Expedition Travel vs. Adventure Travel (Plus the World’s 10 Best Expeditions)

Dec 5, 2018 12:57:26 PM

Expedition Travel vs. Adventure Travel Uncovered

The opportunity to get out and see the world has become more and more accessible to people all across the planet in recent years. At the same time, traveling has become much more niche-focused, with trips increasingly geared towards individual tastes as opposed to just getting from point A to point B and back home. We can travel in order to volunteer, or go on an exciting adventure, or simply relax in luxury.

As a result, tourism has become possibly the fastest growing industry in the world. And though its rapid growth has caused some problems in the form of mass tourism often leading to over tourism, that’s ultimately a good thing.

Now we’re able to connect with distant places in a much deeper and more immersive way. We can voyage into the depths of countries that dazzle us with natural wonders, wildlife, and forests that used to be subjects only National Geographic and PBS’ Nature got to explore. We can steep ourselves in rich history and indigenous cultural traditions. In the process, we can discover more about ourselves and become more in tune with others.

Kirkjufell, Iceland

Before every trip we take, we must decide exactly what kind of travel we want to experience. Two of the more popular choices these days are adventure travel and expedition travel: Though they may draw similar types of people, these experiences can be surprisingly different in terms of activities.

Adventure travel tends to revolve primarily around action, often including extreme sports such as rock climbing, spelunking, surfing, and whitewater rafting. Expedition travel can involve “soft” adventure activities such as hiking or kayaking, but it tends to focus more on the details that make each place unique, including the local animals, ecosystems, and people.

Neither of these types of travel is inherently better (or worse) than the other. But they do each provide different types of experiences. So it’s important that we, as world explorers, understand those differences before we decide where and how we want to travel.


These days active adventures can be found all over the world. They typically involve some sort of heart-pumping activity, which can be as easy as cycling in the Dolomites or as daring as bungee jumping at Victoria Falls.

This type of travel usually has very specific goals in mind, with serious hobbyists and professional athletes being the main participants. On the other hand, some interested amateurs will choose this kind of travel in order to step out of their comfort zone and gain a sense of personal achievement.

The destinations selected for this type of travel are typically based more on what action can be found there than on any specific cultural, historical, or natural characteristics. Even so, you can experience adventures in some of the most beautiful places in the world. There are incredible coral reefs for scuba diving, jungle canopies for zip-lining, and majestic mountains for climbing.

New Castle, United States

In other words, while the adventurous activity might be the primary point, the places in which they occur can be truly awe-inspiring and definitely add color to the adventure.


Expedition trips have become a global phenomenon over the last few decades, giving travelers a small sense of what legendary explorers such as Roald Amundsen, Ernest Shackleton, and Ibn Battuta might have felt during their historic journeys.

Expedition trips might be dedicated to specific experiences — whether cruising the Galapagos Islands, crossing the Drake Passage to reach Antarctica, or trekking through the jungles of Rwanda or Uganda to see monkeys and mountain gorillas.

But the overarching reason behind expeditions is usually to gain some kind of new insight into a place, a culture, or an era in history. People generally choose expedition travel when they are interested in a region, the local wildlife, or native customs. Rather than a sense of personal achievement, the primary reward from this type of travel is knowledge and understanding.

Nansen Fjiord Greenland 051-1

Of course, every place has its own amazing natural wonders, whether they be beaches, forests, volcanoes, or waterfalls. In each of these landscapes, we can find an entire collection of flora and fauna that is probably unique to that area. And that flora and fauna — some of which serves as food for locals — will undoubtedly have figured prominently in the history and culture of the human residents.

In other words, expedition travel offers us a deep dive into any city, rainforest, or ocean we choose to explore.


