Maria Hart meets some of Canada’s First Nations people to discover what aboriginal tourism in British Columbia has to offer.

“High tide is rush hour here” smiles our guide Tsimka, “that’s when the kayaks and water taxis usually come.” But since our group paddled over to Meares Island in a traditional flat bottomed canoe at low tide, we have the slippery boardwalk through the ancient rainforest all to ourselves.

Sitting on a fallen log at the massive base of a red cedar tree surrounded by frilly ferns, we eat our packed lunch and listen to Tsimka’s animated stories of forest monsters, while the moist evergreen scent and bird songs indulge our senses. Her easy smile and gift of storytelling come from her father Joe Martin, the master carver who made the red cedar dugout canoe that she uses for her tours.

Tsimka Martin is a Tla-o-qui-aht First Nations woman who co-owns and operates T’ashii Paddle School in Tofino, British Columbia. Tofino, a popular west coast holiday and surfing town is traditionally Tla-o-qui-aht First Nations territory and Tsimka’s family have been here for generations. They are some of the many indigenous people of Canada who are now ready to share their culture and homeland through tourism.

“Aboriginal” is an umbrella term describing three of Canada’s original people: the Inuit, the Métis, and the First Nations – formerly referred to as “Indians”. The First Nations people have inhabited Canada for over 12,000 years and have lived mainly on hunting and fishing, migrating seasonally and living very much in harmony with the nature around them. Today, while they’re a part of modern Canadian society, they’re also making the most of their heritage. From authentic experiences and traditional art to modern accommodations and industries, the First Nations are opening up to tourism. I spoke with Paula Amos, Marketing Manager of Aboriginal Tourism BC who explained: “developing Aboriginal tourism isn’t only about economic advancement or jobs; it’s about strengthening our culture and building cultural pride.”

There are a number of ways to actively learn more about Canada’s First Nations across the country, so here are three ways to experience a Canadian First Nations lifestyle:

Embrace nature in Tofino

British Columbia is leading the way in aboriginal tourism growth in Canada, but not just for the more traditional experiences. The Ucluelet people near Tofino, for example, simply embrace the adventure afforded by their dramatic surroundings. You can learn to surf and paddleboard, sleep in a yurt, or go offline in a secluded lodge at WYA Point retreat on Vancouver Island to commune with nature on your own. Even in the low season the legendary winter weather provides a challenge for the best surfers, as well as some romantic storm watching.

Spot wildlife along the Campbell River

A three hour drive north-east of Tofino brings you to Campbell River. Here you’ll find boat-based wildlife discovery tours by Aboriginal Journeys. With generations of local knowledge and down-to-earth honesty, owner and guide Garry Henkel knows some of the regular passing orcas by sight, but when talking about bear watching, he admits: “We go out and see what we see; there are no guarantees until grizzly season.” At the end of a tour, a traditional salmon cedar BBQ can be prepared for large groups.

Get cultured in Alert Bay

For a truly cultural treasure chest, take a short ferry trip to Alert Bay on Cormorant Island. The bay is home to the tallest totem pole in the world, measuring 173-feet-high and representing the 14 tribes of its Kwakwaka’wakw people. Interactive experiences such as cedar weaving, canoe paddling, storytelling, and medicinal forest tours are available, but to properly appreciate the traditions and grasp the First Nations history, the first stop has to be the U’mista Cultural Center.

“U’mista” means “when something special comes back” and this cultural centre houses regalia and masks that were confiscated during the “dark times”, when potlatch ceremonies were outlawed. A potlatch ceremony would involve days or weeks of singing, dancing, eating and storytelling and was the primary economic system for the Kwakwaka’wakw. Now visitors are welcome to come and experience this engaging event firsthand. The T’sasala Cultural Group has summer dance performances at the Namgis Bighouse, which give a glimpse into the time-honoured ceremony.

 Explore more of Canada with the Rough Guide to Canada. Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. 

The third part in our Slovenia In Four Seasons feature sees Senior Web Editor Tim Chester explore the country in August. Check out our trips from the winter and the spring too.

Think of the northern Adriatic and you’d be forgiven for thinking of Italy – of Venice, Rimini, and Trieste – or Croatia, whose abundant seaside gems stretch from Rovinj to Zadar and beyond. However, you’d be missing an important 47 kilometres, which belong resolutely to Slovenia, a tiny fragment of coast wedged between its neighbours that packs in a disproportionately large number of treats.

