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7 of the World’s Best Wetlands for Wildlife Watching (and How To Visit Responsibly)

These vanishing ecosystems are true wildlife wonders.

Elephants in the Okavango Delta, Botswana
Hi, I'm Jacqueline!

Jacqueline Kehoe is a freelance writer and photographer with work seen in National Geographic, Thrillist, Travel + Leisure, and more. Find her out on the trails or at jacquelinekehoe.com.

Oceans and forests tend to get all the glory—whether it’s a newsy headline or vacation photos in your social feed—but it’s wetlands that just might be Mother Nature’s secret ingredient. Not only are they wildlife hot spots, providing habitat to more than 1,000 species in the US alone, they’re rife with flora and fauna that simply don’t exist elsewhere.

And wetlands are disappearing, all across the globe. Should you visit—and you should, as these fragile ecosystems deserve your attention—be sure to do so responsibly. Here are some of the world’s best spots to get your wetland wildlife search on, as well as tips for doing so without causing damage.

1. Elkhorn Slough, California, US

A view of Elkhorn Slough, the second-largest tract of tidal salt marsh in California.
Elkhorn Slough is a top birdwatching spot.Photo Credit: Edmund Lowe Photography / Shutterstock

Combine the convenience of a central Cali coast location with wonderful wildlife and walks.

Just north of Monterey and Carmel, Elkhorn Slough—a tidal estuary; pronounce it “sloo”—is the second-largest tract of tidal salt marsh in California, a pristine world that winds for 7 miles (11 kilometers) through the heart of Monterey Bay.

One minute you can be window shopping through exclusive art galleries, while the next you’re spying on sea lions, harbor seals, playful otters, cormorants, great and snowy egrets, and brown pelicans as you glide along quiet backwaters on a catamaran. For a memorable wildlife encounter, come in spring to catch baby otters frolicking in these gentle waters. Or—if time allows—explore the tidal creeks and marshes on foot by following the slough’s 5 miles (8 kilometers) of trails.

Responsible tip: Dr. Eva Hillman, coastal scientist and wetlands expert, reminds us to look down. “Be aware that there are some critical wetland habitats you can't easily see (for example, plant meadows underwater), and take care that boat motor props don't harm these habitats.”

2. Villa Wetlands, Lima, Peru

A view of Villa Wetlands in Lima.
Lima's Villa Wetlands are great for novice and experienced birders alike.Photo Credit: Christian Vinces / Shutterstock

Lima is home to some of the country's top birdwatching hot spots.

Though some 11 million residents call Peru’s capital city home, once you reach Lima’s coastal outskirts, everything changes. The Pantanos de Villa Wildlife Refuge makes up the only protected land within city limits, a maze of marshes and wetlands crawling with rails, grebes, teals, gulls, and hundreds more species of birds native to South America.

Whether you’re a fledgling or veteran birder, nab a guided tour to best see this under-the-radar spot and pair it with a visit to the nearby Pucasana fishing village to get some incredible “lifers” under your belt—red-legged cormorants and the hard-to-believe mustached Inca terns.

Responsible tip: Be sure to avoid rookeries or nesting sites. Parents may flee at the sight of you, abandoning their young.

3. Las Pampas, Amazon, Bolivia

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The Bolivian Pampas are replete with wildlife.Photo Credit: Toniflap / Shutterstock

Dedicate a good chunk of time to exploring this underrated region.

The Amazon isn’t all massive rainforest—the Pampas (wetlands) lie on the forest’s edge, and they’re actually better than the slightly too-dense rainforest when it comes to accessible wildlife spotting. This is about as wild as Mother Nature gets: On a raft or powered canoe, you’ll sail down the Beni, Tuichi, or Yacuma rivers looking for caimans, pink dolphins, and colorful macaws. (And about a million other hard-to-spot and hard-to-believe creatures.)

Many visitors opt to pair this wildlife experience with a tour through adjacent Madidi National Park, spending four or five days—accommodation and meals included, plus an eagle-eyed guide to help you spot the elusive creatures—to take in the best of the Pampas.

Responsible tip: It’s always important to leave no trace. “Be mindful of trash you bring into a wetland,” Hillman emphasizes. “Trash breaks down, but may not degrade, ultimately polluting our waterways, wetlands, and harming species that live there.”

