Mickey Mouse, the Grim Reaper, your future spouse — which one of these characters would you least like to meet on your next vacation? Obviously, most of us would like to avoid the Grim Reaper, but some vacations are more than just fun, relaxation, and not vanishing under mysterious circumstances.
No one who embarks on a travel adventure thinks they’re going to end up disappeared, but it does happen. Sometimes lost travelers turn up unharmed, sometimes they’re found injured or dead, and sometimes those poor unfortunate souls join that unenviable “disappeared forever” club. Decades later, many of these disappearances are still unsolved, and many are likely to remain unsolved. So here are some tips: Travel in groups, don’t go to Aruba, and stay away from the guy with the sickle. And just in case you’re still not convinced, here are some of modern history’s creepiest and most puzzling vacation disappearances.
Li Yinglei might have fallen overboard … or maybe not
Cruises are the ultimate in luxury vacation destinations. For just a few thousand dollars, you can have a decadent stateroom, three square meals a day, free entertainment, and as much shuffleboard as you can play. Except people seem to have forgotten that the Titanic was a freaking cruise ship, and that certainly didn’t end very well for anyone. Cruises are fun, but there’s a very sinister truth about them — if someone wants to get rid of you, well, you are very, very small and the ocean is very, very big. We’re not saying that’s what happened to Li Yinglei or anything but yeah, when you vanish from a cruise ship there’s not usually much hope you’ll ever be found.
Li was on a luxury Mediterranean cruise with her husband and two children in 2017 when she mysteriously disappeared. According to the Telegraph, no one remembers seeing Li after the first day of the cruise, and her husband, Daniel Belling, didn’t exactly radiate panic or even mild concern — he never even bothered to report her missing to the ship’s crew, which is ultimately what got him arrested.
Belling told authorities that Li “quit the trip” while he was on an outing with their kids. “I thought she was returning to Dublin. She was acting weird lately,” he reportedly said. Belling was later released for lack of evidence and allowed to return home. His wife’s disappearance remains unsolved.
It sure seems like a lot of people disappear in Aruba
If you’re planning a vacation you should go to Paris or Hawaii or Sydney (actually don’t go to Sydney because there are some really freaking terrifying spiders in Sydney) but for the love of Glob, don’t go to Aruba. Just don’t. Because Aruba sounds all tropical and beachy and relaxing and everything but VisitAruba.com has an entire page dedicated to missing persons, so yeah, vanishing is kind of a thing on that island.
The most famous of all of Aruba’s missing persons is Natalee Holloway, who was on a senior class trip when she vanished in 2005. According to the FBI, there were actual chaperones on the trip, but they missed the fact that Holloway left a nightclub at around 1:30 in the morning with a trio of local men. She was never seen again.
The prime suspect in her disappearance is Joran van der Sloot, who was convicted of murdering a woman in Peru exactly five years after Holloway’s disappearance and is now serving a 28-year sentence. That seems pretty damning on a number of levels, but there’s also the part where one of his friends said van der Sloot paid him $1,500 to dig up Holloway’s remains and cremate them with a bunch of animal bones. But there’s no hard evidence for any of the theories about what actually happened to Holloway, and it looks like her family may never get any solid answers.
“Just 50 yards” is still too far
There is nothing worse than losing your child, which is why parents usually keep their little ones at arm’s length or with a trusted babysitter. On the night of May 3, 2007, Madeleine McCann’s parents did neither — they left her sleeping in their rented apartment in Portugal and went out for tapas with some friends.
Now, lots of people tsk-tsk that decision right off, but keep in mind that the McCanns were literally across the street — according to the Telegraph, the tapas bar was just 50 yards away from the apartment. Still, it was too far away for them to notice what happened that night. Somehow, Madeleine disappeared and no one knows how or who might have been responsible.
Worse, the McCanns were initially treated as suspects by the Portuguese police, who were so sure that Madeleine’s parents were responsible for their daughter’s disappearance that they bungled the early investigation — around 20 people went in and out of the apartment before it was sealed off as a crime scene, and there were no roadblocks put into place until long after whoever took Madeleine would have been out of the area. So it’s probable that the police missed important leads and that evidence was contaminated or destroyed, thus making the task of finding the missing girl a lot more difficult.
The lost girls of Panama
Kris Kremers and Lisanne Froon were Dutch tourists on the adventure of a lifetime in Boquete, Panama, in 2014. On April 1, they left on a hike into the Talamanca Cordillera and were never seen again. Two months later, Froon’s backpack and some of their clothing were found in the forest, then five bone fragments that were identified through DNA testing.
