World's Top Adventure Trips
Wave-battered headlands ripped past us, shrouded in fog, as the tiny plane banked and turned, weaving along the ramparts of the rugged coast. Abruptly, the pilot steered into a bay where the receding tide had laid bare a broad patch of sand. Down we floated and stepped out to find ourselves in a valley of riotous green. There were no houses, no roads. Only the tallest peaks even had names. At that moment I knew that I had been transported, not only to another place in the world, but to another way of living in it.
My first trip to Alaska, a dozen years ago, cemented a long-gestating passion for adventure travel. And in the years since, that passion has spread around the globe. Never have there been so many people who want to see and experience the farthest corners of the world, and never have there been so many adventure-tour companies, of such high caliber, offering such a wide range of destinations and activities. We're living in a golden age of adventure.
Adventure isn't just about escaping into the wild, of course. It's about engaging and committing yourself no matter what you're doing. "People today have the mind-set of wanting to master things," says Keith Walden of Virtuoso, a network of luxury travel agencies. "They want to go and dive in and learn and be hands-on."
For a truly profound experience, adventure travelers should plan on spending at least a week. One needn't endure rough living conditions; some of the wildest landscapes on earth can be enjoyed in luxury tented camps or sumptuous lodges like those operated by Explora, in remote corners of South America. One of the company's guided excursions heads across the Bolivian altiplano, one of the world's most rugged environments.
Travelers pursuing personal transformation are increasingly looking for trips that include immersion in a foreign culture or a chance to volunteer on behalf of a worthy cause. Journey Mexico, for instance, focuses on Mexico's cultural and natural heritage and brings guests on trips that involve weighing, tagging, and releasing endangered sea turtles on the coastline of Baja California.
Then again, if it's a profoundly life-changing experience you're after, there's nothing like a really long journey in a truly remote region. Wilderness Travel conducts 29-day treks on the Tibetan Plateau, which kick off in Kathmandu and ascend to a base camp within 8,000 feet of Everest's summit. Along the way, guests explore the ancient monasteries of the Lhasa valley.
While the ongoing financial meltdown may have temporarily taken the wind out of adventure travel's sails, the state of uncertainty only makes the quest for adventure all the more relevant. As I write in my new book, Extreme Fear, times of crisis have a way of deepening our sense of connection and purpose. After all, as far as we may travel, the real destination lies inside.
*All rates are per person and include lodging; airfare not included.
Yellowstone: Trekking, Walking & Biking
Explore the Serengeti of the American West. Raft the Yellowstone River and ride horseback into the Absaroka Mountains.
Go with: Austin-Lehman Adventures, which specializes in multi-sport tours through the American West and beyond, with luxurious amenities and top-notch guides. June–September departures; six days from $1,198.
Trek through the Andes along the Futaleufú River, then switch to kayaks to reach the Pacific Ocean.
Go with: Boundless Journeys—ninety percent of their trip leaders are natives of the destinations they guide in, providing real cultural immersion. February 26–March 6; nine days from $2,895.
Thailand:Trekking, Walking & Biking
Pedal through the Golden Triangle, with difficulty levels ranging from moderate (no more than 25 miles per day) to arduous (up to 57 miles per day).
Go with: Backroads offers tours that combine cultural encounters with high-intensity cycling. December 30–January 6; eight days from $3,598.
Costa Rica:Local Culture
Zipline through a forest canopy, hike an active volcano, and learn from locals about their country.
Go with: Classic Journeys, whose philosophy is that you can get as much of an adrenaline rush from chatting with a shepherd on a remote hillside as from shooting Class Three rapids through the rain forest. Monthly departures except in May and October; seven days from $2,995.
Go dog-sledding, then relax in a log cabin or an igloo.
Go with: Gap Adventures, a large, fast-growing outfitter that aims to provide intense experiences on a budget. Small groups use local transportation and guides to maximize authenticity and reduce expense. March 13–18; six days from $2,999.
View gray whales and help weigh, tag, and release endangered sea turtles in conjunction with the Ocean Foundation.
Go with: Journey Mexico, which was founded seven years ago by a young American couple and focuses on Mexico’s cultural and natural heritage. April 3–10; eight days from $2,495.
France:Trekking, Walking & Biking
Pedal from the premier cru wineries of Bordeaux to the medieval castles of the Dordogne Valley.
Go with: Butterfield & Robinson, which will have you bicycling and hiking by day, and indulging in serious food and wine in the evenings. June–October departures; seven days from $6,995.
