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Ecotourism in the rainforest, a guide to your first visit

Visiting the rainforest – a practical guide

Visiting a tropical rainforest promises to be a memorable experience. Rainforests house around half the world’s plant and animal species and are home to indigenous people who live in ways quite unlike those in the western world.

Further, rainforests are found in a variety of landscapes: some are situated on scenic mountain ranges, others hug giant lowland rivers, while more still are found near beautiful beaches and coral reefs. Rainforests offer opportunities for cultural exchange, photography, adventure, fishing, hiking, relaxation, birding and wildlife spotting. However, a visit to the rainforest is not a trip fit for everyone. Rainforests can be hot and humid, are often difficult to reach and insect-ridden, and have wildlife that is relatively hard to see. Before planning your first trip to the rainforest there are some things you should consider.


The climate of tropical rainforests is evident in their name. “Tropical” means that rainforests are usually warm and humid. When you’re not under the protective cover of the canopy, the tropical sun will be quite strong, at least when it is not raining. Rainforests generally receive at least 80 inches of rain per year, although this rainfall may be somewhat seasonal in some forests. Thankfully, tropical rainstorms tend to be short lived. In the Amazon, you will often experience showers for an hour or two in the afternoon and clear weather the rest of the day. Tropical thunderstorms can be quite a sight with bone-rattling thunder and spectacular lightning.

Wildlife — What to reasonably expect.

Jaguar in Belize

Do not confuse “diversity” with “abundance.” While rainforests are home to countless numbers of species, most of these are small creatures that live in the forest canopy. The biology of tropical rainforests is a biology of rare species — any one given species is not necessarily plentiful. Animal life in the rainforest is subtle and fleeting, and many animals rely on camouflage and nocturnal behavior to protect themselves from predators. The only guarantees are insects and maybe some lizards. A good guide can make your experience educational and fascinating even if you don’t see a jaguar or tapir.

That said, there is a good chance that you will see some interesting species when visiting the rainforest, especially if you visit a lodge in a protected area that has a lot of biodiversity and top-notch guides. Just don’t be disappointed if you fail to see a number of large mammals or birds.


You will certainly see lots of plants in the rainforest. One of the first things you’ll notice in the rainforest is that trees, unlike those of North America, are closely spaced and grow like poles straight up into the high canopy. Canopy trees will have virtually no branches before their crown.

You probably will not see many flowers in the rainforest, although you may find fallen flowers on the forest floor and see blooms around clearings and along rivers. In cloud forests you can expect to find bromeliads and orchids.


Kaiapo shaman in the Brazilian Amazon

You will probably not encounter the indigenous people you have seen in textbooks and on wilderness TV programs, especially if you are in southeast Asia or Central America. The local people you are likely to meet in places like the Amazon basin will be subsistence farmers or colonists from outside the region. If you do encounter indigenous people (some ecotourist outfits have relationships with native Amazonians) they will probably be wearing T-shirts and shorts and using plastic Tupperware and outboard motors. They will get the bulk of their food from agriculture and possibly fishing, though they will often supplement their diet by hunting. Wild game is an important source of food for these people and has been for thousands of years.

Traveling to the rainforest

If I have not scared you away by this point, keep reading. This is not an effort to dissuade you from pursuing your dream of visiting the rainforest — I just want to keep your expectations inline with what is reasonable.

Where to go

While rainforests are found in dozens of countries around the globe, there is a limited number of countries at present that are relatively safe, politically stable, and have facilities suitable for a first time visitor. I have listed some examples below in groups ranging from “tame” to “intrepid.” Bear in mind that there are other rainforests around the world that are highly worth a visit. Before we jump into this section there are a couple of points to consider.


These places are fun to visit and close to the United States, but less adventurous than other destinations. Since these are islands, there is comparably little wildlife and lots of invasive species but they can still give you a taste for the structure and feel of a rainforest. Personally, I’d recommend starting with a place under “entry level” to get a true rainforest experience.

Manoa Falls, Oahu.
Most of the rainforest in Hawaii is found on the islands of Kauai and the Big Island.

Entry level rainforest experiences

More intrepid rainforest experiences


How to plan a trip

Self arranged trip versus using a tour operator

I probably would not advise “winging it” for your first visit to a rainforest unless you are visiting one of the “Tame” locations listed above or are a particularly experienced or savvy traveler. Showing up in a country like Brazil and then figuring out travel to the Amazon can be a little daunting especially if you are under time constraints. While there will be local operators, it can be a little tricky finding the best options unless you have done some research beforehand.


Sometimes it is worth paying a little extra money to ensure that things run fairly smoothly. If trouble does arise it is nice to have someone local to contact and an operator generally provides such a possibility. Additionally, a local operator can often recommend good local guides as well as knowing when and where to visit.

There are many operators that arrange trips in rainforest countries. Most of these will claim to be environmentally friendly operations, but in truth, some are definitely greener than others. As you evaluate operators using guide books (Lonely Planet, Rough Guides, Bradt, Moon, Eyewitness are generally good ones) and the web, look for statements on the operator’s environmental philosophy and signs that an operator may not be as responsible as claimed (photos of tourists handling wildlife can be a negative clue). Do they hire locals as guides and employees? Do you support any projects to benefit the local community? Do they have an environmental policy? What happens to trash and waste? Don’t be afraid to ask these questions.

