Whether it’s tasting the world’s most exotic foods or trekking the most dangerous roads, adventure takes a different form for every person. But regularly stepping outside your comfort zone is easier in some places than others.
U.S. News & World Report recently ranked the best countries for adventure, based on each country’s score across five attributes: ‘fun’, ‘friendliness’, ‘climate’, ‘scenery’, and ‘sexy’ – a term that the report characterised as anything from erotic to appealing to an ineffable je ne sais quoi.
“Beyond great food, weather or sights that you could also attribute to the 20 countries further down the list, the countries topping the list all have something in common,” said Annalisa Nash Fernandez, an intercultural strategist and coach who has lived in Brazil and Italy, two of the top-ranked countries. “None of these countries share a common language with a bordering country, and the unofficial walls harbour and nourish the preservation of their cultures. If you were dropped blindfolded into any of the top five, you’d know where you were within a few seconds of the reveal.”
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The rich cultural and scenic offerings of the top countries make all kinds of excitement readily available, so we talked to residents to learn just what makes local life so adventurous.
With a perfect 10 on both the ‘fun’ and ‘sexy’ scores, Brazil bursts with an infectious energy that comes from locals who love their heritage. “We do love showing off and bragging that we have delicious food, the best coffee in the world and the prettiest people,” said Artur Sousa, a Brazil native.
As for adventure, the country’s sprawling landmass (the fifth largest country in the world by area), makes it easy to explore vastly varying landscapes in completely different ways. “You can go from surfing the Pororoca [on the Amazon River], to resting on a Caribbean-like beach in Fernando de Noronha [islands off the eastern coast],” Sousa said. “Maybe you like exploring some of the unique places, like the white dunes of Lençóis Maranhenses or the wild look of Ilha Grande.”
Of course, partygoers find endless adventure in Rio de Janerio. “We have beaches, the old city, forest and memories of our imperial times. At night you have to explore the Lapa neighbourhood, with so many different bars from hip-hop to samba or country music that it would take days to get to know the area well.”
While Italy might be best known for its food, art and architecture, the country has a more actively adventurous side too, ranking highest in the ‘scenic’ score.
“In my hometown Catania, Sicily, you can swim in the deepest blue sea and after few hours be on the top of the highest active volcano in Europe,” said Giorgia Carraffa, an Italian trip specialist for travel startup kimkim.
Though hiking Mount Etna provides a certain kind of thrill, locals also love that they can find new cultural experiences across the country. “From one village to the next, from valley to hilltop, the culture changes, the food varies and even the language can be different,” said Tim Hudson, director at tour company Inspired Italy.
The ever-changing landscape also provides a chance for different types of adventures. In the winter, Hudson runs ski safaris in the Dolomite Mountains, where the group travels by ski for a week, while warmer weather invites cycling tours through Tuscany.
With its sky-high scores in ‘friendly’ and ‘fun’, adventure in Spain is always as close as the nearest street, say residents. “The thing we most enjoy in Spain is the street life, ‘the party’, said Juan Castillo, who lives in Valencia and runs walking tours for GuruWalk. “Every day you will go from work for some drinks. Here in Valencia it is in the fancy area of the port or Russafa neighbourhood. People are always talking and making jokes. We enjoy life fully, and foreigners who arrive here soon start acting the same way.”
The most important thing for prospective residents of Spain is to identify what kind of adventure suits them best: if you love winter, head for Madrid, which is surrounded by mountains and has three ski resorts within an hour’s drive, while warm-weather lovers are better off in beachfront Barcelona.
“The weather here [in Barcelona] is amazing,” said Andre Arriaza, originally from Chile and founder of Barcelona Eat Local. “Sunshine all year long. You can wear sneakers on winter days and never worry about heavy winter boots.”
And despite Madrid’s colder winters, its central location makes getting anywhere easy. “You are never more than a few hours driving, or a high-speed train trip, away from some of the most stunning coastline in Europe,” said Matt Hulland, originally from the UK and founder of The Travel Blogs. The northern coast of the Basque region is especially known for its surf spots, in Zarautz and San Sebastian, while the southern region of Andalucia is popular with rock climbers and cyclists.
Combining high scores in both ‘scenery’ and ‘fun’, Thailand attracts an eclectic mix of people that make for an adventurous atmosphere throughout the country. This can best be experienced on the island of Koh Phangan, said Miriam Hershman, who was born and raised on the south-east island, and now lives in Los Angeles.
“Tens of thousands of people from all over the world come to experience the notorious Full Moon Party each month, a beach party that lasts until the sun rises,” she said. But a completely different crowd also comes to the island regularly for yoga retreats, fasting and meditation. “The contradiction of the young party crowd with the health nuts make this island so unique and interesting. It is peaceful, yet full of adventure.”
Adventurous eaters also love Thailand, if they can get used to the pace and the spice. “Thai people carry a strong culture that North Americans are oftentimes not used to. We eat all day, whatever we want to eat, depending on how we feel,” said Chiwan Suwannapak, who lives in Bangkok and works as operations manager for Intrepid Travel. “In the morning, I could eat noodle soup and put [on] a lot of chili powder. In the evening, I could have spicy papaya salad. When we eat, we eat with our fingers and our stomachs.” Her favourite dishes include deep-fried snapper with garlic and lab moo (minced pork salad) and the traditional Northern Thailand dish kao soy, yellow wheat noodles in a curry broth, served with chicken or beef.
Locals looking for more traditional adrenaline-pumping adventure should head to Chiang Mai to try whitewater raftingon the Mae Taeng River, or attempt waterfall abseiling (popular with ambitious rock climbers) at Doi Inthanon National Park, home to the country’s eponymous highest peak and nicknamed ‘The Roof of Thailand’.
High scores in ‘scenery’ and ‘climate’ combined with its warm Mediterranean waters make Greece ideal for aquatic adventurers.
“The water for swimming here is the best of the best,” said Patricia Hajifotiou, originally from the US who now lives on the island of Evia and runs small group tour company The Olive Odysseys. “Greek doctors prescribe swimming to their patients and each one of us will count the number of swims that we do each summer. It is a matter of health, the sun, the minerals on your skin and moving around.”
Sailing and kayaking around the Cyclades are popular watersports for locals, while landloving visitors to the islands have hiking options aplenty, including Mount Zeus, the Cyclades’ highest peak on the island of Naxos, and the cliffs of Santorini’s volcanic caldera.
The mainland is no less impressive. “Imagine seeing views of the Acropolis as you drive into the city centre, or the stunning blue as you drive through the natural limanakia [little ports] between Vouliagmeni and Varkiza,” said Mina Agnos, an American who opened the Athens office of luxury tour company Travelive in 2008. “These are things that give me joy every day.”
Host to the first (and many following) Olympics, Athens has long held sporting events at the Panathenaic Stadium, the only fully marble stadium in the world, which traces its origins to a racecourse dating as far back as the 6th Century BC. Locals and visitors alike are welcome to join the morning jog in the stadium from 7:30am to 9am as a warm-up for the day’s adventures.
For the less athletic, laidback residents are also always up for spontaneous social adventures. “Call up a few people, tell them what you are doing and soon you have a mob going for ice cream,” said Hajifotiou. “No-one is super on-time or super uptight.”