For those who love to travel and be active, it can be tough to choose between an adventure trip and an expedition. Many of us may want the excitement that inherently comes with attempting to overcome obstacles. But most of us don’t often travel halfway around the world in order to push ourselves to the physical limits. So for the average traveler — not someone fanatical about whatever activity is on offer — an expedition (whether via cruise or overland travel) is probably the right choice. Here’s why…

Activities vs. Experiences

Adventure travel can be an absolute thrill, but it is generally much more focused on pursuing a certain activity.

For example, an adventure trip might include Yosemite National Park, but the primary reason could be to go mountain biking or scaling El Capitan, missing out on bear-spotting or hiking through the sequoia forest. Hardcore adventurers might go to the coast of El Salvador for the express purpose of surfing its famous waves, rather than checking out coffee fincas and colorful colonial villages. In these instances, the destination is decided by the opportunity it provides to spelunk or mountain bike rather than for the place itself.

Expedition Zodiac cruising in Papua New Guinea

Expedition travel might include adventurous activities such as hiking or kayaking, but they tend to be a means to an end. For example, a multi-day excursion to the Lost City in Colombia will include lots of hiking, but the point isn’t so much the hike as it is the experience of reaching and discovering the place.

The focus on expedition trips is much more about where we are than what we are doing there, unless the doing has some local significance. After all, completing that trek to the Lost City can put us in touch with centuries of history, and it feels personally gratifying as well.

Isolation vs Culture

Because adventure travel is often about overcoming a personal challenge (such as summiting a mountain or completing an advanced Scuba diving course), the time left to explore and relax could be at a minimum.

Adventure travel days are typically packed with action. While cultural flavors might be peppered within them — including a traditional meal or a local guide — there may not be much energy left for other experiences, nor is there much in the way of downtime. Again, the extreme activity is the primary point of the experience.

bstephenson: Fire Dancer In Papua New Guinea

An expedition typically allows plenty of free time to wander and wonder. There is enough of a planned itinerary to keep the fires of inspiration burning, but with lots of rest stops along the way. Travelers are diving daily into another national park or UNESCO World Heritage Site, but the scenery changes often, as do the activities. Local foodie fare will be a regular feature, as will interacting with local indigenous people.

In this way, an expedition often feels like a more well-rounded journey.

“Me” vs The World

With the point of adventure travel being different than that of expeditions, what we take away from them is also different.

Adventure travel tends to be more about the traveler than anything else. It is about meeting a challenge. It is often exhilarating. It is good for our physical health, our confidence, our wanderlust. There is nothing wrong with self-discovery and reaching our own goals, but it is decidedly different from traveling for the sake of a cultural exchange of ideas.

If the goal of your trip is to fully explore a place and its people, an expedition will ultimately be much more fulfilling. After all, the point of this kind of traveling is to seek out the je ne sais quoi of a destination. It’s about tasting the food, hearing the music, learning about the history, and seeing the forest beyond the trees.

Aiako-Harria Natural Park, Oiarzun, Spain

Expeditions offer a window into the world just as much as (or more than) they offer a window into ourselves. Of course, we can’t help but walking away from them with a greater sense of who we are, but that comes from a deeper understanding of who others are.

Is An Expedition The Right Choice?

Choosing the right type of trip for you as an individual doesn’t mean that the other genre of travel is less valid. There’s a lot of good that comes from getting out and seeing the world, however we decide to do it.

It could be about breathing hard, pulse pounding, atop a pair of cross-country skis with 20 miles to go before the day’s end. Or we could be learning the mysteries of the Sphinx as we amble along Egypt’s desert sands with a tour guide. In other words, there’s no “better way” to travel, only a preferred method for getting to where we as individuals want to be.

For most people, an expedition is more along the lines of how we picture an adventure abroad. It’s full of interesting food, learning a new language and culture, meeting new people, seeing the sights, and getting some exercise but also plenty of leisure time.

Adventure travel is more akin to what we envision Tom Cruise doing in a Mission Impossible movie. That isn’t to say that we can’t all visit the Himalayas or the Galapagos, but not everyone wants to climb Mount Everest or Scuba dive with sharks.


