Scottish sailor Alexander Selkirk, the probable real-life inspiration for the fictional Robinson Crusoe, spent four years as a castaway on a remote South Pacific island in the early 18th century, scavenging shellfish and hunting goats. While his experience wasn't exactly common — getting stranded was a regular danger of seagoing life in his time — it was common enough that the goats he ate had been left by previous sailors.
In our era of air transport, satellite telephones and mass tourism, Selkirk-style adventure seems nearly impossible. But castaway lore remains as strong as ever in popular culture, as television's Lost and Survivor, and films like The Blue Lagoon and Cast Away attest. Our daydreams of total isolation remain alive and well, seasoned with subplots of romance and conquering adversity. But could they ever come true? If you're ever seized by the urge to really get away from it all — or need to escape, say, an insider trading scandal — is there anywhere left to go and never be found?
The bad news — at least for those of us who entertain escape fantasies — is that it's getting harder and harder to evade our modern communication and transportation grid. Internet cafés proliferate in small villages from Mexico to Morocco, not only transforming the lives of locals but also what it means to be a traveler. Roads go where they never have before, both in American suburbia and in places like Patagonia, the untamed region at the southern tip of South America, where the Austral Highway was completed in 2000.
And cell phone coverage is expanding rapidly around the world. How fast? The Indian government says the number of wireless connections in the country jumped 68 percent, from 99 million to 166 million, in the year ended March 31. That's more than 5 million new connections a month in one country alone.
"The truly disconnected corners of the globe are shrinking, and shrinking rapidly," says Ethan Zuckerman, who studies technology use in the developing world as a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. He points, for example, to a coverage map from Uganda's largest operator, which serves 70 percent of populated areas. "It's become relatively commonplace to find corners of Africa that have good cell coverage but no electrical power," he says. (Users charge their phones using generators or car batteries.)
Meanwhile, if you can afford a pricey satellite phone like a Thuraya — many models run around $1,000 — you're covered virtually anywhere you can see the sky. "If you've got sufficient money, there's nowhere on the planet where you are truly disconnected, unless you want to be," Zuckerman says.
Obviously, all this connectivity has great benefits, and not just for telecom investors. Mongolian nomads use cell phones to communicate weather patterns and livestock prices across vast regions. Disaster rescue projects get an assist from satellite communications. And ordinary Americans who take a wrong turn and run out of gas can use their cell phones to call for help, rather than knocking on the nearest farmhouse door.
But it may be that we're losing something, too — like the ability to be truly alone with our own thoughts, in touch with our immediate surroundings, and reliant on our own skill and nerve. We've also lost possibilities for adventure in everyday life. Going up to the farmhouse door may not be the safest bet, but it has the allure of the unknown.
Communications, moreover, sometimes just enable our own worst tendencies. Travel writer Rolf Potts, author of "Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel," offers a cautionary tale: He was camped in the mountains of Chilean Patagonia, at least a day's drive from a reliable Internet connection, enjoying the sound of a campfire and a burbling stream. "However, I drank too much Pisco, dug out the satellite phone and drunk-dialed an ex-girlfriend in San Francisco, who was not as impressed as I'd have liked her to be," he says. "As isolated as I was physically, satellite technology still allowed me to make a perfectly pointless telephone call to someone in another hemisphere."
Fortunately, it is still possible to get off the grid — it just takes a little more time, effort and willpower than it used to. After talking to travel experts, we've come up with a list of our favorite places to drop out of civilization. In these places you'll find shaky communications, worse transport and beautiful scenery. But be warned: Most are the kind of places where camping gear, physical fitness and hunting skills would come in handy.
Mongolia is Potts' favorite off-the-grid destination. Its capital, Ulaanbaatar, is one of the few in Asia without a McDonald's or a Starbucks, according to Jalsa Urubshurow, a Mongolian-American who founded the travel company Nomadic Expeditions. An hour outside the capital, families sleep in gers, or round tents, and live off the land. "It's like going back in time," says Urubshurow. With only 600 miles of paved roads in more than 600,000 square miles, and a population of fewer than 3 million, the opportunities for getting lost on purpose are many.
Also on our list is Papua New Guinea, between the Coral Sea and the South Pacific, where cell phone coverage is limited to the capital and a few towns, and the sparse road network and rugged terrain make air travel the best way to get around. Many parts of the island are covered by heavy jungle canopy, so even getting a satellite signal can be tricky. And not to worry — officials swear that lingering cannibalism ended decades ago.
Ironically, the Juan Fernández archipelago, the now Chilean island group where Alexander Selkirk was stranded, did not make on our list. Four decades ago the government renamed one of the islands "Alexander Selkirk" and another "Robinson Crusoe" in an effort to promote tourism. Today most visitors arrive on the 2.5 hour flight from the capital.