Head off the typical tourist trail to explore these surprising destinations.
By Tara Isabella Burton
The Situation on the Ground: Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the tiny Caucasus country of Armenia has often been associated with conflict. The country’s Nagorno-Karabakh war with Azerbaijan over a 1,700-square-mile patch of land each claim as their own ended with a cease-fire in 1994, with Armenia technically in military control of the ethnically Armenian territory, which currently exists as a self-proclaimed, largely unrecognized republic. Despite occasional skirmishes along the Karabakh border, however, Armenia today is safe, with a burgeoning tourist infrastructure, largely centered around family-run B&Bs and agrotourism-style homestays, designed to attract adventurous backpackers to the country’s staggering and often unheralded natural and architectural beauty.
Why Go Now: Few people know that Armenia was the first country in the world to adopt Christianity as a state religion, in A.D. 301. And Armenia’s ancient churches—massive, sprawling complexes of ruins nestled into the wildly green canyons and mountaintops of the countryside—are among the world’s best preserved. While other Christian churches are decorated with painted frescoes, many of which have faded or been destroyed, the carved stone lions of cliffside Geghard Monastery and intricately carved khachkars (stone graves) of Sanahin stand as a testament to the creative power of one of the world’s oldest, and least heralded, civilizations. And Armenia’s churches aren’t the only attraction of its countryside. The wildflower-dappled hills and valleys here—far more accessible than the vertiginous mountain paths of Georgia—are full of pagan temples like Garni, just outside Yerevan, and cobblestoned “spa towns” like Dilijan, nicknamed “Armenia’s Switzerland.”
Don’t Miss: Most tourists concentrate their activities around Yerevan, the country’s muted, largely Soviet-era, capital. But a half-day’s drive from Yerevan ($50 with a reliable taxi driver), is the town of Goris, set among caves and cliffs in Armenia’s verdant south and among the country’s most spectacular. Winding hikes through the historic village take you through the cave villages of Old Khndzoresk, while a short bus ride takes you to the ninth-century mountaintop stone monastery of Tatev, once a capital of Armenian culture and learning, accessible by one of the world’s longest cable cars. In the heart of Goris, an eccentric mountaineer runs Khachik’s B&B (from $20 per night, including meals), a homestay with nightly home-cooked meals, garnished with fresh herbs, boasting terrace views over Old Goris.
Practical Tip: While violence at the Nagorno-Karabakh border is uncommon, the occasional flare-up can turn fatal, so it’s vital to be aware of the situation on the ground before traveling south, particularly to Goris or Tatev, which are near the border. If you’re planning to visit Azerbaijan after Armenia, be aware that border control may take a dim view of your prior travels and may even encourage you to get rid of offending photographs (or guidebooks). If Azeri officials suspect you of having visited Nagorno-Karabakh, furthermore, you may be denied access to the country entirely.
The Situation on the Ground: Petty crime. Carjackings. Muggings. Drugs. Central America’s reputation hasn’t been the most sterling in recent years, as spillover from both Mexico and South America’s drug trades has rendered the region a focal point for narcotics-related violence. And the stereotype’s not too far off for some of Nicaragua’s neighbors–Honduras and Guatemala are among the world’s most violent countries, while even statistically safer countries like Costa Rica and Panama have seen a spike in murder rates in the past decade. But Nicaragua–despite being among Latin America’s poorest countries—is also among its safest. Its murder rate is only 11 per 100,000 people (compared with 82 in Honduras). Nicaragua’s relative paucity of gang-related violence makes it an ideal vantage point from which to explore the Central American culture.
Why Go Now: While Nicaraguan’s two coastlines–the country borders both the Caribbean and the Pacific–have long made its shores a haven for beach- (and bacchanal-) minded travelers, recent government investment in infrastructure, including a new highway, in the lesser known, largely rural Río San Juan region has opened up the province as a prime eco-tourism destination. Toucans flutter through ferns in the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve, a riotously colorful nature park populated by wild boars, macaws, and even manatees; in the garden of the nearby Río Indio Adventure Lodge (from $185 per person), one of several newly opened eco-lodges in the area, monkeys watch over the breakfast buffet.
