Photo Of The Day: Monks, Monkeys And A Snake Charmer

This Photo of the Day, titled “Monkeys, Monks, and a Snake Charmer is Today’s Virtualvacay #srilanka,” comes from Gadling Flickr pool member and travel photographer Jen Pollack Bianco.

On Flickr as MyLifesATrip, and hosting a website of the same name, Bianco has also graced the pages of Gadling with some helpful tips on travel photography.

This photo is timely right now as Sinhala Ravaya, a Sinhalese Buddhist pressure group, staged a march this week to protest the repeated attacks against Buddhist monks in Tamil Nadu. Here, we see a different scene depicted. Bianco’s work depicts snake charming, the practice of pretending to hypnotize a snake by playing an instrument.

In addition to the Gadling pool, this photo appears in an interesting Flickr set called A Picture Per Day, which we see others mimic on Flickr, Tumblr, Instagram and other photo-sharing venues too.

It’s a way of sharing our lives with, literally, a snapshot of what is going on with us at any given point in time; what we see or do that can bring us closer to friends and family that may be far away.

Sound like a good idea? Your photos don’t have to be of some iconic destination. After all, how many of us are able to do that day in and day out?

My best friend has been doing this for a couple years now. Including photos of a beautiful sunset while stuck in traffic on the way home from work, a flower blooming in her front yard or some other image she captures going about a day.

Some share these with the world or include only family and friends.

Want to be featured? Upload your best shots to the Gadling Group Pool on Flickr. Several times a week we choose our favorite images from the pool as a Photo of the Day.

Tips for being featured: add a caption describing the image and (better yet) your personal experience when capturing it, details of the photography gear used and any tips you might have for others wanting to emulate your work.

Now, you can also submit photos through Instagram; just mention @GadlingTravel and use the hashtag #gadling when posting your images.

[Photo Credits Flickr user MyLifesATrip]

Monkeys Are Big Business At Manuel Antonio National Park In Costa Rica

It was 6 a.m. and I was hiking alone in the lush, tropical forest below the Hotel Parador near Manuel Antonio National Park in Costa Rica when I heard a noise that stopped me dead in my tracks. It was a deep, throaty guttural call that almost sounded like an animal clearing its throat. I was on the so-called “Monkey Trail” on the hotel’s extensive grounds, so I was expecting to see howler monkeys. But I imagined the howler monkeys call to be more like a high-pitched shriek.

I picked up my pace in the enervating, early morning jungle humidity as my mind started running through the possibilities. Hadn’t I read that there were jaguars and leopards and pumas in Costa Rica? Was I about to become the first tourist to get mauled by a wild animal before he even left his hotel?

I knew that whatever it was, I had to avoid the impulse to run, but I hustled away as the animal continued to howl at a frightening volume. In a distracted state, I somehow managed to lose the trail and eventually found myself down at a rocky lookout over the Pacific.

I regained my bearings a few minutes later and on my way back to the hotel pool I saw more than a dozen howler monkeys jumping from tree to tree, but none of them made much noise. Back at the hotel pool, I sheepishly asked a young man who worked the Hotel Parador’s adventure desk about the terrifying howl I’d heard.

“It is possible that was a leopard or a puma?” I asked quietly, so that only he could hear me.

“Sir, we don’t have leopards and pumas on the hotel grounds,” he said. “You heard a howler monkey.”

An hour later, I was at Manuel Antonio National Park wondering why it was easier to see monkeys at my hotel than at one of the country’s premier tourist attractions, know for its wildlife. My wife and I hired Flander Sanchez to take us on a guided walk through the park and a half-hour into our tour we had yet to see a monkey. Still, Flander had an uncanny knack for seeing things we would have just walked past if he wasn’t with us.

Just steps after paying the $10 entry fee to the park, he stopped dead in his tracks and started to set up a telescope on a tripod. He noticed a huge golden web spider sitting in its web and then a green lizard we never would have seen. Flander picked some petals off of a plant and has us breathe in the delightful citronella scent, but I wasn’t as interested in eating the fistful of termites he picked up off a tree on the side of the path.

“Come on,” he said. “These things are delicious. Try them- it’s part of your tour, no extra charge!”

My wife gave them a try and said they tasted like dirt, so I declined. Flander seemed a little hurt.

“I can’t believe you don’t like them! I love termites.” (see video.)

Another 15 minutes or so up the park’s main path, Flander spotted a white-faced capuchin monkey sitting in a tree overhead.

“I feel like he’s going to climb up to the top of the tree and then jump across to the other side,” Flander said, as two other clusters of tourists gathered around to gawk.

