Sophisticated, globally minded and perfect for late-night parties – Madrid can be an expensive place to enjoy. So if you want to see the sights on a budget, timing is crucial. Many of the city’s best museums, galleries and historic buildings are free to visit but only for a few hours at a time, so it always pays to check before turning up. Here are ten things to do in Madrid for free.

Take a stroll through Parque del Buen Retiro

For centuries it was a royal retreat, but Parque del Buen Retiro is now open to everyone – with museums, galleries and monuments dotted across 350-or-so acres of green space. If you visit in May, it’s worth seeking out the Rosaleda (rose garden), where fragrant blooms explode in shades of peach and cherry.

Make the most of the free admission to galleries

Some of Madrid’s best galleries offer free admission at certain times of the week. For example, the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, which houses works by Salvador Dalí and Pablo Picasso, is free at weekends and after 7pm on weekday evenings.

Browse the El Rastro flea market

Every Sunday morning, El Rastro takes over the rambling streets south of Plaza de Cascorro, with thousands of shoppers coming to try on clothes, flick through old books or rummage for antique jewellery. The sheer size of the market makes it worth having a look, even if you don’t want to buy anything.

See a piece of ancient Egypt

Madrid has plenty of old buildings, but in terms of sheer antiquity there’s nothing quite like the Temple of Debod – an ancient Egyptian complex built near Aswan more than 2,000 years ago. The enormous stone blocks were dismantled and sent to Madrid in the 1960s (as a thank you for Spain’s help in protecting other Egyptian temples from flooding) then reassembled in the city’s Parque del Oeste.

Temple of Debod in Parque de la Montana

Look skywards at the Planetario de Madrid

It’s always free to look around Madrid’s planetarium, which has audio-visual exhibitions looking at all aspects of space and its exploration. There’s a hands-on area for kids, and a domed projection room (which costs extra) that guides visitors through the night sky.

Get lost in Madrid’s barrios

Take a short walk away from Puerta del Sol and you’ll discover some of Madrid’s most colourful barrios (wards). Try multicultural Lavapiés, where shisha bars and Indian restaurants line the graffiti-daubed streets, or hipster-packed Malasaña, known for its nightclubs and vintage clothing shops.

Party on the streets

Street parties and festivals are an important part of Madrid’s social calendar. One of the wildest events is February’s Carnaval, a six-day festival of music, theatre and dance that opens with a fantastical procession of floats and costume-clad performers.

 Visit the Royal Palace

Time it right and you can visit the Spanish king’s official residence for free. Unlike his predecessors, Juan Carlos I doesn’t actually live at the Royal Palace, a treasure trove of art and antiquities inspired by the Louvre in Paris, but it is still used for state events. Admission is free for EU residents on Wednesday and Thursday afternoons.

See flamenco for free

Okay, so you’ll need to buy a drink, but the late-night restaurant Clan gives you the chance to see authentic flamenco performances for free. The music starts sometime after midnight on Fridays and Saturdays, and dancing carries on until 3am.

Flamenco Dancers in Madrid

Take a free walking tour of Madrid

You might need to tip your guide, but the three and half hour walking tours offered by Sandeman’s New Europe are officially free. Tours start outside the tourist office on Plaza Mayor everyday (at 11am and 1pm), taking in popular sights like the Royal Palace and Plaza de la Villa.


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Throughout Scotland, not just in the Highlands, summer signals the onset of the Highland Games, from the smallest village get-togethers to the Giant Cowal Highland Gathering in Dunoon, which draws a crowd of 10,000. Urbanites might blanch at the idea of al fresco Scottish country dancing, but with dog trials, tractors, fudge stalls and more cute animals than you could toss a caber at, the Highland Games are a guaranteed paradise for kids.

It’s thought that the games originated in the eleventh century as a means of selecting soldiers through trials of strength and endurance. These events were formalized in the nineteenth century, partly as a result of Queen Victoria’s romantic attachment to Highland culture: a culture that had in reality been brutally extinguished following the defeat of the Jacobites at Culloden.

The military origins of the games are recalled in displays of muscle-power by bulky bekilted local men, from tossing the caber (ie tree trunk) to hurling hammers and stones, and pitching bales of straw over a raised pole. Music and dance are also integral to the games, with pipe bands and small girls – kitted out in waistcoats, kilts and long woolly socks – performing reels and sword dances. You might also see showjumping, as well as sheepdogs being put through their paces, while the agricultural shows feature prize animals, from sleek ponies with intricate bows tied in their manes and tails to curly-horned rams.

