25 of the world’s most magical jungle adventures

Advice

Jungles can be magical places. Unforgettable memories come instantly to mind. Sifaka lemurs dancing across the forest floor in Madagascar; a giant silverback gorilla cradling his infant offspring in the mountains of Uganda; shafts of sunlight, like spotlights on a stage, piercing the rainforest canopy in Costa Rica; gazing out over the jungle-covered Sierra Nevada mountains from the Ciudad Perdida (Lost City) in northern Colombia. 

But jungles can be scary places, too. I remember once losing my bearings in the rainforest of Belize while exploring a Mayan temple. Then there was the time I came face to flicking tongue with a black mamba in Tanzania and that strange mixture of excitement and terror on a night walk in the Amazon. But perhaps most intimidating of all was being surrounded by a group of chimpanzees on a “border patrol” in the Kibale Forest of southern Uganda. 

I was taking part in a project habituating chimpanzees to visits by small groups of human visitors. 

Sifaka lemur

See Sifaka lemurs dance across the forest floor in Madagascar

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Bipedal, screeching demonically, and with their fur standing on end, they charged within a few feet of us towards a rival group hidden in the undergrowth. All memories, scary or heart-warming, that I wouldn’t change for the world. And perhaps this explains the current surge in popularity for jungle getaways. 

Even the brief disappearance of Benedict Allen in the jungles of Papua New Guinea sparked a debate in which many people empathised with the celebrity explorer’s need to swap the material comfort of the urban jungle with the self-reliance required in the world of a real one.

The term “jungle” itself is sometimes loosely defined. After all, when does a forest become a jungle? Year-round warmth seems to be the defining factor, along with the regular deluges that make the world’s rainforests some of the most biodiverse habitats on the planet. Diminishing at an alarming rate, the largest concentrations of pristine rainforest are to be found in Central America, the Amazon basin in South America, Central and Western Africa, south-east Asia and the east coast of Australia.

Understandably on a hard-earned holiday, most of us prefer to enjoy our jungle adventures in the safety of a guided group, while staying at a comfortable ecolodge. Here we can safely immerse ourselves in nature while enjoying the antics of exotic monkey species on walks with the possibility of sighting rare species like a quetzal, the long-tailed multi-coloured bird that once provided the feathers for the headdresses of Mayan chieftains, or jungle cats like jaguars.

Jaguar

Spotting jungle cats may be tricky, but it’s worth it

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I came relatively late to the attractions of the world’s jungles. But when I did, I was hooked. My revelation occurred when I was asked to present some episodes for a travel series called Trailblazers made by the Discovery Channel. 

One of my briefs was to explore the rainforests of Costa Rica. During three weeks on the road in a crew of five, we travelled from the Caribbean coast to the Pacific coast taking in such gems as the central Monteverde Cloud Forest and the Parque Nacional Corcovado, which covers much of the Osa Peninsula in the west. This is home to such inhabitants as the highly endangered giant anteater, tapir, harpy eagle and almost all of Central America’s cats, namely jaguars, ocelots, pumas, jaguarundi and margays.

Along the way I rode horses, trekked through the jungle, sighted a quetzal, canoed along jungle rivers and caught a record-breaking tarpon (being on TV, I still have the evidence). 

I played trumpet with a mariachi band, strode manfully along the beach where Columbus first landed in the Americas and spent a night in the canopy of the rainforest meeting nocturnal inhabitants that included the wide-eyed kinkajou (aka the “honey bear”). Any visitor to this country can replicate these activities – with the exception, perhaps, of that obliging mariachi player. 

kinkajou

Meet the jungle’s nocturnal inhabitants

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Synonymous with the term “eco”, Costa Rica leads the way in providing sustainable holiday options and is home to some of the world’s best jungle ecolodges. It seemed entirely appropriate that the ubiquitous Costa Rican greeting of “pura vida” means, in its literal sense, the wish for a pure or simple life. 

More energetic jungle experiences include trekking the Kokoda Trail in Papua New Guinea, where the Australians famously fought off the Japanese attempt during the Second World War to capture Port Moresby. 

Rising and falling 20,000ft along the 60-mile (97km) route, it has been described as “the devil’s design, the ultimate military obstacle course”, a tortuous switchback of steep ascents and treacherous drop-offs, swollen rivers, huge rocks and tangled roots. Nevertheless, it was one of the most enjoyable experiences of my life. 

The same applies to the shorter, but nonetheless challenging, trek to the Ciudad Perdida in Colombia. Hidden under the jungle until 1976, it was once the sacred city of the local Tayrona people whose descendants, the Kogi, still live in the mountains. The trek so inspired me that it later provided the setting for the children’s adventure novel (Mission Survival One: Gold of the Gods) which I penned as a ghostwriter for the TV adventurer, Bear Grylls. 

