A Welsh corner of Patagonia

In 1865, 153 Welsh men, women and children boarded a tea-clipper, the Mimosa, in Liverpool and set out on an 8,000-mile journey to what they hoped would be their Promised Land. Fleeing cultural and religious persecution in the UK, the pioneers wanted to create a “little Wales beyond Wales” – a place where they could retain their national identity.

After two months at sea the Mimosa landed in the Golfo Nuevo in northeastern Patagonia, an isolated, inhospitable and – at the time – largely unpopulated land. The pioneers faced serious hardships including brutally cold winters, flash floods, crop failures and food shortages. Some of them returned home, others died. Yet despite these unpromising beginnings the community survived and subsequently flourished. In doing so the Welsh helped to cement Argentine claims on the western section of Patagonia and opened up the region to foreign settlers from around the world.

Today, almost 150 years later, this corner of Patagonia retains a distinctive Welsh flavour, especially in the cities of Puerto Madryn and Trelew and the town of Gaiman. More than 50,000 people in the region claim Welsh descent, and significant numbers speak the language.

At Punta Cuevas in Puerto Madryn, it is still possible to see the foundations of the first Welsh houses in Patagonia. A commanding statue – the Monumento al Indio Tehuelche – marks both the centenary of the arrival of the Welsh and pays homage to the Tehuelche, an indigenous group who provided invaluable help to the pioneers during the early days.

Nearby a fascinating little museum tells the story of the settlers, while outside, a trio of flags fly. Alongside the Welsh and Argentine flags is another, featuring a red dragon on a white background topped and tailed by thin blue strips – the symbol of Welsh Patagonia.

Gaiman teahouseAn hour’s drive inland from Puerto Madryn is the region’s hub, Trelew; the name means “village of Lew” in Welsh, a reference to its founder, Lewis Jones. Local children have the option of studying Welsh at school here, and cultural delegations from Wales visit regularly. Every September 0r October, Trelew’s central square plays hosts to the most important of the region’s eisteddfodau, festivals of Welsh culture, music and literature. The highlight of the Trelew Eisteddfod is the award of two prestigious prizes – the Sillón del Bardo (The Bard’s Chair) for the best Welsh-language poet and the Corona del Bardo (The Bard’s Crown), which is handed over to the Spanish-language equivalent.

The most obviously Welsh place in the region – known as the Lower Chubut Valley – is the town of Gaiman. Images of red dragons are prominent here, while street names include “Michael D. Jones” and “J.C. Evans”. The town’s British-built railway station has been turned into a fascinating little museum that looks at the challenges – and triumphs – of pioneer life.

Gaiman’s key attraction, however, is its collection of traditional Welsh tearooms. These casas de té serve up the finest afternoon teas in Argentina, if not South America. Among the delights on offer are torta galesa and bara brith (rich fruit cakes), sweet and savoury scones, hot buttered toast, home-made jams and preserves, and an array of pastries and baked goods, as well as – of course –  a pot of perfectly-brewed tea.

Traditional Welsh teaThe tearooms – many of which are run by descendants of the original settlers – are based in atmospheric, immaculately-kept cottages decorated with old family photos, Welsh-language posters, tea-towels with red dragons on them, paintings of Wales, and other knick-knacks from the old country.

While you work your way through your té gales – a feat that requires at least an hour or two given their prodigious size – it’s easy to forget that you are in Argentina at all.

This article was first published on the Rough Guides website.

The secret history of the Galápagos Islands

In the late eighteenth century British whalers sailing through the Galápagos Islands – considered at the time to be a forbidding place of ghouls and spirits – came up with a novel way to keep in touch with their loved ones back home. A large wooden barrel was left on a beach on Isla Floreana inside which letters were deposited, to be picked up later by ships heading for the UK.

The whalers and the original barrel have long gone, but the tradition continues at what has become known as Post Office Bay. At a site marked by wooden boxes, planks, animal bones and driftwood, tourists drop off postcards (without stamps) and pick up those left by other travellers, which they then mail when they return home. Sometimes the Ecuadorian Navy even helps out with deliveries, and although the process may take months, or even years, most postcards are eventually delivered – often by hand.

Post Office Bay helps to highlight the fascinating human history of the Galápagos Islands, which – with the notable exception of Charles Darwin and The Voyage of the Beagle – remains little known to many travellers. Pirates, authors, castaways, soldiers, convicts, prostitutes, entrepreneurs, fantasists and utopians – as well as whalers – have all left their marks here.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the area was a haunt of British privateers, including John Cook, who used the islands as a base to pick off passing merchant ships. Another famous privateer, Alexander Selkirk – the Scottish sailor who inspired Robinson Crusoe – also passed through the islands, shortly after his rescue from the Juan Fernández Archipelago off the Chilean coast. Today many cruise boats visit the atmospheric Buccaneer Cove, on Isla Santiago, which was once a favoured pirate hideout.

