Bill Altaffer’s son recently asked him how many countries he had only been to once. Altaffer, a lifelong traveler who says he has visited every country on Earth (the United Nations has 193 member states), had to think, and could only come up with about a dozen.
But even though the 74-year-old Carmel Valley resident said he has long exhausted his personal bucket list of travel destinations, he has no plans to let his suitcase gather dust in the closet.
He still has trips he wants to take, especially with his family – wife Ching, son Joe, 16, a student at Canyon Crest Academy, and daughter Lena, 20, a junior at USC.
“I just really want to show my family some of the highlights of places I’ve been,” he said.
For decades, Altaffer led tour groups to destinations around the globe, while also settling down between trips for stints at such jobs as ski instructor and high school history and geography teacher. He also loves to lecture and give slide shows about his travels at libraries, retirement communities and travel clubs, such as the Adventurers’ Club of Los Angeles, where he is a member.
In mid-July, he and his family returned from a 14-day river cruise in Siberia. Russia is one of his favorite destinations, having first visited the country some 50 years ago. He said he has been to all 92 Russian states.
On this recent trip, the family cruised along Siberia’s Ob River, beginning in Salekhard, the only city located directly on the Arctic Circle. Because the town is vital to Russia’s oil and gas trade, permits to visit are difficult to obtain.
The family also spent several days taking in the sights in Moscow.
Previously, Altaffer has taken his family to such exotic destinations as Assam, a region of northeast India, and North Korea.
“I take them to places that are uncommon, difficult trips that no one else would go to,” he said. “I want them to see stuff that’s really unique.”
Altaffer, who has been to North Korea a dozen times, conceded that, “my wife would kill me if I took my kids back again.”
Trips he would like to take include Namibia, on Africa’s so-called Skeleton Coast, and river cruises through Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.
He avoids such events as Rio’s Carnaval or the Olympics, figuring the crowds make it difficult to see much of the country.
A native Southern Californian, Altaffer said he has been traveling since he was 7, when he went to Alaska with his parents, and he ultimately logged some 65 countries on trips with his mother and father.
He has made a name for himself in travel circles. He’s a member of the Travelers’ Century Club, for visiting at least 100 countries or territories, and can also be found on the website MostTraveledPeople.com. The site considers that the world is made up of 875 “parts,” which include countries, territories, island groups, enclaves and large provinces of individual countries. Altaffer is currently fourth on the web site’s list of most traveled people, having visited 822 places.
However, he ranks No. 1 on the list of having visited the most UNESCO World Heritage sites, with 952 visited and 100 remaining.
He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history from USC, then moved to Mammoth to become a ski instructor, before being hired by a travel agency to lead tours. Later in his career, he taught high school, both in Mammoth and South Central Los Angeles.
While he’s been in tense situations during his travels, including countries under martial law, he said the most dangerous situations have involved flying on airplanes.
“Out there in the world it’s never felt really dangerous except flying in West Africa,” he said.
Once, when flying out of Luanda, the capital of Angola, he said, the plane’s engine caught fire during takeoff and the flight had to be aborted. Another time, he said, he and some companions were flying to an island off he coast of Somalia when the engine also caught fire on takeoff. Because there was only one flight a week and they wanted to get to the island, Altaffer said, they stayed on the plane while the flames were doused. “It took off again and we made it,” he said.
He also recalled flights in Siberia when he looked out the window of the plane and saw the landing gear patched with duct tape. Fortunately, he said, the quality of the Russian air fleet has improved.
Now retired, Altaffer is convinced his life has been enriched by his travels.
“The greatest wealth in the world is to see the world. I don’t want a politician telling me what it’s like somewhere. I go there,” he said.