Dense rainforests filled with exotic plants and unusual creatures have always been alluring to adventure-seekers. The rise of the modern eco-tourism industry has made it easier for casual nature-lovers to experience jungle landscapes without a pith helmet and machete. In fact, many people ignore other biomes and define “eco-tourism” as travel to a rainforest. A wider range of natural landscapes is, of course, included in the industry's destination options, but the exotic and teeming jungle is surely the most appealing of all.
Headlining rainforest destinations, like the vast Brazilian Amazon, the lush jungles of Borneo, and the booming nature-tourism hot spot of Costa Rica are well known in eco-tourism circles. Thanks to media coverage from cable channels and glossy magazines, these places are household names for people with only a passing interest in rainforest tourism. Yes, these big names do have their merits, but they are not the only rainforest vacation options available to would-be explorers. From the undeveloped interiors of Caribbean islands to the virgin jungles of southwestern Africa to the temperate rain forests of Oceania and the Pacific Northwest, it is possible to trek though a huge variety of rainforest landscapes. The menu of destinations is as endless as the jungles of the Amazon.
1. Darien National Park
While not great for zip-lining, Darien rainforest is great for guided nature walks. (Photo: lightbrigade/flickr)
Panama's Darien National Park is one of the largest stretches of protected area in Central America. A vast land of dense jungle and low mountains, it contains several unique mammal species that are not seen anywhere else, five endemic avian species and hundreds of other types of mammals and birds. Lowland and highland rainforests dominate the Darien, but it also includes rocky coastal areas and beaches. Stretching along 90 percent of the border between Panama and Colombia, the Darien is, undeniably, a very wild place. It is not the type of destination suitable for zip-line-riding and boardwalk-walking eco-tourists. Nonetheless, guided tours, from daylong jaunts to multi-day expeditions, are available through tour companies and led by local jungle guides. The Darien is a cultural destination as well. Two native tribes live in small villages scattered around the forest.
The small island of Dominica, located in the Lesser Antilles, is noticeably less developed than its tourism-happy Caribbean peers. That's a good thing for eco-tourists, who flock to the island's low-key, Earth-friendly resorts to dive, visit sea turtle nesting areas, soak in hot springs, and trek across the undeveloped interior forests and highlands. Jungle trails, many leading to scenic sights like waterfalls or geothermal springs, crisscross the island's lowlands. Resorts like the 3 Rivers Eco-Lodge offer small cottages and tree houses surrounded by forest, while the Papillote Wilderness Retreat, one of the Caribbean's first eco-resorts, sits on a mountainside and offers easy access to rainforest trails that lead past stunning waterfalls. Dominica is built (or unbuilt) with eco-tourism in mind, so it is ideal for people who want to avoid the Caribbean beach scene altogether and focus on jungle treks and nature-themed attractions.
3. Manu Wilderness
Most of the Amazon rainforest sits in Brazil, but one of the most exciting eco-tourism destinations in the forest is in the lowlands of Peru. The Manu Wilderness is home to more plants and animals than almost any other natural area on Earth. Hundreds of mammal species and 1,000 species of birds call these dense forests home, while 15,000 types of plants have been cataloged inside Manu's borders. The forests here are as pristine as any other rainforest vacation destination, but the wildlife is the real reason to come to Manu. Jaguar, tapir and primate sightings are commonplace. Colorful parrots and macaws, as well as unique species like giant otters, provide easy shots for camera-toting visitors. The Manu Wildlife Center offers programs to eco-tourists, while guided tours (a guide is an absolute must in this wilderness) make Manu a remote-yet-accessible option for those who want to introduce themselves to the flora and fauna of the Amazon.
4. Danum Valley
The Borneo Rainforest Lodge is a prime spot for eco-tourists. (Photo: Spanner Dan/flickr)
Malaysian Borneo's Danum Valley has some unusual plant and animal residents. Carnivorous pitcher plants and gigantic rafflesia flowers (some weighing more than 15 pounds) give this valley a truly exotic, almost primeval, feel. Flying squirrels, gibbons, Asian elephants and rare jungle rhinos all call the conservation area home. One of Southeast Asia's first true eco-resorts, the Borneo Rainforest Lodge, still operates in the valley, offering guests an upscale place to stay in between jungle treks, canopy tours and river adventures.
Tasmania is one of the most overlooked destinations in Australia. Temperate rainforest covers 10 percent of this island, which sits south of the mainland. These forests receive a high amount of moisture, but are, as their label suggests, much cooler than their tropical peers. The wet landscapes, mostly found on the western side of the island, are surprisingly scenic. The leafy trees and climbing vegetation of the tropics are rare in Tasmania, but evergreen trees and landscapes teeming with smaller mammals mean that this is a very unusual rainforest environment. Tasmania is a sparsely populated place (it has only 500,000 residents), so enjoying the forests in relative solitude is possible. Some parks that contain rain forest landscapes maintain their isolated appeal by allowing only a certain number of guests to be inside the park at any one time.
6. Olympic National Park
Olympic National Park is home to another attractive temperate rainforest. Located in the Pacific Northwest, relatively close to Seattle in Washington state, this national park features a vast rain forest characterized by coniferous trees, fast growing mosses and ever-damp weather. The obvious advantage of Olympic is that it is easily accessible for U.S.-based rainforest-seekers. However, just because it is close to home does not mean that it is merely a minor league eco-tourism destination for those who don't have the time or money to fly abroad. Rainforest covers the western regions of the park. Long looping trails make multi-day treks possible, and the park's inner recesses are remote enough that people will feel like they are truly on a rainforest adventure.
Gabon, a country in southwestern Africa with a population estimated at about 1.5 million, is an ideal place for rainforest seekers. Forest covers 80 percent of the country. Though commercial logging is a big industry in Gabon, the creation of 13 national parks a decade ago and the continued conservation efforts since then have earned the country a high amount of credibility when it comes to conservation and sustainability. Loango National Park is the country's showcase attraction. This park was once dubbed the “Last Eden” because it contained some of the most pristine virgin forest remaining on the continent. The lands inside Loango host gorillas, forest elephants, water buffalos, and hundreds of other species of birds, reptiles, and mammals. Gabon is a relatively peaceful and prosperous nation, so the political instability that characterizes some destinations in Africa is absent here, making this a great destination for people who want to introduce themselves to the continent and its wilderness.
A eco-vacation in the Suriname rainforest has the vibe of an adventure-infused expedition into unknown lands. (Photo: maebflickrt/flickr)
Suriname has grown as a tourist destination thanks to media coverage and buzz created by Lonely Planet and other high-profile members of the travel media. The population centers of this northern South American country are concentrated along the coast, leaving the inland areas under-visited and nearly uninhabited. However, Suriname has made the effort to expand its eco-tourism offerings, and these areas, though remote in feel, are quite convenient to access. Travel companies offer tours into the backcountry of the northern Amazonian rainforests. These expeditions rely on basic jungle lodges or simple tents (or even hammocks) that give any Suriname trip the feel of an adventure-infused expedition into unknown lands.
Rainforest tourism comes in many forms. Some destinations are more like nature-oriented theme parks with zip lines, zoos and treetop bridges. Others are no more than dense jungle backwaters visited only by biologists and a few tourists in search of real adventure and truly untouched wilderness. No matter what category they fit into, the best of these rainforest vacation destinations have created a balance between championing conservation and building the infrastructure needed to support their eco-tourism industry.