Adventures of a Lifetime

It’s not hard to put together a list of classic encounters with the natural world: journeying across the Serengeti, swimming in the Great Barrier Reef, trekking up Mount Kilimanjaro. But the adventures on our list go a step further, helping us discover our place on this planet. From the ancient hunting rituals of the Kalahari Bushmen to the migration trails of polar bears, these ten trips are sure to awe and inspire.

By Jeff Hull

Photo by Taylor Kennedy (Getty Images)

Stare Down a Jaguar
The Pantanal, Brazil

Mayans and other Mesoamerican cultures believed that the jaguar moved between the earthly and spiritual realms, which may explain why the elusive cat is one of the most difficult-to-spot large mammals in the Western Hemisphere. The single place you might actually see a jaguar is at the Jaguar Research Center. A working research facility, the center offers tours and accommodations for visitors; and it’s located in the Pantanal, an area about the size of West Virginia that comprises the world’s largest inland wetland system, complete with seasonally flooded savanna and forests full of tropical hardwood. (A no-hunting policy, abundant prey populations, and waterways with surrounding open spaces allow for more jaguar glimpses than does the jungle, where the cats usually lurk.) Located where Brazil, Bolivia, and Argentina meet, the Pantanal is truly where wild things roam.

Eighty-two species of large birds—a world record—inhabit the region’s waterways, fields, and forests; giant otters and tapirs populate the swamps; piranha lurk in the waters. The research center sits in the heart of it all. In 2007, visitors saw 125 jaguars in 81 days of touring. No other operator comes close to that figure. Biofuel and rice agriculture projects threaten the Pantanal’s future, but attention from eco-tour operators like the Jaguar Research Center may help convince South American governments to preserve this ecological haven.

Live in Myth
Grindavík, Iceland

Early Icelanders thought the Valkyries—female deities of Norse mythology—took the form of swans to visit hot springs like Iceland’s Blue Lagoon, seeking restorative powers they could find nowhere else. Iceland is, in fact, a wonderful place to restore your own sense of wonder, where myth sits very close to reality across a landscape of boiling mud pools, craters, and lava fields gouged by volcanoes and glaciers.

Iceland’s plunging fjords, thundering waterfalls, and austere glacial interior make powerful impressions on a visitor, but the Blue Lagoon and other hot springs are easily the most comfortable—and visceral—way to let the country’s sense of lore inhabit you. As you soak, consider that Icelanders can still read their founding myths, the Sagas, in the original texts—the equivalent of our trying to read Beowulf in Middle English. Not coincidentally, a significant proportion of Icelanders believe that elves still inhabit features on the landscape; what could be perfectly straight highways were built with sudden jogs to avoid known abodes of little people. The country is also home to the Great Geysir (from which the word geyser originated), and instances of powerful geothermal energy shooting skyward can be a part of everyday life, providing frequent reminders of the fantastic forces that shaped the earth.

If you happen to visit the Blue Lagoon and elsewhere during the long nights between September and March, it’s likely the dark sky will ripple with blue-green sheets of aurora borealis. According to legend, that electric shimmer would be the Valkyries again—specifically, the reflections of their armor as they carry slain warriors to a final resting place in Valhalla.

Wary of burning jet fuel? Scared by the dollar’s shrinking value? In search of kid-friendly options? These eleven outings reconnect you to the planet with ease.

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Issue 25

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