Outside magazine’s inaugural ‘Travel Awards’ winners

travel awardsWith twenty-three categories and every continent up for consideration, the competition is fierce, but today Outside magazine released its picks for its new Outside Travel Awards. The winners include everything from travel companies and locales to cameras, suitcases, hotels, and apps, road-tested by those in the know (you know, those people).

Amongst the chosen is Seattle-based Mountain Madness, a mountain adventure guide service and mountaineering school, for its new Tsum Valley trek in Nepal, named “Best Trip in the Himalayas.” Known in sacred Buddhist texts as the “Hidden Valley of Happiness,” the Tsum Valley lies on the edge of the more visited Manaslu Conservation Area, which opened just three years ago to tourism.

Best travel company Geographic Expeditions (GeoEx) has “consistently taken travelers to the most remote regions of the world, from Everest’s north side to Patagonia’s glaciers to the far reaches of Papua New Guinea. This year its trailblazing new terrain with a 27-day trek to the north face of K2 ($11,450).” Bonus: “the price of every GeoEx trip includes medical assistance and evacuation coverage from Global Rescue and medical-expense insurance through Travel Guard.” Not too shabby.

Also making the list: Myanmar is the “Best New Frontier;” Canon Powershot G-12 makes the “Best Camera;” the “Best New Adventure Lodge” is the Singular, outside of Puerto Natales, Patagonia, Chile; and the “Best Eco-Lodge” is the architectural marvel, The Mashpi in Ecuador.

[Photo credit: Flickr user tarotastic]

10 best places to live for avoiding world conflict

New ZealandExpatify.com asked the question, “Where would you be the safest if World War III broke out tomorrow?” The answers arrived in a post titled “10 Best Places to Live for Avoiding World Conflict.” Irrelevant as it may seem to you, the claws of conflict affect a revolving roster of nations. The knowledge of where not to go because of conflict, or better yet, where to go to avoid it, can be useful if you’re planning to live, or even just spend some time, abroad. According to this article, countries that make the safety cut are: Switzerland, Costa Rica, Papua New Guinea, Canada, Seychelles, Finland, Tuvalu, Iceland, Bhutan, and New Zealand. Most of these choices make sense to me, based on what I know, but the undeniably gorgeous Seychelles seems like a somewhat uncertain choice. News stories covering the Somali pirates swarming the Seychelles area are prevalent. To be fair, I’m not convinced Somali pirates are a current threat for World War III. What are your thoughts? Where would you move in order to be as far removed from world conflict as possible?

Explore More Options with These Art Maps for the Home

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World’s worst places: Top 10 places you do not want to visit in 2012

Update: Check out the World’s Worst Places of 2013 here

What comes to mind when you think of the world’s worst place? While it is easy to complain about rural Wal-marts, La Guardia, Applebee’s, and any government office with motor vehicle in its title, none of those places escalate the game from nuisance to immediate danger. All of them can be horrible, yes, but a threatened existence they do not pose.

The places on this list are the bad places. Some have run out of hope. Others have fought war for so long it is the new normal. Most are exceptionally dangerous and heartbreaking. And while none of them are fighting for write-ups by travel bloggers or inspiring travel with the NetJet set, some of these locations may someday be on the travel map. After all, it was not long ago that current hot-spots like Cambodia and Croatia would have made such a list.

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world's worst places

10. Harare, Zimbabwe
Recently voted by the Economist as the world’s worst city to live in, Harare is a unique study in failed fiscal policy. The once acceptable city fell into disrepair during Zimbabwe’s severe bouts with hyperinflation and corruption. The troubles began in the early 21st century when Zimbabwe’s inflation rate increased to 112.1%. Sounds terrible right? As it turns out, those were the sunny days. In 2008, the inflation rate peaked at 231,150,000% per annum. In U.S. terms, this means that if you deposited $10,000, it would be worth about 4 thousandths of a U.S. cent in one years time. That sucks. (For the record, 10,000USD = 46.720 quadrillion Zimbabwe dollars in 2009.)

