Venturing off the beaten path is adventure enough for some, but beating down the path itself is for a special breed. For these alpha tourists, the joy of travel is in getting there before the people who wear Mickey Mouse sweatshirts do.
These destinations are poised to become vacation hot spots in the next few years but for now are still ripe for path-beaters to explore. You might have trouble getting around — or even to — your destination without a bit of the language or a local friend to help you out, but good stories are what alpha tourists bring home — not T-shirts.
Ever wish you could have visited Tibet before the Chinese invaded it? Consider Bhutan. It’s also a small Himalayan country on the Chinese-Indian border, and like Tibet, the majority of its citizens are Buddhist.
What’s more, it’s been described at the happiest place on earth: Since 1974, it has actually measured the country’s success with the GNH — Gross National Happiness — a holistic measuring system invented by the king that incorporates not only economic growth but also culture preservation, sustainable use of the environment and good governance.
Plastic bags and tobacco are banned, but you won’t find a single beggar or homeless person on the streets. Education and medical care are free for all citizens.
Known in its native language as Druk Yul, or Land of the (Peaceful) Dragon, Bhutan’s absolute monarchy is adopting a constitution in 2008, making it a particularly exciting time for Westerners to explore it and its happy people.
Just make sure to book a trek (hiking, biking, bird-watching and culture itineraries all available) in advance, as the terrain, while beautiful, requires guidance from an expert.
Taktshang Monastery: In English, it translates to “Tiger’s Nest.” This Buddhist temple sits on a 1,200-meter cliff just outside of Paro.
Thimphu Tsetsu: This multi-day festival is the largest cultural event in the country and happens every September. The four days of dance have sacred meaning, and many Buddhists believe participating in it to be a purification of mind.
Archery: It’s the national sport of Bhutan and not hard to find in any village on weekends.
Those looking for a Central American resort with yoga, golf and minimal Spanish required, head to Costa Rica.
Nicaragua, however, is still cheap with vast areas of land not owned by expats. It’s the second-poorest nation in Central America (after Haiti), so there are places to avoid (Managua, the capital) and lots of petty theft, but you’ll also find a few gems unlike anywhere on earth.
Ometepe: This island, about an hour off the coast of Lake Nicaragua (freshwater sharks!), was created by an isthmus of two volcanoes. One is dormant, one active, and you can hire a guide to climb either. Rent a bike for about $4 a day to explore pristine swimming holes, beaches, organic farms tilled with volcanic ash, bright blossom trees and species of bird that don’t exist on the mainland.
Granada: This colorful colonial town already boasts a few luxury hotels, but also Spanish-style cathedrals, cobblestone roads and kayaking along Lake Nicaragua.
San Juan del Sur: Consistent Pacific waves have turned this one-time fishing village into a surfing Mecca with decent nightlife. It’s no Tamarindo (generally considered the Cancun of Costa Rica, and just over the border from San Jan del Sur), but that’s the point: you’ll spend save more than half your cash, and the breaks are relatively uncrowded.
The Corn Islands: True alpha tourists go where the roads barely do. You’ll have to take a small (but commercial) plane, or else spend all day and night negotiating a bus/taxi/ferry combo. The two Caribbean islands (Big Corn and Little Corn) are a former British colony, where the black-skinned, blue-eyed descendants speak English and enjoy year-round 85-degree weather. Snorkel around uncounted pirate shipwrecks and find cold rum on the street for just a few dollars.
Borat’s country? Yes.
Sacha Baron Cohen’s character may have lifted Kazakhstan from its general obscurity as another former Soviet republic, but in recent years the nation has seen as huge rise in oil money. Which means a huge rise in luxury hotels, five-star restaurants and exotic nightlife in Almaty, its largest city.
A constant Dubai comparison floats above it like a cloud in the sky, and rightfully so: It’s a great place to smoke a water pipe and plan your excursions to mountain glaciers, national parks and medieval ruins along the Silk Road — the old trade route from China to Europe.
On these treks, you might have to swap the fancy cocktails and high-thread count sheets in Almaty for a hut and some fermented camel milk.
Also, take the train. You’re likely to get pulled into an impromptu vodka party and a round of 20 (or more) questions from locals wanting to get to know you.
Charyn Canyon: The second-largest in the world, the canyon is also known as “Castle Canyon,” since the shapes formed look like the towers of a Disney castle.
Tamgaly Petroglyphs: Archaeologists estimate the rock paintings here span 20 centuries of civilization, starting with sun-god worship all the way up to Buddhist images of more recent times.
Chimbulak: Techincally, it’s a ski resort. But go in summer for a challenging hike up the mountain – keep going past the resort, and you’ll hit the dam and then an impressive mountain glacier.
Silk Road ruins: Otrar and Taraz are two sites to consider; the former flourished around the 11th century, and the latter is more than 2,000 years old. You’ll find city gates, citadels, forts and ancient mausoleums.
Adventure-seekers have already trailed Vietnam and Cambodia.
And while Laos has seen a couple of upscale hotels pop up — like the Residence Phou Vao and its infinity pool — there’s still plenty of territory with little Western influence.
Though 10 percent of the country lives in the capital city, Vietaine, its lack of modern architecture has preserved an Asian village feel — though the gilded temples are offset by French colonial architecture.
Mekong River: Charter a teak houseboat and float through the countryside along Southeast Asia’s longest river. Tours range from three to 18 days and must be booked in advance.
Wat Phou: Six kilometers from the Mekong in southern Laos, this ruined Khmer temple complex dates back to the eleventh century. The name translates to “temple on the mountain,” as it sits at the base of Mt. Phu Kao.
Luang Prabang: You can walk just about anywhere in this tiny mountain town, though bikes are available for a cheap day rate. Flanked by mountains and bisected by the Mekong River, the scenery is beautiful as its Royal Palace Museum, once the home of the king before communist takeover.
Kuang Si Falls: Find a day’s worth of swimming, river hiking and picnicking at these beautiful waterfalls, just about an hour by boat or tuk-tuk from Luang Prabang. Under the jungle canopy, the climate is quite a bit cooler than in the nearby city.
Just five years ago, you might be asked by an intrepid local how much you’d like for the name-brand jeans you’re wearing. Now, you can’t afford to buy jeans in Moscow.
Like the rest of Eartern Europe, Moscow seems an obvious choice, but the rise of capitalism makes now an exciting time to visit what’s just become the world’s most expensive city.
Twentysomethings who can remember standing in line for a loaf of bread are discovering once obscure traditions like Halloween for the first time. That surge of energetic newness combined with the grittiness of the recent past has created a nightlife scene that attracts the world’s best DJs, yet still maintains an underground feel — not unlike the urban rave culture in ’90s Detroit.
Lenin’s tomb: The cavernous mausoleum, featuring a perfectly preserved body, is smack-dab in the middle of Red Square.
The Kremlin: It’s bigger than you think.
KGB Museum: Tour photographs and torture equipment with a former agent as your guide. By appointment only.
Sanduny Banya: Roughly $50 will get you into the Moscow’s oldest and most famous bath house, where you can sit naked in a hot steam room for a couple hours and maybe get a pal to whip you with birch twigs.