CUENCA, ECUADOR: Cuenca perfects the combination of extraordinary landscape and rowdy festivities. The small village nestled in Ecuador's southern Andean highlands lies just south of the famous Inca ruins of Ingapirca. Extravagantly costumed Quechua musicians march through the streets, and children dance alongside, dressed as biblical figures. On New Year's Eve the town still practices the burning of effigies of politicians, celebrities, and even fictional characters. The best spot to see the decorated, colonial "Old Town" is perched on the scenic overlook on the hill of Turi. The New Year's season also has ideal hiking climate, and the hike to Ecuador's path of volcanoes is worth the sweat. Chimborazo, the country's highest peak at 20,561 feet, is a six-hour bus ride from Cuenca, and Cotopaxi, the highest active volcano in the world, is 44 miles from Quito. For a closer excursion, Cajas National Park, a high-alpine area known for its lakes and many hiking trails, is 20 miles west of Cuenca.
DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL PARK, CALIFORNIA: In cold weather, 134 degrees might sound kinda nice if winter's getting you down. Fortunately, though, this Death Valley National Park record high is a long way off in the winter months; the ominous-sounding park remains comfortably mild for outdoorsmen craving a break from the chill. Death Valley's low-elevation hikes are usually off-limits to summer hikers because of the heat, but in the winter, all 3.3 million acres are fair game. Hike from the country's lowest pointÂ—282 feet below sea levelÂ—right on up to Telescope Peak for a real New Year's high of panoramic views over Death Valley and the High Sierra mountains.
GRENADA: Don't let this island's size fool you; although it's only 12 miles wide and 21 miles long, Grenada's mountainous interior beats most of its Caribbean counterparts when it comes to hikers' satisfaction. Grenada took care to protect its natural environs well before ecotourism entered the scope, so the island maintains its pristine rainforest and unspoiled waterfalls. Grenada's best hiking is in the Grand Etang National Park; the park offers plenty of shorter hikes (the Seven Sisters Falls are one hour each way) as well as full-day rambles. Grand Etang ("large pond" in French) is named after a small crater lake. The park tops out at more than 2,750 feet above sea level. Along with the tropical rainforest, the diverse terrain includes cloud forests, montane thickets, and elfin woodland. Off the hiking trail, on December 28, Grenada celebrates with the "End of Hurricane Season Yacht Race" in St. George.
SRI LANKA: The political climate might not be what you'd call calm these days, but this mystic pilgrimage defies geo-political downers. For the outdoorsman eager to beat the crowd, Sri Lanka's 7,360-foot Adam's Peak (or Sri Pada) opens to trekkers in December, but doesn't get the tourist hordes until April. To give you an inkling of how inspiring this peak's views are, consider that almost every major world religion views this mountain as a sacred site. There is an unexplained five-and-a-half- by two-and-a-half-foot footprint at the very top of the mountain. Muslims argue that it belongs to Adam, left there after he was cast out of the Garden of Eden; Buddhists say it belongs to Buddha; Hindus to the God Siva; and Christians trace it to St. Thomas, disciple of Christ. Regardless of your beliefs, the 1,000-year-old pilgrimage takes a total of two days, and a Brahmin priest performs religious rites on the summit after possibly the most impressive sunrise you'll ever witness.
WHISTLER BLACKCOMB, BRITISH COLUMBIA: Word has it that Whistler Blackcomb beats every other resort when it comes to cuisineÂ—which is important to know since you'll be working up the most ravenous appetite of your life carving down the largest vertical drop of any North American resort (5,020 feet on Whistler Mountain, 5,280 feet on Blackcomb). For New Year's, check out the various special packages that the Barefoot Bistro offers. And if you really want an unforgettable New Year's buzz, book a day of heli-skiing. The facilities are the best in North America, and even intermediate skiers can handle the thrill on Whistler's surrounding terrain. At the end of the day, after eating your heart out, sit back, relax, and watch the torchlight parade schuss down the mountain.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication