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 CaribbeanDominican 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Departures: Three scheduled in November, two in December and
seven in 1999.
Call: (800) 525-6896.
Central AmericaBelize. "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
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
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.
Call: (707) 252-2227.Honduras. Honduras is full of rewards for nature lovers,
adventurers and Maya enthusiasts, yet enjoys the advantage of being
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
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
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
Price: $1,898, Dec. 1 through Nov. 30, 1999, including domestic
air, land and water transportation; most meals; entrance fees, and
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
Call: (888) 888-4106.
South AmericaThe 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Price: From $1,340 for three nights, including roundtrip air
travel from Santiago to Punta Arenas, ground transfers, four meals
daily and daily excursions.
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
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
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
Trinidad & Tobago: (888) 595-4TNT; (800) 748-4224, agents
Argentina: (212) 603-0443
Chile: LanChile, (800) CHILE-66
Peru: Peruvian Consulate, (305) 374-7819
Mexico: (800) 446-3942