Unexplored Mexico: Chiapas and Tabasco

For many years Chiapas and Tabasco were famous for revolutionaries, chilli sauce, and little else. But these neighbouring Mexican states are increasingly appearing on tourist itineraries, drawing in travellers with their magnificent ruins and colonial cities, unique indigenous cultures, and lip-tingling cuisine.

San Juan Chamula chruch (c) Journey Latin America
San Juan Chamula chruch (c) Journey Latin America

Chiapas

Stretched along the Guatemalan border in Mexico’s far south, Chiapas is an incredibly culturally and biologically diverse region. Its landscapes feature mountains, valleys, forests, lakes, beaches, and coffee plantations, while some twenty-five per cent of its population belong to indigenous groups.

In the mid-1990s Chiapas became synonymous with the Zapatistas, a left-wing guerrilla group that launched a brief uprising against the government. Today, however, the group’s struggle is largely intellectual rather than military, and won’t impact negatively on your visit to one of Mexico’s most attractive states.

Colonial cities and indigenous beliefs

A glorious colonial city, San Cristóbal de las Casas is the tourist hub of Chiapas, and a tough place to drag yourself away from. Home to a cosmopolitan community – there are sizeable expat and indigenous populations – the city is a mix of attractive townhouses, Baroque- and Moorish-inspired churches, bustling markets (where you can buy anything from silver jewellery to plates of fried ants), hundreds of restaurants, cafes and bars with tables spilling out onto the streets, and a refreshingly cool climate.

San Cristóbal is also the jumping off point for day trips to the indigenous villages of San Juan Chamula and San Lorenzo de Zincantán. The Tzotzil Maya community here have fused their traditional beliefs with Catholicism to create a unique religion that features Christian saints, animal sacrifices, and medicine men, but no priests, masses or church marriages.

For a change of pace, head southeast of San Cristóbal towards the Guatemalan border and Parque Nacional Lagos de Montebello, a beautiful reserve with more than fifty lakes surrounded by pristine forests. More reminiscent of Scotland or Maine than Mexico, the landscape, dotted with cabins and picnic spots, is ideal for hiking, swimming and horseriding.

Jungle ruins

Chiapas also has some breathtaking archeological sites. In a dramatic setting high on a hill, surrounded by insect-rich jungle and commanding views across the Yucatán plains, the ancient Mayan city of Palenque is the most popular attraction in the state. Flourishing between 300 and 900 BC, the site is dominated by an eight-stepped, 25m-high pyramid, the Templo de las Inscripciones, and El Palacio, an impressive complex of residential and administrative buildings. If you have a head for heights you can clamber up the latter for some panoramic vistas.

Further south, drawing far fewer tourists, the ruins of Bonampak contain the finest collection of Mayan murals in Mexico. The highlight of the site, which lies in a small natural park on the fringes of the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve, is the Edificio de las Pinturas. Inside are three chambers with evocative, colourful images of noblemen dressed in jaguar-skin robes and quetzal-plume headdresses, tortured prisoners pleading for mercy, and even a severed head.

Tabasco

Winding along the Gulf of Mexico, the smaller state of Tabasco is humid, largely flat, and criss-crossed by rivers and swamps. Bordering the Yucatán Peninsula – the most touristy part of Mexico – the state receives few travellers but has plenty of things to offer.  Tabasco sauce, however, is not one of them: although named after the state, the peppers don’t grow there and the condiment is actually a US product made from peppers harvested in Louisiana.

Giant heads in a “beautiful city”

As Graham Greene pointed out when he travelled through Tabasco in the 1930s, Villahermosa doesn’t necessarily live up to the name “beautiful city”. But while Tabasco’s capital may not be the most aesthetically pleasing place, it has some fascinating attractions that you’re likely to have all to yourself.

The highlight is Parque La Venta, which displays relics from the Olmec site of the same name amid a jungle teeming with birds and butterflies and echoing with jaguar growls (which emanate from the adjacent wildlife park). Along with the sculptures, altars and tombs are a series of giant basalt heads for which the Olmecs – the mother culture of Mesoamerica – are famous.

Villahermosa is also the best spot to sample Tabasqueño cuisine, which is rich in tropical fruits and freshwater fish. Keep an eye out for the local super-sweet pineapples, the tasty pejelagarto fish (which is generally barbecued and served with a fiery sauce), and horchata de coco, a rice-milk drink spiked with coconut.

