Ghost towns of the Atacama

Yellow tsunami “hazard zone” signs, planted like sunflowers on street corners, guide our car along Iquique’s seafront. Inland, climbing the 800-metre-high cordillera that provides a backdrop to the city, the car slows to a crawl to ease past a section of highway that collapsed during the 8.2 magnitude earthquake in April 2014.

Santa Laura (c) Shafik MeghjiBeyond Iquique the morning mist evaporates, the heat ramps up and the parched Atacama stretches away into the distance. This part of northern Chile is one of the driest and most inhospitable places on Earth; it is so otherworldly that NASA uses it to test its Mars exploration vehicles.

Our view ahead is temporarily blurred as billowing clouds of dust fill the sky, the result of Chilean army tank exercises, my guide, Jaime, explains. Then, some 45km inland from Iquique, a strange sight appears ahead: in the middle of the desert plain sits the giant rusty skeleton of what looks like a marooned ship. Slowly other structures materialise: a set of train tracks, clusters of huts and warehouses, and finally neat rows of houses and dusty streets. There is not a person in sight.

This ghost town, Santa Laura, is one of the remnants of a largely-forgotten industry that once made the Atacama Desert one of the most valuable places in the world. In the nineteenth century, the vast saltpetre (potassium nitrate) deposits in the region – then part of Peru and Bolivia – were heavily in demand for use as fertiliser and gunpowder in Europe and North America. A booming industry developed, with rapacious nitrate barons – many of them British – using the hefty profits to build opulent mansions in cities like Iquique. In 1878 the War of the Pacific broke out between Chile, and Peru and Bolivia: five years later, Chile emerged victorious, having seized all of the nitrate territories.

Of the 200 or so oficinas salitreras (saltpetre works) that operated during the industry’s heyday, only one – María Elena – still operates. The rest have disappeared, stripped clean of anything valuable and eventually swallowed by the desert after World War One signalled the beginning of the end of the nitrate boom. But for a quirk of fate Santa Laura and neighbouring Humberstone would have suffered the same.

“After the mines were abandoned in the 1960s they were occupied by homeless people. There was rubbish everywhere, graffiti, the mummified bodies of dead dogs,” says Jaime. “Santa Laura and Humberstone were then bought by a businessman who planned to sell off the remains for scrap. But he went bankrupt first, which actually preserved it. They were taken over by a non-profit organisation, cleaned up and made UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 2005.”

Today, Santa Laura, which opened in 1872, is an adventure park for anyone interested in industrial archeology. Jaime and I arrive early in the morning and have the eerie site to ourselves. At its height the oficina was home to over 870 inhabitants: workers lived with their family and for much of the plant’s history were treated appallingly. They worked long hours, in harsh conditions, paid in “tokens” redeemable only in the oficina’s shops, and dissent met by repression or even massacre.

Wandering around Santa Laura, kicking up clumps of crumbly white caliche (unrefined saltpetre), we discover a treasure trove of Victorian-era technology: the remains of a railway station and train carriages; a factory with metal-cutting machines, coolers and compressors; and a power station with a gas engine made in Halifax and steel beams from Lanarkshire in the UK. Preserved in the dry desert air, most of the machines look as if they’re still in working order.

The “marooned ship” proves actually to be a leaching plant, its mast a smokestack. The rusted corrugated iron walls – one of them pierced by several bullet holes – creak and groan in the wind. There is still a distinct smell of iodine (a by-product of the saltpetre process) giving the sense that you are in some kind of steampunk hospital.

Humberstone (c) Shafik MeghjiA couple of kilometres away is the larger and more extensively restored Humberstone. It was taken over by the Chilean government, who in 1932 named it after British nitrate entrepreneur James “Santiago” Humberstone. At its height the town had a population of some 3500 people: “Though it had the capacity for twice that number. The industry was collapsing in the 1930s and the government just wanted to give people jobs,” says Jaime.

Much of the architecture is Art Deco, giving Humberstone the vague feel of west coast, small-town Americana, and many of the workers’ homes have been turned into mini museums. One of the most evocative is filled with letters that sheds light on day-to-day life: one reveals a “strike” by housewives who were refusing to cook for their husbands until they received a better quality charcoal for the ovens; another complained about the cost of building a new tennis court.

In the town centre, the surviving facilities show that by the 1920s and 30s, conditions had slowly improved. There is a large, empty swimming pool, complete with diving board; a school filled with wooden desks and (sometimes risqué) graffiti; and a town clock stuck permanently at 4pm. Overlooking the town square is the old hotel, with guest rooms, a restaurant, bar, billiards room, and a separate entrance at the back for workers, who were forbidden from using the front door. Conditions may have improved, but a strict hierarchy continued in the oficinas.