The possibilities for life-enhancing jungle experiences are many and varied. When managed responsibly, they can also help preserve fragile ecosystems and fund conservation projects by providing employment to locals. My choices include versions of all my experiences above and many more besides. Pura vida a todos!

Lamanai Ruins, Belize

‘The Mayan temples of Belize have provided the perfect destination for many a frustrated Indiana Jones’

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25 ways to enjoy a ramble in the jungle   

Central and South America

1. Reef and Rainforests of Belize

The Mayan temples of Belize provide the perfect destination for many a frustrated Indiana Jones while the jungle wildlife of the Orange Walk District includes caiman, howler monkeys and toucans. Excursions include canoeing, horse riding and exploring remote cave systems. The white sand beaches and turquoise seas of Ambergris Caye off the Caribbean coast make the perfect finale.

A 13-day tour costs from £3,305 including flights, accommodation and meals. Audley Travel (01993 838690, audleytravel.com).

2. Forests and coral reefs of Panama 

Explore the rainforest and cloud forest of Panama. Search for sloths in the Soberania National Park and spot rare bird species in the rainforest canopy. The cloud forests of the Chiriqui Highlands are also home to the quetzal, whose feathers once graced the headdresses of Mayan chieftains. The tour finishes on the coral reefs of the Caribbean coast.

A 12-day tour costs from £2,868 including flights, accommodation and most meals. Reef and Rainforest (01803 866965, reefandrainforest.co.uk).

Bocas del Toro Panama

Stop off at Panama’s wild coast

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3. Essence of Central America

Visit many of Central America’s top jungle locations including Mayan temples in Belize, Tikal in Guatemala’s northern jungles – the largest ruined temple complex in Central America – and El Salvador’s Cinquera Rain Forest Park. Along the way you will stay in jungle lodges and enjoy the rich local cultures of the region’s towns and villages. 

15 days from £3,885 including accommodation and some meals but exclusive of flights. Peregrine Adventures (0207 408 9021, peregrineadventures.com).

4. Costa Rica nature experience

New for 2018, this tour combines some of Costa Rica’s most famous jungle ecosystems including the lowland rainforest of Tortuguero National Park, the Arenal volcano, and the cloudforest of the Monteverde reserve. You can also include a visit to the remote Osa Peninsula on the Pacific coast with its untouched primary rainforest and ecosystem of freshwater rivers and saltwater lagoons.

A 12-day tour costs from £3,510 including flights, accommodation and most meals. Rainbow Tours (0203 131 6616, rainbowtours.co.uk).

5. Undiscovered Colombia

Colombia’s Cuidad Perdida, or Lost City, in the Sierra Nevada mountains of northern Colombia, was a sacred site of the Tairona people who dominated the area for thousands of years before the Spanish conquest. Found and then lost again by the conquistadores, it remained covered by the jungle until its rediscovery in 1972. The tour combines a visit to Leticia in the Colombian Amazon.

15 days costs from £1,995 including accommodation (some in jungle camps) and meals but exclusive of flights. Sumak Travel (020 3642 4246, sumak-travel.org).

6. Mammals of the Peruvian rainforest

The Peruvian state of Madre de Dios in the Amazon holds many biodiversity world records. From the Amazon Rainforest Conservation Center you will search for threatened species such as giant river otters – more than double the size of British otters – black spider monkeys and white-lipped peccaries while taking night walks in the forest canopy, spotting rare monkeys, tree frogs, armadillos and exotic birds including tanagers, antbirds and puffbirds.

Nine days costs from £2,795 including flights, accommodation and meals. Naturetrek (01962 733051, naturetrek.co.uk).

A colourful tanager

A colourful tanager

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7. Napo Eco Lodge, Ecuador

The Napo Wildlife Center is a luxurious eco lodge in the heart of Amazonian Ecuador where you can explore the surrounding lake, creeks and jungle on foot, and by dugout canoe, led by both a native Anangu guide and an English-speaking naturalist. Bird life includes cobalt-winged parakeets and hoatzins while you may also see capybaras, pink dolphins, giant otters and caiman.

Four days at Napo costs from £1,133 including accommodation and meals but exclusive of flights. Responsible Travel (01273 823700, responsibletravel.com).

Spot capybaras in Ecuador

Spot capybaras in Ecuador

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GETTY

8. Amazon riverboat adventure 

Cruise down the Amazon aboard the riverboat Amatista from Iquitos, Peru, led by a specialist Amazon guide while making excursions by motorised skiff and dug-out canoe in search of sloths, toucans, pink dolphins, piranha and other exotic wildlife. Includes two days exploring Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve with night time excursions to see nocturnal animals.

From £2,499 for nine days including flights, riverboat accommodation and meals. KE Adventure Travel (01768 773966, keadventure.com).

Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve

Spend two days exploring the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve

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9. Guyana off the beaten track

Stay at some of Guyana’s top jungle lodges while visiting the country’s most remote wilderness areas. Highlights include a dawn chorus on the canopy walkway at Iwokrama, a canoe trip along the Burro Burro river from Surama Eco Lodge, a visit to the Amerindian community of Rewa, a walk to the summit of Awarmie Mountain and the famous 741ft waterfalls and forests of Kaieteur.

17 days costs from £5,852 including flights, accommodation and meals. Reef and Rainforest (01803 866965, reefandrainforest.co.uk).

10. Brazil wildlife adventure

Three contrasting ecosystems: the Pantanal wetlands, the Amazonian rainforest and the Atlantic rainforest, are the focus of this tour. Activities include horse-riding, canoeing, foot safaris and boat trips. You will stay in the Cristalino Lodge and visit a conservation project in the Alta Floresta region of the Amazon (only accessible by boat) with opportunities to see rare birds, otters, monkeys and tapirs.

14 nights from £6,100 including flights, accommodation and meals. Scott Dunn (020 3733 2998, scottdunn.com).

Giant lilies in Brazil's Pantanal

Giant lilies in Brazil’s Pantanal

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GETTY

Africa

11. Madagascar rainforest and island escape

In Andasibe, one Madagascar’s finest national parks, you’ll search for the indri, largest of all lemurs, along with nocturnal species such as mouse and greater dwarf lemurs. At nearby Mantadia national park, you should also spot the nose-horned chameleon and vivid bird species like blue and red-fronted coucals, rare “dancing” sifaka lemurs and the elusive aye-aye. The tour ends at idyllic Île St-Marie off the east coast.

13 days from £3,285 including flights, accommodation and meals. Audley Travel (01993 838690, audleytravel.com).

12. Gorilla trekking in Rwanda

Located in the jungle-covered cone of an eroded volcano, the indigenous-style architecture of Bisate Lodge’s has set a new standard for comfort with spectacular views over the surrounding landscape.

It’s the perfect base for mountain gorilla trekking in the adjacent Volcanoes National Park. Bisate is also a visionary conservation and community project with its first phase focusing on reforestation of a large core site.

Four nights full board at Bisate Lodge costs from £7,685 including flights and two gorilla treks. The Luxury Safari Company (01666 880111, theluxurysafaricompany.com).

Rwanda

A trip to Rwanda is also all about the gorillas

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13. On foot in Ghana

This new trek for 2018 explores the Volta Region of Ghana. The area is known for its dramatic landscapes, rainforests and tribal populations. Along the way you will experience a traditional voodoo ceremony and take a canopy walk through the rainforest in Kakum National Park. The tour ends on the Gold Coast bordered by the Atlantic and visiting historic, colonial-era castles and local fishing villages.

Eight days costs from £1,935 including flights and B&B accommodation. Explore! (01252 883 613, explore.co.uk).

14. Remote Tanzania

Located on the shores of Lake Tanganyika in remote western Tanzania, Greystoke is one of the best camps in the world to encounter wild chimpanzees. Small groups trek into the surrounding jungles of the Mahale mountains to spend time with habituated groups of chimps. Combine with big-game viewing at Chada Katavi camp further south.

Seven nights from £5,680 including accommodation and meals but exclusive of flights. The Luxury Safari Company (01666 880111, theluxurysafaricompany.com).

Lake Tanganyika chimpanzee

Lake Tanganyika in remote western Tanzania is one of the best places in the world to encounter wild chimpanzees

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15. Rubondo Island, Lake Victoria

Hidden beneath sub-tropical rainforest, Rubondo Island on Lake Victoria is home to the largest island-based national park in Africa. Rubondo became a wildlife refuge in the Sixties and as well as superb bird-life and fishing opportunities (there are massive Nile perch), has populations of elephant, giraffe, hippo, crocodile and wild chimpanzees.

Nine nights in Tanzania (three at Rubondo) costs from £7,500 including accommodation, meals and flights. Scott Dunn (020 8682 5070, scottdunn.com). 

India, Asia and Australia

16. Indian wildlife safari

India is home to more than 500 mammal species including many, like the Royal Bengal tiger, under threat. This tour visits the best sanctuaries and reserves for viewing tigers in their natural jungle habitat. These include Jamtara Wilderness Camp in Pench, Treehouse Hideaway in Bandavgarh, Singinawa in Kanha (inspiration for Kipling’s Jungle Book) and Forsyth Lodge in Hoshangabad.

16 days from £4,995 per person including accommodation, meals and flights. The Ultimate Travel Company (020 3642 8551, theultimatetravelcompany.co.uk).

