Tucked away between parallel rocky ranges in southern Jordan, Petra is awe-inspiring. Popular but rarely crowded, this fabled site could keep you occupied for half a day or half a year: you can roam its dusty tracks and byways for miles in every direction.

Petra was the capital of the Nabateans, a tribe originally from Arabia who traded with, and were eventually taken over by, the Romans. Grand temples and even Christian-era church mosaics survive, but Petra is best known for the hundreds of ornate classical-style facades carved into its red sandstone cliffs, the grandest of which mark the tombs of the Nabatean kings.

As you approach, modern urban civilization falls away and you are enveloped by the arid desert hills; the texture and colouring of the sandstone, along with the stillness, heat and clarity of light bombard your senses. But it’s the lingering, under-the-skin quality of supernatural power that seems to seep out of the rock that leaves the greatest impression.

As in antiquity, the Siq, meaning “gorge”, is still the main entrance into Petra – and its most dramatic natural feature. The Siq path twists and turns between bizarrely eroded cliffs for over a kilometre, sometimes widening to form sunlit piazzas in the echoing heart of the mountain; in other places, the looming walls (150m high) close in to little more than a couple of metres apart, blocking out sound, warmth and even daylight.

When you think the gorge can’t go on any longer, you enter a dark, narrow defile, opening at its end onto a strip of extraordinary classical architecture. As you step out into the sunlight, the famous facade of Petra’s Treasury looms before you. Carved directly into the cliff face and standing forty metres tall, it’s no wonder this edifice starred in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade as the repository of the Holy Grail – the magnificent portico is nothing short of divine.

Petra (daily 6am–sunset) is 240km south of the Jordanian capital, Amman. The adjacent town of Wadi Musa has restaurants and hotels. Check out petranationaltrust.org.

 

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Italy’s southern region of Basilicata is home to one of the country’s most distinctive towns: Matera. It’s a fascinating place, not least for its unique topography and intriguing history as a Mediterranean troglodyte settlement. Thanks to its biblical, otherworldly feel, it’s been used as the setting for Mel Gibsons The Passion of the Christ too. Rough Guides writer Kiki Deere went to discover more about Materas caves and their inhabitants.

The area around Matera has been inhabited since the Paleolithic period, and to this day it retains an age old, nearly Jurassic feel, with vast tracts of verdant land breaking off into harsh rocky limestone ravines. Matera’s main attractions are its Sassi (rocks), old cavernous dwellings that to this day remain inhabited. A myriad of monochrome stone buildings overhang a deep gorge, perching unequally on top of one another, like a messy ensemble of vintage Lego pieces. The caves spring out of a rocky area that forms part of a limestone gully, taking on a ramshackle Flintstones-esque feel.

I quickly got lost in the city’s winding alleys, which converge into small squares and then branch off into a maze of twisting streets. Stone steps climb or spiral in different directions, snaking their way through age-old properties that overlap one another.

I soon met Eustachio Rizzi, a septuagenarian grandfather who was brought up in the Sassi. Eustachio spent three years building a miniature model of the Sassi, constructing the town from childhood memory. He longs for Matera’s history not to be forgotten and is keen to act as a mouthpiece for its long and complex history.

The early morning sun lit a quarter of the pastel cream buildings, yet most still remained veiled by a cool haze of shade. Eustachio’s sunken eyes seemed to travel back in time, as he explained how parts of the town were built: “The caves have been here since time immemorial, and a great part of what is around us today was built by hand.

“The poor lived in the lower part of the city, and used pickaxes to dig into the stone. People would dig and dig, making sure to carve a concave shape into the rock, so that the weight rested on the arches on the sides, otherwise the structure would collapse. If a baby was born and a family needed more space, they would dig farther into the rock. Sometimes they would start hammering with their pickaxe and suddenly realise they were digging into another person’s home, so then they would start digging in the opposite direction”. The result is a unique city where streets, stony alleyways, uneven pavements and winding steps often coincide with the roofs of the houses that lie below.

Explore the region in more depth on our Destinations pages >

When Eustachio lived here just a few decades ago, houses had no running water and the city streets served as open sewers. Infant mortality hovered at 50% and illiteracy was rife. Families were large, often with six to ten members living in a damp room measuring little more than 50 square metres where the only form of light and ventilation was a little window giving onto the street.

Hens and their chicks nestled below a double bed, which was no more than an iron stand with wooden planks and a paillasse. Often, a drawer containing linen and clothes was pulled out and used as a baby’s cot. The kitchen was no more than a stove with a copper cauldron, while the facilities were limited to a chamber pot that was placed by the bed, or behind a little curtain for privacy. At the very back of the cave a mule provided heat to the rest of the house, and elsewhere a dug out cavity was used to store manure.

The cramped housing structures, lack of sanitation and inadequate living conditions of Matera’s urban poor reached such appalling levels that a scheme was eventually put in place to restore and renovate the Sassi. In 1952 over 15,000 inhabitants were evicted – albeit never forcefully – and relocated to purpose-built council houses on the outskirts, in what is now the ‘new town’.

Yet, many refused to leave. Eustachio told me: “At first most were reluctant to relocate, to leave their houses… the place they were brought up in, and where they had always lived. It was hard for all of us, but slowly people started to understand that living conditions in the new housing estates were better. There was running water, a heating system, toilets.”

