five favourite birding sites

We’re newcomers to birding. Of course we have always noticed the unknown and unusual birds we encountered in our travels. However, it was during our year in Latin America that we started to pay closer attention to our feathered friends. It helped that our wandering that year took us into the rainforests of the Amazon, down to Patagonia, across the water to the Galapagos Islands, and to both coasts of Costa Rica. That might also explain why these locations are among our favourite places for bird watching.

King Penguins near the Strait of Magellan.

Number 5. Patagonia (Chile and Argentina)

Quite frankly, we include Patagonia because we saw two of our favourite birds here: penguins and flamingos.  On Tierra del Fuego, Chile, we crawled along a sandy ridge to get close, but not too close, to watch a small group of King Penguins hanging out in the grass near the water. We also saw hundreds of Greater Flamingos gathered in a lake on the island, it’s quite something to see them in flight. Later we watched penguins congregating along the beach on Isla Martillo in the Beagle channel near Ushuaia, Argentina. Mostly Megellanic penguins except for a goofy Gentoo penguin that popped up out of the water and seemed to stagger around perhaps feeling a bit of place. [Watch them here!]

Unknown Amazon eagle about to grab lunch.

Number 4: Amazon (Brazil)

We managed to visit three regions of the Amazon River – the basin in Ecuador, the mouth of the river in Brazil, and the area where the Amazon and Negro rivers merge, 1500 km inland. All featured lots of birds, but the rainforest upriver from the junction at Manaus yielded the greatest variety of birds. We travelled into the rainforest by boat and on foot to see numerous species of parrots, herons, kingfishers, and egrets, along with the wattled Jicana, whistling ducks, grey-necked cormorants, Caracara hawks, Anhinga, Hoatzin, and the orange-fronted yellow finch, just to name a few. We also got bit by fire ants and stung by tiny gold bees!

Blue-footed booby showing off the blue!

Number 3: Galapagos Islands (Ecuador)

This will surprise no one! There is an almost overwhelming richness of wildlife here, including large colonies of birds such as the Wavy Albatross and frigatebirds. We also saw Galapagos penguins and flamingos, and you know by now how we feel about that! We toured around the islands by boat, regularly landing to hike into areas and islands that are entirely dedicated to wildlife conservation and observation. We came across brown pelicans, blue-footed, red-footed, and Nasca boobys, brown noddys, finches, various herons and gulls, smooth-billed anis, red-billed tropic birds, a short-eared owl.

Marabou storks scavenge for food, sometimes fighting with vultures over carcasses.

Number 2: The Serengeti (Tanzania)

The Serengeti is a vast open gravelly plain, with rivers and lakes scattered here and there that provide the large animals with water to drink and a place to cool off. In or near the water is where you also will find the birds, although often just one or in a small group. What they lacked in number they made up for in their sometimes very wild appearance. Vultures, secretary birds, Kori Bustads, ostriches, superb starlings, helmeted guineafowl, red-billed cranes, Mariboo storks, and blue herons. Also have to mention nearby Mangara national park and the thousands of flamingos feeding in shallow water of Lake Mangara. 

One of many keel-billed toucans that dropped by to say hello.

Number 1: Puerto Viejo (Costa Rica)

The truth is, there are birds all over Costa Rica. It is hard to single out one national park or conservation area for special mention. We have been in the country four times and have hiked into the Monteverde Cloud Forest, walked along both coastlines, and got up before dawn to see a Resplendent Quetzal in the rainforests near San Gerardo de dota. But it was our repeat visits to Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean coast that ended up being quite remarkable for birding. There was a variety of shrubs near the small house we were staying in and trees all around. Every morning over coffee we would watch different birds perch nearby, eat bugs, berries or tree fruit, hang out, and eventually fly away. We enjoyed seeing keel-billed toucans, black-necked Aracaris, black-cheeked woodpeckers, social flycatchers, long-tailed hermit hummingbirds, blue-grey tanagers, streak-headed woodpeckers, blue-black Grassquits, and those are just the ones we were able to identify. In the “neighbourhood” we also spotted brown pelicans, whimbels, frigatebirds, kingfishers, and the exquisitely named Montezuma Oropendola.

five favourite big cities

Continuing to recall our favourite places on earth, we now come to a request we often hear: to name our favourite cities. It seems unfair to compare the small cities we love to the big ones, so this post will describe our favourite large cities, we’ll come back to the smaller cities in a future post. Our absolute favourites were easy to agree on, we had to work hard to narrow down the rest of our top five, and here they are!

