There are plenty of “Hot Travel Destination” lists circulating, even though the dust has settled a bit on looks forward. As we field questions about our own favorite destinations, most memorable experiences and where we recommend people to travel this year, we thought we’d add a twist to the traditional travel lists and share some places that might not be on your travel radar — but maybe should be.
In travel marketing speak, one might call these emerging, recovery or even under-discovered destinations. But in our experience, they are simply fascinating places that travelers are either unaware of or actively avoid from a travel perspective. They are the sort of destinations that push you emotionally, sometimes physically, and always challenge you mentally — all with the result of returning you from your trip with a different view of the world and quite often with a different view of yourself.
Here's the caveat. These places are not for everyone; they are not a universal fit for travel goals and style. They are the sorts of destinations in which things may not always go as planned; hotels and transport can even be a bit rough. Much time is spent outside the proverbial comfort zone in attempts to immerse yourself in a new culture, comprehend challenging socio-economic circumstances and process the stimuli swirling about you. Some days can even feel difficult.
But there is a payoff. If you were to sit down with us over a beer and ask: “I want to go somewhere different from what I'm accustomed to. I'd like a place that will make me think, feel and question some of my assumptions about the world and myself. Someplace not very well touristed, with a bit adventure and the unknown. Where would you suggest I go?”
Here's where we might suggest you go.
Update January 2017: We began this article with eight offbeat or unconventional destinations and will continue to update as we discover more such places.
Why: To experience a country that is over 90% mountainous and littered with stunning landscapes. Add to that, a taste of traditional nomadic culture with a bit of a Soviet hangover, and you have the makings of a unique yet approachable destination. This makes Kyrgyzstan a great fit for trekkers and outdoor types, as well as those interested in culture and off-beat experiences. There is a terrific community-based tourism network throughout the country that makes it easy to connect and interact with locals. These networks can also organize mountain treks on horseback, homestays, and overnight yurt experiences.
Read more on Kyrgyzstan:
- Experiential Guide to Karakol, Kyrgyzstan: 25 Ideas to Get You Started
- An Experiential Travel Guide to Osh, Kyrgyzstan: 20 Ideas to Get You Started
- Issyk-Kul South Shore, Kyrgyzstan Experiential Travel Guide: 20 Ideas to Get Started
- Offbeat Trekking in Kyrgyzstan: Jyrgalan Trek, A Beginner’s Guide
- The World Nomad Games: An Experiential Guide
Why: To travel to a country where the on-the-ground travel experience couldn't be more different than impressions left by the news. Iran also features some of the most impressive historical sites we've ever seen (including 19 UNESCO sites). Visiting 2500-year-old Persepolis, once the capital of ancient Persia, is a lesson not only in the strength of the Persian Empire, but a perspective regarding how civilizations and power come and go. Eyeball-bending Persian design and architecture that holds the gaze can't be missed either.
In addition to Iran's Big Three (Shiraz, Esfahan and Yazd), expand your sense of the country with a visit to the northwestern part of Iran for even more surprises like fairy chimney villages and Armenian monasteries.
And again, it comes down to people. That's what may surprise you most about Iran.
Note: Obtaining a tourist visa for citizens from the United States, Canada and United Kingdom can be tricky. Be sure to check out this article on how to get an Iranian visa (including the vast comment thread) for all you need to know.
How we did this trip: Discover Persia Tour
Read more on Iran:
- Midnight Express: Iran to Turkey by Train
- Western Iran Snapshots
- A Flight to Tehran: The Full Story
- Iran Photo Essays
3. Republic of Georgia
Why: Despite all the history and remarkable mountain landscapes, the Republic of Georgia, at its very best, comes back to the Georgian people. Cross hospitality-obsessed with crazy gregarious and you’ve got a sense of the Georgian people. Add to this beautiful mountain ranges, a culturally and architecturally eclectic capital city, some of the most spiritual churches we’ve experienced, and incredible food.
Then you'll understand why Georgia is one of our favorite places in the world. We joke that in Georgia, one doesn’t need to make plans as the people you meet seem to create the adventures for you.
Read more on Georgia:
- Blue Eyes, Gold Teeth: Fabled Land of the Svans
- Manana to Mania: Rules of the Georgian Road
- A Surprising Feast in Zugdidi
- Georgia Photo Essays
Why: Stunning and often surreal landscapes blended with a strong indigenous culture. For various reasons, travelers often skip Bolivia in favor of its neighbors — Peru, Argentina, Chile — when making their way through South America. For Americans, some say it’s because of the visa fees and paperwork, but Bolivia is more than worth the extra spend and brief bit of bureaucracy. The Salar de Uyuni and in particular the journey from Tupiza features some of the world’s most beautiful and otherworldly landscapes with green lakes, Dali-esque rock formations and the mind-bending salt flats. And although you'll see tourists around the Salar, you see much less throughout the rest of the country.
