1 RIO DE JANEIRO
Known as the Cidade Maravilhosa, or the Marvelous City, Rio de Janeiro has more than 20 beaches and many dramatic landmarks, including the much-photographed Christ the Redeemer statue that overlooks the city. The thriving metropolitan area, with its exceptional architecture, museums, galleries, and restaurants, sits on the magnificent Guanabara Bay against a rugged backdrop of forested mountains, making for one of the most stunning settings in the world.
Insider Tip: Rio de Janeiro’s annual Carnival is world-famous, and it’s not just hype. Imagine two million people partying to samba music over five days of debauchery. But regardless of whether you visit during the festival, the spirit of the exuberant Carioca people is evident year-round.
2 MACHU PICCHU
The Lost City of the Incas is perched on the edge of a mountain high in the Andes, a location so remote that it remained hidden from ravaging conquistadors and untouched by the 20th century until it was “discovered” in 1911. Machu Picchu is a wonder on many levels, from its awe-inspiring natural splendor to its fascinating history. Visitors can do a multi-day trek to reach the site, or ride a bus up a winding road.
Insider Tip: Soaring more than 1,100 feet above Machu Picchu is a sharp mountain known as Wayna Picchu. The challenging one-hour walk up the steep summit—believed to be the former residence of the Incan high priest—affords a rare view of Machu Picchu from on high. Purchase an advance ticket and show up early; only 400 people are permitted on Wayna Picchu each day.
3 GALÁPAGOS ISLANDS
Located 575 miles off the coast of Ecuador, the Galápagos archipelago and its surrounding waters are a national park, a biological marine preserve, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The area’s raw beauty and abundance of unique species, like the giant tortoise, make it a nature lover’s dream. Charles Darwin conducted research here in the early 1830s that contributed to his theory of evolution and his groundbreaking book, On the Origin of Species.
Insider Tip: Galápagos travel has traditionally taken place aboard small cruise ships that travel from island to island. In 2007, an outfitter named Red Mangrove built an eco-lodge on the island of Santa Cruz, and pioneered land-based tours. Since then, Red Mangrove has expanded to include the islands of Floreana and Isabela, offering multi-island Galápagos tours and eliminating the need to sleep on a boat.
4TORRES DEL PAINE NATIONAL PARK
There are more sheep than people in the Magallanes Region of Chilean Patagonia—one of many factors that make Torres del Paine National Park so fascinating. Here, the granite spires of the Paine massif tower over emerald green valleys, churning rivers, glassy blue lakes, glaciers, and icebergs. Adding to the mystique, this dreamscape is one of the most inhospitable places on the planet, with winds that can knock a grown man to the ground. Visit in January or February; the weather is too extreme any other time.
Insider Tip: While there are many trails in the park appropriate for day hikes, Torres del Paine was designed for multi-day circuit treks, with refugios—European-style cabins offering a bed, meals, and a hot shower—dotting the trails. The three-day 'W' route is one of the most spectacular hikes in the world.
There’s simply no place else on earth like Iceland. From waterfalls to active volcanoes, from glaciers to hot springs, the Land of Fire and Ice is a study in extremes. The country is such a visual spectacle that it’s hard to decide where to begin. Fortunately, Iceland also knows how to cater to tourists. Base yourself out of Reykjavik, the quirky capital city, where a host of reputable outfitters like Arctic Adventures offer excursions ranging from scenic horseback rides to extreme ice climbing, and everything in between.
Insider Tip: Iceland straddles the spot where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates converge. About an hour outside of Reykjavik lies Silfra, a glacier-fed fissure between the plates with a water temperature that hovers just above freezing. Intrepid travelers can don a dry suit and snorkel and swim across it. The water is believed to be among the clearest on the planet, with 50 meters of visibility.