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Erstwhile dangerous places

Destinations once thought dangerous, even dangerously unthinkable, are becoming tourist outposts.
Image: The Aceh Tsunami Museum
Visitors walk through the The Aceh Tsunami Museum in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, during its inauguration. The recently rather sullied perception of Westerners and Americans has recovered a bit, but caution is still recommended in this Muslim-dominated region.Hotli Simanjuntak / EPA
/ Source: Independent Traveler

A few years back, in lieu of a bachelor party for a friend, I sketched out a surf trip to El Salvador. It would never happen. Upon hearing of our destination, the bride-to-be and a groomsman's wife vetoed the choice due to safety concerns in the wake of a 10-years-gone civil war, and we ended up on a boat in Costa Rica.

Not a terrible option, certainly, but at the time, El Salvador was probably no more dangerous than a localized surf break on Long Island — maybe less so. Four years later, another wedding approached, and another surf trip was planned. This time, El Salvador was vetted without hesitation, and the ladies showed up for the final weekend. Did conditions change, or just attitudes?

You may have your own similar story, but the fact is this: the lengths to which people will go in their search for solitude, authenticity, a sense of the new and untrammeled, a whiff of adventure, are stretching all the time. As a result, destinations once thought dangerous, even dangerously unthinkable, are becoming tourist outposts.

What's it like? Is it dangerous?
What is it like to travel in El Salvador, Nicaragua, the Eastern bloc, certain African nations and other places once thought extremely dangerous and inhospitable? Many of these destinations are not intrinsically dangerous places, but simply have not had the exposure to tourism that ultimately results in healthier local economies, robust police forces, and tourist-friendly safe zones and businesses.

Your first impression will be the utter absence of the typical tourist infrastructure — including tourist traps. This hardly means your presence will go unnoticed, or is unwelcome. In many cases, particularly in places not exposed to the 20th century's explosion in leisure travel, you will find the locals just as curious about you and your home as you are about theirs; the weary cynicism of some tourist-trodden communities has not set in.

In any unfamiliar place, your relative safety can shift radically every few steps or minutes; the terrorist attacks of the past decade in New York, Madrid, London and recently Mumbai are the stark proof.

Another recent example: throughout the 1990s, Indonesia was a very popular place for Western tourists. Post-9/11 and Iraq invasion, however, Indonesia's large Muslim population made a less comfortable place for Western tourists in general, and Americans in particular. Then on December 26, 2004, the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami resulted in a massive influx of humanitarian aid, including peaceable armies of American volunteers. The perception of Americans reversed again very quickly, and many tourists have returned to the region.

Personally, I felt far safer in El Salvador riding the psychedelic-paintjob buses and raiding the markets as the only gringo in sight than I did tromping through certain surf bum-infested towns in Europe and even Hawaii.

Nonetheless, Salvadoran hoteliers discourage visitors from walking alone after dark, and armed guards conduct night watches at many hotels, resort clubs and the like. It can be difficult to figure out which activities are safe and which might present some danger. Your best safeguard against trouble is to gather some local knowledge.

To wit: When I inquired with our guide about visiting a well-known volcano park in the inland mountains, he strongly recommended we wait until the weekend. “During the week, there are no people out there, so there are no police; the banditos work weekdays,” he explained. On the weekend, bigger crowds attracted a military and police presence, and made the grounds extremely safe.

Finally, I found it interesting that, particularly in the case of Central America and the Eastern bloc, it took about a decade before any mainstreaming of popular opinion took place. In fact, however, these places were nice places to visit a solid five years earlier. This may serve as a good guide when choosing a destination; five years of stability is go time.

Once known for kidnappers, guerilla fighters and drug dealers, these days Colombia is being profiled in Sunday travel sections celebrating its colorful colonial cities, unspoiled mountains and pretty Caribbean coastline. The U.S. State Department has an ongoing warning on travel to Colombia, particularly to small towns and rural areas, but notes that violence has decreased significantly in larger cities such as Bogota and Cartagena.

