[Header = Intro]BELIZE

Temple Hopping

With its comfortably flat roads, breathtaking Mayan ruins, and gorgeous greenery, Belize is a cyclist’s dream destination. It has the lowest population density of any Central American country, so there’s untouched habitat at every turn (don’t be surprised if you catch glimpses of macaws, howler monkeys, and maybe even jaguars). For a long stretch of scenic sights, take a ride on the southern-running Hummingbird Highway, and enjoy views of broadleaved jungle vegetation and the towering Maya Mountains. As you climb slowly along the Western Highway, you’ll enter the Cayo district, which is dotted with waterfalls, 1,000-year-old ruins, and exotic flora and fauna including orchids and keel-billed toucans. If mountain biking is your thing, be sure to take the 21-mile ride down the rough-and-tumble Chiquibul road south of San Ignacio — an energetic town that plays host to Belizeans of all creeds — into the 300-square-mile Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve (40 percent of Belize is protected as nature, wildlife, or marine reserves). Here, you can stop to enjoy your lunch next to Thousand Foot Falls, the country’s tallest cascade. Further south, in the jungle of Chiquibul National Park, you can take in Caracol, Belize’s largest Mayan site, where it’s estimated that 36,000 structures lie beneath the jungle canopy. Caracol includes the towering Canaa Temple, still Belize’s tallest man-made structure.


Off Beat Roads (416-928-0628, offbeatroads.com) uses local guides who are well versed in Belize’s animal and plant life, as well as Mayan history. The company fits as many temples and wildlife reserves as possible into its 11-day Belizean ride ($1,600). Perk: a side trip to Guatemala’s Tikal is included; dominated by five enormous temples — steep-sided limestone pyramids rising powerfully from the jungle floor — it’s one of the world’s most famous Mayan sites.


You won’t have to pedal very far for a taste of Belize’s most common food: rice and beans. Made with red beans, black pepper, and grated coconut, it’s the perfect dish to top off energy stores. And since you’re never more than 60 miles from the ocean, you’re guaranteed an abundance of fresh seafood as well. Try conch — a staple of the Maya for centuries. Also, if you’re looking to add a little pizzazz to your provisions, don’t leave without trying Marie Sharp’s Hot Sauce, whose fiery primary ingredients come from local farmers.


Based in San Ignacio, Pacz Tours (011-501-804-2667, pacztours.net) offers a great full-day walking trip ($80) exploring the remarkable cave system of Actun Tunichil Muknal. Located in the lush jungle alongside Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve, the caves still contain Mayan pottery and skeletal remains. This trip is included in Off Beat Roads’ bike tour of Belize.


[Header = Thailand]THAILAND

The Lush North

A world away from the beach bums and the hustle of Bangkok, northern Thailand offers cyclists a wealth of cultural and natural wonders. The 370-mile Mae Hong Son loop, full of thick teak forest, is perfect for a two-wheel adventure — if you don’t mind tackling winding, roller-coaster roads. The first gem is 180-square-mile waterfall-laden Doi Inthanon National Park, home to Thailand’s highest peak, Doi Inthanon (8,500 feet), and the Hmong and Karen hill tribes. The park shelters flying squirrels, red-toothed shrews, and an abundance of butterflies. As you pass by “Thailand’s Grand Canyon” in Ob Luang Gorge National Park, snap a few shots of the single-tiered Mae Surin Waterfall; at 330 feet, it’s one of the country’s tallest. The lush tropical views continue along Route 1095, where a crack-of-dawn uphill slog will reward you with a picturesque sunrise over the mist at Huay Nam Dang National Park. At tour’s end, reward a job well done with a pleasantly brutal Thai massage in Chiang Mai. Then stick around for a few days to enjoy a few of the city’s 300-plus colorful temples.


From steep climbs to thrilling single-track descents through villages, KE Adventure’s 12-day, fat-tire tour in the northernmost regions of Thailand ($2,795, 800-497-9675, keadventure.com) is mountain biking at its best. Perk: A stay with a local family in a remote tribal village.


For an inexpensive energy boost, stop by one of the many roadside food stands for a plate of sticky rice or pad thai. If your inner foodie is itching to make these delicious dishes at home, hook up with Bebe’s Wok’ n’ Roll (06-114-9921) in Pai and take a Thai cooking course ($20). Included is a trip to the market where you’ll learn about the ingredients.