We recommend stopping by Lake Titicaca and taking a hike around Isla del Sol, Tarija in the south for a taste of the Bolivian wine scene, Potosi to understand the realities of mining on people and communities, Sucre for a beautiful colonial city and La Paz for the capital with the most dramatic mountain backdrop. Personally, I'd love to return to Bolivia to take on some of these treks.
Read more on Bolivia:
- Bolivia First Impressions
- Bolivia: Travel to Love or Travel to Learn?
- Cocaine: A Story that Begins in the Bolivian Jungle
- Bolivia Photo Essays
Why: Ancient rock-hewn churches carved from below ground, remarkable mountain landscapes, castles, ridiculously large plates of delicious local food. Need we say more? Ethiopia surprised us in so many ways, especially with its depth of history and culture dating back over 2,000 years to the Aksumite civilization and the adoption of Christianity in 330 A.D. (the 2nd Christian nation in the world). One could feel a direct connection between Ethiopia's past and present through its adherence to ritual. We also weren't expecting to be awed by its mountains and trekking options available in the Simien and Gheralta Mountains.
How we did this trip: Highlights of Ethiopia Tour
Read more on Ethiopia:
- Ethiopia: First Impressions
- Ancient Rock-Carved Churches of Lalibela
- An Overview of Ethiopian Cuisine
- Ethiopia Photo Essays
Why: To truly get off the tourist path and immerse yourself in a sea of humanity. We're certain there are more tourists now, but during our five-week visit there a couple of years ago, we saw a total of five tourists. Bangladesh is funky. It’s intense. It’s Bangladesh. And the country actually offers more diversity in sights and experiences that you might first expect, from UNESCO pre-Moghul mosques and cycling through tea estates to tracking tigers in mangrove forests and visiting ethnic minority areas.
But it's the human interactions — and boy, are there a lot of them — that make visiting Bangladesh such a unique experience.
Read more on Bangladesh:
- Bangladesh Beginner's Guide
- Travel Jeopardy: What is Bangladesh?
- Bangladesh Faces: Frequently Asked Questions and the People Who Ask Them
- Bangladesh Village Homestay
- Bangladesh Photo Essays
7. Pamir Highway and Mountains (Tajikistan/Kyrgyzstan)
Why: To enjoy a road trip adventure in a mountainous region that not only stands out for the severity and beauty of its landscape, but also shines for the colorful, hospitable and fascinating Pamiri people who live there. The Pamir Highway, roughly speaking, begins in southern Kyrgyzstan and winds its way through Tajikistan, passing by some of the most spectacular scenery we’ve seen on our around the world journey thus far. As tourism infrastructure in this area ranges from little to none you'll likely stay and eat with Pamiri families most of the time, one of the great joys of this journey.
Note: There's more in our Pamir Highway slideshow for BBC Travel.
Read more on the Pamir Mountains:
- Scraping the Pamir Mountains with Tajik Air [VIDEO]
- Pamir Stories and Highlights
- Pamir Mountains Photo Essays
Why: Because Haiti is surprising, complicated and fascinating. Sure, the country has some beautiful white-sand beaches, but it's the artists, musicians, waterfalls, hilltop fortresses, cave networks and the mysteries of Vodou that will likely leave the most lasting impressions on you. Although Haiti is only 1.5 hours away from Miami by air and shares the same island landmass as popular vacation destination Dominican Republic, it only sees a relative handful of travelers each year. At least for now.
How we did this trip: Highlights of Haiti Tour
Read more on Haiti:
Why: Whether you are a beach buff or feel more at home in the mountains, Albania has some incredible landscapes and experiences for both types of people. For decades this southern European country was closed off to the rest of the world, but no longer. If you enjoy trekking and the outdoors, Albania offers some challenging climbs and stunning views through the Accursed Mountains (also known as the Albanian Alps) through the villages of Theth and Valbona. Mt Talijanka and the granite peaks of the Karanfil Mountains on the border with Montenegro offer more incredible panoramas. Our modified Peaks of the Balkan Trek took us through these mountains while staying with local families and shepherds along the way.
When you've had your fill of the mountains then head south on Albania's Adriatic Coast for blue waters and relatively empty beaches at Sarandë, Vlora or nearby. The impressive UNESCO site of Butrint with Greek and Roman ruins reminds us of the layers of civilization in this region.
Read more on Albania:
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Why: To enjoy three branches of the Andean Mountain Range and the Sierra Nevadas, the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea, with rain forests, indigenous ruins, coffee plantations and colonial cities along the way. Not too long ago Colombia was known for drugs, FARC and Pablo Escobar, but the country has been experiencing stability these last years and more areas have opened up to travelers. The size and diversity of experiences in Colombia are far beyond what you may have ever imagined (or, at least what we had known about).
And then there are the Colombian people – friendly, fun and open – are also remarkably diverse from one corner of the country to the other. We visited for a month and left with an even longer wish list of places we'd like to visit.
How we did this trip: Colombia Journey Tour and Lost City Trek
Read more on Colombia:
- An Experiential Travel Guide to Colombia: 25 Ideas to Get You Started
- Travel to Colombia: First Impressions
- The Lost City Trek, Colombia: All You Need to Know