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OSA PENINSULA COSTA RICA

Landing by boat at the Osa Peninsula is the closest experience to a Christopher Columbus moment. Verdant forests reach down to deserted coasts, with jungle behind home to monkeys, jaguars and colourful birds like toucans. Now, instead of uncontacted tribes, friendly locals and guides willing to share their knowledge of the biodiversity. Take a dugout canoe ride into the mangrove swamps, home to alligators and herons. Today the Pacific Peninsula remains Costa Rica’s last frontier and are mostly protected reserves. Driving from San Jose can take up to 8 hours, but there are flights to Puerto Jiménez or nearby Golfito. Some places require an additional boat transfer. Best times are December to May when it is dry. Even the wet or ‘green’ season has its benefits, the coastal jungle comes alive…

The most pristine rainforest lies in the Corcovado National Park, which can be reached by boat from Drake Bay. Home to scarlet macaws and squirrel monkeys. Howler monkeys, white-faced monkeys, toucans, parrots, coatis, agoutis, collared peccaries, tyras and even tapirs are also found. The Osa is also home to seven species of wild cat including Puma, Jaguarundi and Ocelot. These are often seen by camera traps.

Corcovado Park hosts the largest tree in Central America, a giant Silk Cotton tree, Ceiba pentandra, 77 meters tall. The journey into the most dramatic area of the park, La Sirena Ranger Station, can be punishing. We recommend flying into La Sirena for a one-day journey in and out. Alternatively, from Puerto Jimenez airstrip, the ranger station is a 10-minute light aircraft flight over the virgin rainforest. For the adventurous, take a taxi to Carate, at the edge of the park, and walk 4 km to the park entrance.

For superb snorkelling or diving try Caño Island in the Pacific. The boat journey there from Drake can be an adventure itself, with sightings of humpbacked whales and bottle-nosed dolphins. You can also see dolphins in the Golfo Dulce area to the east of the peninsula. Around the Gulf and the peninsula are hidden bays where hotels and lodges bask in glorious temperatures all year round. We recommend staying at El Remanso or Lapa Rios.

For a tailor-made trip to Costa Rica please complete our Trip Planner.

South America gets closer by Air

South America’s air network is set to soar as Virgin Atlantic is launching a daily service between Heathrow and São Paulo. The 11hr 55min flight will mark the first to South America by Virgin, which is planning to operate a Boeing B787 aircraft. Virgin says with São Paulo the service will aim to capitalise on the fast-growing Brazilian economy. São Paulo is also the largest city in the Americas after New York and Virgin says this will enable the airline to broaden business travel. It would also benefit tourism.

This follows the long-haul ‘budget’ carrier Norwegian Air offering discounted flights to Buenos Aires and Rio. Fares start at £240 one-way. The Norwegian direct route from London Gatwick to Rio de Janeiro. are the most affordable nonstop flights to Brazil. www.norwegian.com/uk Four weekly flights will operate using Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner aircraft. Customers can take advantage of £549.90 one way in Premium, which offers more than a metre of legroom, priority boarding and a complimentary three-course meal service and a selection of drinks. Bjorn Kjos, Chief Executive Officer at Norwegian said: “We’re building on our expansive global network by launching the UK’s most affordable flights to Brazil… Our new Rio de Janeiro route breaks the monopoly on direct flights between the UK and Brazil as we’re committed to lowering fares and making travel more affordable for all holidaymakers and business travellers.” Norwegian entered the South American market earlier this year, beginning flights between London Gatwick and Buenos Aires with a 787-9 in February. The airline will also offer domestic flights in Argentina to Bariloche, Cordoba, Iguazu, Mendoza, Neuquen and Salta, with Boeing 737-800s in 16 October.

Buenos Aires

Norwegian’s biggest rival is British Airways, Rio to Heathrow, British Airways also operates a Boeing 787 Dreamliner on the route. They have dropped their prices, so whilst Norwegian has return fares for around £620, this is not that much cheaper than British Airways, which regularly has special fares for £740 return. If you add in luggage, seat selection and meals Norwegian, British Airways might just be cheaper. If you are willing to fly one stop (e.g. via Amsterdam on KLM) you can possibly fly cheaper than Norwegian on a full-service airline. Aerolineas Argentinas, Air Europa and Iberia fly the Madrid-Buenos Aires route; while Iberia alone serves both the Madrid – Rio de Janeiro and Barcelona – Buenos Aires routes. Maybe Lima or Santiago will be added to Norwegian’s route network next year. These are long flights on a low-cost carrier but Norwegian is a good option if price is an issue.
To create a bespoke trip using anyone of these options: Contact Us.