These slowly crumbling buildings provide a sense that the hostile Atacama had been tamed – but a five-minute walk away to the industrial area reminds you of the harshness of the environment. It is blisteringly hot, shade free, and the wind whips past, covering us in a sheen of dust and grime. Beyond the factories and warehouses, a solitary train engine faces out towards the desert.

Humberstone’s highlight, though, is its glorious (and supposedly haunted) theatre. Inside, perched on a wooden seat, it is strangely quiet, as if a performance had only just ended.

I travelled with Journey Latin America, who offer a seven-night trip to Santiago, Iquique, the ghost towns and San Pedro de Atacama from £2549 per person (including transfers, B&B accommodation, excursions, and all flights). A version of this article was first published here.  

A Bolivian food revolution?

South American food goes from strength to strength. Peru leads the way, with Lima fast becoming the continent’s culinary capital and ceviche and pisco sours adorning menus across the world. Superstar chef Ferren Adriá, of Barcelona’s acclaimed El Bulli, has even declared that the “future of gastronomy is being cooked up in Peru”. Argentina produces the world’s finest steaks, as well as top-class wine. Chile has equally good vineyards, plus outstanding seafood. Time magazine, meanwhile, has named Alex Atala, chef at Sao Paulo’s much-lauded D.O.M, one of its 100 most influential people in the world.

(c) Gustu/Luis Fernandez
(c) Gustu/Luis Fernandez

But while its neighbours may be flourishing, Bolivia has remained in the shadows, its cuisine unable to shake off a long-held reputation for being stodgy and rather monotonous. Claus Meyer – co-founder of Noma, the two-Michelin-starred, Copenhagen-based restaurant named best in the world four times in the last five years – plans to change that.

His restaurant Gustu, which opened in La Paz in 2013 in conjunction with Danish NGO IBIS, assumes Noma’s locavore ethos, matching exclusively Bolivian ingredients with avant-garde cooking techniques. Meyer’s modest aim is to position Bolivia “as a leading tourist gastronomic destination”, and staff members – with a few exceptions, like a couple of senior chefs – are all Bolivian.

Recently I dropped into Gustu for lunch with my friend Nick. En route from our hotel just off Sagárnaga street, La Paz’s bustling backpacker hub, we passed some of Bolivia’s more traditional food options: lurid, whipped-cream-topped red and green jellies in plastic cups; baskets piled high with salteñas (similar to Cornish pasties); mounds of gnarled potatoes, a small fraction of Bolivia’s 200-plus varieties; and interchangeable traveller joints offering pancakes, pizzas and llama steaks.

The culinary and geographical landscape changed dramatically in the taxi ride to the swish Zona Sur district, the city growing steadily smarter – bigger homes, more green spaces, fewer people. Gustu is in the vaguely Californian Calacoto neighbourhood, just round the corner from a gleaming EU office, and some 500m lower than precipitously high central La Paz. I’d booked a table the previous week, but needn’t have bothered. The only other people in the light, spacious dining room – with an open kitchen and vast windows – were a French couple and a huddle of wealthy local businessmen.

The surprisingly varied menu takes full advantage of Bolivia’s biodiversity, with ingredients from the Andes to the Amazon: Lake Titicaca trout; exotic fruits like chankaka, copoazu and red bananas; gamey alpaca and llama; coffee and chocolate; and cactus and chuño (freeze-dried potatoes). Given Bolivia’s landlocked status, seafood is the only major absentee.

Gustu’s ingredients may be local, but its prices are decidedly not: a quick glance at the menu shows that the restaurant is way out of reach of most people in Bolivia, one of South America’s poorest countries. The 12-course “Bolivia Menu”, with a drinks pairing, costs 975 bolivianos (around £86/$135), with mains from 85 bolivianos (£7.50/$12). To put this in context, scores of restaurants across La Paz serve hearty (if rather less adventurous) three-course lunches for under two pounds.

(c) Gustu/Luis Fernandez
(c) Gustu/Luis Fernandez

As soon as the food arrived, however, any thoughts about the cost drifted away: it was imaginative, unusual and Michelin-star class. Highlights included: yucca fritters with coca leaf-spiked butter; melt-in-the-mouth duck confit with creamed Andean corn; intenseley-flavoured native potatoes (one of them gloriously purple) on a potato cream sauce scattered with wild flowers; a surprisingly unctuous dish of raw heart of palm “tagliatelle” with strands of alpaca charque (jerky) and an egg yolk; and a tangy, distinctly adult dessert of chirimoya (custard apple) ice cream with tamarind sauce and chirimoya wafers. Even the occasional misses – notably the promising but underpowered dish of bacon smoked with wild cocoa – almost hit the spot.

