Five hundred years ago, grizzled Spanish conquistador Ponce de León became the first European to set eyes on (what he called) La Florida, the “Land of Flowers”, though Spanish colonization didn’t get going until 1565, with the foundation of the city of St Augustine. Today the place is part historic theme park, part memorial to America’s oft forgotten Spanish roots (it was founded some forty years before Jamestown and 55 years before the arrival of the Pilgrims in Massachusetts). There’s still plenty of real history behind the kitsch: here Stephen Keeling, co-author of The Rough Guide to Florida, picks ten highlights in honour of Ponce de León’s portentous discovery.

1) The Fountain of Youth

Ponce de León was supposedly drawn to Florida by the fabled life-preserving “fountain of youth”. The legend is celebrated just north of downtown St Augustine at a mineral spring that’s touted, only half in jest, as the actual fountain. Delusions apart, this is thought to be where de León landed in 1513, and is genuinely where the first Spanish colony was established in 1565. Toast the Spanish hero with a cup of the fresh, sulphur-smelling spring water (everlasting life is free with admission), and view the exhibits on the (very real) Timucua people who lived here before the Spanish.

2) Mission of Nombre de Dios

Next door to the Fountain of Youth is the Catholic complex known as the Mission of Nombre de Dios, the location of the first official Mass in North America. The mission that was established on this spot around 1620 was the first of many in the southeast US established by Jesuits; a small, ivy-covered 1914 re-creation of the original Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche is still revered by pilgrims, while a pathway leads across a nineteenth-century cemetery to the 208-foot stainless steel Great Cross raised in 1965, glittering in the sun beside the river.

3) Castillo de San Marcos

Nothing in St Augustine survived the dastardly attacks of British freebooting pirates Francis Drake in 1586 and Robert Searle in 1668; only the stone-built Castillo de San Marcos escaped further destruction wrought by Carolina governor James Moore in 1702. Given its current fine state of preservation, it’s difficult to believe that the fortress was established back in 1672. Now operated by the National Park Service, docents in Spanish uniforms carry period muskets and fire cannons from the walls, while inside, there’s a series of exhibits highlighting life in the fort, the British attacks and Native American prisoners of war held here in the 1880s.

4) Colonial Spanish Quarter

Taking up a fair-sized wedge of old St Augustine, the Colonial Spanish Quarter is an enthusiastic effort to portray life during the Spanish period, with reconstructed homes and workshops set up circa the 1740s. This is a living museum; volunteers dressed convincingly as Spanish settlers go about their daily tasks at anvils and foot-driven wood lathes, making candles and the like.

5) Spanish Military Hospital & Museum

Originally built in 1791, the Spanish Military Hospital and Museum re-creates the spartan care wounded soldiers received during Spanish era. Give thanks you weren’t one of them whilst viewing the displays of rusty surgical instruments and the “mourning room”, where the priest administered last rites to doomed patients.

6) Ximenez-Fatio House

Built around 1798 for a Spanish merchant, the Ximenez-Fatio House became a boarding house in the nineteenth century, representing one of the few socially acceptable business ventures for a woman at the time. Don’t miss the rare 1650 Caravaca Cross displayed in the house museum, discovered on the property in 2002.

7) Dow Museum of Historic Houses

This collection of nine handsome buildings has been expertly restored from every period and cultural milieu between 1790 and 1910, not just the Spanish. Particularly fascinating is the Prince Murat House (1790), briefly home to Napoleon’s nephew (for whom it was named), whose main room and upstairs bedroom is graced by ravishing French Empire furniture.

8) The Oldest House

This really is one of the oldest and most atmospheric structures in town, built in the years after the destruction of St Augustine in 1702. The ground floor is furnished in the sparse, rough style of the early 1700s, while the second floor was grafted on during the period of British rule in Florida in the 1770s, a fact evinced by the bone china crockery belonging to a former occupant, one very English-sounding Mary Peavitt.

9) Villa Zorayda Museum

The nineteenth-century inhabitants of St Augustine were fascinated by their Spanish heritage. Eccentric Bostonian architect Franklin W. Smith was especially obsessed, building the Villa Zorayda Museum in 1883 as a homage to the famed Alhambra (at a tenth of the original size). Today the gorgeous, ornate villa is home to a bizarre collection of Smith’s personal belongings and rare antiques: highlights include the “Sacred Cat Rug”, a 2400-year old carpet made from the hairs of ancient Egyptian cats. It was discovered in 1861 as wrapping for the foot of a looted mummy (also on display here).

10) Flagler College

True, the flowing spires, arches and Spanish Revival red-tiled roof of Flagler College have zero to do with colonial Spain, but it’s an astounding work of art packed with treasures nonetheless. Now a liberal arts campus, the confection was completed by Henry Flagler in 1888 as the Ponce de León Hotel. Tours take in the best bits: the mesmerizing 80-foot Rotunda, with its Tiffany sunroof, stunning oak carvings, 14-carat gold gilding and murals by George Maynard; and the incredibly opulent dining room with its precious collection of Tiffany stained glass windows and yet more dramatic murals by Maynard.

