Going on an adventure to a new place has the power to change you, but you can also change a place—for better or worse. Make a positive impact with one of these ten trips that are full of adventure and also benefit local communities and conservation. —Kate Siber
British Columbia, Canada: Sail the Great Bear Rainforest
Photograph by Kevin J. Smith, Maple Leaf Adventures
Stretching from northern Vancouver Island to the Alaskan border, the Great Bear Rainforest holds a fraction of one percent of the human population of Canada—and an untold universe of natural wonders. Here, bald eagles dot the trees, millions of migrating salmon clog the rivers, and rare white bears stalk shadowy forests of cedar, hemlock, and spruce.
This also happens to be the proposed site of a pipeline that would connect the tar sands near Edmonton, Alberta, to the port of Kitimat, British Columbia. The pipeline would carry 525,000 barrels of petroleum a day to countless ships that would thread through the pristine islands, channels, and fjords of the Inside Passage. One oil spill, critics say, and it could all be lost. In early 2013, a federal panel was reviewing evidence and hearing testimony in order to decide whether to permit the project.
Fishing and ecotourism have long provided sustainable alternatives to resource extraction in the Great Bear Rainforest, and they have offered First Nations a means of income without harming their ancestral lands. Now, a diverse groundswell of residents are attending hearings to testify that these lands—and fishing and tourism along with them—could be decimated by the pipeline. Growing numbers of travelers are critical to proving the viability of a conservation economy already worth more than a billion dollars.
The first thing you can do is go and experience the forest, one of the greatest tracts of rain forest left in North America. Our choice? Sail up the coast in a 92-foot schooner crewed by outfitter Maple Leaf Adventures. Travel up fjords in mind-bending solitude; stop to see grizzly bears, wolves, and whales; hike through ancient spruce and cedar; and explore remote First Nations villages. Maple Leaf Adventures employs First Nations guides, are members of 1% for the Planet, and, last year, donated 4 percent of their net revenues to conservation organizations. It’s easy to understand why they are fighting so hard to protect this land when surveying it all from the prow of the ship or your own private hot springs, only reachable by boat.
Price: From $2,620-$5,750 for six to ten days
Peru: Hike to Visit Inca Descendants
Photograph by Journeyou.com
A sprawling collection of ancient Inca walls ensconced in cliffs and mists, Machu Picchu is undeniably spectacular. It is also undeniably popular, and visitors’ love for this high Andean site has spurred concerns over its development. In the past, entrepreneurs have proposed helicopter flight services, cable cars, and other outlandish capitalization schemes—none of which, thankfully, have come to fruition.
As an antidote to unsustainable development, a number of tour companies have teamed with local communities to develop lodges and tours that directly benefit locals and have a light environmental impact on the land. One new project in the Sacred Valley, east of Machu Picchu, is in Misminay, where about 600 descendants of the Inca still live and practice small-scale farming and crafts like weaving.
With the help of Condor Travel, a Cusco-based travel company, locals set up a small-scale tour operation that benefits the community. Hike about a mile to this village (at about 12,000 feet), drink sweet spearmint tea, learn to weave with local women, and spot stars with a local astronomer before sleeping in a family’s home. The project was certified by Rainforest Alliance, a nonprofit that vets sustainable tourism businesses.
Starting in 2014, Mountain Lodges of Peru will open three new lodges, built in conjunction with nearby communities, along an alternative trail to Machu Picchu. Local and indigenous guides will lead day hikes to remote villages to meet with the descendants of the Inca and learn about age-old traditions like weaving. The ambles leave plenty of time for amazed contemplation: In these high, ragged peaks, the Inca flourished for centuries.
Price: $215 for two days
Baja, Mexico: Tag and Release Endangered Sea Turtles
Photograph by Elizabeth Moreno, RED Sustainable Travel
Sea turtles are easy to catch and—according to some—delicious to eat. They also get tangled in fishing nets and are losing much of their coastal habitat to development. It all adds up to one sad but indisputable fact: Six of the seven major species of marine turtles are threatened or endangered. The good news is that there are a number of grassroots projects aimed at helping these ancient seafarers survive—and many could use the help of travelers.
