Japan Travel: Skiing in Niseko, Japan, and much more

Niseko is known to be one the best places in the world to ski, but apart from that, it has a lot more to offer, not only during winter but all through the year. This place that receives enough snowfall to cover every inch of the land during winter months transforms into green landscapes with beautiful rivers flowing through it during summer.For anyone who loves nature and adventure, and most of all food, Niseko is the place to be; get hold of a travel expert and slip it into your Japan itinerary. Winter Activities:Around the world, Hokkaido is known to have the best snow for skiing, and Niseko is rightly credited with being one of the premier ski destinations here. The heavy snowfall the place receives is the main reason for its popularity. If you've had it with Europe, a skiing vacation in Niseko instead is highly recommended (you might never go back to Europe).  However, if skiing is not what you want to do, or you have done enough of it, there are various other activities that you can do during winter.Editorial credit:  / Shutterstock.comHire a snowmobile and explore Hokkaido's snow covered terrain. Another highly recommended activity is horse riding. As irregular as it may sound, this is one of the few places in the world where you can ride a horse in the snow. Try snow rafting or snow tubing (yes, it means pelting down slopes in a huge raft or an individual tube), or put on snow shoes and explore the mountains. In short, if it's snow-related, you'll find it in Niseko. Once you've had your dose of adventure and want to relax, look no further than your nearest onsen. These are naturally occurring volcanic hot springs, and the water contains minerals that are considered to have a calming effect on the body. Regardless of how packed your schedule might be, you must make time for these relaxing baths. There are 15 onsens in the area (collectively called Niseko Onsenkyo), the most popular being the Kombu Onsen which is 100 years old. Although Japanese traditions state that to get the best effect of the onsen, you must bath in it once a day for 3 weeks, nothing should stop you from trying it if even if you are here for two days. During winter, another fun thing to look forward to is trekking the terrain and living in igloos along the way. Summer Activities:During the months of summer (mainly being from March to October), Niseko turns into a wonderland of clean rivers and lush greenery. The Shiribetsu River is one of the many good spots where you can go fishing; the abundance and variety of fishes is staggering. If you are looking for something more adventurous, you can try canoeing, river rafting and mountain biking the river shore.Credited to have the clearest water in Japan, rafting and canoeing take place on a large scale in the Shiribetsu River. First timers can easily find an instructor, but there's nothing to it, really. Hire a canoe and take off on your own over this waterscape of unbelievable beauty.  The best way to explore the scenic landscapes of Niseko is on a mountain bike. There are arrangements made via the bike program where you will find free-to-use bikes at 6 locations in Niseko. With the world's best roads and the world's cleanest air, and the background music of chirping birds, a bike-ride here is truly an unmissable experience. A place that is loved by children and adults alike is the Niseko Village Pure. Known for their Zipline course, this place also has some really good trekking routes that can easily be covered in a day.Another activity that is famous in Niseko is golfing. Have the kids and family try a hand at whacking balls at the superb driving range, while you get in your 18 holes. Cuisine:The consensus of the majority of travelers is that you should take a trip to Nikeso solely to taste the cuisine found here. You will find everything from pure gourmet restaurants to local shops that sell Japanese delicacies. What makes the food here so good is the amazing combination of local fresh produce and the skilled chefs.One of the most famous dishes here is the yakitori, a Japanese chicken dish in which the bird is skewered and cooked with herbs and spices over charcoal. The best place to find it would be in a place called Bang Bang; this small restaurant has been around long before Niseko was even a popular destination, and is so popular among the locals and tourists that they have opened a restaurant right beside it called Bang 2. If you are looking for some delicious ramen, then Niseko Ramen Kazahana is the place to go. They have a variety of options, from the traditional to other quirkier flavors (the creamy, fluffy potato ramen, or the burning spicy red ramen). And for those with a sweet tooth, try the ice cream and cream puffs from Milk Kobo.If you are looking for western options, the Green Farm Cafe is one of the best places for it, where popular European dishes are cooked with delicious local produce, but with a Japanese twist. The place is also famous for its coffee, pastries and a range of beverages. Another good spot to hangout is the Guy Bar (popularly known as the Fridge Bar). It has an elaborate menu with cocktails ranging from the classic to the exotic; to enter the bar you have to walk through a fridge door giving it its popular nick name.Get started on planning with a local expert right here.

Ecuador Travel: Things To Do In Cotopaxi National Park

Recognized as Ecuador’s topmost mainland ecological reserve, Cotopaxi National Park is second only to the Galapagos in terms of annual visitors. Spanning a massive stretch of 33,400 hectares, the park boasts one of the most picturesque volcanoes of the continent, the eponymous Cotopaxi Volcano, along with two other gigantic peaks. Adding to its charm is the vast flourishing Paramo (a high treeless plateau in tropical South America), perfect for gentle hikes past grazing animals.Ask any travel expert to weave this into your Ecuadorian itinerary; you won't be disappointed. Here are some insights about this marvel of nature which might prove useful. Volcan CotopaxiRising up out of the plains to a gigantic height of 19,347 feet (5,897 meters), Volcan Cotopaxi is the second highest mountain in Ecuador, and often considered the most photogenic of all its fellow volcanoes. Translated as “the neck of the moon” in the local Quechuan dialect (when the full moon is directly over the top, the effect is that of a head with a sloping neck), Cotopaxi is a perfectly symmetrical cone covered by a thick blanket of snow which captivates its climbers with its heart-stirring views.Historically, all this sheer beauty has masked a hidden beast. Very much an 'active' volcano even today, there is no denying Cotopaxi’s potentially deadly destructive ability. The first major eruption occurred reportedly in the year 1534 which disrupted the battle between the Spanish and the Incas; since then there have been 10 eruptions, the last major burst occuring in 1904. In August 2015, Cotopaxi rumbled once again, sending out a thin plume of gas and ash. The activity has subsided since