Image: China-North Korea border
Lou Linwei / Alamy
Even after two American journalists were sentenced to 12 years of hard labor for illegally crossing into North Korea from China in 2009 (they were eventually freed), foreigners continue to fall afoul of overly anxious border cops. In August 2010, President Jimmy Carter had to fetch American Aijalon Mahli Gomes, who may have crossed over on a personal humanitarian mission. Dying to see North Korea? Visit the tourist-friendly Demilitarized Zone that separates the two Koreas, where you can legally walk on northern soil — at least for a few minutes.
updated 12/13/2010 9:12:26 AM ET 2010-12-13T14:12:26

It should have been just a regular border crossing. But in 2009, an ESL teacher who blogs as "Nancy O." had an experience that was anything but. While she was crossing from Zarumilla, Peru, to Huaquillas, Ecuador, two locals offered her a lift to the bus station, but instead took her on a harrowing car ride where she feared for her life. Fortunately, Nancy was able to run from the vehicle and find an immigration officer, who helped her across the border. "I was lucky to get away," she wrote on her blog, Women Travelling Alone.

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Among travelers, the Ecuador–Peru border area has a special reputation for being scary. "It's one of the most dangerous I've encountered," says Craig Heimburger, editor of the travel blog "It is not to be undertaken lightly."

Slideshow: World's scariest borders

Yet this South American border is hardly alone in offering potential frights. At borders around the world, travelers face intimidation, misinformation, fake exchange rates, inflated prices, rigged calculators, counterfeit notes, robbery — and, yes, even kidnapping and violence.

Unless they stick to carefully choreographed group tours, travelers — especially those who stray from the beaten path — may well find themselves in a sticky border situation. The problem may be banal (border guards who demand a "tip" in exchange for doing their jobs), but it can be genuinely dangerous (taxi drivers in cahoots with armed bandits waiting in the shadows). Experienced travelers will remain calm and expect to pay some sort of premium for their passport stamps, but still be ready for the unexpected.

While some borders are intentionally made scary by conmen well-practiced at shaking down tourists, others are political hot zones that can explode on short notice and ensnare unwitting travelers like Venus flytraps.

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Then there's the infamous Darien Gap, which has earned its reputation as one of the world's scariest borders. Because it separates Panama and Colombia, this 1,000-square-mile area should be a heavily trafficked trade route between Central and South America. And it is, of a sort: the nearly impassible jungles and swamps are ruled by armed guerillas, paramilitary groups, and drug cartels. (Not to mention filled with man-eating snakes, poisonous insects, and dengue fever.) It's just as well that no proper roads run through it. Overland travelers trying to follow the Pan-American Highway are forced to stow their vehicles on a cargo ship for about $800.

If you're heading into a remote area, read up on the potential border pitfalls. Knowing what the scams are may allow you to sidestep any problems. "Understanding the crossing beforehand is one of the best ways to come out of it unscathed," says Heimburger. But, he adds, your guidebook may not be enough. "Some still haven't updated their editions with enough detail," he says, "so those who aren't researching online and socializing on the road can be caught off guard."

Copyright © 2012 American Express Publishing Corporation


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