El Salvador’s Mayan ruins can’t be compared with the great Mayan centres in Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico, but they have their own powerful charm – and on most days you’ll have the sites completely to yourself. Stephen Keeling went to explore El Salvador’s rich but oft ignored Mayan heritage.

Joya de Cerén

Around 1400 years ago, a small Mayan village in Central America faced disaster. Black smoke had been spewing from the nearby volcanic peak of the Loma Caldera for several days, and violent tremors shook the ground. The people here were simple manioc and maize farmers who had settled in the village only a few decades before, and in desperation they decided to flee, leaving virtually everything they owned behind. Soon after, the volcano blew its top and the village was buried under more than six metres of burning hot ash in just a few hours. The villagers never returned.

For hundreds of years the site lay abandoned and overgrown. And its secrets would have remained hidden if not for an accident: in 1976 a bulldozer levelling ground for the construction of grain-storage silos exposed a mysterious clay-built structure, and archeologists were called in. Excavations were interrupted by the El Salvador civil war, but resumed in 1989 and have been continuing ever since.

Quezaltepeque volcano, San Salvador, El Salvador, Central AmericaQuezaltepeque volcano

Today Joya de Cerén, an hour or so north of the capital San Salvador, isn’t quite the “Pompeii” it’s hyped up to be, but it does offer a totally different perspective to all the other great Mesoamerican ruins.

What remains of sites like Copán and Tikal is spectacular but ceremonial – there is very little evidence of the houses where people actually lived in these cities. At Joya de Cerén you can wander around the beautifully preserved earth homes of Mayan farmers from the sixth century AD, as well as a sweat bath (temazal), excavated from the ash and dirt, in situ.

In total some eighteen structures have been identified and ten have been completely or partially excavated. One of the most intriguing is thought to have been a religious building where a shaman practiced. Cerén was probably home to about two hundred people, and although no human remains have been discovered, everyday objects found here include petrified beans, maize, utensils and ceramics.

San Andrés

A few kilometres southwest of Joya de Cerén, in an open field surrounded by simple farms and dense jungle, lies the once mighty city of San Andrés. Originally supporting a population of about twelve thousand and reaching its peak as the regional capital around 650–900 AD, it was later occupied by the Pipil people.

Joya de Ceren, El Salvador, Central AmericaJoya de Cerén

The ruins were partially buried by another volcanic eruption in 1658, and today only sections of the ceremonial centre have been excavated – seven crumbling but enigmatic structures including the Acrópolis complex and a seventeenth-century Spanish indigo works. You can stroll freely around most of the site, which is also a popular picnic spot for locals at the weekends, though the tallest pyramid (“La Campana”) can only be viewed from a distance. The small Museo Sitio Arqueológico includes a good model of what the city would have looked like in its heyday.

Tazumal

El Salvador’s most impressive pre-Colombian site lies outside the small town of Chalchuapa, some 80km northwest of San Salvador. All that remains of another powerful Mayan city is the Tazumal complex, primarily comprising a vast fourteen-stepped ceremonial pyramid, influenced by the style of Teotihuacán in Mexico and gradually extended over many generations.

Today, vendors from the local neighbourhood line the pot-holed street outside, with the site itself surrounded by a simple metal fence – it’s all relatively compact and low-key, like a small blossom-filled park, but with the great pyramid looming over everything. Most visitors simply roll up and park right at the entrance.

Mayan Ruins, El Salvador, Central AmericaTazumal, Chalchuapa

The site was occupied for over 750 years, mostly in the Late Classic period (600–900 AD). Earlier remains, dating back to 100–200 AD, have been found beneath the pyramid. The Mayan abandoned the city around the end of the ninth century, during the collapse of the Classic Mayan culture, and, unusually, Pipils moved in and occupied the site, building a pyramid dating back to the Early Post-Classic (900–1200 AD) and another pelota court, in the northwest corner of the site. Tazumal was finally abandoned around 1200 AD. The Museo Sitio Arqueológico here displays artefacts discovered during excavations in the area, including some stunning ceramics, but you’ll need to read Spanish to make the most of it.

Aficionados should also check out the closely related but smaller, grassy ruins of Casa Blanca, an important Mayan centre between 200 BC and 250 AD, just a five-minute taxi ride from Tazumal (it’s right on the main highway on the north side of Chalchuapa). Visit in mid-winter and the site is smothered in pink madrecacao blooms.

Need to know

To see all three Mayan ruins it’s best to rent a car, taxi or take a tour from San Salvador. All three sites are usually open Tues–Sun 9am–4pm and entry costs US$3 at each (parking US$1). For more information visit www.fundar.org.sv.

Find peace at Buddhist monastery, Nepal

Trim out the religious and/or mystical connotations and Buddhism boils down to something quite simple – brain training. Emptying your mind of white noise in the Buddhist manner – and thereby opening it up to richer focus and awareness – has never been easy. But the digital age is making it even harder, with an ever-billowing storm of information clamouring for our attention. So, retreat – a Tibetan Buddhist monastery might just be the perfect balm to your perpetually flicking and scrolling mind.

Find peace at Buddhist monastery, Nepal

Get isolated at Three Camel Lodge, Mongolia

Travel to Three Camel Lodge in Mongolia, a country whose name is a byword for notions of the faraway, and you’ve already made a significant mental leap. You’re certainly not in Kansas anymore here – the nearest wifi is hundreds of miles away in the capital, Ulan Bator. The lodge lets you sample the nomadic lifestyle, except with all the hard bits removed and felt slippers thrown in. Expect snow leopards, bears and wild camels – who needs David Attenborough documentaries?

