Think of The Gambia and sun, sea and sand package holidays might spring to mind, but visitors are starting to explore beyond the beaches. Lynn Houghton tells us eight of the best ways to get off the beaten track.

The tiny West African country of The Gambia is dissected by its namesake, the River Gambia. Much of the landscape is dominated by the river and its tributaries, and beyond the coast you’ll find enormous swathes of lesser-explored mangrove forest, deserted beaches and ‘up country’ adventures. If you’re thinking of eschewing the popular Atlantic Coast beach resorts, here are eight ideas for experiencing a more authentic side of The Gambia, taking in the country’s natural beauty and biodiversity.

Discover the UNESCO-listed Wassu stone circles

About a five-hour drive from Banjul on the north bank of the River Gambia is the pre-historic sacred UNESCO site of the Wassu stone circles. The laterite stones, a rich deep mahogany colour, compare in age with Stonehenge in England, and are thought to have a religious purpose, marking burials here for 1500 years. The museum has some interesting information but folklore is much more exciting: talk to the Stone Man, the site’s erstwhile caretaker. He says you can see lights shining from behind the stones at night – a common occurrence according to the superstitious locals.

See foraging chimps at the Chimp Rehabilitation Centre

Swinging from the treetops and squabbling with the baboons, West African Chimps are relishing their environment at the Chimp Rehabilitation Centre in the River Gambia National Park. They roam free on the Baboon Islands in the middle of the river, while rare red colobus monkeys congregate on the mainland. The centre was started by Leslie Brewer-Marsden in 1979: the first chimps brought here were rescuées and mistreated pets, and there are now 107 completely wild chimpanzees that thrive on these three islands. From Thursday through Sunday, visitors can follow behind a feeding boat to see the chimps in their natural habitat as they come to the riverside to grab a meal.

Image by Lynn Houghton

Explore lush mangroves in the Matasuku Forest

Centuries of legend surround the ancient Matasuku Forest, a nearly pristine area of mangrove covering 17.5 square kilometres along a tributary named Mandinka Bolong. From time immemorial, the forest was a no-go area and thought to be inhabited by demons and dragons. A Mali King, along with his troops, once managed to make the forest his stronghold but he was ousted by a local tribe; according to folklore, the king’s head, throne and crown are buried somewhere on the land. Today, things are more peaceful. The area has been developed into a sustainable tourism project, the Matasuku Cultural Forest, in partnership with the Gambian government and now includes lodges and a base camp with an arts and crafts market run by local Kembujeh villagers.

Spot rare birds at Baobolong Wetland Reserve

As the dawn mist clears and the morning sun starts to rise, there is possibly no better place in West Africa for birdlife than the Baobolong Nature Reserve. Over 500 species of birds are attracted to the River Gambia in all their feathered glory. Take a traditional boat from Tendaba Lodge, a mere seven kilometres away on the south side of the river, to spot rare African Fin Foot or Fish Eagles.

Image by Lynn Houghton

Float down the River Gambia

Going canoeing along one of the River Gambia’s creeks in a traditional fishing boat or dugout, called a pirogue, is wonderful way to cool off when temperatures soar. Rentals are available from Lamin Lodge, a wooden structure built on stilts over the water, or you can take a full-day trip in a larger motorised boat to explore Kunta Kinteh Island and enjoy a spot of fishing.

Visit traditional fishing villages

To experience local life on the coast, visit the vibrant, colourful coastal fishing market of Tanji in the Kombo region or travel further south to the more authentic fishing village of Gunjur. The market is at its most frenetic at the crack of dawn, when the traditional fishing boats come to shore with their catch. Though fishermen work at a feverish pace, women are equally busy hauling the fish from the boats into large baskets balanced on their heads. Take a wander along the shore and see other workers taking gutting and scaling the fish ready for sale; anyone can purchase a fresh seafood breakfast for a just few Dalasi.

Image by Lynn Houghton

Check out the street art scene

Art project Wide Open Walls has brought street artists from all over the world to adorn the walls of Galloya village with sophisticated graffiti art. Some of the work is representational, while some is wholly avant-garde, but all the murals are distinctive. The project is the brainchild of Lawrence Williams, and has even inspired the village children to take up making art. Lawrence and Gambian artist, Njogu, work as a pair and have named themselves the ‘Bush Dwellers’. Many street artists are publicity shy and prefer to be known by a name they choose for themselves that reflects their work; artistic duo Neil and Hadley from the UK are ‘Best Ever’, for example, while Brazilian artist Rimon Guimarães has named himself ‘RIM’.

…finally, for the adventurous

Fancy a quicker way of getting across the River Gambia than the vehicle and pedestrian ferry from Banjul, where a three-hour wait is common? Simply wander over to Terminal Road. Once there, young men carry patrons at full pelt on their shoulders down to the beach and into the water to then toss them into an enormous fishing boat. This crossing takes about half an hour and the process is repeated, in reverse, on the other side. The experience probably isn’t at the top of anyone’s health and safety list, but should be tried at least once.

The Gambia Experience offers a variety of travel options and flights to The Gambia including stays at Mandina River Lodge on a B&B basis. Compare flights, book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. 

Tourists are visiting Thailand in increasing numbers, but some communities remain stuck in a time long passed. In pursuit of the “old Thailand”, Alex Robinson shuns the tour buses and takes local’s route, the train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai.

