Craziest places to visit on the planet
Go where few have gone
A century ago, a majority of the planet's residents never managed to make it further than a few hundred miles from their birthplaces. Now, with one billion international arrivals a year, travelers are spreading into the last unexplored corners of the globe. The demand for bigger, better, and more adventurous experiences is skyrocketing. "There's an accessibility that there never was before, and people can do things that were once unimaginable," says Shannon Stowell, president of the Adventure Travel Trade Association. "If you can think of it and Google it, there's probably someone who can take you."
Here are eight of the most extreme trips on the planet — and the outfitters that take adventurers over the edge and back again.
Ocean row events
When Leven Brown rowed solo across the Atlantic Ocean in 2005, he battled four hurricanes, lost 70 pounds, and set a world record. He liked it so much that he decided to row across the ocean again, but this time, he wanted to take some friends and cut down the price tag, which originally topped $150,000. So, in 2006, the portly, bearded British skipper founded Ocean Row Events, a company that arranges rowing expeditions across oceans and other extremely large bodies of water.
Since then, Brown has organized six trans-ocean rowing trips and set seven world records, including the fastest crossing of the North Atlantic and the longest distance rowed in 24 hours. The company's next expedition is a 3,000-mile journey between the Canary Islands and Barbados slated for January 2014. The goal? Break the 30-day mid-Atlantic speed record, distance rowing's four-minute mile. As of October 10, there was still space for crew members in the second of two boats.
Surprisingly, what it takes to row an ocean isn't necessarily big quadriceps, rowing skills, or even expedition experience. "Character, character, character," says Brown. "We call it the X factor" – or what translates loosely to an ability to withstand a lot of pain and tedium on a boat the size of a bedroom without getting into a fistfight with any of your seven crewmates. "You can teach most people to row, but if they can't deal with sleep deprivation and the calorie deficit and the barrage on your senses, they're not going to be much use in our boats," Brown adds.
It's tough out there. Crewmates sleep and row in two-hour shifts. Most people burn about 10,000 calories a day and lose a minimum of 30 pounds, endure plagues of salt-infested blisters, and tolerate the ever-present threat of 40-foot storm swells, lurking marine creatures, and passing freighters.
There are, however, reasons rowers believe it's all worth it, such as seeing thousands-strong pods of dolphins and watching millions of stars spread across an unbroken sky. There is the preternatural stillness of the sea on a calm day, not to mention the joy of making it back to shore.
"Finally arriving at your destination and literally seeing hundreds of people and sometimes thousands, if you've broken a record, lining up to see your boat – that's the moment when you know that you've done it and your name is in a very exclusive club," says Brown. "There's something like 4,000 people who have summited Everest. There's only about 500 who've attempted an ocean."
More information: Ocean Row Events' next transatlantic row will take place in January 2014 and costs £15,000 (about $24,000). Most rowers raise the funds through corporate sponsorships. In 2014, Brown will also lead rows from Australia to Africa across the Indian Ocean (£20,000) and from Canada to Alaska through the Northwest Passage (£50,000). All expeditions are open to new rowers.
Climb Mt. Everest
About 60 years ago, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay climbed through icefalls, endured a blizzard, and kicked steps into walls of ice and rock to become the first people to summit Mt. Everest. Since then, about 4,000 have answered the call of the world's tallest mountain and successfully reached the peak. Today, guide services regularly lead amateur mountaineers to the top.
The result of better weather forecasting and gear innovation is that more people than ever are flocking to Mt. Everest, which has suffered a bit from the strain – trash piles and traffic jams on the popular routes have become common. But that doesn't mean that summiting isn't still a worthwhile — and risky — challenge for anyone serious about their bucket list.
For about 90 percent of those who attempt the mountain, the first step is to pick the right guide service. One good choice: RMI Expeditions, which counts Dave Hahn, who has summited 15 times, and Seth Waterfall, who has summited three, among its lead guides. The outfitter trains prospective climbers on smaller peaks before leading them on a 70-plus-day expedition to base camp and up the mountain. Despite years of preparation and a fee that might be better used as a down payment on a house, there is no ironclad guarantee of safety or even a summit bid.
"Everest is like any other mountain but with more magnified risk," says Waterfall. "We guides try to mitigate as much of the risk as possible, but we can't eliminate it. There's a certain need for acceptance." But perhaps the uncertainty and risk of climbing the world's tallest mountain are a large part of Everest's enduring allure.
More Information: An expedition to the summit of Mt. Everest with RMI Guides costs $65,000 and takes place between March and June each year. It can take about two years for guides to walk qualified clients through the training and preparation process.
Scuba dive with crocodiles
Africa's Nile crocodiles don't grow to more than a 1,000 pounds by being discerning about what they eat. So if you're going to scuba dive with these primordial reptiles, there are a few important things to know: First, crocodiles have terrible eyesight, which means they typically hunt at the surface, where they can spot prey in silhouette against a bright background. Second, they become sluggish and reclusive in cold water, which means the safest time to see them in Botswana's Okavango Delta, where they number in the thousands, is in July and August, when the water is high, cold, and clear.
