The Yucatán Peninsula can be unpleasantly muggy in the summer. At the same time, the low-lying region’s unique geography holds the perfect antidote to hot afternoons: the limestone shelf that forms the peninsula is riddled with underground rivers, accessible at sinkholes called cenotes – a geological phenomenon found only here.

Nature’s perfect swimming spots, cenotes are filled with cool fresh water year-round, and they’re so plentiful that you’re bound to find one nearby when you need a refreshing dip. Some are unremarkable holes in the middle of a farmer’s field, while others, like Cenote Azul near Laguna Bacalar, are enormous, deep wells complete with diving platforms and on-site restaurants.

The most visited and photographed cenotes are set in dramatic caverns in and around the old colonial city of Valladolid. Cenote Zací, in the centre of town, occupies a full city block. Half-covered by a shell of rock, the pool exudes a chill that becomes downright cold as you descend the access stairs. Just outside town, Dzitnup and neighbouring Samula are almost completely underground. Shinny down some rickety stairs, and you’ll find yourself in cathedral-like spaces, where sound and light bounce off the walls. Both cenotes are beautifully illuminated by the sun, which shines through a hole in the ceiling, forming a glowing spotlight on the turquoise water.

Even more remarkable, however, is that these caverns extend under water. Strap on a snorkel or scuba gear, and drop below the surface to spy a still world of delicate stalagmites. Exploring these ghostly spaces, it’s easy to see why the Maya considered cenotes gateways to the underworld. The liminal sensation is heightened by the clarity of the water, which makes you feel as if you’re suspended in air.

Cenote Zací in Valladolid is in the block formed by calles 34, 36, 37 and 39. Dzitnup and Samula are 7km west of Valladolid on Hwy-180. There are also cenotes along the Caribbean coast.

 

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You probably won’t get much sleep on your first night in Taman Negara National Park – not because there’s an elephant on your chalet doorstep or the rain’s dripping through your tent, but because the rainforest is unexpectedly noisy after dark. High-volume insects whirr and beep at an ear-splitting pitch, branches creak and swish menacingly, and every so often something nearby shrieks or thumps. Taman Negara is a deceptively busy place, home to scores of creatures including macaques, gibbons, leaf monkeys and tapirs, as well as more elusive tigers, elephants and sun bears. Not to mention some three hundred species of birds and a huge insect population.

Many rainforest residents are best observed after dark, either on a ranger-led night walk or from one of the twelve-bed tree-house hides strategically positioned above popular salt licks. But a longer guided trek also offers a good chance of spotting something interesting and will get you immersed in the phenomenally diverse flora of Taman Negara, which supports a staggering 14,000 plant species, including 75m-high tualang trees, carnivorous pitcher plants and fungi that glow like lightbulbs. The rewarding six-hour Keniam–Trenggan trail takes you through dense jungle and into several impressive caves, while the arduous week-long expedition to the cloudforests atop 2187m-high Gunung Tahan involves frequent river crossings and steep climbs. With minimal effort, on the other hand, you can ascend to the treetops near park headquarters, via a canopy walkway. Slung some 30m above the forest floor between a line of towering tualang trees, this swaying bridge offers a gibbon’s perspective on the cacophonous jungle below.

Taman Negara (www.wildlife.gov.my) is 250km from Kuala Lumpur and can be reached by bus or, more enjoyably, by train and boat.

 

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Rough Guides writer Steve Vickers casts an eye over the big travel news topics and unpicks the top stories of the week.

Indian visas could get easier

India could be about to its expand its visa on arrival scheme to visitors from around 40 additional countries, including the UK.

As it stands, tourists from less than a dozen foreign nations are eligible for the visa on arrival scheme, and visitors from most places (including the UK and Australia) have to apply in advance for a visa – a process that can take weeks to complete.

On the face of it, expanding the visa on arrival scheme looks like a friendly bit of diplomacy, but there’s a rather more practical reason behind India’s decision. The number of tourists visiting the country has been growing sluggishly over the past few years and despite its size, India gets far fewer foreign visitors than Thailand or Malaysia. Both of which, incidentally, have far more relaxed visa policies.

