When I first started traveling full time, animals weren’t the first thing on my bucket list. However, as I traveled more and more, I realized that before I quit my job, my vacation only familiarized me with zoo animals. After seeing animals in their natural habitat, I fell less in love with seeing them in cages. If you love animals as much as I do, traveling to see them at home is a worthwhile experience. Reflecting on my travels over the past few years, here are the places where you can see some of my favorite animals.
1. Namibia and Botswana
If you’ve never been to Africa, it’s almost impossible to describe the safari experience where lions mate, rhinos fight, and leopards attack right in front of your safari truck. What I like about Africa is that the people think that animals have as many rights on the land as people.
Africa’s strengths, for me, have been Etosha national park in Namibia and Chobe National Park at the border of Botswana. Etosha left me surprised and in awe of its night viewing areas. Spotlights are set up around a waterhole so you can sit quietly and watch elephants, giraffes, hyenas and many more come out at night for a drink. I wondered how many would survive the night the lions came out.
I found my jaw to drop as we drove along vast empty plains in Namibia and Botswana, then found a herd of elephants under a giant tree by the side of the road. Another day, we stopped to watch a giraffe graze nearby. He was so close that I thought he could stick his head out of my window.
While everyone wants to see “The Big 5” (lions, Cape buffaloes, leopards, rhinos and elephants), there are other wild animals that will delight you. My first animal in Africa was the oryx. To me it looked like someone had painted their tribal markings and I couldn’t help but stare at him. The dassie, much like a giant gerbil, is adorable and surprisingly related to the elephant. Cheetahs are lovely, although you’re less likely to catch them off-reserve these days.
Finally, if you’re a bird fan, you’ll get your fix here. I had no interest in birds before going. Then the lilac breasted roller made me change my mind with its spectacular color palette.
One of my next trips will be to Uganda to make up for my gorilla trek canceled by the pandemic. I can only imagine how spectacular it is to see them up close with the chimpanzees.
Pro tip: Go see the rhinos as soon as possible. Due to the horrific poaching market, they might go extinct too soon. Another endangered giraffe is the Rothschild giraffe. While there are many efforts to stop poachers, it is the market that needs to be stopped, in my opinion.
You can only see elephants in captivity, but it is still an amazing experience. I loved spending the day following a herd, including the babies, watching them frolic in the dirt and chopping down entire trees for something to eat.
Nothing really describes what it feels like to take a mud bath with an elephant. I am still amazed that we were able to get so close. And giving bananas to babies who wrap their trunk around your hand is magical.
My other favorite animal in Thailand is the dusky langur monkey. Not only is he beautiful with his specific mix of black and white fur (babies are yellow), he is also a kind and fun animal. My guide took us to a place where we could feed them. Whether from the floor or from the comfort of your shoulder, they reach out and gently pull food out of your palm. I found myself in the middle of a playful brawl between two young monkeys. One of them gently grabbed my leg, using me as a shield, looked at me and smiled.
Perhaps the most special thing about this species is the way that parents seem to have a romantic relationship with each other and with their babies. It is a species that deserves a long trip to observe it!
Pro tip: When planning your visit to see elephants, do your research to make sure you are working with a company that treats them humanely.
I have mentioned in previous articles that I love cows. Vietnam offers water buffaloes, and they stole my heart. They walk along the roads in the middle of cities as if it were an important business trip. You can get very close to them, and if you want, take a tour where you can walk with them and ride them. They are kind and graceful animals and one of my favorites in the world.
Vietnam also has beautiful species of langur monkeys all over the country, including the red-tailed douc. I didn’t see them on my first trip, just one of the many reasons I want to return to this wonderful country.
Pro tip: You may have to intend to see animals in Vietnam. Although they are in the wild, they are often only found in certain parts of the country. Do your research ahead of time.
4. Costa Rica
My full-time journey began in this land rich in lush forests everywhere you look. It was the first time in my life that I saw a monkey in a tree, above my head. Once you hear the Howler Monkey, you will never forget it. They have a very distinct appeal, and you’ll want to emulate and hear it every day! My first sighting of them was in Guanacaste, and Manuel Antonio offers paths that seem magical when you hear a pack of howler monkeys screaming in the distance.
Obviously, you can’t leave Costa Rica without seeing a sloth. If you are lucky, you will see them happily hanging from a tree branch. Sadly, many of them end up in animal sanctuaries after near-death experiences like trying to swing on a power line. They are very cute animals.
The other thing Costa Rica is amazing at is the frogs. My favorites were the nocturnal zoos with frogs of all colors. I was lucky enough to have a photo of one of the most famous red tree frogs they are known for. They are much smaller than I expected and I treasure my photographic memories of them.
I spent my honeymoon in the Seychelles many years ago. Even though the wedding didn’t work out, I will never forget those giant tortoises! I only knew the turtles that could fit in my hand, so standing next to someone who could elongate their neck and be taller than me was fascinating. The other thing anyone who has seen them will tell you is the sound of their shells scratching during mating is a sound you will never forget!
6. New Zealand
After almost 2 years living in New Zealand I fell in love with a few birds here. In fact, even if some of them wake me up too early, I will miss them when I’m gone!
The kiwi bird is clearly one of the most fascinating in New Zealand, and perhaps the world. You won’t see them too easily off-reserve. I was lucky enough to have a friend who took me for a night walk where we saw several in the bushes. Their gait and speed have a prehistoric feel, and although I associate birds with feathers, the kiwi has what looks like spiky hair. They were on the brink of extinction, but the country worked hard to save them.
The tūī has the most interesting call – with dual voicemail and multiple calls, you’ll immediately know when one is nearby.
The fantail is the most interactive. We’re part of its food chain, so it flies nearby, hoping your footsteps find a meal. If you’re lucky, they’ll fly right at you, and just when you think they might land on your arm or your head, they fly off in a way that will make you wonder if they don’t. may not have had a drink recently. They are lovely and I loved hearing their gossip all day long.
The kererū, or wood pigeon, is the funniest. It is a large bird that always chooses to perch on a narrow branch or bush that seems unable to support its weight. I’ve never seen one drop, so I guess they know what they’re doing.
It is a huge country with multiple climates. Unsurprisingly, there are therefore wonderful animals that live there.
These llama-like animals are fun to see in the wild. If you travel to Argentina by bus, you will see a lot of them grazing up close. You won’t be able to get close, but you will get curious looks if you stay still.
While I loved the hummingbird park at Selvatura, Costa Rica, because they land on your hand to feed you, Iguazu has a hummingbird park which is so wonderful that I have been there three times. It is filled with many different varieties of hummingbirds and if you stay long enough you can take some magical photos.
Pro tip: The wings of hummingbirds move incredibly fast. You will have to use a very high shutter speed to capture them on the camera.
If you’ve always wanted to see penguins in their natural habitat, Argentina offers you the perfect experience. I went to Ushuaia and spent a day on the small island of Martillo. I highly recommend the option where you can get off the boat and walk on the island. A strict distance is maintained between you and the penguins, but even at several feet you enjoy being with them. You will learn about their mating and migration rituals and be won over. I was lucky enough to see a king penguin on the island which is very unusual.
- Be sure to find out where the Magellanic penguins will be when you arrive in Argentina. This breed migrates between Puerto Madryn and Ushuaia seasonally, so the colony size will be larger or smaller depending on when you visit. The gentoo penguin is present in Ushuaia all year round.
- PiraTour is the only company that offers the experience of walking with the penguins. It’s likely to be full, so book as early as possible.