then (no major blow-out occurred), but the locals and volcanologists are alert and watchful. Flora and FaunaThe majority of the park is covered by widespread grasslands and the Paramo, and this is where the wildlife action happens. Cotopaxi houses commendable populations of wild, free-roaming species of deer, rabbits, Andean foxes and the endemic marsupial mouse. You can witness llamas grazing the fields and wild horses galloping across the vast terrain.It is also home to the elusive puma and the endangered Spectacled Bear. Cotopaxi has recorded more than 90 avian species in its habitat, including Carunculated Caracaras (belonging to the falcon family, but unlike its cousins, is more of a walker stalker than a flying predator), shrike-tyrants, and Rufous-naped brush-finches. If you are fortunate, you may even spot an Andean Condor soaring overhead. Some other birds like Andean Gulls can be seen nesting year-round, and hummingbirds are usually spotted all along the Lake Limpiopunga trail. At the lower elevations of about 3600-3800 meters, the park contains wet Montane forests with tundra-like vegetation consisting of shrubs, lichens... ...lupines, blueberries, and flowers including the peculiar small blue mountain rose. Adventure activitiesApart from Cotopaxi’s wildlife and scenic beauty, what adds to its splendor is its unparalleled trekking experiences which any fit adventurer should try at least once in their lives. Important tip - For climbing the peaks, you need to be physically fit and spend a few days in high altitudes to get acclimated. Cotopaxi is an active stratovolcano and climbing this peak is challenging but equally rewarding. Sadly, after the 2015 volcanic activity, climbing all the way to the top of the mountain is not allowed (this is the current status, and adventurer's are waiting for a go-ahead from volcano experts). The climb was done by first hiking to the "Refuge" which is at 16,000 feet. Climbers would use this as a base camp and then ascend to top in the dark hours of morning before the glacier ice started melting. Now this last bit of the climb is not possible. You can still hike up to The Refuge though.Your reward for getting up there is a cup of steaming, delicious hot chocolate! Apart from Cotopaxi, Volcan Ruminahui (4,712 meters) is another strenuous climb demanding good lung capacity and strong legs, and the views on a clear day from its peak are truly dramatic.Adding more to your adrenaline-spiking menu are the adventurous horseback riding tours conducted here from Jose F. Ribas Refuge and the Laguna Limpiopunga. One added advantage that touring on horseback possess over cars are the greater chances of photographing the wildlife of the Paramo. After an adventure-packed day of hiking / riding / exploring, enjoy your dinner with some magnficient views of Cotopaxi from the gardens of the St Augustine Hacienda. http://www.incahacienda.com/ How to go there Only approximately 1.5 hrs from Quito, Cotopaxi National Park is an ideal location for day tours from the capital. You can hire private transportation from Quito, or board a bus and get off at El Chasqui (for the southern entrance) or Machachi (for northern entrance); from there you can hire a taxi or a 4×4 to get you to the entrance of this majestic natural setting.All visitors to Cotopaxi Park are assigned a guide. Guides are from the local communities and generally don’t speak much English, but they are required - even if your travel expert assigns you your own guide. The local guides do have excellent knowledge of the local flora and fauna and are happy to show you the park, and even make the ascent to The Refuge with you. Best time to VisitAlthough Cotopaxi and its ecological reserve can be climbed and visited year-round, to make it a commendable experience, it is advisable that you plan your trip in the months of December, and mid-June to early-October, since the weather during this time of the year is clear and dry, making your experience a scenic one.From scaling volcanoes to long horseback rides, to scenic views and thriving wildlife, Cotopaxi National Park is a one-stop destination for the trekkers, wildlife lovers, and adventure enthusiasts. Start planning your itinerary with a local travel expert and make your holiday one you will remember for a long time.

Peru Travel: An Essential Guide to The Mysterious Nazca Lines

Apart from Machu Picchu, Peru is also home to one of the most interesting sights in the world – the Nazca lines, something every traveler must see! Mysterious and intriguing, these lines are a major highlight of Peru travel, a UNESCO World Heritage site and certainly a wonder of the world – even if they don’t officially own that title.Get a travel expert to fit this into your Peruvian itinerary; this is an experience you would not want to miss.OverviewThe Myth!Located approximately 200 miles southeast of Lima near the modern town of Nazca, the Nazca Lines (also a key highlight of Peru) are considered one of the most baffling mysteries in archeological history. There are many myths regarding their creation, and their purpose is still unknown. The famous Swiss author, Erich Von Daniken, in his book (Chariots of the God) calls them runways for alien spacecraft that might have visited Earth thousands of years ago. Other (slightly more pragmatic) researchers claim they were created by an ancient civilization much ahead of its time in the field of agriculture and technology.What are the Lines?The lines are known as geoglyphs – drawings on the ground of light-colored soil highlighted by darker stones on either side. The rocks which cover the desert have eroded and been battered to a deep rustic color; when 12-15 inches of topsoil is removed, it reveals a lighter-colored and highly contrasting sand. And due to minimal rain and wind, the bare designs have remained unchanged since 1 AD - 700 AD (estimated). How to see the LinesThe best way to see the lines would be from the air (in fact, that's how they were discovered circa 1930s) by flying over them in a small passenger plane. However, visiting the area on foot is also an interesting experience, as you get a sense of the size and the huge area that the lines, symbols and pictures cover. If you wish to take a flight, then here are few tips to bear in mind before zooming off into the skies.Book Your Flight In AdvanceImage Copyrights: Paul WilliamsFlights over the Nazca Lines are a very popular tourist activity, and many people book in advance to make sure that they don’t miss out. It's often difficult to get a seat with a reputed company at short notice. Hence, booking your flights in advance to beat the rush is strongly recommend.Take An Early FlightDue to clear visibility and lower turbulence level, it's wise to fly early in the morning (7 – 10.30 am) to see the best of the Nazca Lines. All flights run pretty much continuously, so it shouldn't be much of a hassle, provided you inform your chosen travel expert well in advance, during the planning stages.Only Fly With An Reputable CompanyThe most important thing is to make sure your safety