The Small Stuff aka Ant-tastic

The Small Stuff aka Ant-tastic

Normally when we talk about our travels, we tend to focus on the big stuff – the large mammals, fearsome reptiles and brightly coloured birds – and it is all too easy to overlook the small stuff. On my recent trip to Costa Rica, I saw plenty of bigger creatures – monkeys, sloths, crocodiles, toucans, macaws – but what about the little critters? After all, the rainforest is home to millions of different species of insects.

It’s not just the little biting insects I’m thinking of either. They can be found in Costa Rica of course, you can’t escape them in the rainforest, although they are less of a pest than in the Amazon. Beautiful butterflies catch the eye wherever you travel in the country, with iridescent Blue Morphos wafting through the forest and bold Zebra Butterflies standing out in the cloudforest. Looking carefully you can easily find beetles and millipedes on the forest floor, although you have to be lucky to find the Hercules Beetle, one of the largest insects in the world.

Morpho peleides

  • The brilliant blue color in the
    butterfly’s wings is caused by
    the diffraction of the light
    from millions of tiny scales
    on its wings.
  • The entire Blue Morpho
    butterfly lifecycle, from
    egg to adult is only 115 days

Somewhat less pleasant are the convoys of army ants which march through the undergrowth, clearing everything in their path. If you watch carefully, you can see dismembered limbs of insects and even small birds and mammals being carried along in their tide. For me though, it is another type of ant, the leaf-cutter ants which really fascinates.

forest-floor

I’ve seen leaf-cutter ants many times in the rainforest. The ants find the paths cleared by us humans through the forest undergrowth perfect highways, and I have often had to step over convoys of ants, each carry a freshly cut leaf back to their colony. However, staying at El Remanso in the Osa Peninsular, my guide Felix really brought the complex society of the leaf-cutter ants to life.

Leaf-cutter ants are of course the only other species on the planet that practices agriculture, and their society is said to be the most complex in the animal kingdom after humanity. The ants strip plants of their greenery, capable of stripping a tree to the branches in a matter of days, and can be seen hauling pieces of leaves many times bigger than themselves underground to cultivate the fungus which feeds the colony. Each colony is a vast city containing a many as ten million ants with dozens of entrance mounds leading to hundreds of subterranean chambers.

At first the ants just look like – well ants – but Felix was quick to point out the different castes.
Tiny minimis scout around the convoys and protect the heavily laden workers from parasites,
often hitching a lift on the back of a leaf, while majors are the soldier caste using their fearsome
jaws to defend the colony. Holding a soldier careful by the thorax, my guide demonstrated its
strength as the little ant clamped its jaws onto his hat and refused to let go, bearing the weight of
the hat, many times its own weight in its powerful grip. I learnt to respect the soldiers after that
and give them a wide berth.

Leafcutter ants can carry more than 5000 times their body weight and cut and process fresh vegetation (leaves, flowers, and grasses) to serve as the nutritional substrate for their fungal cultivars.

Hidden deep underground, a single queen is mother to the entire colony, living for over a dozen years laying thousands of eggs each day. Felix explained how the queen is shifted from chamber to chamber underground, giving birth to daughter queens who fly high above the rainforest carrying a scrap of fungus with them to start a new colony. Only the strongest males can catch the young queens who mate just once on their first flight, storing the sperm needed to populate the entire colony.

I thought there was no way to see inside the colony, but back in San Jose for a travel conference I met someone even more obsessed with the leaf-cutter ants than myself. At La Quinta lodge in Sarapiqui, Leo Herra has created an artificial colony with a glass wall, allowing visitors to peer inside the world of the ants and search out the queen and her nursemaids. That is a must-see for my next trip to Costa Rica.

Costa Rica Rules!

Costa Rica Rules!

We’re delighted and hugely proud to announce a new addition! Over the past few months we’ve been beavering away behind the scenes and now we’re ready to unveil the fruit of our labours:
https://www.costaricaspecialists.co.uk/

You may recall that this time last year I was telling you that both Guy and Paul had recently been to Costa Rica and were both singing its praises: refresh your memory with a glance at the blog: Costa-rica-excited

I have to say this left the rest of us feeling thoroughly envious, and over the next few months we all decided that this diminutive country is worthy of greater attention. Why? What had caught our collective imagination? Though small in size, Costa Rica is huge in almost every other way; in the diversity of habitats, its prolific wildlife, stunning scenery from mountain to coast, adventures a-plenty, the warm Tico hospitality, a refreshingly enlightened approach to eco-tourism, and the full gamut of accommodation from world-class luxury resorts to rustic, family-owned lodges. Whether you want to watch wildlife, hike rainforest trails, whizz down a zipline, stroll among orchids, taste coffee and chocolate, soak in thermal springs or laze on an idyllic beach, Costa Rica has it all. We’ve tried to summarise the many aspects of its appeal here.

costa rica

 

As we pondered this we came to the realisation that this added up to more than enough material for a whole new website. And so it has transpired.

