Pine forests, wild mushrooms and a sunrise above clouds: not what you might associate with Mexico, better known for beaches, colonial cities and Aztec ruins. The mountains of the Sierra Norte, two hours’ bus journey north of Oaxaca, are home to a cluster of villages, a semi-autonomous community known as “Pueblos Mancomunados” (meaning “united villages”), where you can stay in simple adobe cabañas called “tourist yu’u” (pronounced “you”). This tourist accommodation is a community business venture that has provided an alternative to logging and helped develop schools, roads and health posts in the region.

Here, at nearly 3000m altitude, it is cool but often sunny and, if abundant growth of lichen is proof, the air is exceptionally clean. After resting in a hammock, admiring the alpine scenery, you’ll probably want to head off for an adventure. A guide from one of the villages will lead you through dappled groves on mountain bikes, horses or on foot, across kilometres of trails through pine forests, villages and valleys up to rocky viewpoints. The flora and fauna ranges by altitude and includes several endangered mammals, such as jaguar, spider monkey and tapir. In summer, you can pick baskets of wild shiitake or cep mushrooms.

Afterwards, sweat it out in a herb-scented temazcal – a Mexican sauna – before heading off to a kitchen-café in a villager’s home. While donkeys bray and smoke curls into the crisp mountain air, you can tuck into soft tortillas, peppers stuffed with goat’s cheese and refried beans, all washed down with herb and orange-peel liqueur.

You can get to the Sierra Norte by bus from Oaxaca City (2hr). For details of excursions  and rates see www.sierranorte.org; +52 951 514 8271. Cabañas sleep up to two adults and two children.

 

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The Yucatán Peninsula can be unpleasantly muggy in the summer. At the same time, the low-lying region’s unique geography holds the perfect antidote to hot afternoons: the limestone shelf that forms the peninsula is riddled with underground rivers, accessible at sinkholes called cenotes – a geological phenomenon found only here.

Nature’s perfect swimming spots, cenotes are filled with cool fresh water year-round, and they’re so plentiful that you’re bound to find one nearby when you need a refreshing dip. Some are unremarkable holes in the middle of a farmer’s field, while others, like Cenote Azul near Laguna Bacalar, are enormous, deep wells complete with diving platforms and on-site restaurants.

The most visited and photographed cenotes are set in dramatic caverns in and around the old colonial city of Valladolid. Cenote Zací, in the centre of town, occupies a full city block. Half-covered by a shell of rock, the pool exudes a chill that becomes downright cold as you descend the access stairs. Just outside town, Dzitnup and neighbouring Samula are almost completely underground. Shinny down some rickety stairs, and you’ll find yourself in cathedral-like spaces, where sound and light bounce off the walls. Both cenotes are beautifully illuminated by the sun, which shines through a hole in the ceiling, forming a glowing spotlight on the turquoise water.

Even more remarkable, however, is that these caverns extend under water. Strap on a snorkel or scuba gear, and drop below the surface to spy a still world of delicate stalagmites. Exploring these ghostly spaces, it’s easy to see why the Maya considered cenotes gateways to the underworld. The liminal sensation is heightened by the clarity of the water, which makes you feel as if you’re suspended in air.

Cenote Zací in Valladolid is in the block formed by calles 34, 36, 37 and 39. Dzitnup and Samula are 7km west of Valladolid on Hwy-180. There are also cenotes along the Caribbean coast.

 

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You probably won’t get much sleep on your first night in Taman Negara National Park – not because there’s an elephant on your chalet doorstep or the rain’s dripping through your tent, but because the rainforest is unexpectedly noisy after dark. High-volume insects whirr and beep at an ear-splitting pitch, branches creak and swish menacingly, and every so often something nearby shrieks or thumps. Taman Negara is a deceptively busy place, home to scores of creatures including macaques, gibbons, leaf monkeys and tapirs, as well as more elusive tigers, elephants and sun bears. Not to mention some three hundred species of birds and a huge insect population.