Drinks were also of a high standard: a gin, burnt mandarin juice and charcoal cocktail that somehow managed to be both refreshing and smoky at the same time; a quinoa beer from a microbrewery barely 50m away from the restaurant; and a fruity red tannat from Aranjuez, one of the highest vineyards in the world.

The service at Gustu was unfailingly charming if occasionally error-prone: the poor lad who brought out our first dishes was visibly shaking, and managed to drop a plate with a clatter; his colleagues in the glass-fronted kitchen were unable to contain their smiles as he hyper-apologetically cleared everything up. The incident highlighted another of the objectives of Meyer’s venture, which is to give around 30 young Bolivians from disadvantaged backgrounds – few of whom had prior restaurant experience – the chance to learn cooking, baking and serving skills in a professional environment at a linked culinary school.

Some twelve courses and four and half hours later, after a final limocello, Nick and I waddled satisfied to our taxi. Gustu has noble aspirations and genuinely ground-breaking food. Whether it’s enough to launch Bolivia as a “leading tourist gastronomic destination”, however, remains to be seen.

A version of this article was first published here.

Extreme bridwatching in the Salar de Uyuni

They may not look it, but flamingos are some of the toughest birds of earth. Sat at an altitude of almost 4300m in the Reserva de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa, the blood-red, ice-frosted Laguna Colorada was buffeted by gale force, bitingly cold winds. Even though the temperature was well below zero, the midday sun gave off a fierce glare, necessitating sunglasses and high-factor sun cream, all the while, the lake’s colony of James’s and Chilean flamingos – two of the three species found in the far southwest of Bolivia; the other is the Andean – seemed oblivious to the harsh conditions, picking contentedly through the reeds for algae and insects. Clad in several layers of Gore-Tex and alpaca-wool garments, we struggled out of our jeep, and through the whipped up waves of dust and grit and were able to get within a few feet of them, though our gloved fingers were so numb from the cold that it was struggle to use our cameras.

Flamingos at Laguna Colorada (c) Shafik Meghji“Flamingos are strong birds – they have to be to survive here,” our guide, Alvaro, told us back in the jeep, which gently rocked in the wind. “They can regulate their body temperature. Sometimes the lakes here freezes overnight, trapping their legs in the ice. But the flamingos just wait calmly for the ice to melt and then get back to their feeding.”

Severe weather meant that we reached Laguna Colorada a day later – and from the opposite direction – than our original itinerary for the Salar de Uyuni and Reserva de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa intended. Everything had started so well. On the first day my friend Nick and I were picked up early from Uyuni, a bleak town in the far southwest of Bolivia, and taken across the Salar, the world’s largest salt flat, a blindingly white, otherworldly, high-altitude landscape flanked by mountains and volcanoes. We visited an “island” in its centre populated by freakish giant cacti and a few grazing llamas, and stayed a night in the comfortable Palacio del Sal, one of several hotels in the region constructed from salt.

From the second day on, however, the weather deteriorated dramatically, shifting from menacing grey clouds to light snow flurries to golf ball-sized hailstones to heavy snowfall and an almost complete white-out in the space of just a few hours. Continuing on the classic Salar route – continuing over a 4000-metre-high pass to the Reserva de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa – was impossible, so we missed out on some high-powered geysers, a series of hot springs and the strikingly green Laguna Verde. Most other tour groups gave up and headed back to Uyuni, but Alvaro was not so easily deterred and used the extreme weather as an opportunity to visit some less heralded attractions.

Snow-bound jeep (c) Shafik MeghjiThe first stop on our revised schedule was a cave a short drive from the salt-mining town of Colchani. After ducking inside, we found the 900-year-old remains of eight figures. Many of the ancient graves in the region have been robbed, but this one remained largely intact. Among the remains were three full skeletons, including a mother holding a baby, and a mummified puma hanging disconcertingly above the cave entrance. All of the human skulls had been intentionally deformed, giving them a distended, bulbous appearance.

“There are three theories about why they did this,” said Alvaro. “They did it to make themselves stand out, as religious and royal leaders; so that they were closer to the gods – the heads protruding up into the sky; or that they were aliens.” The tomb remained of local religious importance and the remnants of recent ceremonies were all around: coca leaves, miniature banknotes, coins, coloured streamers, and bottles of spirits and beer. One of the skulls even had a cigarette in its mouth, which is not the offensive gesture it might appear to non-Bolivians.

Our revised schedule meant an unexpected stay on the second night in the remote village of Mallca Villa Mar, where the guesthouse was rather more rudimentary than anticipated. Our spartan, heater-free room was freezing at 5pm, something not helped by a hole in the wall that had been bunged up ineffectually with a wodge of (thankfully unused) toilet paper. Temperatures plunged to minus 21 degrees celcius overnight, but we survived by wearing all of our clothes, burrowing down in heavy sleeping bags and wrapping ourselves in a couple of emergency blankets brought along by the ever-resourceful Nick, a veteran of New England’s frigid winters.

