Many travelers pride themselves on their ability to ‘go it alone’ or ‘get off the beaten track’, often bemoaning organized tour groups as unauthentic or formulaic. But while independent travel can be a life-altering experience, there are certain destinations and activities that simply aren’t available to the solo traveler. So whether you’re seeking an adrenaline-charged encounter or looking to tick a few adventures off your bucket list, here are 10 incredible experiences that you can only do with a little help from a tour company.
1. Elephant trekking
While most people have tried horseback riding once or twice, riding an elephant is not really something you can try at home. The idea of climbing atop the enormous beasts might seem unthinkable to Europeans and Americans, but in Asia the animals have a long history of domestication, frequently used in the logging industry to pull loads and even being sent off to war. More recently though, trained elephants have become a big money maker, as elephant trekking through the jungles of Laos or the tribal villages of Northern Thailand, have become must-try activities for tourists.
Balancing atop the world’s biggest land animal is certainly one of the most unique and fun ways to see the sights, but this is an activity best undertaken with a reputable tour company, not only for safety but to avoid encouraging animal cruelty – many small ‘businesses’ offering trekking may not comply to international animal welfare regulations.
2. Hot air ballooning
Unless you’re Richard Branson, it’s unlikely that you’ve got your own fleet of hot air balloons ready to set sail across the Atlantic, but thankfully the world is full of tour companies offering flights over the destination of your choice. Swinging in the air in an enormous basket and feeling the ground slowly moving away from you is an incredible experience in itself but a great hot air balloon flight is all about the view, so pick your location carefully.
Egypt is one possibility, and it doesn’t get more romantic than floating over the Nile at sunrise. Cappadocia in Turkey has a fairytale landscape that takes on some hauntingly beautiful hues if you can drag yourself out of bed for a sunrise hot air balloon ride. Alternatively, head to Australia where you can soar over just about anywhere – a city flight over the sights of Sydney makes a great trip, as does the picture-perfect beaches of the northern Gold Coast, or you could even fly around the looming landmark of Ayers Rock.
3. Shark cage diving
There’s no better way to get up close and personal with the menace of the seas than swimming next to them in a shark-proof cage, but this is one activity that’s definitely not for the faint-hearted. Thankfully, it’s not quite as terrifying as it seems – you’ll be housed in a cage next to your boat while the sharks are lured in with fish bait and instructed when and where to duck under water and spot a shark.
Head to Cape Town in South Africa for some of the most menacingly close encounters, where you’ll be able to get so close to the region’s famous Great White Sharks that you’ll feel their fins slicing through the water. Tours often include an option to get your picture taken in the cage so you’ll be able to show off a snapshot with a grinning Great White to your unbelieving friends back home. Keep your eyes peeled for other species, too – Blue sharks, Bull Sharks and Blacktip Sharks all swim in these waters too.
Scuba Dive or Snorkel with Great White Sharks from Cape Town
There are few feelings as close to flying as paragliding. Suspended in a harness beneath a wing-like parachute, you are, quite literally, floating on air. Beginners will have the safety net of an instructor riding tandem with them, but as the wind propels you higher and higher into the sky, you’ll forget any qualms you had about the heights – up here, everything is still and peaceful, the landscape swishing beneath you as you rock gently from side to side. If you fancy something a bit more heart racing, get your pilot to swoop and dive as they start the descent back to ground – as the air drops momentarily from the sails you’ll feel your stomach flip.
The best places to paraglide are coastal regions with good winds and great views and you can’t get much better views than over Rio de Janeiro. Hang-gliding and paragliding from the Pedra Bonita Mountain has become something of a right of passage for foreign travelers, taking in spectacular views of the famous city skyline complete with the famous Cristo Redentor statue in the distance and the white sand beaches of Ipanema framing the ocean. The take-off point lies in the city’s Tijuca National Park, so there’ll be plenty of greenery to look down on too.
Read more about Paragliding in Rio de Janeiro
5. Trekking the Inca trail
It’s one of the world’s greatest and most popular hikes, winding up 43km into the mountains to the ancient Inca city of Machu Picchu, and taking in some of most spectacular scenery including cloud forests, thick jungle and Inca ruins. Thanks to the government’s conservation efforts, access to the trail is carefully monitored, with up to 500 permits issued to porters, cooks, tour operators and tourists each day during the season and the entire route is shut down for a month of maintenance each year.
