The ruins of Ani are a traveller’s dream – picture-perfect scenery, whacking great dollops of history, and almost nobody around to see it. While Turkey as a whole has been enjoying ever more popularity as a tourist destination, the number heading to its eastern reaches remains thrillingly low, lending an air of mystery to its attractions. Of these, none are more enchanting than the rosy-pink ruins of Ani, spectacularly located amidst a grassy expanse of undulating hillocks.

In 961, Ani became capital of a Bagratid Armenian kingdom that ruled over much of what is now southeastern Turkey. Though now firmly under Turkish rule, the ruins lie a stone’s throw from the modern-day border – macho types may find it impossible to resist sending a projectile over the stunning gorge that divides Turkey from Armenia. However, the two nations are still at loggerheads on certain issues, and Ani is patrolled by the Turkish jandarma; whole areas remain out of bounds despite the recent political thaw.

Considering the centuries of neglect, some of Ani’s buildings are in amazing condition, a testament to the masterful Armenian stoneworkers of the time, and the inherent qualities of duf. Still used extensively in Armenia today, this pinkish rock can assume near-transcendent hues of rose, tangerine and cinnamon during sunrise and sunset. Most visitors find themselves pointing their cameras at Prkitch, an eleventh-century church that’s mercifully a lot easier to photograph than it is to pronounce: known in English as the Church of the Redeemer, it was cleaved in two when struck by lightning in 1957, making it quite possibly the only church in the world that can be seen in cross-section with the naked eye.

Time has been kinder to Tigran Honents, a fresco-filled church just down the hill from Prkitch, and cathedral located just to the west – the latter is topped with a minaret that the brave may choose to ascend for an eagle-eye view of one of Turkey’s most unspoilt areas.

Ani is 45km from Kars, a town accessible by bus from many Turkish cities, as well as twice-weekly trains from Istanbul. The ruins are best visited by taxi – aim for three hours at the site plus two getting there and back, and bargain hard. After paying the small entry fee the ruins are yours, though the sun can be fierce, so bring water.

 

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1. Smicksburg, Pennsylvania, USA

The Amish way of life has changed relatively little over the last century. In the town of Smicksburg, Pennsylvania, is an Old Order Amish community of about 800 members. Shops sell speciality Amish food and crafts, there is limited electricity, horse and buggies are the main mode of transport and farmers work out in the nearby fields with horse-drawn ploughs.

2. Xinye Village, China

Residents of Xinye, an historic remote village founded in the thirteenth century in the mountains of western Zhejiang, have taken such pains to protect their ancient buildings from damage that the village is now highly respected for its fascinating ancient architecture. During Shangsi Festival, celebrated by only a few communities today, villagers pay tribute to their ancestors in ceremonial worship.

3. Den Gamble By, Århus, Denmark

Founded in 1909, “The Old Town” in Århus was the first open-air museum of its kind, focusing on the history and culture of past urban societies. With 75 replicas of historical houses from all over Denmark, you can wander through a nineteenth-century market town, explore a stately home from the 1700s, or even have a look round a 1970s gynaecologist’s clinic.

4. Tombstone, Arizona, USA

Once a wild-west frontier town, Tombstone was where the legendary gunfight at the O.K. Corral took place in 1881. The Historic District used to be one of the best-preserved frontier towns, but in recent years standards have dropped somewhat. Still, you’re sure to get a strong sense of what this place was like when cowboys roamed the streets looking for trouble.

5. Etar Architectural-Ethnographic Complex, Bulgaria

Enter the world of the Revival, a time of positive economic and political development in Bulgaria under Ottoman rule, from the eighteenth to mid-nineteenth centuries. This open-air museum in Gabrovo takes you through workshops and homes of craftsmen of the era, complete with a watermill from 1780, a traditional sweet shop and several restaurants serving time-honoured Bulgarian food.

6. Kizhi, Russia

The entire island of Kizhi, in Russia’s vast Lake Onega, is a historical relic. The intricately designed ancient wooden churches include Russia’s oldest religious building, the fourteenth-century Church of the Resurrection of Lazarus. Of the other antique wooden homes and buildings, some are native and others were shipped here in the 1950s to preserve the region’s unique, elaborate architecture.

