Dangerous. Corrupt. Overrun by drug lords. Who, in their right mind, would travel to one of these places?
The below five cities are unfairly recognized as some of the worst places in the world. Some suffer from decades-old reputations as murder capitals or corrupt drug states — perceptions that aren’t necessarily true anymore. Others have gotten bad press that, again, doesn’t necessarily reflect the situation on the ground for travelers. So while many Americans still fear and avoid them, we think they’re beautiful travel destinations.
And if you’re headed to any of these destinations soon, our advice is simple (and the same that we would give for any trip): Do your homework and stick to well-trafficked areas.
Medellin, Colombia: Colombia’s long been associated with illicit drugs and street violence. Medellin rose to fame largely due to the exploits of drug kingpin Pablo Escobar in the 1980s. But, over the past twenty years, Medellin has managed to reduce its murder rate by 80 percent, along with kidnappings and gang violence. During this transition, the city invested in social projects to not only improve tourism but to improve the city’s quality of life. The city built cable cars and gondolas to help people navigate throughout the city, and even to see spectacular views of the surrounding mountains. Medellin also invested in public parks, sculpture gardens, and high-tech libraries, inviting tourists to explore the urban landscape of what the Urban Land Institute named “Innovative City of the Year” in 2012.
Tehran, Iran: Americans hear often about Iran’s nuclear program. But this Islamic republic has seen a recent tourism surge, with the number of visitors up 215 percent in spring of this year. Since coming to power in 2013, President Rouhani has begun mending relations with the major western powers, easing tensions and fears. When images on the news depict Iran’s anti-American sentiments, it’s difficult to understand that these protests are often against American policy, not you, as a tourist. In fact, many Iranians greet American visitors with open arms. Spend a day in the Grand Bazaar exploring rows of carpets and spices or walk through the Persepolis, the capital of the ancient Achaemid empire, and you’ll understand why Tehran is one of the cultural capitals of the world.
Mexico City, Mexico: Mexico’s drug trafficking has scared off tourists in the past decade, but not all of Mexico is overwhelmed with cartels. Tourism hotspots like Cancun and the Riviera Nayarit see little of this, and Mexico City — one of our top budget destinations for 2014 — is one of the safest cities in the country. To curb crime, Mexico City maintains one of the highest police officer-to-citizen ratios in the world, with one officer for every one-hundred citizens. Police carefully guard tourism areas, like the Bosque de Chapultepec and its museum district. For some visitors, the most frightening street encounter may be the sharks swimming beneath it in the city’s aquarium.
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: Brazil is home to 15 of the 50 most dangerous cities in the world in this list, with Rio being the most high-profile among them. But each year Rio welcomes roughly 3 million visitors to the city’s sparkling beaches, museums, and the Christ the Redeemer statue, and few of them encounter crime. The big tip: Treat Rio like you would any other crowded city where pickpocketing can be an issue — leave your jewelry at home and conceal your wallet and your electronics.
Cape Town, South Africa: How can a city simultaneously be considered among the most violent in the world and a top travel destination in the world? That’s certainly Cape Town. But consider this: South Africa has halved its murder rate since the mid-’90s, and Cape Town continues to reduce crime through social initiatives like the Urban Upgrading project. Locals have rejuvenated impoverished communities by turning homes into galleries, construct sustainable farms, and promote cultural tourism. It’s through these urban renewal projects that Cape Town built its reputation as 2014’s World Design Capital — and that’s not to mention the wealth of natural beauty that bewitches visitors and residents alike.