Why we chose these women, and how they’re changing our world.
At AFAR, we are all travelers. Many of us are also women. We travel alone. We travel with family and friends. We travel for business and for pleasure. And if we are really fortunate, we travel from the first moment we can to the last moment we can, and our journeys span our entire lifetime.
Women have been exploring the world for hundreds of years, but look at the travel writing canon, and chances are you’ll be as depressed as we are by how few female and nonbinary voices you’ll find. (For some writers to read, start here.) This year, we felt it incumbent on our (mainly female) staff to shine a light on the stories of women travelers.
In the 1920s, a group of intrepid women in New York, fed up with being dismissed by the Explorers Club (established in 1904 as an all-male organization devoted to exploration), founded the Society of Woman Geographers. Its members were “only women who have really done things.” The pioneering pilot Amelia Earhart, the environmentalist Rachel Carson, the cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead, and the primatologist Jane Goodall were all members at one point.
In celebration of Women’s History Month, and using the Society as inspiration, we’ve reinvented the all-female travel society for the year 2020. Singularly and together, these travelers are our guides to exploring the world in a better way. They are pushing boundaries—be they physical, cultural, or mental—and they are women we would entrust to lead us around the world and show us how to experience it in new and different ways. They are women, as they say, who have done things. —Julia Cosgrove
No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference, the title of Greta Thunberg’s 2019 collection of climate speeches, perfectly encapsulates the incredible journey of the 17-year-old climate activist. What started in August 2018 as a silent protest outside the Swedish Parliament, where she stationed herself with a sign that read skolstrejk för klimatet—or “school strike for climate”—has ballooned into a loud and passionate global climate movement.
Thunberg has encouraged travelers to think more intently about their carbon footprint, and has been a leader by example. By choosing not to fly, she’s inspired a “flight shame” movement that has some travelers opting for more environmentally friendly modes of transportation, like trains, boats, and bikes; some Swedish airports have even reported a dip in travelers. Said Thunberg of the peril—and promise—of the future: “We already have all the facts and solutions. All we have to do is wake up and change.” —Michelle Baran
She wasn’t looking for a fight. When Blake Spalding bought Hell’s Backbone Grill in Boulder, Utah, 20 years ago, she just wanted to cook and immerse herself in the dramatic, canyon-rich wilderness that surrounds the small town: the nearly 1.9 million acres of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. For years, she and her business partner Jennifer Castle, did just that, slowly turning the grill into a popular farm-to-table restaurant that drew on the land around them. But soon after President Trump took office, he issued an order to cut the monument into three separate and much smaller sections, a move that would open the land up to drilling and mining—and devastate both the ecosystem and communities reliant on tourism to the area.
Spalding and Castle knew they couldn’t stand by silently. In December 2017, the pair joined a lawsuit against the President, one of five protesting his dismantling of Utah’s national monuments. As the case winds its way through the court system, Spalding has remained a vocal activist, all the while feeding the community—and travelers and pilgrimaging eaters—the kind of food that has earned the pair a James Beard Award nomination for four years running. It hasn’t been an easy road, but in an interview with the New Yorker, Spalding shared her reasoning: “When all this is over, whatever the outcome, I want to be able to say that I did everything I could.” —Aislyn Greene
For more about Hell’s Backbone Grill, read Spalding and Castle’s latest cookbook, This Immeasurable Place.
Ami Vitale knew from a young age that a camera doesn’t distance you from the subject—it brings you closer. Her passion for human connection has carried her to more than 100 countries: first as a war journalist, documenting both violent conflict and human resilience from Kosovo to Kashmir, and later as an award-winning National Geographic photojournalist, showing the release of one of the world’s last white rhinos from the Dvůr Králové Zoo in the Czech Republic to the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. Vitale recognizes that stories aren’t just about people—they’re about our relationship to the natural world.
Now 48, the Montana-based photographer leads immersive workshops throughout the Americas, Europe, and Asia. In 2020, Vitale will present her Rhinos, Rickshaws, and Revolutions talk with National Geographic Live (on the East and West Coasts), chronicling her journey from documenting the frontlines of war to championing the people working to protect endangered species. —Mekalyn Rose
Kellee Edwards is a multi-hyphenate achiever with a résumé that reads: Pilot! Television host! Journalist! Scuba diver! Edwards, who was born on Chicago’s South Side and grew up in San Bernardino, California, is the first black woman to host a program on the Travel Channel, her own Mysterious Islands. The show’s premise is simple, but inspired: Edwards visits the lesser-known islands on the planet—often getting there by piloting her own plane.
