Driving through the city of Panj, Tajikistan, Rough Guides writer Kiki Deere meets an ex-Soviet-soldier-turned-teacher who has discovered a new way of arranging a long-distance marriage.

Our heavy-footed driver swerved to avoid a series of large rocks that had crumbled from the mountainside above. A muddy crimson river swept through the valley below: the Panj, which marks the border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan.

We snaked our way along the majestic Pamir Highway above the river’s crimson sleepy waters, glancing across to Afghanistan from the dusty windows of our 4×4. These are the Pamir Mountains, commonly referred to as the “Roof of the World”, a land of breath-taking scenery where the local inhabitants are among the poorest of the ex Soviet republics.

All photos by Kiki Deere

Jagged rocky terrain lay below, while green pastures and arable land spread to the north. As our car bumped its way along the potholed dirt track, I caught a glimpse of a lean figure walking ahead of us. His beige trousers were speckled with dirt, and a couple of bony feet protruded from a pair of worn leather sandals. We signalled to the driver to stop and offered him a lift. He clambered in, clutching a plastic folder to his chest. His chapped fingers were tightly wrapped around an out-dated mobile phone, which he gingerly rested on his lap. His rugged, stubble covered age-old skin was taut and burnished from the sun. His lips broke into a golden smile at the sight of foreign faces. “I am the director of the school”, he proudly told us, as he made himself comfortable in the sticky seats of our 4×4. He was on his way back home for lunch and was pleased to have avoided walking the last leg home. The 6Km stretch, he explained, usually took him just over an hour on foot.

After a few exchanges in broken Russian, our new passenger Dolmon signalled to our driver to stop. As a thank you for the lift, he urged us in for tea to meet his family. He led the way to a square concrete house, which precariously perched on a hillside, surrounded by a pleasant verdant garden where a little metal gate lay ajar.

Three women were hard at work with chores round the back of the house. A teenage girl knelt down, intently scrubbing a large sheep wool carpet, occasionally raising her hand to wipe the sweat off her rosy concave cheeks. The eldest gently poured water out of a plastic bucket, which soon rose into a cloud of soapy foam and their mother, a heavy hipped woman, towered over them, intently scrutinising their work. Her prominent features revealed a hooked nose, high cheekbones and dark almond shaped eyes as she greeted us with a warm smile and both hands held out. Her daughters followed suit and we were soon ushered into a tidy room with carpets carefully laid over the floor, while others hung pinned to the walls. We later learned that this room was exclusively used to entertain guests.

I looked around at the thick brown and yellow carpet with chintzy floral motifs that covered the wooden floor planks and admired the garish designs of bright bananas and leafy plants with red fruits that decorated the cushions on the floor. Mats were rolled out and a plastic cover was laid on the floor in the centre of the room to form the table. Little bowls suddenly appeared, while a rough hand placed a steaming flowery teapot in the centre: the Tajiks’ much-loved chai (tea).

Dolmon handed me a tattered photo album. “Me in the military”, he proudly explained, as I rested it on my lap. A thirty year younger Dolmon, dressed in a smart uniform, stared back at me. His face was serious, nearly devoid of expression. Smaller black and white photographs of a striking dark haired lady peppered the torn pages. I glanced up at his round wife, asking myself whether this was a younger version of her.

As I leafed through, a large leaflet dropped out. It was a certificate issued by the Communist Party, as the red Russian script on the front attested. Intrigued, I opened it. A large portrait of Lenin covered the left hand side, his eyes piercing through the page, and on the other a stamp certified that Dolmon was awarded second place in his performance in the Soviet army. I looked up at him questioningly and he gave me a satisfied smile: “For bravery and discipline”, he proudly stated.

Dolmon lifted the teapot and poured six cups of weak black tea. A large freshly baked roundel of bread lay in the centre of the table. His wife wobbled into the room wearing a loose dress, a large belly protruding beneath. A young boy – their son –­ sat cross-legged on the floor, yet when motioned to sit on the mat with us, he declined, too shy to sit with two foreign women.

The mother, who couldn’t speak a word of Russian, handed me a large photo. Her husband translated her guttural Kyrgyz: “My son, my son”, she boasted as she passionately motioned towards her heart. “He lives in Russia, he works there. Seven years he has been there”, she proudly told us, with a glint of sadness in her eyes. “He came back three years ago to visit us. He returns in a few months,” she exclaimed, beaming with joy. A rainbow of golden teeth glittered in the afternoon sun. “Does he like it there?” I asked. “Yes, yes, of course, but we miss him”.

Moscow attracts scores of young Muslim men from all over the former Soviet republics, who leave their homeland in search for a better life and job opportunities in the bustling Russian capital. Most work in construction and it is not unusual for these young men to work long shifts, sometimes 18-hour days. Many are often victims of racist abuse. As I sat in the modest home of these warm-hearted people, I couldn’t help but question whether their son really was happy in Moscow.

“He is getting married to a Tajik lady, from the local village”, she revealed. “They are engaged. They will meet soon, for the first time!”. “Oh, congratulations! But…”, I muttered, questioningly.

“We met her family and we like them very much. They live close by, just up the road. We showed their daughter a photo of our beloved son, and she likes his good looks. Look! Just look at him!” she exclaimed, waving her son’s photo in the air. “They all approved! We sent our son her photo via MMS. He thinks she is beautiful. They will soon meet and marry!”, she cried, holding her hands to her heart. Her husband glanced at me, his thin lips proudly curling into a smile as he nodded in approval. I couldn’t help but chuckle at the thought of their son giving the thumbs up back in Moscow.

As I sat cross-legged on the floor and looked around at the humble surrounds, preparing to leave our generous hosts’ home, I curiously marvelled at how the obsolete black Nokia phone that lay at the mother’s feet had so easily secured a wedding.

The interior of the Sinai peninsula is a stark, unforgiving place. Beneath a strikingly blue sky lie parched mountains, rocky outcrops and great expanses of barren sand, interspersed with isolated oases and crisscrossed by medieval pilgrimage routes. It is, in the truest sense, a landscape of biblical proportions.

In the south of this region, just a few hours’ drive from the booming tourist resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, rises the magnificent 2285m Mount Sinai, venerated by Christians, Muslims and Jews alike as the site of God’s unveiling of the Ten Commandments. Although there is some doubt about whether this red-and-grey granite peak is actually the site mentioned in the Bible, it is undeniably awe-inspiring – particularly the views from the summit, reached via 3750 knee-crunching “Steps of Repentance”, or the easier but longer “camel path”. Despite the crowds of pilgrims, travellers and Bedouin guides (and their camels), a night camped out here under a star-filled sky allows you to wake up to one of the most beautiful sunrises imaginable.

Almost as atmospheric – and considerably more comfortable – is a stay at the guesthouse in the grounds of the imposing St Catherine’s Monastery, which stands at the foot of Mount Sinai. Dating back to 337 BC, this active Greek Orthodox monastery looks more like a fortress than a place of religious devotion. Behind its forbidding walls is what is reputed to be the burning bush from which God spoke to Moses, as well as a library containing innumerable priceless texts and manuscripts, including fragments of the world’s oldest Bible, the 1600-year-old Codex Sinaiticus.

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Sahara Desert, Morocco

Sleep beneath the twinkling Saharan stars, accompanied by a few irascible dromedaries. You can explore the desert as part of a tour (usually setting off from Marrakesh, and heading up and over the beautiful Atlas Mountains), and choose your level of comfort, from simple canvas tents to luxurious Berber pavilions, complete with soft beds, rugged floors and handcrafted furniture.