Get isolated at Three Camel Lodge, Mongolia

Stay with the Huaoranis in the Amazon, Ecuador

The Amazon river and its tributaries form one of the greatest natural networks of connectivity on the planet. Digitally speaking, however, it’s a total void. Arrange a stay with the Huaoranis of Ecuador for insights into their culture, from tracking in the rainforest to lessons in their language, which is said to be unrelated to any other on Earth.

Stay with the Huaoranis in the Amazon, Ecuador

Go wild camping in Sweden and Norway

Wifi is not such a rare amenity on campsites these days. But if you’re engaged in ‘wild camping’ – pitching your tent off-piste – then technology begins and ends at a rickety gas stove and a pack of AA batteries. In Norway and Sweden, wild camping is part of the national identity – and with landscapes ranging from the Arctic Circle to island-sprinkled archipelagos, there are myriad reasons to leave the glampsites behind.

Go wild camping in Sweden and Norway

Rub elbows with elephants at Jongomero camp, Tanzania

You’re enjoying a precious moment with a spindly dik dik in Ruaha National Park when all of a sudden: “BEEP BEEP, BEEP BEEP” goes your phone, the precious animal does a runner and your fellow safari guests make a mental note to blog about your appalling behaviour once reunited with their devices. Because they, unlike you, have respected this remote, luxurious southern Tanzanian camp’s requests that digital equipment be kept under lock and key for the duration of your visit.

Rub elbows with elephants at Jongomero camp, Tanzania

Get deserted in the Cook Islands

That these fifteen South Pacific islands are named after legendary eighteenth-century explorer James Cook is a bit of a giveaway – they’re seriously remote. Rarotonga, the main island, is not overburdened with hi-tech distractions – one popular activity is “jetblasting” whereby you hang out near the airport’s runway and, well, get blasted by the displaced air from descending planes. Better, perhaps, to focus on enjoying the islands’ natural underwater beauty, from black pearl fields to coral lagoons.

Get deserted in the Cook Islands

Back to basics in a bothy, Northern Ireland

Cast yourself away – or rather, paddle yourself – to this restored stone cottage near Lisnaskea in County Fermanagh, part of the Lough Erne Canoe Trail. The bothy is neat but basic as can be, its list of mod cons beginning and ending at cold running water, a wood-burning stove and south-facing skylights. With life stripped back to the bare essentials, you’re left with the mental space to enjoy Upper Lough Erne’s tranquil bays and sprinkling of lush green islands.

Back to basics in a bothy, Northern Ireland

Meet your ancestors at an archaeological dig

Get your hands dirty, cleanse your mind – that’s the basic idea here. A number of operators offer holidays based around archaeological digs, from Ethiopia to Uzbekistan – although you could always purchase the tools of the trade and go it alone. Beware, though: a metal detector’s seductive blipping might be hard to handle for those in technological cold turkey.

Meet your ancestors at an archaeological dig

Delve into the Krubera Cave, Georgia

The status of the Marianas Trench as the planet’s deepest point is standard pub quiz fodder. But the earthbound equivalent is less well-known. The true vastness of Georgia’s Krubera Cave has only been fully realised since the turn of the twenty-first century, and it took a team of Ukrainian speleologists two weeks to reach the cave’s 2200m deepest point. Down here, you’re guaranteed friend requests from nothing but spiders, beetles and other creepy crawlies.

Delve into the Krubera Cave, Georgia

Cut off in Havana, Cuba

With patched-up old Buicks and Cadillacs stalking its capital’s streets like mechanical ghouls, the idea of Cuba as a time capsule is a familiar notion. What lies under the hood of those US classics is about as sophisticated as technology gets in Cuba – the country has the lowest rate of web access in the West, and what’s permitted is subject to heavy government regulation. Time to disengage the brain from all things digital and enjoy the city’s steamy charms.

Cut off in Havana, Cuba

Spend a week in Amish country, USA

In populated areas of the US it isn’t easy to escape the digital dimension. But the Amish – whose Mennonite ancestors came over to Pennsylvania from Europe at the turn of the eighteenth century – have long done a very efficient job of escaping the clutches of the modern world. In Lancaster County you can immerse yourself in their simple, rural way of life, where houses are not connected to the grid and travel is by horse-drawn buggy.

Spend a week in Amish country, USA

Get grounded in Bolivia’s salt flats

In one respect the Bolivian salt flats are money-spinningly hi-tech – beneath the white expanses lie the world’s largest reserves of lithium, used in battery manufacture. But that’s where links to the modern world end. Tours of the mind-bending salar are a Bolivian must-do and whichever accommodation you wind up in – freezing shack, luxury “salt palace” or Airstream caravan – the landscape utterly overwhelms and grounds you in the present moment.

Get grounded in Bolivia's salt flats

Digital detox at Echo Valley Ranch and Spa, Canada

The internet has expanded at a terrifying rate since its inception, sure, but the Big Bang did it way bigger and way better. There’s nothing like getting out into the light pollution-free wilds and gazing up at giddying bucket-loads of stars to put you in your place. This ranch in British Columbia’s Cariboo region offers crystal-clear star-gazing allied to a digital detox programme – being reminded of your own puny insignificance never felt so good.

Digital detox at Echo Valley Ranch and Spa, Canada

Surrender yourself in Chicago, USA

The “windy” of Chicago’s nickname actually refers to a certain loquaciousness associated with the city. But even here you can mute the world with the Monaco hotel’s “blackout” option, which encourages guests to hand in their devices on check-in. Be aware, however, that they also offer free wi-fi, so you can polish that halo even harder should you manage not to succumb.

