Epic Trips That Give Back

Don’t just do it for the ’gram. Turn those bucket-list trips into something memorable for both you and your hosts. These ideas offer a chance to connect to the global community, promote sustainability, and improve the environments we roam.

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Africa

Discover how scientists protect Angola’s lakes

Highlights: Helicopter over pristine deltas and swim with newly discovered fish.

How it gives back: Guests support a burgeoning tourism industry in an ecologically important environment.

GeoEx’s Angola, Namibia, and Botswana by Helicopter trip will take you deep into the highlands of Angola, an area largely off the travel radar due to a lengthy civil war that ended in 2002. Here, National Geographic explorers and scientists have been mapping and protecting the Okavango River Basin since 2017. They’ll reveal their latest discoveries to guests and explain how critical the source lakes are to neighboring wildlife areas as the water makes its way to the Kalahari Desert.

While the scenery and habitat are extraordinary, and you’ll spot kingfishers, crocodiles, hippos, and more on the trip, this is “not a ‘game-viewing’ safari so much as a wilderness exploration and experience of untapped potential,” according to the Angola trip itinerary. Teak and rosewood forests and peat wetlands were untouched during the conflict, but the region could fall prey to mining or logging unless pioneering trips help establish a budding tourism industry. “The money is being spent with extremely remote communities and offering an incentive for them to preserve their land,” says trip leader Colin Bell from GeoEx. “As interest grows in the wild areas of Angola, they can develop their own tourism industry akin to their southern neighbors.”

The trip also flies to the remote Cuatir Conservation Area and Namibia’s Nkasa Rupara National Park, where guests stay at the 100 percent solar-powered Nkasa Linyanti Camp. The camp is working with local communities to eliminate poaching and supporting education programs, including the training of an all-female monitoring team. Here guests will spot anything from warthogs to wildebeests or sitatunga from dugout canoes. “COVID has offered stark proof of the value tourists bring beyond revenue,” Bell adds. “Without the movement of safari vehicles, poachers have been able to encroach further into areas normally protected. . . . There has been a marked spike of rhino poaching instances in Botswana. As travelers return, we can only hope that the poachers will retreat.”

Make it a reality: GeoEx’s tour has departures in 2022 and 2023. The trip cost starts at $18,675 (excluding airfare and helicopter rides) per person for groups of five to seven.

Notch rhinos in South Africa

Highlights: Get up close and personal with rhinos.

How it gives back: Notching the animals helps scientists monitor the health and well-being of an endangered species.

This one will get the adrenaline pumping. As part of andBeyond’s Travel with Purpose in South Africa tour, you’ll race through a game reserve in a 4x4 vehicle, following a helicopter full of veterinarians who track down and anesthetize a black or white rhino, allowing you to help notch the ear of the sleeping animal before it’s released back into the wild. The process, which also includes placing a microchip in the horn and taking skin samples for DNA analysis, facilitates research and security monitoring and allows the reserve to implement best-management practices.

“Any close-up interaction one has with wildlife, especially large wildlife, is always a moving, inspiring, and somewhat life-changing event,” says Joss Kent, CEO of andBeyond. “At Phinda, my four-year-old son put his whole head inside the mouth of a tranquilized lion that underwent treatment for an abscess—he will never ever forget it and neither will I! I have been at a rhino dehorning at which the local community was present. There is no more powerful way to inspire local grassroots conservation and protection.”

Make it a reality: 11-day trips start from about $9,400 and include 3 nights at Phinda Forest Lodge, 4 nights at Cape Town’s Cape Grace, and 3 nights at Grootbos Forest Lodge. The rhino-notching experience is available for an additional cost.

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Antarctica

Set up a research station on an ice floe

Highlights: Travel on a pioneering cruise ship to untouched tranches of ice.

How it gives back: Guests help deploy an Argos transmitter, which collects and shares environmental data to contribute to the body of research on biodiversity, marine mammals, and glaciology.

Two hundred years after the first people explored Antarctica, Ponant is sending a luxury hybrid-electric ship to several remote spots on the icy continent. Le Commandant-Charcot, which has 123 staterooms and suites and is powered by liquid natural gas when it’s not running on batteries, can cut through ice floes seven feet thick, the company says. That means it can reach Peter I Island, where fewer people have set foot than on the moon. During the trip, you can get involved with research and experiments under the guidance of scientists and naturalists, helping set up a research station on the ice along with other tasks such as taking water samples. There’s also plenty of time for hiking, hovercrafting, and whale-watching.

Make it a reality: Ponant’s Expedition to Charcot and Peter I Island starts at $23,900 for a 15-day trip.

Asia

Track snow leopards in Mongolia

Highlights: Track elusive animals in the breathtaking Altai Mountains.

How it gives back: Tourism here provides alternative opportunities for would-be poachers.

