In Mexico’s vibrant forests, locals adapt to a year without tourists

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When she was 10 years old, Ana Moreno watched buses full of tourists pull into her village. They had come to see the monarch butterflies, which arrive in flurries each November and stay the winter in the Sierra Madre’s forested peaks. Moreno watched the monarch enthusiasts pour from buses, chattering to each other. She thought to herself, “How is it possible that I don’t speak English?”

Conservationist and photographer Roberto Pedraza walks through the cloud forest in Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve in the state of Querétaro, one of Mexico’s ecotourism hot spots adjusting to pandemic-caused loss of income.

Moreno went on to study tourism and learn English at university. Her goal was to become a butterfly guide and lead tours into the forest. Moreno’s father had worked as a forest ranger, and on several occasions she accompanied him up the mountain to see the monarch colonies. “I wanted to be up there every single day,” she says.

This year, however, Moreno won’t be leading tourists into the Cerro Pelón Butterfly Sanctuary above her village. “It’s going to be a really, really hard year,” she says. “If we don’t have people coming, we don’t have income.”

The forests’ best guardians

Migrating monarchs gather in Santuario El Rosario in the state of Michoacán in southwestern Mexico. The Sierra Madres, a mountain range running along Mexico’s Pacific coast, are a primary destination for tourists eager to see the butterflies in such staggering numbers.

Mexico is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, home to vast swaths of forest ecosystems ranging from tropical to deciduous to cloud to evergreen. Nearly 80 percent of the forested land is owned by Indigenous groups and ejidos—communities that share land granted by the state. A majority of these communities suffer extreme poverty and rely on subsistence agriculture and remittances for survival. With few employment opportunities, many have whittled their own forests away through illegal logging and clear-cutting. But in other cases, forest communities have become the trees’ best guardians.

Across Mexico, ecotourism plays a key role in forest conservation. It addresses the twin problems of rural poverty and deforestation and can generate revenue on par with logging and clear-cutting. The influx of visitors to remote areas incentivizes locals to preserve their natural resources. In addition to protecting forests and generating income in places where jobs are scarce, ecotourism can also improve gender equity, preserve local culture, and protect wildlife.

In 2017, tourists watch for monarchs in the Piedra Herrada Sanctuary in Valle de Bravo.

But the coronavirus pandemic has stalled—and in some areas, halted—ecotourism from domestic and international visitors alike. What does this mean for Mexico’s forests?

Loss of tourist revenue has prompted some forest communities to return to illegal logging, while others scrape by on subsistence farming. But under pressure, solutions also tend to crystalize. Forest communities across the country are finding new ways to invite the outside world in—and protect their forests at the same time.

A lighter footprint

Military macaws fly through the Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve. Ecotourism helps locals conserve the environment, which is good for plants and animals—as well as locals, whose homes are preserved, and visitors, who get to enjoy the physical and mental health benefits of being outdoors.

The UNESCO-listed Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve claims one third of the state of Querétaro. It’s a mountainous expanse of nearly one million acres where evergreen, oak, pine, deciduous tropical, and cloud forests grow. Only three percent of this land is federally owned; the other 97 percent belongs to ejidos and private landowners.

Sierra Gorda Ecotours partners with these landowners to establish ecotourism activities that generate employment alternatives to illegal logging or remittances. Since the construction of the reserve’s first ecolodge over two decades ago, a well-developed ecotourism network has flourished, comprising 15 ecolodges (each in a different ecosystem) and 53 microenterprises of artisans and restaurants.

The businesses are owned and operated by locals, many of whom are women employing other women. This ownership gives forest communities a say in decisions about the biosphere reserve’s natural resources. (In the Sierra Gorda, the forests’ biggest threat isn’t illegal logging but government public works projects like roads, dams, and electricity lines.) Laura Pérez-Arce, communication director of a five-member alliance that includes Sierra Gorda Ecotours, calls ecotourism in the region “a tool for conservation” and a way to enforce biosphere regulations.

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When the coronavirus began to spread through Mexico, local service providers shuttered immediately. In recent weeks restaurants have reopened, but at the time of this writing only 30 percent of ecolodges are accepting guests. At the same time, domestic tourists who can make the trip by car are returning to the biosphere reserve. As Querétaro’s tourism board pushes to make the area a top outdoor destination, Sierra Gorda Ecotours has had to think through sustainable solutions to manage the influx of tourists in a way that lessens both environmental impact and risk of virus transmission.

One response? Offer smaller, socially distanced visitor experiences. “It’s going to imply a much more hands-on approach to connection between tourists and microenterprises,” says Peréz-Arce. Sierra Gorda Ecotours is working to design tours of very small groups that will visit artisans and restaurants in a staggered approach, spending longer periods of time at fewer sites.

