The Power to Move You

More self-propelled adventures

Jun 1, 2003
Outside Magazine

Sandwiched between Estonia and Lithuania on the Baltic coast, Latvia is a growing blip on the ecotourism radar. And for good reason: More than half the country, which is slightly larger than West Virginia, is unadulterated nature. Much of the terrain is languid and low-lying—sprawling pastures, wooded groves, marshlands crowded with cranes and peregrines—but things turn dramatic at the town of Sigulda, 31 miles northeast of Riga, Latvia's vibrant capital. This is your gateway to 227,000-acre Gauya National Park, and particularly to the Gauja River, which cuts a choice 56-mile path through dolomite cliffs and sandstone ravines. Makars Tourist Agency in Sigulda (011-371-924-4948, arranges three-day self-guided canoe trips for $62 per boat, including transportation to and from the river, gear, and camping fees. The trip starts in the northern bounds of the park, at the village of Valmiera, and you float back to Sigulda along the Gauja's broad, rapids-free waters. Certain sections practically boil with trout and salmon, and the banks are thick with beavers, otters, and the occasional lynx. You'll stop at riverside campsites, some of which have hiking trails that meander into the park's deep forests and valleys.

Straddling Poland and Slovakia, the Tatras Mountains are an irresistible draw for European tourists. They come for the alpine summits (the highest is Mount Rysy, 8,198 feet) and world-class skiing. But if you want to get off the beaten path, go under it—into one of the range's stalactite-studded caves, the patient result of carbonic acid eating away at the mountains' limestone base over the millennia. Try the handful of easy-access caverns open to the public on the Polish side, notably the Mrozna cave, a horizontal jut 1,676 feet long. A one-hour underground tour follows a high-ceilinged path amid startling stalactites and trickling streams. The tourist office at the gateway town of Zakopane (011-48-18-201-22-11, is central intelligence for cave information and tour outfits. Tatras Mountain Rescue Team (011-48-18-206-34-44) is your ticket to serious spelunking if you have a modicum of fitness and don't mind a tight squeeze. In addition to conducting searches, these mountaineers lead trips into hard-to-access or otherwise off-limits areas, particularly the Wielka Sniezna cave, the biggest specimen in the Tatras at 2,670 feet deep and 11 miles long. Guide services cost $100-$200 per day, by reservation only.

Filed To: Canoeing