is not comprised. Choose a reputed airline company (authorized by the Peruvian government) with an impeccable flight record, and certification that guarantees safety standards, quality, technology and service.Take Anti-Nausea MedicationIn order to give both sides of the plane a fair look at the Lines, pilots will performing a lot of sharp maneuvers, rolling the plane from side to side. If you’re prone to severe airsickness, or are a little worried that nausea could ruin your Nazca excursion, take preventive medication or you may spend the whole time looking into a plastic bag. Things to doEven though the Lines are without doubt the most sought after experience in Nazca, there is much more to do around this area. Here are a few notable mentions:Palpa LinesThe newly discovered Palpa Lines are perhaps equally intriguing and can be covered in the same flight. Meticulously created by the ancient Paracas civilization, they are thought to predate the Nazca Lines by as much as 1000 years, and there are many more of them (approximately 1600 geoglyphs). Unlike the Nazca lines, these are found on tops of ridges or hillsides and they display a superior wealth of human forms, including the Familia Real de Paracas (Royal Family), a group of eight figures on a hillside.To see the Palpa Lines clearly, you can take a combined flight tour along with the Nazca Lines, so that you can see the best of both. However, as the lines are in an elevated position, it's easy to view them from terra firma at a mirador (a lookout spot) 8 Km south of Palpa Town. The Sunday MarketImage Copyrights: LWYangShopaholic or not, taking a stroll around the Sunday Market in Nazca makes for a fun half-day adventure. Take a tour of this bustling market and meet the locals who come together for a massive food and clothing sale; on offer are all kinds of fruits, vegetables, meat, cheap sunglasses, clothes, and illegal DVDs for sale.Explore Nearby Deserts on a BicycleGrab yourself a bike, get out of town, and explore the nearby Andean foothills of Nazca. Explore abandoned mines, canyons, and hillsides in and around the tiny desert town of Nazca. There aren’t any places in town that do rentals, but a travel expert will easily round up a bicycle up for you.Chauchilla CemeteryHead out to the vast burial ground of Chauchilla that belonged to the Ica and Chincha cultures (1000 – 1460 AD). For several years the cemetery was looted by treasure hunters who ruined the place completely, taking away most of the prized mummies kept in their tombs for centuries, leaving behind a jumble of sun-bleached human bones. This visit will help you understand how ancient societies adjusted to this challenging environment. You will see several tombs centuries old, and ceramic fragments scattered on the desert floor. Take a ceramic workshop if you wish; you can also learn about the gold extraction process around Nazca.Sandboarding at Cerro BlancoImage Copyrights: Miguel Ángel García.Towering above the desert 14km east of Nazca, stands the world’s tallest sand dune, 6800 ft above sea level and 3860 ft from base to summit; a bit of a tough climb, but totally worth the effort. Image Copyrights: MedhusThe tour starts off with a trek over Andean Slopes; as you hike further up the rugged topography, you will reach the top of Cerro Blanco. Once at the summit, practice sandboarding with esteemed instructors on the many sand dune formations from where you can see the Nazca Valley. If you're a pro, blast off on your own.The Sacred Temples of Cahuachi29 km southwest from Nazca lies the sacred temple complex of Cahuachi. This immense ceremonial and pilgrimage centre covers an area of 24 square kilometres; within the complex exist huge pyramids, temples and platforms (as old as 1500 years), which were unearthed years ago by a team of archeologists.The ceremonial center of Cahuachi has great importance; this is the very place where the Nazca culture was developed and it also holds deep rooted ties to the Lines. Note: A tour guide is recommended to learn the fascinating trivia and history of these ancient people.Museo Didáctico AntoniniImage Copyrights: Marie Thérèse Hébert & Jean Robert ThibaultImage Copyrights: Marie Thérèse Hébert & Jean Robert ThibaultGood news for all of you history buffs. If you wish to dig deep into the history of the Nazca culture, then head over to the famous Meseo Didactico Antonini situated in the eastern part of Nazca. You can find everything here: trepanned skulls, colorful pottery, a scale model of the Nazca Lines, perfectly preserved mummies of Inca children, burial tomb reproductions, and maps of the area displaying the locations of the various archaeological sites - basically a one-stop for anything cultural or historical in the entire region.Start planning your Nazca experience here with a Peru travel expert.

South Africa Travel: Best Things to do in Cape Town

Cape Town and its beautiful 'burbs are home to stunning landscapes, beaches, scrumptious food and award-winning wines, and it's one of the most popular destinations in South Africa, and it's also considered one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and - the list of superlatives goes on.Here are ten things that you must do on your visit here. Just hire a car and explore it all on your own, but talk to a travel expert first who will make sure you miss out on nothing, the places nor the experiences.  1) Explore the Secluded Beaches:There's no shortage of beachfront in and around Cape Town, and almost all of them are bustling affairs with surfers, sun-bathers and over-flowing cafes. But just a few kilometers away from the main city are also a number of beautiful beaches for anyone looking for a quite place to relax amidst stunning scenery. Known for its white sandy beach and huge boulders, the Beta Beach is a must visit for anyone who is looking for a good spot to sun bathe and swim. It overlooks the magnificent Twelve Apostles and the Lion’s Head; how's that for a view? Another beach not far from this one is the Oudekraal Beach which is part of the Table Mountain National Park. Situated between Llandudno and Bakoven, the beach is historically quite significant: it was here that many slaves took refuge during the 18th century when they escaped from their colonial rulers and masters. History lesson done, today it's just a great place to swim, snorkel and chill. Both beaches are 10 minutes away from the city.If you are driving towards Cape Point, keep an eye on the road between Simon’s Town and the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve. Here you will find the untouched Smitswinkelbaai Beach. There is no proper road that leads you to it; in fact many people just get a peek of it from the road and don’t actually get down to see it (one of the main reasons for it being so unspoilt). Once you spot the beach, it is only a small walk down a rather steep slope and you're there; worth it just for the view and the peace. 