The first time I was truly nervous prior to visiting a destination was April 2010. I was heading to South Africa to write articles previewing the World Cup and about what travellers could expect from the month's worth of soccer. South Africa had a horrendous reputation. The European press were calling the World Cup a disaster before a ball was even kicked, and accusing the event organizers of putting Brits, Germans, Italians and others from first-world nations in harm's way.
It was pre-emptive criticism based on grim statistics (18,000 murders a year, plus a frightening number of rapes, carjackings, armed robbery and other brutal activities that scream "stay away") rather than from the life experience gained from going to a place and learning more about it.
South Africa wowed me. Its immense beauty, varied landscapes, wonderfully frank and friendly people, amazing wildlife adventures, and stunning drives were enjoyed without once encountering danger -- other than a leopard that was too curious about the safari vehicle I was riding in. You had to constantly be aware of your surroundings and take precautions like carrying only small amounts of cash and there was always a sense that you needed to be on guard, but nothing bad, or even close to it, happened.
Underscoring the experience was the fact I ventured around the country without any involvement from the country's tourism board. Tourism boards will usually make great efforts to ensure visiting journalists are shown the best and most noteworthy places a destination offers. On this trip, I didn't contact tourism officials, choosing to see South Africa the way many visitors would.
More than any other trip, my tour of South Africa proved that fears of travelling abroad can be overblown and misconceptions persist no matter where we venture.
Last month, I visited La Paz, Mexico, a city of 250,000 that's one of the safest places in the western hemisphere, with only 10 murders a year (Winnipeg, by comparison, had 39 homicides in 2011). Once named the top place in the world to retire by Forbes magazine, La Paz is in Baja California Sur, a province so benign it is usually omitted from all of those travel alerts the U.S. and Canadian governments issue about Mexico.
Yet, many Americans and Canadians have struck all of Mexico off of their destination list because of an unfortunate string of violence in areas of the country nowhere close to La Paz.
"I think it's all overblown," says Karen Martino, a San Diego, California realtor who was staying at the immaculate Costabaja Resort, a 115-room property with stunning views of the Sea of Cortez. "It's beautiful here and you can see people aren't worried, they're all very friendly. People who won't even consider coming to Baja are missing out, I think."
What they're missing is one of the most pristine marine habitats in the world. The Gulf of California, where the Espiritu Santo Archipelago can be found, was once dubbed "the world's aquarium" by Jacques Cousteau because of the variety of species in its waters. The archipelago is remarkably similar to the Galapagos Islands in its landscape, breadth of endemic species, and lack of human habitation.
As in the Galapagos, you can swim with sea lions, encounter whales and dolphins, sprawl out on white sand beaches, and escape the hectic pace of urban life. Canadians can make it to La Paz in about four hours less travel time than it takes to reach the Galapagos, and soon there may be direct flights from Vancouver. But whether Canadians who have never visited Mexico will do so is the question.
"If a potential tourist were to ask me if they should go to see Juarez, I would say definitely not. Should I go to Reynosa in Tamaulipas? I would say definitely not. There are specific places, most of them in the northeastern part of the country, where I would say definitely you don't want to go there," Rodolfo Lopez Negrete, COO of the Mexico Tourism Board, told me. "But as far as the tourist destinations in Mexico, from the West to the East, they are totally safe."
Mexican officials and tour operators constantly need to say such reassuring words in part because bad things keep happening there and in part because reports of awful violence in Juarez aren't balanced with news of the celebrity weddings and million-dollar property developments in La Paz.
"There's a lot of negative reports about Mexico, but La Paz is totally unique. There are many ex-pat Canadians and Americans living in the city or around it. Mexico is a big, big country and every region is different. Here, it is very upscale," Eduardo Herrera, general manager of Costabaja, says while overlooking a marina outside the resort where yachts are moored.
Canada has an overwhelming amount of positives -- not the least of which is the sense of security its citizens and visitors can feel -- but we also encourage global travel, especially travel to destinations that are not heavily commercialized. For one thing, it's how you can gain an appreciation for your home. (The first thing I did when I returned from South Africa was take a carefree walk around Toronto, because in Johannesburg and Durban you must always remain wary.)
More importantly, travel allows you to understand the rest of the world and lets you shed inaccurate notions you may have held before you arrived. It enriches your life with a depth of experience that makes many of us more compassionate. Getting out of your comfort zone and challenging your own view of the world is part of the journey too.