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The sun was setting on the town of Siem Reap as I clung to the back of my moto driver. Threading our way through traffic, we rode out until town finally gave way to forest and we entered the Angkor site. In front of us were the iconic lotus-bud towers of Angkor Wat, looking like giant pine cones, resplendent in the light. Sunset is the best time to view west-facing Angkor Wat, from the top of nearby temple-mountain, Phnom Bakheng, when the greying stone of the towers glow red under the glare of the dying sun.

The secret of Angkor is to explore the galleries and enclosures at your own pace. Wander the corridors and you’ll stumble across aged monks performing blessings on curious tourists; wafting bundles of burning incense over their bodies and loudly clapping a cupped palm across their backs. The outer walls of the temple are covered with bas-reliefs retelling stories of Hindu battles and mythology, whose intricately etched bodies are worn smooth by thousands of hands. And all around is the echo of children playing in the cool passageways and juvenile hawkers who sell cold drinks and trinkets out of plastic carrier bags.

The next morning I went back to see Angkor Thom, with its lichen-covered towers revealing exquisite faces carved into rock: fat, curvaceous lips smiling benevolently beneath half-closed eyes. Thick jungle once shrouded this lost twelfth-century Khmer kingdom. Its painstaking restoration involved numbering and cataloguing each and every stone block before setting it back into its original position.

The destructive force of nature and time on stone is no more evident than at Ta Prohm, the temple left to the jungle. Here huge tree trunks, hard as cement, spill out over the scattered blocks like the creamy bellies of snakes. It’s a wonderfully peaceful place, and once you’re done exploring the doorways and the curious shapes of the forest entwined with boulders, sit back, kick off your shoes and listen to the insects whirring in the sun and birds squawking in a soothing blend of background noise.

The Angkor site is 5km from Siem Riep; to visit you need a pass valid for one, three or seven days.

 

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Some of the world’s greatest cities are no more. Once thriving, hundreds of cities across the world now lie in ruins – ravaged either by war or simply natural progression. These are the world’s greatest lost cities.

1. Tikal, Guatemala

Gautemala’s crown jewel is Tikal, perhaps the greatest of all the Maya city-states. Its magnificent six temples still dominate the landscape much as they did a thousand years ago, soaring above the rainforest canopy and making one wonder at the ceremonies that once took place here, and the size of the city now swallowed up by the jungle.

Tikal, Guatemala

2. Ctesiphon, Iraq

Ctesiphon was the capital of the ancient Parthian Empire, and is located on the River Tigris not far from modern Baghdad. Its showstopper is the enormous vaulted hall, dominated by what is still the world’s largest brick-built arch (pictured). The throne room behind it was 30m high and 48m long: truly fit for a king.

Ctesiphon, Iraq

3. Great Zimbabwe, Zimbabwe

Built by the Gokomere people in the eleventh century on a plateau around 150km from modern-day Harare, Great Zimbabwe’s centre was a palace enclosed by a granite wall some five metres high. Once a stone city that formed the hub of a major trade network in gold, ivory and cattle, today the ruins lie scattered over a wide and verdant valley.

Great Zimbabwe, Zimbabwe

4. Mohenjo-daro, Pakistan

The civilization that flourished in the Indus Valley and built Mohenjo-Daro around 2600 BC was a rival of its better-known Greek and Egyptian equivalents – though little is known about its people, who were early masters of town planning and civil engineering. Today its complex of houses, shops, ramparts and streets are under threat from erosion.

Mohenjo-daro, Pakistan

5. Mosque City of Bagerhat, Bangladesh

At the confluence of the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers, a fifteenth-century Turkish general ordered a town to be built, filled with palaces, mosques and tombs (including his own). This city of 360 mosques, an outpost of the Islamic world, fell into disrepair shortly after the death of its founder and lay for centuries under vegetation; it has now been partly restored.

Mosque City of Bagerhat, Bangladesh

6. Mesa Verde, Colorado, USA

The Mesa Verde National Park contains over 600 cliff dwellings once inhabited by the Anasazi people, who lived here from the seventh to fourteenth centuries AD. Built mainly from sandstone, wood and mortar under the overhang of ridges, the most famous – Cliff Palace – housed around 100 people, and was accessed via ladders.

Mesa Verde, USA

7. Vijayanagar, India

You’ve probably never heard of it, but in 1500 AD Vijayanagar had twice the population of Paris and was the hub of the greatest empire in southern India. Built around a set of holy places including the spectacular Virupaksha Temple (which still stands), today its temple districts and shrines are revered by Hindus and non-Hindus alike.

Vijayanagar, India

8. Ani, Turkey

The magnificent capital of a tenth-century Armenian kingdom, Ani was known as ‘The City of 1001 Churches’. Many of them remain in place today, bewitchingly out of place in the green fields that surround them. It’s hard to imagine that these evocative ruins once formed part of a city-state that rivalled Damascus or Constantinople.

Ani, Turkey

9. Thebes, Egypt

From around 2040 to 1070 BC, Thebes was the capital of Egypt and the city dedicated to Amon, the supreme sun god. Even today its splendour is unrivalled: the Temple of Luxor, Karnak Complex and Temple of Ramesses II remain some of the greatest architectural achievements the world can offer. Oh, and the tomb of Tutankhamun is here too.