Central America
El Salvador and Nicaragua, not so long ago home to death squads, desaparecidos, civil war and revolution, have emerged as the “next Costa Rica.” New hotels are opening all the time, and coastside shanty towns are cropping up to support the return of the surfers (the region was extremely popular, almost overrun, with surfers in the '70s). Finally, an incredible stream of money from Northern expats has encouraged the building of malls, movie theaters and markets, especially in San Salvador, and this influence is spreading.

In Nicaragua, it turns out, an influx of international volunteers during the Sandinista regime exposed the populace to a more diverse community and created among them a more broad cultural and linguistic awareness than in most other Central American countries, save for Panama and Mexico.

Salvadorans have been described as “friendly and hard-working,” which seemed a cliche at best, but I was stunned at the accuracy of the description. I found that folks helped you with your Spanish, did unbidden favors, told you about their families, let you in on the joke — try finding similar treatment in Europe. And whether in a restaurant or the surfboard repair “shop,” the work was fast, of good quality and very fairly presented and priced.

The rural charm is balanced by modern facilities when you need them — the roads go from good to great, and the airport serves as a hub for many Central American flights. The airport is no war-ravaged shell — in fact, you'll find Nautica, Perry Ellis, Tommy Hilfiger and a RadioShack. As tourism ramps up, the Salvadorans will adapt and be ready. War is over if you want it.

Eastern Bloc
The Eastern bloc may be among the most visitor-friendly and tourist-ready regions of the world, and quite a bit of the region is blisteringly beautiful, with a mix of period architecture that escaped, and thereby defied, the march of franchising, globalization and many of the more commercial historical currents of the 20th century. Your choices here are almost limitless, but do your homework. A city like Tallinn, Estonia, for example, maintains much more Old World charm than does, say, Plovdiv in Bulgaria, which is dominated by Soviet-style cement edifices.

As mentioned above, the recently rather sullied perception of Westerners and Americans has recovered a bit, but caution is still recommended in this Muslim-dominated region. Note that Bali is predominantly Hindu, and is an extremely (sometimes too much so) popular exception to this rule.

Kenya has experienced a surge of tourist interest; safaris there can be sold out months in advance. Terror attacks in 1998 and 2002 may have actually made the country more safe, at least on a day-to-day basis, as Kenyan officials have stepped up security efforts. More recently, the country saw election-related violence and demonstrations in 2007 and 2008, and some political tension remains in certain regions. However, tourist areas such as game reserves and national parks are generally safe. The U.S. State Department and other governments currently warn against travel to certain regions (including the area near the Somali border).


1. Check the travel advisories of other countries
The travel advisories of the U.S. State Department are sometimes considered slightly myopic of the big picture. For a more global view, check the corresponding advisories of other Western, English-speaking countries such as Canada and the U.K. For links to these countries' advisories as well as tips on how to interpret them, see Travel Warnings and Advisories.

2. Hire a guide
Guides can do much better than get you out of jams — they can assure that you don't get into any. Their knowledge of the local language, current events and safety issues can literally be a lifesaver when you're traveling in an unfamiliar place. Guides are motivated by self-interest; if you get hassled, they get no more tourist business.

3. Use a tour company
Most tour operators working in once-dangerous locations are no shrinking violets; these folks know that your package must come with safety provisions included. The surf guide we hired in El Salvador, Edgard Schleusz of K59 Surf Tours, put us up in a nearly empty country club right on the point at Zunsal Beach, a perfect setup. Edgard seemed to be known equally well by both reputable and less savory sorts, so he could move around comfortably. We sometimes felt like the safest people in the country.

