Thanks to air travel and modern transportation, there’s almost no place on earth that’s unreachable. Where journeys from one continent to another once took months, they now take hours. When it seems like there’s nowhere else left ‘undiscovered’, there are still some places just slightly off the map that remain shrouded in mystery simply because they’re really difficult to reach.
From frozen tundras to isolated islands, humans have persevered in these harsh landscapes despite the advent of modern travel and globalisation.
EASTER ISLAND, CHILE
Located some 3,700km from the coast of continental Chile, Easter Island – or Rapa Nui – is a tiny island that’s not only famous for its isolation, but also for its mysterious giant, carved stone faces called moai. It’s estimated that there are about 900 moai and over 300 ahu (ceremonial platforms) on the island – the most colossal is the Ahu Tongariki, with its 15 moai.
At about a quarter the size of Singapore, this island was settled at the end of the first millennium by a group Eastern Polynesians (the Rapa Nui).
The population of several thousand was drastically reduced in the mid 19th century, when slavery (first by Peruvian slave hunters, followed by a French mariner) removed most of the Rapa Nui from the island; of those left behind, foreign diseases reduced the population to little more than a hundred.
Today, it’s home to about 4,000 people, consisting of descendents of the Rapa Nui as well as immigrants from mainland Chile.
There are daily flights from Santiago to Rapa Nui (a 5-hour journey), and there’s one flight a week from Tahiti.
LA RINCONADA, PERU
With a population of 50,000, La Rinconada is considered the highest city in the world at 5,100m above sea level. A gold-mining camp in the remote Peruvian Andes, it’s situated on a permanently frozen glacier where ore is extracted from beneath the ice inside caverns.
Despite an economy fueled by gold, the town has no solid infrastructure: it has no plumbing, no sanitation system, and there is significant mercury contamination. Most residents are poor workers who emigrated here, working on a cachorreo system where they work for 30 days without payment, and take as much ore from the mine for themselves for 1-2 days after. Women work as pallaqueras, picking at rocks for gold outside the caverns.
Despite the shantytown conditions, the population has skyrocketed in the last decade, and aside from a small police presence at the border, the town is essentially lawless. For travellers, the real draw is hiking in the untamed Peruvian Andes – it’s not for the inexperienced.
Its stunning geography makes La Rinconada almost inaccessible – the only access is via a treacherous, winding mountain road from Puno along Lake Titicaca.
KERGUELEN ISLANDS, FRANCE
Also known as the “Desolation Islands”, the Kerguelen Islands are an archipelago – consisting of Grand Terre, and 300 smaller islands – more than 3,300km from Madagascar, the closest inhabited island.
This French territory was first discovered in 1772, and was also a whaling station for the British, Americans and Norwegians in the 18th-19th centuries who hunted the whales and seals to near extinction. There are remnants of former whaling stations at Port Jeanne d’Arc and Port Couvreux.
Today, the Kerguelens have a year-round population of 45-110 visiting scientists and engineers from France, as it’s a scientific centre, geomagnetic base, and a French missile defense base. It’s also home to rare Bizet sheep – imported from France as a food source – and holds the world’s largest King Penguin colonies. Grand Terre is home to the scientific base of Port aux-Français (equipped with dorms, a hospital, a chapel, etc).
There is no airstrip on Kerguelen; the only access for tourists is on board the support vessel Marion Dufresne from Réunion, taking you to the islands of Crozet, Kerguelen, Saint-Paul, and Amsterdam, on a 28-day journey.
TRISTAN DE CUNHA, UK
Tristan de Cunha, in the southern Atlantic Ocean, is arguably the single most remote inhabited place in the world, since unlike Rapa Nui, there are no flights here, and the nearest continent over 2,700km away. Despite the isolation, the island has a rich history – discovered by the Portuguese in the 1500s, it was later annexed by the British.
The entire population of about 300 inhabitants are concentrated on Tristan de Cunha, as the other islands – In-accessible Island, Nightingale Island, Middle Island and Stoltenhoff Island, and Gough Island – are uninhabited.
There are 80 families here, mostly farmers (or fishermen) who live on the flat bit of land called Edinburgh of the Seven Seas; every family owns a patch of land on Potato Patches where they grow, unsurprisingly, potatoes. Tristan is primarily known for its wildlife, especially seabirds like northern rockhopper penguins, as well as several species of albatrosses and petrels.
Although inhabitants have access to satellite and the internet, the island is very isolated. The island’s rocky geography makes building an airstrip impossible, so currently the only access to Tristan is via a 6-day fishing vessel journey from Cape Town, South Africa.
Located in Russia’s Sakha Republic, Oymyakon is officially the coldest inhabited place on earth – it averages -50oC in January – qualifying it as a Pole of Cold.
The 500 inhabitants are mostly engaged in traditional occupations such as reindeer herding, hunting and fishing. Those who arrive in winter can try sledding, cross-country skiing, ice fishing, herding reindeer, or ride on a Yakut horse, a rare native breed from the Sakha Republic region that’s adapted to the extreme temperatures found here.
In recent years, the Pole of Cold Festival has been attracting tourists who come to see a showcase of traditional costumes, music and dance of the indigenous Evens people, as well as reindeer racing, ice fishing, dog sledding and native cuisine.
The journey to Oymyakon is a highlight: most people fly into either Magadan or Yakutsk, both 900km from Oymyakon. From here, it’s a road journey (20+hours drive) along the Kolyma Highway, named ‘Road of Bones’ because skeletons of gulag laborers who died during its construction during Stalin’s regime were used in many of its foundations.
These days, travellers can drive, cycle or bike along the Kolyma Highway from Yakutsk to Magadan, stopping by at Oymyakon and the numerous gulag ruins along the way.