This sort of economic arrangement allowed Harare to fail. There are not enough printers in Zimbabwe to print enough of its Z100 Billion notes, and when a loaf of bread costs trillions, doom is soon to follow. Unemployment grew to 80% and many services faltered. Today, foreign currencies have been adopted but the damage has been done. Much of Harare is in disrepair, and few foreign companies care to directly invest in the troubled city. That said, it is probably the safest place on this list to visit with flights direct from London on the national carrier – Air Zimbabwe.

world's worst places

9. Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea
The lone entry from Oceania is the ultra-diverse Port Moresby of Papua New Guinea. PNG is home to over 820 languages – more than any other country in the world. As such, its capital Port Moresby boasts a diverse crew of opportunists and island cultures. It was recently voted by the Economist as the 137th out of 140 places in the livable cities index, making it a tough place to get by.

Rapes, Murders, and HIV are just a few of the daily tragedies that befall this enclave at the edge of the map. Here, even riding in cars is a dangerous activity. Gangs called Raskols are known to rob vehicles transporting foreigners at gunpoint.

Port Moresby is best used as a temporary gateway to nearby dive sites and for flights to PNG’s jungle interior and its solitary treks. Reaching Port Moresby is easy from Australia on PNG’s national carrier Air Niugini.

world's worst places

8. Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo
37 years ago, Ali and Foreman traded blows in one of boxing’s most historic matches. The match took place in Kinshasa. At the time, the country was known as Zaire, and the future looked hopeful for the mineral-rich nation. But as is common in 20th century African history, corruption at the top derailed the future. The country became a model for African kleptocracy as President Mobutu matched Zaire’s national debt with deposits into his personal bank account in Switzerland – to a tune of 4 billion (1980) U.S. dollars. He was forced to flee in the late nineties.

By 1998, the Congo region was engaged in the Second Congo War – the most deadly military conflict since World War II. In the end, over 5 million perished, and to this day the mineral-rich country has a per capita (nominal) GDP of about $186.

Chinese foreign direct investment has allowed Kinshasa to grow into a more reasonable place over the last decade, though it is not yet ready for its tourist close-up. Violence and political instability still ravage the second most populated city in Africa. It has come a long way from the time of Mr. Kurtz, but the heart of Africa is still an exceptionally complicated place. Just a month ago during the presidential election, thousands fled Kinshasa in anticipation of violence, and tanks rolled in to police the streets.

Tens of thousands of orphaned street children call the slums of Kinshasa home and are also routinely accused of witchcraft by locals. Carjackings are one of the more common types of tourist robbery, especially outside of the city center. And one more thing, photography is illegal.

Reaching Kinshasa is easy from Paris on Air France.

world's worst places

7. Rocinha favela, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Rocinha is the largest favela in Rio de Janeiro. While its infrastructure exceeds that of lesser favelas and its view of Rio is truly breathtaking, it is also home to several hundred thousand Brazilians packed onto a steep hillside. It is a playground for modern day little Li’l Zes.

With one of the highest murder rates in the world, Brazil has been cracking down on violence in anticipation of hosting both the Olympics and World Cup. In fact, local authorities have effectively declared war on this slum in an effort to clean it up and push out the drug cartels, and just a few months ago, Rocinha was occupied by the military and police forces. Their aim is to restore government control in the sprawling favela. While progress has no doubt been made, when visiting Rio (which is generally safe), it is wise to avoid favelas unless accompanied by a local guide.

world's worst places

6. Sana’a, Yemen
“Just off the horn of Africa…” is a common statement that generally precedes a story about modern piracy. And just on the other side of the dangerous Gulf of Aden where such piracy goes down is treacherous Yemen – a land frozen in time.

