As the travel industry begins to recover from the global pandemic, one of the fastest growing segments is my favorite one, active travel. Tour operators and hotels specializing in active travel are seeing high demand, and in many cases, record reservations, especially for 2022.
During the pandemic, nearly every form of outdoor recreation experienced growth, and many people took up hiking, biking, running, snowshoeing and just about anything that got them a workout in the fresh air. Now, as many contemplate taking their first vacation in nearly two years, this increased activity has led to greater interest in more physical trips, and active travel can take many different forms. In recent columns I gave advice on planning your perfect cycling vacation and your perfect hiking or walking trip. Today is all about one of the most enjoyable but least well-known active vacations, a trip to an all-inclusive adventure lodge.
“We are experiencing a significant increase for 2022,” said Rodrigo Donoso, vice president of marketing for Explora, the biggest player in the all-inclusive adventure lodge world. “In particular, travel agents turn to us and confirm that the type of travel Explora is renowned for is exactly what their clients are interested in. They want to be active, hike, bike, and show increasing interest in horseback riding. Of course, after nearly 30 years of upmarket expedition travel in remote regions of South America, we know Explora is well-positioned. What some travelers only discover now is what we’ve believed and invested in for a very long time.”
The best example of this type of travel comes from South America, where a handful of companies have specialized in all-inclusive adventure lodges in the most beautiful settings. They are in places like Patagonia – a Bucket List trip for many – as well as remote Easter Island, Chile’s Atacama Desert (the driest place on earth), and other amazing spots from Peru’s Sacred Valley of the Incas to stunning Iguazu Falls, one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World.
Family-owned Chilean brand Explora was founded to share the natural beauty, food, wine and culture of the country with outsiders, and has since expanded to several neighboring countries. Explora pioneered and perfected this concept with its flagship lodge in Chile’s famed Torres del Paine National Park, the most popular destination in Patagonia, but they now have notable competition, and it is travelers who benefit as this fairly similar model spreads across the best lodge operators.
The model starts with a relatively small lodge built to very green standards with eco-friendliness paramount. The lodge is then staffed by local guides expert in the region and its outdoor pursuits. At the best lodges, guides are full-time staff and little or nothing is sub-contracted out. Explora even breeds its own horses so it can offer in-house riding programs at its properties while most others sub out things like stables. At every lodge there is a long list of activities, dozens of options, and depending on the setting these can include watersports and visits to ruins or nearby villages, but always feature hiking, mountain biking and usually horseback riding. A broad slate of half and full day guided excursions are offered daily at varying levels of difficulty, and all are included in the rates, so guests just sign up for whatever they want to do that day.
“Hiking is a common ground for all Explora travelers. We love to walk and explore deeply,” said Donoso. “Hiking will always be our number one activity. The level of activity varies. We rate our explorations from ‘easy’ to ‘advanced.’ Some travelers take their time and go for a gentle stroll and explore a cultural site. Others scale 16,000-foot mountains, eat en-route and only return before nightfall. Both are hiking, but they push their individual boundaries and experience what’s right for them. I’d say that the number two activity is horseback riding. Not necessarily expert riding, which we offer, but the sensation of being on a horse and in remote regions of South America is unparalleled. Few travelers don’t give that a try.”
Whereas on most cycling or hiking vacations you change hotels and move around a region, these lodges are destinations unto themselves and typically, you would visit a lodge for 5-7 days, enjoying different activities every day. All meals and in most cases wine and/or other adult beverages are included. In my experience the desire to showcase local cuisine and vineyards has made mealtimes a highlight of these lodges, and all the Explora properties, as well as top tier competitors Tierra and Awasi, serve excellent food.
But in some cases, multiple locations can be combined into a single vacation, especially in Chile, where all visitors connect through Santiago and could then fly to one of Explora’s three lodges in Patagonia, its Easter Island outpost or its fabulous Atacama Desert property. They are also growing a program they call Travesia, combining locations with the active nomadic journey between them, such as lodges in Bolivia’s Uyuni and Chile’s Atacama. Tierra and Awasi also have lodges in both Patagonia and the Atacama Desert that can be combined.
But in most cases any one of these destinations is wonderful for its own vacation. Among these top operators, Explora has the most locations (seven, including Peru, near Bucket List spot Machu Picchu) while Tierra Hotels, which operates at a very similar level of quality, but with a little more spa emphasis, has three. These include Atacama, Patagonia and the most unique one, Chiloe, on an island in a Chilean archipelago. Awasi is the most luxurious adventure lodge operator, a member of the prestigious Relais & Chateaux association, with a focus on standout gourmet cuisine, fine wines, and mixology cocktails. Like the best safari lodges, Awasi assigns each guest a guide for the entire stay, rather than guides for each daily activity. Awasi lodges also tend to be smaller and very upscale, and the emphasis is a bit more on luxury travel than vigorous outings. There are three properties, but Awasi’s most unique location where they enjoy a monopoly is at Iguazu Falls, on the Argentinean side.
I have experienced all three brands in serval different locations and have nothing but glowing recommendations for all. If you love exercise and love nature, you really cannot go wrong, and this is true active travel (though you can dial it back), but also an upscale experience full of fun outings, incredible landscapes, wildlife, cultural education and great food. These three are also the only major multi-location brands specializing in this kind of travel, but there are other one-off alternatives in South America and beyond.
In this country, the closest thing we have to the model is dude ranches, which also tend to operate on an all-inclusive model with food and lodging and a big slate of adventures. They typically do not have the guided aspects and offer more of the do-it-yourself variety of activities. But they usually have very extensive private trail networks for hiking and mountain biking, used in winter for cross country skiing, snowshoeing and fat tire biking, plus of course, horseback riding and often myriad other choices from archery to fishing to ax throwing to yoga classes. There are dozens of excellent dude ranches, and some of the ones most acclaimed for outdoor activities include Vista Verde Ranch (CO), Lone Mountain Ranch (MT) and at the top of the luxury range, the Forbes 5-Star Ranch at Rock Creek (MT), Brush Creek Ranch (WY) and Triple Creek Ranch (WY).
But there is a strong argument for making the effort to travel to South America, where this vacation concept has been perfected. Not only does your money go further, but it combines two different appeals, the physical activities many of us love, and iconic must-see tourism destinations you are not going to find at a dude ranch, from Iguazu Falls to the Incan city of Machu Picchu to the enigmatic moai of Easter Island to the legendary rock towers and sweeping landscapes of Patagonia. All of these are worth seeing and are better seen using your own heart, lungs and legs to do the exploring.
Essential Gear Recommendation: Because these trips are in very different eco-systems and involve a number of different physically activities, it might seem there is no essential piece of gear that unifies them. But what all these trips have in common is that you see a lot of amazing things, from ruins to waterfalls to unforgettable landscapes to wildlife. That’s why for all these trips, I highly recommend bringing a pair of good binoculars.
There are a lot of binoculars across a widely varied price and quality range. You probably don’t need to invest in the world’s finest optics, and more than anything, it is size that matters as you’ll have to carry these, often on all-day hikes. Well-regarded outdoor retailer REI has a very helpful page on exactly this topic, how to choose and what to look for. But at the most basic, binoculars are described with two numbers. the first being magnification, the second lens diameter in millimeters. In terms of viewing, both are better when bigger, but in terms of carrying, a lower number – especially the second number – is lighter and smaller.
REI suggests a lens diameter of 28 or less for carrying, and in this range you will usually see eight and ten as the magnification options. My husband has a pair of 10×30 binoculars he loves from premium optics maker Maven that are small and light and ultra-crisp, but these run $550, and you can get a compact pair from well-known brands like Nikon for several hundred less.