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10 Amazing Educational Travel Adventures

10 Amazing Educational Travel Adventures

If the plans for your next vacation revolve around a pool, a fruity drink and the pursuit of the perfect nap, you should save yourself some time and click over to 10 Home Remedies for Sunburn because this article is not for you.

But, if the idea of spending your vacation sitting by a pool (and not the resulting sunburn) makes you itchy, keep reading. You already know that relaxation and laziness are not the same things, and that a vacation is the perfect opportunity to challenge yourself and expand your horizons -- not your backside. You'd like a midnight buffet-free vacation, thank you very much.

Pretty much everyone agrees that all travel has the potential to be an adventure, but it's not always the adventure you want. I don't know about you, but I'd rather spend my time off tracking Galapagos tortoises than tracking the bags the airline lost when I connected in Cleveland. Almost all travel can be educational as well. The key to a good educational trip, however, is making sure you learn something worthwhile, as opposed to just how much your traveling companion snores.

There's nothing wrong with lounging by the pool, but for vacation photos that'll get an avalanche of "likes" on Facebook, you need to mix in some adventure. And, if you want a souvenir that won't get stolen, never decline in value and will always match your decor, you need to learn something. Combine adventure with knowledge and you have a nearly unbeatable trip. Here are 10 amazing educational travel adventures.

Space Out

Everyone knows someone who is incredibly spacey. Why not let that person be you?

Though most people assume that space camp is just for kids, the U.S. Rocket and Space Center in Huntsville, Ala., has adult space camp programs. For three days, adult astronaut wanna-bes take on different roles in a mock space mission, launch model rockets and get to try their hands at far-out astronaut training tools, including a one-sixth gravity chair and a multi-axis trainer. If that's too much adventure (or too much nausea), campers can also work at mission control for the launch and forgo some of the more grueling aspects of astronaut training. At the end of adult space camp, campers will have a deeper understanding of how the space program works, plus lots of pictures of themselves in NASA-esque jumpsuits.

If space camp is still a bit too tame, you can take things far beyond the next level by signing up for a zero-gravity flight. The Zero G Corporation has a modified 727 and for $4,950 per person, they'll take you to 24,000 feet (7,315 meters). There, the plane starts a 45-degree climb to 34,000 feet (10,363 meters), where it goes into a 30-degree dive for 10,000 feet (3,048 meters), offering about 30 seconds of weightlessness. Not only does this provide ample opportunity for you to lose your lunch, but it's also time to conduct zero-gravity experiments and see some of Newton's Laws in action. Zero G has educational programs specifically designed to take advantage of the unique environment the diving plane creates, including a weightless workshop and weightless class room.

Ice, Ice, Baby

Space may be the final frontier, but Alaska's nickname is "The Last Frontier." I guess "The Really, Really Cold State" was already taken.

Alaska is the largest state by area, but only ranks 47th in population. That's a whole lot of empty space just waiting for adventure-minded travelers. While Alaskan Cruises are popular and combine breathtaking sights with lectures and presentations from naturalists, there's a cooler way to visit Alaska. A much, much cooler way.

As the northernmost state, Alaska has something other states don't: Glaciers. A number of companies offer guided glacier climbing treks and hikes that take you into glacial crevasses and to high points on these rivers of ice that literally move at a glacial pace. While on your hike, the guides will explain how glaciers work, how they impact the geography and geology of the area, and how climate change is impacting not only the glaciers, but the communities that surround them. Glacier tour companies have hikes that almost anyone can do, but if you want even more adventure, you can try ice climbing on a glacier. Using picks, crampons and safety lines, you can climb up vertical walls of ice, just like you might climb a rock wall.

Cruise the Amazon, not just Amazon.com

Long before there was Amazon, there was THE Amazon. Covering about 4,000 miles (6,437 kilometers) in the heart of South America, the Amazon is the world's second-longest river and one of the most mysterious regions in the world. With dense rainforests and few people, the Amazon is still ripe for exploration. And, it seems like scientists announce that they've discovered a new species there almost every week. Why shouldn't you get in on the action?