GeoEx’s Shadowing Mongolia’s Snow Leopards trip is as memorable as it sounds. You’ll explore western Mongolia’s remote, arid landscape in pursuit of the elusive cat, meet nomadic communities, and learn from the Snow Leopard Conservancy how tourism has helped anti-poaching and habitat-preservation efforts.

Snow leopards are beautiful creatures but they’re endangered, with around 4,000 to 6,000 remaining, according to the People’s Trust for Endangered Species. Guests learn everything there is to know about them, from their behavior and habitat to their role in fairy tales and their relationship with their environment. They prey on a variety of animals, including domestic livestock, and not everyone welcomes their presence. In fact, there’s a “tension between herders and these predators,” says trip leader Ishbaljir Battulga, who goes by Ishee. However, tourism has helped him protect the animals by recruiting locals.

“I started using one of the local herders . . . as my local guide,” he says. “This former poacher, who had been punished for his illegal actions, is now completely converted and cherishes his connection to tourism that enables him to gain more than poaching. In some cases, he pays his neighbors to look after his animals while he is working with me. This is a very strong message to his neighbors and friends, and they now seek the opportunity to follow his footsteps.”

Make it a reality: The 2022 trip cost is $7,970 per person, based on double occupancy, for 6 to 10 guests. Internal air fares are an additional $325. (GeoEx has also launched two new trips to mark its 40th anniversary: Hidden Nepal, which explores the Mustang and Solu Khumbu regions and the work of the American Himalayan Foundation in restoring monasteries and improving access to health care, and Mozambique’s Wild Places, which offers a close-up account of conservation successes in two of the country’s national parks.)

Bike in the Himalayas with a company that funds local NGOs

Highlights: Traverse terrain you won’t find anywhere near your own backyard.

How it gives back: When it comes to empowering locals, nobody does it better.

Sustainable operator (and Certified B Corporation) OneSeed Expeditions offers a variety of active trips in Bhutan and Nepal (and beyond), including excursions to Everest Base Camp and Annapurna—but for something a bit different, try the company’s Himalayan Downhill bike adventure. You’ll be riding to temples and hot springs, racing down single-track in Shivapuri National Park, a lush wonderland boasting every shade of green, and resting those legs by exploring the pretty lakeside city of Pokhara at the end of the trip.

Giving back is in the company’s DNA. It ensures that all suppliers are independently owned businesses from within the local community and that those suppliers “meet or exceed industry standards” for environmental impact. More than that, though, it gives priority to suppliers owned by underrepresented populations, which “may include gender, race, regional origin, caste, or tribal affiliation.” Through the OneSeed fund, 10 percent of revenue is invested in local entrepreneurs through nonprofit microfinance partners.

By choosing a trip like this, travelers ensure their dollars count where it matters. As Chris Baker, the founder of OneSeed Expeditions, told the New York Times: “The areas of greatest need are not necessarily in areas of the greatest tourism attractions. We want to use tourism to be able to benefit people outside of those areas.”

Make it a reality: OneSeed Expeditions’ Himalayan Downhill trip costs from $1,990 for 11 days. You’ll be biking up to 100 miles to a peak altitude of 12,464 feet.

Bring solar energy to remote villages in India

Highlights: Explore truly untouched parts of the Himalayas.

How it gives back: It brings light to remote darkness.

You have to apply for the Climate Action Expedition from Global Himalayan Expedition (GHE), but it’s worth the effort. It’s a 14-day bucket-list trip that will take you from the second largest glacier of Ladakh to a remote village high in the Himalayas. Here you’ll learn about organic farming and zero-waste practices from the locals and bring them solar energy in return. The expedition cost finances the setup of the grid, including solar panels and batteries, as well as ground logistics, food, and accommodation. Participants are selected by interview, to ensure a unique group that “can comprise members from across the globe with a passion and interest for sustainable development and climate action.”

The company’s founder, Paras Loomba, is a former electrical engineer who has spent the past decade on this work. He told the World Travel and Tourism Council about a similar excursion in 2017: “Once the travelers electrified the village, the villages danced the whole night and embraced the solar light as divine intervention.”

Make it a reality: The next trip takes place between July 1 and 12. It costs $2,100 plus flights.

Australia

Support Indigenous businesses in Queensland

Highlights: Discover how the Kuku Yalanji people live in harmony with their environment.

How it gives back: Intrepid’s slow travel tours focus on cultural experiences and benefit local businesses.

In 2020, Intrepid launched Retreats: a collection of tours that each focus on one specific location and allow travelers to indulge in the long overdue (and pandemic-assisted) slow-travel trend. The company’s Queensland trip in northeastern Australia is a great example. Here you won’t be careening through a greatest hits set of Insta locations; instead you’ll spend five days in a small group of up to 16 people, staying in just one hotel, eating in locally owned restaurants, and truly immersing yourself in the culture and history of the place.