Holbox – Mexico

The small island of Holbox (pronounced Hole-Bosh) is a barefoot paradise off Mexico’s Caribbean coast. Though not far from Cancun and the Riviera Maya, it is a World apart from those resorts, more cut-off jeans than designer chic. The ambiance is laid-back and the surrounding turquoise waters inviting. Only accessible by private yacht or the ferry from Chiquila, it is never overwhelmed with visitors. It is best to arrange transport in advance; some hotels will arrange pick-ups from the airport. Once you are there you can get most places by foot or hire a golf buggy taxi. The island is a lozenge 26 miles long by one mile wide. Traffic is not a problem, but after a rain shower the dirt roads can get a bit muddy.

Hammocks are de-rigour but the more active can try snorkelling, stand-up paddleboarding or kayaking. At the right time of year (June – September) take day trips by boat to see the whale-sharks that migrate off the north-eastern Yucatan Peninsula’s coast. These are the largest fish in the World, but harmless gentle giants that feed on plankton. You can see flamingos wading offshore, by walking to the north west of the island near the mangroves.

Holbox is an ideal place to get off-grid, communications are a bit hit-and-miss but that is part of the charm. Street art is popular here, murals abound depicting marine themes, or just pure fantasy. The northern shore is shallow and warm, ideal for kids. There is a sand bar just offshore which adults can walk too. Some hotels arrange romantic meals on tables above the water.

There are no big chain hotels, just small guest houses and boutique hotels. Eating out is not gourmet affair, as there are only a few restaurants, but it is easy to get tasty seafood and a cold beer at one of the beach bars. For home-made ice-cream try Angeles y Diablitos on the main square. For boutique hotels we recommend Las Nubes or Villas Flamingos. Enjoy amazing sunsets from any of the beachfront properties. A true place to relax and unwind.

All images copyright David Horwell 2019

Scientists Find Mystery Killer Whales off Cape Horn, Chile

A rare photo of Type D killer whales showing their blunt heads and tiny eyepatches. Credit: J.P. Sylvestre, South Georgia, 2011.

In January 2019, scientists working off southern Chile saw apparently a new species of Orca or killer whale. The whales, called Type D, were previously known only from a stranding 60 years ago, and fishermen’s tales. Genetic samples which will determine whether this animal is indeed new to science. “We are very excited about the genetic analyses to come. Type D killer whales could be the largest undescribed animal left on the planet and a clear indication of how little we know about life in our oceans,” said Bob Pitman, a researcher from NOAA US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Science Centre in La Jolla, California. The team’s encounter came after they spent more than a week enduring storms off Cape Horn, southern Chile. It was here that the scientists collected biopsies. The scientists will now analyse DNA from the skin samples. Compared to other killer whales, they have more rounded heads, and a more pointed dorsal fin, and a tiny white eyepatch.

A French scientist in 2005, took photographs of similar animals in the southern Indian Ocean. So the whales might be widespread. Tourists in Antarctica have produced abundant photographs. Among thousands of images were the unique whales. In 2010, Pitman and colleagues published a paper describing the Type D killer whales, with photos and a map of the sighting locations. The sightings indicated a distribution within sub-Antarctic waters, avoiding the coldest waters, perhaps “sub-antarctic killer whale” is a better name. From the few sightings it seems they live in some of the most inhospitable latitudes on the planet, known for their strong winds.

Chilean fishermen complained of killer whales taking valuable toothfish off their lines, south of Cape Horn. Most of the fish-stealing killer whales were “regular” killer whales, but, among them were also some groups of Type D whales. In January, the group of scientists set sail from Ushuaia, Argentina, to search for the elusive whale. After a tough week, battered by 40 to 60 knot winds, the team’s fortune changed. They finally found the animals sought for 14 years. The boat spent three hours among a group of about 30 whales, which approached the vessel many times. They obtained underwater images of their unique colour patterning and body shape and recorded their sounds. DNA samples should finally reveal just how different the Type D is from other killer whales.

