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.

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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.

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.