1. The Amazon

In terms of the world’s truly wild places, there are few, if any, that compare to the Amazon. The world’s largest river is tops on many a traveler’s bucket list, and it’s undoubtedly one of the best places for an in-depth expedition.

Its murky waters are filled with mysterious creatures, both dangerous and enchanting. Its gargantuan forest– the biggest tropical rainforest on the planet– is impossibly dense, with diverse species of trees and a vast array of wildlife. The indigenous people living along its shores (known as Ribereños) and beneath its canopy are arguably among the least swayed by modern conveniences.

Zafiro In The Amazon

The Amazon is not a place we can visit on foot. It isn’t accessible by car; in fact, it doesn’t have a single bridge across it. However, it can be explored by boat. Small ship cruises take groups on incredible expeditions into the far reaches of the massive river system.

There are so many reasons to visit the Amazon. Travelers can see pink river dolphins, scarlet macaws, and howler monkeys. They can visit wetland reserves, fish for piranha, swim in the river, and visit local villages. The Amazon River accounts for 20% of the world’s fresh water, flows over 4,000 miles, and is surrounded by over one billion acres of forest. That’s a lot to explore!

2. Antarctica

You won’t likely find a more extreme destination for an expedition than Antarctica. This place is so remote that much of its surface has been mapped only by satellite, having never been observed by humans on the ground.

Completely covered in ice averaging about 1.5 miles thick, Antarctica supports only indigenous populations of climate-adapted plants and animals. Even the waters around it are frigid enough to dissuade most sea creatures. But that means it is home to some animals that are not often found in other parts of the world, including penguins, icefish, leopard seals, blue whales, and more.

Of course, Antarctica is not the sort of destination where you can go out on aimless jaunts. Not only are the temperatures sometimes frightening — it is the coldest continent on Earth — but the expanse of ice can be disorienting. In other words, expeditions to Antarctica tend to be via boat and carefully coordinated by responsible tour operators.

Antarctica Expedition With Zegrahm

This is truly a destination unlike any other on the planet. Animals congregate in unbelievable masses. Humans have yet to conquer it, but somehow we can still behold the edges of it in wild wonder.

3. Australia's Outback

The Australian Outback simply refuses to be tamed. Most people live along the coast of Australia: The Outback is the sparsely populated expanse in between. Depending on where in Australia you are when you ask, its boundaries could be anything west of Sydney to hours inland.

Spanning 2.5 million square miles, the Outback is the symbol of Australia, encompassing every state on the continent. Nearly three-quarters of the Outback is arid. But, due to its vastness, the temperature and climate can vary significantly from north to south. Like the rest of Australia, it is home to unique wildlife, including emus, kangaroos, and thorny devils (memorable-looking lizards). 

A road trip through the Outback is an epic, four-day journey through nothingness. The train trip is very expensive and takes 50-plus hours without getting off for stops. Then there is flying, which is what most people do. Cruise ships can stick to the remote coast, and stop for diversions further inland.

bstephenson Australia's Kimberly

While much of the outback is seemingly endless desert, there are parts that are more inviting. In the extreme northwest, the state of Kimberley, Australia is wrought with rich Aboriginal culture, beautiful waterways, incredible geological formations, and crazy animals, including enormous saltwater crocs!

4. East African Safaris

If there were but one place in the world you could take a wildlife-focused expedition, how could anything possibly top East Africa? Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park alone is home to over 100 species of mammal and 400 types of birds. Whether you choose to visit Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, Zimbabwe, or some combination thereof, an East African safari is like something out of a dream.

We’ve all seen these iconic animals so many times on television and in zoos, it almost seems like that’s where they exist. Then, suddenly, you find yourself watching huge herds of elephants crossing the savanna, the heads of hippos and crocodiles skimming the water’s surface, or a pride of lions on the Serengeti. What an incredible sight to see!