Travelling the world with Bitcoin

Bitcoin is the world’s first crypto-currency. It’s a kind of person-to-person online electronic cash system that allows transactions to be made across the world. In the past few years, more and more websites have started accepting Bitcoin as an alternative to mainstream currencies. And in the past few months, plenty of real-world traders (including some travel agents) have also been getting involved.

By carefully choosing shops and petrol stations that would accept Bitcoin, newly married couple Beccy and Austin Craig managed two months in their native Utah without spending a single cent of conventional cash. Now they’re taking their experiment out on the road, using Bitcoin to buy everything from flights to food and accommodation.

Their first foreign stop, Stockholm, is an open-minded and technologically advanced city, with an active community of Bitcoin users. But if their travels take them off the beaten track, paying with digital currency could get a whole lot harder.

Follow Beccy and Austin on Twitter @lifeonbitcoin

Pumpkin tourism takes off for Halloween

With Halloween fast approaching and so many national parks in the USA recently closed because of the government shutdown, Pumpkin tourism is a growing trend.

In Arizona, the historic Grand Canyon Railway has laid on additional ‘Pumpkin Patch’ services to meet an increase in demand. Departing from the sleepy city of Williams, just south of the Grand Canyon, the historic train takes passengers to a remote vegetable patch. There, they can spend time picking the perfect pumpkin, before returning to Williams for hot apple cider and a slice of pumpkin pie.

Over in Ohio, more and more farms are opening their fields to tourists. Maize Valley Winery near Hartville is one of the places that really goes to town, with an enormous corn maze, pig races and pick-your-own pumpkins. There’s even a pumpkin cannon capable of firing heavy squashes more than half a mile through the air.

Cheaper roaming: another step forward

The EU has capped the cost of calls and mobile data within the European Union, but using your phone in other parts of the world can still be ridiculously expensive. Want to Skype or Snapchat in Singapore? No problem! Just make sure you’ve got a few thousand pounds stashed away for when the bill arrives.

A couple of savvy companies, keen to steal a march on their rivals, have started offering deals to help avoid that kind of post-travel trauma. The latest is American operator T-Mobile, which is planning to give customers on its Simple Choice tariff unlimited data and texts in 100 countries worldwide, including far-flung places like Uzbekistan and El Salvador. From the 31st of October, customers will also pay a flat rate of just 20 cents per minute for calls within those 100 countries, regardless of whether they’re ringing a landline or mobile.

The Internet offered is 2G, and the package is only available to T-Mobile customers in the US. But the fact that a major operator is offering a deal like this is a big step forward, and one that could inspire European networks to stop charging over the odds.

Free travel safety app

A free iPhone app has been launched to help young backpackers stay safe when travelling abroad. The Safer Travel app includes basic safety tips for cities and countries around the world, as well as emergency phone numbers, a trip planner and maps showing the location of local embassies.

The app was released by Caroline’s Rainbow Foundation, a charity set up in the memory of Caroline Stuttle, a British backpacker killed in Australia in 2002. Currently the app has listings for hundreds of different places, but the charity wants to expand its coverage to include every tourist destination on earth.

Final call

This dreamy short film from Bali leaves out the gridlocked streets and drunken tourists, choosing instead to focus on the simple and the spiritual – and it’s all the better for it.

Morning of the World from Gunther Gheeraert on Vimeo.

Spotted an unusual travel story? Let us know on Twitter (@RoughGuides) or Facebook, or comment below.

It’s always polite to bring gifts to your hosts’ house, but when visiting a Sarawak longhouse make sure it’s something that’s easily shared, as longhouses are communal, and nearly everything gets divvied up into equal parts. This isn’t always an easy task: typically, longhouses are home to around 150 people and contain at least thirty family apartments, each one’s front door opening on to the common gallery, hence the tag “a thirty-door longhouse” to describe the size. These days not everyone lives there full time, but the majority of Sarawak’s indigenous Iban population still consider the longhouse home, even if they only return for weekends.