Many rainforest residents are best observed after dark, either on a ranger-led night walk or from one of the twelve-bed tree-house hides strategically positioned above popular salt licks. But a longer guided trek also offers a good chance of spotting something interesting and will get you immersed in the phenomenally diverse flora of Taman Negara, which supports a staggering 14,000 plant species, including 75m-high tualang trees, carnivorous pitcher plants and fungi that glow like lightbulbs. The rewarding six-hour Keniam–Trenggan trail takes you through dense jungle and into several impressive caves, while the arduous week-long expedition to the cloudforests atop 2187m-high Gunung Tahan involves frequent river crossings and steep climbs. With minimal effort, on the other hand, you can ascend to the treetops near park headquarters, via a canopy walkway. Slung some 30m above the forest floor between a line of towering tualang trees, this swaying bridge offers a gibbon’s perspective on the cacophonous jungle below.

Taman Negara (www.wildlife.gov.my) is 250km from Kuala Lumpur and can be reached by bus or, more enjoyably, by train and boat.

 

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Spend a few days in the intoxicating, maddening centro histórico of Mexico City, and you’ll understand why thousands of Mexicans make the journey each Sunday to the “floating gardens” of Xochimilco, the country’s very own Venice.

Built by the Aztecs to grow food, this network of meandering waterways and man-made islands, or chinampas, is an important gardening centre for the city, and where families living in and around the capital come to spend their day of rest. Many start with a visit to the beautiful sixteenth-century church of San Bernadino in the main plaza, lighting candles and giving thanks for the day’s outing. Duty done, they head down to one of several docks, or embarcaderos, on the water to hire out a trajinera for a few hours. These flat, brightly painted gondolas – with names such as Viva Lupita, Adios Miriam, El Truinfo and Titanic – come fitted with table and chairs, perfect for a picnic.

The colourful boats shunt their way out along the canals, provoking lots of good-natured shouting from the men wielding the poles. As the silky green waters, overhung with trees, wind past flower-filled meadows, the cacophony and congestion of the city are forgotten. Mothers and grannies unwrap copious parcels and pots of food, men open bottles of beer and aged tequila; someone starts to sing. By midday, Xochimilco is full of carefree holidaymakers.

Don’t worry if you haven’t come with provisions – the trajineras are routinely hunted down by vendors selling snacks, drinks and even lavish meals from small wooden canoes. Others flog trinkets, sweets and souvenirs. And if you’ve left your guitar at home, no problem: boatloads of musicians – mariachis in full costume, marimba bands and wailing ranchera singers – will cruise alongside or climb aboard and knock out as many tunes as you’ve money to pay for.

Xochimilco is 28km southeast of Mexico City, reachable from Tasqueña station.

 

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It’s always polite to bring gifts to your hosts’ house, but when visiting a Sarawak longhouse make sure it’s something that’s easily shared, as longhouses are communal, and nearly everything gets divvied up into equal parts. This isn’t always an easy task: typically, longhouses are home to around 150 people and contain at least thirty family apartments, each one’s front door opening on to the common gallery, hence the tag “a thirty-door longhouse” to describe the size. These days not everyone lives there full time, but the majority of Sarawak’s indigenous Iban population still consider the longhouse home, even if they only return for weekends.

Many longhouses enjoy stunning locations, usually in a clearing beside a river, so you’ll probably travel to yours in a longboat that meanders between the jungle-draped banks, dodging logs being floated downstream to the timber yards. Look carefully and you’ll see that patches of hinterland have been cultivated with black pepper vines, rubber and fruit trees, plus the occasional square of paddy, all of which are crucial to longhouse economies.

Having first met the chief of your longhouse, you climb the notched tree trunk that serves as a staircase into the stilted wooden structure and enter the common area, or ruai, a wide gallery that runs the length of the building and is the focus of community social life. Pretty much everything happens here – the meeting and greeting, the giving and sharing of gifts, the gossip, and the partying. Animist Iban communities in particular are notorious party animals (unlike some of their Christian counterparts), and you’ll be invited to join in the excessive rice-wine drinking, raucous dancing and
forfeit games that last late into the night.