Don’t Miss: Though outsiders often reduce Central American food to rice and beans, Nicaraguan cuisine is justly renowned for its fusion of Spanish, Creole, and South American influences. Don’t leave Nicaragua without trying vigerón—smooth boiled yucca topped with slabs of crispy fried pork skin and cabbage slaw, eaten greedily with the fingers—or nacatamales, the Nicaraguan variation of the tamale: plantain leaves stuffed with cornmeal dough, meats, rice, and earthy, bright-red achiote powder.
Practical Tip: While Nicaragua’s crime rate is significantly lower than that of many of its neighbors, it’s important to stay vigilant, particularly in Managua, Nicaragua’s capital. Tourists who tread too far off the beaten path may be targeted; if you can, hire a local guide—someone savvy enough to chart your course through unfamiliar urban areas or smooth over any potentially hostile interactions. The Viva Spanish School in Managua, which also provides official Spanish tuition to U.S. Embassy staff, offers several guiding and tour programs—from day trips to nature reserves to morning visits to Roberto Huembes market—from as little as $20.
The Situation on the Ground: Although Kathmandu—and Nepal—have long attracted adventurous travelers, the country’s April 2015 earthquake, which killed 8,000 and wrought about $10 billion (half of Nepal’s GDP) in damages, decimated the country’s tourism industry. Kathmandu’s Durbar Square, a UNESCO-listed compound of palaces dating back as far as the tenth century, was partially destroyed, as was another of Kathmandu’s iconic structures: the 19th-century Dharahara tower.
A year later, however, Nepal’s situation is, if not what it once was, then nonetheless stable. And although several of Kathmandu’s most famous tourist structures have been damaged or destroyed by the earthquake, others—like the fifth-century Pashupatinath Temple and the relic-containing stupa of Boudhanath, now undergoing restorations—remain largely, if not entirely, intact.
Why Go Now: Power may not be a constant (nor are paved roads) but for travelers willing to sacrifice a degree of comfort for a sense of adventure, Nepal’s draw remains. Nepal’s economy, deeply reliant on the tourism trade, is more in need than ever of visitors. While the earthquake has damaged Nepal’s man-made structures, its mountain trails—including the legendary Annapurna Circuit through the snowcapped shadow of the Himalaya—remain accessible. Only two of Nepal’s 35 listed trails have been rerouted as a result of earthquake damage, and as early as last summer, all of the Annapurna trail’s bridges were successfully tested for safety.
Don’t Miss: If you’re not up to a seven-day trek in the Himalayan wilderness, Kathmandu has a range of more sedate activities on offer. The tradition of the Himalayan singing bowls—bell-like structures historically rung before, during, or after periods of Buddhist meditation—has a long history in Nepal. Cultural centers like the Kathmandu Center of Healing offer three-day intensive bowl workshops (from $300) where you can learn the art of playing the bowls to make them “sing.”
Practical Tip: While trekking in Nepal has been relatively unaffected by the country’s earthquake, extreme travel isn’t without its dangers. Altitude sickness is a very real risk on the Annapurna trail, which ascends to up to 17,762 feet above sea level. Plan ahead, pacing your increases in altitude and taking rest days along the way to acclimatize. Though mild responses to altitude increase are normal, more severe cases can be fatal. Descend immediately if you show any severe signs of acute mountain sickness, including shortness of breath while at rest, decreased consciousness, or coughing up blood.
The Situation on the Ground: Until recently, visiting Iran was an all but unrealizable proposition for the average American. Chilly diplomatic relations (or the lack thereof)—including a trade embargo—and the aftermath of the 2011 demonstrations rendered Iran both inaccessible and relatively dangerous; Americans could get a visa to visit Iran, a lengthy and onerous process, only in the full-time company of a licensed tour operator or guide.
But this year’s landmark nuclear deal between the United States and Iran has made Iran more accessible than ever for American travelers. While visa rules remain restrictive—expect to still travel with guides—the government is showing some signs of laxity: electronic visa filing is expected to come into effect this year for some countries, while the length of a typical tourist visa has been extended from 15 to 30 days. In the wake of its nuclear deal, Iran is publicizing a battery of infrastructure projects designed to boost tourism and foreign investment, including the arrival of branches of the Ibis and Novotel hotel chains in Iran.
