Surrounded by the dwarfing Sierra de Catorce mountain range, Rough Guides writer Alasdair Baverstock indulges in some hallucinogenic Mexican cactus for an eye-opening experience.

The cactus beside me was quite audibly breathing. Its expansions and contractions were sure signs of its survival in this desert. In fact, looking around at the abandoned silver mine everything was breathing. The creeper vines clinging to the dilapidated furnace chimney, the rock on which I was sitting, the very ground itself was sucking deeply and greedily on the air. Or so the hallucinogen coursing through my system was telling me.

Five hours north of Mexico City, Real de Catorce is an abandoned silver mining town nestled in an eighty mile-long massif in San Luis Potosí state. The industry has all gone. Mexico’s largest silver deposits were exhausted fifty years ago. Now the town survives on peyote tourism, which sees travellers come to experience a plant with hallucinogenic properties, grown in the desert nearby.

After five miles of cobbled mountain road and a two kilometre tunnel, we arrived in the town. Alpine in its constitution, Real de Catorce’s whitewashed houses, soaring church spire and cobbled streets are a world apart from the Spanish imperialism which built the state capital, San Luis Potosí.

Image by Alasdair Baverstock

The guides were immediately upon us, asking, “you’re after the medicine?” as soon as we arrived. Local touts charge £10 (US$16) a head. “We go in my jeep, collect the medicine and then go to a safe place for the effects,” one promised. Ten minutes later we were doing just that, perched precariously on the 4×4’s roof as we tackled the terrifying road down out of the mountains.

Peyote is a cactus which grows around the roots of other desert shrubs. It is a squat and fleshy plant, soft enough to be harvested with a credit card, its texture that of broccoli stem. Its sale for consumption is illegal, although the Mexican authorities tend to look the other way if one has come to the source to experience it. Visitors can walk away from the desert with whatever they can hold in their stomachs.

Sitting in a circle on the desert floor, each with two plants (a decent dose we were informed), we raised a stumbling toast to a new experience and began the arduous process of swallowing the peyote. Extremely bitter and acrid, the plant should be cleaned of the cotton-like strands that sprout from its centre, as well as any sand particles that may still be hanging on. Ten minutes and twenty mouth rinsings later, we were on our way.

“You guys taken the medicine?”, the petrol station attendant grinned knowingly at me.
“Yes. Have you?”
“Not today, but sometimes I’ll eat a little bit. Makes you feel nice”.

The hallucinogen takes perhaps an hour to kick in, during which time we made our way back up towards the mountain town, stopping at its abandoned mine for a tour.

Entering the area I could feel my mind begin to trip. Sounds were more intense; the rustle of the trees was fizzing in at me from all directions. The eagles hunting the vast skies were heart-racingly beautiful; the bridge across the gorge was an astonishing feat of engineering; the shared benevolence of all living things in the region had soaked me in its light.

Suddenly the simple fact of the world’s existence and my own within it was an amazing fact. Perhaps the only fact. That’s the sort of hallucinogen peyote is. It’s possible to see life’s panorama more widely.

The rest of the afternoon was spent in Real de Catorce, shopping for dulce de leche desserts and silver jewellery mined and made in the mountains around us.

Image by Alasdair Baverstock

Sitting down with the group – a civil engineer with his girlfriend, my friend Tim and I – we talked about what we were feeling. “It comes in waves”, said the girlfriend, “you think you’re coming down but then a wave breaks in your mind. It washes over you and you’re in deep again.”

“You feel very connected to things”, said Tim, “part of something bigger”. We all agreed.

Lunch was delicious: pozole, a long-stewed Mexican pork soup filled with corn, juices and local vegetables. It felt like enough food for the entire day, let alone lunch. By this time we had entered the second part of a peyote trip: an unshakable inner peace; a calm appreciation of everything around you. This lasts the majority of the trip, a delightful further eight hours.

I offered to give the couple a ride back into town on our way back to Mexico City. We sat in the car and enjoyed the drive as the mountains changed into desert, the skies turned from blue to rosy pink and the cobbled track turned into tarmac motorway. We were content, happy and relaxed.

Saying our farewells at the bus station, we watched the setting sun cast multi-coloured shadows over the mountain range in the distance. They melded into the crowd shoving around the bus terminal. I looked at the humanity and I looked at myself and I looked at the bare earth. Part of something bigger.

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

Escaping the hundreds of climbers on their way to Machu Picchu, Alex Robinson discovers the “other Inca Trail” in Peru – an equally impressive but near-empty climb. 

I woke with a start in the night. The dogs were barking in the camp. I heard the clatter of tin cans, the crash of plates and then frightened shouts from one of the guides.

“Es un oso!” Did I hear that right? A bear? My heart thumped. I thought of the millimetres of canvas between me and the forest, and the chocolate bar under my pillow, its sugary sweetness seeping into the mossy odours of the night. There was a muffled, deep guttural growl. Then more frenetic barks and human yells and something heavy lumbered swiftly past my tent. I heard a tearing of branches. The dogs quietened down. Silence.

Image by Alex Robinson

Had it gone? I lay awake, wide-eyed. Or was it waiting? Five minutes. Ten minutes of silence. Nothing. Fear turned to wonder. I knew our camp was remote, but a spectacled bear, native to the Andes, was so rare it was almost mythical – as hard to find as a snow leopard. Somehow it had found our tourist camp – on an Inca trail, leading to a ruined city high in the tropical Andes.

Our trail didn’t go to Machu Picchu. The only wildlife you’ll see en route to that Inca city are high soaring raptors and the occasional viscacha (a rodent) by the wayside – looking like a stoned rabbit and squeaking alarmingly before rushing off into the bushes. There are just too many hikers on their way to Machu Picchu. But we were going to the Inca city of Choquequirao, and in the six nights we’d been on the trail we’d seen just two other walkers, panting as they descended out of the swirling mist from one of the numerous high passes.

