Elephant Nature Park video

Youtube: JP Films

This young man captured some wonderful footage of what is so incredible about elephants: such massive yet gentle, kind animals.  If you treat them with respect they will do the same.  They have an enormous intelligence and heart, and it is tragic to know they are endangered due to human related causes from poaching to deforestation and climate change related drought.


Red pandas

My local zoo just received two red pandas.  The zoo is undergoing a facelift – better and larger spaces for the animals with a more natural environment.  They also are getting a few new animals and sending some away to other zoos.


These red pandas are a welcome addition. They certainly are cute, and so many people including children as young as three excitedly asked zookeepers questions.


Red pandas are endangered with less than ten thousand in the wild.  Their natural home is in the Himalayans, and deforestation is the main culprit for their low population numbers.


They seem to be closer in relation to a raccoon rather than a giant panda!

IMG_2409Their fur is a beautiful color and fluffy which sadly make them a popular hunting target in the wild.


They spend their days in the treetops, and are most active at night.

IMG_2410Zoos are involved in conservation of the species.  The Knoxville Zoo in the US is considered the premier place in North America for red panda conservation.

IMG_2408All photos taken by me at the Seneca Park Zoo in Rochester, NY.


Three years ago I studied abroad in Thailand.  One of my favorite experiences was visiting the Elephant Nature Park, which ethically cares for over 35 elephants.  My professor is now back in Thailand, leading another group on this magical daytrip.

IMG_2402She just sent me this picture, which showcases the beautiful scenery of the park.  I wish I were there with them!

Thailand is getting more and more aware of ethical tourism.  Here are some other options:

1. Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary: Three guesthouses with double accommodation.  Wake up and walk only a few steps to help feed and bathe the elephants.

2. Elephant Haven: like the Elephant Nature Park, you can do a daytrip from Chiang Mai.  The unique part about this place is it is a reformed elephant camp.  Just a few years ago, they kept elephants in chains and used harsh training methods so the elephants would perform for tourists.   Now, they are looking to the Elephant Nature Park model as a guide to humane treatment for elephants.

3. Burm and Emily’s Elephant Sanctuary: one hour from Chiang Mai, this is a volunteer experience.  People often stay a week helping out, with regular feedings, bathing, and clean up duties.  Help restore nature to her finest by assisting with tree plantings.



Tikal, Guatemala

With only one day left on my vacation, I had to choose between a second day in San Ignacio, Belize with a daytrip to the ATM cave or a quick trip over the border to see Tikal.

It was an easy decision.  I’ve always wanted to see Tikal, and I was not sure when I would have another chance.  If I fly to Guatemala someday, I’d base myself in Antigua, which is far from the ruins.

The nice thing about guided tours from San Ignacio is they are small.  My tour only had one other couple.  We were dropped at the border to go through customs where a driver met us on the other side.  It was a two and a half hour ride past beautiful lake scenery and the town of Flores, some fruit and vegetable stands, and some rather bumpy roads.

The tour guide at the ruins was incredible.  He knew every detail, and could answer any question we threw at him.  He had boundless energy, and we gladly climbed every temple we could with him, despite temperatures hovering near 100F.  The ruins are everything I hoped they would be…not too crowded, beautifully preserved, fascinating, awe-inspiring, and surrounded by toucans (and the vocals of howler monkeys, although I did not see any).  A tourist note: it’s nice to report numerous and clean bathrooms too.


I asked the guide about his background, and he paid to go to a tourism program that offers government certification as a tour guide.  He said he was very lucky to have the extended family help him with funds to go to school.  He now runs tours of Guatemala, but is also sent to Honduras regularly to introduce tourists to the ruins of Coba.  Every now and then, he gets to participate in larger Latin American tours and gets to tag along to South America as a benefit, acting as a translator as he speaks French, English, and some German.

He emphasized how hard work is to come by in Guatemala, and that he goes to night school every day to learn better English and pursue a TESOL certification.  His salary goes to his schooling and to repay his family for their generosity.

The driver also works multiple jobs in order to provide for his family.

I was already aware of how hard immigrants to the US work to better their lives, but meeting the Guatemalans made me even more disgusted by the rhetoric that often plays on the airwaves about “these people” who are unfairly depicted as violent drug lords.

I have often wished travel abroad was a part of an American student’s education.  Study abroad, unfortunately, often is considered a specialty…the student usually already has a great desire to explore, and has a background in languages, international relations, or international business.  It would be great if those who were fearful of travel abroad had an experience in their youth where they could face their fear and hopefully conquer that fear, and make some international friends along the way!


The only negative about the tour was the mandatory stop at a restaurant on the way back where each small tour stopped.  The gift shop was Disney-like, with every Guatemalan craft and trinket under the sun for sale at higher prices than you know you’d find elsewhere.  The food was safe and sadly boring with little flavor.  But, in Guatemala, you knew your purchases were helping people make a very small living wage, so I really shouldn’t complain at all.  Interesting note was the waiter informed us ahead of time that the coffee wasn’t great, because the good stuff goes abroad.

