Extreme Travel

Former war zones turned into vacation paradises

Some of the worst war-torn regions of the 20th century have made miraculous recoveries, transforming from places of carnage and decimation to hubs for comfort and fun. 

Here are some countries that you’ll now find in guidebooks as well as history books. Just keep in mind that many of them are poor, so it’s smart to practice the safety measures you’d take anywhere.

  • 1. Colombia

    Colombia

    Intrepid Travel

    Colombia is infamous for hosting the world’s longest continuous civil war (1948 – present) and for its deadly narco-trade battles, but the country’s efforts to bring back security have paid off.  Under the guidance of ProColombia, a government agency that promotes investment, exports and tourismColombia’s economy is growing, and tourism is booming. Last year the country welcomed 1.9 million visitors — more than twice as many in 2005. Travelers are being lured by Colombia’s natural beauty, including the Amazon jungle, tropical beaches and the high peaks of the Andes. Also, urban hubs like colonial-era Cartagena and a remodeled Medellin (once considered the world’s most dangerous city) have hip restaurants, cool hotels and an authentic feel. 

    Don’t Want to Go Solo?  Intrepid Travel runs an eight-day Café Colombia tour that takes groups to the heart of the Colombian highlands, where they learn the art of growing and brewing some of the world’s best coffee.  

  • 2. South Africa

    South Africa

    Shambala Game Reserve

    More than two decades after apartheid ended in South Africa,  the healing process still isn’t complete, says South African native and travel expert Erik Brits. But the country that once saw regular violence is at peace and economically stable — and tourism is booming. There are more than 100 safari tour operators specializing in sightings of Africa’s Big 5 — Cape buffaloes, elephants, leopards, lions and rhinos. The country is also home to the world’s highest commercial natural bungee jump, best-in-class surf breaks and the Drakensberg Mountains, home of South Africa’s only ski resort.

    Relax Where Mandela Did: In 2015 the Shambala Game Reserve reopened the Nelson Mandela Centre for Reconciliation, where the former president vacationed and held important peacekeeping meetings. The six-bedroom house is available to travelers willing to pay $5,741 per night.

  • 3. Nicaragua

    Nicaragua

    Mukul Beach, Golf & Spa

    From Anastasio Somoza’s nightmarish 36-year dictatorship to the Sandinista Revolution and the subsequent Contra War, Central America’s largest country has had more than its fair share of civil unrest in the last 40 years. But Nicaragua’s troubled past didn’t stop the New York Times from ranking it third on its list of 46 Places to Go in 2013. Nicaragua’s Pacific Coast beaches are as beautiful and abundant as neighboring Costa Rica’s, but they’re far less crowded. And best of all, everything is cheaper (think beers for $2 and hotel stays for under $100). Travelers can find an entirely different culture on the country’s Caribbean coast or head inland to explore the colonial streets of Granada and Lake Nicaragua, where nearby Laguna de Apoya, a former volcano, is now a popular swimming hole.

    Easier to Reach Than Ever: The Costa Esmeralda Airport, scheduled to open in November, will be a game-changer for accessing the Pacific playground, which has never had a public airport. Instead of taking a 2.5-hour taxi drive, travelers will be able to fly directly from Managua to Rivas attractions like Mukul, Nicaragua’s first luxury resort. 

  • 4. Northern Ireland

    Northern Ireland

    Tourism Ireland

    Fighting between the Irish Republican Army and the Ulster Freedom Fighters lasted from 1968 until the 1990s, but peace prevails today — though you should be careful about what you say, and never mention the old times. Northern Ireland has much of the same stunning scenery as its southern counterpart, The Republic of Ireland, but it is part of the United Kingdom and belongs to the European Union. It boasts the rough-around-the-edges Belfast, epic road-tripping along the Causeway Coastal Route, the historic walled city of Londonderry and even the gravesite of St. Patrick at Down Cathedral.

    Live it Up at Lough Erne: Before it was voted Northern Ireland’s Hotel of the Year in 2014, Lough Erne Resort hosted the last G8 Summit in 2013. The five-star property features the Faldo Championship Golf Course, a resident game angling instructor, helicopter tours, a Thai spa and an exclusive Irish whiskey tasting experience.  

  • 5. Rwanda

    Rwanda

    Immersion Journeys

    Rwanda, where an estimated 1 million people were killed in the 1994 genocide, has evolved into an African success story over the past decade. An economic leader and tech hub, it drew 1.2 million visitors last year. Many come to this Central African country to catch a glimpse of the 400 silverback gorillas — more than half the world’s population — at Volcanoes National Park. Travelers also visit Nyungwe Forest National Park, which encourages foreigners to climb 300 feet above the rainforest in a one-of-a-kind suspended canopy walk. For dining and shopping, travelers can head to Rwanda’s remarkably clean and safe (imagine Singapore) capital city of Kigali, which is home to the Kigali Genocide Memorial — named by TripAdvisor as one of Africa’s top 25 landmarks. But the biggest takeaway is the ubiquitous smile of the friendly locals.