Why Go Now: Since the nuclear deal, Iran’s 19 UNESCO World Heritage sites—from the staggeringly massive ruins of Persepolis, once the capital of the Persian Achaemenid Empire, to the intricately carved 18th-century Golestan Palace in Tehran to the rose gardens and meticulously painted tile facades of 16th-century capital Isfahan—are more accessible than ever. The former seat of some of the Middle East and Central Asia’s most illustrious dynasties is filled with architectural, not to mention natural, splendor. And while Americans are still a rarity (3,400 visitors came in 2014, up from only 1,800 in 2013) your novelty may prove advantageous: Iran’s jovial hospitality culture all but demands extravagant welcomes (and unsolicited piles of food) for unfamiliar guests.
Don’t Miss: According to generations of Iranian brides–who have chosen the spot as the country’s most popular honeymoon destination–Iran’s most romantic destination is Yazd, one of its swath of “desert cities” a four-hour bus ride from Isfahan. The fourth-century city, once a capital of the Zoroastrian religion, is a labyrinth of sandstone houses and ancient Persian, pre-Islamic sites, such as the Zoroastrian Tower of Silence and the Atash Kadeh, a fire temple whose flame is purported to have been burning since A.D. 470.
Practical Tip: While Iran has become increasingly welcoming to travelers of all ethnic and religious backgrounds, the expected dress code, particularly for women in public, remains Islamic, though somewhat less onerous than the traditional dress code in countries like Saudi Arabia. Women are expected to cover their hair at least in part (a headscarf is perfectly acceptable), and to wear loose-fitting clothing that covers both arms and legs (either non-fitted trousers or skirts are acceptable).
The Situation on the Ground: Europe’s newest country (it only declared independence in 2008) hasn’t exactly been a mainstay on the tourist trail. A site both of violent conflict and political tension between ethnic Serbs and Albanian Kosovars throughout the 1980s and 90s, culminating in the Kosovo War of 1998-89, Kosovo spent almost a decade as a UN protectorate. Today, however, the newly independent Kosovo is one of Europe’s most exciting—and economical—adventure travel destinations.
Why Go Now: While much has been written about the thriving café culture of Pristina, Kosovo’s relentlessly bohemian, if aesthetically dreary, capital, Kosovo’s real draw is in the country’s south. The medieval city of Prizren—a castle-topped hill town of Ottoman hammams and 14th-century basilicas—is a perfect base from which to hike (or ski) in Kosovo’s Šar Mountains, or to simply wander the city’s forested riverside behind the fortress hill. Well-preserved, without the sterility of renovated “old towns” in Balkan neighbors like Sarajevo, Prizren’s easily walkable historic district is a labyrinth of terra-cotta roofs, minarets, and red-umbrella-roofed cafés.
Don’t Miss: Negotiate—if you don’t speak Albanian, many younger Kosovars speak some English and older generations in the region speak at least a smattering of German—for a vertiginous hourlong taxi ride (about $20) from Prizren into Brod, an overgrown village of stone houses (and a single bakery) in the heart of the Šar Mountains. The heartland of the equestrian Gorani people (the village is said to have more horses than cars), Brod may not have much in the way of hotels (a taciturn old man named Biligap, discoverable by asking around, rents his somewhat dusty second home to travelers at $20 a bed), but somewhat impetuous horses (and guides, which are highly recommended) are easy to rent. The hiking and riding trails around Brod vary by the season from wildly green to crisply golden.
If roughing it doesn’t appeal, the incongruous chalet-style Hotel Arxhenais a 40-minute walk or a 10-minute drive into the mountains. It offers a resort-style experience, complete with access to ski slopes from $43, and an inexplicable flock of live garden peacocks.
Practical Tip: While off-grid hiking remains one of Kosovo’s most powerful draws, be careful not to wander too far afield. Like much of the Balkans, Kosovo’s wilderness is still home to some extant—and active—war-era landmines, particularly along the Kosovo-Albania border. Don’t head off marked paths alone.