Beyond Villahermosa

There are some easy but worthwhile day trips from Tabasco’s capital. Some 100km southwest are the rugged Sierra Huimanguillo mountains, home to canyons, waterfalls and the petroglyphs of Malpasito. Meanwhile 58km north of Villahermosa are the Mayan ruins of Comalcalco, whose temple, acropolis and palaces are distinctively built from kiln-fired bricks.

Shafik travelled with Journey Latin America who offer a 15-day trip to Mexico City, Oaxaca, San Cristobal de las Casas, Palenque, Villahermosa, Campeche, Mérida, Chichén Itzá and the Riviera Maya for £3,340 per person (including B&B accommodation, some meals, excursions, transfers and flights).

A version of this article was first published here.

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Subterranean swimming in the Yucatán

As I ducked through a narrow gap in the jagged limestone the first sense was of relief, as a quenching shade replaced the skin-blistering, 40-degree, pre-rainy season heat outside. My flip flops echoed around the cave as I descended the narrow flight of steps that had been cut into the rocks into what felt like a scene from an Indiana Jones film.

Cenote Samula (c) Flickr/dronepicr - https://www.flickr.com/photos/132646954@N02/19655105381/in/photolist-m3KbsF-vWRy4g-94UEwL-bwYuNk-99nnFs-pbyUNy-phBN7Y-bw7nB4-6wgdtj-bvQRwz-gHR1ZB-Cx9B3-bkVKWt-gHQyXX-gHQ49s-7E1MFh-bkV9tB-bkXbTT-gHQNiV-gHQs2x-eD3QJE-eCWC4p-eD8cV7-gAeyUk-5BqgYM-pdzwJq-iWxwHL-mx4KcJ-dEJX2U-6wgdp7-euJrwr-HiVS-8SitTF-9h3djj-8WS6iT-8WV8t1-2DdKyz-bkXyiV-eD3Qf3-6aKW2a-bwYLAF-paB8ky-gHR8J6-FjLdF-9H3Kg4-fBFxeV-6aq3sS-bvSx5p-ddqvLK-ddquVF
Cenote Samula (c) Flickr/dronepicr http://tinyurl.com/npymqs4

A shaft of sunlight pierced through a circular hole in the roof, illuminating the gloom and refracting off the vast, crystal-clear pool below. Bats fluttered above, vines crisscrossed the ceiling, and stalactites stretched down, like frozen drops of pitch. As I slipped into the bracingly cool, crystal-clear water small black catfish nibbled at my toes. For a glorious 15 minutes or so I had Cenote X’Keken, just outside the city of Valladolid, to myself.

Afterwards I braved the midday sun again to explore the nearby Cenote Samula, which is perhaps even more spectacular than its neighbour. The dome of the cave was punctuated by a sizeable hole, through which the gnarled roots of an ancient tree dangled, tantalisingly out of reach of the frigid, turquoise water below. Despite the high temperatures outside, and the fact that it was a Sunday, there was only one other person there.

The region’s network of cenotes – limestone sinkholes, generally filled with fresh water – was vital for the Mayan civilization that dominated the Yucatán Peninsula before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in the 1500s. And it is easy to see why they were considered sacred gateways to the Mayan underworld, known as Xibalba (“the place of fear”).

At the Cenote Sagrado, a murky green pool at the famous ruins at Chichén Itzá, for example, the Mayans threw statues, pottery, incense, textiles, jade, gold, and human sacrifices into the water as offerings to the gods of the underworld. The few human sacrifices who survived the ordeal, incidentally, were considered to have spoken with the gods, and have developed prophetic powers. (The conquistadors, rabid for gold, ransacked Chichén Itzá for the precious metal, largely in vain, unaware that the riches they sought were so close at hand.)

Many of the other cenotes in the region hold even older treasures: in recent years divers have discovered human skeletons that date back nearly 14,000 years, and even the remains of a mastodon (a prehistoric pachyderm).

Yet the cenotes, which collectively form vast largest cave systems, have an even greater significance, being linked to one of the most significant events in the history of the earth. Some 66 million years ago the Chicxulub asteroid struck the Yucatán, an event that is considered to have contributed to the extinction of the dinosaurs. The strike also caused large sections of the region’s limestone bedrock to collapse, in turn forming thousands of cenotes.

The Mayans later founded their villages and towns around these flooded subterranean chambers, which, given the lack of lakes and rivers in the region, were vital sources of fresh water. Today many of these cenotes – known collectively as the “Ring of Cenotes” – have been turned into major tourist attractions, for example, at the Xel-Há theme park near Tulum. But others are far less developed, with little in the way of facilities and few visitors.

