Laksa in Darwin

In the far north of Australia, closer to Bali than Sydney, the sparsely populated, blisteringly hot “Top End” still feels like a frontier province. Despite its remoteness, Darwin, the biggest city in this tropical region, is remarkably cosmopolitan. Known as Australia’s gateway to Asia, it has a 135,000-strong population featuring over sixty nationalities. You can find authentic Indonesian, Malaysian, Thai, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Indian, Sri Lankan and Bangladeshi food here, plus countless fusion options.

Sunset at Mindil,Beach (c) Stephen Michael Barnett

The best place to sample this diversity is the twice-weekly Mindil Beach Sunset Market, 3km northeast of the city centre and home to almost 200 stalls. On Thursday and Sunday evenings during the “dry season” (end of April-October), it seems as if most of the city is here. The market is a hive of didgeridoo players, yoga demonstrations, tarot card readers, masseurs, and vendors selling everything from goat’s milk soap to crocodile-skin handbags.

Although you can find stalls offering souvlaki, roast lamb shanks and freshly-shucked oysters, Asian food dominates. Highlights include: Borneo Intersection, which serves Indonesian-Malaysian dishes like jackfruit curry and chilli tempeh (similar to tofu); Gourmet Sushi, whose rolls feature ingredients such as local fish barramundi, kangaroo and crocodile; and Bangladesh Curry Kitchen, which produces a fine okra-and-tomato curry.

First-time visitors, however, should head to the Darwin Laksa Co. A hot, spicy, coconut-rich soup served throughout Southeast Asia, laksa has become a fixture on menus across Darwin in recent years. For $10 (around £6) you get a steaming bowl of potent yellow-orange broth packed with noodles, sliced chicken, pork, beef or prawns, and a spongy cube of tofu. After customising the laksa with help-yourself sprinkles – ground peanuts, crispy onions, chopped coriander and chilli sauce – the only thing left to do is to join the locals on the beach for the sunset.

This is a longer version of an article that was first published here.




Coffee cupping in Costa Rica

Tucked away amongst the green slopes of Costa Rica’s Central Valley, a sustainable tourism pioneer produces some of the country’s best coffee. I dropped in for a tasting – aka a “cupping”.

Citrus? Wood?” I slurped another gulp of coffee and thought hard. “Chocolate, perhaps?” Ulises, who was patiently taking me through a cupping session on the verandah of Finca Rosa Blanca, just smiled. Ten minutes earlier, at the start of the tasting, I was struggling to pick out any specific flavours. The coffee, made by the traditional Costa Rican chorreador drip method, just tasted delicious. But gradually, thanks to Ulises’ guidance, my palate developed, and I began to distinguish different flavours, sensing peanuts, floral scents, even leather. Or at least I think I did: Ulises may just have been too polite to correct me.

Coffee beans drying in the sun (c) Shafik Meghji

Earlier in the day he had taken me on a tour of the coffee estate attached to Finca Rosa Blanca, one of Costa Rica finest – and most environmentally-friendly – hotels. It is scenically perched on a lush hill just outside the city of Heredia in the volcano-studded Valle Central (Central Valley), the heart of coffee country. Introduced here in the early nineteenth century, the crop flourished in the mineral-rich soil and quickly became a mainstay of the Costa Rican economy. Today the countryside is blanketed with a patchwork of fields, plantations, terraces and estates.

Several of the Valle Central’s coffee producers – including Costa Rica’s biggest exporter, Cafe Britt – offer guided tours, but Finca Rosa Blanca’s is perhaps the best. At just 30 acres, its organic estate is small by local standards, but stands out for its sustainable, low-impact approach, which produces excellent Rainforest Alliance-certified coffee.

Conventional coffee plantations, explained Ulises, often cause significant environmental damage, primarily through deforestation and soil erosion. By contrast, Finca Rosa Blanca’s estate is based around the idea of a balanced ecosystem. Some 5,000 native trees – including bananas and palms – shade the seemingly randomly scattered coffee bushes, which don’t like direct sunlight. The trees also provide nitrogen to enrich the soil and a habitat for birds, who in turn eat insects, which means that pesticides are not needed to protect the coffee bushes.

