Adventure travel: South of the border

The enormous surge of interest in adventure vacations and nature tourism has helped drive renewed interest in Western Hemisphere destinations south of the border. In response, travel suppliers are offering more innovative programs to destinations in Central America, South America and the Caribbean than ever before.

At the same time, local, regional and national forces are taking a more active role in ecotourism initiatives designed to ensure that their product is not destroyed in the process of luring tourists to see it. Following is a brief look at highlights of selected destinations in Central America, South America and the Caribbean. Package prices, unless otherwise noted, are per person, based on double occupancy, and commissions are 10%.

The Caribbean

  • Dominican Republic. While the Dominican Republic is most often associated with sun-and-sand vacations, all-inclusive properties and top-notch golf resorts, this Caribbean destination offers plenty of adventures of its own. "This is a small country that's got a little bit of everything, and it's virtually unknown," says Tricia Thorndike, an American expatriate who five years ago opened Iguana Mama, an adventure tour company here.
  • "We've got these big mountains -- Duarte Mountain is 10,400 feet high. It's amazing for mountain biking. We have every kind of water sport, scuba diving, snorkeling, plus hiking and horseback riding."

    Sample Package: An independent Cabarete Explorer Week includes a choice of any four Iguana Mama half-day excursions and six nights' lodging at a choice of accommodations in Cabarete.

    Price: Approximately $500, including services of a guide, bicycles, helmets, drinking water and local transfers on excursions. Purchased independently, half-day hiking or mountain biking excursions are $50.

    Commission: 20% on Iguana Mama excursions; 10% on hotel bookings.

    Call: (800) 849-4720.

    Another Dominican Republic adventure is whale watching; the destination for whale watching is an area 80 miles offshore called Silver Bank. Because whales visit here during their mating and calving season, their surface activity tends to be extremely active, creating a fabulous spectacle.

    Sample Package: In January, Peter Hughes Diving of Coral Gables, Fla., a specialist in live-aboard dive vacations, is repositioning one of its dive boats, the Wind Dancer, for a series of weeklong "Whales of the Silver Bank" expeditions. The trips operate roundtrip out of Puerto Plata.

    Price: $2,195 per person, plus $100 port and park fees.

    Departures: Saturdays, Jan. 23 to April 3.

    Call: (800) 9-DANCER.

  • Jamaica. "For ecotourism, the Blue Mountains are the best place to go," says a spokesman for the Jamaica Tourist Board. What has put the mountains in the ecotourism spotlight, he explains, is a new marketing program in northeastern Jamaica that's a cooperative venture of seven lodging facilities along with other area business, including Valley Hikes, a local nonprofit organization that fosters sustainable development of eco-cultural tourism.
  • The Port Antonio Destination Marketing Program is promoting the parish of Portland (whose capital is Port Antonio), which encompasses the tallest peaks of the Blue Mountains and a forest that contains the highest diversity of biological species in Jamaica. Here, under the auspices of Valley Hikes, local guides take visitors by foot into the tropical forests of the Rio Grande Valley, where they can explore the heritage of small mountain farming communities and the region's lush flora and fauna.

    Unique Destinations in North Scituate, R.I., books the tours in the U.S. "The focus of all my work is to create programs for people looking for off-the-beaten-track travel, but a portion [of the proceeds] goes back to the destination," says president MaryLou Callahan.

    Sample Package: Unique Destinations offers Discover Jamaica Naturally packages at the seven participating Port Antonio properties for five, seven or 10 nights. Packages include a combination hike and rafting excursion with lunch, and roundtrip airport transfers.

    Price: From $440 to $1,733 for five nights, depending on lodging choice; effective from Dec. 15 to April 14, 1999.

    Departures: Call the tour operator.

    Call: (401) 934-3398.