Corsica, France

The GR20 is a challenging trek snaking diagonally across the French island of Corsica. Depending on how much of the 180km path you choose to tackle, the hike requires stamina, and a few nights bedding down in refuges (mountain huts) or under canvas nearby. Admittedly, if you like to camp in seclusion, this might not be for you: in peak season, the refuges and accompanying camping grounds get very busy – but the walking and spectacular countryside more than compensates.

Mount Everest, Nepal

Mount Everest needs no introduction, and nor does Everest Base Camp. At 5364m, it’s the highest campsite in the world, the bedtime target for tough hikers en route to the top of the giant mountain. The landscape up here is harsh and inhospitable, but Base Camp retains a cheerful mood with its little domed tents decked with multi-coloured flags.

The Lake District, UK

The shimmering lakes and sheep-studded hills of the Lake District provide a glorious, bucolic backdrop for a slumber beneath canvas. The whole area is peppered with campsites, perfect for families, hikers and nature-lovers. Buttermere, Ambleside, Borrowdale and Grasmere are particularly gorgeous camping spots.

The Outback, Australia

Camping in Australia generally means “bushcamping” – proper back-to-basics stuff, with no amenities to speak of. However, if you do like your water running, a shower to douse yourself in and a barbecue to fire up, there are also plenty of caravan parks (aka holiday parks). Wherever you go, you’re sure to feel humbled by the enormity and breathtaking beauty of Oz’s rust-red outback.

Yellowstone National Park, USA

Yellowstone has long been a favourite camping area for visitors keen to see the world’s largest collection of geysers, including Old Faithful. There are 12 official campgrounds in the park offering basic amenities (you can reserve a pitch in advance at 5 of them), but if you’re after real solitude among the pine-clad hills, then make for the backcountry, where you’ll find smaller, quieter designated camping spots.

Wild Camping, Iceland

Not only is wild camping in Iceland a phenomenal experience, it also helps to keep more pennies in the wallet, which is a hard task in a country this pricey. Wherever you decide to pitch your tent, make sure you’ve got permission from the nearest farmhouse. The national parks – like Skaftafell and Jökulsárgljúfur – provide Scandi scenery par excellence… wildflowers, spiked mountain ridges and hulking icy glaciers.

Milford Sound, New Zealand

Rudyard Kipling waxed lyrical about Milford Sound in New Zealand’s Fiordland, dubbing it the “eighth wonder of the world”. Its beauty is not lost on the general public, so to enjoy this incredible area it’s best to camp there for a night or two. Campsites sit within the bush, which offers fantastic walking right on your “doorstep”, as well as next to trout-filled rivers (bring your rod) and glacial lakes perfect for a refreshing dip.

Isle of Harris, Outer Hebrides

Scotland + camping = midges. The Isle of Harris might not be the mainland, but there are still clouds of midges in force up there. Just to warn you. However, the stunning Hebridean landscape – sandy dunes and soft sea grasses, and a rugged, mountainous interior – is irresistible for a hardy camper.

Acatenango Volcano, Guatemala

Acatenango last blew its top in 1972. That’s really not so long ago, but if you have faith in the old mountain, head on up. The ascent takes you through cultivated farmland, followed by cloud forest and then alpine forest, before finally leading you into barren volcanic landscape. You can camp en route, but if you’re feeling brave, bed down in the crater itself. Just watch for bubbling magma…

Hokkaido Island, Japan

Hokkaido Island, Japan’s most northern and remote island, feels distinctly “un-Japanese” and arguably more European (possibly thanks to the lavender, pictured). It’s not particularly touristy, instead being the preserve of Japanese city folk keen to escape the chaos of urban living for a few nights in the wilderness, surrounded by bubbling hot springs, dense forest and gleaming lakes.

Masoala National Park, Madagascar

The main attraction of a camping trip in Madagascar is undoubtedly the wildlife: from red-ruffed lemurs and goggle-eyed chameleons, not to mention the dubious-looking (but still quite cute) aye-ayes, that dwell within the varied ecosystems of Masoala National Park, you’re guaranteed a sighting of at least one exotic beast.

Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya

Drifting off to sleep with the sound of grunting hippos in your ears is an interesting experience, but that’s what an overnight trip to Kenya’s Masai Mara is all about. Standards of camping in the national reserve vary – from petal-flecked honeymooning pavilions to more basic “army-style” tents – but it’s the breathtaking landscape and awe-inspiring animal life that matter most here.

Gower Peninsula, Wales

The Gower Peninsula in Wales is famed for its beautiful coastline – and how better to appreciate it than from your canvas shelter overlooking the rolling waves and butterscotch sand. Surfers (surfing conditions are great round here) and families make up the majority of the camping demographic – it’s what idyllic UK holidays are made of.

Grand Canyon, USA

The South Rim of the Grand Canyon, being closest to travel links, is the most visited section, so if you want to avoid heavy camping crowds, head for the North Rim – though be aware that the tourist season here is shorter, due to less favourable weather. Dawn is a spectacular time to witness the majestic Canyon come to life: as the sun rises, the landscape shows off its fiery furnace colours.

Taman Negara, Malaysia

This swathe of tropical rainforest in Malaysia’s interior makes for a wonderful hiking and camping experience. There are masses of trails – from easy boardwalk strolls to tougher day-treks – but wherever you go, you’ll come across spectacular wildlife like monkeys, elephants, tapir and mouse deer. Less attractive are the leeches, which you’ll need to prepare yourself for. Basic campsites are scattered throughout the park, mostly next to rivers.

Swiss Alps, Switzerland

Fresh alpine air tinged with the scent of wild pine, undulating meadows cloaked with cheery wildflowers and crystal-clear, ice-cold streams trickling down mountain-sides – who could resist such a wholesome camping backdrop? The Swiss Alps have plenty of gorgeous campsites at varying altitudes, offering perfectly peaceful night-time stopovers.

Fraser Island, Australia

Fraser Island – the world’s largest sand island – is about 300km north of Brisbane and home to some incredibly beautiful beaches as well a number of dingoes. Days are filled with an invigorating concoction of swimming, fishing, walking and boating, and at night you’ll be lulled to sleep by the peaceful sounds of the great outdoors just outside your tent.

Cordillera Huayhuash, Peru

Back away from the Inca Trail: the Cordillera Huayhuash means serious Peruvian trekking. Remote and rugged, the Cordillera is part of the Andes mountain range, and comes with accordingly high altitude. Over the years, security and infrastructure here has improved to allow ambitious trekkers and campers access to this challenging and impossibly beautiful terrain.

Glastonbury, UK

This image (dating from 2005) is in no way meant to put you off from camping at Glastonbury, the world’s biggest and best green-field music festival…but it would be reckless to go without expecting a least a little British downpour at some point. Nothing can match the sight of thousands of exuberant festival-goers descending on the picturesque Vale of Avalon in Somerset in June.

Cocos Island, Costa Rica

Just off the coast of Costa Rica in the Pacific Ocean, the island of Cocos has a tropical rainforest. In fact, it’s the only island with a tropical rainforest in this neck of the woods, which makes it a fascinating anomaly. The surrounding waters hold even more wonders, with divers reporting superb conditions in which to goggle at sharks, rays and dolphins.

Studenica Monastery, Serbia

As the biggest and best of Serbia’s Orthodox monasteries, complete with two white marble churches (the Church of the King and the Church of the Virgin), Studenica reflects the country’s medieval boom time. The remains of the first Serb kings lie in rest here, and inside the churches are breathtaking Byzantine paintings.

St Kilda, Scotland

The last residents were evacuated from the Outer Hebrides island of St Kilda in the 1930s, no longer able to sustain themselves in tough, remote conditions. It’s now given over to seabirds, who have rendered this place Europe’s most important seabird colony. Along with the puffins and gannets are the remains of abandoned villages, and these are now protected by a team of conservationists and volunteers from the National Trust.

