COSTA RICA (2006 Winner)
Here's how to get off the tourist track in Costa Rica: Try crossing the country from the Pacific to the Caribbean by bike, foot, and raft. You'll start this 18-day sea-to-sea journey by pedaling two days from the coastal pueblo of Dominical to the Tinamaste Mountains, where you'll hike through the cloudforest to your first night's campsite—a cave surrounded by waterfalls. The next day takes you over a ridge, where you'll stay at a quaint hotel on the Chirripo River before starting a porter-supported weeklong trek through the highland forest of the Cordillera de Talamanca. You'll spend the last several days on a rugged stretch of the Pacuare River, running Class III-IV rapids and floating through lush canyons where water cascades from hundreds of feet overhead. The river will deposit you in the Caribbean lowlands, and you'll spend your last wilderness night camping at the rainforest's edge.
Outfitter: World Expeditions, 888-464-8735, www.worldexpeditions.com
When to Go: March, September, December
Darién Explorer Trek
As your piragua putters along the Tuira River en route to an abandoned mining town, you'll see far more tapirs and peccaries than travelers. Total seclusion is the payoff for five to seven hours of daily trekking (and canoeing) across rugged, often muddy terrain on this two-week exploration of the Darién Gap, the mysterious 6.4-million-acre rainforest that separates Central and South America. When you do come across humans, it will be at the remote villages where you'll stop to mingle with Embera elders. You'll overnight at ranger stations and rustic camps, and wake to a cacophony of macaws and caracaras.
Outfitter: Myths and Mountains, 800-670-6984, www.mythsandmountains.com
When to Go: December-April
This South Andros Island outpost will re-define your notion of "fishing lodge"; everything at Tiamo Resort—from its solar power to its banana-fiber office paper—is geared toward protecting the environment without sacrificing luxury. Breezy raised bungalows are steps from a secluded beach where you'll spend four days kayaking, snorkeling, and learning to cast for bonefish and tarpon in the island's legendary shallow flats. Beyond that, the Adirondack chairs on your beachfront porch lend themselves nicely to loafing.
Outfitter: Orvis, 800-547-4322, www.orvis.com
When to Go: March-July, October-December
Scouting for Jaguars
Jaguars roam the tropical forest, wetlands, and dunes of Mexico's Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve, a Delaware-size protected zone along the Yucatán coast. With the help of biologist guides, you'll likely spot their tracks during your weeklong stay at the no-frills Santa Teresa research station, a ten-minute walk to a white-sand beach, and take daytime and nighttime hikes in a jungle that few outsiders get to explore after dark. You'll also camp one night amid the spider monkeys and white-tailed deer, and visit nearby Maya ruins.
Outfitter: EcoColors, 011-52-998-884-3667, www.ecotravelmexico.com
When to Go: January-March