  • Trinidad & Tobago. Because of its location at the southernmost end of the Caribbean archipelago just seven miles offshore from South America, the twin-island nation of Trinidad and Tobago boasts a natural diversity that's arguably unequaled elsewhere in the Caribbean. Situated on the migratory paths of numerous bird species, the islands have long attracted bird watchers who come in search of the 430 species that can be found here.
  • Acres and acres of rain forest have been preserved on Trinidad and Tobago. On Trinidad alone, there are 13 wildlife sanctuaries, including the 200-acre Asa Wright Nature Centre in the Northern range, where birders are apt to spot species such as the turquoise-billed toucan, bearded bellbird and chestnut woodpecker.

    Trinidad and Tobago's marine life is also abundant and diverse, thanks to the nutrient-rich waters of South America's Orinoco River, which empties into the Atlantic south of Trinidad. This is rewarding territory for divers and snorkelers.

    A multifaceted cultural diversity adds to the islands' appeal as do opportunities for sea kayaking, scuba diving, hiking, cycling and camping.

    Sample Package: Pan Caribe Tours in Austin, Texas, a specialist in Trinidad and Tobago for 13 years, offers a seven-night program called Trinidad & Tobago: Nature's Child.

    On Trinidad, it includes a boat trip into the Caroni Bird Sanctuary, a guided walk at the Asa Wright Nature Centre and kayaking through the Nariva wetlands. Tobago highlights include a boat trip to Little Tobago, which serves as a breeding ground for sea birds.

    Price: For scheduled group departures, from $1,709, including roundtrip air from Miami, lodging, excursions, meals and local transfers. For custom departures, from $1,934 for two to three people.

    Departures: Three scheduled in November, two in December and seven in 1999.

    Call: (800) 525-6896.

    Central America

  • Belize. "What distinguishes Belize is the diversity -- the rain forest, the Maya ruins and the barrier reef -- all in a very small country," says Sherry Boyd, chief operating officer for International Expeditions of Helena, Ala., which has been operating to Belize for about 16 years.
  • For nature lovers, the country's primary rain forests are of special interest. One highlight is the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary in southern Belize, where a jaguar reserve protects a large concentration of the powerful felines.

    In the Chiquibul rain forest, travelers can explore Caracol, Belize's largest Maya site.

    Divers have long favored Belize because of its barrier reef, which is second in size only to Australia's Great Barrier Reef. The lagoon created by the 185-mile-long reef is ideal for snorkelers, while on its ocean side a wall drops off hundreds of feet.

    Sample Package: International Expeditions' weeklong Southern Belize Millennium program will feature stays at three new lodges, all still under construction. They are the Indian Creek Lodge, situated near the ruins of Nim Li Punit; Jungle Lodge, located on Golden Stream, and Wild Cane Caye Lodge, whose 12 cabanas are being constructed on platforms connected by raised walkways to protect the habitat of the Port Honduras Marine Zone.

    The trip features nature walks; a guided night walk; several boat trips; a visit to a Maya village and explorations of several rarely visited Maya ruins.

    Price: $2,498, including air travel from Miami, all services, meals and local transportation.

    Departure: Dec. 27, 1999. A modified itinerary is available starting this December.

    Call: (800) 633-4734.

  • Costa Rica. Thanks in large measure to the tremendous ecological diversity of its small landmass, its conservation efforts, an early awareness of ecotourism and the creative programs of travel suppliers, Costa Rica is a leader in making nature tourism and active travel widely accessible.
  • Every year thousands of travelers sample Costa Rica's riches, exploring its varied terrain ecosystems -- from dense rain forests and eerie cloud forests to deciduous dry forests and thick mangrove swamps.

    Costa Rica is also well equipped to satisfy the cravings of active travelers. There are abundant opportunities to enjoy various adventures -- sea kayaking, whitewater rafting, mountain biking, horseback riding, fishing, windsurfing and scuba diving among them.

