Beyond the headlines—talk of travel warnings and bans on visitors entering the U.S.—it’s important to remember that these are all fascinating places where real, diverse, warm and welcoming people exist. No trip comes without risk, but a reliable outfitter with local contacts and up-to-the-minute info can take you to these often misunderstood destinations.
Why go: The semiautonomous Kurdistan Region remains a sea of stability in an increasingly fraught nation. U.S. travelers can fly nonstop from Istanbul to the airport in Erbil, bypassing Baghdad entirely; free 30-day visas are issued upon arrival. Hotel accommodations surpass expectations, and Kurds are famously hospitable. Also surprising: Alcohol is easily available, and female visitors aren’t required to wear a head scarf.
How to visit: On MT Sobek’s 10-day “Iraqi Kurdistan Adventure,” travelers explore ancient monasteries, bustling bazaars, the tomb of a biblical prophet, a village where Saddam Hussein once dropped chemical weapons, and a Yazidi pilgrimage site so holy that visitors must remove their shoes before entering the village. In the rural town of Rawanduz, guests ride the world’s longest cable-car lift and hike through a vertigo-inducing gorge, the deepest in the Middle East; in the city of Sulaymaniyah, they tour a former prison that’s now a memorial for the 180,000 Kurds who “disappeared” under the Hussein regime. Most important, the trip offers ample opportunities to converse with civilians and Peshmerga soldiers about their lives. Sept. 26−Oct. 5, 2020. From $5,095.
Democratic Republic of the Congo
Why go: Eastern DRC is home to Virunga National Park, founded in 1925, Africa’s first national park and one of its most biologically diverse. After its wildlife was nearly wiped out by poachers during the country’s years of conflict, the park recently reopened. The current U.N. peacekeeping operation has been working to stabilize the country since 2010 and has more than 16,000 troops on the ground.
How to visit: Geographic Expeditions (GeoEx) offers a six-day “Democratic Republic of Congo by Helicopter” tour that plunges intrepid travelers deep into the heart of Virunga. Guided by top rangers and passionate conservationists, they embark on intense jungle hikes in search of the endangered mountain gorillas that live there. Visitors also go to Senkwekwe Gorilla Orphanage, the only facility in the world that cares for orphaned mountain gorillas; make a heli-trek up Mount Nyiragongo, an 11,385-foot active stratovolcano with the largest lava lake on the planet; and scout for African fish eagles and cormorants while kayaking off of Tchegera Island in Lake Kivu. Trip dates customizable. Price upon request.
Why go: Despite what you’ve heard for the last 30 years or so, it is possible for everyday Americans to visit one of the most war-ravaged countries on Earth. “Afghanistan is a moving place to be, because there are so few travelers,” says John McGovern, International Tours Manager at Young Pioneer Tours, a company that specializes in off-the-beaten-path destinations, including North Korea, Syria, and Saudi Arabia. “It is a privilege to just be there, and to understand what people have gone through over the previous decades,” he adds. “Where some use the fashionable ‘dark tourism’ term to characterize this type of travel, that doesn’t [capture] the spirit of education and empathy you experience on a trip like this.”
How to visit: YPT’s nine-day “Mega Afghan” tour takes travelers to a graveyard of hulking Soviet tanks in the verdant Panjshir Valley, the ruined Darul Aman Palace outside Kabul, and the capital’s OMAR Mine Museum, where they learn about the 50-plus types of land mines that riddle the Afghan landscape. They’re greeted by friendly locals in Hazara villages and budding performers at a children’s circus in Kabul. The stunning terrain—particularly the lunarlike rock formations and steely blue lakes of Band-e-Amir—are unforgettable. (Note: Because of the risks inherent to the destination, YPT only brings people who have gone on a YPT trip before and have proven themselves to be responsible travelers.) Dates upon request. From $1,995.
Why go: The country is an archaeologist’s dream, with Nile-front temples and a Nubian tomb site. Because there is no formal tourism infrastructure in place, it’s essential to travel with an organized group. A Sudanese tour guide will explain Sudan’s complicated history and politics, which have included multiple protracted civil wars and a devastating humanitarian crisis.
How to visit: Intrepid Travel recently unveiled a new expedition in northern Sudan. Travelers fly in and out of Khartoum and spend 12 days exploring (notably avoiding Darfur). Standout moments include watching the sun rise over the crumbling pyramids of the Royal Necropolis of Meröe, chatting up hardy Bisharin nomads in the Bayuda desert, hiking through a petrified-wood forest, visiting to the Hosh ed Dalam volcano, and seeing whirling dervishes from Sudan’s Sufi community spin in prayer outside the tomb of Hamed el-Nil. Accommodations are a mix of urban hotels, homestays, tented rest stops, and wild desert camping. (This is a BYO-sleeping-bag kind of trip). Nov. 26−Dec. 7, 2020. From $3,960.
Why go: You can avoid the troubled spots where sectarian fighting and the threat of terrorism are greatest: the India-Pakistan border, the Azad Kashmir region, and the Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces. Beyond them, you’ll find warm and curious locals, plus extraordinary natural beauty, including some of the most majestic mountain scenery in South Asia.
How to visit: Wild Frontiers’ 12-day “Pakistan: Under a Pagan Moon” tour is timed to coincide with Chawmos, a winter solstice festival in the communities of the Kalash Valley. Locals and visitors alike must participate in a purification process and fire ritual to attend; afterwards, they observe dancing, spirit summoning, and animal sacrifices that few Westerners ever get to witness. Travelers also drop by Chitral Gol National Park during the rutting season of the twisty-antlered wild goats known as markhor. Really lucky visitors may catch a glimpse of the elusive snow leopard, native to the peaks of northern Pakistan. Other highlights include staying in the home of a Chitral prince, bargaining in a Pashtun bazaar, and touring Buddhist sites in the formerly off-limits Swat Valley. Dec. 11−22, 2020. From $2,810.
Why go: Located on the Horn of Africa in the northwest corner of Somalia, this self-proclaimed independent nation has functioned autonomously for more than 20 years, even as the rest of the world refuses to recognize it. The breakaway republic has its own government and currency, and it has managed to avoid the brunt of the hellacious conflict (terrorism, civil unrest, kidnapping, piracy) that dogs the rest of Somalia. It is also blessed with archaeological riches, including some of the best-preserved prehistoric rock art in Africa.
How to visit: Undiscovered Destinations’ seven-day “Somaliland Uncovered” trip connects travelers with locals at a souk and at a hectic livestock market in the capital, Hargeisa, where a civil war memorial displays a crashed MiG fighter jet. A cave network in Laas Geel shelters 5,000-year-old paintings of hunters, cattle, and giraffes, and the port city of Berbera has long beaches, diving opportunities, and an old quarter of decaying Ottoman and British architecture. It’s a corner of the world few Westerners ever see, which makes the rare travelers a novelty wherever they venture. Nov. 7−13, 2020. From $2,271.
>>Next: Where to Go in 2020