In honor of the 43rd anniversary of Earth Day (April 22, 2013), we’ve rounded up 10 top ecotourism destinations to get you thinking green. Two on our list may seem like obvious choices (the Amazon and Galapagos), but you’ll also find some up-and-comers, like the Caribbean island of Dominica, which is turning into the region’s primo environmental destination; Australia’s Blue Mountains, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site over a decade ago; and Botswana, a model of sustainable tourism in Africa. If staying at eco-friendly lodges in the midst of a rainforest sounds appealing, consider Borneo or Costa Rica. If getting up close to wildlife and glaciers is more your speed, Alaska and Antarctica offer intrepid travelers the chance to experience both from the deck of a ship or an inflatable zodiac. And if you’d rather sleep in the great outdoors and trek to some of the world’s highest plateaus, plan a camping trek in the Himalayas (and be sure to take your trash back to base camp with you). For a list of environmentally friendly tour operators, hotels, and more, visit the International Ecotourism Society website.
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Referred to as “The Great Land,” Alaska is home to soaring snowcapped mountains, sprawling tundra, and a remote Arctic north – all of which shelter a range of wildlife that is otherwise threatened or endangered in the continental United States. Humpback whales, brown bears, lynx, sea otters, sea lions, bald eagles, and blue whales are just some of the species protected in this ecotourism destination; in many parts, caribou and moose outnumber people and the echo of a grizzly’s roar can be heard in the distance. With over 100 state parks to explore, Alaska’s vast, pristine wilderness beckons naturalists who can rejoice in all its splendors. Whether it’s cruising through majestic Kenai Fjords National Park, sailing past colossal glaciers in Glacier Bay National Park, glimpsing whale flukes slapping the water, or rafting down the Copper River while bald eagles soar overhead, the 49th state holds many wonders. The ongoing controversial political call to drill for oil in the state’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has brought even more attention to this beautiful natural resource; visit yourself to see firsthand why environmentalists would prefer to leave it untapped.
Deal: From $429: 7-night Alaska & Sawyer Glacier Cruise with Norwegian Cruise Line. Click here to book.
Often described as the “Lungs of our Planet” – it produces 20 percent of the Earth’s oxygen – the remarkable Amazon rain forest surrounds the world’s largest river system and supports thousands of plant, bird, mammal, and aquatic species in the 1.2 billion acres it occupies. While this ecotourism spot stretches across several South American countries, the Amazon’s densest section (60 percent) is found in Brazil, where eco-lovers can explore a mosaic of ecosystems: You can literally walk among the treetops in Bahia’s Atlantic forest, along a 66-foot-high suspension bridge surrounded by scores of wildlife, sights, and sounds; it’s the ultimate canopy tour for those who want to really understand how the rainforest works. Down below, you can rent a canoe and paddle down the river, past local ribereños (shore dwellers); fish for piranha (which is apparently quite tasty); or venture on a bird-watching excursion. Come nightfall, the forest speaks for itself, emitting a symphony of sounds beneath a starlit sky – one of nature’s finest spectacles.
Deal: From $2,132: 7-night Rio de Janiero and Amazon tour with lodging, air, and transfers. Click here to book.
An Antarctic winter doesn’t evoke images of vacation paradise, and rightly so – the continent is surrounded by densely packed ice, near-perpetual darkness, unpredictable blizzards, and temperatures dipping as low as 90 degrees below zero. With the seasons flipped, wintertime in the Northern Hemisphere is as close to summer as it gets on the White Continent. It’s also the only time of year when voyaging to this last great frontier is possible, as the warmer weather melts the ice barriers that otherwise block access to Antarctica’s savage landscapes and exotic wildlife. More than 46,000 tourists head to the South Pole each year to witness its monumental glaciers and icebergs, comical penguins, and magnificent whales. Cruising is the most popular way to reach this off-the-path ecotourism destination, on lines like Holland America and National Geographic-cooperative Linblad Expeditions, which operate sailings from Buenos Aires. Both lines are members of the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators, a voluntary organization aiming to limit the impact of tourism on the continent by adhering to strict environmental guidelines.