Surrender yourself in Chicago, USA

Stay secluded in Butterfly Valley, Turkey

Somewhere along Turkey’s tourism-saturated Turquoise Coast, where holidaymakers are assured every home comfort, from full English breakfasts to free wi-fi, there’s an enclave of unplugged hippy-dom. Take a water taxi from Oludeniz (the “Blue Lagoon” in English, setting the evocatively back-to-nature tone) to the steep-sided, beach-fronted valley. You might still be able to data-roam, but listening to the crackle of evening bonfires or the strumming of acoustic guitars is far superior to the hum of social media.

Stay secluded in Butterfly Valley, Turkey

Take a survival challenge on a Belize island

“I couldn’t survive without my phone.” If you’re this digitally dependent, then perhaps it’s time you addressed your conception of the word “survive” – and that’s where getting shipwrecked on a desert island comes in. You’ll shell out for the privilege, of course, but before being left to your own devices on a Belize caye, the team will train you up and ensure you’re a budding Ray Mears. Fish gutting and fire building ahoy!

Take a survival challenge on a Belize island

Stay in Skiary Lodge, Scotland

If you have ants in your social media pants, make for the unflappable stillness of Lough Hourn and let its tranquility wash over you. The most distracting thing you’re likely to encounter hereabouts is the otherworldly light – though climbing, swimming, seal-watching and star-gazing are all possibilities. This phone-, electrics- and internet-free lodge – two hours by car from Fort William, followed by a hike or a boat ride – is the only survivor from an abandoned fishing hamlet.

Stay in Skiary Lodge, Scotland

Explore Antarctica

Time is running out for Antarctica. And not (for now) in the way that you might think: rather it’s the region’s status as a communications black hole that’s most pressingly threatened. The urgency of the data being gathered in the region is forcing change, expediting improvements in Antarctica’s links to the wider world: “Antarctica Broadband” is on the horizon, promising “fast internet from the bottom of the earth”. At least it’ll look impressive when you check in on Foursquare.

Explore Antarctica

Ultima Thule Lodge, Alaska

An ancient term denoting hazily understood lands in the far north, “Ultima Thule” harks back to the early, “here be dragons” days of navigation. And while it’s certainly rugged out here, there’s no chance of it all going a bit Into the Wild, for this is Alaska deluxe – after being flown in, it’s chunky wood cabins, bearskin rugs and saunas all the way. And after an afternoon watching bears catch salmon, Candy Crush will seem a very sorry thing indeed.

Ultima Thule Lodge, Alaska

It used to be that you’d know a New Yorker the moment he or she began to talk. That has changed; the New York accent is dying out, as The New York Times reported. But, there are plenty of holdover phrases that point to the history of Noo Yawk tawk. Rough Guides author and native New Yorker AnneLise Sorensen takes a look at New York in translation and highlights some of the best places to experience New Yorkese.

Fuhgeddaboudit

Leaving Brooklyn? Fuggedaboudit! That’s what you’ll see on exit route signs around the borough. Though the New York accent is slowly disappearing, it still thrives in pockets of Brooklyn, particularly those with an Irish and Italian legacy. Toast the past in Bensonhurst, with an Italian feast at the classic La Palina, which has been around since 1930 – and looks like it, too. The old-world dining room, with tables topped with crisp linens, wouldn’t look out of place in the The Godfather. (In fact, neither would the waiters.) Post-dinner, head out on an Irish pub-crawl in Bay Ridge, a short cab ride away. Our favourite first stop is the Wicked Monk, and, after a Guinness (or two) you’ll no doubt agree. Is there a better borough than Brooklyn? No way – fuhgeddaboudit!

USA, New York City, Brooklyn Bridge, sunset

Toidy-toid ohn toid

Sure, no one says this anymore, but it captures in four words the history of the New York accent, which was once beamed into TVs across the country, thanks to shows like All in the Family. This pronunciation of “thirty-third and third” arrived courtesy of the Irish: linguists explain that the changing of “er” to “oi” comes from Gaelic. These days, you’ll occasionally hear faded versions of the accent in historic corners of the outer boroughs, and in Manhattan, a wander down “Toid” Avenue will bring you to many Irish pubs, like Fitzgerald’s Pub at 25th Street, where you might catch an old-timer breaking into New Yorkese after a couple of pints. Or, pay tribute to the bygone era at one of the city’s many speakeasy-inspired cocktail joints where you might just hear some classic New York tunes, like the 1926 Ben Ryan ditty, Down on Thoity Thoid and Thoid.

Get outta heyah!

Or, if you really want to make a point, “get the **** outta heyah!” Like most slang, this has various meanings. The literal one is, of course, an order to leave immediately. But it’s more often used to express wonderment and disbelief. Example: [person from Ohio] “I love New York, but could never afford it. My rent back in Columbus is $700 a month for a one-bedroom apartment.” [Person from New York] “Get outta heyah!”

Yellow taxi, New York City, New York, USA

For a pronunciation guide on “heyah,” visit our Street-by-street movie guide to New York City and check out the scene from Midnight Cowboy, where Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman) utters his famous line, “I’m walkin’ heyah!” when a taxi swerves into him as he crosses 57th Street. The way some New York City cabbies drive, you’ll probably find yourself yelling the same thing while you’re here.

On line, not in line

The New York accent may have become more homogenized, but there is one key way you can tell that someone’s from the city: ask them about the line they’re standing in, or rather, on. In New York, you’re “on line” at Shake Shack in Madison Square Park (check the “Shack Cam” to plan your visit) and the Empire State Building; everywhere else in the country, you’re “in line.” In short, look for a line, and you’ll hear the phrase. In addition to the above, you can find long and sometimes surly lines at any Starbucks bathroom in the vicinity of Times Square; at the Calexico food truck in SoHo at the height of lunch hour (proof that there’s a dismal lack of quality Mexican food in NYC); and at the JFK Airport taxi stand, well, always.

