Skip to comments.Looking for an Adventure in Undiscovered Lands? Visit These Once Off-Limits Nations
Posted on 04/14/2009 9:30:24 PM PDT by nickcarraway
We were so far out in the desert that boundaries didn't matter anymore. Were we in Tunisia? Libya? Algeria? It didn't matter, our guide Massoud told us, pouring mint tea into my battered metal cup under a Saharan sky filled with stars. Didn't matter?! Libya supported the bombing of airplanes, and Algerians were killing tourists.
"No countries matter out here," Massoud explained in French that was almost as mangled as his teeth. "We are all Sahara."
It had been pure stupidity to come to the Sahara in the middle of August. During the day the temperatures rose above 120 degrees, and we spread a blanket over a bush to wait out the heat and fight off hallucinations. We moved with our camels at dawn and dusk. At night the desert came alive, and Massoud cooked for us and offered swigs of what I believe was camel's milk that fermented in his saddlebags during our sweltering trek. Even more stupid was to travel so close to rogue states like Libya and Algeria, where we could end up in prison with no rights if caught. Yet I felt oddly safe.
One night we met more Bedouin guides like Massoud, on the move somewhere between the states of the Sahara, uncaring of what nation claimed them. They were nomads; they belonged to the desert. And they told me of places deeper in from Tunisia, of the great volcano of Waw an Namus in the heart of the Libyan Sahara, places that sounded so fantastical that they could not be true - places I felt that I had to see. But Libya was off-limits.
Now the world has changed. Libya, once the baddest-of-the-bad terrorist state, is now open to Americans. Places once closed by war, genocide, and dictatorship are open to travelers willing to take some risks. These destinations are filled with natural wonders as well as the chance to connect with local people who have long been locked away from the rest of the world. Travel here offers a chance to share ideas and help build a more understanding world - so long as tourism remains focused on benefiting, respecting, and empowering the native people and ecosystems. The fairy tale of Waw an Namus is now available for me to explore along with the people of the Sahara who know it.
With many more once-closed destinations now open to thoughtful adventurers, we offer five spots that, once foolhardy to visit, are now brimming with the promise of adventure.
LIBYA: SECRETS IN THE SAND
Back in the 1980s, the Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya (aka Libya) was the big, bad Islamofascist terror state. Its posturing, sunglasses-wearing dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi supposedly financed despicable operations ranging from the 1986 bombing of a Berlin disco to the downing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. For good reason the desert nation on the Mediterranean was off-limits to American travelers. But times change. Qaddafi somehow hung on and actually capitulated to American demands to help fight the "war on terror," so much so that in 2006 the U.S. government rescinded Libya's designation as a state sponsor of terrorism, opening up the country to official diplomatic relations and legal American tourists.
Beyond the curiosity of being able to visit a nation that has been closed for so long, Libya's location between the classical ruins of the Mediterranean and the vast wildness of the Sahara should ensure a growing tourist infrastructure. Indeed, according to a report published by the World Travel and Tourism Council, Libya is expected to have the third-largest growth in travel and tourism demand between 2008 and 2018, right behind China and India - which means you should go now before it's completely discovered.
Think of Morocco and Tunisia but spin them back to what they must have felt like in the wild days of the 1930s. Libya's long isolation means that for now it is unsullied by the hulking Club Med-style resorts that have landed like sterile, culture-sucking spaceships on the shores of neighboring destinations. While there's certainly some good, undiscovered diving on the Mediterranean coast, the great draw for adventure here, however, is a safari out into the endless seas of sand dunes punctuated by the rare, enduring oases towns like Ghadames, whose mudstone labyrinth of buildings has endured since Roman times. The most difficult-to-reach desert wonder is Waw an Namus, a volcanic caldera in the Sahara's geographical center that harbors foliage and salty lakes. Libya is also an archaeological Eden. Back in its ancient Roman heyday, North Africa was an opulent, bustling component of the empire, and the sprawling, incredibly well-preserved and tourist-free ruins of Leptis Magna have withstood the ravages of time and reign as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Arkno Tours has been operating in Libya since 1997 and offers multiple options, ranging from weeklong explorations of the Roman ruins around Tripoli to diving trips to 18-day treks into the desert. (www.arknotours.com)
Translating Libya: The Modern Libyan Short Story (Saqi Books, 2008). Zodiac of Echoes by Khaled Mattawa (Ausable Press, 2008) is a stunning book of lyrical poetry from a Libyan-American that moves from the Sahara to Louisiana.
In general, Libya is safe. Because it is still a dictatorship and the vastness of the Sahara is difficult to navigate solo, however, it's best to visit with tour guides who can handle things for you should there be any problems. Women traveling in groups will also be hassled less than those traveling alone. Travelers must have a visa and an Arabic translation of their biographical information added to their passports and cannot have a passport stamp from Israel.
RWANDA: GORILLAS AND SCARS
It will take decades - if ever - for Rwanda to shed the stigma of the 100 days in 1994 when as many as 1 million of its people were murdered. All foreigners fled as the horrific bloodbath ensued. Despite its legacy of genocide, Rwanda, though one of the smallest and most densely populated countries in Africa, is also among its most beautiful. Called the "land of a thousand hills," the verdant landlocked nation cradles stunning volcanoes, coffee plantations, and bamboo forests. It's also home to the largest remaining group of mountain gorillas; the 1988 Sigourney Weaver film Gorillas in the Mist immortalized their researcher and advocate Dian Fossey.
Terry Tempest Williams, author of Finding Beauty in a Broken World, explains traveling to Rwanda as a moral necessity. "We are among the most privileged people on the planet," she told a crowd at a Conservation Alliance event after recounting stories about her travels. "How do we go deeper, each of us, in our own way, with our own gifts - now?" Traveling to Rwanda to experience its wild beauty, to attempt to understand the worst that humanity can do, and to help Rwandans move forward is a start.
Mount Karisimbi, the highest peak in the country, and surrounding volcanic summits of the Virungas are the center of adventure here. It's a fairly easy two-day trek to the radio-tower clad roof of Rwanda. Another fantastic hike, at a paltry 12,175 feet, is Mount Visoke which shelters a misty crater lake.
But the inescapable adventure draw in Rwanda is the gorillas. Only 380 of the animals, which along with chimpanzees are our closest relatives, exist. Traveling with a primatologist guide in Volcanoes National Park, you get the chance to watch the great apes go about their lives.
Visiting Rwanda's genocide memorials is a necessary act - of remembrance, of understanding, and of hope that the genocide remains a thing of the past. Most disturbing is the Ntarama Church Massacre Genocide Memorial. Here 5,000 innocents, including children, were slaughtered. Rows of bones and skulls stacked on shelves stand testament, and bodies and signs of the killing have been left undisturbed. More hopeful is the Rugerero Genocide Memorial/Monument Park built by Lily Yeh, founder of Barefoot Artists, and by volunteers including Terry Tempest Williams and local villagers. As part of its healing project, Barefoot Artists has also built a survivors village, which includes rainwater harvesting systems, a sunflower oil business, arts and education programs, and a young women's support program.
Rwanda Eco-Tours con-tributes 20 percent of its profits to local communities and offers tours to see the gorillas with local, trained trackers. Trips range from a one-day gorilla trek to a nine-day "Camping in the Mist" expedition. (www.rwandaecotours.com)
- Required reading
Rwanda: The Bradt Travel Guide by Philip Briggs (Bradt, 2006). We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families by Philip Gourevitch (Picador, 1999) is the chilling account of a New Yorker staff writer attempting to piece together the genocide with stories from survivors.
- Safety concerns
Rwanda is a safe and stable country for now. There is some fear that without ongoing support to create a stable economic infrastructure and government, however, racial tensions between the majority Hutus and politically powerful Tutsis, who were the main target of the genocide, could reignite. Crimes against women were prevalent during the wars; and though foreign women should be safe, it's best to travel with guides or in groups. The neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo is extremely unstable and home to armed rebel groups.
NICARAGUA: KAYAKS, COFFEE, AND (ALMOST) NO GRINGOS
This lush, coffee-growing Central American nation - once the proposed site for what would become the Panama Canal - was the flashpoint of the nefarious Iran-Contra scandal in the 1980s. After the Marxist Sandinistas deposed a decades-old dictatorship in 1979, the Reagan administration began funding right-wing counterrevolutionaries, or "contras," setting off a bloody struggle that didn't end until 1990, when the Sandinistas declared open elections (which they lost). For decades the nation was a morass of poverty, land mines, gunfire, and drug smuggling. If you were traveling here, you were either working for the CIA or at risk of getting caught in the Cold War crossfire. But, as democratization came with the 1990 elections, so did tourists seeking secluded beaches, surf breaks, and highland hideaways. Nicaragua is now the most intriguing nation to visit in Central America; think Costa Rica without all the gringos, their overcrowded surf camps, and booming beachfront real estate.
For a soothing day trip, kayak out to Las Isletas, the 365 islands strewn across Lake Nicaragua outside of Granada, to watch flights of tropical birds and explore an old Spanish fort with views across the lake. It's all just a prelude to a journey to Lake Nicaragua's Isla de Ometepe, an island composed of two linked volcanoes worth a few days' visit with a mandatory hike to the picturesque San Ramon waterfall. North of Granada the burbling Masaya caldera is the keystone of Nicaragua's largest national park, Parque Nacional Volcan Masaya - a wonderland of fumaroles and crumbled lava rock.
Nicaragua's Atlantic coast shelters one of its most famous outdoor destinations - the sleepy beaches and the tranquil coral reefs of the Corn Islands - but the Pacific coast is also the spot for surfing, and a slowly growing host of surf camps. Locals will haul surfers out to hidden breaks. To really explore off the beaten path, head inland to the coffee farms and the misty green hills of the Matagalpa highlands. Eco-minded travelers should stop at the Finca Esperanza Verde, a bucolic lodge surrounded by organic coffee plants, waterfalls, and butterflies.
Tours Nicaragua offers the widest and "greenest" range of trips in the country, which include expeditions into the rain forest, hiking and kayaking excursions, beach adventures, and the mandatory zipline outings. In the highlands Matagalpa Tours creates customized itineraries with adventures that include caving and multiday hikes with overnight stays in the houses of local campesinos. (www.toursnicaragua.com; www.matagalpatours.com)
- Required reading
Moon Nicaragua by Joshua Berman and Randall Wood (Avalon Travel, 2008). Also check out Berman and Wood's Nicaragua travel website and forum (www.gotonicaragua.com). The Country Under My Skin: A Memoir of Love and War by Gioconda Belli (Anchor, 2003) is the gripping memoir of an upper-class Nicaraguan woman who fights with the Sandinistas.
- Safety concerns
Nicaragua is not as safe as more-established neighbors like Costa Rica - there have been recent isolated cases of violence against tourists - yet it is not particularly more dangerous than many Latin American countries. Women should travel in groups.
MYANMAR: BRUTALITY AND BEAUTY AMONG THE PAGODAS
Burma or Myanmar? Burma is the historical name of the nation and the one used by dissidents who oppose its military junta. Myanmar is the name given to Burma by the violent military-led coup of the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) that took power in this Buddhist country in 1988. When the National League for Democracy (NLD) won free elections in 1990, the SLORC led by General Saw Maung ignored the results and jailed nonviolent NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi, making the golden-spired Southeast Asian paradise an anathema for foreign tourists. In 2007 protesting monks were met with violence that was broadcast around the world, Kyi is still under house arrest, and the United States has instilled stiff sanctions on Myanmar. But because much of it is closed to foreign tourists, it remains one of the few mysterious destinations in Southeast Asia. While Vietnam and Thailand have become flooded with Americans and beach resorts, Myanmar remains unsullied. Despite the violence of its dictatorship, it is a Buddhist nation, filled with warm, friendly people - excited to see tourists - and some of the most stunning landscapes and architecture on the planet.
