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50 Must-Try Latin American Adventures

From chomping on tasty bugs in Mexico to clinging to the end of the Earth in Chile, this roundup has adventure covered / By Jennifer Segelke

1. Shake it at Carnival
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Pulsating beats, outrageous costumes, hundreds of thousands of people, extravagant indulgence …  this is Carnival in Rio—one of the largest, most celebrated events in the world. The week before Lent, this massive celebration brings in more than 500,000 international visitors each year. Joining the throngs of revelers is not only an adventure, it’s a feast for the senses.

2. Hike Machu Picchu
Peru
Touted as the most amazing urban creation of the Inca Empire, Machu Picchu’s grandeur and beauty have acted as a siren’s song to explorers, adventurers, hikers—and, of course, thrill-seeking, backpacking undergrads—since its discovery 100 years ago. Named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in 2007, Machu Picchu saw 858,000 visitors in 2008 and has pretty much become a rite of passage for any adventurer traveling through South America. (See Extremes Issue)

3. Explore Costa Rica’s most active volcano, Arenal.

4. Trek the Che Guevara Trail
Bolivia
This pilgrimage along La Ruta Del Che allows you to follow in the footsteps of Argentine revolutionary, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, and his guerilla army. During the tour, you’ll travel to Vallegrande (where Guevara’s body was infamously photographed in a laundry room), as well as visit the site where he was captured, his burial site, museums and various points of interest.

5. Bike the World’s Most Dangerous Road
Bolivia
Biking Bolivia’s “Death Road” is a must for adrenaline-seeking mountain bikers. During this 40-mile, downhill route, riders will encounter towering cliff faces, jungles, cascading waterfalls and precarious, mountain-hugging dirt roads. It’s recommended to ride during the dry season, but Gravity Bolivia also offers a masochists-only ride during the rainy season.

6. Board Down a Live Volcano
Nicaragua
Some travelers might shy away from a live volcano, but the true thrill-seeker doesn’t bypass an opportunity to laugh in the face of danger—especially when that danger includes sitting (or standing, if you’re ambitious enough) on a plywood board and hurtling yourself down the steep, pebbly face of Cerro Negro, Nicaragua’s ominously black (and active!) volcano.

7. Venture into the Atacama Desert and brave the geysers.

8. Immerse Yourself in Baseball
Havana, Cuba
When in Havana, do as the Cubans do, and indulge in the country’s favorite pastime, pelota. Be sure to catch a local game, and then head over to Parque Central’s Esquina Caliente (Hot Corner) where you’re sure to see—and probably get involved in—a heated discussion about anything and everything baseball.

9. Float in a Pool of Light
Puerto Rico
Take a dip with millions of glowing half-plant, half-animal creatures in the bioluminescent bays of Puerto Mosquito on Vieques Island. When agitated, these tiny organisms emit a flash of blue light, impressively visible at night. With a concentration of 720,000 glowing Pyrodinium bahamense per gallon of water, these teeny swimmers produce enough light to read a book.

10. Saddle Up & Ride
Uruguay, Chile & Ecuador
Give in to your dreams of the gaucho lifestyle with a horse trek across South America. Whether it’s crossing the snow-covered Andes, splashing along the coast or herding cattle, these riding adventures prove “on horseback” is one of the most spectacular ways to experience the South American landscape.

11. Test Your Taste Buds
Mexico, Peru & Ecuador
Foodies looking for a tasty way to get their adrenaline pumping should bypass the empanadas and mole, and instead opt for the chapulines (grasshoppers) in Oaxaca, Mexico, and the cuy (guinea pig) in Peru and Ecuador. These local favorites may not sound appetizing at first, but once you get past the initial “ick” factor, you might just find your palate is far more adventurous than you thought.

12. Sleep in a Tree House
Costa Rica
Foregoing the solid walls of a traditional hotel might not sound like high adventure to some, but for many travelers, spending the night in a tree house, amid the flora and fauna of the Costa Rican jungle, is adventure plenty.

