Adventures in the Dark: Nighttime Activities Around the World

When it comes to evening activities, people tend to separate neatly into two categories: the partiers and the homebodies. Or, put another way, the young-at-hearts and the gettin’-olds. But the night and the darkness offer many other opportunities for adventure and exploration that don’t require alcohol or uncomfortable encounters with strangers.

By night, places take on a different tone and ambiance; things that appear innocuous by day may take on whole new dimensions. On the one hand, the darkness impairs our sight, taking away information and forcing us to approach a place in a different way.  On the other hand, we may see other things – scenes, creatures, natural phenomena – that don’t exist by day, either because they physically aren’t present or because we’re simply not tuned into them.

For travelers, recognizing this opens up a whole slew of activities and opportunities to get to know a place from a unique perspective that perhaps even the locals haven’t seen. Here are some of the most compelling nighttime activities around the world

Night Snorkel with Manta Rays – Big Island, Hawaii

Since people sleep at night and work and play during the day (most of us, anyway), it’s easy to forget that while we’re fast asleep, a significant portion of the world’s creatures are going about their daily lives, and the world outside is a completely different place. So if you’re visiting a place and feel like you’ve seen everything that remains to be seen, a journey back out in the middle of the night allows you to start the adventure all over again.

By night, places take on a different tone and ambiance; things that appear innocuous by day may take on whole new dimensions.

Off the shores of the Big Island of Hawaii lives one animal ready to greet you if you’re willing to take the swim out to meet it. It’s frightening enough to be bobbing in the ominous unknowns of pitch-black ocean waters, but it’s a whole other thing to go out there, flashlight in hand, enticing the animals – manta rays – to emerge from the depths to swim with you.

And when these enormous animals (with their up-to-25-foot wingspans) suddenly appear in droves and swoop within inches of you, you grip your floatation noodle as your fear grips you. That is, until you realize that they want nothing more than to feed on the plankton and to give you the show of your life.

Big Island Divers offers manta ray snorkeling trips seven nights a week from $79.95 to $89.95 per person. Certified scuba divers are welcome as well, at an additional cost.

Find a cheap flight to Hawaii, read about Six Hawaiian Adventures Off the Beaten Path, and find out how to Eat Your Way Around Honolulu 

Hidden Valley Night Tour – Monteverde, Costa Rica

If you’d prefer to keep your feet planted firmly on the ground, a night hike may be a better option. The Hidden Valley Trail is a reserve extending between the Monteverde and Santa Elena Cloud Forests in Costa Rica. The higher altitude and accompanying dampness of the cloud forests provide ideal conditions for animals and plants to thrive. As such, they’re home to over 100 mammal and 400 bird species and ideal places to encounter a veritable city of nocturnal animals.

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In the darkness, your senses will be on full alert as sounds resonate loudly through the trees and long stretches of darkness are interrupted only by the light from your guide’s lantern and the reflection from the occasional pairs of eyes (of, say, a boa constrictor?) peering back at you.

The Hidden Valley Night Tour is offered seven nights a week beginning at 5:30pm and lasts two hours. Adult tickets are $25 USD per person and children’s tickets are $15 USD.

Check out adventure tours in Costa Rica, book a hostel in Costa Rica, and read Caribbean Without the Cost: 5 Great Beach Spots in Latin America

Santa Catalina Monastery Candlelight Tour – Arequipa, Peru

The Santa Catalina Monastery, a mammoth complex built in the late 1580s, once housed a couple hundred nuns and twice as many servants. What began as a convent for nuns from upper class families evolved in the late 1800s into a strict and regimented place. Nuns weren’t allowed beyond the high, fortified walls of the compound, and their lives and stories are still a bit of a mystery to this day.

Tours of the monastery are available by day, but evening tours of the space by candlelight bring out the multi-dimensional nature of the compound and highlight the complexities of life for those who used to be quarantined there. The light from the flames bounce off of the walls, casting shadows and creating shapes that stir the imagination. The courtyards, cobblestones walks, and galleries, while clearly beautiful, seem simultaneously eerie in the darkness and quiet; even the slightest sounds echo throughout the space.

And as you weave through the dimly lit passageways, the darkness creates a sense of mood and empathy for the women who once lived within the walls.

The Santa Catalina Monastery offers the candlelight tour for approximately $13 USD twice a week on Tuesdays and Thursdays, beginning at sunset.

Read How to Plan an Extended Trip in South America and Five Unexpected Treasures of South America

Stargazing Tour – Atacama Desert, Chile

The darkness may expose things in the world not seen by day, but it also reveals a world beyond our planet – moons, stars, galaxies – some seen millions of years in delay because that’s how long it’s taken their light to reach us. A stargazing tour doesn’t just show you what exists today but a broad spectrum of images from the past – an opportunity to time travel just by flitting your eyes form one area of the sky to the next.

And there are few better places to gawk over this larger universe than on a stargazing tour in the Atacama Desert of Chile, where the land is quiet, but the sky is flooded with extraterrestrial entities. Elevated 8200 feet above sea level – remote, dry, and cloudless – the nearly light-pollution-free sky overhead is a velvety backdrop to the sparkling astronomical features. To the untrained eye, they may look like homogenous points of light, but through the intense magnification of a telescope and with the direction of an expert, their distinctive colors, features, and stories emerge.