And just as I started to think, how the hell does he know what the monkey is going to do next, the monkey did just as Flander predicted, making a huge leap over the trail to the other side of the jungle as the cluster of tourists gave him a small round of applause for the effort. It felt a bit like a well choreographed show.

A big crowd gathered to watch a three-toed sloth scratch himself high up in the trees and a woman from New Jersey seemed thrilled.

“Look at him!” she bellowed. “He just keeps scratching his ass!”

By the time we reached Playa Manuel Antonio, I had a small mutiny on my hands. Flander still had plenty more to show us, but my sons and wife wanted to hit the beach. It was sweltering and my 5-year-old son Leo was dripping with sweat.

“Why are we on a tour, dad?” he asked. “You said we were travelers, not tourists. Only tourists take tours.”

I prevailed on the group to press on and we were immediately rewarded. There were white-faced capuchin monkeys everywhere on the path towards Playa Espadilla Sur, most of them hovering on short trees, hoping to scavenge for food.

At the entrance to the park, there were gruesome photos of dead monkeys with a warning about the dangers of feeding them. One feisty little monkey tried to raid a nearby garbage can and bared his teeth at Flander when he shooed him away from it with a stick. It’s sad and dangerous that the monkeys in Manuel Antonio are conditioned to scavenge for human food but the fact that they flock to humans makes for a remarkable experience for visitors.

The monkeys stop to stare right into your eyes and they seem to find the paparazzi fascinating. They’re also pretty damn smart. One tourist held out his flip-flop and was trying to encourage a monkey to come grab it but the monkey just looked at him like he was a dumb ass, as if to say, dude, I know that’s not food, why would I want your smelly flip-flop?

We walked on with Flander toward Playa Espadilla Sur, which is a huge, stunning beach that’s flanked by lush tropical jungle that encroaches onto the beach. It was nearly deserted, partially because the guides were telling people that there were crocodiles in the water. Flander still had more to show us but we parked ourselves in the shade of a huge tree and told him we were done. I felt a bit like a castaway that had just found paradise and didn’t want to move a muscle.

“Are there always that many monkeys out prowling around?” I asked.

“Not always that many,” he said. “They like to come out on the weekends.”

“Come on man, the monkeys don’t know it’s Saturday,” I said.

“They don’t know it’s Saturday but more people come here on the weekends and they respond to all the noise because they know there’ll be more food,” he said.

My guidebook said to avoid Manuel Antonio on weekends in the high season but if you want to get up close and personal with the park’s white-faced capuchins, there’s actually no better time to be there.

IF YOU GO: it takes about three hours to get to Manuel Antonio from San Jose. We were surprised to discover that it was slightly cheaper for us to take a private taxi than any of the group shuttle services that go to the area. If you have less than four people in your party, the shuttles will probably be cheaper though. We used Mario Rosales Melendez (86-27-62-95, who charged us $150 for the ride.

The town of Quepos and the area right outside Manuel Antonio isn’t very pedestrian friendly, so don’t think you’ll be able to walk many places from whatever hotel you choose. Some of the hotels have shuttles, but you might consider renting a car if you want to have the flexibility of exploring the area on your own.

We stayed at the Hotel Parador and I would highly recommend it. The rooms are very nice, with comfy beds and modern amenities; the food is excellent and they have free shuttles to Manuel Antonio. But the real pleasure of this place is the lush grounds, the hiking trails and the beautiful pools with views of the Pacific. Here’s a tip for you if you stay there, or even if you don’t: check out the Fragata Restaurant at the farthest corner of the resort. It’s only open for lunch, but it’s set high up, so there are great breezes and amazing views, not to mention very good food at reasonable prices.

I highly recommend hiring a guide at Manuel Antonio. They cluster in front of the entrance and usually charge $20 per person. You can book ahead if prefer at Café Agua Azul is an American-owned restaurant that has excellent food and great views at reasonable prices.

[Photo/video credits: Dave Seminara]

Human Hammocks And Howler Monkeys: Visiting Costa Rica’s Jaguar Rescue Center

“Why don’t they like me?” my travel companion huffed in frustration, abandoning what he had hoped would be a welcoming hand gesture toward a group of rehabilitated baby howler monkeys. Maybe they sensed our initial apprehension. After all, we had been nervous to visit the Jaguar Rescue Center, given the world’s alarming amount of faux sanctuaries that operate more akin to zoos and tourist destinations, but many locals in Puerto Viejo, a small beach town in the southern Caribbean of Costa Rica, spoke highly of the experience in Playa Chiquita, telling of the daily free-range policies where the animals may decide for themselves if they are ready to leave.