Mazagan, Morocco

Morocco is already a top tourist destination, and almost everyone has heard of the big draws like Marrakesh, Fes and Essaouira. Mazagan, 90km southwest of Casablanca, is an often overlooked city brimming with rich historical significance. Originally built by the Portuguese in the early 16th century, it was taken over by the Moroccans in 1769 and today exhibits a special architectural amalgamation of the two nations.

Lumbini, Nepal

The birthplace of Buddha, Lumbini in southern Nepal is currently being developed, with temples under construction and gardens cultivated around pre-existing archeological sites. As this is where Buddha lived till he was 29, Lumbini is already a very holy place, yet the expansion is aiming to attract larger numbers of pilgrims.

Tubbataha Reef, Philippines

A diver’s paradise, for Tubbataha Reef, southeast of Puerto Princesa City in Palawan, literally teems with precious marine life. From multi-coloured coral and hammerhead sharks to silvery barracudas and thick-lipped Napoleon wrasse, the icing on the cake is undoubtedly seeing Hawksbill and Green Bill turtles. It’s an isolated reef, so to visit you’ll have to set sail on a liveaboard boat.

Bukhara, Uzbekistan

This exquisite Silk Road city is over 2000 years old, and lays claim to being the most complete medieval city in Central Asia. Some of its monuments and buildings would alone be enough to secure World Heritage status, but it’s the integrity and unity of the conglomeration that’s truly startling. A highlight here is the famous tomb of Ismail Samani, a magnum opus of Muslim architecture.

Volcanoes of Kamchatka, Russia

Gloriously peppered about the glacial Kamchatka region in eastern Russia, these volcanoes are thought to be some of the most beautiful in the world – yet not many people know about them. Perhaps that’s because they’ve never been particularly destructive, though many are active. The area supports some wonderful wildlife including sea eagles, sea otters and peregrine falcons.

Vredefort Dome, South Africa

A place of superlatives, as South Africa’s Vredefort Dome, 120km southwest of Johannesburg, is not only the oldest astrobleme (literally “star wound”) but the largest as well. 2, 023 million years ago, an enormous meteorite thumped into the earth’s crust, creating a gigantic hole measuring 190km across. The effects must have been devastating. Today, visitors come to gawp at the depth and size of the crater, an impressive reminder of quite how old our planet is.

Gebel Barkal and the Sites of Napatan, Sudan

Together with the small mountain dubbed the Gebel (or Jebel) Barkal, the five Sites of the Napatan straddle the River Nile and spread over 60km. These sites are seriously, seriously old, representing both the Napatan (900 to 270 BC) and Meroitic (270 to 350 AD) dynasties. You’ll find ancient pyramids, tombs, temples and palaces here – some still worshipped by the locals today.

Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico

Hidden deep beneath scrubby New Mexico land, the 117 caves that make up Carlsbad Caverns National Park have a wonderful, magical feel to them, despite the fact you have to be decontaminated before entering. Carlsbad Cavern is the biggest and most exciting chamber in the park, housing all sorts of delightfully named stalactites such as the “Witch’s Finger” and the “Totem Pole”.

Le Havre, France

Compared with more traditional French sights like Arles and the Canal du Midi, some might dispute the inclusion of the northern town of Le Havre on the UNESCO list. However, that would be to disregard the monumental achievements by a certain Monsieur Auguste Peret, who rebuilt the town to a spectacularly unified and consistent design, following its flattening during World War II bomb raids.

Dinosaur Provincial Park, Canada

This badland park in Alberta has the richest deposit of dinosaur bones and fossils in the world. From being doused by great rivers and later covered by a thick sheet of ice during the Ice Age, to switching to swampy grove and morphing into today’s drier, rocky land, the area has undergone perfect conditions to preserve many species of reptilian beasties.

Saltaire, England

Saltaire near Bradford in West Yorkshire was founded by eminent Victorian industrialist Sir Titus Salt, who built a textiles mill and village to house his workers on the banks of the River Aire. Hence the name: Salt–aire. Far from being a stuffed model, it is still a living village. Salt built a concert hall, hospital, gymnasium and washhouses with running water for his employees.

Aigai, Greece

We all know Greece is loaded with ancient archeological sites, but Aigai, near modern-day Vergina in the north of the country, is a particularly important find – and relatively overlooked. Touted as the first capital of the Kingdom of Macedonia, the site features a massive palace plastered with amazing mosaics, and a huge burial ground with over 300 tombs and graves.

China Danxia, Southwest China

China Danxia is a catch-all term referring to several World Heritage sites in the southwest of the country that are typified by incredible rock formations erupting from red sedimentary beds. Weathering has contributed to the creation of odd-shaped ravines, waterfalls, caves, towers and pillars, all soaked in mesmerizing colours like russet, burnt orange, rose pink and apricot.

Rohtas Fort, Pakistan

It’s hard to take in the sheer size of this majestic fort with its vast, bastion-lined walls stretching out 4km long. The fort, situated near the city of Jhelum in northern Pakistan, dates back to the sixteenth century and is the best-known example of early Muslim military architecture.

Gulf of Porto, Corsica

Created in 1975, Corsica’s Regional Natural Park covers nearly 40 percent of the island and includes the wild Gulf of Porto on the island’s western coastline. This part of the island, particularly around the so-called Scandola peninsula, features a mass of rust-red porphyritic rocks, spiked islets, gaping caves and sea stacks.

Shibam, Yemen

An incongruous sight, this: tower blocks soaring several stories high, encompassed by a fortified wall and plonked in the middle of the South Arabian plateau. But these are no ordinary towers; dating to the sixteenth century, these amazing buildings are made entirely out of sun-dried mud. It’s no surprise that Shibam is cutely nicknamed the “Manhatten of the Desert”.

Rock paintings, Baja California

The people who created these magnificent rock paintings have long gone, but the figures of animals and humans are as dramatic and brightly coloured today as the day they were daubed, in pre-Hispanic times. The dry heat of the Sierra de San Francisco and the inaccessibility of the caves have ensured their remarkable preservation, though a visit is certainly possible – just be prepared for long journeys involving driving, hiking and mule-riding.

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:

Think of Morocco and you’ll invariably picture the souks of Marrakesh, the whitewashed walls of oceanside Essaouira, the High Atlas trails of the dramatic Toubkal Massif. Trouble is, so does everybody else. This well-trodden triangle is Morocco’s most popular tourist route – for good reason – but in a country that welcomes nearly ten million visitors a year, venturing just slightly off the beaten track can make all the difference to your trip. Here are five of our favourite low-key alternatives and unheralded highlights to get you started.

MEKNES

Morocco’s forgotten imperial city is more intimate and manageable than Marrakesh, Fez and Rabat, but in many ways just as rewarding. The souks of carpet traders, basketmakers, silversmiths and sweet sellers are on a smaller scale, which means there’s less hassle and the bargaining is more fun. But the Medina is only half the story. Just south of the old town lies the other half: the Ville Impériale, an immense walled complex of ceremonial gateways, subterranean vaults and vast granaries that once housed over fifty palaces. The lavish ensemble was the work of one man, Sultan Moulay Ismail, whose tranquil mausoleum (pictured above) is one of only three active shrines in the country that are open to non-Muslims.

AÏT BOUGUEMEZ

Until the late 1990s, the only way into the glorious Aït Bouguemez was on the back of a mule. Tarmac is still something of a novelty here, and while a highly spectacular road now wends its way down to the lower end of the valley, the villages that dot its barren slopes still feel wonderfully remote. The hordes may flock to Toubkal, but trekkers in the know head northeast out of Marrakesh instead – the Aït Bouguemez’s peaceful trails include a variety of mountainous day-hikes, or you can tackle the multi-day ascent of Jebel M’Goun, one of Morocco’s highest peaks.