In Chiapas, Julia Carabias Lillo also sees small-scale outdoor recreation as a solution to tourism in the time of COVID-19. An ecologist, former minister of the environment, and cofounder of the NGO Natura y Ecosistemas Mexicanos (known colloquially as Natura Mexicana), Carabias has worked with communities in Chiapas’s Lacandon Jungle on conservation efforts since 2007. Despite being more than 90 percent deforested, the Lacandon Jungle is one of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world. Natura Mexicana partners with ejidos and indigenous communities in the jungle—the heart of which is the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve—to establish and promote ecotourism initiatives. Visitors can book a stay in an ecolodge or camping facility, explore the rainforest through guided tours, visit a butterfly farm, eat at a locally run restaurant, and kayak down a jungle river.

  • Slide 1 of 50: Topas Ecolodge—a National Geographic Unique Lodge north of Hanoi, Vietnam—organizes treks into Hoang Lien National Park, a global biodiversity hotspot.

  • Slide 2 of 50: At Six Senses Zil Pasyon in the Seychelles, guests can kayak to Île Cocos Marine National Park.

  • Slide 3 of 50: Reindeer herders share their wisdom about the Sami indigenous way of life at northern Sweden’s Sápmi Nature Camp.

  • Slide 4 of 50: Director Francis Ford Coppola opened Coral Caye in Belize in 2016, on a private island surrounded by a rainbow of sea life.

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  • Slide 5 of 50: Costa Rica’s Lapa Rios, a National Geographic Unique Lodge, has long been a conservation icon in this lowland tropical rainforest where visitors are sure to spot plenty of local wildlife.

  • Slide 6 of 50: The Brando, located in French Polynesia, is late actor Marlon Brando’s eco-dream brought to life. The private island is run on 100 percent renewable energy sources, including solar power and coconut oil.

  • Slide 7 of 50: The Duba Expedition Camp, a partnership between Great Plains Conservation and the Okavango Community Trust in Botswana, offers a front-row seat to Africa’s majestic wildlife.

  • Slide 8 of 50: Escape to the rare, stunning fynbos vegetation endemic to South Africa at Grootbos, a National Geographic Unique Lodge on the western cape. Don't skip the resort’s unique flower safari.

  • Slide 9 of 50: Find yourself in a quiet escape on the only development on Australia’s Lizard Island. This National Geographic Unique Lodge provides access to your own slice of the world's largest reef system, the Great Barrier Reef.

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  • Slide 10 of 50: Madagascar’s Tsara Komba Lodge, a National Geographic Unique Lodge, is prime for spotting lemurs and chameleons.

  • Slide 11 of 50: Hear wolves howl at night while staying at the Prince of Wales’s Guesthouse in rural Transylvania, Romania.

  • Slide 12 of 50: Crystal rivers, deep gorges, and soaring peaks combine with Greek village life at Aristi Mountain Resort & Villas, a National Geographic Unique Lodge.

  • Slide 13 of 50: At the edge of a volcanic outcrop providing bright morning vistas across Gobi Gurvansaikhan National Park in Mongolia, Three Camel Lodge, a National Geographic Unique Lodge, looks like a herders’ village with its 50 gers (yurts).

  • Slide 14 of 50: At Estancia Los Potreros in Argentina, gauchos lead horseback trips to hidden waterfalls.

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  • Slide 15 of 50: The Lodge at Valle Chacabuco, in Chile, sits in the heart of Patagonia Park, a conservation initiative protecting nearly 200,000 acres.

  • Slide 16 of 50: Take a trip to &Beyond’s pristine island resort in the Indian Ocean. This National Geographic Unique Lodge overlooks Bazaruto National Park, the only marine reserve in Mozambique.

  • Slide 17 of 50: Maasai warriors are your hosts at Il Ngwesi, a community-owned safari lodge on the edge of Kenya’s Northern Frontier district.

  • Slide 18 of 50: Concordia’s canvas solar cabins on St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands, were one of the early ecotourism landmarks. Editor's note: Concordia Eco Resort was impacted by Hurricane Irma and is currently closed for renovation.

  • Slide 19 of 50: On a hilltop overlooking New Zealand’s Coromandel Peninsula, Manawa Ridge merges eco-living with adventure outings.

  • Slide 20 of 50: Deep in Bolivia’s Madidi National Park, indigenous guides welcome intrepid travelers to Chalalan Ecolodge, an ideal base camp for jungle exploration.

  • Slide 21 of 50: Channel your inner royalty in the 800-year-old Ashford Castle in Mayo, Ireland. Beyond the 20 miles of trail, gold course, and lake hikes, visitors can try falconry, archery, or horseback riding at this National Geographic Unique Lodge.

  • Slide 22 of 50: Families flock to O’Reilly’s Rainforest Retreat on Australia’s Gold Coast for activities such as a hike to one of 500 nearby waterfalls, complete with a pre-packed picnic, or a visit to the glowworm grotto.

  • Slide 23 of 50: Rasta vibes thrive at Jakes, a family-owned retreat in Jamaica. They offer river tours and snorkeling, and even organize their own triathlon.

