Once dangerous, now safe (sort of)—Robert Young Pelton's five travel picks for '06.
A few years ago, a Chinese-Malaysian buddy of mine was putting together an expedition on the island of Borneo and one of the places we had to navigate was Sabah, the island's easternmost state. The few reports I'd heard about the area made it sound like featureless jungle ringed by industrial wasteland and situated next to the kidnap-crazy southern Philippines. Not ideal, but life is short, and my Malaysian friend was a charmer.
After climbing out of the cinder block-and-shopping mall capital of Kota Kinabalu, I was stunned to arrive in the cool silence of Danum Valley, home to one of the oldest triple-canopy jungles on the planet. There, we stumbled across a never before explored limestone cave system, primitive burial sites (with graves perfectly intact), and I even found a new species of orchid. What about the dumpy, scary Sabah, the place where 21 people got kidnapped five years ago and unruly loggers controlled the forests for ten years before that? I'll give you a hint. It no longer exists.
Sabah is just one place where rumors and fear keep the less adventurous away and leave the door open for the rest of us. Don't believe the hype. For November's Adventure Travel special, here are my picks for 2006.
Borneo for grown-ups. The jungles are massive. The diving is more exotic. And the wildlife is even more extraordinary. Much of Sabah is so off the map that you can achieve a sense of exploration that's becoming hard to find on our continuously shrinking planet.
Why: Though just across the Sulu Sea from the militantly Muslim southern Philippines, the predominantly Christian Sabah is none too supportive of jihadist camps and bin Laden cronies. Also, the local government recently began pushing tourism as an alternative to logging.
Where: My favorite spot in all of Sabah is the aptly named "Lost World," a mist-shrouded plateau that rises some 2,000 feet (609 meters) above the jungle floor. You'll find massive herds of feral pigs, the endangered Indonesian rhino, and still more undiscovered species of orchids. Also high on the list is a trip to the tiny, tear-shaped island of Sipadan. Just yards from the beach, the continental shelf plunges 1,000 feet (304 meters) into the abyss. The subsequent reef attracts huge schools of pelagics, most notably hammerhead sharks.
Who: To get to the Lost World, the Sabah Tourism Board
(www.sabahtourism.com) can team you up with a leech-loving guide. Borneo Divers (www.borneodivers.info), one of the island's most professional dive operators, specializes in trips to Sipadan.
Watch Out: Though generally safe, there are some rough-and-ready ports of call, like Tawau, that are filled with smugglers, pirates, and other unsavory characters.
Yeah, I know, I am the unofficial tourism minister for this ancient land (the first real tourism minister was stabbed to death at the airport by angry passengers). But Afghanistan is remarkable. The scorching deserts are still the domain of camel caravans. The Hindu Kush is one of the world's great trekking spots. And the northern cities, like Mazar-e Sharif and Alexander the Great's old city of Balkh, are filled with thousand-year-old architecture. What's more, even after 150 years of expelling foreign occupiers, this is a country where your showing up in some remote village gets only a hearty welcome and a big meal.
Why: Sure, U.S. troops still pound away at the hinterlands, but urban attacks are infrequent. So much so that a flood of new guidebooks are on the market—Bradt's and Odyssey's are the best—bringing with them tourists.
Where: Explore the A¯jar Valley, a former royal hunting preserve north of Kabul, where ibex keep a wary eye out for leopards and locals direct you around the occasional land mine. For a wild adventure, hire a horse and explore the Wakhan Corridor, the long eastern finger of Afghanistan framed by the Pamirs, which has been consistently peaceful throughout the recent conflict. The Bamiyan Valley with its caves and now blasted Buddhas is still impressive, safe, and easy to reach, as is Afghanistan's best known attraction, the blue-tiled Hazrat Ali (Tomb of Ali), in the legendary hippie stopover of Mazar-e Sharif.
Who: Hinterland Travel (www.hinterlandtravel.com) has high-end trips around the country, while the more lowbrow Pakistan-based Sitara Travel Consultants
(www.sitara.com) can get you to Kabul and give a tour, but from there on out you're on your own.
Watch Out: Kabul is fine by day, but my advice is to hire a personal driver. Afghan Logistics & Tours (www.afghan-logistics.com) has English-speaking guides. As a rule, the north of the country is stable, but the Taliban south is still to be avoided.
3. Sierra Leone
My first visit to this speck of a country in West Africa was in 1998, and that was, I'd say, a little ahead of the curve. Rebels, missing limbs, gunfire for days—it was awful. But even then I saw Sierra Leone's potential: English-speaking (though you have to pay pretty close attention to penetrate the Krio patois) and outrageously diverse in landscape, the country is Africa as it might have been 200 years ago. The golden beaches are vacant. The jungles are, for the most part, unexplored. The sportfishing is some of the best in the world. And for the moment, the only people enjoying it are a bunch of pasty-faced NGO workers.
Why: The world's largest and most expensive UN peacekeeping operations worked. Now the locals are waiting for the tourists to show up.
