Carmel Valley resident is one of the world’s most traveled people — and he is not finished yet
By Karen Billing
Altaffer holds the world record for visiting the most UNESCO World Heritage sites (732 of 936), as well as being the second most-traveled person in the world. (World Heritage sites are natural and cultural places that are considered to have “outstanding universal value.”) He’s visited all 192 UN countries, plus 300 island groups, exhausted 12 passports and 130 visas, surfed on every continent and skied on six of them, visited both the North and South Poles and has been to Siberia 15 times.
“It’s a big world out there, you don’t really know about a place until you go to it,” said Altaffer, on this day wearing a Dubai Hilton shirt.
Altaffer runs his own travel company, Expedition Photo Travel, and serves as a guide for various tour groups. His next trip through Valour Tours will be in May 2012, a western Russia military history tour.Russia is Altaffer’s favorite place to visit — he’s been to all 92 states. He said Siberia is a “real jewel” — he often visits during seasons other than winter as he’s heard one ski resort there hits 65 below and the only way to survive is by wearing fur.
The most beautiful locales on the globe he’s seen are the turquoise-blue waters of the Maldives in the Indian Ocean, the paradise of the rock islands of Palau in the Pacific Ocean, and the jagged mountains of Torres del Paine in Chile.
“I have a list of 14 countries that I could live in,” he said. “I could live in Thailand but not Europe, it’s too expensive and too boring. Most of the places I’d live are in the South Pacific.”
He was among the first Americans to get a tourist visa to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
“I really liked North Korea, it’s one of the most exotic countries in the world in that you’re completely cut off for the duration of your trip. They take your cell phone, your computer,” Altaffer said. “But it isn’t sinister, it feels very safe … it’s just a different society.”His least favorite places to visit were Equatorial, Guinea, in Middle Africa and Nigeria, both of which he said are ruled by corrupt dictators and it is very difficult to travel there.
He also doesn’t enjoy traveling in West Africa because the airports and planes are extremely dangerous, he said — as are the planes in Russia where he’s flown on planes with patches and no tread on the wheels.
The longest he’s ever been on a vacation was an entire year in 1978 — he spent six months in Asia and six in Africa, his two favorite continents.
Altaffer’s love of travel started young, inherited from his parents. He grew up in Hollywood and his dentist father had a passion for taking family trips every summer. They took every possible cruise ship until they ran out of cruise ships to take.
In the 1970s, he was hired by Hemphill-Harris Travel and led trips around the world.
“Every time I took a tour to a place I hadn’t been, I’d take the money from the trip and stay overseas a month or more and see more places,” he said.Altaffer has been a longtime level 3 Alpine ski instructor and worked as a ski instructor on Mammoth Mountain for many years. He also taught history and geography at Mammoth High and can authoritatively say that Mammoth has the best snow in the world as he’s skied 120 areas around the globe (St. Moritz in Switzerland has the best ski area, he said).
He had joined the Traveler’s Century Club in 1974 when there were only 130 countries in the world and he’d been to 100—he completed the list of 320 countries a year ago.
Altaffer travels a bit less now, down to about three trips a year as his children are 10 and 14 years old. He met his wife on one of his travels to China 20 years ago — she “Shanghaied me,” he jokes.
“I chose to live in San Diego because it’s a great place to live, it has terrific schools for my kids and it’s a nice place to come home to,” said Altaffer.
Last September he took what he considers one of his very best trips ever to “the five Stans”: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Uzbekistan.
The overland trip was not one for “inexperienced wimps,” as he and his traveling companions were often roughing it in extreme conditions.
“We are not a crowd that goes from Four Seasons to Four Seasons,” said Altaffer, who described the conditions as “often uncomfortable, the food was occasionally inadequate, the conditions extremely basic, but it was magical.”
At one point they traveled with seven people crammed into a four-person Russian jeep with all their luggage. Altaffer described this part of the trip, along the Pamir Highway, as breathtaking and impossible to describe.
Altaffer remains at the top of the list for the person who has visited the most World Heritage sites. Altaffer has visited Heritage sites such as the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, churches in Bulgaria, the rainforest in Madagascar, national parks in Iceland and Tunisia, and ruins in Nicaragua.
Some countries don’t have any World Heritage sites and some, Altaffer feels, are given to countries for political purposes, as they aren’t terribly interesting, like a cave he saw in Kyrgyzstan.
“I’m 100 sites ahead of the closest person, some of these sites, I think, have more value than just visiting countries,” Altaffer said.
Altaffer’s latest World Heritage visit was in September to Mount Athos in Greece, an Orthodox spiritual center since 1054, that is home to 20 monasteries and inhabited by some 1,400 monks. Altaffer had been trying to get to Mount Athos for several years — it takes a few months to get permission to visit and women are not allowed in.
It is “majestic” with its medieval castle-like exteriors and wall paintings, icons and illuminated manuscripts inside, but Altaffer said it is a very rough experience. There are no mirrors, no showers and you travel on dusty pathways by van and truck between monasteries.
“It’s very quiet and restful, very little noise,” said Altaffer who noted he was one of about 30 people there on a pilgrimage. Many come for religious purposes, others are travelers — the spot is said to be a favorite spiritual retreat of Prince Charles.
The trip to Mount Athos was part of a month-long journey where Altaffer also visited Caucasus, Belarus and Crimea.People have encouraged Altaffer to become rivals with the world’s most traveled man, Charles Veley, who has visited 822, or 94 percent, of the 872 distinct territories of the world.
They have different traveling styles, he said. While Veley went to Socotra, an archipelago off Somalia that belongs to Yemen, for about two hours and then was back on a plane the same day, Altaffer spent two weeks camping in the “unreal” spot, home to dragon trees, which grow upside down.
Becoming a “Ticker” or “Touch and Go” person is not why Altaffer travels. He doesn’t do it to check off places on the list, he wants to learn about cultures and see all there is to see.
Altaffer said he greatly respects Veley for creating MostTraveledPeople.com and its list of 872 territories. Altaffer is just six places behind Veley and, of his 56 remaining spots, he would like to visit the Torres Strait Islands near Australia and Admiralty Islands in the South Pacific but admits there are some on the list he has no desire to go to. He is much more interested in completing the World Heritage Site list — just 204 sites left.
Of course, there’s always the list that includes all the states in every country in the world, one that includes every county in the world, one with places only accessible by submarine and the possibility of space travel — but there are some borders Altaffer will not cross.
“I have my limits,” he said.
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