Traveling to an exotic destination comes with a slew of new experiences and opportunities. Among the newness is often a foreign mixture of wildlife. But if you’re in Thailand and want to see the elephants, or in Peru looking for llamas, you should do a little research before you follow the next sign pointing to an immersive animal experience for tourists.
We compiled a list of places you can ethically see incredible animals — places that actually support the local animals, people, and environment.
Manatees in Belize
More than just seeing manatees slowly drift on by, Discover Corps lets you really immerse yourself in manatee business when you’re in Belize. This company allows you to support conservation efforts for the sea cows through science-heavy volunteering.
They offer eight-day trips where you will help count the population of the endangered West Indian Manatee in Belize, monitor their health, and measure key environmental factors that affect the animals — and you get to see pristine beaches and world-class reefs along the way.
Elephants in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Surely you’ve seen lots of elephant tourism traps where you can ride an elephant for a really cool Instagram photo. Unfortunately, those places are often known for abusing and mistreating the gentle giants, which can’t be domesticated like dogs or horses can. But the Elephant Nature Reserve in Chiang Mai, Thailand, is a totally ethical spot for interacting with these incredible creatures. It’s a rehabilitation center dedicated to rescuing elephants from tourist traps and logging camps.
No, you can’t ride an elephant here, but you can watch them play in the mud and trample through the grasslands, and feel really good about it.
Sea Turtles in the Galapagos Islands
The Galapagos Islands are famously filled with all sorts of unique endemic creatures. REI Adventures partners with Conservation Volunteers International Program to create a Galapagos Islands Volunteer Vacation for the most hardcore nature tourists out there.
This 11-day volunteering trip isn’t cheap, but it will have you explore San Cristóbal and Isabela islands while gathering scientific data about local turtle populations in support of a research project led by Dr. Judith Denkinger.
Part of the data collection could include taking underwater photos of endangered sea turtles — an activity you’d be hard-pressed to legally find elsewhere.
Humpback Whales in Hawaii
Humpback whales are a social species, and Hawaii might be your best bet for spotting them. Taking a boat ride off the coast of Maui will likely land you in whale country, where the friendly mammals may feel brazen enough to swim over and say hi.
Don’t worry, there’s nothing dangerous to the whales or to other aquatic wildlife about these boat rides. Some heartwarming news to reassure you before your trip: Humpbacks were recently taken off the endangered list for the first time in 50 years.
Sloths in Costa Rica
Turns out, not all sloth sanctuaries are the safe havens we’d all hope they’d be. To avoid the questionable sloth tourist traps, travellers recommend hitting up a night tour with the Monteverde Cloud Forest. Here, a naturalist guide will take you on a trip through the preserve to see plants and animals — sloths included — thriving in their natural habitats.