    And new opportunities are opening up all the time. Amy Bonanata, president of Costa Rica Experts in Chicago, says she's excited about the privately owned Rainmaker Rain Forest Reserve, which opened about a year ago some 20 minutes north of Manuel Antonio National Park on the central Pacific Coast.

    "It takes canopy exploration a step further with a series of suspension bridge walkways 260 feet above the forest floor."

    Sample Package: New this year at Costa Rica Experts is an eight-night Costa Rica River & Rain Forest itinerary combining a hike through a 600-year old primary oak forest, three nights at the Corcovado Lodge Tent Camp on the Osa Peninsula and a two-day rafting and camping trip on the Pacuare River.

    Price: From $1,498, land, including most meals and services of local hosts and guides.

    Departures: Twice monthly; minimum of two participants.

    Call: (800) 827-9046.

  • Guatemala. Typically, tour programs showcase Guatemala's lively marketplaces, the centuries-old churches where Catholicism and Maya rituals coexist, the seemingly timeless villages whose residents are descendants of the ancient Maya, the exquisite textiles hand woven by women villagers, the colonial city of Antigua and the Maya ruins of the Peten region, most notably Tikal.
  • But Guatemala's natural setting also holds tremendous appeal. One highlight for nature lovers, notes Paul Caira, manager of the U.S. office in Nahant, Mass., for Guatemala-based Clark Tours, is Guatemala's Rio Dulce, a river just below the border with Belize that flows from the Caribbean and empties into Lake Izabal.

    Sample Package: Clark Tours & Travel offers a three-night fully escorted tour module that features visits to Lake Izabal and the port community of Rio Dulce, Guatemala's only Caribbean port, and excursions to the Maya ruins in Copan, Honduras, and the Guatemalan archaeological site of Quirigua.

    Price: $328, roundtrip from Guatemala City, ground transportation on a seat-in-coach basis, services of a guide, American breakfast daily, entrance fees and border crossing.

    Departures: Mondays.

    Call: (707) 252-2227.

  • Honduras. Honduras is full of rewards for nature lovers, adventurers and Maya enthusiasts, yet enjoys the advantage of being relatively undiscovered.
  • The country is perhaps best known among scuba divers and snorkelers who are attracted to its Bay Islands for underwater sights that include coral gardens, sponges and undersea mountains. The country is also a draw for travelers interested in the Maya civilization. The highlight is Copan, historically one of the leading centers of the Maya world and today one of its best-preserved monuments to the past.

    On the Caribbean coast, La Ceiba is the jumping-off point for several excursions. These include whitewater rafting trips on the Cangrejal River and hiking through the nearby Pico Bonito National Park.

    Sample Package: Holbrook Travel in Gainesville, Fla., which has been operating to Honduras for five years, offers a seven-night Honduras Classic itinerary with scheduled departures. The program combines explorations of Copan and a stay on the Caribbean coast, where highlights include a visit to the Garifuna village of Miami and a trip to the Lancetilla Botanical Gardens.

    Price: $1,247, land, including accommodations, a few meals, transfers and services of a guide throughout the tour.

    Departures: Nov. 7, 19; Dec. 12, 19 and 26.

    Call: (800) 451-7111.

  • Panama. Clients who are avid birders likely are already aware of Panama's natural abundance, but among other eco-travelers it is still an up-and-coming destination. It's one they shouldn't miss, suggests Elizabeth Lollock, U.S. marketing representative for Ancon Expeditions of Panama, a for-profit operation affiliated with Panama's National Association for the Conservation of Nature.
  • "First of all, there's great biodiversity. Because of Panama's geographic location, it's the northernmost range for a number of species of birds. It's only 30,000 square miles, but it has 220 species of mammals, 960 species of birds, 240 species of reptiles and more than 10,000 species of plants," says Lollok, whose firm Destination by Design is in Arlington Heights, Ill.

    Sample Package: Ancon Expeditions of Panama's nine-night Best of Panama covers the central region of the country and the San Blas Islands.