It is a time machine to the modern edge of the Islamic dark ages. On one hand this brings old world Arabian architecture and cultures of antiquity, but on the other, it brings out Islamic fanaticism. It is a place of child brides and a training ground for Al Qaeda. Men walk around freely with weapons per their religious rights, and these weapons range from the ubiquitous Jambiya to battle-worn Kalashnikovs. Sana’a is old, dangerous, and has its share of political unrest. As a westerner, you can keep your travel plans safer by avoiding Yemen.

The tragic thing about Yemen is that it possesses such beautiful sights. It has unbelievable Red Sea beaches, Socotra Island (Similar to the Galapagos and on my own personal travel shortlist), and old forts amid craggy mountains.

Reaching Sana’a, Yemen is possible from Dubai, Doha, London, and Sharjah.

world's worst places

5. West Point, Monrovia, Liberia
Clean water, electricity, basic services – all things we take for granted in the West. In the West Point area of Monrovia, a city named for James Monroe, these are luxuries. West Point, a peninsular slum jutting out into the Atlantic, is home to a special breed of disgusting squalor. Home to 75,000 Monrovians, it is one of Africa’s most notorious and crowded slums. Cholera is at an epidemic level, drug use is rampant, teenage prostitution is a commonality, and toilets are scarce. In fact, since it costs money to use neighborhood toilets, many Monrovians in West Point just crap in the streets or on the beach.

Vice did a great series on Liberia a few years ago. In the series, they meet with with an ex-war leader known as General Butt Naked – the commander of a group of child soldiers called the Butt Naked Brigade. He earned this name by charging into battle wearing only sneakers and his AK-47. Aside from sacrificing humans and partaking in cannibalism, he also regularly communicated with the devil. Today, he is a minister.

Delta flies from Atlanta to Monrovia, Liberia.

world's worst places

4. Ciudad Juarez, Mexico
Just as turbulence occurs where hot and cold air meet, similarly a point of human turbulence occurs in this nasty city where Mexico meets the United States. Drug violence, government incompetence, and poverty mix to form what has been called the murder capital of the world (this dishonor has since been ceded to Honduras). As drug wars continue to rage, Juarez continues to be a dangerous place. The drug cartels continue to fight for one of the most valuable things in the world – access to the United States narcotics market.

Neighboring El Paso, oddly, has one of the lowest murder rates in the United States. In fact, among major cities, El Paso is tied with Lincoln, Nebraska for having the lowest murder rate in the United States. It is indeed strange to have such a dichotomy separated by a river.

Flying to Juarez from a number of cities is easy, but don’t do it. Go to Cancun and fist pump instead.

world's worst places

3. Cite Soleil, Port-au-Prince, Haiti
Take one of the most damned places on the planet, knock the hell out of it with an earthquake, and you get the worst of Haiti – Cite Soleil. Port-au-Prince is generally a place of ephemeral hope and naked truths, and at its most rotten corner is this heartbreaking slum.

Cite Soleil is one of the largest slums in the northern hemisphere. It is a place where what you see is what you get, and what you see is abject third world poverty. The slum is void of sewers, schools, electricity, or healthcare facilities. It is the kind of place where relief workers are swallowed whole by the earth. In 2007, UN peacekeepers attempted to access the neighborhood and were welcomed with gunfire.

On top of this, many dangerous gang members escaped prison during the earthquake of 2010 and have returned to this crumbling slum. Reach PAP, Haiti from Miami on Insel Air.

world's worst places

2. Kandahar, Afghanistan
Surrounded by gorgeous mountains, it is a tragedy that Kandahar is so awfully dangerous. A one time trading center and strategic foothold, Kandahar is a victim of its perfect location between the world’s of East and West. It has been a point of interest since Alexander the Great stumbled upon it in the 4th century BC. For centuries, traders passed through this city when traveling between Asia and Europe. As result, wars have also passed through and control has changed hands over its centuries of existence, from Mongols to Arabs to Brits and beyond.

Kidnappings, suicide bombings, and other criminal activities have turned it into an absolute monster of a destination. War has a way of creating this sort of general lawlessness. Having a 28% national literacy rate does not help matters.

