How to safely go where no one has gone before
Access and affordability have created an array of travel options, allowing Average Joe and Ordinary Jane to enjoy an African safari, an ecotour of the Amazon, or a bike trip through Baja. But it’s still a hazardous world.
It used to be that “vacation” was synonymous with “relaxation.” Time off meant lazing on the beach in Nassau, driving down the Pacific Coast Highway, perhaps visiting the Magic Kingdom. Before the world became a global village, it seemed that adventure travel—an off-the-beaten-path, into-the-wilds journey—was limited to wealthy or weathered eccentrics. But times have changed. Access and affordability have created an array of options, allowing Average Joe and Ordinary Jane to enjoy an African safari, an ecotour of the Amazon, or a bike trip through Baja.
But despite the increased ease of adventure travel, there is still an inherent risk in traveling to exotic places. “It sort of goes with the territory,” says Jerry Mallett, president of the Adventure Travel Society. “That’s part of the reason why some people go—the adrenaline rush. I used to have a buddy who ran a tour out of Belize and into Guatemala. When he loaded his people up, he’d tell them, ‘We’ll be robbed by a group of guerrillas today. How much money would you like to spend?’"
While the action may be part of the attraction, several recent, widely publicized incidents show how risk can sometimes evolve into terrifying danger. In March, a group of 31 tourists visited Uganda’s Bwindi National Park to observe endangered mountain gorillas. They were overrun by a band of Rwandan Hutu rebels hoping to draw attention to U.S. and British support of the Tutsi government. Eight of the tourists—two Americans, two Britons, and four New Zealanders—were eventually killed.
Three weeks later, in Colombia, four American bird-watchers were taken captive by guerrilla members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. One escaped after 10 days; the other three were released after a month. They were lucky: Only four months earlier, in Yemen, four kidnapped tourists were killed when Yemenite security forces stormed the terrorists’ stronghold.
Although crime and civil strife are often to blame when adventure travel turns terrifying, Mother Nature (a.k.a. Mommy Dearest) also threatens travelers. On the slopes of Mount Washington, in New Hampshire, 87 people have lost their lives to hypothermia, avalanches, and other mishaps in the past 50 years. Many of these deaths were preventable. Yet unwitting adventurers still set out to climb the mountain with only a sweater and a canteen by way of preparation.
Certainly these incidents are far removed from the experiences of the vast majority of adventure travelers. But they serve as a sobering reminder: When planning any outing into the outback, safety precautions should be paramount.
Do Your Homework
Uprisings and terrorist attacks may seem unpredictable, but warning signs do exist. For instance, Yemen had a track record of violence long before the terrorist incident, with more than 100 kidnappings in the past decade alone.
Knowing such recent history is vital to an informed travel decision, as is being familiar with the cities you’ll be visiting, the international airports you’ll be using—even the regions surrounding your destination country. Few sources are more useful for this sort of research than the U.S.
State Department  (202-647-5225), which provides updated travel warnings about, for instance, protests in Jamaica or volcanic activity in Cameroon. They also cover entry requirements, religious and political extremists, areas of instability, road safety, and medical facilities for hundreds of destinations.
Check Up On Health
While you’re brushing up on sociopolitics, keep in mind that cholera and typhoid fever have no political agenda—and their prevention requires more than just avoiding the water. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Web
site  contains health information by region and country, including notices of outbreaks, risks, and recommended vaccines and precautions. Similar information is available on their 24-hour traveler’s hotline (888-232-3228).
Another sound precaution is to sign up for free membership in the International Association for Medical Assistance to Travelers  (716-754-4883). Benefits include access to a directory of qualified physicians in more than 125 countries, a world immunization chart, and information on malaria, schistosomiasis, and Chagas’ disease. If you’ll be heading into the wilds, also visit www.gorp.com/gorp/health/main.htm , an online clearinghouse for outdoor safety information—from identifying toxic plants and treating snakebite to avoiding Lyme disease and altitude sickness.
In addition to understanding political strife and natural dangers, visitors should be informed about local customs, particularly regarding appearance. Don’t expect rules and regulations from home to apply abroad, and remember that cultural values may vary widely, even within a single country. As Sergio Ballivian, president of Explore Bolivia, explains, “In Bolivia, it’s not a good thing for women to walk around in shorts in the highlands, but it’s totally acceptable in the lowlands.” Similarly, in India, public displays of affection are perfectly acceptable in large cities, but not in the smaller villages.
Guidebooks can be excellent resources for safety and cultural considerations. For instance, Lonely Planet books will tell you that unrelated men and women are not expected to sit beside each other on public transportation in Turkey, that you should never touch another person with your feet in India, and that you should beware of thieves masquerading as hitchhikers in Morocco.
Start a Conversation
Despite the abundance of electronic and print information, perhaps the best—and most convincing—education comes from fellow travelers. A book may explain that it’s cold in the Tunisian desert after sunset, but hearing a firsthand account of a shivering, sleepless night is what will convince you to pack your long underwear.
