“I hate when people who have just studied abroad try to talk me into doing the same thing,” a college friend of mine once told me. “Yeah, that is annoying,” I told him after I had just returned from a semester in Morocco. “But you really should.”
Studying abroad is not only a great opportunity to have some fun and learn about another culture, it’s a chance to take a giant leap outside of your comfort zone, an experience which author Michael Crichton once aptly described as “not always comfortable, but… always invigorating.”
Now, I’ve never been one to disparage others’ study abroad destinations– hell, buy me a plane ticket to London or Sydney and I’ll be there yesterday– but some places are better than others at challenging preconceptions, destroying prejudices, and introducing you to a previously unknown corner of the world.
Here are five study abroad destinations that will help you do just that:
5. Ghana Ghana is rapidly becoming West Africa’s most popular tourist stop, thanks in large part to its political, economic and social stability. Home to idyllic tropical beaches, wildlife sanctuaries featuring elephants, hippos, and monkeys, and dozens of cultural festivals every year, Ghana makes an appealing and unique study abroad destination for any student.
The University of Ghana, located near the capital Accra, is the country’s most prestigious university, and classes are taught in English, the official language of Ghana. Opportunities to learn foreign languages abound, however, as Ghana’s people speak dozens of languages including Twi, Ga, and Hausa. Just don’t expect anyone to understand you when you get back.
4. State of Chiapas, Mexico More Central American than Mexican, the state of Chiapas in southern Mexico is home to the charming colonial highland town of San Cristóbal de las Casas, headquarters of the left-wing Zapatista revolutionary movement. (A game: First one to find a wall without the group’s initials EZLN spray-painted on wins a peso.)
After a recent visit to San Cristóbal, the New York Times travel writer Matt Gross raved: “San Cristóbal was a city that had me joyously roaming its streets from morning till night. In fact, these lanes, paved with hexagonal stones, may have been the most roamable I’ve seen.”
Many more attractions await just a few hours away: the spectacular Mayan ruins at Palenque, the beautiful (and tremendously fun) waterfalls called Misol-Ha and Agua Azul (pictured above), and the fascinating town of San Juan Chamula, with its massive Sunday market and colorful church where worshippers drink (and burp) carbonated beverages on a pine-needle-covered floor to keep the evil spirits away. Yeah, that’s what I said.
3. Denmark Copenhagen, the Danish capital, is a perennial contender for the world’s “most liveable” city (if not its most affordable) and it’s easy to see why. The people are friendly and beautiful, the city is gorgeous and green, and the weather is not as bad as you think. English is widely spoken, and the University of Copenhagen has been named one of the world’s top 50 universities.
“I studied abroad in Denmark when I was sixteen,” says Gadling blogger Sean McLachlan. “It gave me an incurable case of wanderlust. Cute girls, bars open to teenagers, topless beaches– yeah, Denmark was a good place to be sixteen in.”
I’ve already sung the praises of Ecuador elsewhere (see my should-have-been-award-winning guide to the country here) but it bears repeating: There is simply no other country in the world that packs this much diversity into such a small space. The Andes Mountains, the Galapagos Islands, the Amazonian jungle, the beautiful, historic (and fun!) city of Quito, and the seaside surf town of Montañita– they’re all within a country smaller than the state of Nevada.
1. Morocco Despite being located only eight miles from Spain, Morocco is worlds away in terms of culture, language, and cuisine. Casablanca might be North Africa’s most cosmopolitan city, while two hours south, Marrakesh offers travelers one of the world’s largest markets and the spectacular Djemaa el Fna (see photo below), a massive square that comes to life at night with snake charmers, impromptu boxing matches, magicians, and some of the best street food you’ll find anywhere.
Other highlights include the cool hill town of Chefchaouen, well-known for the kif that grows in its surrounding fields (and where your waiter just might offer you some to smoke); the imperial city of Fes, home to the world’s oldest continuously operated university and the mesmerizing medina of Fes el Bali; and the gritty port town of Tangier, where travelers just off the boat from Spain first arrive– and are confronted with eager (and persistent) taxi drivers and guides.
Classes are usually taught in English or French, with plenty of opportunities to learn Arabic. (Go on, give it a shot.) And as a bonus, if you do study abroad in Morocco, you will almost certainly be invited to a Moroccan classmate’s house where you’ll be able to eat some delicious home cookin’ and experience some of that famed Moroccan hospitality.