Later whalers – including Moby Dick-author Herman Melville, who described the islands as “five-and-twenty heaps of cinders” – arrived. They not only killed innumerable whales, but also devastated the giant tortoise population – it is estimated that around 200,000 tortoises were killed for food during the whaling era.

Among the early settlers on the Galápagos were an unbalanced Irish sailor named Patrick Watkins, eighty Ecuadorian soldiers found guilty of mutiny, and a motley crew of convicts and prostitutes sent over from mainland Ecuador. In the 1870s, businessman Manuel Cobos founded the ironically-titled town of El Progreso on Isla San Cristóbal, using convict labour to farm sugar cane and operate a mill. His rule soon descended into a brutal tyranny – workers were paid in an invented currency only redeemable at Cobos’s own store, and anyone who stepped out of line was flogged (often to death) or dumped on a deserted island.

Eventually, however, Cobos received his comeuppance – in 1904, he was hacked to death by a group of workers. Today El Progreso is a peaceful place of wooden cabins raised on stilts, with the only sign of its tempestuous history a scattering of orchards and fruit plantations. It’s also home to perhaps the most peculiar hotel in the Galápagos, La Casa del Ceibo (+593 5 301 0160), a rustic tree house perched 14.5m up a 300-year-old ceibo tree.

Thirty years after the death of Cobos, another island in the archipelago – Isla Floreana – gained infamy around the world for the bizarre “Galápagos Affair”, which involved a violent and delusional German doctor and his mistress, a loony Austrian Baroness who declared herself “Queen of Floreana” and had two younger lovers, and several highly suspicious deaths and disappearances that to this day remain unsolved – there’s an excellent book on the saga, The Galapagos Affair by John Treherne.

Caught in the middle of this intrigue were Heinz and Margret Wittmer, and their son Harry, who had emigrated to Floreana from Cologne in 1932. Margret died in 2000, but a few of her descendants remain on the island where they run the wonderfully secluded Pensión Wittmer guesthouse, as well as one of the leading cruise companies (www.rwittmer.com) in the Galápagos.

Floreana is still only home to around 100 permanent residents, and if you stay a night or two at Pensión Wittmer it is easy to imagine the hardships suffered by the early settlers and how dramatic intrigues could so easily develop.

First published in www.roughguides.com.

Elephant bath time

Each day, at around 11am, a strange combination of sounds – excited laughter, lots of splashing, the occasional burst of trumpeting – can be heard drifting through the village of Sauraha in southern Nepal: elephant bath time has begun.

This ritual takes place in the Rapti River, which separates Sauraha from Chitwan National Park, home to the endangered one-horned rhino. After a busy morning carrying tourists around the nearby Community Forest reserves, a procession of dusty pachyderms are led by their mahouts to the river for a good scrub down – and travellers are welcome to join in the fun.

After they have waded in, the elephants delight in shooting jets of water into the air from their trunks, wallowing on their sides while layers of mud are scraped off and, from time to time, even dumping unsuspecting riders into the river. In theory it is only the elephants that are there to be washed, but in practice anyone in the vicinity is given a good soaking too. This magical experience produces a childlike glee in even the most sober and straitlaced adult – and the elephants appear to enjoy it almost as much.

Before taking part in bath time, it is well worth visiting the Elephant Breeding Project, 4km west of Sauraha, where elephants are trained to work in the park. It is home to several adult male elephants, a harem of females for them to breed with and usually a number of impossibly cute calves.

While it can be difficult to tear yourself away from the elephants, the small information room contains a list of verbal commands that should prove useful during bath time – if you manage to master the pronunciation. Mail means “stand up”, baith means “sit down” and – perhaps most appropriately – chhop means “spray water”.

Find out more in The Rough Guide to Nepal.

The trash, trinkets and treasures of Pablo Neruda

One morning Pablo Neruda looked out of the window and spotted a chunk of driftwood being tossed about in the Pacific Ocean. He walked down to the beach behind his home, Casa de Isla Negra, and waited patiently for the surf to carry it to the shore. This “present from the sea” was turned into the desk on which many of the poems that earned him the 1971 Nobel Prize were written.

