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Valley of Desolation
Jill Lawless  /  AP
The Valley of Desolation on Dominica is an eerie, treeless swath of volcanic devastation striped black and orange with mineral deposits and swirling with mist and steam.
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updated 4/19/2007 8:13:03 PM ET 2007-04-20T00:13:03

Are you an eco-adventurer? If your idea of a perfect trip is getting up close and personal with the natural world, you'll want to check out one of these dream destinations for ecotourists. From lush jungles and colorful coral reefs to sprawling savannas and fabulous fjords, the five regions we've selected encompass some of the earth's most distinctive ecosystems.

To make our list, it wasn't enough for a place to be blessed with extraordinary natural resources; it was equally important that those resources are being cared for. We chose these five destinations not only for their unique biodiversity but also for a local commitment to maintaining the beauty and integrity of these places through sustainable tourism. And remember — visitors must do their part as well, as the parts of the earth with the greatest ecological diversity are often the most threatened. If you choose to visit, it's more important than ever to follow our tips for green travel to ensure that these places remain beautiful and unspoiled for many years to come.

Palau
Long before it was featured on the 10th season of "Survivor," the island nation of Palau was recognized as one of the world's foremost diving destinations. In the crystal-clear sea just off the coast is a colorful underwater wonderland, featuring more than 500 species of coral teeming with some 1,400 kinds of fish. On land, travelers can wander along unspoiled beaches or go trekking through dense jungles. Palau's remote location in the westernmost corner of Micronesia has helped to shield both its natural resources and its cultural traditions from the detrimental effects of mass tourism, and the locals are working to make sure their island paradise stays pristine well into the future. The Palau Conservation Society manages nearly two dozen conservation areas and encourages sustainable development to protect the islands' fragile ecosystems.

Costa Rica
Costa Rica is practically synonymous with the term "ecotourism," and for good reason. Misty cloud forests, black sand beaches and rushing river rapids offer outdoor activities for both casual nature enthusiasts and hardcore adventure travelers. A dazzling array of creatures live in Costa Rica's national parks and wildlife refuges, including monkeys, sloths, crocodiles, manatees, herons, sea turtles and poison dart frogs. Environmentally conscious travelers have their choice of eco-friendly accommodations; the Costa Rican Tourism Institute and Key to Costa Rica maintain lists of green hotels, resorts and lodges.

Norwegian Fjords
Their remote location and strict environmental regulations have helped preserve the pristine beauty of Norway's famous fjords, with their snowcapped mountains, tumbling waterfalls and crystal-clear waters. Visitors can go hiking or biking over the rugged terrain, or take a scenic boat ride through the towering fjords. A wide variety of wildlife lives here, including eagles, seals, porpoises and seabirds. Along with the region's natural attractions, the fjords are also home to many small fishing villages where local cultural traditions have survived for hundreds of years.

As an international leader in environmental policy, Norway has taken care to protect its unique coastline by regulating the fishing, whaling, sealing and petroleum industries. For more information, visit the Norwegian Embassy Web site.

Kerala, India
The small state of Kerala, on India's southwestern coast, is often referred to as "God's Own Country" — a label that doesn't seem at all hyperbolic once you've visited its clean sandy beaches and lush virgin forests. This is one of India's most unspoiled corners, home to hundreds of unique animal species and nearly a quarter of the country's 10,000 plant species. The nilgiri tahr, an endangered mountain goat, takes shelter in Rajamala National Park, while elephants, bison and wild boar roam freely within the Lake Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary. In the past Kerala's ecosystems were threatened by excessive forest clearing, but these days many of the state's forests are now protected, and tourist officials are encouraging environmentally responsible travel to the area. One promising sign is the development of Thenmala Ecotourism, the first "planned ecotourism destination" in India. Nature trails, educational facilities and adventure activities are offered with the overarching goals of ecological sustainability and economic benefits to the local population.

Kenya
Kenya is best known for its wide savannas teeming with lions and elephants, but most travelers don't know that it's also home to mountains, lakes, rain forests, deserts and beaches, each with its own unique ecosystem and wildlife. Kenya's incredible natural diversity is protected in some 50 national parks and reserves across the country, from the virgin rain forests of the Kakamega Forest Reserve to the wildebeests who migrate to the Maasai Mara National Reserve every July and August. On the coast, travelers can walk down pristine white beaches or go diving along colorful coral reefs. All tourism occurs under the watchful eye of Ecotourism Kenya, which works to protect the local environment through community outreach and education projects. The organization also rates lodges throughout Kenya based on their environmental policies.

The Independent Traveler is an interactive traveler's exchange and comprehensive online travel guide for a community of travelers who enjoy the fun of planning their own trips and the adventure of independent travel. You can access our wealth of travel resources and great bargains here at www.independenttraveler.com, or at www.bargainbox.com.

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