4. Know how to contact your embassy
While traveling in Guatemala, an El Salvadoran friend of mine was assaulted, bound and abandoned in an episode that directly caused a Travel Warning to be issued and ultimately ended a ring of official corruption at many levels of law enforcement. He has dual citizenship, and despite protests from the Guatemalan police, invoked his U.S. citizenship when reporting the incident (after an escape that plays like a James Bond scene); FBI agents showed up shortly thereafter. Clearly, the FBI is going to be more persuasive than your broken Spanglish. If you get into trouble, you need to know how to get out of it; the embassy is your first and best contact.

To find a U.S. embassy in your next destination, check out our Embassy Search.

The State Department recommends that Americans register their trips when spending more than a month in a foreign country, or when traveling to areas of unrest.

5. Choose your lodging carefully
Of all the details you can dedicate yourself to getting right, I would concentrate on safe, clean lodging. You will want a place where you can:

  • Leave your stuff (inquire about a safe for your valuables)
  • Trust that your health is not in jeopardy
  • Get solid advice
  • Find safe haven
  • Expect sufficient security, especially after dark
  • Count on the communications system, particularly telephones
  • Have recourse if something goes wrong

You might also ask about climate control (that's air-conditioning to you); it is a great luxury in many locations, but it could also come in handy if you're taken ill or have to get work done during a vacation.

You might consider staying at a Western chain hotel if available. On one hand, it may have better security; conversely, it might be more likely to be a target for crime. This is precisely the type of question an embassy can answer for you; they are equipped and willing to give relatively “routine information” of this type.

6. Arrange for transportation ahead of time
You are never more vulnerable than when you arrive at the airport with thousands of dollars worth of luggage and gear; the airport hustle is the easiest and most lucrative job in the business. Either arrange for transport from the airport with your hotel or guide, or take only “official” transport vetted by airport personnel or other authorities.

7. Protect your passport
Lose your passport in the wrong place, and you are in for a world of hurt that could last some time, and have implications far beyond simply an extra few days in a hotel.

8. Money and shopping: know what to expect
American banks may not carry much clout in some developing nations; don't expect to pay for every meal (or even every hotel) by whipping out your plastic. In Central America, on the other hand, some governments have adopted the U.S. dollar as the official currency, while greenbacks are accepted readily in many others. This doesn't mean you can buy your breakfast or get a haircut with a credit card; the "green" in greenbacks is the operative term, so be sure to bring some cash.

Shopping may be an erratic and bare bones experience. For example, markets will typically offer only one brand of most items; menus may be sparse and not all items available; hours of operation may be unpredictable.

In El Salvador, you could not purchase T-shirts, bobbleheads or logo visors — in fact, I saw no souvenirs of any kind, which was very refreshing. The rule of thumb in places like this is that the markets have regular people buying regular things — thread, slippers, soup bowls. For now, you'll find no swarm of tourist traps.

9. Cope with communications
Communications in developing nations can be very frustrating; in El Salvador and part of Nicaragua, for example, many “land line” telephones could not connect to the cell phone network whatsoever. This can sometimes be circumvented using calling cards. For more information, see our guide to international calls.

10. Learn the language
In many of these locations, exposure to English has been minimal. Although a number of the burgeoning tourist entrepreneurs are multilingual and may have even spent time abroad, outside the confines of your tour guide bubble, you are going to need some language skills. No hacking it along in broken English; you will know the full extent of Babel.

11. Consider cruise ships
One way for travelers to dip a toe into previously forbidden waters without getting in too deep is to take a cruise that visits such destinations briefly and safely. For example, a few cruise lines are planning to stop in Bandar Abbas, Iran in the next couple of years.

12. Expect to share the wealth
The assumption in many distressed regions is that you are insanely wealthy — and, in fact, you are. I have a tradition of getting a haircut when traveling (I consider it something of a chickens--t tattoo), and a local elder helped me find a barber in La Libertad. For his troubles, he asked for a quarter, the cost of about one ounce of coffee in the U.S. Without feeling like you are being taken, and without too much pain, you can also share the wealth, often where and when it is most needed.