Royal Bengal tiger Kanha

Search for the elusive Royal Bengal tiger in Kanha

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17. Rainforests of Brunei

Brunei, the tiny nation in the north of Borneo, is renowned for the biodiversity of its rainforests. Spend two nights glamping at Sumbiling Eco Village while trekking and interacting with the local Iban community before visiting the pristine rainforest of Ulu Temburong National Park. Activities include a rainforest canopy walk, boat trips, trekking and swimming under jungle waterfalls.

Five nights from £565 including accommodation and meals but excluding flights. Responsible Travel (01273 823700, responsibletravel.com).

18. Jungles and beaches in Thailand

Visit the site of the real Bridge on the river Kwai at Kanchanaburi and the multi-tiered waterfalls in the jungles of Erawan National Park. After Ayutthaya, the ancient capital, the tour heads north exploring the Chiang Mai region and the hill tribe villages of the north while spending a night in a village house. Finish on the small tropical island beach of Koh Samet.

From £2,199 for 15 days including flights, accommodation and most meals. Departures: July, August, December 2018. Exodus (020 3131 0704, exodus.co.uk).

19. Borneo adventure 

The jungles of the third-largest island in the world are home to indigenous tribes and some of the world’s oldest rainforests. After climbing Mount Kinabalu, south-east Asia’s highest peak, explore the Kinabatangan river with its orang-utans, proboscis monkeys, pygmy elephants, tree snakes and civets. Finish in Sepilok with its sanctuary for orphaned orang-utans and sun bear conservation centre.

Ten days from £1,850 including accommodation and meals but exclusive of flights. Natural World Safaris (01273 691 642, naturalworldsafaris.com).

20. Secret Cambodia

Staying at some of the country’s most exclusive hotels, lodges and camps, the highlights of this journey across Cambodia include a two-day jungle safari exploring the legendary temples of Angkor and staying at the 4 Rivers Floating Lodge, a luxury tented camp on the edge of the Tatai river. The tour ends on the palm-fringed beaches of Song Saa resort on a private island in the Gulf of Thailand.

A 12-day tour costs from £5,210 including five-star accommodation and most meals but excluding international flights. Wild Frontiers (020 3797 8712, wildfrontiers.com).

Orang-utan

See one of the world’s most endearing apes in Borneo

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21. Jungles of Malaysia

A family adventure to the rainforests of the Taman Negara National Park on Malaysia’s east coast. After exploring its 130 million-year-old primary rainforest on jungle walks and night safaris, relax, dive, snorkel and kayak on the beaches of the Redang archipelago (nine islands all with jungle-covered interiors) before ending the tour at the luxury Tanjong Jara Resort on the South China Sea.

15 days from £2,695 including accommodation and meals but exclusive of flights. Steppes Travel (01285 601759, steppestravel.com).

22. Pristine Langkawi 

Visit orang-utan and sun bear conservation centres and take a birdwatching trip to the Danau Pitas lake on the tropical island of Langkawi. End the day with a sunset cruise down the Kinabatangan river, home to pygmy elephants, silvered leaf monkeys and wild orang-utans. Includes five nights at the luxury eco lodge, Datai Langkawi, located in a remote corner of the island, surrounded by lush tropical rainforest and a pristine crescent bay.

14 days costs from £3,646 including flights, accommodation and meals. Experience Travel Group (020 3504 3726, experiencetravelgroup.com).

23. Papua New Guinea trek

The jungle-covered mountains of Papua New Guinea’s Owen Stanley Range are synonymous with the heroics of the Australian soldiers sent to halt the advance of the Japanese army during the Second World War. Failure would have meant an invasion of the Australian mainland. This challenging trek along the 60-mile (97km) Kokoda Trail passes many of the key battle sites.

11 daysfrom £2,390 including accommodation (eight nights camping) and meals but exclusive of flights. World Expeditions (0800 0744 135, worldexpeditions.com).

24. Sumatran orang-utans

Sumatra’s Gunung Leuser National Park is one of the best places in Indonesia to see orang-utans in the wild. Continue to Berastagi and hike up jungle-covered Mount Sibayak, an active volcano, before finishing in Samonsir on Lake Toba. Includes a stay at Ecolodge Bukit Lawang, which helps support the Sumatran Orang-utan Conservation Programme.

Nine days from £855 including accommodation and some meals but exclusive of flights. Intrepid Travel (0808 274 5111, intrepidtravel.com).

25. Queensland and the Great Barrier Reef

Search for duck-billed platypus, tree kangaroos, possums and gliders in tropical Queensland, Australia’s ultimate wildlife destination. After Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef, you’ll explore the Atherton Tablelands and the rainforests around the crater lakes of Barrine and Eacham, finishing in Lamington National Park, Australia’s most extensive tract of subtropical rainforest.

16 days from £6,450 including flights, accommodation and meals. Naturetrek (01962 733051, naturetrek.co.uk).

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