Once, jumping off a bridge would have been called suicidal. Now it's called fun. From its centuries-old origins on the Pacific island of Vanuatu, bungee jumping has catapulted onto the world stage as the favorite extreme sport of adrenaline junkies. But adventurous travel experiences include more than just flinging yourself into a canyon or river gorge. In reverse bungee, thrill seekers are shot 50 m into the air on rubber cords like human sling shots. For the ultimate vertigo, speed freaks can fly by wire, circling over a gorge at up to 170 km/h in a one-person, rocket-shaped pod tethered to a 105-m wire. Those who prefer to work up a sweat pursuing active outdoor adventures are seeking to do them in evermore out of the way spots — like a bike trip in Bhutan, rafting the 19 daunting rapids on the Zambezi River or mushing a team of dogs near the Arctic Circle. Then there's the accidental adventure tourist — business people, journalists and development workers doing their jobs in extreme environments.
The zest for challenging travel destinations has experienced such tremendous growth — 15% a year according to one recent study — that niche tour operators have sprung up to cater to every whim. Some large mainstream travel agencies, such as U.K.-based Travelbag, have set up separate divisions dealing exclusively with adventure tourism. Although clients tend to be twenty- and thirty-somethings, packages are on offer for travelers from nine to 90. "Some of the fittest, hardiest clients are the older ones," says Ruth Taggart, a partner in the tour operator Ride Worldwide.
Here TIME looks at four pretty extreme places to explore:
Extreme High The first mountaineers to attempt Everest came from the north, through Tibet. But China cut that route off when it occupied the Himalayan kingdom in 1950. Nepal, to the south of the world's mightiest peak, became the stomping ground of would-be Edmund Hillarys and Shangri La-seeking hippies. Over the past few years though, the Chinese government has relaxed border regulations in Tibet. Westerners, or at least the backpacking type, are once again welcome. A handful of companies have even started tours to the far west of the region, which few outsiders have ever visited.
"It's the wild west of Tibet, where distances are vast, the Chinese influence is still minimal and traditional Tibetan culture can be seen intact," says Hira Dhamala, executive director of Karnali Excursions. The treks are rigorous. Landslides or floods often force unexpected detours and the altitude can be a challenge: one pass on a hike around the sacred Buddhist peak Mt. Kailash lies at 5600 m. But easy isn't the point. "For [many of our clients] these trips are a pilgrimage," says Dhamala. "A spiritual journey that is all the more meaningful because it's also a physical adventure."
Extreme City Some travelers pursue adventure. Business travelers often have it thrust upon them. Lagos, Nigeria, West Africa's largest city with 13 million people, attracts just 400,000 or so international visitors a year. Upon arrival, they find every sense assaulted. The humidity is suffocating and drenching. Acrid-smelling diesel fumes choke your throat and sting your eyes. Cars and trucks are beaten up, rusted hulks and accidents are frighteningly common. "Everybody's in a hurry in Lagos," says David Emeneg, a local chauffeur. "That's the problem."
All too often the speeding lumps of metal come to a grinding halt in traffic jams, or "go slows" as Nigerians call them. Never at a loss to make a sale, hundreds of street hawkers navigate the traffic, peddling towels, bathroom scales, telephones, yams as big as a man's thigh, pirate CDs and books (the latest best seller is a big black tome entitled Who's Who in Economics). With the hawkers come beggars and street kids pleading for a few naira, the local currency.
Lagos Island, just one of the many islands on which this sprawling metropolis is built, houses the city's high-rise-studded commercial center. British colonial buildings rot in the humidity, their verandahs and cornices serving as unintended planters for lianas and rubber trees. At the heart of the island is a dilapidated but colorful neighborhood of tiled, plaster and wooden houses built by former slaves returned from Brazil in the 19th century. Travelers may also want to check out the newly reopened Shrine, the best known of the city's many nightclubs, which offer the best music on the continent.
Though the number of visitors to Lagos is growing, a reputation for violent crime scares off all but the most adventurous.
"It has its bad parts, sure," agrees Yakabu Gowon, 38, who works as a roadside mechanic a few meters from where President Murtala Mohammed was gunned down in his black Mercedes in a 1976 coup attempt (the car, complete with bullet holes, can be seen at the National Museum on Lagos Island). "But I could never leave this place. Other cities are too slow and quiet."
Extreme South Mountain climbers have long enjoyed the beauty of Patagonia — the wild southern tail of the Andes shared by Argentina and Chile. Now a growing number of Europe- and U.S.-based tour operators are offering a different brand of adventure — equestrian excursions. Ride along the base of the 2,900-m Torres del Paine, a craggy fist of rock punching into the sky, or trek on horseback close to the face of the imposing Grey Glacier. Above tower some of the world's most spectacular granite monoliths. Below, icy rivers thunder through lush green valleys. Glaciers crunch and spit blocks of ice into aqua blue lakes.
One word of warning: "The trips are geared toward fairly proficient riders, not people who have never sat on a horse before," says Ruth Taggart of Ride Worldwide.
Extreme Heat For even more demanding landscape, try the countryside around Agadez in central Niger. Sited between the savanna of the Sahel to the south and the harsh Sahara Desert to the north, the town was once an important stop on trans-Saharan trade routes. While the 20,000-strong camel caravans of old no longer pass through to salt markets farther south, Agadez is reinventing itself as an adventure hub. Half a dozen tour operators offer four-wheel drive or camel expeditions.
Trips can be tough: the temperature regularly hits 45° C, cars frequently get stuck in the sand and camels are slow, uncomfortable and cantankerous. Itineraries often involve up to 12 hours of driving or walking a day.
But the landscape is stunning — oceans of undulating sand, black gravel plains, extinct volcanic cones and boulder-strewn craters. An occasional oasis — with date palms hugging a meandering river and children dashing out from mud houses to wave — breaks the harshness.
At night, travelers camp atop towering sand dunes or in dry riverbeds lined by stunted acacia trees. Lunch is served under a canvas stretched between two four-wheel drive Toyotas or in the shade of boulders covered in animal and human figures chiseled thousands of years ago. When the wind drops, there is total silence. "You can think better when it's like that," says Rhissa Feltou, a guide with Tidene Expeditions, one of the best tour operators in Agadez. "It's the space, the quiet, the nothing." For people used to the visceral overload of modern Western cities, that may be the best adventure of all.
With reporting by Jeff Chu/London