When I began traveling full time, animals were not the first thing on my list to see. As I traveled more and more, however, I realized that prior to quitting my job, my vacations acquainted me only with animals in zoos. After seeing animals in their natural habitat, I’ve become less enamored with seeing them in cages. If you love animals as much as I do, traveling to see them in their home is an entirely worthwhile experience. As I reflect on my travels over the past few years, here are the places where you can see some of my favorite animals.

Heather Markel

1. Namibia And Botswana

If you’ve never been to Africa, it’s almost impossible to describe the safari experience where lions mate, rhinos fight, and leopards attack right in front of your safari truck. What I love about Africa is that locals feel the animals have as much of a right to the land as people do.

Highlights of Africa, for me, were Etosha National Park in Namibia and Chobe National Park in bordering Botswana. Etosha left me surprised and awed by its nighttime viewing areas. Floodlights are set up around a watering hole so you can sit quietly and watch elephants, giraffes, hyenas, and more come out at night for a drink. I wondered how many would survive the night when the lions came out.

I found my jaw dropping as we drove along vast empty plains in Namibia and Botswana and then found a herd of elephants underneath a giant tree by the side of the road. Another day, we stopped to watch a giraffe grazing nearby. He was so close I thought he might put his head through my window. 

While everyone wants to see “The Big 5” (lions, cape buffalo, leopards, rhinoceros, and elephants), there is other wildlife that will delight you. My first animal in Africa was the Oryx. To my eye, it looked like someone had painted its tribal markings and I couldn’t help but stare. The dassie, a bit like a giant gerbil, is adorable, and, surprisingly, related to the elephant. Cheetahs are beautiful, though you’re less likely to catch them outside of reserves these days.

Finally, if you’re a bird fan, you’ll get your fix in here. I had no interest in birds before I went. Then the lilac-breasted roller changed my opinion with its spectacular range of colors.

One of my next trips will be to Uganda to make up for my pandemic-canceled gorilla trek. I can only imagine how spectacular it is to see them and chimpanzees up close.

Pro Tip: Go see the rhinoceros as soon as possible. Due to the horrible poaching market, they may be extinct all too soon. The Rothschild’s giraffe is another one at risk of extinction. Though many efforts exist to stop poachers, it’s the market that needs to be stopped, in my opinion.

Dusky langur monkey in Thailand.
Dusky langur monkey in Thailand (Photo Credit: Heather Markel)

2. Thailand

You can only view elephants in captivity, but it’s still an amazing experience. I loved spending the day following a herd around, babies included, watching them frolic in dirt and pull down entire trees for something to eat.

Nothing quite describes the feeling of taking a mud bath with an elephant. I’m still amazed we could get so close. And feeding bananas to the babies who wrap their trunks around your hand is magical.

My other favorite animal in Thailand is the dusky langur monkey. Not only is it beautiful with its specific blend of black and white fur (babies are yellow), it’s also a kind and funny animal. My guide took us to a spot where we could feed them. Whether from the ground or from the comfort of your shoulder, they reach their hand out and gently remove the food from your palm. I got in the middle of some playful rough-housing between two young monkeys. One of them gently grabbed my leg, using me as a shield, looked up at me, and smiled. 

Perhaps the most special thing about this species is how the parents seem to have a loving relationship with each other and their babies. This is a species worth making a long trip to see!

Pro Tip: When planning your visit to see elephants, do your research to make sure you work with a company that treats them humanely.

Water buffalo in the mud in Vietnam.
Water buffalo in the mud in Vietnam (Photo Credit: Heather Markel)

3. Vietnam

I’ve mentioned in prior articles that I love cows. Vietnam offers water buffalo, and they stole my heart. They walk along roads in the middle of towns as if on an important business trip. You can get very close to them, and if you like, take a tour where you can walk with and ride them. They are kind, graceful animals, and one of my favorites in the world. 

Vietnam also has beautiful langur species monkeys throughout the country, including the red-shanked douc. I didn’t see them on my first trip, just one of many reasons I want to return to this wonderful country.

Pro Tip: You may have to be intentional about seeing animals in Vietnam. Though they’re in the wild, they’re often only in certain parts of the country. Do your research ahead of time.

A sleeping sloth in Vietnam (Photo Credit: Heather Markel)

4. Costa Rica

My full-time journey began in this country, rich with lush forests everywhere you look. This was the first time in my life I saw a monkey in a tree, over my head. Once you’ve heard the howler monkey, you’ll never forget it. They have a very distinct call, and you’ll want to imitate and hear it every day! My first sighting of them was in Guanacaste, and Manuel Antonio offers paths that feel magical when you hear a pack of howler monkeys screaming in the near distance.