African Safari Expedition with Zegrahm

African safaris take travelers deep into the wilderness, often into remote camps that are not easily accessible. Then the show begins. Typically, camps are set up near watering holes or salt licks, where animals often saunter in for a spell. Jeeps drive out to find grazing zebras, migrating wildebeest, and lanky giraffes on the move.

Zegrahm’s Iconic Africa expedition includes both Kenya and Zimbabwe as well as a visit to Victoria Falls, which is one of the 10 biggest waterfalls in the world (and the origin of the Nile River). Additionally, the trip puts travelers in touch with an indigenous Maasai scout and visits a traditional Maasai homestead. 

5. Ancient Egypt

Perhaps no architectural accomplishment in human history garners more press and admiration than the great pyramids of Egypt. Collectively, they are an ancient archeological marvel. Historically, they represent one of the most enigmatic practices of our most recognizable ancient civilization.

There are many familiar names in Egypt’s extensive list of historical treasures: The Sphinx, Cleopatra, the Pyramids of Giza, King Tut, the Nile River. Suffice it to say, UNESCO has had a field day with World Heritage Sites in Egypt, and there are about five times as many still waiting for recognition on the tentative list.

Lots of people settle for seeing the structures that are convenient to Cairo, but there are many more pyramids found further south along the Nile. A good Egypt expedition will explore the cities of Luxor and Aswan as well, and a cruise along the Nile River — the highway of the ancient Egyptians — just seems like an absolute must.

giza tour

These places are amazing to visit in their own right, but this is the type of sightseeing that is vastly improved with a knowledgeable guide who can point out the detailed minutiae of each site and provide historical background information. Any good Egypt expedition will have knowledgeable specialists to help immerse travelers in the scene.

6. Galapagos Islands

In the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, 600-plus miles for from the nearest shore of Ecuador, the Galapagos Islands appear to be a rather humble archipelago. They aren’t particularly numerous — just 13 major islands, only five of which are inhabited. But that’s precisely what makes this place so special.

Where Africa and the Amazon have vast land for animals to roam, the Galapagos Islands seems to hug its decidedly distinct fauna and flora in. Ever since Charles Darwin popularized the place with the early 19th century voyage of The Beagle, scientists and naturalists have studied its wildlife and plants while geologists have investigated its volcanic origins.

Widely considered one of the world’s best small ship cruises, the Galapagos Islands are fairly difficult to explore thoroughly without taking an expedition. Due to its unique and fragile ecosystem, the archipelago is well protected. And though travelers are welcomed, the footprint of tourism is kept as low-impact as possible.

sea lion with guest on IE Galapagos Voyage

We want to keep it that way because, consequently, the diverse array of Galapagos Islands animals are practically fearless of human interaction. The islands are particularly known for giant tortoises, marine iguanas, and warm-climate penguins, as well as sea turtles and sharks. There are also plenty of tropical fish, migrating whales, and birds, including the famous blue-footed booby.

7. The Himalayas

On the list of the world’s tallest mountains, the top 25 are all located in the Himalayas, including such famous climbing peaks as Mount Everest and K2. When it comes to mountain expeditions, there is literally no grander place to explore.

To put it in perspective, the Himalayas have nearly 40 mountains that are over 25,000 feet tall. The tallest mountain in the Alps isn’t even 16,000 feet. The tallest in Africa —  Kilimanjaro— doesn’t even touch 20,000.

Of course, being really tall doesn’t necessarily imply being really interesting. But the Himalayas are a fascinating wonder to behold. They’re home to famously lofty religious sites, including the cliff-hanging Tiger’s Nest in Bhutan. The mountains are also home to beautiful conservation areas, with the renowned Chitwan National Park of Nepal serving as home to one-horned rhinos, Asiatic elephants, and Bengal tigers.


The most popular expeditions into the Himalayas (even for non-adventurers) including visiting and viewing Mt. Everest and exploring the monasteries of Nepal and Bhutan. Seriously bold climbers might attempt the Annapurna Circuit, which includes six peaks over 23,500 feet high. Though only the 10th highest in the world, Annapurna is arguably the most dangerous mountain to climb.