For experienced divers with a sense of adventure – and no sense of claustrophobia – Dos Ojos (“Two Eyes”) is one of many that are worth exploring further. The water is incredibly clear here and this high visibility means photographers can get some incredible shots. And even if you don’t fancy strapping on a scuba tank, you can still have an evocative experience with a mask and a snorkel.

I finished my trip at Cenote Yokdzonot, located in a dusty, sleepy village a short drive away from Chichén Itzá. Looked after by a local cooperative, which provides a stack of lifejackets, a couple of rustic shacks to change in, and a set of rickety wooden steps, the cenote is rarely visited by foreign tourists.

Open to the elements, the deep, circular sinkhole is shaded by tall trees. After rousing the slumbering ticket-seller to pay the small entry fee, I dived into the aquamarine, seemingly bottomless water. A couple of local children splashed about, thick tangle vines spiralled gently in the breeze and tiny birds, moving too fast for the human eye to focus on, swirled above. It was a perfectly relaxing scene – at least until my mind turned to the human sacrifices that might lie at the bottom.

A version of this article was first published on www.roughguides.com.

The Green Desert of Wales

The Cambrian Mountains should be a tourist hotspot. Midway between the Brecon Beacons and Snowdonia, and within striking distance of Aberystwyth, the region is blessed with spectacular, remarkably unspoilt scenery, perfect for hiking, wild camping and stargazing. Yet the region – dubbed the “Green Desert of Wales” in reference to its sparseness of population, rather than its terrain – remains firmly off the beaten track.

Cambrian Mountains (c) Shafik MeghjiAled, my guide from Expeditions Wales, meets me off the train at Aberystwyth, after a picturesque three-hour ride from Birmingham New Street. We stop off at his HQ, just beyond Devil’s Bridge Falls, to pack up our camping gear, a pair of red kites circle above us while we do so. A twenty-minute drive takes us to the end of the road, where a small herd of stately Highland Longhorn cattle languidly enjoy the views over the glistening Nant y Moch reservoir.

The aim for the day is to ascend the 752-metre Pen Pumlumon Fawr, the highest point in the Cambrian Mountains region. In the afternoon sun we squelch steeply uphill, passing clumps of sphagnum moss, patches of frogspawn, and large chunks of quartz that appear to have dropped from the sky. Buzzards appear overheard. It is perfectly quiet and still.

On the summit we hunker down behind a cairn. Aled points south towards the Brecon Beacons, north to the peak of Cadair Idris at the southern edge of Snowdonia National Park, and across to the sources of the Wye and Severn rivers. On a really clear day, he tells me, you can see across to Ireland.

Highland Longhorn (c) Shafik MeghjiBelow us is an undulating landscape of gurgling streams and waterfalls, expansive lakes and reservoirs, green-tinged peaks, and lush valleys and forests. The only obvious signs of human impact – beyond the man-made reservoirs, which meld seamlessly into the natural landscape – are a field of distant wind turbines and some wonderfully isolated, and now abandoned, stone farm buildings. We see just one other person, a hardy runner.

Refreshed by a well-deserved cup of coffee we hike over and up our second mountain of the day, the slightly lower Pen Pumlumon Arwystli. En route we tramp through thick, soft grass, occasionally plunging knee-deep into a hole; hiking through this landscape burns some 500-600 calories an hour, says Aled. A glorious sunset shortly arrives, accompanied by a great example of “dragon’s breath”, as a cloud of wispy mist swirls up the mountainside below us, briefly turning the peak we’re standing on into an island.

The Cambrian Mountains are wonderfully unaffected by artificial light, making them ideal for stargazing: one section, the Elan Valley estate, near Rhayader, is currently applying for international dark sky status. Sadly, after setting up our tents in an idyllic valley, beside a bracingly cold stream, the clouds descend.

So no stargazing for me – though I do have the perfect excuse for a return trip to one of the UK’s most beautiful landscapes.

Expeditions Wales offers guided walks, wild camping, survival skills, and map-reading expeditions in the Cambrian Mountains. Shafik travelled with Arriva Trains Wales, which has regular services between Aberystwyth and Birmingham New Street.

A version of this article was first published here.

Hidden gems in Nepal’s Western Hills

For most travellers the hills to the west of Kathmandu mean only one thing: the buzzing resort of Pokhara, which draws many thousands of tourists every year. But the region is actually home to a wide range of little-visited attractions.