2) Hike (or Mountain-Bike) up to Table Mountain:A trip to Cape Town is not complete without a trip to Table Mountain, naturally. Most would just take a cable-car up, but if you really want a memorable experience of this prominent highlight of South Africa, a magnificent monolith with its unique flora and fauna, we recommend a hike or a bike-ride. There are a number of terrains and trails to choose from (more than 900, apparently), including some with steep climbs, but for most of them you just need to be above-averagely fit. You'll earn some serious bragging rights over the lazy ones who just cable-car it up.  3) Take a Trip to Boulders Beach:As the name suggests, Boulders Beach has beautiful boulders that obstruct the pounding waves and swift currents, making it a perfectly safe spot for a good swim or a kayaking experience (especially for kids and families). But what makes this beach unique, and an important highlight of all of South Africa, are the adorable African Penguins found here (formerly known as Jackass Penguins due to their distinct braying). They arrived at False Bay in 1983 and have been here ever since; and as it also falls under the jurisdiction of the Table Mountain Reserve, the beach stays safe and clean and never too crowded (there is an entrance fee of 65 Rand). Despite efforts, the African Penguin has been declared an endangered species due to indiscriminate fishing that has depleted their food resources. 4) Long Street:Editorial credit:  / Shutterstock.comWhether you are a solo traveler or with a group, a walk through Cape Town's Long Street is something you shouldn't miss. Situated in the City Bowl, the place is famous for its hipster restaurants and bars. By all means, make a whole day of it, but it's at night that the place really comes to life. Tip: you're better off in a group at night (in fact, absolutely safe); just don't wander off alone.  5) Listen to Cape Jazz:Editorial credit:  / Shutterstock.comTaking inspiration from the times of struggle and years of apartheid, the music, most predominantly jazz, has evolved over the years in Cape Town. Influenced by African beats (naturally), it has earned its own genre, called Cape Jazz, and you will find it all around the city from the smallest restaurants to lavish lounges. The music incorporates elements of African Jazz (aka Marabi, another genre which is largely piano driven), and adding guitars, banjos and horns as well. Free jams can be found anywhere, for those interested in sitting in.Editorial credit:  / Shutterstock.comIf you like jazz, try and plan your trip around the Cape Town Jazz Festival. Started in 2000, it has since grown to be the fourth largest jazz music festival in the world, and definitely the largest in the African continent. It's a two day-long festival usually held towards March-end, early-April, and it always manages to have a stunning line up that grows stronger each year. 6) Food & Drink - Cape Malay Cuisine and Spectacular Vineyards:Head out to the Malay District of Cape Town. The Cape Malay Cuisine is, quite simly, a paradise for fish and meat lovers (vegetarians and vegans should stop reading this right here). The uniqueness lies in the flavors that are influenced by the cuisines of Malaysia, England, France and Netherlands, with an African twist. One of the must-try dishes is the Biltong, a street snack found almost everywhere, a sort of meat jerky that is cured with vinegar and spices. Try the Sosaties (marinated and skewered kebabs). Sea food lovers, please be sure to try the tuna dishes (some of the world's best tuna are found off the west coast of South Africa, apparently). Check out the famous braais (barbecues) that are a weekend activity here. The desserts: try the Melktert, a tart with a creamy filling. Try the Malva Pudding, a sweet spongy apricot pudding usually served with custard or ice cream.As a bonus, most of the great Cape Malay cuisine is found in the colorfully resplendent Malay Quarter, aka Bo Kaap, also a popular highlight of Cape Town. Try the Rooibos Tea (or Bush Tea), known for its health benefits and cures for headaches, insomnia (it is entirely caffiene-free), allergies, bone weakness, hypertension and premature aging.  Tour The Winelands Barely an hour out of Cape Town are the unbelievably beautiful and scenic vineyard regions of Stellenbosch, Paarl and Franschhoek. You could make an entire vacation out of just sampling each and every vineyard and eating and drinking like you never have before. An honest tip: keep all weight-loss notions back home when eating and drinking South African style. 7) Nose-to-Nose with the Sharks:Cape Town happens is one of the few places where shark diving takes place throughout the year and is a very well established industry. The waters around the Cape are home to around 40 species of this much misunderstood fish.  Take a trip to Dyer Island, situated around 4 miles from the coast in Gaansbai, considered a highlight of South Africa travel, and one of the best places in the world to spot (or cage-dive with) the Great White Shark. You can easily get in touch with the many agencies there and watch these majestic creatures from above the water on a boat; if you are feeling adventurous you also have the option of getting in a cage and going under water. Perfectly safe, and something to check off your list: coming nose-to-nose with one the world's apex predators.  8) Shop at Greenmarket Square:Editorial credit:  / Shutterstock.comSituated in the heart of the city is the Greenmarket Square, historically famous for slaves to sell their products; today, it is a thriving flea market for exquisite glasswork, carvings, artwork, jewelry, all of which are crafted by locals.Editorial credit:  / Shutterstock.comYou will also be entertained by street-performers, musicians, jugglers, acrobats, mime artists. 9) Go to Signal Hill:Overlooking the entire town and the bay, Signal Hill (aka Lion's Rump, next to Table Mountain) truly has one of the most picturesque views you will find anywhere in the world. This is the perfect spot for a simple picnic, and enjoying a spectacular South African sunset with a glass of wine. It also has a beautiful road that leads to it, or you can also hike up to the summit. And if you are looking for a little more adventure, we strongly recommend paragliding (tandem or solo) off the top and getting that extra-special bird's-eye perspective of that fabulous view.  10) Travel to Robben Islands:Declared as a UNESCO World Heritage site, Robben Island is must visit for anyone who wishes to learn about the history of Cape Town. Today, the island has become synonymous with the struggle people faced during apartheid, and how they overcame the oppressors. It was used multiple times from the 17th to the 20th century, either as a prison or a hospital.Editorial credit:  / Shutterstock.comThe structures still exist today, to tell the story of the victory of freedom and democracy over racism and discrimination. It was here that Nelson Mandela was kept in a maximum security cell (which you can visit), or as he put it with his typical, dry self-depracatory wit: "I went for a long holiday for 27 years."You can customize your perfect Cape Town experience right here. 