Obviously, you can’t leave Costa Rica without seeing a sloth. If you’re lucky, you’ll see them happily hanging from a tree branch. Unfortunately, many of them end up in animal sanctuaries after near-death experiences like trying to swing onto an electrical line. They are very sweet-looking animals.

The other thing Costa Rica is amazing for is frogs. My favorites were the nighttime zoos where frogs of all colors came out. I was lucky to get a photo of one of the most famous red-tree frogs they’re known for. They’re much smaller than I realized and I treasure my photographic memories of them.

Aldabra giant tortoise in Seychelles.
Aldabra giant tortoise in Seychelles (Photo Credit: Jan Bures / Shutterstock.com)

5. Seychelles

I spent my honeymoon in the Seychelles many years ago. Though the marriage didn’t work out, I’ll never forget those giant tortoises! I was only familiar with tortoises that could fit in my hand, so standing next to one who could extend his neck and be taller than me was fascinating. The other thing anyone who’s seen them will tell you is the sound of their shells scraping together while mating is a noise you won’t ever forget!

Kiwi bird on Stewart Island, New Zealand.
Kiwi bird on Stewart Island, New Zealand (Photo Credit: Vee Snijders / Shutterstock.com)

6. New Zealand

After almost 2 years living in New Zealand, I’ve fallen in love with a few of the birds here. In fact, even though some of them wake me up too early, I’ll miss them when I’m gone!

The kiwi bird, clearly, is one of the most fascinating in New Zealand, and perhaps the world. You won’t see one too easily outside of reserves. I was lucky to have a friend take me on a night walk where we saw several in the bushes. Their gait and speed are prehistoric-looking, and while I associate birds with feathers, the kiwi has what looks like spiky hair. They were on the verge of extinction, but the country has worked hard to save them.

The tūī has the most interesting call — with a dual voice box and multiple calls, you’ll know immediately when one is nearby.

The fantail is the most interactive. We’re part of its food chain, so it flies nearby, hoping your footsteps unearth a meal. If you’re lucky, they’ll fly right at you, and just when you think they might land on your arm or your head, they fly off in a way that will have you wondering if they might have recently had a drink. They’re charming, and I’ve loved hearing their gossip throughout the day.

The kererū, or wood pigeon, is the funniest. It’s a large bird that always chooses to land on a narrow branch or a bush that appears unable to sustain its weight. I’ve never seen one fall, so I guess they know what they’re doing.

7. Argentina

This is a huge country with multiple climates. Not surprisingly, there are some wonderful animals that live there as a result.

A herd of guanaco in Argentina.
A herd of guanaco in Argentina (Photo Credit: Heather Markel)

Guanaco

These llama-like animals are fun to see in the wild. If you travel around Argentina by bus, you’ll see a lot of them grazing in the near distance. You won’t be able to get up close, but you will get curious stares if you stand still.

Hummingbird in flight in Argentina.
Heather Markel

Hummingbirds

While I loved the hummingbird park in Selvatura, Costa Rica, because they land on your hand to feed, Iguazu has a hummingbird park that is so wonderful I returned three times. It’s filled with many different varieties of hummingbirds and if you stay long enough, you can capture some magical photos. 

Pro Tip: Hummingbird wings move incredibly fast. You’ll need to use a very high shutter speed to capture them on camera. 

Penguins on the island of Martillo, Argentina.
Penguins on the island of Martillo (Photo Credit: Heather Markel)

Penguins

If you’ve ever wanted to see penguins in their natural habitat, Argentina gives you the perfect experience. I went to Ushuaia and spent a day on the small island of Martillo. I highly recommend the option where you can get off the boat and walk on the island. A strict distance is maintained between you and the penguins, but even several feet away, you appreciate being with them. You’ll learn about their mating and migration rituals, and be smitten. I was lucky to see a King penguin on the island, which is highly unusual. 

Pro Tips

  • Make sure you inquire where the Magellanic penguins will be when you arrive in Argentina. This breed migrates between Puerto Madryn and Ushuaia seasonally, so the colony size will be larger or smaller depending on when you visit. The gentoo penguin is in Ushuaia year-round.
  • PiraTour is the only company that offers the experience of walking with the penguins. It’s likely to be sold out, so book as early as possible.



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