When researching our trip to Chengdu China, I knew I wanted to see a giant panda up close. I just wasn’t sure how to see pandas in Chengdu. What I quickly learned is that there are a variety of options, depending on your budget. It took a lot of research into all of the panda information I could find to pick the right Chengdu panda tour. Here, I will walk through the options, and offer our advice on the best Chengdu panda tour – being a panda volunteer.
First, a little note about Chengdu China. Chengdu IS where to see pandas in China, but many people don’t know much about the city. Chengdu is the capital of the Sichuan province and is one of the largest cities in Western China. The city is most known for three things: spicy Szechuan food, the surrounding tea farms, and of course, panda. Chengdu doesn’t have the same number of tourist sites as other Chinese cities, like Beijing or Shanghai.
But, it’s a lot more approachable for tourists and can even be considered a more chill city. There is a large expat population who indulges on the famous food, cocktails, and even an up-and-coming craft beer scene. This post, of course, focuses on the Chengdu panda tours.
How To Book A Chengdu Panda Tour
*This post contains compensated links. Find more info in my DISCLAIMER.
The Cheapest Panda Tour in Chengdu
There are a variety of panda centers and panda bases surrounding Chengdu. Some of them are as close as 40 minutes outside of the city. They are easy to get to and tickets are inexpensive. These are more similar to Chengdu panda zoo-like experiences, where visitors are able to walk around a panda park and see pandas hanging out in their outdoor living spaces and natural panda habitat. The Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding is the most common Chengdu panda tour and one of the top Chengdu tourist attractions.
Although we chose an experience that would be more hands-on, part of the experience we had as panda volunteers included this giant panda viewing experience. It’s possible to wander around and watch the pandas. Frankly, this was very similar to some of the experiences we had seeing pandas in the US, in Washington, DC, and San Diego.
The Chengdu Panda Base is located only 15 kilometers from Chengdu and costs about $9 to visit. This is the quickest, easiest, and cheapest way to see pandas in Chengdu.
Pros: The least expensive option, and the closest to Chengdu.
Cons: Anytime you get to see a giant panda it is a pretty great experience. They are amazing animals and are so rare to see. But, this panda experience is not very personal and doesn’t allow the visitor to get up close.
How to Book This Chengdu Panda Tour:
- It’s possible to purchase admission tickets to the Chengdu Panda Base for only $9. With this option, it would be necessary to hire a car or taxi or take a bus to the Chengdu Panda Base.
- It’s possible to book a group panda tour, which includes transport to the Chengdu panda breeding center, and the cost of admission. This option is about $50 per person.
- For more flexibility, there is also a private tour option. The private tour to the Chengdu Panda Base is about $70 per person for a group of two people or only $28 per person for a group of six. This is the best option for a family or group of friends traveling together.
- It’s important to understand all of the panda information when booking a visit to a Chengdu panda reserve. If you book the half day Chengdu Panda Base tour recommended above, there is an option to add the Chengdu panda holding experience. The cost for the tour is $50. The cost for the tour plus the panda hug is about $450. But, these experiences do not happen at the same location. The tour happens at the Chengdu panda breeding center. The panda hug happens at Dujiangyan Giant Panda Center (more on this below), which is 90 minutes from Chengdu. It’s an entirely different tour. There can be some confusion when booking because of the “upgrades.” Do not book any panda holding experience that costs $50, because it’s just not legit. It should cost about $300-400. There’s no way around it.
- It’s better to book the Chengdu Panda Tour to the Dujiangyan Giant Panda Center, which starts at about $50 per person. Click the “important info” tab. Then, choose the number of people and the “hold panda” option, which will increase the price considerably.
- Book the Panda Volunteer for a Day through Viator, with prices starting around $200 per person, which includes admission to the Chengdu panda center, lunch, the full day volunteer program, and transport from Chengdu hotels.
- The tour is about 8 hours, including a 90-minute drive each way.
- It’s still possible to “upgrade” this tour and do the hold a panda experience for an additional cost.
Panda Tours Pro Tip: The benefit of booking a private tour is that you can set the time to leave Chengdu. The earlier the better as the pandas are morning animals.
The Most Expensive Chengdu Panda Tour – The Panda Hug
Ever dream of holding pandas in China? This is your chance. A few blogger friends visited Chengdu just before we did, and had some awesome cuddly panda photos. The most coveted panda photo is one where you can sit on a bench next to a baby panda. Some sites call this a panda hug experience or baby panda holding. From what we heard, the experience lasts around 30 seconds, but many people claim it is only 10 seconds of real panda loving. It is just long enough for the visitor to sit on the bench next to the panda, smile for baby panda pictures, and move on. Yet, this Chengdu panda holding experience is coveted.
