Photo: Central America Guatemala Tikal Mayan temple ruins

Temple I stands within the ruins of a Maya city in the Guatemalan jungle, Tikal, Guatemala.

Photograph by Charles and Josette Lenars, Corbis

By Margaret Loftus

Guyana: Behind the Guiana Shield

New this year

Most Guyanese live on the coast, leaving the country’s interior largely untouched. Travel deep into the remote Guiana Shield via small plane, canoe, 4x4 pickup truck, and the occasional bullock cart to discover one of the last unspoiled rain forests on Earth. You’ll stay at Amerindian-owned lodges along the way and experience indigenous culture. Wilderness Explorers: “Amerindian Guyana,” 16 days; $4,236.

Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay: Tour del Sur

Good value; physically challenging

Pack your bike, sleeping bag, and stamina for this more-than-a-month-long cycling tour. Ride through lush coastal islands, the Juréia rain forest reserve, Circuito Vale Europeu (Brazil’s first offi­cial bike-touring route), and the mountains of Santa Catarina and Rio Grande do Sul. You’ll stop at Florianópolis, Porto Alegre, and Montevideo—cities with many cycling aficionados. Tour d’Afrique: “Samba Tango Bicycle Expedition: Rio de Janeiro to Buenos Aires,” 36 days; $3,900.

Belize, Guatemala, Honduras: The Maya Kings

Scholars have a better understanding of the way the ancient Maya lived, thanks to recent breakthroughs in deciphering Maya script. However, the reasons for the civilization’s collapse remain a mystery. Join expert David Drew for an archaeological survey of this lost civilization, from the hieroglyphic-inscribed monuments of Copán to the remote jungle ruins of Lamanai. Last year, the operator funded a project to train a local in pottery reconstruction to help maintain a small museum dedicated to the ruins’ artifacts. Andante Travels: “The Maya in Guatemala and Belize,” 15 days; $4,418.

Ecuador: Galápagos Land and Sea

Family-friendly

The best way to explore the famed archipelago that sparked Darwin’s theory of evolution is the way the eminent naturalist himself did it: by land and sea. Spend the first half of the tour hiking and kayaking the volcanic islands for up-close looks at giant tortoises, blue-footed boobies, and other endemic species. Next, board a 20-passenger yacht to cruise the rugged shoreline in search of sea lion harems and primeval lava landscapes. Southern Explorations: “Galápagos Supreme,” 12 days; $4,895.

Peru: Saddle Up for the Inca Trail

New this year

Machu Picchu has been one of the world’s top tourist draws since American historian Hiram Bingham brought it to our attention exactly one hundred years ago this July. But few reach the Inca trail on horseback. This ride takes you through 15 different bio zones, starting in the foothills of the snowcapped Salkantay Mountain and stopping at small lodges along the way. The highlight is a private guided tour of the lost city. Mountain Lodges of Peru: “Lodge-to-Lodge Ride to Machu Picchu,” 7 days; $2,950.

Colombia: Lost and Found City

New this year; good value

Surrounded by the dense jungle of northern Colombia, Ciudad Perdida was built by the Tayrona some 600 years before Machu Picchu. It was lost to the modern world until the mid-1970s, when archaeologists learned of its existence after ancient ceramic urns and other looted treasure began to appear on the black market. Getting there requires a rigorous, three-day trek through thick vegetation, waist-high rivers, and a final ascent up 1,200 moss-covered steps. Sleep in hammocks and bathe in rivers. Adventure Associates: “The Lost City, Journey to the 10th Century in Colombia,” 7 days; $1,390.

Argentina, Chile: Patagonia Adventure

Physically challenging

Few things are as thrilling as riding cross-country on a motorcycle with nothing between you and your surroundings. With the dramatic geography of Patagonia as your backdrop, this road trip—from the heart of the Lake District, across the Andes, and into Tierra del Fuego—ups the ante. It’s Motorcycle Diaries, only more comfy. You’ll stop for a boat cruise along the Moreno Glacier, camp in Torres del Paine National Park, dig into traditional asados (Argentine barbecue meatfests), and overnight at local farmhouses. Compass Expeditions: “Patagonia Explorer,” 18 days; $7,290.

These guided tours are part of National Geographic Traveler's 50 Tours of a Lifetime for 2011 for the outfitters' commitment to authenticity, immersion, sustainability, and connection.

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