World's Scariest Borders
It should have been just a regular border crossing. But in 2009, an ESL teacher who blogs as "Nancy O." had an experience that was anything but. While she was crossing from Zarumilla, Peru, to Huaquillas, Ecuador, two locals offered her a lift to the bus station, but instead took her on a harrowing car ride where she feared for her life. Fortunately, Nancy was able to run from the vehicle and find an immigration officer, who helped her across the border. "I was lucky to get away," she wrote on her blog, Women Travelling Alone.
Among travelers, the Ecuador–Peru border area has a special reputation for being scary. "It's one of the most dangerous I've encountered," says Craig Heimburger, editor of the travel blog Travelvice.com. "It is not to be undertaken lightly."
Yet this South American border is hardly alone in offering potential frights. At borders around the world, travelers face intimidation, misinformation, fake exchange rates, inflated prices, rigged calculators, counterfeit notes, robbery—and, yes, even kidnapping and violence.
Unless they stick to carefully choreographed group tours, travelers—especially those who stray from the beaten path—may well find themselves in a sticky border situation. The problem may be banal (border guards who demand a "tip" in exchange for doing their jobs), but it can be genuinely dangerous (taxi drivers in cahoots with armed bandits waiting in the shadows). Experienced travelers will remain calm and expect to pay some sort of premium for their passport stamps, but still be ready for the unexpected.
While some borders are intentionally made scary by conmen well-practiced at shaking down tourists, others are political hot zones that can explode on short notice and ensnare unwitting travelers like Venus flytraps.
Then there's the infamous Darien Gap, which has earned its reputation as one of the world's scariest borders. Because it separates Panama and Colombia, this 1,000-square-mile area should be a heavily trafficked trade route between Central and South America. And it is, of a sort: the nearly impassible jungles and swamps are ruled by armed guerillas, paramilitary groups, and drug cartels. (Not to mention filled with man-eating snakes, poisonous insects, and dengue fever.) It's just as well that no proper roads run through it. Overland travelers trying to follow the Pan-American Highway are forced to stow their vehicles on a cargo ship for about $800.
If you're heading into a remote area, read up on the potential border pitfalls. Knowing what the scams are may allow you to sidestep any problems. "Understanding the crossing beforehand is one of the best ways to come out of it unscathed," says Heimburger. But, he adds, your guidebook may not be enough. "Some still haven't updated their editions with enough detail," he says, "so those who aren't researching online and socializing on the road can be caught off guard."
Colombia + Panama
The jungle between Panama and Colombia, known as the Darien Gap, is a nearly impassible territory of undeveloped forests and swamps that’s ruled by guerilla and paramilitary groups. It’s just as well that no proper roads run through it. There’s barely more than a path fit for a rugged motorcycle or well-armed off-road vehicle. Sane people enter Colombia via air or from Panama City to Cartagena by boat.
China + North Korea
Even after two American journalists were sentenced to 12 years of hard labor for illegally crossing into North Korea from China in 2009 (they were eventually freed), foreigners continue to fall afoul of overly anxious border cops. In August 2010, President Jimmy Carter had to fetch American Aijalon Mahli Gomes, who may have crossed over on a personal humanitarian mission. Dying to see North Korea? Visit the tourist-friendly Demilitarized Zone that separates the two Koreas, where you can legally walk on northern soil—at least for a few minutes.
Burma + Thailand
The only way to legally enter Myanmar for an extended visit is by air from Saigon or Hanoi. For visitors entering overland from Thailand, short-term visas are issued for “visa runs” and regional travel only. Travelers who enter at Tachilek, for example, are required to stay within the eastern territories—and exit within 14 days. Push your luck on this border, and you’ll find yourself on the wrong end of an AK-47 and maybe arrested as a spy. Activists sneak into Burma under cover of night—at great risk to themselves—to provide medical aid and education to the country’s displaced ethnic minorities.
Pakistan + Afghanistan
A crucial trade route for centuries, the Khyber Pass connecting Afghanistan and Pakistan through the Safed Koh mountains is at once fabled and formidable. Getting there is half the scare, thanks to tales of Taliban ambushes and other military actions claiming innocent bystanders. And even if you avoid armed attack, you’ll have to contend with Pakistan’s famously erratic truck drivers.
Iraq + Iran
While it’s technically legal for Americans to travel to certain parts of both Iran and Iraq, the U.S. government strongly recommends against either. One wrong step along the extensive but poorly marked border, and you may find yourself imprisoned in Tehran. Just ask Sarah Shourd, who, with two other Americans, was hiking in Iraq’s Kurdistan region. As Shourd told the New York Times, a soldier gestured to the trio. When they walked over to him—inadvertently crossing the unmarked border—they were arrested as spies. Her companions remain in custody.
Eritrea + Ethiopia
Ten years after two of the world’s poorest countries engaged in a devastating war, relations between Eritrea and Ethiopia remain tense, to say the least. Violent skirmishes along the still-disputed border aren’t uncommon, and many observers worry about larger military conflict. On a continent with its share of scary borders, the U.S. government officially advises against crossing this one—for any reason.
Russia + Ukraine
The overnight train from Kiev to Moscow probably isn’t very scary—if you’re a stoic Ukrainian accustomed to this route’s famously crime-ridden trains. But even Ukrainians find this overnight trip a bit jarring due to thefts. And it can be a long, intimidating night if staunch young men with firearms shake you awake angrily to demand your papers. One bad joke, one wrong answer, or an imperfectly prepared visa—and you may be left at the next platform. And mind the thugs.
Ecuador + Peru
Travel writer Craig Heimburger describes the road connecting Huaquillas, Ecuador, and Zarumilla, Peru, as a “kill zone between immigration offices,” thanks to the many criminals who prey on frightened travelers. In the most common scare tactic, a “helpful local” warns travelers of disruption from a workers’ or teachers’ strike. The scam artist then offers to facilitate the crossing for a fee. Shakedowns from border guards aren’t unheard of, either. As always, discretion rules the day. Cross using a reputable bus company such as CIFA—not in a taxi, not on foot.
Kenya + Somalia
According to United States Agency of International Development (USAID), the border between these war-torn countries is a product of “state failure, lawlessness, and communal violence.” This is pretty much the scary border trifecta. Armed conflict in the region is a function of profiteering, not the “pursuit of victory.” No wonder the U.S. State Department continues to issue specific warnings about this border.
Saudi Arabia + Bahrain
Every weekend, the King Fahd Causeway is packed with wealthy Saudis (and their chauffeurs, of course) anxious to take advantage of Bahrain’s liberal nightlife. This 16-mile-long, narrow highway is the sole overland entry into this small island country in the Persian Gulf. If the madcap rush of 60,000 badly driven vehicles (every weekend!) isn’t scary enough, then being treated like a spy by the CID, Bahrain’s version of the FBI, at the border station on embankment number four should do the trick.