Related: Bucketlist Worthy Things to do in Antarctica

HOTEL DEL PARQUE GUAYAQUIL

Guayaquil used to get bad press as a place to avoid. These days we highly recommend it as a place to stop after a Galapagos cruise. The city has undergone a renaissance and the riverside walkway makes a pleasant afternoon stroll. One attraction is the city’s most luxurious boutique hotel, set amid Parque Historico, set in the botanical gardens and wildlife sanctuary. The 19th-century property is reminiscent of a Republican era mansion with spacious rooms and delightful patios. Hotel del Parque is in a tropical oasis that was once a mangrove swamp. Today the hotel is a haven of tranquility from the bustle of the city, amid the peaceful surrounding park.

Guests can walk the park’s nature trails and access its wildlife sanctuary or go bird-watching along the river. However, it lies just 10-minutes from the sophisticated Samborondón neighbourhood, with shopping centres, restaurants and the airport is a 15-minute drive away. The 19th-century building has been transposed piece by piece from the centre of the city. Though retaining its history there are all the modern luxuries you’d expect. The common areas are graceful, with a mixture of traditional and modern art. Two open-air patios are the main attraction, one with a restaurant, the other, a tranquil space, is full of colourful tropical plants. The staff are all friendly and helpful. The front desk concierge speak English and will help booking restaurants or taxis. I particularly enjoyed the reading room with armchairs and complimentary drinks and snacks where one can play games, watch television, or work on computers. Most surprisingly the chapel’s gothic style bell tower holds a fitness centre and massage room. There are 44 rooms over four categories, from Deluxe to the luxurious Park Suite. Deluxe rooms are beautifully designed and spacious: large beds, televisions, sitting areas with armchairs, desks, minibars, and coffee/tea stations. Every detail is tasteful; marble bathrooms with huge showers, cosy bathrobes and slippers, and fragrant cosmetics, complimentary kits and toothbrushes.

As well as a high-tea English style, enjoy cultural encounters such as chocolate tasting, coffee roasting and wildlife walks in the tropical grounds. A massive breakfast buffet offers the usual items such as bread, cereal and fruit alongside some more unusual options like seafood ceviche. Nearby there is a gourmet restaurant, Casa Julian. This is one of Guayaquil’s veritable dining experiences, a tasting menu of Ecuadorian food with international influences such as steamed shrimp buns with curry and a wide-ranging cocktail menu.

All images copyright David Horwell 2019

Related: 9 Insanely Luxurious Hotels Around Latin America

Quito botanic gardens

South America is a veritable botanist’s paradise. Quito Botanic Gardens is a hidden marvel, holding a collection of thousands of orchids, ferns, bromeliads and fuchsias. Whenever I visit the Ecuadorian capital city I try and spend an hour or so here. It is a great way to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city. Within the La Carolina Park in the north of Quito, just a short taxi ride from most hotels. Quito’s Jardin Botánico has been voted by the online magazine Gardenista as one of the best 100 botanical gardens to visit around the world. This magazine puts the gardens in 11th position in a ranking that includes the Royal Botanic Garden of Kew, the New York Botanical Garden, Kyoto Gardens and other world-renowned urban green places. For its size, Ecuador is the most biologically diverse country in the world. The gardens display regions from around the country: the high moorlands or paramo, fertile cloud forest, tropical rainforest and arid spiny scrub. They give you a map at the gate to navigate your way, or if you speak Spanish you can request a personal guide. There is a section where medicinal plants are grown, the gardens original purpose. It is also a great place for bird-watching, as the gardens attract over 50 species, including many hummingbirds, fly-catchers and colourful tanagers. For locals the shop provides a source of young plants and for tourists there is the inevitable café. I drank from a fresh coconut in the nearby park and dreamt I was on a palm-fringed beach…

All photographs copyright David Horwell 2019

Related: 9 Reasons to Visit Quito

‘EXTINCT’ GIANT TORTOISE FOUND ALIVE

Galapagos tortoise

Over a hundred years ago the scientific collector Rollo Beck shot and skinned a lone male tortoise on Narborough Island. The remains were taken back to the museum of the California Academy of Science museum in San Francisco. It was thought that was the end of the line for tortoises on this barren volcanic island. On many Galápagos islands they had become extinct due to man’s hunting and introduction of alien species like rats, dogs and goats. On this island it may well have been due to volcanic activity.
Anecdotal evidence and unconfirmed sightings have been reported ever since but the tortoise was formally listed as ‘critically endangered (possibly extinct)’. Expeditions have only turned-up evidence of droppings. It was thought in 1906, when Beck was collecting, the best way to preserve a species was to ‘preserve’ them. That is until recently, a recent expedition of scientists and park rangers to Fernandina (as the island is now called) on February 17th found a female alive and well. Washington Tapia, Director of the Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative, with the help of Galapagos National Park ranger Jeffreys Málaga, made this remarkable find. Even the Latin name Chelonoidis phantasticus suggests that the species was imaginary. Now the scientists will use genetic studies to confirm its origin.