What better way to make use of a rest day than to volunteer at Joy’s Elephant Camp (011-66-5369-3273) in Pai, where you’ll have the opportunity to feed and bathe these gentle giants.


[Header = Canada]CANADA

Rocky Mountain High

Alberta’s 180-mile Icefields Parkway winds past pristine lakes and commanding mountains as it connects the villages of Jasper and Lake Louise. The challenging ride also offers ample opportunity for wildlife viewin — grizzlies, elk, and wolves all call the area home. During each lungbusting ascent, overly generous shoulders give you plenty of breathing room, and your efforts will be rewarded with postcard-perfect scenery, like the view of turquoise-colored Peyto Lake from Bow Summit. (At 6,787 feet, Bow Summit is the highest drivable — and cyclable — pass in the national parks of the Canadian Rockies.) Set below the Valley of Ten Peaks, a vast valley in Banff National Park that is crowned by, yes, ten notable peaks, is the glacial Moraine Lake, which was once featured on the Canadian twenty dollar bill. You’ll have to take an 8-mile (uphill) detour to get there, but the trip is well worth it. And when you’re ready to rest your aching muscles after a long day’s ride, spend the night under the stars at one of the 11 campgrounds located along Icefields Parkway (but keep your food under wraps — this is prime bear habitat).


Timberline Adventures (800-417-2453, timbertours.com) offers a nine-day excursion called the Icefields Rambler ($2,595). The tour includes gems such as Moraine Lake and Crowfoot glacier within Jasper and Banff National parks, as well as three days in adjoining Kootenay and Yoho National Parks where you’ll have the opportunity to test your mettle on the breathtaking climb to Yoho’s Takakkaw Falls — one of the highest waterfalls in Canada. Perk: A night spent at Radium Hot Springs beside Kootenay National Park that is sure to soothe your sore muscles.


It seems a little wrong to observe wildlife in action during the day only to put it on your plate at night, but you can take comfort in the fact that the game served in these parts is allowed to roam free on the Alberta grasslands. Buffalo is the preferred game meat of the Canadian Rockies, and a typical buffalo burger has a fraction of the fat of its mooing counterpart.


While you’re in Alberta, spend some time in a canoe exploring the unspoiled mountainous waterways. Jasper Adventure Centre (800-565-7547, jasperadventurecentre.com) organizes three-hour paddling trips ($95) on picturesque Pyramid Lake, renowned for its earlymorning wildlife viewing that includes black bears, elk, and moose.


[Header = Ireland]IRELAND

The Romantic West

Expect to experience quiet country roads, empty beaches, misty mountains, and towering sea cliffs when you cycle the Emerald Isle’s west. Not to mention the biggest bonus of all: the hospitable Irish. Many visitors notice how clean the villages are in this area — that’s because the residents participate in the National Tidy Towns Competition where, since 1958, communities have worked to curb litter and to minimize waste. With ferries unable to transport tourists’ gas guzzlers, exploring the island of Inishmore’s historical goodies on two wheels is a delight. Sites to watch for include Dun Aengus, an ancient stone-walled fort atop a cliff, 300 feet above the tumultuous Atlantic surf, and the mainland’s Connemara peninsula and its patchwork of time-honored farms, remote beaches, and gray mountains. One of the country’s most stunning half-day rides runs through the heart of the Lough Inagh Valley in the shadow of the Twelve Bens peaks, and then steers you into Killary Harbour, Ireland’s lone majestic fjord. For an even more jaw-dropping experience, check out the Cliffs of Moher, located south of the Connemara, which boast a 650-foot vertical rock face. Then ride the five miles into Doolin, the perfect chill-out locale and the heart of traditional Irish music.


The locally owned Iron Donkey (011-44-2890-813200, irondonkey.com) will show you the best traffic-free routes that Inishmore and Connemara have to offer (7 nights, $1,680). Perk: After each day’s pedal, you’ll enjoy comfortable accommodations at quaint inns bursting with Irish charm (all included in the price of the tour).


If the traditional Emerald Isle fare doesn’t appeal to you — delicious, but admittedly artery-clogging fry that often includes fried bacon and sausage — there are many alternatives available. Top off your carbohydrate stores with dishes like colcannon (mashed potatoes and cabbage) and champ (mashed potatoes and scallions). Also, Ireland’s farmhouse cheeses, like the pungent Ardrahan, have won many awards; the famous and very tasty yeastfree soda bread is a perfect accompaniment.


