When you think of a wildlife vacation, Africa normally springs to mind with its romanticized safari adventures replete with massive draped tents, pith helmets and a local guide to lead the way. Southern Africa is without parallel when it comes to the widest selection of large land mammals -- especially carnivores -- but this encounter with some of nature's more beautiful and terrifying beasts often comes with a hefty price tag.
Perhaps you haven't considered other destinations that provide high quality wildlife adventures. Places like Borneo, India, Peru and Brazil, all home to some of the most exotic animals and birds on the planet, with the added benefit of proximity (the Latin American destinations, at least) and in general, cost. Having been fortunate enough to have visited each of these countries and experienced the wildlife viewing first hand, I can say that the encounters were priceless.
Here are a few ideas to get those travel juices flowing and bring out the animal lover in you.
Only an hour or two by boat from Manaus, the Amazon region's largest city, lies Ariau Towers Hotel (tel. 888/GO-ARIAU; www.ariauamazontowers.com) a unique property located in the middle of the jungle. Located at the confluence of the Rio Negro and the Ariau Creek (technically not on the Amazon per se), this hotel is built entirely on stilts at rainforest canopy level. Towers about two stories high are linked together by four miles of sturdy wooden catwalks, creating the feeling that you are suspended in the jungle. This is not a luxurious property by any stretch of the imagination, but the rooms are clean, comfortable and air conditioned, and there is even a swimming pool.
Packages here (generally one to four nights) include transfers from Manaus Airport, boat transfers to Ariau, a complete meal plan at the buffet restaurant and excursions by boat and foot, including visits to native villages, crocodile and piranha catching, introductions to rainforest foods and medicines and general wildlife viewing. My personal experiences included looking down from my balcony and watching a 20 foot anaconda slither in the shallow waters, catching small crocodiles and piranhas and then releasing them, taking "too good to be true" photos of massive macaws and king parrots perched on my window sill, and becoming particularly friendly with one female woolly monkey who used to wait by my tower each morning, take my hand and accompany me around the property. Other animals that live and play in and around the property include spider monkeys, squirrel monkeys, marmosets, ocelots, parakeets and toucans. Rates start from approximately $250 per room per night based on double occupancy but multi-night packages can be less expensive.
This rather large island located in the South China Sea is actually split between three countries -- the independent Sultanate of Brunei, the states of Sarawak and Sabah belonging to Malaysia, and Kalimantan which is part of Indonesia. As one of the last bastions of true wilderness, wildlife thrives here -- especially simians. Orangutans are one of the most intriguing residents and the easiest place to see them is at the Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre located near Sandakan in the north east of Sabah. The orangutans roam free here and you may be fortunate enough to have one come right up to you and touch you. Even if you are staying in the more tourist-oriented area of Kota Kinabalu (where the international airport is located), hotels and tour companies run one-day tours that generally feature round-trip flights, a visit to Sepilok and, if you are lucky, a mangrove boat trip to see the extremely rare and amusing Proboscis monkeys (with huge bulbous noses and coloring that makes them look like they are wearing Y-front white underwear). For more in-depth discovery in Sabah, consider a tour that takes in the Sungai Kinabatangan river, home to Asian elephants, orangutans, marbled cats, deer, giant squirrels and Sumatran rhinos. Tour companies like Ping Anchorage (www.pinganchorage.com.my) offer accommodation in comfortable lodges near the town of Sakau located close to the lower Kinabatangan River. A three-day, two-night Ping Anchorage tour that includes visits to Sepilok, a boat tour down the Kinabatangan river, two nights' accommodations at the Sakau Rainforest Lodge, seven meals, all transfers and an English speaking guide is priced at $259 per person based on double occupancy until March 31, 2007 and $281 from April 1, 207 to March 31, 2008. Airfare to Sandakan to commence to tour is additional.
