2013: Top new trips to emerging places
Every year new destinations open up to adventurous travelers, whether through the efforts of enterprising tour companies, better access to backcountry, or increased political stability.
Be warned: these picks aren't for kicking back on the beach with a margarita—unless you're rewarding yourself after a 100-mile trek from the Colombian Andes. Now, you can cycle the once forbidden island of Cuba, explore unseen corners of Patagonia, and track gorillas in the deepest rainforest.
Check out our picks below before the rest of the world catches on:
Tsavo, Kenya: Africa's Appalachian Trail
Tropical Ice Ltd. is setting new standards for the continent's hiking options by guiding a seriously epic, long-haul trekking trip across central Africa. The 100-mile-plus walk traverses the massive Tsavo West and East national parks, following the courses of the Tsavo and Galana rivers.
The walking safari takes 11 days, utilizing 8 of the company's camps. As co-owner Iain Allan says: "The wonderful thing about this walk is that it follows no roads, only trails created by hippo and elephant, so we're able to explore some really remote areas—the Africa of my youth."
Also, Artisans of Leisure is offering new trip options in Kenya, on a broader basis.
Raja Ampat Archipelago, Indonesia
With more than 1,300 species of fish, six of the world's seven species of sea turtles, and at least 450 species of reef-building coral, biologists have good reason to dub the Raja Ampat (or Four Kings) Archipelago the "Amazon of the Seas."
In 2013, Asia Transpacific Journeys is pioneering a snorkeling expedition to this isolated corner of ocean, led by marine biologist guides, and Seattle-based outfitter SeaTrek Sailing Adventures provides trips in the region aboard its traditional ironwood Phinisi schooners.
The Galapagos Islands
The Galapagos has been a leading model of eco-tourism for years, but even the best-laid plans can feel stale if you're looking for a true off-the-grid adventure.
A new Ecuador-based eco-outfitter, Opuntia, is starting to offer a new alternative to the islands' classic sailing trips with well constructed tours of the Galapagos' rugged interiors. They offer multisport adventure tours based out of boutique hotels on three different islands in the Galapagos. Think hiking active volcanoes, mountain biking coastal wetlands, kayaking with sea turtles and sharks, and snorkeling with sea lions.
ROW Adventures offers land-based Galapagos itineraries, as well.
Nicaragua: Volcano Surfing
This small, once off-limits Central American nation has long been attracting adventurous surfers and hikers, and in 2013, with a slew of new ecolodges opening, it's poised to draw even more travelers looking for thrills with a bit more comfort in mind. Sea kayakers are discovering its miles of pristine coastline and massive inland lake, and trekkers can explore the volcanoes and wildlife-viewing opportunities inland.
Austin-Lehman is introducing a new trip here this year that features mountain-climbing and black-sand "surfing" down Cerro Negro, and Adventure Life and Access Trips are introducing new Nicaragua tours, too.
Albania: A Trip Back in Time
As Albania's economy grows, more of its roads are being paved and long-haul cycling trips are becoming a more appealing option. You can pedal between friendly villages, through mountain passes, to undeveloped coastline— imagine exploring Croatia by bike 20 years ago.
Freewheeling Adventures is one outfitter starting to lead tours here this year, including a nine-day trip with days spent swimming at Dhermi, the country's most famous white-sand beach, and overnights in historic Gjirokastër, a UNESCO-protected town built around a 12th-century citadel.
If you prefer crafting your own itinerary, a number of new rental companies are cropping up in Albania's capital city, Tirana. The Tirana Backpacker Hostel, for one, has high-quality sets of wheels for €5 a day and provides suggested routes and points of interest.
Colombia: Peaks, Paddles and Pedals
Ringed by some of the best beaches and surf breaks on the continent, with jungle-clad Andes peaks at its core, Colombia is starting to make good on its geography after years of unrest, by opening up its countryside to active travelers.