In just the first few episodes, Edwards explores the far-flung Indonesian island of Sulawesi, where she looks into the local rituals surrounding death; the cold and rocky shores of Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, where the first human inhabitants of the continent crossed the land bridge from Asia; and Jeju, a South Korean island known as Asia’s “island of dominant women.” Her impressive achievements, easy enthusiasm for adventure, and strong advocacy for solo women travelers provide a standing invitation for all of us to stretch beyond how we would normally define ourselves. Even her nickname is breathlessly fun: Kellee Set Go! —Ann Shields
After a cliff-climbing accident at age 21 left her paralyzed from the chest down, Karen Darke, now 48, moved away from a career as a geologist to live as an adventurer, author, athlete, and speaker, hewing to the belief that ability is a state of mind, not a state of body. She’s traveled the world on her terms, flinging her head and heart into adventures that many would back out of before even booking the plane ticket. In the past two decades, she’s scaled Yosemite’s El Capitan, kayaked the Inside Passage from Alaska to Canada, and crossed Greenland by sit-ski, detailing it all on her blog.
In 2020, Darke—who won a silver medal at the London Paralympics in 2012 and a gold medal at the Rio Paralympics in 2016—will look to compete in the Tokyo Paralympic Games and train for a trip across Antarctica, the only continent she hasn’t hand-biked across or around. “An adventure is a journey with an unknown outcome,” she tells us. “So for me, any journey—be it to a faraway foreign land, or within myself at the times I’ve been stranded with illness or injury in a small room—automatically comes with unknown elements. What will happen next? What will I, or we, learn or discover? What unknown possibilities may exist? The exploration is inherent where there is a journey into the unknown.” —Katherine LaGrave
Serita Wesley, Rebecca Russell, Farin Nikdel, Vivian Zhang, and Becca Ramos
After a series of conversations about feeling underrepresented by mainstream travel resources, Portland-based colleagues Serita Wesley, Rebecca Russell, Farin Nikdel, Vivian Zhang, and Becca Ramos—all well-traveled women of color—created On She Goes in May 2017. The digital travel platform “made for women of color, by women of color” includes personal essays, city guides, and a popular podcast (now in its fifth season) hosted by the founders.
No matter the medium, the message is always about empowering women and nonbinary people of color to travel “more confidently, adventurously, and more often.” Through its quarterly themed digital issues, the first of which was titled “We Belong Here,” On She Goes brings nuanced stories about race and gender to the forefront, among them accounts of what it’s like to be a hijab-wearing traveler, bike through “small town America” as a brown woman, and navigate queer dating while traveling abroad. —Sarah Buder
Every social media savant has a favorite Instagram pose, and Annette Richmond is no different: Her stance of choice is bold, full-length, and full-frontal, with a hand on hip and a tractor-beam smile that could guide ships at sea. In 2017, Richmond created Fat Girls Traveling, a body-positive, social media–driven community of more than 11,000 Facebook members and 33,000 Instagram followers. Instead of focusing on bad experiences—the fat-shaming, the stares, the harassment that plus-size travelers often encounter—Fat Girls Traveling celebrates all women, not just slim models, getting out into the world.
In addition to the online presence, Fat Girls Traveling now has IRL components: weekend meetups around the United States, a three-day summer “camp” in New York’s Finger Lakes region, and this fall, small-group trips to Cuba and Jordan. Whether in the real world or online, we’re fans: Richmond promotes travel as something inclusive and joyous, and she gives women and girls a way to picture themselves everywhere. —A.S.
The Outdoor Ambassadors
When most people retire, they envision a life of relaxation. But Kristine McDivitt Tompkins isn’t most people. After leaving her position as the CEO of the Patagonia outdoor clothing and gear company in 1993, she dedicated her life to rewilding South America through the Tompkins Conservation charity, which she founded in 1992 with her late husband Doug Tompkins.
Over the last few decades, Tompkins has worked together with NGOs and the governments of Argentina and Chile to rewild 14.2 million acres of land across both countries. (Tompkins was also named to the 2019 AFAR Travel Vanguard, a network that honors individuals who are committed to making travel a force for good in the world.) In total, her time and resources have helped expand 4 national parks and create 11 brand-new ones in South America—all so that the public can enjoy the landscapes she fell in love with on her first trip to Patagonia in 1990. —Lyndsey Matthews
Growing up on the Navajo Reservation in New Mexico, Jaylyn Gough spent her free time scrambling over rocks and dodging rattlesnakes. Eventually, she became an avid mountain biker, hiker, and climber and even worked as a guide and a mountain bike race coordinator. But Gough was frustrated by the lack of women in the outdoor industry and often felt like the only Native person on trails that crisscrossed Native American ancestral lands. So in 2017, she launched Native Women’s Wilderness (NWW), an online platform where indigenous women and nonbinary people can support each other and share stories.