What’s more, from April this year British Airways will be flying direct to Juan Santamaria Airport in San Jose, Costa Rica’s capital, twice a week in the summer and three times in winter. This means that in less than 11 hours of departing these shores you can be enjoying the sunshine, beaches, flora and fauna of Costa Rica.

Frog

So now we’re ALL very excited and we’re sure you will be too. Please take a look at our shiny new website, we’re sure you’ll feel inspired and, yes, excited! We’ve designed it to be clear and, we trust, easy to use, full of information but not off-putting-ly so, and with lots of photos that will, I warn you, make you want to be there. Indeed, both Guy and Paul have already booked return visits this year.

I should add that the website is very new and we cannot promise that it’s entirely typo or glitch free, but its heart is certainly in the right place. We’ll be working on it over the next few weeks and months, adding more holiday ideas, more accommodation, more experiences and more gorgeous photos, so the website will get better and better.

We’re all looking forward to spreading the word about this wonderful, multi-faceted destination and planning some fantastic Costa Rica holidays for you in 2016 and beyond.

Toucans

As they say in Costa Rica, Pura Vida! Life is good!

Hammock

Self-drive in Peru? I think not

Self-drive in Peru? I think not

We normally self-drive when on holiday. When we were organising our trip to Peru, Paul (the go-to man on South America at Tribes) said “Not in Peru. Definitely not.” We soon found out why . . .

For a start, Peruvians “go for it” – big time. Especially the drivers of the ubiquitous mototaxis, who pull when they please, drive wherever they please at whatever speed suits them and ignore regulations requiring them only to operate in towns.

No.1

No.2

 

Then there’s the general chaos of traffic in the towns and cities, which combined with narrow streets and few road signs means that you’re unlikely to get where you want to go unless you’re a local. Even our driver got lost in the middle of Trujillo. Our hotel occupied the whole of one side of the main square, we could see it clearly – from the rush-hour traffic jam on the other side of the square. which was one huge one-way system . . . Round the side streets we went; and again; and finally found the right one.

No.3

 

No.4

Out of town, the roads can be good – in which case they are extensively used by Extremely Large (and slow) trucks, whose drivers seem to believe that any other road users are mere incidentals to be disregarded.  Potholes are frequent, gravel roads common. Road markings, even double white lines, seem to be there as warnings (as in “this bend is REALLY sharp/tight/long”) rather than instructive (as in “do not overtake”). Cutting corners, blind ones especially, seems to be a national sport.

Pedestrians, dogs, other animals are hazards too – but all of this can be enjoyed if someone else is doing the driving. As can the road-side adornments. Any spare length of wall has a political slogan painted on it. It may be exhorting you to vote in the forthcoming (or just past) election, or simply reminding you that the Such-and-such party exists. Some are faded, others newly (re-)painted. They vary across the country. This one is promoting an individual – Engineer Carillo.

No.5b

But most were about a party, of which there are many in Peru, only some national. There are individual parties in the different regions, all with a logo, because many electors are still illiterate and vote for the party with the logo of the Inca chief or the llama.

leanne-adams-08

And all of this makes for great conversation with your guide. We learned a lot about the political situation in Peru from our different guides. A lot of it was factual, helping us get our heads round a very different political system. But almost everyone we talked to raised one subject above all – corruption. And although we have very rudimentary Spanish, we could also see that this was a major topic in the newspapers. Which, as we commented at the time, is a good thing. While the press can trumpet the evils of corruption, then a country has a lot going for it.

Photos copyright Leanne Adams. All rights reserved

First Tortoises Hatchlings in Pinzon for 100 Years!

First Tortoises Hatchlings in Pinzon for 100 Years!

Some heartening news for nature lovers has emerged from the Galapagos Islands. Tortoise hatchlings observed by researchers on the island of Pinzon last year are the first to have survived there for over a century. This is a staggering statement and requires some explanation.

The island’s native wildlife, like that of many of the Galapagos Islands, has been devastated by the accidental introduction of rats from pirate and whaling ships in the 18th century. They preyed on bird’s eggs and especially Galapagos tortoise hatchlings. So successfully in the case of the latter that none survived. The island’s native tortoise population dwindled to around 100 adults, supplemented by others from different islands, and given the fact that the average life expectancy is about 100 years, it became imperative that something be done.

gaint-tortoise-head

The first attempt to wipe out the invasive black rats in 1988 was unsuccessful. However, by 2012 a joint project between the Charles Darwin Foundation, Galapagos National Park Directorate, Galapagos Conservancy and Island Conservation successfully eradicated black rats from Pinzon. Just 2 years later, researchers carrying out a follow up survey on the island witnessed the first giant tortoise hatchlings on the island for over 100 years.