TAROUDANT

Taroudant was fleetingly Morocco’s capital before the Saadians upped sticks for Marrakesh five centuries ago, but while the Red City has become Morocco’s number-one tourist attraction, its predecessor has slipped slowly off the radar. Performers gather in the evening at the main square, Place Assarag, just like they do in Marrakesh’s more famous Jemaa el Fna, and there are a couple of interesting souks selling spices and jewellery from the Anti-Atlas. But Taroudant’s defining feature is its majestic ramparts, which encircle the town in its entirety – rent a bike and head out in the late afternoon, when the walls glow like toasted flapjacks.

BHALIL

Few tourists make it to Sefrou, an ancient market town near Fez that actually predates its more illustrious neighbour. Even fewer make it to Bhalil, five minutes’ further down the road and believed to be even older still. Suffice to say, you’ll have this intriguing little village pretty much to yourself. Bhalil is built on top of a network of caves, many of them still in use as troglodyte dwellings, and chances are you’ll be invited in for mint tea, pancakes and a large helping of genuine Berber hospitality.

ERG CHIGAGA

Spending a night under Saharan stars is one of the real draws of the Moroccan south. Most people head to Merzouga, where the mighty Erg Chebbi dunes roll out to the border with Algeria. It’s a special place, deservedly popular, but the resulting clamour for camel trips – in high season, at least – can leave you wondering if there’s ever a crescent that’s free of footprints, or a panorama that doesn’t feature bobbing tourists clad in blue. Instead, follow the Drâa Valley south to M’Hamid, a desert outpost beyond Zagora, and venture deep into the Erg Chigaga, 60km southwest of town. Camped in the lee of a dune, with just your camels for company, you’ll begin to appreciate what pure isolation really feels like.

Keith Drew is a co-author of The Rough Guide to Morocco.

We reached Monument Valley just as the sun was beginning to sink towards the horizon, casting a vivid glow on the red sandstone towers. As we stood on the balcony of our room at The View Hotel (the only hotel in Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park itself), it was hard not to feel moved by the sight of the dramatic buttes – though this iconic “Wild West” landscape felt incredibly familiar, we hadn’t anticipated just how overwhelming it would feel to see such a majestic landscape in person, practically within touching distance.

All images by Emma Gibbs

Monument Valley is far larger than its most classic view, of the Left and Right mittens and Merrick Butte, would have you believe, with the flat plain constantly revealing more and more brooding mesas and weather-carved towers. It’s hard to believe that people would live in such an unforgiving landscape, but the area was originally inhabited by the Ancestral Puebloans (until around 1300AD), and today Navajo people still live here – their basic houses looking incongruous against the stark beauty of the surrounding rocks as you drive through the park.

Staying at The View, it’s hard to drag yourself away from the sight of the valley – whether eating lunch in the restaurant, sitting in the lobby, or just in your room, it’s everywhere you turn, and I found that even glancing up from my book briefly would find me losing half an hour watching the scenery shift and change under the sunlight. But there’s only so much you can really experience from just looking at a landscape, after all, and the park is incredibly easy to explore, either independently or on a tour; the latter will enable you to get off the main road through the park and gain a unique local Navajo perspective – and some context – on the surroundings.

The Wildcat Trail is the only hike that’s possible in the valley without a guide, and was, with no exaggeration, the highlight of our two weeks exploring this corner of the US. For almost the entire route (an easy, if sandy, 3.3 mile-loop), we were the only people on the trail, which meant we felt as though we had the whole of Monument Valley to ourselves, the vast silence broken only by the occasional rustle of a wild horse, or our exclamations of wonder at our surroundings. The trail winds around the Left Mitten, allowing you to get a close look at the towering sandstone formation, with its distinctive “thumb”, and opening up closer views of the Right Mitten and Merrick Butte than you could experience from the road or the hotel.

The only problem with the trail is that it allows you to only see a very small fraction of the park – to really begin to grasp how big it is, you have to hit the road. The self-drive route is a 17-mile, very bumpy (and, with a couple of hairpin bends to kick things off, mildly perilous) unpaved road through the valley. Though it doesn’t get you quite as into the wild as a guided tour, and though you do have to jostle at times with other tourists, it’s a great way to experience more of the park. We set off after lunch, just a few hours before sunset, and the dimming light lent the landscape an even more magical quality as the road opened up vista after vista of incredible rocks. Though you can’t get out and walk for any great distance, there are viewpoints continually along the road, so you can stop and really soak up the views – especially worthwhile when you reach a viewpoint that you have all to yourselves.

The trouble with visiting somewhere on your “must-see” list, as this was for me, is that there’s always the risk that it’s not quite going to live up to expectation. But visiting Monument Valley felt almost like seeing it for the first time, such was the drama of the scenery. On our last day, standing on the viewing terrace as the sun set, the light changing the reds of the sandstone to pinks and purples, it felt almost like looking out at the valley for the first time – an untamed landscape, waiting to be explored.

Explore more of the Southwest USA on Rough Guides >

 

Cabot Trail, Canada

A 298km road through the island of Cape Breton, arguably the most beautiful part of Nova Scotia. The highlight of the trail is the northern section, which takes you through the magnificent Cape Breton Highlands National Park, home to bald eagles, moose and black bears. Take the journey at a leisurely pace to explore charming small villages where the French and Scottish influence is still obvious.

The Garden Route, South Africa

The lush, slender stretch of coastal plain between Mossel Bay and Storms River Mouth makes for an easy – but beautiful – introduction to South Africa, with mountains and vineyards on one side, and rocky shores and sandy beaches on the other. The coast is at its most dramatic at Storms River Mouth; abandon your wheels here to walk the trails, with the surf pounding the rocks below you.

Colombia River Gorge, USA

Travelling east out of Portland, Oregon, Interstate-84 winds its way beside the beautiful Colombia River Gorge. Though it’s just 112km and easily covered in one day, a few days will enable you to get the most out of the area and to take your time soaking up the views of the USA’s second-longest river, and its many dramatic waterfalls.

San Juan Skyway, USA

This 380km drive through Colorado’s dramatic San Juan Range will take you past gushing streams and waterfalls in spring, bright wildflowers in summer, and snowy slopes in winter. However, this fabulous route is at its most spectacular in autumn, when the landscape is ablaze with the yellows, oranges and reds of the leaves.

Gobi Desert, Mongolia

Off-road to your heart’s content in the Gobi Desert, where kilometre after kilometre of nothingness stretches out seemingly infinitely around you. This truly remote region has a rugged beauty (not least the sand dunes of Khongoryn Els); when you get tired of being behind the wheel, explore on camel back and spend your nights at a traditional Ger camp.

South Island Circuit, New Zealand

The South Island is where New Zealand’s landscape is at its most remarkable, and driving around it at your own pace allows you to really soak up the many varied vistas, stopping for an adrenalin fix every now and again. Arguably the most stunning part of the drive is between Te Anau and Milford Sound, which crosses tranquil Fiordland and some of the Southern Alps.

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Driving across the perfectly flat white expanse of the world’s largest salt lake, it’s easy to believe you’re on another planet. After rain, the salt flats are turned into an enormous mirror that reflects the suorrounding peaks; when dry, the surface is so intensely white that it appears to be ice; at night, the landscape is illuminated by the eerie white glow of the moon.

Costa Smeralda, Sardinia

Sardinia’s beautiful northern coast, the Costa Smeralda (or “Emerald Coast”), sees the meeting of dramatic headlands and turquoise waters. This is the island’s best-known resort area, with a reputation for glitzy opulence – visit in late spring or early autumn for the best experience; quieter roads, beautiful weather, and uncrowded beaches.

