How to Do Serious Nature and Wildlife Travel On a Budget

 Nature and wildlife travel on a budget is usually quite difficult to do well.

I’m not talking about staying at some “eco” hotel or piece of farmland where the owners have decided to throw a couple of “eco huts” up around a man-made lake.

I’m talking about visiting significant expanses of well-preserved habitat located on privately owned pieces of land either inside or abutting national parks and biosphere reserves that provide access to thriving ecosystems. 

Getting to these places requires, depending on where you live, an international flight, followed by land, boat and/or air travel once in-country.

Did you really come all the way to the Ecuadorian Amazon or Namib Desert for the presence of an authentic wildlife and nature experience? Overhunted, overgrazed land dominated by a few kinds of plants and animals?; a palm oil plantation that doubles as an “eco” resort? Something so close to town you can hear car horns and motorbikes?

But don’t despair. That bucket list trip is possible, and you don’t have to wait until you’re retired with gout and high blood pressure to enjoy the best our planet has to offer. Let’s face it, if you’re in your 20s, 30s and 40s, what do you imagine the world’s biodiversity hotspots are going to look like by mid-century?

With that in mind, here’s some advice for more budget-conscious nature and wildlife travelers who don’t want to sacrifice on the location but need to economize to make it work.

First consideration: the time of year

The time of year you decide to visit a site can have a big impact on your total costs.

It’s usually going to cost more to stay at a popular lodge or camp during the high season and any international flights will likely fluctuate in price quite substantially from one season to the next.

That said, depending on what you are hoping to see, your hands might be tied when it comes to the time of year you are able to visit. 

If you want to see Humpback Whales along Colombia’s Pacific Coast, for example, July-October are the best months. They coincide with annual migrations that always happen around, more or less, the same time. 

If you show up in January, the whales (at least the humpbacks) will be gone. But you could very likely be paying less for your accommodation.

If you’re less picky about your target species–you just want to enjoy a biodiversity hotspot, and whatever mother nature ends up gracing you with–then it matters less when you arrive and you can schedule your trip around the rates.

Continuing with the Colombia example, if the main objective is to experience the Chocó-Darién forest on Colombia’s Pacific coast which, in addition to being a natural wonder, is one of the wettest places on earth, with no real marked wet and dry seasons, outside of some specific natural phenomena (like the whale migration), a place like Bahia Solano or Nuqui is going to be fantastic all year round. 

Going outside of that whale watching season might mean the difference between $100 per night for room and board and $200. It also might mean you get the entire place to yourself.

This applies to sought after nature and wildlife tourism destinations around the world. If you’re willing to brave the monsoon season, May through September is a cheaper and less chaotic time to visit Thailand’s wonderful national parks.

Second consideration: where you stay

Visiting the world’s biodiversity hotspots is never “cheap”, but it can be prohibitively expensive.

Much of Africa, the Galapagos, Suriname and the Guyanas, and the Artic, come to mind.  

The transportation and logistical realities in these places, of course, make them pricier, but they also tend to be marketed to a specific kind of person, with no real options for anyone who is serious about their wildlife but unable to afford the luxury.

But, if you are willing to sacrifice creature comforts and accept a much more a la carte and self-serve experience in some of these places, you will often find accommodation options that are not only much less expensive, but that put you in the middle of far more impressive habitat. 

Take a place like the Ecuadorian Amazon, for example. 

Ecuador’s Napo Moist Forests, and places like the Yasuni Biosphere Reserve, contain some of the highest biodiversity anywhere on the planet, and Ecuador’s nature and wildlife tourism industry, particularly in the Amazon, is well-established and full of options. 

What you might not realize, especially if you’re a more casual nature tourist–someone who doens’t do a ton of research into a place, its ecosystem, the environmental history and threats, location-specific flora and fauna–is that the most frequented, most reviewed and best-marketed lodges are not even inside the Yasuni protected area. 

That dark green M-shaped splotch is Yasuni National Park and almost everything, save for Napo Wildlife Centre, is outside of it. 

They are too close to the town of Coca, or they’re on the other side of the Yasuni River, also outside the protected area. 

Overhunting, solid waste disposal and recycling issues, natural resource extraction, human activity and habitation, not to mention the fact that you’re surrounded by so many other lodges, mean you’re getting a watered-down Amazon experience. 

Of course, the point of being in a place like this is to enter the national park itself, which you definitely will. 

But you are paying more for less at these kinds of places, at least when it comes to Amazonian immersion. Yes, you can have a piña colada at the end of the day, or schedule a massage, and the kids will love the tribal welcome ceremony, but it is an amazon-lite experience as far as nature and wildlife are concerned.

The alternative

The good news is that there are usually sites within the protected areas themselves that cost less and provide a richer wildlife experience. 

In my Ecuador example above, that place would be the Tiputini Biodiversity Station. 

This is a research-first facility inside the Yasuni protected area. It is much deeper in the park, far away from the casuals and the anti-immersive 20-person-boat organized tours. 

It takes much longer to get here (which you have to pay for), but the per/night cost is actually lower than many of the lodge options further to the west, outside of the park. 

You may be surprised to learn that there are places like this all over the world.

They are often small and poorly publicized research sites that accept non-academic visitors, located in a region’s most pristine habitats. Seasoned birdwatchers probably know about these places (because they know about all the best spots), but many exist under the radar of other serious nature and wildlife travelers who would also appreciate them.

Third consideration: your gear

Most people probably buy at least one new piece of gear before each trip. Maybe it’s a post-Christmas trip, you added a couple of inches to your waist, and those old quick dry pants don’t fit you anymore. 

Maybe that old running injury is acting up and you need a jungle boot with better arch support. 