Many longhouses enjoy stunning locations, usually in a clearing beside a river, so you’ll probably travel to yours in a longboat that meanders between the jungle-draped banks, dodging logs being floated downstream to the timber yards. Look carefully and you’ll see that patches of hinterland have been cultivated with black pepper vines, rubber and fruit trees, plus the occasional square of paddy, all of which are crucial to longhouse economies.

Having first met the chief of your longhouse, you climb the notched tree trunk that serves as a staircase into the stilted wooden structure and enter the common area, or ruai, a wide gallery that runs the length of the building and is the focus of community social life. Pretty much everything happens here – the meeting and greeting, the giving and sharing of gifts, the gossip, and the partying. Animist Iban communities in particular are notorious party animals (unlike some of their Christian counterparts), and you’ll be invited to join in the excessive rice-wine drinking, raucous dancing and
forfeit games that last late into the night.

Finally, exhausted, you hit the sack – either on a straw mat right there on the ruai, or in a guest lodge next door.

The easiest way to arrange a night in a longhouse is via a tour company based in the Sarawak capital, Kuching: Borneo Transverse (www.borneotransverse.com.my) or Borneo Adventure (www.borneoadventure.com).

 

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The pace of life is deliciously slow in Luang Prabang, but if you opt for a lie-in you’ll miss the perfect start to the day. As dawn breaks over this most languorous of Buddhist towns, saffron-robed monks emerge from their temple-monasteries to collect alms from their neighbours, the riverbanks begin to come alive and the smell of freshly baked baguettes draws you to one of the many cafés. It’s a captivating scene whichever way you turn: ringed by mountains and encircled by the Mekong and Khan rivers, the old quarter’s temple roofs peep out from the palm groves, its streets still lined with wood-shuttered shophouses and French-colonial mansions.

Though it has the air of a rather grand village, Luang Prabang is the ancient Lao capital, seat of the royal family that ruled the country for six hundred years until the Communists exiled them in the 1970s. It remains the most cultured town in Laos (not a hard-won accolade it’s true, in this poor, undeveloped nation), and one of the best preserved in Southeast Asia – something now formalized by World Heritage status. Chief among its many beautiful temples is the entrancing sixteenth-century Wat Xieng Thong, whose tiered roofs frame an exquisite glass mosaic of the tree of life and attendant creatures, flanked by pillars and doors picked out in brilliant gold-leaf stencils. It’s a gentle stroll from here to the graceful teak and rosewood buildings of the Royal Palace Museum and the dazzling gilded murals of neighbouring Wat Mai.

When you tire of the monuments, there are riverside caves, waterfalls and even a whisky-making village to explore, and plenty of shops selling intricate textiles and Hmong hill-tribe jewellery. Serenity returns at sunset, when the monks’ chants drift over the temple walls and everyone else heads for high ground to soak up the view.

Luang Prabang is served by flights from Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Vientiane. You can also reach it by bus and boat from Vientiane and by boat from the Thai–Lao border at Chiang Khong/Houayxai.

 

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The Kikuyu people venerated Mount Kenya as the dwelling place of God. They believed if they climbed to the peaks, they would find spiritual inspiration. Straddling the equator and piercing the clouds, Africa’s second-highest mountain – the eroded remains of a vast, prehistoric volcano, towering 5199m from the plains – is a steeper and quicker climb than Kilimanjaro, and in terms of scenic variety and fauna and flora is perhaps the more inspirational of Africa’s two giant mountains. It’s certainly the less busy.

For most trekkers, the climax of seeing the sunrise from Point Lenana, among the jagged, glacier-studded peaks, is the literal highpoint of the experience. But try to love the climbing moments, too: on day three of the Naro Moru trail, once you’ve overcome the slightly daunting “vertical bog” and emerged into the high moorland, the wonders of alpine Africa’s otherworldly flora, seemingly designed by some 1950s science-fiction writer, are all around you. Altitude and the equatorial location combine to nurture forms of vegetation that exist only here and at one or two other lofty points in East Africa. When you first see them, it’s hard to believe the “water-holding cabbage” or “ostrich plume plant”. This is a land of giant shrubs and weeds: giant heather, giant groundsel and giant lobelia. It turns out the cabbages on stumps and the larger, candelabra-shaped, tree-like plants are the same species, known as giant groundsel or tree senecio. The intermediate stage has a sheaf of bright yellow flowers. These enigmatic plants, though frail-looking, are slow growers and individuals may survive on these chilly, misty slopes for more than two hundred years.