13. Don a wingsuit, and fly over Latin America’s gorgeous landscape, as Jeb Corliss did.

14. Visit Middle Earth
Ecuador
Perhaps not a “journey to the center of the Earth,” but a visit to Quito, Ecuador, is a visit to the Mitad Del Mundo (Middle of the World). Just 16 miles from the city, you’ll find the famous yellow line representing Earth’s equator. Plant your feet on either side of the line, and you’re in both hemispheres at once—quite a feat. Check that off your bucket list.

15. Tour El Imposible National Park in El Salvador, one of the world’s most threatened ecosystems.

16. Surf the wind in Cabarete, Dominican Republic.  

17. Hang glide over Rio de Janeiro’s gorgeous harbor.

18. Ultramaratón Fuego y Agua and La Ruta de los Conquistadores
Adventurers with a competitive edge, join the race.

19. Hitch a ride, and see what happens. (Caution: You may need to sing a few songs as payment for your ride.)

20. Hit the Beach
Brazil
Venturing out onto the crowded beaches of Rio—namely Copacabana and Ipanema—will be quite an adventure for more modest travelers. Famous for wearing the tiniest of bathing suits, the Brazilians prefer to strut along the surf in either tanga (thong) or fio dental (dental floss) bikinis. So leave your inhibitions behind, throw on your tanga, and join the thousands of sun worshipers packed body-to-body on the beach.

21. Catch the Big One
Panama
If you fancy yourself an angler, there’s no greater adventure than sportfishing in Coiba, Central America’s largest island, just off the coast of Panama. The clear, blue waters are filled with big-game fish, such as marlin, yellowfin tuna, wahoo, sailfish, cubera snapper and almaco jacks, and while you’re fishing you just might catch a glimpse of killer whales, humpback whales, pilot whales, manta rays and sea lions.

22. Seek a Shaman
Peru
If you’re looking for bit of mysticism in your adventures, a shamanic tour through the Peruvian Amazon might just be the trip for you. Filled with ceremonies and rituals, hallucinogenic plants (ayahuasca and San Pedro cactus) and varying stages of consciousness, shamanic explorations are an adventure for both the body and mind.

23. Learn Polo
Argentina
There’s no denying that polo superstar Nacho Figueras is one hot commodity right now—the men want to be him, and the women want to be with him. While becoming Nacho is impossible, picking up on some of his polo skills is not. Spend your next vacation in Argentina learning polo at a polo ranch, and you’ll come home sexier for it.

24. Attend a live soccer game—just watching fútbol in Latin America is adventurous.

25. Visit the ancient tepuis of Venezuela, home of the world’s tallest waterfall, Angel Falls.

26. Witness the mysteries of Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia.  

27. Swim the Amazon
Peru & Brazil
If swimming laps at the local YMCA isn’t cutting it for you, try swimming the length of the world’s second-longest river, the Amazon, like marathon swimmer Martin Strel did in 2007. It took Strel a grueling 66 days to swim this watery behemoth, during which he endured a variety of bodily ailments, including high blood pressure, exhaustion, vertigo, delirium and second-degree sunburns on his face. A bit too intense for you? Perhaps just watching the documentary Big River Man will be adventure enough.

28. Tour and hike the Tikal Mayan Ruins in Guatemala.  

29. Scuba dive with hammerhead sharks in Isla del Coco, Costa Rica. 

30. Trek the Amazon like Ed Stafford.

31. Plunge into the Iguazú Falls in Argentina.

32. Join the Expedition
Chile
If you’ve already conquered hiking, cycling, kayaking, climbing and navigating through treacherous, unyielding terrains, The Patagonian Expedition Race might just be the adventure for you. A combination of sports disciplines, this race pits teams of four up against not only each other but also the extreme Patagonian landscape. Imitating the journeys of the land’s Indian forefathers, competitors are guided only by their mind and spirit but are driven on by their physical stamina and thirst for adventure.