So we rented bicycles in town: cruisers – the kind with large baskets and banana seats that position the rider as almost a parody of leisure (our uptight go-go city bikes would never forgive us for crossing over). Truth be told, the lazy cycling on stretched lanes along the Caribbean with backpacks snug in our front baskets seemed like perfection when compared with the pre-traumatic stress of avoiding car doors that so often invade Chicago’s bike lanes.
No – here things were different. Here, tranquility was the goal. Costa Rica sinks into the bloodstream like a rich dessert – best enjoyed slowly.

After a 20-minute ride down a sun-drenched road dotted with open-walled cafes, vegan restaurants and yoga schools, we rolled into the Jaguar Rescue Center for an 11:30 a.m. tour.Founded by Barcelona Primatologist Encar García and her herpetologist husband, Sandro Alviani, the rescue serves as an educational beacon along Costa Rica’s Caribbean edge. Jaguar strives to rehabilitate its residents with the end goal of releasing sloths, toucans, ocelots and howler monkeys back into the wild.

We joined the dozen or so in the small crowd and were immediately greeted by Encar, a serene and natural beauty whose eyes smiled and set in exhaustion on the horizon of her cherub cheekbones – a ringer for a young Jane Goodall on several counts.

Perched on her hand was a toucan whose beak had been mangled by a feral dog one year earlier. We were pleased to learn that the complicated operation of gluing its beak back together at the facility had allowed the strange bird to heal properly and once again enjoy a staple of fruits. Soon, Encar explained, it would leave the sanctuary like many before.

A guide directed us through an exhibit of venomous snakes and small tree frog habitats. The intimacy of the tour allowed its guests to share their own stories in between the cooing and chittering of happy travelers facing a sloth’s crooked smile.

We excitedly approached the baby howler monkey lodging, realizing for the first time that we were going to be allowed to touch them. But suddenly, our guide directed his attention to Encar who let out a surprised cry.

The tour followed, surrounding the sanctuary’s founder. She was calling to a wild adolescent howler monkey that had scurried in from the deep canopy. The animal recognized her and ran in for a full embrace, Encar holding it to her chest and crying. “This is a special moment,” she revealed to the crowd. “I have not seen her for a long time; we raised her and she left into the wild.”

The monkey who came back was Cuca, one of the original animals housed when the rescue center first opened. At the time she was a tiny baby, malnourished and ill. “We did everything we could,” the founder explained. “We were not sure if she was going to recover.”

She did recover, and three years later left the rescue center on her own accord. This return was touching (Encar later emailed that not long after, Cuca joined a wild troop and is now fully rehabilitated); it only further fueled our excitement to hold a howler ourselves. Our guide ushered us into the cage and we extended our arms and waited, but to no avail.

“Am I doing something wrong?” I asked in concern. The small faces could not answer beyond sharp chirps.

A volunteer leaned in with an insider’s tip: “They like it if you make a hammock shape with your arms.”

We folded them into cradles and before I could finish asking, “Like this?” four howler monkeys jumped into our arms, channeling a cartoon dust cloud of pushing and fighting, all vying for the ultimate comfort of resting one of their apple-sized heads in the palms of our hands. We smiled from ear to ear, happy to oblige as one winner wrapped its digits around our “pillows,” fluffing for comfort and allowing us to study the similarities of our fingernails.

It was peculiar to be so close to an animal whose more wild brethren stirred us from our cabinas each morning with a startling bellow. In time, perhaps these little heads would soon echo the chant throughout the canopy and only vaguely recall the time spent here at the rescue center.

The Jaguar Rescue Center offers tours ($15 per person) Monday through Saturday at 9:30 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. They accept volunteers for a minimum commitment of three weeks. For more information visit

[First image courtesy of Jaguar Rescue Center; second by Robin Whitney]

Destination spotlight: the Volta Region, Ghana, Africa

When people think of where they want to go on vacation, Ghana isn’t usually the first place that comes to mind. There are actually many good reasons to visit this African country, including an excellent exchange rate on the dollar, an experience rich in culture, and areas of untouched, natural beauty. These things and more can be found in the Volta Region in Ghana.