Croatia might completely hog the waterfront in this part of the world, snatching miles and miles of stunning coastline from similarly-sized nearby countries and attracting huge numbers of visitors to match, but the Slovene Riviera – sitting pretty at the tip of the Slovene Istria in the south west of the country – is equally as beguiling.

Most visitors to this country, which has been independent since 1991, covers an area the size of Wales and numbers just a handful of million inhabitants, head straight for the capital Ljubljana or the justifiably popular Lake Bled, but I’d been told to make a beeline for the beach. So, a couple of hours after our budget plane bounced onto the tarmac we were on top of Hotel Piran in the city of the same name sipping margaritas as the sun dropped into the sea.

The drive along the top of the peninsula to Piran sets the scene: look to the right as the road crests a hill and you can see the fishing port town of Izola, beyond that the more industrial Koper, whose new developments encircle a medieval core, and in the far distance Trieste in Italy. To the left, signs point to the casinos and bars of resort town Portorož, hedges intermittently open to reveal the salt pans of Sečovlje, and in the distance Croatia squats peacefully.

We only had a long weekend to spare so we hit the ground running the following morning, exploring Piran’s cobbled streets and labyrinthine passageways with a local guide. The city dates back to medieval times but it was the Venetian Republic which really left their mark; some corners of the centre look like they’ve been airlifted from the famous watery landmark across the sea and in fact Piran is very much like Venice if you substract the crowds and the effluent.

Tartini Square is the place to get your bearings, a former inner port whose buildings and statues tell a variety of stories. Named after Giuseppe Tartini, a famouse violinist and local hero whose statue stands proud in the midst, the city’s hub is crowded with messages for anyone looking in the right place.

On one side, Casa Veneziana is a light red example of Venetian gothic architecture, an erstwhile lodging for a local girl who caught the eye of a Venetian merchant, emblazoned with the words “lasa pur dir” (“let them talk”) in response to the gossip that followed their courtship. The Municipal Palace, meanwhile, features a stone lion with wings holding an open book under its paw, the bared pages signifying the fact it was erected during peace time. The nearby 1st May square is also full of secret stories; look out for depictions of Law and Justice in front of the stone rainwater collector, and the statues holding gutters.

Elsewhere and Piran is home to eight churches, most sadly closed due to vandals and thieves, including the impressive baroque St George’s Parish Church which dates back to the 12th Century and commands awesome views. The imposing city walls and several family attractions, from the Maritime Museum to an aquarium, are also worth your time.

That afternoon we were taken by speedboat to a cluster of floating nets belonging to the Fonda Fish Farm, where thousands of Piran sea bass grow into huge healthy specimens under careful supervision. The company are aiming to nurture top quality fish and mussels and their enthusiasm was infectious.

We followed our tour with a dip in the Adriatic back at Piran’s concrete beach and ended the day at Pri Mari, a family-run Mediterranean restaurant and a Rough Guide author pick. The owners, Mara and Tomi, lavished us with fine Slovenian wines and endless thanks once they discovered we were from the book that had brought in so much business over the years, but their hospitality was exemplary before they knew who we were. Two steaks (because that’s what you order at the coast, naturally) were delectable and the place was thrumming with happy customers. Piran nightlife seems somewhat sedate but we managed to find two guitarists playing Pink Floyd to a small dancefloor and a man serving pina coladas in one corner of the port to finish things off.

The following day we drove into the hinterland in search of wine. The Karst region behind the coast is carpeted with vineyards and olive groves, interspersed with peach and cherry trees and harbouring thousands of underground caves (the Postojna and Škocjan caverns are the best known).

Before long we arrived at Korenika & Moškon, a small family-run cellar dating back to 1984. The place actually goes back much further – the family has been producing wine for ages – but the communist regime put paid to that for a while. For several hours we were plied with golden yellow and peachy Malvasia and Paderno whites and bold, interesting reds such as local pride and joy Refošk, a dark ruby and almost port-like liquid.

From here we were driven to Izola for the weekend fish festival, a lively gathering of locals and domestic tourists who descend on the port for live music, craft stalls and plenty of fried catch.