Over a hundred different bird species have been spotted on the estate, Ulises said, pointing out hummingbirds, flycatchers and squawking brown jays as we walked. The ecosystem, however, is also a home for some less welcome species, he added: the previous day a beautiful – but deadly – coral snake had been spotted in the undergrowth. I walked around very carefully for the rest of the tour.

Ulises showed me how the coffee bushes – which are arabica, the only species it is legal to plant in Costa Rica – are fertilised in part with compost made from the hotel restaurant’s organic waste. Between October and February the red berries are harvested by hand and their seeds – the coffee beans – dried in the sun, before being milled, pulped and finally roasted. The estate is over 4000ft above sea level, and the altitude hardens the beans, allowing them to be roasted for longer, producing a more aromatic, complex flavour. In total, the journey from bush to cup takes six to eight months, and the result is a smooth, mellow coffee that doesn’t need milk, let alone sugar.

After the cupping I had dinner with Finca Rosa Blanca’s American owners, Glenn and Teri Jampol. Since moving to Costa Rica 30 years ago, the couple, have pioneered environmentally-friendly travel, and Finca Rosa Blanca has the country’s highest sustainable tourism rating. When the coffee estate opposite came up for sale a few years after the hotel opened, it was a natural addition. The hotel makes full use of its produce: the in-house spa has a range of coffee-based treatments, while the restaurant menu features dishes like chicken in a coffee-and-tamarind sauce.

But it’s hard to beat a simple cup made from freshly roasted beans, especially when enjoyed on the terrace, with views across the Valle Central to the twinkling lights of the capital, San José, in the distance.

Finca Rosa Blanca provided the author with accommodation and the coffee tour. This article was first published here.

Aleppo: Summer 2008

As improbable as it seems now, the summer of 2008 was a moment of optimism for Syria’s tourist industry. Tensions with the west had eased, travel agencies were returning, and positive articles appeared in the international press. Tourist numbers were rising too, particularly in Aleppo, one of the oldest continually inhabited cities on Earth.

Ancient_covered_souq,_Aleppo,_SyriaDating back to around 6,000 BC, the city has long been a meeting point between the Mediterranean and Mesopotamia, with enduring Ottoman, Armenian, Greek, French and Jewish influences. On a walk through the meandering streets, lemon trees scenting the air, I passed mosques, churches, even a synagogue. Mentioned in Macbeth and Othello, the city’s grand old buildings had been restored, townhouses had been turned into hotels, and rooftop restaurants offered views of the thirteenth-century citadel.

Aleppo’s focal point was the world’s largest covered market, the cacophonous, labyrinthine Souq al-Madina. There were precarious towers of dates, overflowing sacks of coffee beans, bloody carcasses of goats, cows and camels, pungent spices, platters of pistachios, fresh white cheese wrapped in cloth, cases of jewellery, textiles, silk and dyes, and greasy olive oil soaps.

Craftsmen rhythmically hammered out copper plates. Whirling circular saws were used to fashion wooden furnishings. Delivery boys trundled across the cobblestones on heavily-laden bikes, motorized carts and weary donkeys. Over tulip-shaped glasses of fragment tea, I swapped stories with a carpet-seller whose family had owned a shop here for centuries.

That Aleppo no longer exists. Travellers often like to delude themselves that the places they visit somehow remain preserved after their departure; Syria, brutally, allows no such illusions.

The summer of 2008 felt like a beginning, but was actually the end.

An Indian wine pilgrimage

Never mind the Kumbh Mela, tourists could soon be flocking to Nashik not for its holy riverside, but for vineyards like Sula.

On the banks of the Godavari river, 170km north-east of Mumbai, Nashik is one of India’s holiest places. Every 12 years it hosts millions of predominantly teetotal Hindu pilgrims for the Kumbh Mela, the largest religious gathering on Earth. But this central Indian city now has another, rather unlikely, claim to fame. Surrounded by 37 vineyards, Nashik is the capital of India’s rapidly expanding wine industry.

