Shrouded in mystery, pulsing with dangers both real and imagined, forbidden places have always exerted an irresistible pull. Indeed, the same impulse that drew 16th-century explorers into uncharted oceans may compel today’s intrepid travelers to ignore State Department travel warnings. When white-sand Bermudan beaches and rooms with Eiffel Tower views no longer satisfy, becoming a war correspondent for CNN is always an option. Seriously though, while a few of the destinations on our list of Top 10 Forbidden Places are consumed in seething conflicts, most do not require Anderson Cooper’s security clearance to enter. Consider visiting Havana, more accessible to American travelers than it has been in decades, especially while Cuba still conjures up the sexiness of the “forbidden” (there’s just something about that word); or take a tour of the “dead zone” around Chernobyl, Ukraine, now teeming with life and relatively safe. We don’t necessarily endorse visiting many of the other places on this list now – particularly hot zones like Damascus, Mogadishu, and Tripoli – but we highly encourage traveling by armchair, so check out our Forbidden Places slideshow.
Why It’s “Forbidden” For a long time Turkmenistan was not terribly welcoming of tourists, and the government still restricts the number of travelers who enter and where they go once they arrive. All visitors to the country must first obtain a “letter of invitation” from an individual or company and have it certified by the government before applying for a visa, and then must be accompanied by a guide at all times upon arrival in the country. The U.S. State Department also has issued warnings about random documentation checks and vehicle searches by police and military, and the surveillance of foreigners. Turkmenistan has a largely cash-only economy; the vast majority of establishments will not accept credit cards, though U.S. dollars are widely used.
The Allure When Turkmenistan gained independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union, its first president, Saparmurat Niyazov, proclaimed himself “Father of all Turkmen” and plastered his likeness pretty much everywhere he could, including a revolving gilded statue in the capital of Ashgabat. The city also boasts an extensive history museum, with exhibits from ancient times to the present. Marco Polo raved about Turkmen carpets when he passed through in the 13th century; visitors can buy one to take home at the Tolkuchka Bazaar, one of the largest markets in Central Asia.
Still Want to Go? The Turkmenistan embassy in D.C. (www.turkmenistanembassy.org) recommends a handful of travel agencies that can provide a letter of invitation and assist with the visa process, as well as handle all travel arrangements in the country. There are no direct flights to Ashgabat from the U.S., but Lufthansa makes connections via Frankfurt, Turkish Airlines flies in via Istanbul, and Turkmenistan Airlines arrives via Birmingham, England.
Why it’s “Forbidden” Even 25 years after the nuclear explosion that obliterated the 18-mile “dead zone” radius around Chernobyl, visitors are required to take precautions while walking through the site. Before touring the power plant where the world’s worst nuclear disaster occurred, adventure-driven guests must sign a waiver exempting the tour operator from all responsibility in case they suffer radiation-related health problems.
The Allure Though Chernobyl will make a lasting impression on its own, visiting the abandoned nearby ghost town of Pripyat is what will drive the entire experience a little too close to home. Littered with debris from the explosion, all the typical elements of a small town where families lived and worked provide a real sense of the tragedy: Homes decay in the midst of overgrown weeds, and sprouting trees shroud a Ferris wheel in a never-opened amusement park. In many ways, the site presents a fascinating picture of Mother Nature on the rebound. Wild boars, wolves, and various birds (pigeons, sterlings) have all returned to the exclusion zone, some exceeding pre-disaster population counts. Second-generation cattle displayed none of the radiation-induced thyroid problems that plagued their predecessors. And lynx and bear tracks – both animals considered endangered in this part of the Ukraine – have been spotted in the radioactive area.
Still Want to Go? Since 2005, U.S. citizens have not needed a visa to visit Ukraine. To access Pripyat, Chernobyl, and the surrounding villages, however, visitors must obtain permission to visit the “exclusion zone.” Several tour agencies (including www.tour2chernobyl.com and www.chernobylwel.com) provide these as part of their packages. Tour Kiev (www.tourkiev.com) operates visits to the site that equip travelers with Geiger counters and include a visit to the power plant itself. No matter the tour, visitors should take care while on site (wearing long-sleeved shirts, pants, and closed-toed shoes is a must), but need not worry about massive amounts of radiation. One day in Chernobyl exposes travelers to the same amount of radiation as an X-ray or several hours on a plane.
Editor’s note: As of June 2011, the "dead zone" was closed to tourists. However, tour agencies are confident that it will be reopened in December 2011 following the review of safety procedures.