All that said, it's not easy — or free of risk — to swim with these ancient beasts.
"They're very hard to see because they look like pieces of wood," says Amos Nachoum, a Brillo-haired Israeli wildlife photographer and president of Big Animals Expeditions, a company that takes groups to see predators like sharks, leopard seals, and snow leopards without cages or protective gear. Still, once spotted, they don't reflexively hide. "We can almost get as close as touching them," he says.
An obvious question might be: Why would anyone voluntarily pursue such an encounter? While it may not take a lot of skill — divers must be moderately fit, able to dive in strong currents, and have an ample supply of nerve — diving with crocodiles is, undoubtedly, a singular experience. Nachoum, who's logged hours in the water with crocs, has a quick answer.
"From the moment I decide to roll back into the water, the sense of fascination and adrenaline is taking over," he says. "The excitement and the rush pushes me closer toward the croc until I am so close the camera cannot focus anymore — only 10 inches face to face. That is transcendence."
More Information: Big Animals Expeditions's next trip to Botswana to dive with crocodiles takes place June 28–July 7, 2014 and costs $14,900. The company also leads trips to dive with leopard seals in Antarctica, to dive with great white sharks in Mexico, and to hike to see polar bears in Canada.
Explore North Korea
Though they're busy constantly threatening nuclear war, maintaining a secretive totalitarian state, and squashing dissent among the citizenry, the leaders of the Democratic People's Republic of North Korea (DPRNK) always find the time to welcome foreign visitors and currency. The country's total international arrivals — not counting Chinese — number fewer than 6,000 most years; even so, North Korea's leaders have long made encouraging tourism a priority. This is the paradox in which the MIR Corporation, a well-respected American outfitter offering several new trips into the DPRNK, now operates.
MIR's founder, Douglas Grimes, began his career as a welcoming committee for tourists visiting America's political adversaries three decades ago with a series of volleyball games between traveling Yankees and USSR loyalists. Since then, MIR has taken skiers, climbers, and other adventurous travelers into some of Europe and Asia's most difficult-to-access regions, from Iran to the Caucasus Mountains. North Korea is just the latest destination — and one that Grimes says doesn't quite live up to its reputation as a bizarre, dangerous hellhole. On his scouting trip, Grimes found beautifully pastoral agricultural areas and an immaculate, even pretty, capital.
"I didn't feel like people weren't happy, which I was kind of expecting," he says. "I was pleasantly surprised that people seem to be relatively okay and going about their daily lives and not repressed." Grimes says the beauty of traveling is getting to see beyond the news stories. The country is undeniably a wreck, but not every North Korean spends all day suffering — they're too busy having lives.
Still, visiting the country is a bewildering immersion in weirdness. Empty streets as wide as a football fields are common ("We'd be going down the highway and we wouldn't see another car for 20 minutes," says Grimes) and the Mass Games, a propagandist display of gymnastics, dancing, and acrobatics performed by some 100,000 people doesn't exactly speak to an emphasis on individualism.
Some critics question the ethics of supporting a country — visitors stay in government-operated hotels because everything is government operated — with a questionable-at-best human rights record and shaky relations with the U.S. But interacting with a truly foreign culture is always a worthwhile experience, even under the watchful eye of a government minder.
More Information: MIR handles the incredibly complicated process of applying for and receiving a visa for its clients. The company's first North Korea trip will visit Beijing, Pyongyang — where the Mass Games take place — several mountain parks, and the DMZ over 11 days ($5,195, plus $650 for round-trip flights from Beijing and Pyongyang.) MIR also runs trips to Eastern Europe, Russia, Iran, and a handful of 'stans.
Ski to the North Pole
No one would call skiing to the South Pole a cop-out, but a far more challenging prospect awaits on the other end of the axis. Whereas the South Pole journey is a long, hard, and boring slog over a frozen continent, the approach to the North Pole is an infuriating maze of ever-shifting pack ice.
"That's what we call the polar treadmill," says Annie Aggens, a guide with Polar Explorers, which pioneered commercial polar skiing expeditions in the nineties. "You're actually drifting with the currents and the wind. Overnight, you may have drifted one mile or even up to 10 miles and frequently you're moving away from the pole."
The upside? With the changing scenery, skiers don't usually get bored. They do, however, get tired. It can take upwards of 50 days to ski from Resolute Bay, Canada to the pole, dodging polar bears, enduring temperatures that rarely peek out of the minuses, and driving into bone-freezing winds. But for those who learn cold-weather skills and develop the mental and physical stamina to pull a 150-pound sled every day for nearly two months, there are unspeakable rewards, like seeing rare, silent landscapes that few people will ever have the strength or resolve to see.