A Madagascar Wildlife Guide: The Best of Madagascar's Animals

Unlike any other country, Madagascar is rousing mix of picturesque landscapes with weird looking upside-down baobabs (when the leaves shed, the branches look like roots, giving an impression of the tree sticking its head into the ground) and a vast community of wildlife species endemic to the region. Almost 90% of these are not found anywhere else in the world. This African island nation that got calved off the continent millions of years ago has truly written its own book on nature, wildlife and evolution. This is a vacation that will be 'different' in every sense of the word, the food, the culture, the people; but more than anywhere else in the world, a local travel expert is recommended who can guide you through this eclectic maze of never-seen-before flora and fauna across its national parks.  Before you plan your trip, here's a virtual tour of the wildlife scenario that has left thousands of curious travelers stunned, amused, dumbfounded, and always thoroughly charmed. LemursThese primates, only found in this island, are possibly the most celebrated species of Madagascar's wildlife inventory. Lemurs look somewhat like a cross between a dog, a cat, and a squirrel; there are nearly 60 subspecies swinging through the jungles today (several of whom are critically endangered), ranging from the pygmy-sized Mouse Lemur to the strapping Indri. Some of the better known lemurs include:Aye-AyeThese nocturnal species of lemurs are probably one of the freakiest looking fellows you will encounter in your wildlife safari here. Unfortunately, because of their scary appearance, they are considered bad omens in the local culture, but in general Aye-Aye's are very gentle and harmless. These essentially tree-dwelling primates look like a cross between a bat and squirrel, with large pointed claws on each of their fingers helping them to scoop out insects from the tree barks.IndriLargest amongst all the lemur species, Indris are almost a meter tall and can be spotted in the Andasibe rain forests of eastern Madagascar. What alienates them from their other lemur cousins and makes them amusing is their high pitched call almost similar to a whale which can be heard up to 3 mile away. Indris usually dwell on tree tops and have powerful legs that propel them from one branch to another.SifakaSimilar to the Indris, Sifakas have strong hind legs that help them move from one branch to another, making them largely arboreal (they like an occasional stint on the ground). They are further classified into the most commonly-seen Golden Crowned Sifaka, Coquerel's Sifaka and the most charming of them, the Diademed Sifaka coated in orange, silver, black and gold. Also known as the "dancing lemurs", these chaps can certainly brighten your day with their kangaroo-like hopping, with arms aloft for maintaining balance. Ring-tailed LemurUnlike other lemurs, the Ring-tailed fellows spend most of their time on the ground. You can easily spot them by their unique cat-like mewing; they are tamer than some of their cousins, but don't be surprised if they climb onto your shoulders in search of food.Mouse LemursConsidered to be the world's tiniest primates (just a little longer than your finger), these nocturnal species, though severely endangered, can be found in select areas across the country, and are characterized by their chirping vocals and jumpy, skittish antics. Mouse Lemurs can be easily spotted through the foliage by their huge eyes that reflect light.  FossasFound only in the forests of Madagascar, the Fossa is the country's largest carnivore (up to 6 feet long), with a strong muscular body and a reddish-brown coat. At first glimpse, it looks like a cat, but its closest relative is actually the mongoose. Fosass are very agile climbers and ambush predators (their main diet? Lemurs!), with an arsenal of sharp claws and strong jaws. TenrecFound in other parts of Africa too (but most diverse in Madagascar with around 30 species), these hedgehog-like mammal insectivore lives in the lowland tropical rainforest in the eastern and northern parts of the country. Tenrecs can be usually characterized by their vestigial tails, black-and-yellow striped coat, and a long pointed snout that helps them poke around in search of insects.Giant Jumping RatAs the name suggests, this weird looking rodent is best known for its leaping abilities that helps it avert predators like the Fossa. Almost the size of rabbits, Giant Jumping Rats have long pointed ears, short fur and large rear feet with thick strong thighs (the prime-movers of their astounding leaps).BirdlifeAs you explore the forests of Madagascar, there's barely a moment when you can't hear the melodic sound of birdlife. Of the region's more than 285 bird species, 115 are entirely endemic and not found anywhere else.CouaPossibly the most popular bird of Madagascar, the beautiful Couas is a proud member of the cuckoo family. All subspecies are known for the featherless blue skin around the eyes, their long luscious tails, and striking bluish-indigo plumage.Long-eared owlEndemic to Madagascar, this nocturnal aerial master-predator is characterized by its brownish facial disc, tufty crown and dark brown ears; easy to spot on guided night jaunts through the forests, because they are also obligingly abnormally large compared to the common owl.Frog speciesApart from its extraordinary mammalian and avian life, Madagascar will amaze you with its vast variety of 300 frog species, 99% of which are endemic. Of the vast variety, the most eminent include:Tomato FrogsNamed after their vibrant orange-red colored skin, Tomato Frogs inhabit the swamps and wetlands. Their dazzlingly bright color is actually a warning to other predators; when threatened, their skin secretes a thick, sticky fluid that is noxious to snakes. Tip: do not touch; this sticky fluid can cause allergic irritation in humans as well.Mantella frogsBewitching, with green, black and yellow skins, Mantellas feed mainly on insects and are not to be messed around with, just like their tomato-colored cousins.ChameleonsAlmost on par with the lemurs in terms of appeal, Chameleons here have evolved into a vast array of dimensions ranging from the enormous Parson's Chameleon (24 inches) to the minuscule Pygmy Stump-tailed Chameleon, smaller than a fingernail. It is believed in local culture that chameleons change their hue according to their emotions rather than for camouflage. These lizard species have an incredible tongue length (2 times the length of their body) that can nail prey (mostly insects) in an eye-blink.InvertebratesMadagascar is acknowledged for its rich insect biodiversity, so let's not ignore these beauties. You will most certainly come across the Comet Moths, largely nocturnal and endemic to Madagascar's eastern rainforest. Look out for a buzzing flash of color, and you will spot its streamer-like tail and huge yellow wing spans (20 cms) marked in brown eye-like patterns. Well, there you have it: when it comes to unique wildlife spotting, no other nation beats Madagascar. Interested? Start planning with a local expert who can lead you through this magical world of things-never-seen.