On Sunday we sped through Portorož, Slovenia’s answer to the French Riveria but without the bumper-to-bumper traffic and hordes of people selling tat laid out on bedsheets, to the Sečovlje salt pans.

A vast national park that has been producing salt for 700 years and continues to this day, it marks the border with Croatia and plays host to an abundance of wildlife. We jumped on a golf cart for a flying tour of the endless salty pools before taking a dunk in the dirt at the in-house spa. Lying caked in sea salt and mud wraps in the middle of this barren landscape, we fell into a trance like happy hippos.

Back in Piran, a final goodbye cocktail reflecting the deep orange rays of one last late summer Slovene sunset, we toasted our new discovery: 47km of criminally overlooked summer fun.

 Explore more of Slovenia with the Rough Guides destination page for Sloveniabook hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

This year marks the centenary of Ernest Shackleton’s expedition on board his ship Endurance to Antarctica. In an age when most people found a trip to Blackpool thrilling enough, he was setting off for Antarctica in a wooden schooner – not once, but four times. What bravery, madness and skills are required to explore Earth’s greatest southern wilderness? Emma Thomson boarded the Oceanwide Expedition-owned Ortelius for a ‘Basecamp Adventure’ to find out. 

After three days barreling through seesaw seas I made a key discovery that put a minor dent in my mission to be a Shackleton-esque explorer: I hated boats. Well, my stomach did.

Things had been ropey as we cruised out of Argentina’s Beagle Channel, but by the time we reached the foaming high seas of the Drake Passage – the 500 mile-wide channel separating South America from Antarctica – my sea legs were quivering columns that clung to my bunk bed like a monkey; the waves that washed our porthole windows meagre in comparison to the swells of nausea that rose in my throat.

Shackleton’s ship, Endurance, trapped in ice

Still, when we reached the relative calm of the Antarctic Peninsula my belly settled a little and the sight of the snow-clad mountains reinvigorated my bravado.

Our motley crew of novice adventurers gathered in the theatre for our first lecture: penguin etiquette. Shackleton would have scoffed slightly – he and his crew ate most of flightless birds they encountered – but attitudes have understandably changed since 1914.

“Give them a five-metre berth and disinfect your boots every time you get on and off the ship, so we don’t spread potentially fatal diseases. Any questions?” finished our French expedition leader Delphine, scanning the crowd. A hand shot up at the front of the theatre. “How do you disengage a penguin?” asked the hand. We all craned to see Samer – a softly spoken computer analyst from St Louis, Missouri – slinking down in his seat as laughter erupted around the room. “Disengage?” Delphine echoed, perplexedly. “Er, I mean, what do you do if it approaches you?”  “Ah! That’s fine; just stay still and don’t touch.

Gentoo penguin and tourist, by Emma Thomson

With the rules for penguin engagement clear, we embarked on a slightly more modern activity – kayaking. We were all quietly confident having had some prior experience, but out here a quick flip into the freezing water can be deadly. “Stay close to me at all times,” warned Louise our instructor.

Plugged into the small boats we started to wend our way through the bergs, their icy mass glowing beneath the water’s surface. “Wait for me,” called out Sam, a British Indian with a superb handlebar moustache. He powered his paddle into the water, but ripples from another kayak sent him rocking. “Whoaaaa!” he yelped, as he sploshed sideways into the waves. “Capsize!” yelled his cabin buddy. The zodiac on standby whizzed over, hauled him out of the water and sped him back to the ship to warm up. He was fine, but his moustache drooped sadly.

Kayaking in Antarctica, by Emma Thomson

That night, Delphine decided the weather was good enough for us to camp wild on the snow. When the Endurance finally succumbed to the crushing weight of the ice that surrounded her, Shackleton and his men only had a few provisions and the fur gloves and chunky fishermen’s jumpers they wore to protect them from the elements. We, on the other hand, were given a roll mat, an inflatable Therm-a-Rest mattress, two sleeping bags, a cotton liner, and a waterproof cover each. But the wind still whistled around us and, as night fell, snowflakes began to fall from the sky. This was getting closer to following in the great man’s footsteps.

Finally came the mountaineering. Our beginner group hiked safely up the mist-covered mountain, but drama unfolded among the intermediates. Jorden – an Aussie from Perth – was peering over the side of a 40ft mint-blue crevasse when the ice gave way. Only the rope around his waist and a swing of his axe into the wall saved him from plummeting into the chasm. He dug his toes in, scrambled over the ledge and lay on the snow panting and shivering with nerves.

