Fear confines us. It’s a prison of our own making, and it’s one reason that many people never get far from the communities and places they were born.
There are legitimate reasons for fear. What’s important is that we exercise caution in proportion to risk. Most of us encounter or ride in automobiles every day. We know that there is a small (but statistically significant) risk of injury or death, and yet we go about our lives free of fear, because the benefit of travel by car outweighs the minimal risk.
I feel that way about travel in places that many consider “too dangerous” or “scary.” It’s important to exercise situational awareness, to arrive prepared, and to have a plan in case things go wrong. Still, we are so enriched by encountering different cultures that the benefits far, far outweigh the risks.
Even more important is recognizing that our perception of danger and the reality of danger are often completely opposed to one another. Most of the places on this list are very safe, and tens of thousands of people, including people who look and act a lot like me, visit them every year. Some of the “scary places” on the list are places for the “someday” column rather than “today,” but that doesn’t mean they can’t happen!
Without further ado, a list of five places that I hope to visit in my life, and why you should consider visiting them too.
Ever since I heard the term “Paris of the Middle East,” I was sure I wanted to visit Lebanon, and the capital city of Beirut. Though it bears the scars of the long civil war and struggles with modern threats from within and without, the Lebanese are a very young population aspiring to take their place in the wider world.
Lebanon is filled with natural wonders like the Baatara Gorge and the Raouche Sea Rock, the cedar forests, and the ancient cities of Baalbek and Byblos– which may be the oldest still-populated city in the world.
As with all of the places on this list, I want to experience as it is now. These places have the feeling of a place on the verge of something. For better or worse, I can’t be sure. I am sure that I want to know them as they are, so that when things change, I understand where they are coming from.
Annual Foreign Tourists: 1,274,000 (2014)
Our partners in an uneasy alliance, Pakistan packs over half the population of the USA into an area one tenth the size. From the restive tribal regions to the densely-packed cities, this is a country that is advanced enough to be nuclear-armed, yet contain pockets where it is dangerous for a woman to simply seek an education. National literacy levels are around 40 percent, which are heavily influenced by the 5.9 percent literacy rate in the tribal regions.
A recent visit by the photojournalist Brandon Stanton from Humans of New York revealed a place that is teeming with hope, humanity, and yes, sometimes despair. It is hard to hang on to prejudices, even ones you formed unconsciously, when you read words that you yourself could say coming from a face so different from your own.
I want to see the walled city of Lahore, climb to the Baltit Fort in Hunza Province, and pass through the forest to the Patriata Hill Station. What will become of Pakistan? Traveling dispels my own bias, and I hope seeing a fearless American in their midst will help to do the same for others.
Annual Foreign Tourists: 966,000 (2012)
I am completely and totally captivated by Colombia. Maybe it’s the warm and generous Colombians I have met, or the fact that all my research has led me to believe that it’s an inexpensive, safe, and beautiful retirement location. I do know that the red roofs of Medellín, the vibrant colors of Old Town Cartagena, and the colonial architecture of La Candelaria in Bogota all make me want to visit– and maybe even try living there for a while.
For many Americans, our only cultural insight into Colombia is the history of narco-violence, and kidnappings at the hands of Communist revolutionaries. In reality, the government has long since gained the upper hand, and a vast majority of Colombia is safe and modern, particularly in the cities.
As I mentioned in an article on retirement budgets, much of Colombia is also unbelievably inexpensive- many Americans can live luxuriously on Social Security income alone. Between the vibrant culture and the cheap flights to and from the USA, Colombia is on my extremely short list of next places to visit.
Annual Foreign Tourists: 2,288,000
2. Democratic Republic of the Congo
My “out of left field” entry on this list is the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Again, for many Americans, our only experience with the Congo is the civil wars of the 1990s through today. While the Congo is undeniably less developed and more unstable than the other places on this list, it is perhaps the most unspoiled as well. This is the place where Dian Fossey lived with the gorillas. It is the home to 9 massive national parks that are threatened on all sides by clearcutting and the hunting of bushmeat. Kinshasa, the capital city, is rough and raw- there’s an ivory market (something I find sad and extremely distasteful) and, less troubling, access to real indigenous crafts and art.
I’m an animal lover, and my heart always aches when I read about another species going extinct in my lifetime. Visiting the DRC would be a great chance to contribute to conservation and see many of the world’s most critically endangered species. The clock may literally be running down on the western gorilla, the chimpanzee, and the bonobo. As tourists and outsiders, what is our responsibility to hungry people driven to poach endangered species? Perhaps one of the best options available to us is to support an economy of tourism and conservation.
Annual Foreign Tourists: 191,000
Outside of North Korea, Is there any place in the world where Americans fear to go more than Iran? History, both ancient and modern, is filled with governments that leveraged the spectre of “those people” to act as a focus for nationalism and militarism. We should be extremely cautious about being convinced to hate an entire nation or people about which we know very little.
Thankfully, thanks to modern communication methods, it’s much more difficult to keep people from connecting via the internet or while traveling abroad. I don’t agree with so much of what the Iranian government says and does, but I do know that my good Iranian friends are amongst the most dear, generous, and kind people I have ever met. My opinions are reinforced when I see less biased media accounts such as the Rick Steves Iran Special. I am filled with a renewed sense that people want to establish real human connections, and that most of them want to show travelers (Americans included) the respect and warmth of their culture.
The more I read and see, the more I am convinced that the average person on the street in Iran and the USA share a lot of values in common- generosity, genuine kindness, and an incurable curiosity.
Iran is one of the oldest civilizations in the world. It is also modern and economically advanced enough to be capable of preserving much of its cultural treasures such as the Persepolis, the Blue Mosque, the Tughrul Tower, and countless others. This is a nation of real beauty and dignity. I love historic sites, but Iran strikes me as more of an opportunity to meet people and get the measure of them. More than any other nation on this list, I am certain that our complicated relationship with Iran will be vastly different in ten, twenty, and fifty years. In what way, and whether it is an improvement, remains to be seen.
Annual Foreign Tourists: 4,769,000
What places do you want to visit that others might be afraid of? Let me know in the comments! Please also consider sharing this post and liking the blog on Facebook.