Image by Alex Robinson

The scenery was magnificent, a trail running along a river had taken us past a string of minor Inca sites and high into the hills. We’d clambered up stone steps that wound into mountains and descended into thick cloud forest dripping with lichens and mosses and so silent you could hear the buzz of humming bird wings. We’d played football in a tiny Quechua village on a pitch cut flat from a steep Andean spur. We were a novelty there, not “gringo” tourists. And we’d dropped and climbed through deep valleys watched over by towering peaks that hid behind wispy clouds before revealing themselves in blazing reflected sunlight.

And though I may not have witnessed more than the broken plates and wrecked food containers that were left in its wake, I’d now experienced a spectacled bear. It was the last morning before we’d reach Choquequirao and over breakfast all of us were buzzing with excitement about the bear, and anticipation of our arrival. The internet is flooded with images of Machu Picchu, but a Google search of Choquequirao brings far fewer pictures. But those I did find had been dreamily spectacular when I first saw them, and now the city was just over the next ridge.

Image by Alex Robinson

It took us the whole morning to climb it, and much of the early afternoon to wind down the path on the other side. Choquequirao wouldn’t reveal itself. A dense fairytale-esque forest of gnarled, lichen-covered trees blocked out every view. The boulder-strewn path twisted and turned for kilometres. Finally, off to the right I caught a tantalising glimpse of buildings, rounded another corner and the forest opened onto a view of stone houses, and a sweep of terraces. We dropped further and cut past an unmistakably Inca wall – a jig-saw of organic lines formed by the slotting together of huge rocks.

The guide wouldn’t let us enter the city. Instead he ushered us past and onwards up another steep path to a high viewpoint. And then we saw Choquequirao in her slendour. At our feet was a grassy green plaza cut out of the face of a vast mountain spur swathed in forest. Off to the right scores of terraced fields dropped into a steep valley cut deep by the rushing blue-water Apurimac – a tributary of a tributary of a tributary of the Amazon. It was so far below that my eyes were dizzy with vertigo. But I could hear its roar echo up the mountain walls. Behind Choquequirao was a distant, serrated edge of snow-covered mountains. They momentarily revealed their faces through drifting cloud which cleared and paused, then swirled, covering the mountains once again from view.

Image by Alex Robinson

We stood in silence for more than an hour, spellbound as we watched the light shift and change as the sun sank into the valley at our backs, honeying the city stone warm yellow. The sky faded into glorious pink and purple and finally turquoise blue as the sun set, casting its dying rays onto the distant snowfields.

For two days we explored Choquequirao, losing ourselves in its silent ruins, in its meditative views and on paths cutting into the surrounding hills, and for those two days we had the city to ourselves, before leaving it behind us and taking the dusty path up through the valley to a town a bus and finally Cusco.

We’d been ten days away by the time we reached that city and its crowds of travellers – most of them on their way to Machu Picchu. Few had even heard of Choquequirao. But they will soon. Peru plans to build a fast road link from Cusco and a cable car across the Apurimac valley. Come before they do and walk the trail. The other Inca trail.

Journey Latin America  offer trips to Cusco including treks to Choquequirao. Explore more of Peru with the Rough Guide to Peru. Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

Quinns on Capitol Hill, around 8pm on the Saturday night, is when we hit the wall. Halfway though a wild boar sloppy joe, which oozed out of its brioche confines like meaty magma, spilling fried onion and Fresno pepper across the plate in an explosion of gluttonous joy, we were done. Finished. Finito. Couldn’t have a morsel more. Except perhaps a bite of that Brussels sprout and mustard cream-stuffed Scotch egg. Thanks for being our server tonight, but please stop bringing food.

The restaurant, in the heart of Seattle’s lively, gay-friendly, still somewhat countercultural part of town, is not a place for calorie counting. A touch of pretentiousness aside (I’m not sure how much the chips, or French fries, or ‘frites’ as they’re known here, benefitted from Fontina fonduta and veal demi-glace), it’s a feeder’s paradise but far from unique in a city renowned for its food.

Photo:  msparksls / Flickr Creative Commons

We’d started our Richman-esque tour with salmon. First we watched them swimming in the fish ladder at Ballard Locks, in the northwest of the city, navigating between the salty waters of Puget Sound and the fresh water of Lake Union, a great spot for walking, seal-spotting and exploring the nearby Scandinavian communities.

Then we ate them, at Pike Place Fish Market by the Elliott Bay waterfront in downtown Seattle, hacked into chunks by a man in knee-high wellies, smoked, infused with garlic and pepper, and turned to jerky. While we devoured them, and some sliced Nova Scotia salmon lox, other men in overalls threw fish at each other, bellowing banter to conjure a scene that drew in hordes of camera-toting shoppers.

Photo: Alanosaur / Flick Creative Commons

Pike Place Fish sits in the centre of Pike Place Market, an obscenely touristy spot but an essential consideration for anyone that likes food. Their salmon, swordfish, trout, tuna, sturgeon, stockfish, crab, shrimp, and mussels (not to mention oysters so good they empty your wallet fast, lending a new meaning to Dickens’ immortal “poverty and oysters always seem to go together”) sit among an abundance of treats.

We joined one of Savor Seattle’s tours, which start somewhat inauspiciously in a comedy club whose walls are covered with second hand chewing gum. Once we’d pushed the masticated polymers out of our minds, and run through the guide’s opening gambit of jokes, we were quickly whisked round various shops and stalls to begin the feeding.

Daily Dozen’s doughnuts kicked things off, steaming dough bites doused in sugar and lasting all of ten seconds between us, before creamy, chunky seafood bisque at Pike Place Chowder, doughy pastries from  Piroshky Piroshky that would melt Red from Orange Is The New Black’s heart, and more creamy, chunky joy from the mac cheese at Beecher’s Handmade Cheese. Come to think of it, there was a lot of dough and a lot of cream involved, a rapid gorge with a chocolate cherry or two (from Chukar Cherries) on top.