This glimpse into Shackleton’s beloved “frozen south” had given me even more respect for him and his team – surviving in Antarctica takes skills we’d never learn in a few days, but it had been the trip of a lifetime trying.

For more information about the 12-day Basecamp Adventure visit www.keadventure.com. To get there, Air Europa flies daily from London Gatwick to Buenos Aires via Madrid. Connecting flights from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia are offered by Aerolineas Argentinas.
Explore more of Argentina with the Rough Guide to Argentina. Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. 

Planning a trip to Croatia and wondering which 17 things you shouldn’t miss? Always thought about Croatia for a holiday but never knew what it had to offer?

Allow us to present our favourite things to see and do in this beautiful European country.

Yangzi, China

River cruises down China’s most important and largest river, the Yangzi, are an increasingly popular tourist attraction. Highlights on the route include the breathtakingly scenic Three Gorges area, now also known for its huge hydroelectric dam, which generates a staggering amount of electricity each year.

Cahabón, Guatemala

Transparent, turquoise water, bubbling cascades and pretty waterfalls are the trademarks of the Cahabón River in eastern Guatemala. But it also has a more active trick up its sleeve – it’s a great spot for whitewater rafting, with punchy rapids and drops churning the water into creamy torrents and challenging even the most experienced of rafters.

Loire, France

A justly deserved UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Loire valley in central France is blanketed in prestigious vineyards, blossoming orchards and spectacular châteaux. It’s also carved by the longest river in France, the lovely Loire, which sweeps its way past tumbledown villages and glorious cities like Angers and Blois, beneath lofty bridges and alongside rolling fields.

Kenai, Alaska

A pristine meltwater river in southern Alaska, the Kenai is a paradise for fishermen – and particularly those who like their fish big, in the form of Chinook (aka King) salmon or Rainbow Trout. September is the best month to catch large silver salmon, while red beauties are typically hooked in the summer months and pink ones are abundant every other year.

Zambezi, Africa

Thundering down from a height of 108m, Victoria Falls is the honey-pot portion of Africa’s fourth largest river, the Zambezi. As well as providing fish for the 32 million-strong population who live in the region, the river is a lifeline for an enormous variety of wildlife such as hippopotamuses, crocodiles, giraffes and elephants.

Mississippi, USA

The good ol’ Mississippi has long been a vital commercial waterway, and from 1820–50, was chock-a-block with tiered steamboats chugging cotton, food, tobacco and timber down its sleepy flow. These old boats have now been replaced with more modern vessels, but the river continues to be a major commercial focus, servicing the important port of New Orleans.

Yarra, Australia

Australia’s Yarra River is in the southeastern state of Victoria, and the buzzing metropolis of Melbourne was established upon its banks in 1835. Victim of logging, widening and manipulating – not to mention extensive mining during the Victorian Gold Rush – the river takes on a brown, silty hue once it hits Melbourne, however in its origins north and east of the city, the water is clearer and the surroundings decidedly more bucolic.

Nile, Egypt

Say the word, “Nile”, and images of the Egyptian desert, pyramids, and pharaohs come to mind. And indeed, the ancient Egyptians owe their remarkable civilization to the mighty river and its fertile basin. But in actual fact, only 22 percent of the Nile flows through the country, the rest covers 10 others including Tanzania and Kenya.

Thames, United Kingdom

England’s second longest river, the Thames flows through the capital, London, as well as smaller towns such as Oxford, Henley and Windsor. It provides drinking water for much of southern England, and is a focal point for recreation, dotted with houseboats, fishermen and rowers, and hosts the annual Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge universities.

Amazon, South America

The Amazon River dominates a large portion of South America, spreading its thick tentacles through Brazil, Colombia and Peru. Often called “The River Sea”, it can reach up to around 48km wide in the wet season, and at the Atlantic Ocean mouth it’s a staggering 240km across. The most famous fishy resident is the carnivorous piranha; the nasty Red-Bellied species is known to attack humans.

Congo, Africa

The deepest river in the world, Africa’s Congo River (previously known as the Zaire) is generally acknowledged to be the backdrop to Joseph Conrad’s dark and disturbing novella, The Heart of Darkness. Cutting through thick rainforest, the river is home to a varied wildlife including crocodiles and turtles.