Number 5: Havana, Cuba

We’ve visited Havana several times over the years. Twice on daytrips from beach resorts, and twice for extended stays, and we have loved every minute we roamed this historic and vibrant city. Around every corner of old Havana is an old school arts venue or museum, a crumbling apartment building or government office complex, Che billboards, and an endless parade of big old American cars from the 1950s. The city is not without challenges around poverty and other inequities, although during our last visit it was clear a middle class was emerging. One reason is Cubans are allowed to operate small businesses including casa particulares – bed and breakfast for tourists. We stayed in several across the country, but our room in old Havana was the best. We’ll go back! 

Number 4: Melbourne, Australia

Melbourne might not be the most famous city in Australia, but it is our favourite. It is very walkable, has a beach along one side, a concentrated downtown core, a vibrant arts scene, lots of buses, and numerous neighbourhoods featuring independent shops and craft brewpubs. Maybe it simply reminds us of Vancouver, and the comparisons don’t end there. While the scenic escape from Vancouver is the Sea-to-Sky Highway, Melbourne is the perfect jumping off point for the Great Ocean Road. Two outstanding art galleries not to miss, both free and operated by the National Government of Victoria: the International Gallery, the country’s largest and most visited gallery, and the nearby Ian Potter Centre with a focus on Australian artists, especially Aborigine art.

Number 3: Barcelona, Spain

We really enjoyed our stay in Barcelona. The gothic quarter is dark and haunting, the tourist strips are busy and noisy, and the cultural vibe is lively and defiant. Many tourists are fascinated by the numerous buildings designed by Antoni Gaudi, including the massive, still-under-construction sagrada familia church. But we appreciated seeing the rest of the city. A big chunk of the city was laid out according to progressive urban design ideas back in the mid-1800s. Each block features apartment building all the same height, with shops and cafes on the angled corners and common space inside. By the way, happy hour is done right throughout Spain, including in Barcelona – a small plate of complimentary food accompanies every pint of beer or glass of wine! 

Number 2: Rome, Italy

Rome is the ultimate city of antiquities. You can’t walk long before encountering everything from the ruins of ancient walls and “minor” temples to the magnificent and iconic Coliseum and nearby hilltop Palatino complex, the terme di caracalla (Roman baths), and of course the Vatican. After all, this was the centre of power for the Roman Empire, an ancient empire that reached far and wide. We have encountered evidence of Roman rule throughout Europe, and as far away as northern England. It was well worth it to purchase 72-hour Roma Passes: a helpful map and guide booklet, free access to the first two archaeological sites we visited and a discount on additional sites. The pass also gave us free use of city buses and trams – we were able to see a lot over 72 hours!

Number 1: Buenos Aires, Argentina

Latin America has a lot of offer, but one city is in a class of its own, Buenos Aires. It’s been said that it is the most European city outside Europe, but there is more to it than that. It has a long and sometimes difficult history – curbside markers commemorate the names of those taken away by secret police through the 1980s, and former sites of torture have been opened as museums. The city continues to be a centre for resistance – and this shows up in street protests, strikes and school occupations. But it feels very livable as well. Out for a walk in the morning, what you thought was an apartment entryway opens and a vender offers up a bounty of fresh fruit and vegetables. Later, Tango dancers put on shows for the afternoon outdoor happy-hour café crowd. Our biggest challenge was finding a place for dinner – many restaurants didn’t open until 9 pm or later, that was hard to get used to! 

our favourite places on earth

The pandemic has clipped our wings and kept us very close to home since last March. We look at our photos, read through our posts, and long to be back on the road. Some of you are likely feeling similarly restless and travel is likely many months away. And when we are able to head out again, who knows what the terrible spread of COVID will have done to the world.