We’re waiting on the road, huddled together with locals who’ve risen in the pre-dawn dark. “Kneel,” whispers my guide Poj, “and press your palms together”. I do so and wince as a piece of gravel digs into my kneecap. In the distance, hundreds of saffron-robed monks spill out of the monasteries that surround Chiang Mai’s Doi Suthep temple and down the snaking staircase that cuts through the thick forests shrouding the mountain.

I try to stay quiet as the monks approach, holding out their big stainless steel alms bowls. Poj drops bags of warm, sticky Thai rice, wafer biscuits and fruit into the bowls and the monks begin to chant. But not in Thai – they speak the Pali language, a dead dialect that was once used in many of the earliest Buddhist scriptures.

To me it sounds as ancient as church Latin, rich, rolling and redolent with the sacred. It’s mesmerising. Meditative. I’m trance-like for five minutes and it’s only after they’ve moved on that I remember the pain in my knee and the pins and needles in my legs.

Tourist Thailand seems far behind. I’ve entered an older country, where monks speak a bygone language and collect alms in the dawn light – as they have done two-and-a-half thousand years. This Chiang Mai isn’t a travel stop for hill tribe handicrafts and elephant camps, but the old capital of the Northern kingdom of Lanna. At least for the next hour. Until the tour buses arrive.

“Tourist Thailand seems far behind”

I began this journey four days earlier in current capital of Thailand, Bangkok. Wanting to find an older Thailand I decided to take the twelve-hour slow train north to Chiang Mai. Most travellers take the overnight train and sleep right through, choosing not to visit the country’s former capitals, Ayutthaya and Sukhothai, at all. But I chose to go by day, staying overnight to explore these overlooked destinations.

Leaving Bangkok, I was glad of the peace and calm of the train to my next stop, Ayutthaya. Most tourists squeeze into minivans. But I was one of a handful of foreign faces with a compartment all to myself. Feet up, camera at the ready, I watched the heat and highways of central Bangkok fade into crane-spiked concrete hinterland and then lush green paddy fields, dotted with tractors, workers in conical hats and the occasional languid water buffalo.

I woke with a start as the train jolted into Ayutthaya. This city was once so covered in glittering mosaics that it was said to dazzle visitors from kilometres away. Sadly it was ransacked by the Burmese in 1767; temples were smashed, the houseboats and houses, where almost a million Thais lived, were burnt to husks and thousands were forcibly repatriated across the border.

Off the train, I took to two wheels, cycling past Ayutthaya’s network of canals, which was once bustling with boat trade. I could almost hear the vegetable sellers haggle as they yelled for trade from tiny canoes; now the canals are coloured pink with flowering lotuses. When I reached the city itself – a graveyard of crumbling brick palaces, mould-stippled stupas and Buddhas – I found a statue at Wat Phra Mahathat engulfed by a strangler fig, only its serene face remaining exposed among a swirl of roots.

Image by Alex Robinson

“With so few foreigners on the train, I was a curiosity”

There were so few foreigners on the evening train to Phitsanulok that I was a curiosity. Thai people stopped to ask where I was from. The family opposite shared their rice and curry. As night thickened a guard turned my seat into a couchette, covered it with a crisp white sheet and I slept soundly all the way, and when I arrived in the 600-year-old city I was met by my smiling guide, Poj.

The next day we visited Sukhothai, Thailand’s capital in the early thirteenth century just 60km from Phitsanulok. Ransacked Ayutthaya was a forlorn ruin, but the long erosion of time has turned Sukhothai into an eternal monument – a Thai version of Angkor Wat.

In Ayutthaya, Buddhas sat in serried ranks – soldiers against samsara (the material world) – but in Sukhothai, they were veiled by temple walls, serene and as tall as tower blocks, gazing across 800 years of history to a point beyond time. Brightly-coloured tropical birds played among the ornate stupas and perched on the stucco, and nuns and monks meditated at the feet of centuries-old effigies lost at the end of sweeping colonnades.

Image by Alex Robinson

“Instead of tourist crowds, there was the bustle of everyday life”

Before Poj and I embarked on the final leg of our journey and caught the night train to Chiang Mai we visited Mahathat Woramahawihan – a stroll from Phitsanulok railway station. Hidden inside the temple is Thailand’s second most venerated Buddha: a magnificent, three-metre-tall gold statue, crowned with a lotus-flower halo and shimmering in the light.

Instead of the crowds you find at the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok, there was the bustle of everyday life. Expectant mums with bags of groceries, school kids, and monks in robes shuffled in through the temple doors and prostrated themselves at the Buddha’s feet. They chanted, prayed, then went on their way, and aside from me – one lone awkward intruder – there wasn’t a European in sight.

But I saw them when I reached Chiang Mai the next day, stuck in tuk tuks in the traffic-choked streets around the city’s old royal moat, clustering around the ancient temples and crowding the tiny bars around the night market. It was fun to join the throng for a while, before slipping off for an early night. To see Chiang Mai as it used to you need to awake for the golden dawn, when monks fill the streets and tourism sleeps.

Alex Robinson travelled with Audley Travel who organise bespoke trips around Thailand, including by rail. Explore more of Thailand with the Rough Guide to ThailandCompare flights, book hostels for your trip and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. 

The oldest tourist destination on Earth, Egypt has a multitude of things to see and do. There are ancient pyramids, crumbling temples and vast deserts to explore – on foot or by camel – not forgetting the great river Nile. Find the top things not to miss in Egypt for your next trip.