Highland Games are held from May to September – the big gatherings include Braemar ( and Cowal (


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Stand in the middle of Moscow’s Red Square and in a 360-degree turn, the turbulent past and present of Russia is encapsulated in one fell swoop: flagships of Orthodox Christianity, Tsarist autocracy, communist dictatorship and rampant consumerism confront each other before your eyes.

Red Square, is, well, red-ish, but its name actually derives from an old Russian word for “beautiful”. It might no longer be undeniably so – its sometimes bloody history has put paid to that – but it continues to be Moscow’s main draw. In summer, postcard sellers jostle with photographers, keen to capture your image in front of one of the many iconic buildings; but in winter, you step back in time a few decades as Muscovites, in their ubiquitous shapki fur hats, negotiate their way through piles of snow, while the factory chimneys behind St Basil’s Cathedral churn out copious amounts of

It’s hard to avoid being drawn immediately to St Basil’s, its magnificent Mr Whippy domes the fitting final resting place of the eponymous holy fool. Should retail, rather than spiritual, therapy, be more your bag, try GUM, the elegant nineteenth-century shopping arcade, which now houses mainly western boutiques, way out of the pocket of the average Russian, but very decent for a spot of window-shopping or a coffee, or just to shelter from the elements outside. If you think that the presence of Versace and other beacons of capitalism would have Lenin spinning in his grave, you can check for yourself at the mausoleum opposite, where his wax-like torso still lies in state. Despite the overthrow of communism, surly guards are on hand to ensure proper respect is shown: no cameras or bags, no hands in pockets and certainly no laughing. Putin’s police officers are never far away, casting a wary eye over it all – perhaps having learned a thing or two from Lenin’s bedfellows and disciples (including Uncle Joe), who are lined up behind the mausoleum under the imposing walls of the Kremlin.

Red Square can be reached from Ploshchad Revolyutsii, Aleksandrovskiy Sad, Biblioteka Imeni Lenina and Borovitskaya metros.


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Christmas is a great time to travel. All over the world different traditions and celebrations take place, so when you’re finished yours why not explore a little see how they do it somewhere else? Here are 20 of the best Christmas destinations.

1. Copenhagen, Denmark

Copenhagen is Scandinavia’s most vibrant and affordable capital. Small and welcoming, it’s a place where people rather than cars set the pace, making its pre-Christmas activity a lot easier to navigate. The city’s Tivoli Gardens are transformed annually by half a million lights and thousands of Christmas trees and form a magnificent centrepiece to your festive meandering.

Copenhagen, Denmark

20. Dublin, Ireland

It might be a cliché but the craic really does flow in Dublin during December. The city’s streets are imbued with an irrepressible sense of festive cheer, and from the lights to the ice rinks and the carols at St Patrick’s Cathedral, Christmas is celebrated with gusto and glee.

Dublin, Ireland

3. Salzburg, Austria

For many, Salzburg is the quintessential Austria, offering the best of the country’s Baroque architecture, subalpine scenery and a musical heritage derived from the city’s most famous son, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Its festive market is compact and intimate and a frequent dusting of snow adds to its appeal.

Salzburg, Austria

4. Nuremberg, Germany

Nuremburg in Germany is renowned for its Christkindlesmarkt (Christmas market), which sees 180 stalls stand cheek by jowl on the Hauptmarkt, offering toys, trinkets and gingerbread treats. It looks especially enchanting after dark.

Nuremberg, Germany

5. New York, USA

The city that never sleeps inevitably rules the roost when it comes to Christmas. From the Rockefeller Center’s gargantuan tree to the awe-inspiring shop displays, December in the Big Apple is magical.

New York, USA

6. Berlin, Germany

The German capital offers no fewer than fifty Christmas markets every year, set amid its varied districts. If the candles and consumerism get a bit much there are plenty of museums and cultural events to experience too.

Berlin, Germany

7. Rome, Italy

An ancient place packed with the relics of over two thousand years of inhabitation, Rome could ensnare you for a month and you’d still only scratch the surface. Yet it’s so much more than an open-air museum: its culture, food and people make up a modern, vibrant city. Faith and tradition play a key role in Christmas here, and there aren’t many more suitable places on the planet to attend Midnight Mass.

