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Exclusive | Eco-Homo

Exclusive | Eco-Homo

City slicker Adam H. Graham travels all the way from the Galapagos Islands to Alaska to find an eco-oriented vacation that fits him just right.

The word ecotourism has been bandied about in a variety of ways, with many hotels, properties, and packages green-washing themselves in an attempt to come across as ecologically friendly. But what exactly is an eco-vacation? The shades of green vary, but generally anything that pays homage to nature falls under the eco umbrella, though hard-core environmentalists might argue that a genuine green vacation involves sustainable and responsible tourism (that is, staying at resorts that don?t exploit local cultures or resources) and conservation-minded practices. Renting a hybrid car and reusing your towel by hanging it on the rack, for instance, are nice eco-gestures but low in eco-merit, as opposed to lowering your carbon footprint by going car-free and staying in a hotel that uses solar power. That being said, you don?t need to live a carbon-neutral existence with howler monkeys in the Costa Rican canopy in order to have a bona fide eco-holiday. This is your vacation, after all. The first rule of eco-travel is figuring out just how green you want your trip to be.

My first eco-trip was a magazine assignment to the mecca of all green destinations -- the Galapagos -- on a boutique gay cruise. The small, 100-passenger ship wasn?t your typical party boat. The photographer and I, both in our early 30s at the time, were the youngest two lads on deck, which often made us feel like another exotic species on display as we dove among penguins and sea lions with our elders, who could more easily afford the pricey vacation. Still, we made lifelong friends during the cruise?s multiple excursions. And nobody has truly lived who hasn?t sat through a slide show presentation on reproductive evolution with 100 tipsy gay men. Surreal.

At the other extreme of eco was a kayaking and camping trip to Alaska that I booked through the Out in Alaska website. The excursion took me and two other gay (and very patient) campers deep into the Kenai Fjord Peninsula?s subarctic elements to observe killer whales, grizzly bears, and puffins amid calving icebergs. I thought of it as Outward Bound for grown gay men. And although the gentle and lovely tour organizer fluffed my pillow, hauled my kayak when we went aground near a whirling eddy, and prepared fantastic meals (blueberry pancakes with maple syrup, curried veggies, and roast salmon), the trip was a tad out of my comfort zone and was perhaps a bit too ?eco? for me. Here I discovered rule number 2 of eco-travel: Know your comfort level. There?s nothing worse than realizing on day 1 of a two-week sojourn that maybe you do need iPhone access and hot water.

These two trips were at opposite ends of the eco-spectrum, and I needed something in between. In order to hit the bull?s-eye, I ditched the gay element. Staying at the Inkaterra eco-resort in Peru was just right: super comfy tree house -- style accommodations in the cloud forest of Aguas Calientes near Machu Picchu, Wi-Fi access, a stocked fireplace, and Pisco sours everywhere I looked. It may sound more vacation than eco, but the property is entirely carbon-neutral and Peruvian-owned, and it supports many forward-thinking sustainability programs, such as the Andean Spectacled Bear Rescue Project. Ditto for And Beyond Africa?s newest properties, Xudum and Xaranna, in Botswana?s Okavango Delta. The company (formerly CC Africa) gets an A-plus for its socially and ecologically progressive plans like spearheading HIV/AIDS initiatives and opening a skills and health center near its Phinda Private Game Reserve in South Africa, but vacationing at one of its resorts will cost you from several hundred dollars to $1,375 (fully inclusive) a night. Still, the luxury and intimate interaction I got with elephants, lions, giraffes, and crocs was priceless. I also convinced my eco-ranger Mompati to bring me across the border to Zambia, which was slightly illegal but a great way to get a glimpse of the real world (I witnessed a wine-smuggling operation on the Zambezi River) outside the luxury property?s eco-plushness. After all, the world outside a resort is the path to understanding the eco-sociological aspects of any given area, and a true eco-resort shouldn?t protect or separate you from it entirely.

Top Green Getaways

?Ecotravel? can mean many things to people, but we?ve defined our top ten eco-tourism in terms of immersing oneself in overwhelming environmental beauty, be it trekking through a towering rainforest or listening to crickets chirp atop a windswept mountain. And of course, when traveling, we like to keep the lavender mixed with the green.

1. The Cloud Forests of Costa Rica
The Eco-Adventure: The Monteverde Biological Cloud Forest Reserve is perhaps the most famous wilderness spot in Costa Rica?a country that is at the forefront of protecting its more than 10,000 identified species of plants, 850 species of birds, and 800 species of butterflies, among others. This reserve in the north-central part of the country is made up of about 26,000 steep, cool, misty acres that harbor jaguars, pumas, monkeys, the legendary quetzal bird, and the golden toad, a species only known to exist in the Monteverde reserve.

Do It Gaily: Gay operator Hermes Tours ( 877-486-4335) teams up with Global Volunteers in offering a weeklong volunteer vacation in Monteverde, where travelers help to build various community projects like health care centers and additions to schools. There?s also plenty of free time to explore local butterfly gardens, orchid nurseries, horseback trails, and coffee cooperatives. The trip is even tax deductible. Add on a side trip to the gay-popular Manuel Antonio and Quepos region on the Pacific Coast for some R&R at a mellow gay beachside B&B like La Posada Casa & Bungalows (+506-2777-1446) or Hotel del Mar (+506-2777-0543).

2. Gorilla Tracking in Rwanda
The Eco-Adventure: Original eco-activist Dian Fossey first introduced the magnificent silverback gorillas that inhabit the bamboo-covered slopes of Rwanda?s Virunga Volcanoes, later chronicled in Gorillas in the Mist. Some of their closest genetic relatives, the chimpanzees (also our closest relatives in the animal kingdom), make their home in the 247,000-acre Nyungwe Forest, which dates further back than the last Ice Age and also supports 100 different species of orchids, close to 300 bird species, and 12 other species of primates. Herds of elephants, giraffes, and other big game animals wander the savannah of Akagera National Park.

Do It Gaily: This 14-day safari through Rwanda organized by Coda Tours (Coda-Tours.com; 888-677-2632) includes visits with the magical gorillas, both chimpanzee and colubus-monkey tracking, two nights at a game lodge, and a final flourish on the sandy shores of Lake Kivu. You can also milk a cow, make your own ghee, visit a coffee plantation, and share a traditional meal in the reconciliation village, where perpetrators and survivors of the Rwandan troubles live together in a unique way.

Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four

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