"Today, there aren't a lot of challenges where you can put yourself in a whole different realm," says Aggens. "For a lot of people, it's like stepping back in time and re-creating the footsteps of explorers they've read about since children."
More Information:Full North Pole expeditions with Polar Explorers start at about $100,000 and include a five-day training program and all group equipment, skis, and sleeping gear. The company also runs shorter expeditions to the North Pole, such as dogsled trips and a 14-day ski trip, including a flight onto the pack ice (from $47,500), as well as expeditions to the South Pole.
Incredible Adventures MiG Trips
There are only a few ways a person can get a ride in a fighter jet. One is to join the air force. Another is to save up about $20,000 and travel to the Sokol Airbase in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia, for one of the only commercial fighter jet rides on the planet.
"Riding a motorcycle at 145 miles per hour is like riding a tricycle compared to this," says Paul Cusma, a financial adviser from Tampa who flew in 2009 on a trip arranged by Florida-based outfitter Incredible Adventures, which has organized flights for well-heeled adrenaline addicts since 1993.
On flight day, you'll need to pass a medical test. Once everyone is sure you're not going to have a heart attack, you'll be handed a pressure suit, a helmet, and a custom-fitted oxygen mask. A briefing on safety procedures — what not to touch, what to do in case of ejection — follows. Then comes the fun part. Climb into a MiG-29, and hold on while the pilot loops and rolls up to 18,000 feet. Withstand as much as 7 G's of force, travel faster than the speed of sound, and, if you have a pilot's license, consider taking the controls for a few moments. Another option: Have the pilot tilt the nose up and ascend to nearly 70,000 feet to see the curvature of the earth and the eerie blackness of space beyond.
More Information: Incredible Adventures' five-day MiG Over Moscow trip to Russia, including luxury hotels, breakfasts, and one flight in a MiG-29 starts at $21,000. Zero-gravity flights and extra aerobatic flights are optional additions.
If you're considering purchasing a personal submersible for your yacht, there is only one man in the world you'd want to build it. His name is Graham Hawkes, and he's been designing and producing submarines — some 60 custom underwater vehicles alone — for many decades. His most famous work remains the DeepFlight Challenger, which the late Steve Fossett commissioned and Richard Branson subsequently funded to race James Cameron to the bottom of the Marianas Trench, but there have been plenty of others.
The Super Falcon is — as far as these things go — a far more practical manned submersible. Currently for sale on a custom basis and available for weeklong charters, this underwater plane doesn't yet take commercial passengers due to regulatory constraints, but Hawkes's company does offer underwater pilot training courses for its clients. And Red Bull co-founder Dietrich Mateschitz is considering providing rides in his Falcon to guests at Laucala, his private island resort in Fiji.
Nearly 21 feet long, the Super Falcon has two cockpits and resembles a tiny, futuristic plane. Unlike other submersibles, which troll the ocean floor, this one flies above it. As a pilot, you can perform rolls, explode out of the surface like a space-age whale, and sidle up to great white sharks, who, Hawkes says, tend to view the sub as one of their kind. Want to go deeper? No problem. Follow whales' songs 500 feet down and circle pods of resting humpbacks.
"If you're doing advanced maneuvering, the experience can be intense and breathtaking," says Adam Wright, president of DeepFlight. "But if you're doing it to view the underwater community, it's relaxing and magical."
More information: Chartering a Super Falcon from DeepFlight starts at about $50,000 a week.
Raft remote rivers
Global Descents made a big splash in the rafting game by being the first company to offer amateurs access to remote rivers like India's raging Zanskar and Madagascar's remote Matsiatra. Never particularly profit-oriented, the company's founders have a tendency to tackle the nearly impossible with a sort of rebellious glee.
"We're river runners much more than businessmen," says owner Matt Gontram. "We're all about running rivers, so if someone calls me and says, Hey, I've always wanted to go do this river in Argentina, – or anywhere – we'd say, Let's go down and do it."
Gontram's next project, the Usumacinta River, is a rapid-studded fire hose that marks the border between Mexico and Guatemala. Once the territory of Sandinistas, it has been off-limits for years, even though the conflict in Chiapas quieted down long ago. Though the river's rapids generally don't exceed Class III, the adventure quotient on the Usumacinta is high. It's one of the biggest rivers on the continent, flowing at 40,000 to 100,000 cubic feet per second (by comparison, the Colorado River does between 8,000 and 25,000 cfs through the Grand Canyon), and gigantic eddies and whirlpools flip boats like pancakes. But what is most interesting lies on shore. Rafters camp on empty beaches larger than football fields, then explore travertine pools and waterfalls the color of Windex, before checking out ancient Mayan ruins abandoned deep in the jungle.
More Information: Global Descents' first raft trip down Mexico's Usumacinta River runs about $1,750. The outfitter also has upcoming expeditions on the Zambezi in Zambia, the Siang River in India, and the Futaleufu in Chile.