Nashik’s Ram Kund (c) Arlan Zwegers

Domestic sales of Indian wine rose almost 20% in 2015, and a record 18 million litres are expected to be produced this year, and the quality is improving too: wines aimed at the Indian market are generally too sweet for international palates, but drier export varieties have won awards and a place on supermarket shelves (including in Marks & Spencer). Although there are vineyards scattered across India, Nashik district is at the heart of the industry, accounting for 80% of output, thanks to a favourable climate, fertile soils and a long grape-growing history.

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The witches of La Paz

Lucia didn’t look like a witch: early 20s, puppy fat, bored expression, tiny bowler hat. As I walked into her shop, ducking under a clutch of shrivelled llama foetuses dangling from the ceiling, her cell phone rang to the tune Shakira’s “Hips Don’t Lie”. She studiously ignored me.

2011_0323Bolivia0104The shelves of her shop, in La Paz’s Witches’ Market, were stacked with a bizarre collection of goods: aphrodisiacs with names like “Come to me, come to me” and “Love Honey”; perfumes promising to improve your mood or attract a partner; potions for everything from upset stomachs to hair loss.

There were rows of incense, soapstone figurines, penis-shaped candles, clumps of feathers, stone llamas, and wads of miniature dollar bills. Small bags contained seeds, herbal teas, coca leaves, vitamins, and “extracts” of snail and shark. Baskets held dead and dried armadillos, birds, turtles, starfish and frogs.

The Spanish brought Catholicism to Bolivia, but it never completely supplanted the indigenous religious beliefs, which continue to find their expression in rituals requiring an exotic array of ingredients.

Drawn, eventually, from her phone call, Lucia began to talk: “People come to me to prepare [“white tables”], small packages, to burn on the last Friday of each month, and more regularly in August, the month of Pachamama, for good luck. Sometimes they come for , black magic, to cause harm to others.” She pointed at the little figurines: “Each one represents something different. The owls mean studying; the entwined couple, love; the puma, protection; the condor, travel.”

And then, because witches need to make a living too: “You need to buy some condors now, to bring good luck on your journey.”

A stampede in Sucre

The world’s most paleontologically significant cement works is on the outskirts of the Bolivian city of Sucre. Some 5km beyond the colonial centre, with its whitewashed townhouses, churches and leafy plazas, a grey 100m-high cliff rises out of a limestone quarry.

Cal Orko
Cal Orko (c) Peter Collins

As an officious security guard shepherded me into the Parque Cretácico Cal Orko – a grand name for a small fenced-off viewpoint high above the quarry – a stream of heavily-laden trucks chugged past, while looming chimneys belched out plumes of grey smoke.

At first glance the mottled, 1.2km-long cliff-face was nondescript. But as my eyes slowly focused, two indistinct pockmarks gradually formed into a giant pair of dinosaur footprints, each one bigger than my torso. Then I spotted another pair, and then two more, and then more than I could count. In total, there are over 5,000 footprints from around 150 types of dinosaur. It is easily the largest and most diverse such collection in the world.

Palaeontologists believe the footsteps are a snapshot of a 65-million-year-old “chase and kill” stampede in which a horde of scavengers followed predators – including a baby tyrannosaurus rex dubbed “Johnny Walker” by researchers – in pursuit of a menagerie of cretaceous prey. Beneficial climatic conditions preserved them, and the flat earth was pushed up over millennia of tectonic activity until it formed a cliff.

Despite the site’s significance, and local attempts to secure UNESCO World Heritage status, conservation attempts are notable by their absence. From the confines of the Parque Cretácico, I could only get within 150m of the cliff. Meanwhile, in the quarry below, explosions sounded and burly tractor drivers passed within touching distance of the footsteps.

After the earthquakes

Four months after two devastating earthquakes struck the country, Nepal is slowly getting back on its feet. As the peak tourist season gets underway, travellers can help the country recover by booking a holiday.

Nepal2014 177Why should you go?

