Getting friendly (and inebriated) with the only locals around, Lynsey Wolstenholme realises what self-sustainability really means on a Mongolian yurt homestay.

After a six hour journey, along the bumpy, unpaved roads of Mongolia, I arrived at my base for the next 24 hours: a homestay nestled in the shadow of the Khogno Khan mountain. I was in the Khogno Khan nature reserve, home to wild animals, sand dunes, forests and grasslands, and I was instantly struck by the remoteness of the place. There were just two gers (yurts, the traditional Mongolian nomad tent) in an expanse of grasslands as far as the eye can see.  It was incredibly peaceful yet I struggled to imagine how people could live in such solitude. It’s hardly surprising though – Mongolia is one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world and due to increasing urbanisation, 45% of the population now live in the capital. This is a place where isolation is the norm.

I was warmly greeted by my hostess and invited into the family ger. Inside, it was warmly alluring; this was nothing like the sparsely furnished gers of the tourist camps but instead it was a real home. The circular room was dominated by a stove in the middle, surrounded by beautifully decorated hand-carved timber cabinets, woven yak-hair wall hangings and handmade throws on the beds, which doubled as seating in the daytime. The family took a break from their work to share a traditional welcome snack with me; a plate of goat’s meat – including the skin and tail, which I tactfully managed to avoid – and a bowl of fermented mare’s milk commonly known as airag. Having read about this drink I was excited to try it – this didn’t last long though, as I politely polished off a bowl and realised that the sour tasting milk was not for my palette. They eagerly served me another bowl, and with an alcohol content of 2.5% I began to feel a little tipsy.

It was soon time to sober up and explore my surroundings. My driver, Mr Shiri, gave me some brief directions and off I went for a gentle hike. With the mountain in one direction and the sand dunes and grasslands in the other, my eyes were spoilt for choice. After three hours hiking in complete blissful solitude, I returned for a delicious dinner of rice with more goat, thankfully with no tail this time.

After dinner my hosts were back to work; all the animals must be herded, the horses secured for the night and the cows milked. Watching the work brought home the true meaning of self-sufficient living. The nomads rear cows and goats for meat and milk, horses for transport and milk, and even the dung is collected and dried for fuel.  It felt like going back in time to a world before mass food production, supermarkets and central heating.

After the work was done my hosts and Mr Shiri joined me in the ger. We cracked open a bottle of Chinggis vodka, patriotically named after the most legendary Mongolian Genghis Khan, and settled down to play Khutser, a popular Mongolian card game. Unsurprisingly, I lost every time. Slightly inebriated it was time to pack away the cards and head to bed, but not before a last glimpse outside to gaze at the beautiful glittering starry sky, free from any light pollution – a sight I could have happily stared at for hours on end.

Perfectly rested I awoke in the morning to the sound of lowing cows, and opened the door to be greeted by several of the herd, looking curiously into my room.  A delicious breakfast of pastries and fresh orum (clotted cream) was then devoured whilst I watched the animals graze. This high calorie diet suits the nomad’s traditional labour intensive lifestyle and the long winters, but I could feel my waistband tightening.

I was, however, about to get some exercise – Mongolian style. No sooner than I had swallowed my last bite of omul, I spotted a horse being saddled for me. After gesturing frantically that I was a beginner, I was off on a gentle trot to the sand dunes, which felt like a mini Gobi desert – I was once again left marvelling at the beauty of my surroundings. After just one hour riding, the grasslands slowly began to disappear and I was surrounded by sand.

After I’d trotted back it was time to move on. I departed feeling grateful for the opportunity to participate in and witness the nomads lives, albeit briefly, and hoping that their nomadic traditions are not eradicated by the increasing urbanisation of the Mongolian population.

The logistics

Almost all guesthouses in the capital Ulan Bataar will offer to organise your trip (from transport to accommodation) as most people come to Mongolia to explore the rich countryside. If you prefer to plan ahead, you can email your guesthouse in advance and ask them to arrange an itinerary for you, otherwise you can discuss plans when you arrive. You can either sleep in tourist camps, do a homestay, or a mix of the two. In the countryside, you must be realistic with your time frames; the roads in Mongolia are not good and covering even short distances can take far longer than expected. If you want to visit the Gobi by road, for example, you need to allow at least 10 days (including return time to Ulan Bataar).