Caño Cristales, Colombia

Dubbed the “River of Five Colours”, Colombia’s Caño Cristales is reckoned to be the most beautiful river in the world. Once a year (September–November), the moss-like macarenia clavígera plant flowers a deep and brilliant red on the riverbed, and is mesmerizingly offset by the sandy yellows, blues, blacks and greens of the river’s rocks, banks and foliage.

Colorado, USA

The arid Arizona desert is ruthlessly sliced by the magnificent Colorado River, which wiggles its way in a series of dramatic sweeps and bends from its source in the Rockies through to its end in the Baja California delta. Rust-red canyons, yawning gorges, roaring whitewater rapids and thundering waterfalls make up the incredible scenery on the river’s course.

Danube, Europe

So famous it’s got a waltz named after it, the “Blue Danube” has long been Europe’s main waterway, linking west to east from Germany via Austria and Hungary to Romania and Ukraine. It’s a favourite for cruises, passing quaint chocolate-box villages, magnificent cities like Budapest, and ubiquitous rolling green countryside.

Mekong, Southeast Asia

Framed with lush jungle vegetation and soft mountains, the Mekong runs through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Taking a slow boat from Houayxai to Luang Prabang in Laos is the ultimate Mekong experience; the gentle two-day journey enables travellers to absorb the stunning landscapes and local culture.

Verzasca, Switzerland

Scuba divers just love the Swiss Verzasca river in Italian-speaking Ticino for its intensely clear, emerald-green water. Trickling over striated rocks in the upper reaches, the river soon reaches the Verzasca Dam (aka Contra Dam), a favourite bungee jumping site that appeared in the 1995 James Bond movie GoldenEye.

Volga, Russia

The Big Momma of Europe’s rivers, the Volga zips through central Russia and is claimed by its occupants as a national symbol. Dotted with huge reservoirs, crossed by colossal bridges and home to pelicans and flamingos in some stretches, it flows north of Russia’s magnificent capital city, Moscow.

Futaleufú, Argentina and Chile

Glacier till makes up the Futaleufú river, which is why it’s so gorgeously clear and gorgeously blue. Starting in Argentina and traversing the Andes into Chile, the river is currently a hotspot for whitewater rafting and kayaking, though a hydroelectric dam has been proposed by the Chilean government, which may put paid to those incredible frothy rapids.

River Ganges, India

The most famous Indian river with the most densely populated basin in the world, the Ganges is also sacred within the Hindu religion, worshipped as the goddess Ganga. Hindus honour their ancestors by dousing their backs with the river water, and float offerings such as rose petals, flowers and oil. To bathe in the Ganges is a fulfillment of purity in many Hindus religious life.

If you’re looking for a classic Southeast Asian scene, Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, south of Ho Chi Minh City, will do the trick. This is an area of vivid green rice paddies, conical-hatted farmers and lumbering water buffaloes, of floating markets and villages built on stilts. Lush orchards overflow with mangoes, papayas and dragonfruit; plantations brim with bananas, coconuts and pineapples. And through it all wind the nine tributaries of the Mekong River, which nourish this fruitbasket of Vietnam, the waters busy with sampans, canoes and houseboats. It is the end of the run for Asia’s mighty Mekong, whose waters rise over 4000km away in the snows of the Tibetan plateau and empty out here, into the alluvial-rich plains fringing the South China Sea.

For the fifteen million people who live in these wetlands, everything revolves around the waterways, so to glimpse something of their life you need to join them on the river. Boat tours from the market town of My Tho will take you to nearby orchard-islands, crisscrossed by narrow palm-shaded canals and famous for their juicy yellow-fleshed sapodilla fruits. At Vinh Long, home-stay programmes give you the opportunity to sample the garden produce for dinner and spend the night on stilts over the water.

Chances are your host-family catch fish as well – right under their floorboards in specially designed bamboo cages, so the daily feed is simply a matter of lifting up a plank or two. Next stop should be Can Tho, the delta’s principal city, to see the enormous floating market at Cai Rang.

Here at the confluence of seven major waterways, hundreds of sampans bump and jostle early each morning to trade everything from sugar cane to pigs – and of course mountains of fruit.