Thebes, Egypt

10. Carthage, Tunisia

A Phoenician trading town that was sacked and rebuilt by the Romans, Carthage grew into a major port, at its height second only to Rome in terms of its size. Later it was captured by the Vandals and then the Arabs, but much of the atmospheric ruins that remain today are Roman in origin, especially the amphitheatre and Antonine Baths (pictured).

Carthage, Tunisia

11. Persepolis, Iran

A magnificent city founded by Darius I in 518 BC, Persepolis took over a century to build. Entering through the massive Gate of All Nations, you get a sense of why: a huge terrace faces you, and in every part of the complex are intricate carvings of slaves, kings, officials and representatives from across the Persian empire.

Persepolis, Iran

12. Ephesus, Turkey

Ephesus was a port on the River Cayster that grew into one of the largest Mediterranean cities in the Classical era. The Temple of Artemis – a wonder of the Ancient World – once stood here, and the Library of Celsus (pictured) still stands, a grandiose testament to one senator’s wealth, that later served as his tomb.

Ephesus, Turkey

13. Palenque, Mexico

A mid-sized Maya city-state, Palenque was at its height in the seventh century under Pacal the Great. Its appeal lies in the quality of its architecture and sculpture, and the fact that 90 percent of the settlement still lies buried under the jungle that crawled back over it after the site was abandoned around 1120 AD.

Palenque, Mexico

14. Pompeii and Herculaneum, Italy

The city of Pompeii was covered under a wave of ash when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, with many of its citizens buried alive, complete with their animals and possessions, and perfectly preserved. Nearby Herculaneum was evacuated in time but buried deeper under the ash; here doors and even food remained intact. Together they work as a kind of morbid time capsule.

Pompeii and Herculaneum, Italy

15. Petra, Jordan

The capital of the Nabateans and a key trading centre for silk and spices that linked Asia with Arabia and the West, Petra fell into decline under Roman rule in the fourth century AD and wasn’t rediscovered until 1812. Its tombs – especially The Treasury (of Indiana Jones fame) and The Monastery – are spellbinding, all the more so as they were carved into the rock face itself.

Petra, Jordan

16. Angkor, Cambodia

One of the world’s greatest sights, the Angkor complex encompasses various capitals of the Khmer Empire that flourished from the ninth to fifteenth centuries AD. It stretches over 400 square kilometres, though the highlight is the incomparable Angkor Wat, a Hindu temple with fir-cone towers, stylised sculptures of human faces and carved reliefs of Hindu myths.

Angkor, Cambodia

17. La Ciudad Perdida, Colombia

Literally “The Lost City”, Ciudad Perdida is at least six centuries older than Machu Picchu and was the heart of the Tayrona civilization, whose farms and fishing villages lined the shores of the Colombian coast. It was rediscovered by treasure hunters in 1972, and tours started again in 2005. Visit and you’ll have these mysterious terraces and plazas largely to yourself.

La Ciudad Perdida, Colombia

18. Machu Picchu, Peru

Constructed in the mountains of Peru by the Incas around 1450 and abandoned only a century later, Machu Picchu (“Old Peak”) was rediscovered in 1911 by American historian Hiram Bingham, who was actually looking for another lost city called Vilcabamba. It may now be a huge tourist draw, but its setting and mystery have lost none of their drama.

Machu Picchu, Peru

19. Chichén Itzá, Mexico

One of the great urban centres of the Maya-Toltec civilization that existed roughly from 900–1400 AD, Chichén Itzá’s pyramids and observatories survive as monuments to a people whose mastery of astronomy defies belief. Each spring and autumn equinox, the shadow of the sun forms a wriggling serpent on the steps of the Temple of Kukulkan.

Chichén Itzá, Mexico

20. Xanadu, Mongolia

Xanadu (or Shangdu) was, as any Coleridge fan will tell you, where Kubla Khan decreed a stately pleasure dome, and spent his summers. When Marco Polo visited in 1275, he described “a very fine marble palace, the rooms of which are all gilt and painted with figures of men and beasts and birds…” Today little remains of this great capital, but your imagination will be working overtime.

Xanadu, Mongolia

Exploring Chicago’s Magnificent Mile – the most glamorous stretch of Michigan Avenue – is a must for anyone visiting the city, but the experience can prove expensive. Max Grinnell, however, has some insider tips on how to make the most of the Mile without breaking the bank.  

The hotel that housed Oprah’s guests

The Omni Chicago Hotel was celebrated as the place where Oprah’s well-known guests stayed before they were whisked away to appear next to the media maven herself on her well-appointed couch. It’s a great base of operations for a visit to the Magnificent Mile as all of the rooms are suites, and there’s also a fine pool on the premises. While spending the night here is somewhat expensive. you can drop in at the 676 Lounge for some charcuterie and a glass of wine without breaking the bank.

An historic skyscraper

If you ever dreamed of being a famous newspaper reporter or part of a major media empire, stroll over to the Chicago Tribune Tower, north of the Michigan Avenue Bridge. The first stop is inside the lobby of this glorious building, where you’ll find a massive relief map of the world behind the security desk. You can’t go up into the tower, but you can go outside to look at the rather curious fragments of historic buildings brought back by Tribune reporters. These include bits of the Berlin Wall, the Taj Mahal, the Alamo, and Angkor Wat. If you don’t have the money to visit these destinations in person, a walk around the base of the Tribune Tower might be the next best thing.