As a weird footnote, Kandahar has an Armani Hotel, though it is not licensed by Giorgio. Its TGI Fridays, once a bastion of Americana and cheese sticks in Afghanistan, has allegedly been shut down. One can reach Kandahar from Dubai on Ariana Afghan Airlines. During Taliban rule, Osama bin Laden used this airline for Al Qaeda operations including the smuggling of guns, money, and opium. Today, sanctions have been lifted against the troubled national carrier.

world's worst places

1. Mogadishu, Somalia
Still crazy after all these years, “Mog” has perhaps the most terrifying disclaimer (ever) hovering above its entry on wikitravel. It states, “Mogadishu is regarded as the most lawless and dangerous city on Earth and is currently experiencing a major food and refugee crisis. It is not safe for leisure or tourism. If you are planning a visit for international aid work, etc, you will need expert advice and planning.”

Civil War has raged for decades, and the government controls only a few blocks of the city. It is a base for modern pirates, the backdrop for the true story surrounding Black Hawk Down, and it is said that machine guns are frequently used by drivers to negotiate through car traffic. It is a land without law, a soulless place at the edge of Africa. Much of it bears more resemblance to the last level in an especially difficult video game than to life on Earth. It is more modern warfare than modern world.

Oddly enough, several supermodels were born in Mogadishu including Iman and Yasmin Warsame – a footnote of beauty for an ugly place. Flights to Mog can be booked on Jubba Airways from Jeddah and Dubai. Good luck with that. Seriously though, if you decide to go, be sure to wear a bulletproof vest and hire a small army of Ethiopian soldiers.

Uncornered Market Q&A: Audrey and Dan on Iran

uncornered marketUncornered Market is one of the most popular travel blogs out there. A quick gander will demonstrate why this is the case. Audrey Scott and Dan Noll’s labor of love boasts some of the most arresting travel photography around. The subjects the two take on are of broad interest as well–from reflections on cultural traffic to recipes, to reflections on the importance of diplomacy on a personal level, and even to a particular brand of self-help.

Audrey and Dan talk to Gadling hot on the heels of their first visit to the Islamic Republic of Iran with a range of opinions, suggestions, and tips.

Q: Good day, Audrey and Dan. Define your occupations.

A: Storytellers, writers, photographers, world travelers. Mostly, we’re known as the husband-and-wife team behind the travel blog Uncornered Market.

Q: You recently traveled to Iran. Tell us how the trip came about and where you went.

A: Our interest in Iran dates back to 2003 when we befriended Audrey’s Iranian colleagues at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and attended a slideshow presentation from travelers who’d recently returned from Iran. Our curiosity was piqued; we wanted to see for ourselves what the country and people were like, to find an alternative story than what the media tends to portray.

We’ve been on the road for five years and now seemed like the right time to satisfy our curiosity despite the fact that our family and friends thought we were crazy given the current political climate.

Our trip began in Tehran and then made a loop through Hamadan, Kermanshah, Ahvaz, Shiraz, Yazd, Isfahan, Abyaneh, Rasht, Masuleh, Ardebil, and Tabriz. We finished the journey with an Iranian train trip from Tabriz to Istanbul, Turkey, which took two and a half days.

Q: In your interactions with Iranians, did politics ever enter the picture? Did you discuss geopolitics or the actions of the US and Iranian governments with anyone?

A: We never began our conversations on the topic of politics, but particularly after we earned people’s trust, it entered the discussion. Most of the Iranian people we met took issue with their government, its rules, its rhetoric, and its disengagement with the rest of the world. Many would conclude with: “People are good. Politics and governments are bad.”

The impression of America, and especially of the American people, was strikingly and overwhelmingly positive. The Iranians we met wished to engage more with the rest of the world. However, most Iranians we spoke to did not expect change within their own government, and as a result, they were not optimistic that relations between the Iranian and American governments would improve any time soon.

Q: How were you received, generally speaking?