Photo: Brighter than sunshine / Flickr Creative Commons

As one of the oldest continuous markets in the country, Pike Place has a chequered history. Growing out of an impromptu collection of farmers over a hundred years ago, it officially took shape in 1907 amid allegations of corruption and disagreements between city officials and producers. It’s since weathered scandals – inexcusable purging of Japanese-Americans in the early ’40s and plans for demolition in the ’60s – and thanks to an innovative scheme in the ’80s whereby locals could sponsor floor tiles to donate funds, its future looks secure.

After the morning tour, and a tasting flight of Washington State wines from Lost River Winery later (it was 5pm on the east coast at that point), we explored the area, including the Space Needle and Elliott Bay.

Before long we were hungry again, so headed to a few of Tom Douglas’ restaurants. The chef has built a small empire in Seattle, and managed to conquer numerous food types in the process; his outposts cover Italian, Greek, Asian and seafood. We ducked into Lola for some dolmades stuffed with herbs, pine nuts and currants, before waddling half a block to Serious Pie. Pie means pizza, and here it means paper-thin crusts cooked at 700°F and loaded with topping choices that trigger debilitating menu paralysis. Yukon Gold potato with rosemary and pecorino was an inspired mix, as was sweet fennel sausage with roasted peppers and provolone. Pale ales and apricot ciders did the honours in accompaniment.

Photo: solsken / Flickr Creative Commons

These additional snacks gave us energy to see some more of Seattle, including Bruce and Brandon Lee’s graves at the top of a hill in Lake View Cemetery. The father-son spot is pretty poignant, although I felt for the other souls adjacent, whose memory was trampled unheeded by a cavalcade of comfy shoes.

Gas Works Park, meanwhile, was a picturesque place to perch across the lake, enabling food coma slumps on the ground under the faraway buzz of incessant seaplanes. The nearby Fremont Brewing Company, meanwhile, introduced me to the concept of growlers, big beer containers that allow you to take home your favourite brews.

Photo:  tinatinatinatinatina / Flickr Creative Commons

The following morning we took a bus to Portland, but not before a manic dash to The Crumpet Shop at Pike Place. Specialising in proper English crumpets for nearly four decades, they give them an American spin (think walnuts, honey and ricotta), but indulged my lifelong penchant for Marmite, cheddar and cucumber. We also managed to follow in Obama’s footsteps briefly, and grabbed a bag of doughnuts from Top Pot on the way to the station, because you just never know when hunger will strike.

We stayed at Hotel Andra in the downtown district, which is nestled among shops, bars, and near Pike Place Market. And yes, we did get room service.

Featured image of Seattle Skyline by  howardignatius on Flickr (Creative Commons).

Encompassing northern Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Russia’s Kola Peninsula, Sápmi is the collective name for the traditional territory of the nomadic Sámi – Europe’s only indigenous people, who migrated to northern Scandinavia after the last Ice Age and subsisted by hunting reindeer. As the reindeer grew scarce by the seventeenth century, hunters became herders; today, only around ten per cent of the Sámi still make a living from reindeer husbandry.

The Sámi year was traditionally divided into eight seasons, each tied to a period of reindeer herding, and the herders lived a nomadic life, their lightweight lavvu (teepee-like dwellings) enabling them to follow the grazing paths of their reindeer. The former is still true for the herders, but today, many Sámi live in modern housing for much of the year, and even the very process of herding has been modernised with helicopters and snowmobiles. The Sámi are also active in other fields – from art and music to tourism, cuisine and traditional craft-making.  

The Sámi population of Sápmi numbers approximately 70,000–80,000, out of which around 40,000 live in Norway, 25,000 or so in Sweden, 13,000 in Finland and 2000 in Russia. Though Sámi culture had faced repression over the course of time in all four countries, it has nevertheless survived; the Sámi have their own language, flag, national anthem, customs and more. The traditional Sámi costume, called the kolt, is worn on special occasions across Sápmi and although all variants use the same colours: blue, red, yellow and green, the appearance varies depending on the region, and Sámi can determine at a glance where the costume comes from.

In all four countries the Sámi way of life was encroached upon when colonisation of Sápmi, or Lappland as it was known, began in earnest, and the establishment of borders between Sweden, Norway, Finland and Russia restricted the grazing land of the reindeer. The Sámi still face threats to their land in the form of powerful interests – mining, logging, tourism and military activities – and to counter these threats representative bodies known as Sámi Parliaments have been formed, lobbying for Sámi interests with varying degrees of success; Russia is the only country not to recognise the Sámi as a minority.

Meet the Sámi

In Sweden, the majority of the Sámi live in and around Kiruna, Jokkmokk and Arvidsjaur; in Norway, Kautokeino and Karasjok have the highest concentration of Sámi, while in Finland, many live in and around Inari, Enontekiö and Utsjoki have Sámi majorities.

Those interested in delving deeper into Sámi culture can visit the excellent Ajtte Museum in Jokkmokk, which tackles different aspects of Sámi life – from their history to shamanism to the making of silver jewellery. An unparalleled collection of Sámi silver can be seen at the Silvermuseet, near Arvidsjaur. The Sami National Museum in Karasjok showcases works by contemporary Sámi artists, as well as traditional clothing and hunting techniques, while the Siida Museum in Inari explores the relationship between the Sámi and the harsh environment they inhabit, complete with beautiful photography.

Read about how to join the Sámi reindeer migration >

The biggest event of the Sámi year is the Jokkmokk Winter Market, held in early February. It’s the oldest and biggest of its kind, attracting over 30,000 people from all over Sápmi. Sámi traders come to make contacts, visitors can choose from the best array of Sami duodji (handicrafts) and there are food-tasting sessions, live bands, parades, photography exhibitions and reindeer races on the frozen Lake Talvatissjön.