A wine break

A short walk away from the Chicago Tribune Tower is a place that will delight any oenophile. Tucked into the Intercontinental Hotel, ENO is a wine bar that blends a bit of elegance with a sensibility that is decidedly in the down-to-earth Midwestern style. The wine list is extensive and contains some real gems, particularly the white wines from Portugal and Spain. It’s a great place to sit down on a cold winter night, and during the warmer months, they put out their beautiful outdoor dining furniture for some of the best people-watching on Michigan Avenue.

The power, the glory, and the music

Known as “A Light in the City”, the Fourth Presbyterian Church occupies a rather special place on Michigan Avenue. Snug at the corner of Chestnut Street and Michigan Avenue, the church is known for its commitment to social justice and for working closely with a myriad of community groups. Of course, most Chicagoans known the church for its rich tapestry of musical offerings. Every year, it sponsors well over a hundred concerts, including jazz worship services and visiting choirs, as well as readings by their theatre group. Visitors should look at its online schedule and make a bee-line for one of these uniformly excellent offerings. Most of the concerts are free, and the setting is exquisite.

Cosmos on the 96th floor

Many people choose to eat at the oh-so-luxe Signature Room at the 95th Floor of the John Hancock building. Now don’t get me wrong: I like a fine white-linen dining experience as much as the next urbanite. But why not hop up one more floor to the Signature Lounge for a libation or two? On any given night you might be alongside a group of conference attendees from Kansas, a cadre of businessmen from Calcutta, or a group of folks finishing up a stag party. The drinks are pricey, but where else can you get a birds-eye view of everything from the Field Museum to the choreographed ballet of planes leaving O’Hare?

A writer, teacher and urbanologist, Max Grinnell is the author of The Rough Guide to Chicago and a contributor for the upcoming edition of The Rough Guide to the USA. His website is www.theurbanologist.com and you can follow him on Twitter @theurbanologist.

 

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Planning a trip to Thailand? Or perhaps just dreaming of those beaches and that food? Either way, allow us to offer our 20 essential things to see and do in this spectacular country:

Thanks to the stratospheric rise of the aussie dollar, Sydney has now leapfrogged New York and London as one of the world’s most expensive cities. Almost every street seems to have a concept wine bar or Masterchef-style restaurant popping up and even scuzzy old Kings Cross has cleaned up its act.

Yet while “Sydders” can take a  shark-sized bite out of anyone’s pocket, there’s still plenty of things to do in Sydney for free that don’t involve simply lying on a beach.

1. Use the free tours

For the inside track on any city it’s hard to beat a local guiding you around, especially for free. The aptly named I’m Free Tours offers fun, three-hour walking tours accompanied by savvy locals. Look out for the guides – hard to miss thanks to their lime-green t-shirts – at Sydney Town Hall.

2. Walk the coathanger

Why pay over $200 (£130) to climb the Harbour Bridge, known affectionately locally as “the coathanger”, when you can snap up the same panoramic views for free by walking across? The 1.15km HarbourBridge walkway is best accessed from the north shore so you can keep your eyes on the Opera House as you stroll (or cycle) across.

Sydney Harbour Bridge

3. Go swimming

Taking a dip in one of Sydneys thirty outdoor ocean pools is a classic Aussie experience. The water’s warm enough for year-round swimming and mercifully free of anything that will bite you (well, bar the odd hyperactive toddler). One of the most atmospheric pools is Bronte Baths (free), built in 1887, and overlooking the equally lovely Bronte Beach.

4. Challenge yourself to a coastal hike

For those of you who own a pair of hiking boots as well as thongs (flip-flops) there are two excellent coastal walks that kick off from central Sydney: Bondi to Bronte (6km) and the Manly Scenic Walkway (10km).

5. Try a botanical escape

An oasis of calm (at least when its raucous fruit bats are asleep) Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens is a perfect escape from the hectic downtown area. Also within the park is the imposingly colonial Government House (free entry), a kind of pint-sized Buckingham Palace, surrounded by manicured grounds.

Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney

6. Head to the free art galleries…

You could easily spend a day wandering around the NSW Art Gallery, whose vast collection includes Asian masterpieces as well as European Impressionist, Aboriginal and colonial works.  For free contemporary art don’t miss the newly expanded MCA or the Brett Whitley Studio.

7. …as well as the free museums

Two of the finest free museums are the National Maritime, which traces the country’s many links with the ocean and the Australian Museum, which, as well as the usual dinosaur skeletons, displays some pleasingly lethal creepy crawlies. Also free are the excellent yet often overlooked museums of the University of Sydney.  

8. Take a free bus to a free internet spot

Look out for the free shuttle bus 555 which does a useful circuit of central Sydney every 10min. For free wi-fi try Sydney’s excellent libraries, you can check in on the lastest Rough Guides content online while you’re there.

9. Hit the Rocks

Easily the most atmospheric part of Sydney, the Rocks harbourside district is where the first Europeans stepped ashore on 26 January 1788. Strolling the cobblestone streets is, of course perfectly free, though its addictive weekend market should come with a wallet health warning.

The Rocks, Sydney

10. Free festivals

Well worth timing your visit for, January’s Sydney Festival features everything from burlesque circus to indigenous arts and kicks off with a huge free street party. Another annual fixture is the fabulous Sculpture by the Sea open-air exhibition. For other free events check out http://whatson.cityofsydney.nsw.gov.au.

The free ride across the harbour to Staten Island is one of the highlights of any visit to New York City, but is there any point in getting off the ferry?

Culturally Staten Island has more in common with suburban New Jersey than with the other four New York boroughs – and with parts of the island still reeling from damage wrought by Hurricane Sandy, most tourists promptly hop on the next boat back to Manhattan. Yet it would be a mistake to dismiss the “forgotten borough” so readily; its leafy streets harbour some real gems (unaffected by Sandy), not least a fabulous Chinese garden, a Tibetan gallery and a colonial village, as well as some authentic Sri Lankan restaurants.

A 625-foot (190.5m) ferris wheel, potentially the largest in the world (though Dubai – where else? – is already planning to top this), is slated for 2015, while the new National Lighthouse Museum  should open sometime this year. And the world’s largest landfill site is well on the way to becoming the eco-triumph that is Freshkills Park, supporting diverse habitats for wildlife, birds and plant communities.

The Olde New World

You don’t have to visit Williamsburg or New England for a dose of colonial America – unbeknown to most New Yorkers, Staten Island boasts its very own slice of olde history, replete with costumed role players tending fires, welding tin and making useful olde artefacts like wooden barrels. Historic Richmond Town is an open-air museum of around 27 historic buildings; at its core is the preserved village of Richmond, centre of the island’s government until 1898, as well as clapboard houses transported from other parts of the island. Don’t miss the Dutch-style Voorlezer’s House, the nation’s oldest existing school building – built sometime before 1696, it’s prehistoric by New York standards.

Historic Richmond Town, Staten Island, New York

The Asian connection

Staten Island may seem an unlikely place to cement US-China relations, but that’s what happened in 1998, when after years of lobbying, a party of Chinese artists arrived at the Staten Island Botanical Garden to create one of the most remarkable sights in the city. The Chinese Scholar’s Garden is a wonderfully evocative homage to the nineteenth century Couple’s Retreat Garden in Suzhou, China, a one-acre complex of Qing Dynasty-style, pagoda-roofed halls, artfully planted courtyards, bamboo groves and koi ponds. It’s one of only two authentic scholar’s gardens in the US.

The Chinese gardeners would have been no doubt bewildered by Staten Island’s equally remarkable tribute to Tibet, incongruously located in the island’s residential heartland. The Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art clutches onto the steep hillside much like monasteries in Tibet, one building designed to resemble a gompa, or Buddhist temple. Inside are displayed a fraction of the religious sculptures, thangka paintings, rare Bhutanese sand mandalas and ancient carved-wood stupas collected by Jacques Marchais, who built this complex in the 1940s. In October, monks in maroon robes perform ritual ceremonies, and food and crafts are sold, at the annual Tibetan Festival.

Staten Island, New York City, New York State, USA

At other times of year you are more likely to see Sri Lankan families on the streets of Staten Island than Tibetan monks: “Little Sri Lanka” in the Tompkinsville neighbourhood (centred along Victory Blvd), is home to one of the largest Sri Lankan communities outside the country itself. Try the cheap hoppers (noodles), veggie roti, spicy chicken, curries and idlis at New Asha Sri Lankan Restaurant (322 Victory Blvd, at Cebra Ave 718 420 0649). They even have cricket matches playing on the TV.

The Staten Island Ferry runs 24 hours, and is free. See www.visitstatenisland.com for more information about the island.

Stephen Keeling is the co-author of the Rough Guide to New York.

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The Polish woman grins as the car ferry to Tierra del Fuego crashes over the Magellan Strait. The bus groans and moves very slightly forward, grazing the truck in front of us. I grip my chair. She waves a book at me. “Have you read our excellent Podróże Marzeń guide to Chile?” She smiles again as the bus rolls back. The bus driver is outside and stubs out his cigarette. He shakes his head at the sailors trying to secure our vehicle. I tell her that I can’t read Polish.

“You are writer, no?” She points at my note pad. Yes, I say. Rough Guides? She stares at me. “Like Podróże Marzeń?” Yes, I suppose so. “You want a copy? I have a photocopy on my Samsung”. No thank you, I say. “Is the bus supposed to be moving?” She shrugs, then points to Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia. “This is your book?” No, I say. This is by an author who is now dead. “You know Bruce Chatwin?” She shakes her head. “He likes Patagonia?” Sort of. “Ah, yes, it is so very beautiful”. She looks sad. “But tomorrow our group goes to Easter Island, for the big heads.”

Thirty-five years ago, the publication of In Patagonia made Bruce Chatwin famous overnight – in the English-speaking world at least. In 1975 there were few tourists in southern Chile and Argentina. Chatwin finds Patagonia a place of “vicious” sunsets in “red and purple”. It has towns of “shabby concrete buildings, tin bungalows, tin warehouses and wind-flattened gardens”, a place littered with the insane, criminals and British eccentrics, leftovers from the sheep-farming boom of the early 1900s. In Patagonia was a magical book – ‘a wonder voyage’ – about a remote and mystical land. I knew the place must have changed – I just had no idea how much.