San Pedro de Atacama Celestial Explorations (SPACE) offers tours years round but availability changes depending on the time of year and sky conditions. Tours begin at 7pm in the winter and 9pm in the summer and last two and half hours. The cost is approximately $37 USD per person.

Read Ski, Surf, Sip, Raft, and Ride: Six Places to Explore the Diversity of Chile and check out flights to Santiago 

Northern Lights Tour – Iceland

When solar winds meet and battle the Earths’ magnetic field, energy is created and the phenomenon known as the aurora borealis, or northern lights, is born.

But unlike the moon and stars, the northern lights don’t just hang – they ebb and flow like translucent, color-changing veils blowing in the wind.

And just like the moon and the stars, the northern lights may hang in the sky throughout the day, but are best observed at night when their colors and light contrast sharply with the inky sky. But unlike the moon and stars, the northern lights don’t just hang – they ebb and flow like translucent, color-changing veils blowing in the wind.

There are only a few places in the world where they can be seen; the conditions – darkness, clear skies, and high altitude – need to be just right for a sighting. Iceland is one of the places where it’s possible.

Tours can be arranged where locals will take you on the hunt for the northern lights. Throughout the winter months, sightings are common but not definite. The unpredictability makes it all the more exciting when you do spot that brush of color.

Between the surreal Icelandic landscape of ice and geothermal fields and the northern lights hanging overhead, it’s a scene resembling nothing else that is of this world.

Reykjavik Excursions offers Northern Light Tours every night of the week from September through April. Tours are three hours in duration and cost $40 USD per person.

Look for a cheap flight to Iceland and read about 10 of Europe’s Most Eco-Friendly Cities

Bioluminescence Kayak Tour – Florida, USA

A nighttime kayaking tour through unknown waters may at first seem creepy, but fear not, it won’t remain dark for long. Summer nights in the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge on Florida’s Space Coast sparkle with life – literally. After dark, anything that moves through the flat expanses of black water in the Indian River and Mosquito Lagoon are encased by a fairy dust-like light: as you dip your oar in the water, a trail of light appears in the water and momentarily rises into the air as droplets of water break from the surface. Fish and other animals seem to glow in the dark as they maneuver through the water.  It may seem magical, but it’s purely rooted in science.

Dinoflagelletes in the water (far too small to be individually detected by the naked eye), excited by movement, glow in tandem like micro-fireflies illuminating the night. They enrobe everything they touch in an impossibly magical moving light.

Titusville Tours offers a two and a half hour Black Night – Cold Light tour every night from mid-June through September. Tours run every 15 minutes between 7:15pm and 10:15pm. The cost for one adult is approximately $40 USD.

Read about Where the Wild Things Glow: Where to View Bioluminescent Organisms and Four Florida Keys Kayaking Experiences

Alcatraz Night Tour – California

Once the location of a notorious federal penitentiary housing America’s most hardened criminals, Alcatraz Island has since been declared a National Historic Landmark and integrated into the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The prison itself now stands empty except for the stream of one million visitors a year who wander through for an up-close look at the place that was once home to mobsters and mass murderers.

Nicknamed “The Rock,” Alcatraz Island is in a bay 1.5 miles from San Francisco – far enough from the general population to ensure isolation but close enough to taunt the island’s former inhabitants with symbols of freedom in the form of San Francisco’s glittering lights.

A night tour of the complex allows you to experience the changing atmosphere of the prison as the sun sets on the complex. The facilities, while dismal during the day, take on new levels of loneliness and ominousness by night. For good measure, the tour also includes areas like the dungeon and hospital, which are generally off-limits to visitors. As you weave through the complex, you’ll see the locations where shootings, escape attempts, and other battles took place – inspiration for a myriad of books, movies, and television shows developed in the decades since the prison was shut down.

Alcatraz Cruises offers night tours Thursday through Monday for $35 USD per person. The tour begins as visitors board a boat that takes them to the island and continues within the complex itself. There are two departure times each night and the tour lasts approximately two and half hours.

Find a cheap flight to San Francisco and read 13 Travel Horror Stories and Where They Took Place

Photo credits: Gordon Flood, Jeremy Vandel, Avinash Achar, European Southern Observatory, Heather Buckley, Ricky Qi, Gaffke Photography

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Leave a Comment

  • Nathan Holmes said at 2013-08-19T18:07:51+0000: The Bioluminescence in Florida is spectacular to say the least. We ran into this by mistake after watching a rocket launch in our boat. It was truly amazing.
  • Margaret Carter said at 2012-07-13T15:54:10+0000: And, the star tour on the big Island at Mauna Kea observatory. Some of the best viewing on earth. Also, the volcano tours that take you out to see the newest lava flows at dusk.
  • Sherry Hardage said at 2012-05-16T13:30:09+0000: Wonderful article. I travel a lot but am one of those "getting old" people. I don't do bars, but I sure would do these activities, and in fact thoroughly enjoyed the night tour of the haunted mansions in Savanah, GA. I think there are similar tours in New Orleans and Atlanta.