Archive for the ‘Travel Adventures’ Category



Categories: Travel Adventures
November 15, 2010

November 7-14, 2010 :: Each year I look forward to at least one major photographic journey, usually tied to my participation in a conservation conference sponsored by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (the group that compiles the Red List of Threatened Species). Its mission is to conserve the world’s biodiversity. This organization coordinates 120 specialist groups of the Species Survival Commission, groups that focus on everything from dragonflies and Arabian plants to wild pigs and flamingos. Most members have full-time jobs and the work carried out on behalf of the Specialist Groups is volunteer service. I’m a member of the Iguana Specialist Group/ISG. Although not an active field researcher today, I have deep roots in the iguana world. For my doctoral research way back when, I completed a three-year ecological study of iguanas on Mona Island, Puerto Rico, and this became the focus of my first documentary film – An Island Shall A Monster Make – completed under sponsorship from the BBC and narrated by David Attenborough.

Our 14th ISG Meeting was hosted by Cuba, a place I’ve wanted to visit for many years. If you’re curious about Cuba, read on. Most of the ISG team flew from Miami to Havana on a special charter sanctioned by the U.S. Dept. of Treasury. Unlike Europeans, Canadians, South Americans, and most other people of the world who can travel freely to/from Cuba, U.S. Citizens cannot simply jump on a plane and fly to Havana. Under the most enduring trade embargo in modern history, a commercial, economic, and financial embargo against Cuba that started in 1960 has persisted to this day. Travel to and from Cuba is thereby restricted, unless authorized under a conditional Travel Affidavit or License granted by the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control.

In reality, however, travel to Cuba is easy if one first flies to a foreign port of entry to catch a flight to Havana. Cuba reported 2.5 million tourists in 2009, with Canada topping the list with close to 915,000 visitors, followed by Great Britain at 172,000 and Spain at 129,000. Excluding Cuban-Americans, Cuba reported over 52,000 tourists arriving from the United States in 2009. Cubans welcome American visitors warmly. Immigration officials will stamp your visa instead of your passport when entering and leaving their country. But don’t try bringing anything other than arts and crafts back to the USA. Branded Cuban cigars, for example, will land you in deep trouble if found by a U.S. Customs Agent. I decided to enter Cuba via Grand Cayman, allowing me to extend my trip an extra 12 days to visit colleagues engaged in iguana conservation projects in the Cayman Islands (I’ll save this experience for an upcoming blog in 2011).

I ended up spending 19 days in Cuba (November 5-24), barely enough time to scratch the surface. Our group of about 47 non-Cuban attendees was bussed from Havana to Guanahacabibes National Park, which flanks Cuba’s southwestern coast. There we were joined by about 14 Cuban biologists and park officials for a weeklong conference, which included field trips. The camaraderie was exceptional. We had comfortable rooms at a government-owned dive resort, with buffet-style meals.

Elsewhere, I stayed in “casa particulares,” government-regulated private accommodations comparable to bed-and-breakfast lodging in the States. Of the seven places I stayed, the rooms were well-kept, had a private bath, hot water, and AC; and some came equipped with a refrigerator, telephone, and TV. Rooms with a kitchenette went for US$42/night, without a kitchen for $30/night (price is the same for two guests). Hosts (all super-friendly) occasionally serve dinner for an extra $10/person, and most serve a full breakfast for $6 (typically eggs, sausage, bread, a plate of fresh fruit, juice, and coffee/tea).

Yes, the Cuban diet is far less varied than outsiders are accustomed to, but I found the food healthy, appetizing, and often elegantly served. Towns are orderly and clean, and the people appear to be in better physical shape than most Americans (Cubans don’t live on junk food and have no McDonald’s, Taco Bells or other fast-food restaurants in their country). For a realistic overview of food rationing in Cuba, go to I drank bottled water throughout my stay but ate all freshly prepared fruits and vegetables without any digestive upsets. Given my record of food-related ills suffered in Mexico, I was pleasantly surprised by this experience.

After the conference, I rented a car and hired guides to help me to explore areas west and south of Havana. Most roads are unmarked so having a guide made the experience more enjoyable and productive. My primary goal was to photograph species unique to Cuba, a tall order given that 35% of the 34 species of mammals are endemic (mostly bats); 7% of the 368 species of birds are endemic; 83% of the 166 species of reptiles are endemic; and 95% of the island’s 62 species of amphibians are endemic. I succeeded in photographing 5 species of birds, one mammal, 12 reptiles, 4 frogs/toads, 2 orchids, and 9 species of land snails, all of which are unique to Cuba! And of course I couldn’t resist photographing Cuban culture, ranging from cigar box art and ox carts to vintage American cars and toys made from discarded aluminum cans.