The desk remains in the study of his wonderfully eccentric house, a few hours drive west of Santiago, which was turned into a museum after his death. While his other two homes, La Chascona in Santiago and La Sebastiana (also known as El Casa en el Aire, “The House in the Air”) in Valparaíso, were ransacked by supporters of General Pinochet shortly after the military coup, Casa de Isla Negra survived largely unscathed. When soldiers arrived late at night to search the house, Neruda reputedly remarked: “Look around. There’s only one thing of danger for you here – poetry.”

Today, Casa de Isla Negra has the feel of a treasure trove. An inveterate hoarder, Neruda crammed the place with bric-a-brac, trinkets, kitsch collectables and bits of junk that he had picked up on his travels – including coloured glasses, seashells, Hindu carvings, a full-size model horse, African masks, and ships in bottles.

The house perfectly sums up Neruda’s tangle of contradictions, and offers as good an insight into the man as any of his poems. He was fascinated by the sea – Casa de Isla Negra was built to resemble a ship, with narrow hallways, porthole-like windows and low ceilings – but could not swim, and rarely ventured onto a real ship. Similarly, he loved to collect musical instruments, but was unable to play any of them.

On September 23, 1973, Neruda died of cancer, two weeks after the coup that claimed the life of his great friend, and the elected President of Chile, Salvador Allende. Alongside his poetry, Casa de Isla Negra survives as lasting tribute to a man considered Chile’s, and arguably South America’s, greatest poet.

His most famous work, the melancholic and erotically-charged Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair (Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada), is the perfect accompaniment to a visit here, with a line from Poem 20 particularly appropriate: “Love is so short, forgetting is so long.”

Find out more in The Rough Guide to Chile

Cross the Himalayas to a real Shangri-La

In the far northeast of India, lodged between Tibet and Bhutan in the tiny state of Arunachal Pradesh – “the land of dawn-lit mountains” – lies a lonely valley, surrounded by snow-capped mountains. Here, high up on a spur, is Tawang Gompa, India’s largest Buddhist monastery.

Although you can get there by helicopter, the most rewarding way to reach Tawang is by joining the locals and wedging yourself into a “sumo”. These shared jeeps – packed to bursting point with people and possessions – shuttle along the 345km road to the city of Tezpur in Assam, an exhausting journey that takes anything from 12 to 24 hours, depending on the weather.

Along this winding route of orchid groves, primeval forests, glacial streams and ice-blue lakes, darkly humorous road signs with phrases like “Be gentle on my curves” and “Overtaker, meet undertaker” warn drivers to take care at the wheel. The numerous military bases strewn along the route are potent reminders that the region remains a bone of contention between India and China – the latter occupied the area during the 1962 Chinese-Indian war and still lays claim to it.

At the breathtakingly high (4300m) Sela Pass, the sumos stop at a tiny wooden hut, the Tenzing Restaurant, where passengers crowd round a wood-fired stove and drink cups of salted yak-butter tea. From here, the road curls down into an isolated valley, and eventually Tawang itself, a sleepy end-of-the-road town filled with Buddhist prayer wheels and flags. A few kilometres beyond is the monastery itself. A colourful fortified complex, it was the birthplace of the sixth Dalai Lama and remains home to around five hundred monks, as well as a priceless collection of Buddhist texts and manuscripts.

The monastery is most atmospheric in the late afternoon, when the setting sun bathes the place in a gorgeous orange light. As you gaze down at the valley below, with its isolated ani gompas (nunneries), tiny hamlets, glistening lakes and sheer mountain slopes, it is hard to escape the feeling that you’ve discovered your own, personal Shangri-La.

Find out more in The Rough Guide to India.

Tango with a twist in Buenos Aires

The origins of tango are hotly debated. According to Jorge Luis Borges, it was “born in the brothels” of Buenos Aires. Others argue – less evocatively but perhaps more accurately – that it developed in the city’s dance halls and courtyards. What is certain is that the music and dance form reflects Buenos Aires’ European, indigenous and African cultural heritage.

Today tourists flock to the city’s famous tango venues – notably Café Tortoni, which has attracted the likes of King Juan Carlos of Spain and Hillary Clinton – for classes and shows. Many of these are worth checking out, but if you want to see where Porteños dance the tango, you’ll have to head off the beaten track to places such as La Catedral in the barrio of Almagro.

Tucked away behind an unpromisingly scruffy door, this vast, low-lit venue has a bizarre shabby-chic appeal. A vast warehouse with modern art covering the walls, mismatched tables and chairs near the bar, and a dance floor that’s a world away from the city’s traditional tango halls.