With a whole host of new attractions opening this year, from world-record-beating skyscrapers to whacky amusement parks, there’s plenty to get your teeth into. To help you decide where to visit, we’ve picked the top 9 new tourist attractions around the world. 

Shanghai Tower, China

A better symbol of China’s continuing march forward would be harder to find than the new Shanghai Tower, at 632 metres the world’s second tallest building and muscling its way in to every shot of Shanghai like a giant robotic arm. Twisted from base to tip, at about one degree per floor, it is even designed to withstand typhoons. By the end of this year the tower will also have the world’s highest observation deck, at 557 metres above sea level. Lifts will reach this in under one minute – so prepare for some ear-popping.

Lincoln Castle, UK

Want to see the document that gave birth to democracy? We’re talking about the Magna Carta of course, which reaches its 800th birthday this year. You can find out why it’s so highly lauded at Lincoln Castle. This eleventh-century Norman castle reopens in April and promises a state-of-the-art underground vault to house the Magna Carta, an ‘in-the-round’ film explaining its importance and history, a complete circular walk around the castle’s ancient walls and access to both the Victorian male and female prisons for the first time.

The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, USA

One of the great shames of the art world is the amount of exceptional artwork kept in storage and rarely seen by the public. What is the point, after all, of owning a large art collection if you don’t have the space to exhibit it? The Whitney finally solves its space problem in 2015, with the opening of its new building; at 18,000 square feet, the largest column-free museum gallery in New York City. A cantilevered entrance beneath the High Line sets the tone for a graceful, light-filled gallery with river views – and, of course, some of the world’s greatest artworks.

IceCave, Iceland

Ever wondered what the inside of a glacier looks like? White? Deepest blue? Both? Well, wonder no more. Book a trip to Iceland this year and you can visit the country’s latest attraction, the IceCave. Here you can venture into a series of tunnels and caves running inside Langjökull Glacier, which stretch as much as 300 metres into the solid ice about 30 metres below the surface. These mind-bending proportions make the IceCave one of the largest man-made ice structures in the world – and well worth donning multiple layers of clothing to see.

Lost and Found festival, Malta

In April 2015 Malta will make its debut on the electronic music scene. From the 3rd to the 5th DJ Annie Mac will host Lost and Found, a new festival in St Paul’s Bay on the north shore and Ta’ Qali National Park near Rabat. With a line-up of international dance DJs, Lost and Found promises daytime pool and boat dance parties against an ocean backdrop and nighttime open-air raves with a chilled out vibe. You won’t even have to camp either: packages including hotel accommodation start from £148/$225 per person.

Dreamland, Margate, UK

2015 is set to be a great year for Margate, as the seaside resort’s most famous attraction, Dreamland, finally reopens. The UK’s oldest amusement park is being reimagined as the world’s first heritage amusement park by designer Wayne Hemmingway, its centerpiece the Grade II listed Scenic Railway, Britain’s oldest rollercoaster. Numerous rides from other parks are being rebuilt around it, many of which are the only remaining examples of their type. Ride the 1950s Hurricane Jets and the 1940s Caterpillar that once stood at Pleasureland Southport, before strolling past the large Tiffany lamps donated from the Blackpool Illuminations collection.

TreeTop Crazy Rider, New South Wales

Two words have never belonged together more than rollercoaster and zipline. Well, the crazy folks at Ourimbah State Forest on Australia’s Central Coast certainly think so. Their new 1km-long adventure must-do promises to combine the thrill and suspense of a rollercoaster with the flying sensation of a zipline. Strap in and swoop through the forest, twisting round corners and dropping into the bush. No special skills are required and it’s open to everyone over seven.

Musée des Confluences, Lyon, France

A new building has landed at the confluence of the Rhône and Saône rivers – although we think it looks more like the giant foot of a crystal transformer. This is the new Musée des Confluences, a science centre and anthropology museum dedicated to pondering life’s big questions: Where do we come from? Who are we? And what do we do? No existential crisis needed though, there are said to be 2.2 million objects in the collection to answer these head scratchers, not to mention regular arts and crafts exhibitions.

Sa Pa cable car, Vietnam

Reaching the peak of Fansipan Mountain (3143m) used to mean a full-day hike at least. But from later this September the trek up will be reduced to a 20-minute flight by cable car. This will be the world’s longest and highest cable car, no less, running up from sleepy Sa Pa Town in Lao Cai Province to Indochina’s rooftop. Enjoy the view from the summit before exploring Sa Pa itself, an isolated community set to become firmly established on the tourist trail – the cable car will transport 2000 people per hour, the same number as reached the peak in an entire year previously.

For the best cities, countries, and best-value destinations to visit this year, check out the Rough Guide to 2015Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. 

As visitors slowly return to Egypt after years of political instability and unrest, Keith Drew traces the history of Cairo, the largest city in the Arab world. 

Midan Tahrir was strangely peaceful. A handful of tourists milled around waiting for the Egyptian Museum to open its doors for the day. Taxis, trucks and donkey carts jostled on the far-off fringes, inching towards the Corniche road that would carry them south alongside the Nile. But the square itself was empty.

It’s been nearly four years since crowds of emboldened Cairenes gathered here in the heart of Downtown Cairo, at the height of the Arab Spring, and we watched on the nightly news as the thirty-year reign of Hosni Mubarak crumbled before their will. And yet this is the picture of Egypt that still burns brightly in most people’s minds. There have been many false dawns in the years since and the road ahead is far from smooth, but Tahrir is the Cairo of 2011. Beyond the square lie thousands of years of urban history and a gloriously confusing city of fables and pharaohs, Coptics and caliphs.