You’ll explore the untouched rain forest that the Kuku Yalanji people have inhabited for 50,000 years, meet with a member of the community at Kuyu Kuyu (Cooya Beach) for an educational experience that includes spear-throwing and learning about edible plants, take part in a painting class, learn about First Nations storytelling and art, and (maybe) encounter crocodiles on a mangrove cruise before walking under canopies in Mossman Gorge. With less time spent on transfers and hotel hopping, you’ll have more to really learn about how the native inhabitants live in harmony with the local environment—a valuable lesson to take home.

Intrepid has also just announced several tangible ways it’s focusing on decarbonizing its tours, removing flights of 90 minutes or fewer from its top 50 tours by the end of 2022, increasing the number of walking and cycling trips, and trialing electric vehicles for transfers in several destinations.

Make it a reality: Intrepid’s five-day Australia Retreat: Queensland Daintree starts at $1,440.

Europe

Rewild tracts of Caledonian forest

Highlights: Witness nature in all its undisturbed glory.

How it gives back: Guests learn the benefits of rewilding and help rebuild the natural world from the soil up.

Scotland is going big on rewilding. Across the country, nature is being left to its own devices, with forests, wetlands, and peatlands regenerating with minimal human intervention, while wild animals have been allowed to roam uninterrupted. The nationwide effort is being coordinated by umbrella agencies the Scottish Rewilding Alliance and Scotland: The Big Picture. The latter’s tourism arm, Rewilding Retreats, offers a selection of trips in singular locations; think ancient Caledonian forests where aspen and birch turn an autumnal golden, or a Victorian manor house set in Alladale Estate’s 23,000-acre, nature-filled reserve. At the latter, guests “get a firsthand experience of what rewilding at scale looks like” and can “experience what natural beauty is still left, and how much we can add to that for future generations,” Alladale’s general manager Pieter-Paul Groenhuijsen says. Guests can also donate through the site’s charity partner the European Nature Trust, and bookings directly support the operational costs of rewilding efforts.

Make it a reality:Six nights at Alladale via Rewilding Retreats costs about $2,974.

Help herd reindeer with a Sami family in Norway

Highlights: Disconnect from the internet and connect with the locals.

How it gives back: Tours are run by Indigenous communities and benefit the local population.

There are no roads where you’ll be going on the Visit Natives reindeer herding experience in northern Norway—and you won’t need roads anyway. Instead, you’ll get around this Wi-Fi-free, off-grid Arctic wilderness on a wooden sled pulled by a snowmobile. Beneath skies often alive with the northern lights, you’ll learn about Sami culture, feed and herd reindeer, spend evenings preparing and enjoying traditional food, and witness yoik singing in a lavvu tent.

Visit Natives is founded on three core principles: tourism that benefits Indigenous populations, preserves their cultures, and promotes sustainable travel. All tours and expeditions are designed and run by Indigenous people themselves, which means that visitors are welcomed by the broader community as much as their hosts, the company says. In addition to tourism support, the company also funds community projects. In Tanzania, it’s helping fund free healthcare for the Maasai and Hadzabe populations and is planning to provide water pumps. In Norway, it’s looking for a similar social project among the Sami to support.

Make it a reality: Visit Natives’ Sami and reindeer winter experience starts at $2,590 for a four-day trip. Sami families welcome visitors from December to March, with homestays taking place between Thursday and Sunday. The company offers trips in the spring and summer too.

North America

Explore First Nations culture in British Columbia’s Haida Gwaii

Highlights: Understand First Nations cultures and explore untouched wilderness.

How it gives back: Maple Leaf Adventures is an ecofocused company dedicated to preserving local environments and traditions.

Maple Leaf Adventures offers a wild yacht-based heli-skiing trip to scratch the bucket-list itch, but if you’re seeking something more grounded and yet equally epic, you can’t beat its Haida Gwaii itineraries. On the eight-day trips, small catamarans with just a dozen cabins sail among the archipelago, formerly known as Queen Charlotte Islands, passing remote beaches and old growth rain forests. You’ll get to immerse yourself in Haida culture past and present, hear stories of the Guardian Watchmen who protect the village sites, and explore memorial poles and the remains of big houses.

The company has a strong commitment to ecotourism. Groups are limited in size and leave no trace. Agreements with coastal First Nations groups ensure that traditional territory is recognized, local guides are used, and a percentage of revenue is retained in local communities. The company supports research organizations and dedicates time to conservation and education; in 2020 and 2021 during the pandemic, members of the organization were involved in a massive coastal cleanup operation which removed tons of nets and lines that could have entangled humpback whales.

Make it a reality: The seven-night itinerary is priced from $8,030. Dates for 2022 and 2023 are listed on the website.