Locals and expats alike attend the friendly beginner classes on Tuesdays – lessons for more adept dancers are held throughout the rest of the week. Many sessions are followed by displays by the instructors and milongas (a tango dance event), and there’s decent, healthy food on offer too (the vegetarian empanadas are particularly good).

For more on Buenos Aires, check out the Buenos Aires *Essential* Guide app on iTunes and Google Play.

Shopping at the Witches’ Market, La Paz

At first glance, the bustling market on a cobbled street a few blocks back from Plaza San Francisco seems much like any other in Bolivia: there are neat piles of fruit and vegetables, baskets of empanadas, and alpaca wool hats, jumpers, ponchos and socks for sale.

But take a closer look at the stalls and a strange – and slightly unsettling – picture emerges. Among the everyday items, are shrivelled llama foetuses, dried frogs, birds, armadillos and turtles, boxes of herbs, remedies and potions, multicoloured candles, smouldering sticks of incense, soapstone figures, and collections of amulets, charms and talismans.

This is the Witches’ Market (“El Mercado de Hechiceria” or “Mercado de las Brujas”) in La Paz, the world’s highest capital city at more than 3,800m above sea level. Although the Spanish conquistadores and missionaries brought Catholicism to Bolivia, it failed to completely supplant the indigenous population’s traditional religious practices, such as the worship of Pachamama (Mother Earth). Instead the two sets of beliefs blended together and today continue to find their expression in rituals that require an evocative array of ingredients.

The stallholders or “witches”, generally Aymara women clad in traditional Andean dress, which often includes tiny bowler hats, claim to cure almost any malady – and the methods they use have barely changed in hundreds of years. The llama foetuses, for example, are buried under the foundations of most Bolivian homes – they are an offering to Pachamama, an apology for digging into her.

Armadillos, meanwhile, are believed to dissuade burglars, while frogs are thought to bring about wealth. There are amulets and potions for those hoping for a happy marriage, to conceive or reinvigorate their sex life. Others promise good luck in business or protection against illness. For those with more complicated problems, or just a healthy sense of curiosity, there are even yatiris (spiritual healers) to be consulted – a memorable experience, whatever your beliefs.

The Rough Guide to Bolivia

The end of the hippie trail: Freak Street, Kathmandu

“I sit beside the dark / Beneath the mire / Cold grey dusty day / The morning lake / Drinks up the sky / Katmandu I’ll soon be seeing you / And your strange bewildering time / Will hold me down.” Katmandu, by Cat Stevens

For many travellers the neighbourhood of Thamel is Kathmandu.

This cacophonous tourist ghetto is a patchwork of hotels and guesthouses, restaurants (serving everything from Tibetan street food to Turkish kebabs), bars, cyber cafes, and trekking, rafting and mountain-biking agencies.

Shops sell fake North Face gear, pashminas, Buddhist singing bowls, pirated DVDs and second-hand books. Whispering touts creep by offering wooden flutes, tiger balm or marijuana, struggling to make themselves heard over the din of motorbike engines and rickshaw horns.

Some travellers visiting the Nepali capital nowadays barely leave Thamel, but it wasn’t always a tourist hub. In the 1960s and early 70s, with the hippie overland trail at its height, and Nepal a key stop-off on it, travellers congregated in Jhochhe, a 20-minute walk south of Thamel.

Just off Durbar Square – site of the former royal palace, temples, monasteries, and Kumari Chowk, home of Nepal’s “living goddess” – Jhochhe became the hippie centre of Nepal to such an extent that it soon became known as Freak Street.

Amongst the multinational cast of travellers who visited the area in search of the “mystic east” were the Beatles and Cat Stevens – the latter even wrote the song Katmandu (which he spelt without the “h”) in tribute. A series of “pie and chai shops” selling sweet Nepali tea and cakes sprung up. Hashish was legal then and ubiquitous. Rock and roll rang out.

Today there are only distant echoes of those heady days. Freak Street still has a handful of low-cost, atmospheric lodges, a scattering of evocative signs (such as “Mr Kools Munchies and Drinks Store”), and – most notably – the legendary Snowman cafe.

The Snowman, which has been operating continuously since 1965, is the only surviving “pie and chai” shop. A low-lit joint with just a handful of tables, it has the kind of cool that never goes out of fashion.

Unusually for Kathmandu, the Snowman attracts both locals and foreign visitors, who come to soak up the atmosphere, admire the psychedelic paintings, sip a cup of tea and – of course – sample a slice of apple pie or chocolate cake.

The hazy atmosphere is now due to cigarettes rather than hashish, but little else has changed and it feels – if only briefly – as if the 1960s had never ended.

The Rough Guide to Nepal