Wall Street signpost, Financial District, New York City, NYC

If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere

You may not hear New Yorkers saying this, but they are thinking it. It has also become one of the more parodied phrases associated with the city. The Village Voice skewered it in an article last year titled, “‘Only in New York!’ and Six Other New York Sayings That Are Completely False.” They came up with a list of New Yorkers who have made it here, but would be lucky if they lasted five minutes anywhere else. Top of the list? Donald Trump. You’re fired!

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

Whether it’s a smile exchanged with a stranger, a quick chat with a tuk-tuk driver or a night out on the town with a group of newly made friends, interactions with local people often shape our view of a whole country. So which places offer tourists the warmest welcome? This list counts down the friendliest countries on Earth, as chosen by our readers on social media sites.

Tim Chester spends an evening with the “posh couple” from Britain’s latest TV  craze Gogglebox.

Gogglebox shouldn’t work. The TV show about people watching TV shows sounds like the most meta, barrel-scraping idea in the history of 10 Stone Testicle ideas, but somehow it’s compulsive viewing, a window into the country’s living rooms, prejudices and teatime habits that’s pulling in three million viewers per week, a format that has since been sold to the States and numerous other countries.

If you’re one of its legion of converts, you’ve probably longed for a night on the settee with some of the protagonists, an off-camera chit chat with Sandra & Sandy or June & Leon or Christopher & Stephen. As it happens, you can do exactly that.

Steph and Dom Parker, aka “the posh couple”, run a luxury B&B in Sandwich called The Salutation, a sprawling Grade 1-listed, Edwin Lutyens-designed pile set amid gardens inspired by Gertrude Jekyll in the medieval town of Sandwich in Kent. For £99 upwards you can visit the famous property and potentially spend an evening with the pair.

The Salutation, Sandwich - owned by Gogglebox posh couple.

Sadly we missed the £500-per-ticket orgy that was held there the following night, and didn’t catch the likes of Meryl Streep, James Corden and other celebs that have laid their hats in its numerous rooms while filming Into The Woods in recent months, but we nevertheless experienced the kind of evening you’d expect from Britain’s most gregarious hosts.

Dom set the tone as he showed us our en suite room in the Coach House (which includes its own kitchen and sitting room), pointing to complimentary decanters of whisky and sherry, for consumption if we were “getting changed”.

It quickly became clear that bridging drinks are a way of life here, and we were soon plonked on that famous sofa sharing a G&T with the genial host while Steph wandered the house singing Pharrell Williams tunes and making regular trips to the drinks cabinet.

Steph and Dom from Gogglebox

Supper, as it often seems to be in wealthy houses, was conjured on a whim; there’s no official dining here but they can rustle up something if you’re hungry. For us this quick something was a four course blowout of pâté, fillet steak with potato dauphinoise, panna cotta, umpteen cheeses and biblical amounts of wine, and a chance to meet the other guests.

Half of the visitors were out playing golf (The Salutation is surrounded by top courses and uber rich bankers apparently jet in direct from the US to stay and play) and the remainder seemed to be fellow Gogglebox tourists. One couple were celebrating their anniversary while two other pairs were also here for a meet and greet.

Reception at The Salutation, the Gogglebox mansion

It’s a bit odd, making a pilgrimage to meet reality stars, but Steph and Dom are exemplary hosts aside from their minor celebrity status. B&Bs tread a fine line between personal and overly familiar, characterful,  boutique hideaways and someone’s chintzy spare room, and I’ve spent my fair share of nights whispering in bed, tip-toeing around creaky landings, and adhering to innumerable “house rules” printed in comic sans and tucked into A4 pockets.

Here there are no polite notices and howls of laughter replace the cringeworthy hushed chatter of a million dining rooms. The Salutation eschews the claustrophobia of standard B&Bs in favour of the relaxed conviviality of a best friend’s house, if that best friend lives in a £3.5 million mansion with tasseled toilet flush pulls.

The whole group stayed up into the early hours, discussing everything from Nick Clegg to Leon and June (who don’t like Steph and Dom’s swearing), the long filming shifts and sundry celebrity tittle-tattle. The golfers bowled home suitably refreshed about midnight, all bow ties and crossed eyes while host Tigger and various other staff kept the drinks flowing.

Corner house, Sandwich, Kent, UK

The next morning we blearily explored our rooms tucked up in the eaves, leafing through vintage Penguins before a hearty Full English in the dining room. Tripadvisor nerds would probably note the overcooked poached egg at this point, but The Salutation isn’t the kind of place you spend making critical notes alone in your room. It’s somewhere to spend a riotous night before exploring Sandwich and moving on.

A spectacularly well-preserved medieval town full of half-timbered buildings and narrow streets leading to the willow-lined River Stour (currently being flood-proofed and so covered in diggers and workmen on our visit), it’s a sleepy place that’s given birth to the sandwich and rested on its picturesque laurels since.

The Parkers are selling The Salutation so their hospitality won’t be for sale forever. For now though, and short of a night in front of the box with the Tappers, this is the most fun you can have on a Friday night.

Season four of Gogglebox is on Channel 4 on Fridays at 9pm. The Salutation has a variety of rooms available from £99 per night. Explore more of the area with the Rough Guide to Kent, Sussex and Surrey

Maria Hart meets some of Canada’s First Nations people to discover what aboriginal tourism in British Columbia has to offer.