Africa Safaris: The Best National Parks, Game Reserves and Wildlife across Africa

It doesn’t matter if you’re a curious first-timer or an old safari hand, Africa never fails to amaze. Much of the action circles around the famous national parks/game reserves, where a variety of breathtaking and awe-inspiring wildlife encounters await you, combining the world's wildest landscapes with once-in-a-lifetime experiences.Here’s a list of some of the continent’s premier game parks. From Kenya and Tanzania, to Namibia, South Africa, and Botswana, all these are unique in their own right, whether it’s canoeing past crocodiles, going on gorilla treks or enjoying rare leopard sightings. We reckon the only real question is: where to go first?1. Masai Mara Game Reserve, KenyaThink of Africa, and the Masai Mara is probably the first thing to pop into your head. Endless vistas and intense game viewing makes this reserve arguably the best safari destination in Africa. The wealth of wildlife and the sheer density of certain species like lions, zebra, leopards, Thomson's gazelle, hyena, rhino, hippo and thousands of migrating wildebeest will ensure your days are filled with precious moments.Accommodations range from luxurious camp sites and lodges that offer game drives with experienced and well-informed guides. Apart from the reserve, the whole region is surrounded by numerous Maasai villages where you can experience the simple way of life and survival skills of these hardy warriors.Key Highlight: The Great Wildebeest MigrationThe best time of year is between the months of July and August, carrying on till October. Witness the greatest wildlife show on earth, when the migrating wildebeest and zebra herds arrive from the neighboring Serengeti Park in Tanzania, in search for fresh pasture and drinking holes. Check with a travel expert on the best time to visit, and the finest vantage points for witnessing this astonishing spectacle.2. Etosha National Park, NamibiaCovering a massive 22,000 square kilometers, Etosha National Park is regarded as one of the continent's premier wildlife viewing destinations. Unlike other game reserves, Etosha's magic seems to lie in its ability to bring the animals to you. Just park your 4X4 near the many waterholes and watch the top-shelf fauna - lions, leopards, elephants, Buchell's Zebras, giraffes and the endangered black rhinos - saunter up not in twos but by the hundreds.Apart from the magnificent game viewing of the Big 5, Etosha's essence lies in its enormous salt pan which can stun you with its singular beauty of endless expanse of shimmering white, tinged with olive green. After a good rain, this pan fills up with water, making it teem with flamingos and pelicans, which itself is a sight of beauty. Check with a travel expert on the best time to visit to maximise game-viewing.Key Highlights- Black Rhinos and the colourful birds of the Etosha Saline PanAdding to any enchanting Etosha experience are the abundance of bee-eaters, ostriches, Kori Bustards (considered the heaviest flying bird) and the wheeling martial eagles in this wilderness hub.3. Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, UgandaAncient, deep and pristine could describe the forest cover that rises up along the southwestern border of Uganda, aptly christened 'impenetrable' due to its thick foliage of herbs, shrubs and vines; the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is one of the world's oldest complex ecosystems holding a wealth and depth of biodiversity, and is duly acknowledged as a precious natural asset of the country.Elephants, giant forest hogs and numerous types of primates make their home here, but Bwindi's greatest differentiator is that almost half of the remaining population of the critically endangered Mountain Gorillas live here. This World Heritage site is accessible only on foot, thus preserving the forest cover intact, offering travelers unique gorilla experiences in their natural habitat. These gentle giants are granted full freedom of movement and have become habituated to humans.Key Highlights: Mountain GorillasTime stands still in the company of these regal creatures that share a large chunk of our human DNA; just look into a gorillas expressive brown eyes and you'll be a convert forever.4. Serengeti National Park, TanzaniaSpread across 1.5 million hectares of land, the Serengeti National Park is renowned for its astonishing wealth of wildlife, especially the lions, who are everywhere (the Serengeti boasts Africa’s largest population). Leopards, hyenas, cheetahs and jackals are on the hunt here, too, feasting on zebras, buffaloes, gazelles, hartebeests, impalas and more.Tanzania’s premier park is also a perfect destination for bird watching; you can spot over 500 species. And much of the action can be seen near rivers and waterholes – the best place to watch nature unfold. Witness countless hippos, crocodiles, elephants lazing and basking in this natural paradise.Key Highlights: The Annual Great Wildebeest Migration (truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience).The endless plains of the Serengeti National Park happen to boast the oldest eco-system on the planet, and is also the theater for the Wildebeest Migration (check with a travel expert on the optimum time for this). No wonder the Maasai tribe calls it “the place where the land runs on forever.”5. Andasibe National Park, MadagascarCovered with moss, lush forests, peppered with a variety of orchids and dotted with lakes, Andasibe National Park is well known for sheltering 13 diverse species of Lemurs.Standing a meter high and with strange black and white markings, the Indri is the most famous species of lemurs inhabiting this region; you are assured a glimpse of these amusing creatures whose powerful leaps propel them from one branch to another. Unlike other lemurs, the Indris sing in an eerie wailing tune which can be heard up to three kilometers away, a sound you are not likely to forget in a hurry.A trip through Andasibe will get you close to some exquisite reptiles and amphibian species which are endemic to this region, including the enormous Parson's chameleon (above) and the infamous Boa Manditia.Key Highlights: Indigenous species of animals not seen anywhere (and several of them endangered).Bird lovers, take heart: Andasibe is known to have recorded more than 100 avian species and if luck is on your side (a travel expert will hook you up with the best guide/naturalist), you can catch a glimpse of the exotic Madagascar Blue Pigeon, the Coral-Billed Nuthatches, and the Long-eared Owl.6. Ongava Nature Reserve, NamibiaThe air crackles with bird noises and a chorus of lion roars; this is the magic of this African private game reserve neighboring the Etosha National Park, extending over 125 sq miles and reflecting its beauty through a vast array of vegetation and mopane woodlands peculiar to this part of the country.Ongava Nature Reserve has an appreciable population of lions, elephants, giraffes and some rare species of antelopes like the Black-faced Impala; it is also one of the unique places where you have a good probability of spotting both black and white rhinos. To delve more into the wildlife habitats, ask a travel expert in Namibia to take you rhino tracking on foot so you can have fabulous close encounters with these gentle (but skittish) beasts.Key Highlights: Black and White Rhinos, night