Deal: From $3,149: 21-night South America and Antarctica cruise on Holland America. Click here to book.
Blue Mountains, Australia
Designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2000, Australia’s Greater Blue Mountains Area is a popular ecotourism trip for Sydneysiders seeking to trade in the buzz of the city for the calm of the great outdoors. A mere 90-minute car ride from Sydney, the Blue Mountains (named for the blue hue cast by the eucalyptus oil produced by the region’s native trees) cover some 550 square miles of valleys, swamps, rocky outcroppings, and narrow canyons – topped off by stellar vantage points from which to ogle Australia’s beauty. A handful of national parks and reserves comprise the area, hosting dozens of trails through breathtaking terrain loaded with unique flora (don’t miss the ancient Wollemi pine, one of the world’s rarest species) and fauna (some 400 species, including koalas, call the Blue Mountains home). Rock climbing, mountain biking, rappelling, canoeing, and horseback riding are just a few of the activities – aside from bushwalking – to enjoy here in the wild. Of course, the prospect of relaxing and breathing in the fresh mountain air at one of the area’s many eco-friendly lodges and cabins can be equally enticing.
Deal: From $1,075: 4-day Sydney and Blue Mountains excursion including hotels, transfers, and trips to parks and other scenic landmarks. Click here to book.
You may remember this ecotourism destination from the first season Survivor, or from when this island in Southeast Asia (with regions governed by Malaysia, Indonesia, and the tiny country of Brunei) made headlines after a mysterious never-before-seen catlike animal was discovered here. Whichever accolade piques your interest, Borneo has plenty to captivate you (when you’re not forming your own tribal council or searching for the world’s newest carnivore). The slopes of Mount Kinabalu (one of Southeast Asia’s tallest mountains) and the dense forest trails of the Bario Loop offer prime hiking terrain; mangroves and wetlands provide aquatic vistas; and the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre will make anyone go ape. For an all-out eco-friendly getaway, it’s hard to beat a stay at the award-winning Sukau Rainforest Lodge, a completely self-sufficient hotel subsisting on rainwater and solar energy. Fishing platforms, bird- and wildlife-viewing decks, electric motorboats, and a 1,500-foot-long Hornbill Boardwalk – which affords stellar viewings of the resident elephants that stroll around the back of the lodge – are just some of the natural bounty you can expect.
Deal: From $1,228: 7-day Sabah Nature Safari tour includes sights such as the Tunku Abdul Rahman marine park islands, turtle watching at Selingan island, and 2 nights at the Sukau Rainforest Lodge. Click here to book.
Take a walk on the wild side, eco-style, with a trip to Africa’s backcountry. With the wide-open savannah plains stretching to the horizon, sprawling deserts, riverine forests, transient lakes, salt pans, and an entrancing display of wildlife, Botswana offers natural beauty and deserves its reputation as the “jewel of Africa.” Safaris take you into the northern region, where unspoiled wilderness protects a spectacular range of wildlife: Elephant herds, leopards, lions, zebras, hippos, white rhinos, and chacma baboons are just some of the creatures you will encounter here. A plethora of environmentally friendly resorts have sprouted up along the savannah, making it easy for travelers (albeit well-heeled ones) to revel in eco-fantasy stays; more affordable options are found in the Mokolodi Nature Reserve.
Deal: From $2,923: 3 nights at Kalahari Plains Camp in the northern desert and 3 nights at Banoka Bush Camp in the Okavango Delta (Wilderness Adventures). Click here to book.
