Throughout the pandemic, we'll keep publishing news to help you navigate the state of travel today (like whether travel insurance covers the coronavirus), as well as stories about places for you to put on your bucket list once it's safe to start going more far-flung.
I have to confess something: I love a good shithole. It’s taken me the better part of three decades to step on all seven continents and visit about 80 countries, including many of the those that President Trump would disparage. Last week, he reportedly called those poor (not-white) countries in Africa, Central America and the Caribbean shitholes, but the term has long been used to describe just about any country (and some of our own counties) that lacks the sorts of luxuries that many Americans take for granted.
But here’s the thing: so-called shitholes are the better places to visit. Not only can your dollar affect them the most, but the more beat-down a place is, the greater the potential it has to shake you out of your bubble and give the traveler’s holy grail—you know, this thing called “understanding.” I’ll suffer through skiing in Switzerland with chasselas-soaked chanterelles in my belly if I must, but I’d rather wander around the places our President writes off any day.
Why? The people. They’ve invited me into their homes, let me camp in their gardens between the ginger and frangipani, and given me bowls of goat they just slaughtered for no other reason than because they were curious and kind. Experiences like that make you grateful, and that’s the first step toward becoming decent. So, herewith, five of my favorite shitholes.
A lot of people haven’t heard of Namibia, apparently including our president, who called it Nambia. It’s a rather large but sparsely populated country on the far southwestern tip of Africa between South Africa and Angola. The Namibians have actually enshrined conservation into their constitution and have created scores of game reserves that directly benefit local communities while undercutting the demand for poached wildlife. Though Namibia’s Skeleton Coast is surreal and spectacular, with endless dunes and eerie ships sticking out of the sand, my favorite part of the country might be the Caprivi Strip. That’s a spindle of land in the northeast that connects the South Atlantic with the Zambezi River where Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Angola all come together to form a swamp of luscious game habitat. I stayed at the Nkasa Lupala Tented Lodge within the Wuparo Conservancy and got to watch from a boat while lions chased cape buffalo.
It’s strange to call a place known for the pyramids—one of the seven wonders of the world—a shithole, but OK. If you get tired of those, you can always get on a Nile cruiser called the Philae that was just renovated a few years ago and now has a cigar lounge, a top-side pool, and about 20 rooms. It steams between Luxor and Aswan, stopping at more temples. When I went, I had 50 staffers just for me because everyone is too scared to go to Egypt and no one else was on the boat.
In the far southwest corner of Kenya, there’s a place called the Maasai Mara National Reserve—Kenya’s smaller version of Tanzania’s Serengeti, which abuts it to the south. Stay at Cottar’s 1920s Safari Camp, where you can watch wildebeest migrate to search for better grass, and Maasai warriors escort you to your cabin carrying a spear just in a case a hippo tries to ruin your day. Before you leave the country, book a few nights at the Giraffe Manor outside Nairobi. The giraffes are so entitled they’ll literally stick their heads through the windows to take your hard-earned pancakes. What animals.
If Europe were a water closet, Albania would be the shithole. It’s not like Croatia or Italy, where everyone spends lots of money to drink wine, eat good food, and lounge around on the Adriatic. No, in Albania you drink wine, eat good food, and lounge around on the Adriatic for a lot less. The place is tiny, too, roughly the size of Maryland, and 70 percent of it is mountainous with peaks that are nearly as glaciated as the Alps. You can hike under towering limestone big walls on the Peaks of the Balkans Trail, raft down the wild Osum River and check out ancient Grecian ruins like Apollonia that few people ever see because no one has developed it. My favorite spot might be Qeparo, where you can kayak around secret submarine tunnels and stay in a fisherman’s inn where the guy gives you free drinks just because you’re an American.
Eastern Shore of Virginia
There’s the Virginia of Jamestown, Alexandria, and Charlottesville, and then there’s the Eastern Shore of Virginia, a place that dingles like a berry off the Delmarva Peninsula between the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic. It’s one of the poorest regions in Virginia, if not the whole Mid-Atlantic. There’s a town of maybe 2,000 people there called Cape Charles but with only, like, four restaurants, locals sometimes just go out and collect their own clams or oysters for dinner or they cast into the eel grass beds looking for speckled trout. It’s hard to imagine, but money doesn’t do a lot of good here: people just ride their bikes, look at art, and lounge on a beach right in town that has zero development. There’s not so much as a funnel cake stand. You can paddle a kayak through the Virginia Coast Reserve or tool along undeveloped barrier islands managed by the Nature Conservancy. Kite boarders love the shallow, warm water. And in the summer, bands come and play live music on a dock at the Kings Creek Marina while blue crabs swim around water that turns the color of strawberries at sunset.