In this excerpt from Lonely Planet's 1000 Ultimate Experiences, we share our top 10 places to see the world's most beautiful creatures in their natural habitats.
Belize is brimming with accessible wilderness areas, including protected parks laden with wildlife, and coastal cays with loads of marine life. A guide is required to spy rarer species, such as Baird's tapirs or scarlet macaws, but you're guaranteed to spot lots of creatures and critters on your own, too. Swim with sharks and stingrays or look for land animals such as pacas (giant guinea pigs) and jaguars at the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary. Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary is a 2½-hour drive from Belize City.
Thanks to Bolivia's varied geography, sparse human population and lack of development, its national parks offer some of the world's best places to observe wildlife. The Parque Nacional Madidi is one of South America's most intact ecosystems. This wild utopia is home to an incredible variety of Amazonian wildlife, including 44% of all New World mammal species, 38% of tropical amphibian species, more than 10% of all bird species known to science and more protected species than any park in the world. The Madidi Reserve is in the Department of La Paz, 30km west of Rurrenabaque. It's best to visit during the dry season (May to October).
A safari (which means 'we go' in Swahili) is the best way to access the best of Botswana's wild and pristine parks. With about 35% of the country designated as protected areas, there are plenty of places to put yourself in the presence of lions, hippos, elephants, zebras, giraffes and antelope. There are also lots of opportunities to appreciate the little things in life, such as dung beetles or dancing sand lizards. Safari by canoe, elephant or vehicle; check out a range of packages at www.botswana.co.za. Be aware that there is a 12kg baggage limit for travellers on light aircraft in the Okavango Delta.
4. Great Barrier Reef, Australia
Nature summoned all the colours of its vast palette and applied them in exquisite, liberal detail to the Great Barrier Reef. The reef is one of the seven natural wonders of the world; it spans 200km and is composed entirely of living organisms. The most extensive reef system on earth, it sustains a staggering array of marine species, including turtles, sharks, fishes and corals. Stationed at various points along the Queensland coast is an armada of tour boats to shuttle divers and snorkellers out to the reef. November to February is turtle-nesting time at North West Island, 75km from Gladstone. Catamarans leave from Rosslyn Bay four times a week.
5. Costa Rica
The lush jungles of Costa Rica are home to playful monkeys, languid sloths, crocodiles, countless lizards, poison-dart frogs and a huge assortment of exotic birds, insects and butterflies. Endangered sea turtles nest on both coasts, and cloud forests protect elusive birds and jungle cats. Costa Rica is enlightened to conservation, giving back more than 27% of the country to nature. The parks are readily accessible to independent travellers, though regulated in terms of numbers allowed in at any given time. For rugged rainforest and rare species, head 300km south from San Jose to Palmar to find the only public access to the Piedras Blancas National Park.
6. Everglades, USA
The largest subtropical wilderness in the continental USA, the Everglades National Park is a wetland wonderland. It's a place where bird boffins unite to watch for large wading species such as spoonbills, egrets and wood storks. It's also the only place in the world where alligators and crocodiles coexist. Paths within the park allow you to walk or cycle an alligator-strewn loop – and it's all within a 45-minute drive from midtown Miami. The park is open all year but some facilities may be restricted in the wet summer season. Plan your trip at www.nps.gov/ever.
There's such a dazzling array of animals here that you're likely to get a cricked neck, constantly craning it in search of animals and birds. Safaris are the most common mode of accessing the wildlife, but it's also possible to do it on your own. Many choose to join a safari visiting a park with a high hit rate of seeing the 'big five': elephant, rhino, leopard, lion and buffalo, but these are also guaranteed to be crowded with other wildlife-watchers. Check www.kenyalogy.com for details and safari tips.
8. Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
This string of islands offers the wildlife experience of a lifetime. Witness the handful of animals that somehow made it out here, 1000km from the Ecuadorian mainland, and were isolated for aeons, losing all fear of predators. Follow in the footsteps of Charles Darwin, whose theory of evolution was born out of his visit here in the 1830s, and take a cruise among the volcanic islands. You'll see iguanas, sea lions and blue-footed boobies to name a few. Be careful if you visit; tourism can have a damaging effect on this delicate ecosystem. Inter-island boats between San Cristóbal, Santa Cruz and Isla Isabela should cost less than US$50; book hotels well in advance (rooms range from US$50–500 per night).
The national parks of Madagascar are rightly famous among wildlife aficionados worldwide. Lemurs are their best known draw (from the red-bellied variety to the ring-tailed), but there's also a bevy of weird and wonderful birds and reptiles – keep a keen eye out for a chameleon. The country's diverse, often mountainous, parks are most accessible to those with hired vehicles who are entirely self-sufficient, though organised tours are another option. Help with lemur conservation by volunteering at www.frontier.ac.uk; projects last for two to 20 weeks and cost around £1000–4000.
If you've got a hankering to seek out monkeys, then Bako National Park is for you – the best place to see the rare proboscis monkey, as well as the common macaques. The best way to visit is to hike the 30km of well-marked trails within the park. Also worth checking out are Borneo's orang-utan sanctuaries: at the Semenggoh Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre in Sarawak, and at the Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre in Sabah. Buses run daily from Kuching to Bako Market, from where it's a 30-minute boat ride to the national park.