In early 2018, Gough began digging into the precolonial histories of some of our favorite spaces: After hiking Colorado’s 14,256-foot Mount Evans, she wrote about how the former Ute Nation homeland is named for a man who had a hand in the horrific Sand Creek Massacre. Later that same year, she joined six women from the Indigenous Women Hike organization to reclaim the 210-mile John Muir Trail by hiking it under its original Paiute name, Nüümü Poyo. Gough, now 39 and a full-time social worker in Colorado, chose to rehike the route solo in 2019 to honor the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women campaign, an online movement that seeks to address the exceedingly high rates of murder and violence that Native women face. But the flourishing NWW community—now 27,800-strong on Instagram and 5,000-strong on Facebook—is proof that she need no longer feel alone on the path. —Maggie Fuller
Mercy M’fon Shammah
As a queer African American woman, Mercy M’fon Shammah often found that she was one of the only—if not the only—people of color (POC) on wilderness adventures near her home in Portland, Oregon. In 2017, this led the avid recreationalist to start Wild Diversity, an organization that supports POC and the LGBTQ community in the outdoors, aiming to “create a robust community of POC and queer outdoorists” and transform common perceptions about what the average adventurer looks like.
Since then, Wild Diversity has facilitated local meetups, educational training, and day and weekend backpacking trips that include wildflower walks, wheelchair-accessible hikes, and campouts within the Pacific Northwest, most of which are open to the public through online sign-ups. The Oregon nonprofit also hosts a gear library that accepts donated items like sleeping bags, backpacks, footwear, camp kitchenware, and other useful equipment. (Scholarships are available for multi-day trips and workshops, too.) In September 2019, Shammah was featured in a documentary called Our Trails Too, and her message for POC and queer individuals continues to be clear: “We’re here to provide a safe and welcoming space to explore outdoor adventures in the Pacific Northwest and beyond.” With a packed 2020 event calendar that includes kayaking trips, bird-watching walks, and a four-day “outdoor resilience” conference, there’s little doubt Wild Diversity is accomplishing that goal. —S. Buder
Lhakpa Phuti Sherpa
Born in the shadow of Everest, Lhakpa Phuti Sherpa has spent most of her life on and around mountains. In 1993, Lhakpa was the deputy team leader of the seminal Nepalese women’s Everest expedition, during which her teammate Pasang Lhamu Sherpa became the first Nepali woman to summit the world’s highest peak. (Pasang tragically died during her descent.) Lhakpa is also the first Nepali to ski from the tops of multiple European peaks, and she’s the founder and owner of trekking agency Luxury DMC, which runs trips to Nepal, Tibet, and Bhutan. She has a rich past.
But Lhakpa’s most recent work looks toward the future. When she was appointed executive director of the Nepal Mountain Academy (NMA) in 2009, she tells AFAR that she saw a “great opportunity . . . to bring changes in the sector of mountain tourism from [the] women’s point of view.” She lobbied for funding to establish Nepal’s first all-female guide program, which over the last seven years has produced hundreds of guides, a number that continues to grow. Through her work, she has helped establish the world’s first degrees in mountaineering studies at NMA in conjunction with Tribhuvan University: In 2017, the first bachelor’s program began, and, in January 2020, the first master’s degree in adventure tourism launched, granting the youth of Nepal, both male and female, better resources to become professionals in the mountain tourism sector that fuels the country. There’s even more reason for this investment, says Lhakpa, now the president of NMA: “Mountain tourism can build peace between people to people, nation to nation, people and nature. [It’s] the best way for sustainable peace building.” —Sara Button
For more about her life story, pick up a copy of her autobiography—Forty Years in the Mountains—the first book published by a female Sherpa.
Black Mamba Anti-Poaching Unit
In South Africa, a rhinoceros falls victim to poachers every 15 hours. Protecting these animals from the illegal wildlife trade is treacherous at best and deadly at worst. It’s also been a traditionally male-dominated field across the board—that is, until the Black Mambas became the world’s first female-majority anti-poaching unit in 2013. Their job: to patrol the private, 100,000-acre Balule Nature Reserve in South Africa’s Kruger National Park and protect animals from poachers in the world’s multibillion-dollar wildlife trafficking trade.
