By Jim Benning
National Geographic Adventure
Note: This article appeared in 2003. The trips featured here are not current.
Maybe given a thousand lifetimes you could do it all: trek the Himalaya, sail a square-rigger in the Pacific, meet isolated tribes in Amazonia–all without sweating your schedule. But odds are, you don’t have a thousand lifetimes. Odds are, you have just a few weeks a year. Which is all the more reason to make sure you don’t miss the planet’s greatest experiences. And why, in the current climate of unrest and uncertainty, it’s more important than ever to be selective. The spirit of adventure means carefully balancing the risks against the enormous rewards of living life to the fullest. And that means playing it smart–especially in choosing a destination and finding an outfitter with local savvy. Here are 25 classic trips that are right for today, along with the outfitters who can get you there and back safely–in one lifetime or less.
The New Shangri-la
01 It’s hard to imagine a better sanctuary–either geographical or spiritual–than Bhutan, the isolated Buddhist kingdom east of Nepal. Bhutan Travel’s new Royal Trek will offer an insider’s look at a hidden Himalayan Camelot through the eyes of a former courtier named Ap Gesang. Now retired, this descendant of Lama Phajo, who founded the country’s current Buddhist lineage in the 13th century, has been persuaded by his son to show a small group of Westerners around his old haunts. A 12-day hike starts on the well-traveled Druk Path and continues on remote trails that climb as high as 14,000 feet. ($4,500; 800-950-9908; www.bhutantravel.com)
WHY THIS TRIP: Thanks to Ap Gesang, unprecedented access to Wang-dicholing Palace and other sites previously off-limits to outsiders.
PREP WORK: At least an hour of aerobic exercise four days a week for three months before departure, including stair climbing and swimming to help build stamina for hikes at high altitudes.
SAFETY: With Maoist guerrillas stepping up activity in the Himalayan trekking capital of Nepal–including stopping Westerners to demand “donations”–some travelers have switched their focus to neighboring Bhutan, which enjoys stability and, thus far, a clean safety record.
PLAN B: U.K.-based Himayalan Kingdoms leads 11-day treks that approach Everest from its less-traveled Tibetan side, beginning in Kharta, near the birthplace of Tenzing Norgay. Hikers ascend to the prayer flags marking 17,500-foot Langma La, a pass that offers views of Lhotse, Makalu, Chomo Lonzo, and what some consider Everest’s most dramatic profile, the Kangshung Face. The expedition turnaround point: 16,400-foot Kangshung Base Camp. The itinerary includes a couple of days in Kathmandu, but the Nepalese capital is generally considered safer than the rural areas of the country. ($4,502; +44-1453-844400; www.himalayankingdoms.com)
Zambezi Wave Machine
02 The middle Zambezi River, below Victoria Falls, is one of the most adrenalized stretches of white water on the planet–a slam-dunk top ten pick of river rats everywhere. A 13-day journey with Bio Bio Expeditions features five days of pinballing, whirlpooling, barreling, surfing, and I-give-up portaging down the lower gorge of the Zambezi with camping at the river’s edge. ($3,100; 800-246-7238; www.bbxrafting.com)
WHY THIS TRIP: Lots of outfits slam through the rapids, but Bio Bio also spends two and a half days cruising the little-visited upper Zambezi in two-person kayaks, which allow for intimate encounters with hippos, crocs, lions, giraffes, and elephants.
SAFETY: Zimbabwe aggressively protects the popular Zambezi tourism corridor to shore up a travel industry hammered elsewhere by political unrest. If tensions flare, Bio Bio will shift operations to the Zambia side of the river.
PLAN B: Safari Par Excellence manages to squeeze middle Zambezi white-water rafting, jet boating, river boarding, helicoptering through the gorge, and bungee jumping 364 feet into a day and a half. ($325; +44-1548-831-351; www.safpar.com)
The Hidden Amazon
03 Canadian river guide Ian Kean never planned to lead trips in the Amazon, but he changed his mind after motoring up the Xingu River in northern Brazil as a guest of Gordon Roddick, co-founder of the Body Shop. “Suddenly, isolated villages appeared out of the jungle,” says Kean, “and I felt like I was back in the 19th century.” This year, when Kean’s River League launches its first Xingu trip, clients will travel four hours upriver in skiffs to the 12-room Tataquara Lodge, which is on an island teeming with monkeys and toucans. Over the next eight days, clients will join members of the Arawete, Asurini, and Xipaya tribes to fish for piranha, track jaguars, and learn rain forest lore. ($5,970; 800-440-1322; www.riverleague.ca)
WHY THIS TRIP: River League is the only North American outfitter allowed to operate in this part of Amazonia.