The Situation on the Ground: Like many of the former-Soviet “stans” of Central Asia, Uzbekistan (ruled with authoritarian brutality by President Islam Karimov) has long suffered from a combination of dictatorial isolationism and intermittent terrorist threats. But despite, if not because of, Karimov’s hypervigilance, Uzbekistan is extremely safe for travelers. Once the epicenter of the legendary Silk Road, Uzbekistan is one of the most stunning, historically rich destinations in Central Asia. And for travelers willing to veer off the encouraged tourist path, it offers not just extraordinary natural and architectural beauty, but gleeful, hospitable chaos. A quiet dinner on the cross-country Soviet-style night train between Tashkent and Bukhara will more likely than not erupt into a jovial vodka-toasting party with total strangers.
Why Go Now: Uzbekistan’s main historic centers–the extraordinary blue-tiled caravanserai complexes at Bukhara and Samarkand–have undergone extensive renovation in recent years, as the government has transformed 14th-century ruins into glistening, pristine palaces; a decades-long renovation of Samarkand’s Registan Square was completed only last year. While critics decry what they see as over-restoration, Bukhara and Samarkand remain two of the most outstanding examples of urban architecture from the Islamic world and provide evocative glimpses of the centuries in which the steppes of Central Asia doubled as cosmopolitan capitals of learning, art, and trade.
Don’t Miss: Avoid the hoary “palace” architecture and English-advertised belly dancers in Uzbekistan’s more tourist-focused restaurants. The best places to sample Uzbekistan’s aromatic, lamb-sizzling dishes—plov (pilaf) in the country’s west, lagman noodles in the Chinese-influenced east—are at roadside cafés and anarchic, Soviet-influenced bazaars. In the heart of the New Bazaar in Bukhara, far from the touts selling velvet embroidery for $100 a jacket in the historic center, undecorated cafés serve different family-recipe plov out of gargantuan cauldrons stationed as olfactory advertisements right at the entrance. The blend of lamb, carrots, earthy red sumac, and rice—variously elaborated upon with quail’s eggs, garlic cloves, or even horsemeat—is decadent, if soporific.
Practical Tip: While Uzbekistan’s political situation is unlikely to affect you directly (foreign travelers are often waved through otherwise chaotic military checkpoints between provinces or at train stations), it’s unwise to engage locals in discussions about the man euphemistically known as Uzbekistan’s “first and last president.” Fear of the KGB-style National Security Service is justifiably rife, and political dissent in Uzbekistan is still punished with torture or death. Travel in politically restrictive countries can be a powerful act of cultural exchange but be mindful that the effects of your visit may linger long after you’ve boarded the plane home.
The Situation on the Ground: For decades, Albania was among southeastern Europe’s least visited—and least accessible—countries. A virtual fortress under the isolationist tactics of communist dictator Enver Hoxha (who spent four decades building over 700,000 needless, and largely useless, defensive bunkers across the country), Albania collapsed into chaos after Hoxha’s death in 1985 and the subsequent fall of the U.S.S.R.
Today, however, Albania is no less safe than its more well-trodden Adriatic counterparts. A burgeoning tourist industry—centered around its meticulously preserved UNESCO-listed Ottoman towns, including Berat and Gjirokastra, and the stretch of land now known somewhat archly as the Albanian Riviera—now brings in almost 3.5 million tourists a year.
Why Go Now: While Adriatic beaches in nearby Italy and Croatia have largely been transformed into crowded, hypermodern resort complexes, Albania’s coastal beaches, dotted with ruined Greco-Roman amphitheaters and whitewashed, icon-filled Orthodox churches, are among the few in Europe where it’s possible to stretch out on the shoreline, even during high season. South of Vlorë, the somewhat concrete-feeling coastal hub, ethnically Greek villages like Dhërmi, Vuno, and Himarë—with terrace cafés, waterside squid-hawking fishmongers, and narrow pedestrianized pathways—are inundated with family-run B&Bs that go for as little as $25 a night. Travelers from outside the Balkans are still rare but vigorously welcomed. Don’t be surprised if your B&B host insists on taking you on a dizzying motorcycle tour along the coastline or challenges you to a staggering rakia-drinking competition.