Certification. You can also look for green certification. In theory, these certification programs use independent auditors to rate the environmental and social impacts of operators and hotels. Personally I have found certification schemes for ecotourism somewhat confusing since there are a number of competing bodies and there is no central clearinghouse that lists certified operators. A starting point might be The International Ecotourism Society
. Hopefully, in time, there will be a better system for quickly locating approved operators and hotels across certification schemes and across international borders.

The Amazon rainforest in Peru

Where to stay. Lodge vs. camping vs. cruise

Tips for first visit to rainforest

General rainforest tips

Once you’re actually in the rainforest

What to pack for your visit to the rainforest

It’s a good idea to pack light. That said, there are a fair number of items you probably want to bring to the jungle. Below is a full list, although you may not need all this stuff. printable packlist

Health and comfort related items

  • Insect repellent
  • Ant-inch / insect bite relief products
  • Sunscreen
  • Lip balm
  • Sunburn relief products
  • Pre-moistened towelettes or baby wipes
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Moisturizer
  • Medication (altitude sickness, colds, fever, bites)
  • Basic first aid kit (band-aids, aspirin, disinfectant / antiseptic, tweezers
  • Instructions on medications if you have special requirements for attending doctor.
  • Toiletries
  • Spare contact lenses and glasses
  • Ear plugs if you are a light sleeper
  • Clothes-washing soap


  • Raincoat / poncho
  • Wide brim hat
  • Flip flops / sandals
  • Walking shoes/old athletic shoes/hiking boots. Be sure they are comfortable — blisters are not fun in the tropics where they are likely to get infected. 2 pairs are a good idea since one pair will usually be wet and muddy from hiking.
  • Socks. Your socks will likely be thrashed by the end of the trip. Be prepared to wash them daily.
  • Bathing / swimming attire
  • Shorts, although long pants are a better bet for hiking
  • Long pants. I prefer cotton or quick drying material to the high-tech synthetic stuff that tends to be hot. Breathable is good. Quick drying is good — jeans are not fun when wet and hot.
  • Light cotton shirts can be preferable to T-shirts, though T-shirts are easy
  • Lightweight long-sleeved shirts for protection against sun and insects
  • Bandanas can be useful for all sorts of purposes
  • Lightweight jacket — it can get cold especially at elevation
  • Underwear
  • Sleeping attire

    Hiking stuff

  • Lightweight day pack for hikes. Waterproof is nice but plastic bags inside the pack is an option.
  • Binoculars for birds and mammals
  • Sunglasses
  • Water bottle and/or a CamelBak-style backpack. I use a plastic water bottle acquired locally — less stuff to bring and there’s no pain when they get lost or smashed.
  • Flashlight and a headlamp

    Camera stuff

  • You should pack your film in your carry on. Some airport x-ray machines now damage undeveloped film. Check with security people at the airport.
  • Charger
  • Current converter and plug adapter
  • Extra film, batteries, and memory cards. Bring more than you think you’ll need.

    Other stuff

  • “Gifts.” Pens and school materials for kids, not candy. You should give gifts for children to their parents or teachers, never directly to children.
  • Extra bag for tourist items you pick up along the way. Old clothes can be given away at the end of the trip — less stuff to take home and more room for locally produced goods.
  • Travel guide, field guides, reading material (sometimes this can be left behind in lodges where it can be appreciated by other guests)
  • Travel clock with alarm
  • Cheap watch
  • Notebook, journal, pens (including a permanent marking pen)
  • Zip lock bags are great for keeping your clothes and gear orderly and dry.
  • Mosquito netting. Many lodges have mosquito netting — ask before you go. If you don’t know where you will be staying (i.e. “winging it”), it’s probably a good idea to bring netting.
  • Safety tips in the rainforest

    Health issues

    Passport copies

    Always have several copies of the photo page of your passport. Color is preferable. Keep these in separate places in your luggage and on your person.

    Get your visas (if required) well before departure. Make sure your passport is valid for at least six months after the date your return from your trip.

    General travel tips for visits to other countries

    Protecting your gear

    If you are taking valuable electronic equipment like cameras, camcorders, sound equipment, etc, you should make a list that includes a description of each item, serial, and model numbers, and your name and home address. This will let customs agents know that your aren’t planning to sell the gear in the country as well as help protect you from the appropriation of your equipment by unscrupulous customs and police officials. It will also help if your things get stolen and you need to fill out a police report (which in and of itself can be an adventure in some places). It’s advisable to make several copies of this list.

    Silica gel packets help protect your camera against humidity.

    IF you have the room in your luggage and are taking nice gear, you may want to get an all weather, shatter-proof Pelican case. Definitely bring lots of Zip lock bags for keeping your stuff dry.

    Doing your part to “save” rainforests

    The rainforest is an incredible place and by participating in environmentally responsible tourism you can help justify the protection of these important ecosystems. Ecotourism is a key to saving the world’s remaining tropical forests.

    Happy travels!

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