PLAN B: On 12-day riverboat cruises with Amazon Fishing Trips, snorkelers float among schools of cardinal tetras and other freshwater aquarium species in western Brazil’s crystalline Amazon tributaries. ($2,600; 514-694-9540; www.amazonfishingtrips.com)
High Atlas Unbound
04 In 2000, when Wilderness Travel first offered an 18-day trek across the High Atlas Mountains–a 160-mile journey that included scrambles up North Africa’s two highest peaks–the company didn’t even include it in the following year’s catalog. “We figured it was so challenging it would be a one-off,” says Mari Bergquist, the company’s operations manager for Morocco. Instead, trekkers raved, and the trip is now in its fourth year. With the help of porters, clients spend up to seven hours a day on the trail, wandering through valleys, across plateaus, and up mountain peaks. ($3,195 and up; 800-368-2794; www.wildernesstravel.com)
WHY THIS TRIP: It’s the best combination of a physically challenging trip and immersion in Berber culture.
SAFETY: At a time when many Westerners are avoiding Muslim nations, Morocco remains on the must-see list for a surprising number of adventure travelers. There is no U.S. advisory against visiting the country; the State Department, however, warns that “travelers should be cognizant of the current levels of tension in the region and remain alert to their surroundings.” Bergquist claims her company has run nine trips to Morocco since 9/11 without incident.
PLAN B: Atlas Sahara Trekking leads five-day hikes through the Jebel Sarhro, a striking volcanic landscape that resembles the American Southwest. ($830; +41-26-323-43-60; www.atlassaharatrekking.ch)
Daypacking the Rockies
05 The Colorado Rockies are dotted with huts that offer a comfortable alternative to camping, but connecting some of the most scenic trails (say, the Colorado Trail near Timberline Lake) with some of the best huts (Skinner, for one) sometimes requires a shuttle. Enter the World Outdoors. On six-day, hut-to-hut outings, trip leaders guide hikers into the wilds southwest of Vail. When the next hut is more than a comfortable day’s hike away, the chariot is summoned. ($1,295; 800-488-8483; www.theworldoutdoors.com)
WHY THIS TRIP: Links great trails with hard-to-book alpine huts.
PLAN B: Clients on White Mountain Adventures’ trips in the Canadian Rockies hit the trails with a naturalist in Banff and Jasper National Parks. ($2,030; 800-408-0005; www.canadiannatureguides.com)
06 Nine-day trips from iExplore cover the best of the country’s preserves, including two days at a tent camp in Corcovado National Park, where clients are lifted 115 feet to a platform to search the canopy for monkeys and macaws. There are also hikes in the oak forests on Cerro de la Muerte, where rare quetzals nest, and a rain forest descent of the Class III and IV Rio Pacuare with an overnight in a riverside camp. ($2,799; 800-439-7567; www.iexplore.com)
WHY THIS TRIP: Canopy panoramas and the best chance to see large mammals–jaguars, tapir, ocelots–in Costa Rica.
PLAN B: On G.A.P. Adventures’ 16-day ecoexcursion, participants hike around Arenal Volcano’s base, getting close enough to see spurting magma. The trip also takes in Tortuguero National Park on the Caribbean coast; horseback rides in the Monteverde Cloud Forest; and the beaches and sloths of Manuel Antonio National Park on the Pacific. ($1,200; 800-465-5600; www.gapadventures.com)
Cruising the Odd Isles
07 The Galapagos Islands may be best known for oddball amphibians like the marine iguana, but because the archipelago lies where oceanic currents collide, it’s also home to a stunning menagerie of underwater life, from hammerheads and moray eels to manta rays and whale sharks. Seven-day cruises with Aggressor Fleet on the company’s 97-foot yacht emphasize diving and snorkeling, with at least ten stops off Seymour, Santiago, Santa Cruz, and Wolf Islands. At one renowned site off Darwin Island, divers swim–safely–with hundreds of scalloped hammerheads and eagle rays. Since the vessel is not constantly in transit, clients have enough time to take the plunge three times daily. ($2,795; 800-348-2628; www.aggressor.com)
WHY THIS TRIP: Aggressor offers three dives a day, four dive masters for a low client-to-guide ratio, and a communal hot tub in which to warm up after taking a deep plunge in the Pacific.