Ushuaia, Argentina

Chatwin finds Ushuaia, the world’s most southernmost city, especially dispiriting, full of “blue-faced inhabitants [who] glared at strangers unkindly”. Today this town is perhaps the most transformed of any he visited, a booming tourist depot serving European and American cruises and adventure travellers by the Airbus load – the main drag heaves with shops, Irish pubs, cool cafés and North Face outlets. English is spoken everywhere.

The old prison was a barracks when Chatwin arrived, ‘blank grey walls, pierced by the narrowest slits’, with a brothel next door. He came looking for evidence of the failed anarchist Simón Radowitzky, imprisoned here in 1911. There are no more brothels (at least, none as obvious), and the navy now shares the old prison with the stylish Museo Marítimo de Ushuaia, making the building seem far less foreboding – it’s a fabulous labyrinth of exhibits on modern art, the ‘Malvinas War’ and history of Antarctic exploration. Chatwin would be pleased to see that Simón is also remembered, though the brutal ill-treatment he received is not – displays emphasize that Radowitzky was an anarchist and murderer. Yet the museum is not wholly unsympathetic to the prisoners’ plight. One cellblock has been left as it was; cold, dimly lit and very cramped.

Today Ushuaia lives for tourism, not “canning crabs”. Chatwin remarks on the damage done by imported beavers to the ecology of Tierra de Fuego – today there are tours to go see them. He walks all the way to the Estancia Harberton, where Clarita Goodall (granddaughter of original missionary Thomas Bridges) makes him breakfast. Today tour buses grind over to the spiffy estancia in under an hour for guided tours, penguins and the estate museum. The place is still owned by Clarita’s son, Thomas Goodall, but it’s no longer a working farm. Tourists get to eat soup and cookies at the Mánacatush Tea Room.

Punta Arenas

Chatwin’s Punta Arenas, at the bottom end of Chile, is a sad place: a sort of British enclave in decline meets Spanish city recovering from Marxist dictatorship. Today it is booming from tourism and a bonanza in natural resources. Locals in suits rush around the plaza for lunch meetings while bemused tourists seem dressed for the South Pole (it’s not that cold). The British sheep farming magnates of the 1890s – already an echo in Chatwin’s book – are long gone.

When Chatwin arrived the local dignitaries were commemorating José Menéndez, sheep-farm millionaire, with a memorial in Plaza de Armas: his bronze head is still there, and still “as bald as a bomb”. Chatwin describes the palazzos around the plaza as “mostly officers’ clubs”, though there is now only one club, and most have become banks, hotels or restaurants. The hotel where he stayed – the Residencial Ritz – is now abandoned near the docks, a shabby building up for sale.

Chatwin seems to find the Salesian Fathers museum even more depressing, but this, too, has been completely transformed. The glass showcase of an Italian priest and otter skin is no more, and I couldn’t locate the two “sad copy-books” he mentions. Today the Museo Salesiano Maggiorino Borgatello is far more politically correct and an enlightening introduction to the region and its native inhabitants.

Yet there is still a tiny British presence here. The British Club and one time consul closed in 1981 – it’s now all part of the Bank of Chile and off limits, but St James Church and the British School next door are still very much in business. And Charley Millward’s Neo-Gothic fantasy house is around the corner, just as Chatwin describes it: “iron gate painted green, with crossed Ms twined about with Pre-Raphaelite lilies”. It’s now the offices of the local newspaper, Diario El Pingüino.

Puerto Natales and the Mylodon Cave

When Chatwin arrived in Puerto Natales, 240km north of Punta Arenas, the “roofs of the houses were scabby with rust and clattered in the wind. Rowan trees grew in the gardens…most were choked with docks and cow parsley”. Still an outwardly shabby place, the neglected, end-of-the-world feel has disappeared entirely; hostels overflow with backpackers on every corner. You can order a decent latte, cheeseburgers, bottles of quality Chilean red and cheap mojitos. Polish and Korean tour groups shuffle up and down the streets.

The main reason Chatwin visits Natales is for the Mylodon Cave, a short drive north of town. Chatwin’s fascination with Patagonia – and indeed the hinge on which the whole book pivots – had its roots in a scrap of mylodon (giant sloth) skin that Milward, his grandmother’s cousin, had sent back to England.

Of all the places in the book, this was the one I was most eager to see. Chatwin describes a raw, untouched cavern with a simple shrine to the Virgin at its mouth. Inside he sees the remains of petrified “sloth turds”. After rooting around in an old dynamite hole he actually finds another piece of ancient skin, preserved by the dryness. True or not (and Chatwin often made things up), I was intrigued.

When I visited there was a bit of a traffic jam. Several tour buses had arrived at the same time, mostly Germans and Koreans along with a pack of American hikers and a convoy of Chilean and Argentine families in dusty SUVs. The cave is accessed by clearly marked trails from a small visitor centre – there’s even a gift shop and decent restaurant across the road. The gaping cave mouth itself hasn’t changed in millennia, but now a life-size model of a mylodon on its hind legs graces the entrance. Informative displays tell the story of the now extinct giant. The small shrine, turds and any traces of skin have long gone, along with any romance the place once had.