Needless to say, I had generous help along the way from several Cuban biologists. Some species were photographed in captivity, others in the wild. I spent about two hours in Cuba’s Natural History Museum documenting endemic land snails, which I compiled in Photoshop to make my 2010 holiday e-card. Although these colorful land snails are protected by Cuban law, they remain treasured by collectors and are becoming scarce. Stopping those who supply them to domestic and international markets has been an on-going conservation concern.

On one closing note, I’d like to add that Cuba stands among the world’s leaders in their active support for conservation. Fidel Castro’s regime has contributed much to the island’s ecological well-being, partly by default but much by design. More than 22% of Cuba’s land is under some form of protection, proportionally among the highest worldwide ( — this is a website you won’t want to miss if you are planning a trip to Cuba).  ~ TW

Holiday greeting card featuring land snails unique to Cuba, most in the genus Polymita, commonly called "Painted Snails."

Vendor in a Havana Art Market selling loose Polymita land snails and jewelry made from them as souvenirs for tourists.


Wild Costa Rica

Categories: Travel Adventures
November 18, 2008

A storm was brewing when my plane touched down in San Jose, Costa Rica, late at night. After making my way to a motel in Santa Ana, I crashed around 1:00a.m.  Just as I was about to doze off, the room began to rock. I wasn’t sure at first if this was a low blood sugar attack, a poorly constructed hotel shaking under heavy gusts of wind (I was on the second floor), or an earthquake.  After three rounds of rocking and rolling, I decided it must be a quake – on the plane I had read that there are active volcanoes near San Jose.  The next morning, I learned we were rocked by a 6.4 quake centered in the Pacific Ocean off the Panamanian coast . . . a bad omen perhaps.

Wind and rain changed my plans over the next few days.  This was the first of two big storms from the north that hit the Caribbean side of the country while I was there, flooding the lowlands and displacing about 40,000 people from their homes. So I focused on five other regions:  the Central Valley west of San Jose; Quepos and Manuel Antonio on the Pacific Coast; the Monteverde cloud forest; Arenal Volcano (and hot springs); and La Paz Waterfall Gardens north of San Jose.  To get around, I rented a little Suzuki Jimny 4×4.  But driving is more of a challenge than fun in Costa Rica, a bit like being IN a video game, especially frustrating because street names and building numbers are virtually non-existent.  Had it not been for a GPS unit I rented with the vehicle, finding places would have become one misadventure after another.

One of my favorite shooting locales in Costa Rica turned out to be the La Paz Waterfall Gardens, a private reserve near the epicenter of a 6.2 earthquake that struck a month after my return to the States.  The quake and its 2000 aftershocks triggered more than 246 landslides in this steep, mountainous, rain-drenched terrain near Poas Volcano.  About 40 people died, 2,238 people were displaced from their homes, and 128,135 people in 61 communities were impacted in the nation’s Central Valley (Costa Rica is a little smaller than West Virginia). Repairs to roads damaged by the landslides are expected to cost $15 million (in a country with a Gross Domestic Product of only $26 billion).  So for Costa Rica, this was a significant disaster; even though it came through international news as little more than a blip on their radar.

La Paz’s centerpiece attraction is a precipitous gorge cut by a cascading river, accessible via a walkway (at least 1/4 mile long) with stairways engineered into the cliff, bringing visitors close to the roar and spray of the waterfalls — truly an awesome attraction. I carried an umbrella to protect my camera gear from the spray. Reports suggest that landslides destroyed this cliffside trail with its gazillion steps and lush tropical overgrowth, not to mention the wonderful plant and animal exhibits on higher ground.

Follow-up: Fortunately, both La Paz and the adjacent Peace Lodge, under the same ownership, are being rebuilt and reopened six months after the quake.  While there, I stayed nearby with a Russian family owning casitas for rent on the edge of the canyon.  I fear they may have lost everything in the quake – no news yet on that front.  ~ TW

View of stairway in the La Paz River gorge before January 2009 earthquake, La Paz Waterfall Gardens, Costa Rica

View of stairway in the La Paz River gorge before January 2009 earthquake, La Paz Waterfall Gardens, Costa Rica

View of lush tropical vegetation overhanging the La Paz River at the bottom of the river gorge before the January 2009 earthquake, La Paz Waterfall Gardens, Costa Rica

View of lush tropical vegetation overhanging the La Paz River at the bottom of the river gorge before the January 2009 earthquake, La Paz Waterfall Gardens, Costa Rica

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