Puerto de Iguazu, Toucans and an Animal Rehabilitation in Argentina

Tucan in Animal Refuge - Iguazu, Argentina

After a delightful evening filled with relaxation, socialization and an absolutely delicious Argentinian steak it was time to decide what my second full day in Puerto de Iguazu would consist of. I debated a return to the falls and explored my options for a quick visit to he Brazilian side. There is a $140 visa fee for entrance into Brazil, in addition to a 1-2 day wait. Both unwilling to spend the $140 for a 1 day visit and lacking the time to wait for the visa I explored rumors that it was possible to visit the Brazilian side of the falls without a visa if you took an organized tour.

Unfortunately, as with most travel rumors they turned out to not only be false, but led to a short conversation with a very annoyed tour salesman. Unwilling to experiment with the second option I’d heard mentioned – trying to sneak or bribe my way across – I turned my attentions towards other options. There was the usual zipline option which didn’t strike me as overly appealing or cost effective and waterfall/cliff repelling adventure tour which looked interesting but was sold out. Frustrated by my limited options I asked the front desk girl for suggestions – her response? The animal rescue located just outside of town.

Monkey in Animal Refuge - Iguazu, Argentina

With my interest piqued I quickly looked through the brochure, asked a few questions and then prepared to catch one of the local buses out of town. I wasn’t sure what to expect but was eager to see local wild life above and beyond the butterflies, coati, large lizards, cows and horses I’d encountered so far. After all, what’s the value of a trip to the jungle if you don’t see at least one Monkey or Toucan?

Bid in Animal Refuge - Iguazu, Argentina

The Guira Oga Center is located a few minutes outside of Puerto de Iguazu and stretches across a large, sprawling green area of mixed jungle, raised boardwalks, small buildings, rookeries and spacious cages. I paid my $30AR (about $7 USD) and settle into a chair near a lazy cat content to lounge by the gift shop and completely oblivious to anything occurring around him. Before long another tourist showed up and shortly after that a large tractor rumbled out of the jungle. The tractor had a decent sized open air trailer behind it which was ideal for a tour and reminded me of adventurous trips to the pumpkin patch as a kid.

Tucan in Animal Refuge - Iguazu, Argentina

As the tractor wound back through the jungle our guide explained a bit about the Bird Rehabilitation center and how it had also added several mammals. He talked about the approach they take, where their animals come from, and which they’re able to re-introduce into the wild. He informed us that the tour would include visits to Coatis, Toco Toucans, Guans, Turquoise-fronted Parrots, White-eyed Parakeets, Scaly-headed Parrots, Macaws, general small and medium sized birds, Plumbeous Kites, Peregrine falcons, Hawks, Stygian Owls, Barn Owls, Tropical Screech Owls, several monkeys and an alligator.

Tucan in Animal Refuge - Iguazu, Argentina

The birds were an incredible mixture of vibrant and muted colors, large birds, small birds, vocal birds and silent birds. Some were capable of flight and others mirrored modern domestic chickens preferring quick hops and glides over long-duration flights. The cages were mostly open wire with raised wooden boardwalks running beside them – each isolated by vines and swaths of jungle like small bungalows at a fine resort. Our guide was careful to pause periodically to remind us to watch our fingers and to keep them out of the cages.

Owl in Animal Refuge - Iguazu, Argentina

At one point we paused outside of large windows which offered a view into the incubator rooms where they’re protecting, and hatching some of the rarer and more endangered inhabitants offspring. Some will go to Zoos and similar places, but most will be groomed for introduction into the wild. In addition to the incubators there were also other areas where food was being raised and bread for the carnivorous birds.

Eagle in Animal Refuge - Iguazu, Argentina

Some of the most impressive birds at the rescue were the eagles and falcons. Several were tied up on perches in an open area where they were able to stretch their wings, screech loudly, and stare at us with inquisitive eyes. The main eagles were truly massive. The size of a medium-sized dog, their wingspans were massive and they dwarfed their handlers as they carried them in and out of the common space.

Eagle in Animal Refuge - Iguazu, Argentina

As we wound our way towards the end of the tour we paused at a small construction area where the guide informed us that they were building an enclosure for several big cats (jaguars or leopards I can’t recall). So, if you get the chance to visit sometime soon, there’s a good chance there will be a lot more to see than beautiful birds and gorgeous butterflies.