Magdalena Bay, a labyrinth of mangroves off Baja’s Pacific Coast, is the home of one innovative project. Founded by conservationist J. Wallace Nichols, Grupo Tortuguero is a collection of former poachers who have committed to changing their ways. Every month, they catch sea turtles in nets; measure, weigh, and tag them; then let them go. A travel company, Red Sustainable Travel, brings volunteers here to help the group record data—used in studies by organizations like NOAA—and to defray the costs of the research project. In turn, trip fees pay for staffers’ salaries, fund a local children’s education project, and prove to locals that sea turtles are worth more alive than stewing in broth.
For travelers, the three-day trip can hardly be called work. Volunteers stay in tents on a small, remote islet so perfect it could be airbrushed. When not tagging sea turtles, hike in desert studded with coyote tracks, slurp fresh oysters and salsa, and dig your toes into the white sand of a wild dune field with views of crashing Pacific swells.
Patagonia, Chile: Raft the Futaleufú River
Photograph by Londie Garcia Padelsky
No self-respecting whitewater aficionado would contest that the Futaleufú is among the greatest stretches of whitewater on the planet. For about 50 miles, this shifting thread of turquoise winds through an impossibly grand theater of scenery. Rafters take in skyscraping peaks, sheer granite cliffs, and thickets of hardwood forest as they tumble down 36 Class IV and V rapids. Despite its brawn, however, the river is gravely endangered.
A Spanish power company, Endesa, has the rights to build three dams that would destroy long-standing shepherd communities and wipe out whitewater recreation forever. Earth River Expeditions, the whitewater-rafting company that pioneered the first raft descent of the river in 1991, has and continues to put up a massive fight. They bought a large amount of land that Endesa would have to purchase in order to build the dams and fought the construction of unsustainable development. In 2012, with the profits from their raft trips, they also founded a conservation organization, the Futaleufú Riverkeeper, to work on litigation, community outreach, and other conservation efforts full time.
The first thing travelers can do to support river conservation is experience the Fu. After cruising the river each day, rafters retire to camps etched into cliffs and perched in trees. Extracurricular activities include hot-tubbing in natural springs, rock climbing, rappelling, mountain biking, and, naturally, blissing out on a private beach. All profits from the trip go toward protecting the river. Want to do more? Donate directly to the Futaleufú Riverkeeper.
Price: $3,400 for eight days
Mongolia: Horseback Ride With Nomads
Photograph by W. West, Nomadic Expeditions
Mongolia is a study in contrasts. Here, nomads still tend to their herds as they have for centuries—with a cell phone in hand—and gorgeous Buddhist temples coexist with trendy Internet cafes. The country is changing fast, in no small part because of a boom in mining, which brings a much needed economic boost. (The world’s largest copper mine is slated to open there in 2013.) But mining also poses a threat to the country’s clean rivers and lakes and, with the lure of jobs and wealth, to its traditions and culture.
Tourism can play a part in helping to preserve cultural traditions—and even to support conservation causes. A Kalmyk Mongolian-American, Jalsa Urubshurow, founder of the outfitter Nomadic Expeditions, is at the forefront of this effort. Stay in a yurt at the outfitter’s solar- and wind-powered Three Camel Lodge in the Gobi, which was built in partnership with the local community and the national park ($320 for a double; threecamellodge.com). Travelers hike in lush valleys, ride a camel through 900-foot sand dunes, and visit with a nomadic family. The lodge refurbished a well that it now shares with herders, developed greenhouse and organic farm projects, employs all locals, and supports a conservation organization that protects rivers.