7. Shikoku Mura, Japan

Step into Japan’s rural past in Sikoku Mura, an open-air museum of 33 traditional houses from the Edo to the Taishō periods. There’s also storehouses, a kabuki (classical Japanese dance-drama) stage dating back 250 years, sheds where paper used to be made out of mulberry bark and a suspension bridge made of vines. It’s a fascinating glimpse into a life once lived.

8. Zuiderzeemuseum, Enkhuizen, The Netherlands

In 1932, Zuiderzee in the Netherlands was cut off from the North Sea, washing away its role as an important fishing and trading port. Fears that the region’s maritime cultural heritage would be lost led to the creation of an entire village reflecting a past way of life, and a museum of seventeenth-century ships housed in old Dutch East India Trading Company warehouses.

9. Sighisoara, Transylvania, Romania

Birthplace of Vlad Tepes, otherwise known as Dracula, Sighisoara is one of the oldest and best-preserved inhabited citadels in Europe. High up on a hill overlooking the Tarnave Mare valley in Transylvania, ancient houses lead up to the fourteenth-century clocktower that dominates the ominous skyline, dotted with battlements and needle spires.

10. Herm, Channel Islands, UK

The tiny island of Herm is one of the smallest of the Channel Islands open for visitors – just two square kilometres of unspoilt land. There are no cars or bicycles allowed on the island, and you can only get around on foot, although quad bikes and tractors are used to transport staff and luggage for guests staying on the island.

11. Hahoe Folk Village, South Korea

Folk villages in South Korea are a popular way of maintaining strong links with the nation’s pastoral traditions. Hanoe Folk Village is not just a show-town; this a fully-functioning sixteenth-century (Joseon-era) style community with preserved original buildings – tiled-roofed for the aristocracy, thatched and mud-walled for the servant class – all charmingly arranged in the shape of a lotus flower.

12. Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany

The Peasants’ War of 1525 and the Thirty Years War a century later left the once-prosperous town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber in Bavaria, poverty-stricken. Development came to a standstill, and the buildings were left untouched. Detailed reconstruction after the allied bombings of World War II means that this enchanting town still looks almost exactly like it did four hundred years ago.

13. Tatariv, Ukraine

It’s not uncommon to see horse-drawn carts in the small towns and villages in rural Ukraine, or to find farmers using horse-drawn ploughs and hand-scythes in the fields. Tatariv, in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains, is one of the living relics of old-Ukraine, where carts used for transport in summer are replaced by sleighs in bitter winters.

14. Inle Lake, Myanmar (Burma)

The Intha people of Inle Lake in central Myanmar live in villages made up of stilt bamboo-and-wood houses. Communities here speak an ancient dialect of Burmese and continue to use the lake for transport and trade as they have done for generations, growing vegetables on floating gardens and catching fish from boats propelled by their distinctive leg-rowing style.

15. Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, USA

The largest US outdoor living-history museum has hundreds of restored and reconstructed buildings from 1699 to 1780, all relating to American Revolutionary War history. “Interpreters” dress and act from the era, explaining features of life here in the past to visitors. The added bonus is that you can walk through Colonial Williamsburg for free, any time of day.

16. Black Country Living Museum, England

Delve into the railway yards, steel workshops, coal pits, shops and homes of what was once one of Britain’s most heavily industrialised areas – Black Country, West Midlands. This open-air museum recreates life in nineteenth and early twentieth century industrialised Britain with delightful accuracy – and you can even save your legs with a journey on an old-fashioned trolleybus.

17. Blists Hill, Telford, England

Do some high street shopping with a difference at Blists Hill, a living, working Victorian-era town in the West Midlands of England. Eat traditionally cooked fish ‘n’ chips, try some old-fashioned sweets (perhaps before you take a peek in the frightening dentists’ surgery), and even sniff the smells of the past as you go.

18. The Funen Village, Odense, Denmark

The restored half-timbered houses, mills, local school and quaint little village street of The Funen Village set a rural Danish scene as it looked in the days of Hans Christian-Andersen, born and raised in Odense in the early nineteenth century. Get up close and personal with old-Danish livestock breeds, and taste local varieties of fruit from back in Andersen’s day.

Members of the Igorot tribe of Mountain Province in northern Philippines have long practised the tradition of burying their dead in hanging coffins, nailed to the sides of cliff faces high above the ground. Comfortably predating the arrival of the Spanish, the procedure can probably be traced back more than two millennia. To this day, the age-old tradition continues to be performed, albeit on a much smaller scale than before. While researching the new Rough Guide to the Philippines, Kiki Deere went to find out more.

