Wildlife Holiday News

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Our Best Wildlife and Culture Holidays

Dominic CouzensBy Dominic Couzens
22nd November 2019

Dominic is a Naturetrek tour leader and one of Britain's
best known and most prolific natural history writers.

There are many places around the world that are rich in wildlife; there are innumerable sites that are rich in cultural history. Some places are equally good for human and natural history. What do you do? The answer: go on a Naturetrek tour which showcases both.

Although many Naturetrek tours focus decisively on the wildlife aspects of a location, a good number at least pay homage to the human marvels that you see along the way. In some blessed locations, such as Tikal in Guatemala and Angkor Wat in Cambodia, the wildlife and culture sit cheek by jowl, sometimes literally. However, many travellers genuinely do want to appreciate both aspects of a new part of the world, or members of a duo or group may have different inclinations on the same tour. For many years we have catered for these shared interests on a range of journeys in all parts of the world. For example, on our Rajasthan tour we immerse ourselves in the wetland delights of Bharatpur, while making a concerted effort to enjoy the Amber Fort at Jaipur and the Taj Mahal at Agra, neither of which are particularly good wildlife locations. On other tours, for example our tour to Languedoc, the history is the lead aspect of the trip, but the wildlife is a rich diversion.

Personally, I can well remember seeing my very first Sinai Rosefinch. Nicknamed “the flying raspberry,” a male with gorgeous pink plumage landed on a rock nearby and I marvelled at it, a great view of a range-restricted bird. I then reawakened to the fact that I was in the middle of a tour of Petra, and our Jordanian guide was explaining the miraculous stonework of the Nabatean masons on one of the world’s greatest frontages, the Treasury, below where the Rosefinch perched. This moment was proof that wildlife and culture mix very well indeed.

Here is a selection of tours which, hopefully, offer the best of both worlds. Readers should remember that Naturetrek also offers Tailormade Tours to many of these places, where visitors can skew their own holidays according to where their interests lie, and can add in more traditional holiday destinations, too!

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Sinai Rosefinch

Europe

Many of us are used to enjoying the vibrant culture of Europe – weekends in Paris and holidays in Greece, for example. It’s easy to mix interests. The archaeological sites of south-east Europe resound to the calls of Rock Nuthatches, for example, the Roman ruins of France may host Wallcreepers, and Rollers inhabit fields where Van Gogh would paint in Provence. Here, though, are a few locations that you might not have considered.

Many people have never heard of Catharism, but this Gnostic movement was a threat to the Catholic church in the 10th and 11th centuries and wiping it out was part of the plan for the Crusades. Things came to a head in the southern French city of Carcassonne and the Pyrenean castle of Quéribus, but much remains today of this turbulent period, the subject of our France – Carcassonne and Cathar Country tour. The birds, butterflies and flowers won’t be neglected either.

Further south, just about everybody has heard of the Camino de Santiago, probably the most famous pilgrims’ walk in Europe. In fact, rather than being a single track, it is a network of routes from many directions, all converging on the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain. It happens that some of these paths go through some spectacular wildlife country, and it these we shall enjoy on our Spain’s Camino de Santiago and its Natural History walking tour. Look out for Lammergeiers and Wallcreepers, among others.

Down in the south of Spain, the rich history of Andalucia is ever-present in the urban fleshpot of Málaga, while at the same time the city is the perfect base for half-day trips to the birding areas. On our Go Slow … in Southern Spain tour, we will enjoy the Mediterranean delights such as Bee-eaters, Hoopoes and Greater Flamingoes, while leaving plenty of time to explore the city, spanning everything from Roman ruins to the Picasso Museum.

And how about Alderney? This is one of the Channel Islands, just a few kilometres from the coast of Normandy. Without a scheduled ferry service, it is hard to reach, and delightfully tranquil, with superb flowers, Gannets and even blonde Hedgehogs. However, as our Alderney – Wildlife and History in Style proves, things weren’t always so peaceful, from the Roman era to the German occupation during the Second World War.

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Carcassone, France

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The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, Spain

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La Concepcion Botanical Gardens, Malaga, Spain


The Middle East and Central Asia

Everyone knows that the Holy Lands are awash with sites of immense cultural and archaeological heritage. One of the most bird-friendly is Petra, visited on our Best of Jordan tour, where Tristram’s Starlings and Sinai Rosefinches can be seen, and if you look up you might even witness some raptor migration. The rock-hewn buildings built by the Nabatean Arabs were constructed over a long period. The most famous, Al Khazneh (The Treasury) dates from the first century AD. It is a breathtaking site, and the long entrance, a 1.2km narrow gorge (mind the camels) called the Siq just adds to the anticipation.

