There are officially no places on Earth that are “untouched” by mankind. The sprawling fingers of industrialization have grasped the whole planet by either physically exploiting areas or changing the climate. The amount of naturally beautiful places in the world is in decline.
And yet, the world holds forth a great bounty of beauty. Yes, preserving nature is an onerous task, but governments and environmental organizations are working to defend the pristine landscapes of plants and animals that remain. Here, we’ll look at how a few amazing places remain mostly untouched. A number of them also rely on ecotourism to support the preservation efforts, so traveling there can be a social good as well.
Namibia — Namib Desert
Namibia has a close relationship with nature, being home to the Namib Desert, one of the oldest and largest deserts in the world. The desert spans 31,000 square miles, running along the western coast of Africa. The country is named after the desert, instead of the other way around (nama means “vast place” in the Khoekhoe language). While deserts are more noted for their dryness than their beauty, the great, uninhabited landscape is captivating.
Namibia is noted for being the first in Africa to include stipulations for protecting the environment in its constitution. The government allows communities to create communal conservancies to care for the land, which have helped restore animal populations. Namibia is a destination for ecotourism, as it’s home to cheetahs, rhinos and zebras, as well as incredible scenery. There are still threats to the natural order, largely caused by clashes between people and wildlife, but there is extensive work being done to conserve the country.
Australia — Kakadu National Park
Australia is one of the biggest nature-tourist destinations in the world. This is largely thanks to human society staying primarily on the edges of the country, making the interior a vast natural landscape. The primary environmental legislation passed was the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act of 1999, which provides a number of protections for the flora and fauna of the country. Australia has a number of different places needing protection, including the Great Barrier Reef, the rainforests and the outback. Australia is perhaps best-known for the outback, which attracts people from all over the world with its eclectic wildlife. Most people picture the whole place as an arid desert filled with kangaroos, but it is home to a number of different climatic areas, including rainforests.
One protected area within the outback is Kakadu National Park, which is about half the size of Switzerland. It has a rich, diverse population of birds, trees and termites (they make 6-foot-tall mounds!). It also is notable because it is run by Aboriginal people, who have lived in the area for 65,000 years. Despite protections, the park is not free from environmental controversy. In the middle of the park is the Ranger Uranium Mine, which has a troubled history of pollution. But the park remains an awe-inspiring and educational resource in Australia.
Costa Rica — La Amistad International Park
Costa Rica is pretty small, but it contains one of the most complex ecosystems in the world. There are as many species in this one country as there are in all of North America combined. And because of its rich natural resources and delicate biome, Costa Rica is at constant threat of being hurt by development, deforestation and destruction. Fortunately, a large portion of the country is covered by protected zones, national parks, reserves and wetlands.
One such protected area is La Amistad International Park, the largest park in Costa Rica, which comprises over a million acres of rainforest. It also spreads into Panama to the south. Costa Rica is well-known for ecotourism, but this particular park gets fewer visitors, as it’s rather remote and the terrain is mountainous. It is well-protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it is home to a huge amount of biodiversity, but much of it still remains unexplored.
Switzerland — Swiss National Park
The Yale Environmental Performance Index reviews 180 countries on 24 different metrics to determine which have the greatest commitment to the natural world. The score is based on air quality, water and sanitation, biodiversity and a range of other factors. In 2018, the country that ranks number one is Switzerland, which has a very strong commitment to its environment. European countries generally have high scores, making up 17 of the top 20 countries on the list.
One of the biggest moves toward protecting the environment came in 1914, when Switzerland designated a huge portion of the Alps mountain range to become the Swiss National Park. It’s the only national park in all of Switzerland, but it’s pretty massive, with over 40,000 acres filled with natural life, including chamois, deer and marmots. The park is a popular site for hiking and camping, but the stated goal of the park is to keep humans largely in the background, allowing nature to run its course.
Ecuador — Yasuni National Park
Like Costa Rica, Ecuador has a bananas amount of biodiversity, with some estimates saying it’s the most biodiverse country in the world. The country also has a bananas amount of bananas, being the world’s largest banana exporter. The country faces some of the biggest threats to nature, due to the frightening rate of deforestation of the Amazon Rainforest and invading mining interests. Because of this, Ecuador has become a test case for conservation.
At the center of the conservation efforts is Yasuni National Park. Ecuador was once considered one of the most radical protectors of nature, being the only country to recognize the rights of nature in its constitution. The weakening of this commitment began when an oil reserve was discovered in Yasuni National Park. In the years since then, concessions have been made, and mining has begun in limited sections. Still, Yasuni National Park remains a massive and beautiful park. People describe each visit as a truly amazing experience, where you can see more species of animal in a single visit than in the rest of your life combined.
Antarctica — The Whole Continent
Nobody owns Antarctica, but that doesn’t mean there are no environmental rules in place. The Antarctic Treaty was put into place in the 1960s and included a number of regulations. Antarctica is the largest area on Earth that hasn’t been exploited by humans, and that’s thanks in part to the treaty banning hunting, mining, disposal of waste, sealing and pretty much anything else that could negatively impact the environment. Thus, Antarctica is a haven, almost entirely safe from humanity.
The United States — Acadia National Park
The United States has a long history of conservation. Starting in the late 19th century, there was a big push by citizens and politicians alike to protect the country’s landscapes. Thanks to popular books showing off the beauty of American nature and the concerning spread of industrialization, people took quick action to pass laws establishing Yellowstone National Park in 1872, Yosemite National Park in 1890 and the National Park Service in 1916. You can learn a lot more about it in Ken Burns’ 6-part docuseries The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.
One of the parks created in the early 20th century was Acadia National Park, though it was called Sieur de Monts National Monument at the time. Located on an island off the coast of Maine, it’s the only national park in the northeastern United States. With over 49,000 acres of land, the park is popular for camping, hiking and stargazing (it’s one of the only places in New England where you can see the Milky Way Galaxy). There’s also Bass Harbor Head Light, a very popular lighthouse located on the island, which used to warn ships of the rocky shores that surrounded Acadia.