Category: South America (Page 2 of 2)

Portraying the Pantanal

What is the Pantanal exactly? My local guide in Brasilia, who has never been, thinks it is part of the Amazon with thick rainforest and lots of rain. Is it the jungle? No. Is it even part of the Amazon? Not exactly. The name “Pantanal” comes from the Portuguese word pântano meaning wetland, bog, marsh or swamp. The Pantanal of Brazil is it’s own ecosystem entirely, and makes for the largest wetlands in the world.
So here it is the end of the rainy season, and the Pantanal should be flooded, right? I prepare for muddy roads, puddle filled trails, fording knee-deep through muck, getting soaked, all that. Another year, perhaps. But not this year. The rainy season of 2008/2009 so far has been the driest on recent record in the Pantanal. The roads are dusty, not even a puddle; the air is scorching hot, no raincloud or raindrop in sight.

The water level is so low that our lodge, which is supposed to look out over flooded plain and wetlands, instead looks out over dry brush, not even a waterhole to be found. The climate is changing all over the world, and quite notably for the animals of the Pantanal.

The Pantanal adventure begins with the drive to the remote Cordilheira Lodge at the Caiman Ecological Reserve. The first sighting is a good one – the Capybara, the largest rodent on the planet. Awfully cute for a rodent. Especially when the whole family appears, adults and little ones, splashing in and out of the cooling waters of a river.

And just a few feet away, what’s that? Caiman?!! Yep. Interestingly enough, caiman and capybara co-exist peacefully. Caimans just aren’t interested in expending any energy to chase down a big furry rodent. Instead, they can get a delicious seafood meal by just sitting in the cool water with their jaws open as the water flows over the rocks. They are not drinking. They are simply waiting for a fish to come tumbling into their mouths and snap, how easy is that? I’ve yet to see a caiman without a smile. They all wear a big ear to ear grin in fact. What’s to complain about? Here they are living in the protected wilderness of the Caiman Ecological Reserve, in the heart of the Pantanal – best life to be had for these reptiles!

At last arriving at Cordilheira Lodge, I settle in to laze through the afternoon heat from my porch. The forest edge is nearby, and I spot a creature making it’s way from the tree line across the cut grasses and straight toward the compound. I jump from my hammock and grab my camera, excited to capture another wild mammal of the Pantanal so quickly and easily! Turns out, the exotic creature in my eyes is an everyday nuisance to the Lodge staff – a pesky scavenger on par with a possum or a raccoon back home. But of course, I recognize it now – remembering the Coati in Costa Rica which bravely stole a snack sack from the zipline rest area. Still, this is a wild animal, and living in the wilds of the Pantanal, and it certainly posed nicely….
The feathered wildlife sightings in the Pantanal are far more rewarding for both guides and visitors. In any season, the Pantanal is a bird lover’s paradise. Here are just a few favorites:

Toco Toucan, Yellow Headed Caracara, Burrowing Owl

Greater Rhea, Great Black Hawk, Jabiru Stork

Perhaps the Pantanal is best known as prime habitat for the Hyacinth Macaw. A visit to the rescue/rehab center doesn’t guarantee a sighting. In fact, only the empty nest box stood as evidence of their existence. But when you least expect it, there it is. In the wild. And it is beautiful. THEY are beautiful. To watch these gorgeous Macaws in their native habitat is utterly amazing, and the true highlight of a visit to the Pantanal!

That’s great and all, but what about the jaguar? I never saw it, but it more than likely saw me. They are quite rare to catch a glimpse of – the guide had only seen one four times in the past five years at the Pantanal. But the other guides told an interesting story about the jaguar and politics. Apparently, the jaguar is a big fan of Obama, as it chose to make an appearance on Election Night 2008.
A group of Americans were staying at the Lodge, and glued to the satellite tv to watch the election coverage on November 4. When it came time for the safari outing, only a Danish couple broke away from the media to get out in nature. And guess what. Only the Danish couple was graced with the sighting of a jaguar. They missed a few hours of Obama and McCain on tv, but they saw a jaguar in the wild, they watched it, they took pictures, and everyone else missed it. So the Danish couple, along with everyone else, still get 4 years of watching the media cover Obama. But everyone else, unlike the Danish couple, missed a once in a lifetime opportunity to see a jaguar in the wild. So the lesson is this: given the prospect of choosing between two once in a lifetime events, go for the one that CNN doesn’t cover!
But there are other mammals to be discovered in the Pantanal, such as the Howler Monkey, and the Crab-Eating Fox.