Why It’s “Forbidden” Recent violent political unrest (now commonplace throughout much of the Middle East) has virtually stamped out a budding tourism movement in the country – hotels are reportedly operating at just 10 percent capacity and attractions are largely deserted, though, remarkably, most of the upheaval has manifested well outside the borders of Damascus, Syria’s ancient capital city.
The Allure Syria revels in its antiquity, rich tapestry of cultural influences, and reputation for religious diversity and tolerance (in fact, the predominately Muslim country is considered a cradle of Christianity). Legendary Damascus, credited with being the world’s oldest continuously inhabited city, was founded in the third millennium BC. Sights abound in this bustling biblical city – a veritable living museum – led by the glorious Umayyad Mosque, the focal point of the medieval old city and purported site of the Tomb of St. John the Baptist (it’s said to be the resting spot of the saint’s head). Just as spellbinding are the simple joys of wandering the labyrinthine narrow lanes; browsing bazaars and combing colorful markets (don’t miss the Souk al-Hamidiyya); ogling impressive mosques, monuments, museums, and mansions; and sampling delectable mezzes, washed down by arak (a traditional anise-flavored drink).
Still Want to Go? Given the current protests and government crackdowns, many embassies have warned their citizens to steer clear of Syria (the U.S. has an active travel warning in place). Those willing to brave the risk will be rewarded with countless deals. Visas must be secured via the Syrian Embassy in Washington, D.C., ahead of travel. Flights into Damascus International Airport (DAM) touch down 16 miles outside of the city; numerous airlines service the airport, led by national carrier Syrian Air; travelers from the U.S. should anticipate connections via European hubs.
Why it’s “Forbidden” It’s been about five decades since the start of a U.S. trade embargo against Cuba that also forbids tourism to the communist island. However, since entering office, President Obama has been easing up restrictions to encourage more “people to people” contact in hopes of aiding political change, and the Cuban government openly welcomes American tourism as a large source of income.
The Allure Despite tensions between the U.S. and Cuba, Havana is a sultry array of history, tropical beaches, and a warm culture. La Habana Vieja is a must-see maze of charming plazas, street markets, and museums that will take you straight back to the 1950s. After sundown, the city transforms into a scene out of Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights with guajira, mambo, and rumba music blasting from the crowded dance clubs and cabarets.
Still Want to Go? Though Americans have been skirting the Cuba travel ban and flying to Havana via a third country for years (and sometimes paying the consequences), a recent loosening of the travel restrictions by the Obama administration has made it much easier to visit the country legally. Just don’t expect to have free rein of your itinerary or laze on the beach all day – the Treasury Department specifically sanctioned “people-to-people” trips through licensed tour operators (like Insight Cuba, www.insightcuba.com) that center on interaction between Cubans and Americans. Charter airlines fly directly from the U.S. to Havana, mainly via Miami.
Javari Reserve, Brazil
Why it’s “Forbidden” Satellites indicate that the world’s largest concentration of uncontacted tribes – at least eight, though scientists estimate as many as 14 – reside in Brazil’s Javari Reserve, a swath of Amazon jungle half the size of Florida. Both the Brazilian and Peruvian governments strictly regulate who may visit these reservations, though French oil company Perenco’s approved Amazon pipeline, violent drug traffickers, and the Belo Monte river dam threaten the tribes’ sheltered existences.
The Allure The Amazon Rainforest alone provides reason to venture to South America. Most of the continental U.S. could fit into the massive jungle, and the surrounding rivers and lakes house threatened and vulnerable species like the pink river dolphin and black caiman. The mind-boggling reality that people live with little modern-world contact (not to mention that scientists spy on them via satellite) adds anthropological intrigue.
Still Want to Go? We can’t in good conscience recommend tracking down untouched tribes (the foreign germs we carry could wipe out entire communities), but visits to the Amazon are quite doable. Most tourists fly into Manaus, Brazil and journey to deep-jungle eco-lodges, some of which lead excursions to nearby indigenous villages. Expect some pageantry, however, as the tribes benefit significantly from tourism and often play in to what visitors want to see – think traditional garb even though many Amazonian residents now opt for T-shirts and shorts.
