As savvy travelers know, you can never put your foot in the same river twice. That lovely little hotel you found the last time you were in the Caribbean might be bulldozed and reinvented as a Las Vegas-style resort on your next trip. That charming Eastern European village you backpacked through last summer may be completely modernized and strip-malled five years from now.
The world is going global fast and the cultural differences that make travel so rewarding, rich and photogenic are shrinking faster than the polar ice caps.
Here is a list of five destinations to place on your "endangered, go now" list. All of these destinations will be vastly different in five to 10 years, so don't wait until retirement to make these travel dreams come true.
The Yangtze River Dam Project has already insured that the villages and landscapes of the Yangtze River Valley, which have inspired Chinese poets and writers for thousands of years, have been changed utterly and forever. Many ancient landmarks are already underwater. And unlike a similarly huge dam undertaking in Aswan, Egypt, little effort has been made to preserve the culture that is being subsumed by the river of progress.
One of the matrixes of traditional Chinese culture is still the Yunnan province, where life continues on at a time-honored pace. In progress-obsessed China, Yunnan is an anomaly - a relic that is allowed to exist partly for its sentimental value as the backbone of rural China (the fact that it's Mao's birthplace may be part of the reason) - but may not be for long. In Yunnan, you may still encounter an ancient village, a water buffalo, a small shop that sells cricket cages and an intact temple or two. Check out Adventure Women's women-only journey from Yunnan's UNESCO-protected city of Lijang (where the indigenous Naxi people are ruled by women!) to Tibet, with its own threatened culture hanging precariously in the balance.
San Rafael Glacier, Chile
As we all know by now, the world is warming. Polar ice caps in both the Arctic and Antarctica are melting. A visit to Chile's Northern Patagonian ice fields is in order before the famed San Rafael Glacier melts and changes the landscape forever. Rapid melting is underway at the site because of historically high air temperatures. Dr. Neil Glasser of the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, has been quoted by the BBC as saying, "If the glacier retreats farther up valley, it will cease to calve icebergs into the Laguna San Rafael, and one of the reasons why this area attracts so many tourists will be largely gone." Take a multiday cruise with Cruceros Australis and see for yourself. Zodiac boats float out so close to the ice that you can put chunks of it in the glasses of whiskey traditionally handed around on first contact. The sound of ice melting and cracking is something that, once you hear it, will never be forgotten.
As large resorts and uber-expensive boutique hotels take over the Caribbean, pockets of traditional Carib culture fused with the less invasive aspect of the hospitality industry remain. Although "progress" continues apace on both Grenada and Martinique, both islands offer travelers traditional accommodations and experiences on the smaller-is-beautiful model. La Luna Resort in Grenada is a gem of a beachside hotel with a limited number of guest rooms and an emphasis on traditional Caribbean culture. The look and feel of the historic city of Fort-de-France in Martinique will take travelers back to the port days of the Pirates of the Caribbean- its streets are as full of its fabled beautiful women as they were in Jack Sparrow's time. (Napoleon's Josephine was born not far from here in the town of Trois Islets.)
The Red Sand Dunes of Namibia
Namibia is the site of the amazing, endangered red sand dunes of the Skeleton Coast. These red dunes (used by directors in films like The Cell for their otherworldly beauty) are endangered because of normal erosion as well as erosion by quad bikes and the quickly burgeoning and unrestrained tourism industry around them. To stay in an eco-friendly resort that blends into the environment, rather than clashes with it, book a room at the C.C. Africa Sossusvlei Mountain Lodge. The luxurious accommodations meld so seamlessly into the landscape that you can barely see the indigenous stone lodge from a distance. You'll feel like you're camping out although you're living in the lap of luxury. Guided nature walks help you understand the delicate balance of the environment. (Dennis Quaid was a fan when he stayed here with his family recently, and "Brangelina" chose Namibia as the birthplace of their first baby.)
Village Culture in Romania
Romania's mountain villages - especially in the Apuseni Mountains, now endangered by strip mining concerns - are home to an amazingly colorful traditional village culture. "It's like Pennsylvanian Dutch Country in the Alps," says one local. Spend a week in the old villages of the Carpathian and Apuseni mountains and you'll feel as if you've gone back in time to an age of kings, knights and ladies fair (men still kiss women's hands here in traditional greeting). Horse lovers will find special delights in exploring a culture where people still use the family horse the way we use SUVs. Go now before Romania's inclusion in the European Union changes this way of life forever.