Rome, Italy

8. Lapland, Finland

A fantasy come true for kids and adults alike that refuse to grow up, Father Christmas’s hometown is a must for anyone that still believes in the magic of Christmas. Of course the Santa Claus Village and Santa Park see most of the visitors, but nearby Rovaniemi also offers numerous delights.

Lapland, Finland

9. Edinburgh, Scotland

The showcase capital of Scotland is an historic, cosmopolitan and cultured city. The setting is wonderfully striking – perched on a series of extinct volcanoes and rocky crags which rise from the generally flat landscape of the Lothians – and Christmas is done in style. Extend your stay for the world-famous Hogmanay a week later.

Edinburgh, Scotland

10. Montréal, Canada

Canada’s second-largest city is geographically as close to the European coast as to Vancouver, and in look and feel it combines some of the finest aspects of the two continents. It’s a magical place at this time of year and a spin round (or tumble on to) the ice at the Patinoire du Bassin Bonsecours is a must.

Montréal, Canada

11. Hong Kong, China

East Asia’s most extraordinary city doesn’t let Christmas pass without a fanfare. Lights dangle from skyscrapers, shop fronts are bedecked in wrapping paper and Christmas music blasts from speakers everywhere.

Hong Kong, China

12. Washington DC, USA

Although it can be bitterly cold during the winter months, Washington DC assumes a soul-warming aura in the pre-Christmas period. The Pathway of Peace leading up to the National Christmas Tree at the White House lights up daily from dusk until 11pm, and 56 trees – representing fifty states, five territories and the District of Columbia – are planted nearby.

Washington DC, USA

13. Boston, USA

Boston is as close to the Old World as the New World gets, and this is more evident than ever during the holidays. You’ll feel like you’ve travelled back in time as you navigate the gas lamp-lit streets of the historic city, working your way up to the huge tree in front of Faneuil Hall

Boston, USA

14. Cologne, Germany

This German city boasts eight different Christmas markets on both sides of the Rhine River. Offering all manner of gift ideas and plenty of glühwein stalls, it’s the perfect spot to pick up all those presents.

Cologne, Germany

15. Prague, Czech Republic

With some six hundred years of architecture virtually untouched by natural disaster or war, few other cities in Europe look as good as Prague. Straddling the winding River Vltava, with a steep wooded hill to one side, the city retains much of its medieval layout, and navigating the lanes in the run up to Christmas is a spellbinding experience.

Prague, Czech Republic

16. Reykjavík, Iceland

In the Santa stakes, Iceland has one up on us; or rather, more accurately, twelve up. Their folklore talks of thirteen such characters, known as Yule Lads, who show up in town on the thirteen days leading up to Christmas. Head to the beautiful capital of Reykjavík and you may just spot one.

Reykjavíc, Iceland

17. Dresden, Germany

Dresden has as many Christmas markets as the next German city, but the main reason to visit happens on the Saturday before the second Sunday in Advent, when a huge stollen (traditional Christmas fruit cake) is paraded through the city streets and into the market before being cut up and distributed among the onlookers.

Dresden, Germany

18. Bruges, Belgium

Christmas was made for Bruges, a picturesque medieval treat at any time of the year. The usual markets and ice rinks are present and correct across the Belgian city but the place has a charm all of its own.

Bruges, Belgium

19. New Orleans, USA

Unsurprisingly, New Orleans pulls out all the stops at Christmas. Riverboat caroling cruises and festive streetcars are among the key attractions in a city that goes hog wild for all things Chrimbo.

New Orleans, USA

20. Aspen, USA

A white Christmas is guaranteed at Colorado’s famous mountain town and ski resort, and the place is jam-packed with alpine lodges and cosy spots to take refuge and share in some festive cheer.

Aspen, USA

Whether it’s the chilly mountains of Pennsylvania or the warm desert of Palm Springs, Americans get in the holiday spirit with lights, lights and more lights – Rudolph’s nose is just the beginning. Here’s where to sample the wide array of festive installations this December.

37th Street, Austin, Texas

From praying mantises to your classic reindeer: this residential block in the Texas capital started its lighting tradition in the 1980s with strings of lights looped across the road. Now it may be one of the most creative festive displays in the US, what with the nativity scenes and even artistically illuminated toilets (not for public use, fortunately).