The trip made me a better consumer.  I mentioned how exploring the coral reef in Belize made me really aware of my plastic use.  Guatemala has made me read coffee and chocolate labels – free trade, sustainable, certified by programs like the Rainforest Alliance – it’s worth the extra few dollars.  I also recommend buying online gifts from places like novica.com which support local artisans.


(photos by me)






San Ignacio, Belize

After a few relaxing days in Caye Caulker, I took a taxi from the port to the bus station.  I recommend a taxi as it is a half hour walk in heat and humidity and the likelihood of getting lost at least once in the busy city district is quite high.  Belize City is quite run down, so you aren’t missing much by speeding thru in a taxi.

The bus station was easy to navigate.  I found the old school bus clearly labeled Benque Express, which meant it only had one major stop (Belmopan) before San Ignacio.  The final stop, Benque, is near the Guatemala border.  Busses are cheap, run often (every half hour) and take about 2.5 hours.  I highly recommend them over the private shuttles if you don’t have much luggage.

San Ignacio is a great stop for your adventures in the jungle.  Plenty of tours run from this town like river rafting, cave exploration, canopy tours, bird watching, and Mayan ruins.  Most tourists do the ATM cave, a full day guided tour that I heard was amazing.

As for me, I only had one day so I decided to find what I could manage on my own.  I started off at the Saturday market, which sells everything but I focused on finding a great lunch.  My favorite was the freshly made papaya coconut banana smoothie which helped beat the heat.


Then I walked about ten minutes uphill from town to San Ignacio Resort, which has the iguana conservation center.  Tours run every hour and I learned a great deal about iguanas and Belize’s approach to conservation.  It was great to be able to interact with the iguanas, who are very tame as they are used to people holding them and patting them (they pose nicely for pictures).


I grabbed the bus for Benque and got off at Xunantunich (you’ll see the sign, but ask the driver if you’re nervous about missing it).  You have to take a hand cranked ferry across the river and walk a mile to reach the ruins.  Careful: arrive by 3pm if you want enough time to explore.


The Mayan ruins are busy during the day with guided tours but I had the place to myself in the late afternoon.  You can climb the ruins, and the top offers views to Guatemala.

I had to run downhill to catch the last ferry boat, but halfway there a pickup truck of Belizean guides asked if I needed a ride the rest of the way.  Belizeans are very friendly, and when I offered a dollar or two for the ride they politely refused.  If I had brought my swimsuit that day I likely would have joined the local townspeople in the river as many were swimming or rafting in the cool water.


After observing an amazing sunset, I had dinner back in town of the traditional and ubiquitous rice and beans, plantains, and chicken.  Belizean food is fine, but nothing you’ll remember compared to the amazing ruins, friendly locals, and sounds of tropical birds waking you up at 5am (which I actually appreciated, as I got to see a lovely sunrise).




Caye Caulker


IMG_2337I love to travel so I knew I’d enjoy my trip to Belize, but I had no idea just how much I would love it.  Caye Caulker is easy to get to from the city – just take one of the ferrys for a forty minute ride to this paradise.  All sand roads, a sea breeze to beat the heat, friendly people and pets, and crystal clear water make for a relaxing few days.

IMG_2339Like a postcard.


I knew I wanted to snorkel, as Belize has the largest reef aside from Australia’s famous Great Barrier Reef.  I saw a turtle, sharks, hundreds of fish and eel, five manatees (a real treat to see!), and stingrays.

IMG_2340I had never snorkeled before so was very thankful for my instructor.  It was a group of six thru Caveman Tours.

IMG_2342Learning more about coral reefs and their important ecosystems was a goal for me.  I have already become far more aware of avoiding plastic packaging, and have invested in reusable fruit/vegetable bags since my trip.


If there is one criticism I have it is Belize is not a culinary powerhouse like Mexico.  But, breakfast was delicious!


My favorite part of Caye Caulker was watching sunrises and sunsets.

I highly recommend the island, but don’t expect fancy hotels.  One of the most charming things is it is all guest houses on the island (and they are rather affordable.)

I stayed at De Real Macaw for $70 a night with a sea view and a hammock on the porch.




Daphne Sheldrick dies

Dame Daphne Sheldrick has passed away from breast cancer.  She and her late husband founded the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust which has rescued hundreds of elephants since 1977 and raised awareness about conservation.  Her daughter posted the following on the DSWT website.

She will be sorely missed, but never forgotten, and this is what Daphne drew the most comfort from in her final weeks; knowing that her memory and work would continue with the tiny steps of baby elephants for generations to come and that the work that she pioneered has been able to achieve so much for wildlife and wild places throughout Kenya. She died knowing that she will continue to make a difference each and every day upon a land that she held so dear to her heart through the work of The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, thanks to a dedicated team she leaves behind. Daphne was fortunate to live long enough to preside over mud baths at Ithumba with well over 100 orphans, ex orphans and wild friends frolicking, and be able to say to herself, ‘but for I’. What a gift she leaves us all with, as she really is a shining example of the finest of humanity. Thank you all for your love and passion and support.” Angela Sheldrick