Most of the 33 women, who have been trained in both tracking and combat, were recruited from surrounding communities by Craig Spencer, head warden of the reserve, and Amy Clark, director of the local Transfrontier Africa conservation group. Each day, the Black Mambas head out into the reserve on foot—clad in ranger uniforms and unarmed—to monitor the close to 62,000 acres of the park border in search of traps or snares. (They also perform car inspections to look for guns or other poaching tools.) To date, the group has helped with the arrest of eight poachers, and in their area, incidents of wildlife snaring have decreased by close to 80 percent. It’s nothing short of an inspiration to see this group of women—some as young as 18—protect their habitats for future generations and act as role models for tomorrow’s leaders in conservation. —Jennifer Flowers
Judi Wineland, Nicole Wineland-Thomson, and Erica Landerson
Judi Wineland became the world’s first woman to found an adventure travel company when she launched Overseas Adventure Travel back in 1978, and since then, she’s spent her career making space for women in a male-dominated industry. Today, in addition to serving as director of the nonprofit Focus on Tanzanian Communities (which seeks to empower women in northern Tanzania, among several other initiatives), Wineland runs AdventureWomen with her daughters, Nicole Wineland-Thomson and Erica Landerson. The Massachusetts-based company offers what they refer to as “adventure travel vacations, not tours” in destinations like Morocco, Japan, and Oman.
As a women-owned and women-run adventure travel company, AdventureWomen strives not only to get women out of their comfort zones but also to help them form strong bonds with their fellow travelers while learning about themselves and their place in the world. On the horizon for 2020: mother-daughter adventures in Iceland, Costa Rica, and Baja, Mexico; all-female treks to Mount Everest’s base camp in Nepal; and walking ancient pilgrimage routes such as Spain’s Camino de Santiago and the Kumano Kodo in Japan. —Natalie Beauregard
Bolivian Climbing Cholitas
When this group of women began climbing together five years ago, they faced obstacles much greater than the peaks they would summit: They had no formal mountaineering training besides what they’d seen as porters and cooks in base camps and very limited financial resources. They were also combating the stereotypes and oppressive structures that had so long been held against them as indigenous Aymara women in Bolivia. Once pejoratively known as cholitas (a name now reclaimed by the community), women like them had until recently been systematically shut out of educational and economic opportunities.
But when they saw others climb the mountains they worked on every day, a few of them decided they wanted in on the action—and in December 2015, the Cholitas Escaladoras were born. To some, the idea that these women could not only rise to the tops of South America’s highest peaks—but also do that in traditional Aymara skirts, using their colorful shawls to carry their equipment—was ludicrous. But not to the Climbing Cholitas. In 2019, five members of the group made history as the first recorded Aymara women to scale Argentina’s Aconcagua, the highest mountain outside Asia. Member Lidia Huayllas told El País that she hopes their accomplishments inspire all Bolivian women, especially future generations. The next mountain some of the women hope to conquer? Everest. —S. Button
The Polar Maidens
Nearly entirely covered by an ice sheet that contains 90 percent of the world’s ice, Antarctica is the globe’s coldest and driest continent. Perhaps for this reason, it’s also the holy grail for adventurers, counting professional explorers Ernest Shackleton, Roald Amundsen, and Sir Edmund Hillary among some of its earliest and most celebrated pilgrims. In December 2020, the continent will see explorers of a different sort land on its shores for a 20-day trek: a group of six “ordinary” women from India, Ireland, and England, who range in age from 25 to 75.
Dubbed the “Polar Maidens,” the women have four primary objectives: personal (showing how far women have come since the 1900s), scientific (discovering how women born in different decades physically react to extreme conditions), environmental (offsetting their carbon footprints, and raising awareness of the importance of Antarctic preservation), and philanthropic. As part of their mission, they’ll be fundraising for the Inspirationelle Foundation, which awards grants to “individuals and groups undertaking unusual, demanding, challenging, arduous and interesting projects that provide a journey of self-discovery and personal development.” Put more simply? They’re using their exploration to pay it forward. Nothing so ordinary about that. —K.L.
After earning a master’s degree in archeology from King Saud University, in 2013, Mariam Al-Harbi decided to become a tour guide so that she could teach travelers about the kingdom’s heritage sites and share “her “love for history and civilization,” she tells us. That guiding in Saudi Arabia was a male-dominated field didn’t deter Al-Harbi: In 2017, she became the first licensed female tour guide to earn the title of “Best Tour Guide” from the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage.
Since winning the award, Al-Harbi has opened a center to train other Saudi women as tour guides; she is also active in Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030, which aims to grow the role of tourism in the kingdom. It’s no small thing—especially now that foreign travelers can apply for e-visas for purposes other than business or religious pilgrimages. —L.M.