Iceland’s ring road

A 1339-kilometre road that runs right around the island, the N1 enables you to enjoy Iceland’s awe-inspiring scenery, taking you from fertile valleys and snow-capped mountains to lava fields, vivid blue fjords and volcanic craters. A beautiful, if brutal, landscape of big open spaces that is perfect for exploring on four wheels.

The Karakoram Highway

The highest paved road in the world, the Karakoram Highway connects China and Pakistan across the rocky mountain range that separates the two countries. Undoubtedly one of the world’s most stunning routes, the journey takes you through some suitably epic scenery, from towering snow-capped mountains to rocky gorges and pale blue rivers, not to mention past numerous pieces of rock art, which date back as far as 1000BC.

Tasmanian peninsula, Australia

This southeastern corner of Tasmania is one of the most stunning parts of Australia, boasting a rugged coastline that leads down to crystal clear waters. Self-driving is the best way to explore – allow plenty of time for stops to get up close to the spectacular scenery, not least to see Tasman’s Arch and the Devil’s Kitchen.

Highway 61, USA

There’s no greater musical odyssey to be had in the USA than that of the Blues Highway – running south for 2300km from Wyoming, Minnesota to New Orleans, Louisiana, it follows the course of the mighty Mississippi River for much of the way. The greatest stretch for music lovers is undoubtedly that from the Blues city of Memphis to intoxicating New Orleans.

Northern and eastern coastline, Brazil

A road-trip for beach-lovers, taking you between Jericoacoara, with its fine white-sand beach and turquoise lagoon, and Salvador, second only to Rio for the magnificance of its natural setting. In between stretch kilometre after kilometre of unbroken beaches that are undoubtedly among the most beautiful in the world, from sheltered reef beaches to wilder ones backed by mountainous sand dunes and palm trees.

Ruta 40, Argentina

Running parallel to the spine of the Andes, this is one of the longest roads in the Americas, taking you from tranquil lakes and lush national parks to salt flats and the wilds of Patagonia. Best of all, you can relax at the end of the day with an glass of delicious local wine.

Pan-American Highway

This has to be the ultimate road trip, travelling from Patagonia, the southernmost tip of Argentina, to Alaska – or rather, from the Antarctic to the Arctic – and covering an astounding 48,000km. The world’s longest driving route (only broken in Panama by the rainforested Darién Gap), you encounter almost every ecosystem and habitat on earth along the way.

The Golden Road to Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Trace traders’ footsteps through the heart of the historic Silk Route in Uzbekistan. An eight to ten day trip, best experienced by hiring a 4WD, the Golden Road journeys through breathtaking landscapes and historic cities – nowhere more impressive than your end goal, Samarkand, home to the beautiful turquoise-domed Registan.

The Atlantic Road, Norway

The short length of this road – a mere 8.3km – belies just how impressive the route is. Eight low bridges link the islands between Molde and Kristiansund in the western fjords, the most stunning of which is Storseisundet, curving scenically above the water. In calm weather, you can spot seals and whales, while autumn brings its own appeal with dramatic rain storms that pound the road.

The Outer Hebrides, Scotland

The single-track road that runs down this island chain is one of Britain’s greatest driving experiences; rugged, windswept and jaw-droppingly beautiful. Travelling both by road and sea, the route enables you to do a bit of island-hopping, experiencing beautiful beaches like Luskentyre, ancient standing stones, and the justifiably renowed Hebridian hospitality.

Bollenstreek Route, Netherlands

The Netherlands are renowned for their flowers, and there’s no better way to experience them then on the Bollenstreek – or Bulb – route. The best time of year to drive the road is, unsurprisingly, spring, when brightly-coloured flowers carpet the plains – it’s not just tulips that you can expect to see, but also narcissi, hyacinths, irises and dahlias, among many others.

The Atlantic Highway, England

The A39 from Bridgewater to Bude runs scenically along the northern coast of Devon into Cornwall, boasting some of the country’s best sea views on one side, and wild, dramatic hills on the other. With pretty villages and sweeping beaches to explore, not to mention the great expanse of Exmoor National Park, this is perfect for a leisurely few days of exploring.

Black Forest, Germany

Arguably Germany’s most picturesque region, with sweeping evergreen forests and rolling hills dotted with pretty villages and historic towns, the Black Forest is ideal driving territory. At the end of a long day exploring, retreat to one of the spa towns like Baden-Baden for a restorative soak in the local waters.

Basque Circuit, Spain

This 480km route through northern Spain takes you through some of the country’s (many) highlights – Bilbao, Pamplona, the Pyrenees, and back along the coast, with the beautiful Bay of Biscayne on your right. You’ll want plenty of time to explore – not least to sample some of the wonderful local food – and to allow for the views to distract you along the way.

Great Ocean Road, Australia

Extending 285km between Torquay and Warrnambool in southwestern Victoria, the Great Ocean Road was conceived as a scenic road of world repute to commemorate the soldiers who died during World War I. The most spectacular part of the drive is undoubtedly the appropriately named “Shipwreck Coast”, home to the dramatic, and iconic, rock formations of the Twelve Apostles.

Skeleton Coast, Namibia

This barren stretch of coast – named for the countless shipwrecks that have occurred here over the centuries, many of which can still be seen – is often shrouded in mist. Its appeal lies not only in its dramatic scenery, but also in the hostile remoteness of its location. In addition to windswept sand dunes, expect black lava ridges and granite massifs, and spot elephants, black rhinos and springboks from your 4WD.

Avenue of the Baobabs, Madagascar

This dusty road in western Madagascar, between Morondava and Belon’i Tsirbihina, is lined by remarkable baobab trees – especially striking in contrast to the low shrubland that surrounds them. With the lofty trees reaching up to 30m height and 11m diameter, and up to 800 years old, the majesty of the baobab can only really be appreciated by seeing them in person – a truly extraordinary sight.

Uluru, Australia

There’s nothing quite like driving through the brilliant red, parched desert of Australia’s Northern Territory and seeing Uluru rising up in front of you for the first time. Despite being one of the most recognizable rocks in the world, it’s hard not to be awestruck by it – whether drenched in fierce Australian sunlight, or softened by the colours of sunrise and sunset, it’s a memory you won’t ever forget.

The Oman Circle

A wonderful way to explore this fascinating country, allowing you to experience a whole range of its beautiful landscapes, from deserts and dunes to cave systems and exotic souks. Be sure to take a break from the road to spot turtles on Ras Al Jinz beach, or to try wild-swimming in the river at the bottom of a wadi.

Powder Highway, Canada

British Columbia’s Powder Highway is the perfect road trip for lovers of the white stuff. The roads that make up this 1094km loop run through the heart of the region, taking in traditional ski resorts – including Kicking Horse and Fernie – and backcountry ski lodges, not to mention the fabulous mountain views that unfold with every turn in the road.

Ocean Drive, USA

There’s no denying that Portland, Oregon, is currently one of the coolest cities in the USA – start your journey with a few days here, soaking up the vibrant music scene, before heading south down the coast. Here, mile after mile of beautiful – and empty – beaches await, complemented by sweet villages; you might even be able to spot grey whales just off the coast.

The Road to Mount Nebo, Jordan

Following the road 10km northwest of Madaba leads you to Mount Nebo, said to be the final resting place of Moses, and of unique resonance to Jews, Christians and Muslims. Though there’s nothing to see in terms of remains, the journey is more than worth it to experience the isolated mountain, which is crowned by an ancient church that houses some marvellous mosaics.

New York City to Niagara, USA

This is an epic drive, covering an impressive 2100km, from New York City to the Niagara Falls and Lake Ontario, before returning to the bright lights via the Amish farms and vineyards near Ithaca. A fantastic route throughout the year – whether you experience snow in the Catskills, the lush green countryside in summer, or the irresistable colours of the autumn leaves in the Andirondacks.