    Highlights include a drive in the virgin lowland rain forest of Soberania National Park; visits to the Rainforest Canopy Tower and the Panama Canal's

    Miraflores Locks, and a boat ride for wildlife viewing on Wheeler Cove at the Barro Colorado Island Nature

    Monument.

    Price: $1,898, Dec. 1 through Nov. 30, 1999, including domestic air, land and water transportation; most meals; entrance fees, and guide services.

    Departures: Monthly, except February.

    Note: Among U.S. wholesalers offering Ancon Expeditions' programs are: Wildland Adventures, Seattle; Tread Lightly, Washington Depot, Conn.; Sunny Land Tours, Hackensack, N.J.; Lost World Adventures, Decatur, Ga., and Journeys International, Ann Arbor, Mich.

    Call: (888) 888-4106.

    South America

  • The Amazon. A journey to the Amazon Basin is still one of the world's great adventures, though the small ships that ply the waters of the Upper Amazon River and its many tributaries make it an accessible one. Even so, as Daniel Taramona, president of Tara Tours in Miami notes, "the word Amazon creates a little mystery in the minds of most people."
  • Certainly, the Amazon Basin, which encompasses over 2.5 million square miles and straddles Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela and Bolivia, is a naturalist's dream. Here is the world's largest tropical jungle and its second-longest river, itself just one of 1,000 navigable rivers in the Amazon Basin.

    Taramona of Tara Tours, which has been operating programs to the Amazon since 1980, says that the boats that ply the waters of the Upper Amazon provide a satisfying experience for a broad clientele.

    Sample Package: Tara Tours offers a seven-night program that features a six-night cruise roundtrip out of Iquitos, Peru, aboard either the 44-passenger Rio Amazonas or the 29-passenger Arca.

    Highlights include a call in Pevas, the oldest town in Peru; shore excursions from the Cochaquinas River, the Cayaru River and at Monkey Island, and an extensive walk through the rain forest at Chimbote.

    Price: From $1,672 on the Arca and $1,798 on the Rio Amazonas, including air travel from Miami, all shore and boat excursions, transfers, one night hotel accommodation in Iquitos and most meals.

    Departures: Every Saturday.

    Call: (800) 327-0080.

  • Argentina
  • Argentina's territory is defined by the majestic mountains of the Andes on its western edge; the deserts and mountains of the northwest (home to the highest peak of the Western Hemisphere); the subtropical rain forests and spectacular falls of the northeast; the vast eastern plains that gave rise to its celebrated gaucho culture; an Atlantic coastline rich in marine life; Patagonia's striking network of glaciers, lakes, snow-capped mountains, and, still further south, the remote island of Tierra del Fuego, gateway to Antarctica.

    Among Argentine highlights is the Valdes Peninsula, located about midway between Buenos Aires and Tierra del Fuego. Here, in a pristine environment, colonies of sea lions and seals along with other marine mammals and thousands of sea birds provide a rich spectacle.

    To the west lies the Andean ski resort of Bariloche where travelers can enter the alpine Lake District and cross by boat through fjord country to Puerto Montt in Chile.

    Sample Package: Wilderness Travel of Berkeley, Calif., offers an 18-day In Patagonia trip that it characterizes as a "moderate hiking and natural history adventure." The trip visits Buenos Aires, Iguazu Falls, the Valdes Peninsula and Punta Tombo, and includes hikes in Los Glaciares National Park within sight of Fitzroy and Cerro Torre and onto the Moreno Glacier. The itinerary also visits Torres del Paine and Punta Arenas, both in Chile, and concludes in Santiago.

    Price: From $3,895.

    Departures: Nov. 15; Dec. 5, 19; in 1999, Jan. 11, Feb. 1, March 1 and Dec. 19.

    Call: (800) 368-2794.