Finally, exhausted, you hit the sack – either on a straw mat right there on the ruai, or in a guest lodge next door.

The easiest way to arrange a night in a longhouse is via a tour company based in the Sarawak capital, Kuching: Borneo Transverse (www.borneotransverse.com.my) or Borneo Adventure (www.borneoadventure.com).

 

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The pace of life is deliciously slow in Luang Prabang, but if you opt for a lie-in you’ll miss the perfect start to the day. As dawn breaks over this most languorous of Buddhist towns, saffron-robed monks emerge from their temple-monasteries to collect alms from their neighbours, the riverbanks begin to come alive and the smell of freshly baked baguettes draws you to one of the many cafés. It’s a captivating scene whichever way you turn: ringed by mountains and encircled by the Mekong and Khan rivers, the old quarter’s temple roofs peep out from the palm groves, its streets still lined with wood-shuttered shophouses and French-colonial mansions.

Though it has the air of a rather grand village, Luang Prabang is the ancient Lao capital, seat of the royal family that ruled the country for six hundred years until the Communists exiled them in the 1970s. It remains the most cultured town in Laos (not a hard-won accolade it’s true, in this poor, undeveloped nation), and one of the best preserved in Southeast Asia – something now formalized by World Heritage status. Chief among its many beautiful temples is the entrancing sixteenth-century Wat Xieng Thong, whose tiered roofs frame an exquisite glass mosaic of the tree of life and attendant creatures, flanked by pillars and doors picked out in brilliant gold-leaf stencils. It’s a gentle stroll from here to the graceful teak and rosewood buildings of the Royal Palace Museum and the dazzling gilded murals of neighbouring Wat Mai.

When you tire of the monuments, there are riverside caves, waterfalls and even a whisky-making village to explore, and plenty of shops selling intricate textiles and Hmong hill-tribe jewellery. Serenity returns at sunset, when the monks’ chants drift over the temple walls and everyone else heads for high ground to soak up the view.

Luang Prabang is served by flights from Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Vientiane. You can also reach it by bus and boat from Vientiane and by boat from the Thai–Lao border at Chiang Khong/Houayxai.

 

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Holding the tiny cocoon in your fingers, it’s hard to imagine it contains a fibre of silk that will be 800m long when finally unravelled. And when you consider 100,000 silk worms are being cultivated here at Vang Viang Organic Farm, you’re effectively surrounded by 80,000km of silk – enough to circle the earth twice.

The farm was established in 1996, in the village of Phoudinadaeng, on the banks of the Nam Song River, as a model centre of organic agriculture: mulberry trees are cultivated using natural fertilizers and predators, and their leaves picked daily to feed the silkworms or to make mulberry tea and wine. Half of each silk harvest is sold for fabric production, while the other half provides income for village women, who weave it at home and then sell silk products back to the farm. Profits from the farm are also used to run a community centre and school, where volunteers can help with English lessons.

Travellers are welcome to visit the farm – you can stay in simple rooms if you wish – to learn about how the silk is processed or see how the fruit and veg is grown using traditional techniques. And if – having learnt that each harvest produces around ten kilos of silk which is then dyed with local plants – you buy one of the brightly coloured scarves made by the women, you’ll have gained a real appreciation of what your silk is worth.

For directions to the farm and details of projects and accommodation (dorm beds US$1, rooms without bath US$3) see www.laofarm.org; +856 205 523 688.

 

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Ask anyone on safari what they love about the African bush and many mention the mesmerizing night sky – and one of the best ways to view it is from the comfort of a “star bed” at Loisaba Lodge in northern Kenya. If the weather is fair, you can wheel these handcrafted wooden four-posters out onto the deck of your cabin and sleep under the stars. The beds have mosquito nets and are on a raised platform (fitted with a bathroom, a thatched dining area and a fire pit) and are available in two locations: the first is a 20min drive from the main lodge in one of the eastern valleys overlooking the “Kiboko” waterhole; the second a 40min drive from the lodge on the banks of the Ewaso N’giro River, where guests are hosted by members of the local Koija community.