Don't start outfitting your paddleboat just yet. Because it's a complex and fragile ecosystem, the best way to see the Amazon is on a river cruise. That way, you'll have a big boat to sleep and eat on, but will be able to go out into creeks and tributaries, as well as on the river itself, in smaller boats with a knowledgeable guide. Most Amazon cruises connect you with naturalists, to explain the plants and animals you'll be seeing. Many cruises will also connect you with the people who live along the Amazon, so you'll learn not only about the various flora and fauna, but also the history, culture and issues facing the entire region. The locals also probably have the best tips for avoiding Amazon-size mosquitoes.

Still not enough adventure for you? Look for a cruise that combines environmental and cultural education with fishing expeditions. The Amazon is home to some of the world's most extreme species of fish, and eating a piranha will earn you a ton of street-cred -- assuming the piranha doesn't eat you first.

Want more information? There's a Web site where you can order all sorts of books on the Amazon, but the name escapes me right now

Go Galapagos

The Amazon flows to the sea, but the Galapagos Islands are actually out in the sea and offer just as much opportunity for adventure and education (minus some meat-eating fish with a very bad reputation). Clustered around the equator off the coast of Ecuador, the Galapagos are famous for inspiring Darwin's theory of evolution. The Galapagos have plant and animal species not seen anywhere else in the world, including a bird called the Blue-footed Booby. We'll pause to let you snicker like a 13-year-old boy.

Galapagos cruises are usually on smaller boats to minimize environmental impact, and feature educational lectures and hikes. Many also offer snorkeling and SCUBA diving, so you can get up close with all of the environments around the Galapagos. For even more adventure, you can charter your own sailboat in Ecuador and sail it to the Galapagos yourself (this assumes, of course, that you know how to sail).

Angkor what?

cambodia

It's not on the list of biggest cities in the world now, but archeologists have determined that the city of Angkor, which is now ruins in Cambodia, was the world's largest preindustrial city. Covering 390 square miles (1,010 square kilometers), Angkor was centered on the temple of Angkor Wat, one of the largest Hindu temples in the world. Though it was once a bustling metropolis, much of Angkor now lies in jungle. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) names Angkor a World Heritage site in 1992, which works to protect Angkor.

Because it was the seat of the Khmer empire, Angkor is home to many other sites, including the Terrace of Elephants, palaces, and the Bayon, a Buddhist temple. The area around Angkor is fairly rural, and you can see traditional farming methods, as well as learn about the impact of land-mines and other artifacts of more recent history, on the people and the area.

Though much of it has been reclaimed by jungle, Angkor remains a popular and educational tourist destination. If you decide to visit, you'll learn a lot, but you should also keep in mind that these are still religious sites. You'll want to dress and behave respectfully. Angkor is also an immensely important archeological site. Though parts of "Tomb Raider" were filmed in the area, you're not Lara Croft. Don't take anything but pictures.

Where's the reef?

Australia is an adventure in and of itself, what with all the shrimps on barbies and crocodiles. In addition to being home to people who say "Crikey!" without irony, Australia is also home to the Great Barrier Reef, the world's largest collection of coral reefs. The Great Barrier Reef encompasses 400 types of coral, 1,500 species of fish and 4,000 types of mollusk (you could say it's very molluscular). It's also home to endangered species like the dugong and large green turtle.

If you visit the Great Barrier Reef, you have plenty of options. Some tour companies use large boats to take groups out with educators to explain the different types of coral, environments and challenges that face the reef as a whole. You can also charter your own boat, go on a smaller boat with a guide or explore the reef by SCUBA diving or snorkeling. Small cruise ships also explore the reef, and allow passengers to take side trips to some islands in the area, including Magnetic Island, which many people just feel drawn to.

Before you go, you should know that the Great Barrier Reef is not only important as a natural site but also as a cultural site for native peoples of northeast Australia. It's also extremely fragile, so going with a knowledgeable guide will not only enrich your trip, but could also keep you from inadvertently harming the reef and being chased out of Australia by angry men named Bruce.