Around 2650 BC: The Pyramids

Not the famous pyramids that don one thousand and one postcards. At least, not yet. Whilst the city of Cairo as we know it today was still centuries away from its first foundations, the first pharaohs of Egypt constructed their capital at Memphis, some 24km further south along the Nile, and buried their royalty at nearby Saqqara. It’s here, on the blanched plateau of North Saqqara, that you’ll find the first ever pyramid (indeed, the first ever building made of stone), the Step Pyramid, created for the Pharaoh Zoser over 4650 years ago. It’s an amazing sight, one side covered in fragile wooden scaffolding, it’s roughly hewn bleached blocks ascending into a rich blue sky.

The techniques developed at Saqqara were perfected at the Pyramids of Giza. No matter how many times you’ve seen them in photographs, no matter that the encroaching outskirts of Giza City threaten to swallow them up at any minute, this last remaining wonder of the ancient world has that rare ability to exceed expectations. The scale is intimidating, the numbers mindboggling. It took a hundred thousand workers nearly thirty years to build the Great Pyramid of Cheops, the largest of the trio, which was erected for the eponymous pharaoh’s death around 2566 BC. The blocks, some weighing as much as fifteen tons, were transported here, all 2.3 million of them, and the whole thing was once cased in white limestone so that it glinted in the sun.

From 2650 BC to 250 AD: The Egyptian Museum

Inside the pyramids, there’s little to see in the dark, airless tunnels that lead to nowhere. For an idea of the treasures that once lay within, you’ll need to head to Downtown Cairo and the Egyptian Museum. Vast, dusty and with paint peeling off the walls, this is the kind of place where you’d expect to stumble across the Ark of the Covenant lurking in an unopened crate in the corner. It is also the finest museum of its kind in the world – the odds and ends randomly scattered around the entrance garden would grace most collections anywhere else – but with over 130,000 exhibits, you’ll need to focus your visit.

Among the Old Kingdom relics recovered from the Pyramids are the (tiny) life-size statue of Zoser and the Treasure of Queen Hetepheres, exquisite jewellery belonging to the mother of Cheops and buried with her at Giza. The highlights, though, belong to the New Kingdom and an Egypt beyond Cairo: the legendary Tutankhamun galleries (gold shrines, gold thrones and the boy-king’s famous funerary mask) and the gruesome mummified bodies of some of Egypt’s most famous pharaohs, embalmed in the Valley of the Kings near Luxor some 3500 years ago and several still sporting quiffs of matted hair.

500 to 600 AD: The Coptic churches

As pharonic rule faded, Persian invaders founded a new city on the banks of the northern Nile: Babylon-in-Egypt, today’s Old Cairo. It was here that Christianity first began to take root in the first century AD and where Egyptian Christians (known as Copts) built several magnificent churches, which remain the focal point of Cairo’s Coptic community. This is an area of narrow, twisting lanes, enclosed by high walls – a world hidden away from the bustle up on the main streets nearby. The Church of St Sergius and St Bacchus, founded here in 500 AD, is the oldest in Egypt, and reputedly the hiding place of the Holy Family when they fled from Palestine. But it is bettered by the incredible Hanging Church, seemingly levered in between neighbouring buildings, two graceful white towers gleaming out from its dusty-brown surroundings. Built around 600 AD over the ruins of a Roman fort, it appears to suspend in mid air, an architectural trick you can appreciate through glass panels in the floor inside. Its darkly atmospheric interior is a rich riot of faded frescos and gilded icons, including a venerable portrait of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus, drawn on deerskin and known as the “Coptic Mona Lisa”.

1171 to 1848: The Citadel

When Muslim armies invaded in 641, they created a new settlement slightly north of Babylon-in-Egypt. Successive caliphs followed suit, and it wasn’t really until Saladin assumed control in 1171 that a single, unified Cairo began to take shape. Saladin’s greatest legacy to the landscape is the brooding hulk of the Citadel, a hillside bastion that looms above the cluttered, cacophonous district known as Islamic Cairo. This is the Cairo of your imagination, a medieval warren of mosques, bazaars and street vendors hawking hibiscus water and aromatic kebabs. From the Citadel, you can gaze down upon it all, the barbed tips of the city’s thousand slender minarets puncturing the hot hanging smog.

For nearly seven hundred years, the Citadel remained the seat of power in Egypt, undergoing a late renaissance in the mid-nineteenth century, when Mohammed Ali built the enormous mosque that rises from within its walls to dominate the modern city skyline. Outside of prayer times, you can venture inside to admire the intricately decorated interior and to sit beneath a star-studded ceiling loaded with chandeliers whilst around you groups of kneeling worshippers gently touch their foreheads on the soft red carpet.

1919 to today: Tahrir Square

Northeast of the Citadel, following the traffic that snarls its way up Sharia Qalaa and Sharia al-Bustan will bring you back to Downtown Cairo, rebuilt in the 1860s to mimic the wide boulevards of Paris. At its heart lies Midan Ismailiya, nicknamed Midan Tahrir (or Liberation Square) after an uprising against the British in 1919 and renamed officially following the revolution of 1952. Nearly sixty years later, it truly lived up to its name, and only really in Tahrir are the legacies of the 2011 revolution still visible today. A couple of armoured vehicles squat outside the entrance to the Egyptian Museum, and behind it the scorched headquarters of the former NDP Party stand as a permanent testimony to how the previous regime vanquished years of incriminating evidence with the stroke of a single match.