While many areas in Ghana have a chaotic, diesel-fueled city feeling, that all goes away as you experience the natural wonders and peaceful calm of the Volta Region. A great home-base to explore this area is Wli-Afegame, a small village outside of HoHoe, which can reached by tro-tro (think small, packed out mini van). From HoHoe, take a taxi to your hotel in Wli-Afegame. Some good ones are the Wli-Water Heights Hotel and the Wli Waterfall Lodge, which is right next to the Wli Waterfalls. For the rustic traveler, there is a hut-type accommodation with outdoor showers and toilets called Ras Madesko’s, which you can reach by having your taxi driver stay on the main road of town and drive up a mile past the waterfalls. Ras’s Rastafasian-style accommodation will be on your right, with a red, yellow, and green wooden guitar sign out front.To explore the sites of the Volta Region you have a few options in terms of transportation. Your first and cheapest option is the tro-tro, which will save you money, but will also add hours to your itinerary and can be unreliable in this area. Your second option, and the most expensive choice, is to have a taxi drive you around. While this is convenient, it may end up costing you quite a bit (although don’t forget to bargain the price, as foreigners are often charged 3 to 4 times what locals pay). Your third option, and the one I would recommend, is to hire Ras Madesko (his real name is Stephan) to drive you around. Whether you are staying at his hostel or not, he will give you an affordable deal and will take you to all the major sites of the area. For example, I stayed at the Wli-Water Heights Hotel, and he charged three friends and I 40 Ghana Cedis total (about $25) for a few hours of touring.

So what should you see while in the Volta Region? Here are the top picks:

  • Volta Lake– This is what the entire region is known for, so it should definitely be on your to-do list. It is the largest reservoir by surface area in the world, and the fourth largest by water volume. Behind the lake are mountains that make for a great photo backdrop, while in front of the lake there are many tiny fishing boats along the shore. There is also a large market here that sells food, drinks, clothing, jewelery, and more.
  • Tafi-Atome Monkey Sanctuary– For a small fee (discounts for students and volunteers) you will be taken on a guided trek into the jungle and will learn about the monkeys that live there as well as the nearby cultural villages and how they value these monkeys. The best part is that once you find a pack of monkeys in the forest, the tour guide will give you bananas to feed to them. What they do not warn you about is that the monkeys will literally jump down from the trees onto your head to get the bananas. While it takes a few minutes to get used to, the monkeys are really sweet and it’s fun to get them to come to you.
  • Wli-Waterfalls– This is my top pick for Volta Region activities, as there are so many options of how you can spend your day here. For those who aren’t really into hiking and just want to see the waterfalls up-close, a guide can take you along a flat road for about 30-40 minutes right up to the falls (you can even swim in the water!). For those who want a challenge, there is an option to hike to the upper-falls that takes about 3 hours (or more, depending on your fitness level). The entire trek goes up an extremely steep, rocky path and, while they give you a walking stick, can be dangerous at times, especially on the way down. There are many look-out points and photo opportunities along the way, as well. This option is great for those who want to experience a challenge in the outdoors. When you are leaving the falls, you will be able to walk through the forest and see the various fruits and plants of the region in their natural habitat. Visitors can also explore a market filled with carvings, paintings, jewelery, and food at the entrance.
  • Mount Afadjato– This is a must-see, as it is the tallest mountain in Ghana. Visitors are not allowed to trek it alone, but may hire a guide to take them to the top. An information center with exhibits and photos are also at the base of the mountain.
  • Cultural Villages– There are many cultural villages bordering Wli-Afegame, and it is worthwhile to explore some of them just to get a sense the architecture and lifestyle of the people. If you see any hawkers selling fruit, make sure to get some bananas, as they are native to the area, and an evo, a large-green fruit a little bigger than a mango that you break open with your hands. The inside is sweet and fizzy, kind of like a candy-flavored root-beer.

Can stem cell research save endangered species?

New advances in stem cell research are giving hope in the fight to save endangered species.

Scientists have created stem cells for two endangered African species–the northern white rhino and the drill monkey. They “reprogrammed” skin cells to make them revert to stem cells, an early stage of cell development in which a cell can develop into different types of specialized cells.

It’s hoped that one day these stem cells could be made into sperm and eggs, leading to test tube babies that could bolster dwindling populations of some species. This has already been achieved with laboratory mice.

The white rhino used to be a favorite of safari goers and, unfortunately, big game hunters. There are probably none left in the wild, and only seven in captivity. These rhinos are the poster children of how tourism can hurt the environment.

This stem cell breakthrough is good news. With Obama scrapping tighter smog regulations and China discovering just how much they’ve screwed up their environment, we can’t rely on our so-called leaders to get us out of this mess. While environmentalists say we all need to change our attitudes in order to save the planet, that’s unlikely to happen. In fact, science is the only part of society that regularly advances. Common sense, foresight, and wisdom sure don’t.

Here’s hoping the scientists can give us a world where our children don’t have to go to a zoo to see wildlife.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]