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Alligators are big business in Louisiana.

A casual stroll through the gift shops dotting the French Quarter in New Orleans reveals bins full of dried-out alligator heads of all sizes, ready for sale to thrill-seeking tourists.

Restaurants and festivals across the state frequently feature some form of gator meat; you can even buy barbecue aprons with a picture of an alligator and the slogan "Louisiana yard dog."

Not only is having such a prehistoric predator lurking in your swamps good for the tourist trade, there's a certain sense of pride involved.

How many places can boast such a thing?

No one is more aware of this than the local swamp-tour operators. I've lived in Louisiana for a few years and initially wasn't attracted to them -- the garish signs featuring big cartoon alligators, boats packed with tourists, everything promising to be authentic Cajun. I'm wasn't a tourist, I reasoned. I live here.

But then relatives started visiting.

One of them found

Zam's Swamp Tours and raved about the experience, so I reluctantly decided to try it out.

Into the Swamp

Zam's is located on Bayou Boef, in Kraemer, La., just outside New Orleans.

Tours usually consist of riding around the swamp in a big boat, while the guide steers and talks about the wildlife; often, the boats are quite crowded. But Zam's is a smaller operation, and there's a good chance your group will have a private tour.

Zam's is run by the Loupes, a Cajun family who converted the shack where they used to tan pelts into a trading post. They offer tours in French and in English.

What you see on a swamp tour depends largely on what time of year you go, and also what time of day. Alligators are cold-blooded reptiles and therefore more active in the hotter months of the year.

While on a Zam's tour in mid-March, I didn't see any gators in the swamp. However, plenty of other native animals are more active in cooler weather, and the haunting landscape is always worth a look.

The swamps of Louisiana are home to birds of many species, and they function as migratory stop-off for millions more each spring.

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Deer, bald eagles, raccoons, nutria (large, swimming rodents), mink, turtles and even bear also call the swamps home.

On Slidell, La.-based

Dr. Wagner's Honey Island Swamp Tour, I even caught a glimpse of couple of wild hogs cooling themselves in the mud at the edge of the river.

Dr. Wagner's takes a more educational approach to the tour. As we floated past ramshackle hunting and fishing cabins, our knowledgeable guide pointed out blue herons, white ibises and swamp orchids, and lectured about the ecology of the swamp, including the problems of the sinking coastline and salt water invading the freshwater marshes.

There are also specialty tours, such as

Airboat Adventures, which uses airboats to take people out into the still waters of Bayou Barataria.

The airboats, says manager Mark Dolsen, have the advantage of being smaller, and therefore more able to squeeze into the narrow sloughs and waterways of the swamps.

And if you want to get a closer look at an animal while on this tour, the guides will get out of the boat and catch it for you (except for the alligators, one can assume). This can be an easy or a daunting task, depending on what catches your eye. Nutria are easy, says Dolsen; they don't move too fast.

It was on Dr. Wagner's tour, however, where I lay eyes on the prize. As the boat glided into the swamp, small objects began to silently appear on the surface.

Gators move in the water almost like snakes, with just their eyes and nostrils poking above the surface. The guide tossed marshmallows into the water to keep them swimming around the boat so we could see them.

(Alligators are attracted to the popping sound marshmallows make when they hit the water, and because they have a bit of a sweet tooth, Dolsen later explained.)

But all these gators were dwarfed by El Guapo -- meaning either "handsome" or "bully," most likely depending on your proximity -- a gargantuan 13-footer we eventually came across.

The guide stuck marshmallows on the end of a stick and held it above the water so we could get a glimpse of just how big his head was. El Guapo circled the boat a while, lazily chasing after marshmallows, before he sank back into the depths.

With these tours under my belt, I've been converted. Do some research on which swamp tour you want -- each sets itself apart in a different way.

Sure, there's a kitschy element in swamp tours, but they also offer a glimpse into a mysterious, secluded place. Going into the swamps is definitely like entering another world, and there's no sensation quite like the one of being within arm's length of an alligator.

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Bobbi Parry is a freelance writer originally from Salt Lake City. She now lives in Baton Rouge, La., where she is working toward an M.F.A. at Louisiana State University.