It was late morning when I arrived at Tortuga Lodge, on the Caribbean side of northeastern Costa Rica, just in time for lunch and a hike. I had come to Costa Rica a total of six times, getting to know the volcanoes and hot springs, waterfalls and river rafting, the luxurious hotels and the ecological resorts.
Tortuga Lodge is in the middle of a rain forest, beside a river and canals that slowly wind toward the ocean. It is only a 45-minute plane ride from San Jose, over the mountains and through the clouds and fog.
The next day, four of us went for a ride in a swamp boat through the narrow river passages and the canals. During the ride, I saw two large, dark shapes moving along the riverbank. Two pumas had found a large tree limb hanging over the river — a perfect spot to cross — and they sauntered slowly right in front of us.
Why take an incentive group to Costa Rica? Costa Rica is known for its adventure and ecological programs. There's a moderate year-round climate, a variety of accommodations, ranging from five-star properties to eco-lodges, and the feeling is informal and relaxed. English is widely spoken here. Groups can range from 10 to 300 people. Finally, the country has a tourism infrastructure that understands incentive travel — a huge plus. We recommend Via-tur Travel Services as a.
After a 45-minute drive from Panama City to the edge of the jungle, our group was greeted by a young Embera Indian guide, who helped us climb into a waiting piragua (canoe) for a 30-minute trip up river. We first stopped in his village, Embera Drua, which allows very few visitors. Then it was up river for another short distance, where we embarked on a morning hike like none other. On the trail, the mud was deep and thick. Every step was a challenge.
After an hour, we arrived at the top of a large, slippery hill. The Embera showed us how to use ropes for going down hills. After we mastered that technique, we had a short hike to our first waterfall, about 25 feet high. Here, we realized, was the next challenge: to rappel down the side of the waterfall.
Back in the village, the Embera had prepared a lunch of fresh fruit cooked in banana leaves. It's possible for people to come and stay here overnight in small groups, but only when the visitors adopt the same clothes, and lifestyle. A great chance for a small, elite incentive program.
Why take an incentive group to Panama? Panama is an emerging destination and should remain without crowds for three to five more years. Small groups can visit natives in their own unspoiled habitat. There are more than 15 hotels in the four- and five-star category and several smaller, three- to four-star ecological resorts. There are 24 domestic airports throughout the country, which help to make travel easy for small to medium-sized groups. Groups can range from 10 to 250 people. We recommend Via-tur Travel Services for DMC services.
The best way to see the Galapagos is on their four-star adventure ships, such as the Galapagos Explorer II, which holds 100 passengers. The area is protected and is only accessible using trained guides. But a trip inland to the jungle is an entirely different kind of adventure. It starts with a 45-minute flight from Quito to Coca, with a change in elevation of several thousand feet and a change in temperature of 20 to 25 degrees. Coca is hot and humid, but we were soon on a speedboat for a two-hour trip downriver. At the first stop, we were greeted by an Indian guide. The adventure continued for three days and included climbing into a huge tree house to view the birds and wildlife, finding a tarantula and electric eels during a night hike, and fishing for piranha.
Why take an incentive group to Ecuador? Ecuador is a small country with great variety. It's easy to fly to all locations: the mountains, the Amazon, the Galapagos. The climate is moderate year-round because of the mountains and the ocean.
Quito is a medium-sized city with six hotels in the five-star category. The economy is stable, using the U.S. dollar. Groups can range from 10 to 60 in the jungle, up to 250 in the Galapagos, and up to 400 in Quito. We highly recommend Condor Travel for DMC services
Buenos Aires is a city of ultimate luxury, with fine dining, the tango, and beautiful people who are always dressed in the best business suits, dining at 10 or 11 p.m., dancing until 3 a.m., and then working at their desk at 9 the next morning.
The Iguaçu Falls, one of the wonders of the world, is reached by a 1.5 hour plane ride from Buenos Aires. There are 240 waterfalls covering hundreds of acres. It takes more than two days to see all of them.
Another favorite part of the country is the Pampas, with its ranches and wild condors. One day we went for a horseback ride into the hills with Carlos, who rescues condors and protects their habitat. This isolated area was near where some condors were nesting. We visited a small shed where two birds had just been released back into the wild.
Why take an incentive group to Argentina? Buenos Aires is a wonderful cultural center, often called the Paris of South America. English is widely spoken, and there is a solid tourism infrastructure and an understanding of incentive groups. Ten hotels in Buenos Aires have five stars; another 30 have four stars. Groups can range from 10 to 600 or larger. We recommend City Service for DMC services.
Jim Skiba, CMP, is founder and president of Incentives To Intrigue as well as founder and director of World www.worldincentivenexus.com) in San Francisco.Nexus (