World's Most Controversial Destinations
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Why go: Sudan has more pyramids than Egypt and hardly any tourists. Other off-the-radar but spectacular sites include Musawwarat es Sufra, the dramatic desert temple complex that comprises an ancient manmade lake and labyrinths of courtyards, ramps, and causeways; Jebel Barkal, Sudan's version of Ayers Rock; the Coptic Christian churches of Old Dongola; and the ruins of Napata, capital of the Kush kingdom, which ruled Egypt from 1650 to 1550 B.C. In the capital, Khartoum, Sudan's National Museum houses artifacts from Paleolithic times to the fall of the Ottoman Empire. On Fridays, Sufi dervishes whirl at the tomb of local saint Hamada el Nil just before sunset prayers.
Why not go: After five years, some 200,000 deaths, and the creation of 2.3 million refugees, the genocidal violence in Darfur province continues unabated. The government signed a peace accord in 2005 with the Sudan Liberation Army, but according to the U.S. State Department and humanitarian organizations, official government forces and pro-government janjaweed militias continue to raze villages, torture opponents, rape women and girls, and forcibly recruit child soldiers. But this impoverished nation's problems aren't limited to the conflict, which is rooted in historical divisions between the Arab north and non-Arab south. The controversial Chinese-built Merowe Dam, above the Nile's Fourth cataract, will begin operations this year, flooding 100 miles of river basin, displacing 50,000 people and irrevocably drowning thousands of rock carvings and antiquities sites.
Experts say: While travel operators insist the north is safe, there have been periodic flare-ups of anti-Western sentiment in Khartoum, most recently last fall, when the government deported a British first-grade schoolteacher who named a mascot teddy bear "Mohammed." Last January, gunmen assassinated a U.S. Embassy official and his driver in the capital. The U.S. State Department Travel Warning for Sudan advises caution and says any travel outside Khartoum and Omdurman is potentially dangerous. Darfur and the Chad border area are definite no-go zones.
If you go: Khartoum's oldest hotel, the Acropole, is a favorite among aid workers, journalists, archeologists, and independent travelers, and manager George Pagoulatos can provide up-to-the-minute information on travel conditions. The hotel can arrange vehicles and drivers for trips to Omdurman, MeroŽ, and beyond (www.acropolekhartoum.com).