Guira Oga Center was an absolute delight to visit.  What they’re doing there is fantastic.  The birds were gorgeous and the way the facility is laid out and the tour is given is delightful.  If you find yourself with a spare hour or two in Puerto Iguazu, definitely don’t miss it.

Like the photos in this post? They were shot on a Canon G11, check out the Canon G12 now on Amazon.

Tallying up the Cost: How I Afford to Travel

Parrot on Breakfast Sign in Flores Guatemala

No matter who you are one of the biggest obstacles and considerations when planning a trip is cost.  Out of all of the reasons regularly given for why people “can’t” travel, cost is the one I’ve found to be the most common and frankly, it’s with good reason.  Jumping on a plane, flying across the world and spending several weeks away from our normal day-to-day infrastructure has the potential to not only be stressful, but also quite expensive.  Especially if you treat your travel time as a vacation “splurge” as most Americans do.

The great news is, it doesn’t have to be. Ultimately, it comes down to how you’re willing to travel. Splurge travel is terribly expensive but often reflects how we’ve been told we “need” to travel.  The truth is, budget travel is all about re-framing your normal day-to-day lifestyle so it works for international travel.   By doing this I was able to spend 36 days abroad in 2009 on two separate trips while holding down a normal salaried job while limited to two weeks paid vacation.

The final cost for both trips including airfare and all ancillary expenses?  Less than $5500 dollars. The exciting part?  If I’d truly wanted or needed to, I could have easily done the trips for $1,000 less. As is, I’ve found that Ive historically averaged about $2700 for a 16-18 day trip to Europe and about $2300 for a 20 day trip to Central America.

Fresh Lobster in Belize

How To Do It

Most people will tell you that budget travel starts when you hit the road.  It doesn’t.  It starts at home, months before you begin a trip.  The key to being able to afford to travel at all is managing your expenses and eliminating areas where you’re throwing away money. Once that’s done, it’s important to look through your daily lifestyle expenses in order to identify which expenses are flexible and which expenses are fixed.  More on this in a second.

First: What you DON’T want to do is book a ticket, and put your entire trip on your credit card, planning to pay it off once you get home.  What you DO want to do is eliminate all credit card debt.  If you’re a 20 something reading this blog, there’s a decent chance that you’re not paying your credit card off fully every month.  If you’re in this category, you’ve got a HUGE expense that you can easily eliminate. Interest costs money especially if you’re paying 15-20% APR.  A lot of money – as in hundreds if not thousands of dollars extra each year.  By paying off their credit card debt and adopting a policy of paying off your total  in full each month – you’ll find yourself with a lot of extra money for future trips.

Second: Cut out major splurge expenses.  It never ceases to amaze me how the people who constantly complain about lack of money turn around and spend ridiculous sums of money.  I regularly see these people spend hundreds of dollars on tickets to see a musical performance or at sporting events. If not some sort of live, one time event, it’s usually hundreds of dollars spent on things like electronics, designer furniture, expensive hair salons or overpriced clothing.  Eliminating a few of these expenses a year may be enough save up for the trip of a lifetime.

Third: Food and Bar tabs.  If you’re in your 20s or 30s and live a social life style, you’re probably spending a lot of money on food and drink.  As a single, 20 something male, I know that this is the area where I’m able to make the biggest cuts. Bar tabs can be insanely expensive. If you’re one of those people spending $60-$200 on bar tabs a weekend, a few basic changes will add up quickly.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying don’t go out.  I’m saying drink smarter and spend less. Significantly less.  Like to eat out?  Consider trading fancy high end eateries for often equally delicious, albeit significantly cheaper local venues and dives.

For the average person, following the tips I’ve outlined above should save you at least $1,500 a year.  For most, it’ll result in saving significantly more.

Alex in Scotland

The Next Step

After re-evaluating your current expenses and identifying areas where you can make cuts, it’s important that you identify different types of expenses.  Some expenses are location specific and aren’t flexible. From trips under a month in duration you’re pretty much stuck with things like your monthly rent check, cell phone bill and car insurance.  However, other expenses – like food, gas, entertainment and bar tabs – are flexible.  This is the exciting part, because by re-allocating those expenses during your trip, you’re actually going to be depleting your savings far less than you expect.

