One of South America‘s booming capitals and major cities, Buenos Aires is a seductive and cultured city with an eclectic mix of people and places. Vicky Baker has the lowdown on the newest things to do in Buenos Aires, Argentina

Biking mad

A few years ago, cycling the manic, traffic-packed streets of Buenos Aires seemed borderline insane. But now everyone’s at it. Over 100km of cycle tracks sprang up in two years, alongside a public bike scheme and interest-free public loans for bike-buying. Critical Mass events have swelled, funky artisan bike shops have opened, and some cafes are even offering discounts for those who turn up on two wheels (15% off at La Apasionada for breakfasts and meriendas, or afternoon tea).  And best of all, there are cycle-in outdoor cinema events in Parque Tres de Febrero; stay tuned to festivales.gob.ar for details.

Chic cocktail bars

Although many porteños (Buenos Aires residents) still remain happy with a simple fernet-coca (herbal liquor with Coke – an acquired taste and oddly addictive), times are changing, and inventive cocktail menus are springing up all over town. Most of the current hotspots are in the Palermo neighbourhood, including Rey de Copas, with its French/Moroccan décor and new roof terrace; Frank’s with its speakeasy vibe; call ahead for the password, and the brand new Verne Cocktail Club, inspired by old gentlemen’s clubs. Some are even popping up where you least expect it, even hidden at the back of a flower-and-record shop (Floraría Atlántico).

Keeping up with the Peruvians

While the rest of the world plays catch-up on Peruvian food and starts belatedly dishing out awards, Buenos Aires sits back smugly, knowing that it has this trend well and truly in the bag. Going out for ceviche here is like going out for a curry in London. The city has everything from the cheap, family-orientated joints in Abasto (home to many Peruvian immigrants) to its own branch of Astrid y Gaston (the original one in Lima was just voted best restaurant in Latin America). And it’s a scene that continues to move forward with new openings, such as Mullu, taking forward the city’s love of Peruvian-Japanese fusion food. See, that’s how far ahead of the game Buenos Aires is – they’re post-Peruvian already.

Alternative shopping

Soaring inflation and restrictions on imports have seen costs in the clothes and shoe market rocket. Those used to shopping in the EU or US will be shocked at the prices on the high street. The answer? Avoid the high street – that’s what many Argentines are doing. Try the pop-up ferias (markets) that are promoted on social networks (search for “feria Americana Buenos Aires”) or even on signs on trees. Alternatively, if you want to check out some local clothes designers, try buying straight from their studio. Some have decided keep their own costs down by not opening a shop and those savings are passed on to customers, although you sometimes need to book an appointment. Try Jungle Vi.ai.pi for bags, Bimba Vintage for second-hand finds, or Maison Abbey for female fashion.

Buenos Aires, Argentina

Back to the 90s

As late as the 1990s, the now-buzzing Palermo area was a nightlife desert. Legend has it that the only bar everyone went to was a particularly seedy and hedonistic place. Oh, and it was staffed by dwarves, from bouncers to strippers. It turns out that was true and, not only that, now it’s back. Still going by the same name, Nave Jungla held a one-off party at Salón Irreal in August. Body paint, eccentric crowds, and some x-rated shows made the city’s infamous Club 69 drag parties look like an ambassadors’ afternoon tea. Will there be more? Apparently so. Will it move beyond a crowd of nostalgic 40-somethings and become more PC? That’s yet to be seen.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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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.

Rosario Islands, Cartagena, Colombia

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.

Balconies, cartaegnam colombia

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.

Aerial View of Mompos in Colombia

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’.

Rocking chairs, Colonial House, Mompos

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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White, sometimes stained floor tiles and a plain, usually graffitied grey door: I think we can all agree, this is an accurate description of your average toilet – pretty boring, no? Have you ever been having a tinkle, twiddling your thumbs and thought to yourself: “You know what this toilet needs? A good view!” Well, you’re in luck. Toilet enthusiast Luke Barclay, from looswithviews.com, has put together entire books showcasing toilets with fantastic vistas, from the tops of mountains to the city centres of the world. He describes it as “a global movement dedicated to the search for views from toilets”. So, without further ado-do (sorry), here is a selection of the best.