The panda hug experience is usually an add-on to the regular ticket price. We saw people having this experience at the Dujiangyan Panda Center (also known in English as the Dujianguan Panda Base). It’s possible to book this experience through travel companies like Viator and other tour operators. Although prices vary, tours that include holding the baby panda can add an extra $300 onto the cost of a Chengdu panda tour. We booked a panda volunteer experience, and we could have added the cuddly panda photo op for an additional $160 per person. For a 10-30 second experience, it seemed a bit steep.
Pros: You get an amazing baby panda photo to show off to friends on Facebook. And, who doesn’t love to see baby pandas playing with a side of panda hugs? The fee paid for the panda hug goes to support the panda research efforts and the Chengdu panda sanctuary.
Cons: The amount of time spent with the panda is limited in comparison to its steep cost.
How to Book This Chengdu Panda Tour:
Check out our video of the best panda tour in Chengdu Sichuan:
The “Best” Way to See Pandas in Chengdu
Here, I might be a little biased as this was the only way we actually saw pandas in Chengdu – as a Chengdu Panda Reserve Volunteer. But after doing all of the panda research, and actually going through the experience of being a panda volunteer for a day, I can say we spent the right amount of money for the right experience. We volunteered at the Dujiangyan Panda Center, about 90 minutes outside of Chengdu. Similar to the Chengdu Panda Base closer to town, a ticket to enter the Dujiangyan Chengdu panda park is about $10. That fee provides entrance to the park, allowing visitors to see the pandas hanging out and playing.
We “upgraded” our experience and booked the Chengdu Panda Volunteer Program. We booked this direct with the Dujiangyan Panda Center. We paid about $100 each, filled out an application form, and had to complete a health form, signed by a doctor. Our hotel arranged for transport. But, if I had to do it again, I would book with a tour company and have them complete everything for me.
The Chengdu Panda Volunteer Experience
The panda volunteer program lasts all day and includes cleaning the panda habitat, which includes pandas’ cages and outdoor spaces. Unfortunately, it rained during the morning of our panda volunteer program, which made it a little harder to clean the outdoor space. But, it was still fun!
The cleaning project included scooping panda poop. There was a lot of poop. We scooped it all! We also cleaned a panda pen, the indoor space used by the panda bears. That involved cleaning up more poop and hosing down the space.
Again, it was, unfortunately, raining, which made this experience a little more trying than I anticipated. At one point, the panda keeper asked Eric to go with him for some “man work.” It involved Eric climbing up a hill into the forest to bring a bunch of large pieces of bamboo back to the pens. In the rain. He was wet for sure.
The highlight of the day as a Chengdu panda volunteer, though, came when we had the opportunity to feed one of the pandas, twice. We each took turns providing sticks of bamboo to one very hungry giant panda. It was absolutely incredible to spend time one-on-one with such an amazing animal. And, as much as we didn’t get the panda hugs experience, I felt we got really close up. At the very end of the day, we made panda cakes. It was great to learn what the pandas eat.
What Is The Chengdu Panda Research Center Doing
We also spent about an hour in the panda volunteer office watching a documentary about panda breeding and panda reproduction at the Chengdu panda research center. The Dujiangyan Panda Center operates as a panda sanctuary. They rehabilitate pandas that were injured in the wild. The video showed the process of how they care for the pandas. And walked through the work of the Chengdu panda breeding center showing how panda reproduction works. The video was fascinating. The work of the giant panda protection and research center is important work to the rehabilitation of the panda species. Panda bears in China are endangered (or, correctly, vulnerable), and the video showed how they are trying to use the Chengdu panda center to reverse the process.
Holding Pandas In China?
While there, we were offered the opportunity to upgrade, for an additional $160, to sit for 10 seconds for a photo shoot with a panda. We passed on this panda hug upgrade. I felt that, as much as we didn’t get the perfect panda photo shoot, we had a lot of great experiences with the pandas.
We did this based on advice from a friend of mine who did the same panda volunteer program a few months before. She purchased the upgrade, had the great photo, but regretted it almost immediately. After she sat on the bench for a few seconds, she, like us, had the opportunity to feed the pandas, and this one-on-one experience was a better value. Although she noted that the extra $160 is deemed a donation to help support programs at the Chengdu Giant Panda Breeding Center and the panda reserve. No, we didn’t get to hold a panda, but the Chengdu panda breeding center offered a great experience as a China panda volunteer.