Tally up your average weekly expenses in this category and pay special attention to the final number. I know that I average about $12/day on lunch, $10/day on dinner, $40/week on Gas, $20/week on entertainment and $50/week on bar tabs and random meals.  That alone accounts for about $264 in expenses a week and leaves out a number of similar expenses.  It also means that I can spend at least $528 over a 14 day period on the road without changing my cost of living, a single penny.

You’ll also need to take into consideration your type of employment.  Are you paid hourly or are you on salary?  Again, this is significant because it dictates the extent of your opportunity cost.  An individual on salary taking paid time off has a major advantage over someone who works hourly for tips.  The unfortunate reality is that the opportunity cost for the salaried individual, who’ll have an uninterrupted revenue stream is dramatically lower, than that of the hourly worker who won’t be able to work/collect a pay check while abroad.  The trade off, however, is that it’s significantly easier for the hourly employee to take off several weeks at a time. Regardless, don’t forget to take your type of employment and opportunity cost into account.

Dock in Belize at Sunset

The Trip

Travel for less – How?  By picking a time for the trip that is slightly off season. This is important because airfare, accommodation and even food can be much, much cheaper.  Remember, the more money you save on each of these (within reason) the sooner you can take your trip and the more trips you’ll be able to budget for.

Keep it Regional – Let’s assume you’re like most Americans and you’ve budgeted for a relatively short trip (20 days or less).  The temptation is to try and visit as many locations and countries as you can possibly squeeze into one trip.  Honestly?  Don’t.  I regularly talk to friends who plan on seeing London, Paris, Berlin and Rome in a two week trip. Unfortunately, these types of schedules are a horrible idea.  Traveling costs time and money – especially when you’re covering large distances and crossing international borders.

Cut your expenses dramatically by planning regional trips that avoid long leg voyages.  By doing this you’ll save a lot of money, see more, and get more out of the experience.  Unfortunately, capital cities are capital cities.  They’re typically big, industrial and modern. Sure, each has it’s own flavor and unique draw but the real adventures and beauty lies in a country’s other cities and towns. After all – what would you think of America if all you came and saw was Los Angeles, Detroit and Philadelphia?

Be Reasonable – You don’t need to stay in a 4 star hotel to be happy and get a lot out of your experience.  Remember, your goal is to minimize a-typical expenses.  Besides, the truth of the matter is you’re going to enjoy yourself far more in a hostel then you would in a hotel.  Book hostels, and consider couch surfing as a way to reduce accommodation expenses and increase socialization.  Remember, there’s no better place to meet friends and travelers than in a hostel common area or bar.  Besides, most hostel bars and restaurants have food for far cheaper than the surrounding area.   Feeling the need to splurge a bit?  Then splurge on a smaller room at the hostel – instead of blowing your daily budget on a private room at a hotel.

Eat and Drink Smart – Your three major expenses on the road will be food/drink, accommodation and travel.  In fact, these three should/will probably make up some 2/3 of your daily expenses.  Be smart about it and push your boundaries.  Identify the local budget foods (Indian in the UK, Gyros in Greece, Kebabs in Europe, Beans and Rice in Belize, Tacos in Mexico etc.) and eat those regularly.  Heading to the pub?  Stop at the supermarket first and pre-game. Alcohol is expensive, be smart and remember – other travelers are on their own budget, so there’s no reason to be a big spender. If you’re going to buy someone a drink keep it to locals-only as a thank you for their hospitality, no reason to go off and buy round after round.

Don’t Shop – Sure, everyone asked you to pick them up something before the trip.  Not to mention, the shoes sold in Paris are – I’m told – quite fantastic. But, let’s be frank.  You’re there to experience the culture, meet people, see amazing things, and maximize an already stretched budget.  Not buy worthless shit.  If you’re going to pick up a keep sake or two – go for it when you find them on sale.  If you need a shirt or jumper while on the road?  Then pick one up – but don’t go off on a silly spending spree.  I can’t tell you how often I see people start a trip, arrive at their first destination and blow a small fortune on crap – before they’ve even gotten up and going.