PLAN B: Journeys International leads ten-day cruises that focus on terrestrial wildlife viewing. Participants visit six islands to check in on marine iguanas, masked boobies, lava lizards, and Galapagos penguins. The vessel is a 140-foot, 16-passenger luxury yacht that is small enough to enter shallow waters. ($2,860; 800-255-8735; www.journeysinternational.com)
08 Wilderness Travel’s 15-day trips hit the best of Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park and Argentina’s Los Glaciares National Park, including hikes to the bases of Paine’s central tower and 11,073-foot Monte Fitz Roy, whose ice-gouged flanks make it one of the world’s most striking summits. Participants drive between the parks and camp near trailheads. ($3,495; 800-368-2794; www.wildernesstravel.com)
WHY THIS TRIP: It explores both Patagonian superstar parks.
PLAN B: Off the Beaten Path’s 14-day trips feature hikes of up to 15 miles in Torres del Paine and Los Glaciares, but instead of camping, trekkers spend nights in lodges, ranches, and inns. ($5,695; 800-445-2995; www.offthebeatenpath.com)
Kiwi Hot Tracks
09 Here’s why people fly so far to hike New Zealand: A third of the island nation is parkland, and it has just 3.8 million residents. Consequently, hundreds of miles of lightly used trails weave through rugged ranges and untrammeled rain forests. Active New Zealand’s 14-day loop is billed as multisport, but most clients opt for tramping around the canyons of Punakaiki, Franz Josef Glacier, the Mount Cook region, and other South Island beauty spots. Nights are spent in lodges, B&Bs, and a sheep shearer’s cabin on a 63,000-acre farm. ($1,999; 800-661-9073; www.activenewzealand.com)
WHY THIS TRIP: It dodges the predictable Milford Track in favor of trails beloved by locals, and it offers two levels of hiking–moderate and challenging–on every outing.
PLAN B: Five-day North Island hikes from Naturally New Zealand Holidays explore volcanic Tongariro, the nation’s first national park, and feature an eight-hour trek among the steam vents and emerald lakes of the Tongariro Crossing, widely considered the country’s finest one-day hike. ($600; +64-3318-7540; www.nzholidays.co.nz)
Kili, the Smart Way
10 Half of the 20,000 climbers who attempt to summit Kilimanjaro each year bail out far below the peak’s famous snows. Geographic Expeditions treats Kilimanjaro seriously, budgeting eight days for the ascent instead of the standard five. Climbers head up the Western Breach Route, a classic scramble that skirts Arrow Glacier before switchbacking steeply to the top. The final night is spent at 18,500 feet–high but rewarding. “When you wake just before dawn,” says regional director Kate Doty, “you watch the first rays hit the summit, just 900 feet away, then you look below at the African plains and, when the clouds part, the curvature of the Earth.” ($4,195; 800-777-8183; www.geoex.com)
WHY THIS TRIP: A summiting success rate of 99 percent.
SAFETY: No overnights in chaotic Nairobi; after arrival, clients are flown directly to a remote bush camp in the Chyulu Game Reserve.