By the way, for those of you who winced at my earlier post about all the mosquitos in the Pantanal, let me just say that the joy of watching wildlife in the wild, zooming in on a Savannah Hawk in perfect light, or getting video of caimans gliding with capybaras in the rivers, well, moments like these make it all worthwhile. Yes, it’s incredibly buggy, but the bites go away….the memories last a lifetime.
That’s it from the Pantanal. For more captivating images of the Pantanal lodges and wildlife in the wild, visit Mira Terra Images.

Brasilia: A study in composition

When it comes to capital cities of the world, few compare to the wonder of Brasilia. For those of you who didn´t have a Brazilian roommate in college, Brasilia is in fact the capital of Brazil – not Sao Paulo (the financial capital), or Rio (the glamour capital). It was built entirely from scratch in 40 months, out on a plateau in the middle of nowhere, when then President Juscelino Kubitschek ordered it´s construction there in order to bring population to that region of the country. Inaugurated in 1960, today Brasilia is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The city was planned by Lucio Costa and his close friend, Oscar Niemeyer, who was the princial architect of Brasilia. I am convinced this guy would have made an incredible photographer, as every structure demands an eye for composition, and every vantage proves the city to be incredibly photogenic.
Brasilia makes a perfect entry point for visitors to Brazil – it is a modern city and a good place to leisurely immerse oneself into Brazilian life. All the hotels are centrally located, with shopping and banks nearby; the avenues are long and wide; and there is no escaping iconic landmarks – the city is composed of a great concentration. It takes only a glance at these images to recognize the traits of a modern planned city, built circa 1950´s, and to appreciate the imagination and inspiration that went into it´s planning and architecture.

As I am using a public computer, I don´t have ability to edit and caption the images, but I will update this when I am back home so that you know what you are looking at!
As for the best restaurant in Brasilia, well, I am certain I found it. Though it lacks it´s own website, Patu Anu is an absolute must for a fine dining experience, great ambiance, location, and the food exceeds expectation. There was no problem ordering special requests and modifying menu items for vegetarians. It is worth the remote access, and my insider´s tip is that you prepare to wait as long for the check as for the meal – request it when you order dessert, and save that last drink to enjoy conversation and company while your bill is being prepared!

Overheated is an understatement!

I´ve arrived in the Pantanal at last. Even though it´s the rainy season, this year has been different – the climate is changing here too. Not much rain, but that doesn´t stop the mosquitos! They tell me the mossies are light this year, but in less than 12 hours here I´ve already been mauled from head to toe, never mind the deet, my blood is too sweet!
But just as intense is the heat. The rising sun at 5:30 am brings heat and light of midday. My laptop just couldn´t take the heat and now refuses to turn on. I don´t blame it! As for backing up photos, not to worry – I always carry a back up drive and an ipod, so the pics will come, but for now I must paint a picture with words.
For the moment, I need only two to describe my experience in the Pantanal: overheated, and overeated! Stay tuned!

In Respect of Rainforests

Woohoo! First, a big hug of thanks goes out to Danita Delimont for her representation of several images from my travel stock collection, including this one:

Here’s what’s special about this image: It will be featured in a 16-month calendar for 2010, for the 31-day month of May, so you’ll have plenty of time to enjoy it along other great images of the earth’s many RAINFORESTS. Though it won’t ship until July 2009, when it will be available at retailers all over, you can still preview it on the publisher’s website. Here’s the link, where you’ll notice the calendar page with my image featured as the insert page promo.

Graphique de France: RAINFORESTS 2010

I love that this calendar is multi-lingual, tres bien! Que bueno esta! Zehr gut!

And I love even more that it is ECO-FRIENDLY, using soy based inks and recyclable paper!