1. View of Mount Foraker from Mount McKinley, Alaska

Loo in Denali, Alaska

Photography by Patrick Baumann

2. The view while seated Copeland Island Bird Observatory, Northern Ireland

Loo at Copeland Island Bird Observatory, County Down, Northern Ireland

Photography by Neville Mckee

3. View of Mount Everest from Tengboche Monastery latrine, Sagarmatha National Park, Nepal

Toilet view of Mount Everest

Photography by Anna Maria S. Jorgensen
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4. View of the Zambezi river, Old Mondoro Bush Camp, Zambia

Toilet at Zambezi, Old Mondoro Bush Camp, Zambia.

Photography by Lana De Villiers 

5. Mount Sinai, Sinai Peninsula, Egypt

Toilet at Mount Sinai, Egypt

Photography by Chris Belsten
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6. View from the urinal in the Warner Stand, Lords Cricket Ground, UK

Toilet at Lords Cricket Ground

Photography by Luke Barclay
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7. Mount Whitney, Sierra Nevada, California

Mount Whitney, Sierra Nevada, California

Photography by Larry Mah
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8. Thiksey Buddhist Monastery, Ladakh, India

Toilet at Thiksey Buddhist Monastery, Leh, Ladakh, India

Photography by Sourav Basu
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9. Near Salar de Uyuni, Andean High Plateau, Bolivia

Toilet near Salar de Uyuni, Andean High Plateau, Bolivia

Photography by Maxime Renaudin
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10. Wolwedans Lodge, NamibRand Nature Reserve, Namibia

Toilet at Wolwedans Lodge, NamibRand Nature Reserve, Namibia.

Photography by Tracey Garrett

11. Summit of Croagh Patrick, County Mayo, Ireland

Toilet at Summit of Croagh Patrick, County Mayo, Ireland.

Photography by Luke Barclay
Explore more of Ireland > 

All photos courtesy of Luke Barclay from looswithviews.com

Shinjuku isn’t for the faint-hearted. But if you’re new to Tokyo and want a crash course in crazy, it’s the first place you should come to. Sure, Asakusa has more history and Roppongi has better nightlife, but neither can compete when it comes to dealing out high-voltage culture shocks.

On the west side of Shinjuku station, which heaves with commuters and the smell of strong espressos, things are typically well-ordered. This shimmering business district is home to some of Japan’s tallest skyscrapers (as well as more than 13,000 bureaucrats) and there are enough high-rise megastores to have you craning your neck in disbelief. It’s a hardworking part of the city, where success is measured by the number of hours you spend at the office, and exploring it for the first time feels like stumbling through an ultra-efficient city of the future. But cross to the other side of the train tracks, and things couldn’t be more different.

Here, chaos rules. Under the hot neon lights of Kabukichō, in the eastern part of Shinjuku, you’ll find stand-up noodle bars snuggled next to strip joints and love hotels. Huge video screens pump noisy adverts into roadside bars, Blade Runner-style, and street hawkers skulk in the shadows by jazz clubs and theatres. To escape these guys, who’ll try anything to get at your yen, head to an all-night karaoke bar where you can croon until your sake-soaked vocal chords feel like they’re on fire. Or squeeze down the oddball alleyways of the Golden Gai district, which attracts artists, musicians and filmmakers with a ramshackle heap of more than 250 bars – each with its own unique theme. Chances are, you’ll still end up singing the night away.

When the morning sunlight starts to extinguish Shinjuku’s nocturnal glow, you can take a stroll through the cherry blossom trees of Shinjuku Gyoen – Tokyo’s finest park – and give yourself a well-earned pat on the back. Consider yourself initiated.

Shinjuku’s railway station is served by the Tokyo Metro, Toei Subway, and several inter-city lines.

