Travel With Kids: 7 Wonderful Wildlife Experiences Designed for Families
I’m a big believer in the benefits of travel with kids. I took my daughter on her first vacation – a road trip to Florida’s St. George Island – two weeks after she was born. As she got older, our annual daddy-daughter trips took us further from home, to the Caribbean, to Central America, and finally to International Expeditions' Galapagos Islands cruise last year.
“Don’t be afraid.” If there’s just one crucial life lesson I hope to pass down to my daughter, these three words sum it up perfectly. So often in life, fear is the biggest obstacle that prevents us from pursuing our dreams. Traveling adventurously opens our eyes, minds and hearts to nature, wildlife and culture, and also pushes us outside the comfortable bubbles of our daily life.
Travel is notoriously great for education and bringing families closer together. But it also helps kids to become less fearful, more outgoing and gregarious. By encouraging our children to get out of their comfort zones, explore new places and try new things, we help them develop tools that will prepare them for a healthier, happier, more vibrant adulthood.
Here are seven great family tours that IE has to offer for parents and grandparents who travel with kids, all geared towards those who love nature and wildlife:
The Amazon Basin covers 2,720,000 square miles – around 40% of the South American continent – and features the world’s largest rainforest. The Brazilian section has been plagued by pollution and deforestation, but the Peruvian Amazon remains pristine and is home to a stunning array of wildlife.
IE’s Amazon Riverboat & Rainforest Tour offers families a chance to see two sides of the region, spending three nights aboard Amazon Star and one night in the forest at Ceiba Tops Lodge.
Along the way, you’ll visit the Manatee Rescue Center and Monkey Island (a private reserve), visit Ribereños villages, go on a canopy walk 10 stories up, and see animals ranging from monkeys and sloths to a bevy of beautiful birds spanning every color of the rainbow. Looking for a more in-depth experience? IE also offers 10-day Amazon River cruises.
Though it doesn’t get as much attention as Costa Rica, Belize tours offer an amazing array of adventurous activities for families, particularly those who travel with kids interested in history, culture and wildlife.
The coast around Hopkins Village is the heart of Garifuna culture, which can be traced back to enslaved Africans who shipwrecked in the Caribbean hundreds of years ago and gradually made their way west. It’s also close to Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary (which contains the world’s densest jaguar population) and the Belize Barrier Reef, both of which offer excellent wildlife-viewing opportunities.
The western side of Belize is rich with Mayan history, including the spectacular ruins of Caracol and Xunantunich and the archaeological treasures found inside the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave.
Spanning more than 81,000 square miles spread across three countries (Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay) the Pantanal is the world's largest wetland. Remote and fairly inaccessible from major cities, it’s also a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to the remarkable biodiversity it contains.
The Meeting of the Waters State Park area is known as prime mating ground for the elusive jaguar from June through October. The best opportunity to see (and photograph) these normally solitary animals comes from taking a boat ride down the river, as they’re known to relax on the shore when water levels are low at the end of the dry season.
While jaguars may be the star of the show, they’re far from the only animal attraction the Brazilian Pantanal has to offer. The region boasts over 230 mammal species, including capybara (the world’s largest rodent), tapir and 90 different species of bats. It’s also a birdwatcher’s paradise, with over 1,000 endemic and migratory bird species, as well as 80 species of reptiles.
Ever since focusing on the preservation of the country’s prodigious nature and wildlife, Costa Rica has been a trailblazer in ecotourism. From Tortuguero National Park (on the Caribbean) and Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve (in the central highlands) to the beautiful beaches of Manuel Antonio National Park (on the Pacific coast), nearly every part of the country has a haven for nature lovers to explore on a variety of Costa Rica tours.
For nature lovers who travel with kids, the Osa Peninsula is an awesome place for an adventure. About a third of it (164 square miles) is protected as Corcovado National Park, which National Geographic has called "the most biologically intense place on Earth in terms of biodiversity.”
Corcovado is practically packed with wildlife, including all four Costa Rican monkey species, two kinds of sloths, two types of anteaters, collared peccary, caiman, crocodiles, and poison dart frogs. It’s also home to rare species such as the Baird’s tapir, jaguars and harpy eagles. The waters offshore offer frequent sightings of sea turtles, dolphins and humpback whales, who breed there each winter.
One of the greatest things about traveling with kids is the opportunity to introduce them to the things that you’re passionate about. And in terms of the positive benefits of nature and wildlife conservation, there are few places better to illustrate the ethos of ecotourism better than the safari circuit of southern Kenya and northern Tanzania.
It’s difficult to overstate how impressive East Africa’s national parks are. From the expansive elephant herds of Amboseli National Park and the tree-climbing lions of Tarangire National Park to the vast numbers of wildebeest, zebra, gazelle, impala and buffalo who make the annual migration north from the dry plains of Serengeti National Park to the ample grass and water supply of the Maasai Mara National Reserve, there are many reasons this area should be on every wildlife lover’s bucket list.
For kids, a safari drive through any of these parks is like watching their Lion King fantasies come to life.
The Galapagos Islands
Teaching kids about Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution from a textbook is one thing. Taking them to the remote Ecuadorian islands in which he researched and developed that theory, based on the differences in finches and tortoises on the various islands he visited, is another thing entirely.
To describe Galapagos Islands cruises as educational doesn’t really do it justice. It’s an overwhelming experience (in a good way) to go from island to island, hiking, kayaking and snorkeling through various different ecosystems along the way. For those who travel with kids, it’s hard to imagine a more rewarding vacation experience.
Coming face to face with an inquisitive Galapagos tortoise, finding yourself surrounded by marine iguanas or sea lions, and swimming with Galapagos penguins leaves an indelible impact on adventurers of any age. But the opportunity to share that experience with your children is priceless, creating memories sure to last a lifetime.
Though not traditionally recognized as a haven for wildlife, Panama is an isthmus of mountains, rainforests and tropical coastlines that serves as a crossroads for animals from North and South America. As a result, it offers an impressive level of biodiversity.
Crossing Gatun Lake may reveal iguanas, sloths, crocodiles, white-faced capuchins, howler monkeys, spider monkeys and endemic red-napped tamarins. A boat ride through the 320,000-acre Chagres National Park (which protects the Panama Canal Watershed) offers chances to spot a diverse array of birds, including herons, egrets, cormorants, kingfishers, toucans and ospreys. Snorkeling Bastimentos Marine National Park offers a chance see a rich variety of aquatic life.
For those with children interested in science, visits to the Smithsonian Marine Lab and the Frank Gehry-designed Biodiversity Museum should prove illuminating.
Regardless of which trip you choose, travel with kids is a great bonding experience for parents and children alike. Seeing nature and wildlife in person is so much more impactful than seeing it on a TV or computer screen, inspiring people of all ages to protect this world we all love to travel.
Bret Love is a journalist/editor with 23 years of print and online experience, whose clients have ranged from the Atlanta Journal Constitution and Rolling Stone to National Geographic and Yahoo Travel. He is the co-founder of ecotourism website Green Global Travel and Green Travel Media.