Adventure Vacation Guide 2012: Chamonix, France

There is a stark difference between “adventure destination” and “adventure capital” in that adventure capitals offer some sort of adrenaline rush 365 days a year. A prime example of this never-a-bad-time-to-be-here type of adventure capital poised to be hot in 2012 is the legendary town of Chamonix at the base of France’s Mt. Blanc.

Summer and fall seasons turn Chamonix into one of the world’s most renowned mountaineering and rock-climbing destinations, and the epic treks departing from the Chamonix valley include the eight-day Tour de Mt. Blanc and The Haute Route, which was recently listed as one of Lonely Planet’s top 10 treks in the world.

Or, for the best view of anywhere in the valley, the skies of Chamonix are dotted with the colorful confetti of paragliders blissfully hucking themselves off of craggy alpine peaks.

In the winter and spring months, the valley offers some of the best skiing found anywhere in the Alps, with the 2100m (nearly 7,000 ft.) vertical run of Les Grand Montets and the off-piste Vallee Blanche serving as the pinnacles of winter adventure.

After a slow start to the winter season where the resorts were essentially devoid of snow (late-season mountain biking!), the Chamonix Valley was just graced with enough record-shattering snowfall to once again postpone the start of the season due to white-out conditions and avalanche danger.

Plus, with the Euro plummeting against the dollar amidst European debt fears, 2012 is shaping up to be an all-around good year for outdoor adventure in the French Alps.

[flickr image via rachel_thecat]

Adventure Vacation Guide 2012: Queenstown, New Zealand

Just as I mentioned in the Adventure Vacation Guide to Chamonix, France, what separates an adventure destination from an adventure capital is the ability to get an adrenaline rush for all 365 days of the year. Although Queenstown may be closer to the South Pole than the Equator, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t adventure activities perfectly suited for every season of the year.

Also, as an added bonus, under the country’s traveler-friendly Adventure Compensation Corporation program (ACC), many travelers to New Zealand are actually covered for any medical costs they may incur while inside of the country. Seriously. I’m not making this up. You hurt yourself, you’re covered. End of story.

So now that you know that you’re covered in the extremely unlikely event of an accident, what sort of adventures can you sniff out in Queenstown? How about throwing yourself off the Kawarau bridge at the AJ Hackett bungy center, the original bungy operation in New Zealand? Or maybe take a jet boat ride through canyons which are way too narrow at speeds which are way too fast?

Extreme sports aside, Queenstown is also within striking distance of Fiordland, the protected and mountainous region which is home to such treks as the Milford Track and the Routeborn Track, a trail which was recently chosen as one of the top ten treks in the world by Lonely Planet.

In the winter months, The Remarkables ski area stoically lurks on the craggy peaks that form the backdrop to the town, the Southern Alps providing some of the best skiing opportunities in the Southern Hemisphere. Lastly, with the New Zealand dollar currently holding steady at $.75 to the US dollar, it’s also a somewhat a cheap way to get your thrills in 2012.

[flickr image via Or Hiltch]

Adventure Vacation Guide 2012: Belize

Belize is the only country in Central America with English as the official language. The small country, measuring 180 miles long and 68 miles wide, is a popular vacation destination for tourists whose native language is English. But Belize is good for much more than just lounging in white sand while watching the shimmering teal waves roll in and out while drinks, ordered in English, are replenished. Behind the luxurious resorts and relaxing vacation packages, Belize is an adventure destination.

With the lowest population density in Central America and, simultaneously, the highest growth rate in the region, 2012 is the year to visit Belize–it’s still spacious and remote in most places, but it doesn’t appear as though this quality will serve Belize permanently. People everywhere are beginning to now catch onto what natives have always known–Belize is not only gorgeous, rich in history, and filled with Mayan cultural treasures, but the small country packs in a big punch with adventure and thrill-seekers. Inexpensive and lush, the untainted waters and landscapes await you.Explore Belizean caves littered with Mayan ruins. The ATM Cave, near the city of San Ignacio, boasts still-in-tact skeletons and pieces of once-blood-holding pottery from Mayan sacrifices; these were offerings to the gods during times of desperate drought. But there’s a catch to seeing something as rare as these remnants–you have to get to them first. Getting through ATM cave is no easy feat. You must first hike through thick rainforest terrain for an hour before facing the cave’s entrance, which is a waterway. The only way in, and out, is to swim through the chilly water in the pitch-black, damp cave with your headlamp serving as your only guiding light. After you’ve made it in and out of the water portions of the cave, relatively challenging climbs and tight squeezes await you as you journey through this spooky cavern.

Zip-line through the forests surrounding this cave and many others while you’re inland. Stop to observe wild jaguars if you can while in the Jaguar Paw area. While at Jaguar Paw, take the opportunity to go for a tubing trip through a cave. Hike through thick and challenging terrain and cool off via waterfall rappelling. Scuba dive down into the famous-for-a-reason Great Blue Hole, a submarine sinkhole that measures 984 feet across and 407 feet deep. Widely regarded as one of the best diving spots in the world, the aerial shots of this gaping Caribbean hole will make your heart skip a beat (just Google it). If diving is too much of a commitment for you, spend your time a bit more leisurely and follow a shining school of fish while snorkeling. Weave around the shoreline and throughout the inland rivers by kayak or go kayak sailing into the rising sun. Spend your time doing daily yoga at one of the country’s yoga retreats or yoga-friendly resorts, fully immersed in a tranquil environment, or test your boundaries with a sky diving, parasailing, base-jumping, or bungee jumping excursion.

Whether your on a shoestring budget or looking to spend your hard-earned money on all of the finest adventures Belize has to offer, you’ll find a sweat-inducing, adrenaline-spiking experience in Belize that suits your wallet and lifestyle. With a landscape like the Belize landscape, adventure waits outside your door with free admission to the mountains and beaches. And with organized companies like the ones you can find in Belize with minimal research, sky’s the limit for your guided adventure in this small, but incredibly rich, Caribbean country.

[flickr image via jayhem]

Adventure vacation Guide 2012: Ecuador

Most Norteamericanos are hard-pressed to locate Ecuador on the map. Those familiar with this South American country the size of Colorado usually associate it with the (admittedly) spectacular Galapagos Islands. Yet Ecuador has so much more offer besides the Galapagos, and 2012 is the year to get your hardcore on. Why? Because the country’s adventure travel industry is blowing up–but it’s still affordable, especially if you opt for independent travel or book certain activities through domestic outfitters or U.S. travel companies that work directly with Ecuadorean guides.

Whatever your recreational interests, budget, or experience, odds are Ecuador has it: mountaineering, glacier climbing, and volcano bagging; trekking on foot or horseback; Class III to VI whitewater kayaking and rafting; sea kayaking, scuba diving, and snorkeling; surfing; remote jungle lodges and endemic wildlife, and agritourism. Need more convincing? Ecuador’s adventure tourism increasingly has an emphasis on sustainability. When it comes to protecting its fragile ecosystem and indigenous communities, Ecuador has become quite progressive for a developing nation, which hasn’t always been the case.

If you like a cultural or culinary component to your travels, there’s that, too. You can opt for an active, educational trip to indigenous-owned and -operated Amazonian eco-lodges, or play in the Pacific regions, which retain a strong Afro-Ecuadorean influence.

Agritourism is also hot in Ecuador, most notably at centuries-old haciendas, although there are also coffee and cacao plantation tours. Ecuadorean food is a diverse melding of indigenous and outside ethnic influences that’s regionally influenced: be sure to patronize markets, roadside restaurants, and street food stalls for some of the most memorable eats.

[flickr image via Rinaldo W]