Visit Petra and the Dead Sea and stay at an eco-lodge supported by the king of Jordan.
Go with: Cox & Kings, the world’s oldest travel company. Founded in 1758 to provision British army regiments, it manages a global portfolio of tours with the savvy born of a far-flung empire. September–April departures; 13 days from $6,415.
GrandCanyon: River & Ocean
Take a nonmotorized trip down the Colorado River’s most spectacular 225 miles.
Go with: OARS, a pioneer in commercial river guiding that brings rafters and kayakers onto otherwise inaccessible waters. April–October departures; 16 days from $4,953.
Mongolia: Regional Specialists
Paddle across pristine Lake Hövsgöl, then travel to the Gobi for saddle time atop two-humped Bactrian camels.
Go with: Nomadic Expeditions, who will take you camel and horse trekking in remote, mountainous western Mongolia, with many nights spent in traditional felt tents with wood-burning stoves. June–July departures; 13 days from $3,735.
Western Canada: Luxury Adventure
Explore the Rocky Mountains by train, take an evening wildlife safari hike, and learn about the geological formations of the Colombia ice fields in Jasper. You'll stay at Fairmont Lake Louise and trek through its surrounding forest, ending with a helicopter tour over Banff.
Go with: Kensington Tours, which offers private custom tours with in-country offices, guides, vehicles, and 24/7 emergency support. Book freely; nine days from $4,365.
The Galápagos Islands: River & Ocean
Cruise the archipelago in a catamaran, exploring each new island on foot or by kayak.
Go with: Explorer’s Corner, whose founder, Olaf Malver, specializes in trailblazing kayak journeys in remote polar settings. (He also runs mellow, warm-water trips.) December–August departures; 11 days from $4,910.
Alaska: Off the Grid
Spend mornings heli-skiing central Alaska’s Tordrillo Mountains and afternoons casting for king salmon.
Go with: EpicQuest, whose guides moonlight as serious athletes—including Olympic gold medalist skier Tommy Moe—and serve up untracked powder and all-but-undiscovered surf breaks. June and July departures; five to six days from $8,650.
East Africa: Safari
Fly by private plane between wildlife viewing stops in Kenya and Tanzania.
Go with: Abercrombie & Kent, which now runs tours on every continent and in more than 100 countries. But their signature trip remains the lavish tented African safari. January–March and June–December departures; 15 days from $16,210.
California Coast: Affordable
Gather seafood and edible plants along the California coast.
Go with: Adventure Out, which offers camping trips that combine breathtaking scenery with nitty-gritty wilderness survival education. August 12–15; four days from $425.
Seychelles:River & Ocean
Cast over the saltwater flats of the Seychelles’ remote St. Joseph’s Atolls for fierce but elusive bonefish.
Go with: Frontiers who, with four decades’ experience, offers a huge range of trips to some of the most exotic fishing spots on six continents. March–May departures; six days from $7,600.
Bolivia: Off the Grid
Journey across the Bolivian altiplano, one of the world’s most rugged environments.
Go with: Explora, who in 2005 launched Travesías, a series of guided expeditions from its three remote luxury adventure lodges into the surrounding terrain. April–November departures; 11 days from $3,380.
Bhutan: Local Culture
Tour the mountain kingdom’s temples with the noted Buddhist scholar.
Go with: Geographic Expeditions, whose clients are willing to endure the very occasional bumpy road or night in a tent, in the pursuit of remarkable experiences. May 10–22; 13 days from $8,495.
India:River & Ocean
Descend from the Tibetan border through intense Class Four and Five rapids, with stops to meet indigenous subsistence hunters.
Go with: Mountain Travel Sobek. Whether climbing mountains or rafting on white water, few outfitters can rival the adventure chops and experience of this 40-year-old firm. December 4–21; 18 days from $4,995.
Antarctica, Falklands, and South Georgia: Off the Grid
Travel from Ushuaia, Argentina, to Antarctica and back, following parts of Ernest Shackleton’s route.
Go with: Lindblad Expeditions. In 1966, Lars-Eric Lindblad led the first passenger cruise to Antarctica, pioneering tourism on the continent. Today, his namesake company sails a fleet of eight ships to some of the world’s most remote destinations, from the Arctic Ocean to the Antarctic Peninsula. November 7–30; 24 days from $18,450.
Motorcycling the Ho Chi Minh Trail from Hanoi to Saigon on a 250 cc bike.
