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8 Adventures in Wonderland

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Big fish: up close with a whale shark in the Sea of Cortez, off Mexico's Baja California peninsula (Photograph by Brandon Cole)

Don’t just see the world, seize it. From swimming with whale sharks in Baja California to horseback riding across Mongolia, these eight wild adventures turn vacations into calls to action.

> Swim With Whale Sharks

Goosebumps. That’s what snorkeling near a bus-size shark can get you.

Floating on the surface of the Sea of Cortez off the coast of Baja California, in Mexico, you see nothing but shades of aquamarine water below. Then, a shadow emerges from the deep, and the outline of a huge whale shark looms into view: the unmistakable dorsal and pectoral fins, the square head, and the powerful crescent-shaped tail.

Even though these ancient fish are plankton eaters, your skin still prickles as they approach. Swim as fast as you can as the largest fish in the sea, graced with unique patterns of stripes and dots, glides by. In a matter of moments, it disappears back into the deep blue.

> Dive the Great Barrier Reef

The world’s largest reef, aptly named the Great Barrier Reef, clings to the northeast coast of Australia like a 1,250-mile coral parenthesis, with arguably the greatest diversity of dive sites on the planet.

Hover among dwarf minke whales, sharks, and manta rays, and browse wrecks haunted by sea turtles.

> Bicycle Around Iceland

Along the 830-mile Ring Road that circumnavigates Iceland, cyclists encounter all of this country’s spectacular extremes, from glaciers to geysers; immense black-rock moonscapes to booming waterfalls; and glacial pools bobbing with blue icebergs to wilderness hot springs just big enough for the two of us.

> Horseback Riding Mongolia

On a trip through Mongolia’s steppes, horseback riders meet nomadic herders, visit a 16th-century monastery, and listen to the sound of traditional Mongolian throat singing.

> Sea Kayak British Columbia

It’s impressive to see the old-growth rain forests, ragged granite shorelines, and clear shallows of British Columbia‘s sparsely populated coast from the vantage point of a kayak.

But it’s hard to beat the moment when you lock eyes with a curious orca emerging within feet of your kayak and disappearing into the water as gracefully as it came.

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Under the volcano: hiking the ever active Mount Stromboli, in Sicily’s Aeolian Islands (Photograph by Saffo Alessandro, SIME/eStock Photo)

> Climb Stromboli

Only rarely does the fiery inner soul of the planet reveal itself—except on Stromboli, one of Sicily‘s Aeolian Islands that spews lava almost constantly.

Just before sunset, hikers pant up over 3,000 vertical feet of heather, fragrant herbs, and black ash to a perch right above the crater. There, amid the swirling green gases, the volcano bursts into action every two minutes to two hours with an explosion of hot glowing lava that, at times, arcs over 1,200 feet into the air.

“You cannot believe what you are seeing,” says Lorenzo Russo, a guide for Magmatrek, a hiking outfitter. “It is one of the most incredible natural spectacles. People are speechless, they they all say ‘Woooooooow.'” After the fireworks, skid down soft black ash as the light fades over the Mediterranean.

> Trek the Salkantay Route

Every year thousands hike the Inca Trail to see Machu Picchu, but only a few choose the newer alternative route: the Salkantay Trail.

Wind 39 miles around 20,000-foot peaks, cloud forests, and coffee plantations for views of the storied mountain ruins in mist.

> Tread on a Glacier

On a three-day Ball Pass Crossing trek in New Zealand’s Southern Alps, hikers maneuver scree and meadows to see Tasman Glacier up close. An easy shortcut: Take a helicopter or ski-plane.

> Raft the Zambezi

There’s at least one thing more exciting than feeling the rumble of 355-foot Victoria Falls: riding all of that water as it funnels into a gorge studded with boulders and menaced by drops.

This stretch of the Zambezi River, on the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia, is considered some of the best white water in the world.

“It’s an amazing journey and for some a life-changing event to be in wilderness like this,” says Matt Gontram, a raft guide and owner of outfitter Global Descents.

Over six days, catapult into wave trains that top 30 feet and rush churning pools of white and green. Watch as wild animals—hippos, crocs, baboons, and vervet monkeys—parade by in the water and on the shores and giant basalt cliffs tower into the sky.

> Witness the Northern Lights

In the wilds beyond Tromsø, Norway, cross-country ski or ride in a reindeer-pulled sled to watch arcs, curtains, and bands of greenish light tango across the sky.

This piece, written by Kate Siber, is an excerpt of what first appeared in the June/July 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine. Follow Kate on Twitter @katesiber.

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