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.
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.
Bolivia: Biking the “World’s Most Dangerous Road”
The road through the Andes from La Paz, Bolivia’s capital, to Coroico, a small town at the rim of the Bolivian Amazon basin, is known to locals as “El Camino de la Muerte” or Death Road. Every year, people plunge to their deaths on this road, but for adventurous bike riders the world’s most dangerous road can be the ride of a lifetime.
The infamous biking trip descends more than 11,800 feet in four to five hours of riding, and is best done after spending a few days acclimating to the altitude of La Paz. Beginning at the La Cumbre peak, 15,400 feet above sea level, the winding dirt road has 3,300-foot drops to the left and massive rock overhangs and waterfalls to the right, and ends at the town of Coroico, at 5,250 feet. In addition to sharing the road with vehicles, you may also pass llamas and alpacas along the way. Although the trip sounds difficult, it is open to both advanced and beginning bike riders with a healthy sense of adventure.
Mary Beth Hubbard of Brooklyn, New York, experienced the trip firsthand on a trip to Bolivia in 2004. She says, “It was so, so scary. The road is narrow, steep, and windy, and if you [went] off the road, you would plummet to your death over the side of the mountain.” That being said, Hubbard says that looking back, “The bike trip was the highlight of the trip for sure. I was terrified, but experiencing the mountains that way was amazing.”
A number of providers offer trips down the “World’s Most Dangerous Road,” but the most reputable is Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking. The company provides top-quality bikes with hydraulic disc brakes and helmets. Trips are available from March to mid-December. A one-day trip takes 13 hours (including transportation back to La Paz), but two-day trips are available with overnights in Coroico. Rides start at $55.
Brazil: Discovering the Amazon
Brazil is home to 80 percent of the Amazon’s river system and tropical rainforest. The jumping-off point for Amazon explorations is the capital of the Amazonas state, Manaus. Riverboat trips on the Negro and Amazon rivers are popular ways to explore, and most trips include activities like canoeing, swimming, hiking, wildlife viewing (including monkeys, river dolphins, river otters, piranhas, and sloths). Other highlights include visits to the massive Janauari Ecological Reserve, and viewing the meeting of the waters where the murky Negro and sandy Solimoes rivers meet but do not mix before joining to form the Amazon River.
In 2004, Dan Pridgen, a traveler from South Carolina, spent a spring vacation on an Amazon riverboat trip. Adventures on his voyage included “a night spotting of wildlife by canoe, piranha fishing in a small Amazon tributary, a visit to a [rainforest] tribe in a pouring rain, and an overnight sleepover in hammocks under a thatched structure in the jungle,” as well as a “non-sanctioned (by the outfitter) hike following a small stream perhaps a mile into the deeply verdant growth of the jungle—no path—just an astounding labyrinth of vines, canopy, and understory.”
Most Amazon Clipper trips offer similar activities. Trips are two-, three-, or five-night voyages, and both luxury- and tourist-class boats are available. Amazon Clipper cruises are available through a handful of providers, including Amazonas, Brol.com, and Latin Trails. Visit at the end of June, and witness the Processão de Sao Pedro, a parade of hundreds of watercraft. Prices start at $385.
Chile: White-water rafting on the Futaleufu River
Located in remote northern Patagonia near the border of Argentina, the Futaleufu River boasts some of the best waters in the world for white-water rafting. Its Class III, IV, and V rapids provide a wild ride for rafters as they wind through temperate rainforest and glacier-capped mountains. While the Futaleufu draws many experienced rafters, adventurous beginners can also enjoy a rafting trip. But, as Mitch Sasser, co-founder and expedition leader of H2O Patagonia notes, “Futaleufu is not a river for the faint of heart. You need to have a ‘go get it’ attitude.”
“[The Futaleufu is] a large-volume river with Grand Canyon-size waves and obstacles, but pitched into a much smaller and steeper river canyon,” says Sasser. “The water of the Futaleufu is a translucent turquoise blue that will blow you away … Expect to be pounded with enormous amounts of whitewater, paddle blind into the next wave and come out loving it (hopefully inside the raft).” Most trips hit the Bridge-to-Bridge section of the river for Class III and Class IV-plus rapids.