  • Slide 24 of 50: In the Toledo District—one of the most remote and diverse in Belize—visitors can enjoy a chocolate-making class or kayak the Rio Grande. Don’t miss the “snorkel with the chef” experience at Copal Tree Lodge, a National Geographic Unique Lodge.

  • Slide 25 of 50: Each September, the UNESCO-protected Cape Floral Region bursts into living color with some of the greatest concentrations of floral species in the world. National Geographic Unique Lodge Bushmans Kloof, a century-old homestead turned nature reserve, cares for 18,532 acres of this rare habitat—home to endangered Cape mountain zebras and archaeological sites that include 10,000-year-old San rock paintings.

  • Slide 26 of 50: This eco-hideaway, consisting of 13 breezy bungalows handcrafted from salvaged driftwood isn't easy to reach. Located in Indonesia’s Raja Ampat archipelago, at the center of Southeast Asia’s famed Coral Triangle, Misool provides front-row access to an underwater world teeming with marine life—there are more kinds of fish and coral here than bird species in the Amazon.

  • Slide 27 of 50: The remote rain forest lodge Inkaterra Machu Picchu has supported over 20 years of ongoing scientific research. “Peru contains more than two-thirds of Earth’s diverse ecological life zones, and we have a responsibility to help protect this biodiversity,” explains Peruvian José Koechlin, the National Geographic Unique Lodge's founder and president.

  • Slide 28 of 50: Tucked away in the Great Bear Rainforest, this National Geographic Unique Lodge in British Columbia has been operated by the Murray family since the 1980s.

  • Slide 29 of 50: Located on the grounds of the Conservation Ecology Centre in Australia, the Great Ocean Ecolodge also borders Great Otway National Park, which protects swaths of eucalyptus forests, thundering waterfalls, and windswept heathlands that end at dramatic cliffs above the churning ocean. Its five elegant rooms overlook grassy fields where wild kangaroos come to feed and play.

  • Slide 30 of 50: Deep in the Alaskan wilderness, Winterlake Lodge houses and trains 20 sled dogs. The National Geographic Unique Lodge also offers miles of trails to explore and helicopter excursions to fly-fish or ski in remote areas.

  • Slide 31 of 50: In the 1980s, when many Greeks left their villages to ride the wave of tourism development along the coast, two local friends took to the mountains of Crete instead. Their vision: restore an abandoned medieval village and turn it into a retreat based on living in harmony with nature. Today, travelers flock to this off-the-grid stone village to hike on wild mountain trails, sleep in rustic cottages, and savor authentic Cretan dishes like roasted rabbit with mizithra goat cheese and spearmint, washed down with Milia’s own organic wine.

  • Slide 32 of 50: Ted Turner’s Sierra Grande Lodge in New Mexico provides access to over half a million acres of private wilderness, part of the conservation crusader’s efforts to rewild America.

  • Slide 33 of 50: At the end of Iceland’s Borgarfjörður Valley, the enchanting Hotel Húsafell is set against a backdrop of rolling hills, glacial rivers, and ivory-capped mountains. At this National Geographic Unique Lodge, guests can relax in geothermal pools, go hiking, and see the northern lights during certain seasons.

  • Slide 34 of 50: The timber used to start building this National Geographic Unique Lodge in Nicaragua came from timber pulled down by Hurricane Felix in 2007. Jicaro has since grown into a leading example of sustainability in the area.

  • Slide 35 of 50: This is the place for anyone who has pondered going back to the land and living a sustainable lifestyle. Located in the Carpathian Mountains on a wedge of Poland between the borders of Slovakia and Ukraine, the cabin-like rooms sleep up to seven guests and are surrounded by some of Europe’s most spectacular wilderness, where wolves, bears, and lynx still roam.

  • Slide 36 of 50: A bumpy ride down a long dirt track ends at Bulungula on South Africa’s “Wild Coast,” where 10 whitewashed rondavels (traditional rounded thatched huts), co-owned and managed by Xhosa villagers, use the sun, wind, and rain to provide daily energy needs. Shoestring travelers are welcomed like family to this rustic lodge that also provides economic opportunities for the rural community. Breakfast? Down a fresh fruit smoothie, then join villagers in activities like brickmaking, beer brewing, and maize stamping.

  • Slide 37 of 50: The Dana Biosphere Reserve—a gold and crimson desert carved by ancient wadis—is the backdrop for Feynan Ecolodge, owned by Jordan’s Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature. Bedouin hosts lead activities like making flatbread over an open fire and exploring 4,000-year-old copper mines that existed in the time of the Roman Empire.

  • Slide 38 of 50: A 28,167-acre rain forest reserve in southern Mato Grosso, Brazil,envelops Cristalino’s wood-and-tile bungalows, designed to take advantage of cooling breezes and natural light. The languid Cristalino River provides plenty of opportunities for canoeing, swimming, nature walks, and wildlife viewing—from the rare giant otters playfully at home in the water to Brazil’s endemic red-nosed bearded saki monkeys traversing the treetops.