Black Lagoon (c) Shafik MeghjiThe following day we visited the Laguna Negra, west of the Eduardo Avaroa reserve, and accessed by a winding narrow path, hemmed in by jagged, overhanging cliffs. Surrounded by rocky crags, with gravity-defying boulders balanced ominously on one another and bogs populated by ibis and vizcachas (rabbit-like rodents), the lake felt like a Game of Thrones set. Once again the site was devoid of travellers – and indeed any sign of humanity. Enclosed from the wind, it was also wonderfully still and silent, save from the calls of a resident family of coots, which Alvaro told us give the lake its other name, “the laughing lagoon”.

On our final morning, after a more comfortable night in a heated hotel, we drove to the Lost City, a cluster of surreal rock formations that looked like skyscrapers and amphitheatres. It was an easy place to lose yourself in for a few hours.

A few hazards remained – including a semi-frozen river, which we crossed bumper deep – but the weather steadily improved and by the time we reached Uyuni it was a sunny, balmy day. After an eventful, unexpected trip I was left with some great experiences, an appreciation of emergency blankets, and a new found respect for those hardy flamingos.

A version of this article first appeared on RoughGuides.com.

Tiger style

I was half-asleep when my car screeched to a halt on a dusty, rural road in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. My driver nudged me sharply in the ribs – barely 20 metres ahead of us was a flash of orange and black. As I scrabbled in vain for my camera the tigress casually sauntered across the tarmac, pausing briefly to give us the once-over, and then disappeared into the undergrowth. We were well outside Kanha National Park, a Kiplingesque landscape of lush forests, savannah grasslands and meandering streams home to an estimated 40-45 tigers, but the big cats pay little attention to map boundaries, something to which Jehan and Katie Bhujwala can attest.

Shergarh tent (c)Over glasses of nimbu pani (a refreshing mix of lime juice, water and sugar) on the veranda the Parsi-British couple, who own and run Shergarh Tented Camp, told me about an incident a few years previously. A five-year-old male tiger had strayed from the park and took up residence in the paddy fields surrounding Shergarh, which is located around three kilometres outside Kanha. He left again peacefully shortly afterwards, though not before – after over-coming their initial surprise – the camp’s guests got some wonderful photos, as well as an enviable tale to tell friends back home.

Sadly the tiger did not make a return visit during my stay at the camp, but there were plenty of langur monkeys, kingfishers and multicoloured butterflies for me to focus on instead. The wildlife is a testament to Shergarh’s environmentally- and socially-responsible approach, which involves everything from minimising the use of plastic to providing employment opportunities for local people.

Set up ten years ago, and this year named by The Rough Guide to India as one of the five best places to stay in the country, the idyllic camp offers the perfect blend of luxury and adventure. Shergarh has just six tents scattered throughout 20 acres of woodlands, a low-density that gives each guest the illusion that they have the area entirely to themselves. The impeccably-designed tents themselves are fit for a maharaja: each one has electricity, a king-sized bed, a huge attached stone bathroom, local artworks, evocative wildlife photos, and a private veranda on which to drink your morning chai.

Tent interior (c) Shafik MeghjiOutstanding, personalised service and innumerable small, thoughtful touches – such as the blankets and hot-water bottles that are provided to keep you warm during the chilly early-morning safaris – elevate Shergarh well above the average luxury safari lodge. The food too is excellent too, and makes full use of produce grown in the camp’s organic gardens.

The twice-daily safaris (or “game drives” as they are known locally) in the park are the big draw for most guests – and Shergarh has some of the region’s best guides – but there is also a range of other activities to keep guests occupied.

One morning I went on a guided walk through the “buffer zone” – a band of wildlife-rich forest that separates the park boundaries from nearby inhabited areas – watching clouds of dragon- and damselflies, marvelling at spider-webs large enough to trap a small child, and climbing on top of giant boulders for sweeping views across to the Banjar River.

Later that day Katie, Jehan and their two young children took me on a cycle ride through the countryside surrounding the camp. We passed pretty villages of mud homes, members of the local Gond community herding cattle and baling hay, crowds of schoolchildren in immaculately clean uniforms, and even a formidable gaur (a type of bison) and her calf.

The camp’s wonderfully serene atmosphere is also an attraction in its own right. Indeed there are few better ways to spend a lazy afternoon than by taking a seat under the shade of Shergarh’s tall mango tree, with a slice of homemade cake, a good book, and a soundtrack of birdsong.

A version of this article first appeared in the South China Morning Post.

The Siberia of Argentina

Ushuaia draws hordes of tourists eager to visit Tierra del Fuego and experience life at the “end of the world”, as Argentina’s tourist authorities like to style it. Few visitors to this picturesque and beguiling spot realise, however, that among the city’s first settlers were some of the country’s most dangerous criminals, who had been sent to what was once known as the “Siberia of Argentina”.