The years since have been hard for Egyptians, but the election of President el-Sisi in May 2014 has renewed hope that, for the first time in a long time, they can be optimistic about their future. Tahrir may be quiet, but it’s a Friday, and other squares nearby are busy with families gathering and gossiping and getting on with life. Patisserie stores throughout Cairo are doing a roaring trade as people stock up on mounds of sticky treats, and the call to prayer peels like a wave across Islamic Cairo and beyond, all the way out to the shadowy forms of the pyramids.

EgyptAir flies direct from London Heathrow to Cairo twice daily. Your Egypt Tours and Talisman Travel run recommended tours of Cairo.

El Salvador’s Mayan ruins can’t be compared with the great Mayan centres in Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico, but they have their own powerful charm – and on most days you’ll have the sites completely to yourself. Stephen Keeling went to explore El Salvador’s rich but oft ignored Mayan heritage.

Joya de Cerén

Around 1400 years ago, a small Mayan village in Central America faced disaster. Black smoke had been spewing from the nearby volcanic peak of the Loma Caldera for several days, and violent tremors shook the ground. The people here were simple manioc and maize farmers who had settled in the village only a few decades before, and in desperation they decided to flee, leaving virtually everything they owned behind. Soon after, the volcano blew its top and the village was buried under more than six metres of burning hot ash in just a few hours. The villagers never returned.

For hundreds of years the site lay abandoned and overgrown. And its secrets would have remained hidden if not for an accident: in 1976 a bulldozer levelling ground for the construction of grain-storage silos exposed a mysterious clay-built structure, and archeologists were called in. Excavations were interrupted by the El Salvador civil war, but resumed in 1989 and have been continuing ever since.

Quezaltepeque volcano

Today Joya de Cerén, an hour or so north of the capital San Salvador, isn’t quite the “Pompeii” it’s hyped up to be, but it does offer a totally different perspective to all the other great Mesoamerican ruins.

What remains of sites like Copán and Tikal is spectacular but ceremonial – there is very little evidence of the houses where people actually lived in these cities. At Joya de Cerén you can wander around the beautifully preserved earth homes of Mayan farmers from the sixth century AD, as well as a sweat bath (temazal), excavated from the ash and dirt, in situ.

In total some eighteen structures have been identified and ten have been completely or partially excavated. One of the most intriguing is thought to have been a religious building where a shaman practiced. Cerén was probably home to about two hundred people, and although no human remains have been discovered, everyday objects found here include petrified beans, maize, utensils and ceramics.

San Andrés

A few kilometres southwest of Joya de Cerén, in an open field surrounded by simple farms and dense jungle, lies the once mighty city of San Andrés. Originally supporting a population of about twelve thousand and reaching its peak as the regional capital around 650–900 AD, it was later occupied by the Pipil people.

Joya de Cerén

The ruins were partially buried by another volcanic eruption in 1658, and today only sections of the ceremonial centre have been excavated – seven crumbling but enigmatic structures including the Acrópolis complex and a seventeenth-century Spanish indigo works. You can stroll freely around most of the site, which is also a popular picnic spot for locals at the weekends, though the tallest pyramid (“La Campana”) can only be viewed from a distance. The small Museo Sitio Arqueológico includes a good model of what the city would have looked like in its heyday.

Tazumal

El Salvador’s most impressive pre-Colombian site lies outside the small town of Chalchuapa, some 80km northwest of San Salvador. All that remains of another powerful Mayan city is the Tazumal complex, primarily comprising a vast fourteen-stepped ceremonial pyramid, influenced by the style of Teotihuacán in Mexico and gradually extended over many generations.

Today, vendors from the local neighbourhood line the pot-holed street outside, with the site itself surrounded by a simple metal fence – it’s all relatively compact and low-key, like a small blossom-filled park, but with the great pyramid looming over everything. Most visitors simply roll up and park right at the entrance.

Tazumal, Chalchuapa

The site was occupied for over 750 years, mostly in the Late Classic period (600–900 AD). Earlier remains, dating back to 100–200 AD, have been found beneath the pyramid. The Mayan abandoned the city around the end of the ninth century, during the collapse of the Classic Mayan culture, and, unusually, Pipils moved in and occupied the site, building a pyramid dating back to the Early Post-Classic (900–1200 AD) and another pelota court, in the northwest corner of the site. Tazumal was finally abandoned around 1200 AD. The Museo Sitio Arqueológico here displays artefacts discovered during excavations in the area, including some stunning ceramics, but you’ll need to read Spanish to make the most of it.

Aficionados should also check out the closely related but smaller, grassy ruins of Casa Blanca, an important Mayan centre between 200 BC and 250 AD, just a five-minute taxi ride from Tazumal (it’s right on the main highway on the north side of Chalchuapa). Visit in mid-winter and the site is smothered in pink madrecacao blooms.

Need to know

To see all three Mayan ruins it’s best to rent a car, taxi or take a tour from San Salvador. All three sites are usually open Tues–Sun 9am–4pm and entry costs US$3 at each (parking US$1). For more information visit www.fundar.org.sv.

Find peace at Buddhist monastery, Nepal

Trim out the religious and/or mystical connotations and Buddhism boils down to something quite simple – brain training. Emptying your mind of white noise in the Buddhist manner – and thereby opening it up to richer focus and awareness – has never been easy. But the digital age is making it even harder, with an ever-billowing storm of information clamouring for our attention. So, retreat – a Tibetan Buddhist monastery might just be the perfect balm to your perpetually flicking and scrolling mind.