  • Slide 39 of 50: Tucked along the shore of Lake Atitlán, Guatemala, with its misty volcanoes and Maya villages, Laguna’s six suites artfully blend adobe bricks, river stone, and brightly embroidered huipils and hand-loomed blankets. A hundred-acre nature reserve established by the lodge reaches from the shore up 1,305 feet. Old Maya trails wind through some of the last remaining primary tropical dry forest around the lake, home to belted flycatchers and other endemic birds. Adrenaline buffs can jump from high rock faces into the deep water.

  • Slide 40 of 50: No shirt, no shoes, no problem could be the daily mantra at this Six Senses haven constructed from reclaimed teak, including over a thousand recycled antique wooden panels. The resort dangles on a slice of world-class beach in Con Dao National Park—a 45-minute flight from frenetic Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Sustainability takes center stage, with initiatives including local and organic meals, no plastic water bottles, and nontoxic biodegradable cleaning products and amenities. Windsurfing, body boarding, and sailing start right outside the door. But for many guests, the activity of choice is simply immersion in the unspoiled nature that surrounds the private villas.

  • Slide 41 of 50: It’s hard to get more environmentally friendly than Chumbe’s seven eco-bungalows on a sun-splashed coral island in the Zanzibar archipelago. Rainwater is collected for daily needs, the sun provides energy, and composting toilets keep the surrounding marine park pollution free. Guests can also explore Zanzibar’s historic towns, don masks and fins to snorkel the healthy private reef, then retire at night to dine by lantern on Tanzania’s traditional Swahili cuisine.

  • Slide 42 of 50: Overlooking the subarctic waterways of the tidal Moose River in northern Ontario, the 20-room lodge is designed in the style of a Cree village shabatwon—a traditional long tepee with doors at each end. The soaring structure of pine, cedar, and hickory lets in the nearly 20 hours of summer light; stone fireplaces and warm guest rooms padded with thick carpets and blankets of natural wool keep winter’s chill at bay. Guests can hike in Tidewater Provincial Park, take a boat to James Bay for seal- and whale-spotting led by local guides, or view the northern lights at night.

  • Slide 43 of 50: This meticulously restored, family-owned plantation house is located 44 miles south of the colonial city of Mérida on the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico. Santa Rosa combines environmental stewardship with community projects such as directly supporting small-business development for local Maya women. Guests can spend time with village artisans; savor Maya recipes like chicken pibil, handed down through generations; swim in hidden cenotes; and sniff around an on-site botanic garden.

  • Slide 44 of 50: Visitors come for the adventure and stay for the romance at Pacuare, located on 25,000 protected acres of high-biodiversity rain forest in the Talamanca Mountains of Costa Rica—home to jaguars, ocelots, monkeys, and sloths. At this National Geographic Unique Lodge, candlelight dinners accompanied by fine wines are a hallmark of the owners, who are Costa Rican foodies. Afterward, sink into one of the big canopy beds, serenaded by nature’s lullaby.

  • Slide 45 of 50: Watching the sky radiate its sunset palette from the riverside tables of Kabini’s open-air restaurant brings a tranquil end to active days. Visitors explore India’s Nagarhole National Park in search of the elusive Bengal tiger and India’s largest herds of Asian elephants, along with other flagship species (leopard and wild dog). The lodge supports the Kuruba heritage with interactive story­telling sessions, dance performances, and river outings in a handmade coracle.

  • Slide 46 of 50: Tucked away in the lush Baa Atoll UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, Soneva Fushi is a quiet getaway in the Maldives. The property has its own vegetable garden, solar power plant, and recycling center.

  • Slide 47 of 50: Nestled on the shores of Chile’s Chiloé island,the Tierra Chiloé Hotel & Spa is surrounded by dramatic sea cliffs and lush woodlands. This National Geographic Unique Lodge is the perfect location for hiking, horseback riding, and boating.

  • Slide 48 of 50: In the rain forests of northern Australia, Thala Beach Nature Reserve is perfectly located between the Great Barrier Reef and Daintree Rainforest. Guests at this National Geographic Unique Lodge can take guided walks through the forest, snorkel in wildlife-rich waters, and learn about Aboriginal legends from a local community member.

  • Slide 49 of 50: On the island of Príncipe, the tented villas of Sundy Praia, a National Geographic Unique Lodge, are sandwiched between emerald forest and sandy beaches. Visitors can see endangered sea turtles, spot tropical birds, and go sea kayaking.

  • Slide 50 of 50: In Ecuador’s Chocó rain forest, Mashpi Lodge is located on3,200 acres of cloud forest—a true biodiversity hotspot. At this National Geographic Lodge, guests can spot birds with a naturalist, see rare butterflies, and swim in natural pools.

Topas Ecolodge

Topas Ecolodge—a National Geographic Unique Lodge north of Hanoi, Vietnam—organizes treks into Hoang Lien National Park, a global biodiversity hotspot.

Six Senses Zil Pasyon

At Six Senses Zil Pasyon in the Seychelles, guests can kayak to Île Cocos Marine National Park.