Image courtesy of Kiki Deere

By providing the inhabitants with new accommodation, their former homes became state property and, to this day, 70% of the Sassi is still publicly owned. The town was thereafter entirely renovated and it wasn’t until the early 1980s that the inhabitants began to return. Yet most preferred to stay in their well-equipped modern houses, some even refusing to visit “that filth where we once lived”. Ironically, many of these former slum homes have now become high-end hotels, some charging up to 700 euros a night for the experience of sleeping in such unique cavernous accommodation.

Today Matera attracts a fair share of Italian holiday goers, although for foreign tourists it still remains off the beaten track largely due to its poor public transport links. Yet no doubt partly because of this, southern Italy’s gem retains a true environmental and social feel, veiled by an aura of magic and underlying mysticism. As I later peered out over a stone balustrade to the Sassi that spread out into the distance, the town visibly took on a biblical dimension. A flock of black birds took flight over the town, mournfully hovering over the bewitching cluster of tumbledown dwellings below.

Explore more of Italy with our Rough Guide to Italy. Featured image courtesy of Kiki Deere.

From Hogmanay in Edinburgh to Bonfire Night in Lewes, Britain is home to a whole range of excellent festivals and events throughout the year. If you’re planning a visit anytime soon we recommend you build you trip around one of these memorable parties.

Notting Hill Carnival in London

Carnival Sunday morning and in streets eerily emptied of cars, sound-system guys, still bleary-eyed from the excesses of last night’s warm-up parties, wire up their towering stacks of speakers, while fragrant smoke wafts from the stalls of early-bird jerk chicken chefs. And then a bass line trembles through the morning air, and the trains begin to disgorge crowds of revellers, dressed to impress and brandishing their whistles and horns. Some head straight for the sound systems, spending the entire day moving from one to the other and stopping wherever the music takes them. Streets lined by mansion blocks become canyons of sound, and all you can see is a moving sea of people, jumping and blowing whistles as wave after wave of music ripples through the air.

But the backbone of Carnival is mas, the parade of costumed bands that winds its way through the centre of the event. Crowds line up along the route, and Ladbroke Grove becomes a seething throng of floats and flags, sequins and feathers, as the mas (masquerade) bands cruise along, their revellers dancing up a storm to the tunes bouncing from the music trucks. And for the next two days, the only thing that matters is the delicious, anarchic freedom of dancing on the London streets.

Notting Hill Carnival takes place on the Sunday and Monday of the August bank holiday weekend.

Hogmanay in Edinburgh

From the cascade of fireworks tipping over the castle rock to uninhibited displays of stranger-kissing as midnight chimes and the sight of the classical pillars of the Royal Scottish Academy being transformed into a giant urinal, Edinburgh consistently throws the world’s most memorable New Year’s Eve party. And it’s a party on a grand scale, with around 80,000 people from around the world joining in.

The evening starts with a candlelit concert in St Giles Cathedral, the hulking medieval church on the Royal Mile. From then on the tempo rises, with a massive street party on Princes Street and a boisterous ceilidh in the Princes Street Gardens, followed by a large-scale concert. At midnight, the fireworks kick off, and from Calton Hill to Salisbury Crags, from the new town to the old town, from the pubs and from the castle esplanade, the whole city looks skywards and celebrates. Auld Lang Syne is belted out, and any last shreds of Presbyterian reserve are abandoned, as people bound around hugging and kissing each other.

Edinburgh’s Hogmanay is now a ticketed event, so book ahead at www.edinburghshogmanay.com.

Diwali in Leicester

The biggest celebration of Diwali  outside India takes place in Leicester, one of the UK’s most diverse cities. Every autumn, tens of thousands of people – including followers of the Sikh and Jain religions, who also celebrate Diwali – crowd onto Belgrave Road in the heart of the city’s Indian community to take part in the “festival of lights”.

The celebrations start with the switch-on of the Diwali lights: after music, dancing and speeches (in English, Hindi and Gujarati) from local dignitaries, a noisy countdown starts, climaxing at 7.30pm with the switch-on of around 6500 multicoloured lights, an explosion of confetti and a cacophony of cheers. Eventually the crowd works its way down the road – dubbed the “Golden Mile” – to the nearby Cossington Street recreation ground where an extremely loud firework display ensues.

For more information visit www.goleicestershire.com.

Robin Hood Festival in Sherwood Forest

For the first week of August each year, in celebration of Nottinghamshire’s legendary outlaw, Sherwood Forest is transported back to the thirteenth century. Over a quarter of a century, the Robin Hood Festival has grown into a pop-up village of sorts, with stalls and attractions spread across about a square half-mile of woodland that can be circumnavigated comfortably in an hour or so.

The itinerary changes a little every day but archery lessons are always on offer for a small fee, and most days host high-octane jousting and rather vicious skirmishing between Robin Hood and the evil Sheriff’s men in the shade of the Major Oak, a gargantuan tree said to be over 800 years old, which attracts many visitors in its own right. The festival is a paradise for little boys and girls who have always dreamed of being Robin Hood or Maid Marian. Green felt caps, bows and arrows and garlands of flowers are ubiquitous fancy-dress props, and every day there are opportunities for children to join in theatrical re-enactments of the Robin Hood story, to the hilarity of their parents.

Robin Hood Festival, Edwinstowe, Nottinghamshire (www.nottinghamshire.gov.uk/robinhoodfestival)

Pride in Brighton

Let’s be clear about one thing, fun-lovers: the summertime Pride in Brighton and Hove festival is not the grandest of affairs. Yes, there’s a sequin-sprinkled parade, but don’t roll up expecting miles of elaborate floats and glitzy, Rio-style dance troupes. It’s all much more down to earth than that – think gangs of friends and colleagues in thrown-together fancy dress, waving in time to cheesy pop or giggling their way through sketchy dance routines. And, yes, there’s an all-afternoon dance party in the city’s biggest park – but this isn’t Ibiza.