Get isolated at Three Camel Lodge, Mongolia

Travel to Three Camel Lodge in Mongolia, a country whose name is a byword for notions of the faraway, and you’ve already made a significant mental leap. You’re certainly not in Kansas anymore here – the nearest wifi is hundreds of miles away in the capital, Ulan Bator. The lodge lets you sample the nomadic lifestyle, except with all the hard bits removed and felt slippers thrown in. Expect snow leopards, bears and wild camels – who needs David Attenborough documentaries?

Stay with the Huaoranis in the Amazon, Ecuador

The Amazon river and its tributaries form one of the greatest natural networks of connectivity on the planet. Digitally speaking, however, it’s a total void. Arrange a stay with the Huaoranis of Ecuador for insights into their culture, from tracking in the rainforest to lessons in their language, which is said to be unrelated to any other on Earth.

Go wild camping in Sweden and Norway

Wifi is not such a rare amenity on campsites these days. But if you’re engaged in ‘wild camping’ – pitching your tent off-piste – then technology begins and ends at a rickety gas stove and a pack of AA batteries. In Norway and Sweden, wild camping is part of the national identity – and with landscapes ranging from the Arctic Circle to island-sprinkled archipelagos, there are myriad reasons to leave the glampsites behind.

Rub elbows with elephants at Jongomero camp, Tanzania

You’re enjoying a precious moment with a spindly dik dik in Ruaha National Park when all of a sudden: "BEEP BEEP, BEEP BEEP" goes your phone, the precious animal does a runner and your fellow safari guests make a mental note to blog about your appalling behaviour once reunited with their devices. Because they, unlike you, have respected this remote, luxurious southern Tanzanian camp’s requests that digital equipment be kept under lock and key for the duration of your visit.

Get deserted in the Cook Islands

That these fifteen South Pacific islands are named after legendary eighteenth-century explorer James Cook is a bit of a giveaway – they’re seriously remote. Rarotonga, the main island, is not overburdened with hi-tech distractions – one popular activity is "jetblasting" whereby you hang out near the airport’s runway and, well, get blasted by the displaced air from descending planes. Better, perhaps, to focus on enjoying the islands’ natural underwater beauty, from black pearl fields to coral lagoons.

Back to basics in a bothy, Northern Ireland

Cast yourself away – or rather, paddle yourself – to this restored stone cottage near Lisnaskea in County Fermanagh, part of the Lough Erne Canoe Trail. The bothy is neat but basic as can be, its list of mod cons beginning and ending at cold running water, a wood-burning stove and south-facing skylights. With life stripped back to the bare essentials, you’re left with the mental space to enjoy Upper Lough Erne’s tranquil bays and sprinkling of lush green islands.

Meet your ancestors at an archaeological dig

Get your hands dirty, cleanse your mind – that’s the basic idea here. A number of operators offer holidays based around archaeological digs, from Ethiopia to Uzbekistan – although you could always purchase the tools of the trade and go it alone. Beware, though: a metal detector’s seductive blipping might be hard to handle for those in technological cold turkey.

Delve into the Krubera Cave, Georgia

The status of the Marianas Trench as the planet’s deepest point is standard pub quiz fodder. But the earthbound equivalent is less well-known. The true vastness of Georgia’s Krubera Cave has only been fully realised since the turn of the twenty-first century, and it took a team of Ukrainian speleologists two weeks to reach the cave’s 2200m deepest point. Down here, you’re guaranteed friend requests from nothing but spiders, beetles and other creepy crawlies.

Cut off in Havana, Cuba

With patched-up old Buicks and Cadillacs stalking its capital’s streets like mechanical ghouls, the idea of Cuba as a time capsule is a familiar notion. What lies under the hood of those US classics is about as sophisticated as technology gets in Cuba – the country has the lowest rate of web access in the West, and what’s permitted is subject to heavy government regulation. Time to disengage the brain from all things digital and enjoy the city’s steamy charms.

Spend a week in Amish country, USA

In populated areas of the US it isn’t easy to escape the digital dimension. But the Amish – whose Mennonite ancestors came over to Pennsylvania from Europe at the turn of the eighteenth century – have long done a very efficient job of escaping the clutches of the modern world. In Lancaster County you can immerse yourself in their simple, rural way of life, where houses are not connected to the grid and travel is by horse-drawn buggy.

Get grounded in Bolivia’s salt flats

In one respect the Bolivian salt flats are money-spinningly hi-tech – beneath the white expanses lie the world’s largest reserves of lithium, used in battery manufacture. But that’s where links to the modern world end. Tours of the mind-bending salar are a Bolivian must-do and whichever accommodation you wind up in – freezing shack, luxury "salt palace" or Airstream caravan – the landscape utterly overwhelms and grounds you in the present moment.

Digital detox at Echo Valley Ranch and Spa, Canada

The internet has expanded at a terrifying rate since its inception, sure, but the Big Bang did it way bigger and way better. There’s nothing like getting out into the light pollution-free wilds and gazing up at giddying bucket-loads of stars to put you in your place. This ranch in British Columbia’s Cariboo region offers crystal-clear star-gazing allied to a digital detox programme – being reminded of your own puny insignificance never felt so good.

Surrender yourself in Chicago, USA

The "windy" of Chicago’s nickname actually refers to a certain loquaciousness associated with the city. But even here you can mute the world with the Monaco hotel’s "blackout" option, which encourages guests to hand in their devices on check-in. Be aware, however, that they also offer free wi-fi, so you can polish that halo even harder should you manage not to succumb.