For visitors interested in experiencing Sámi life, there are a number of operators across Sápmi who focus on specific aspects of Sámi culture. Nutti Sámi Siida, based near the Icehotel in Jukkasjärvi, Sweden, arranges visits to the Ráidu Sámi camp to meet reindeer herders, reindeer sled excursions and an eight-day reindeer sled trip through the tundra to the Norwegian border, staying in Sami tents and wilderness huts. Tromsø Lapland in Tromsø, Norway introduce you to reindeer sledding, Sámi food and yoiking, lasso-throwing and overnight stays in a lavvu (traditional Sámi dwelling), while in Finland  you can watch the reindeer races and attend Skábmagovat – the Indigenous People’s Film and TV Production Festival in Inari and go hiking, hunting and fishing with Sámi guides of Poronpurijat.

Indulge in Sámi art and music

From Stone Age rock carvings to twenty first century installations, Sámi art has come a long way. Pioneers of Sámi art at the turn of the twentieth century included include Johan Turi, Nils Nilsson Skum and John Savio, but the real breakthrough only came in the 1970s, due to the development of an extremely strong commitment to preserving Sami culture and individuality. This year, as part of the European Capital of Culture events in Umeå, Sweden, the Bildmuseet is showcasing Eight Sámi Artists, from installations by Carola Grahn to paintings by Per Enoksson and Anders Sunna.

One of the cornerstones of Sami identity is the yoik, the oldest musical form in Europe that has traditionally provided a bond between the Sami and nature. The yoik is a rhythmic poem or song composed for a specific person, event or object to describe and remember their innate nature. Though banned as witchcraft at one point, the yoiking tradition was revived in the 1960s, and it’s now performed in many different ways – including yoik metal by Finnish band Shaman, and minimalist folk-rock with yoik roots, performed by Norwegian singer Mari Boine.

Where to buy Sámi handicrafts

The 1970s saw a revival of traditional Sámi craftsmanship; since then, genuine Sámi handwork that utilises traditional designs and materials bears the Sámi Duodji trademark of authenticity.

Sámi crafts combine utility with beauty; men tend to pursue ‘hard crafts’, such as knife-making, woodwork or silverwork, whereas ‘soft craft’, such as leatherwork and textiles, has traditionally been the female domain. Look out for knives in bone sheaths with abundantly engraved handles made of reindeer antler, wooden guksi (drinking cups) or other vessels, made by hollowing out a burl and often inlaid with reindeer bone; cloth decorated with colourful geometric patterns, beautifully-crafted leather bags and silverwork – anything from belt buckles and brooches to earrings and pendants. Reputable Sámi craftsmen include Ellenor Walkeapää in Porjus, Sweden, who specialises in cotton and linen clothing with Sami designs; knife-maker and woodcarver Jesper Eriksson in Jokkmokk, silversmith Juhls Sølvsmie in Kautokeino, knifemaker Knivsmed Strømeng in Karasjok, jewellery, spoons and leatherwork by Petteri Laiti and felt design by Kaija Palto in Inari.

Eat like a Sámi

Traditional Sámi cuisine revolves around reindeer meat and fish, supplemented with cloudberries, lingonberries, herbs such as mountain sorrel, and mushrooms in season. The fish, such as the Arctic char and trout, are eaten fresh, dried or smoked, and every part of the reindeer is consumed, including marrowbone and hooves, with the intestines used to make black pudding; other dishes include renkok (reindeer stew), bread made with reindeer blood, dried reindeer meat and suovas (smoked, sliced reindeer meat). Gáhkku (flatbread baked on embers), ideally cooked over an open fire, is another typical Sámi dish; while cooking was traditionally the premise of Sámi men, women are now also allowed in the kitchen. Restaurants serving Sámi cuisine include the Áttje Restaurant in Jokkmokk, Sweden, Treehotel, Camp Ripan in Kiruna, Duotar Restaurant at the Thon Hotel in Kautokeino, Strogammen at the Rica Hotel in Karasjok, Sámi Tallberg in Helsinki and Tradition Hotel Kultahovi in Inari.

Brazil’s World Cup city Manaus will have far more than just football to offer this year. Here are the top ten things to do in Manaus while you’re there.

See Italian architecture at the Manaus Opera House

Completed in 1896 at a total cost of over two million dollars, the Manaus Opera House was built at the height of the Brazilian rubber boom. Wealthy rubber barons constructed opulent palatial homes, hosted elaborate parties and attended opera and ballet shows, living in much the same way as their counterparts in Europe. Italian architects and painters were duly commissioned, and virtually all of the materials used to build the theatre were imported from Europe, including Italian Carrara marble and French tiles.

The streets surrounding the Opera House were constructed with a special blend of rubber, sand and clay in order to dampen the noise of late arriving carriages, so as not to interrupt the voices of Europe’s best sopranos. Today the Manaus Opera House hosts regular music and theatre performances from around the world. The Festival Amazonas de Ópera is held here annually April-June, while the Amazonas Film Festival takes places in November. Visitors can see the theatre interior during the day as part of a guided tour.

Discover opulence and politics at the Palácio Rio Negro

This beautiful colonial-period mansion was built in the early twentieth century by German rubber baron Waldemar Scholz. Scholz’s Amazonian dream came to an end with the collapse of the rubber boom, and his residence was soon acquired by the state. The building thereafter became the seat of the government and served as the governor’s residence for a number of years. Today, the Palácio, with its lovely varnished wooden floors, functions as a cultural centre and museum with displays of beautiful period furniture.

Explore the beginning of the Amazon

About ten kilometres from Manaus is the meeting of the waters, where the Rio Negro and the Rio Solimões meet to form the mighty Amazon River. The alkaline waters of the Solimões and the acid black waters of the Rio Negro (literally “Black River”) flow separately for several kilometres before they meet. Black water rivers are born in the central Amazon and have acid waters due to the decomposing organic matter that they carry with them from the forest soil; brown water rivers like the Solimões owe their hue to the large quantity of sediment they carry from the Andes mountains. The muddy brown of the Rio Solimões contrasts sharply with the Rio Negro’s dark black waters, creating a truly unique sight that is well worth experiencing.

