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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.

PISCO MASTERCLASS

Bar Pachamama

In the interests of research, I attended a masterclass on the fiery Peruvian spirit Pisco. The Peruvian tourist board are keen to promote the ‘Pisco route’. The first thing I learnt is the Peruvian Pisco differs from its Chilean rival in being distilled by traditional artisan methods. The fermented grape juice or must has no additives by law, not even water. It is a great source of national pride. The methods date back to the Spanish colonization in the 16th century. The name comes from a small town on the Pacific coastal desert, near to one of the oases where the grapes are grown. Legend has it that pre-columbian cultures over a thousand years ago honoured local birds, the pisku (probably small waders that are found in large numbers like sanderlings). Pure Pisco is made from a single grape variety such as Quebranta, with raisin and apple taste or Mollar with a herbal, honey flavour or Uvina with a touch of olive or Moscatel with sweeter peachy overtones. A mixed ‘acholado’ Pisco can be made to make a more complex beverage. The drink is not aged in wood nor in any material that can impart a flavour so traditionally in ceramic jars (also these came to be named piscos) and now stainless steel.

The history too is fascinating. Originally produced by the Jesuits it was sent to all corners of the Spanish empire. Pisco was exported to California during the Gold rush days as all cargo from eastern North America had to go around Cape Horn, making it a cheaper option. In the 1950’s Lima was popular with Hollywood stars. Orson Wells and Ava Gardner stayed at the Grand Hotel Bolivar, John Wayne at the Hotel Maury. Wayne married a Peruvian who became his lifelong companion, but that is another story. The most famous cocktail at the time was the Pisco sour, a mixture of Pisco, lime, sugar, ice, egg white and bitters. I tried an alternative cocktail called ‘The Pisco Punch’, which dates to 19th century San Francisco. This has pineapple, lime juice, sugar, and secret ingredient gum arabic, that allegedly delays the effect of the alcohol, cheers.
For trips to Peru please contact us.

WISH LIST FOR 2019

This time of year is ideal to dream about places to go in 2019 or beyond. Here is our list to inspire you. From sailing around the Galapagos Islands or cruising in Antarctica. Other wildlife adventures are to be had in the Amazon, or the coral reefs of Belize. For impressive natural wonders, it is hard to beat Iguazú Falls. To visit colourful indigenous people and their ancient past, our two top places would be Peru and Guatemala. Finally, for the best barbeques in the world washed down with Argentine Malbec you can’t do better than Mendoza.

CRUISE THE GALAPAGOS ISLANDS

Galapagos is the dream trip for anyone interested in wildlife. Have your own Darwin moment discovering flightless cormorants and swimming iguanas. The joy is that most of the strange creatures are fearless of humans, so you get up-close and personal to albatrosses, giant tortoises and the iconic dancing blue-footed booby. Snorkel with sealion pups and the only tropical penguin not to mention unique fish, turtles and whales.

EXPLORE ANTARCTICA

You won’t forget the first giant iceberg that comes into view as you head across the Southern Ocean to Antarctica. Follow in the footsteps of the great explorers, but on a comfortable expedition cruise ship. Our expert scientists on board will help identify the wildlife and fill-in on the history of the Great White Continent. Have fun with penguins, fur seals and keep a watchful eye on the huge elephant seals

INTO THE MYSTIC MACHU PICCHU

Peru, Machu Picchu Copyright David Horwell

The ‘lost’ city of the Incas can be reached on foot or luxury train down through the Andes. This iconic World Heritage Site will live up to all the brochure photos you’ve seen on first sight. New regulations have been introduced at Machu Picchu to limit visitor impact, but we can still organize a second visit on your own if you wish to experience the ruins and meditate without being rushed.

FEEL THE POWER OF IGUAZÚ FALLS

The hundreds of cascades that make up Iguazú falls lie between Argentina and Brazil. We recommend visiting both sides. On the Brazil side you will get a spectacular panoramic view. Walk down to the base of the biggest drop and feel the power of the spray and marvel at rainbows created. You will get wet! On the Argentine side, explore trails into the jungle, with tropical birds, butterflies and a small train to the top of the Devil’s Throat.

DIVE INTO BELIZE’S CORAL REEF

Belize has the second longest coral reef in the World. Here you can snorkel or Scuba dive into another world. Get eyeball to eyeball with turtles, reef sharks and giant mantas. Spot multi-coloured tropical fish teeming around coral formations. You can even explore wrecks. If you tire of the underwater world head into the jungles and find hidden Mayan ruins.

RUB NOSES WITH EASTER ISLAND STATUES

Esater Isalnd Moai copyright David Horwell

Easter Island or RapaNui, as locals call it, lies thousands of miles out into the Pacific from Chile. This is surely a real trip of a lifetime. You will be rewarded by the hundreds of Moai or giant statues hewn from the volcanic rock. Explore the fascinating quarry where many statues lay abandoned, the ceremonial centre of Orongo or the caves where natives sought refuge. The best part is meeting the local people, we can arrange homestays, fishing trips or traditional stone cooking or visit during the annual Tapati festival.

DISCOVER THE AMAZON

The greatest rainforest in the world covers seven countries. For animal and bird-watching we suggest the upper amazon tributaries in Ecuador or Peru. Here there are accessible lodges or luxury small cruise boats. In Brazil the distances are far greater and the rivers much wider, but for the real wildlife enthusiast you get deep into the forest at Cristalino or Uakari lodges or take a cruise from Manaus, once the centre of the rubber boom.

WINE-TASTING IN MENDOZA

Mendoza’s relaxed atmosphere and fine dining make it an excellent choice to visit for rest and relaxation. A cycle in the afternoon sun around the many vineyards dotted just outside the city is a must, and of course a great way to try some of these top-notch wines. The hot days and cool nights of the region are the secret to the success of Mendoza’s wine region. If you’re not a city person why not stay at one of the many bodegas, learning more about the process of wine making and, in the harvesting season help collect the grapes: a lovely way to while away a few hours.

GUATEMALA A PHOTOGRAPHER’S PARADISE

Tikal – Guatemala

Guatemala is a country busting at the seams with a mix of colonial architecture, rich indigenous history and spectacular volcanic and tropical jungle scenery. Meander through the colourful local markets bartering with stall holders. Get lost in the lively festivals or spontaneous live music that bursts onto the streets and plazas. Delve deep in the steamy rainforest to discover vast Mayan cities, hop on your bike to cycle around shimmering lakes and towering volcanoes. Out of all the Latin American countries, this one has got to be one of our favourites

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