The Fernandina Giant Tortoise is one of fourteen or so Galápagos giant tortoise species but only ten are thought to have survived human colonization and over-hunting. The female has a large body, smooth shell and a pink nose but no other details have been revealed. Tortoises are the largest terrestrial reptiles left on earth. Much effort has gone into their conservation ever since the Galápagos National Park was created 60 years ago. The female has been taken to the safety of the captive breeding centre on Santa Cruz Island. Fernandina is the third largest island in the archipelago and one of the most active volcanoes in the World. Many young tortoises have been returned to their native islands, it is hoped that this one will too. The hunt for a male partner continues.

Related: A Typical Day In The Galapagos Islands

5 PLACES TO GET WINTER SUN IN LATIN AMERICA

The nights are long, cold grey skies loom and the scarves and hats are been pulled out. Winter is here. But the cold weather in the northern hemisphere, means warmth in the south. It’s summer in Latin America and one of the best times to discover the continent’s mountains, beaches, culture and food. Here’s our 7 picks for the best spots to get some winter sun in Latin America

BAHIA, BRAZIL

The northern state of Bahia in Brazil is blessed with some of the best weather in Latin America. Year-round temperatures between 25°C and 30°C and over 250 hours of sunshine every month create the perfect winter getaway. But it’s not just the weather that makes this region such a great place to travel. Wild national parks, hundreds of miles of white sandy beaches fringed with palms trees, sleepy fishing villages, beautiful pastel-coloured colony architecture and UNESCO World Heritage sites and tasty cuisine that perfectly blends the Afro-Brazilian culture. Try visiting Salvador, the capital of Bahia, in February for a unique alternative to Rio de Janeiro’s Carnival. Flying time 12 hrs via Lisbon.

CARTAGENA, COLOMBIA

The colourful city of Cartagena lies on the northern coast of Colombia overlooking the clear blue waters of the Caribbean Sea. Between December and March, the city sees almost no rain and bright sunny days. There’s a wealth of boutique hotels. Many are within old colonial palaces. The city has its fair share of museums, galleries, music venues and restaurants to keep your entertained. For those who prefer to spend their holidays away from cities, there are miles and miles of coastline. Off the beaten track is the Tayrona National Park. Hikers can head inland to walk the challenging trails to the Lost City. The sun-drenched islands of Baru and Rosario are only a short boat trip from the city.

JOSÉ IGNACIO, URUGUAY

Bahia Vik, Jose Ignacio (copyright David Horwell)

Uruguay doesn’t spring to mind for your typical summer holiday. Yet the country is less crowded and has better beaches than neighbouring Argentina. On the coast lies the small fishing village of Jose Ignacio. The town grew around a 19th century lighthouse. Now favoured by jet-setters, the area has become an escape for the super-rich and celebrities. Ultra-modern hotels abound. During the summer months the area booms with pop up bars, concerts and parties. Spend lazy days sunbathing on the beach and swimming in the refreshing Atlantic. At night dine in one of the restaurants or beach-shack bars. Further down the coast there are some even less developed spots. At Cabo Polonio isolated wooden cabins fringe the edge of deserted beaches, the only sound being the crashing of waves.

TULUM, MEXICO

Cliffside Mayan Ruins at Tulum ca. 2002 Tulum, Mexico

Tulum lies along the Riviera Maya on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula south of Cancun. Comfortable temperatures hover around 28°C and enjoy a light sea breeze during December to February. An excellent choice for a winter getaway. The area is best known for its Mayan temple overlooking the ocean. This idyllic region has vast stretches of white sandy ocean and boutique accommodation. Snorkellers and scuba divers can enjoy exotic marine life. Nearby waters offer swimming with whale sharks, the big gentle giants.

BOCAS DEL TORO, PANAMA

Copyright David Horwell

Bocas del Toro is an archipelago of lush islands. They lie off the northern coast of Panama, near Costa Rica. Winter is the sunniest time. The islands have a distinct laid-back Caribbean vibe. Secluded wooden over-the-water bungalows sit off the coast from the tiny islands. The islands are excellent for hiking and bird-watching. The turquoise waters are great for diving, snorkelling, kayaking, surfing and swimming. Dolphins often jump above the sea and huge shoals of exotic fish inhabit the underwater world. Chill-out on a hammock, relax on one of the deserted beaches and gorge on fresh lobsters.

