10 Rainforest Adventures for Frugal Travelers
Tropical forests cover less than 2 percent of the Earth's surface, according to the Rainforest Foundation, but are home to more than half of all species. These important ecological areas are popular tourist destinations, but they can be expensive to visit. Sometimes an international flight must be followed by a second flight or long boat ride to a small town in the rainforest. To avoid this, visit areas that are accessible by public transportation or a short drive in a rental car from a major airport.
The rainforests in the southern states of Chiapas, Veracruz, and Oaxaca can be accessed by public transportation from the Tuxtla Gutierrez airport. In the Lacandon Jungle in Chiapas, tourists can visit archeological sites and keep watch for jaguars, which are native to the area.
The Tikal National Park in northern Guatemala is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The large Mayan ruins date back to the sixth century B.C. and the surrounding forests are home to hundreds of thousands of plant and animal species. It's easiest to get to Tikal from San Ignacio, Belize, about two hours away. All-inclusive day trips are available, but some travelers prefer to take a bus to the border and a taxi the rest of the way. For multi-day trips, many stay in Tikal or Flores, but a cheaper option is the nearby village of El Remate.
Nicaragua is an up-and-coming ecotourism destination with rainforests and "cloud forests" -- high-altitude forests almost constantly covered in fog. One beautiful destination is Matagalpa, a little more than two hours' drive from Managua. Take a tour or book a room at one of the local coffee farms.
The Braulio Carrillo National Park is less than an hour from San Juan. It has an aerial tram, with tours starting at $60 a person, as well as several hiking trails and ranger stations. But most of the park, one of the country's largest, is still pristine forest. For a longer visit, travel a bit farther to the Rara Avis Rainforest Lodge and Reserve, where lodging for two starts at $80 a night. Don't expect luxuries -- such as electricity -- but meals and guided walks are included.
The Napo province in Ecuador is just a few hours' drive from Quito, and Tena, the capital of the province, is a good home base for rainforest exploration. Simple accommodations are inexpensive, and local guides offer many river expeditions, day tours, caves, and jungle trips. All-inclusive group trips departing from Quito are also available and can cost less than $100 a day.
Puerto Rico's El Yunque is one of the few rainforests, and the only tropical rainforest, that U.S. travelers can visit without a passport. Flights to the island are fairly quick and sometimes cheap, especially from the East Coast. It is best to visit the rainforest early in the morning before the crowds arrive, but be warned that the road may close during and after heavy rainstorms. Short walking tours are available for $3 to $5 starting at the visitor center.
In southern Thailand, Khao Sok National Park is part of a rainforest older than the Amazon. There is no avoiding the expensive flight to Thailand, but once there, the low prices for nearly everything can make the overall trip affordable. A bus from Phuket to the park costs less than $5, and a backpacker-style guesthouse can be found for about $17 a night; midrange accommodations start at $40 a night. Prices are highest and accommodations are limited November through February, the peak tourist season, but extra buses and ferries run throughout those months. By no coincidence, this is also when the park is coolest and driest.
The Pacific Northwest does not pop into many people's minds when they think about rainforests, but the Hoh Rainforest gets 140 to 170 inches of rain each year -- well beyond the required 98 inches to qualify. The temperate rainforest is in Olympic National Park, west of Seattle, and home to trees several hundred feet tall. Entrance to the park costs $20 a vehicle, and 88 campsites are available for rent.