When most people think of Peru, Machu Picchu and Inca ruins are usually front of mind. What they may not realize is that the Amazon rainforest extends into Peru and in fact some of the most pristine wildlife viewing conditions exist here.
G.A.P Adventures' (www.gapadventures.com) "Sandoval Lodge and Heath River Wildlife Centre Peru" trip immerses the participant in the Peruvian Amazon with a five-day independent journey from Peurto Maldonado (a 45-minute flight from Cusco). Perched above an oxbow lake, Sandoval Lodge is in one of the most biologically diverse areas on the planet and from the lodge visitors can observe six species of monkeys, giant otters, capybaras, macaws, parrots and other indigenous wildlife. Take night walks, canoe and catamaran trips on Sandoval Lake or hike the lodge's miles of trails. The Heath River Wildlife Centre is a few hours deeper in the jungle by canoe and has regular sightings of tapirs, jaguars and over 480 bird species. This trip departs daily and is priced at $855 per person. Included in this price are airport transfers, two nights' accommodations in each of the locations in simple jungle lodges, all meals, lodge-based tours with local guides and transportation by boat, canoe and walking.
IndiaWith some 80 National Parks and over 400 Wildlife Sanctuaries, India is a remarkable wildlife viewing destination. India has many rare and unique animals, birds and reptiles and keeps most of these protected in the parks and sanctuaries. Some of the animals you may be fortunate enough to encounter include Bengal tigers, Rhinoceros, elephants, leopards, Asiatic lions, Barasingha (Swamp deer), Gaur (Indian Bison), Ganges River dolphins, Red pandas, Nilgiri Tahr (Ibex) Gibbons and a variety of other monkeys. Some of the best safari options are at Kaziranga National Park, Corbett National Park, in the region of Kerala and Rajasthan. Although there are several locally based tour companies offering extensive tours, including India Wildlife Tours (www.india-wildlife-tours.com), the Krishna Jungle Resort (www.krishnahotels.com), Nature Safari India (www.naturesafariindia.com) and Destinations India (www.destinationsindia.com), unfortunately none actually advertise their package rates or prices, and an online inquiry form must be filled in to receive a quote (I had not has a response back from my inquiry yet at the time of publication). Even U.S. and U.K.-based tour companies seem unwilling to publish rates which makes it somewhat difficult to provide even a general price range. Instead here are some prices for accommodation in specific National Parks and Wildlife Sanctuaries:
Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary (www.wayanad.com) in Kerala -- an executive double room with air conditioning and breakfast at the Harita Giri Lodge in Kalpetta -- approximately 55 miles from Calcutta is priced from $30 per room per night or what is called a Tranquil Suite at the Wayanad Resorts in Vythiri, 40 miles from Calcutta is priced from $102 per night. This Sanctuary plus the neighboring sanctuaries of Karnadaka and Tamil Nadu provide opportunities to see elephants, tigers, panthers, jungle cats, civet cats, monkeys, wild dogs, bison, deer, mongooses, squirrels, jackals and hares.
Kaziranga National Park (www.kaziranganationalpark.com) in Assam is home to rhinos, elephants, tigers, leopards and Barasingha among others and the bets times to visit are from November to April. The nearest airport is at Jorhat, about 60 miles away with regular flights there from Delhi, Calcutta and Mumbai. There are three resorts here : Wildgrass Resort, Bonhabi Resort (www.bonhabiresort.com) and Aranya Resort. Room rates (for two people), usually including all meals start at around $50.
Corbett National Park (www.corbettpark.com) in Uttaranchal, about 180 miles from Delhi has regular packages for staying in jungle cottages for two nights priced from $55 for two people. This price includes accommodation and all meals. Safaris can be arranged (morning or evening departures) from $8 per person for six participants or a full day dedicated safari in 4x4 vehicles start from $34 plus fuel costs. Multi-day tours (five to nine days) are also available and expect to see elephants, tigers, chital, mugger, crocodiles and a large variety of birds.
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