My Tho is a 90min bus ride from Ho Chi Minh City. Homestays can be arranged at local tourist offices or through Sinhbalo Adventure Travel in Ho Chi Minh City (www.cyclingvietnam.net).

 

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Stretching north to south for 4270km and only 64km wide at its narrowest point, this land of ice and fire, periodically shaken by volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, is one of the most geographically diverse on earth.

Most travellers fly into the capital of Santiago, roughly in the middle of the country, and head either towards the fjords, forests and mountains of the south, or the beaches, stargazing observatories and deserts of the north. To help structure your trip, here is our first-timer’s guide for things to do in Chile (see our map of these top sights here).

Around Santiago

The mountains around Santiago and Chillán, further south, in the foothills of the Andes, are prime skiing spots. Just an hour from the capital, you can ride the funiculars up the many hills of the historic port city of Valparaíso, or visit the excellent wineries of the Maipo and Casablanca valleys.

Northern Chile and the Atacama Desert

North of Santiago, the arid Elqui Valley is the place to sample pisco (Chilean brandy) and gaze at the stars through powerful telescopes at the Cerro Mamalluca observatory – one of the most unforgettable things to do in Chile.

The Humboldt Current that keeps Chilean waters frigid provides an ideal environment for penguins at its namesake coastal reserve just off the mainland north of La Serena, and even further north, the teal-coloured waters of Bahía Inglesa could fool you into thinking that you’re in the Mediterranean.

The Nevado Tres Cruces National Park, reachable from the mining town of Copiapó, boasts Chile’s highest peak, Ojos del Salado (6893m) and the electric blue of high-altitude lagoons – Verde and Santa Rosa attract flocks of flamingos and roaming herds of guanacos and vicuñas.

The adobe village of San Pedro de Atacama, at the heart of Chile’s vast northern desert, is the jumping-off spot for sand-boarding down dunes and visiting the otherworldly crimson landscapes of the Valley of the Moon, the Atacama salt flat, aquamarine high-altitude lagoons, and the El Tatio geysers with natural hot springs. Atacama’s clear skies also make the desert an ideal location for the world’s most powerful telescopes.

Heading north from there, seaside Iquique is one of South America’s top paragliding destinations; you run off the giant sand dune that backs the city.

From Iquique, the scenic route to the border town of Arica takes you past the Giant of Atacama petroglyph, the picture-perfect adobe church of Isluga, the vast dirty-white Surire salt flat – home to three flamingo species – and through the elevated Lauca National Park – all green meadows, snow-tipped volcanoes and peacefully grazing alpacas and vicuñas. Arica’s biggest attraction, the ancient Chinchorro mummies – some of the world’s oldest examples of artificially mummified remains – are found in a museum in the nearby Azapa valley.

The Lake District & Chiloe

Heading south of Santiago, you see the smoking snow-tipped cap of the Villarica volcano long before you arrive in Pucón – the Lake District’s activity centre for hiking, biking, rafting, horse-riding and the challenge of the all-day volcano climb. More technical climbs await on the volacnoes in Puerto Varas, further south – a supremely picturesque spot on the shores of Lago Llanquíhue.

The Río Petrohué attracts rafters and kayakers, and the Lake District’s flat, deserted roads, snaking around a profusion of crystalline lakes and waterfalls, is a paradise for cyclists.

A short ferry hop across the channel from Puerto Montt takes you to South America’s second largest island: fog-shrouded Chiloé. Its biggest draws are the tiny villages, each sporting a unique wooden church; two wild national parks – Parque Nacional Chiloé and Pargué Tantauco – and birdwatching while kayaking at dawn in the sunken forest of Chepu Valley; or else checking out Magellanic and Humboldt penguins off the Puñihuil coast.

Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego

South of the Lake District, northern Patagonia is a lush, untamed mass of forest, rivers, fjords and mountains, bisected by the infamous Carretera Austral (Southern Highway). At its north end is Pumalín Park, a virgin protected area; the southern half is good for hiking, whereas the north is only reachable by private boat. South of the park is Chaitén, a town half-destroyed by the volcanic eruption in 2008; from here a road leads east to Futaleufú, South America’s most challenging white-water rafting destination.