“High tide is rush hour here” smiles our guide Tsimka, “that’s when the kayaks and water taxis usually come.” But since our group paddled over to Meares Island in a traditional flat bottomed canoe at low tide, we have the slippery boardwalk through the ancient rainforest all to ourselves.

Sitting on a fallen log at the massive base of a red cedar tree surrounded by frilly ferns, we eat our packed lunch and listen to Tsimka’s animated stories of forest monsters, while the moist evergreen scent and bird songs indulge our senses. Her easy smile and gift of storytelling come from her father Joe Martin, the master carver who made the red cedar dugout canoe that she uses for her tours.

Tsimka Martin is a Tla-o-qui-aht First Nations woman who co-owns and operates T’ashii Paddle School in Tofino, British Columbia. Tofino, a popular west coast holiday and surfing town is traditionally Tla-o-qui-aht First Nations territory and Tsimka’s family have been here for generations. They are some of the many indigenous people of Canada who are now ready to share their culture and homeland through tourism.

Dugout Canoe, Tofino, First Nations Canada, North America

“Aboriginal” is an umbrella term describing three of Canada’s original people: the Inuit, the Métis, and the First Nations – formerly referred to as “Indians”. The First Nations people have inhabited Canada for over 12,000 years and have lived mainly on hunting and fishing, migrating seasonally and living very much in harmony with the nature around them. Today, while they’re a part of modern Canadian society, they’re also making the most of their heritage. From authentic experiences and traditional art to modern accommodations and industries, the First Nations are opening up to tourism. I spoke with Paula Amos, Marketing Manager of Aboriginal Tourism BC who explained: “developing Aboriginal tourism isn’t only about economic advancement or jobs; it’s about strengthening our culture and building cultural pride.”

There are a number of ways to actively learn more about Canada’s First Nations across the country, so here are three ways to experience a Canadian First Nations lifestyle:

Embrace nature in Tofino

British Columbia is leading the way in aboriginal tourism growth in Canada, but not just for the more traditional experiences. The Ucluelet people near Tofino, for example, simply embrace the adventure afforded by their dramatic surroundings. You can learn to surf and paddleboard, sleep in a yurt, or go offline in a secluded lodge at WYA Point retreat on Vancouver Island to commune with nature on your own. Even in the low season the legendary winter weather provides a challenge for the best surfers, as well as some romantic storm watching.

Spot wildlife along the Campbell River

Discovery Passage, Campbell river, BC, Canada

A three hour drive north-east of Tofino brings you to Campbell River. Here you’ll find boat-based wildlife discovery tours by Aboriginal Journeys. With generations of local knowledge and down-to-earth honesty, owner and guide Garry Henkel knows some of the regular passing orcas by sight, but when talking about bear watching, he admits: “We go out and see what we see; there are no guarantees until grizzly season.” At the end of a tour, a traditional salmon cedar BBQ can be prepared for large groups.

Get cultured in Alert Bay

For a truly cultural treasure chest, take a short ferry trip to Alert Bay on Cormorant Island. The bay is home to the tallest totem pole in the world, measuring 173-feet-high and representing the 14 tribes of its Kwakwaka’wakw people. Interactive experiences such as cedar weaving, canoe paddling, storytelling, and medicinal forest tours are available, but to properly appreciate the traditions and grasp the First Nations history, the first stop has to be the U’mista Cultural Center.

First Nations Canada, Yaletown, Vancouver, Canada.

“U’mista” means “when something special comes back” and this cultural centre houses regalia and masks that were confiscated during the “dark times”, when potlatch ceremonies were outlawed. A potlatch ceremony would involve days or weeks of singing, dancing, eating and storytelling and was the primary economic system for the Kwakwaka’wakw. Now visitors are welcome to come and experience this engaging event firsthand. The T’sasala Cultural Group has summer dance performances at the Namgis Bighouse, which give a glimpse into the time-honoured ceremony.

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

For the second piece in our “Best of Picfair” series, we take a look at locals around the world. From Haiti to Vietnam, here is some of the best travel photography from some of the top photographers on Picfair – a website that lets amateurs and professionals upload and sell their photographs for a fair price. Next month’s theme is “water”. Upload your photos to picfair.com and tag them with “RGwater” to be in with a chance of having your travel photography showcased right here.

Market stall holder, Ho Chi Minh city, Vietnam

Shop in Ho Chi Minh City, Saigon, Vietnam, Asia“Xanh” by Stefan Ferreira / Picfair

Balloon seller, Udaipur, India

Balloon seller, Udaipur, Rajasthan, India, Asia
“The Balloon Seller” by Wilfred Seefeld / Picfair

Coat man, Essaouira, Morocco

Essaouira, Morocco, Africa“Coat Man” by Andy Tyler / Picfair

Fishermen on the Bosphorus, Istanbul, Turkey

Galata bridge, Istanbul, Turkey, Europe“Fishing on the Bosphorus” by Colby Pan / Picfair

The People’s Armed Police, China

People's Armed Police, Beijing, China“People’s Armed Police” by Chris Petersen-Clausen / Picfair

A Water temple, Bali, Indonesia

water temple in Bali, Indonesia, Asia“Bali water temple” by Lucy Tobin / Picfair

Street sweeper, Petra, Jordan

Sweeper in Petra, Jordan, Middle East“Sweeper in The Rose City” by Iselin Shaw Of-Tordarroch / Picfair