Go with: Myths & Mountains, which leads Asian and South American trips that connect with local cultures in creative ways, such as taking part in shamanic rituals in Ecuador and visiting Khmer temples at dawn. March 8–24; 16 days from $6,595.
Tour the Great Rift Valley with legendary paleontologist Richard Leakey.
Go with: Journeys by Design. Owner Will Jones spent 25 years in six African countries before returning to the U.K. to open a shop dealing exclusively with the continent he knows best. June–September departures; seven days from $8,490.
Peru: Trekking,Walking & Biking
Explore Andean archaeological sites along the Inca Trail.
Go with: Country Walkers for gentle walks and a focus on interaction with locals (such as lessons with schoolchildren in India or lunch with villagers in Costa Rica). May–December departures; eight days from $3,898.
Sahara Desert: Local Culture
Twelve days trekking with bedouin guides across the sands on foot and camel, with some rest days.
Go with: Elevate Destinations, a small, five-year-old company that promotes carbon-neutral activities and donates five percent of each trip’s revenues to local communities. March, April, September, and October departures; 15 days from $3,500.
North Pole: Off the Grid
Crunch through pack ice to some 90 degrees north.
Go with: Quark Expeditions, whose two polar-class icebreaker ships—one nuclear powered, and both equipped with helicopters and Zodiacs—make it the go-to outfit for getting to the remotest ice-bound spots. July 9–23; 14 days from $22,690.
A hands-on elephant conservation project in Botswana that includes a chance for guests to attach a radio collar.
Go with: Ker & Downey, an outfitter that aims to provide life-changing experiences through environmental conservation and social philanthropy. April–December departures; 12 days from $16,550.
On the Tibetan plateau, ascend to a base camp within 8,000 feet of Everest’s summit.
Go with: Wilderness Travel. Since its founding in 1978, this adventure company has developed a vast range of trips, including a line called WT Expeditions: rugged, one-off explorations dreamed up as the particular passions of individual guides. July–August departures; 30 days from $9,295.
Take a Land Cruiser expedition along the northern Atlantic coast, then visit pristine Fernando de Noronha island.
Go with: Latin Excursions for in-depth, culturally rooted trips to Patagonia, the Pantanal, and the Amazon basin. May–October and December–March departures; 14 days from $5,000.
Rockies: Local Culture
Brazil: River& Ocean
Go by floatplane to remote stretches of the Amazon in pursuit of 25-pound tiger-striped fighters.
Go with: Rod & Gun Resources, with surprisingly luxurious tented camps and villas in remote fishing destinations from Alaska to the Amazon. August–March departures; seven days from $4,295.
Sand-surfing, camelback game viewing, and helicopter touring in a little-seen corner of Africa.
Go with: Micato Safaris. Since 1966, the Pinto family of Kenya and New York has been welcoming guests to Africa with an extraordinary level of service and in-country expertise. June–December departures; 10 days from $14,900.
Montana: River& Ocean
Go head-to-head with wily trout in some of America’s best fly-fishing streams.
Go with: Sweetwater Travel Company, founded by three brothers who grew up in Montana; it excels at guiding first-time fly-fishing anglers. July–September departures; three days from $1,800.
Q + A: Dan Vermillion, Sweetwater Travel Company, Montana
You took President Obama fly-fishing?
Yes—the White House called me two weeks beforehand, and I wasn’t allowed to tell anyone, not even my wife.
How did it go?
We fished together one-on-one for three hours. You’d think it would be intimidating, but he was smart and funny, and so easy to talk to. It didn’t even feel real.
Q + A: Carolyn McIntyre, Geographic Expeditions
Expertise: the Middle East
What drew you to the Middle East?
I worked as a flight attendant for Saudi Arabian Airlines. I just became fascinated. The Middle East tends to do that—it gets under your skin.
What is your favorite place to take people?
Syria. Americans come with such a negative expectation, and the Syrian people are just the opposite of that—they’re very friendly. It’s fun to watch my clients’ reactions; it’s like they’re changing in front of your eyes.
Q + A: Philip Rono, Micato Safaris, Kenya
Expertise: Kenya—and running
You are from Eldoret, a place famous for its marathon runners.
We come from a very high altitude. The other thing is, all the kids now want to emulate [two-time Olympic gold medalist] Kip Keino.
And you take clients running?
Kip Keino has welcomed them into his home. You go for a run with him, you share a meal with him.