But perhaps the reason I most love this calendar is that it raises awareness and respect for an integral part of our beautiful living planet, the rainforests. And that means a great deal to me. The joy of making a small difference in this world by capturing the beauty of one such rainforest at Iguazu – a UNESCO World Heritage Site – well, that only makes me want to do more.

And I’m about to do just that. Later this week I am heading to South America once again, this time to the Amazon Rainforest of Brazil. And I will do more! And I’ll share it all with you here at Mira Terra Travels, so please stay tuned, follow, bookmark, subscribe, or just check back weekly. More to come!

Meanwhile, here are links to some pretty great websites on the matter:

Rainforest Action Network

Rainforest Alliance

Rainforest Foundation US

Amazon Conservation Team

If you know of and would like to add others, please post links in comments, and thank you!

Published in National Geographic!

….National Geographic Adventure magazine, that is, in the Dec/Jan Year End DOUBLE ISSUE (which means you have two months to pick up your copy at the newsstand!). Here’s what you’ll find on page 40, and also as the feature image thumb on the link above:

(By the way, the photo credit line appears on page 42)

But National Geographic editors aren’t the only ones with a good eye for a great take on Machu Picchu (the market is saturated with Machu Picchu images). The next image sequentially from the shoot was the first to be licensed and published this year, also a full page, by tour operator Jim Berkeley of Destinations & Adventures International. The whole brochure is stunning and gorgeous, but this is understandably my favorite, page 83:

Since the scan does not do it justice, you can visit DAI TRAVEL to order your free copy of the brochure, which features several other images of mine, like these, from China and Argentina:

I have to take a moment here and just say that Jim Berkeley is an all around great guy. He’s been a loyal fan of my photography, hand picking my images for the captivating brochures of DAI Travel since 2002. He’s also a highly respected travel industry guru and a wonderful person. Be sure to pay his website a visit to see more images!

Snorkelling in the Galapagos Islands

Snorkelling in the Galapagos is an unparalleled experience. Schools of colorful angelfish, gentle sea turtles, and playful sea lions abound. The water is full of wildlife, and one cannot help but come face to face with something somewhere!

First, some still images:

This little guy darted away and then turned to watch me from his safe little cave:

Schools of king angelfish:

Snorkeller (John Brabson) and flightless cormorant caught in a surprise face to face encounter!

And a playful sea lion keeping watch on me as he darted past (see videos below)

And now for some video clips!

Here I watched this gentle sea turtle gliding through the waters of Punta Vicente Roca on the northwestern tip of Isabela Island.

I was observing this lone sea lion under the water, enjoying the calm serenity of being where I was at Punta Vicente Roca on the northwestern tip of Isabela Island. Much to my surprise, I turned the camera to discover there was a playful sea lion pup darting around behind me trying to get my attention! The playful pup created quite a stir amongst the snorkellers – many of whom were watching it tease me and just waiting for me to figure out what the commmotion was about!

I was both audience and entertainer to this playful Sea Lion pup who darted amongst the snorkellers and performed underwater acrobatics. I turned the camera on myself to prove that you are not watching a clip from the Discovery Channel or National Geographic!

All at once a whole bunch of sea lions decided to perform playful acrobatics amongst the snorkellers at the northwestern tip of Isabela Island. There was such a flurry that you can see one sea lion hit the sea floor nose on! Ouch! Here again, I turn the camera on myself to prove I’m right there with them filming behind the camera and it’s not another National Gepgraphic special!

What are those….penguins? Yes! Galapagos Penguins! I came upon them while snorkelling around the northwestern tip of Isabela Island in the Galapagos. These are the northernmost species of penguin, and they live at the equator! Who knew? And here I thought I’d have to travel to Antarctica with National Geographic to find penguins. Now all I have to do is follow them to their secret surf hut on the other side of the island. Surf’s Up!

Just when I thought I’d seen it all, this Galapagos penguin zipped past me under the water near Isabela Island! And I didn’t even have to freeze in Antarctic waters to swim with him!

If I had to name a favorite…….