Take a panoramic flight over the Anavilhanas Archipelago

Occupying an area of 350,000 hectares, Anavilhanas is one of the world’s largest river archipelagos. It is formed of over 400 islands and lies along the banks of the Rio Negro, the largest black water river in the world. Designated a National Park in 2008, this large equatorial forest is home to truly remarkable biodiversity. A panoramic flight over the archipelago is an unforgettable experience, with spectacular views of flooded forests, navy blue lakes and meandering rivers.

Stay at a Jungle Lodge

Lying at the heart of the Amazon rainforest means that Manaus is entirely surrounded by jungle. There are dozens of lodges here, mostly reachable by boat, to suit all tastes and budgets with accommodation ranging from rustic fan-cooled huts to luxurious air-conditioned chalets. Activities at jungle lodges include piranha fishing, jungle treks, night walks, canoeing through verdant creeks and bird spotting – to name a few.

Shop for crafts and vegetables at Mercado Municipal Adolpho Lisboa

Inaugurated in 1883, this art nouveau iron-cast market was based on Les Halles in Paris. As with most buildings constructed with rubber fortunes, the building structure was entirely shipped over from Europe. Within the market and further along the waterfront, colourful stalls display all manner of goods, including exotic fruits and vegetables, Amazonian herbs, handmade crafts and tropical freshwater fish. East along the river is the lively Banana Market, with heaps of green and yellow bananas and plantains for sale.

Get tribal at the Museu do Homem do Norte

Brazil is home to 220 indigenous tribes, speaking around 180 languages belonging to thirty different linguistic groups. Over seventy uncontacted tribes also call these lands their home. This fascinating museum provides an excellent introduction to the Amazon and its numerous tribes, with informative displays on pre-colonial societies, tribal rituals and medicinal herbs.

Admire the Victoria Amazónica Water Lily

The lakes and backwaters of the Amazon River are home to the giant Victoria Amazónica water lily, the largest water lily in the world. This aquatic plant has leaves that grow up to 2.5 metres in diameter that can sustain the weight of a small baby. The buoyant lilies have beautifully circular leaves with upturned edges, and pretty white flowers that turn light pink on their second day of life. Formerly Victoria Regia, the plant was named in honour of Queen Victoria by Sir Joseph Paxton, head of the Duke of Devonshire’s gardens, who impressed his fellow horticulturalists by becoming the first person to cultivate this exotic water lily in Britain.

Learn the life of a rubber tapper

The open-air Museu do Seringal Vila Paraíso re-creates the living and working conditions of rubber barons and tappers at the beginning of the twentieth century. The museum’s historic townhouse illustrates the luxuries that were available to wealthy rubber barons who lived much like their European contemporaries in the remote Amazonian rainforest. Displays include ancient pieces of furniture and memorabilia, such as a beautiful 1911 piano and a gramophone. Within the grounds is also the replica of a thatched roof shelter of a rubber tapper, along with a rubber-smoking hut where they would spend hours solidifying latex into rubber bales, ready to be shipped abroad.

Get adventurous beneath waterfalls at Presidente Figueiredo

Nicknamed the “Land of Waterfalls”, Presidente Figueiredo is a nature lover’s paradise, home to dozens of towering waterfalls and hidden caves surrounded by jungle. Lying 190km north of Manaus, it’s a popular weekend destination for those living in the city. Meandering paths snake through wild jungle before opening up onto cascading falls with amber coloured pools. This is a great spot for adventure sports including kayaking, caving, rafting and trekking.

With over 27 years’ experience, Select Latin America are specialists in South American travel. The company organises tailor-made and off the beaten track tours of Brazil. Explore more of Brazil with the upcoming Rough Guide to Brazil, out in October 2014. Buy the Rough Guide to South America on a Budget now. 
Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

It was around 3pm on the Saturday that I had the first Brighton moment. We were upstairs in a local boozer, watching a woman in her underwear recreate the lift scene in Dirty Dancing. ‘(I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life’ blasted through a laptop while a gaggle of half cut women raised jugs of white wine in the air to cheer her on. Three unfortunate men were holding her skywards, paying penance for their decision to sit front and centre at a stand up gig, while the rest of the pub convulsed in laughter. Gloriously wild and chaotic, it was an archetypal Brighton scene.

We  were in town for The Great Escape music conference and festival, one of the world’s best gatherings of new bands and East Sussex’s decent riposte to SXSW, but we ended up witnessing a host of other attractions. May is party time for the city, as the Brighton Festival, Brighton Fringe, and Artists Open House events vie for your attention in a place already brimming with nooks, crannies, and a classic pier to explore.

So while the semi-naked show, entitled Am I Right Ladies? and created by rising comic Luisa Omielan of What Would Beyonce Do? fame, was a worthy pit stop, we were soon back out into Brighton’s high winds looking for the next kick.

The Great Escape swamps the city with bands, cramming over 400 gigs into 35 pubs, churches and subterranean sweatboxes across the centre, all accessible with a wristband costing around a quarter of a standard weekender.

We couldn’t get into many of the shows we wanted to see – Future Islands, Jon Hopkins and other hyped acts were one-in-one-out and the wind was hooting and howling too much for us to stay in the queues – so we ended up experiencing the pleasant surprises for which the festival is known. We caught a number of buzz bands, from Glass Animals’ hypnotic Alt J-goes-trip-hop to Brooklyn trio Wet’s seductive Alpines-esque pop to Charl XCX. The electropop teen behind mega hits for Icona Pop (and forthcoming tracks for Britney Spears), is now going through a punk phase, and spent her Corn Exchange set channeling the spirit of the Runaways.

Charli XCX at The Great Escape.  Photo: Milo Belgrove

We were laying our hats at the excellent Nineteen B&B a pebble’s toss from the beach, where owner Mark makes you feel right at home. A cosy, friendly treat of a place, they offer breakfast in bed and supercharge your day with free Bloody Marys or Champagne on the side.