Traditional burials in hanging coffins only take place every few years or so now, but Soledad Belingom, a retired septuagenarian schoolteacher of the Igorot tribe, has invited me to her modest house in Sagada to tell me more about her tribe’s unique burial practices.

One of the most common beliefs behind this practice is that moving the bodies of the dead higher up brings them closer to their ancestral spirits, but Soledad believes there are other contributing factors. “The elderly feared being buried in the ground. When they died, they did not want to be buried because they knew water would eventually seep into the soil and they would quickly rot. They wanted a place where their corpse would be safe.”

Soledad pauses, shifting in her armchair in search of a more comfortable position. She lets out a little cough before going on: “There are two fears of being buried. The first is that dogs will eat the corpse, so the coffins are placed high up on a cliff, out of their reach. Secondly, years ago, during the headhunting days, savages from different parts of Kalinga and eastern Bontoc province – our enemies – would hunt for our heads, and take them home as a trophy. That’s another reason why the dead were buried high up – so nobody could reach them.”

The coffins are either tied or nailed to the sides of cliffs, and most measure only about one metre in length, as the corpse is buried in the foetal position. The Igorots believe that a person should depart the same way he entered the world.

When someone dies, pigs and chickens are traditionally butchered for community celebrations. For elderly people, tradition dictates this should be three pigs and two chickens, but those who cannot afford to butcher so many animals may butcher two chickens and one pig. Soledad tells me the number must always be three or five.

The deceased is then placed on a wooden sangadil, or death chair, and the corpse is tied with rattan and vines, and then covered with a blanket. It is thereafter positioned facing the main door of the house for relatives to pay their respects. The cadaver is smoked to prevent fast decomposition and as a means to conceal its rotting smell. The vigil for the dead is held for a number of days, after which the corpse is removed from the death chair to be carried to the coffin. Before being taken for burial, it is secured in the foetal position, with the legs pushed up towards the chin. It is then wrapped again in a blanket and tied with rattan leaves while a small group of men chip holes into the side of the cliff to hammer in the support for the coffin.

“The corpse is wrapped like a basketball”, says Soledad, “on the way there, mourners do their best to grab it and carry it because they believe it is good luck to be smeared with the dead’s blood.” The fluids from the corpse are thought to bring success and to pass on the skills of the deceased to those who come into contact with them during the funeral procession.

When the procession reaches the burial site, young men climb up the side of the cliff and place the corpse inside a hollowed out lumber coffin. The bones are cracked to fit the corpse into the small space, which is then sealed with vines.

The newest coffins measure to about two metres, Soledad explains: “These days, coffins are long because the relatives of the deceased are afraid to break the bones of their loved ones. Very few choose to follow that tradition now.”

Today, Sagada’s elders are among the last practitioners of these ancient rituals. Younger generations have adopted modern ways of life and are influenced by the country’s profound Christian beliefs. “Children want to remember their grandparents but they prefer to bury them in the cemetery and visit their tombs on All Saints Day. You can’t climb and visit the hanging coffins. It’s a tradition that is slowly coming to an end. It’s dying out.”

If you want to explore more of the Philippines, buy the Rough Guide to the Philippines or to explore this area of the world, look out for the upcoming edition Rough Guide to Southeast Asia on a Budget in August 2014. 
Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

Stretching from the warm tropical shores of the Caribbean to the wild and windswept archipelago of Tierra del FuegoSouth America has a dizzying treasure trove of landscapes that have long seduced independent travellers seeking an unforgettable experience. Belgian photographer Pascal Mannaerts has been captivated by the continent since he discovered photography during his student years; here is a selection of his amazing pictures of BrazilBolivia, and Peru.