A number of outfitters are starting to offer trips here. Adventure Life, for instance, is introducing not one, not two, but three new itineraries to Colombia in 2013 that include mountain-biking through the lowland tropics, old colonial towns, and coffee plantations, rafting the white water of the Chicamocha Gorge, and hiking.
Isla Navarino, Chile
Argentina's Ushuaia may be famous as the southernmost city on Earth, but it's tiny, tiny Puerto Williams, Chile, on Isla Navarino, that can lay claim to being the southernmost settled community on the planet. An overnight in the wind-whipped fishing community is a highlight, but the rugged surroundings are the real draw.
From Puerto Williams, hearty hikers with navigation experience can head out on the Dientes Circuit, an unmarked track that circumnavigates the island. (A good map and working compass are musts.) There are no established campsites—this is roughing it—but the views across the water of the other mountainous islands of Tierra del Fuego are incredible. The Dientes track was developed in the late '90's, but only in recent years has it started to gain real traction, as the number of trekkers in other Patagonian regions continue to grow and those seeking solitude are driven elsewhere.
Now, travelers more comfortable with support can enlist one of a half-dozen or so outfits offering trips of the Dientes. Erratic Rock is one of the best guiding companies in the region.
The Kamchatka Peninsula, Siberia
For years, the rugged Kamchatka Peninsula was off limits to tourism since it was the home base for Russia's nuclear submarine fleet. But after the end of the Cold War, many visa restrictions were lifted, and Russia is starting to give U.S. outfitters permits to operate here.
"Very lately tourism (in particular fly fishers in the summer) have started to return to this untouched wilderness, and the Russian government is allowing summer flights directly from Alaska to Kamchatka in order to foster the area's tourism development," says Ted Martens, of Natural Habitat Adventures.
Nat Hab will be offering an intensive new expedition to the region: 100 miles of hiking and kayaking from the foot of the active Karimsky Volcano, across the Siberian taiga to the headwaters of the Zhupanova River, through valleys with steaming geysers and roaming brown bears, ultimately reaching the Bering Sea.
Also, Frontier Travel is introducing a salmon fly-fishing trip to the Ponoi River on the Kola Peninsula.
The Patagonian Corridor: Land's End
For years, some of Patagonia's most famous sanctuaries—Argentina's Los Glaciares National Park and Chile's Torres del Paine National Park—happened to be surrounded by some of the least developed land in an already staggeringly remote region. Now that's starting to change.
New roads and boat access are being introduced in the so-called Patagonia Corridor, the region that connects these two iconic parks with the Austral Way (the very end of the Pan-American Highway) and the base camps of Villa O'Higgins, in Chile, and El Chalten, in Argentina. That means it'll soon be much easier for mountaineers and climbers to explore the two parks and all the glaciers, peaks, and valleys in between.
Robinson Crusoe leads exploratory itineraries across the region.
Georgia: The New Alps?
A unique convergence of East-meets-West, Georgia combines the cultural appeal of medieval villages and old-world charm with massive snow-capped peaks and vast valleys. Georgia's 750-mile-long string of Southern Caucasus mountains, many of which top out above 16,000 feet, were long considered off limits due to political instability with neighboring Russia.
But after the first democratic election in the Republic of Georgia's history, in 2011, the Caucasus are starting to show up on more and more mountaineers' radars, andGeographic Expeditions and Natural Habitat Adventures are just two of the many outfitters taking notice and offering new trips here this year. Natural Habitat Adventures' Ted Martens sums up the country's appeal as a mix of untapped natural beauty and navigational ease.
"There's visa-free entry and many new and modern hotels, roads, and other infrastructure have been built to facilitate tourism," he says. "Our trips take place just south of the Russian border, an area that's peaceful as well as stunningly beautiful for trekkers and horseback riders."