The one thing which Pride in Brighton and Hove has in spades is inclusiveness. Unlike Sydney, whose more militant lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender groups have been known to spit fire at the thought of non-LGBT revellers muscling in on their Mardi Gras, Brighton is happy for anybody and everybody to join the party. You don’t have to dress up, but if you’d like your photo to grace the galleries that pop up all over the web straight after the event, you most definitely should.

The main events of the Pride in Brighton and Hove summer festival (www.brightonpride.org) are on a Saturday in early July

Edinburgh Fringe

The Edinburgh Festival is, strictly speaking, about five festivals. There’s the Book Festival, home to top authors and commentators and set in leafy Charlotte Square; the International Festival, which hosts lush, clever productions of the high arts; the Art Festival, which gathers together special exhibitions and regular galleries; and the Fringe, which is what most people mean when they talk airily of the Festival, bulging with all manner of comedy, theatre and music from pros and amateurs. The glory and terror of the Fringe – which, inevitably, has an unofficial fringe of its own – is that no one decides who becomes a part of it, performers just pay to be included in the programme. You can see students tackle Hamlet or Bouncers for a few quid, watch brilliantly clever or enormously stupid stand-up, check out splendid new work from daring playwrights or stand in a big top and watch a circus reinvent itself.

It’s possible to have a fabulous time and see no shows at all, heading instead from temporary bar to venerable pub, nattering with the performers, punters and hangers-on that come here like moths to a month-long flame. But better to feel the heat of the action, wading through the drunks and the dross in the hope of spotting that rare and wonderful beast: genius making a name for itself.

Check www.edfringe.comwww.edinburghartfestival.comwww.eif.co.uk and www.edbookfest.co.uk.

Obby Oss, Cornwall

One of the most distinctive May Day festivals in the country, Obby Oss (dialect for hobby horse) is a traditional community celebration that’s been on Padstow’s calendar for centuries.

In a unique ritual generally believed to be some sort of ancient Celtic fertility rite – May Day itself has its origins in the Celtic festival of Beltane – two Osses, monstrous, masked effigies with huge, hooped skirts, are paraded through the streets to the accompaniment of song, accordions and drums. It’s best not to get too hung up on the meaning behind it all, and instead grab a pint and a pasty and get swept away in the festive ambience. Indeed it’s impossible not to get swept away in the tangle of bunting-bedecked streets crammed with revellers.

For general information see www.padstow.com.

Chinese New Year, Liverpool

With the oldest Chinese community in Europe, dating back to the mid-nineteenth century, and one of the largest in number as well, Liverpool makes an obvious destination to celebrate Chinese New Year without hopping on a plane to Shanghai. The focal point for the celebrations is the city’s magnificent Chinese arch on Nelson Street. Fifty feet tall, it was shipped piece by piece from Shanghai in 2000. With beautifully intricate decorations, including two hundred dragons, it has been positioned in accordance with feng shui principles to bring good luck to the community.

The party starts early in the morning of the first day of the New Year, the date of which changes each year, with stunning lion, unicorn and dragon dances, fireworks galore in a daytime display on St George’s Square, t’ai chi demonstrations and at least 18,000 carnival-goers who bring the centre of Liverpool to a standstill. The lion in particular is not to be missed – its red colouring is believed to bring good luck, hence the prevalence of red in all the decorations. This is a great opportunity to get acquainted with some of the spectacular Chinese street food which is made to commemorate the beginning of a new year.

For information on the events organized see www.visitliverpool.com.

Fowey and Polruan regattas

The week-long calendar kicks off with a carnival that sets the tone for good-humoured silliness. Enthusiastic pub crews, families in themed costumes and semi-professional brass bands all parade noisily down the packed, narrow high street. A local girl, decked in the hydrangeas that flourish in Cornwall in August, is crowned Queen of the Carnival, and the day culminates in partying on the quays and a firework display that fills the estuary with light, noise and smoke.

It’s this estuary, above all, that makes Fowey magic. The little town is scraped along the side of a miniature fjord that’s a fantastic amphitheatre. When bands play or guns go off to announce races, the noises swirl and bounce around. When the big yachts sail in from Falmouth, or the gig boats race, oars swinging madly, or the torchlight boat procession passes on the last night, the boats all parade in full view along the waterfront.

If wholesome homeliness is the draw, consider also visiting the little-known regatta at Polruan, Fowey’s villagey neighbour, which lies a two-minute ferry ride across the water. There’s hymn- and shanty-singing, a sand-castle competition, a tombola in aid of the lifeboat, and a race of bouncing balls along the tiny street that cascades down the hill towards the harbour. It’s like Britain in the 1950s – and none the worse for it.

Fowey Regatta (www.foweyroyalregatta.co.uk) is usually held on the third full week of August.

Bonfire Night in Lewes

If you feel uneasy in crowds, freaked out by fire, scared of the dark or, worst of all, somewhat unsettled by sudden, ear-splitting explosions, don’t even think about coming here – but if you love noise, smoke and fireworks, you’ll be blown away. The town’s seven Bonfire Societies raise funds all year, just to send it all up in smoke. Their Bonfire Boys parade through the streets carrying blazing torches and flaming crosses to the steady beat of drums. Some drag barrels of smouldering tar, others parade huge satirical effigies of public figures, destined to be incinerated at the end of the night. Stirring speeches are read, bangers ricochet across the bonfire sites and, at the climax of proceedings, hundreds of rockets fill the sky.