The Altiplano, near La Paz, Bolivia

Dried frogs, potions and medicinal plants in the Witches’ Market, La Paz, Bolivia

 

Sur Lípez, Bolivia

Ancestral remains in a cave in Villamar, Bolivia

Abandoned train, Uyuni, Bolivia

 The streets of Copacabana, Bolivia

A woman living in the Antiplano, Bolivia

Ipanema beach, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Lago do Pelourinho, Salvador, Brazil

Portrait of a man in Barreirinhas, Brazil

Lençóis Maranhenses National Park, Brazil

The view of Rio from Sugarloaf Mountain, Brazil

A man drumming during a street party, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

An Uros woman, Lake Titicaca, Peru

Mama Peruana in traditional dress, Cusco, Peru

Children walking their llama home, Cusco, Peru

Bolivia is one of our top countries to visit in 2014 – find more of the top countries, cities and best-value destinations with the Rough Guide to 2014.
All photographs courtesy of Pascal Mannaerts – you can see more of his work at www.parcheminsdailleurs.com.
Explore more of Brazil, Peru and Bolivia with the Rough Guide to South America on a Budget. Book hostels for your trip and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

Despite its natural beauty and vast array of historical sites, Jordan welcomes only a fraction of the visitors to the Middle East. When many think of Jordan, they picture camels and deserts – which admittedly make up 85 percent of its land mass – but this is also a country of mountains, beaches, castles and churches, with a welcoming population and a rich culture. These are our top things to do in Jordan:


Music: Ya Mo by Dozan (with thanks to worldmusic.net).

It’s art, myth and archeology, it’s visually stunning and you can reach back through the millennia and immerse yourself in its marks and contours. South Africa’s rock art represents one of the world’s oldest and most continuous artistic and religious traditions. Found on rock faces all over the country, these ancient paintings are a window into a historic culture and its thoughts and beliefs. In the Cederberg range alone, 250km north of Cape Town, there are some 2500 rock art sites, estimated to be between one and eight thousand years old.

The paintings are the work of the first South Africans, hunter-gatherers known as San or Bushmen, the direct descendants of some of the earliest Homo sapiens who lived in the Western Cape 150,000 years ago. Now almost extinct, their culture clings on tenuously in tiny pockets of Namibia, northern South Africa and Botswana.

If you’re looking to dig deeper, the easy-going Sevilla Trail gives you the opportunity to take in ten rock art sites along a stunning 4km route. The animals that once grazed and preyed in the fynbos (literally “fine bush’’) vegetation of the mountainous Cederberg are among the major subjects of the finely realized rock art paintings, which also include abstract images and monsters as well as depictions of people and therianthropes – half-human, half-animal figures. You’ll see beautifully observed elephants, rhinos, buffaloes, oryx, snakes and birds, accurately portrayed in sinuous outline or solid bodies of colour – often earthy whites, reds and ochres. Frequently quite small, they’re dotted all over rock surfaces, sometimes painted one over the other to create a rich patina.

Archeologists now regard many of the images as metaphors for religious experiences, one of the most important of which is the healing trance dance, still practised by the few surviving Bushman communities. The rock faces can be seen as portals between the human and spiritual world: when we gaze at Bushman rock art we are gazing into the house of the spirits.

You don’t need to book to walk the trail, but you do need a permit, which can be obtained from Traveller’s Rest Farm (www.travellersrest.co.za), which also has accommodation and lays on horse trails.

 

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Indigenous communities in Costa Rica are relatively unknown and often overlooked, so visiting them makes for a truly fascinating and authentic experience. In the remote Bribrí village of Yorkín, men and women are equal and sustain themselves through farming, fishing and hunting. Rough Guides writer, Anna Kaminski, met the woman behind the collective.

Our motorised dugout canoe makes its slow way up the Bribrí river, with dense jungle looming on either side and the air heavy with the promise of rain. The stillness around us is broken only by the lapping of the water and the frantic fluttering of parakeets overhead. It’s the beginning of the dry season, and parts of the river are already shallow; Victor, our guide, periodically jumps into the swiftly-moving, knee-deep water to help the boatman steer our craft towards deeper patches. Even getting to the boat dock was an adventure – a drive from Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, through the town of Bribrí, and then a trundle along a bumpy track, complete with stream crossings, to the path through the cane fields leading to the boat landing.

Finally, a cluster of thatched huts on the riverbank comes into view. We have reached our destination: Yorkín, a remote village of 210 Bribrí people that sits just across the river from the border with Panama.

Though Costa Rica is very well-trodden as a tourist destination, the country’s indigenous population is often overlooked as it’s relatively unknown. Costa Rica’s eight indigenous groups – the Boruca, Bribrí, Cabecar, Guaymí, Huetar, Maleku, Matambú and Térraba – number just over 100,000 and are spread over 22 reserves, the largest ones located in the southeastern part of the country, near the Caribbean coast. The Bribrí account for roughly a third of this population, and all communities face serious challenges – in spite of getting the right to vote in 1994 – such as stopping the government from encroaching on their land and preserving traditional culture and languages.