In the meantime, with this post we’re beginning a series that draws on time spent in dozens of countries across six continents to share with you our favourite places and experiences. We’re going to proceed with a new category every post and describe our top five picks. 

We’ll begin with a category we’re going to call our favourite ancient mysteries. These are sites that inspire significant awe and are swathed in mystery, even if historians and archeologists offer clues about the site or the people who created or lived at the sites.

Number 5: Nazca Lines (Peru)

These ancient lines have intrigued us ever since they were featured in the 1968 book Chariots of the Gods? Unsolved Mysteries of the Past. Erich von Daaniken wrote about sites around the world that supposedly celebrated ancient astronauts who had brought advanced technologies to societies of the past. As for the lines themselves, including numerous large figures, von Daaniken proposed that they were created to signal to aliens to please return. His thesis was widely popular but just as widely discredited by the scientific community who favour earth-bound explanations for the ancient sites and events he described. Recently, even more figures have been discovered in the region.

There is a tower by the highway that provides a view of a small area of the lines, but the best way to fully appreciate them is from the air.

Number 4: Stonehenge (England)

The biggest mystery associated with Stonehenge is how exactly, thousands of years ago, did people manage to move and erect such large stones? It’s clear the structure lines up with important solar and lunar moments, but these are big stones, many traced to a quarry in Wales. Were they dragged here or perhaps brought by boat? The latest theory is that they were actually prefabricated: cut and erected elsewhere, taken down, moved, and reassembled at Stonehenge. 

We were on site for the summer solstice sunrise. Stonehenge was wide open to the public, something the authorities said was not going to be allowed again. It was crowded and festive, maybe that’s how they were originally experienced.

Number 3: Pompeii (Italy)

Hands up if you studied Pompeii in school! Don certainly remembers the dramatic story of a Roman town buried in volcanic ash and only rediscovered centuries later. As it turns out, Pompeii was actually a kind of resort town for wealthy Romans – they built mansions, numerous temples, baths, an amphitheatre, a coliseum, and more. The streets were lined with houses for the working class, markets, and brothels. And it was completely buried when Mount Vesuvius erupted, and then it was forgotten. Archaeologists have carefully revealed much of the city, uniquely preserved from the very moment it disappeared from sight. It’s a surprisingly massive site, a one-day visit does not do it justice.

Number 2: Chichen Itza (Mexico)

We’ve been out to the ancient Mayan site of Chichen Itza twice over the years. The first was a typical day-trip break from the beaches of Cancun, the second visit was years later and part of a week-long guided tour of Mayan sites located on the Yucatan Peninsula. The timing was such that we were on site for the 2012 winter solstice. This day marks the end of the Maya Long Count cycle of time, interpreted by some as a predication the world would also end that day. It was quite thrilling to join with so many thousands of others. Sure, some may have assembled here expecting to welcome the end of time, but most were obviously more interested in celebrating the promise of a new era for humankind.

Number 1: Machu Picchu (Peru)

Machu Picchu is an unparalleled wonder. Was it a mountaintop fortification, a religious retreat, or something else? And either way, why was it abandoned? The site is massive, breathtaking, and ultimately one of the world’s great human-made mysteries. Archeologists and scientists are still learning about the site to this day – a new documentary describes work to reveal a highly sophisticated drainage system built underneath all the structures, vital to keeping the whole thing from sliding down the mountainside during the rainy season. 

A word of advice. Stay the night in Aguas Calientes and catch the pre-dawn bus up to the entrance in order to take in the sunrise and spend the whole day on site. Many people we talked to that day or later who were with tour groups spent as little as 45 minutes exploring a site that needs hours to even begin to fully appreciate.

Watch for the next edition of Our favourite places on earth!