Seven-night trips with H2O Patagonia start at $3,800 per person.
Costa Rica: Surfing in Tamarindo
Costa Rica has long been a surfer’s paradise, and Tamarindo is one of the best spots in the country. Located on Costa Rica’s northwest Pacific coast about 45 minutes from Liberia’s airport, Tamarindo is a laid-back beach community with a half-dozen different surf spots, as well as restaurants, nightlife, and some shopping.
Todd Cutter of Tamarindo-based Alacran Surf Tours says Tamarindo’s appeal is its variety of surf breaks in a compact area. “Most surfers enjoy the variety of surf breaks offered within such a short distance of Tamarindo, in addition to those within walking distance of the area’s hotels, says Cutter. “Surfers can enjoy surfing at the river mouth in either Tamarindo or Playa Langosta, or a number of accessible breaks such as Playa Grande, Negra, Avellanes, and of course Witch’s Rock and Ollie’s Point.” Witch’s Rock and Ollie’s Point are among the most renowned surf spots in Tamarindo.
Unlike “exclusive” spots where only experienced surfers are welcome, both newbies and seasoned surfers can enjoy Tamarindo’s waters. A wide array of local shops rent surfboards and offer lessons, but there are also multi-day surf camps for those who want to devote more time to surfing. December through April are the prime surfing months in Tamarindo, but it’s possible to surf all year.
Several surf camps offer single- and multi-day programs. Tamarindo Adventures offers 90-minute surf lessons and one- and two-week surf camp programs for beginning and advanced surfers. Tamarindo Surf School offers one-, three-, and seven-day surf lessons ($30, $500, and $1,000 respectively) and Witch’s Rock Surf Camp has daily and weeklong lessons for beginning, intermediate, and advanced surfers. Seven-day packages start at $690 including surf lessons, accommodations, and breakfast.
Cutter’s website, Surf-CostaRica.com has a wealth of information about surfing in Tamarindo and other areas of the country.
Ecuador: Exploring the Galapagos Islands
Located about 500 miles off the coast of Ecuador, the Galapagos are an archipelago of 19 volcanic islands that were formed more than five million years ago. Scientists and researchers have long visited the Darwin Research Station in Isla Santa Cruz, but adventurous travelers can explore the islands as well.
The Galapagos are known as the “laboratory of evolution” due to the number of endemic and indigenous species on the islands, which makes the area a dream for naturalists, photographers, bird-watchers, and the like. The mammals, birds, and reptiles inhabiting the islands lack natural predators and therefore are fearless, allowing visitors to interact with them in a way that is impossible anywhere else. Giant tortoises, Darwin’s finches, marine iguanas, and boobies are among the animals unique to the Galapagos.
Island-hopping boat cruises are the best way to explore the Galapagos. These cruises are on small ships and sailing vessels without the typical onboard entertainment and dining options found on mainstream cruises. Cruises generally visit several islands, and daily activities include snorkeling, diving, kayaking, and hiking.
While photographers will likely be happy visiting any of the islands, some are better than others in terms of activities. San Cristobal and Santa Cruz have some of the best hiking trails, through hardened lava fields and past dormant volcanoes. The best diving can be found in the waters off Darwin and Wolf islands, where the clear waters allow divers to get close to hammerhead sharks, sea lions, dolphins, penguins, and turtles. Snorkeling is also a popular pursuit, and the waters off Bartolomé Island are teeming with fish and other wildlife. Española and Genovesa islands have a wide array of birds for bird-watchers.
Dozens of providers offer Galapagos tours. Ecoventua offers seven-day luxury cruises from $2,300 including all meals and shore excursions. Thomson Family Adventures has nine-day tours geared towards families starting at $2,690. Big Five Tours and Expeditions offers three-, four-, and seven-night luxury cruises from $2,399, while Inti Travel and Tours has numerous different itineraries on tourist-, deluxe-, and first-class ships from $938. GoVisitGalapagos.com has a treasure trove of information about visiting the Galapagos.