Or join a 14-day expedition through central Mongolia, in which travelers horseback ride, camel trek, soak in hot springs, and meet some of the world’s last nomads. The trips support sustainable livelihoods for locals, and profits go to an astounding array of causes, including funds to start cultural festivals, a kindergarten for the hearing impaired, and the Arts Council of Mongolia, which preserves and promotes cultural traditions.
Tanzania: Circumnavigate Mount Kilimanjaro
Photograph by Andrew King
Mount Kilimanjaro, a one-mountain wonder of lava formations, rain forests, heather fields, and glaciers, looms over the savannahs of the Serengeti as if a beacon to the world’s climbers. That’s why more than 30,000 people come to tag the continent’s highest summit at 19,340 feet every year, and that doesn’t include guides and porters. Though tourism brings important income to the local community, it has also spurred deforestation at the base of the mountain, which has changed the area’s microclimate and contributed to melting the mountain’s glaciers. Concerns have also arisen over trash and pollution on the most popular climbing routes.
One local guide and ultrarunner, Simon Mtuy, came up with an alternative trip that is arguably even more of a challenge than tagging the summit: a new eight-day stage run around Kilimanjaro. The founder of Summit Expeditions and Nomadic Experience, Mtuy’s idea is to bring travelers deep into the countryside and to seldom visited villages, reducing the impact on the summit routes and bringing income to more communities through runners’ fees.
Travelers spend a day planting native trees as part of a reforestation project before running 162 miles in eight days, trotting through monkey-studded forests, savannahs dotted with elephants and zebras, and coffee farms. Come evening, tuckered-out runners camp and refuel in remote villages under the looming shadow of the continent’s highest peak.
Namibia and South Africa: Track Endangered Rhinos
Photograph by Allistair Kilpin, Kwandwe Private Game Reserve
Rhinoceroses have terrible eyesight, a very good sense of smell, and a rather dour disposition. Here’s a word of advice when near one of these primordial creatures: Stay quiet and upwind. One might forgive a rhino for its testy attitude, however. Its horns have made it a major target for poachers. Just last year, 668 rhinos were killed in South Africa, a 5,000 percent increase in poaching since 2007, owed largely to the increasing demand for horns in Asian markets.
A number of governmental, conservation, and tourism organizations are working to combat the problem in South Africa and nearby countries. Meanwhile, neighboring Namibia, a little-populated patchwork of empty deserts, is a rare bright spot for the species—and for conservation tourism. Here, a number of communities and businesses have partnered to found private reserves and sustainable-tourism lodges, which train and employ locals in sustainable livelihoods that negate the need for poaching. Now more than 40 percent of the country is protected land, and, last year, no rhinos were killed. In fact, conservation-tourism projects in Namibia have helped grow the population of this sensitive species.
There are numerous ecolodges that travelers can support in Namibia, such as Desert Rhino Camp, which is run in conjunction with the Save the Rhino Trust. The largest population of free-ranging black rhinos lives here—thanks to the camp’s resuscitation efforts—and guests can track them on foot ($488 per person per night; wilderness-safaris.com) through the wild monochrome expanse of the Namib Desert.
Alternatively, opt for an 11-day conservation safari through Namibia, Botswana, and South Africa with the African Safari Company. Travelers visit a wild cat sanctuary in Namibia and participate in a rhino-darting conservation program in South Africa’s Kwandwe Private Game Reserve, which is an effort to combat the poaching epidemic. Travelers help researchers spot rare black rhinos and drill microchips into their horns to track potential poachers. Along the way, they also meet San Bushmen in Namibia; track giraffes, elephants, lions, and other creatures; and contemplate remote rock-art sites that have endured the ages.
Republic of the Congo: Trek to See Rare Gorillas
Photograph by Dana Allen, Wilderness Collection
The Republic of the Congo—not to be confused with its embattled neighbor, the Democratic Republic of the Congo—hides the second largest remaining tract of tropical rain forest. And within that tract, something even more rare: the largest population of remaining western lowland gorillas. Seeing these creatures takes time and effort (a muddy, bootstrapping bushwhack, to be exact) but it only takes a moment to see the sensitivity and intelligence behind their eyes.
