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25 Great Ecolodges

So much depends upon a red poison dart frog.

We have been in Panama only a few days, but already we're wise to the promise and peril a little jungle bling can bring. It's no secret that the country longs to tap its abundant natural resources to compete with neighboring Costa Rica on the toucan tour circuit, but Panama's campaign to become the next eco-Eden still feels a little unpolished.

On our first night, my wife, Ruth, and I find true conservation visionaries, like Raúl Arias de Para, the gracious bankerturned bird-watcher, whose radical Canopy Tower guesthouse (see No. 10), which sits above the Canal near Panama City, is a converted U.S. Air Force radar station. And yet a few nights later, at Gamboa Rainforest Resort, a $28 million hotel selling itself as the ultimate luxe bio-reserve, we're issued green wristbands (a tag-and-release program, if you will) that let us indulge in Jungle Burgers ("broiled for the predator") from the 24-hour room-service menu in our air-conditioned suite. While watching HBO. If we want nature, I'm sure the guest-relations manager will have a bellman whisk it to our room.

For several years, I've been researching a book on the world's most inventive earth-friendly getaways, and I keep running into the same sticky mix. One hotel's idea of ecotourism is another's ploy to cash in on conscience. Some eco-sensitive retreats ask guests to reuse towels and insist they've saved the world. Others can't seem to do enough to serve the three-tiered mission of responsible tourism: positive impact on the environment, on the local culture, and on the traveler.

The great joy of treading lightly, even as I shoo scorpions in Belize, clink across glaciers in Canada, and brave puddle jumpers through the Australian outback, comes from eschewing the conveniences we usually take for granted only to discover how rich life can be without them.

Make that rich and eclectic. No two eco-hotels are exactly alike, and of the hundreds around the world, the following 25 stand apart not only because they engage in responsible tourism, but also because they merit distinction in one of four categories. Some are unusually stylish, others pay special respect to the local wildlife, some are pillars of a threatened culture, and a few are remarkable merely for their existence at the far reaches of the world. And they all help solve the Zen-like riddle every conscientious pleasure-seeker must unravel: How can you indulge without being self-indulgent?

Which brings us finally to that intriguing little red frog. It's our last night in the jungle, and Ruth and I are gazing eye-to-beady-eye with the tiny critter. Small as a quarter, it is a curious thing with shiny strawberry-colored skin. Its poison secretions are so rich and novel, a host of biochemists are trying to figure out whether they can be useful as medicine.

And that makes our stay at the nearby ecolodge nothing short of magical. Because not only is Al Natural a glorious place to sleep (see No. 20), but it's also providing jobs to the local Ngobe-Bugle Indians, which in turn benefits the economy, which thereby keeps resort developers at bay (at least for the moment). All of which helps protect the fragile Central American ecosystem for the hoppy red frog. And that's good news for all of us, because this particular amphibian isn't found anywhere else on earth.


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