safaris.Adding more to the uniqueness of this game reserve are the night tours, where you have a favorable chance of watching the big boys on their nocturnal hunts.7. Kibale Forest, UgandaComposed of the loveliest, varied tracts of tropical forest in the country, and interspersed with patches of grasslands, this wildlife park covers an area of 795 square kilometers over various altitudes. Kibale's unique location between the dry terrains and wetter forests makes it home to several vivid species of flora and fauna. Because of its rich biodiversity, it is also home to the largest concentration of primates in the entire continent, of which the chimpanzees have a larger share numbering at around 1450, followed by the red colobus monkey and the vulnerable are rare L'Hoests' Monkeys. Key highlights: ChimpanzeesWhile walks through the forest to spot the chimps and other primates is undoubtedly the park's main draw, you can also spot herds of African elephants roaming freely and other elusive animals like the leopards, buffaloes and bush pigs. Adding to the thrill, for bird lovers, this park has also recorded around 375 bird species.8. Makgadikgadi Salt Pans, BotswanaLocated in the central Botswana, the Makgadikgadi Pans covers approximately 12,000 sq km, making it the largest salt pan on the planet. The area was once a massive lake, but over time it has dried up into a stunning viata of white. For most of the year the area is dry, but the magic happends right after the December - January rains, when it floods and transforms into a lush wetland attracting droves of prey and predator through February and March. This is the theater of the second largest (and not so well known) animal migration in all of Africa, the Great Zebra Migration, an unmissable experience of savage beauty. The region also plays host to an alluring display of thousands of migrant flamingos and other water birds, such as pelicans, spoonbills, waders and storks.Key Highlights: the Great Zebra Migration and Quad BikingThe park is also a roaring playground for quad biking; tear around the salty scapes from your campsite under an endless African night sky.9. Nechisar National Park, EthiopiaSpanning across 514 square kilometers, a trip through the Nechisar National Park will take you over diverse topography ranging from savannah grass and dense bush of the riparian forests to the vast variety of wildlife which makes this place rank among the most scenic national parks in East Africa.Deriving its name from its bleached Savannah grass ("white grass" in the local Amharic language), Nechisar encompasses the Abaya and Chamo lakes which are separated by a narrow ridge called "Bridge of Heaven". Along with striking scenic beauty, what also captivates visitors is the vast variety of wildlife which includes sizeable populations of hippos and crocodiles, particularly in the Lake Chamo area, and an uncountable number of zebras, hyenas and Swayne's Hartebeest (endemic to this region). In the low lying areas where the trail leads to dense forests, you can see the Guereza Monkeys cavorting in the giant trees.Key Highlights: Crocodiles, varied topography, and indigenous bird-life.The park also witnesses a lot of avian activity and is a sanctuary to almost 350 bird species, none more tempting than the Nechissar Nightjar, yet to be seen anywhere else on Earth.10. Hluhluwe Game Reserve, South AfricaSet in the heart of Zululand, Hluhluwe Game Reserve is one of the oldest wildlife sanctuaries in Africa. This is where Zulu kings hunted and implemented the first conservation laws, and is a major go-to place for anyone looking to experience the African Big 5 up close, right after the iconic Kruger, of course: lions, elephants, leopards, buffalo, and rhinoceros that stalk the flourishing savannah. Key Highlights: Rhino Spotting  Among South Africa's largest game reserves, Hluhluwe-Imfolozi is one of the best places in the country in which to see the endangered rhino. Due to conservation efforts, the park has now become the largest habitat of white rhinos on the planet. 11. The Kirindy Reserve, MadagascarLocated in the western part of the country, the Kirindy Reserve comprises world's most endangered ecosystems: its dry deciduous forests. This private reserve managed by a Swiss company can awe you with its Giant Baobab trees alone! Kirindy is also well known for housing some exotic species of flora and fauna not found elsewhere and rivaling the best in the country.This protected area is the only place where you have a definite chance of coming across the rare and weird jumping rats, rodents almost the size of rabbits. Also, a recognizable population of Fossa (Madagascar's largest predator) can be found preying over the lemurs.Key Highlights: Fossa and Lemurs.As this region is home to several nocturnal mammals like different species of lemurs, there are specific night tours where you can spot them streaming through the higher branches, a sight that makes Kirindy assuredly one of the non-pareil places of the entire continent.12. Amboseli National Park, KenyaBordering Tanzania in the southeast, Amboseli National Park is popularly known to the Maasai as “salty dust”, due to the dry and dustier nature of the park which attracts large herds of elephants. The park is also home to the Big Five (the African Lion, Black Rhinoceros, African Elephant, leopard and Cape Buffalo), and the comparatively dry eco-system and landscape makes wildlife spotting easier, as animals have less places to hide.Take game drives in customized vehicles with open roofs to explore different habitats, ranging from the dried-up bed of Lake Amboseli, several wetlands with sulphur springs, the savannah, and woodlands; take leisurely nature walks, get insights into the world of trees, flowers, insects, reptiles and birds. You can also visit the local Maasai community who live around the park and experience their authentic culture.Key Highlight: Elephant Spotting, Views of Mt. KilmanjaroThe signature attraction of the park is the sight of hundreds of big-tusked elephants set against the backdrop of Africa’s highest peak – Mt. Kilimanjaro (5895m) - that lords over the southern boundary of the park.13. Tsavo East National Park, KenyaTsavo East is the largest game reserve in Kenya, and also one of the largest in Africa, located mid-way between Nairobi and Mombasa. The reserve is generally flat and offers open savannah with herds of dust-red elephants, rhinos, as well as large prides of Lions.Wildlife is generally not as abundant as in other national parks of Kenya. Most safaris are short and the emphasis is around the area south of the Galana River, near the coast, which makes for a dazzling East African beach and bush vacation.Key Highlights: Tsavo Lions, Yatta PlateauThe region was made famous by the Maneaters of Tsavo, two Lions that killed around 130 people during the construction of the railway line in 1898. Today, you can see their descendants (the large prides of mane-less lions) who call the Tsavo National Park home.Other attractions include the world's longest lava flow – the Yatta Plateau. The reserve is also an ideal destination for exclusive camping and adventurous activities like rock climbing.14. Parc Nacional Volcans, RwandaEditorial Copyrights: /Shutterstock.comComprising of pristine Afro-Montane forests on the steep slopes of the astounding Virungas Mountain range, and home to