The official government opinion is that the two women fell into the river and got “dragged” by the current, and that their remains were scattered by scavengers. But according to the Daily Beast, the bones were found at 2,300 feet above sea level in an area where there are few large animals and decomposition happens slowly. At least one investigator believes the remains were treated with lime, which suggests they were murder victims, not victims of a tragic accident.
And because this story isn’t eerie enough already, the backpack (which was found downstream from the women’s remains, casting further doubt on the “dragged by the river” theory) contained both women’s phones and a camera, still in working condition. And on the camera were 90 consecutive images, all taken at night within two hours of each other. Perhaps the two were using the camera’s flash to light their way. Even more sinister, one of the photos appears to show Kremers with a head wound. After that, the trail is cold. No one knows how the pair died, or who, if anyone, killed them.
Last seen sprinting out of the airport terminal
Lars Mittank was a pretty typical German tourist traveling in Bulgaria with some friends, until he got into a strange altercation with four men in a pub. According to Ranker, Mittank suffered a ruptured eardrum in the fight and was advised to stay in Bulgaria a little longer while the injury healed.
Here’s where the story gets weird. The doctor who saw Mittank prescribed cefuroxime, an antibiotic. After that, Mittank became paranoid — he reportedly called his mother and told her that there were men following him and that they wanted his medication. Concerned, his mother booked him a flight home, but he never got on the plane. Mittank made it to the airport and visited medical services, but the doctor who saw him said he become anxious and declared “I don’t want to die here” before sprinting out of the terminal without his luggage. Witnesses say he ran across the parking lot and climbed a fence. He was never seen again.
So what happened to Lars Mittank? Medical journals have noted cases of psychotic reaction to the antibiotic cefuroxime. His extreme paranoia could have also been compounded by a head injury sustained in the fight. Or maybe someone really was following him. Either way, it’s a mystery what happened to him after he scaled that fence and disappeared.
Wandered off and was never seen again
Leo Widicker, 86, was with his wife at a resort in Costa Rica when he disappeared in 2001.
According to the Bismarck Tribune, Widicker sat down on a bench while his wife went to the resort’s hot springs. Witnesses say he seemed fine, but he may have nodded off while sitting there, and when he woke up he became confused and disoriented. When his wife returned 30 minutes after leaving him, he was gone.
Hotel workers remember him asking if anyone knew where his wife was. A few minutes after that, he approached the resort guards and asked to be let out. He was last seen wandering down the road in the rain. Friends and family say the behavior was wildly out of character — Widicker wasn’t the type of guy who would go off for a walk, and he wouldn’t have walked off the road, either. Family believe someone might have picked him up, though it’s interesting to note that one side of the road where he was last seen was a “steep volcanic hillside,” so a fall doesn’t seem totally out of the question.
Fifteen minutes after he left the resort, friends drove out to look for him and found nothing. The Red Cross searched for four or five days, also without results. Local police searched, too. But Widicker was never seen again.
Vanished in place
Sixty-one-year-old Mel Nadel was on a hunting trip in the Santa Fe National Forest in September 2009 when he vanished. At around 4:30 on the day he disappeared, he told friends that he was just planning to venture out a short distance and would be back before nightfall. (Although conflicting sources say he stayed behind at the campsite while his friends went out to hunt and was gone when they returned.)
According to the Charley Project, Nadel left most of his gear including his GPS unit inside his locked Jeep Cherokee and carried only a revolver and a hunting bow with arrows. The prevailing theory is that he became lost or injured, though his family doesn’t think that adds up. “I feel like this is criminal,” his daughter said three weeks into the search. “… I honestly don’t think he just got lost because we would have found him by now.”
And it’s not like the guy was especially frail — he was a fitness instructor who owned a pilates studio, and he was also a first-degree black belt in tae kwon do. It gets even weirder. Shortly after Nadel’s disappearance, dogs followed his scent into the woods for about 150 yards, and then the trail suddenly just ended, as if he’d vanished in place. Three years later, his wife said the family was still looking for answers. “Even a trace of his belongings would help,” she said. “We are in limbo.”