However, this landscape and the gorillas that depend on it have little protection from the specter of logging, mineral extraction, and palm-oil plantation development. In an effort to build reasons to protect the forest, one company, Wilderness Safaris, opened two low-impact camps in Odzala-Kokoua National Park in 2012. The idea is to offer locals an alternative to working in extractive industries, poaching and deforestation through employment. Fees from the camps also fund research, local schools, and health care.
All the traveler has to do is show up—and shell out a pretty penny. But the trade-off is a singular experience that the company hopes will encourage further sustainable-tourism development in the country. Hike through thick rain forest to lock eyes with a silverback gorilla. Float down remote waterways in pirogues—traditional flat-bottomed boats—to see forest buffalo and elephants, and go on night drives to survey the glowing eyes of nocturnal residents. Come nightfall, return to a solar-powered tent to drift off to the mysterious symphony of the forest.
Price: $5,885 for six nights
United States: Volunteer at a National Park
Photograph by Wilderness Volunteers
The sheer variety of America’s national park sites is mind-boggling, from the glacier-flanked fjords of Alaska to the sculpted sandstone deserts of the Southwest and the historic battlefields of the Southeast. They are well loved by visitors and yet many parks still struggle with budget and staffing shortfalls. One big way visitors can help? Volunteer.
The National Park Service has a broad and critically important volunteer program. Just in 2012, some 253,000 Americans volunteered in national park sites by building trails, guiding nature walks, giving campfire talks, and helping archaeologists preserve artifacts, among many other tasks. Nearly every park site could use an extra set of hands on a regular basis or simply for a few days. Choose from diverse options, from serving as a campground host in Texas’ Big Bend National Park to weeding non-native plant species on a three-day wilderness hike in Maui’s Haleakala National Park. Those with special skills can apply for special opportunities, like offering night-sky lectures as a guest astronomer at New Mexico’s Chaco Culture National Historical Park or volunteering as an artist-in-residence at one of more than a dozen parks across the country. Search for current opportunities at the National Park Service’s website.
There are also independent organizations that run volunteer trips within national parks, such as Wilderness Volunteers. Trips range from trail building in Colorado National Monument to restoring remote wilderness campsites in Yosemite National Park. Occasionally volunteers get a surprise perk like a side trip to a remote archaeological ruin. But most say the biggest payoff is the pleasure of simply being in some of the nation’s most iconic landscapes—and helping to preserve them for generations to come.
India: Track Tigers and Other Rare Wildlife
Photograph by Amit Sankahla
It’s not superlative to say that catching a glimpse of the world’s largest cat in the wild can feel like time standing still. A full-grown male tiger can weigh up to 660 pounds, stretch as long as ten feet, and consume nearly 90 pounds of meat in a sitting. Still, tigers are no match for poachers, who, with habitat loss, have decimated tiger populations by over 90 percent in the last 150 years. Now, about 3,200 tigers remain in the wild across the planet.
India is home to a large portion of the remaining wild Bengal tigers, and a number of tourism companies are bringing travelers to see these primordial creatures in an effort to benefit conservation. The idea? Employment and other economic benefits of responsibly developed tourism give locals a reason to protect tigers rather than poach them.
One 19-day trip, run by outfitter Wildland Adventures, visits major attractions like the Taj Mahal as well as two ecolodges, Kanha and Bandavgarh Jungle Lodges. Ride on the back of an elephant through meadows and lush sal and bamboo forests in search of rare swamp deer, sloths, 200 species of birds, and, of course, the star feline attraction. Both lodges are run on solar power, nearly all staff are local, and an organic farm supplies foodstuffs. Fees from the trip benefit two nonprofit tiger conservation organizations, which train national park staffers and future guides.