almost half the population of mountain gorillas in the world, this majestic game reserve is one of the prime tourist nooks of the country which should't be missed. It is one of those rare places in all of Africa that offers exceptional hiking adventures as well as thrilling gorilla-tracking experiences.You will be totally enthralled by its dazzling rainforest cover, the melodic calls of colorful birds and chattering of the rare golden monkeys, but the most exhilarating experience, hands down, is an encounter with a grown Silverback Gorilla, peaceable and tolerant of human presence. Tip: always obey your guide's instructions when around these beasts.Key Highlights: Trekking Adventures and Mountain Gorillas.Apart from these colossal apes, the park is a sanctuary for Spotted Hyenas, elephants, bushbuck, Black-fronted Duiker and more than 170 species of dazzling birds. It lies about two hours drive from the capital city, Kigali, and certainly deserves a place in your African bucket-list experience.15. Gorongosa National Park, MozambiqueSituated at the southernmost end of the Great African Rift Valley, Gorongosa made headlines as one of the premier wildlife destinations when it was gazetted in 1960, rivaling the mighty Serengeti for its rich concentration of wildlife. Gorongosa, unfortunately, also had to face dire consequences of civil war in the country in the 80's and early 1990's, which destroyed its essence and resulted in a massive decline of the wildlife community.However, on the affirmative note, the park has gone through massive rehabilitation work and, thanks to the backing of the US based Carr Foundation, has been successfully restored and reopened to its visitors since 1998.Since its restoration, a large variety of wildlife has been introduced; you are bound to see huge pride of lions and elephant herds who are reasonably habituated to the vehicles; there are small proportions of leopards, buffaloes and varieties of antelopes to be spotted as well.No doubt Gorongosa is gaining momentum towards achieving its past historic glory, and we definitely recommend a visit to this wilderness preserve.16. Okavango Delta Game Reserve, BotswanaOkavango Delta is one of Africa's top safari areas. Dubbed as ‘Africa’s Last Eden’, the reserve has been declared a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is spread over 15,000 sq km of the lush water-wilderness of papyrus swamps, shallow reed-beds and floodplains, and is dotted with a network of waterways that surround two large islands: the iconic Chiefs Island in the west and Mopane Tongue in the east.The reserve boasts a unique landscape ranging from riverine forests and marshlands to savannahs and wetlands flecked with palm islands, all of which make for awe-inspiring vistas. You can also find a wide variety of wildlife from common mammals and birdlife to those that are not often seen elsewhere, such as sitatunga, wild dog, and wattled crane.Key Highlights: Canoe SafariExplore the Delta’s meandering waterways in a Mokoro (traditional canoe), and see the wildlife (especially elephants) at eye level. You chosen travel guide will help you spot the terrapins basking on floating logs, or a fish eagle just perching, watching and waiting.17. Kruger National Park, South AfricaSouth Africa’s iconic Kruger National Park is arguably South Africa's premier highlights and also one of the oldest and largest parks of the continent. Spanning almost 20,000 sq km, the land is blessed with some of the world’s most vibrant wildlife; chances are highest of seeing Africa’s Big Five and an impressive diversity of other animals like wild dog, giraffes, zebras, hippos, cheetahs, and more than 500 species of birds. And due to vast spaces, self-guided drives are popular. You will also find many campsites that will offer tailor-made tours through dense forests, sweeping grasslands and fertile river systems, all of which teem with wildlife.Apart from wonderful wildlife sightings, the park offers a plethora of adventure activities like multi-day hiking trails and mountain-biking tours. The park is also home to Bushman cave paintings and archaeological sites.Key Highlights: Africa’s FinestThe park’s iconic and flagship stature is due to the diversity of habitats (16 macro eco-zones have been recognized here) that can be found across the wilderness that lie between the Limpopo and the Crocodile rivers.18. Simien Mountains National Park, EthiopiaIn the far north of Ethiopia lies this magical world of primeval alpine forests, misty peaks, roaring waterfalls and armies of exotic creatures. Simien Mountains National Park is one of the standout destinations which can charm you with its incomparable trekking adventures and enticing wild creatures found nowhere on planet Earth.Apart from its jaw-dropping scenery, this park is also an important stronghold for endemic wildlife and houses the rare Gelada Baboons (which can make your day with their expressive faces and playful antics), and the elusive Ethiopian Wolf which is extremely rare (consider yourself fortunate if you come across them). Another endemic creature of this region is the Walia Ibex, a large animal with impressive, long ridged horns, which is actually a member of the goat family and is usually spotted at the cliff edges.Key Highlights: Trekking Adventures and Gelada Monkeys.A visit to Ethiopia is incomplete without hiking this corner of the country and gazing the marvelous vistas which will remain deeply rooted in memory for years to come. 19. Ngorongoro Crater, TanzaniaThe Ngorongoro Crater is a breathtakingly beautiful setting of vast and striking ethereal blue-green vistas. Volcanic craters form stunning backdrops to some of the most fertile and richest grazing grounds of Africa. As magnificent as the views are from above, the real magic happens when you get down inside and drive among a supreme concentration of wildlife, including the highest density of both lions and overall predators in Africa. A sizeable population of black rhino and some of the largest rare tusker elephants can also be found here. In addition to that, the crater also boasts healthy herds of wildebeest, buffalo and zebra.Key Highlights: Iconic Status, Abundant WildlifeLabeled by UNESCO as World Heritage Site, the crater is one Africa’s prime highlight and the most beautiful natural wildlife safari sites in the world. The world’s largest intact volcanic caldera also exists here. Apart from intense game drives, it is also a great place for trekking excursions; interacting with the local Maasai tribe also provides a great opportunity to understand the local culture.20. Addo Elephant Park, South AfricaThe Addo Elephant National Park’s boundaries extend right down to the coastline east of Port Elizabeth. The park is the best place in Africa to get up-close and personal with over 500 unique elephants (with special brownish skin colour due to the red soil). It is also the third largest national park in South Africa, and the only one to incorporate a marine area into its conservation strategy, taking your 'Big 5' viewing up a notch to 'Big 7' (Southern Right Whales and Great Whites).Key Highlights: Elephants, the 'Big 7' (Whales and Great Whites)Apart from the famed elephants, the park also has a couple of islands where you can find penguin colonies. In addition, check out herds of spotted hyenas, over 400 Cape Buffalos and a healthy rhino population.