The Azores: Hawai'i of The Atlantic
New direct flights from the States (just five hours from Boston) are making this remote volcanic archipelago newly accessible to U.S. travelers. The nine Azores Islands lie in the North Atlantic, about 930 miles west of the Portuguese coast, but their lush landscape seems more akin to something you'd find in the South Pacific. Visitors can trek between bright green peaks and geysers, bathe in open-air natural thermal pools, and spot 24 species of whales and dolphins that migrate past the Azores year-round.
Futurismo Azores Adventures offers trips from its base on São Miguel island, including diving excursions with local marine biologist guides. Hikers, meanwhile, can tackle the Azores' signature peak, Mount Pico—at 7,713 feet above sea level, the tallest point in the islands—in a two- to four-hour round-trip trek on Pico island.
Sweden's Arctic: Northern Lights on Skis
Seeing the Northern Lights is a bucket-list dream for many, but it's typically a pretty elusive goal. The pale green and pink celestial spectacle comes courtesy of a complicated scientific process—when highly charged electrons from the solar wind haphazardly collide with gaseous particles in the earth's atmosphere. In other words: Sightings are never guaranteed.
But prognosticators say that this winter may be the best in fifty-plus years for viewing the Lights, thanks to unique conditions during the 2012-2013 season. The pristine fjords of northern Sweden are one of the best places to experience the glowing show, and KE Adventure Travel is one of a few operators taking advantage. KE has a newNordic ski tour, with husky-dog sled support and overnights in cozy mountain huts.
If you'd prefer a DIY trip, be sure to include a visit to the Aurora Sky Station, in Swedish Lapland's Abisko National Park for your best chances at a light show.
Wales: Hiking the Wales Coast Path
All 1,000-plus miles of Wales' dramatic coastline are now accessible to hikers and equestrians thanks to a newly completed path that rings the entire country. The new Wales Coast Path links together existing trails, taking in some of the most undeveloped stretches of cliffs and beaches, along with old-fashioned, family-owned inns.
Trekkers can hike and haul their own packs or enlist companies like Celtic Trails orContours Walking Holidays to transfer their belongings between B&Bs. Horseback-riding trips are set to be introduced along the route this year, too.
Madagascar: Indian Ocean Outpost
The consistently high winds whipping along Madagascar's northern coast have put it on the map in a big way with wind- and kite-surfers. Aficionados say the conditions are world-class, but it's still a new enough sport here that there aren't crowds—though you may attract curious groups of friendly locals looking on from the beach.
Madagascar shines away from its shores, too, with a fantastical mix of plants and animals. More than 90% of the island-nation's wildlife is endemic, including playful lemurs, a long roster of bird species, and the cat-like fossa. Huge stands of native Baobabs—or monkey-bread trees—are also unique to the country.
Kensington Tours is starting to offer safaris to Madagascar this year.
Bhutan: A Pristine Kingdom
This year, access to this formerly closed-off kingdom will be easier than ever, as the only airline that services Bhutan, Drukair, will start offering daily flights from Bangkok, New Delhi, and Singapore. Internal flights are set to begin soon, too.
The country is already the host to a famed one-day, 166-mile mountain-bike race,Tour of the Dragon, and this year, Bio Bio Expeditions, Asia Transpacific Journeys, and OARS will begin leading new multi-sport itineraries here, including whitewater rafting, jungle trekking, and, of course, mountain biking.
"These are perhaps some of the finest sections of Class IV to V whitewater in the world, with beautiful scenic views and untouched forests carving through terrain that few have seen," says OARS Trip Designer Barbara Neary. "Along the route, when travelers are not on the river, they will have a number of opportunities to interact with Bhutanese monks—who are always welcoming and engaging—at their monasteries and dzongs."
Mongolia: Land of Genghis Khan
The real appeal of Mongolia will always be in its seemingly endless green steppe, and horseback trips will forever be the best way to experience it, but to get there, you have to first navigate the country's capital, Ulaan Battor. And for years, a lack of infrastructure (or much of anything) limited access there.