The tall, fluffy, less abundant plants are a species of giant lobelia, popularly called the “ostrich plume plant”, discovered by the explorer Teleki and found only on Mount Kenya. The furriness wich gives this giant lobelia such an animal quality acts as insulation for the delicate flowers. It is perhaps the only plant in the world that could fairly be described as cuddly.

Climbing Mount Kenya is possible all year round. Many Nairobi operators and agents can offer tours, or you hike independently with a local guide. Kenya Wildlife Service (kws.go.ke) has information on fees and mountain accommodation.

 

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White, sometimes stained floor tiles and a plain, usually graffitied grey door: I think we can all agree, this is an accurate description of your average toilet – pretty boring, no? Have you ever been having a tinkle, twiddling your thumbs and thought to yourself: “You know what this toilet needs? A good view!” Well, you’re in luck. Toilet enthusiast Luke Barclay, from looswithviews.com, has put together entire books showcasing toilets with fantastic vistas, from the tops of mountains to the city centres of the world. He describes it as “a global movement dedicated to the search for views from toilets”. So, without further ado-do (sorry), here is a selection of the best.

1. View of Mount Foraker from Mount McKinley, Alaska

Photography by Patrick Baumann

2. The view while seated Copeland Island Bird Observatory, Northern Ireland

Photography by Neville Mckee

3. View of Mount Everest from Tengboche Monastery latrine, Sagarmatha National Park, Nepal

Photography by Anna Maria S. Jorgensen
Explore more of Nepal > 

4. View of the Zambezi river, Old Mondoro Bush Camp, Zambia

Photography by Lana De Villiers 

5. Mount Sinai, Sinai Peninsula, Egypt

Photography by Chris Belsten
Explore more of Egypt > 

6. View from the urinal in the Warner Stand, Lords Cricket Ground, UK

Photography by Luke Barclay
Explore more of England > 

7. Mount Whitney, Sierra Nevada, California

Photography by Larry Mah
Explore more of California > 

8. Thiksey Buddhist Monastery, Ladakh, India

Photography by Sourav Basu
Explore more of India > 

9. Near Salar de Uyuni, Andean High Plateau, Bolivia

Photography by Maxime Renaudin
Explore more of Bolivia > 

10. Wolwedans Lodge, NamibRand Nature Reserve, Namibia

Photography by Tracey Garrett

11. Summit of Croagh Patrick, County Mayo, Ireland

Photography by Luke Barclay
Explore more of Ireland > 

All photos courtesy of Luke Barclay from looswithviews.com

When you think of eco-friendly travel, the Middle East might not immediately spring to mind. In environmental terms, the region is a disaster, characterized by a general lack of awareness of the issues and poor – if any – legislative safeguards. But Jordan is quietly working wonders, and the impact in recent years of the country’s Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN) has been striking: areas of outstanding natural beauty are now under legal protection and sustainable development is squarely on the political agenda.

The RSCN’s flagship project is the Dana Nature Reserve, the Middle East’s first truly successful example of sustainable tourism. Until 1993, Dana was dying: the stone-built mountain village was crumbling, its land suffering from hunting and overgrazing and locals were abandoning their homes in search of better opportunities in the towns.

Then the RSCN stepped in and set up the Dana Nature Reserve, drawing up zoning plans to establish wilderness regions and semi-intensive use areas where tourism could be introduced, building a guesthouse and founding a scientific research station. Virtually all the jobs – tour guides, rangers, cooks, receptionists, scientists and more – were taken by villagers.

