Saturday, August 16, 2008

5 Danger Zones Worth a Visit

Travel advisories frequently paint in broad strokes. There might be a regional conflict here and an unfortunate incident there, but between official advisories, the media, and the rumour mill, the entire canvas is drowned in UPPERCASE critical warnings, guaranteed to scare the hell out of anyone. As a result, visiting some of these fantastic countries below might not seem like a good idea, but with a little common sense (namely, stay away from the trouble zones) you might just find yourself enjoying the best adventure of all.

Robin’s Disclaimer: Bad stuff can happen anywhere, to anyone, at any time. Wherever you decide to go, do your research, listen to advice, and take your personal safety seriously.


Desperately in need of some good PR, Colombia is most often associated with kidnapping, murder, drugs and jungle guerrillas. Fortunately, the reality is anything but. I wandered the streets of Bogota during an annual carnival and found locals to be sincerely welcoming. Security is tight, but as a tourist this made me feel safe.

Heading to the Caribbean and UNESCO Heritage Site of Cartagena, I discovered a cobblestone old town rich with history, culture, and outstanding bars and restaurants. Certainly there are parts of Colombia no tourist (or anyone else for that matter) should stray into, particular border areas. But locals will look out for you as they are distinctly proud of their beautiful country and eager to show visitors the best it has to offer.


It’s one of the poorest countries on the poorest continent, but if you’re prepared to forsake a little comfort and get used to the fact that some things don’t quite work as they should (good luck finding a high speed internet connection), you’ll experience some truly unforgettable experiences.

Visit haunting 11th century rock churches in Lalibela, exotic tribes in the Southern Omo Valley, national parks rich with wildlife, or just partake in a very serious, very delicious local coffee ceremony. Ethiopia has had a long-standing dispute with its Eritrean neighbours, and poverty breeds crime and scams wherever you go. Like the rest of Africa, it is seeped in timeless beauty and political heartbreak. You may want to holiday elsewhere, but if you travel to learn about yourself and the world around you, look no further.

The Philippines

Several years ago a tragic act of terror made world headlines when tourists were abducted from a resort on Palawan, the Philippines’ most pristine and eco-friendly island. The impact on tourism is still being felt throughout the 7,107 islands that make up the country, and there are several extremist no-go zones to the south.

But visit Palawan today and you’ll find a breathtaking and surprisingly affordable alternative to Thailand. English is widely spoken making travel particularly easy, and Filipinos are warm and gracious hosts. When Alex Garland wrote the hit book (and movie) The Beach, he set it in a mythical and untouched paradise in Thailand. Funny thing, the book was actually written in, and inspired by, the limestone islands of El Nido, in Palawan.

Sri Lanka

A civil war has been raging for decades in this teardrop of an island, located to the south of India in the tropical Indian Ocean. The thousands of lives lost, bombings and disappearances are made even more tragic considering just how magnificent the country is. From unspoilt beaches (with notable surfing paradises) in the south to the majestic mountains of the central highlands, Sri Lanka is one of the friendliest countries I’ve ever visited.

Blink your eyes and you’ll wish you could take a picture - smiling locals, bizarre modes of transportation, roadside wildlife and colourful temples. While it is possible to visit the Tamil-controlled north, most visitors are more than content (not to mention wise) to head south to the beaches, the fascinating religious festivals in Kandy and Kataragama, or the delightful tea fields of the highlands.


When I told neighbouring Croatians I was on my way to Albania they thought I was crazy. The country has a truly awful reputation in Europe as a backwards mess run by organized crime, a relic of the Cold War when it was the world’s most isolated country. Admittedly, the roads were in shambles, the buses held together with elastics and the concept of tourism had not quite taken off.

But here I was in Europe, discovering a friendly new country just as it was discovering me. Curious stares led to offers of food and drink and the prices were more than kind to my backpacker budget. In Dhermi, I found a beach town as stunning as anything on Corfu just a few hours ferry ride away. The country is recovering fast from its economic and political collapse and, in the meantime, locals enthusiastically appreciate those few tourists who take the chance to see what it has to offer.

Photos and words by Robin Esrock

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