Why It’s “Forbidden” The East African nation of Somalia has yet to recover from a civil war that began in 1991, and is once again in the headlines for one of the worst famines in recent memory. Terrorist group Al Shabab has prevented humanitarian aid from reaching starving citizens and its violent incursions continue to wreck havoc on the capital of Mogadishu. The U.S. State Department advises against any travel to Somalia, and warns that “tourist facilities are non-existent.” And don’t forget about pirates!
The Allure Though much of Mogadishu is crumbling, you’ll still find a few landmarks that hearken back to its early origins as a Persian and Arabian trading port, like the 13th-century Arba-Rucun Mosque (Mosque of the Four Pillars). Stunning Indian Ocean beaches front Mogadishu’s old city, though frequent shark attacks make the waters too dangerous for swimming.
Still Want to Go? It is possible to obtain a tourist visa through the Somali embassies in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and Nairobi, Kenya. The northern breakaway region of Somaliland issues its own visas through missions in London and Addis Ababa; this area has seen relative stability compared to elsewhere in the country, and some tour operators run trips to the coastal city of Berbera and other, inland destinations (though the State Department discourages travel here, too). There are no direct flights to Somalia from the U.S. Jubba Airways has connections from Dubai, and African Express Airways flies in from Nairobi.
Why it’s “Forbidden” When King Kamehameha IV put this 72-square-mile island up for sale in 1863, Kauai resident Elizabeth Sinclair snapped it up for $10,000 and vowed to retain a living piece of Hawaiian culture. Her legacy remains intact nearly 150 years later: Some 200 people, mostly of Hawaiian descent, live on the state’s tiniest inhabited piece of land; Hawaiian is the island’s primary language; and there are no roads, electricity, or other modern trappings. In sharp contrast to Waikiki’s kitsch, tourism is quite verboten, and the island is only accessible via pricey, private helicopter tours.
The Allure Skip the Mai Tais, hula figurines, and choreographed luaus in favor of the deserted beaches, roaming boars and elands, and multicolored Niihau shells found on this barely touched Hawaiian isle, situated just 17 miles west of Kauai.
Still Want to Go? Niihau Helicopters, owned by the Sinclair’s descendants, offers half-day excursions to the “forbidden island” for $385. Tours include an aerial view of the isle, few hours on a remote beach (location dependent on the weather), and a light lunch. There are no overnight accommodations on the island.
Pyongyang, North Korea
Why It’s “Forbidden” Notoriously reclusive, lacking any semblance of friendly political ties to the U.S. and most of the Western world, North Korea’s tourism infrastructure is virtually nonexistent and highly regulated. With fewer than 2,000 Westerners granted access each year, visitors that do slip through must be accompanied by government-appointed guides and remain on alert: Show cultural and political reverence for leaders at all times (it’s your mandated tour guides who would likely bear the brunt of any perceived “missteps”), only take pictures as authorized, and don’t be surprised if locals shun interactions. In addition to the language barrier, government propaganda has encouraged a popular fear of foreigners’ agendas.
The Allure Pyongyang – the nation’s capital and largest city – is a willow tree-speckled metropolis comprised of Soviet-style blocks and wide boulevards lined with some key monuments and attractions. Highlights include the 560-foot Juche Tower, offering sprawling views of the city; the Mansudae Grand Monument, a bronze rendering of the “Great Leader” (late founder of North Korea, Kim Il-sung), to which every visitor is expected to prostrate before and pay floral homage; Il-sung’s mausoleum itself; the 105-story conical Ryugyong Hotel (under construction since 1987, its exterior was just finished in July); and the Arch of Triumph, the world’s biggest arch (trumping even Paris’s).
Still Want to Go? You’ll have to secure a visa to enter the country: No small task considering there is no North Korean embassy in the U.S.; instead, you’ll have to acquire a visa from Beijing (the U.S. has a travel warning in place for any travelers looking to skirt this procedure), though this can be negotiated on your behalf via a tour organizer prior to your arrival. In fact, prior to 2010, U.S. tourists couldn’t get a visa at all, with the exception of entry during the Arirang Mass Games, North Korea’s most popular event (featuring more than 100,000 choreographed performers in celebration of Il-Sung). All visitors are there on the government’s terms, and must have an official North Korean escort with them all times, and come as part of an organized tour (Koryo Tours is one well-established organization; www.koryogroup.com); visitors are not permitted to so much as leave their hotel on their own. Flights to Poyongyang, available on North Korea’s somewhat shoddy Air Koryo (touting a fleet of vintage Russian aircrafts) or Air China, are most easily available via Beijing, where most visitors arrive from.