Lewes’ Bonfire Society parades take place on the night of November 5; for details, see www.lewesbonfirecouncil.org.uk.

 

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There’s not meant to be any physical contact in this age-old, ritualistic melding of martial arts and breakdancing. Your instructor probably explained that, though unless you happen to speak Portuguese you probably didn’t understand (and if you did, would you trust it to be true?). But you’re ready to give it a whirl; who knows, you may even get to sing or play an instrument to help keep the beat – tambourine, drum, some kind of gourd with strung beads. Probably not the berimbau, a stringed bow struck while positioned against your stomach; that looks more difficult. In fact, it all looks difficult: how can the dancer-combatants fly and spin with such grace, spending as much time on their hands and airborne as on their feet? Maybe you should just passively observe, or head back to any number of street corners in Salvador, where capoeiristas cartwheel and kick encircled by onlookers. And save your own handstand prowess for another day.

The Associacao de Capoeira Mestre Bimba, Rua das Laranjeiras 1, is Salvador’s foremost dance school and sometimes has classes open to tourists.

 

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Driving through the city of Panj, Tajikistan, Rough Guides writer Kiki Deere meets an ex-Soviet-soldier-turned-teacher who has discovered a new way of arranging a long-distance marriage.

Our heavy-footed driver swerved to avoid a series of large rocks that had crumbled from the mountainside above. A muddy crimson river swept through the valley below: the Panj, which marks the border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan.

We snaked our way along the majestic Pamir Highway above the river’s crimson sleepy waters, glancing across to Afghanistan from the dusty windows of our 4×4. These are the Pamir Mountains, commonly referred to as the “Roof of the World”, a land of breath-taking scenery where the local inhabitants are among the poorest of the ex Soviet republics.

All photos by Kiki Deere

Jagged rocky terrain lay below, while green pastures and arable land spread to the north. As our car bumped its way along the potholed dirt track, I caught a glimpse of a lean figure walking ahead of us. His beige trousers were speckled with dirt, and a couple of bony feet protruded from a pair of worn leather sandals. We signalled to the driver to stop and offered him a lift. He clambered in, clutching a plastic folder to his chest. His chapped fingers were tightly wrapped around an out-dated mobile phone, which he gingerly rested on his lap. His rugged, stubble covered age-old skin was taut and burnished from the sun. His lips broke into a golden smile at the sight of foreign faces. “I am the director of the school”, he proudly told us, as he made himself comfortable in the sticky seats of our 4×4. He was on his way back home for lunch and was pleased to have avoided walking the last leg home. The 6Km stretch, he explained, usually took him just over an hour on foot.

After a few exchanges in broken Russian, our new passenger Dolmon signalled to our driver to stop. As a thank you for the lift, he urged us in for tea to meet his family. He led the way to a square concrete house, which precariously perched on a hillside, surrounded by a pleasant verdant garden where a little metal gate lay ajar.

Three women were hard at work with chores round the back of the house. A teenage girl knelt down, intently scrubbing a large sheep wool carpet, occasionally raising her hand to wipe the sweat off her rosy concave cheeks. The eldest gently poured water out of a plastic bucket, which soon rose into a cloud of soapy foam and their mother, a heavy hipped woman, towered over them, intently scrutinising their work. Her prominent features revealed a hooked nose, high cheekbones and dark almond shaped eyes as she greeted us with a warm smile and both hands held out. Her daughters followed suit and we were soon ushered into a tidy room with carpets carefully laid over the floor, while others hung pinned to the walls. We later learned that this room was exclusively used to entertain guests.

I looked around at the thick brown and yellow carpet with chintzy floral motifs that covered the wooden floor planks and admired the garish designs of bright bananas and leafy plants with red fruits that decorated the cushions on the floor. Mats were rolled out and a plastic cover was laid on the floor in the centre of the room to form the table. Little bowls suddenly appeared, while a rough hand placed a steaming flowery teapot in the centre: the Tajiks’ much-loved chai (tea).

Dolmon handed me a tattered photo album. “Me in the military”, he proudly explained, as I rested it on my lap. A thirty year younger Dolmon, dressed in a smart uniform, stared back at me. His face was serious, nearly devoid of expression. Smaller black and white photographs of a striking dark haired lady peppered the torn pages. I glanced up at his round wife, asking myself whether this was a younger version of her.

As I leafed through, a large leaflet dropped out. It was a certificate issued by the Communist Party, as the red Russian script on the front attested. Intrigued, I opened it. A large portrait of Lenin covered the left hand side, his eyes piercing through the page, and on the other a stamp certified that Dolmon was awarded second place in his performance in the Soviet army. I looked up at him questioningly and he gave me a satisfied smile: “For bravery and discipline”, he proudly stated.

Dolmon lifted the teapot and poured six cups of weak black tea. A large freshly baked roundel of bread lay in the centre of the table. His wife wobbled into the room wearing a loose dress, a large belly protruding beneath. A young boy – their son –­ sat cross-legged on the floor, yet when motioned to sit on the mat with us, he declined, too shy to sit with two foreign women.

The mother, who couldn’t speak a word of Russian, handed me a large photo. Her husband translated her guttural Kyrgyz: “My son, my son”, she boasted as she passionately motioned towards her heart. “He lives in Russia, he works there. Seven years he has been there”, she proudly told us, with a glint of sadness in her eyes. “He came back three years ago to visit us. He returns in a few months,” she exclaimed, beaming with joy. A rainbow of golden teeth glittered in the afternoon sun. “Does he like it there?” I asked. “Yes, yes, of course, but we miss him”.

