5 countries you should visit before you turn 30

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The oldest, truest axiom of travel is that you never have both time and money. Before retirement, when your knees will be feta, your best shot at traveling big might be those bumpy early years when the world's a swirl anyway. In your teens and 20s, let's be honest, you're not in charge of squat; you don't have kids; you can get eight solid hours even when origamied in a bus seat; you're gastrointestinally fearless; and virtually nothing can kill you even if it tried.

So stack a bit of cash, drop the dog at mom's, and get going. The world will still be here in a week, a month, a year. Trust us. No one in their 30s or 40s or 90s stops to wish, Gosh, if only I’d traveled less and put in longer hours at the office.

That is the how and the why. For the where, we asked writers who've been around the world twice and lived to tell. Here's what they sent back on how to (mis)spend your youth -- at whatever age you happen to be now.


Why to go when you're young: Italy truly has it all. Art, culture, beaches, mountains, hands-down the best food, friendly people, booze galore. It's also easy to hit several different cities in a matter of days -- and when you're just a pup, you actually have the stamina to do that.

Where to head first: Florence, San Gimignano, and Cinque Terre

When I think that I almost chose to study abroad in London over Italy, it makes me cringe. Nothing against London of course, but after living in Florence during college, backpacking through Western Europe in my 20s, and returning in my 30s, I feel confident saying Italy is a genuine treasure. Returning as a real-life adult I discovered that I didn't just fall in love with it because I was a carefree 20-year-old blowing it out on my parents' dime. Certain activities have changed -- i.e., drinking fewer flaming shooters at Shot Cafe -- but my love and admiration for the country only grows with every visit. That's rooted in the overwhelming sense of culture and community (not to mention just sheer staggering beauty) Italy offers: Locals just want you to eat some damn good food, drink a ton of Chianti, and love their country. Trust me, you will, no matter what age or how many times you've been there. In fact, my last visit to a mountain gazing down at Vernazza (one of the five towns that makes up Cinque Terre) was no less awe-inspiring than the first time I stood in the same spot a decade earlier. Except, the second time, I had the memories to join me.


Why to go when you're young: To climb Kilimanjaro, the tallest mountain in Africa, you need a good set of lungs on you.

Where to head first: Kilimanjaro International Airport (JRO). All the tour operators are located in the nearby towns of Arusha, Moshi, and Marangu. Do some research before you choose. You're looking at safety record, summit success rate, and proper treatment of porters and staff.

Unlike Everest or Denali, conquering this summit doesn't require you to buy up half of REI or risk losing your Tinder-swipers to frostbite. You can actually hike all the way to the top of Kilimanjaro, which takes five to nine days depending on the route. Anyone in decent condition can do it, but having the mad physical resilience and stamina of your 20s is a distinct advantage. It also helps not to have developed an "I'm too old for this shit" attitude. Why? Because you can count on walking in the rain, camping in the snow, and getting the runs in a bathroom that consists of a hole cut into a concrete floor. The latter is one of the many wonderful symptoms of altitude sickness, which gets more acute as you go higher.

On "summit day" you do one big push to the top (usually six to eight hours; it took me nine) and then come straight back to base camp (another two or three hours). You embark at midnight, when it's so dark that you can't tell if the specks of light further up are stars or the headlamps of distant climbers. I'm not being poetic -- you're so high that the stars aren't just above you, they're also around you. For the next four or five hours the temperature and your psychological state both plunge below zero. Eventually a gradual lightening in the sky signals you're about to witness something amazing: a sunrise viewed from above the cloudline. It's like you're in a plane, except that you're hiking -- through snow, past glaciers, and eventually to a rickety wooden sign. It congratulates you for reaching the top of the world's highest free-standing mountain and Africa's highest point: 19,341ft above sea level. It feels phenomenal, as do your first shower and beer once you get the fuck back down.


Why to go when you're young: Budget travel (constant haggling, sniffing out scams, sleeping in shitholes) can be exhausting once you wave buh-bye to your 20s. Might as well go to mind-bending places where the price of one Manhattan cocktail can finance an entire night out.