Today, over eight hundred local people benefit from the success of Dana, and the reserve’s running costs are covered almost entirely from tourism revenues. The guesthouse, with spectacular views over the V-shaped Dana Valley, continues to thrive while a three-hour walk away in the hills lies the idyllic Rummana campsite, from where you can embark on dawn excursions to watch ibex and eagles.

But the reserve also stretches down the valley towards the Dead Sea Rift – and here, a memorable five-hour walk from the guesthouse, stands the Feinan Wilderness Lodge, set amidst an arid sandy landscape quite different from Dana village. The lodge is powered by solar energy and lit by candles; with no road access at all, it’s a bewitchingly calm and contemplative desert retreat.

Check out www.rscn.org.jo.

 

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This excerpt from Make The Most Of Your Time On Earth sees one intrepid Rough Guides writer experience a night to remember…

My Bedouin guide settled forward over his ribaba, a simple traditional stringed instrument. As he drew the bow to and fro, the mournful, reedy music seemed to fill the cool night air, echoing back off the cliff soaring above us. The fire threw dancing shadows across the sand. A billion stars looked down.

“Bedouin” means desert-dweller. It’s a cultural term: Bedouin today, whether they live in the desert or not (many are settled urban professionals), retain a strong sense of identity with their ancestral tribe. You’ll find this desert culture across the Middle East, but to get a feel for its origins you need to travel into its homeland – which is why I’d come to southern Jordan, specifically Wadi Rum.

Here, the dunes and desert vistas form one of the classic landscapes of the Middle East – the backdrop for the movie Lawrence of Arabia. Granite and sandstone mountains rise up to 800m sheer from the desert floor. The heat during the day is intense: with no shade, temperatures down on the shimmering sand soar. Views stretch for tens of kilometres; the silence and sense of limitless space are awe-inspiring.

I’d come to spend a night camping. Camels were available as transport, but I’d opted instead for a jeep ride. Bumping out into the deep desert, we headed for camp: a distinctive Bedouin “house of hair” – a long, low tent hand-woven from dark goats’ hair and pitched in the sands – would serve as quarters for the night.

As blissful evening coolness descended, the sun set over the desert in a spectacular show of light and colour, and the clarity of the unpolluted air produced a starry sky of stunning beauty.

Wadi Rum lies 300km south of Amman. The best online resource is www.jordanjubilee.com.

 

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The arrival of the sakura, or cherry blossom, has long been a profound yet simple Japanese lesson about the nature of human existence. For centuries, poets have fired off reams of haiku comparing the brief but blazing lives of the flowers to those of our own – a tragically fragile beauty to be treasured and contemplated.

In Japan, spring sees the country gradually coated in a light pink shade, soft petals slowly clustering on their branches as if puffed through by some benevolent underground spirit. The sakura-zensen, or cherry blossom front, flushes like a floral wave that laps the country from south to north; this is followed ardently by the Japanese, who know that when the advancing flowers hit their locality, they’ll only have a week or so to enjoy the annual gift to its fullest. This desire is most commonly expressed in the centuries-old form of countless hanami parties – the word literally means “flower viewing” in Japanese – which take place in the rosy shade of the sakura-zensen throughout the entire duration of its course. The existential contemplation is often over in seconds, before the party’s real raison d’être: consumption. Female members of the group are expected to provide the food, and then, of course, there’s alcohol – hanami are often convenient ways for grievances to be aired in highly conservative Japan.

Hanami are typically friends-and-family affairs taking place in the most convenient location to the partygoers – often a park or river bank. Some of the most popular places are illuminated at night, and many are atmospherically decorated with red-and-white paper lanterns. Of course, the coming of the blossom can be enjoyed in any way you see fit; among the best places to go are Kiyomizu-tera, a gorgeous temple in Kyoto, Tokyo’s Ueno Park or the castles in Osaka or Himeji, all of which are lent a dreamlike air by the arrival of the blossom each spring. A hanami party may even be possible in your own country – hunt down some sake, roll up some rice balls and become one with the nearest flowering cherry tree.

Though the exact dates vary each year, the sakura usually blossoms in late March or early April.

 

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