Now, as the government introduces plans to double the country's foreign visitors to two million in coming years, that's changing. Foreign hotel chains are breaking ground in Ulaan B, and a new domestic airline, Mongolian Airlines, started flights last year and has plans for adding additional destinations within Asia this year.
A number of outfitters, including MIR Corp. and Nomadic Journeys are starting to lead horse-pack trips here, overnighting in traditional gers and visiting with reindeer herding families near Mongolia's alpine Lake Hovsgol.
Uganda: Gorillas In Your Midst
Uganda's mix of unique wildlife (mountain gorillas and chimpanzees) and natural wonders (the Nile, Murchison Falls, and the Rwenzori Mountains) is making it a big draw for 2013.
For the first time this year, Abercrombie & Kent is engineering its new itinerary to include days dedicated to tracking chimpanzees with university scientists. Guests explore Uganda's Kibale Forest, home to thirteen species of primates, including chimpanzees and mangabeys, as well as 300 species of birds. Later in the trip, there are days devoted to viewing other impressive game, on safari in Queen Elizabeth National Park.
"Because the region occupies the main migration corridor between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, there is prolific plains game here, primarily topi and Uganda kob, buffalo, hippos, and some of the largest herds of elephants anywhere in Uganda," says Abercrombie & Kent's Jean Fawcett. "Spotted hyenas are common and leopards are occasionally glimpsed, but the prime attraction is the large lion population."
Deeper Africa also introduced a new primate-tracking trip to Uganda in 2012.
The Congo: Rainforest Ecolodges
Long overshadowed by the violence of its larger neighbor, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the smaller Republic of the Congo is just starting to show up on tourists' radars.
That's thanks in large part to two new luxury safari camps opening this year in the Odzala-Kokoua National Park, which at long last will give travelers the chance to appreciate the pristine rainforest and wildlife-spotting opportunities in the RoC's rugged Congo Basin. Visitors can track western lowland gorillas and elephants with local guides (members of indigenous Pygmy tribes) and then overnight in luxury at high-end base camps.
Boundless Journeys is offering trips here, as well as the Africa Adventure Company.
Sri Lanka: Tropical Island Hopping
An untouched trio of mountains, jungles, and white-sand beaches has put Sri Lanka on travelers' maps for years, and now the country's recent stability has made it a more appealing option in South Asia than ever before.
In the interior, there's whitewater rafting, climbing, temple treks, and elephant spotting, while the coasts offer great surf breaks and kite-surfing havens. In 2013, there will be new outfitted trips here from Kensington Tours, Asia Transpacific Journeys, with another to follow in 2014 from Civilized Adventures.
Jordan: Trek the Middle East
When EasyJet added flights from the U.S. to Jordan last year, it paved the way for easier travel to this mountainous country. Now, a newly developed rural hiking route in the north of the country, The Abraham's Path, allows hikers to meet and interact with local people in a genuine way.
Two new ecolodges, one set in a remote part of the Dana Biosphere Reserve and the other at a hot spring near the Dead Sea, are offering new-found comforts, and KE Adventure Travel is pioneering long-haul cycling itineraries across the country this year. Boundless Journeys' new-for-2013 trip, meanwhile, will focus on hiking.
Botswana: Safari By Paddle
The spectacle of Victoria Falls and the lions, leopards, elephants, zebras, and giraffes of the Okavango Delta have long made Botswana a top safari destination. Now, companies like Explore Africa are starting to showcase the country's paddling options, as well, with new trips along the Selinda Canoe Trail, a four-day, three-night paddling trip through the Selinda Wildlife Reserve.
Explore Africa is also introducing a way for equestrians to experience Botswana, with a new three-day horseback-riding trip out of Camp Kalahari, a traditional tented camp on a palm-fringed island known for its vast herds of zebra. Zu/'hoasi Bushman guides live nearby. There's also a new wildlife safari from Austin-Lehman Adventures and another from Uncharted Africa.