8. Machu Picchu & the Inca Trail

The hike along the Inca Trail that leads to its famed archeological site, Machu Picchu, is perhaps the most sought-after on the planet. High in the mountains of Peru, the trail takes visitors back in time and deep into the Inca culture. Machu Picchu, a big-time UNESCO World Heritage Site, just crowns the Andes mountains’ majesty.

South America is still populated with indigenous cultures and towering with high elevations, and Machu Picchu is probably the pinnacle of both. It’s an amazing city among the clouds– a testament to how ingenious and industrious the ancient Inca civilization was. Few places on the planet are quite so picturesque.

Of course, hiking the Inca Trail isn’t for the faint of heart. It involves rigorous high altitude exercise for several days in a row. Luckily, for the more mortals amongst us, expeditions to Machu Picchu can circumvent the extensive hiking and get right into the sacredness and austerity. It can even be reached by train!

inca-trai with IE

Any Peru expedition should ideally include getting familiar with the indigenous population, particularly the one found in and around the city of Cusco. In fact, the communities are so prevalent throughout the country that it’s almost unavoidable. Luckily, it’s an extremely colorful culture, with exceptional textiles, music, and food.

9. Patagonia

The area that comprises the southern tip of South America — both the Chilean and Argentinian side — is regularly rated one of the most breathtaking on earth. The stepped landscape of Patagonia is one of dramatic views, unique wildlife, and seriously beautiful glaciers.

Any awesome Patagonia expedition must include time in Torres del Paine National Park, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve packed with snow-clad peaks, green valleys, sparkling lakes, and craggy massifs. There are also the Southern Ice Fields, the Grey Glacier, and Salto Grande (“Big Jump”), a massive waterfall. Additionally, you’ll find unique endemic animals, including rheas, guanancos, Andean condors, and more.

It can take a lot of coordinating and planning to explore Patagonia properly. It can require several modes of transportation, including flights, cruises, cars, and sometimes horses. The remote region is located down at the far reaches of the continent, so an expedition is a great way to make sure you get the most of it.

patagonia trek

Beyond Torres del Paine, El Calafate has the gigantic Perito Moreno Glacier, which constantly loses large chunks of ice into a lake. Los Galciares National Park has more glaciers to view, as well as green valleys and roaring waterfalls. And Cape Horn is the southernmost point of the Americas. All are worth including in any trip to the region.

10. The Polynesian Islands

Perhaps no other place on the planet provides such a stunning vision of tropical paradise as the Polynesian Islands. A scattered array of tiny landmasses located out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, Polynesia is replete with show-stopping coastlines, dynamic volcanic landscapes, and swaying coconut palms.

Polynesia is just as renowned for its culture and history as it is for its ocean breezes and peaceful lagoons. These islands are so remote that survival on them requires a diet, architecture, and traditional practices much different from those found in other parts of the world. Their petroglyphs and monoliths, such as the stone heads of Easter Island, provide glimpses of ancient tribal history.

While lots of people choose to visit one of the islands on a luxury vacation, cruise expeditions can be equally as luxurious, but with poignant experiences as well. A small ship cruise can sail from island to island, exploring the different coral formations, animals, cultural highlights, and local foods. It’s much too far to travel just to sit on a beach the whole time!

Zegrahm dives in Polynesia

The Polynesian islands are dotted with UNESCO World Heritage Sites, such as Henderson and Easter Island. They’re full of amazing sailing stories, such as the tiny population of the Pitcairn Islands. There are also unusual sea birds, marine mammals, and colorful fish. If paradise is a real thing, the term could fit many of these idyllic destinations.  

Bio: Jonathon Engels is a traveler, writer, and vegan gardener. Born and raised in Louisiana, he has lived as an expat for over a decade, worked in nearly a dozen countries, and visited dozens of others in between. His interests include permaculture, cooking, and music. More of his work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life About.

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