Where: Forget the Florida Keys, the world's largest silver tarpon are hiding in the mouth of the Bonthe, a slow-moving river that dumps into the Atlantic, south of Freetown. (Just bring your own equipment.) For R&R head to the Turtle Islands just off the coast, where local tribes may let you stay over in their villages. (Hint: Beer is a powerful motivator.) Or do what I do and rent a boat in Freetown and head east to hit one deserted beach after another. Lately, I've heard of gung-ho locals running trips into the uncharted jungles of the interior in search of elusive wild elephants. That could be fun.
Who: The National Tourist Board of Sierra Leone (www.visitsierraleone.org) is the best resource for the country and can give you a vague (and I'll stress that) idea of what's to be done. Still, don't expect to prearrange things. Once you arrive on the ground, you'll find plenty of potential guides.
Watch Out: Sierra Leone is infamous for its ad hoc roadblocks, where gangs of stoned kids or bored soldiers look to strip you of your valuables.
Yes, I did get kidnapped in Colombia. But I was also trudging through the Darien Gap, possibly the most lawless place on the planet, at the height of rebel activity. That was dangerous. Strolling the cobbled streets of Bogotá or basking on one of the beaches off Isla de San Andrés is not. Colombia has a classic case of split personality. Should you head out into rebel-controlled areas or travel on public buses at night? Probably not. But by the same token, maybe you shouldn't let a bad reputation keep you from some of South America's most beautiful and historic cities.
Why: Though the menace of rebels, army troops, and right-wing paramilitaries still plagues the countryside, Colombia's cities have cleaned up. These days, Bogotá scores higher than Rio or Lima in security rankings.
Where: The key with Colombia is to stick to the cities and northern coast. Bogotá, Medellín, and Cartagena are as charming as any colonial towns in South America, and each is so rich with architecture and culture, it could stand on its own as a week-long vacation. If you want something more old school and Caribbean in flavor, take a puddle-jumper north to Providencia Island, the secret playground for well-to-do Colombians. Or just spend your entire vacation in Bogotá's upscale Zona Rosa listening to deafening salsa music and slamming shots of clear aguardiente.
Who: South American Explorers (www.saexplorers.org) is an Ithaca, New Yorkbased club that maintains online bulletin boards, trip reports, and information sheets on all of South America, including Colombia.
Watch Out: Those nice, quiet, green-looking national parks you see on the tourist maps also happen to be the operational bases of leftist rebel groups. Avoid them unless you want to end up like me: on a forced march, eating rice and bugs. Not fun.
5. North Korea
Huh? The boring place run by the short guy with the pompadour? Yep. It's at the top of my list. Granted, you'll have to deal with government minders and a strict itinerary, but you're almost certain to come away with the same impression that Marco Polo must have had when he first set eyes on the Chinese court. Can this be real? Not really, but I guarantee that the butt-numbing tours of war monuments and thrilling side trips to kindergartens will be unlike any others you have ever taken.
Why: Because you can. Like Cuba, it's the old "Let's Do the Time Warp" thing. And who knows how long this time capsule will stay open.
Where: There is no getting around the mind-stifling explanations of the Motherland's rise to prominence since the Korean War, but get past that and there is a host of attractions. History buffs can arrange a trip up to Kim Il Sung's hometown, Man'gyo˘ndae-ri, outside P'yo˘ngyang. Active travelers can explore old Chinese-style temples in the remote Ku˘mgang-san mountains then head down to the east coast to relax in some bubbling mud baths. As added incentive, a handful of impressive hotels have recently gone up all around the country, some with the traditional Korean sleeping arrangement: a heated floor . . . no bed.
Who: Beijing-based Koryo Tours (www.koryogroup.com) runs a gamut of chaperoned trips. All come with a healthy dose of we-love-Dear-Leader events, but following a change in tourism policy, trips can now be customized to include active adventures and needn't be booked as group tours.
Watch Out: Although brutal dictatorships are peaceful and safe for tourists, don't think you can sneak off or take photos. Your tour guide will likely deal with the consequences.
RYP's No-Go Zones
As much as I'm loathe to admit it, there are some places on this planet where even the adventurous should not venture. Of course, I've been to every one of them, but these three hot spots are just a little too warm for all but the most stout of heart (and dull of mind).
1. Central Iraq
Though Kurdistan is coming around, the Sunni Triangle is as bad as it gets. People are hunting you. Cab drivers auction off foreigners to the highest bidders. And then, of course, there are the car bombs. Don't go.
Groznyy looks like Dresden circa 1945. So much so, you almost forget about the "cleansing" operations by the Russian military. Once, I was asked back to Chechnya by my rebel hosts...so they could kidnap me.
You'll be a guppy among sharks and will need to hire a gunman just to walk around. But even that can backfire. I knew one journo who was gunned down by the staff of a neighboring hotel because she refused to stay there.
Pick up the November 2005 issue for more great adventure travel ideas, news, and articles by award-winning writers.