Why It’s “Forbidden” Tourism to Iran, with its bountiful natural and ancient sights, declined sharply in the late ’70s and ’80s in the wake of the Iranian Revolution and notorious hostage crisis at the U.S. embassy (which saw an end to diplomatic relations between the two nations), as well as the subsequent Iran-Iraq War. An iron-fisted “Supreme Ruler” (the Ayatollah Ali Khamenenei), nuclear tensions, and strong anti-American sentiment have kept visitors at bay, though Iran has positioned itself in the midst of an ambitious tourism campaign anchored by multi-billion-dollar tourism infrastructure projects – the latest annual tourism numbers indicate some 2.3 million visitors, with plans to boost that number to 20 million by 2015.
The Allure The Iranian capital of Tehran is the dynamic, frenetic, rough-around-the-edges heartbeat of the country, where some 14 million residents pack the traffic-clogged streets, and help define political, economic, and cultural trends. Restaurants, art studios, coffeehouses, and parks peek through the urban sprawl, along with a healthy offering of hotels and museums, all spread out nearly a mile high above sea level on the scenic slopes of the Alborz Mountains (which harbor somewhat unexpected ski hot spots come winter), at the foot of Mount Damavand, Iran’s highest mountain peak at 18,605 feet. While much of the old architectural fabric of the city was destroyed in favor of comparatively unattractive modern development, some standouts remain, including the opulent Golestan (Rose Garden) Palace, once the site of the Qajar dynasty’s royal residence. Other worthwhile diversions include the massive maze-like Grand Bazaar and the Treasury of National Jewels, where one of the world’s most expensive and impressive collections of jewels is housed.
Still Want to Go? America, popularly viewed as an enemy state, advises its citizens with a travel warning to Iran, due to the threat of potential harassment or arrest while traveling there (illustrated most recently by the 8-year jail sentence issued to hikers who inadvertently crossed into the country’s borders) – the U.S. government lacks any diplomatic or consular relations with Iran to intervene. American citizens can, however, travel to Iran, with the proper visa (which is obtained via the Iranian Interest Section of the Embassy of Pakistan, in D.C.), and so long as they come as part of a guided tour, like those offered by LetsGoIran (www.letsgoiran.com). There are no direct flights to Tehran from the U.S.; expect routing through European hubs or Dubai. Iran Air, the country’s national carrier, flies to cities like London and Amsterdam, while a number of European carriers (British Airways, Air France, and others) also serve the city.
Why It’s “Forbidden” In the midst of a volatile, headline-making regime shift that commenced in February, Libya’s NATO-backed rebel fighters have liberated Tripoli from Muammar Qaddafi’s 42-year dictatorship – but the power struggle is far from over as a leadership crisis now looms. Just prior to the current upheaval, a glimmer of hope had flickered for curious international tourists, with the lifting of a wave of longstanding visa bans for Western nations, as the country emerged from a period of political isolation.
The Allure The cosmopolitan Libyan capital, a city of just over a million inhabitants, straddles the stretch between the nation’s Mediterranean shores and Saharan deserts. Long poised at the crossroads (and grip holds) of ancient empires, historic mosques (like the Gurgi and Karamanli), kahns (inns), and hammams dot the historic and animated walled medina, where a rich mosaic of architectural highlights borrow from colonial periods of yore (Ottoman and Italian influences in particular abound). Don’t miss the imposing Assaraya al-Hamra (Red Castle) citadel, housing the country’s premier art and artifacts in the Jamahiriya Museum; and wander by the Roman Arch of Marcus Aurelius (AD 163), the only surviving Roman ruin in the city. Of the nation’s five UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the seaside Roman ruins of the monumental city of Leptis Magna (situated about 80 miles to the east) are within easy day-tripping distance of Tripoli, as is the ancient Roman port of Sabratha (set 50 miles west).
Still Want to Go? The U.S. Department of State has issued a stringent travel warning for Libya; U.S. embassy operations in Tripoli have been suspended since February. Though most organized tours are predictably on hiatus, American visitors that do wish to enter the country once peacetime resumes must come escorted via a Libyan tour operator, who can issue the necessary “invitation” for a visa (issued by the Libyan Embassy in D.C.). As regime changes unfold, expect policy changes for international tourism protocol. Several airlines normally service Tripoli, including those that operate via European hubs, like Alitalia, British Airways, Lufthansa, though note that Tripoli’s international airport is currently closed, with a NATO-enforced no-fly zone in place.