Cape York Peninsula, Australia
For all its fame and sea life, it's no secret that the Great Barrier Reef is losing its luster to bleaching and tourism. Still, the further north you go from the hotspots of the Whitsunday Islands and Cairns, the two main GBR jumping-off points along Australia's eastern coast, the more locals like to boast about the improved conditions of the GBR, and for good reason.
But none of the off-the-beaten-path beach towns along the mainland can compete with the undeveloped tracts of Cape York Peninsula, at the very northeastern tip of the continent. Even the heartiest Aussie will admit that this land is truly out there. It's accessible only via puddle-jumper planes and dirt roads suitable only for 4x4s, but for those divers and fishermen looking to taste the waters of the GBR as they were a century ago, this is truly the best bet.
However, the clock's ticking, as Australia's big-money mining companies eye the remote region for possible development for bauxite mines.
Koh Phangan, Thailand: Wild Beyond The Parties
This Gulf of Thailand island has long been famous with the backpacker set for its raucous full-moon party, but this year, its first airport opens, direct flights from Bangkok begin, and a number of new eco-minded lodges open up. Koh Phangan is poised to draw a more active, less hedonistic crowd.
Just like its more famous sister island, Koh Samui, Phangan has countless palm-fringed white-sand beaches, some of them reachable only by boat; but unlike Samui, Phangan also boasts a mountainous jungle at its core, most of which is protected as national parkland by Thailand. Visitors can trek across rolling green hills to seek out secluded waterfalls and snorkel in the pure waters offshore.
Namibia: Ancient Sands
There are only a few places in the world where you can discover pristine landscapes on foot, without a marked trail, where you can sleep out under the stars, and Namibia's NamibRand Nature Reserve is one of them.
The 200,000-hectare sanctuary hosts a number of guided walking safaris across sand dunes and lunar desert landscapes—or you can take a hot-air balloon tour above them. Sand skiing is starting to be developed here, along with sand boarding, hiking (the rim of the second biggest canyon on Earth is a popular trail), kayaking, and visiting the UNESCO World Heritage site at Twyfelfontein, which is said to hold the highest concentration of Bushmen paintings found in a single area in southern Africa.
ROW Adventures is beginning trips here, as well, including hiking in the Namib desert, tracking the elusive black rhino, and viewing desert-adapted elephants.
Ruaha, Tanzania: Safari on Foot
Since a recent boundary extension, Ruaha is now the largest park in Tanzania and, along with several adjoining game reserves, part of a massive mega-wilderness. The park has only a handful of tented campsites, all of which are concentrated in one condensed area, leaving a vast system of woodlands and rivers to explore.
This year, Ruaha wardens are making that easier than ever by opening up the major roadless sections of the park to a limited number of walking excursions. You can spot the Big Four (no rhinos) and experience true seclusion in the park. Mark Thornton Safaris seems to be leading the pack, with a few new Ruaha itineraries this year, along with Immersion Journeys.
"Often we focus on the river systems with hippos, crocs, and elephants," says Mark Thornton, of his namesake company's trips. "We also venture deep into the miombo woodlands for what we feel may be the deepest remote bush immersion there is."
Guyana: The Other Amazon
Truly one of the last untouched pockets of one of the last frontiers, Guyana's tract of Amazon rainforest is starting to open up to eco-tourism. A trio of lodges in Guyana (Iwokrama River Lodge, Atta Rainforest Lodge, and Rock View Lodge) opened in recent years with the participation of the local Amerindian peoples, and in 2012International Expeditions piloted a tour here, including hikes through the jungle to massive waterfalls and excursions to spot 800-plus bird species at the Asa Wright Nature Center in nearby Trinidad.
International Expeditions Emily Harley says Guyana has been the company's radar for years. "It was actually the first place that our Director of Program Development visited outside of the U.S. when he was studying biology in college," she explains.