 

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Losing your wallet or purse while travelling is often a painstaking mistake. We keep so much of our lives in there: cash, plastic, drivers’ licence, ID cards. When all of those things go missing together, it can be a costly process to get them back. If you’re prone to losing your wallet, dropping things or leaving things behind, then Helsinki in Finland is the destination for you.

The Reader’s Digest “lost wallet” test measured how honest citizens were from 16 cities across the world by dropping 12 wallets in public spaces in each city, and seeing how many were returned. Among the least honest cities were Lisbon, Madrid and Prague. Starting with the least honest, here is the full run down:

10. Lisbon, Portugal (1 wallet returned)

9. Madrid, Spain (2 wallets returned)

8. Prague, Czech Republic (3 wallets returned)

7. Bucharest, Romania, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and Zurich, Switzerland (4 wallets returned)

6. London, England and Warsaw, Poland (5 wallets returned)

5. Berlin, Germany and Ljubljana, Slovenia (6 wallets returned)

4. Moscow, Russia and Amsterdam, the Netherlands (7 wallets returned)

3. Budapest, Hungary and New York City, U.S. (8 wallets returned)

2. Mumbai, India (9 wallets returned)

And the most honest…

1. Helsinki, Finland

With 11 wallets returned, Helsinki ranked as the most honest city of all. Lasse Luomakoski, a 27-year-old businessman, who found the wallet in downtown Helsinki said Finns are naturally honest: “We are a small, quiet, closely-knit community. We have little corruption, and we don’t even run red lights.”

What do you think of the results?

Book hostels for your next trip here, and don’t forget to buy travel insurance to cover those personal possessions.

The Middle East isn’t all desert, desert, desert. Take a break from sand and head for the water: stand on the walls of Acre and watch the sun sink into the Mediterranean.

Acre is one of the most evocative Palestinian towns inside Israel. There are ancient walls, mosques, gardens and museums here, but this old Crusader stronghold is a fabulous place to simply wander through. It has survived as a fabulous skein of tight alleyways and atmospheric markets, wreathed around – of course – by the fragrance of fresh-caught fish, for sale in the souk and offered at a dozen restaurants down by the old port. Fight off the cats to get your share.

Acre is 25km north of Haifa, served by buses and trains from there and Tel Aviv.

 

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The player leaps like a basketball star through a crowd of desperate opponents and flailing sticks. Barely visible to the naked eye, the arcing ball somehow lodges in his upstretched palm. Dropping to the ground, he shimmies his way out of trouble, the ball now delicately balanced on the flat end of his hurley, then bang! With a graceful, scything pull, he slots the ball through the narrow uprights, seventy yards away.

Such is the stuff of Irish boyhood dreams, an idealized sequence of hurling on continual rewind. With similarities to lacrosse and hockey – though it’s not really like either – hurling is a thrilling mix of athleticism, timing, outrageous bravery and sublime skill. Said to be the fastest team game in the world, it can be readily enjoyed by anyone with an eye for sport.

The best place to watch a match is Dublin’s vast Croke Park, the iconic headquarters of the GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association). In this magnificent, 80,000-seater stadium, you’ll experience all the colour, banter and passion of inter-county rivalry. And before the game, you can visit the excellent GAA Museum to get up to speed on hurling and its younger brother, Gaelic football, ancient sports whose renaissance was entwined with the struggle for Irish independence. Here, you’ll learn about the first Bloody Sunday in 1920, when British troops opened fire on a match at this very ground, killing twelve spectators and one of the players. You’ll be introduced to the modern-day descendants of Cúchulain, the greatest warrior-hero of Irish mythology, who is said to have invented hurling: star players of the last century including flat-capped Christy Ring of Cork and more recent icons such as Kilkenny’s D.J. Carey. And finally, you can attempt to hit a hurling ball yourself – after a few fresh-air shots, you’ll soon appreciate the intricate skills the game requires.

For information about matches and museum entry, go to www.crokepark.ie or www.gaa.ie.

 

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