Explore more of Asia and get inspiration on the Rough Guides Asia destination page.

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.

Heidi Fuller-Love spends a day roping cattle, cooking asado and hanging out with a gaucho near Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Gaucho day trips are a-peso-a-dozen near Buenos Aires, but I wanted to head out to an estancia (ranch) with a bona fide member of Argentina’s cowboy club, so when I met Andre – a gaucho guide from toursbylocals.com – I jumped at the chance to visit his ranch in the Paraná Delta.

It’s an hour’s drive through Buenos Aires’ shanty-town-packed suburbs to reach the delta, where Andre awaits me. Back in the bohemian neighbourhood of San Telmo he had looked uncomfortable in his city suit, but here he is in his element. Short and wiry, he wears the pancake-sized traditional boina beret and baggy bombacha trousers revealing bandy legs – the hallmark of any true gaucho.

Before leaving for the ranch, he takes me on a short tour of the Paraná Delta’s tiny capital. “It’s called Tigre because of the jaguars – known as tigres – that once roamed here”, he tells me. We visit antique shops, a crafts fair, a museum packed with the work of Argentine artists and even take a tour of the mate museum before hopping into a shallow-keeled motor boat and taking to the water.

Covering some 5,405 square miles, the Paraná Delta is Argentina’s answer to Venice. A vast, watery wasteland dotted with islands, it flows into the Río de la Plata, which separates Argentina from Uruguay. Churning the chocolate water into worry furrows, we chug past rambling, colonial-style properties. “Many important people have lived here – a few years ago when she was playing Evita, Madonna even came here with her kids”, Andre explains.

With its rich grazing land, the Delta has been home to gauchos for centuries. “My great grandfather bought this ranch”, Andre tells me as we leap from his boat onto the narrow jetty next to his sprawling property.

Gauchos are a potent symbol for Argentinians. The 1940s film La Guerra Gaucha about the gaucho struggle for freedom in Spanish-occupied Argentina is a well-loved classic, while José Hernández’s epic poem Martin Fierro is taught in many schools. According to Andre, this is because Martin Fierro is a symbolic gaucho: he represents the force of good against bad.

In a hummocky field behind the timber-framed ranch house I have my first gaucho lesson. Andre shows me how to sling the boleadoras, those three lumpy, leather-bound rocks tied together with straps that are used to catch wild horses and runaway cattle. It looks easy when Andre swings the weights around his head then slings them in a windmill flurry, neatly capturing the gatepost. When it’s my turn, however, I mistime the moment to let go and capture my own shins, bruising them black-and-blue.

When Andre’s gaucho employee, Jose, brings out two sturdy-boned native Criollo horses, I’m happy to move onto the next class. Donning a pair of bombacha trousers and a woollen boina I swing clumsily into the saddle, then canter off behind Jose and his hairy, wary-eyed dog to round up a few of those big-horned, docile Criolla cattle that Argentina is famed for. Jose lassos a young calf, expertly binding its feet then slinging it over the high pommel of his saddle, then he teaches me to lasso a tree stump. Soon I can catch that darn old stump without difficulty, but when I try out my skills on an ornery herd of galloping Criolla cows, I can’t catch a single horn.

Back at the ranch the mate calabash, made out of a varnished gourd, is doing the rounds. When it’s handed to me I poke the metal bombilla straw through the murky hash of floating leaves on top and take a deep sip as if I’ve been doing it all my life. Made from the leaves of a species of holly, Argentina’s national beverage is so acrid it makes me want to vomit. Snorting with laughter, Andre takes the calabash and shoves a glass of Argentinean Malbec into my hand. “It’s an acquired taste”, he says.

I sip the Malbec, allowing the wine’s soothing flavours to comfort my yerba-assaulted palate, while Andre shows me how to prepare the asado. Using the same technique that gauchos have employed for centuries, he fills a deep pit with charcoal and lights it, then straps hunks of morcilla (black pudding), chunks of mollejas (sweetbread) and slabs of asado de tira (ribs) onto the parilla – a large metal grill, which he fixes almost vertically above the lit fire.