Big Sur, USA

The USA is full of iconic drives, and undoutbedly one of the most famous is that along California’s Highway-1 – of which the highlight is the Big Sur. With 145km of wild and undeveloped coastline, the road curves through bedrock cliffs above the ocean; below hide sandy beaches, while inland are grand redwood groves lining river canyons in the shadow of the Saint Lucia Mountains.

Badlands National Park, USA

There’s a rugged beauty to Badlands National Park, where the layered rock formations, ravines and mesas provide particularly striking panoramas. The classic route through the park is on Highway 240 – or the “Badlands Loop” – where the 51km drive takes you past fourteen different viewpoints where you can appreciate up the sheer scale and isolation of the national park.

The Road to Hana, Hawaii

Short but dramatic, the Road to Hana on the Hawaiian island of Maui may be just 109km, but it encompasses six hundred twists and turns, and fifty narrow bridges, making it surprisingly white-knuckle at times. The pay-off is more than worth it, however, as you pass lush jungle, cascading waterfalls and steep cliffs that lead down to stereotypically picturesque Hawaiian beaches.

Coastal Route 15, Mexico

An unforgettable road that runs from Nogales, on the US border, to the seaside town of Puerto Vallerta – once you hit the Pacific, expect ocean on one side and anything from desert to rainforest on the other. You’ll need at least five days to do the stretch justice, allowing time to take in tiny seaside pueblos, colonial villages and the vivid blue of the ocean.

Corsica’s northwest coast, France

The 112 hair-raising kilometres of the D81 from Calvi to Cargèse takes you through jagged mountains with a unique, savage beauty. Ten days will allow you to really make the most of the journey, from Calvi’s bustling port to the vivid-red rock gorge of the Fango River, and the fabulous views of the Scandola headland to be had from the Croce Pass.

Izmir to Dalaman, Turkey

With big landscapes, tall mountains, expansive farmland and unspoilt villages, Turkey is made for driving. Highlights along the way include the ornate detailing of the whitewashed houses in Mugla’s historic quarter, ancient Ephesus, and the mountainous Bozburun Peninsula – not to mention fabulous local wines.

Azerbaijan

Relatively untouched by tourism, travelling around Azerbaijan by road allows you to really experience this fascinating country – taking you from sleepy towns and vineyards to mud volcanoes, tea plantations and cloud forests, and complemented in between by deliciously fresh cuisine, which blends the best of the flavours of its neighbouring countries.

Drâa Valley, Morocco

Following the valley carved out by the Drâa Valley for 95km between Agdz and Zagora takes you through some truly fabulous scenery in the High Atlas Mountains. The route follows craggy cliffs and steep canyons, and is flanked by an amazing series of turreted, creamy pink ksour and kasbahs, many of which are grouped just off the road, up above the terraces of date palms.

Coastal North Africa

The great cities of Marrakesh in Morocco and Alexandria in Egypt are linked by a series of connecting roads; driving between the two allows you to experience the great variety of the region, from small whitewashed coast towns to desert flora and fauna. Stop on the way to marvel at the occasional Bedouin caravan, to explore atmospheric Roman ruins, or to stroll around grand French and Italian colonial villas.

If you’re after unforgettable experiences to add to your travel bucket list, look no further. With some help from our authors, editors and other travel experts, we’ve run-down 30 of the most incredible sights and activities around the world. Whether you want to embark on an epic journey, encounter some of the world’s most fascinating wildlife or discover places off the beaten track, read on…

The Travel Bucket List
30 unforgettable travel experiences chosen by Rough Guides writers and editors and other travel experts

Get lost in Fez el Bali

Keith Drew, Co-author of
the Rough Guide to Morocco
There are few places left in the world where you can get well and truly lost. But then there are few places in the world like Fez el Bali, an impenetrable maze of lanes and blind alleys that make up the beating heart of Morocco’s cultural capital.
Resist the urge to pull a map from your pocket and go with the human flow. Drop down into the bowels of the Medina, past camel heads advertising the local butchers and vendors bartering in the spice souk.
Let your senses steer you: to the sound of metalworkers hammering away at immense copper cauldrons on Place Seffarine; to the brightly coloured yarns drying in the heat on Souk Sabbaghine; or to the thick stench of the tanneries, a medieval scene of workers stood knee deep in a honeycomb of vats.
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Take the Trans-Mongolian Express

Mark Smith, The Man in Seat 61
The Trans-Siberian Railway is the granddaddy of all train rides, and easily the most
interesting section is the weekly Trans-Mongolian Express from Moscow to Beijing. It traverses Siberia and rounds Lake Baikal, strikes south across the Gobi desert past camels and nomads’ yurts, and heads into the mountains of northern China, with glimpses of the Great Wall in the distance

Conquer an Icelandic glacier

Tim Chester, Editor, Roughguides.com
While Reykjavik, with its bright primary-coloured corrugated metal houses and welcoming residents, is an essential base – and the Blue Lagoon is a justifiably popular attraction – to really experience Iceland you need to find a glacier. A short minibus ride from the capital will take you far from the tourist trail of lava fields and waterfalls and into endless icy oblivion. Here, armed with crampons and pickaxes, you can explore the endless crevices and precarious ridges of the country’s vast but receding glaciers. The locals spend a week trekking over some of the larger masses and camping overnight on bare ice, but an afternoon is plenty.

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Pitcairn Islands
Carcass Island
St Helena
Tristan de Cunha

Travel to the Teatime Islands

Ben Fogle, Writer and adventurer
I’d recommend a journey to what I called the Teatime Islands in my first travel book of the same name. They’re incredibly remote islands that still belong to the UK and encompass the Pitcairn Islands in the southern Pacific Ocean, Carcass Island which is part of the Falkland Islands, and St Helena in the South Atlantic Ocean. The one I’d really highlight would be Tristan de Cunha in the Atlantic Ocean. Spending two weeks on a ship from Cape Town is a fantastically romantic way to arrive.
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Visit Herculaneum in the
shadow of Mount Vesuvius
Lucy Kane, Travel Editor, Rough Guides
It’s hard to miss Mount Vesuvius, the conical mound looming over the countryside east of Naples. Even though the last eruption occurred over sixty years ago, I still felt rather daring – and nervous – scaling the summit (a mildly strenuous 30min walk from ticket booths near the top) of this infamous killer. In AD 79 a deadly concoction of lava, ash and poisonous gas engulfed the two Roman towns of Herculaneum and Pompeii. I’d definitely recommend a visit to Herculaneum– the smaller and more manageable of the sites – after the climb, which brings both context and an unsettling dollop of poignancy.

Hike China’s
Great Wall
Eleanor Aldridge, Travel Editor, Rough Guides
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I’ll never forget stumbling wobbly-legged out of a rickety cable car to see this ancient wonder snaking away across the hills. It’s one of China’s few “must-see” sights that really lives up to expectations. To make sure you see the original fortifications, bypass the super-touristy reconstruction at Badaling and head on to more remote Jinshanling. Just don’t attempt the steep-sided scramble in flip-flops as I did; this stunning stretch is mostly un-restored and the hike is as challenging as it as is scenic in places.

Climb Cadair Idris, Wales

Alison Roberts, Travel Editor, Rough Guides
Standing 2930ft tall, Snowdon’s rugged, shorter sibling – Cadair Idris – makes up in looks for anything it lacks in height. Legend has it that if you spend a night at the top you will die, become a poet or go mad, but the views from here are stunning – a patchwork of greens interrupted by molten-metal slivers of river estuary and sea. Hardy visitors can have a dip in Cwm Cau too, which changes colour from lagoon blue to inky black as clouds race overheard.