Because travel in Myanmar is so closely monitored, it is more or less impossible to simply explore the wilds of the jungle nation. But that doesn't mean it's void of adventure. The site here is the 320-foot-high golden Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon which, according to legend, King Okkalapa built 2,500 years ago to enshrine eight hairs of the Buddha. It's a site that many Burmese wait their whole lives to see. Likewise the sprawling ruins of the ancient city of Bagan look like they came straight out of a Rudyard Kipling book and rival the more famous ruins of Angor Wat in Cambodia.
For true adventure head to Inle Lake in the mountains, where the Intha people paddle their fishing canoes with their feet and live in bamboo stilt houses. Many tour groups offer treks to and from its rugged shore. One of the best outfits heads from the stilt houses of the lake toward the hills and the rice paddies of the countryside to Nyuang Shwe, which has its own golden pagoda and gigantic Buddha.
Pacific Discovery runs a 15-day trip in Burma that includes Inle Lake and strives for responsible tourism that profits local businesses. Another option is to volunteer for an organization like Thirst Aid, which is working to provide Myanmar with clean drinking water and sustainable industry using ceramic water filters. (www.thirst-aid.org; www.pacificdiscovery.org)
- Required reading
Lonely Planet: Myanmar (Burma) by Steven Martin, Mic Looby, Michael Clark, and Joe Cummings (Lonely Planet, 2005). In Letters from Burma by Aung San Suu Kyi (Penguin, 1998), Burmese dissident and 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner Kyi writes intelligent and impassioned letters from her prison cell.
- Safety concerns
Foreigners usually travel to Myanmar only with package trips, and they are closely monitored. Oddly, the brutal dictatorship of Myanmar makes the country fairly safe for visitors (some Americans even feel that in a strange way it's one of the safest places they have ever visited) though deadly for native Burmese who have something to say about the way their country is run. Recent demonstrations have been met with violence. Many hotels, restaurants, and other tourist services (and all foreign operations) are partially owned by the government, so if you support them you are giving money to the dictatorship; try to choose local operators.
SERBIA: THE UNDISCOVERED MULTISPORT COUNTRY
While the peaceful Velvet Revolution of the late 1980s and early 1990s freed most of Eastern Europe from Communism, it sent the republic of Yugoslavia into a spiral of war and genocide as diverse ethnic groups of Serbs, Croats, Muslim Bosniaks and Albanians fought one another to create autonomous states. While the rest of Europe prospered in the 1990s, Serbia stood in the center of the war led by strongman dictator Slobodan Milosevic and was blamed as a perpetrator of ethnic cleansing. The Balkan state's deep, tranquil mountains reverberated with mortar fire, and buildings constructed by Ottomans and Austrians lay in rubble. Since the war ended, Croatia has blossomed (some might say it has been overrun) as a hot destination for American tourists seeking cheap prices and Mediterranean beaches. But few venture into Serbia, which was opposed by the United States government during the war and bombed by NATO in 1999. That's a shame because this is a mountainous paradise brimming with opportunities for cycling, hiking, paddling, skiing, snowboarding and climbing - sans the high price of the euro and with the chance to explore a nation long off the map for North Americans.