An hour later, I bite into my first crisp, slightly charred chunk of morcilla, take a long sip of Malbec and face up to the fact that I’ll never be much of a gaucho. Andre hands me hunks of asado de tira dripping with parsley-and-garlic Chimichurri sauce. Dropping my fork, I pick up the ribs with my bare hands and tear off strips of tender meat with my teeth.  “You might not be much of a gaucho, but you certainly eat like one,” Andre laughs.

Explore more of the country with the Rough Guide to Argentina, or tackle an entire continent 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.

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.

The Banaue rice terraces were once a colourful collage of winding fields that clung onto a mountain-side in Ifugao province in the Philippines. After being almost completely abandoned by the locals, these plantations are now being revived as young farmers return to work on the paddies. While researching the new Rough Guide to the Philippines, Kiki Deere was awestruck by the sheer beauty and functionality of the Banaue rice terraces.

I follow my guide Elvis along a narrow path that snakes its way through verdant scenery. We clamber up a series of little stone steps that precariously jut out of the mountainside. “We’re heading to the viewpoint!” Elvis exclaims in excitement. I am too busy trying to balance along the stairway to avoid an unpleasant fall, and it’s not until we reach the top and I turn around that I realise what surrounds me: an awe-inspiring view of rice terraces that weave around the mountainside like a giant stairway. “If you joined these rice paddies end to end they would reach half way round the earth”, he tells me.

Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995, these stone and mud rice terraces delicately trace the contours of the Cordillera Mountains in Northern Luzon, and have been central to the survival of the Ifugao people since pre-colonial Philippines.

Photograph by Kiki Deere

This living landscape, with its intricate web of irrigation systems harvesting water from the mist-enveloped mountaintops, reflects a clear mastery in structural techniques and hydraulic engineering that have remained virtually unchanged for over two millennia. The art of maintaining the terraces was passed orally from generation to generation with traditional tribal rituals evoking spirits to protect the paddies. To this day, bulol rice deities are venerated and placed in the fields and granaries in order to bring abundant harvests and protect against malevolent spirits and catastrophe.

“When I was seven I would head to the paddies with my grandfather. He would teach me how to repair the dikes, flatten the area. I rode the buffalo which would play like a dog sometimes; run back and forth, roll down…” Elvis’s voice is filled with warmth as he recounts his childhood experiences, and I sense a twinge of nostalgia for those carefree boyhood days spent working in the fields.

“The rice that we harvest here in Ifugao is only for personal consumption but sometimes it’s not enough. On average, an Ifugao family has five children, plus the parents. That’s a total of seven mouths to feed. And we eat rice three times a day.”

The average Filipino consumes over 120kg of rice a year. Commercial rice, as it is known up in the Cordilleras, is grown in mass quantities in the lowlands with the use of fertilisers, and is exported mainly abroad.

“Remember that there are bad harvests, too – when the rice we grow here is not enough we end up buying commercial rice from the low lands”, Elvis goes on to tell me. It is therefore very rare that an Ifugao family has excess rice to sell.

For Ifugao farmers, the terraces are the only source of income. With a daily wage of less than US$6, increasing numbers of young Filipinos have, in recent years, migrated to urban areas and renounced fieldwork. As a result, a number of rice terraces have been abandoned and are rapidly deteriorating. The situation reached such a worrisome degree that the terraces were placed on the list of World Heritage in Danger in 2001.

But Elvis tells me the situation is now improving: “In the last few years I have seen most of the abandoned paddies being revived. I’d say over 90% are being used at the moment.”

As the price of a sack of rice (50kg) now stands at US$45, a four-fold increase from the mid 1990s, the paddies are slowly being tended for again, with youngsters returning to their home province to work with their families.

Photograph by Kiki Deere

In the last decade, programmes have been put in place by the local government to conserve this living natural landscape, and in 2012 the terraces were successfully removed from the Danger List. Yet, the area continues to face new challenges. Climate change and powerful earthquakes have caused dams to move, thereby re-routing water systems and affecting the hydraulic system of the terraces. The Ifugao must overcome these challenges in order for the terraces to function as a balanced whole, with sustainable tourism proving to be one of the answers.

An elderly lady stoops in a field, a scarlet shawl wrapped around her head to protect her from the sun’s scorching rays. In the neighbouring terrace, a lean fellow stands knee deep in a viscous layer of mud, his coarse hands tightly wrapped around a wooden shovel. He is levelling the field for the upcoming planting season. This time of year – November and December – is commonly referred to as “mirror time” after the paddies’ glassy appearance as they lie covered in a layer of water.

