Latin America has a popular New Year’s Eve tradition in which people grab suitcases and run around the block. The belief is that this act will lead to more travel opportunities in the coming year. Whether or not you want to take part in this tradition, you should take every opportunity to travel, and the following nine destinations are among the best bets for exciting adventures in 2016.
Lencois Maranhenses, Brazil
One of the most gorgeous destinations in the world is also one of the least known. The 600-square-mile Lencois Maranhenses is a national park in northern Brazil that resembles ruffled bed sheets lined with freshwater oases. Lencois is essentially an oceanfront desert, but the nearby Amazon Basin contributes five times the rainfall limit to be considered desert terrain. Likewise, an underlying rock layer enables the white sand dunes to collect rainwater in crescent-shaped lagoons, and the stark-white sand brings out the rich blue and green colors in the water. Travelers who visit the park can swim in the lagoons or even sandboard down the dunes directly into the water. This UNESCO World Heritage Site truly resembles another planet, but travelers should visit sooner than later as increased awareness will result in more tourists, higher prices and stricter environmental restrictions.
When it comes to the Amazon, most people think of Brazilian destinations like Belem, Manaus and Santarem, but these spots are largely overrun with tourism and industry. That is not a good thing for people trying to experience the wild. For a more authentic Amazonian experience, head to Iquitos, a jungle-set metropolis considered the largest city in the world inaccessible by road. After taking a plane or boat to the Peruvian city, continue onward to a secluded jungle lodge where visitors will likely see pink dolphins, caimans, monkeys and non-stoner sloths, and most lodges offer an opportunity to fish (and eat) flesh-chewing piranha. Iquitos is also a good spot to try ayahuasca with shamanic retreats dedicated to the spiritual hallucinogen.
Did you know Antigua was the de facto capital of Central America for more than two centuries? Under Spanish colonization, the Kingdom of Guatemala stretched from southern Mexico to Costa Rica, and for most of that period, Antigua was the capital city. Surrounded by the Agua, Fuego and Acatenango volcanoes, Antigua today is a UNESCO-honored colonial city with architectural sites, inexpensive spas and classic Maya-based cuisine. Though often very simple, Guatemalan food is the epitome of yard-to-table gastronomy that gave Monsanto the finger and California the original Hass avocado seeds. In fact, the Maya and Olmec cultures can take credit for avocados, chocolate, tortillas and tamales, and the abundance of volcanic ash empowers Antigua-area coffee plantations to produce low-yield hard beans with complex tasting notes and acidity. Guatemala’s disgraced ex-president sought to legalize cannabis, and while future legalization is uncertain, cannabis is easy to find in Antigua. This is a city, after all, that allows people to buy over-the-counter hydrocodone.
Lake Bled, Slovenia
Most people don’t know Slovenia from Slovakia, which is why the former Yugoslav state does not have camera-toting hordes overrunning their majestic Julian Alps and Mediterranean beaches. Slovenia’s top nature spot, however, is Lake Bled near the Italian and Austrian borders. The lake offers all the standard aquatic activities and a few not-so-standard ones like frozen-lake diving and the frigid Winter Swimming Cup, and its glacial waters purportedly have healing properties that attracted emperors and monarchs for centuries. The lake is also home to Slovenia’s only natural island, Bled Island, with 99 steps leading from the waterfront to a 15th-century baroque church. Overlooking the lake from a mountain ledge, the millennium-old Bled Castle features an upscale restaurant with spectacular views and a DYI wine cellar to fill and cork your own bottles. Other Bled-area highlights include the 1,000-foot-long Hag’s Tooth cave and the one-mile Vintgar Gorge whose wooden walkway allows visitors to cut through vertical rock face lined with waterfalls. PRØHBTD readers will also appreciate a 2011 study in the Croatian Medical Journal that looked at cannabis use in 11 European countries. Slovenia topped the list for perceived cannabis availability, and getting busted for possession usually results in a fine or merely a warning.
Grunge music, new tech and overpriced coffee made Seattle a hotspot during the Clinton era, but Portland eventually stole big brother’s thunder with a world-class food scene, comic culture, indie music and Bushwick-envious beards. In 2016, however, Seattle appears poised to get its groove back. For starters, the city has its own foodie scene developing in places like Capitol Hill, and its head start on legalization allows visitors to work up an appetite with the ultimate pre-dinner aperitif.
Okanagan Valley, Canada
If Canada does not legalize cannabis this year, head to Hastings Street in Vancouver, but if newly crowned Prime Minister Justin Trudeau delivers on his green promise, head to the nearby Okanagan Valley to create your own weed and wine pairings. Nestled between two mountain ranges in British Columbia, Okanagan Valley boasts a rapidly emerging vineyard scene, postcard-perfect nature and 125 miles of shifting landscape with green plateaus, lakeside beaches, fruit orchards and stunning hiking trails. The valley is home to more than 130 vineyards, and the current harvest (ready in 2016) is expected to be its best vintage yet.
No, not that Georgia. We’re talking the Europe-Asia straddling Black Sea nation, and beachfront Batumi sits on the site of an ancient Greek colony near the border with Turkey. The beaches do tend to be rocky, but Georgia as a whole is a fast-rising destination that strikes an ideal balance between native authenticity and tourist infrastructure. This includes new high-rise buildings, the world’s largest botanical gardens and a renovated Old Town in a city previously ruled by both the Ottoman and Russian Empires. Georgia also has a strong vineyard culture in Kakheti that allows travelers to experience dynamic local wines that are not widely exported. Interestingly, a young Joseph Stalin lived in Batumi at the start of the 20th century, and the Rose Revolution that broke ties with Soviet-era politics occurred little more than a decade ago.
Travelers are flocking to Cuba now that President Obama loosened restrictions on travel to the Caribbean island, and it appears the days of tour-only visits will soon be a thing of the past. Nonstop flights are now possible from Los Angeles and New York City, and ferry service and cruise line stops should start in 2016. Similar to Minsk in Belarus, a visit to Havana feels like stepping through a time machine, but this type of experience will not last long once American dollars and tourists start to flood the Communist country. Go now before capitalism turns Cuba into just another Carnival Cruise stop.
Prior to the 1979 revolution, Iran was a major tourist destination with nearly two dozen UNESCO World Heritage sites. The recent nuclear accord with the United Nations Security Council might be the first pivot that makes the former Persian Empire more accessible to Americans. Likewise, the puritanical nation is at least considering another pivot regarding cannabis. A prominent official in the Khomeini-established Expediency Council is promoting the idea of legalization. This is a country that provides clean needles to heroin addicts when it isn’t sentencing heroin dealers to death, so Iran could literally go either direction on this issue. U.S. citizens can visit via a tour company, but the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) must approve the full itinerary before issuing a visa. Likewise, your visa request—which will go through the Pakistani Embassy in Washington, D.C.—will be rejected if your passport contains an Israeli stamp. The process is slow, but start by finding an approved agency that provides tours in Iran.