Museo Maritimo y Presido (c) Shafik MeghjiIn an effort to consolidate Argentina’s sovereignty over this region of Tierra del Fuego and open it up for further settlement, the Argentine government established a penal colony here in 1896. The early city’s buildings and infrastructure – including the railway that runs to Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego, 12km west of Ushuaia – were built by forced convict labour.

Overlooking the icy Beagle Channel and backed by a snow-covered mountain range, the prison itself must surely have been the most beautifully situated in the world. Not that the views would have provided much comfort for the inmates, who suffered truly horrific conditions, as a tour around the prison – which closed in 1947 and is now an atmospheric museum, the Museo Marítimo y Presidio – starkly illustrates.

The prison was designed in the panopticon style – the wings radiating out like spokes from a half wheel – to allow the wardens to observe inmates without them knowing they were being watched. The wings have now been opened up to the public; two host artworks and maritime exhibits, while wing four tells the fascinating tales of some of the most notorious residents, giving an all-too-real insight into the horrors they endured.

Conditions in the prison were spartan to say the least. Each of the cramped cells had a tiny window, a wooden platform that functioned as a bed, a rudimentary chair and a narrow counter. The only personal possessions a well-behaved prisoner was allowed were a couple of books, stationary, sugar and mate (a type of herbal tea, Argentina’s national drink). Dangerous convicts were kept in check by heavy shackles and bulbous ball-and-chains.

A couple of small heaters outside in the corridor were the only source of warmth for the whole wing. Today, even if you visit during the height of summer, there is a noticeable chill in the cells – what conditions were like in the depths of winter, when temperatures in Ushuaia can plunge well below zero, hardly bears thinking about.

For those inmates deemed fit enough to work, backbreaking days were spent felling trees in the dense forests surrounding the prison, hacking at rocks in the quarry or laying railway tracks, labours brought vividly to life by a series of evocative black-and-white photos. Anyone who stepped out of line was sent to the “dungeon”, which is just a bleak as it sounds.

One of the most famous prisoners here was Simón Radowitzky, an anarchist militant jailed in 1909 for the murder of a brutal police chief, Colonel Falcón, responsible for eights deaths at a May Day protest in Buenos Aires. He spent over 20 years in the prison – aside from a brief escape in 1918 – before being exiled from Argentina in 1930. (Radowitzky’s tale is told in illuminating fashion in Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia.)

Museo Maritimo y Presido (c) Shafik MeghjiYou can also visit the cells of other notable inmates, such as Mateo Banks, an estate owner of Irish descent who in 1922 was convicted of killing eight people – including three of his siblings – and Cayetano Santos Godino, a criminally insane child murderer nicknamed El Petiso Orejudo (The Big-Eared Short Man).

The most evocative part of the museum, however, is Wing 1, which has been left largely untouched. Stepping into it eerily transports you back a century or more: there are no exhibits, information panels, heating or – generally – any other visitors, leaving you alone with just the empty cells and the peeling paint work for company. The only sounds are the echoes of your own footsteps and – when I was there at least – the plaintive mewlings of an unseen cat. It is a sinister, unsettling place that – when you leave the prison and head back into town – makes you very appreciative of your own liberty.

A version of this article first appeared on www.roughguides.com.

Beyond the mountains in Nepal

“Chhop” I shout. Nothing. “Chh-op?” Still nothing. “Chhoooop?” I’m beginning to get a sore throat. The mahout, knee-deep in the river, looks up at me, smiles and sticks up his thumbs. I give it a final try: “Chhop!” A fraction of a second later Rani’s wrinkled grey trunk arches back towards me and squirts a huge burst of water into my face. Down river several travellers perched on pachyderms are undergoing a similar drenching to a chorus of laughter, splashes and periodic trumpets. Others are busy scrubbing away or snapping photos. Elephant bath time has begun.

Elephant bath time (c) Shafik MeghjiThis raucous scene is a regular occurrence in the Rapti River, which separates the village of Sauraha from Chitwan National Park in Nepal’s southern Terai region. Most people associate Nepal with mountains, trekking and traveller hangouts in Kathmandu, but the Terai is a complete contrast. Bordering India, the region is hot, flat and culturally distinct, with stunning national parks, elaborate Hindu temples, and one of the holiest Buddhist sites in the world.

Chitwan, around 150km – by road – southwest of Kathmandu, and the forests around it are famous for their endangered one-horned rhinos, which can be spotted on guided walks, jeep tours, canoe trips, and – most enjoyably – elephant-back rides. Prior to elephant bath time, Rani and her mahout (handler) took me through the community forests, a protected buffer zone separating the national park from the surrounding inhabited areas. The scent of the elephant masks your own, making it easier to get close to the wildlife: we got within metres of an adult female rhino and her calf, peacefully grazing as the morning sun rose above them.