Sápmi Nature Camp

Reindeer herders share their wisdom about the Sami indigenous way of life at northern Sweden’s Sápmi Nature Camp.

Coral Caye

Director Francis Ford Coppola opened Coral Caye in Belize in 2016, on a private island surrounded by a rainbow of sea life.

Lapa Rios

Costa Rica’s Lapa Rios, a National Geographic Unique Lodge, has long been a conservation icon in this lowland tropical rainforest where visitors are sure to spot plenty of local wildlife.

The Brando

The Brando, located in French Polynesia, is late actor Marlon Brando’s eco-dream brought to life. The private island is run on 100 percent renewable energy sources, including solar power and coconut oil.

Duba Expedition Camp

The Duba Expedition Camp, a partnership between Great Plains Conservation and the Okavango Community Trust in Botswana, offers a front-row seat to Africa’s majestic wildlife.

Grootbos Private Nature Reserve

Escape to the rare, stunning fynbos vegetation endemic to South Africa at Grootbos, a National Geographic Unique Lodge on the western cape. Don’t skip the resort’s unique flower safari.

Lizard Island

Find yourself in a quiet escape on the only development on Australia’s Lizard Island. This National Geographic Unique Lodge provides access to your own slice of the world’s largest reef system, the Great Barrier Reef.

Tsara Komba Lodge

Madagascar’s Tsara Komba Lodge, a National Geographic Unique Lodge, is prime for spotting lemurs and chameleons.

Prince of Wales’s Guesthouse

Hear wolves howl at night while staying at the Prince of Wales’s Guesthouse in rural Transylvania, Romania.

Aristi Mountain Resort & Villas

Crystal rivers, deep gorges, and soaring peaks combine with Greek village life at Aristi Mountain Resort & Villas, a National Geographic Unique Lodge.

Three Camel Lodge

At the edge of a volcanic outcrop providing bright morning vistas across Gobi Gurvansaikhan National Park in Mongolia, Three Camel Lodge, a National Geographic Unique Lodge, looks like a herders’ village with its 50 gers (yurts).

Estancia Los Potreros

At Estancia Los Potreros in Argentina, gauchos lead horseback trips to hidden waterfalls.

The Lodge at Valle Chacabuco

The Lodge at Valle Chacabuco, in Chile, sits in the heart of Patagonia Park, a conservation initiative protecting nearly 200,000 acres.

&Beyond Benguerra Island

Take a trip to &Beyond’s pristine island resort in the Indian Ocean. This National Geographic Unique Lodge overlooks Bazaruto National Park, the only marine reserve in Mozambique.

Il Ngwesi

Maasai warriors are your hosts at Il Ngwesi, a community-owned safari lodge on the edge of Kenya’s Northern Frontier district.

Concordia Eco Resort

Concordia’s canvas solar cabins on St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands, were one of the early ecotourism landmarks.

Editor’s note: Concordia Eco Resort was impacted by Hurricane Irma and is currently closed for renovation.

Manawa Ridge

On a hilltop overlooking New Zealand’s Coromandel Peninsula, Manawa Ridge merges eco-living with adventure outings.

Chalalan Ecolodge

Deep in Bolivia’s Madidi National Park, indigenous guides welcome intrepid travelers to Chalalan Ecolodge, an ideal base camp for jungle exploration.

Ashford Castle

Channel your inner royalty in the 800-year-old Ashford Castle in Mayo, Ireland. Beyond the 20 miles of trail, gold course, and lake hikes, visitors can try falconry, archery, or horseback riding at this National Geographic Unique Lodge.

O’Reilly’s Rainforest Retreat

Families flock to O’Reilly’s Rainforest Retreat on Australia’s Gold Coast for activities such as a hike to one of 500 nearby waterfalls, complete with a pre-packed picnic, or a visit to the glowworm grotto.

Jakes

Rasta vibes thrive at Jakes, a family-owned retreat in Jamaica. They offer river tours and snorkeling, and even organize their own triathlon.

Copal Tree Lodge

In the Toledo District—one of the most remote and diverse in Belize—visitors can enjoy a chocolate-making class or kayak the Rio Grande. Don’t miss the “snorkel with the chef” experience at Copal Tree Lodge, a National Geographic Unique Lodge.

Bushmans Kloof Wilderness Reserve

Each September, the UNESCO-protected Cape Floral Region bursts into living color with some of the greatest concentrations of floral species in the world. National Geographic Unique Lodge Bushmans Kloof, a century-old homestead turned nature reserve, cares for 18,532 acres of this rare habitat—home to endangered Cape mountain zebras and archaeological sites that include 10,000-year-old San rock paintings.

Misool Eco Resort

This eco-hideaway, consisting of 13 breezy bungalows handcrafted from salvaged driftwood isn’t easy to reach. Located in Indonesia’s Raja Ampat archipelago, at the center of Southeast Asia’s famed Coral Triangle, Misool provides front-row access to an underwater world teeming with marine life—there are more kinds of fish and coral here than bird species in the Amazon.

Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel

The remote rain forest lodge Inkaterra Machu Picchu has supported over 20 years of ongoing scientific research. “Peru contains more than two-thirds of Earth’s diverse ecological life zones, and we have a responsibility to help protect this biodiversity,” explains Peruvian José Koechlin, the National Geographic Unique Lodge’s founder and president.

Nimmo Bay Wilderness Resort

Tucked away in the Great Bear Rainforest, this National Geographic Unique Lodge in British Columbia has been operated by the Murray family since the 1980s.

Great Ocean Ecolodge

Located on the grounds of the Conservation Ecology Centre in Australia, the Great Ocean Ecolodge also borders Great Otway National Park, which protects swaths of eucalyptus forests, thundering waterfalls, and windswept heathlands that end at dramatic cliffs above the churning ocean. Its five elegant rooms overlook grassy fields where wild kangaroos come to feed and play.

Winterlake Lodge

Deep in the Alaskan wilderness, Winterlake Lodge houses and trains 20 sled dogs. The National Geographic Unique Lodge also offers miles of trails to explore and helicopter excursions to fly-fish or ski in remote areas.

Milia Mountain Retreat

In the 1980s, when many Greeks left their villages to ride the wave of tourism development along the coast, two local friends took to the mountains of Crete instead. Their vision: restore an abandoned medieval village and turn it into a retreat based on living in harmony with nature. Today, travelers flock to this off-the-grid stone village to hike on wild mountain trails, sleep in rustic cottages, and savor authentic Cretan dishes like roasted rabbit with mizithra goat cheese and spearmint, washed down with Milia’s own organic wine.

Sierra Grande Lodge

Ted Turner’s Sierra Grande Lodge in New Mexico provides access to over half a million acres of private wilderness, part of the conservation crusader’s efforts to rewild America.

Hotel Húsafell

At the end of Iceland’s Borgarfjörður Valley, the enchanting Hotel Húsafell is set against a backdrop of rolling hills, glacial rivers, and ivory-capped mountains. At this National Geographic Unique Lodge, guests can relax in geothermal pools, go hiking, and see the northern lights during certain seasons.

Jicaro Island Ecolodge

The timber used to start building this National Geographic Unique Lodge in Nicaragua came from timber pulled down by Hurricane Felix in 2007. Jicaro has since grown into a leading example of sustainability in the area.

Eco-Frontiers Ranch

This is the place for anyone who has pondered going back to the land and living a sustainable lifestyle. Located in the Carpathian Mountains on a wedge of Poland between the borders of Slovakia and Ukraine, the cabin-like rooms sleep up to seven guests and are surrounded by some of Europe’s most spectacular wilderness, where wolves, bears, and lynx still roam.

Bulungula Lodge

A bumpy ride down a long dirt track ends at Bulungula on South Africa’s “Wild Coast,” where 10 whitewashed rondavels (traditional rounded thatched huts), co-owned and managed by Xhosa villagers, use the sun, wind, and rain to provide daily energy needs. Shoestring travelers are welcomed like family to this rustic lodge that also provides economic opportunities for the rural community. Breakfast? Down a fresh fruit smoothie, then join villagers in activities like brickmaking, beer brewing, and maize stamping.

Feynan Ecolodge

The Dana Biosphere Reserve—a gold and crimson desert carved by ancient wadis—is the backdrop for Feynan Ecolodge, owned by Jordan’s Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature. Bedouin hosts lead activities like making flatbread over an open fire and exploring 4,000-year-old copper mines that existed in the time of the Roman Empire.

Cristalino Jungle Lodge

A 28,167-acre rain forest reserve in southern Mato Grosso, Brazil,envelops Cristalino’s wood-and-tile bungalows, designed to take advantage of cooling breezes and natural light. The languid Cristalino River provides plenty of opportunities for canoeing, swimming, nature walks, and wildlife viewing—from the rare giant otters playfully at home in the water to Brazil’s endemic red-nosed bearded saki monkeys traversing the treetops.

Laguna Lodge

Tucked along the shore of Lake Atitlán, Guatemala, with its misty volcanoes and Maya villages, Laguna’s six suites artfully blend adobe bricks, river stone, and brightly embroidered huipils and hand-loomed blankets. A hundred-acre nature reserve established by the lodge reaches from the shore up 1,305 feet. Old Maya trails wind through some of the last remaining primary tropical dry forest around the lake, home to belted flycatchers and other endemic birds. Adrenaline buffs can jump from high rock faces into the deep water.

Six Senses Con Dao

No shirt, no shoes, no problem could be the daily mantra at this Six Senses haven constructed from reclaimed teak, including over a thousand recycled antique wooden panels. The resort dangles on a slice of world-class beach in Con Dao National Park—a 45-minute flight from frenetic Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Sustainability takes center stage, with initiatives including local and organic meals, no plastic water bottles, and nontoxic biodegradable cleaning products and amenities. Windsurfing, body boarding, and sailing start right outside the door. But for many guests, the activity of choice is simply immersion in the unspoiled nature that surrounds the private villas.