PLAN B: On Alpine Ascent’s expeditions, clients spend seven days on the Machame Route, which is more scenic and less crowded than the tourist-clogged Marangu, the so-called Coca-Cola Route. ($4,455; 206-378-1927; www.alpineascents.com)
The Secret Baja
11 Set in the turquoise Gulf of California and swarming with dolphins and other sea life, Isla Espiritu Santo has all the trappings of a premier sea-kayaking destination–except the crowds. “It’s just 12 miles from La Paz,” says Jeanne Prentice, who has worked for Baja Expeditions since 1985. “But the locals aren’t really campers, so we have these beaches to ourselves.” Paddlers on Baja Expeditions’ seven-day supported trip base themselves in a secluded cove, set out each morning for three- or four-hour paddles, then spend the afternoon hiking, snorkeling in the gulf’s 70- to 80-degree waters, or just lazing about. The trip also features another Baja classic: snorkeling with the gulf’s largest colony of California sea lions at Los Islotes, three rocky islets north of the island. ($1,045; 800-843-6967; www.bajaex.com)
WHY THIS TRIP: Locally owned and operated Baja Expeditions introduced outfitted sea-kayaking trips to Isla Espiritu Santo in 1986.
PLAN B: Pressed for time? Black Feather Wilderness Adventures’ four-day Quick Escapes work a similar itinerary into a long weekend, except that paddlers pull into a different cove each night and help make camp. ($360 and up; 888-849-7668; www.blackfeather.com)
A Rapid Every Mile
12 Author Norman Maclean once wrote that a river “has so many things to say that it is hard to know what it says to each of us.” Whatever the message, one of the surest ways to hear it is to live in the wild presence of a river for at least a few days. O.A.R.S. runs six-day trips down Idaho’s Middle Fork of the Salmon, which tumbles through a hundred rapids in a hundred miles. Water levels permitting, the group puts in at 5,740-foot Boundary Creek and plunges a heart-stopping 41 feet a mile during the first 25 miles, then surfs and spins through dense forests, grassy meadows, and imposing canyons until the take-out at the Main Salmon. ($1,731; 800-346-6277; www.oars.com)
WHY THIS TRIP: Instead of rushing down the river, this outfit allows plenty of time for hiking, exploring caves, and basking in hot springs.
PLAN B: Echo’s four-day trips down the Class III Rogue shoot the gaping holes and churning boils of Mule Creek Canyon in Oregon’s coastal mountains. ($695; 800-652-3246; www.echotrips.com)
Beyond the Cruise Ship
13 Once the preserve of explorers and scientists, Antarctica has been accessible to ship-based tourists since the 1960s. For its new trip, Fathom Expeditions decided to retain the safety and, yes, the warm bunks and food of a converted research vessel while ratcheting up the Antarctic adventure quotient with snow hikes, roped glacier travel, and mountaineering. Using the ship as a base, expeditioners will make forays on the Antarctic Peninsula and South Shetlands (with an attempt at an unclimbed pinnacle on Elephant Island, where 22 of Shackleton’s men were stranded for four months) and retrace part of Shackleton’s epic trek on South Georgia Island. ($7,980 and up; 800-621-0176; www.fathomexpeditions.com)
WHY THIS TRIP: First ascents and mapping uncharted areas.
BONUS POINTS: Guest lecturer Conrad Anker will talk about his pioneering Antarctic climbs. And if he decides to go climbing, you may find yourself sharing a rope with a mountaineering superstar.
PLAN B: Quark Expeditions will spend a month cruising the eastern side of the continent to witness a solar eclipse on November 24. Travelers will also chopper onto ice shelves and visit research stations. ($24,995; 800-356-5699; www.quarkexpeditions.com)
14 Mountains, jungles, caves, coral reef–it’s a lot to pack into a country the size of Vermont, and that sheer density has made Belize a perennial adventure-travel favorite. But don’t spurn the vest-pocket nation because it’s popular. On nine-day outings, Slickrock Adventures finds the unspoiled corners and goes biking in the Maya Mountains, rafting and kayaking on Class IV and V rivers, and water-sporting on Slickrock’s 13-acre island. ($2,095; 800-390-5715; www.slickrock.com)
WHY THIS TRIP: Slickrock Adventures is the largest and oldest (since 1986) outfitter in Belize and the only one with a private island.