Hunt for icebergs in Newfoundland

Stephen Keeling, Co-author, The Rough Guide to Canada
 You won’t forget the first time you see an iceberg. I assumed it was a small island or a cruise ship, towering over lobster boats like a floating white cathedral. Once I got closer the air changed, got colder; I could actually sense the density of ice looming ahead. Up close it was a sort of bluish, translucent white, whittled by the wind and salt into strange, Dali-esque shapes and curves. Finally, when the boat cut its engine, hissing, popping and cracking sounds drifted eerily across the waves – the iceberg was alive, growling across the Atlantic.

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Tickle whales in Mexico

Mark Carwardine, Zoologist and writer
If I had to pick just one place it would be San Ignacio Lagoon in Baja California, on the Pacific coast of Mexico. This a breeding ground for grey whales, which love to be scratched and tickled by visiting humans – it’s arguably the most extraordinary, awe-inspiring and emotional wildlife encounter on the planet.

Sail round the Galápagos

Andy Turner, Travel Editor, Rough Guides
The Galápagos islands are among the most remote and magical destinations on earth, so the sight of vast modern cruise ships chugging between them can come as a shock. To visit the islands in style pick a smaller vessel, preferably one with sails as well as an engine. With the sound of canvas flapping in the wind and the creak of wooden decks beneath your feet, you can almost imagine how a certain young Mr Darwin felt when he arrived here in 1835.

Swim with
manatees in
Florida
Simon Reeve, Author, adventurer and TV presenter
One thing that still lingers in my memory is swimming with manatees in Crystal River in Florida. You go out at dawn and lower yourself into a misty river, then suddenly these manatees the size of a car nuzzle up next to you and take an interest – and in my case they gave me a hug and rolled around with me. It’s one of the best interactions I’ve had with the natural world, and while it’s a touristy thing it doesn’t feel that way when you’re doing it.

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Go volcano-boarding in León

James Smart, Contributor, The Rough Guide to Central America on a Budget
Nicaragua’s former capital and the birthplace of the Sandinista revolution, vibrant León offers lovely colonial architecture, fun museums and superlative fried chicken. You can also take an unusual tour to the steep ash of nearby Cerro Negro, where gas belches from cracks and views stretch over Nicaragua’s Pacific plains. The walk up is a slog, while the descent sees you surf down the dune-like surface as dust rises around you. You can sit or stand – you’ll almost certainly fall – and while it’s rare to get up much of a top speed, the experience is thrillingly surreal.

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Take a slow boat up the Nam Ou

Emma Gibbs, Contributor, the Rough Guide to Laos
The Mekong may be more famous, but my favourite river journey in Laos is on the Nam Ou, which winds its way through the north’s dramatic mountains and limestone karsts. Sure, the boats are rickety and old, the seats are uncomfortable, and these days its hard to predict if they’ll actually be running, but the three day journey, from sublime Luang Prabang to the tiny, isolated settlement of Hat Sa, gives you that rare feeling of experiencing a part of the country that few foreigners see.

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Watch elephant
bathing in Nepal
Shafik Meghji, Co-author, The Rough Guide to Nepal
Every morning a procession of dusty elephants is led to the Rapti River, on the edge of Chitwan National Park, for a good scrub down – and travellers are welcome to help out. The pachyderms delight in shooting jets of water from their trunks, wallowing on their sides while layers of mud are scraped off and, occasionally, dumping unsuspecting riders into the river. It’s a magical experience that the elephants seem to enjoy almost as much as the travellers.

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Eat steak in Buenos Aires

Neil McQuillian, Contributor, The Rough Guide to South America on a Budget
Sampling a slice of bife de chorizo in Argentina is a must. The slice I was served at the La Cabrera restaurant in Buenos Aires’ Palermo barrio looked pretty standard. Then I went to cut it, and the steak seemed to part before my knife. I popped the first chunk into my mouth. I started laughing. I didn’t even want ketchup. It was meat and man in perfect harmony.

Drive from Viñales to
Cayo Jutías by scooter
Jo Kirby, Publisher, Rough Guides
Viñales, a sleepy little town to the west of Havana, is in many ways typical of rural Cuba. What sets it apart, however, are the mogotes (boulder-like hillocks) that jut out of the landscape and provide a magnificent backdrop to an already picturesque part of the country. It’s lovely just lolling around in the sunshine taking in the strange and beautiful vistas, but to ramp the experience up a notch, hire a scooter and wind your way around the mogotes along the local road to the coast. Once at the beach at Cayo Jutías it’s more of the same idyllic sands and impossibly blue Caribbean water. The real joy is of course the journey: empty open roads, wind in your hair and spectacular rock formations as far as the eye can see.

Spend a night in Wadi Rum

James Rice, SEO & Analytics Executive
Wadi Rum is about as close you’re going to get to the landscape of Mars here on Earth. The soil is a deep and rusty red, the mountains austere, and the silence almost disconcerting. Canyons and rock formations are scattered across the desert and make for good scrambling. Join an overnight excursion – by jeep or camel – for the experience of sitting round a crackling fire underneath pearly stars, talking to the bedouin about their life in this desolate space.

Feast on oysters
in Bouzigues
Monica Woods, Managing Editor Europe, Rough Guides
Feasting on the freshest oysters, washed down with a glass or two of local Picpoul de Pinet, while gazing out on the lagoon where the tasty little bivalves grew up, comes pretty close to lunchtime perfection. Depending on how much you’ve eaten, or drunk, consider a post-prandial dip – the waters of the Étang de Thau are tested daily to ensure optimum mineral levels for shellfish cultivation, and the saltiness means you’ll happily bob along, no matter how big your lunch.

Steam in a temazcal, Mexico

Zora O’Neill, Co-author, The Rough Guide to Mexico
The door slid shut, plunging the small domed room into darkness. The drumming started, softly, and the room filled with herb-scented steam. I went into the Maya sweat lodge – known in Mexico as a temazcal – just for the dewy skin. But after two hours of sweating in the dark, it was hard not feel some kind of oneness with the universe. I do know that the Caribbean Sea never felt so refreshing as afterwards, and my skin never looked so good.

Witness Tibet’s true spirit

Pico Iyer, Travel writer
The one place I wish everyone could visit is Tibet. It’s sad in many places now, hideously over-developed and not at all the place you imagine. But it remains the one place I know that exerts a curious kind of spell and takes you to a different part of your being, for better or for worse. And in some ways its spirit has been strengthened and intensified even as – or sometimes because – its surfaces have been destroyed. Ladakh is more beautiful, Bhutan is better protected, Nepal is more funky. But Tibet is one place from which it’s hard to come home unaltered, and in ways you can never predict.

Hike in Brazil’s
Chapada Diamantina
John Malathronas, Rough Guides writer and author of Brazil: Life, Blood, Soul
The Chapada Diamantina (Diamond Highlands) are Brazil’s top trekking destination. Hikers find that, upon a hilltop, not only does the landscape change, but so does the ecosystem. These highlands lie in the interior of Bahia where three of Brazil’s biomes meet: the Atlantic rainforest, the cerrado – similar to the African savannah – and the caatinga (shrubland), which feels like the American chaparral. You can explore dry caves, swim in underground lakes, dive under waterfalls and climb near-vertical mesas all in the same day. The only constant in the scenery is unwavering change.

Sleep wild in
central Sweden
Steve Vickers, Contributor, Make The Most Of Your Time On Earth
Glassy lakes, pure air and an outside chance of bears: camping in the forests of central Sweden is both wild and free. There’s even a constitutional law protecting everyone’s right to enjoy the great outdoors. So go swimming, drink from a stream, or fill your belly with red berries. Then sip whisky around the campfire and crash out on a reindeer skin, gazing up at the starry sky.