Stay secluded in Butterfly Valley, Turkey

Somewhere along Turkey’s tourism-saturated Turquoise Coast, where holidaymakers are assured every home comfort, from full English breakfasts to free wi-fi, there’s an enclave of unplugged hippy-dom. Take a water taxi from Oludeniz (the "Blue Lagoon" in English, setting the evocatively back-to-nature tone) to the steep-sided, beach-fronted valley. You might still be able to data-roam, but listening to the crackle of evening bonfires or the strumming of acoustic guitars is far superior to the hum of social media.

Take a survival challenge on a Belize island

"I couldn’t survive without my phone." If you’re this digitally dependent, then perhaps it’s time you addressed your conception of the word "survive" – and that’s where getting shipwrecked on a desert island comes in. You’ll shell out for the privilege, of course, but before being left to your own devices on a Belize caye, the team will train you up and ensure you’re a budding Ray Mears. Fish gutting and fire building ahoy!

Stay in Skiary Lodge, Scotland

If you have ants in your social media pants, make for the unflappable stillness of Lough Hourn and let its tranquility wash over you. The most distracting thing you’re likely to encounter hereabouts is the otherworldly light – though climbing, swimming, seal-watching and star-gazing are all possibilities. This phone-, electrics- and internet-free lodge – two hours by car from Fort William, followed by a hike or a boat ride – is the only survivor from an abandoned fishing hamlet.

Explore Antarctica

Time is running out for Antarctica. And not (for now) in the way that you might think: rather it’s the region’s status as a communications black hole that’s most pressingly threatened. The urgency of the data being gathered in the region is forcing change, expediting improvements in Antarctica’s links to the wider world: "Antarctica Broadband" is on the horizon, promising "fast internet from the bottom of the earth". At least it’ll look impressive when you check in on Foursquare.

Ultima Thule Lodge, Alaska

An ancient term denoting hazily understood lands in the far north, "Ultima Thule" harks back to the early, "here be dragons" days of navigation. And while it’s certainly rugged out here, there’s no chance of it all going a bit Into the Wild, for this is Alaska deluxe – after being flown in, it’s chunky wood cabins, bearskin rugs and saunas all the way. And after an afternoon watching bears catch salmon, Candy Crush will seem a very sorry thing indeed.

Twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Rough Guides writer John Malathronas remembers his experience crossing Checkpoint Charlie.

It was in August 1989 when I presented myself to Checkpoint Charlie – a bit scared, very curious, but mostly excited – and crossed to what was then East Berlin.

Life in West Berlin, an island surrounded by East Germany, was what it must have been like in medieval castles during a siege. The claustrophobia started from the approach: I took the train from Hannover to Bahnhof Zoo, then the West Berlin terminus. Once through the border, it slowed down to a crawl: the track was badly maintained and the train could not attain full speed. As I looked out of the window, funny little Trabant cars raced in the streets and storks were nesting on wooden pylons along the route. There were no stops.

The first thing I did was rush to see the Wall which, at twelve feet, seemed terribly insignificant. I was surprised how close I could get to it. In fact, from the West you could touch it – in order to spray it with graffiti, it seems. But when I climbed on the lookout points I saw a no-man’s-land with barbed wire, foxholes and guns peeking from bunkers aiming at me.

Photograph by John Malathronas

So, at Checkpoint Charlie I was slightly nervous as I walked interminably through zigzag corridors, overlooked by grim-faced guards. After I crossed, I entered a different world. Posters, posters, and more posters; Lenin and Marx statues; flags and garlands for the 40th anniversary of the GDR; hammers and sickles. Yes, there was advertising beyond the Iron Curtain, but not for consumer products.

I only had a one-day visa that expired at midnight and, as a condition, I had to change 25DM at the rate of 1:1 with East German Deutschmarks that were worthless outside the country. But hey, 25DM was not enough to buy you lunch in West Berlin. Surely, it couldn’t be enough for a whole day in the East? How wrong I was…

I cautiously scrimped on my money by going to a fast food joint on Alexanderplatz that proved an excellent introduction to a centrally planned economy. I paid in advance, got three tokens and stood in three different queues: one for the burger, one for the chips and one for the cola. Some smartass bureaucrat had calculated that this was the optimum way to distribute fast food. The convenience of consumers, of course, was never part of the equation.

Photograph by Hans Peter Merten

I walked over to the start of Unter den Linden to see the Wall from the other side, but you couldn’t get to within 200 metres of it: a small white barrier – totally graffiti-free – demarcated the limit of approach. I wondered if the East Germans even knew about the existence of those bunkers and foxholes. They couldn’t see them, after all.

East Berlin had the top museums in Germany and it was there that I spent much of my time. The “museum island” in today’s Berlin lay entirely in the East and its Pergamon Museum is still one of Europe’s best as it was then. As the evening fell, I ventured further in and ended up in Treptower Park where the Soviet memorial still looms large. In 1987 Barclay James Harvest played the first open-air rock concert in the GDR there, but on that day I was alone.

I had a quick sit-down bite at a café, because I couldn’t find a restaurant that would let me in; with my Levis and Raybans I exuded Westernness and the risk of ideological infection must have seemed too great a risk. I still had fifteen Deutschmarks to spend, and it was 9pm already. Then it hit me.