Tourism is a vital part of the Nepali economy, directly supporting almost 500,000 jobs, and indirectly supporting many more. “Tourism is the backbone of Nepal’s economy, the major employer” says Ramesh Chaudhary, a leading guide. “Nepal’s economic sustainability heavily depends on tourism. Tourists can help alleviate poverty by traveling in various parts of Nepal. The number of tourists decreased drastically aftermath of the earthquake, but they have started coming again.”

Is it safe?

In July the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the US State Department both softened their travel warnings for citizens visiting most parts of Nepal. Although travel companies cancelled trips in the aftermath of the earthquakes, many are now running tours for the post-monsoon peak season, which runs from late September to late November.

“Following the earthquake we were overwhelmed by the response from our customers inquiring after the wellbeing of the local guides and partners we work with in Nepal,” says Lloyd Kane, senior manager at Rickshaw Travel, which is running a range of trips this year. “We have been speaking to our partners in Nepal every day since the incident and recently sent a team of senior staff members out to Kathmandu and the surrounding area to offer their support and find out what it’s like to travel in the country. They reported that life in Kathmandu is slowly getting back on track, hotels are open and ready to welcome guests and the country is as beautiful and hospitable as ever.”

Where can you go?

The earthquakes affected 14 of the country’s 75 districts. Although the devastation is extensive in these 14 central districts – they will take many years to recover, and travellers should avoid them for now – the remaining 61 survived relatively or completely unscathed and are safe to visit. For example, the tranquil lakeside city of Pokhara, the national parks of Chitwan and Bardia – home to rhinos, elephants, tigers and a wealth of other wildlife – and Lumbini, birthplace of the Buddha, all escaped major damage.

What about Kathmandu?

The capital – and the surrounding valley, the country’s cultural heartland – was badly affected by the earthquakes, but is now getting back to normal. In July UNESCO decided not to put seven Kathmandu Valley World Heritage Sites on its “danger list”, and they are now open to the public again. Some – including the mesmerising Buddhist stupa at Boudha and Pashupatinath, Nepal’s holiest Hindu pilgrimage site – were largely untouched. Others, such as Kathmandu’s Durbar Square and the Swayambhu Temple, suffered significant damage, but restoration work is underway.

“Generations of skilled artisans have built and rebuilt these sites over the centuries,” says Mads Mathiasen, who runs Nepal-based tour operator Himalayan Trails. “The heritage is not only in the bricks and mortar we see today. It is also in the spirit of the place and the connection of the people who live here, worship here and maintain these areas, including rebuilding the physical structures after earthquakes, fires or  other types of damage which inevitably occur over time.”

More than 90 per cent of Kathmandu’s hotels and guesthouses, particularly those in the tourist hub of Thamel, have reopened. Look for one with a green sticker, which indicates that government engineers have assessed it as safe: for a list of hotels with the green sticker, visit this site. Most restaurants and travel agencies are also open for business, there is electricity (though the regular pre-earthquakes power cuts continue) and internet access, and ATMS are functioning as normal.

How do I get there and around?

Kathmandu’s international airport remained open throughout the earthquakes, and continues to be served by a wide range of airlines. Most of the regional airports and the major roads are also open, and outside of the worst-affected areas, it is straightforward to get around.

Can you go trekking?

Yes. Miyamoto International, a major engineering firm, has carried out assessments of the major trekking areas. It judged that both the Everest and Annapurna regions will be safe to trek in after the monsoon. The Trekking Agencies’ Association of Nepal is overseeing assessments of other trails, and says most of the other popular trekking regions – excluding Langtang, Rolwaling and Manaslu – are also safe.

What about insurance?

It can be a tricky getting insurance for trips to Nepal, though the situation is likely to improve over the coming weeks and months: travel agencies can provide the latest advice.

Where can you find out more?

Nepal’s tourist industry runs a useful Facebook group. The About Nepal Now website, a collaboration between travel experts and the Nepal Tourism Board, will be similarly helpful when fully up and running.

A version of this article first appeared here.