Children play with buffalo, Vietnam

Buffalo, Vietnam, Asia“Vietnamese children” by Hai Trinh / Picfair

Crowds queueing at Meenakshi Amman Temple, Madurai, Tamil Nadu, India

Meenakshi Amman Temple in Madurai, Tamil Nadu, India, Asia“Queueing” by Wilfred Seefeld / Picfair

Sunbathers, Skegness, England

Skegness, England, UK“Putting Your Feet Up” by Ian Francis / Picfair

Fisherman on Lake Malawi, Malawi

Male Malawi, Malawi, Africa“The Commute” by Lloyd Archer / Picfair

Labourer at Dhaka wholesale market sleeps, Bangladesh

Dhaka wholesale market, Bangladesh, Asia“5-star sleeping basket” by Khaled Mansoor / Picfair

Day of the dead celebrations, Port au Prince, Haiti

Day of the Dead celebration, Port au Prince, Haiti“Day of the Dead- Port au Prince” by Callan Murray-Hocking / Picfair

Locals on the beach in Jimbaran, Bali, Indonesia

Jimbaran, Bali, Indonesia, Asia“Jimbaran” by Charlie Burness / Picfair

Congestion in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Traffic in Ho Chi Minh city, Vietnam, Asia“Morning, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam” by David Hui / Picfair

Friends gossip in San Andrés Xecul, western Guatemala

Comrades in San Andres Xecul, western Guatemala“Comadres” by Diego A / Picfair

Monks at Druk Sangag Choling Monastery, Darjeeling, West Bengal

Druk Sangag Choling Monastery, Darjeeling, West Bengal“Monks” by John Marshall / Picfair

The Varanasi Ghats, India

Ghats, Varanasi, India, Asia“AT THE VARANASI GHATS” by Wilfred Seefeld / Picfair

Woman on the beach, Hoi An, Vietnam

Woman in Hoi An, Vietnam, Asia“Hoi An Portrait” by Iselin Shaw Of-Tordarroch / Picfair

Boy posing on the steps, Delhi, India

Old Delhi, Delhi, India, Asia“Posing Boy” by Iselin Shaw Of-Tordarroch / Picfair

Next month’s theme is “water”. Upload your photos to picfair.com and tag them with “RGwater” to be in with a chance of having your travel photography showcased right here. Explore the world with a Rough Guide from our ebook shop

Following in the footsteps of the late explorer and travel writer Sir Wilfred Thesiger, Rough Guides writer Anthon Jackson takes to the back of a camel across the Danakil Depression, in pursuit of Lake Abhe Bad on the Ethiopia-Djibouti border. 

Just after dawn on our fourth day in the dusty frontier town of Asaita, Go’obo, my translator from Addis Ababa, popped his head into my mosquito-net tent, shaking me awake. The heat of the Danakil already had my forehead covered in sweat. “The camels are gone!”

That’s right, I remembered, with just a touch of alarm: we own camels now. I scrambled out of the tent and rushed after Go’obo to find the beasts we’d acquired just the day before after lengthy negotiations in Asaita’s rag-tag camel market. We rounded a corner onto a dirt road and there they were, hobbling with half-tied legs, hovering awkwardly over the tiny shops that were just opening up – causing a bit of a scene. We’d have to learn to tie their legs properly for our trek into the Danakil.

Cattle in Danakil, EthiopiaBy Anthon Jackson

The mastermind behind our eastern Ethiopian expedition was David Lewis, an old friend from the road. He’d recently written his thesis on the ever-inspiring Wilfred Thesiger, a fellow Oxford alumnus. At the end of his life, the legendary explorer maintained that the most dangerous journeys of his life were those in the Danakil. In his Danakil Diary, he conveys his many encounters with the Afar, a fearless and resolutely fatalistic people long feared throughout the Horn of Africa. A well-known Afar adage goes, “it is better to die than to live without killing.”

David’s plan was to purchase a pair of camels, stock up on supplies in Asaita’s famed Tuesday Market, then head off the grid, hiring some local guns along the way. The goal: to trace Thesiger’s route to Lake Abhe Bad, the terminus of the Awash River, spending some time among Thesiger’s beloved Afar, for whom one of the most desolate and inhospitable places on earth remains home sweet home.

Boys pulling boat in Danakil, EthiopiaThree days from Asaita we reached the Boha River. Its banks were buzzing with life as goats, cows and camels waited to cross the crocodile-infested waters. Long-haired, sharp-toothed Afar herdsmen huddled in acacia shade drinking tea and breaking ga’ambo (maize bread), most eyes fixated on us, the ferengi (white people). A few of the toughest men swam across with camels in tow, buoyed by jerry cans. The rest of us packed into an old rusted boat, weighed down with burlap sacks, stacks of reed mats and sweating boys falling over the passengers as they pulled us across by a rope connecting the other side.

Once across, we sat beneath a cluster of acacias with a promising Afar trio. We hoped they might be the ones to escort us through the lawless wilds ahead. Muhammad and Tur were both young and fit, “essential flesh and bone” as Thesiger had described the Afar, and much friendlier than the other candidates we’d met along the way. The third was much older, promising to contribute wisdom and an insider’s knowledge of our route.

After shaking hands on the new fellowship, we never saw the old man again. Muhammad and Tur, however, proved essential to the expedition. Each was as confident with camels as anyone in these parts, and carried next to nothing.

In the spirit of traveling light, Tur only carried a single bullet for his old gun. Upon discovering this a few days further into the trek, Go’obo asked how he’d handle one of the rumored Issa (Somali) raiding parties (soon to become more than rumor). Easy, he said: just line them all up in a row.

