The Hardest Countries to Travel Solo

“The world is your oyster!”, so the saying goes. While that may be true for the most part – there is no limit to what adventures can be had around the world – there are some places where you can’t simply book a plane ticket and take off without a worry.

Whether this is down to a difficult visa process, safety or other government restrictions, some destinations need extra planning. And although we’re huge proponents of conquering solo travel (yay, empowerment!) there’s no denying that there are some countries where group travel is not only necessary, but much less of a headache and safer. Be in the know and work out how to get to these hardest countries to solo travel in.

Bhutan

Bhutan is a unique destination for its traditional Buddhist culture combined with its sustainable approach to everything from tourism to environmentalism (at least 60% of the country must remain forested, and it’s currently above 70%). All of this with a backdrop of the jaw-dropping Himalayas, Bhutan is truly stunning. You can’t miss the Buddhist temples, including Tiger’s Nest, a temple and sacred site which sits precariously on a mountainside of the Paro valley.

Although this sounds like a backpacker’s dream, you can’t get that travel style in Bhutan. With the US$250 per day fee to visit the country, it’s sometimes seen as expensive, but in truth, this is an all-inclusive price for everything you need from accommodation and food to a guide. There’s no independently organised travel allowed here – it’s a requirement that you book through a tour company or travel agent. You can still explore with freedom, but a guide is compulsory.

Russia

As the world’s largest country (by landmass), you’d better believe Russia has plenty to offer any traveller. There’s the iconic multi-day Tran-Siberian Railway which takes you through unrivalled landscapes, the fairytale, vibrant onion domes like St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow’s Red Square and arguably no trip to Russia would be complete without indulging in a little vodka-tasting from the experts.

You probably know someone who’s been to Russia, but they’ll tell you that it’s not a simple visa process. In order to visit, you must file a lengthy visa application, which, for US citizens, is even longer than for other countries. It demands details on every country you’ve visited in the last decade, and all charity organisations to which you belong.

You also need to be sponsored by a Russia-based hotel or tour operator registered with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Russia, so while travelling solo is possible, a tour takes a lot of the pain of the visa process away from you so you’re able to get adequately excited for your trip.

By far my greatest challenge in St. Petersburg was the language. I had intended to learn some survival phrases before I left, but an insane work schedule meant that I only picked up ‘hello’ from a Russian acquaintance (who was a very strict teacher). Despite being a tourist hotspot, St. Petersburg had fewer multi-language signs than I expected. Before you go, definitely familiarize yourself with the Cyrillic alphabet and learn a few key phrases. From museums to public transport to menus, it will be so helpful – and it also goes a long way with the locals! – Amy, The Wayfarer’s Book

When visiting Russia in winter, your biggest challenge will be to keep your body warm. The key is to do like Russians do. Dress and eat like a Russian. Wear layers of clothes. Buy one of those beautiful Russian scarfs made of fine wool, they make wonders. And invest in a fur hat. You also need larger size boots as you will want to add layers there too. Eat borscht on a daily basis; indulge in blinis with caviar and Herring Under The Winter Coat Salad. These are some of the traditional Russian dishes and will help you keep warm and well-nourished. – Geri, When Woman Travels



Turkmenistan

Relatively unexplored but eliciting all of the wanderlust, Turkmenistan is one for the bucket list. It’s best known for its dictator, Saparmyrat Niyazov, who died in 2006 but left many dazzling buildings and large statues of himself behind, now seen as somewhat glamorous tourist attractions for those who visit.

As well as the impressive architecture, Turkmenistan has exceptional natural beauty, like the Karakum desert and the unmissable ‘Door to Hell’. Known officially as the Darvaza gas crater, it was originally a natural gas field, part of which collapsed to create a 70 metre-wide crater which is always alight in flames, sparking the nickname.

Getting into Turkmenistan to see these fascinating sights is similar to the process with Bhutan: it’s compulsory to go with a guide and everything needs to be paid upfront, so through a travel agency or tour operator are the only options. For a destination not many people visit (it’s the least visited country in Central Asia) or know about, you can really make the most out of going with a tour group to remain respectful of culture, gain valuable information and, of course, share this unique experience with new friends.

