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Pelton's World
Peace Dividends
Great trips lurk in former "no go" zones. By Robert Young Pelton

Illustration: traveler at customs counter
War can be a budget traveler's best friend and worst enemy. I discovered this in November 1973 when I grabbed a dirt-cheap Sabena flight from London to Thailand with just one eight-hour stopover in Cairo—at the height of the Arab-Israeli war. We survived the dizzying, spinning landing designed to avoid missiles, and once safe on the ground I noticed a crudely lettered sign: "War Tour! See the Great Pyramids!" In reality, the war was about a hundred miles (161 kilometers) from Giza, and the "Blood and Bullets" bus tour was run by the very immigration officials charged with keeping airline passengers locked up. But the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to have the Pyramids all to myself made it worth the risk.

These days, the State Department maintains a Web site of "no go" zones (travel.state.gov/travel/warnings.html)—28 countries (at last count) that might pose harm to the tender traveler. Yes, these spots are dangerous—to a degree. But to rank the dangers of Israel with those of Liberia or to lump fear and loathing in Iran with the bloody mayhem of Iraq is ridiculous. Haiti, Libya, and Sudan are all open for business, and these and many other recently troubled countries offer rich history, beautiful scenery, wonderful people . . . basically everything except tourists. My take on all this "no go" stuff is this: Do your homework, understand the risks, and be willing to work a little harder for your leisure. If you decide to go you will be greatly rewarded. (Did I mention that I also had Angkor Wat all to myself at one point?) Virtually every country listed below has a government tourism board that can hook you up with reputable guides. Here are just five spots with bad reputations where I'd personally find a bathing suit more useful than a flak jacket. Call it my "go" list.

Some of the world's best surfing, jungle trekking, and diving, at the world's lowest prices. Two years after the Bali bombings, Aceh and cities like Jakarta can still be rough, but the less explored islands and regions are worth the effort.

The country is imploding, thanks to President Robert Mugabe, but still has great rafting, rain forest adventure, and wonderfully hospitable people. Not a place to wander around in; stick to the spectacular (and spectacularly empty) adventure zones around Victoria Falls.

Everest's home is still open for business, even as tourist-friendly Maoist rebels shut down the roads into Kathmandu. Locally purchased maps can warn visitors of rebel hot spots, but be prepared to pay moderate "revolutionary taxes" en route to the Himalaya.

An ancient, mountainous land that falls under the Pelton rule: Brutal police states are the safest. Iran requires a bit of work to get into, but once inside you can travel with little fear, since you'll be shadowed by secret police every step of the way.

Sure, it was overrun by violent, drug-crazed rebels until 2002. Now the thunderstorm seems to have passed. Sierra Leone is a strikingly beautiful country with golden beaches, elephants in untouched jungles, and English-speaking locals who know how to have fun.

5 More Undiscovered Treasures

  1. Bougainville (Papua New Guinea): Ten years of war are over on this stunning South Pacific island that has everything: a smoking volcano, Japanese shipwrecks, giant cave systems, and pristine white-sand beaches.

  2. Eastern Turkey: The drivers are deadlier than the remaining Kurd rebels. See if you can find Noah's ark and Abraham's birthplace while you're out in the Kaçkar Mountains.

  3. Georgia: OK, so there is an on-and-off war in the west near the Black Sea, but the café culture and architecture of T'bilisi are akin to 1920s Paris.

  4. Albania: Croatia may be getting tourist dollars again, but the beaches of this tiny, sunny, mountainous country on the Adriatic coast are still empty. A little run-down, but well worth the low price.

  5. Syria: Easily the safest country in the Middle East (see Pelton's rule re: Iran) and home to the amazing Old City of Damascus and the ancient ruins of Palmyra, once the Las Vegas of the Roman Empire. No, they don't all hate us: Syrians are, in fact, famous for their hospitality.

Additional Excerpts
From the print edition, November 2004

Adventure Travel 2005: Amazing excursions for the new year
Return to Zootopia: David Quammen revisits the Galápagos
No Margin for Error: America's most perilous peak
Pelton's World: Former no-go zones make a comeback

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Go Ahead and
Ask Me

What is the world's most dangerous place for travelers?

Until two years ago, it was Chechnya—a land still plagued by kidnappings and violence. Today it's—surprise!—Iraq, specifically Baghdad, Basra, Najaf, and the tribal areas around Ramadi and Fallujah.

The major danger, of course, is kidnapping. A recent U.S. government intelligence update estimated that by late August, three people were being snatched in Iraq—every two hours.

Got a baffling travel question for RYP? We want to know, so e-mail us >>

More from writer Robert Young Pelton

Afghanistan's Shadowlands
Pelton's photographs of Afghanistan reveal the dangers facing coalition forces and the hopes of a battered nation.

Q&A: Grabbed in the Gap
Robert Young Pelton literally wrote the book on traveling in dangerous places. Good thing: All that hard-won experience came in handy when he was abducted while hiking Panama's Darié Gap.

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November 2004

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