  • Chile. The attractions of this country on the western edge of South America range from an arid desert in the north to the alpine Lake District south of Santiago to the glacial parks and remote territory of the extreme south. More than 2,000 miles west of mainland Chile is Easter Island, where huge stone heads and petroglyphs dot the landscape.
  • One gem for adventurers and nature lovers alike is Chile's Torres del Paine National Park. Located in the Patagonian region north of the city of Punta Arenas, this is unspoiled territory, a picturesque setting for hiking, horseback riding, mountain biking, boat excursions or for explorations by van.

    Encompassing nearly 600,000 acres, the park contains mountains up to 9,000 feet tall capped by stark granite towers that challenge the world's best climbers. Here too are glaciers, forested valleys, crystalline rivers, lakes and waterfalls.

    Sample Package: Ocean Connection in Friendswood, Texas, offers a Joy of Remoteness plan to Torres del Paine that features a range of adventure options. The package, available for three, four or seven nights, is based at the Hotel Salto Chico, a 30-room upscale lodge.

    Hotel Salto Chico operates 16 "explorations," including guided hikes to the base of Torres del Paine, horseback riding to Laguna Verde, hikes to Grey Glacier and Grey Lake and archaeological hikes.

    Price: From $1,340 for three nights, including roundtrip air travel from Santiago to Punta Arenas, ground transfers, four meals daily and daily excursions.

    Departures: n/a.

    Commission: 11% to 13%.

    Call: (800) 365-6232.

  • Mexico. A prime destination in Mexico for nature and adventure travel is the Sea of Cortez. Here, operators offer sea kayaking excursions and small ship expeditions that give travelers the opportunity to explore uninhabited islands, see diverse bird life and witness impressive marine mammals, including fin whales, humpbacks, pilot whales and sperm whales.
  • Another highlight is Mexico's Copper Canyon, favored by travelers both for its magnificent setting and mountainous backdrop and the opportunity to experience the culture of the region's indigenous inhabitants: the Tarahumara (or Raramuri).

    The establishment of Mundo Maya in 1986, a joint tourism initiative of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, has helped put another region -- the five states of Yucatan, Quintana Roo, Campeche, Tabasco and Chiapas -- on the maps of travelers seeking culture, nature and soft adventure.

    While the focus for many is the Maya archaeological sites in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula and southern highlands -- notably Palenque, Uxmal, Chichen Itza, Coba and Tulum -- visitors to these sites can hardly ignore their natural settings.

    Sample Package: Lindblad Special Expeditions offers three itineraries featuring Mexico's Sea of Cortez. One is a seven-night voyage called Exploring Baja's Infinite Mysteries. The loosely structured itinerary visits areas still relatively new to Lindblad Special Expeditions, focusing on the dozens of islands between Isla Espiritu Santo in the south and Isla Angel de la Guarda in the north. There's whale watching in the waters of the Canal de las Ballenas, off shore from Isla Carmen and near the mouth of Bahia Concepcion as well as hiking and ample timing for swimming, kayaking and snorkeling. The trip aboard one of Lindblad Special Expeditions' 70-passenger vessels is between La Paz and Guaymas.

    Price: From $2,290.

    Departures: In 1999, March 29 and April 5, 12 and 13.

    Call: (800) 762-0003.

    For additional information on the destinations covered in this article, agents are advised to call the national tourism offices, representative airlines or consulates of each country. The numbers below are for national tourism offices, unless indicated otherwise.

    Belize: (800) 624-0686

    Costa Rica: (800) 343-6332

    Guatemala: (888) 464-8281

    Honduras: (800) 410-9608

    Panama: (800) 557-0017

    Dominican Republic: (888) 374-6361; (800) 723-6138, brochures only.

    Jamaica:(800) 233-4582

    Trinidad & Tobago: (888) 595-4TNT; (800) 748-4224, agents only.

    Argentina: (212) 603-0443

    Chile: LanChile, (800) CHILE-66

    Peru: Peruvian Consulate, (305) 374-7819

    Mexico: (800) 446-3942

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