Chumbe Island Coral Park

It’s hard to get more environmentally friendly than Chumbe’s seven eco-bungalows on a sun-splashed coral island in the Zanzibar archipelago. Rainwater is collected for daily needs, the sun provides energy, and composting toilets keep the surrounding marine park pollution free. Guests can also explore Zanzibar’s historic towns, don masks and fins to snorkel the healthy private reef, then retire at night to dine by lantern on Tanzania’s traditional Swahili cuisine.

Cree Village Ecolodge

Overlooking the subarctic waterways of the tidal Moose River in northern Ontario, the 20-room lodge is designed in the style of a Cree village shabatwon—a traditional long tepee with doors at each end. The soaring structure of pine, cedar, and hickory lets in the nearly 20 hours of summer light; stone fireplaces and warm guest rooms padded with thick carpets and blankets of natural wool keep winter’s chill at bay. Guests can hike in Tidewater Provincial Park, take a boat to James Bay for seal- and whale-spotting led by local guides, or view the northern lights at night.

Hacienda Santa Rosa

This meticulously restored, family-owned plantation house is located 44 miles south of the colonial city of Mérida on the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico. Santa Rosa combines environmental stewardship with community projects such as directly supporting small-business development for local Maya women. Guests can spend time with village artisans; savor Maya recipes like chicken pibil, handed down through generations; swim in hidden cenotes; and sniff around an on-site botanic garden.

Pacuare Lodge

Visitors come for the adventure and stay for the romance at Pacuare, located on 25,000 protected acres of high-biodiversity rain forest in the Talamanca Mountains of Costa Rica—home to jaguars, ocelots, monkeys, and sloths. At this National Geographic Unique Lodge, candlelight dinners accompanied by fine wines are a hallmark of the owners, who are Costa Rican foodies. Afterward, sink into one of the big canopy beds, serenaded by nature’s lullaby.

Kabini

Watching the sky radiate its sunset palette from the riverside tables of Kabini’s open-air restaurant brings a tranquil end to active days. Visitors explore India’s Nagarhole National Park in search of the elusive Bengal tiger and India’s largest herds of Asian elephants, along with other flagship species (leopard and wild dog). The lodge supports the Kuruba heritage with interactive story­telling sessions, dance performances, and river outings in a handmade coracle.

Soneva Fushi

Tucked away in the lush Baa Atoll UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, Soneva Fushi is a quiet getaway in the Maldives. The property has its own vegetable garden, solar power plant, and recycling center.

Tierra Chiloé Hotel & Spa

Nestled on the shores of Chile’s Chiloé island,the Tierra Chiloé Hotel & Spa is surrounded by dramatic sea cliffs and lush woodlands. This National Geographic Unique Lodge is the perfect location for hiking, horseback riding, and boating.

Thala Beach Nature Reserve

In the rain forests of northern Australia, Thala Beach Nature Reserve is perfectly located between the Great Barrier Reef and Daintree Rainforest. Guests at this National Geographic Unique Lodge can take guided walks through the forest, snorkel in wildlife-rich waters, and learn about Aboriginal legends from a local community member.

Sundy Praia

On the island of Príncipe, the tented villas of Sundy Praia, a National Geographic Unique Lodge, are sandwiched between emerald forest and sandy beaches. Visitors can see endangered sea turtles, spot tropical birds, and go sea kayaking.

Mashpi Lodge

In Ecuador’s Chocó rain forest, Mashpi Lodge is located on3,200 acres of cloud forest—a true biodiversity hotspot. At this National Geographic Lodge, guests can spot birds with a naturalist, see rare butterflies, and swim in natural pools.

(Related: This Costa Rican town is facing an eco-tourism crisis. What’s next?)

Although most communities in the Lacandon region have been shielded from the virus thanks to their remote location, locals feel the economic impact acutely. So far, they’ve hung on with emergency funding that Natura Mexicana secured from donors and private foundations. “We are looking for income alternatives for the people in this emergency, knowing that these are the tourism sites of the future,” Carabias says. She anticipates a rising interest in ecotourism due to the pandemic, as people begin to look for destinations that allow for social distancing and limited risk of contagion.

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, communities in the Lacandon region were well-positioned for this kind of small-scale, low-impact travel. The Canto de la Selva ecolodge, for example, is designed specifically to prevent ecosystem disruption. Fourteen elevated cabins allow the free passage of fauna and host 28 people at most—offering minimal exposure to other people while maximizing exposure to the jungle.

Virtual tours, digital education

In the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, three of four sanctuaries are set to reopen for butterfly season (beginning in November and running through early March) despite plunging hotel reservations. The Cerro Pelón sanctuary in the State of Mexico, however, will remain closed to outside visitors to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Ana Moreno faces a quiet season. So do her nine siblings and mother, all of whom are involved in the butterfly business. Her brother Joel and his wife Ellen Sharp run the village’s only bed-and-breakfast. They also founded Butterflies and Their People, a nonprofit that employs six full-time forest guardians to patrol the mountain and protect the monarch sanctuary from illegal logging. Ana’s mother and sisters manage the bed-and-breakfast restaurant, and other siblings work as butterfly guides or forest rangers.