Moscow attracts scores of young Muslim men from all over the former Soviet republics, who leave their homeland in search for a better life and job opportunities in the bustling Russian capital. Most work in construction and it is not unusual for these young men to work long shifts, sometimes 18-hour days. Many are often victims of racist abuse. As I sat in the modest home of these warm-hearted people, I couldn’t help but question whether their son really was happy in Moscow.

“He is getting married to a Tajik lady, from the local village”, she revealed. “They are engaged. They will meet soon, for the first time!”. “Oh, congratulations! But…”, I muttered, questioningly.

“We met her family and we like them very much. They live close by, just up the road. We showed their daughter a photo of our beloved son, and she likes his good looks. Look! Just look at him!” she exclaimed, waving her son’s photo in the air. “They all approved! We sent our son her photo via MMS. He thinks she is beautiful. They will soon meet and marry!”, she cried, holding her hands to her heart. Her husband glanced at me, his thin lips proudly curling into a smile as he nodded in approval. I couldn’t help but chuckle at the thought of their son giving the thumbs up back in Moscow.

As I sat cross-legged on the floor and looked around at the humble surrounds, preparing to leave our generous hosts’ home, I curiously marvelled at how the obsolete black Nokia phone that lay at the mother’s feet had so easily secured a wedding.

Most US travel itineraries skip the “middle bit” – often stereotyped as a boring, endless and pancake-flat swathe of corn that makes up the Great Plains. But while the region lacks showstoppers – no Grand Canyon, no New York – the Great Plains are crammed with surprisingly intriguing attractions and great tracts are, well, quite hilly actually. Stephen Keeling, co-author of The Rough Guide to the USA, picks out ten highlights.

1) Route 66, OK

Though it was long ago superseded by the interstate highway system, Route 66 remains a prime target for all US road-trippers – if they can find it. Created in the 1920s to link Chicago and Los Angeles and “more than two thousand miles all the way”, much of the original route has been overlaid by newer highways. Not in Oklahoma: here there is a 644km plus section of raw Route 66, rich in Americana, from classic diners like Waylan’s Ku-Ku Burger in Miami and the iconic Round Barn in Arcadia, to the Route 66 Museum in Clinton and the iconic Blue Whale at Catoosa.

2) Nebraska State Capitol, Lincoln, NE

Soaring above the plains like a fantastical Byzantine skyscraper, the Nebraska State Capitol is a genuine Art Deco wonder. Like all US state capitols, it’s open to the public and free to tour, but here the standard Neoclassical grandeur– South Dakota, Kansas and Iowa all have incredible state capitols – is ditched for something far more ambitious. Completed in 1932, the 122m tower is topped by a golden dome, but the interior is just as awe-inspiring, with a mural-smothered main hall and rotunda as grand as any Renaissance cathedral.

 

3) Kansas City BBQ, KS

Famous all over the US, Kansas-style barbecue is less well-known overseas, despite a decent claim to being the best in the nation. Here, meats are slow-smoked with a combination of hickory and oak wood, and no-frills, lowbrow joints flourish on word-of-mouth popularity (85 at the last count). “Burnt ends” is a particular Kansas specialty – tasty pieces of meat cut from the charred end of a smoked beef brisket, smothered with sauce. Each BBQ joint offers subtle differences in flavours, smokes and especially secret ‘special’ sauces. Oklahoma Joe’s and Gates Bar-B-Q are local favourites, but even the most famous place – Arthur Bryant’s – rarely feels touristy.

4) Dead Presidents: Eisenhower, Hoover and Truman

Aficionados of presidential history will find some big hitters on the Great Plains: Dwight D Eisenhower, Allied Supreme Commander in World War II and 34th President (1953–1961) grew up in little old Abilene, Kansas; his predecessor Harry Truman (1945–1952) was a proud Missourian from Independence; and the much-maligned Herbert Hoover (31st President, 1929–1933) grew up in similarly small-town West Branch, Iowa. All three places celebrate their favourite sons with preserved childhood homes, presidential libraries and some of the best museums in the nation, covering everything from the 1929 Wall Street Crash (blamed on Hoover) to the Cold War (partly blamed on Truman).

5) Tallgrass Prairie: Flint Hills Scenic Byway, KS

Forget those flatland stereotypes; the Flint Hills of Kansas are rolling, wild hills that seem as bleak as Yorkshire moors in winter, then erupt with colourful blooms and bright green grasses in the spring. This is the prairies as they were five hundred years ago. Get oriented at the Flint Hills Discovery Center in the college town of Manhattan, a futuristic building crammed with hands-on exhibits and superb displays. From here, drive south on the Flint Hills Scenic Byway (aka Hwy-177), which cuts along the hills and through gorgeous rural villages that seem a million miles from anywhere; at the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, just north of Strong City, there’s a small visitor centre and hiking trails.

 

6) Price Tower, OK

Surprise: the only skyscraper designed by Frank Lloyd Wright ever built is not in New York or Chicago, but Oklahoma – in tiny old Bartlesville, 72km north of Tulsa. Completed in 1956, this 67m-tall, incongruous copper pinnacle doesn’t disappoint, its verdigris-stained walls, triangular spaces and cubicle-like elevators retaining Lloyd’s distinctive, ornamental style. Stay the night (it’s a hotel), and the fantasy is complete; luxurious rooms decked out like a Mad Men set, with copper work, sleek Venetian blinds and stylish 50’s showers. You can also grab a drink at the Copper Bar on its top floors.