A few days further along we saw the glimmering strip on the southern horizon that was Lake Abhe Bad. Sticking to Thesiger’s route rather than beelining to the lake, we circled the volcanic mass of the Dema’ali Terara mountain, passing through a blackened wasteland where jagged rocks drew blood from our camels’ feet. Talk of Issa raids to the south, hippos on the banks of the Awash river, hyenas on the slopes of Dema Ali and a fierce “demon government” that ruled the area kept things interesting.

The morning of our final march to Lake Abhe Bad, David’s watch thermometer passed 40°C by 8am. A few hours later it was well into the 50s, and our water was running dangerously low.

Camel in Danakil Depression, EthiopiaBy Anthon Jackson

Finally Abhe Bad came into view again, this time to the east. The Djibouti shoreline was a faint watermark on the horizon. We paused to take in the view Thesiger once traveled so far to see. Then, like a mirage in the distance, a small patch of date palms came into view over a rocky ridge. The faint sound of rushing water became too loud to deny.

Soon the camels were lapping up from the Awash and our crew was stripping down to bathe in a flurry of streams that cascaded into pools beneath the shade of date palms.

Perhaps a bit delusional after our long trek in the soaring heat, it seemed as though we’d found lost Eden, the end of the world, a momentary quenching of that yearning for exploration and adventure which Thesiger had so relished throughout his life.

A cluster of aris and stone huts a few hundred metres north of the palms was the village of Harissa, our home for the next week among the Afar of the Danakil.

Asaita is the jumping off point for exploring the southern Danakil’s salt lakes. Permits must be secured in Semera in order to travel beyond Asaita.
Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. All images by Anthon Jackson

When news of health crises hit the news, our first instinct is to rush supplies and aid to these areas, but there are lots of ways to contribute to communities who need help with basic healthcare over the long term.

That’s where study abroad programs and volunteer missions step in. By completing some of your studies abroad or simply taking time off from your usual job to volunteer overseas, you can help to change the world—and broaden your own horizons at the same time.

Over the past couple of decades, the number of young people choosing to develop their medical skills and experience abroad has skyrocketed. And there’s a very good reason why.

Transforming lives

Well-run medical missions and study-abroad trips can transform lives. Communities on the ground are empowered through access to life-changing medical care and sanitation. Meanwhile, students and medical professionals get a fresh new perspective on medicine—from the role of multinational pharmaceutical companies to the global nature of disease.

But it doesn’t always run smoothly. On poorly planned trips, enthusiastic volunteers can find themselves watching on from a distance without ever getting the chance to engage properly with local patients and doctors.

Doctors without Borders treating girl from South Sudan

Worse still, they might be encouraged to take on tasks that they are not properly trained for, with potentially serious consequences.

Finding the right placement

Needless to say, it’s crucial that you find the right organization to travel with.

“Find out how they run their programs, and what their connections are in the country for follow-up care,” says Christina Gunther, director of global programs at Connecticut’s Sacred Heart University, which leads healthcare missions to destinations such as Guatemala, Jamaica, and Mexico.

She also recommends taking time to research an organization’s approach to treating patients before agreeing to travel abroad with them. “It’s really critical that you find [an organization] that has good guidelines on ethical care,” she says.

So what are the options?

Whether you’re just beginning your studies or already have a decade of professional experience under your belt, there will be a trip out there just for you. You could study healthcare access in Honduras, work with dental specialists to improve the oral health of children in Uganda, or deliver lessons in emergency care in rural India.

Of course, the more relevant a trip is to your chosen specialty, the more rewarding it will be. Responsible colleges and universities arrange trips that are designed specifically to complement class- and hospital-based learning at key points throughout their courses, and only allow students to join trips that they are clinically prepared for.

Doctors Without Borders battle cholera in Haiti

Outside of a school setting, you also can connect with charities, religious missions and organizations such as Volunteer International that advertise new opportunities online, while groups such as the International Medical Corps recruit for trained emergency response volunteers who must be ready to deploy overseas at the drop of a hat. Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), which provides emergency aid to people in urgent need, usually requires a longer commitment of 9–12 months for its projects overseas.

Whichever route you follow, make sure your skills are good enough for you to make a useful contribution, and be sure to stay long enough to make a lasting difference to local people—not just long enough to give your résumé a quick boost.

Volunteering abroad without a medical background

If you don’t have clinical experience (or any kind of medical background, for that matter) there are still ways for you to make a difference abroad. Skills you have that might seem unimpressive back home, such as being able to teach English or use a computer, can be extremely useful in a wide range of situations abroad. But be warned: unscrupulous organizations have been known to take advantage of people with good intentions.

Judicious research is the best way to make sure you don’t get stung. Websites such as Charity Navigator evaluate the financial health, accountability, and transparency of various charities, and may help you to decide which organization you want to team up with.

Ready to go?

Medecins Sans Frontieres, South Sudan.

Let’s be clear: making a difference through medicine overseas is no vacation. Days are often long (on a typical mission with Sacred Heart University, students see 800–1000 patients per week) and conditions can be tough. Funding a study abroad trip can also be a challenge. But, get a place on the right trip and there’s no limit to what you can learn.

“There’s a real understanding in the healthcare field that healthcare is a global issue,” says Gunther. “Students need to be experienced—not only with diseases of the world, but also with cultures of the world. This is especially important in the United States, where a lot of them will be working in emergency rooms or hospitals in cities where you have a real mix of people coming in.”

And, she adds, “Understanding cultural differences can make a whole difference to the care of a patient.”

This article is part of a continuing series covering study abroad programs with Project Travel, a company that helps students of all ages tap into the funding potential of their communities. Rough Guides is proud to support the students working to fund their study abroad programs with Project Travel. Visit projecttravel.com/go/rough-guides for more information.