Other months bring an array of different colours: “Planting time is in the middle of January, until about the middle of February. Then the rice needs a bit of time to stabilise. Around April the terraces are at their greenest, in June and July, during harvest time, they become yellow, and in August they are golden with ripe grain, and then brown.”

I try to picture the terraces in their different stages, morphing into a rainbow of hues throughout the year, and remember how much these 70-degree slopes have shaped the lives of the people around them. I look across the mountainside to a small hamlet that comfortably nestles within the terraces, a tapestry of harmony between humankind and nature that is truly a sight to behold.

If you want to explore more of the Philippines, you can buy the Rough Guide to Southeast Asia on a Budget now. Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

On the last Wednesday of every August, 130,000 kilos of over-ripe tomatoes are hurled around the alleyways of Buñol until the tiny town’s streets are ankle deep in squelching fruit. What started in the 1940s as an impromptu food fight between friends has turned into one of the most bizarre and downright infantile fiestas on earth, a world-famous summer spectacular in which thirty thousand or so finger-twitching participants try to dispose of the entire EU tomato mountain by way of a massive hour-long food fight.

Locals, young and old, spend the morning attaching protective plastic sheeting to their house fronts, draping them over the balconies and bolting closed the shutters. By midday, the town’s plaza and surrounding streets are brimming to the edges with a mass of overheated humans, and the chant of “To-ma-te, To-ma-te” begins to ring out across the town.

As the church clock chimes noon, dozens of trucks rumble into the plaza, disgorging their messy ammunition onto the dusty streets. And then all hell breaks. There are no allies, no protection, nowhere to hide; everyone – man or woman, young or old – is out for themselves. The first five minutes is tough going: the tomatoes are surprisingly hard and they actually hurt until they have been thrown a few times. Some are fired head-on at point-blank range, others sneakily aimed from behind, and the skilled lobber might get one to splat straight onto the top of your head. After what seems like an eternity, the battle dies down as the tomatoes disintegrate into an unthrowable mush. The combatants slump exhausted into a dazed ecstasy, grinning inanely at one another and basking in the glory of the battle. But the armistice is short-lived as another truck rumbles into the square to deposit its load. Battle commences once more, until the next load of ammunition is exhausted. Six trucks come and go before the final ceasefire. All in all, it only lasts about an hour, but it’s probably the most stupidly childish hour you’ll ever enjoy as an adult.

See www.latomatina.com for info on Tomatina tours and plenty of photos and videos of the event.

 

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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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Once a Dutch colony, Suriname sits on the northeast coast of South America and has a population of around a mere 550,000 people. Venturing deep into the jungle-clad interior, Rough Guides writer Anna Kaminski went to explore the ancestral territory of the Saramacca, descendants of seventeenth-century West African slaves. 

Our little Cessna plane rumbles over the jungle; from above, southern Suriname is a dense carpet of greenery, punctuated by bright pink jakaranda trees and bisected by brown ribbons of rivers. The open wounds of the land – the gold mines – have been left far behind.

Finally, the Cessna dips down and lands on a cleared grass strip that constitutes the runway. The “airport” is a tiny wooden building where a little boy hangs out with a wheelbarrow, ready to cart our baggage down to dugout canoes moored by the riverbank.

Several Saramaccan passengers have arrived with us from Paramaribo, Suriname’s capital. The women have a graceful, straight-backed walk, balancing their suitcases on their heads. Flying is a much quicker way of getting to and from the capital; in the old days, the one-way journey by dugout canoe would take a month.

There are five of us here, deep in Saramaccan territory – two Dutch couples and myself. We are staying at Awarradam Lodge, a group of wooden cabins sat on an island in the middle of the Gran Rio river, just upriver from four Saramaccan villages.

Suriname’s Saramacca number around 55,000; they are the largest surviving group of Maroon people and have been living along the Upper Suriname River and its tributaries, the Gran Rio and the Piki Rio, for over three hundred years. Their ancestors, largely from West Africa, were sold as slaves to Europeans in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to work on sugar, coffee and timber plantations.