CDRC-baby-tortoises

This is just one strand of the ongoing conservation efforts in the Galapagos, to protect these unique and vulnerable species so that they survive, and thrive, into the future.  For example, on 25th February this year 159 tortoises hatched at the Isabela Island Breeding Centre. They’ll spend their first 6 years under surveillance, by which time they’ll be beyond the vulnerable juvenile stage and will be ready to be released to supplement the wild population. And it’s not just tortoises. Conservationists constantly monitor all species and the precious Galapagos environments.

This dedication is one reason why the Galapagos is widely regarded as one of the most special wildlife havens on earth. Indeed, in February the Galapagos Islands were voted ‘Best Place for Wildlife’ by USA Today and 10Best readers and is currently the subject for the BBC’s new wildlife programme, ‘Galapagos – Islands of Change’ narrated by David Attenborough. Why not go and see for yourself! We’ve a wide choice of vessels, hotels on different islands, and expert consultants eager to help you plan your holiday just a phone call or email away.

 

Peru – Chachapoyas and the fortress of Kuelap

Peru – Chachapoyas and the fortress of Kuelap

As we trudged the last few steps to summit the lofty ridge, Alfredo, my guide, noted casually that all a man needed here in Chachapoyas was a machete, Wellingtons and a horse. Well, he had the machete, we both wore Wellingtons and somewhere far below grazed our sturdy horses.

Before us stood a trapezoid gateway set in large blocks of finely cut masonry. The fortress’s encircling walls stretched away either side. Beyond the portal, we entered a cleft-like tapering passage open to the sky. A dozen or so carvings depicting a face, some serpents and perhaps a bird lined the short passageway which rose to a second slender opening just wide enough for one person at a time.

Kuelap fortress entrance

Chachapoyas town is the capital of northern Peru’s Amazonas Department (though much of this vast area is far removed from anything truly Amazonian) but ‘Chachapoyas’ also refers to an area corresponding to the lands once ruled by the Chachapoyan people. It was the Incas who called this mysterious tribe ‘Chachapoya’ – people of the clouds – and even today little is known about them.

It seems they were a tough and belligerent lot who held their own in difficult country. They were famed as shamans and traders in forest products such as exotic feathers from the Amazon basin. Their unusually fair-skinned women were noted even by Spanish priests. The cloud forest hills around the Utcubamba River appear to have been the Chachapoyan heartland. Kuelap, their remote enigmatic fortress, is the region’s outstanding site but there are enough forest-cloaked ruins and eerie burial sites to keep budding Indiana Jones’s busy for weeks if not months.

Shaped rather like a half-kilometre long ship with rounded ends and a broad mid-section, Kuelap’s ten- to twenty-metre high pale yellow masonry walls crown what is a spectacular naturally fortified site. As we headed inside I saw the remains of roundhouses, low-walled huts standing on stone plinths which once boasted tall conical thatched roofs. In the mid-1990s one was completely rebuilt and beautifully re-thatched. It doesn’t take much imagination to realise just how impressive this must have looked in its 15th-century heyday when the ridge bristled with up to five hundred such houses.

Kuelap fortress reconstructed house

Alfredo explained how the fortress had several distinct quarters. We strolled up to the ‘Pueblo Alto’, or upper town, and a D-shaped watchtower, the ‘Torreón’, at its tip.  We paused at the peculiar Tintero or ‘Inkwell’, a sort of inverted cone-shaped pit which archaeologists conjecture could have been a sacrificial shrine or solar observatory (perhaps to gauge the onset of the rains and the maize-planting season). Then, at one point, Alfredo carefully moved a loose rock from a wall, reached into the nook and gently extracted a human bone. “Post-mortem burial” he announced solemnly. It was a common practice here but most of the hundred or so reburials in these walls have long been looted.

We ate a picnic lunch down beside the site’s small office and then, while Alfredo chatted to the guards, I returned alone for another foray. The handful of morning visitors had gone and I had Kuelap and its strange brooding atmosphere to myself.

Kuelap fortress wall detail

The fortress covers around six hectares but it’s reckoned the entire outlying settlement of terraced fields and hamlets was perhaps seventy or eighty times that. Alfredo had explained how it was finally conquered by the Incas in around 1470 when, it’s estimated, three thousand people lived here. Just sixty years later the Spanish invaded the region and eventually built the present-day town of Chachapoyas around 25km to the north. And then, oddly, despite their conquest during which Kuelap could hardly have gone unnoticed,  they seemed to have forgotten about it until the 1840s when a roving judge from town apparently ‘rediscovered’ the site and sparked renewed interest.