4. Tuatara Wetlands, Sanctuary Mountain, New Zealand

A kakapo sits on a tree in the Tuatara Wetlands.
A kakapo in the Sanctuary Mountains, New Zealand.Photo Credit: MicroNatureNZ / Shutterstock

If you're into lesser-spotted wildlife, there are few better places to be.

Centuries ago, wetlands weren’t uncommon across New Zealand. Unfortunately, many have since been drained for agriculture and urbanization, but Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari is just as its name suggests—a restored ecological “island” made up of over 8,000 acres (3,237 hectares) of ancient forests and wetlands filled with birds, lizards, and some of New Zealand’s rarest wildlife.

Tour the sanctuary’s Tuatara Wetlands, and you just might spot the endangered kaka, the takahe (a rare flightless bird), the giant weta (one of the biggest insects on earth), and the namesake tuatara, a lizard native to New Zealand. There are no mammals here—except for humans.

Responsible tip: Sanctuary Mountain offers educational programs, volunteer opportunities, and more. Getting an education—and spreading the word—is a useful way to take care of our wetlands, too.

5. Everglades National Park, Florida, US

A view of Everglades National Park, the largest subtropical wilderness in the US, a World Heritage Site, in South Florida.
The Everglades National Park is a vast hub for wildlife watching.Photo Credit: Alex Washburn / Viator

Few places in the continental US astound quite like the sprawling Florida Everglades.

Comprising a whopping 1.5 million acres (608,000 hectares) on the southern tip of Florida, Everglades National Park is the largest subtropical wilderness in the US, a World Heritage Site, an International Biosphere Reserve, and a Wetland of International Importance. It’s an absolute maze of wetlands, swamps, coastal mangroves, sawgrass marshes, pine flatwoods, and slow-moving rivers that crawl to the sea.

And it’s home to a lot of wildlife. On just a 2-hour tour, you might catch sight of manatees, alligators, dolphins, sea turtles, herons, egrets, storks, pelicans, ibises, bald eagles, ospreys, and roseate spoonbills. Bring your wildlife checklist, bring your camera, bring your bug spray, bring your sense of wonder and focus.

Responsible tip: “Always properly "check-in" if the wetland you’re visiting is a wetland management area or refuge that requires visitors to sign-in,” says Hillman. “This is so the agency can maintain visitor logs—and for your safety.”

6. Okavango Delta, Botswana

Wildlife passes through Okavango Delta in Botswana.
Look out for rhinos, giraffes, and more in the Okavango Delta.Photo Credit: Vadim Petrakov / Shutterstock

A different kind of African safari experience.

Not all African safaris happen over land; some happen over water. A guided tour will take you across this UNESCO World Heritage Site on a “mokoro,” a traditional dugout canoe, exploring one of Africa’s greatest sanctuaries. This massive inland delta floods seasonally, providing a temporary beacon for wildlife from hippos and giraffes to rhinos, lions, and crocodiles.

On your trip, you’ll tent up at a mobile camp, eventually wandering away from the water and onto the savannahs and plains of Moremi Game Reserve searching for even more wildlife. Be sure to get here between June and August for the most memorable experience.

Responsible tip: In these magical places, be as unobtrusive as possible. Keep noise and light to a minimum, especially at night.

7. Isabela Island, Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

Blue-footed boobies stand on a rock on Isabela Island.
Blue-footed boobies on Isabela Island.Photo Credit: Alberto Loyo / Shutterstock

What better place to admire wildlife and wetlands than the Galapagos?

If there’s one place that’s synonymous with wildlife, it’s the Galapagos Islands, where Charles Darwin found inspiration for The Origin of Species. Situated 600 miles (965 kilometers) west of mainland Ecuador, these 13 isles are all rife with stunning landscapes and wildlife, but Isabela Island is by far the largest. Expect to find massive wetlands and reefs, five different species of giant tortoises, more Galapagos penguins than anywhere else, flightless cormorants, pink lizards, and blue-footed boobies.

On a walking tour through the island’s wetlands, be sure to look out for other elusive creatures such as fur seals and sea lions; Frigate and red-billed tropicbirds; flamingos and mangrove finches; marine iguanas and Storm petrels.

Responsible tip: Don’t mess with the flora and fauna, whether that’s picking flowers or accidentally bringing in invasive plant matter. “Introducing non-native species can disrupt the ecosystem and reduce the abundance of native species and other associated species,” explains Hillman. “Wetlands are delicately balanced!”

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