Rockefeller Center, New York City

You’ve seen in it a thousand movies: the plaza at NYC‘s Rockefeller Center, with the ice rink below and the huge Christmas spruce towering above. The tree’s lights are lit in a ceremony on the first Wednesday in December, inaugurating the holiday season. Bonus: The Rockettes dance group are around the corner at Radio City Music Hall, and if you’re lucky, you’ll see one or two of the live camels used in their show out for a stroll.

Rockefeller Center, best christmas lights display

Ditmas Park, Brooklyn

An alternative to the glitz and crowds of the Rockerfeller, Ditmas Park in Brooklyn is a family-friendly, old-New-York neighbourhood and with the houses covered in Santas, nutcrackers and more, ­it’s worth the subway ride out of Manhattan.

Albuquerque, New Mexico

The atmosphere in Albuquerque‘s Old Town district is decidedly low-tech, with paper-bag lanterns edging the adobe walls, but magical all the same. Nearby, the BioPark botanical gardens are strung with lights shaped like whales, pick-up trucks and giant creepy-crawlies.

34th Street, Baltimore, Maryland

If you’re in Baltimore, you’ve got to see the lights in Hampden, Maryland. This homey, grassroots light show – known as the Miracle on 34th Street, of course ­– covers several blocks of old row homes and draws families from all over the east coast to “ooh” and “ahh” over the sparkling display.

Christmas Lights on Baltimore Row Houses, best christmas lights display

Koziar’s Christmas Village, Bernville, Pennsylvania

Out in rural Pennsylvania, this installation grew from one man’s house in 1948 to what it is today: the illuminated definition of the proverbial winter wonderland with model trains, elaborate dioramas, Santa’s Post Office and an old-fashioned bakery.

Disney World, Orlando, Florida

No surprises here: The Mouse spares no expense on holiday decoration at Christmas time. The park installs more than five million choreographed lights on New York Street. You can explore festive traditions around the world at Epcot, and hear the nativity story during a candlelit procession with a fifty-piece orchestra and a choir. All sprinkled, of course, with artificial snow.

Disney World, Orlando, best christmas lights display

Silver Dollar City, Branson, Missouri

A major destination in the Midwest, this theme park almost rivals Disney for lighting bling. The whole park lights up for its “Old Time Christmas” celebrations – best seen from the top of its massive wooden rollercoaster – and there’s a nightly parade with illuminated floats. Nibble on a hot apple dumpling and seasonal cinnamon ice cream when you get peckish.

Robolights, Palm Springs, California

File under W for Weird and Wonderful. For most of his life, Kenny Irwin Jr. has been building sculptures with found objects in his dad’s yard. Come wintertime (such as it is in desert California), he sets his bizarre creations – including Santas, robots, and vampires – all aglow.

Holiday Trail of Lights, Louisiana

Why limit your holiday-light-seeing to one town, when you could visit five? A cluster of towns in northern Louisiana put out their finest and brightest in December. In Natchitoches, you can admire the lights from a festive boat on the lake, and in Shreveport you can tour historic homes.

If you want to escape Christmas this year, check out our top places to go in December. Explore more of America with the Rough Guide to the USA, book hostels for your trip and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

On Lisbon’s Rua do Arsenal, whole window displays are lined with what looks like crinkly grey cardboard. The smell is far from alluring, but from these humble slabs of cod the Portuguese are able to conjure up an alleged 365 different recipes for bacalhau, one for each day of the year. Reassuringly, none of this mummified fish dates back to when it first became popular in the 1500s, when the Corte Real brothers sailed as far as Newfoundland for its rich cod banks. To preserve the fish for the journey back, the brothers salted and dried it – the result was an instant hit both with Portuguese landlubbers and navigators, who could safely store it for their long explorations of the new world.

Nowadays, bacalhau is the national dish, served in just about every restaurant in the country and every family home on Christmas Day. Even in Setúbal – where harbour restaurants are stacked with the fresh variety – salted cod appears on most menus, bathed in water for up to two days, and then its skin and bones pulled away from the swelled and softened flesh, before being boiled and strained into a fishy goo.