As a Travel Director, Travel Photographer, and well, all-around enthusiastic world traveler, I am often asked the same question:
“What is your favorite destination in the world?”
There is no right answer. The response must be qualified, such as: …For wildlife? Kenya. For relaxing? Greece. For photography? India. For visiting friends? UK. For shopping? For dining? Etc. etc.
Well, in the year 2000, I discovered what would be my best response if absolutely cornered, if I HAD to choose just one place. And for the past 7 years, my response has held strong. Peru.
Peru just has it all – it’s the one-stop shopping for travel experiences. The geographic diversity offers rainforests, coastal beaches, and snow-capped mountains each within an hour flight of the other. There are world-famous archeological ruins (Machu Picchu), incredible museums, and tons of treasures. There are indigenous people who speak their own ancient language. There’s culture – distinctive music, dance, and costume. There’s wildlife, and there’s urban modernity. There is great food and fantastic shopping. The people are friendly, proud, and colorful in clothing, conversation, and personality. It’s an ethnic potpourri. It’s a climatic potpourri. It’s a geographic potpourri. It’s a visual potpourri. And it’s a potpourri for all the other senses – sound, taste, scent, touch…and that undefined extra sense felt on a misty morning sunrise at Machu Picchu. All of the expected and natural, with a touch of the unexpected and supernatural.
Peru satisfies every type of traveler, from backpacking hikers on the Inca Trail, to 5-star luxury guests shopping for the finest gold, to those making a trip of a lifetime before it’s too late. No matter what one’s taste, intention, and level of comfort desired, a warm welcome can be found in Peru.
And now in pictures:
The remote jungles of the north, where the upper Amazon river hosts abundant wildlife and tiny villages complete with shamans (medicine men) who wear feathers and mix potions for every ailment known to man.

The vibrant coastal capital city Lima, with colonial mansions and sprawling shantytowns, world-class restaurants, 5-star hotels, Indian craft markets and modern shopping malls. Lima sits on the Pacific like Los Angeles, with neighborhoods such as San Ysidro and Miraflores comparable to Santa Monica and Pacific Palisades. Rising cliffs, sandy beaches, rolling surf, and parks galore offer every reason to be out enjoying the peak-summer sunshine of mid-January.

The Andes Mountain range forming the backbone of Peru. As impressive from the ground as from the air, and made ever more dramatic by the swirling clouds deciding which peak to present at which moment.

Hidden amongst the majestic Andes lies one of the greatest archeological discoveries of our time, the lost city of Machu Picchu. It is not just the remains of an ancient civilization. It is a sacred temple; it is a vital agricultural center; it is an urban complex with houses and town halls; it is an astronomical observatory; and above all, it is an enigma, ever shrouded by clouds and by mystery – offering not one but several possible explanations, and answers to questions that just lead to more questions.

The people. While the ancient civilization that inhabited Machu Picchu has all but disappeared, Peru has no shortage of indigenous peoples. The most prominent of these are the Quechua, who retain their character, dress and language despite their enterprising exploitation of tourism. Or perhaps because of it. They do make for colorful portraits of a life and culture quite different from our own, even if they are posing and as soon as the camera clicks the hands come out. Nothing says Peru like colorful textiles and llamas.

As for the rest – music, food, shopping, architecture – I could blog a thousand photos and write a million articles. But here are a few of my favorites to round out your visual experience, at least, of what I have fondly come to acknowledge as my favorite destination in the world. For now, anyway!


I don’t much blog about economics and free enterprise, but my latest visit to Peru compels me to share some observations. The Peruvians are perhaps the most enterprising people that I have ever encountered (and yes, I’ve been to China). There is no end to the ways they have developed to earn a living, and the ingenuity of the locals is truly admirable. Posing for pictures at touristed sites is one sure way they have discovered to feed the family. But their creativity goes well beyond such simple no-brainers. Give them a bus full of tourists and watch what happens.