Serbia is a sport playground on the verge of being discovered. Its winding mountain roads that dip into local villages make for some amazing cycling, especially in the southeast part of the country around the city of Ni-, where you can break up the riding with excursions into the bowels of Resavska Cave or a visit to the fortressed walls of the Manasija monastery. If you choose to try mountain biking near the northern village of Mokra Gora, you'll find an enticing network of trails that have yet to be discovered by fat tires. One quirky must-visit place to stay in the midst of a cycling trip is the village of Kustendorf (or Drvengrad), a traditional, wooden Serb village with modern flashes, including a cinema and a basketball court recently built by film director and leader of the band the No Smoking Orchestra, Emir Kusturica.
The whitewater of the Kumanica and Sopotnica gorges lures paddlers and supports commercial rafting outfitters. The limestone of Grdoba near the city of Valjevo offers some great sport routes and the opportunity to work on new projects: you can tune up your skills and get beta from locals at the Hala Sportova bouldering and climbing gym in Belgrade. And in the winter, the resort of Kopaonik lures skiers and snowboarders.
Vekol Tours specializes in adventure travel with whitewater trips on the Tara River and will create custom tours with an adventure focus. A.C.E. Cycling and Mountaineering Center offers bike trips at extremely reasonable prices - a weeklong cycling tour out of Ni- runs about $800.
- Required reading
Serbia: The Bradt Travel Guide by Laurence Mitchell (Bradt, 2007). Madness Visible: A Memoir of War by Janine Di Giovanni (Vintage, 2005) is stark eyewitness history of the war in the Balkans. It's also worth seeing Emir Kusturica's 1995 film Underground for an absurdist and very poignant national history.
- Safety concerns
Serbia is fairly safe for travelers taking the usual precautions. The country is still somewhat politically unstable, however, and it's best not to talk about politics or the war and to stay away from the southern border with Kosovo, where tensions are rising once again and even U.S. government employees travel in armored vehicles. It's also best to travel with a tour group in parts of the backcountry, as many land mines and unexploded ordinance from the war remain.
The Middle East in general is a relatively undiscovered land for many Westerners because of the difficulty travelling there thanks to the religion of pieces. If Islam didn’t have a stranglehold on the region and instead Christianity and Judaism flourished, I would be on a plane to Dubai right now to start my trans-Middle East safari.
How many Americans have heard of Snoopy Island in Fujayrah? The Nabateaen fortress Mada’in Salih in Saudi Arabia? Or Busra in Syria or Shivtah in Israel? Nestorian Christian monestaries on the island Sir Bani Yas? 850 species of plants found nowhere in the world but on the island of Suqutra? The ruins of Marib, the Sabaean capital, in Yemen? The limestone caverns of Oman’s Musandam Peninsula? The rare and elusive Arabian leopard? There’s so much more to the cradle of civilization than Islam (which is just a sliver of its history...1400 years is nothing in ME time)...but unfortunately Islam has the upper hand right now.
Come on I have been there a few times and the stark differences between Thailand and it are like night and day! Military Police that flick you S%$ without provocation! People that have the look of a beaten dog in there eye's! Yea Burma? when the current Government is gone and only then!
Waw -an namus?! “Oasis of Mosquitoes.” Volcano in the middle of a salt lake in Southern Libya.
Anyone who is foolish enough to go to Africa deserves whatever happens to them.
Amen! Been there. Nothing worth revisiting.
Kipling called it right -- the dark continent.
The Roman ruins of Neapolis on the Northern Libyan coast might be worth visiting.
Ditto for the pyramids of Egpyt.
Not worth the risk to visit Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, though.
South Africa’s crime rate exceeds Brazil’s, which is atrocious.
Sierra Leone is a Zimbabwe wannabe.
Ethiopia, though...cool people. Very pro-American.
Maybe I am wrong, but when I read someone who writes something like that, I believe I am dealing with a condescending leftist. When I travel now, any tour that has eco in its' title is off my list. I have grown tired of being lectured on how we have destroyed these sweet innocent people and their environment, when they are neither sweet or innocent and they ruined the environment long before we knew they existed.
Just adding to the catalog, not sending a general distribution.
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