Talk about life goals: When Army veteran Debra Asberry turned 40, she was excited about planning a rafting trip on the Colorado River, but didn’t want to go it alone or as a single on a couples’ trip, and no tour group seemed to offer what she was looking for. So in 1997, she started her own business. Today, Women Traveling Together is the largest women-only tour company in the United States, hosting more than 1,600 women annually—with 82 percent of guests coming back for more—and 115 trips scheduled for 2020. (Alaska, Spain, Portugal, Gibraltar, Japan, Mexico, and Utah’s Green River are all on Asberry’s personal hit list for this year.)
Though her core clientele is 50+, Asberry, now in her 60s, has helped inspire active women of all ages to find strength to see the world in numbers, whether they’re on a walking safari in Tanzania or a trip through Navajolands. WTT’s small-group tours never feel rushed—never “herded,” say some reviews—and believe a destination is best experienced on the ground, on foot; they use public transit and walk to restaurants. Travelers carry their own luggage. And don’t call this “singles” travel, or “senior” travel, or “girlfriends” travel. It’s simply women traveling together, pushing boundaries all the while. There’s Asberry, a natural-born mover-and-shaker, to thank for that. “It's important to be the leader,” she says. “To stay ahead or even set the trends, be adaptable, and to never settle for just good enough.” —Laura Dannen Redman
The Guinness World Record holder for “Most Ascents of Everest (female)” doesn’t have a nutritionist, a trainer, an active social media presence, or sponsorship deals with fancy climbing gear companies—in fact, she doesn’t have any sponsorship deals at all. She’s a Nepalese immigrant, a single mom living in Connecticut who has supported herself and her family by working as a housecleaner and as a dishwasher at Whole Foods.
Lhakpa Sherpa was born in Balakharka, Nepal, near the Himalayan mountain of Makalu, not far from Everest Base Camp. She began climbing as a teen, assisting family members who ran expeditions for tourists, and fell in love with the challenge. In 2000, eight months after her eldest child was born, she became the first Nepalese woman to summit Mount Everest and descend safely. She summited again in 2001. And again in 2003. She kept summiting Everest, until she had done it nine times. This spring, she hopes to break her own record yet again, when she looks to complete a historic 10th summit. And whether you choose to join that expedition or not, you can still sign up to go on a hike with her through Cloudscape Climbing, her expedition company, which guides travelers on treks in New England and the Himalayas. —S. Button
Before leading expeditions on the 217-foot vessel E/V Nautilus, Allison Fundis was a high school science teacher. Though she traded in textbooks for diving masks, her passion for both education and the ocean permeate her many endeavors, from developing STEM opportunities for students and teachers through the Ocean Exploration Trust to lobbying for protection of the water that covers more than 70 percent of our planet. As part of a project to map the entire seafloor by 2030, many of Fundis’s expeditions entail investigating never-before-seen parts of the deep sea. She’s also actively working to change the gender gap in a male-dominated field, by ensuring that the crew of E/V Nautilus is 40–60 percent female on any given expedition. (Aspiring marine biologists can even follow live streams of E/V Nautilus activities at home.)
Since 2006, Fundis has led or participated in more than 50 expeditions, and in August 2019, she was part of the team that searched for Amelia Earhart’s plane off the remote island of Nikumaroro. “Just being able to be a very small piece of telling the story about the search for Amelia was thrilling,” said Fundis last year. “She was just a pioneer, a barrier breaker, and definitely an inspiring role model for women in particular and explorers.” Some might say the same about Fundis. —Nicole Antonio
Life’s greatest challenges sometimes lead to some of our most inspiring adventures. Such was the case for Alisa Clickenger, who discovered the empowering potential of motorcycle travel in the wake of a difficult divorce in 2009, when she rolled out on a solo, seven-month motorcycle trek from Connecticut to Argentina. Since then, she has ridden all across America and throughout Europe, India, Israel, and southern Africa. “Through riding motorcycles, I’ve uncovered my life’s purpose: helping other women build their confidence, access their inner wisdom, and build lives they love while being their authentic selves,” Clickenger wrote in her 2019 book, Boost Your Confidence Through Motorcycling.
True to her mission, in 2011, Clickenger founded Women’s Motorcycle Tours, a touring company that seeks to give women the support and motivation they need to embrace two-wheeled travel through female-led domestic motorcycle trips. Clickenger is now organizing the Suffragists Centennial Motorcycle Ride: From July 31 to August 23, 2020, the cross-country motorcycle ride will pay homage to the 100-year anniversary of the signing of the 19th amendment. The ride is dedicated to all women who have ever fought for equality and comes just as women across the country once again prepare to exercise the right they fought so hard for. —M.B.