BRAZIL (2006 Winner)
Tribes of the Amazon
Very few outsiders have traveled to the heart of the Xingu Amazon Refuge. The 9,000-acre forest reserve is the isolated home of the Kamayura Indians; no roads link it to the modern world. Tribal elders have granted special access to trip leader John Carter, a former Texas cattle rancher, because of his years spent lobbying the federal government to protect their surroundings and way of life. This translates into one of the most authentic cultural-immersion experiences you'll find anywhere in the Americas. After being deposited by Cessna on a hand-cleared runway, you'll hike and canoe beneath the thick rainforest canopy, then sleep in hammocks inside the chief's own hut before flying out the next day. The rest of the 12-day trip is only slightly less remote, with a visit to a frontier cattle ranch and the Xingu Refuge Lodgeâ€” simple riverside retreat built to resemble a native villageâ€”and an overnight stay with the Waura Indians.
Outfitter: Ker & Downey, 800-423-4236, www.kerdowney.com
When to Go: June-August
Cordillera Blanca Climb
This triple-summit foray into high-altitude climbing in the Andes requires little technical skill, but the thin air and occasional crevasses make the two-week journey anything but easy. After a few days of acclimatization in the foothills of the Cordillera Blanca above the town of Huaraz, you'll trek through the lupine-carpeted meadows of the Quebrada Quilcayhuanca valley. The hike takes you on pre-Inca trails that trace the edges of alpine lakes. Here you enter crampon country, where you'll camp and, in less than a week, top three snowy peaksâ€”aparaju (17,470 feet), Huapa (17,761 feet), and Ishinca (18,138 feet)â€”before returning to civilization and a well-earned Peruvian feast.
Outfitter: Mountain Madness, 800-328-5925, www.mountainmadness.com
When to Go: July
Sea-Kayaking the GalÃ¡pagos
When a turtle the size of a grizzly bear glides beneath your kayak, you'll understand the significance of Lindblad's new status as the first and only large-ship operator with a GalÃ¡pagos paddling permit. The conservation-minded company has been escorting visitors to the islands since 1968. Travelers onboard the 80-passenger MS Polaris have access to another perk when not snorkeling, beachcombing, hiking, or viewing wildlife: outdoor spa services administered on a glass-bottomed pontoon.
Outfitter: Lindblad Expeditions, 800-397-3348, www.expeditions.com
When to Go: Year-round
Amid the deep red gorges of Argentina's rugged northwest, aboriginal adobe huts stand as reminders that this country's rich history far predates the tango. This nine-day trip covers both past and present, from the pre-Spanish Calchaquis relics in Quilmes to the up-and-coming wineries of Cafayate. After a stay at a comfortable bodega lodge, you'll embark on a three-day trek through the Cachi Mountains, where you and your packhorses will hoof it 29 miles up the Belgrano River Gorge to the multicolored sandstone formations of the Pukamayu Valley.
Outfitter: Adventure Life, 800-344-6118, www.adventure-life.com
When to Go: April-October