Yes, We Can-al

It's easy to see how a natural sight like the Great Barrier Reef is an educational adventure, but few man-made structures rise to that level -- unless they have a system of locks, like the Panama Canal. Started in 1880 and completed in 1914, the Panama Canal was named one of the seven wonders of the modern world by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). According to ASCE, the workers who built the canal moved enough dirt to open a 16-foot wide tunnel to the center of the Earth.

The canal stretches from the Atlantic (via the Caribbean Sea) to the Pacific and drastically shortened the time it took to move cargo between the two oceans (ships used to have to sail down below the tip of South America). It also opened up the interior of Panama. In addition to featuring some of the most impressive modern engineering in the world, the Canal cuts through verdant rain forests. It's also an historic achievement, one that required massive amounts of international cooperation and coordination. While most educational adventures reward people who love science, the Panama Canal is a great adventure trip for history buffs as well.

You need a boat to traverse the Panama Canal (duh). Large cruise ships offer routes that cover the canal; these routes are a way for the cruise companies to make money as they move their ships from the Atlantic to the Pacific for different sailing routes and seasons. You can also go on a smaller, more tour-oriented cruise or charter your own boat and take it through the canal yourself. That final option assumes you know what you're doing. Boats that are less than 50 feet (15.2 meters) in length pay a toll of $1,300 to use the canal.

Little Engines that Could

Lots of educational travel adventures use boats, but while traveling by train may seem too close to your daily commute to be much of an adventure, the Mountain Railways of India are in a class by themselves. There are three railways in the groups: the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, the Nilgiri Mountain Railway and the Kalka Shimla Railway.

The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway opened in 1881 and runs 51 miles (82.1 kilometers) while gaining 7,007 feet (2,136 meters) in elevation. The Nilgiri Mountain Railway covers 29 miles (46.7 kilometers) through jungle and the Kalka Shimla Railway is 60 miles (96.6 kilometers) long and climbs 4,659 feet (1,420 meters). Together, the three lines use switchbacks, bridges and tunnels to make their routes. They were originally built by the British to connect rural India with the cities and move goods more efficiently.

The Mountain Railways of India still use much of the technology from when they were first opened. The Nilgiri Line is still steam driven. Weather conditions often shut down the routes for days at a time. But for a chance to see some amazing engineering that drastically altered the history and culture of India, a weather delay is just part of the adventure.

Machu Picchu is not a Pokemon

machu picchu

We aren't quite sure what the ancient city of Machu Picchu, in Peru, was built for, but as a UNESCO World Heritage site, it's recognized as an important archeological resource, as well as one puzzle left behind by the Incas (the Rubik's Cube is the other).

Situated on a ridge 2,000 feet (609.6 meters) above the Urubamba River, Machu Picchu is made up of over 700 terraces. Though researchers have not definitively proven the purpose of Machu Picchu -- and the Incas didn't have a written language, so they didn't leave any records -- it appears to be the center of a network of trails and other sites. Many of the sites align with astrological events. Machu Picchu was built without engineering tools we take for granted, like wheels, which makes it even more impressive.

For a true Machu Picchu adventure, you can hike to the site on the Inca trail, which takes about four days. You must hike the trail with an organized group. While that may bug introverts, a knowledgeable guide will point out key features of the trail, share information about the Incas, offer a window into modern Peruvian culture and may even have extra band-aids for your blisters.

Zoos are for Wusses

The classic travel adventure is the African Safari. Nowadays, however, you'll want to come back with a head stuffed full of facts about African wildlife, not a stuffed African wildlife head. Nature preserves in South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Zambia offer safaris that allow you to view wildlife in the company of expert trackers and guides. Some guides will also take you to villages still practicing traditional culture in the area for a little cultural safari.

To jack up the educational factor of your trip, you can go on safari with a U.S. institution. Many colleges and universities organize educational safaris through their alumni associations, and the Smithsonian has a safari program that includes the company of renowned zoologists. Safari trips can be rustic or luxurious and many are suitable for children. In addition to seeing wildlife, you can see natural wonders like Mount Kilimanjaro and Victoria Falls. If sleeping where lions roam isn't adventure enough for you, you can bungee jump off the 300-foot (91.4-meter) Victoria Falls or go white-water rafting. Just watch out for hippos.

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