In terms of solo travel through Turkmenistan, the biggest challenge, at least in planning, is that the cost is quite high (compared to most backpacking type destinations), so as a solo traveler, it’s quite hard to offset those costs by sharing accommodation, transportation, etc. with anyone. Additionally, people who are traveling alone get watched much more closely (a friend of mine was deported for Couchsurfing – as he was trying to lower costs, and said he always saw 4-5 people tailing him).

Make sure that you have sorted your visa and travel plans. There is very little wiggle room and a lot of reasons this country is compared to North Korea. The even more important piece of advice is to not hold that against the people of the country. After I shared my story of what happened to me at the border, I was surprised about how many people from Turkmenistan reached out to me to ask me not to judge them for the experience I had with the government. I think most of us can say the same to some extent about our own countries and governments. – Jessica, How Dare She

Cuba

Cuba

We’ve all seen the pastel pink vintage cars roaming around the Havana streets adorned with shabby yet aesthetically pleasing architecture. On top of the timeworn but fascinating city, there are the colourful houses of Trinidad, the tantalisingly clear water of the Caribbean and the fascinating culture just waiting to be discovered.

While Cuba is relatively accessible around the world, for Americans, it comes with a few restrictions. Your loophole is to fly from a different country, like Canada, but there are easier, less risky ways of experiencing this beautiful wormhole to the past. In order for Americans to visit Cuba as tourists, they need to be part of a ‘people-to-people’ tour, showing they’re helping the local economy. This essentially requires you to be on a group tour, of which there are plenty to choose from and they take care of the visa hassle you’d have otherwise.

My greatest challenge as a solo traveller was getting around, the language barrier and the cost. English isn’t widely spoken, getting from A to B had to be planned in advance and the costs surprised me for pretty much everything apart from street food and beer. But it was worth it!

Embrace Cuba for what it is, because you probably won’t visit a country quite like it. Cuba really is stuck in the past and for travellers it’s fascinating to see. Travelling can be easy at times nowadays but Cuba won’t give you that luxury. Keep open to the experience and don’t rush your time there! My favourite place was Vinales, it’s like the Vietnam of Cuba! – Tommy, The Wandering Walker



Iran

Iran

Photo credit: hamedpahlevan via Visualhunt / CC BY

Iran is a place full of history, culture and stunning architecture that will blow you away, with vivid colours and impressive mosaic tiles. Huge names like Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan made their mark here, giving this country a deep connection to the beginning of civilisation. The hospitality is something to write home about; a simple chat could result in being invited for a meal or tea, an offer it would be difficult to refuse.

Just like Bhutan and Turkmenistan, in Iran you must book a tour group or a private guide. The visa process has multiple steps, including firstly obtaining a visa reference number which you then use to apply for an actual visa. Of course, on a tour this is all facilitated much more swiftly than attempting it on your own (beside the fact that you do need to book through a tour operator to get into Iran).

Travel in Iran didn’t feel like a challenge at all. I mostly experienced smooth communication, good transportation and welcoming locals. A small challenge was finding “real” restaurants outside of the big cities. Iranian food is exquisite and if you get the chance to feast on a home cooked local meal, don’t miss out on it! However, finding these culinary gems in restaurants was a lot harder than expected. Though there are fast food restaurants and excellent street food stalls around every corner, I struggled to find those more complex, tasty signature dishes. Make your trip as long as you can. There is so much to explore on multiple levels, you’ll wish you were staying longer. – Sarah, Travel Cake

My biggest advice for someone traveling through Iran is to go beyond the classics. I know how tempting the sound of Esfahan and Persepolis can be but most people traveling through central Iran end up thinking Iran is just deserts and great architecture. To get a better understanding of Iran, I’d highly recommend visiting a city in northern or western Iran. You’d realize how much the change of weather and landscape could influence the culture.
If you’re a foodie, make sure you research for great food and decent restaurants. Eating out culture in Iran is not huge and menus have very limited options, without research you might end up eating kebabs all through out your journey.  – Matin, Travelstyle