1 Galapagos, Ecuador

How could anything but the Galapagos islands take the top spot? It annihilates the competition for two reasons: (1) much of the wildlife here is endemic to the Galapagos, which means you can’t see these species anywhere else, and (2) the animals are so used to groups of staring humans passing through that they are incredibly tame.

As a result, you are guaranteed to see them and get your picture taken with them (though obviously don’t interfere with them – the Galapagos is host to a delicate ecosystem and tourism poses a significant threat).

The selection of creatures on show here is nothing short of astounding. Blue-footed boobies – comical-looking seabirds with incongruously bright-blue feet – are irresistibly endearing. On the not-so-cute end of the scale, coal-black marine iguanas stalk the islands wearing an expression that denotes pleasure in evil-doings, their villainous demeanour enhanced by a habit of regularly sneezing out violent jets of snot. This is the delightful manner in which the iguanas expel excess salt from the marine algae that forms their diet. Charles Darwin called them the “imps of darkness”. Go snorkelling from the islands’ beaches and these malevolent lizards will be swimming alongside you.

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Also sharing the water with you are Galapagos sea lions, a species so unabashed by human company that the young will feed from their mothers as you walk past them on land.

Often a Galapagos trip will save the most mind-boggling animal until last – the Galapagos giant tortoise, 400kg beasts easily justifies the grand title. Try not to gawp too much, out of respect for your elders – these guys usually live more than 100 years in the wild.

Of course, this sort of one-off experience comes at a price, and getting yourself to the Galapagos can seldom be done for under a grand. Approach it backpacker-style and trawl the city of Guayaquil for a late deal – we found ourselves on a five-star cruise at the bargain price of £750 by doing just that.


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2 Bwindi, Uganda

The rather confrontational name that is Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park turns out to be an empty threat, fortunately – home to half the world’s population of the critically endangered mountain gorilla, this area has four habituated groups of the animal open to tourism.

You won’t forget an encounter with these powerful primates, which, in spite of their stature, are considered surprisingly gentle.


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3 Masai Mara, Kenya

Known for its exceptional lion, leopard and cheetah population, Masai Mara is believed by many to be the ultimate safari destination.

The Big Five are all present and correct – lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo, rhino – with zebras, giraffes, and hippos also thrown in for good measure. The famous migration of zebra, gazelles and wildebeest from the Serengeti in Tanzania between July and October is also a huge draw.


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4 Churchill, Canada

Home to all three of North America’s great bears – the grizzly, the black and the polar – Canada is a great place to
see a range of fearsome fuzzies.

Perhaps most impressive is the polar – the world’s largest bear. The small town of Churchill is invaded by about 1000 of them every October as they make their way to Hudson Bay, a fortuitous spot for hunting seals. Operators run tours in ‘tundra buggies’ at this time of year, and you can expect the bears to get frighteningly close.


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5 Sabah, Borneo

The Bornean orangutan is an endangered species, thanks largely to deforestation. 

In Malaysian Borneo, the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre was the first official rehab project to devote itself to the species, opening in 1964. It’s a popular spot to see these incredible – and rapidly diminishing – great apes. With their shaggy red coats, expressive faces and gangly arms that can measure up to two metres, they easily beat Prince Harry to the coveted spot of ‘favourite ginger’ in our hearts.