Every year around this time, news and travel magazines around the world unveil a clickbait-driven list of the world’s top travel destinations. It’s become an annual rite of passage as predictable as the swallows returning to Capistrano or East Africa’s Great Migration.
From U.S. News & World Report to Travel + Leisure, many of these lists seem pedestrian (U.S. News lists hoary chestnuts like San Francisco and New York City in their Top 10) or random (T+L includes places like Asbury Park, New Jersey) at best. Rarely do they address the interests of more adventurous travelers with a passion for nature, culture and giving back to the places they explore.
Studies show that more and more travelers today are seeking once-in-a-lifetime excursions that take them off the beaten path and immerse them in the distinctive local culture of a place. Whether working in the community or volunteering in nature and wildlife conservation, ecotourism experiences that feel special and exclusive are becoming increasingly popular.
Whether you travel with Discover Corps, another tour operator, or on your own, here are our picks for 10 of the Best Travel Experiences for 2016…
Belize doesn’t typically get as much love from these annual lists as Central American countries like Costa Rica or Panama do. But the burgeoning ecotourism hotspot offers plenty of adventurous activities to keep travelers of all types satisfied.
The Caribbean coast boasts more than its fair share of beautiful beaches, plus incredible snorkeling and Scuba diving on the Mesoamerican Reef (the second largest in the world after Australia’s Great Barrier Reef). There’s wildlife aplenty, including endangered West Indian Manatees and the world’s largest concentration of jaguars (at Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary).
And for history and culture buffs, Belize has a massive Garifuna population in the east and myriad ancient Mayan ruins in the west.
Ranked among the world’s best ethical travel destinations by Ethical Travel for several years running, Chile is an outdoor adventure lover’s dream come true.
The country’s environmental protection record is arguably the world’s best, leaving natural attractions such as Patagonia’s Torres del Paine National Park, northern Chile’s Atacama Desert and the gorgeous fjords of Chiloé Island in a remarkably pristine state.
From the city of Santiago to remote Easter Island, from the dizzying heights of the Andean mountains to the stunning volcanoes and verdant valleys of the Lake District, Chile’s natural beauty cannot be overstated.
And thanks to its relative geographic isolation, it’s also got a distinctive culture different from any other country in South America.
To know Costa Rica is to love Costa Rica. And there’s an incredibly diverse array of things to love about the world’s first proudly eco-friendly destination.
Home to more than 500,000 species of flora and fauna, it’s widely considered to have the highest density of biodiversity of any country on the planet.
National parks of immense natural beauty abound, from Tortuguero on the Caribbean coast and Monteverde Cloud Forest in the central highlands to the Osa Peninsula’s Corcovado and the central Pacific coast’s Manuel Antonio.
There are many volcanoes (Arenal, Irazú, Rincon de la Vieja, etc), coffee plantations and ancient archaeological sites (Finca 6, El Guayabo, Las Mercedes).
But perhaps the greatest resource Costa Rica has to offer is the warmth and hospitality of the local people, known affectionately as Ticos, some of the most friendly folks you’ll ever meet.
Now that restrictions on Americans traveling to Cuba are being lessened, interest in traveling to Cuba has never been greater.
Until last year most Americans could only fantasize about visiting this former Latin American hotspot. But through its music (Buena Vista Social Club, Cachao), art (painter Wilfredo Lam, photographer Alberto Korda) and dance styles (cha-cha, mambo, etc), many travelers fell in love with Cuban Culture long before they could legally set foot upon its shores.
That culture is still alive and thriving in cities such as Old Havana and Trinidad today. But it’s also worth exploring lesser-known regions such as the Valle de Los Ingenios, home to dozens of ruins of 19th century sugar mills; Viñales Valley, a picturesque agricultural region known for its tobacco; and Cienfuegos, a vital urban hub for Cuba’s economy in the 19th century.
Nature lovers will also find lots to love in Cuba’s six UNESCO-approved reserves, which include the Ciénaga de Zapata Biosphere Reserve, Cuchillas del Toa Biosphere Reserve, Sierra del Rosario Nature Reserve, Baconao Biosphere Reserve, Península de Guanahacabibes Biosphere Reserve and Buenavista Biosphere Reserve.
Rightfully known as “the Nature Island,” this little-known ecotourism gem in the eastern Antilles is another country that has made Ethical Traveler’s Best Ethical Travel Destinations list for several years in a row thanks in large part to their clean energy and conservation initiatives
For stunning natural beauty, the Caribbean island is virtually unparalleled. The mountainous Morne Trois Pitons National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, boasts imposing volcanoes, impressive waterfalls and a boiling lake. It’s also park of the massive Waitukubuli National Trail system, which spans the entire island.
Dominica is the last island in the Caribbean with a substantial population of the indigenous Kalinago people (a.k.a. Carib Indians). The Kalinago Barana Autê is owned by the tribe, and offers an excellent introduction to their history and colorful cultural traditions, including dancing and basket-weaving.
Some of the island’s greatest treasures lie offshore, the gorgeous Caribbean waters. Snorkeling or diving Champagne Reef– named for the bubbles provided by thermal vents in the ocean floor– is an otherworldly experience. And the dolphin- and whale-watching off the coast is truly exceptional.
Like Cuba, India is another one of those countries people seem to dream about and immerse themselves in the art, music and cuisine of long before they have a chance to visit. The country is so vast and varied, it feels like you’d need at least a month to even begin exploring its treasures.