In the city, at all hours of the day or night, you’ll see the “corner acrobats”. The light turns red and the bus is stopped in traffic. The show begins with a boy doing a simple cartwheel, then checking to see if anyone noticed. Chances are good that his eyes met with those of someone on the bus, so he continues, turning cartwheels alongside the bus. Soon another kid joins in to amuse the other side of the bus. They are quite agile and fit, not to mention daring, as they continue their show round the front of the bus when the light turns green, attempting to prevent the bus from moving forward until someone has thrown them some change. Window washers are there too. And vendors selling soda from styrofoam coolers strapped round their necks. But the kids have only themselves to offer. So they turn cartwheels and summersaults. It doesn’t always result in profit, but you have to admire their tenacity.

There are the enterprising “Rembrandts” and “Picassos” who surround the buses outside hotels with small paintings and cards to sell. They introduce themselves as “George Washington” to Americans and “Winston Churchill” to Britons, so that you’ll remember them “next time”, like when the bus gets back, and if you don’t remember them, no worries, they’ll remember you. You quickly learn not to politely brush them off with “next time” or “maybe later” or “mas tarde”, because they WILL hold you to it. There WILL be a next time.

Don’t assume that your chances to empty your pockets of local currency stop in the city. Oh no, save plenty of change for the road. Many buses pass through the scenic Andes outside Cusco, and the drive along the Urubamba Valley has become quite commercial in the past seven years….so something must be working. First, there is the obvious enterprise of setting out crafts and goods to sell at any and every scenic turnout. That’s pretty common everywhere. But in Peru, they have moved well beyond that to a more subtle approach. Driving along seemingly desolate stretches of road, we view them starting to appear out of nowhere…small colorful locals making their way across the fields toward the road as the bus winds its way to the point where the paths cross. In the road ahead, young girls begin to dance, attracting attention just enough to hint a reason to slow down. Older women drop their bundles to reveal souvenirs and crafts for sale. The littlest ones, barely just walking – never mind dancing, are none too young to get in on the action, and they’ve been stocked with little finger puppets and beaded necklaces to sell. Of course, the toddling children are irresistible to visitors, and I’ve no doubt they rake in more cash than any other family members. The bus rambles on, and the family clan returns to their staging area in the middle of the field….watching the road below for the next bus to come along so they can make their barefoot journey across the fields again.

But perhaps the most profitable enterprising antic, with the most predictable result, occurs during the shuttle bus return from Machu Picchu to the town below, Aguas Calientes, where the train awaits. As the shuttle leaves the site of Machu Picchu, a group of boys in costume wave and yell “gut baiiiiiiiiiiy” (goodbye) and “ahhhhhhh dee usssssssss” (adios) as the shuttle rounds the first of about 10 hairpin turns, weaving its way precariously down the cliff on a steep narrow dirt road. Every time the shuttle rounds a turn, there at the side of the road stands one of the boys, waving and yelling in his best English and Spanish. After about 3 turns we realize that it is the same boy each time, and that he is running ahead down a footpath as the shuttle creeps along the road. By the time the shuttle has wound its way down to the valley (25 minutes later) everyone on the bus is waving and cheering the athletic boy on. After the young athlete runs across the bridge on foot in front of the bus, the driver stops to let him on. One final wave and “gut baiiiiiiiiy”, then the pouch is passed and another family is fed for another week. You can’t help but overlook the child-labor issue and just appreciate the sheer exploitation of tourists taking place. Hey, it works!

So what becomes of the enterprising young generation of mountain runners and finger puppeteers? The athletic boys learn to play the panflute. As adults they will board the bus at Machu Picchu to entertain everyone with a short song (usually El Condor Pasa – made famous by Simon & Garfunkel). After applause, they present a CD for sale, and feed even more families for even longer weeks, while their sons continue to run the mountain path.

And the baby girls with finger puppets? They go on to be the beautiful young women dressed in colorful clothing and pretending to casually tend their llamas in truly spectacular settings. And when their youthful countenance has aged, they move on to selling goods at the markets and roadsides, and when their children have children, then they become the weavers, making blankets and clothes and dolls for their daughters and grand-daughters to sell.

Yes, exploiting tourism is a multi-generational trade in which every member of the family earns their share. Eventually some families make enough to buy a camera, and you’ll run into them at Machu Picchu and Sacsayhuaman, where they snap your picture amongst the ruins and hours later meet your bus back at the hotel with postcards which they’ve made featuring your picture. Who can resist their own image on a postcard?