The potholed dirt-and-gravel Carretera Austral is Chile’s biggest driving challenge. The road cuts through spectacular mountainous landscape before terminating by the glacial waters of the vast Lake O’Higgins, passing the unique boardwalk village of Caleta Tortel along the way. From Villa O’Higgins, the end of the line, there is a spectacular hike to Argentina’s El Chaltén that involves two river crossings.

Southern Patagonia – a land of vaqueros, mountains and huge swathes of scrubland, dotted with roaming guanacos and ñandú (ostriches), has two main towns: historic Punta Arenas, and the smaller Puerto Natales – gateway town to the spectacular Torres del Paine National Park. Natales is where hikers and climbers gather before and after their assault on the distinctive bell-shaped mountains, rock towers, glacial lakes and backcountry trails of Chile’s most popular natural attraction.

Across the stormy Magellan Strait, and south of Tierra del Fuego – South America’s largest island and Chile’s southernmost settlement – is Navarino Island. Tiny Puerto Williams, a remarkably warm and hospitable community of king crab fishermen, nestles at the foot of the bare Dientes de Navarino mountain circuit. This is the continent’s most challenging multi-day hike, and the best place to organise yachting adventures to the ships’ graveyard of Cape Horn.Flying here gives you unparalleled views of the jagged southern Andes, while the a weekly ferry to Punta Arenas provides a close-up look at the most pristine of Chile’s fjords, where you’re likely to spot dolphins, penguins and the occasional whale.

The island territories

The country’s most far-flung territories include Easter Island, far out in the Pacific Ocean, home to a now extinct civilisation and the world-famous moai (stone statues). Closer to home is the Juan Fernández archipelago consisting of tiny islands; the main one, Robinson Crusoe Island, is famous for the castaway who inspired the eponymous novel. Inhabited by a couple dozen lobster-fishing families, it boasts incredible topography and endemic wildlife species such as the firecrown hummingbird.

Getting around

Getting around Chile, from the far north down to the Lake District, is straightforward. There are two major bus companies: Tur Bus and Pullman, both of which run fleets of comfortable buses. You can choose between cama (bed), semi-cama (reclining seats) and regular seats. Fairly frequent minibuses ply the Carretera Austral, connecting the main town of Coyhaique with Chaiten and Futaleufú up north and as far south as Villa O’Higgins.

To reach Patagonia, you either have to take a bus via Argentina from either Pucón or Futaleufú, take the scenic four-day Navimag ferry cruise south through the fjords, or fly.

Travel in the Lake District, Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego may also involve ferries. LAN and Sky Airline cover all major cities in Chile between them, flight-wise, though to reach Robinson Crusoe Island you’ll need to hop in a tiny six-seater Cessna from Santiago.

During the colder months, bus, plane and ferry services in the south are greatly reduced, whereas transport in the northern half of the country is generally unaffected. Inaccessible by public transport, the national parks of northern Chile are easiest done as part of an organised tour.

If you want to explore more of this small but exciting country, buy the Rough Guide to Chile. Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. You can see the author’s photographs of her trip in Chile here.

The Mississippi River (derived from the Ojibwe word for “great” or “big” river), is the fourth longest and tenth largest in the world, and cuts across the USA from north to south, bordering and running through ten states. It may be hard to say but it’s fun to explore; the river passes through a huge range of landscapes and climates, starting in Minnesota at Lake Itasca and ending in the Gulf of Mexico at hot, humid New Orleans.

There’s a wealth activities to sample as you follow the river’s course: start by canoeing at the river’s source near Minneapolis, stomp your feet to country music around Memphis and catch some live jazz in New Orleans’ dive bars. Use our Mississippi River map below to explore what else this waterway has to offer.

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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Sooner or later, pretty much every traveller in Colombia finds their way down to Cartagena, the fortress city by the sea. Surrounded by the formidable 16th century Las Murallas (sea wall), the city’s old town is almost too picturesque, with its maze of leafy squares and narrow streets, lined with brightly-painted colonial houses sporting ornate brass door knockers and draped with bright pink bougainvillea plants.

From early morning on, Cartagena buzzes with activity.  Before 9am, scores of speedboats whisk crowds of sun worshippers to the Rosario Islands from the dock while the city’s numerous vendors lay out colourful hats, wood carvings and woven goods along the pavements.