A: Like rock stars. We traveled with a small group of Americans, Australians and a Dane. We were all well received, but as Americans we were often shown special positive attention. Being American got us a lot of handshakes, hugs and invitations to people’s homes.
Q: Did you find yourselves unpacking assumptions made in advance? Did you encounter any surprises along the way?

A: Yes. What we found in Iran – and particularly regarding ordinary Iranian people — was so profoundly different than the prevailing media narrative. Iranian people, as a rule, are kind and are not a bunch of terrorists.

Iranians also actively seek and find ways to circumvent censorship. For example, everyone seems to have Facebook accounts and satellite dishes, both of which are technically banned or blocked.

We were also pleasantly surprised by how often we managed to slip off, walk the streets, and talk to people on our own and how safe and normal it all felt.

Q: What were your favorite places in Iran?

A: Shiraz — like the wine, though they don’t serve wine there anymore. (Iran is a dry country.) The Shirazi people are friendly and the archeological sites (Persepolis, just outside town) and various religious sites like the Pink Mosque and Shah Ceragh Mosque really blew us away with their elaborate and dizzying designs.

We also really enjoyed the Persian Islamic architecture of Esfahan and the Zoroastrian burial sites in Yazd. Throughout the country, bazaars (markets) were fun and served as great places to meet people.

In the north, we were big fans of the ancient Armenian monastery near Jolfa and its ethereal mountain setting.

Q: Do you have any recommendations, logistical or otherwise, for Americans interested in visiting Iran?

A: Three things. First, Americans are required to have a private guide or join a group tour. The tour company will sort your visa paperwork. The visa process involves obtaining an authorization number from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and then procuring an actual visa from an Iranian consulate. The entire process can take up to two months, so get started early.

Secondly, try not to bite off too much. There’s a ton of Islamic history and pre-Islamic history in Iran, including around ten UNESCO World Heritage sites. But the country is huge, so being selective will help you avoid spending all of your time in transit.

Lastly, always be aware of the context, but don’t be afraid to talk with people on the street.

Q: What’s next for the Uncornered Market duo? (Or should I ask where’s next?)

A: We are in the midst of planning 2012. Israel is near or at the top of the list. We’ve collected numerous invitations from newfound Israeli friends and travel companions. We’d like to see Israel for ourselves, especially after our experiences in other parts of the Middle East.

In addition, Audrey would like to visit Australia, which will be her seventh continent. Japan, Papua New Guinea, and the Balkans are in the conversational mix.

Our 2012 non-travel plans include redesigning our blog and completing several publishing projects. It’s also about time to write that book we keep talking about.

Black Tomato launches Epic Tomato, an ambitious new adventure offshoot


For years Black Tomato has delighted old travel hands with its inventive, bespoke itineraries to various corners of the globe. The company is especially good at showcasing beautiful destinations not yet well-known to most travelers beyond the surrounding region. Among others, Belgrade, the Carpathian foothills, the Kuronian Spit, and Bhutan have all been embraced by the company.

This morning, Black Tomato launched Epic Tomato, which showcases a selection of hardcore adventure experiences to very hard-to-reach places. These adventures are scheduled for lengths of between four to 21 days, and are grouped into five categories: Polar, Desert, Jungle, Mountain, and River. They are all led by serious expert guides, some with SAS (British special service) military backgrounds.

Bolivia’s Apolobamba mountain range, Mali’s Dogon region, the Star Mountains of Papua New Guinea (see above), the Mosquito Coast of Honduras, and East Greenland are just a few of the destinations reached by Epic Tomato tours.

Epic Tomato’s frankly epic experiences don’t come cheap. At the bottom end of the scale, three adventures come in at £5995 ($9660): 14 days in Papua New Guinea’s East New Britain and Duke of York Islands; a 21-day trek in Tibet and Nepal; and eight days in Chilean Patagonia. At the very high end: 12 days on Canada’s Ellesmere Island for £67,495 ($108,720).