It’s the element of surprise that cinches the deal for Peruvians. In Hong Kong, digital imaging gurus offer superimposed images of tourists overlooking the city on a “clear” day, advertising with posters and requiring full payment before the camera comes out. But Peru photographers sneak up on you, take the picture when you least expect it, and later present a fully finished postcard ready to go. Take it or leave it. Thanks to the element of surprise upon seeing one’s own image on the postcard, most people take it. The ones who rushed off the bus avoiding the postcard vendors later regretted brushing them off (“I thought they were just selling more postcards”). But not to worry, the vendors caught up with them once again at the airport for their “last chance”, and everyone goes home happy. No one leaves Peru complaining about not having any chance to get souvenirs, that’s for certain.

Chile: Spirit Dreams

The road stretched out endlessly before us, and the windswept Patagonian plains pushed out in all directions. Behind us, the pointy crags of Torres del Paine were tucked into clouds and blanketed in dusk. Darkness crept slowly across the landscape.

I was nodding off to sleep on the bus after having had one too many days of hiking and camping, with thoughts of re-naming the range officially to “Toes of Pain”. My feet ached, my toes were cold, and I was grateful to be seated up front near the warm engine box.

For reasons unknown, the bus came to a halt and the driver opened the door to the vast, dark emptiness. The winds howled and whistled right through the bus, causing most passengers to shift position and reach for another layer. The driver sat for a moment with his head down, then checked his mirror, closed the door, and began driving again. Civilization and the coast were still 4 hours away.

I was stirred awake by a loud belly laugh and a jab in my side. A spirit sat on the engine box facing me. He was thin and wore a black hat, and held a brown bottle of beer in his gesturing right hand. He was laughing and entertaining as if to a large audience, and I turned around to see that the entire bus was filled with spirits, occupying seats empty and full, and dangling from the overhead luggage racks. I braved a glance at the driver. He too was a spirit, with a soft round head and an eye that kept dropping from his face. The bus itself resembled a spirit in the form of a fat farmer in skinny overalls as it rolled along bumping over rocks and pits. Everyone was jovial, and there was singing while someone in the back was played a tingy sounding instrument. Many of the spirits were drinking or drunk. These were festive spirits.

But what were they doing on the bus?

Most spirits sweep across this land in a dance with the winds. The wind carries spirits from all over the earth, and they converge here, at the tip of South America, for their favorite activity…leaping off the continent to tumble across the seas. It seems that the very winds which blow across Patagonia are accountable to the passing of spirits as they race toward the continent’s end and leap off into the sky.

I sat back and contemplated the spirits, gleaning in my new wisdom of the winds. I looked at the spirit on the engine box. He paused his celebratory antics and saw that I was ready for a story. He shut his eyes and began “it was a night just like this…..” and softly spoke me back to sleep.

When I awoke, the bus was still bumping it’s way through the black darkness, now with only one headlight. It sounded as if the other had rattled loose and was dragging along under the bus – reminding me of the one-eyed bus driver spirit of my dream.

Everyone else on the bus was asleep, except for the driver. I looked at him and smiled in relief that both of his eyes were still intact. Noticing I was awake and wanting to keep himself in such a state, he engaged me in conversation. After a while, I asked him why he had stopped earlier in the middle of nowhere. He paused a moment, and then spoke:

“My uncle was a bus driver. A few years ago on this road, he lost control and overturned his bus, killing everyone. Whenever I pass through the night on this road, I stop at the site of the crash and pick up the stranded spirits so they can complete their journey.”

A small light flickered in the distance ahead. Then another. Then, light by light, the town of Puerto Natales took form, as the dawn began to spread through the darkness. We reached our destination.

The driver opened the door, and a few moments passed before anyone stood to exit the bus. I was first to do so. As I stepped down off the bus, I was teased by small gusts of wind. Each gust would embrace and surround me, then be gone as quickly as it came. I smiled, knowing the spirits were also arriving at their destination, and each gently bid me farewell before turning to leap off the continent.

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