Image: Amazon rain forest
Erik Sampers  /  Getty Images
Among rain forests, the Amazon reigns supreme: It comprises some 1.4 billion acres, predominantly in Brazil but including parts of eight other nations.
updated 1/18/2011 4:26:58 PM ET 2011-01-18T21:26:58

Even the urban jungle's most dedicated denizens, so caught up in asphalt and ambition, could do well to remember the green worlds beyond their horizon. What better way to start than a foray into the densest, most richly diverse wildernesses this world has to offer? Rain forests are the rock stars of Earth's ecosystems, generating nearly a third of the planet's oxygen turnover and hosting mind-boggling biodiversity. From soaring vines and canopies to majestic fauna sheltered in a huge canopy of green, they practically demand an audience.

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Despite the stark facts that rain forests once covered 14% of the earth's land surface and now cover only six percent, and that thousands of species continue to be lost each year to deforestation, the rain does not stop, and there is still plenty of luxuriant terrain to explore and discover.

Slideshow: The most amazing rain forests

So much, in fact, that it can be difficult to choose which rain forest to begin with: from reserves in Australia to Belize to British Columbia and beyond, opportunities for adventurous travelers abound. Depending on the destination, you can either incorporate a rain forest visit into a broader itinerary, such as in Australia or Hawaii, or make it the centerpiece of a trip — for instance, a week-long river cruise though the heart of the vast Amazon rain forest.

The planet's major rain forests are found in the intertropical convergence zone, a region over the tropical oceans where the tradewinds from the northern and southern hemispheres converge, creating a continuous band of clouds. Most rain forests follow a four-part pattern: the dark forest floor, where only 2% of sunlight penetrates, forms the base of the understory layer where birds, snakes and jungle cats like jaguars live.

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After that comes the extensive canopy layer, where the wild things really are: It's home to exotic fruits and flowers and about half of all plant species on the planet, a varied fauna including parrots and monkeys, and a quarter of all insect species. Trees in the emergent fourth layer can exceed 260 feet — not too tall for eagles, blue and gold macaws, vampire bats and even some monkeys like the black-and-white colobus who prefer life at the top.

Though the words "rain forest" tend to conjure visions of steam heat, monkeys and toucans with DayGlo bills, temperate rain forests are remarkable, too. There's Cathedral Grove on Vancouver Island's MacMillan Provincial Park, with its 800-year-old Douglas Fir Trees, and the pristine Tarkine in Australia's Tasmania, home of some of the planet's purest rain and the fiesty Tasmanian devil, too.

Japan has Yakushima Island, a lush escape from the country's urban grind where the locals say it rains 35 days a month. It has plants from both subtropical and cold temperate zones, and is dense with ancient Yakusugicedar trees in a sylvan landscape that inspired the setting of the film Princess Mononoke.

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But isn't splendor of this magnitude hard to get to? Not really: "You can fly from Tokyo's Haneda airport to Kagoshima (100 minutes), then from Kagoshima to Yakushima Airport (40 minutes)," says Nori Akashi of the Japan National Tourism Organization. "Usually, you stay one night on the island to visit the rain forest — there are several accommodation facilities."

Whether in Costa Rica's Monte Verde Cloud Forest or the Hawaiian Islands (where beautiful rain forests in Maui and Kauai beckon) exploring a rain forest is not just a feast for the senses but can be good for the soul. It's nature distilled to its essence, and however brief, the journey into a thousand shades of green is an intense one — those vibrant colors alone can create special effects.

According to Peri Enkin, a Hawaiian energy counselor and color therapist, "The moss green chakra relates to below the feet," which she says could help you become grounded in your physical life. And because "emerald green relates to the heart," according to her, getting your fill of that particular hue amidst the leaves and vines may ignite love and create compassion and care. Not a bad way to wind down a day in one of Planet Earth's greenest, if rainiest, corners.

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