Later I stop off at the Elephant Breeding Centre, a national park-run project that aims to boost the elephant population by allowing the pachyderms to mate in peace. Baby elephants are the big draw here, but there’s also a tiny museum with a helpful list of verbal commands for elephants, including “Chhop” – “Spray water”.

Chitwan is easily the most popular attraction in the Terai, but it is far from the only worthwhile sight. From here, I take a local bus east along dusty, bumpy roads – doing my best to ignore the many articles on fatal road accidents in the local newspaper – to Lumbini, birthplace of the Buddha.

Lumbini prayer flags (c) Shafik MeghjiNepal’s most important archeological site, Lumbini is home to a complex of temples built by Buddhist communities from around the world in their own distinctive styles. The centrepiece, however, is the Sacred Garden and the glimmeringly-white Maya Devi temple, parts of which date back to around 300 BC. Inside – protected by bullet-proof glass – is the spot the Buddha is reputed to have been born. Although there are few ruins in Lumbini, the fluttering prayer flags, neatly-tended grounds and meditating monks made it an incredibly tranquil place to sit and think – at least until a party of local schoolchildren arrives.

Beyond Lumbini, in the remote far west of the Terai, is Bardia National Park, which feels like Chitwan 20 years ago. Relatively few travellers make it this far and apart from some atmospheric lodges built in the local “Tharu” style (think mud-and-thatch huts), there is little in the way of tourist facilities. This meant, however, that I could explore the park’s dense forests and patches of savannah in peace, spotting several rhinos and scores of crocodiles slumbering on river banks, though sadly not an elusive tiger.

My final stop is Janakpur, a small town east of Chitwan. I’m the only foreign tourist in town, but there are many Hindu pilgrims who have travelled to visit the Janaki Mandir, an eye-catching plaster-and-marble temple dating back to 1911, when it was built to mark the spot a golden statue of Sita (consort of Hindu god Rama) was reputedly discovered.

Nearby is Janakpur’s old quarter, a maze of streets crammed with mithai (sweet) shops, stalls selling colourful religious trinkets, small-scale tailors, and jewellery dealers. Much like the Terai in general, it is a place of unexpected pleasures.

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in the South China Morning Post.

Going downhill, fast

As I approached Melted Welly, a winding trail down the 491-metre-high Gethin Mountain, my biggest concern was not for my own safety, but that of my bike, hired for the day and worth a cool £2,400. Although only an intermediate trail, Melted Welly’s sharp turns, precipitous descents and loose, uneven surfaces looked certain to provide ample opportunities for broken frames, dislocated handlebars and bruised saddles, particularly for a novice mountain biker like myself.

BikePark Wales (C) The ValleysYet as soon as I set off any lingering concerns swiftly vanished in the sheer exhilaration – and occasional moments of terror – of the ride, which snaked through forests, rocky sections and even a tunnel. There are also stunning views across the countryside of South Wales, though it was only when I reached the end of the trail unscathed that I was really able to appreciate them.

Located just outside Merthyr Tydfil in the Welsh Valleys, a 30-minute drive from Cardiff, BikePark Wales is the UK’s first full-scale mountain biking centre. It is best thought of as ski resort, but for mountain bikes: instead of snow-covered pistes there are 23 downhill trails – each with idiosyncratic names like Melted Welly, Coal not Dole and Pork Belly – tailored for everyone from beginners to pros. They were designed by Welsh downhill mountain bike champion Rowan Sorrell and are maintained by the UK’s only full-time mountain bike trail crew.

A fleet of minibuses provide uplift, transporting you and your bike up to the top of Gethin Mountain where the trails begin – though some hardcore bikers prefer to reach the summit under their own steam.

BikePark Wales, which opened in August 2013, adds to the Welsh Valleys’ burgeoning reputation as an adventure sport and outdoor activity hub, something that is providing a much-needed boost to the region after years of economic decline. There are several other top class mountain bike trails in the Welsh Valleys, including Afan Forest Park and Cwmcarn Forest.

The region is also a hotspot for climbing and caving, and the Rock Summit Centre, built on the site of the former Trelewis drift mine near the town of Treharris, is a great place to get a taste of both activities. Home to the largest climbing wall in Wales and a world class man-made caving facility, the centre also offers kayaking and canoeing on the nearby Taff Bargoed lakes, an area that when the mines closed in the late 1980s was deemed too polluted for the public to enter. Rock Summit Centre (c) The Valleys

Since then a major regeneration project has taken place, and the Taff Bargoed Valley is something of an idyll: as well as canoeists and kayakers, the two crystal-clear lakes here are popular with anglers hoping to catch rainbow or brown trout, and all manner of birdlife (77 different species have been spotted in the valley).