Connemara’s Killary Adventure Company (011-33-95-43411, killaryadventure.ie) will surely satisfy your adrenaline bug. All of their activities, which range from rock climbing to sailing, are set along Killary’s stunning fjord. For a nice cold Guinness, stop by O’Connor’s in Doolin, a bar that hosts nightly jam sessions. And if you happen to be in Inishmore, be sure to fill your belly at Man of Aran Cottage (011-353-99-61301, manofarancottage.com). Chef Maura Wolf, who returned to her native Ireland following her culinary education in London, creates her dishes using fresh greens from her husband’s organic gardens, whipping up tasty delights outdone only by the views overlooking the North Atlantic.


[Header = Tasmania]TASMANIA

Devil of a Ride

Rides on the Aussie mainland are known for being long, hot, and dusty. Not so in Tasmania, an island south of Australia proper. Its compact size, low population density, and abundant wildlife make it especially bike-friendly. (Plus, because of the opposite seasons, you’ll be working on your tan lines while the mercury’s falling back home.) On Tasmania’s east coast, pay a visit to the historic penal settlement of Port Arthur, then travel up the Tasman Highway to Orford and catch a ferry to Maria Island, one ofTasmania’s 19 wildlife-saturated national parks. Located 10 miles from the main island, the entire Maria Island is a National Park; it’s also car-free, so bikers can easily reign as they make their way along the flat coastal road and explore its bush and secluded beaches. Back on Tasmania, when you need a break, stop to sample some of the local wine further north on the Tasman Highway near Swansea, one of Tasmania’s oldest settlements, overlooking Great Oyster Bay. Then take a dip in the Douglas Apsley National Park’s water hole, or go bushwalking in Freycinet National Park, located 20 miles north of Swansea along Coles Bay road, known for its dramatic mountain views and seascapes.


Experience Plus (800-685-4565, experienceplus.com) offers an eight-day Tasmanian east-coast bike tour ($2,300) that focuses on the area’s striking coastal scenery. Perk: On the final day of riding, you are rewarded with a long descent through lush forests of myrtle and eucalyptus trees.


You likely won’t be able to cycle too far before being invited to a barbie — an Aussie institution. Look for the grill master to cook up exotic meats like kangaroo and crocodile and, especially in Tasmania, heaps of fresh seafood. Also, for a tasty mid-day snack, Tasmanian apples, pears, and juicy tropical fruits are found throughout the island; Tasmania’s fertile soil makes for ideal growing conditions, a good portion of which is done organically.


Freycinet’s blue waters and hidden bays are best explored by sea kayak. Try the threehour twilight paddle tour ($85) offered by Freycinet Adventures (011-61-3-6257-0500, freycinetadventures.com.au), recipient of the Tasmanian Tourism Award for Ecotourism.


[Header = Iceland]ICELAND

Fire and Ice

With frequent temperamental weather, lofty prices, and an interior that’s barren and somewhat uninviting, why would any right-minded cyclist want to come to Iceland? Because of Ring Road, a 900-mile stretch of pavement that encircles the country and offers views of towering waterfalls, blue hot springs, vast lava fields, and immense glaciers along the rugged southern coastline. Begin your bike trip in Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik, and head east, taking in the 105-foothigh double cascade fittingly called the “Golden Waterfall” and the Geyser Hot Spring before connecting to the coastal Ring Road. A week of riding will take you to Skaftafell and Skaftafell National Park. This plot of land comprises half of the 3,250-square-mile Vatnajokull glacier (Iceland’s greatest icecap) and boasts a unique combination of waterfalls, green forests, and glaciers — all with Iceland’s highest peak, Hvannadalshnjukur (21,300 feet), looming in the backdrop. The area is ideal for day walks to glacier faces and waterfalls, all easily reached from the park’s large, grassy campground. Apart from reserves and a few farms, you’re free to camp anywhere along Ring Road, which will provide relief from the area’s high-priced accommodations.


Concentrating on Iceland’s fertile south, Freewheeling (800-672-0775, freewheeling.ca) combines the area’s most scenic spots with its leastcrowded roads for eight days ($3,995) of joyful Nordic riding. Perk: A day trip to the Westman Islands — home to roughly a million puffins.