Above all – Get out there and have fun.  The biggest obstacle to travel and taking a trip is excuses. If you make the decision to take the trip, stop making excuses, and prioritize – you’ll be able to enjoy the wonders of the road in no time.  Stop wishing and start doing!

You’ll notice that this post doesn’t dive heavily into the finer details of budget airlines, etc.  for that I’ve taken my previous Tips and Tricks list and created http://theultimatepackinglist.com – hope you find it equally as useful!

Have another piece of advice?   Please share it in the comments!  As always, thanks for reading!

Sailing the Belize Barrier Reef

Sail Boat

The morning was damp.  The occasional sprinkle fell to challenge our merry mood. Despite the weather’s best efforts we could sense that the storm had blown itself out and was able to but threaten more rain, clouds and wind.  The cold front had claimed its three windswept days and now the cycle began anew with sun breaking through the clouds on the horizon with rays of golden light.

The trip I’d booked was the three-day two night Raggamuffin Sailing trip from Caye Caulker, down through the Cayes and along the 2nd largest barrier reef in the world to the small peninsula town of Placencia.  We left on Tuesday and would arrive on the 24th – Christmas eve.   The all-inclusive trip cost $350 – which included a $50 premium for travel over the holidays/Christmas.

Sailboat Prow in Belize

We loaded our bags then slowly piled onto the small motorboat that would shuttle us out to the still small, albeit slightly larger sailboat which would be our home for the next 3 days – the Ragga Queen.

Pirate Flag

With an old battered pirate flag flying, we set sail and with our backs to Caye Caulker began a new adventure.  As we sailed south the sun slowly began to break through the clouds.  Bringing with it a warmth that left us all pinching ourselves – trying to remember that it was currently late December. With a grin and a shrug we stripped down to swimsuits and lathered on sunscreen.

Fishing Hut

The sailing was easy and the three-man crew took care of most of the work.  We’d help periodically as they raised sail or made small adjustments, but beyond that we were mostly left to our own devices.  We mixed, mingled and got acquainted with each other.  Told stories, played card games, napped, read and fished from the stern of the ship.  Before long we noticed an odd structure – seemingly rising out of the water.  The fishing shack which during low tide sat on an exposed sandbar rested on pillars: sandbar completely submerged.  The small structure was fascinating.  Not because of its complexity, but rather the fact someone had not only managed, but also decided, to build a structure literally in the middle of the ocean.  In many ways it reminded me of the structures built for the movie Waterworld, only far less complex and obviously still anchored in sand.  The building itself though was an odd reminder that we were sailing in shallow water – a poignant reality I had learned several nights previous when the ferry I was riding on ran aground multiple times.

Fishing in Belize

The fishing was decent, though slow going.  The first day we caught two – a decent sized barracuda and what I believe was a Spanish Mackerel – both served as the foundation for a delicious dinner later that evening.  Unfortunately, despite no small amount of time spent manning one of the two lines – I ended up skunked. Still the fishing itself was plenty rewarding, as I watched the barrier reef and various islands slowly slip by.

Open Water in Belize

We paused several times during the first day – dropping anchor seemingly at random just off the reef.  The water was typically between 8-25 feet deep and crystal clear. Eager to explore we pulled on our fins and snorkels, paused briefly at the side of the boat and then jumped.  The water’s embrace was warm – a delightful contrast from what you’d expect which made the transition far easier than I’ve grown accustomed to in the Pacific, Atlantic and even northern Sea of Cortez.

It never ceases to amaze me how big a difference fins make when snorkeling. Truly, they’re more a necessity than anything.  Recalling my childhood dreams of being a Marine Biographer I double checked my Flip Ultra Video camera and marveled once again at how well the $35 underwater case was working out.  Then without thinking, snorkel in mouth, I turned my sights to the seafloor, only to quickly get a mouth full of water and a quick reminder: snorkels and ear to ear grins seldom make good bedfellows.

Water

The reef was rich with life – while not as tame and prolifically populated as the Hol Chan marine reserve, the reef was still awash in life and color.  With vibrant coral, giant sea fans and sprawling beds of light green sea grass the reef was an absolute delight. Make sure to take a few minutes and watch the video at the start of this post. I’m afraid that all I have is underwater video, no photos.

As I made my way carefully into the shallower water, I paid special attention to the currents and my fins.  Careful, ever so careful, not to make any contact with the reef or plant life. It sounds easy enough, but given the ebb and pull of waves, long sweep of fins and 5-7 feet of water it quickly became a challenge.  We took great care to stay horizontal in the shallower water – keeping our feet, and fins well away from the seafloor where they might potentially do damage that would take years – if not decades to heal.

We snorkeled for half an hour – or was it an hour? – before making our way back to the boat and relaxing as we quenched our hunger with ham sandwiches and fresh conch ceviche.  Then, settled in for another brief sail before a series of quick pauses, this time in much deeper water, where those willing set out in search of conch for dinner. Unfortunately, most of us found the water too deep and the conch too hard to spot – still we searched, swam, and enjoyed as the captain and crew who had more free diving experience made to 20+ foot journey to the sea floor and back easily.  Later, the captain an ex-fisherman mentioned that during his fishing days he would regularly make 90+ foot free dives.

Island along the Belize Barrier Reef

As the sun began to race towards the horizon we reached our destination for the evening.  A delightful, tiny speck of sand with a deep water dock for the sailboat, 7 palm trees, and a small one room hut for the island’s steward.  With 15 passengers and 3 crew, our little boat was overloaded. There was ample sitting room during the day, if you didn’t mind getting a bit cozy, but not even the faintest chance of fitting us all at night.

Tents on our small Island

Luckily the island had room (if just barely) for 7 tents.  We paired up, unloaded the tents, gear and sleeping pads, then set to assembling our tents.  Some teams did better than others, leaving a few to grumble, huff, and curse gently under their breath as we all struggled to figure out just how the slightly off-center, somewhat worn tents had been designed.

Belize Barrier Islands at Sunset

Hartmut – a gentleman from Germany, my tent-mate and a friend I’d bump into during later travels – and I quickly got our tent assembled and began to wander the island.  Despite its small stature the island was absolutely gorgeous.

Sailboat during Sunset

The island’s white sands were soft, warm in the afternoon’s fading sunlight, and a beautiful white that picked up the hues of the sunset and seemed to blend seamlessly with the lapping waves.

Pelican flying around island

The locals themselves – mostly seagulls and pelicans – were also quite hospitable.  Lazily sharing the island with us, and periodically taking flight to feed or just circle the island in an incredible show of grace.

Pelican in Flight

The pelicans themselves, while wary, seemed comfortable with visitors. More than that though, they seemed almost eager to show off their natural agility and skills.

Sunset over  Conch and Coral

Antsy, I wandered a bit more – pausing at an old tree stump that now held a dried coral fan and several conch.  As the sun set behind it – I held my breath in anticipation.

As we paused, enjoying our dinner of fresh seafood and garlic bread the sun continued to set. As each minute passed it revealed new beauty, new colors and my smile grew.

Sunset in Belize

Words cannot describe the incredible beauty of the sunset as it set the sky afire. The leftover clouds – those straggling behind the cold front – picked up the sun’s evening song and magnified it ten fold.  The waves of the ocean gently moaned as they slowly tickled the white sandy beaches – turned golden by the sunset.

Sailboat at Sunset in Belize on the Barrier Reef

It had been a good day.  An incredible one, that I’ll remember for the rest of my life – but as the sun set and we settled in around a campfire I quickly realized that the day held one last surprise. As complete darkness settled over our small island, with the fire slowly burning down – I sprawled lazily across the sand and looked up.

The stars were incredible – so vivid, so densely packed and so bright that I could hardly contain a soft sigh.  Living in the city, the stars are always dim and far away.  On the rare occasions I escape into the countryside camping or return back to my parent’s home in Prescott I can always count on vivid stars but even those barely compared to the sight that greeted me.

It was as though the galaxy itself sat just out of reach. The depth and richness of the stars something beyond the norm, something special, something incredible. Then breathing slowly, eyes roaming the sky I saw the first shooting star. Then another.  Then a third, a fourth, a fifth…they blazed across the sky in incredible arks.  As luck would have it – I was witnessing what I believe was the Ursid meteor shower.  The view that night alone made the trip well worth it.