The Welsh Valleys are not just for adrenalin junkies, however, and Bryngarw House and Country Park, just outside the town of Bridgend, is the perfect place to indulge your inner Ray Mears, with fascinating bushcraft courses that teach you everything from making a fire to building a shelter.

The aim of the sessions, says ranger Dan Lock, is less about learning survival skills – “If you get lost in the wild these days, you just pull out your mobile phone” – and more about gaining a deeper understanding of the natural world. Although it’s not as adrenaline-pumping as speeding down Gethin Mountain or scaling a climbing wall, learning to light your own fire using nothing more than a knife, a flint and some freshly cut sticks is an equally satisfying experience.

A version of this article first appeared on www.roughguides.com.

Dangerous days in Honduras

“There are sometimes drug gangs in the park, but not in this part,” said my guide Jorge Salaverri, as our beat-up Jeep bumped along a dirt track towards the entrance to Parque Nacional Pico Bonito. “The gangs only ever come here to dump bodies. Tourists get scared when they see them, but nobody is actually killed here.” The strange thing was that after a week in Honduras – dubbed the most violent country on Earth – Jorge’s less-than-reassuring statement actually provided some comfort.

Pico Bonito © Denis Fournier

Home to the spectacular Mayan ruins of Copán, deserted palm-fringed beaches, picturesque Caribbean islands, some of the world’s least expensive diving, and expanses of wildlife-rich rain and cloud forests, Honduras should be an easy sell. Unfortunately, in recent years violence has risen dramatically thanks to the activities of drug traffickers using Honduras as a stop-off between South America and the US; the city of San Pedro Sula reportedly has the highest murder rate in the world outside of a war zone.

The tourist industry, needless to say, has taken a real hit. However, despite serious security risks for tourists, it is possible to visit parts of Honduras safely, and the silver lining to the country’s pitch black cloud is that those travellers who do make it over have world-class attractions like Parque Nacional Pico Bonito virtually to themselves.

In northern Honduras, the park is a dramatic series of forested hills and jungle-clad mountains, interspersed by plunging waterfalls that feed 20 different rivers. Covering an area of almost 565 square kilometres, it is dominated by the soaring 2346m-high peak of Pico Bonito and has an abundance of wildlife.

Jorge and I arrived at the park entrance – a rickety chain bridge stretching over the churning Río Cangrejal, which has some of the finest white water rapids in Central America – without spotting any dead bodies. But neither were there any tourists: the nearby lodges and resorts – each with an unspoilt riverside setting – were all empty.

Once inside the park my lingering concerns about encountering drug gang members (maras) soon melted away. Jorge, after all, is one of the top guides in Central America, and has worked on TV documentaries with the likes of Bear Grylls, and Ray Mears. He’s also a former Honduran Special Forces soldier.

The day’s aim was to reach the top of the Bejuco waterfall – a stiff two-and-a-half-hour climb – which cascades down over 700m through the forest to the river below. Jorge led the way, swishing his machete to clear a path through the dense greenery. As we climbed higher – stopping periodically to quench our thirst from crystal-clear streams – it was fascinating to note the subtle changes in the flora as lush tropical rainforest gradually evolved into dank and mossy cloud forest.

As we progressed up the trail, Jorge paused to point out toxic butterflies with translucent wings, tiny spider monkeys, armadillo tracks on the ground, howler monkeys high in the canopy, and a male yellow-eared toucan (the rarest of the four toucan species found in the park) perched on a nearby branch. Perhaps even more intriguing, however, was the array of trees and plants.

The park is home to balsa trees, piercingly sharp razor grass, tough ironwoods, twisted water vines, and rubber trees slashed with crosses out of which white liquid rubber drips like spilt milk. Local indigenous groups collect this sap in banana leaves and use it to make waterproof duffle bags. Some of the trees are edible – such as the almond-flavoured bark of the sapote tree and the bitter pod-like fruits of the wild tamarind – and several have medicinal uses, including the monkey ladder tree, whose bark, when ground up and boiled, is a tonic for the kidneys. Just avoid the camotillo palm, Jorge warned, the roots give you killer diarrhoea.

As the day progressed it became clear that the biggest threat to the sustainability of the park does not come from drug gangs, at least not directly. On the hills opposite we saw a series of brown patches amid the greenery where peasant farmers and large-scale ranchers had illegally cleared huge swathes of forest growth. “The situation is worse the deeper into the park you go,” explained Jorge. “We need soldiers to patrol these areas. You wouldn’t need many, but the drugs war and everyday crime take the focus.”