It’s not just the Moreno family who will lose income: Tourism employed eighty people from the community as guides and horse handlers. Other locals earned income as drivers, housekeepers, cooks, and artisans. Some have already begun logging in the forest again, which threatens the monarchs’ winter home.

To keep their six forest guardians on the mountain, Joel Moreno and Ellen Sharp designed virtual tour packages. “I’m hoping it can save us this year,” says Sharp. Would-be tourists can “adopt a colony” and receive bimonthly updates from November to early March—the entire butterfly season. These virtual tours offer visitors an experience they couldn’t get in person: up-close observation of the colonies on an ongoing basis.

“When you are here, you only have one or two days,” Ana Moreno says. “With the virtual tours you are going to have a totally different experience because you will have the opportunity to see the butterfly colony in different ways—not just one.”

Most importantly, proceeds from the virtual packages will keep forest guardians employed. The six forest guardians, along with three state-employed rangers, will serve as boots on the ground during this quiet season. They are tasked with collecting footage, reporting on the butterflies’ movements, and preventing loggers from encroaching into the sanctuary. “It’s a pretty big forest, and there are only six of them,” she adds. “It’s going to be hard to control the illegal logging. But they are trying.”

(Related: At France’s newest national park, it’s all about the trees.)

Sierra Gorda Ecotours has also turned to digital engagement in the absence of in-person visits. “We’ve had to take a really big leap into social media,” says Pérez-Arce. “Fortunately we were accepted by a program that has been helping to train us and really get us thinking about how we can get people to understand where we are and what’s happening here.” The team brought on a communications assistant to help with storytelling efforts. They also participated in webinars to share best practices with international partners in the ecotourism industry.

But more than boosting its digital presence, Sierra Gorda Ecotours used the slow season to reevaluate its messaging and education. “We need to up our ante in being technologically more adept at showing what the value is, as well as the activities that you can do responsibly here,” Pérez-Arce says.

Booking tours through Sierra Gorda Ecotours allows travelers to offset their environmental impact, an element that the team is working to highlight in their marketing and online education. The goal is to educate would-be tourists about a form of travel that offsets their carbon footprint by contributing to forest conservation. If people understand this larger mission of ecotourism, Pérez-Arce hopes, then they will seek travel opportunities that facilitate carbon capture and natural regeneration.

Tourism for a new normal

Through an increase in remote offerings, the pandemic has expanded access to ecotourism in Mexico’s forests. Sharp hopes that, by moving online, immersive conservation experiences will reach new audiences. “I’m looking forward to the opportunity to connect with people who can’t make the trip themselves,” she says. Since the Cerro Pelón Butterfly Sanctuary can only be reached through horseback and hiking, “accessibility is a real issue. I’m excited about the possibility to reach more people who physically can’t make the trip up the mountain to see the butterfly colonies themselves.”

For those returning to in-person travel, the pandemic has highlighted the need for safe alternatives to mass tourism. “We can’t keep working like we are now, on platforms and webinars sixteen hours a day,” says Carabias. “We need open spaces and recreation.” Ecotourism provides exactly that.

During this slow season, Natura Mexicana has focused its efforts on preparing for a future in which ecotourism is the most responsible form of travel. Carabias and her team have provided safety protocol training and equipped service providers with sanitization supplies. When the tourists return, communities in the Lacandon Jungle will be ready to welcome travelers seeking a safer, more socially-distant form of travel. “As long as they can endure right now, they’re going to be very well positioned for the future,” says Carabias.

(Related: A pandemic quiets mariachis and tourism in Mexico City.)

Little by little, tourists are trickling back. The Canto de la Selva ecolodge recently booked its first reservation in eight months; a family traveling together will have the lodge to themselves, their only neighbors toucans and howler monkeys. (“I’m dying of envy,” says Carabias). She hopes that small group visits like this will increase as people look for alternatives to mass tourism. “There is no better place to be than in a natural, outdoor environment, safely distanced from others, where you have incredibly low chances of contagion,” Carabias says. “It’s the best tourism alternative that we have.”

A return to travel the way we know it may be a long way off. But in Mexico, forest communities are finding ways to adapt their ecotourism offerings. In doing so, they provide both an alternative to mass travel and a means of ongoing environmental conservation. “These sites are the sites where we can combine economic recovery, personal recreation, improvement of people’s lives, and forest conservation,” Carabias adds. “For me, this is the alternative.”

Annelise Jolley is a journalist and essayist who covers food, travel, and ecology. Her work appears in The Sunday Long Read, Hidden Compass, Civil Eats, Life & Thyme, and has been noted in The Best American Travel Writing 2019. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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