Stay tuned for part II of this post covering days 2 and 3.  Can’t wait?  Check out my Belize photo stream on flickr. Q9VRSZ4BCZXJ

Snorkeling in Belize – Hol Chan and Shark Ray Alley

Boat Captain

The morning had been delightful.  My nap had been enjoyable and now it was time to get to work. Eager to finally have a chance to see the reef and go for a swim I quickly booked the trip, tried on my fins and snorkel and then made my way down to the boat.   The captain and guide (pictured above) quickly appeared, jumped in the boat, introduced himself and then we were off.  As luck had it the trip only had a total of 3 people booked on it and after a brief detour down the coast to pick up the other two we were skipping across the surf towards the reef.

Hol Chan Snorkeling Crew

As we made our way towards the reef and Hol Chan Marine Reserve I quickly got acquainted with the other two people on the trip – Mannie and Catherine.  We shared the usual details, made sure we had sunscreen on, and then set to putting on our gear – just as we arrived at the Hol Chan Reserve.

The Hol Chan Marine Reserve is part of the Belize Barrier Reef, which in turn is part of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System.  The Mesoamerican reef is the 2nd largest barrier reef in the world.  Second only to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.  The Belize Barrier Reef itself is home to more than 100 species of coral and a wealth of marine species.  The Hol Chan or “little channel” in Mayan is a break in the reef that serves as a major gathering point for marine life.

The following video has a mixture of video from both Hol Chan and the 2nd stop along our trip – Shark Ray Alley:

As we jumped into the shallow water we kept in mind the requests our guide had made – don’t touch the coral.  Don’t chase sea turtles and above all don’t stand on the reef.

Before long we were snorkeling along as our guide pointed out various interesting fish popping his head above the water just long enough to call out the name of the animal or coral we were looking at. It was incredible.  The fish were relatively tame and prolific. The coral was vibrant and diverse and the water was crystal clear and as warm as bath water.

As we snorkeled along we encountered hundreds of fish, a nurse shark and even a small sea turtle…and then as quickly as it had begun it was back into the boat and off to the next destination.

Snorkeling with Sharks at Shark Ray Alley Belize

Shark Ray Alley

As we hooked the anchor rope and tied up to the buoy we quickly realized that a greeting party was already eagerly waiting for us.  Our hosts?  A group some 10 or so nurse sharks ranging between some 4 and 6 feet in length.  As we pulled on our snorkeling gear and paused for a quick photo or two our guide chuckled at our slight anxiety encouraging us to jump in and join our surprisingly gentle hosts. Eager to oblige I paused just long enough to snap this photo before slipping over the side…careful to make sure I didn’t land on one of the sharks.

Snorkeling in Shark Ray Alley Belize

It was an exhilarating experience.  Despite the knowledge that nurse sharks are largely harmless, and that these were basically pets – it was still enough to get my heart racing.  I was doing it – one of my main goals for the trip: to swim with sharks.  It was every bit as enjoyable as I had hoped.  The sharks were gorgeous, friendly and at times nearly within reach.

I quickly realized that the sharks had a system.  Drawn by the sound of the boat’s engines they’d approach, spend several minutes circling and waiting for chump or bits of food used to bait them in by guides, and then as the food supply dried up or failed to appear would move on to the next boat to arrive.

The sharks were anything but alone though! Our guide pointed out boundaries for us and then set us free to wander at will.  As I snorkeled along enjoying the reef, vibrant colors of the reef fish and incredible mixture of large schools of fish, small solo fish and large predatory fish I could not help but smile. No small task since the smile inevitably broke the seal on my snorkel and flooded my mouth with saltwater.

Large schools of large yellow tailed jacks and permit followed the Shark’s lead as they schooled in the shade the boats created.  All the while I dove, barrel rolled and floated along the barrier reef.  Truly, it is a must see stop along any trip through Belize.

San Pedro Sunset from Boat

Tired, thirsty and with pruning hands we made our way back to the boat and prepared for the quick (albeit windy) ride back to San Pedro.

Sunset in San Pedro

As the sun slipped away and the evening settled in I paused briefly on the dock to reflect.  Enjoying the sunset and letting the richness of the experiences i’d enjoyed over the last 24 hours sink in.  Truly, it had been an incredible day.