Costa Rica’s renowned back-to-nature ethos has helped make the country synonymous with the concept of ecotourism. Leveraging the extraordinary natural and cultural wealth it packs into its small swath of Central American territory, it’s held up to the moniker Christopher Columbus gave it – Costa Rica, meaning “Rich Coast.” Said riches include four active (but not dangerous, if you heed the warning signs) volcanoes; an abundance of rainforests (some so high up they’re wreathed in clouds); thermal hot springs; more than 750 miles of fetching and often-uncrowded beaches, especially along the Pacific coast; the Amazon-like Tortuguero National Park complete with jungle lodges; and abundant wildlife, from monkeys to sea tortoises. Plenty of adventure outfitters will take you birding, whitewater rafting, hiking, biking, horseback riding, fishing, scuba diving, rock climbing, skydiving, and lots more. With choices like these, you’ll need to harness your own natural energies, too.
Deal: From $1,195: 8 nights in Costa Rica, including air, hotels, transfers, and turtle nesting, volcano, and Cloud Forest excursions. Click here to book.
Between Martinique and Guadeloupe is the lush island of Dominica (aka “The Nature Island of the Caribbean”), and it’s easily our top pick for Caribbean ecotourism destinations. The island’s green efforts kicked off largely in 1997, when it participated in Earth Check – the first country in the Caribbean to do so – and its recent title of “Whale-Watching Capital of the Caribbean” only adds heft to its vaunted eco-status. The island is often visited by 40-ton whales, who like to socialize, mate, and play off its shores; visitors are promised a 90 percent chance of spotting one up close. Major draws such as this, combined with some of the Caribbean’s best diving and most pristine rain forests – superb hiking trails lead to an eerie boiling lake, gorgeous waterfalls, and more – are what make the island such an ecotourist haven. It’s especially easy being green here since, at the end of the day, you can ease your tired muscles in the island’s natural hot springs and stay in secluded rain forest lodges, suffused by the sounds of the jungle.
Deal: From $494: 3-night package at Fort Young Hotel, includes full breakfast daily, transfers, tours, picnic basket lunch, and more. Click here to book.
Visiting the Galapagos Islands is the eco-travel equivalent of making a pilgrimage to Mecca. When Darwin visited these unspoiled islands 620 miles off the coast of Ecuador in 1835, he was so struck by the variation in life he saw he went on to posit his theory of evolution. Nearly two centuries later, this incredible archipelago remains home to some of the planet’s most unique creatures – no wonder, then, that the ecotourism destination was declared the world’s first Natural World Heritage Site in 1978 (it went on to become a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1984). Environmentalists and eco-conscious travelers alike have dedicated themselves to preserving the precious ecosystems found on the 13 major islands here (as well as those on the chain’s eight smaller isles and 40 atolls); as a result, some 97 percent of the Galapagos is protected by the Galapagos National Park Service. You might be surprised to learn you can actually swim with sea lions and penguins here – but don’t expect to jet-ski or use flash photography.
Deal: From $2,899: 7-night Galapagos Cruise in Oceanview on Celebrity Xpedition. Click here to book.
The spectacular Himalayas comprise the highest mountains on earth and boast a surreal landscape of snow-covered peaks sure to leave a powerful impression. The Himalayan kingdom of Nepal, situated between India and China, offers some of the best access to these mountain peaks, where landscapes vary from subtropical valleys (complete with banana trees) to alpine forests (home to grazing yaks). Rustic trail lodges give independent trekkers the option to hike and rest at their own pace. For a truly enriched experience, join one of the popular camping treks (ranging from 4 to 25 days), modeled after the first Nepalese mountaineering expeditions – you’ll share your mountain time with an entourage of guides, cooks, and porters. A hike to Mt. Everest’s basecamp, in Sagarmatha National Park, and Annapurna (the most popular due to accessibility) are two treks not to miss.
Deal: From $1,490: 12-day trek through Sagarmatha National Park and up to the world’s highest Buddhist monastery, with a reputation for having the best views of Mt. Everest, in Tengboche via Himalayan Glacier Trekking. Click here to book.