On The Beaten Track

We came, we saw…and every so often we left entire landscapes worse for the wear. Outside grades the good and the bad of five classic destinations.

Yearbook pictures were never this good: inhabitants of the Galapagos ham for the camera and their A- outlook     Photo: Weststock



THE REGION
ANNAPURNA CIRCUIT, NEPAL
HOW IT RATES
Conservation Efforts C
Community Involvement B-
Outlook C+

THE LOWDOWN
Since Nepal opened its doors to outsiders in the 1950s, Western trekkers have flocked to the Annapurna region by the tens of thousands—bringing with them a demand for firewood and cheap labor. By the mid-1980s, large swaths of pine forest had been cut, ill-equipped porters working for $2 a day were dying of exposure, and enough ramen wrappers littered the ground to earn the area a reputation as one of the highest trash heaps on earth. The nonprofit Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP), charged with managing the area since 1986, teaches locals about alternative fuels, waste disposal, and fair labor conditions; groups like the Boulder, Colorado-based Himalayan Explorers Connection (www.hec.org) assist porters by collecting clothing donations and lobbying for better wages and working conditions. But without enforced government mandates, outfitters have no incentive to jump on the bandwagon, and both workers and the environment continue to suffer. Meanwhile, the recent Maoist uprisings have brought tourism here to a near-standstill. This may help the ecosystem, but it hurts the economy.

THE GREENEST WAY TO GO NOW
The adventure outfitter KarmaQuest (650-560-0101, www.karmaquests.com) emphasizes interaction with local villagers and donates up to 5 percent of its take to ACAP. The company's Annapurna Circuit trips are on hold until the region stabilizes; in the meantime, try its 12-day trek through the calmer Langtang Valley.

THE REGION
GALÁPAGOS ISLANDS, ECUADOR
HOW IT RATES
Conservation Efforts A
Community Involvement B
Outlook A-

THE LOWDOWN
Even Darwin would likely appreciate how tourism benefits this arid archipelago, home to the mockingbirds and finches that inspired his evolutionary theory. The logic is economic: By providing island residents with alternative job opportunities, the travel sector discourages them from turning to the region's most destructive industry, illegal fishing. Annual visits by some 60,000 natural-history buffs have helped create jobs for more than 1,000 locals, and the Galápagos, a protected area since 1959, has the controls in place to limit their impact: Tourists must stick to 60 designated sites and travel with park-certified guides, and strict laws cover everything from trash disposal to shoe-washing (required to prevent the introduction of foreign species). But with only two boats on hand to patrol 23,000 square miles of ocean, illegal tuna, shark, and sea-cucumber fishing continues to be a problem. Unless the Galápagos National Park Service finds funding for additional surveillance boats and increases fines for fishing violations, the islands' stellar eco-record may be tarnished within this decade.

THE GREENEST WAY TO GO NOW
Untamed Path (800-349-1050, www.untamedpath.com) employs local naturalist guides and charters eight- to 16-passenger boats (quieter and less obtrusive than the standard 90-man yachts), so you'll have access to quiet nooks—and giant tortoises, dolphins, and sea lions—that the mega-yachts can only long for from a distance.

THE REGION
MASAI MARA NATIONAL RESERVE, KENYA
HOW IT RATES
Conservation Efforts C+
Community Involvement C+
Outlook C

THE LOWDOWN
In the low season, it's a sight more common than the Big Five: Land Rovers zooming across the plains to encircle a lone, wigged-out cheetah. Safari guides, under pressure to secure the perfect photo op for paying customers, too often let environmental concerns fall by the wayside. The standards—or lack thereof—were set in the 1960s, when Kenya's post-independence government recognized safari tourism as a potential cash cow and encouraged foreign development but neglected to protect the land and wildlife. While the standards have been raised since the 583-square-mile Masai Mara was turned into a national reserve in 1974, little has been done to encourage lodges to properly handle garbage and wastewater, reduce firewood consumption at the region's 25 camps and lodges, or compensate the original Masai inhabitants booted off their land. Despite a few recent positive steps—the Kenya Professional Guides Association is testing guides on game-park ethics, and the Ecotourism Society of Kenya has developed a very basic lodge certification program—little passes eco-muster in the world's most popular wildlife-watching destination.

THE GREENEST WAY TO GO NOW
Dream Camp (011-254-2-57-74-90, www.dreamtravel.co.ke), on the banks of the Talek River, is a progressive anomaly for Kenya. Spend your nights in one of 15 thatch-roofed tents with solar power and hot showers. By day, follow expert Masai guides on foot to spot lions, cheetahs, and wildebeests without disturbing their habitats.

THE REGION
INCA TRAIL, PERU
HOW IT RATES
Conservation Efforts C+
Community Involvement B
Outlook C

THE LOWDOWN
As recently as the 1970s, Peru's 30-mile path from the Urubamba River to the ancient city of Machu Picchu, at 7,710 feet, appeared untouched. A decade later, travelers joked that you didn't need a guide to get up there—you could just follow the toilet paper. Despite the international cleanup efforts that began in the mid-1980s, repairing the damage done by as many as 900 hikers a day proved to be, well, an uphill battle. Promising change came in 2000: The area was declared a national park, and new laws required that visitors be accompanied by an officially licensed guide. A porter strike in 2001 led to a maximum weight limit of 20 kilograms (about 44 pounds) per bag and a minimum wage of $8 per day. And starting this year, a daily limit of 450 hikers will be imposed, cutting high-season traffic in half. "The Inca Trail is better than it's been," says Kurt Kutay, longtime guide and owner of Seattle-based Wildland Adventures. "But if you're looking for a wilderness experience, go somewhere else."

THE GREENEST WAY TO GO NOW
Hike the Inca Trail, with Wildland Adventures (800-345-4453, www.wildland.com), which runs small-group trips with four to ten people to minimize impact and limit trail crowding, and is staffed entirely by locals. Wildland has also run trash-removal trips to pick up all that toilet paper that littered the trail.

THE REGION
MONTEVERDE CLOUD FOREST RESERVE, COSTA RICA
HOW IT RATES
Conservation Efforts A
Community Involvement A
Outlook A

THE LOWDOWN
In 1954, three decades before Costa Rica became the world's first packaged-ecotourism destination, a group of conscientious-objector American Quakers bought a chunk of orchid-and-fern-dotted forest in the 5,000-foot Tilarán Mountains, resolving to protect it from the devastation of slash-and-burn agriculture. When the San José-based nonprofit Tropical Science Center took over in 1972, it upheld that commitment to preservation. Home to endangered jaguars, three-toed sloths, and more than 400 bird species, the 25,950-acre Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve today sees upwards of 55,000 visitors a year and remains an international model for tourism-centered conservation. Only 150 people can visit at a time, and tourists must keep to a few marked trails that cover only 2 percent of the reserve. Tourism has created a thriving market for the local weaving-and-handicrafts co-op, and key decisions, like the one to limit the number of visitors, are made with input from local residents.

THE GREENEST WAY TO GO NOW
"Responsible" doesn't have to mean basic. Four miles from the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, The Monteverde Lodge (011-506-257-0766, www.costaricaexpeditions.com) has solar-powered Jacuzzis, a cozy bar where all glass and paper are recycled, and a fern-and-bromeliad garden that draws cloudforest wildlife to your doorstep.

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