There are the type of destinations that take your breath away for their beauty and then there are those that have you holding your breath because they're terrifying. For those who like a combination of both, turn your attention to our list of some of the most beautiful -- but unexpectedly dangerous -- places in the world.
For some expert input on our picks, we tapped Olivier Le Carrer, author of the “Atlas of Cursed Places,” and Robert Pelton, author of “The World’s Most Dangerous Places.” As Pelton notes, it isn’t the most treacherous locales that lead to broken bones and drownings. “People who travel to ‘danger zones’ usually bring along a sense of caution and ask questions,” he says. Instead, it's the places that aren't as commonly dangerous -- and where folks don't act mindfully -- that cause trouble. Check out our list below -- and be prepared for a few surprises along the way.
Don’t think your long weekend sipping pina coladas on the beach could be the start of trouble? Think again. Pelton explains, “if you compare statistical probability of death, it’s likely to be in the Caribbean and involve drowning, a heart attack, or car accident.” According to reports, quite a few drownings happen in Latin America and the Caribbean (Costa Rica has had 101 American drownings since 2002; Mexico had the most, with 355 drownings, followed by the Bahamas, which had 83). Even worse, countries like Costa Rica, home to some dangerous (and popular) waters, have no laws requiring lifeguards on their beaches.
A few years ago, “Esquire” described Guatemala City as one of the most dangerous places on the planet. “The last 40 years of Guatemalan history is a snake trail of atrocity, corruption and disaster,” the article stated, noting the earthquake that killed 27,000 people, coups, territorial disputes, an erupting volcano, and more. So why go?
There’s brilliant Mayan architecture found at El Mirador and Yaxha and the black sand beach of Monterrico makes for a beautiful sight along the rugged Pacific waters. Sci-fi author Aldous Huxley also considered Lake Atitlán, which is situated in the Guatemalan Highlands, one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. But is the beauty worth the risk? As is the case with many destinations, it’s important to take proper safety precautions, including avoiding carrying valuable items in hand, arriving during daylight hours, and being mindful of your luggage when you arrive.
Located on the west side of the Nile, the Valley of the Kings features layers of limestone and marl that create jagged cliffs and a good terrain for digging tombs. Between the 16th and 11th century B.C., 63 tombs were built in the earth, in the shadow of the Theban Hills. Builders created a maze of catacombs to ensure the kings had their treasures nearby in the afterlife. And since the late 18th century, archaeologists have burrowed into the tombs to see what they can uncover.
As Le Carrer explains, the area might be most famous for what happened to all of those curious antique hunters. Rumor has it many died mysteriously after raiding the tombs of Tutankhamen and other great kings. In reality, the curse is a little dubious, since some people on the archaeological digs died due to mosquito-borne diseases. Plus, plenty of other folks, including the person who guarded King Tut’s tomb for seven years, lived until a ripe old age.
However, Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula does have some modern-day concerns. “Time” magazine recently reported that the most common cause of death to Americans in Egypt was due to bad driving. Among the 69 American deaths that occurred there over the past 13 years, 18 died from car accidents and 11 perished from bus accidents.
Iceland, a Nordic island country, is filled with fire and ice. That combination, which sounds scenic, can be a little unnerving when spewing forth from a volcano. In 2010, the Eyjafjallajökull volcano spewed ash into the atmosphere that disrupted flights around Iceland as well as throughout Europe. The combination of glacial water and magma created irregularly shaped particles that weren’t particularly aerodynamic and, as a result, stayed in the atmosphere longer. And beware: the Hekla volcano, located in the south, has been building up more pressure than before its last two eruptions.
There are differing reports about danger in the rapidly developing — and relatively untouched — country of Myanmar, which has seen a tourist boom since many sanctions were lifted in 2012. A lack of ATM machines once made it necessary for visitors to roll into the country with a wad of cash. That’s changing, but it’s still good to be safe with your money. The growing tourist economy also means it’s easier to pay for big-ticket accommodations and meals online or with a card. Beyond the standard travel precautions (don’t wear or carry too much jewelry, avoid keeping electronics out), we also recommend avoiding the Shan State, which borders China. Chances are the government won’t let you trek there, but if you do, there’s still a chance of encountering proto-military groups that get into skirmishes. Of course, there’s plenty to do beyond worry. Numerous historic temples such as the Bagan and Ananda are must-sees. So is the Golden Palace Monastery, a wooden masterpiece topped with delicate points. And the world’s largest book, located in Mandalay, is definitely a conversation starter.
The Philippines is known for its shimmering beaches and historic churches, but Pelton warns that there have also been a rash of kidnappings by extremist terrorists in recent years. Certain parts of the country are absolutely safe and a strong military presence keeps things that way. But the far south, including places like Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago, may be dangerous for vacationers. The militant group Moro Islamic Liberation Front regularly clashes with the Philippine military and has kidnapped people. Moro splinter groups have also planted explosives in Basilan, Isabela City, Jolo, Cotabato City, Makati and the Zamboanga Airport. In the south, the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group has been attacking westerners and holding them for ransom. And in 2015, the U.S. State Department issued a travel warning for some parts of the country.
The concerns in Palawan, which is home to the Puerto Princesa Underground River, are more about heavy mosquito infestation and the occasional deadly sea urchin. Bohol, where the Chocolate Hills are located, is safe and filled with friendly locals. Most locations in the Philippines welcome tourists, but be sure to plan wisely.
7. The Death Road, Bolivia
Most tourists probably realize a place called “The Death Road” (or Yungas Road) could be trouble. The route connects Bolivia’s northern region to its capital and begins with a 15,000-foot incline that eventually winds and descends again. But that’s not what reportedly causes 200 to 300 deaths per year. The path has a section with an 11,000-foot decline plus a few barriers where numerous thrill-seekers go over the edge. Cyclists love the road challenges — fewer than 20 have pedaled off the road in the last two decades. Still, the view of the Andes is absolutely stunning.
Over 132 million gallons of Zimbabwe‘s Zambezi river rush over the Victoria Falls every minute, spraying misty clouds that can be seen 30 miles away. The 400-foot rush of water starts at a sharp cliff and ends with a precipitous drop. At one section of the falls, years of erosion created the Devil’s Pool, a pocket of water that allows swimmers to wade up to the edge of the cliff and look down on a ravine that promises a quick demise. If you want to take a dip in the Devil’s Pool, keep in mind that it can only be done during the late summer and early fall, when the water levels are low enough to allow for swimmers. While the view is absolutely exhilarating, guides usually get into the pool before tourists and stand on the edge to ensure the safety of newcomers. Few deaths have been reported at Victoria Falls, but in 2009, a guide pulled a tourist back to safety and was then swept over the edge.