Is The Panda Volunteer Experience Worth It?
In the end, was the volunteer experience worth it? Even with the rainy Chengdu weather, I thought it definitely was.
Pros: We were able to get up close to the pandas, play with pandas, and interact with them, even if we weren’t able to get a “panda hug.” It was priced perfectly, and I thought offered the best value to see pandas in Chengdu and one of the best parts of Chengdu tourism. As much as I am often skeptical about most things when it comes to China, I do feel that the Giant Panda breeding research base does a lot of good to support panda research and panda conservation.
Cons: Poop. There is a good amount of getting dirty, particularly when picking up panda poop. The base is also a good 90 minutes from Chengdu, and the cost of transportation should be taken into consideration. Dujiangyan is 18 kilometers away from Chengdu, but a morning drive will take at least 90 minutes.
How to Book the Best Chengdu Panda Tour:
Facts About Pandas in China – Pandas in a Cage
I want to make a note about the fact that the Dujiangyan Panda Center keeps pandas in cages, in so many words, behind bars. We shared a few photos of our experience on social media and received some comments of concern from people about the treatment of the pandas at the panda research center.
First off, from what we saw at the Dujiangyan Chengdu Panda Reserve, all of the pandas are treated well. Their outdoor areas and panda habitats are large and well maintained. Each outdoor space is attached to an indoor space. The indoor space includes bars on one side and a sliding door on another that opens to allow the panda to enter and exit at will.
The only time we saw this door shut was while the panda keepers were cleaning the outdoor space and they wanted to keep the pandas indoors during the cleaning. Or, we saw the opposite, when they wanted to keep the panda outside while the indoor pen was being cleaned. In fact, when we finished cleaning the outdoor pen, the panda was stuck inside. The panda keeper rushed us out so that she could open the door and let the panda out. Presumably, they keep the panda indoors at night as well.
Towards the end of the day, we had an interaction with one panda who has the nickname “Crazy Girl.” Her door was open and she could make the choice whether to stay inside or be outside. Although she moved between the two freely, she spent most of her time indoors, we think, hamming it up for the camera. She was having a blast inside the indoor pen, eating and playing. Check out the video above to see.
I say this because I know there are many concerns about how animals are treated around the world. We received one comment that the pandas seemed sad, but all pandas kind of look sad due to the shape of the black fur around their eyes!
I do feel that the Dujiangyan Panda Center is doing good work in panda conservation. There are so few pandas in the wild and their panda habitat continues to be destroyed. They also face danger from predators, from other pandas as well as wild cats. We saw a three-legged panda that was rescued by the Dujiangyan Panda Center. Chances are this panda would not have survived were it not for the help of the Dujiangyan Panda Center. The center also works on panda breeding to help grow the panda population and has reintroduced pandas into the wild.
Final Thoughts on a Panda Trip in Chengdu
I wanted to add my thoughts on this part of the experience of seeing pandas in Chengdu. I feel it is tough to make a blanket statement that animals should not be behind bars. This is one situation where I think that the panda conservation centers, and the work they are doing to help the panda bears in China and around the world, is important. Without it, I wonder if there would be any pandas left in the world. After the day I spent as a Chengdu panda volunteer, I shudder to think of this as a possibility.
That said, don’t just book any giant panda Chengdu tour. Go with a trusted company, to one of the two main giant panda protection and research centers, ones that focus on research about pandas. And, by being a panda sanctuary volunteer, it’s the best of both worlds. To get up close at one of the top panda research centers, without spending an arm and a leg.
More Chengdu Travel Tips
Where to stay in Chengdu: We stayed at Niccolo Chengdu, and loved it! We also have some other recommended Chengdu hotels in the center of the city when you visit Chengdu:
What to do in Chengdu: Check out our recommendations on the Top Chengdu Attractions in addition to visiting the Chengdu panda research base.
Pin It! The Best Chengdu Panda Tour
Amber Hoffman, food and travel writer behind With Husband In Tow, is a recovering attorney and professional eater, with a passion for finding new Food and Drink Destinations. She lives with her husband, Eric, in Girona, Catalonia, Spain. Together over the last 20 years, they have traveled to over 70 countries. Amber is the author of the Food Traveler’s Guide to Emilia Romagna.