But the buses soon moved on. As I strolled outside the cave I looked back across the icy plains towards the vast snow-capped massif of the Torres del Paine. Chatwin’s half real, half fantasy book was never meant to be a travel guide in any case. And even though Patagonia has changed, of course, its landscapes remain – vast, desolate and witheringly beautiful.

Stephen Keeling is a contributor to the Rough Guide to South America on a Budget.

Don’t be put off by the high-rise hotels and glitzy boutiques; Hong Kong can still be explored on the cheap. From wandering through sub-tropical forests to seeking out cultural shows in the dense urban jungle, you’ll find that some of the best things to do in Hong Kong are free.

Visit the zoo

Hong Kong’s Zoological and Botanical Gardens, on the slopes of Victoria Peak, are home to hundreds of animals – including flamingos, orang-utans and Chinese alligators – plus more than 1,000 different plant species. Admission is free.

Browse the Temple Street Night Market

Swaying light bulbs illuminate the market stalls that set up along Temple Street each evening. It costs nothing to browse through the ceramics, electronics and antique trinkets strewn across the tables, and buskers usually provide a bit of free entertainment.

Temple Street Night Market, Hong Kong

Hit the museums on a Wednesday

Schedule your culture fix for a Wednesday, when many of Hong Kong’s galleries and museums throw open their doors for free. Chinese paintings and ceramics are among the highlights at the Hong Kong Museum of Art, while the Hong Kong Space Museum focuses on all things astronomy.

Learn local customs

Hong Kong Tourism Board’s Cultural Kaleidoscope Programme gives visitors the chance to practise kung fu, learn about local architecture, or take a tea appreciation class. Sessions are free of charge, and most take place on weekends.

Visit the Temple of Ten Thousand Buddhas

Many of Hong Kong’s glittering Buddhist temples are free to look around. Especially rewarding is the Temple of Ten Thousand Buddhas, high on a hillside above Sha Tin. Here, rows of smiling statues lead up towards the main monastery complex, which is crowned by a nine-storey pavilion.

The Temple of Ten Thousand Buddhas, Hong Kong

Take in a show at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre

Free variety shows and music recitals are frequently slotted into the busy schedule at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre, a swooping, wave-shaped building close to Victoria Harbour. Tickets are handed out at the venue on a first-come, first-served basis.

Ride the world’s longest escalator system

Comprised of 20 moving staircases, plus a handful of travelators, the escalator system bisecting Hong Kong’s Central and Western District goes on for around 800 metres. Riding it saves a long, zigzagging walk through hilly streets, and gives you the chance to stop off for a drink or two in the buzzing bars of Soho.

Escalator in Soho, Hong Kong

Take a hike through the forest

Birds and butterflies flutter through the sub-tropical forests of Tai Po Kau in Hong Kong’s New Territories. Deforested heavily during the Second World War, the area has finally had a chance to recover some of its former glory, and trekking along its colour-coded trails makes for a welcome escape from the city.

Get a free view of the city

With four prism-shaped shafts jutting skywards, the Bank of China Tower is one of Hong Kong’s most recognisable buildings. From the free-to-enter observation deck on its 43rd floor, you can drink in panoramic views of Victoria Harbour.

 Witness the Symphony of Lights

 At 8pm each evening, lasers and flashbulbs light up the twinkling skyscrapers of Hong Kong’s Central District. For the best view of the free Symphony of Lights show, cross over to Tsim Sha Tsui in southern Kowloon, where you can listen to an English version of the accompanying soundtrack.

Symphony of Lights, Hong Kong

 

Catching a religious event or gathering in another country can be an exhilerating experience. Here, from the pages of Make The Most Of Your Time On Earth, we present five spectacular declarations of faith from all over the globe.

Easter in Seville, Spain

Nazarenos, La Borriquita, Palm Sunday procession, Semana Santa, Seville, Andalusia, Spain

“Semana Santa” (or Holy Week) is the most spectacular of all the Catholic celebrations, and Seville carries it off with an unrivalled pomp and ceremony. Conceived as an extravagant antidote to Protestant asceticism, the festivities were designed to steep the common man in Christ’s Passion, and it’s the same today – the dazzling climax to months of preparation.

You don’t need to be a Christian to appreciate the outlandish spectacle or the exquisitely choreographed attention to detail. Granted, if you’re not expecting it, the sight of massed hooded penitents can be disorientating and not a little disturbing – rows of eyes opaque with concentration, feet stepping slavishly in time with brass and percussion. But Holy Week is also about the pasos, or floats, elaborate slow-motion platforms graced with piercing, tottering images of Jesus and the Virgin Mary, swathed in Sevillano finery.

All across Seville, crowds hold their collective breath as they anticipate the moment when their local church doors are thrown back and the paso commences its unsteady journey, the costaleros (or bearers) sweating underneath, hidden from view. With almost sixty cofradías, or brotherhoods, all mounting their own processions between Palm Sunday and Good Friday, the city assumes the guise of a sacred snakes-and-ladders board, criss-crossed by caped, candlelit columns at all hours of the day and night. The processions all converge on Calle Sierpes, the commercial thoroughfare jammed with families who’ve paid for a front-seat view. From here they proceed to the cathedral, where on Good Friday morning the whole thing reaches an ecstatic climax with the appearance of “La Macarena”, the protector of Seville’s bullfighters long before she graced the pop charts.