7) Indie, Red Dirt & Woody Guthrie, NE and OK

Live music is alive and well on the Great Plains, where Omaha, Nebraska sports a dynamic indie music scene featuring the likes of local bands Bright Eyes, Cursive, Neva Dinova and The Faint. Modest Stillwater, Oklahoma, is the home of Red Dirt Music, a blend of folk, country, blues and rock styles, with hometown bands the All-American Rejects, Jason Boland and the Stragglers, No Justice, the Jason Savory Band and the godfather of the genre, Bob Childers.

Tulsa, Oklahoma has its own musical legacy, a mix of rockabilly, country, rock and blues that emerged as the Tulsa Sound in the late 1950s and early 1960s (JJ Cale and The Gap Band were part of the movement). Today Tulsa is the home of the spanking new Woody Guthrie Center – crammed with videos and listening posts, fans of the Oklahoma-born folk hero should plan to spend several happy hours here.

8) Oklahoma National Stockyards and Cattlemen’s, OK

Surrounded by a vast sea of cattle pens, crammed with black angus and Hereford bulls, the Oklahoma National Stockyards auction house jerks into life every Monday and Tuesday morning, when frenetic auctions – free and open to the public – facilitate the sale of thousands of dollars worth of cattle between Stetson-wearing ranchers. You won’t understand a word the quick-fire auctioneer says, but you won’t need to. Vegetarians and animal-lovers should obviously steer clear, but everyone else should visit nearby Cattlemen’s afterwards, for some of the most juicy, buttery steak in the country.

9) Ozark National Scenic Riverways, MO

Deep inside the Ozarks, the forest-smothered hills that separate the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, this is the first national park to protect a river system; indulge in kayaking, fishing or that time-honoured tradition of tubing down the Current and Jacks Fork rivers. There’s nothing like floating down a crystal-clear river slouched inside a giant tyre on a hot summer afternoon, but the park is also home to hundreds of freshwater springs, caves, trails and historic sites.

10) The Cherokee and the Five Tribes, OK

Most Native Americans actually live in the ‘middle bit’, from the Great Sioux Nation of South Dakota to the 39 sovereign tribes of Oklahoma. It pays to remember there’s really no such thing as ‘Native American culture’; every tribe and nation is unique, with their own traditions, languages and customs. The Cherokee Heritage Center in Tahlequah, OK is especially illuminating, with a replica ancient village and display on the Trail of Tears; the Five Civilized Tribes Museum in Muskogee, OK, highlights the art, history and culture of not just the Cherokee, but also the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee Creek and Seminole tribes.

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If you like your Mayan ruins a little less grandiose than Tikal but all to yourself, then try those in and around Lago de Petexbatún, a spectacular expanse of water ringed by dense forest to the south of Sayaxché. The region is home to several ruins, including Dos Pilas, Ceibal and Yaxchilán, though the most impressive is the partially restored Aguateca – a fortified city perched on a high escarpment overlooking the lake.

The best base for checking out these atmospheric ruins is Chiminos Island Lodge on Punta de Chiminos, a peninsula that juts into the lake. It was here that the last of the Petexbatún Maya sought refuge as the region descended into warfare at the beginning of the ninth century. Although little of their citadel remains today, the lodge was set up by two archeologists who wanted to preserve the site and also protect the surrounding wildlife and jungle.

The lodge’s six thatched jungle bungalows (all set well apart from each other) are built on stilts from fallen hardwood. Each can sleep up to five people and has a bathroom and its own water-treatment system. The closest archeological attractions can all be reached from the lodge by boat, walking and on horseback in a day. While the crowds are bustling around the more well-known Maya sites in Guatemala, you’ll have had a day’s unhurried adventure in the jungle, enjoying these ancient sites in splendid isolation.

Aguateca is a short boat ride from the lodge then 20min walk, while Dos Pilas involves a short boat cruise then a 2.5hr walk. The lodge also organizes three-day trips to Yaxchilán, staying overnight in a jungle lodge. Buses go from Guatemala City to the town of Sayaxché (8hr); alternatively you can drive from Flores to Sayaxché, from where there’s a river cruise (1.5hr) to Lake Petexbatún. For prices, reservations and links to archeological articles related to the Petexbatún area see www.chiminosisland.com.

 

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Whatever your budget, Kenya has no shortage of post-safari pursuits, writes Richard Trillo, author of the Rough Guide to Kenya and Kenya Programme Manager at Expert Africa. Whether you’re after a relaxing beach break or another adventure, there’s plenty to see and do in Kenya once you’ve left the wildlife behind.

Share a beach house – or rent a tree-house

Chilling on the coast is a popular way to relax after the full-on activity of a safari. There are plenty of hotels and guesthouses on the shores of the Indian Ocean, but renting a house on Tiwi Beach tops them all. The fully staffed Olerai Beach House sleeps up to ten, so it’s ideal for a tropical house party. In the huge gardens, there’s a stunning swimming pool with a water slide and landscaped caves, while the beach lies right in front of you through the palms. It’s quite remote, so there’s the option to have a minibus and driver at your disposal for trips into Mombasa and other excursions. However, if you’re on more of a shoestring budget, then Stilts Backpackers, on Diani Beach, is a great location for the budget traveller. Funky treehouses (huts on stilts), a tree-level bar-restaurant and plenty of convivial company make it a popular base, and the beach is just a five-minute walk away.

The Tiwi Beach house costs a minimum of US$700 (£470) per night for four people, including all meals and drinks, with further guests costing $100 (£70) per night (under 11s pay half). The minibus and driver is an extra $250 (£170) per day.