Not far away to the north lies the intriguing Republic of Georgia, a part of the former Soviet Union. It might be the birthplace of Stalin, but its independent nature is clear, as is its contemporary peaceful mix of cultures. Hemmed in by the Black Sea to the west, the Caspian Sea to the east, Russia to the north and Turkey to the south, it isn’t Europe, isn’t Asia and isn’t the Middle East. The earliest proof of the existence of wine, 8000 years ago, comes from here, but these days vodka takes a role in meals which can last for many alcohol-fuelled courses. Wildlife enthusiasts are drawn to the Greater Caucasus, where the high mountains have an atmosphere all of their own, with unique birds and mammals too, well appreciated on our Georgia in Spring tour, as are cultural sites ranging from Orthodox Christian to Islamic Ottoman.

If Georgia is neither east nor west, then what of Uzbekistan, deep in Central Asia? It lies on the Silk Road, where cultures met, clashed and intermixed – and so do the affinities of the animals and plants. The cultural highlights we enjoy on our Uzbekistan's Wildlife and Culture departure will mostly be Islamic – indeed, in Tashkent, the capital, the Telyashayakh Mosque houses the Samarkand Kufic Quran, an 8th or 9th century manuscript that is one of the oldest known copies of the Muslim holy book, while in the city of Samarkand itself is one of the world's oldest madrassas, or Islamic Schools. We also visit Bukhara, subtler in appearance but equally rich culturally, and in the desert nearby you can meet up with Pander’s Ground Jay and Blue-cheeked Bee-eater.

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Petra, Jordan

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Gergeti Church, Georgia (David Phillips)

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Kalyan Minaret and Mosque, Bukhara, Uzbekistan


Asia

If there is any part of the world where the culture sweeps you off your feet, shouts at you and demands your attention, it is perhaps in Asia. Take India as an example. India is like an overcrowded London tube station – crowded, noisy, impatient, hassled – even in the countryside. The cities teem with people, who go about their daily lives in every direction and on every form of transport imaginable without too much regard to traffic flow. It is an irresistible country which both assaults and delights the senses. Our tour to India – Rajasthan – Wildlife and History – is India at full volume, the best of the best. We visit the Golden Triangle, a complete cultural immersion which includes the justifiably famous Taj Mahal, as well as Delhi and Jaipur. Yet we also see Tigers and sample the equally extraordinary wildlife of the largest democracy in the world.

In complete contrast, Bhutan is Asia with the volume turned down to peaceful bliss. At times it can feel like an outdoor museum, all neatness and perfect preservation, and set in a barely believable wonderland of bucolic scenery.  In Bhutan’s Bumthang Valley, the neat Buddhist temples, with their elegant storeyed roofs, seem to bloom as profusely as the flowers, the principal focus for this tour. They fit in neatly with the mountain peaks, steep valleys and rhododendron-enshrouded woodlands.

Buddhist architecture is also the order of the day on our Burma Highlights – a Wildlife and Cultural Tour. Here, the marvels are pagodas, with their pencil-tipped spires and golden finishes. In particular, the huge 100m Shwedagon Pagoda in the capital Yangon (Rangoon) gleams in the sunset. In Bagan the pagodas dominate the skyline, pointing heavenwards like stalagmites. Between the 9th and 13th centuries AD the inhabitants built over 10,000 Buddhist temples in this region, of which 2,000 still survive. In the surrounding forests the birds, from sunbirds to hornbills, also shine.

While Bhutan and Burma (Myanmar) are adventurous destinations with sparse tourist footfall, the same cannot be said of Angkor Wat, in Cambodia, one of the world’s most popular ‘bucket-list’ destinations, a UNESCO World Heritage Site on account of its astonishing, and remarkably voluminous temple complex. Visiting this site is enmeshed in our Cambodia – Birds, Mammals and Temples tour, and the truth is that, at Angkor Wat, you can appreciate all three at once. Built in the 12th century, originally as a Hindu temple but later transformed into a Buddhist one, it is the largest religious monument in the world. The forests on site hold a good variety of birds, and surprisingly close by is one of Asia’s premier wetlands, the massive lake at Tonle Sap with its enormous breeding colonies of storks, pelicans and cormorants.