The official programme is available from news-tands in Seville; local newspapers also print timetables and maps.

The beautiful Diskit Gompa at Sunrise, Nubra Valley, Ladakh, Indian Himalaya

Morning prayers at Diskit Monastery, India

To join in morning puja (prayers) in a Ladakhi Buddhist monastery, high in the Himalayas, is to enter frozen time. It’s cold outside, even though the sun has hit the Nubra Valley floor. Long, cool shadows fall over yawning monks and novices flagged in plum-coloured robes. Incense is lit and syncopated chanting, more football terrace than enlightened warbling, begins. Breakfast – butter tea dispensed from a dented kettle and porridge from a galvanized bucket – momentarily interrupts the rhythmic mantra. The simple, moving chorus starts once more, but with puja over there’s a stampede past jewelled doors for a morning game of soccer.

Diskit is a 6hr bus journey from Leh, but there are only three buses a week (Tues, Thurs & Sat 6am).

Circuiting the Jokhang, Tibet

The Jokhang is the holiest temple in Tibetan Buddhism, and what it lacks in appearance – a very shabby facade compared with the nearby Potala Palace – it makes up in atmosphere. Located in the cobbled lanes of the Barkhor district, Lhasa’s sole surviving traditional quarter, there’s an excited air of reverence as you approach, with a continuous throng of Tibetan pilgrims circuiting the complex anticlockwise, spinning hand-held prayer wheels and sticking out their tongues at each other in greeting. A good many prostrate themselves at every step, their knees and hands protected from the accumulated battering by wooden pads, which set up irregular clacking noises.

Devout they may be, but there’s absolutely nothing precious about their actions, no air of hushed, respectful reverence – stand still for a second and you’ll be knocked aside in the rush to get around. Inside, the various halls are lit by butter lamps, leaving much of the wooden halls rather gloomy and adding a spooky edge to the close-packed saintly statues clothed in multicoloured flags, brocade banners hanging from the ceiling, and especially gory murals of demons draped in skulls and peeling skin off sinners – a far less forgiving picture of Buddhism than the version practised elsewhere in China. The bustle is even more overwhelming here, the crowds increased by red-robed monks, busy topping up the lamps or tidying altars.

The Jokhang opens daily 8am–6pm. As with all Tibetan temples, circuit both the complex and individual halls anti clockwise.

Honouring the Orixás in Salvador, Brazil

Candomble devotees carry flower baskets onto a boat during the ritual ceremony in honor to Yemanja in Amoreiras, Bahia, Brazil.

Along the “Red Beach” of Salvador da Bahia, worshippers dressed in ethereal white robes gather around sand altars festooned with gardenias. Some may fall into trances, writhing on the beach, screaming so intensely you’d think they were being torn limb from limb. Perhaps in more familiar settings you’d be calling an ambulance, but this is Salvador, the epicentre of the syncretic, African-based religion known as candomblé, in which worshippers take part in toques, a ritual that involves becoming possessed by the spirit of their Orixá.

A composite of Portuguese Catholicism and African paganism, candomblé is most fervently practised in Salvador, but it defines the piquancy and raw sensuality of the Brazilian soul throughout the entire country. In this pagan religion, each person has an Orixá, or protector god, from birth. This Orixá personifies a natural force, such as fire or water, and is allied to an animal, colour, day of the week, food, music and dance. The ceremonies are performed on sacred ground called terreiros and typically feature animal sacrifices, hypnotic drumming, chanting and convulsing. Props and paraphernalia are themed accordingly; the house is decorated with the colour of the honorary Orixá, and usually the god’s favourite African dish is served.

Ceremonies are specialized for each god, but no matter which Orixá you are celebrating, you can be sure that the experience will rank among the most bizarre of your life.

Visitors are admitted to terreiros, with “mass” usually beginning in the early evening. For information on ceremonies in Salvador, contact the Federação Baiana de Culto Afro-Brasileiro, (+55 3326 6969).

Paying homage to the Queen of Heaven, Taiwan

First come the police cars and media vans, followed by flag-waving and drum-beating teams, along with musicians and performers dressed as legendary Chinese folk heroes, their faces painted red, black and blue, with fierce eyes and pointed teeth. Finally, carried by a special team of bearers, comes the ornate palanquin housing the sacred image of the Queen of Heaven. The whole thing looks as heavy as a small car: the men carrying the Queen are wet with perspiration, stripped down to T-shirts with towels wrapped around their necks.

Every year, tens of thousands of people participate in a 300km, eight-day pilgrimage between revered temples in the centre of Taiwan, in a tradition that goes back hundreds of years. The procession honours one of the most popular Taoist deities, a sort of patron saint of the island: the Queen of Heaven, Tianhou, also known as Mazu or Goddess of the Sea.

Becoming a pilgrim for the day provides an illuminating insight into Taiwanese culture. The streets are lined with locals paying respects and handing out free drinks and snacks, from peanuts to steaming meat buns. As well as a constant cacophony of music and drums, great heaps of firecrackers are set off every few metres. Whole boxes seem to disintegrate into clouds of smoke and everyone goes deaf and is dusted with ashy debris.

Check www.mazu.taichung.gov.tw for details.

 

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