Veteran Wayfarer Franci Neely Shares Some of Her Favorite Exotic Locales
Most people only daydream about exotic travel destinations: A forbidden desert where hidden archaeological treasures await discovery. A waterfall as tall as a skyscraper with a crashing cascade plunging into a burbling crystal pool below. A jungle village that time seems to have forgotten where arcane, visionary ceremonies as old as the dawn of man are still performed and magic is made. While lots of us daydream about someday visiting such faraway places, for seasoned world traveler Franci Neely, many of these unique locales are places she’s already experienced firsthand.
A veteran adventurer, Neely has circumnavigated the globe, set foot on every continent, traversed windswept tundras, traipsed across broad swaths of desert, hiked mountain ranges, and explored sultry rainforests. Neely’s nomadic tour of the world has taken her to more than 180 countries thus far — and she fervently hopes she’ll have the chance to cross a visit to those that remain off her bucket list in the near future. “I have no more than 20 countries left to visit,” Neely says. “I am determined to accomplish this by 2025.”
The one piece of advice Franci Neely most often gives to novice tourists looking for a truly rewarding travel experience is to choose a destination that will take you outside your comfort zone. A beach vacation is fine if you’re just looking to kick back and relax, but if you want to learn and grow as a person and make real human connections with people from other cultures, do yourself a favor and seek a destination that’s off the beaten path.
“Go visit the Western Highlands of Guatemala, the Grassland kingdoms of Cameroon, and Upper Mustang in Nepal,” Neely advises. “You’ll find volcanoes, lakes, and fascinating villages like Quetzaltenango in the Guatemalan Highlands; rich tribal culture and ceremonies in the Grassland kingdoms of Cameroon; and traditional Tibetan culture in Upper Mustang.”
Over the prodigious course of her wanderings, Franci Neely has observed an array of indigenous customs, taken part in numerous native ceremonies, sampled local cuisine, and been exposed to a myriad of traditions. “I love to explore other cultures, other areas of the world, ways of living, history,” she reports. “I’m very curious about that and I care about it very much.”
Here are a few of the inspiring places Franci Neely has visited that she touts as life-altering.
Neely has made the pilgrimage to Antarctica on three separate occasions. “I’m very fortunate about that,” she concedes. The last time, she actually made it to the Antarctic Circle. The landscapes and wildlife — including several species of penguins and seals — were magnificent. When a humpback whale and her calf swam past the inflatable craft she was in, Neely was so touched she broke into tears.
Northern State, Sudan
The stark, natural beauty and the wealth of archaeological attractions put Northern State, Sudan, near the top of Neely’s most cherished travel memories. Known as Nubia in ancient times, Neely and her travel companions bivouacked at a lovely local establishment called the Nubian Rest House, located in close proximity to the base of Jebel Barkal, a 340-foot windswept mesa. Neely recalls that a sunset climb and the four-course meal accompanied by a fair measure of locally made date-palm wine that followed were especially enjoyable. When visiting Jebel Barkal, Neely recommends touring the 18th Dynasty Egyptian Temple of Amun and the corresponding Temple of Mut (Amun’s wife). The two temples, along with a phalanx of Meroitic pyramids, comprise a stunning and highly informative UNESCO World Heritage site.
Neely reports that the enchanting new-growth tropical forest at the Arboretum de Raponda Walker in Libreville was so mesmerizing she felt transported to another land. “I literally got lost there for about half an hour,” she confides. On the outskirts of a village near the region of Lobaye, Neely’s group witnessed a religious rite from the Bwiti faith. During the fascinating ceremony, participants ingested iboga, a naturally occurring hallucinogenic shrub indigenous to the rainforest. Neely declined the iboga but was included in a traditional Bwiti blessing.
Central African Republic
Historically, the Indigenous people near Lobaye are referred to as Pygmies. Neely’s party was greeted by a local chief, after which the villagers shared cultural traditions of song and dance, and demonstrated some hunting and gathering techniques. “I loved their sense of fun and play,” says Neely.
Franci Neely on the Importance of Being a Responsible Tourist
Neely does have some caveats for those who plan to visit far-flung destinations, especially for less experienced voyagers. Having been at this a long time, she understands how important it is to do your homework before setting up an itinerary for a number of reasons.
The truth is, the world isn’t the same place as it used to be not all that long ago. Winds of geopolitical and socioeconomic change can blow hot or cold. Some destinations, once safe for travel, are no longer reliably secure. To help ensure your trip doesn’t go awry, Neely says do yourself a favor and suss out prevailing conditions before you book — and heed all pertinent travel advisories. If, worst-case scenario, you have to cancel a trip, you’re better safe than sorry.
Also, it’s a good idea to study up on local traditions so that you don’t inadvertently cause offense, especially in an exotic locale. Neely cautions that if you can’t be respectful of a culture or feel that prevailing customs are too at odds with your personal beliefs, it might be wise to choose another destination. There are plenty of places you can visit to satisfy your yen for the unusual without creating tension and unnecessary hostility.
Franci Neely believes the ideal tourist is someone who keeps an open mind about their destination. “We should not be expecting other countries to be little USAs,” she points out. “They are different, and we travel because we want them to be different.” If you don’t want something out of the ordinary, her advice is to stay closer to home.
“Let’s not be accidental tourists,” Neely admonishes. “Try to really experience something that is unique to that culture and that country. And as you find those differences, I’ve found that you’ll be heartened by the fact that people everywhere are the same. They are propelled by many of the same feelings, and emotions, and they can look at you and know whether you are genuinely interested in them or not. So experience the differences and be open to the differences, do something that’s outside your comfort zone.”