It’s dedicated to protecting Malayan sun bears, which are the smallest (and arguably the cutest) bears in the world.
Sadly, these animals are increasingly threatened by illegal poaching and deforestation. Through the relief efforts of the conservation center, over 41 formerly captive bears are kept in a large forest compound so that visitors can observe them in their “natural habitat” until they are ready to be released to the wild.
If you volunteer here, you get a chance to work closely with biologists and researchers, getting a better grasp on the fundamentals of wildlife conservation. It’s a unique experience that we found educationally enriching.
Volunteering Opportunities: There are a range of activities that you can volunteer for here, from animal husbandry and helping to make their habitat as natural as possible to construction and educating local school children about Sun Bears and conservation. They have volunteer programs for 14-28 days, depending on how long you want to stay.
Established to help care for the many animals that are confiscated in Indonesia’s illegal wildlife trade operations, this place is a haven for rescued animals.
Strategically located to tackle the border trade between Indonesia and the Philippines, China, Taiwan and Japan, the centre was established in Sulawesi. Orangutans, Sun Bears, Gibbons, Tarsiers, Tortoises, and some of the most endangered mammals that are smuggled around Southeast Asia are cared for and rehabilitated here.
Apart from their conservation work, they also have a rescue team that works with local authorities to provide evidence against wildlife crimes committed by illegal traders and smugglers. I love the fact that the Tatsikoki Centre works carefully with the local community to help educate them about the perils of hunting down animals for illegal trade.
Volunteering Opportunities: While there are opportunities to just visit the Tatsikoki Centre for the day, they are also open to receiving long-term volunteers. A wide variety of roles are available, from educational officers and tree nursery assistants to fundraising and husbandry coordinators.
International Animal Rescue (IAR) is a notable non-profit that was created for one solitary purpose: to come to the aid of suffering animals around the world. Their Orangutan Sanctuary in Ketapang, Indonesia is a centre that houses, rehabilitates and ultimately releases orphaned and injured Orangutans back into the wild.
One of the reasons I love IAR is because of the hands-off approach that they take towards caring for wildlife. They work to educate the public in the compassionate and humane treatment of all animals. The creative director from our company spent two weeks volunteering here, and vouched for the effectiveness of their programs.
Palm oil plantations have been destroying the homes of many Orangutans, often leaving them stranded with nowhere to go. Baby orangutans are also being captured and taken from their mothers to be illegally sold as pets.
Volunteer Opportunities: You can volunteer your time for 11-22 nights here, helping them farm, working in animal maintenance, and helping enrich the habitats of the Orangutans. They have an award-winning volunteer program that’s well-organized. For those who are keen to help but cannot travel, they also have adopt-an-orangutan programs.
The Dujiangyan Panda Base is a Panda conservation center spanning around 51 hectares (126 acres). It’s located in the province of Shiqiao, which is around 55 kilometers (34 miles) from Chengdu, the capital city of Sichuan province.
Here, you can find Panda rescue and quarantine centers, disease control and research areas, rehabilitation, training and feeding areas. They also have public viewing areas, which they use to educate visitors on Panda conservation.
The Panda rescue and quarantine center focuses on Pandas rescued from the wild who are sick or injured. Here, they can receive medical care and rehabilitation. The Dujiangyan panda base also places a major focus on senior and disabled Pandas. Essentially, it serves as a panda “nursing home,” where they are able to receive special care.
Volunteer Opportunities: You can volunteer your time to be a Panda keeper, where you can help care for these iconic Asian animals. You can also help with the Panda educational programs that they offer.
Dhole, photo by Tambako The Jaguar via CC 2.0Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary (Rabam, Thailand)
Like many animals on the Endangered Species list, the biggest threat to the Dhole (a.k.a. Asiatic Wild Dog) is mankind. As human habitat expands into the wilderness of Southern India, Thailand, and other parts of Southeast Asia, they’re spreading domestic dog diseases and killing off the Dhole’s food supply which includes turtles, rodents, and deer).
As a result, the Dhole ranks among the most endangered Asian animals, with an estimated population of around 2000-2500. Because they have a reputation as pests who prey on livestock (which they rarely do), these wild dogs are often trapped, shot, or poisoned.
Fortunately, the environmental NGO EarthWatch Institute is currently studying these misunderstood canids in Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary, the largest seasonal tropical forest in Thailand (as well as Khao Yai National Park). They’re trying to learn more about the species’ population size, preferred prey, range, and interaction with other large apex predators.
Volunteering Opportunities: EarthWatch offers travelers a chance to volunteer helping scientists conduct research in the field. Assigned tasks include everything from fitting Dholes with tracking collars and analyzing the data the collars collect to surveying the flora and fauna of the parks. Volunteers spend 7-14 days living and working at one of the two aforementioned parks, each of which is home to numerous other wildlife species.
