For those of us who are excited to travel, 2011 was a tough year.


With political instability, crazy weather and natural disasters — not to mention a crummy economy (which made exchange rates terrible for many Americans' favorite destinations) — staycations seemed like the way to go. But 2012 promises improvements, and in some parts of the world, changed political situations mean that countries formerly off-limits are now open (and eager) for visitors. 


Sri Lanka (known as Ceylon until 1972), an island located off the coast of India, was embroiled in a bloody civil war for so long that many travelers forgot it was even there. But it has been peaceful for three years now, and the country is experiencing a real increase in visitors who had previously stayed away. According to the NYTimes, "Since securing victory over the Tamil Tigers in 2009 ... President Mahinda Rajapaksa has applied his still strong arm to beautifying Colombo’s streets ... Sri Lankan fashion designers and artists have followed, many returning from abroad, while boutique hotels, like the 10-room Tintagel, and chic restaurants and cafes, like Coco Veranda ... breathe new life into old haunts." Reknown for its crescent-shaped beaches, super-relaxed vibe, verdant forests and abundant wildlife (not to mention amazing, fresh cuisine), I'm putting Sri Lanka on my list of dream destinations for 2012. 


For me, Kathmandu has a whiff of magic associated with it, though I can't tell you exactly why. According to the Lonely Planet guidebook site, "Kathmandu has been a traveler's mecca since the 1960s but these days you're less likely to see a tie-dyed hippy in search of enlightenment than a well-heeled Gore-Tex-clad tourist in search of a good espresso." All of which means that this capital of landlocked Nepal has a long and wonderful history of welcoming visitors. This ancient city was developed before cars existed, so the advice is to see as much as possible of the city on foot (my favorite method of urban travel). A traveler-oriented enclave of the city, Thamel, is vibrantly colorful and crammed with people, shops, markets and budget-friendly hotels and hostels, and is a great place to start your adventuring. 


I've wanted to visit Chile forever, but haven't yet made the trip. Valparaiso, which is considered one of the country's cultural centers, would be my pick to get to know the country. Art and architecture are the city's lifeblood, and with government support for programs like Opera by the Sea and a World Heritage Trail (part of the city is a UNESCO world heritage site), there's plenty to explore if you are creatively inclined. The architecture is an education in and of itself. During the Victorian era, thousands of Germans, British and Italians called the city home and each group built neighborhoods that reflected their backgrounds. Today, some of the buildings are in disrepair, but many have been restored, and more are planned to be.


And don't forget the historic (and still well-used funicular elevators that transport visitors and locals alike from one part of this vertical city to another). And there are even green boutique hotels, stores that specialize in art made from reclaimed materials, and other eco-goodies abounding in this port city. 


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Starre Vartan ( @ecochickie ) covers conscious consumption, health and science as she travels the world exploring new cultures and ideas.

3 off-the-beaten path travel destinations for 2012
Sri Lanka, Kathmandu (in Nepal) and Valparaiso (in Chile) are all fantastic destinations for nomadic types this year.