Another temple-bejewelled country is Sri Lanka, the teardrop of India, a fiercely independent nation with a culture all of its own – but owing in part to the nearby continent – and wildlife all of its own – but also with strong affinities to next door. You can almost understand the culture as a mixture of southern Asian fare mixed with endemism! (There are 33 species of birds found nowhere else.) Whilst Sinharaja Forest is probably the top birding site we visit on our Sri Lanka – Wildlife and History holiday, several sites vie for the cultural highlight, with the astonishing rock-top fortress at Sigiriya competing with Anuradhapura, where some artefacts of the Sinhalese kings date from the 4th century BC.

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Tiger's Nest Monastery, Bhutan

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Bagan pagodas, Burma

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Sigirya Rock, Sri Lanka


Australasia

There are many ways to appreciate culture. Typically on our tours we visit sites of interest and marvel at buildings, ruins or other structures. On the Papua New Guinea’s Birds-of-paradise and Culture tour, we do something rather different. As we enter into the forests inhabited by the indigenous people, we will be treated to some direct culture in the form of ceremonies and dances. In the Western Highlands we will meet the Melpa people and enjoy an amazing variety of ceremonies, including the Mud Men and the Wigmen. The latter, the Huli tribe, base many of their ceremonies around the displays of the local birds-of-paradise, which of course we will see in the wild. Here the wildlife is the culture.

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Huli Wigmen, Papua New Guinea


Africa

The cradle of humanity, you could argue that Africa’s cultural history goes back to the very beginning of what we now call culture, and what it is to be human. On our Ethiopia’s Wildlife and History tour, we stop in Addis Ababa to see “Lucy,” the world-famous specimen of Australopithecus afarensis, a very early Hominid dating from about 3.2 million years ago that was discovered near the Awash River in 1974. After that, we sample an extraordinary mix of cultures and religions, including those deriving from the dynasty of the Queen of Sheba, who visited the Biblical Solomon. One of the biggest delights will be to see the world-famous pink-tinged rock-hewn churches at Lalibela, which date from the 7th-13th centuries, jewels of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

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Monolithic Church of Saint George, Lalibela, Ethiopia


The Americas

It might not spring instantly to mind as a cultural site, but New York City is indisputably a modern marvel – think skyscrapers, Madison Square Garden and the Statue of Liberty. Remarkably, amidst the teeming masses of humanity, wildlife fits in, and nowhere is this more incongruous than in Central Park in Manhattan, where colourful migrating warblers on their way to the boreal wilderness feed hungrily, while below them parents push wheelchairs and joggers push themselves. Our Spring Birding in New York tour dodges the traffic to catch up with New York’s surprisingly plentiful wildlife.

The North Americans might think they invented skyscrapers, but the fact is that many New World peoples were well ahead of them in this regard. The Empire State Building was completed in 1931, but the Mayan were already building monumental temples in the 4th century BC. The Tikal Temple IV, built in about 741AD, is 70m high and would have been, in its day, among the tallest man-made structures in the world. Happily for wildlife watchers, climbing the many temples at Tikal, as well as the many other Mayan marvels in Belize which we visit on our Belize and Tikal tour, allows you easy access to the forest canopy surrounding these locations, which in the early morning buzzes with birds while all about is quiet. Ocellated Turkeys at your feet are a bonus.

Machu Picchu isn’t a skyscraper architecturally, but its setting is very much a grand design. The views from this UNESCO World Heritage Site, overlooking the humid forests of the Andes and down to the Urubamba River, are breathtaking. Built from about 1450 onwards, probably on the orders of the Inca ruler Pachacutec Inca Yupanqui, it was originally part of a royal estate. The Incas abandoned it during the settlement of the Spanish conquistadors and the latter never found it, allowing much of it to be preserved. We visit this site on our Peru – Macaws and Machu Picchu tour.

Modern Americans might also lay claim to their invention of modern coffee culture, but coffee itself is a much more ancient beverage, actually from tropical Africa. Growing well in the Americas, some of the best in the world comes from Colombia, and is always an ever-present aspect of our Colombia – Birds and History departure. Most birders know that Colombia has the richest avifauna in the world by species. It also boasts a rich cultural heritage, not least the Spanish architecture of Bogota and Cartagena. You can strike gold on your birding list, and at the same time visit the Gold Museum in the capital.

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Central Park, New York, USA

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Machu Picchu, Peru

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Cartagena, Colombia