CHILE EXPANDS PARKS OF PATAGONIA

Chile has hugely expanded its National Parks area by 631 thousand hectares. Thanks in part to the vision of the late Douglas Tompkins. In this remote area of northern Patagonia his Pumalín park is combined with Melimoyu and the parks Corcovado and Hornopirén, Now over 20% of the continental territory of Chile is protected. This is good news for the birdlife including Condors and the huemul, an Andean deer. The region is crossed by the ultimate road trip along the southern highway or Carretera Austral.
“For all our team, we are proud to have contributed with this management to the State of Chile, and the fact that Pumalín Park now bears the name of Douglas is a recognition of its vision regarding the public value of national parks, its love for Chile and commitment to conservation,” said Tompkins Conservation Chile executive director Carolina Morgado.

The American millionaire Douglas Tompkins, founder of the firm The North Face, began in 1992, the acquisition of large tracts of land in order to protect the temperate rain forest. In 2017, the foundation that bears his name donated 407,000 hectares to the Chilean State for the creation of the National Parks Network in Chilean Patagonia. His wife Kristine carries on the good work, which also includes part of Argentina. To visit this remote part of Chile, contact us.

Related: Wildlife Spotlight on the Andean Condor 

BEN BOX – BIRDWATCHING IN COLOMBIA

Glittering Starfrontlet – copyright Jim Lawrence

As anyone who watches birds will tell you, the best times of day to go out with your binoculars are dawn and dusk. This trip was no different and, on most days, it was a question of breakfast competing with an important bird or two. Take, for instance, the day we headed from Manizales to the Montezuma Rainforest Lodge in the buffer zone of the Parque Nacional Natural Tatamá in Colombia’s western Andean cordillera.

Tatamá – copyright Ben Box

We left Manizales very early and stopped at a small commercial centre on the outskirts of Pereira to pick up a group member. The little car park was, like every other stop, a chance to get out the binoculars and, lo and behold: a couple of macaws that should not have been there (out of their range; probably escaped from a private aviary). Next stop, also near Pereira, was Maracay. From the bus we walked into open grassland overlooking dry forest and the distant Río Cauca valley. In a new open-sided pavilion a fabulous picnic was laid out. So we ate and birded, adding to the tour’s bird list the endemic apical flycatcher, scarlet-fronted parakeet, spectacled parrotlet, bay-headed tanager, and migrant fork-tailed flycatcher and yellow-billed cuckoo.

Colombia Tatamá – Ben Box

Before too long we were on the road again, reaching the Montezuma Rainforest Lodge for lunch. The lodge’s feeders were alive with hummingbirds (I counted ten different species), saltators and tanagers, so we birded again while we ate. After lunch we moved uphill, but as the day wore on the clouds rolled in and by late afternoon the rain was so heavy, we called it a day. We did stop at a small bridge where our guide, Yesenia, put crumbs on the parapet and called “Olive Finch, Olive Finch”, but the bird was clearly sheltering from the rain too and never showed.

Next morning, the rain had moved away, and we loaded into the vehicles for the rough ride to the end of the road into the national park. Tatamá means grandfather of all the rivers and on the mountain sides across the gorge waterfalls tumbled and echoed from the ridges. Breakfast was snatched off the back of the pick-up because the hummingbirds up here were too good to miss: tourmaline sunangel, collared inca, dusky starfrontlet, velvet-purple coronet. accompanied by coffee and arepas we saw other colourful names, green-and-black fruiteater; purplish-mantled and golden-ringed tanagers; chestnut-bellied flowerpiercer, before descending slowly to the lodge as the rain rolled in again.

Footnotes:
Colombia is aiming to be the number one birding destination in the world, to match its status as the country with the most bird species in its territory (1,921 species). Many areas of the country that were out of bounds during the years of conflict are now open to tourists and birdwatching is increasing rapidly in popularity. The Colombian government is training guides and fostering bird-based tourism as a conservation and economic development tool. Five birdwatching routes are in development; two are open: The Northern Colombia Birding Trail and the Central Andes Birding Trail. This group travelled on much of the latter. Contact us for further details.

Ben was invited to join the birdwatching trip in Colombia by BirdLife International and guest of ProColombia.

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