These aren't your standard shop-till-you-drop, lounge-around getaways. Besides challenging your fitness level, the stunning locales here will unleash a sense of wonder and awe that you rarely get to experience. Nothing that rewarding comes easily, though—just getting to these adventure hotspots is an athletic feat in itself.
Inca Trail to Machu Picchu
Peru, South America
"Day four of the hike started at 3:45 a.m.," says Sultana Ali, 27, from Florida, who tackled the trek with two friends. "My calves ached as I climbed the last steep, narrow stairs to the Sun Gate. All I could see was the step in front of me until reaching the top. Then, as I walked through the archway, this ancient stone city, tucked amid the mountains, magically appeared below. When I first saw the ruins, I stood there frozen, tears rolling down my face."
Then she took off running full-blast down the last mile of trail leading to the site—with a 22-pound pack strapped on her back. "I was overcome with joy. I hadn't opened myself up to such pure happiness in years," says Ali.
Mystery surrounds this remote archeological gem. By the time Spanish colonists arrived nearby in 1532 A.D., the Incas had abandoned the settlement, though no one is sure why. The structures miraculously remained intact because the conquistadores, who were busy pillaging and destroying the villages they encountered, never found Machu Picchu, perched high up in the clouds at 8,860 feet.
What's more, since the Incas who built the Lost City (which remained undiscovered until 1911, when locals led an American scholar there) had no writing system, there's no hint as to why they chose to live on this isolated patch of Amazonian jungle. The stone-paved trail begins in the Quechua zone (at about 7,500 feet) and winds around mountains, reaching an altitude of 13,800 feet at Dead Woman's Pass before descending to Machu Picchu.
The Trek: 4 days (27 miles)
Book It: Peru Treks
Cost: From $425 plus airfare
Includes: Porter, all meals, transportation to the trailhead, entrance fees, an English-speaking guide, and tents (BYO sleeping bag)
Prime Time: High season spans April to November. If you want to avoid the crowds, aim to go during rainy season, between November and March.