Some bacalhau dishes can be an acquired taste. My first experience was in a restaurant on the mosaic-paved old town of Cascais, where my stolid bacalhau com grau (boiled with chick peas) nearly put me off for life. But start with
rissóis de bacalhau (cod rissoles), commonly served as a bar snack, and you’ll soon be hooked. Then move on to bacalhau com natas (baked with cream) or bacalhau a brás (with fried potatos, olives and egg) and there’s no looking

With fourteen bacalhau options on its menu, Sabores a Bacalhau, in Lisbon’s Parque das Nações, is a good place to start. In a restaurant swathed in decorative azulejos tiles appropriately showing sea creatures, a waiter tells me, “Bacalhau is like the Kama Sutra. There may be hundreds of different variations, but you get to know the two or three types that are enjoyable!”. Only the Portuguese could compare bacalhau with sex, but you can’t argue that it is

Sabores a Bacalhau, Rua da Pimenta 47, Parque das Nações (+351 218 957 290; closed Tues).


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Psychedelic tourism isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but there is nowhere on Earth where so many shaman serve such magical brews as they do in Peru. Since the start of this millennium, an increasing number of travellers have sought the magical ayahuasca experience, whether from simple curiosity or in search of ancient wisdom. These night-long shamanic healing rituals, with roots over 3500 years old, often involve the ingestion of psychotropic hallucinogens, and can produce a life-changing experience.

The San Pedro cactus, a mescaline-based plant common on the coast and in the mountains of Peru, brewed for hours, can produce very profound and extremely vivid out-of-body experiences. Seen as “sacred medicine” and a “teacher”, San Pedro has been used for millennia by priests and shaman to provide solutions to everything from physical sickness to broken-down relationships.

The ayahuasca vine, found in the rainforest, tends to provide an even stronger trip, notably when mixed with leaves in “jungle juice”. The typical setting for a session with an ayahuasquero, or jungle shaman, is to meet him at a rainforest lodge, usually a tambo (hut) on the edge of an Amazon tributary. The session starts at dusk in a small room or roofed platform. Shortly after sunset, the shaman offers his brew after blowing and smudging large billows of thick, tangy Amazon tobacco smoke over himself, his participants and, most importantly, the ayahuasca container. After giving each guest a bitter, small gourd-full, the scene settles down and soon the shaman begins to rattle, chant or drum.

The effects can be challenging – the drug’s purging qualities mean many people vomit, while the colourful visions may be spiritual, sexual or just plain terrifying – but most people, helped by the shaman’s guiding songs and vision, make it beyond this to a healing and ecstatic session. Many experience strange conversations or see loved ones from the past or present. The good vibes and endorphin-related elation continues into the next day. Watching dawn over the forest canopy with a river alive with fish and brimming with exotic birdlife is a cool way to start the rest of your life.

One-off sessions with a shaman are easy to arrange through lodges in Iquitos. Ayahuasca and San Pedro are legal in Peru, but both are strong hallucinogens and should be taken with a genuine shaman and treated with respect.


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Most visitors to the ancient Inca capital of Cusco in southern Peru are drawn by the extraordinary ruined temples and palaces and the dramatic scenery of the high Andes. But the only true way to get to the heart of the indigenous Andean culture is to join a traditional fiesta. Nearly every town and village in the region engages in these raucous and chaotic celebrations, a window on a secret world that has survived centuries of oppression.

Of all the fiestas, the most extraordinary and spectacular is Qoyllur Riti, held at an extremely high altitude in a remote Andean valley to the south of Cusco. Here you can join tens of thousands of indigenous pilgrims, both Quechua and Aymara, as they trek up to a campsite at the foot of a glacier to celebrate the reappearance of the Pleiades constellation in the southern sky – a phenomenon that has long been used to predict when crops should be planted.

At the heart of the fiesta are young men dressed in ritual costumes of the Ukuku, a half-man, half-bear trickster hero from Andean mythology, and if you’re hardy enough, you can join them as they climb even higher to spend the night singing, dancing and engaging in ritual combat on the glacier itself. Be warned, though, that this is an extreme celebration. Some years, pilgrims have died during the night, having frozen or fallen into crevasses, and when the pilgrim-celebrants descend from the mountain at first light, waving flags and toting blocks of ice on their backs, they bear the bodies, the blood sacrifice at once mourned and celebrated as vital to the success of the
agricultural year ahead.

Qoyllur Riti happens every year in early May. You can arrange transport to the start of the trek near the town of Ocongate with tour companies in Cusco.


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