“Try to talk to people who have been to your destination recently—not 20 years ago,” Ballivian says. “Find out what areas they did or didn’t consider safe and how they got around the place.” Again, the Web is an easy place to locate such experts. On Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree , you can post questions for fellow travelers and join in discussions. If you are traveling independently, you also can locate possible travel partners in the Traveling Companions section. Another prime meeting spot for travelers is the Find a Travel Partner section on the Rough Guides Web site . Of course, be aware of the risks of meeting people online, but don’t overlook the potential educational advantages, either.
Join the Group
Although it doesn’t replace pretrip research, traveling with a tour company is a great way to get firsthand expertise and the safety of traveling in numbers. That is, if you go with reputable, well-established operators. Before you sign on, ask a few questions. How long have they been operating? What is their safety record? Do they use local guides or do they bring in outside leaders who may be experts on white-water rafting but have limited knowledge of regional problems?
Most important, talk with someone who has used the company before. “Ask the company for the names of three people,” says Marybeth Bond, director of public relations for Overseas Adventure Travel. “If they can’t give them to you, they’re not a reputable operator. And don’t go with anyone who hasn’t run your particular trip for at least a year. You don’t want to be on the first one. They’re still working out the problems, and they don’t know where the dangerous areas are.”
Of course, sometimes there is an attraction to being first. Just be certain the company has all of their emergency and medical systems in place. “If I were going on a trip that a company had never run before, I’d make sure that the people leading it have been in the area many times,” says Dan Braun, part owner of Southern Yosemite Mountain Guides. “So much of guiding is about confidence. You can have all the skills in the world, but confidence plays into leadership.” Good tour guides are essential to your safety. Find out their qualifications, how many years they’ve worked in the region in question, and the extent of their local knowledge.
Prospective travelers should also have a complete understanding of the company’s terms and conditions. Find out what is and isn’t provided regarding lodging, guides, evacuations—anything integral to your safety and peace of mind. If the company is providing gear, for instance, ask how old it is, how they maintain it, and if it can be exchanged should it fit improperly.
You may feel nitpicky or overly cautious, but in the end, you’ll set out on your adventure knowing everything you can about your health and safety. Along the road less traveled, that can make all the difference.
Safe Travel Tips
Do: Keep your appearance conservative and understated. Leave the pearls and the orange Polartech jacket at home.
Make multiple copies of your passport and other official documents. Leave some with friends or family at home; distribute the rest throughout your luggage.
Listen to your guides. If they tell you to drink to stave off dehydration, drink. If they tell you to cover your curvy parts, cover.
Arrive in a strange destination at night or without proper transportation from the airport.
Carry around a huge wad of cash. Instead, bring traveler’s checks and keep them in a money belt under your clothing.
Carry your camera in an obvious camera bag. Avoid taking pictures of government buildings or military sites. Photographing locals without their permission also is a no-no.
A Word From the Weiss
Richard Weiss is the president of Mountain Travel-Sobek in El Cerrito, California. His company, which leads trips everywhere from Antarctica to Everest Base Camp, has been in the adventure travel business for 30 years. VIA recently spoke with Weiss about his thoughts on the subject.
VIA: What’s the attraction of adventure travel?
Weiss: People have become more interconnected, having cell phones in their cars and on their hips, E-mail in airports. People’s downtime has become so rare that when they can get away there is this urge to go where they will be out of touch, where they will have this experience that is totally other.
VIA: What are the Golden Rules of safe adventure travel?
Weiss: First, choose your trips wisely. One reason the Ugandan tragedy made the news it did is because these things happen so infrequently. If you go with companies that have established histories and systems in place, almost 100 percent of the time you’ll be safe.
VIA: Anything else?
Weiss: One way people get in harm’s way is from disease. If you call sensible resources like the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, you can avoid areas of serious health problems. And you don’t have to cancel trips unnecessarily. We had people during the Ebola virus outbreak [in Zaire in 1995], for example, canceling trips to Morocco. It’s like saying there are problems with the New York City water system so you’re not going to Denver.
VIA: What’s the advantage of taking an adventure trip with a group, rather than mapping it out for yourself?
Weiss: Going with a company like ours is not for everybody. There are people who are very competent in creating their own itinerary, in getting their own gear together, and in mapping out a route. Those people should do that.
We’ve been in the business for 30 years and we’re blessed with an extraordinary collection of leaders. These leaders bring to the customer a level of understanding, a level of cultural contact, of safety, which is very difficult to get by oneself.
VIA: Where will the hot adventure travel trips be in five years?
Weiss: When I look back five years, I think of the places that were completely dead, like Peru, which was recovering from the Shining Path. Now Peru is booming.
So, what’s going to be hot? I see the places that have been remote becoming more familiar, so there’ll be more people going to Nepal but staying closer to Kathmandu. I see that outer-edge group, which is constantly looking for the new places, going deeper maybe into unexplored South America or deeper into the desert in West Africa.
VIA: Why do people knowingly dance with danger?
Weiss: I heard [Everest director of photography] David Breashears speak last night. He was talking about the 1996 tragedy on Everest and the reason his IMAX film crew went back to do the filming, even though they were depressed after eight people died. He said something I think is a metaphor for why a lot of people do this type of travel: You don’t go to the mountain to meet death; you go to the mountain to affirm life.
This article was first published in July 1999. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.