Begnas Tal (c) Shafik MeghjiBegnas Tal and Rupa Tal

Phewa Lake helped to put Pokhara on the tourist map, but it is now crowded by an ever-growing number of hotels, restaurants, bars and shops. Just 15km to the east, however, are two equally beautiful, under-visited lakes, with little of the over-development that threatens to overwhelm Pokhara.

According to local legend, Begnas Tal and Rupa Tal are husband and wife, and if you throw something into one of them, it will eventually appear in the other. The former, the bigger of the two, is framed by impossibly steep, terraced hills, while the latter is hidden away in a lush valley just to the south. Both of the lakes have the majestic snow-capped, tent-shaped peak of Annapurna II in the background, and white egrets and ospreys flying overhead – and occasionally swooping down to snatch up a fish.

Kahun Daada

Flocks of tourists hike up the mini peak of Sarangkot, just west of Pokhara, to take in the superb views, yet similarly impressive vistas can be enjoyed in virtual isolation on the eastern edge of the city at the top of Kahun Daada hill. The route up to this viewpoint also takes you through some fascinating cultural sites.

On the outskirts of the city an exacting flight of over 200 steps takes you to the intricate Manang monastery, home to around 70 Buddhist monks and site of some superb views. A ten-minute walk from the monastery, up another few hundred steps, is the Hindu Bardakali temple, which is surrounded by flowering bougainvillea and is a popular – and suitably dramatic – spot for weddings.

From here, you pass through traditional villages before reaching several uncrowded trails to the 1442m summit of Kahun Daada. Here there are stunning views of the Annapurna range, notably the 6667m-high Machhapuchhare Mountain, popularly known as the “Fish Head” for its distinctive shape.

Manakamama

Nepal’s most famous wish-granting temple, Manakamama Devi attracts vast numbers of domestic and Indian pilgrims, but very few other foreign tourists. It is accessed by Nepal’s only cable car (www.chitawoncoe.com.np), which whisks you swiftly up 2.8km through the clouds to the hilltop temple. You may find yourself sharing a gondola with a tethered goat, pigeon or chicken – animal sacrifices are common here. After disembarking, a trail of guesthouses, tea shops, and clusters of stalls selling devotional items – including coconuts, flower garlands and gold-trimmed shawls – leads up to a small square, which bustles with energy.

There, in the shade of a giant champ tree (a type of magnolia), the two-tiered temple is surrounded by a gaggle of pilgrims, priests and sadhus (Hindu holy men, many of whom opt to walk up the hill rather use the cable car), who light candles, ring bells, chant hymns, ask the goddess Bhagwati to grant their wishes and snap photos. Beyond the temple there are superlative vistas down to the confluence of the Trisuli and Marsyangdi rivers, and across to the Himalayas.

Bandipur (c) Shafik MeghjiBandipur

It’s hard to imagine a more picture-perfect town than Bandipur. Located at the top of a series of limestone cliffs, and linked to the world below by a serpentine, winding road, Bandipur was an important trading post in the 1800s.

But road construction elsewhere in Nepal meant that it slowly fell from prominence, and today it feels frozen in time. The sleepy, vehicle-free bazaar area is filled with wonderfully preserved, nineteenth-century mansions, with shuttered windows, intricately carved wooden doors, and facades covered with creeping vines and flowers. Several of these homes have now been turned into atmospheric boutique hotels – notably the charming Old Inn – and the town is a wonderful place to relax and watch the world go slowly by. A short walk from the bazaar is the tudikhel (parade ground), which protrudes out of the ridge, with sheer drops on two sides, a line of fig trees on another and the Himalayas straight head.

Gorkha

The ancestral home of Nepal’s former royal family, and a town steeped in history, Gorkha should be an essential stop on any itinerary of Nepal, but it receives barely a trickle of foreign travellers. Its highlight is undoubtedly the magnificent eighteenth-century Gorkha Durbar, a stiff 40-minute climb up a flight of stone steps from the lower town, something that is best attempted in the morning before the heat rises.

The Durbar itself is a real feat of architecture and engineering: half palace, half temple, the brick-and-wood construction is perched precariously on a high, narrow ridge. It was from here that Prithvi Narayan Shah conquered the country’s valley kingdoms and unified the modern Nepal. The Durbar, which gazes out towards the Himalayan mountains of Ganesh Himal, the Annapurnas and Dhaulagiri, is a hive of activity during the Chait Dasain festival in late March or early April, when there are processions, ancient rites and animal sacrifices.

If you’ve got any energy left from your ascent to the Durbar, hike up for a further 30 minutes or so to the much smaller Upallokot (Upper Fort), which stands at some 1520m.

A version of this article was first published here.

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.