Where to head first: Chaotic Old Delhi is a great place to start. Then enjoy the star attractions in neighboring Uttar Pradesh, the fourth-largest of India's 29 states.

India's ethnic, linguistic, and geographical diversity spans from the Himalayas to the tropics, and seeing it all takes years. But focus your first trip on the Ganges, at sunrise. There, your world will shrink to waterfront rituals: prayer, bathing, tooth-brushing, laundry, and outdoor wood-fired cremations. The bodies inside the burning pyres are recycled into the Vedic elements of their origin (earth, ether, fire, water, wind), fueled by logs that arrive by boat stacked into towers; the fire-tending morticians later recover jewelry and gold tooth fillings. Witnessing a cremation makes you realize that your time is short, so find your passions and migrate toward them fearlessly. It's valuable to get this dose of mortal reality when you're still young. It also gives you time to return to India's unforgettable wildness. Once bitten, you'll be back.


Why to go when you're young: It's cheap, yo. Flights are a cinch, and dollars spend big. And it's close: Even from New York, Bogota’s a shorter direct flight than London. You'll arrive in the same time zone, sans jet lag, ready dive into jungle adventures.

Where to head first: Medellín, the hot springs of Santa Rosa de Cabal, and Cocora Valley

It's not a coincidence that Gabriel García Márquez was Colombian: The country truly is a land of magical realism, where the past blends with the present and daydreams merge with reality. Where else but at the top of South America do you get the Andes coming right up to meet Caribbean beaches? Or will you dance all-night salsa at clubs in Cali, a town famous just for its dancing?

If you're going for just one moment to capture the whole rigmarole, though, I’ve got two and a half words for you: Carnaval de Barranquilla. The four-day festival on the north coast is Colombia's Mardis Gras, the final blowout before the heavily Catholic country succumbs to Lent. Each day the entire town, plus several thousand tourists, gather for raucous, technicolor parades that last most of the day. Everyone dresses up, in racy and bizarre fashion. Among the more notorious costumes is la marimonda, which looks like a mosquito but, locals explain, is actually a caricature of male genitalia meant to depict the corruption of local politicians.

At night, the streets become discos as salsa dancers overrun intersections. Vendors roam hawking cheap beers and juice boxes filled with aguardiente, the local anise liquor. The passions rise as time wanders away and strangers trade dance partners as easily as passing a bottle. Just before the sun rises, people stagger home for a few hours' shut-eye. Then they do it all again, as they do every February. Which is coming soon. So book your lodging pronto.


Why to go when you're young: Because this is the Land of Smiles, and of impossibly cheap adventure. Go during the hot, rainy off-season, when $35/day can still cover backpacker-style food, thatched-roof camping, and whatever party mode you fancy.

Where to head first: Bangkok, for every reason you could imagine, plus some of the greatest cheap food in the world.

Thailand is one of a handful of countries that's never been ruled by an outside power, part of the reason there's no other place like it -- mellow, hospitable, patient. On any main street you'll be able to rock out in a buck-a-beer joint with a posse of new backpacker friends and then, steps away, sample the lemongrass-, lime-, and chili-infused national dish tom yum soup or get a classic Thai massage (they stretch you, too, so you can call it a workout). The front of most massage parlors has several reclining chairs if you only want a foot massage -- a fun outing with your new drinking buddies (BYOB).

From Bangkok, take an overnight bus (which can be a party or a snooze) north to the cooler mountainous terrain (start in Chiang Mai, plan further trekking outreach from there) or head south to the divine beaches on either coastline (start on either Koh Samui island or in Krabi). Once you're clear of city traffic, rent a motorbike. Thailand's so-called progress includes elements of mass tourism: insulated resorts, double pricing for foreigners. But it only takes a short walk in another direction to rediscover wholesomeness. This is what it is to feel invincible, young, and in a land where even a few folding dollars can get you wherever you want to go, borderline rich.

2016.11.21 / 15:48
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