Found in Death Valley
Ryan Singleton didn’t stay missing, but his body was found in extremely bizarre circumstances after he vanished while traveling to Las Vegas in 2013. According to the Atlanta Daily World, Singleton left Atlanta in July of that year in the hopes of landing an acting job in Hollywood. His mother said he traveled by rental car to Los Angeles, then to New Mexico, Arizona, and Las Vegas. His rental car was eventually found in Death Valley. Joggers located his decomposing corpse in the desert on September 21.
Singleton’s disappearance and reappearance is especially bizarre not just because the coroner couldn’t find a cause of death, but also because Singleton’s body was mostly decomposed and his organs were missing. “There were no eyes, there was no heart, there were no lungs, there was no liver, there were no kidneys,” Singleton’s mother told Fox News in Atlanta. And although the coroner speculated that the missing organs might have had something to do with scavengers, Singleton’s mother wasn’t so sure. “I don’t know of an animal that comes to a body and just picks out certain parts of the body,” she said. “I don’t think it was animal activity at all.”
No one has ever been able to figure out what happened to Ryan Singleton, but at least his remains were returned to his family. That’s a small comfort, but it’s something, considering so many other missing persons are never found at all.
Disappeared on a camping trip in Yosemite National Park
Yosemite is a beautiful place, but as far as national parks are concerned, it does seem to have some sociopathic tendencies. According to National Parks Traveler, there are “at least” 60 unresolved cases of missing travelers in the American national parks system as a whole — and Yosemite alone has had 30 plus missing persons cases since 1909, 12 of which are considered cold or unresolved with no active leads. One of these is 14-year-old Stacey Arras, who was on a mule pack trip in 1981 with her father and eight other people when she wandered off to take photographs and never came back.
More than 100 people, including 50 volunteers, six dog teams, professional search and rescue teams, divers and mountain climbers scoured the area in search of the missing teen. A helicopter spent 40 hours in the air searching for some sign of Arras, but no trace of her was ever found. Officials said she could have fallen into a number of different places where searchers would be unable to find her, and it was also possible she might have hiked to the road in search of help. Or she could have been abducted — given that nothing but her camera’s lens cap was ever recovered, that does seem like the most likely scenario. The lens cap wasn’t a useful clue, though, and the search was called off 11 days after Arras’ disappearance. She was never seen again.
Murdered, or maybe disappeared on purpose
Twenty-year-old Charles Horvath was on a backpacking trip from Quebec to British Columbia when he suddenly stopped calling his mom back in the U.K. “I knew something terrible had happened to him,” Denise Horvath-Allan told CBC News. She and her son were close, and she’s sure he wouldn’t have let her worry.
A year after he disappeared, Horvath-Allan flew to British Columbia to find answers. She placed ads and posted flyers, and eventually learned that some of her son’s clothing had been found at a local campsite, but other than that the trail was cold. When she spoke to the campground manager she was told that her son had departed the site quickly, leaving his tent and belongings behind.
But the most sinister clue came in the form of a note left at her hotel, which read, “I seen [your son] May 26. We were partying and two people knocked him out. But he died. His body is in the lake by the bridge.” When divers searched the lake, though, they were unable to locate Horvath’s remains.
There is a chance that Horvath might be alive, though — police said they spoke to his relatives in eastern Canada, who told them he’d visited and relayed his intentions to “disappear off the face of the Earth” where “his mother would never find him.” Ouch.
Don't travel alone. Seriously, just don't.
For a lot of people, solo travel is cathartic. But people who travel alone are especially vulnerable to just about every travel-related danger there is, from ill-intentioned strangers to accidents to getting lost in the woods. So if you’ve learned nothing from all of these stories, learn this: If you must travel alone … just don’t. Don’t travel alone. It’s a terrible idea.
According to the Charley Project, Karen Denise Wells was traveling alone when she vanished in April 1994. She was 23 years old and planning to visit a childhood friend in Bergen, New Jersey. On April 12, she stopped at a motel and called her friend to say she was planning to pick up dinner at McDonald’s and then go to bed.
Just after midnight, Wells’ friend arrived at the motel and tried to wake her, but Wells wasn’t there and her bed hadn’t been slept in. The next morning, her rented car was found damaged and covered in mud in the westbound lane of Route 274 with both the passenger and driver doors wide open. The battery was dead, the car was out of gas, and there were uneaten french fries, empty soda bottles, and a pair of shoes inside. Weirder still, there was an extra 700 miles on the car that couldn’t be accounted for based on Wells’ travel plans.
So what happened to Karen Denise Wells? Decades later, we still don’t know.
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