Don’t Miss: Albania’s relative lack of development has been a boon to its UNESCO World Heritage sites, among them the gargantuan, sprawling complex of Butrint, one of the most expansive, best preserved Greco-Roman cities in Europe. A 20-minute bus ride from the coastal city of Sarandë, near Albania’s Greek border, Butrint feels like Ephesus via Indiana Jones: a virtually deserted, largely uncordoned collection of amphitheaters and colonnades, early Christian baptisteries, Byzantine basilicas, and Roman mosaics. Halfway between Sarandë and Butrint, stop at the beach hut-style restaurant of Albiori in Ksamil village, where a local family dishes up garlicky shrimp by the bucketful, the perfect stopover for a scenic lunch.
Practical Tip: Despite an ostensibly comprehensive bus system, almost nothing in Albania runs when the online schedule says it will. Forego printed schedules by the major bus companies and embrace the anarchic, sweaty culture of the furgon–or shared minibus, especially south of Vlorë. These white vans, which travel with vague regularity along a fixed route, picking up and dropping off passengers at will along the way, may not run to time, but there’s almost always one heading near where you want to go. In the meantime, sit at one of the country’s ubiquitous station-side cafés for a staggeringly strong Albanian coffee (don’t call it “Turkish” unless you’re prepared for vociferous debate) and learn to interpret the world-weary shrug that means “it’ll get here sooner or later.”
The Situation on the Ground: For most of the past few centuries,Timor-Leste–also known as East Timor, a million-person, an ethnically distinct swath of the Timor island otherwise part of the Indonesian archipelago–was a colony of Portugal. In the 1970s, Timor sought independence from Portugal but was annexed by neighboring Indonesia in 1975.
A 1999 referendum saw East Timor’s population vote for independence, but the past decade and a half have been characterized by bloody civil war, with the country under UN administration. As of 2012, however, UN troops have finally withdrawn from the country, and the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste, as the country is formally known, is now stable and embracing its burgeoning identity as an unexpected destination for adventure tourism in Southeast Asia.
Why Go Now: Newly stable, East Timor is attracting intrepid travelers drawn to its staggering natural beauty: particularly its 100-plus miles of wildly colorful coral reef networks right off its extended, still undeveloped coasts: a rarity in a part of the world where frenetic building development threatens most coral life. Snorkeling and diving here are among the best in the world–the area has some of the most diverse maritime reef and fish varieties on earth–and daylong shore and boat diving excursions from Dili and Tutuala can still be had for as little as $45 a day.
Don’t Miss: Head to Timor in early spring for its massive, raucous Carnival season. A relatively recent addition to Timor’s cultural calendar (the festivities were first organized in 2010 by the country’s incipient Ministry of Tourism) Carnival is nevertheless an opportunity to experience the diversity of the country’s musical and dance traditions in one place—not to mention the dizzying variety of over-the-top traditional costumes on offer. The city of Dili all but closes down for the duration of Carnival, which takes place in February or March; music and dancing last until dawn.
Practical Tip: While Timor-Leste is now relatively stable, it nonetheless remains one of the world’s poorest countries, and petty crime is not unheard of. Tourism is still relatively rare here, and foreign travelers do stand out. Avoid framing yourself as a target as much as possible: avoid having expensive cameras, iPhones, and other valuables in clear view (or leaving them in a locked car). Women, in particular, should exercise extra caution if traveling alone or after dark.
The Situation on the Ground: Revolution, chaos, revolution, war, upheaval. The years since the collapse of the Soviet Union have not been uniformly good to Georgia, the balmy, vineyard-dotted Caucasian country that once doubled as an artistic Grand Tour destination for Russia’s literary élite. But in the aftermath of the country’s brief, devastating 2008 war with Russia, waves of foreign investment—only slightly stymied by the 2012 election of a right-leaning nationalist government—have transformed Georgia into a model of frenetic development.
Its once bandit-infested mountains are now awash with newly built ski slopes (and Swiss-style chalets); the crumbling art nouveau facades of its Black Sea port Batumi have been meticulously, and sometimes gaudily, restored. And with its resurgent activist arts (and nightlife) scenes, Tbilisi, its capital, has become one of Eastern Europe’s most innovative cultural capitals.
