AP Photo Pablo Martinez Monsivais
By Jo Piazza for Yahoo! Travel
Some of us travel for adventure, for culture, for the opportunity to meet new people.
And some of us travel to see all of the adorable animals.
Don’t get me wrong. I love the adventure, the culture and most of the people, most of the time. But I have to admit I have planned many trips where my sole purpose was to spy some unique and adorable animals.
One of those travels took me to the Giant Panda Research & Breeding Center in Chengdu, China, better known as the motherland for panda freaks the world over. It was there that I was handed my very own baby panda to cuddle for about 60 seconds. The baby panda was entirely un-phased. I was over-the-moon.
Do we love Giant Pandas because they are so cute, so seemingly cuddly? Or do we love them because we’ve been taught they are rare and special. The Giant Panda only lives in a few mountain ranges in central China, and there are very few of them left in the wild. They are rare and special indeed, the diamonds of the animal kingdom.
Truth be told, there aren’t even that many in captivity. Most every zoo worth its admission fee has a lion, a tiger and a bear, but only a select few can call themselves home for the Giant Panda. Even fewer reserves and zoos have the ever-elusive baby panda.
These are the places you should be visiting to get up close and personal with the world’s handful of adorable baby pandas.
1. The Giant Panda Research & Breeding Center, Chengdu, China
This is the ultimate bucket list trip for anyone who cannot get enough of baby pandas.The Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding has been open since 1987 and since then has been tasked with studying and protecting Giant Pandas. While here you can observe the dozens of baby pandas interacting with one another. You can also call ahead to reserve a slot to cuddle a baby panda.
2. The National Zoo, Washington D.C.
Home of the “Panda Cam,” otherwise known as the “greatest drain on productivity since Seinfeld reruns started on cable,” the National Zoo currently has two baby pandas—Bao Bao, born in 2013 and Bei Bei, who is so brand new that the Panda House remains closed so that mama panda Mei Xiang can take care of the cub. No worries. Bao Bao is more than enough little panda to get the crowds excited and you can always spy Bei Bei on the Panda Cam until the new baby is revealed to the public later in 2016.
3. San Diego Zoo, San Diego, California
Xiao Liwu, a panda baby boy born in 2012 just turned 3 this past July. The zoo celebrated by giving him a big ice cake because apparently pandas are partial to ice over butter frosting. Even though Xiao Liwu is now technically a juvenile, he still has that sweet baby face.
This panda breeding center allows you to volunteer with the panda keepers or take a tour. The reserve is about an hour bus ride outside of Chengdu, but the scenery is much more spectacular than what you will see closer to the city and includes two V-shaped gorges with incredible views of the valleys and waterfalls that the Giant Pandas once called home.
5. Dujiangyan Panda Base, Dujiangyan, China
Want to spend as much one-on-one panda time as possible? Then this is where you want to go. It’s much quieter and receives less visitors than the more popular Bifengxia Panda Base and the Breeding Center, so visitors and volunteers get to spend much more time with the pandas.
Viator offers some great packages that allow visitors to “volunteer for a day with giant pandas on a private tour at the Dujiangyan Giant Panda Center. Help record panda behavior, clean enclosures and prepare food with a professional animal keeper as you get up close to China’s beloved black and white bears.”
6. Zoo Atlanta, Atlanta, Georgia
When Atlanta resident Lun Lun gave birth to panda twins in 2013 it was a really big deal. Baby panda births may be rare, but twins are truly something exceptional.
Just last year the babies, Mei Lun and Mei Huan were weaned from Lun Lun. They now live together in a different habitat that includes an indoor day room and an outdoor play space. They are typically only on exhibit until about 3 pm, so if you want to see them playing, try to head there early.
7. Toronto Zoo, Toronto, Canada
On October 13, 2015 the Toronto Zoo announced the birth of two giant panda cubs! Giant Panda mothers often reject twins. So to make sure each of the cubs is well taken care of, zoo keepers are switching the twins in and out with mama.
These cuties are still very, very small so don’t expect them to be on display until late Spring 2016.