We’re met by Bernarda, a robust woman in her late thirties, with a ready smile and braided hair. She leads us to a large elevated communal space topped by a conical roof made of woven palm fronds. I ask her about the sign above the door that reads “Stibrawpa”, which apparently means “women who make handicrafts”.

“This is the meeting place of the women’s collective that I started twenty years ago. I was only nineteen years old; it was very hard work at the beginning. When I was fourteen, I had my first baby. I wanted a better life for him than what we had, so when I was eighteen, I went to university in Alajuela for a year to study tourism and equal rights. My idea was to find ways to preserve Bribrí culture and to educate outsiders about it. Sustainable tourism, in other words.”

The collective now has its own school, with 53 students attending from four different Bribrí communities (including two from across the border in Panama), who learn the indigenous language; only half the Bribrí population used to speak it.

“This is the only community in Costa Rica where machismo [the belief of supremacy of men over women] has been eradicated; men and women work together as equals”, explains Bernarda. This is particularly unique as usually the Bribrí are a matrilineal society, so only women can inherit and when a man marries, he has to move in with his in-laws.

Last year, 4000 people visited this community, some to help rebuild houses after the floods of 2008, and others to learn more about the Bribrí way of life, staying overnight in “Stibrawpa 2” – another thatched-roof building.

We stroll along a dirt path that runs past the houses and Bernarda shows me their crops of cocoa and bananas, which are exported to Italy and the USA. For their own food, the Bribrí fish using sharp arrows and hunt, once a week, for agouti (a rodent like animal common in South and Central America).

In the clearing by the cooking hut, a small mound of cocoa beans is scattered along a stone tray. We all take turns crushing the beans using the grinding stone provided, then the mixture is put through the metal grinder, leaving us with a wonderfully aromatic brown paste. One of the women mixes some of the paste with boiling water and sugar, presenting me with the best hot cocoa I’ve ever had. Bribrí mythology says that God once turned a woman into a cocoa tree and as a result, only women are now allowed to make this delicious drink.

We try our hand at archery and then sit down to a simple lunch of chicken with rice, beans and cassava as a downpour finally lets loose, prompting the men –  who’ve been weaving a roof for a new house nearby – to run for cover. Bernarda tells us that such a roof, woven from tightly knotted palm fronds, can last up to eight years.

As dusk falls and we prepare to listen to the elders tell Bribrí stories of creation around the communal fire, I reflect on how content the villagers seem in spite (or perhaps because of) their relative isolation, and the simplicity of everyday life. Given the tenacious efforts of individuals such as Bernarda, it seems that this way of life may survive a while longer.

To explore more of this beautiful country, buy the Rough Guide to Costa Rica. Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

The Beira Baixa is a land of burning plains and granite visions, isolated in one of the most remote corners of Western Europe, where the Spanish border blurs under a broiling sun. Here, if you search hard enough, you’ll find at least two of the most startling medieval villages in Europe: Monsanto – Mon Sanctus in Latin – is truly a sacred hill; you can feel it in the air, in the very fabric of its ancient houses and the long life of its inhabitants. Even as you drive past the cork trees below its flanks, their valuable bark sliced away to reveal an ochre core, this mini-citadel grips the imagination and quickens the blood.

It is a village built into the earth, not on it: the famous Casa de Uma Só Telha – the house with only one tile – boasts a roof consisting of a single slab of granite. No surprise that its flower-buttoned facades once won it the title “most Portuguese village”, or that mystery and superstition permeate the draughts of warm air rising from the rocks in the relative cool of evening.

A few octogenarian villagers still sell marafonas, rag dolls traditionally hung over doorways to “scare thunder storms, sorcery and the fox”. While you’re unlikely to come across many foxes, far less sorcery, you might just hear the high, ululating strangeness of one of these old women accompanying herself on the adufe, a square, tambourine-like percussion instrument of Moorish origin, once common in Alentejo and Trás-os-Montes yet now largely confined to the Beira Baixa; or be regaled by toothless men old enough to remember their fathers holding off Vatua hordes in Mozambique.