Stay in a rainforest lodge in the Shimba Hills – or explore a ruined city

Coastal adventures come in many shapes and sizes. Just inland from the beaches of the south coast lies Shimba Hills National Reserve. The hills, teeming with elephants and forest wildlife, house an authentic rainforest lodge, where trees grow through the wooden building, and a treetop walkway winds through the forest to a waterhole. Also in the forest, near the small resort town of Watamu on the north coast, the ruins of the stone town of Gedi lay hidden in the jungle for hundreds of years. The identity of the sixteenth-century inhabitants of the town, excavated in the 1940s, is still unknown, but today their houses and mosques can be explored and are particularly atmospheric at dusk.

Take a dhow cruise in Mombasa harbour or tour the old city on a tuk-tuk

There’s sightseeing with a difference at the coast’s main town, the island city of Mombasa. Several large vessels –big trading dhows known as jahazi – have been converted for use as comfortable excursion boats, with cushions, carpets and on-board kitchens. Embarking just before sunset, you watch the sun drop behind the palm trees and kick the evening off with a dawa cocktail (a Kenyan blend of vodka and honey; it means “medicine”). Then, entertained by a Swahili taarab band, you chug around Tudor Creek and Mombasa Harbour as you set to work on red snapper, lobster, lamb and crunchy vegetables. Some cruises include a son-et-lumière show at Fort Jesus, the city’s standout historical site (cruises can be booked through any hotel reception). If you’d rather do your sightseeing by day, and on a budget, rent a tuk-tuk or motorized rickshaw, and ask for an hour’s tour of Old Town. Most drivers will be happy to oblige, though you’ll need your Rough Guide to Kenya to navigate the small area (less than half a square kilometre).

Get off the Mombasa Highway in the Kibwezi Forest or the Taita Hills

Most visitors treat the notoriously dangerous and traffic-jammed Mombasa Highway with a degree of fear and loathing. But it has some truly worthwhile sidetracks that you’d be mad to pass up. Most impressive of these is the outstandingly beautiful Umani Springs, a designer lodge in the almost unvisited Kibwezi forest, nearly half way to the coast. Shaded by huge acacia and fig trees, three temple-like cottages, built of local lava stone, accommodate up to ten people each. There’s even a good team of staff to cook the food you bring, leaving you to watch the local wildlife or laze in the huge, spring-fed swimming pool. However, it’s tricky to manage if you’re travelling by public transport, so pause your trip to the coast at Voi and take a matatu (minibus) into the cool, fir-clad Taita Hills, with their fascinating ancestral skull caves and dramatic executions (murderers were once hurled from a cliff to their meet their death). You can stay cheaply in the friendly little town of Wundanyi.

Head south into the Rift Valley

From Nairobi, everyone thinks of the Rift Valley as north of the city, focused around tourist hotspots like Lake Naivasha with its gardens and boat trips, or Lake Nakuru with its busy national park. But, if you head south – driving yourself or in a limited selection of beaten-up buses or taxi vans – you can explore an equally fascinating but almost unvisited stretch of the Great Rift. First possible stop is Whistling Thorns – much like an English Lake District youth hostel, but with ostriches and gazelles instead of sheep. Then, as you plunge down the dramatic face of the escarpment, you head out onto arid plains where there’s a great prehistoric stone-tool site, Olorgasailie, with cheap camping and cottages. Finally, you reach the bizarre soda pans of Lake Magadi, where a factory town supports a major chemical industry. There’s a beautiful public swimming pool and excellent bird life near the hot springs, and a few options for staying if you don’t have a tent.

Explore the north in a 4×4

If you have a week, you can rent a Land Rover or Land Cruiser and head north. The fast and empty new road from Isiolo to Merille (half way from Isiolo to Marsabit) is a dream to drive, with a magnificent landscape of rocky buttes breaking the horizon. Three hours past tarmac’s end, Mount Marsabit, an old “shield volcano” emerging out of the desert, is swathed in thick forest surrounding hidden crater lakes. You can camp here, or there’s a basic lodge. The town of Marsabit itself is a cultural melting pot, as is the whole eastern flank of Lake Turkana. The drive to the lake, through the remote mission station and trading post of North Horr, is a great adventure, across stony wastes and through nomadic pastoral communities where camels tend to have right of way. If you have only a day or two with a 4×4, you could travel between Thika and Naivasha, just north of Nairobi, along a rarely used forest track where elephants push trees across the road (take a winch and an axe).

Swim with whale sharks or become acquainted with baboons

If your safari has given you a taste for close encounters of the furred (or finned) kind, you might consider swimming with whale sharks, just south of Mombasa. Wildlife immersion doesn’t get much more immersive than slipping underwater to snorkel alongside these gentle giants. In a controversial tourism / conservation project, twice a year two young sharks (a mere five to seven metres in length) are towed into a marine pen twice the size of a football pitch, just off the beach at Waa. You pay around $150 (£105) to snorkel with them for an hour, with 30% of the proceeds going to whale shark conservation. Back on dry land, at Il Polei Group Ranch in Laikipia, north of Mount Kenya, you can visit a troop of baboons in the wild, where a long-term social study of the animals has meant humans and primates can walk together during a 2-hour dawn or dusk excursion ($80 for groups of up to four).

Go clubbing in Nairobi or grab your blankets and wine

For clubbing of the musical kind, Nairobi is your best bet. The steadily reviving Central Business District has a small grid of streets that stream with revellers every weekend, encouraged by a bit of street lighting and the security that numbers bring. For city centre DJs, booze and choma (roast meat), Zanzebar, on the 5th floor of Kenya Cinema Plaza on Moi Avenue, has a very local flavour. More stylish and youthful is the pumping Tribeka, on the corner of Banda and Kimathi streets, and Tree House at Museum Hill roundabout has been a solid address for live music for the last couple of years. For something a little different, the monthly music festival of no fixed abode Blankets and Wine has become a diary anchor point for lots of affluent young Nairobians.