Start your wanderings at the leafy Plaza de Bolívar, where the locals linger on the shaded benches.  The grand Palacio de la Inquisición that takes up the west side of the square inspired fear and loathing in its time, with witches, blasphemers and other sinners denounced at the small window along its side between 1610 and 1776. Inside, the inventive torture implements indicate how confessions were extracted.

Diagonally across from the square is the vast, fortress-like cathedral, with a soaring but plain interior. Sir Frances Drake had a cannon fired into its interior in 1586 in a bid to persuade the good citizens of Cartagena to part with a vast sum on money – a move that persuaded the city that it needed better protection against marauding pirates.  The most impressive of the Cartagena’s fortifications is the hilltop Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, across the bridge from Old Town, its towers, battlements and maze of tunnels never penetrated by the enemy.

At night, Old Town throngs with crowds. Live music plays at the Plaza de Los Coches; rows of open-topped horse-drawn carriages carry couples and families through the narrow streets; squares fill with revellers, hawkers, beggars and street musicians. From the melt-in-your-mouth ceviche, the Vietnamese-style seafood rice at La Cevichería on Calle Stuart, and the intense flavours of southern India at Ganesha at Calle de Las Bovedas, to the fine dining and live Cuban music at Calle Balocco’s La Vitriola – frequented by the likes of Shakira – Cartagena’s eating scene is second to none.

Revelry continues late into the night, from the open-air Café del Mar atop the sea wall to the pumping nightclubs along the glitzy hotel strip in the new part of town, and the action only winds down at dawn, only to be repeated, night after night.

So, if all roads eventually lead to Cartagena, then Mompox – the ‘anti-Cartagena’ – is notoriously difficult to reach, lost as it is in the midst of swamps and tiny villages in the middle of Colombia. You have to catch a van in the wee hours of the morning, or else take a combo of buses and boats.

A timeless languor hangs over Mompox, baked under the hot sun, and seems to seep into your very bones. The slow pace of life reflected in the gentle movement of the river and the lives of locals who trundle along the dirt streets by bicycle.  Founded in 1540, this town that once rivalled Cartagena in importance as a port until the river was silted over and traffic diverted elsewhere. The town’s loss is your gain: with the exception of Colombian visitors, who come to pay homage to the setting of the film version of Gabriel García Marquez’s Love in The Time of Cholera, you will find few other tourists here.

The biggest pleasure here consists of strolling along the waterfront, ducking into narrow sun-baked streets, lined with crumbling colonial buildings, and stopping at the leafy little square, graced with a statue of El Libertadór himself – Simón Bolívar – that betrays Mompox’s former importance. The inscription below reads (in Spanish): “If to Caracas I owe my birth, to Mompox I owe my glory”. Nearby, the elaborate decorations of Mompox’s churches – the gingerbread house-like Iglesia de Santa Bárbara by the river and the brightly tiled Iglesia de San Agustín on Calle Real del Medio – are the foil to the austerity of Cartagena’s places of worship.

If the heat is too much, while away the siesta hours on shaded benches in the little tree-lined park by the cemetery. Poke around the little necropolis, its grounds overgrown with knee-length dried grass, its chipped gravestones and tombs a blinding white on a sunny day, and the cemetery cats dozing in their shadow, to see if you can spot the only Jewish grave in the Catholic ‘city of the dead’.

Gourmet cuisine is yet to make inroads here, but Comedór Costeño is an excellent bet for lunch, with heaped plates of fish-of-the-day, rice and patacones (mashed fried plantain) served on outdoor tables overlooking the river.  In the evenings, the locals gently creak in the street on the wooden rocking chairs they are famous for making. You can join their example on Plaza de Concepción, knock back a drink at the Luna de Mompox or else head to the Plaza Santo Domingo that comes to life at night with street vendors grilling meat on sticks, making pizza from scratch, while local musicians provide the soundtrack.

In contrast to Cartagena’s frenetic aquatic activity, Mompox’s boats glide slowly along the banks, giving you glimpses of sunbathing giant iguanas, herons and other denizens of the river. The boat makes its way up a narrow tunnel of reeds to a vast lake where the local fishermen’s children frolic in the water. As the sun goes down, the lake acquires an otherworldly pearly sheen, and as the blood-red sun sinks below the horizon, you imagine that you’re seeing Mompox exactly the way other travellers saw it five centuries ago.

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