Had the “most Portuguese village” competition not been scrapped after envious howls of protest, it would surely, sooner or later, have been scooped by Sortelha, some 35km to the north. A walled horseshoe of ancient history on a 45-degree angle, it’s the kind of place that sends your brain spinning: silent, sleeping streets and Vesuvian hulks of stone piling down upon garden, upon pantiled roof, upon carved stairwell; a film set waiting to happen. At its apex sits Bar Campanario, a tiny stone hostelry hiding one of the world’s most atmospheric terraces, its infinite views wheeling endlessly across the primordial plain-scape beyond, and only ghosts for company.

The Beira Baixa region lies more or less equidistant between Coimbra and the Spanish town of Cáceres. Monsanto is accessible via (infrequent) bus from the regional hub of Castelo Branco, Sortelha via a €12–15 taxi ride from nearby Sabugal.

 

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

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

Around Santiago

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

Northern Chile and the Atacama Desert

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lake District & Chiloe

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

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

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

Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego

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

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

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

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

The island territories

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

Getting around

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

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

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

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

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

Sitting in the middle of Sydney Harbour, Cockatoo Island is a World Heritage listed location with a wealth of history to uncover. In search of some truths about the island’s dark past as the Australian answer to Alcatraz, Sara Chare follows the Cockatoo Island Convict Trail.

Australia itself was once considered to be one big prison, what with the transportation of thousands of British convicts to the country between 1788 and 1868, and on 23 February 1839, sixty prisoners arrived on Cockatoo Island after Governor George Gipps decided it would be a good place for a new jail. Today, the island welcomes tourists, family day-trippers, and stylish Sydney locals who have come to sip wine and nibble pizza at the Island Bar.

After a 15-minute ferry ride from Darling Harbour, I arrived on the island, which has been a prison twice, the site of a girl’s school, home to Australia’s largest shipyard, and is now a World Heritage listed site because of its intrinsic historic value. There are a number of self-guided walks charting its history but I had already settled on following the Convict Trail, so after picking up my map I set off.

The first building I came to was the Engineers’ and Blacksmiths’ Shop, a large industrial space held up by steel girders and bricks, and which smelled of pigeons and dust. Built in the 1850s, and despite housing only machinery and empty space, it is a strangely fascinating place that makes you want to whip out your camera and take arty, industrial-chic photographs.

I exited through a tiny blue door reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland, keeping my eye open for the red signs pointing the way, and soon spotted Fitzroy Dock, built over a decade by shackled convicts toiling waist-deep in water. The surrounding buildings were made of sandstone quarried by the first arrivals, and it was here that 550 men were housed in a space meant for 300. Conditions were atrocious: no washing facilities, little or no ventilation. It’s little surprise that riots broke out, during which wardens would take potshots at the inmates from the safety of the guardhouse (now a roofless shell). Any ringleaders would be confined for up to a month in one of the twelve underground isolation cells – known as “graves for the living” – with only the rats for company. I shuddered at the thought and moved on, only to discover what remains of some of the six-metre-deep grain silos hewn out of the rock using just hand tools; it’s said that if a prisoner did not reach his daily quota of stone, he was not lifted out that day.

Biloela House is the last stop on the trail before taking the stairs back down to ground level. Perched on the highest point of the island it was intended for the superintendent and his family, and sitting on its wide, shady veranda, watching the sailing boats and listening to the sound of seagulls squawking and the ferry horns, I pondered Cockatoo Island’s convict history. With conditions on the island so deplorable and with Sydney so tantalizingly close and visible, most would think about escape, but few tried it. Many of the prisoners couldn’t swim and those that could knew the waters were teeming with sharks as well as rowboat patrols.

The most famous escapee, however, was Frederick Ward, better known as the bushranger Captain Thunderbolt, who was at Cockatoo for seven years for stealing horses. In 1863 he swam successfully to shore after his devoted part-Aboriginal wife Mary Bugg had swum to the island to leave him the tools needed. Mary waited for him on the opposite shore, equipped with her trusty white steed, and the pair eventually rode away to freedom. The law didn’t catch up with Captain Thunderbolt until 1870 when he was shot near Uralla in New South Wales. Luckily for me, I don’t have to wait for a moonless, foggy night to leave the island, there’s a ferry in 30 minutes. That’s just enough time to buy a coffee from the Airstream cafe, admire the harbour and enjoy the fact that times have changed.

If you want to explore Sydney and this enormous country, use our Rough Guide to Australia. Book hostels for your trip and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. 

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