Share your own study abroad experiences here >

Away from the tourist hub that is Killarney, discover an exciting area of County Kerry in Ireland that’s rebranding itself and screaming out for independent travellers to explore its rich history and dramatic landscapes.

The Ring of Kerry is a circular road from Killarney that traverses the stunning lakes and mountains of the Iveragh Peninsula. It is a beautiful drive – as long you don’t mind staring at the back of the bus in front of you, a likely sight along this tourist coach-congested road. As the one of the most visited places in Ireland, tourism is the main game in this part of the county. But to the frustration of the locals, there’s one incredible part of the peninsula that most people miss out.

On a turning just off of the Ring of Kerry, the Skellig Ring – a shorter and far steeper route, inaccessible to large vehicles – begins, providing access to an area brimming with history, Irish tradition and gorgeous natural beauty.

An area most famous for the sixth century monastery that sits on the rocky island of Skellig Michael (now being used to film scenes for the new Star Wars film), the Skellig Ring encompasses Valentia Island, the quaint village of Portmagee, and beautiful Ballinskelligs Bay, all of which sit in an area now being rebranded by a few proud and determined residents as “Skellig Kerry”.

Portmagee, Kerry, IrelandPortmagee, County Kerry, by jfd83 via Compfight cc

According to Cormac Dineen, one of the few local residents who are taking tourism development into their own hands by raising funds to make the area more accessible, “it’s just a name of a region that allows this place to be distinctive.”

Cormac – like many others along the Skellig Ring – has grown up on the Iveragh Peninsula but had to move away to find work and support his family. Now he’s back, and with the help of a few other keen locals, he’s crusading for Skellig Kerry to become the place where independent travellers can discover what he calls the “real Ireland” with thousands of years’ worth of history and traditions intact.

Staggering natural beauty and distinctive culture

“There is an untamed – and untamable – wildness about the Kerry landscape, from our long coastline to our rugged mountains,” he explains.

“The fact that Kerry is one of the most rural counties in Ireland, even today, and it was so far away from the influence of large urban centres until around 30 years ago, means that our traditions, our culture and our accent is still very distinctive and very much a part of our everyday lives here.”

It is this distinct culture that often goes unnoticed by travellers passing by on the Ring of Kerry, or through the peninsula on their way to the Skellig Islands. It can be found all across the Skellig Ring route, from the wooden Siene fishing boat races held along the coastline where rowdy crowds cheer on their local teams, to the live Guinness-fuelled Irish music nights where revellers dance until the early hours in the many pubs on Cahersiveen’s colourful high street.

Seine fishing boats, Iveragh Peninsula, Ireland

There’s a thriving cultural scene too. The Cill Rialaig Arts Centre is an artists’ retreat and a hub for local painters, photographers and sculptors to showcase and sell their work, much of which is inspired by the natural beauty of the dramatic coastline that surrounds them; painted sweeping landscapes adorn the walls of the shop, and small ceramic puffins teeter on shelves. At the Old Oratory in Cahersiveen, a prime music venue for local and national celebrities to perform (see the likes of Declan O’Rourke or renowned accordion player Michael O’Brien), there’s a quaint café by day and some wild, bring-your-own-booze gigs by night.

Millions of years of history

Thanks to Skellig Kerry’s unfruitful land and humble population, much of the region’s history has remained intact. “One of the advantages of poor agricultural land,” explains Cormac, “is that it didn’t make any sense to clear fields of ancient structures as the land was far too wet to support agriculture anyway, with or without the stones, so they just lay where they were for centuries and often millennia.”

Ballycarbery castle ruines, Iveragh Peninsula, Kerry, Ireland

In addition to the sixth century monastery on Skellig Michael, there are an astounding number of historic sites across the area. The tall ruined sixteenth century Ballycarbery Castle sits casually unguarded on the coastline just three kilometres from Cahersiveen, open to all for climbing and exploring within its battered walls.

A track of dinosaur footprints on Valentia Island, which are thought to belong to an amphibious reptile that dates back as far as 350 million years, and the 4000 year old fossilised forest that was recently discovered on Reenroe beach in Ballinskelligs are prime examples of the kind of accessible history along the Skellig Ring.

Skellig Kerry in the future

But it’s not all about looking back in time here. Cormac and his band of Skellig Kerry supporters are planning to make a difference in the future too.

“We have paid for and marked out an ancient pilgrim trail on Cnoc na dTobar, [a mountain] famous for its “Stations of the Cross” path leading up to the 690-metre-high summit, and have been invited to add it to the national Pilgrim Paths project.”

Knocknadobar/Cnoc na dTobar, Iveragh Peninsula, Kerry, Ireland

The team are organising a walking festival for 2015 to include many of the stunning trails and paths that pass over the undulating hills and across the coastline, and they are determined to bring back the ancient Pagan celebration of Lughnasa (pronounced Loo-nessa) – a harvest festival usually held on high ground – by hosting an annual trek up one of the three holy mountains in the region.

This kind of passion and dedication to a cause is admirable, and when I ask what’s in it for them, Cormac simply responds:

“Giving back to this place, the people and culture of Skellig Kerry.”

He says: “There has always been a history of people from Kerry helping each other out, so now we can use our contacts and expertise to engage with the wider world with the aim of keeping young families at home so that Skellig Kerry is a thriving, attractive and still untamed place to live and visit.”

With so much natural beauty and a culturally aware populous, there is little doubt that more and more people will discover Skellig Kerry’s infectious charms.

Watch this space for more updates and information on Skellig Kerry. Explore more of Ireland with the Rough Guide to Ireland. Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. 

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