Each morning was spent exploring the idiosyncratic centre, wandering past the intriguing Royal Pavilion, losing ourselves in The Lanes’ twisted passageways and making friends among the Peter Blake artworks in the Art Republic shop, fuelled by bacon and egg cupcake bites from Café Coho, before hitting the gigs from around midday.

Photo: Visitbrighton.com

TarO & JirO were perhaps the oddest proposition we saw. Comprising two guitars, one electronic bass drum, and all manner of needless noodling, the Japanese duo blasted any hangovers away at the Japan Rising show. We nearly choked on our free sushi during their reworking of Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’.

As the weekend continued the epic gigs stacked up: Clean Bandit’s alchemy of strings and dance bangers proved why they earnt their recent Number One while Fat White Family’s two shows combined frantic punk, bass so loud it shifted ribcages in the front half of the audience, and de rigeur nudity from frontman Lias Saoudi. He recently labelled Alex Turner a “moron” and this weekend’s performances confirmed him as a demented genius.

Clean Bandit at The Great Escape. Photo: Julie Edwards

Sadly the embarrassment of things going on meant we couldn’t see it all – I’ll never know what The Barry Experience at the Hobgoblin was like – but we did make time for negronis and margaritas at Twisted Lemon, the city’s most fun cocktail bar, and squeezed in a great feed at 64 Degrees.

Based around an open kitchen at which the chefs take centre stage and 6 Music blasts out, the popular restaurant offers food that excels beyond its modest menu. Small sharing plates came and went amid a flurry of waiters and Rioja, with beer battered broccoli, scallops with lemongrass puree and a cauliflower dish all surprising and irresistable.

As we joined the huddle of music industry bods and journalists at the station for the hour long ride back to London, stuffed full of food and ale and a couple of decibels less perceptive, we realised we hadn’t even made it onto the pier. Next time Brighton…

Photo: Visitbrighton.com. Featured image: Mike Burnell

We stayed at the recently refurbished Nineteen B&B on Broad Street, which offers a variety of rooms, one with a hot tub, and breakfast in bed including that all important Bloody Mary.

In a four-day endeavour to master Indian cooking with her mother in south India, Lottie Gross learns so much more than just how to serve up the best masala…

“You know why I call this a cooking holiday? Cooking for you, holiday for me!” Jacob laughs as he watches me squeeze out rice noodles through a brass press. We’re sweating through the last cooking session of our four day residency at Pimenta Spice Farms, and by no means has it been a holiday.

Sprawled on the slopes of the Maniyanthadam hills in Kerala, about 55km inland from Kochi, Pimenta (or Haritha Farms as it’s also known), is a haven away from the touristic hub of Fort Cochin and the chaos of Ernakulam city. The nearest town to the farm, Kadalikad, isn’t exactly on the backpacker trail but is just as – if not more – fascinating than anywhere you might explore in this green and humid region of southern India.

Photography by Lottie Gross © 2014

We arrived on Thursday to a delicious egg masala lunch in the communal living/dining room at Pimenta, and a tour of the local supermarket to familiarize ourselves with the ingredients we’d be sautéing, toasting and boiling over the next few days. We picked up some veg from a roadside stall with a rather impressive array of greens, and headed back to the kitchen to start our first lesson in Indian cooking.

Without his assistant – who had left to get married just days before we arrived – to help with the prep, at first Jacob seemed unorganised; chopping onions wasn’t exactly his forté and he didn’t appear to know where anything was kept. But it later became clear that he is actually an incredibly methodical man, and he enforces some strict rules in his well-equipped kitchen.

Jacob taught us how to treat the different seeds and spices, what each one is used for and what to do when it all goes wrong. Even for a seasoned cook (my mother of course, not me), there were new lessons to be learned and hurdles (much like these pesky rice noodles) to overcome.

Collectively we’ve spent about fifteen hours in the kitchen, chopping, frying and stirring hard to serve ourselves the most flavoursome and rewarding dishes, the leftovers of which were later passed onto Jacob’s mother for further scrutiny – and apparently they weren’t all bad!

Photography by Lottie Gross © 2014

But this homestay hasn’t all been about the food. While Pimenta markets itself as a cooking holiday, there is so much more to it than slaving away over a hot stove. For starters, the farm is actually an eco-haven – from the solar-heated water which comes from Pimenta’s own natural spring, to the home-grown coffee and bananas we had at breakfast. Jacob has a passion for all things sustainable; he buys pineapples directly from the local farmers and even has the bathroom towels for his exquisite guest bungalows made to order by one of the few remaining cotton factories in the area, where men in a small warehouse sweat all day over hand-operated looms.

Having lived in the area for most of his life – the farm was his family home which he inherited from his father at a young age – Jacob is well connected, so he showed us a side of Indian life we’d never even thought to question. We saw rubber being tapped from the trees on plantations, and visited a small production plant where thousands of colourful elastic bands lay drying on the floor, ready for packing and distribution. We met the people that made our favourite Indian snacks, from banana chips to Bombay mix, and spent an entire morning chatting to the men who paint those famously colourful vehicles that honk along all Indian roads: cargo lorries.

Each state has its own truck-painting design, and Kadalikad is the birthplace of Kerala’s intricate, colourful style. Started by accident in the 1960s, when the owner of this paintshop was late to deliver a truck and wanted to impress his client, this garish design can now be seen on most trucks in the region.

“This has to be done every year,” explained Jacob. “As with the law it’s mandatory to paint the truck. But it’s also a pride thing. Like to have an elephant is a pride thing, to have a big, beautiful and bright truck in your household is also a pride thing.” The trucks come into the shop as a blank canvas, and two weeks later will be driven away by proud owners – eager to show off their new colours to other drivers on the highways.