PLAN B: Most of Island Expeditions’ eight-day trip is spent kayaking, snorkeling, and diving off Half Moon Cay, a 45-acre island with access to the renowned Blue Hole. ($1,929; 800-667-1630; www.islandexpeditions.com)
15 The new way to experience the soul-stirring vastness of the Red Center may become one of the planet’s great hikes. World Expeditions’ 15-day trips traverse the Larapinta Trail, which was completed last year. Starting near Alice Springs, hikers weave 138 miles along red ridges and through deep gorges of the West MacDonnell Ranges. En route to 4,528-foot Mount Sonder, they encounter emerald-and-blue parrots flashing through the gum trees, rock wallabies and euros (a kind of kangaroo), and sacred Aboriginal sites like the Fish Hole. Clients cover up to 18 miles a day, while a sag wagon lugs the gear. ($1,590; 888-464-8735; www.weadventures.com)
WHY THIS TRIP: WE is a seminal outfitter on the Larapinta Trail.
PLAN B: Outback Camel Company leads monthlong camel-assisted treks across 250 miles of Western Australia’s Great Sandy Desert, a starkly beautiful wilderness so remote that few Australians, let alone foreigners, have seen it. ($3,300; +61-7-3854-1022; www.cameltreks.com.au)
16 Seeking to mesh with Mongolia’s nomadic spirit, Boojum Expeditions canters for five days over rolling mountains and into the grassy valleys of the Arhangay region, with time allowed to meet local families and attend a festival of wrestling, archery, and horse racing. Nights are spent in roomy Western-style tents. The D-day excursion also includes a side trip to Erdenzuu Monastery in Genghis Khan’s capital of Har Horin. ($2,250; 800-287-0125; www.boojum.com)
WHY THIS TRIP: Boojum originated Western outfitter trips in Mongolia in 1994.
PREP WORK: Because they’ll spend four to six hours a day in the saddle, participants should have solid riding experience.
PLAN B: Snow Lion Expeditions devotes five days of its 16-day excursion to a horse-riding trip into a remote corner of northern Mongolia that’s inhabited by the nomadic Tsaaten people, who still live in traditional yurts and tend to their reindeer herds. ($3,200; 800-525-8735; www.snowlion.com)
17 Sailors and landlubbers can sail the South Pacific aboard the Soren Larsen, a 145-foot, oak-hulled brigantine. On ten-day Tonga cruises in June, for example, clients sail to the Vava’u Group–climbing aloft to unfurl topsails, if they wish–to snorkel and explore the isles. Because conditions change, routes vary; flexibility is key. “The master decides from the charts and the weather which island we’ll sail to,” explains a crew member. “Otherwise you’d be motoring, and that wouldn’t be authentic.” ($1,430; + 64-9-411-8755; www.sorenlarsen.co.nz)
WHY THIS TRIP: If you’ve ever wanted to join the crew of a square-rigger in the South Pacific, this is the best way to do it.
PLAN B: Charter a 41-foot sailboat with an experienced skipper from Sunsail and spend a week cruising the Society Islands in French Polynesia. Participants fly from Papeete to Raiatea, then set sail, cruising about five hours a day, sleeping in private cabins, and dropping anchor for snorkeling with grouper and manta rays. ($4,280 and up; 800-327-2276; www.sunsail.com)
18 There’s only one way to feel the intensity of Africa: on foot, where you’ll be–as Peter Matthiessen wrote–”an animal among others.” Robin Pope leads clients on ten-day treks into the Luangwa Valley along the animal-rich corridor of the Mupamadzi River. A truck moves gear between three permanent riverside camps, enabling hikers to travel six miles a day, spotting lions, buffalo, zebra, and elephants. ($3,905; +260-62-45090; www.robinpopesafaris.net)
WHY THIS TRIP: Two words–Robin Pope, Zambia’s top wildlife guide.
SAFETY: The trip takes place in currently tranquil eastern Zambia, which is hundreds of miles from the country’s sketchy border zones with Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire).