Snow Leopard, by Tambako The Jaguar via CC 2.0 Snow Leopard Conservancy India Trust (Ladakh, India)
Native to Central and South Asia, the Snow Leopard inhabits mountains (at elevations of 9,800 to 14,800 feet) from Western Afghanistan to Mongolia and western China.
The species is currently on the ICUN Red List due to its dwindling global population, which is around 4,500 to 8,700 individuals and expected to decline by 10% in the next 20 years. Snow Leopards suffer from habitat loss, and are often killed by herders when they encroach on their livestock.
The Snow Leopard Conservancy, which was founded in 2003 by Dr. Rodney Jackson, works to change the relationship between herders and snow leopards. Their primary goal is to ensure the species’ survival and conserve their mountain habitat by expanding environmental awareness and sharing innovative practices.
The India Trust, co-founded in 2003 by Ladakhi mountaineer/conservationist Rinchen Wangchuk, focuses on the Indian Trans-Himalaya region, building local stewardship through community based tourism, education, and research.
Their Ladakh, India conservation program partners directly with local herders, educating and engaging the community in nature/wildlife conservation and helping them sustain their progress long-term.
Volunteer Opportunities: SLC’s India Trust is seeking volunteerswith an interest in big cats and even bigger mountains. They’re involved in projects ranging from community homestay development and handicraft development to environmental education, camera trapping, survey of prey species, and more. Volunteers are needed year-round, but especially during the summer months, when the weather in Ladakh is optimal. Please email email@example.com for info.
Pangolin (Manis javanica) by Piekfrosch via CC-BY-SA-3.0Carnivore & Pangolin Education Centre (Ninh Binh, Vietnam)
Found throughout much of Southern Africa and Southeast Asia, the Pangolin (a.k.a. Scaly Anteater) is one of nature’s most bizarre creatures. They’re nocturnal, live in hollow trees or burrows in the forest, and have extremely long tongues they use to feed on ants and termites.
Their bodies have overlapping scales made of keratin (the same material from which our fingernails and Rhino horns are made). They look walking pine cones, especially when they feel threatened and curl up into a ball. They even emit a terrible-smelling scent from their anal glands, like a skunk.
But none of these defense mechanisms have helped save them from the destruction of their forest habitat, or from being poached for their meat and scales (which are used in traditional medicine). Of the three species of Pangolin currently found in Southeast Asia, one is listed as endangered by the IUCN and two are listed as critically endangered.
Save Vietnam’s Wildlife is working to save the world’s most heavily trafficked animal at their Carnivore & Pangolin Education Centre, which is located in Cuc Phuong National Park (about three hours from Hanoi). The NGO works to rescue poached Pangolins from the illegal wildlife trade and rehabilitate them. They also have a strong Civet rescue and breeding program, as well as strong public education and captive research programs.
Volunteer Opportunities: Volunteers at the centre can work for a week or longer, spending their time feeding Pangolins and maintaining the enclosures. In addition to caring for the animals and enriching their environment, volunteers also help researchers by monitoring their behavior. Healthy Pangolins are released back into the wild, while others receive long-term care and become animal ambassadors.
White-handed Gibbon by JJ Harrison via CC BY 3.0The Gibbon Rehabilitation Project (Phuket, Thailand)
Located near the Bang Pae Waterfall in Khao Phra Thaeo National Park (about 25 minutes north of Phuket’s Old Town), the Gibbon Rehabilitation Project has been rescuing, rehabilitating, and releasing Gibbons since 1992.
The 18 species of Gibbons found in Southeast Asia are considered lesser apes (as opposed to the great apes), because they’re smaller, do not nest, and look more like monkeys. But they are tailless, and form long-term mating pairs. They also boast extremely loud voices and unique ball-and-socket joints in their wrists, which allow them to swing through the trees very quickly.
Unfortunately, most Gibbon species are endangered, primarily due to ever-increasing loss of their tropical rainforest habitat. Many young Gibbons are orphaned by poachers, then captured and put to work posing for tourist photos on the beaches of Koh Samui and Koh Phi Phi.
The Gibbon Rehabilitation Project works to rehabilitate these animals and eventually reintroduce them into the wild. Their facility, which is open to visitors daily, includes the Rehabilitation Site and a Center for Conservation Education. The Wildlife Rest Center Site, where animals who will be released back into the wild are quarantined to minimize human contact, is off limits to tourists.
Volunteer Opportunities: Volunteers are needed for various tasks at the GRP center. At the Rehabilitation Site, volunteers prep food, feed the animals, clean and maintain cages, and perform health checks. At the..
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