33. Shop ’till you drop on Avenida Paulista in São Paulo. 

34. Spot a jaguar in Belize.

35. Learn to Tango
Argentina
Few things are as sexy as watching a couple dance the tango. What is sexier? Dancing it yourself. Head down to Buenos Aires, tango’s birthplace, for some lessons before showing off your moves in one of the city’s many tango clubs. For something truly authentic, visit San Telmo, a neighborhood known for it’s bohemian flair. This little section of town turns into an eclectic flea market of sorts on Sundays and later transforms into an open tango dance party Sunday evenings.

36. Travel to the End of the Earth
Chile
If glaciers and penguins are not what come to mind when you think of South America, think again. Aboard Cruceros Australis’ impressive sea vessel, travelers will visit “Glaciers Avenue,” Tierra del Fuego, Puerto Williams (the world’s most southern city) and Cape Horn. Icy and vast, it’s an otherworldly adventure.

37. Sandboard the dunes in the Chilean desert.  

38. Explore the Belize Barrier Reef.

39. Detox Yourself
Mexico
If your sense of adventure manifests itself in a more Zen-like fashion, a wellness retreat might be the perfect vacation for you. Rancho La Puerta, (voted “World’s Best Destination Spa” two years in a row by Travel + Leisure magazine) combines an array of fitness activities—including yoga, Pilates, Bar Method and dance—with healthy cuisine and luxurious spa treatments, all in the hopes of creating a healthier, more peaceful and balanced you.

40. Swim with the Fishes
Mexico
Dive into the waters off the coast of Isla Mujeres, Mexico, to swim with the world’s largest species of fish: the whale shark. Snorkeling alongside these giants of the ocean in their natural environment is an adventure that far exceeds treading water in monitored tanks.

41. Drop from a helicopter onto one of the highest peaks of the Andes Mountains in Chile.

42. Ride the Waves
Nicaragua & El Salvador
Latin America is loaded with hot surfing spots, so if big breaks are what you’re after, this is the place to be. Ladies looking to learn the ropes of the sport should check out CHICABRAVA, an all-girls surf camp in Nicaragua. Known for it’s world-class breaks, El Salvador is a surfer’s paradise—and as of yet, isn’t overrun by tourists. Access Trips puts together a surf holiday that doesn’t just focus on the waves, but El Salvador’s lush landscape as well.

43. Ride the Wind
Nicaragua, Peru, Mexico, Belize (anywhere with a beach)
Watching out for your safety isn’t the only reason to be careful, should you choose to kitesurf while in Latin America. You might just fall in love with the sport and want to quit your day job—much like Jessica Winkler, who is now a sponsored kitesurfer. She describes it as the speed of wakeboarding, the freedom of surfing and the hang time of motocross, all rolled into one.

44. Motorcycling buffs, check out Valparaiso Cerro Abajo.

45. Explore the Depths
Mexico & Venezuela
Spelunkers rejoice! Latin America is filled with some of the world’s deepest and most impressive caves. Cueva del Guácharo is Venezuela’s most-visited cave and also happens to be the biggest and longest. Watch out for the guano, which is produced not by bats but by thousands of nocturnal birds called guácharos, or oilbirds. In Mexico, the Cave of Swallows is an impressive pit with enough room inside to house NYC’s Chrysler Building; it’s the largest-known cave shaft in the world. To view something that looks like a scene from a sci-fi movie, check out Mexico’s Cueva de los Cristales. This dream-like limestone cavern filled with sparkling beams was discovered in 2000 and is nothing short of breathtaking.

46. Ride the rapids in Chile.  

47. Zip line through the rainforest canopy in Costa Rica.

48. Celebrate Noche de la Primavera, Mexico City’s night festival welcoming spring. 

49. Be amazed at the magnificence of Easter Island.

50. Become One With Nature
Galápagos Islands
One of the most extreme and awe-inspiring destinations in Latin America, the Galápagos Islands have been a hot tourist destination since the 1960s. Ideal for adventurers looking to get up close and personal with an amazing variety of wildlife, ROW’s Galápagos Unbound Tour is the only tour in the world that allows for two nights of camping on the islands, hiking, snorkeling and kayaking.

Photos courtesy of Carnaval.com, Bigfoot Hostel, and Gravity Bolivia