PLAN B: The not-for-profit Earthwatch Institute–the pioneer and leading practitioner of the science-based volunteer adventure vacation–hooks up clients with biologists studying crocs in Botswana’s Okavango Delta, the largest wetland in southern Africa. In addition to trapping, sedating, and examining crocs that reach up to 20 feet in length, clients have plenty of time for viewing hippos and elephants, bird-watching, and sipping sundowners back at one of two comfortable tented base camps. ($2,395; 800-776-0188; www.earthwatch.org)
19 At the tip of Baffin Island, 1,200 miles north of the nearest highway, Polar Sea Adventures spends eight days in the recently designated Sirmilik National Park, which is nearly three times the size of Yellowstone. Registered visitors in 2001: 59. Trekkers explore Bylot Island, home to glacier-draped peaks, polar bears, and huge colonies of seabirds. ($1,635; 867-899-8870; www.polarseaadventures.com)
WHY THIS TRIP: The only major outfitter with trips here.
PLAN B: Not remote enough? Whitney & Smith Legendary Expeditions has 15-day backpacking trips along old musk oxen and caribou trails in an ice-free corridor of Ellesmere Island, just 760 miles south of the North Pole. ($3,650; 403-678-3052; www.legendaryex.com)
The Other Glacier Bay
20 Join Tongass Kayak Adventures for a paddle to LeConte Bay, a 15-mile-long fjord in southeast Alaska. Kayakers spend a night in Petersburg, then paddle into Frederick Sound, home to sea lions, harbor seals, and, on occasion, orcas and breaching humpbacks. A day-and-a-half paddle gets clients to LeConte, where they spend four days based in a creekside camp, setting off daily to probe the sheltered fjord where waterfalls spill over 3,000-foot ramparts and house-size chunks of ice tumble into the brine. ($1,390; 907-772-4600; www.tongasskayak.com)
WHY THIS TRIP: LeConte is a mini Glacier Bay without the cruise ships and the crowds.
PLAN B: Alaska Discovery’s nine-day trips include wilderness kayaking among humpbacks off Point Adolphus and towering tidewater glaciers in the West Arm of Glacier Bay. The trip ends at Admiralty Island, where participants can watch brown bears grab salmon out of a river not 50 feet away ($3,295; 800-586-1911; www.akdiscovery.com)
21 Hundreds of dive-boat operators work this 1,250-mile coral wall, but few can match the range of underwater experiences that Mike Ball Dive Expeditions packs into 12 days. During the four-day cruise from Cairns north to Lizard Island aboard the 90-foot Supersport, divers hit marquee sites like Challenger Bay (coral gardens), Dynamite Pass (for drift diving with pelagic fish and sharks), and Cod Hole (potato cod, Maori wrasse), as well as seldom visited outer reefs. After a scenic low-level flight from Lizard back to Cairns, the group drives south and boards the hundred-foot catamaran Spoilsport for a 150-mile cruise out to Flinders Reef to watch sharks in a feeding frenzy, wave at giant sea fans, and go wreck diving. Both vessels get top marks for their food, comfort, and crew, which includes a marine naturalist. ($2,568 and up; 800-952-4319; www.mikeball.com)
WHY THIS TRIP: Most boats hit either Cod Hole or Flinders; Mike Ball dives both and goes farther offshore to pristine reefs.
PLAN B: Undersea Explorer’s eight-day dive in November off the Cape York Peninsula coincides with a coral spawn, which attracts large numbers of giant clams, shrimp, manta rays, and whale sharks. ($2,030; +61-7409-95911; www.underseaexplorer.com)
Hiking, Alpine Style
22 The Alps are the original adventure-travel destination, offering a staggering 42,253 miles of trails in the Swiss section alone. On Above the Clouds’ ten-day, inn-to-inn ramble, hikers start in the sleepy valley of Kiental and spend seven hours a day tramping through the Bernese Oberland past flowered meadows, waterfalls, and sleek cows wearing tinkling bells. Nights are spent in three-star hotels and inns (including the family-run Hotel Tschingelhorn, accessible only by foot). The high point: a ten-mile hike with views of the Eiger from Schynige Platte along a sharp ridge past a lake called Bachalpsee. ($1,750; 800-233-4499; www.aboveclouds.com)
WHY THIS TRIP: Guide and area resident Rudi Lanz often stops to visit friendly locals, giving hikers an insider’s look at rural Swiss life.
PREP WORK: Reasonable hiking fitness–and well-broken-in boots–is all that’s required.