    If Time Allows, Experience Tribal Life: While a gorilla trek and exploring Kigali are musts, Immersion Journeys recommends fitting in a visit to the border Rwanda shares with the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where it’s possible to visit the Batwa tribe of Pygmies.

  • 6. Croatia

    Croatia

    Adriatic Luxury Hotels

    Beautiful and extremely affordable, Croatia is one of Europe’s most underrated vacation destinations. Between the Croatian War of Independence from 1991 to 1995 and the simultaneous neighboring Bosnian War, it continues to struggle with its image, but locals are getting used to seeing foreigners who are attracted to the country’s Adriatic islands and 3,600 miles of turquoise waterfront. Nestled in the more mountainous interior, the capital city of Zagreb offers a lively arts and culture scene. In the winter, travelers can be skiing and snowboarding on the slopes of Medvednica and minutes later find themselves dining on Croatian cuisine in downtown Zagreb.

    Five-Star Service for More than 100 Years: Dubrovnik’s five-star Hotel Excelsior has served as one of the coastal city’s most sophisticated and luxurious institutions since 1913. Still perched on the same cliff, the property remained open even during the height of both World Wars and the conflicts of the 1990s.

  • 7. Armenia

    Armenia

    MIR Corporation

    Armenia is no stranger to disorder. Its capital, Yerevan, changed hands more than a dozen times between 1512 and 1735. But it was the horrors of the Armenian Genocide that occurred between 1915 and 1918 that people remember most. Today, Armenia has become a favorite destination for European budget travelers. Last year the number of foreign tourists increased to over 1.2 million, 11.3 percent more than the year before. With the help of the Seattle-based MIR Corporation, a travel company that focuses on cultural exchange tours (“mir” means peace and world in Russian), Armenia is becoming more attractive to U.S. travelers. The rugged, mountainous landscape affords unspoiled hiking and outdoor activities. Culturally, the first nation to establish Christianity as a state religion, boasts of countless churches and monasteries — all free to visit. Also, public transportation is affordable and reliable, crowds are few and far between and everything is relatively cheap. Expect to pay $130 a night at a five-star hotel. 

    Get to Know the Neighbors: MIR’s 15-day Treasures of the South Caucus tour includes the best sightseeing in Armenia as well stops in the bordering and equally elusive countries of Georgia and Azerbaijan.

  • 8. Burma

    Burma

    Greg Rodgers

    Burma, also known as Myanmar, was accused of mass humanitarian and civil rights abuses when it was ruled by a military junta between 1962 and 2011. But since the U.S. stabilized relations with the country in 2012 after new leaders promised democratic reform, the predominately Buddhist nation has become one of Southeast Asia’s most sought-after destinations. With more than 100 ethnic groups, it is a melting pot for different cultures. Though travelers can take advantage of a rapidly improving infrastructure made possible by hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign aid, Greg Rodgers, Asia travel expert for Go Asia, says the out-of-date trains are still the best way to travel the country and reach remote villages that most tourists never see. Of course, the unspoiled beaches are also a must; the well-traveled liken them to Thailand’s beaches decades before they were developed.  

    Count 8,000 Cave-Dwelling Buddhas: For centuries, Buddha statues and images have been stashed in Pindaya Cave in central Burma. Today the Buddhist pilgrimage site is open to travelers who can explore the sacred cave’s chambers.   

  • 9. Jamaica

    Jamaica

    iStock

    Over the past decade, Jamaica’s drug wars have been known to escalate to full-blown street battles between security forces and drug gangs. But it’s been five years since the Caribbean island nation waged a very public war on drugs. While some argue that the war isn’t over, officials insist that foreign tourists are safe — and that feeling of security shows in the numbers. Jamaica welcomed more than 3.5 million tourists last year — 25 percent more than in 2010. With its miles of postcard-perfect white sand beaches, incredible cuisine (especially the jerk chicken) and unparalleled live music (thanks to the likes of reggae legends like Bob Marley), it is the third most visited destination in the Caribbean. But a reminder: Although the country’s relatively high crime rate is almost exclusively Jamaican-on-Jamaican, tourists should exercise caution when visiting city centers like Kingston.  

    Book a Room at a Recording Studio: Jah Freedom Guesthouse is a recording studio meets bed and breakfast near the beach in Negril. Rooms start at $75 a night, and the place is ranked fifth out of 233 Jamaica properties on TripAdvisor.

  • Katie Jackson is a travel writer. When she's not working, she's chasing after a Leonberger named Zeus.