Stay in a Japanese
capsule hotel
Alasdair Baverstock, Rough Guides Contributor
Defy the horrified hearsayers and check yourself into the beehive. Stacked three-high in some places, the Japanese capsule hotels are designed for businessmen on the move and offer an experience you’ll find nowhere else. Scrub up in the communal bathhouse, get accustomed to your control panel, try to make sense of Japanese television and settle down to the most efficient 40 winks you’ll ever catch.

Sleep beneath the stars
in the Sahara Desert
Sofia Levin, Travel writer
As the sun shifts, the Sahara Desert takes on different colours: silvery white at dawn; ochre in the heat of the day; deep gold at sunset. We stayed at a Berber camp and fell asleep on our backs, counting shooting stars that burned through the darkness like rogue coals from the campfire. At 6am we climbed a sand dune overlooking Algeria and watched the sun emerge from the horizon, a blazing ball of desert red that turned the sand rose gold. Desolate, but beautiful.

Swim with pink river dolphins

Olivia Rawes, Travel Editor, Rough Guides
In the vast, swampy grasslands of Pampas del Yacuma, the pink freshwater dolphin is one of the more pleasant surprises hidden in the murky waters of the Bolivian Amazon. With the annual floods, bubblegum pink dolphins dreamily glide amidst tree trunks and chase fish between drowned, twisted branches. There’s nothing quite like the thrill of diving into these muddy, unknown depths to swim alongside these surreal creatures; it’s a far cry from the pristine pleasure of frolicking with dolphins in SeaWorld.

Take the kids to
Tobermory, The Isle of Mull
Hayley Spurway, Writer and Rough Guides contributor
A short ferry trip from Oban, past Lismore Lighthouse and Highland peaks petering into the clouds, few British destinations offer the family magic of the Isle of Mull. As if an island littered with white sandy beaches and whale-watching opportunities isn’t enough, watch the kids’ faces light up as they pass the brightly-coloured houses of Josie Jump and PC Plod in Tobermory – setting of the children’s TV classic Balamory.

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Visit North Korea

Martin Zatko, Author, The Rough Guide to Korea
For a real once-in-a-lifetime experience, give reclusive North Korea a try. There’s little point in going twice, since the obligatory guided tours cover almost everything that you’re actually allowed to see. Most travellers, however, find their trip worth every single penny, since there’s simply nothing similar anywhere else on earth. A near-carless treasure trove of Brutalist architecture, the capital city of Pyongyang is particularly photogenic; others focus on a people who bear terrible repression with surprising grace.

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Watch ballet in Cuba

Fiona McAuslan, Co-author, The Rough Guide to Cuba
An evening of ballet at the brilliantly baroque Gran Teatro de la Habana invites you into a genre of Cuban music often overlooked by visitors in search of rumba and rum. Sets and costumes are resourceful and inventive, performances are breathtaking and an exuberant home crowd all celebrate Cuba’s position as a hub of world-class ballet.

Visit Tikal in Guatemala

Matthew Kepnes, aka Nomadic Matt
A visit to the historical site of Tikal in Guatemala should be on everyone’s bucket list. These ancient Mayan ruins are a testament to a civilization long passed. If you stay overnight, you can be there without the crowds giving the place an empty, eerie feeling that really makes you feel like you are Indiana Jones. It’s not often you get major historical sites to yourself but I found that it was just me, Tikal, and the jungle.

Tour the bodegas of Mendoza

Andrew Benson, Author, The Rough Guide to Argentina
Vineyards often enjoy great locations but few can beat the bodegas of Mendoza Province, Argentina’s answer to Burgundy. Swirling, snow-tipped Andean peaks provide a stunning backdrop as you sample crisp chardonnays and beefy malbecs at countless cutting-edge wineries designed by ground-breaking architects – with Salentein’s majestic wine cathedral leading the pack.
Interactive design by Benji Lanyado

Holidaymakers heading to Africa often flock to The Gambia or further south to Kenya, but they’re overlooking a very special slice of the continent. Richard Trillo, author of the Rough Guide to West Africa, sings Senegal’s praises.  

One of the most accessible countries in sub-Saharan Africa, with a six-hour flight and no jet lag from Europe – and for most nationalities no visa required – Senegal is an easy and fantastic country to visit. Occupying the westernmost tip of West Africa’s bulge, it covers an area the size of England and Scotland combined, or about half the size of California, with a relatively small population of around 13 million. It has a robust and fairly open democracy, wonderful dance music, a fascinating history, a tolerant, expressive and colourful version of Islam, great beaches, good national dishes, and even a couple of decent safari parks with some of West Africa’s best wildlife viewing.

And yet although it almost entirely surrounds The Gambia – the popular charter destination favoured by British package tourists – English-speaking visitors have largely ignored Senegal.

Why the country has been so overlooked is partly down to the quirks of colonialism; from the seventeenth century the French were firmly based at the port of Saint-Louis in the mouth of the Senegal River, and they later developed Dakar as the capital of their West African colonies and set about turning the country into an overseas French territory. The British, on the other hand, secured a fort in the mouth of the Gambia River only in the late-nineteenth century – and then did nothing with it.

So while the French, and to some extent other European visitors, flock to Senegal every winter, the British stick to their hotels on the short Gambian coastline and only occasionally explore across the border. Which is a shame, because there’s a lot that’s worth exploring.

For a start, the capital Dakar is a seductive draw for music fans, offering great nightlife and inThiossane and Just 4 U two clubs well worth a visit. And although Youssou N’Dour may not play so often now that he’s taken the role of Minister of Tourism and Culture in the new government, you can rely on Cuban-toned classics and great mbalax sounds – the irresistibly fast dance music of Senegal’s biggest tribe, the Wolof – most nights of the week. May, meanwhile, sees the annual St Louis Jazz Festival.

Dakar is also a great spot for markets, and its slaving history can be revisited in the houses and museums of the UNESCO-listed island of Gorée, a short boat ride from the port. For surfers, the coasts around the Dakar peninsula have a growing reputation for some of West Africa’s best breaks – Malika Surf Camp is a good first base.

In the north, the crumbling colonial capital of St-Louis has a unique ocean-side atmosphere haunted by the ghosts of fishermen and slave-traders. There are one or two good restaurants here, too, where you can sample excellent poulet yassa (chicken marinated in lemon juice, pepper and onions), poisson farci (stuffed fish), tiéboudienne (rice with fish), riz jollof (rice with vegetables and sticky red palm oil) and beef, mutton, vegetables or virtually anything in a saucemafé (peanut sauce).

In the far southeast, close to the Guinean border, the savannah woodland of the Niokolo Koba National Park shelters lions and elephants and Africa’s most northerly population of chimpanzees. In the southwest, the creeks and forests of Basse Casamance – the lower Casamance River – are the home of the rice-growing Jola people, who also have some of the country’s best palm-fringed, silver sand beaches on their doorstep.

I asked Wendy Spivey, of the Dakar Women’s Group, to sum up why Senegal is such a special place. Her reply goes some way to capturing the charm of the country.

“Why Senegal? Because on a diamond day when the air in Dakar is clear, the sky an amazing blue, the traffic on the Corniche is whizzing along, I have to pinch myself to remind myself I really live here. It’s often the small moments, like when I’m in the supermarket and they’re playing Baaba Maal, and the butcher’s doing a little dance. Or heading downtown to the Plateau district where the old buildings are whitewashed and heavy with purple bougainvillea. My Australian heart turned African over seven years ago because I live somewhere where people are amazing, gentle and dignified, and where I am always greeted with a ‘how is your day?'”

The question to ask is really: why not Senegal?

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