Confront climate change in northern Canada

Highlights: Wake from an igloo you built yourself to take snow samples where polar bears roam.

How it gives back: Visitors actively contribute to invaluable research.

Environmental nonprofit Earthwatch has developed hundreds of research trips in its 50-year existence, many at affordable prices and requiring little or no prior scientific expertise. Current offerings including the chance to be part of a long-term whale study in Iceland and shark conservation in Belize. For travelers who want to better understand global warming, Earthwatch’s 11-day Climate change at the Arctic’s edge in Manitoba offers a front-row seat.

The region around Churchill on the edge of Hudson Bay is home to more beluga whales and polar bears than people. But the place is changing rapidly as a result of climate change, with the familiar story of retreating glaciers, shrinking polar sea ice, and snowpack melting ever earlier. On Earthwatch’s trip, you’ll help scientists understand the impact of a warming world on this fragile region, taking water and snow samples, examining the fish and frog populations, and possibly even building and sleeping in an igloo for a night after a day moving between research sites on a snowmobile. It’s vital, urgent work on the icy frontlines.

Make it a reality: The last Earthwatch trip started at $3,695 for 11 days, including food, accommodation, and related research costs. The company is planning to offer it again in 2023.

Central and South America

Restore coral reefs in Costa Rica

Highlights: Combine adventure with philanthropy in one of the most ecologically diverse countries in the world.

How it gives back: Guests have a tangible impact on local conservation.

Black Tomato’s luxurious conservation adventure in Costa Rica seamlessly combines many of the hallmarks of an epic trip with plenty of opportunities to give back—often in the same day. On one day, for example (in non-COVID times), you’ll visit local communities of the Nairi Awari Indigenous Territory, learning about Cabecar culture and sampling traditional foods, before canyoneering down waterfalls in a rain forest. On another, you’ll whitewater raft to a sloth conservation project, where you’ll source endemic flora for their food, learn how to prepare it, and feed the animals with enrichment activities designed to enhance their daily routines. (You can also donate to sponsor the project and receive updates and pictures of the sloths until they’re released.)

The trip is “the antithesis of an armchair approach,” says Black Tomato’s travel expert Tom Pyman. “We’ve been working closely with our trusted partners, for whom this magical country is home, to create experiences and moments that speak to their cultures and lifeways, where the impact is measurable and also meaningful. While right now, interacting directly with the Cabecar peoples is off limits due to COVID, learning about their lifeways, their connection to food and the earth, provides our travelers with valuable cultural connectivity but also financially supports the peoples themselves, safely.”

Accommodation is at a variety of lodges, ending at the Four Seasons at Peninsula Papagayo. At the resort, a coral reef propagation project led by the Center for Research in Marine Science and Limnology is nurturing 2,000 new fragments. If you’re scuba certified, you’ll be able to help clean, monitor, and measure the existing plantation and help with transplanting efforts to speed its growth.

Make it a reality: Black Tomato’s Pacuare to Papagayo: A Luxury Conservation Adventure in Costa Rica trip runs from November to April and costs from $7,898 for nine nights.

Celebrate an Incan festival in Peru

Highlights: Experience a cultural festival like no other high in the Andes.

How it gives back: Explorandes works on a number of community initiatives, including an after-school project, and provides sports programs and education to kids on Lima’s coast.

Tour operator Explorandes has a “long-standing commitment to conservation and community benefit in Peru,” says Christina Beckmann of the Adventure Travel Trade Association. With a robust sustainability policy and a values-led business model, the company says it invites travelers to “enjoy a life experience with native communities, sharing their traditions and culture and also supporting an alternative but better way to develop and preserve our natural resources and culture.”

The company’s Inti Raymi Cultural Immersion trip is a great example. Over the course of seven days, visitors will take in the majesty of Machu Picchu, yes, but also go much deeper. Travelers will explore lesser-known ruins and meet mountain communities—and the annual trip culminates in a day at the Incan sun festival known as Inti Rayman. Taking place around the winter solstice in June, the festival is a nine-day riot of parades, music, and dance in the ancient site of Sacsayhuaman during which participants give thanks to the sun, make prophecies with coca leaves, and “sacrifice” a llama (no llamas are hurt in the process).

Make it a reality: The Inti Raymi Cultural Immersion trip is sold out for June 2022 but Explorandes plans to offer it again in 2023.

Note: By their very nature, many of these trips are some distance from our backyards, and all are less than two weeks in duration. Choosing an airline with a bold climate policy and offsetting the trip’s carbon both help reduce the footprint, and hopefully the trips will inspire travelers to have a positive impact far beyond touchdown on their return journey.

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Tim is a deputy editor at AFAR, focussing primarily on destination inspiration and sustainable travel. He lives near LA and likes spending time in the waves, on the mountains, or on wheels.