If hakarl — a putrefied shark meat that’s been buried in gravel and is a favorite treat among hardened Scandinavians — doesn’t suit your fancy, give the lamb a shot. Icelandic lamb has a distinctively wild and flavorful taste; the flocks are allowed to roam free on the interior grasslands.


Trade in one type of saddle for another at the Laxnes Horse Farm (011-354-566-6179, laxnes.is) where you can ride horses along trails throughout the rolling countryside of the Mosfellsdalur valley and geothermal-rich lands of Pingvellir National Park. (The Icelandic horse, a purebred descendant from the Viking age, is distinctively small and easy to handle.)


[Header = Alaska]ALASKA

Northern Exposure

While there are lots of spots in North America where you can cycle by mountains, glaciers, and rushing rivers, few are on the scale of those in Alaska’s interior. Ease your way into the tour on the relatively flat George Parks Highway, which will take you to Denali National park, home to Mount McKinley, the county’s tallest peak (20,320 feet). Comprising a sizeable chunk of the state’s 54 million acres of protected land, Denali sees its fair share of visitors. But while car-dependent tourists scramble for a spot on the shuttle bus, you’ll be able to head straight in on the 90-mile unpaved Park Road surrounded by flower-studded tundra and rushing glacial rivers. Even these gorgeous views pale in comparison to the waterfalls, salmon-spawning rivers, and other sites along the 100-mile stretch between Gulkana and Delta Junction; with several tough climbs, you’ll need to be prepared with a good night’s sleep to tackle this stretch. Roofed digs can be few and far between along this route, so becoming one with nature is the way to go. There’s no better place to pitch your tent than Donnelly Creek State Campground ($10) and its views of the towering Alaskan Range.


AlaskaBike (907-245-2175, alaskabike.com) will challenge your lungs and camera skills during its eight-day ride ($2,695) through the interior. Perk: A cruise along the glacier-studded Prince William Sound.


A stone’s throw from Denali National Park, Denali Salmon Bake (907-783-0014, denaliparksalmonbake.com) is the place for live music and the much-hyped salmon quesadillas, the main ingredient of which comes from a sustainable Alaskan salmon fishery.


Don’t forget to pack your hiking boots, as there’s no shortage of breathtaking hikes ranging from short jaunts to multi-day scrambles. Check out hikingandbackpacking.com/alaska.html for information on trails and other resources.


[Header = Chile/Argentina]CHILE/ARGENTINA

The Mighty Andes

The bottom of South America, with its quiet back roads, hospitable residents, and ancient forests, has no shortage of thrilling riding. The Lake District in the northern reaches of Patagonia stands out: the huge chunks of protected land that link Chile and Argentina are dominated by a seemingly endless collection of snow-painted mountains and stunning lakes — you’ll need a todo terreno (mountain bike) to negotiate the gravel roads and large trail network. Leave from Chile’s Puerto Varas and take the bike-boat-bike-boat Cruce de los Lagos, which will carry you through two national parks before you enter Argentina’s hamlet of Bariloche; it’s one of the world’s most spectacular border crossings. Then jump onto the Seven Lakes Route in Argentina and cut right through the thickly forested mountain valleys of Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi. Eventually you will hit Parque Nacional Lanín, where you’ll ride through indigenous Mapachu communities being watched over by the towering cone of Volcán Lanín.


If conquering the mountain roads on your own seems overwhelming, join Southwind Adventures (800-377-9463, southwindadventures.com). Employing local guides, they’ve mapped out a stunning 10-day trip ($2,425 to $2,875) through Chile’s portion of the Lake District. Perk: A hair-raising descent down the snowfrosted Osorno volcano.


Ice cream is always near and dear to a cyclist’s heart, and there’s nowhere better to give into the need for brainfreeze than at the Helados Jauga creamery in Bariloche. The wild fruit flavors, like exotic mango, are made using milk from Argentina’s grass-fed cows, and win high praises among locals and tourists alike.


Few rafting trips can compare with Chile’s Petrohué River, located among Vicente Perez Rosales National Park’s emerald waters and volcano vistas. AlSur Expediciones (011-53-65-232300, alsurexpeditions.com) offers day trips down this Class III river, employing guides with strong knowledge of the area’s ecology and culture.

Story by Matthew Kady. This article originally appeared in Plenty in August 2006. This story was added to MNN.com in June 2009.

Copyright Environ Press 2006.