Train with warriors  – rigorous or lite

On most safaris in Kenya you’re likely to meet Maasai warriors, and soon realise this is no dressing-up club but a part of every Maasai man’s life. Your guide may wear shirt and trousers in town, but in the bush he’ll wear a robe and carry a spear and sword. The training for this age grade is long and arduous, but you can now sample the lifestyle at a number of camps. For the most engaging warrior training experience, sign up for a 3-to-7-day programme with Laikipiak Maasai warriors at Bush Adventures Camp. On the Il Ngwesi Group Ranch, in northern Kenya, you’ll learn to shoot with a bow, throw clubs and engage in Maasai repartee. For a quicker, low budget taste of the action, closer to Nairobi, the low-key Maji Moto Eco-Camp, in the greater Mara ecosystem, includes warrior-training – stick throwing, dancing, singing, tracking – with every stay in its tidy dome tents.

Find a festival – at Lake Turkana, the Rift Valley or Lamu

Talking of festivals, Kenya has fewer major events than you’d perhaps imagine, or hope for, but the handful of reliable annual fixtures is worth pinning a safari round. Pre-eminent is the Lake Turkana Festival in May, a colourful cultural jamboree in one of the country’s most remote towns. Much easier to reach is the Rift Valley Festival in August, a more European-style music festival on the shores of Lake Naivasha. On the far-flung shores of the Indian Ocean, the Lamu Festival, held every November, sees the whole of this old Swahili town taking part in donkey and dhow races, traditional stick fights, processions, beach barbecues and crafts displays.

The 10th edition of the Rough Guide to Kenya was published in May 2013. 

From the white, snowy tops of the Himalayas, to the greenery of Kerala and then the sands of Goa, India is a hugely diverse, intense but addictive country. It has deserts, rainforests, rural settlements and big cosmopolitan cities – some will love it, and a few will hate it, but with such variety there is pretty much something for everyone.

Here’s a selection of photos from our Things Not to Miss gallery for India, with music by Aruna Sairam, taken from the Rough Guide to the Music of India.

Music: Sarahanabhava, Aruna Sairam – Rough Guide to the Music of India
Available from worldmusic.net >

Easter Island is one of the remotest places on Earth – its nearest inhabited neighbour, Pitcairn Island, is 2250km away in the South Pacific Ocean – and is less than half the size of the Isle of Wight. Despite its diminutive size, this triangle-shaped island (known locally as Rapa Nui) is packed with truly unique sights. Here are five not to miss.

Rano Raraku

This volcanic crag in the east of the island is where the majority of the moai (the iconic Easter Island statues) were produced, carved directly from compacted volcanic ash. The moai – which can weigh over 80 tonnes – were then transported, presumably on wooden sleds, though the island’s oral history claims they were able to “walk”, to their ahus (platforms). Some, however, proved too heavy to move – or refused to walk – and today dozens of giant heads sprout up from the green slopes of Rano Raraku. The largest moai ever carved, the 20-metre tall El Gigante (“The Giant”), is also here, still attached to the rock face from which he was carved.

Ahu Tongariki

East of Rano Raraku, right on the coast, is the dramatic Ahu Tongariki, a 200m-long ahu upon which 15 colossal moai are lined up – the largest number of Easter Island statues ever erected on a single platform. A tsunami in 1960 swept across this corner of the island, dragging the ahu and the moai more than 90m inland and as a result of a lack of funds, little was done for decades until a Japanese man saw a TV programme about the incident and decided to start fundraising. A five-year restoration project – which involved Chilean archeologists, around 40 islanders, specialists from the Nara Institute of Japan and international stone-carving experts – was eventually completed in 1995.

Rano Kau and Orongo

Not all of Easter Island’s stunning sights revolve around moai. In the southwest tip of the island is the vast crater of the extinct Rano Kau volcano. The base of the crater is filled with water, and reeds have bunched together to form what looks like an archipelago of green islands. A hole in the far side of the crater – the result of the last eruption – means that the Pacific Ocean is visible, stretching away as far as the eye can see. Nearby are the remains of the village of Orongo, home of the annual Birdman ceremony, in which chiefs of the island’s various kin groups would nominate a competitor to swim through shark-infested waters to the largest of three islets 2km off the coast to retrieve the first egg laid by the sooty tern. The winning chief was named the new Birdman and his kin group provided with special privileges.

Anakena

On the north coast of the island is the idyllic Anakena beach – think swaying palm trees and stretches of golden sand – which locals consider to be the landing spot of Rapa Nui’s first colonizer, Hotu Matu’a. Close by are the moai of Ahu Nau Nau, who were buried in sand for many years, something that has largely protected them from the effects of weathering.

Vinapu

A short walk from Hanga Roa, Easter Island’s only town, are some of the earliest surviving moai: the oldest, Vinapu II, is believed to date from around 857 AD and his stonework is noticeably inferior to younger counterparts. The site was first excavated by Norwegian explorer and archaeologist Thor Heyerdahl, whose controversial theory that Rapa Nui was first colonized by people from South America is discounted by most modern experts, who argue the first settlers came from Polynesia.

Shafik Meghji is a co-author of The Rough Guide to Chile. He blogs at www.unmappedroutes.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @ShafikMeghji

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