View from Kuelap fortress

Sitting by the watchtower gazing across to muscular sun-dappled hills, I thought how deceptive the landscape looked. All was voluptuously lush and green to the horizon yet I was at about three thousand metres. There was an almost European softness to the landscape dotted here and there by grazing cows. Yet the rustic adobe houses with corrugated roofs clearly suggested elsewhere. The climate, too, is marked not so much by hot or cold, but idyllic, generally dry winters and soaking summers of muddy tracks and sodden villages.

And where was the cloud forest? Well, it still crowned most of the hilltops and lower down there were random groves and thickets full of orchids, bromeliads and velvety fuchsia. The Chachapoyans would have cleared extensive tracts to grow potatoes and high-altitude grains, but much of the remaining forest is now under pressure from expanding farms and immigration.

In the following days I was to see what other Chachapoyan ruins and tombs were like, forest and all, with my new local guide Jose to slash a way.

About Amar Grover
Amar Grover is a freelance travel writer and photographer. He has travelled widely across the Indian subcontinent and China, Central Asia, the Middle East and North Africa. You can see some of his work at pictographical.co.uk, blogs at https://pictographical.wordpress.com/ and occasional tweets @samarkandHK

Ecuador Cloud Forest Safari

Ecuador Cloud Forest Safari

I am in a world of water. It hangs from trees like a thick mossy coat. It tumbles in cascades and floods of rushing streams.  I find it quietly fallen, in drops that capture rainbows like prisms, and raging in sudden torrents of intense rain.  And where this water lands, life explodes upwards. Tangled spirals of glistening diversity erupt in slow motion around me, like the genesis of the earth itself.

cloud-forest-river

These are the cloud forests of northern Ecuador, one of the most biologically diverse habitats on the planet. In this small area alone there are more then 500 individual species of birds – about half the total for all of Europe – thousands of rare orchids, and innumerable varieties of flora and fauna that are found nowhere else on earth.  Life here is so abundant, in fact, that discoveries of new species are still regularly being made: just last summer a furry orange mammal called an olinguito was seen for the first time.

I’d come here to try out a different kind of safari. Instead of spotting big game, I wanted to look at the ecosystem as a whole.  I wanted to peer into the microscopic universe of the forest and discover the inner workings of that near invisible world. Ecuador is rightly famous for the Galapagos, but most tourists in the rush to see those fabled islands, miss out on this equally magical landscape, right on the doorstep of Quito.  I put my wellies on, met up with local guide David Yunes, and set off into the clouds for a look.

Ecuador-toucan

Toucan

We hiked for two days, spotting endemic toucans, Dracula orchids and giant owl butterflies with snakeskin wings. I heard howler monkeys shake the canopy and held a (baby) tarantula as big as my hand.

Ecuador-owl-butterfly

Owl butterfly

We sipped coffee listening to the tiny drum roll of hummingbird wings, and picnicked beside waterfalls, swinging out on giant tree vines, Tarzan style, above the jungle abyss.

cloud-forest-rope-swing

Rope swing Tarzan style

At night we put on head torches and explored the humid darkness, finding stick insects as long as my arm, mushrooms that glow in the dark and a beetle with orange phosphorescent eyes on its back – “just to recognise how incredible this one tiny beetle is,” David says, “makes everything worth it.”  I felt wild, liberated and connected to a world infinitely more amazing, and complex, then I had ever imagined.

On my last morning, in pre-dawn starlight, we cut our way through thick forest to the lek, or mating ground, of the Andean-Cock-of-the-Rock – an endemic bird of the Mindo forest and top of many twitcher’s tick lists. As the forest yawned awake, and colours flooded our shadowed hide, we waited in silence until the patter of brash little feet began stamping branches and squabbling for female attention.  Even between species, some things never change.

Cock-of-the-rock

Cock of the Rock

Afterwards we climb a hill to a viewpoint high above the forest. Low clouds slipped beneath the canopy as the day faded and the frenzy of coming dusk stirred the forest awake.  What, to me, was previously an undifferentiated expanse of rolling green hills had now become a vast network of connected living entities, each one part of a complex synergy of polyphonic life, and each one dependent on one another.  “Being here is like going back to your origins,” David said.  “It’s easy to feel that everything around you is alive”.  This may be a world of water, but peering beneath the surface left my head in the clouds.

Cloud forest view

Cloud forest view

ABOUT AARON MILLER

Aaron Millar is a freelance journalist specialising in travel. His work has been seen in the Guardian, Financial Times, Independent and more. He is also the travel editor of Positive News, the world’s leading positive newspaper, where authentic sustainable travel is promoted. Aaron writes an interesting blog called thebluedotperspective.com, and he is also an accomplished photographer.