Photograph by Jacob Bøtter

I walked towards Friedrichstrasse – along with Checkpoint Charlie the only exit point to the West – found a bar, got in and did what I’ve always wanted to do. I went to the barman and said: “I’m going to buy everyone a drink.”

I speak German, which is just as well, because everyone’s tongue became loose. My West German friends were all called Andy, Tim or Mike, but here I met people called Siegfried, Ewald and Heinrich. Yes, everyone was watching West German TV. Everyone was dreaming of Coca Cola and blue jeans. Everyone wanted to know about me and my life. And no one supported the regime.

I left at 11:30pm and reached the Friedrichstrasse checkpoint drunk but Deutschmark-free. I crossed with fifteen minutes to spare, drawing suspicious looks from passport controllers. I took the S-Bahn, passed above the Wall and was immediately blinded by the light of a thousand neon signs. I was back home.

Explore Berlin today with the Rough Guide to Berlin or the Pocket Rough Guide to BerlinBook hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

Street art has exploded in popularity over the last few years, relying on a strong aesthetic impact to make you think, or at least raise a smile. Andy Turner takes a look at the Shoreditch scene and learns to distinguish a Banksy from a Borondo

A curious thing happens when you walk south across Bishopsgate, leaving behind the corporate gleam of the City. First, indecipherable stickers begin to decorate lamp posts; then road signs appear with witty additions (for example, a love heart pierced by the arrow of a one-way sign); finally, the pavement, walls and even windows come alive in a riot of paint, ink and stencilled creativity. Welcome to Shoreditch, world capital of street art.

London street art: the early years

While your classic train-trashing graffiti can be traced back to 1970s Harlem and the beginnings of hip-hop, London’s street art has always had a more cerebral flavour. Inspired by the Paris student riots, anarchist slogans such as “Eat the Rich” were appearing in (then) gritty Notting Hill as early as 1968, as well as existential ponderings on the banality of life (the scene is documented in the excellent The Writing’s on the Wall by Roger Perry). By the 1980s, though, this more philosophical style had largely been replaced by anti-Thatcher invective and “wildstyle” (ie illegible) tagging on the Underground network, the latter aimed solely at impressing other graffiti writers.

Banksy, D*Face and the backlash

Fast forward to the new millennium and a young Bristolian scallywag was busy applying a pair of jump leads to the capital’s street-art scene. Relying on lightning-fast “throw-up” stencils, Banksy’s subversive rats, chimps and flower-throwing rioters reintroduced a dose of satire to the street-art world and soon wound up gracing the covers of pop albums or the subject of money-spinning gallery shows.

Over the next few years a group of street artists coalesced in Shoreditch, sharing a punk-based ideal to reclaim public space for artistic expression. Genre-defining work began to appear including the pop-art inspired imaginings of D*Face, the “circus font” typographical murals of Ben Eine and the “nightmare” drip paintings of Pure Evil. Street art also became more visible to East Londoners when cash-strapped Tower Hamlets Council gave up removing it with high-pressure jets.

Hardcore graffiti writers collectively winced at this new wave of interlopers they dismissed as “toys” (know-nothing amateurs in graffiti speak), underground legend Robbo going as far to dub Banksy “the Tesco of the art world”. The idea that someone might profit from their work was anathema – especially when Banksy’s art was being prised off the walls and flogged before the paint had even dried; the pair engaged in a tit-for-tat “graffiti war”, overpainting each other’s work until Robbo’s untimely death in July, 2014.

Shoreditch goes global

The artistic ripples from East London quickly radiated across the world and artists including Shephard Fairy (of Obama “Hope” poster fame), Australian Peter Drew and Frenchman Clet Abraham (he of the witty road signs) arrived to hit Shoreditch, announcing their “residence” with logo stickers on lamp posts. Today, artists from Seoul to Sao Paulo can be seen working in broad daylight, often licensed to cover vast areas – look out for the giant animal murals by Belgian artist ROA, the beautiful multilayered stencils of Parisian C215 and the expressionistic brushwork of Spanish artist Borondo.

Featured image: paste ups on Fashion Street including a charcoal by Portuguese artist Furia ACK; above: a C215 window in a barber’s shop, Brick Lane

London’s outdoor gallery

Despite the artists and their hipster hangers-on being priced out of E1, Shoreditch remains ground zero for street creativity. Clandestine work continues to appear overnight (check out the video below by A.CE for an artist’s eye view) and the art has become steadily more complex, incorporating sculpture, metalwork and multimedia. The scene has also shrugged off its macho “hoodie with an attitude” vibe with female artists such as Zina, Roo and Bambi attracting a strong following.

Banksy’s vision of a place where “every street was awash with a million colours and little phrases. Where standing at a bus stop was never boring.” (Wall and Peace, 2005) now seems all the more prescient.

Need to know

For an entertaining, insightful look at the scene take a tour with Shoreditch Street Art Tours led by acknowledged expert and prolific blogger Dave (AKA nolionsinengland). For a suitably artistic place to stay on Shoreditch’s doorstep try the chic QBIC hotel in Whitechapel (rooms from £69).

All photos © Andy Turner except “Let’s Endure and Adore Each Other” by ESPO and  “Cheese” by Borondo © nolionsinengland; “Hitchcock” paste up © walkalondon

From ancient ruins to beautiful beaches, Cyprus has a multitude of incredible things to see and do. Whether you’re after a challenging hike, fancy some wildlife spotting or want to go diving, this sun-kissed country will deliver. Here are our top things not to miss in Cyprus.

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