Maybe you regretted not having decent binoculars on your last trip and told yourself that, next time around, you would invest in a pair. 

Maybe you are looking to upgrade your current camera. You want something with good autofocus, a decent-sized sensor, good ISO range, but you can’t afford your trip and drop $2-3k on a new camera+lens.

Whatever it is, there is great gear out there that is built to last and won’t make you feel guilty about buying it. 

More budget-friendly optics

If you regretted not having binoculars on your past trip–maybe the birdwatching at the last place you were at was so good that it made you a birder–and told yourself you wouldn’t make the same mistake on your next adventure, you can get something from a reputable brand like Bushnell or Nikon for under a hundred bucks. 

If you have always wanted a spotting scope, there are spotting scopes out there from respected optics manufacturers like Celestron for Gosky for under $200. 

Camera and camera accessories

Photography and wildlife travel go hand in hand, and your photography equipment will almost certainly be your biggest capital cost. 

This includes your camera body, any lenses you might use (telephoto, macro, wide angle), tripods, strobes and external flashes, underwater housings, etc.. 

You can drop a couple of grand on the newest camera body, or you can buy older technology for under $1000–cameras that have shot Wildlife Photographer of the Year Awards but don’t have 8K video and 50MP sensors. 

At the end of the day, a good-resolution image with fantastic composition is a more compelling photo than one with amazing resolution but bad composition. 

If you are passionate about underwater photography and videography but don’t want to spring for an expensive housing, you can shoot great photos and video with most modern phones (and an underwater casing) or something like the Olympus TG-6–a budget-friendly, high-quality underwater point-and-shoot.

Flashlights and headlamps

If you are someone who spends a significant portion of their time looking for nocturnal animals–reptiles and amphibians, nocturnal mammals, owls, invertebrates, etc.–then you no doubt have at least one flashlight/headlamp and several spare lithium-ion batteries.

You don’t need to second mortgage your house to get a quality high-intensity rechargeable flashlight from a reputable brand like Olight, Fenix or Streamlight.

The bottom line is that you don’t need to drop thousands and thousands on gear if you don’t want to in order to observe wildlife and capture beautiful images and videos of nature. 

Fourth consideration: bring a tent or hammock

A lot of places–whether they’re lodges, national parks, private reserves or research stations–have more than one accommodation option. 

Very often, they are marketed to different budgets–the deluxe room with sea view vs the garden room; the bunk bed dorm and the shared bathroom vs the two-person cabin with ensuite. 

To each his own, but another option that many places have (or which you can try to negotiate if you like) is tent and/or hammock camping. 

You can get a hammock with a mosquito net that weighs a couple of pounds or an instant tent that weighs less than 5lbs. They’re affordable, easy to pack and are good emergency options if you really want to stay somewhere while you’re traveling but they’re full up.

Ideally, you want to set either of these up under man-made structures so that you’ve got a decent roof over your head. 

Some places will even offer you the option of pitching a tent or hanging a hammock and sleeping outside. You can still pay for a meal plan, but it is often possible to significantly reduce your accommodation costs if you’re willing to rough it a bit. 

Certain places are not going to be amenable to this because it runs contrary to what they’re selling (i.e., an exclusive luxury experience). 

But other places will be happy to take your money. I’ve negotiated a custom hammock/tent camping rate on more than one occasion. 

This hostel bordering the Fortuna Hydrological Reserve (a Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute Site) had a full house and allowed my brother and I to hang out hammocks from the rafters underneath the dining area for a greatly reduced fee. In hindsight, we should have brought sleeping bags. 

Fifth consideration: volunteering

Depending on how shoestring your budget is, another option is to trade your time for access.

There are places located in spectacular pieces of habitat around the world that accept volunteers on a case-by-case basis.

If you’ve ever wanted to do a big five safari in South Africa but know you’re not going to have the cash for a while, a volunteer opportunity at a place like Siyafunda, that puts you up close to African wildlife in gorgeous Limpopo Lowveld habitat, is not a bad compromise.

You have to cover some upfront costs, but the rest of the time, you are essentially helping with serious field work and monitoring. 

I’ve volunteered in Bocas del Toro, Panama, through Workaway–busting my hump hauling wood and planting bananas by day, while fieldherping Atlantic Moist Forest by night and snorkeling on the weekends. 

I’ve also met people doing the same things while staying at places as a guest. 

A birdwatching lodge I go to every year called La Isla Escondida in Putumayo, Colombia, often has people working there who are volunteering their time and skills in exchange for room and board and a chance to take in the pristine Amazonian foothill forests surrounding the lodge. 

Depending on your energy levels, skill set and work ethic, it’s not impossible to arrange an extended wildlife and nature tourism workcation for yourself, hopping from jungle to jungle, reef to reef. 

Serious nature and wildlife travel on a budget is possible

You don’t need to save for years to see the phenomenal nature. 

If you’re willing to be flexible with the time of year you travel, where and how you stay and can compromise on the gear you invest in, you can have the kinds of wildlife experiences that usually only the affluent, scientists, documentary filmmakers and the people living in these places get to have. 

And why shouldn’t you be able to? It’s your world too.

Of course, some experiences will be difficult, if not impossible, to do on a middle-class budget–especially the way the global economy looks (in 2023). A guided gorilla safari in Virunga or a week-long liveaboard in the Maldives will cost many thousands of dollars per person. 

Want to take your family on a trip like that and you’re looking at 5 figures, easy.

But, if you commit to making wildlife the primary objective of your trip while avoiding or rejecting anything extraneous, you will find that, with some flexibility and some hardiness, you can see the world’s threatened and dying biodiversity hotspots for less than you think.