Fleeing the harsh conditions of slavery, many Saramacca escaped into Suriname’s impenetrable jungle. With the help of the local Amerindian tribes, they staged rebellions, sometimes carrying out armed raids on plantations.They became greatly feared by owners and, as a result, in 1762, a hundred years before Suriname’s slaves were emancipated, the Saramacca signed a treaty with the Dutch. This agreement gave them a degree of freedom and the rights to their land in exchange for returning further runaway slaves to their owners.

We meet some Saramaccans at the lodge. Their language – a mix of English, Portuguese, Dutch and the Niger-Congo languages of West Africa – is very musical to the ear and their greeting has a call-and-response element to it. This is one of the few parts of the world where Christian missionaries have failed to make great inroads; one of the villages is Christian, but the others hold on to the spiritual traditions of West Africa and practise something akin to voodoo.

It’s a threatened way of life. In the 1990s the Surinamese government granted timber and mining concessions in traditional Saramaccan territory to foreign companies. A 2007 Inter-American Court for Human Rights ruling in the Saramacca people’s favour has since given them control over their ancestral lands, but the danger remains.

Our guide Elton takes us for a walk in the jungle, showing us its smaller denizens: the vivid blue-and-yellow poison arrow frog, the cicadas, responsible for the racket in the afternoons, and the venomous bullet ant, the pain from whose bite lasts up to 24 hours. “Some of the Amerindians use it as an initiation rite for its men,” Elton explains. “They get bitten repeatedly until they hallucinate.”

After being told that the giant armadillo often shares its burrow with the bushmaster, Suriname’s deadliest snake, we give it a wide berth. The bushmaster eats armadillo poo, rich with poison from fireflies that keeps its own venom potent. Elton points out a plant with a thin stem – “The Saramaccans use this to treat snakebite, until the victim can get more help.”

We pass one tree that has enormous roots; if you hit it, the sound carries for a long distance. “This one is used for communication by those who live in the jungle; we call it the telephone tree or the what’s up tree.”

We emerge at a clearing where the Saramaccan men grow the villages’ crops. There’s a cassava squeezer made of straw, hanging by the gardening hut. Cassava, a starchy tuber, was introduced to Africa from South America by Portuguese merchants in the sixteenth century and is a Saramaccan staple. This variety is poisonous and has to be grated and have the juice squeezed out of it before it can be dried and made into cassava bread – it’s chewy and tasteless when fresh and tooth-breakingly hard when stale.

In the afternoon, we’re invited to one of the villages. Elton points out the palm fronds above the entrance: “This keeps evil spirits from entering.”

The settlement consists of a scattering of wooden houses with corrugated iron roofs; dirt lanes run in between the buildings, peanuts and cassava bread dry on palm fronds outside the houses and chickens peck in the dirt. One thing is immediately noticeable: there are no dogs at all. “Back in the days of slavery, they used to hunt runaway slaves with dogs so they’ve hated dogs ever since”, Elton explains.

One house stands separately from all the rest. “This is where women have to stay when they are menstruating. Though the men lose out, since there’s no one to cook for them.”

We pass a few children splashing in the river, an older woman pounding peanuts into peanut butter using a large pestle and mortar and another woman cracking the nuts of a particular palm tree using a hammer. There are hardly any men in sight, besides an old man tinkering with a dugout canoe and some teenage boys carrying firewood on their heads.

“Many men work in Paramaribo these days, or in the gold mines,” Elton tells us. “Sometimes they are away for months.”

As evening falls, we are ushered towards a communal area with a hard earthen floor. The women stand in a line, bent at the waist. Then they start clapping in unison; one woman starts singing and the rest pick it up. One woman steps forward and begins to dance, her movements fluid and sensual. They are looking at us expectantly; it’s clear that we’re supposed to imitate her. We do our best. One of the few men takes the dance floor and demonstrates a more boisterous dance; Elton picks it up and they fly at each other like attacking roosters. We dance for what seems like hours; for the villagers, we are the Friday night entertainment.

Our boatman takes us back upriver in near darkness, guided only by the faint starlight and his knowledge of the river’s every bend, every rock. Listening to the gentle lapping of the water, I ponder the strange fate that brought me, a Soviet kid from a small Russian town, here, to the Surinamese jungle on this particular night, the sky above glittering with a million stars.

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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.

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