From tracking polar bears across the Arctic tundra to swimming with sea lions in the Sea of Cortez, the world is full of incredible wildlife adventures to experience. If you’re an animal lover, you won’t want to miss these unforgettable wildlife vacations.
Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
This remote archipelago off the coast of Ecuador just might be the ultimate wildlife vacation destination. You don’t need special photo equipment or giant zoom lenses to get close-up wildlife shots; because there are no natural predators here, the animals are unafraid of people, and you’ll often find yourself within a few yards of sea lions, giant tortoises, waved albatrosses, and iguanas. Keep an eye out for the world’s only tropical penguins.
How to get there: There are a few dozen hotels and inns in the Galapagos, including the cozy Semilla Verde Boutique Hotel on Santa Cruz Island, but to see as many animals as possible you’ll want to hop on a boat. Vessels here can carry no more than 100 passengers by law, and many are much smaller, creating an intimate experience. Popular operators include International Expeditions, Celebrity Cruises, and Metropolitan Touring.
There are few sights more magnificent than a 400-pound Bengal tiger stalking across the grass, muscles rippling under its sleek striped coat. Tigers are most easily spotted in a string of parks across India, including Corbett and Bandhavgarh National Parks. The most appealing, though, may be Ranthambore National Park; once the hunting grounds of Jaipur’s maharajas, the park features not only plenty of tigers but also temple ruins and other wildlife such as leopards and sloth bears.
How to get there: Tiger Safari India offers a variety of tiger-spotting packages ranging from four nights to three weeks. The ultra-luxe Oberoi Vanyavilas is located right outside Ranthambore National Park and can help you arrange excursions.
For many travelers, Antarctica is the wildlife trip of a lifetime. The climate is hostile and the journey to get there is long, but the rewards are many: Picture elephant and fur seals, humpback and orca whales, and thousands of penguins, all set against a backdrop of ice in every possible shade of white and blue. If you have the time and budget, consider booking a trip that includes a stop in South Georgia to see its massive penguin population (including king penguins, which are more difficult to find on the Antarctic Peninsula).
How to get there: Quark Expeditions specializes in polar journeys and even offers fly-in options for travelers who want to skip the notoriously rough Drake Passage between South America and Antarctica. For luxury cabins and food, consider a cruise with Silversea.
Best Vacations for Wildlife Lovers
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Rwanda and Uganda
Imagine crouching in a dense green forest just a few yards away from a mother gorilla cradling her baby or a 400-pound silverback foraging for food. There are only about 880 mountain gorillas left on the planet, and Rwanda and Uganda are the best and safest places to view them. Uganda is a better option for travelers on a budget, as permits and accommodations tend to be cheaper; it’s also easy to add other adventures onto your wildlife trip such as spotting lions and elephants in Queen Elizabeth National Park. Meanwhile, Rwanda has better infrastructure, shorter driving distances, and the chance to see playful golden monkeys.
How to get there: In Rwanda, consider basing yourself at the high-end Virunga Lodge, which boasts lake and volcano views and will arrange treks in search of gorillas and golden monkeys. In Uganda, the recently renovated Bwindi Lodge features butler service for all guests and grounds where gorillas often roam. Both lodges are operated by Volcanoes Safaris, which offers four- to seven-day tour packages in Uganda and Rwanda.
Located halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole, this cluster of icy islands is one of the few places on the planet where you can see polar bears stalking across the ice in their natural habitat—along with reindeer, Arctic foxes, puffins, walruses, and seals. Most people visit in the summer, when the midnight sun shines all night long.
How to get there: You can base yourself at a hotel such as Funken Lodge, which can arrange wildlife excursions, but the most convenient and far-reaching way to discover Svalbard is on a cruise ship. Quark Expeditions, Lindblad Expeditions, and G Adventures are among the operators that can take you there.
The Pantanal, South America
Sprawling across parts of Brazil, Bolivia, and Paraguay, the Pantanal is the planet’s largest system of freshwater wetlands. The Pananal has an even denser concentration of wildlife than the Amazon; visitors can spot jaguars, caimans, macaws, river otters, monkeys, egrets, anteaters, and many more in the region’s broad floodplains.
How to get there: Pantanal Nature runs wildlife tours, including jaguar-focused excursions, in the northern part of the region. Ecolodges such as Araras Pantanal Ecolodge and SouthWild Pantanal Lodge also arrange wildlife trips around the region.
With bald eagles soaring overhead, humpback whales flashing their flukes in the water, and hungry bears stalking rivers in search of salmon, Alaska offers a feast of wildlife travel adventures. Denali National Park is a good place to spot Alaska’s version of the African Big Five: moose, caribou, Dall sheep, wolves, and grizzly bears. Many visitors come on cruise ships through the Inside Passage, where you can often see marine animals such as sea otters, Steller sea lions, harbor seals, and various types of whales.
How to get there: This list of bear-viewing tours is a good place to start your research if viewing black, grizzly, or polar bears is a must-do for you. Numerous cruise lines offer Alaska voyages, including big-ship lines like Princess and Holland America, and smaller expedition companies like Alaskan Dream Cruises and UnCruise Adventures. For stays in Denali National Park, consider booking a lodge or cabin room at McKinley Creekside Cabins.
Borneo, Southeast Asia
Covered in old-growth rainforest and split among the nations of Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei, Borneo entices travelers with the chance to spot orangutans swinging through the trees or catch a glimpse of Asia’s smallest elephant. Love monkeys? Don’t miss a trip to Kinabatangan Wildlife Reserve, home to a whopping 10 different primate species including proboscis monkeys, orangutans, and multiple variants of macaques and langurs. Keep an eye out for the elusive Malayan sun bear and its distinctive white or gold patch of chest fur.
How to get there: Intrepid Travel and G Adventures run a number of small-group Borneo tours with various price points and activity levels. If you’d rather travel independently, you can book a multi-night package at the Borneo Rainforest Lodge, located in the Danum Valley Conservation Area; past guests report seeing red leaf monkeys, orangutans, macaques, and various colorful birds around the grounds.
No wildlife lover should pass up a chance to see Africa’s legendary Big Five: lions, rhinos, elephants, leopards, and Cape buffalo. In Tanzania you’ll find them all plus many more, including hippos, giraffes, and zebras. The country is most famous for the Great Migration, when millions of wildebeest move en masse from the Serengeti in Tanzania to the Masai Mara in neighboring Kenya; June and July are the best months for viewing the migration in Tanzania.
How to get there: Bright African Safaris is one well-regarded local operator. Nomad Tanzania runs luxurious safari camps across the country. Intrepid Travel offers a number of Tanzania packages, many that also include time in Kenya.
Sea of Cortez, Mexico
Also known as the Gulf of California, the Sea of Cortez is the body of water between the Baja California peninsula and the mainland of Mexico—and it’s teeming with wildlife. Blue, gray, sperm, fin, and humpback whales migrate through these waters at various times of year, while dolphins and orcas are year-round inhabitants. You can even go swimming alongside playful sea lions and gentle whale sharks.
How to get there: You can base yourself in Los Cabos and take whale watching and snorkeling excursions to see the local wildlife. For a more in-depth look at the region, book a small-ship expedition cruise with operators such as Lindblad Expeditions or UnCruise Adventures.
More from SmarterTravel:
- 7 Once-in-a-Lifetime Safaris That Aren’t in Africa
- How to Spot Animal Cruelty While Traveling
- 8 Ways to See Wildlife Responsibly When You Travel
Follow Sarah Schlichter on Twitter @TravelEditor for more travel tips and inspiration.
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