Is 2014 the year you do something really adventurous?
From the blazing beaches of Brazil to Buddhist temples in Myanmar, here are top picks for the year's hottest, and mostly exotic, holidays.
With more than 1 million visitors making the pilgrimage to Machu Picchu every year, the "Lost City of the Incas" isn't lost anymore. Travelers who want to escape the crowds should consider its "sister city," Choquequirao.
"Choque-WHO?" you might ask. That's exactly the point. Although Choquequirao is of a similar scale and design as Machu Picchu, hardly anyone has heard of these 15th century ruins nestled in the Salkantay Mountain Range. But with the Peruvian government planning to build a tram to provide easy access to Choquequirao in 2015, this may be the last year to experience its more than 4,000 acres of undulating terraces and stone temples in relative isolation.
If you want to see Choquequirao before it hits the big time, be forewarned: The journey is not for the faint of heart. It's a two-day hike each way involving steep ascents, and, oh yeah, you'll have to hop in a tiny basket suspended from a cable to cross the Apurímac River. (The old footbridge spanning the gorge has been washed away, and a new one has not yet been completed.)
If you're up for the challenge, Adventure Life, named one of National Geographic's "Best Adventure Travel Companies on Earth," offers a 12-day trip that includes visits to both Choquequirao and Machu Picchu. From $3,750 per person, including internal flights.
More information: adventure-life.com/tours/choquequirao.
Having landed the title of World Design Capital 2014, Cape Town is ready for its closeup.
Beyond its most obvious enticement — a spectacular location nestled between Table Mountain and the ocean — this year the city will showcase its fashion, art, culture, culinary offerings and innovative urban development with 450 events. These range from public art installations to artists' studio tours, a photography exhibition and festivals devoted to street food, world music and design.
But World Design Capital isn't just spiffing up Cape Town with a good spit-shine. It's trying to build a better city to bridge the gap in South African society. So after you've taken in the views atop Table Mountain and hit the boutiques and restaurants at the lively Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, hop on a ferry to Robben Island, where the late Nelson Mandela spent 18 years in prison, to pay your respects to this leader of social change.
If you're looking for a stylish hotel that embraces Cape Town's evolving architecture, check into the intimate Ellerman House (ellerman.co.za), which encompasses an Edwardian mansion, two strikingly contemporary villas and a spankin'-new 7,500 bottle-strong wine gallery and tasting room, with an emphasis on South African vintages. Near the waterfront, the One & Only Cape Town (capetown.oneandonlyresorts.com) celebrates its setting with views of the city's iconic mountains from every room.
More information: wdccapetown2014.com, capetown.travel.
The Galápagos Islands are renowned for their remarkable wildlife, both above and below the waves, and have long attracted nature lovers and adventurers. With the spring 2014 release of a new documentary, The Galápagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden, the isles are likely to reel in amateur sleuths, as well.
The documentary, touted as Darwin Meets Hitchcock, features voiceovers by Cate Blanchett and Diane Kruger and interweaves vintage film footage, old letters and interviews to examine the still-unsolved disappearance of several European eccentrics who settled on Floreana, the smallest of the Galápagos' inhabited islands, in the 1930s.
Tropic Journeys in Nature, an award-winning ecotourism operator, offers Galápagos tours, including a two-night stay at the Floreana Lava Lodge. This 10-cabin property, built on an isolated black sand beach, is run by one of the island's oldest families, whose ancestors have passed down tales of Floreana's enduring murder mystery.
In addition to playing Poirot, you can hike, explore pirate caves and marvel at the Galápagos' giant tortoises, frigate birds and Darwin's finches. You'll also have an opportunity to visit a sea lion breeding ground and kayak, paddleboard, swim and snorkel with sea turtles, sea lions and rays. From $875 per person.
More information: destinationecuador.com.
Brazil is basking in the global spotlight as it prepares to host the 2014 FIFA World Cup (June 12 to July 13) and, of course, the 2016 Summer Olympics. As if those weren't reasons enough to pack your bags (not forgetting that big foam finger to cheer for your favorite team), this vast country also boasts more than 4,600 miles of coastline and serves as the gateway to the Amazon. Little wonder that the World Economic Forum recently declared Brazil's natural resources the most competitive on the planet for travel and tourism.
Adventure Life offers more than a dozen excursions that let you experience Brazil your way, whether you want to play The Girl From Ipanema on Rio's famous beaches, trek through the jungle, get up close and personal with crocodiles at the Caiman Ecological Refuge, gape at the gushing glory of Iguazu Falls, or cruise the heart of the Amazon. From $650 per person for four days.
More information: adventure-life.com/brazil.
Myanmar, better known as Burma, has the dubious distinction of hosting one of the world's longest-running civil wars, making it a no-go for all but the most adventurous tourists … until recently. While the war is still being fought in some areas of the country, the military junta was dissolved in 2011, and the National League for Democracy, founded by Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, has lifted its long ban on tourism. In 2012, more than 1 million foreigners visited Myanmar, flocking to see the Shwedagon Pagoda of Yangon, the ancient temples of Bagan, the cultural crossroads of Mandalay and the floating flower gardens of Inle Lake.
As Myanmar can be tricky to navigate on your own, it's best to stick with a tour company. This year Abercrombie & Kent will expand its Connections program to include three 10-day journeys to Myanmar, including Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan and Inle Lake. From $4,945 per person.
More information: abercrombiekent.com/travel.
In December, Sanctuary Retreats is planning to launch its first voyage on the Sanctuary Ananda, a 20-suite ship that will cruise along Myanmar's Ayeyarwady and Chindwin rivers. Guests will see temples, palaces, monasteries and villages and towns off the well-trodden path. From $2,244 per person.
More information: sanctuaryretreats.com.
Amy Laughinghouse is a freelance writer based in London.