Bejuco waterfall © New World Trips

Eventually, after a hard final scrabble, we arrived at the top of the Bejuco waterfall. The wonderfully cool, shady clearing overlooked a shallow pool and a deceptively small stream for such a powerful waterfall. It also offered panoramic vistas of the park: the undulating green Cordillera Nombre de Dios ahead, the river rapids below, and the placid-looking Caribbean Sea in the distance. Jorge laid out a simple lunch on palm leaves – sandwiches, fresh pineapple and super-sweet pineapple juice – and we both sat quietly, listing to the calls, yelps and whistles emanating from the forest and marvelling at the views.

The hike back down was a one-and-a-half-hour scramble, a real work out for the knees and thighs. Jorge darted along nimbly while I was left trailing behind, slipping and sliding over the loose earth. As we neared the bridge we passed two local youngsters – skipping school to explore the park – the only people we encountered on the whole hike.

The tranquillity of the day in the park, however, provided only a brief escape from the reality of everyday life in Honduras. When I returned to my hotel in the city of La Ceiba, a 30-minute drive from Pico Bonito, the early evening news was on the TV in the lobby: the city’s deputy mayor, it emerged, had just been shot dead as he drove to the airport. The hotel staff didn’t even give the TV a second look – for them it was just another normal day.

A version of this article was first published by Rough Guides.

A Biblical landscape in the Sinai

The interior of the Sinai peninsula is a stark, unforgiving place. Beneath a strikingly blue sky, lie parched mountains, rocky outcrops and great expanses of barren sand, interspersed with isolated oases and crisscrossed by medieval pilgrimage routes. It is, in the truest sense, a landscape of biblical proportions.

St Catherine's Monastery with Mount Sinai in the background
St Catherine’s Monastery with Mount Sinai in the background

In the south of this region, just a few hours drive from the booming tourist resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, rises the magnificent 2285m Mount Sinai, venerated by Christians, Muslims and Jews alike as the site of God’s unveiling of the Ten Commandments.

Although there is some doubt about whether this red and grey granite peak is actually the site mentioned in the bible, it is undeniably awe-inspiring – particularly the views from the summit, which is reached via 3750 knee-crunching “Steps of Repentance”, or the easier but longer “camel path”. Despite the crowds of pilgrims, travellers and Bedouin guides (and their camels), a night camped out here under an impossibly star-filled sky allows you to wake up to one of the most beautiful sunrises imaginable.

The burning bush, St Catherine’s Monastery

Almost as atmospheric – and considerably more comfortable – is a stay at the guesthouse in the grounds of the imposing St Catherine’s Monastery, which stands at the foot of Mount Sinai. Dating back to 337BC, this active Greek Orthodox monastery looks more like a fortress than a place of religious devotion.

Behind its forbidding walls is what is reputedto be the burning bush from which God spoke to Moses, as well as a library containing innumerable priceless texts and manuscripts, including fragments of the world’s oldest bible, the 1600-year-old Codex Sinaiticus.

In search of enlightenment in Bodhgaya

In 528BC, Prince Siddhartha Gautama, later known as the Buddha, settled under a bodhi tree and – after surviving a night of temptations and threats – found enlightenment. The Mahabodhi Temple, which marks the spot, has since become the world’s more important Buddhist pilgrimage site.

Bodhi tree, Bodhgaya © mikeemesser (Flickr)

Bodhgaya, the town that has sprung up around the temple, manages to retain a wonderfully serene air, despite being located in India’s poorest state, Bihar – an anarchic place, riven with caste conflict. Between November and February, large communities of exiled Tibetans – including, from time to time, the Dalai Lama – join red-robed monks, pilgrims from around the world and curious travellers, giving Bodhgaya a truly cosmopolitan feel.

Devotees have built a number of elaborate – and sometimes incongruous – modern temples and monasteries in various national styles: Thai, Japanese, Bhutanese and Tibetan among them. There is also a huge 25-metre-high Buddha statue in an ornamental garden, innumerable meditation centres and increasing numbers of hotels – which run the gamut from austere monastery guesthouses to luxury five stars.

The focal point, however, is the Mahabodhi Temple, a sixth-century construction with an elegant single spire surrounded by a collection of smaller stupas and shrines. At the heart of the temple complex is the bodhi tree itself – this one, however, is only a distant offshoot of the original, which was destroyed by Emperor Ashoka before his conversion to Buddhism.

Beside the tree, which has multicoloured threads tied to its branches and Tibetan butter lamps around its base, is the vajrasana (thunder seat), a sandstone block on which the Buddha is reputed to have sat. Many people come to meditate here, but regardless of your religious beliefs the place invites quiet contemplation, particularly as the afternoon draws to a close, when the crowds slowly disperse, the sun descends and ritual chants drift over on the breeze.

A version of this post was first published in Make the Most of Your Time on Earth.