Though Mumbai is arguably its most popular (and populous) place for travelers, colorful Rajasthan is a hotbed of traditional Indian culture. Lively festivals such as the Pushkar Camel Fair, the Elephant Festival (held on Holi) and the Teej Festival offer a great taste of what cities like Jaipur have to offer. It’s also home to crafts such as block printing and jewelry making.
India’s capital, Delhi, offers a wealth of history. It’s home to three UNESCO World Heritage Sites– Qutab Minar, Humayun’s Tomb and Red Fort– and recently applied for the prestigious tag of a World Heritage City.
The northern township of Dharmasala, located in the Himalayas, is famous as the home of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile. Surrounded by majestic mountains and dense coniferous forest, the region offers an exceptional blend of Tibetan and Indian culture, ancient spirituality, and traditional crafts and cuisine.
Of course this doesn’t even mention the wildlife, including the mysterious Bengal Tigers, Elephants, and endangered species such as the Dhole, a wild dog.
Norway has received honors from National Geographic’s Center for Sustainable Destinations due to its conservation efforts and rural land preservation.
The Hardanger fjord, located just south of Bergen, is an exceptional place to begin exploring the country. Stretching more than 100 miles, the overwhelmingly beautiful landscape is filled with colorful houses, snow-capped mountains, glistening glaciers and an endless array of waterfalls.
Further north, the Jotunheimen Mountains– whose name means “The Home of the Giants”– are truly breathtaking, with over 2,000 miles of marked trails, cultural attractions and majestic scenery. Don’t miss the stunning 12th century Urnes Stave Church, which was built at the end of the Viking era and remains in use today.
For wildlife and rich indigenous culture, head north to the Norwegian Arctic. This is the home of over 40,000 Sami people, the indigenous people of Scandinavia, who are known for their history as reindeer herders. Svalbard, an archipelago off the northern coast, is home to seven national parks, 23 nature reserves, and myriad seabirds, polar bears, Arctic fox and other wildlife.
Peru is perhaps best known for Machu Picchu and the historic culture of the Inca who built it. But there’s a lot more to the country than those famous archaeological ruins, and much of it dates back long before Machu Picchu’s construction.
Located north of Lima, Caral Supe’s pyramids date back to around 2600 BC. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is considered the first civilization in the Americas. Northern Peru’s Chan Chan, the capital of the historical Chimor Empire from 900 AD until they were defeated by the Inca Empire around 1470, is the largest Pre-Columbian city in South America. South of Lima you’ll find the mysterious (and enormous) images the Nazca people drew in the desert.
Peru’s portion of the Amazon River isn’t as well known as that of Brazil. But it is much more pristine, with less environmental damage caused by logging and slash and burn agriculture. The river’s tributaries near Iquitos are home to abundant wildlife species and many friendly Ribereños villages.
But the town of Cusco and the Sacred Valley is arguably the heart of Peru. From the famed stone walls, archaeological artifacts, and historical treasures of the Inca Trail to the welcoming Quechua people, it’s one of the best travel experiences for people seeking a combination of unspoiled nature and indigenous culture.
An early ecotourism innovator, South Africa is one of the world’s premiere safari destinations. But there’s a lot more to it than “the Big 5.”
Cape Town is home to the flat-topped Table Mountain, UNESCO World Heritage Site Robben Island (where Nelson Mandela and many other political prisoners were held during the Apartheid era), and the wildlife-rich Cape Peninsula, a breeding ground for Southern Right Whales and home to a colony of around 3,000 African penguins.
The beautiful Garden Route stretches from Mossel Bay (Western Cape) to the Storms River (Eastern Cape), and contains 10 nature reserves as well as marine reserves featuring 300 different bird species, coral reefs, dolphins, seals, whales and more. For traditional culture, visit the Zulu people of the KwaZulu Natal region.
Speaking of travel bucket lists, witnessing east Africa’s Great Migration is something many people dream of (and save for) their entire lives. After finally making my dreams of exploring Tanzania come true a few months ago, I can assure you it’s more than worth the wait.
Serengeti National Park is arguably the country’s most famous attraction, and truly lives up to the hype. Serengeti means “endless plains,” an accurate description of the scenic landscape, which is packed with lion prides and vast herds of elephants, giraffes, zebras, impala and wildebeests.
The Ngorongoro Crater is the largest intact, inactive volcanic crater in the world. Measuring 2,000 feet deep and 100 square miles wide, the UNESCO World Heritage Site is home to more than 25,000 large animals (buffalo, hippos, gazelles, wildebeests, etc.) and a dense lion population. It’s also an incredible setting to watch the sunset from the rim.
Tarangire National Park is perhaps lesser known, but its dense array of wildlife (including the nation’s highest concentration of elephants) is impressive. From lions and leopards to giraffes, zebras and birds, it packs a surprising punch for a relatively small, uncrowded park.
But one of the things we loved most about Tanzania was the Maasai, the nomadic pastoralists who are the nation’s most prominent indigenous people. The vivid colors of their Shúka (sheets worn wrapped around the body) are striking against the landscape. And an opportunity to learn about the Maasai’s rich history, hear their intoxicating music and dance with them is one you are guaranteed never to forget. –Bret Love
BIO: Bret Love is a journalist/editor with 21 years of print and online experience, whose clients have ranged from the Atlanta Journal Constitution to Rolling Stone. Along with his photographer wife Mary Gabbett, he is the co-founder of ecotourism website Green Global Travel and Green Travel Media.