Photography by Lottie Gross © 2014

Back in Jacob’s kitchen, I finally turn out the last of the rice noodles, exhausted and aching, and we steam them for 20 minutes before serving. Jacob kicks us into action, setting the table for our final meal together, before we have to make the drive back to Fort Cochin, which now just seems like a tourist town sporting a false exterior compared to the everyday life we’ve experienced here.

As I tuck into my hard-earned lunch of steamed rice noodles with coconut, dal and sauteéd cabbage I realise how much we’ve learned in the last four days. While it hasn’t exactly been a relaxing break, I’ve come away with what most other people have after a holiday: new friends, fond memories and a couple of extra inches on the waist.

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

There are places in the world where little sign of western development exists, but it still threatens to change traditions and beliefs forever. Jimmy Nelson found and documented 31 of these traditional isolated communities in his quest to photograph the “purity of humanity”.

“I wanted to witness their time-honoured traditions, join in their rituals and discover how the rest of the world is threatening to change their way of life forever. Most importantly, I wanted to create an ambitious aesthetic photographic document that would stand the test of time. A body of work that would be an irreplaceable ethnographic record of a fast disappearing world.”

In 2009, Nelson set off to become the guest of 31 different secluded tribes across the world, from New Zealand to Namibia, and later returned with a unique collection of stunning photographs, glorifying the creativity of these little-seen or understood ethnic groups. These are a selection of the photographs in his new book titled Before They Pass Away.

A Ladakhi woman from the Himalayas

A Maori man, New Zealand

The Drokpa in India and Pakistan

Maori woman, New Zealand

Himba men, Namibia

Kazakhs, Mongolia

A Nenet man, Russia

Tibetan monks

All photographs © Before They Pass Away by Jimmy Nelson, is published by teNeues, www.teneues.com. Photo © Jimmy Nelson Pictures BV, www.beforethey.com

People tend to laugh when I tell them that sumo wrestling is my favourite spectator sport. In its Japanese homeland it’s regarded as somewhat old-fashioned, with younger folk preferring to watch mixed martial arts. Abroad, the perception can be even worse; the generic assumption holds that it’s little more than fat blokes in nappies slapping each other for a few frantic seconds, until one of them falls over. However, with its refreshingly commerce-free mix of sport and ceremony, a day at the sumo is something that I almost never pass up when lucky enough to be in Japan. Tournaments take place every two months over a 15-day period; you join me here on the penultimate day of action at the Aki Basho tournament at the Ryōgoku Gokugikan stadium.

9am: get to know the wrestlers

The sumo day starts at 9am, and continues until 6pm. I head into town from my home in Tokyo after the hectic morning rush hour, then take my time on the way to the venue – almost every café along the way has a gown-wearing wrestler or two inside (you can’t miss them), and they’re often up for a little chit-chat.

10am: take your seats

It’s time to head into the arena itself. Centred on a packed-mud dohyo, it’s always near silent at this time of day; there are seven divisions of wrestlers to get through, and for the first few hours it’s a mix of young pups on the way up, old-timers on the way down, and those who have simply never made it. You could hear a pin drop, and these chaps are somewhat heavier. However, this is one of my favourite bits; even though I’ve purchased a cheap ticket way up in the gods, for a few hours I get to sit almost ringside. From here I can hear every grunt, almost feel every slap, and smell the talc the rikishi (wrestlers) give off as they pound to and from the ring. Even at these low levels, the deal is the same – the loser is the first to step outside the ring, or touch down inside it with anything but their feet.

12pm: bulking up like the big boys

Right, I’m peckish, and need to stretch my legs. The food in the stadium isn’t up to much, so I head a few blocks down the road to Tomoegata, a restaurant specialising in chanko nabe – the hearty, delicious stew that wrestlers eat several times a day in order to bulk up. This comes with rice and a mouthwatering array of side-dishes – it’s no wonder the rikishi are so big.

2pm: things get serious

Now time for the serious business: after an elaborate ceremony during which the rikishi are introduced, it’s time for the juryo division to begin. This is the second highest level, and from here on the guys are professionals – even first-timers notice the contrast in quality, and there are more visible nuances such as salt being thrown into the ring before a fight. With fewer elementary mistakes being made, fights tend to last longer, and I’m usually keeping my eyes peeled for talented fighters on their way up.

Earlier in the tournament, a wrestler named Chiyoo caught my eye with a breathtaking tsuridashi victory – requiring tremendous strength, this rarely-used technique involves picking the other wrestler up by the belt, and plonking them down outside the ring. I’ve never seen it executed so impressively before. Usually tsuridashi is used near the edge of the ring at the beginning of a fight, before the lactic acid build-up; here Chiyoo not only employed it after a lengthy tussle, but started his lift more than halfway across the ring. His opponent, Tanzo, weighed 152kg. Fat the rikishi may be, but there’s an awful lot of muscle underneath the blubber.

4pm: watching the highest division

It’s now time for makuuchi, the highest division; as with juryo before, it’s kicked off with a charming ceremony. The rikishi enter the ring one by one, and stand in circle facing inwards; when they’re all there, they in unison lift an arm, clap, raise their colourful aprons, then raise both arms. That’s all, but it gets me every single time, and I wonder why other sports abandoned tradition in favour of profit.

Again, when the fighting begins, the increase in quality is quite apparent. Each sumo fights once per day over 15 days; those who’ve won eight or more will move up the rankings for the next tournament, and those who’ve lost eight or more will go down, possibly even to the next division. Those who keep rising will eventually find themselves in the esteemed sanyaku ranks, special levels for the top wrestlers in the land. Those in sanyaku have to fight hard to stay there: over 15 days they have to face all the other top rikishi, meaning that only the truly talented will survive at this level, and even fewer will reach yokozuna, the very highest level.

5.50pm: the winning fight

All eyes are on the penultimate clash: Hakuho, an imperious yokozuna from Mongolia, versus Kisenosato, a young Japanese ozeki (the second-highest level) with lofty aims of his own. These are the only two fighters in contention; Kisenosato needs victory to be in with a chance on the final day, while a win for the other could bring Hakuho the trophy.