PLAN B: Mountain Travel Sobek’s more rigorous ten-day trip in Switzerland and Italy circumnavigates 15,203-foot Monte Rosa, a massif that contains four of the five highest peaks in the Alps and affords hikers views of other 4,000-meter peaks, including the Matterhorn. ($3,190; 888-687-6235; www.mtsobek.com)
23 Thanks to the round-the-clock summer light up north and some of the finest white-water canoeing on the planet, Fred Loosemore’s biggest challenge on his 21-day South Nahanni trip is often simply persuading his Black Feather clients to quit for the night. “At five o’clock we say, `Just one more set of rapids.’ By seven we’ve said that six times,” claims the trip leader. “It takes all the discipline we can muster to stop paddling.” Black Feather’s descent through the southwest corner of the Northwest Territories covers almost 350 miles of river, from the alpine headwaters of Moose Ponds–reachable only by chartered float plane–through the Class III and IV Rock Gardens and into one of Canada’s deepest canyon systems. ($2,700; 888-849-7668; www.blackfeather.com)
WHY THIS TRIP: The logistical expertise of Black Feather, founded in 1971, is nonpareil.
PLAN B: Churchill River Canoe Outfitters’ eight-day trip on the upper Churchill in remote Saskatchewan delivers white water in finely measured doses: thrilling stretches of Class II and III rapids that are later savored on island-filled connector lakes. ($1,100; 877-511-2726; www.churchillrivercanoe.com)
Guizhou Party Patrol
24 Last year Geographic Expeditions inaugurated a 15-day trip into remote tribal regions of southwestern China’s Guizhou Province, venturing into villages where Westerners are rarely, if ever, seen. In one community, elders threw a welcoming celebration so grand that nearly a thousand people from neighboring towns poured in to join the party. “If we hear there’s a festival someplace,” says regional director Laura Ballard, “we’ll go.” That means the itinerary is kept flexible while exploring this region of limestone hills, terraced rice paddies, and nearly 80 ethnic groups that throw wingdings such as the annual Sisters’ Meal Courtship Festival, when single women don silver headdresses and troll for eligible bachelors. ($4,995; 800-777-8183; www.geoex.com)
WHY THIS TRIP: Other outfitters pop into Guizhou for a few days–at most; GeoEx devotes two weeks to the remote province.
LOCAL FARE: Rice wine spiked with neon-yellow bile from a freshly slaughtered pig–an acquired taste, but to refuse is considered rude.
PLAN B: Snow Lion Expeditions’ cultural excursions to southern China’s Yunnan province, with its large Tibetan population, visit Tibetan Buddhist monasteries and Tiger Leaping Gorge, one of the Earth’s deepest chasms. ($2,300; 800-525-8735; www.snowlion.com)
The New Inca Trail
25 Each year some 66,000 pilgrims trek to the lost city of Machu Picchu along the fabled Inca Trail–enough to make this route just a tad too busy. Adventure Specialists skirts the crowds by using an alternative Inca Trail (there are several), a 500-year-old path that the Peruvian government reopened four years ago after clearing away landslide rubble and overgrowth. Covering about seven miles a day and sleeping in tents, hikers and their Quechua porters spend three days along the roiling Urubamba River, then tramp past Inca ruins and into a cloud forest populated by cocks-of-the-rock, large birds with brilliant orange-red plumage. But trekkers don’t miss out on the best part of the Inca Trail: On the final day they walk the worn, ancient stones for the classic ascent through the temple at Winay-huayna to ridgetop Machu Picchu. ($1,885; 719-630-687; www.adventurespecialists.org)
WHY THIS TRIP: According to company founder Gary Ziegler, it’s less strenuous than the standard Inca Trail, just as scenic, and sees no more than a thousand travelers per year.
PREP WORK: Just keep up your regular exercise routine. “As Andean trekking goes,” claims Ziegler, “this is really quite easy.”
PLAN B: On a 17-day trip offered by Mountain Travel Sobek, participants day-hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Then they lose the crowds during an eight-day expedition in the remote Cordillera Vilcabamba over a 14,000-foot pass to the isolated ruins of Choquequirao, which has a setting to rival Machu Picchu’s. ($3,295; 888-687-6235; www.mtsobek.com)