The Sporty 40

Seeing colors in Costa Rica     Photo: Weststock

13. Trek An Almost-Impossible Trek
Parque Nacional El Imposible, El Salvador

Southwestern El Salvador's Parque Nacional El Imposible takes its name from the days when coffee growers traversed its clifftop trails to get their bean-laden burros to market—El Imposible was a 300-foot-deep chasm spanned by a tree-trunk bridge. The logs routinely broke, sending burros, men, and tons of coffee tumbling to their end. When the Salvadoran government finally erected a bridge over the gap, it also put up a sign reading: In 1968, it ceased to be impossible.

That sign might better read, "It's not impossible, but it still ain't easy." To tour the park you need a permit, a guide, and solid grounding in the Salvadoran transportation triathlon: bus, pickup truck, feet. A bus takes you from the provincial city of Sonsonate to the crossroads village of Cara Sucia, where you'll ride eight miles in the back of one of the pickups that go twice daily to the tiny settlement of San Miguelito, near the park's entrance.

Your prize for arriving: a 12,000-acre maze of mountains and ridges encompassing three forest types—though Yankee visitors blinded by the iridescent green foliage may not discern between them. El Imposible is home to a stunning array of biodiversity—some of the nation's rare virgin tropical rainforest, an estimated 400 types of trees, 500 varieties of butterflies, nearly 300 species of birds, and endangered mammals including the jaguar and the margay cat. The best hike is a two-hour trip to the top of 3,600-foot Cerro Leon, where you can glimpse the trail that gives the park its name.

DETAILS: Salvanatura (011-503-279-1515, www.nps.gov/centralamerica/salvador/cabeza.html), the organization that administers Parque Nacional El Imposible, arranges permits ($5) and guides ($3).
—TIM F. SOHN

14. The Caribbean As It Once Was
Little Corn Island, Nicaragua

Nicaragua is one of the few countries in this hemisphere that doesn't have its own Lonely Planet guidebook. Note to the book's eventual editors: Check out the diving off Little Corn Island. The country's sole PADI-listed dive center, Dive Little Corn, is on this one-square-mile island 50 miles off the Caribbean coast, surrounded by pristine coral reefs and vibrant sea life protected by responsible harvesting practices.

Within three minutes of sticking my mask into the translucent azure water off White Holes, I saw black-tip reef sharks, manta rays, barracuda, and more yellowtail than you can shake a speargun at. (Charter a deep-sea fishing boat if you want to bag some mahi-mahi.) Don't sweat it if you're not a hardcore dive fan—Little Corn is more than just a pretty reef. The Creole-flavored and English-speaking former British protectorate, a ten-mile panga ride north from its sibling, Big Corn Island, has largely escaped Nicaragua's troubled political past. It's a laid-back place to experience the Caribbean as it once was, without motor vehicles (not allowed), telephones, ATMs, or tourist shops.

Casa Iguana and its nine breezy pastel casitas, with their own bleached-white beach, are the antidote to the energy-sapping diving. Once you've freshened up in your outdoor rainwater shower, gaze out from your porch at the blue sea. At dusk, wander along the beach and pick any of the waterfront restaurants. Belly up to a plate piled with lobster, yellowtail, and fried plantains—all for about $6.

DETAILS: Rates at Casa Iguana (www.casaiguana.net) range from $20 nightly for an efficiency with shared bath to $75 for a secluded Grand Casita. Dive Little Corn (www.divelittlecorn.com) offers a five-tank dive package, including a night dive, for $165.
—TOM PRICE

15. Hot, Hot, Hot Springs
Arenal, Costa Rica

So you’re flitting around Central America, moving from surf break to village mercado to jungle ruins—the whole circuit. Odds are, sooner or later you’ll end up near Volcán Arenal, in the rugged center of Costa Rica. You want to get close to the 5,400-foot cone to see the crimson lava, but why chance it? There’s a safer, more indulgent perch from which to enjoy the light show than the trails in Parque Nacional Volcán Arenal: a spot in the natural hot springs that flow down Arenal’s flanks. The most magical soaking occurs after nightfall at fancy Tabaón Resort, eight miles outside Fortuna, on the road to Arenal. Tabacón isn’t a surprising diversion, but it is a fun one: Nowhere else on your trip will you find 12 different pools of hot mineral water (80-102 degrees), waterfalls, and a water slide, all backed by minor volcanic explosions.

Pay $19 at the door, claim your towel and locker, then sample all the springs at the sprawling hillside resort, built with Arenal as a fire-breathing backdrop. At night the place has an aura: part exotic bath, part water theme park, part Hollywood fog machine. See plump Eurotravelers in their Speedos. Try a volcanic-mud-mask spa treatment. And be careful on those slippery stairs!

There’s no point in indulging if you can’t gloat, so swim over to the kitschy bar in the middle of the largest pool, sit half in the water drinking Imperials, and write some postcards that read, “Just another lousy day on the road . . .”

DETAILS: Several lodges and motels are clustered in Fortuna, or stay at the 83-room Tabacón Resort (doubles from $140; 011-506-460-2020, www.tabacon.com). A mud-mask treatment costs $28.
—JANINE SIEJA

16. Whitewater by Candlelight
Pacuare Lodge, Costa Rica

The split second it takes to translate a Costa Rican river guide’s ¡Al suelo! to “Hit the floor!” is more than enough time for the raft to drop into a Class V hole, fold in half, and spit its slow-thinking, English-speaking contents head first into the Pacuare River. Fortunately, it’s a warm one, and gentle between the rapids.

No roads lead to the Pacuare Lodge, only the river, known for its tendency to swell from a Class III-IV to a Class IV-V in the course of a single overnight rainstorm. Situated an hour and a half from the put-in near the village of Tres Equis, the lodge sits on a five-acre riverfront clearing, cut back in the 1940s for agriculture. But the rest of the lodge’s 60-acre property still contains thousands of 50- to 80-foot-high palms. Naturalist guides can take guests hiking on centuries-old paths or gliding on sky-canopy cables connected to platforms in trees filled with green macaws. Wooden huts with thatch roofs and covered porches are scattered around the main building, where an upstairs open-air lounge serves as the bar. Happy hour means juice and Cacique Guaro, the Tico brand of moonshine that doubles as insect repellent. After a candlelit dinner of snapper with wild mushroom sauce in the dining room, flashlights lead the way to bed.

DETAILS: Overnight trips, with meals, lodging, and rafting gear, cost $259 per person through Pacuare Lodge (800-514-0411, www.junglelodgecostarica.com).
—K. L.

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