Adventure meccas of Latin America

by , SmarterTravel Staff
The Amazon jungle of Brazil (Photo: Adalberto Rios Lanz/Sexto Sol)
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on November 13, 2006. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: adventure travel, Baja California Sur, Belize, Chile and Easter Island, Galapagos Islands, Jessica Labrencis, La Paz, Manaus, Peru, Tamarindo, vacation package.

Central and South America have long drawn adventure enthusiasts to their mountains, jungles, and rivers. Latin America is ripe with adventure opportunities, with options that appeal to both hardcore and "soft" adventurers looking for either day trips or multi-day vacations.

I've researched countless adventure trips in Latin America, and selected 10 of the best, from kayaking in Mexico to extreme mountain biking in Bolivia, to illustrate how Latin America has an adventure for every traveler.

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Belize: Caving in the Actun Tunichil Muknal

Travelers that venture beyond Belize's white-sand beaches and head inland have the chance to explore a few of the country's thousands of caves. While floating through the caves in canoes or inner tubes is popular, more adventurous travelers can spelunk one of Central America's best: Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM). Located in the Cayo District of western Belize, ATM was discovered less than 20 years ago and become a popular destination for adventurous travelers, particularly after it was featured in National Geographic.

Once inside "The Cave of the Crystal Maiden," visitors play archaeologist, walking through the human remains and Mayan pottery. Andrew Haylock, manager of Mayawalk Tours, describes ATM tours as "thrilling, extremely wet, adventurous, fun-fill[ed], magical, and educating." But the excursion is for active travelers. Getting to the cave requires a 45-minute jungle hike through the Tapir Mountain Reserve that crosses three rivers, and once at the cave, visitors will swim and hike through water (hence the "extremely wet" description). "[You'll] enter the cave by doing a short swim," says Haylock. "You will get soaking wet, including your footwear. The depth of the water at the entrance of the cave is about 12 feet deep ... While going through the cave, you will be hiking through water ... the water level will be at your chest area, knee area, or ankle area."

Day tours spend about four hours inside the cave, the highlight of which is the "crystal maiden" herself. "This cave is a living museum," says Haylock. "At the end of the dry chamber, you will witness the "crystal [maiden], ... a full skeletal remain ... after climbing a 10-to-12 foot ladder." In addition to its day tours, Mayawalk Tours also offers overnight camping trips to ATM that include visits to other Mayan sites and rappelling into a sinkhole leading to ATM. Day trips cost $80, while overnight excursions are $170.

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