To get your hands on one of the golden tickets, you’ll need to provide your passport number in advance and be accompanied by a registered guide. Although it is possible to hire your own guide and organize a private group trip, it’s far easier and probably cheaper to book with one of the many Cusco tour companies that offer the trek. You’ll be glad you’ve got a good team with you once you start the 4-day climb when your tour porters will help carry your bags and brew you cup after cup of coca leaf tea to sooth the dizzying effects of the altitude.
Secure your spot by booking The Inca Trail: 4-Day Trek to Machu Picchu in advance
6. Rock climbing
Everest might be best scaled by the professionals, but there are plenty of worthy locations around the world where you can try your hand at rock climbing and tick ‘climb a mountain’ off your to-do list. America has no shortage of climbing areas but Nevada is one the most renowned – the Sierra Nevada Mountains offer a vast range of climbing locations for all levels.
China is another hotspot for climbing, whether you choose to explore the Himalayas, climb one of China’s sacred Buddhist Mountains or head to Yangshuo, an area rapidly ascending the ranks in the climbing community with around 30 climbable crags and some incredible views.
7. Glacier trekking
Using mountaineering crampons to march across a glacier is the closest us mere mortals will come to walking on water, and the vast, otherworldly landscapes of a glacier is an experience not to be missed. As the go-to place for glacier exploration, Alaska makes a good place for first timers to cut their teeth, with options that range from an hour-long walk across glacial flats to climbing and abseiling some of the toughest and iciest terrain in the world. Don’t be put off by the scale of the glaciers though – both ice climbing and glacier trekking is easy for beginners to pick up.
For something a little more unique, head to Iceland where the small country more than lives up to its name with plenty of options for ice climbing and glacier trekking. Glacier hikes can be organized as day trips from Reykjavik, like a tour of Sólheimajökull glacier, the longest in the country or you could head to the Vatnajökull National Park, home to Europe’s largest glacier.
Rappelling down cliffs; abseiling through waterfalls; diving into dimly lit cave pools; scrambling through narrow passageways; could there be an activity more adrenaline-pumping than canyoning? The safety harnesses, zip-lines and crazed stunts will make you feel like an extra from Mission Impossible, but the scenery will be all real – sheer cliff faces, gushing waterfalls and eerie natural caves carved into the rock.
For some of the world’s best canyoning expeditions head to the king of adventure tourism, New Zealand, where the options for slipping, sliding and scrambling are endless. Tour companies are geared towards beginners but there’s no shortage of challenges – you can opt for a wet or dry trip, or even take a night canyoning trip, illuminated only by the glow of your team’s headlamps.
Check out all kinds of adventure activities in New Zealand
9. Wildlife safari
South Africa’s Kruger National Park is one of the world’s most popular safari spots and while self-drive safaris are a popular option, you’ll get a lot more from booking with a tour company. Access to private reserves and destinations tailored to your needs by guides with a lifetime of experience will help you tick off the Big 5, but it’s often the method of transport that makes the trip.
Whether you’re zipping over the plains in an open-topped jeep, walking through the woodlands with a guide or even getting animal-friendly on a horseback or elephant safari, it’s the incredible views that set the scene for an unforgettable safari. Another great reason to book a tour is the interaction with locals – choose a tour with local guides, and camp out with your team, or opt to stay at a private safari lodge and make the most of a unique environment unspoiled by the hoards of wildlife-spotting tourists.
Keep an eye out for the “Big 5″ on a tour of Kruger National Park
10. Island Cruise
While your adrenaline levels might remain steady on this activity, a cruise is an experience everyone should try once. The package holiday of the seas, cruises traverse just about every corner of the globe, from Antarctic expeditions to luxury worldwide cruisers, but there are plenty of small island cruises that can be an exciting way to explore a wide range of places in a short time.
For a more unique option, opt for a small ship cruise that takes in some of the lesser-visited ports, or charter your own boat for day or weekend cruise. Take a cruise around the islands of the Caribbean, sail the turquoise waters of the Mediterranean and explore the Greek Islands, or uncover some of Indonesia’s 17,000 islands.
- Zoe Smith