There’s no mistaking who the crowd want to win; recent Mongolian domination means that no Japanese have won a tournament since 2005. The atmosphere is electric, with the two giant rikishi returning to the ring to eye-ball each other multiple times, in front of a referee dressed like a giant piece of origami. Finally, in they thunder, meeting each other with a wallop easily heard over the noise of the arena. Kisenosato senses a chance and attempts a grab; Hakuho knows just how to deal with this and pummels his opponent to the ground. A streak of blood then ripples down his face, onto his chest: pure theatre. Both fighters break the sumo’s poker-face code: his chance gone, Kisenosato admonishes himself by the side of the ring, while Hakuho delights in taking his 27th title. The crowd give this all-time great a well-deserved ovation, but we’re all thinking the same thing… please, next time, let there be a Japanese winner.

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

Thought Czech food was only good for soaking up beer? Think again. A recent culinary revival has put the country firmly on the European foodie trail. Andy Turner volunteers his taste buds to investigate what and where to eat in Prague. 

The wind howls down Wenceslas Square as I walk past the giant equestrian statue of Bohemia’s patron saint. I’m on my way to meet food-tourism pioneers Taste of Prague for a crash course in Czech cuisine. My guide, Karolina, soon spots me and the other participants (two Danes and an American) loitering outside a busy McDonald’s. Producing a bottle of home-made slivovice (plum brandy) and half a dozen shot glasses, she quickly breaks the ice and explains that there’s a great deal more to Prague eating than the Golden Arches or mushy dumplings.

Once a favourite with Austro-Hungarian royalty, Prague’s restaurants were considered on a par with Paris and Vienna right up until World War II. Communist rule then heralded a gastronomic deep freeze: official cookbooks stifled creativity, supermarkets shelves grew bare and bizarre television ads encouraged people to eat cabbage and drink milk. Today, almost 25 years since the Velvet Revolution, a new upheaval is taking place: celebrity chefs are promoting Modern Czech cooking, food blogs are multiplying like wild mushrooms and microbreweries, organic restaurants and hip cafés are springing up across the capital.

Carnivore desires

Stomachs rumbling we head to Čestr steak house. This stylish canteen-style restaurant dishes up a carnigasm of marinated ribs, slow-cooked ox cheek, smoked Přeštice ham and truffle-stuffed chicken accompanied by creamy mash and perfectly poured Pilsner Urquell. A trip to the loos takes me past a row of Čestr carcasses (a special Czech breed of cow) being prepared for the kitchen. Back at our table Karolina is mid anecdote, revealing how she used to share a bath with a live carp at Christmas time (all the better to keep it fresh for the big day). The meal is rounded of with (what else in Prague?) beer ice cream.

Snacks and sugar highs

I start to fret that Čestr has butchered my appetite on the way to Prague’s favourite snack stop Světozor deli. But I’m soon tucking into their chlebicke, or “little breads” layered with hard-boiled eggs, mayonaisse and poppy seeds and served in quaint boxes. My new Danish chums look skeptical but eventually agree that the Czechs have mastered the art of the open sandwich. Between mouthfuls Karolina raises the divisive national issue of potato salad recipes: “If my boyfriend made it the wrong way we could never get married”. I’m starting to like Karolina.

Next stop is patisserie St Tropez. Here we’re welcomed with shots of a medicinal-tasting digestif called Becherovka and platefuls of traditional Czech desserts. Each is a creation of glycaemic genius, blending nougat, caramel and vanilla cream in delicate laurel wreaths of pastry. Perhaps it’s all the sugar and alcohol but I begin to hallucinate. An upside-down horse and rider appear strung up from the ceiling outside; fortunately it’s not my mind playing tricks but a creation by David Cerny, enfant terrible of Czech art.

Beers, wines and hangovers


As darkness falls, we jump on a vintage tram and cross the River Vltava to Malá Strana, Prague’s “Little Quarter”. The chill grips my bones as we pass yet more surreal imaginings of Mr Cerny: this time giant babies crawling along the riverbank (they can also be seen scaling the Žižkov Television Tower like humanoid ants). A stiff drink is needed and we head to Vinograph, a candle-lit bar showcasing Czech wine. Neglected for decades under Communist rule, the country’s vineyards are now knocking out some perfectly decent Riesling and sweet Moravian Muscat, here served with a zesty pickled cheese.

One thing that did survive the Iron Curtain unscathed is Czech beer and I am now getting thirsty for a cold one. Karolina recommends a trip to microbrewery/restaurant Nota Bene. With trendy exposed brick and blackboard menus it’s about as far from a dimly lit beer hall as you can get. The tap list includes a fruity American Pale Ale from craft beer darlings Matuška. There’s more traditional hoppy magnificence on offer at monastic brewery U Tří růží, “At three roses”, in the Old Town, though by now my note taking is becoming patchy and I navigate my way back to the hotel in a series of blurry tram rides.

Next morning I’m sipping a latte at Můj šálek kávy, “My cup of tea”, in Karlín, another Taste of Prague favourite. Grinding the best beans in town, its staff have also nailed the “Shoreditch barista” look of black t-shirt and carefully crafted facial hair. I find myself agreeing with Patrick Leigh Fermor who suggested Prague appeared even more lustrous with a slight hangover. The city looks amazing in the glowing wintry sun and I can’t wait to sample more examples of its culinary revolution.

Need to know

EasyJet fly to Prague from five UK cities: Bristol, Edinburgh, London Gatwick, Stansted and Manchester. Andy Turner stayed at andel’s Hotel Prague as a guest of Vienna International Hotels & Resorts who offer six hotels across the city. Taste of Prague tours last around four hours and cost CZK 2550 (£75) per person inclusive of all food and drink (maximum group size 4). To sample some of capital’s finest food visit during the Prague Food Festival held in May.

Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

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