Loisaba Lodge itself is on a 250-square-kilometre private ranch and wildlife conservancy on the edge of the Laikipia plateau. The game here is excellent – there are elephants, giraffes, antelopes, buffalo, Grévy’s zebra, kudus, dik-diks, wild dogs and some big cats. Guests who stay at the star beds have access to all the facilities at the main camp – so after a day in the bush, you can return for a dip in the cliff-top pool, followed by dinner in the shady garden and then a doze under a thousand stars.

All profits from the Loisaba Lodge go towards conservation of the Loisaba Wilderness area and to fund community health and education projects with the neighbouring Maasai tribes. For prices, activities and bookings see www.loisaba.com; +254 (0) 623 1072.

 

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When you think of eco-friendly travel, the Middle East might not immediately spring to mind. In environmental terms, the region is a disaster, characterized by a general lack of awareness of the issues and poor – if any – legislative safeguards. But Jordan is quietly working wonders, and the impact in recent years of the country’s Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN) has been striking: areas of outstanding natural beauty are now under legal protection and sustainable development is squarely on the political agenda.

The RSCN’s flagship project is the Dana Nature Reserve, the Middle East’s first truly successful example of sustainable tourism. Until 1993, Dana was dying: the stone-built mountain village was crumbling, its land suffering from hunting and overgrazing and locals were abandoning their homes in search of better opportunities in the towns.

Then the RSCN stepped in and set up the Dana Nature Reserve, drawing up zoning plans to establish wilderness regions and semi-intensive use areas where tourism could be introduced, building a guesthouse and founding a scientific research station. Virtually all the jobs – tour guides, rangers, cooks, receptionists, scientists and more – were taken by villagers.

Today, over eight hundred local people benefit from the success of Dana, and the reserve’s running costs are covered almost entirely from tourism revenues. The guesthouse, with spectacular views over the V-shaped Dana Valley, continues to thrive while a three-hour walk away in the hills lies the idyllic Rummana campsite, from where you can embark on dawn excursions to watch ibex and eagles.

But the reserve also stretches down the valley towards the Dead Sea Rift – and here, a memorable five-hour walk from the guesthouse, stands the Feinan Wilderness Lodge, set amidst an arid sandy landscape quite different from Dana village. The lodge is powered by solar energy and lit by candles; with no road access at all, it’s a bewitchingly calm and contemplative desert retreat.

Check out www.rscn.org.jo.

 

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Move over Mickey Mouse: in Japan it’s a giant cuddly fur-ball called Totoro who commands national icon status. This adorable animated creature, star of My Neighbour Totoro, is among the pantheon of characters from the movies of celebrated director Miyazaki Hayao and his colleagues at Studio Ghibli – Japan’s equivalent of Disney.

Just like Walt, Miyazaki had an ambitious vision that his movies could come alive in real life. The result – Ghibli Museum, Mitaka – is an opportunity to step into a world that, true to Miyazaki’s words, “is full of interesting and beautiful things”. On a far more intimate scale than Mickey’s sprawling theme park across Tokyo Bay, this candy-coloured, stained-glass-decorated fantasy on the edge of western Tokyo’s leafy Inokashira Park provides an unparalleled experience – a chance not only to learn about the art of animation but also to glimpse the genius of an Oscar-winning director.

You don’t need to be familiar with Ghibli’s movies, such as Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle and Ponyo, to enjoy the museum. Every little detail has been thought of – from the rivets on the giant robot soldier from Castle in the Sky on the roof to the straws, made of real straw, served with drinks in the Straw Hat Café. Amazingly detailed dioramas and Technicolor displays evoke the many steps needed to make an animated movie, and a child-sized movie theatre screens original short animated features, exclusive to the museum.

To make this charming experience even more special for visitors, only 2400 tickets are available daily, meaning everyone can move around the compact galleries comfortably – and kids won’t feel crowded when romping around the giant cuddly cat bus, reading a book in the library or rummaging through the quirky gift shop.

The Ghibli Museum (www.ghibli-museum.jp/en) is in Mitaka, Tokyo. Book well in advance via the website.

 

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