"He's watched the area closely since then, but recognized that it needed some improvements to the overall infrastructure before it could support visitors. Now Guyana as a country is trying to develop its tourism base in a green and sustainable fashion, and we found a combination of activities, lodges, and guides that made this the absolute right time to offer Guyana to our travelers—there are gorgeous hikes, paddling, canopy walkways and so much more."
Myanmar: Cycling The Land of Temples
As Myanmar (Burma) takes steps toward democracy and opens its borders to foreign tourists, travelers the world over are starting to discover its broad appeal, including 2,000 ancient temples and pagodas in the Ancient Bagan region and the deserted white-sand beaches of the Mergui Islands.
This year, a slew of adventure outfitters are rolling out trips here: everything from pagoda-to-pagoda cycling with Backroads to beach-to-beach sailing trips through the Merguis with Siam Dive N Sail. Classic Journeys' new Myanmar itinerary will focus on cultural immersion—lunches at a traditional stilted house on Inle Lake and workshops with lacquerware artisans—and take in the classic sites, as well.
Classic Journeys Edward Piegza says the Bagan site is a stand-out. The atmosphere is extraordinary, in the same way the Angkor complex in Siem Reap is, but with far fewer tourists, he explains. It's not so much the pagodas themselves that are glorious, but the whole journey between them, too. It's a wide-open setting on the plain, with no development, no shops, no commercial ventures, just miles and miles of open land and pagoda spires that have stood the test of time and isolation.
Rossland, British Columbia: Red Mountain Resort
Rossland's Red Mountain Resort, just north of the Washington border, is undergoing a staggering expansion this year, adding nearly 1,000 new skiable acres on Grey Mountain over the next two seasons. Already, the resorts Red Mountain offers 1,685 acres of terrain, and this new boost will add a whole new peak to the mix. (To put the numbers into perspective, the expansion on Grey alone is about the same size as all of Mount Baker Ski Area in Washington.) Later in 2013, at the beginning of the next ski season, a new quad chair will open up 22 new slopes around Grey.
Meanwhile, in the summertime, Rossland continues to draw mountain bikers to its flagship Seven Summits trail, a 22-mile strip of single-track that was afforded the elite Epic Ride status by the IMBA.
Ladakh, India: Grand Canyon of the Himalayas
Journeys International is pioneering a new trip tracking snow leopards in this remote mountain region, while both OARS and Bio Bio Expeditions are breaking new ground leading trips running the Class V's of the region's Zanskar River.
"The Zanskar is one of the most stunning places you will ever visit," says Bio Bio Expedition's Marc Goddard. "Most of the real Tibetan Culture has left Tibet and regrouped in Ladakh, so not only do you have the amazing river and mountains, but you get to experience the Tibetan culture as it was before the Chinese took over Tibet.
Ibex Expeditions, meanwhile, is offering new mountaineering trips to some of Ladakh's lesser-known, less intense 6,000-meter peaks, which provide the bragging rights of a big Himalayan ascent without the usual amount of pain.
Cuba: The Rolling Revolution
As U.S. travel restrictions to Cuba have loosened in recent years, allowing educational institutions and travelers interested in cultural experiences—or "people-to-people interactions" as the government puts it—to visit the island, active-travel outfitters have started developing their own itineraries here.
This year, a number of companies are rolling out new trips to Cuba that combine cultural interactions (hiking with local university scientists, sampling cigars at a tobacco farm) with road cycling through neighborhoods full of Colonial-era architecture, hiking in the Zapata Peninsula national park (also a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve), and sailing through the limestone caves near the Sierra de los Organos Mountains. In 2013, there are new itineraries on offer from Geographic Expeditions,International Expeditions, and BikeHike Adventures, to name just a few.
"Cycling through Cuba is one of the best ways to experience this fascinating country," says BikeHike Adventures Director Trish Sare. "The roads are paved and in good condition, and since most Cubans travel by bike, the streets are relatively car free and it's easy to have cultural encounters with Cuban cyclists along the way.