Mexico: Kayaking on the Sea of Cortez
The Sea of Cortez, In the Mexican state of Baja California Sur, is considered one of the world’s best spots for warm-water sea kayaking. The warm waters are home to a rich ecosystem beneath the surface, with coral reefs filled with more than 800 species of marine life that attract snorkelers and scuba divers as well as kayakers. Whales, dolphins, sea lions, and manta rays are common sights on kayak expeditions.
Most kayak tours depart from the sleepy fishing village of Loreto, about an eight-hour drive from Los Cabos. Kayak tours tend to be multi-day excursions that also include snorkeling, as well as hiking and camping on several islands, such as Carmen and Dazante. Tours often stay in the Loreto Bay National Marine Park, which is protected by the Mexican government, and Magdalena Bay, home to gray whale lagoons. Kayaking is easy for most travelers to learn, and most trips are suitable even for people with no kayaking experience.
“We kayak, snorkel and hike on our tours, and are always keeping an eye out for blue and fin whales, dolphins, and sea lions,” says Nancy Mertz, founder of Sea Kayak Adventures, a tour company that offers several multi-day Sea of Cortez trips. “We camp in sheltered coves with white sand beaches on the islands.”
“The beauty is breath-taking,” says Wendy Bach of Minneapolis who participated in a Sea Kayak Adventures tour in January. “The natural sedimentary rocks making up the desert cliffs looked like Disney had installed huge colorful boulders cemented with limestone. Cacti grew 10 feet high fanning like candelabras up and down the clay-colored mountains. Each day was clear blue skies, turquoise waters, and unspoiled white beaches.”
Sea Kayak Adventures is a highly regarded outfitter with a dozen different kayak tours. Sea of Cortez trips start at $930 for six days.
Peru: Hiking the Inca Trail
The trek via the Inca Trail to the “Lost City” of Machu Picchu, the 500-year-old Inca ruin located in the Peruvian Andes, is one of the most popular adventure trips in South America. Only about 200 hikers are permitted per day (500 people total on the trail, including guides and porters), so planning in advance is essential.
The Inca Trail is a four-day, 45-kilometer hike through mountains, cloud forests, and sub-tropical jungles in Peru. While reasonably fit people can generally handle the trek, it can be difficult for those traveling from low-lying areas to acclimate to the elevation: 14,000 feet above sea level. Typically, travelers spend two or more days prior to the trek in Cusco, the city at the beginning of the trek which is known as the “Archaeological Capital of the Americas.”
Even so, Dan Pridgen of South Carolina hiked the Inca Trail with his wife in 2003, and felt challenged by the elevation. “Though we trained for two months and walked over 400 miles in preparation, our training was on the pancake flat coastal plain of South Carolina … the 4,000 foot gain in altitude from the 10,000 foot starting point was without a doubt the most strenuous hike of our lives.”
The culmination of the trek is arriving at Machu Picchu at sunrise, which means getting up before dawn on the final day. Pridgen recounts his experience: “It is pitch dark on the trail and the many separate groups are hiking in a long, sinuous line through the forest … the spectacle of this long train of hikers with flashlights bobbing in the night was extremely eerie and a highlight of the trip. The vision of the Lost City from the Sun Gate at sunrise will never be forgotten by anyone having seen [it].” Molly Feltner, as associate editor at SmarterTravel.com agrees, recalling that when she visited in August, she found Machu Picchu “very mystical looking. It feels like you’re discovering it all over again.”
A host of tour companies offer guided Inca Trail treks at varying prices. For the lowest prices, and to ensure proper treatment of the porters on the treks, it’s best to use a local company. Two reputable Peruvian companies include United Mice and SAS Adventure Travel, with trips from $400 and $375 respectively. Andean Travel Web is also an excellent resource for information on travel to Peru, including Inca Trail treks.