Why Go Now: The winding dirt roads and collapsed fin de siècle palaces of early 2000’s Tbilisi may have given way to a far more cosmopolitan and polished city, but Tbilisi’s anarchically bohemian spirit still suffuses its historic districts, where repurposed 19th-century chandeliers hang over finger paintings in speakeasy-style apartment bars like Café Linville. But the looming constructions of sprawling, aesthetically jarring tourist developments—including Panorama complex, the pet project of billionaire former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili—threaten the gritty beauty of Tbilisi’s Old Town, making the time to go sooner, rather than later.
Don’t Miss: A two-hour drive from Tbilisi, mountains give way to vineyards in the region of Kakheti, Georgia’s wine country. Boutique hotels like the funky Chateau Mere—where else could you find 19th-century armoires, a swimming pool, an imitation Colosseum in the garden, and photos of Fellini stars on the restaurant walls?—serve as the perfect vantage points from which to hike through the area’s hilltop medieval monasteries or to drink homemade Georgian wines for as little as $2 a bottle.
Practical Tip: Drinking in Georgia can prove a risky proposition, particularly for men, who may baffle or even offend well-meaning hosts by refusing to down every beverage offered. Hospitality culture here can border on the aggressive (think strangers abducting you to their restaurant table and insisting that you down 10 or more shots of moonshine), so be prepared to stand firm and risk disapproval if you intend to make it back to your hotel without falling over. Drinking and driving is also far too common here, so avoid driving at night—after mostsupra (feasts) have finished—or relying on the offer of a post-supra lift.
The Situation on the Ground: In the wake of the Arab Spring, Tunisia—whose January 2011 ousting of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali triggered a wave of uprisings across North Africa—hasn’t had the smoothest ride. Though compared to other countries in the region (Egypt, Libya, and Syria, for example) Tunisia has seen a somewhat less chaotic path to democracy—its first democratically elected president since the uprising, secularist Beji Caid Essebsi, remains in power—a number of small-scale terrorist attacks, including the killing of 38 at a beach resort in Sousse in June 2015, has threatened the country’s stability.
Still, the past year’s even larger-scale attacks in Paris and Brussels serve as a powerful reminder that tragedy can strike anywhere. Travel to Tunisia remains largely safe, particularly for independent travelers looking to explore the country outside its more high-traffic, congested resort areas.
Why Go Now: With its ruined imperial cities (the vast expanse of Carthage, once Rome’s great North African rival, is an easy light-rail ride from Tunis, the country’s capital) and Islamic pilgrimage sites likeKairouan, Tunisia’s seventh-century capital of Sunni Islamic learning under the illustrious Umayyad dynasty, Tunisia remains the undiscovered cultural and historical capital of North Africa. Its combination of UNESCO World Heritage sites and seafront resort towns like the walled Sfax and Hammamet make it an ideally balanced travel destination for the more intrepid traveler. And while memories of the attacks at Sousse, once Tunisia’s beach capital, might linger fresh in the minds of some travelers, the country’s tourism industry is striving to assuage concerns, ramping up security patrols on beaches and in larger hotels.
Don’t Miss: If you’re looking to avoid the congestion and stress of the mainland, the Mediterranean island of Djerba, accessible by plane and a night bus/ferry combination from Tunis, offers Tunisian culture with a distinct island flair. With its whitewashed houses and flamingo-populated nature reserves, Djerba skews younger and more bohemian than the mainland. Visit "Djerbahood," a series of street art installations in the otherwise unprepossessing town of Hara Sghira Erriadh, for a glimpse of how young Tunisian, and invited international artists, have transformed a run-down Tunisian town into a labyrinth of living art.
Practical Tip: Tunisia’s 2015 attacks—and proximity to Libya—make traveling there still daunting to some travelers. While it’s impossible to guarantee safety anywhere, avoiding more heavily trafficked sites like the Bardo Museum, site of a 2015 hostage situation, at peak hours, and seeking out smaller, family-run accommodation options like the pomegranate-filled treehouse complex Diar Abou Habibi near the oasis town of Tozeur rather than large-scale resorts usually frequented by foreigners may reduce your chances of being seen as a potential target.