There’s a point on the Inca Trail when you suddenly forget the accumulated aches and pains of four days’ hard slog across the Andes. You’re standing at Inti Punku, the Sun Gate, the first golden rays of dawn slowly bringing the jungle to life. Down below, revealing itself in tantalizing glimpses as the early-morning mist burns gradually away, are the distinctive ruins of Machu Picchu, looking every bit the lost Inca citadel it was until a century ago.

The hordes of visitors that will arrive by mid-morning are still tucked up in bed; for the next couple of hours or so, it’s just you, your group and a small herd of llamas, grazing indifferently on the terraced slopes. That first unforgettable sunrise view from Inti Punku is just the start: thanks to its remote location – hugging the peaks at 2500m and hidden in the mountains some 120km from Cusco – Machu Picchu escaped the ravages of the Spanish conquistadores and remained semi-buried in the Peruvian jungle until Hiram Bingham, an American explorer, “rediscovered” them in 1911. Which means that, descending onto the terraces and working your way through the stonework labyrinth, you’ll discover some of the best-preserved Inca remains in the world.

Sites such as the Temple of the Sun and the Intihuatana appear exactly as they did some six hundred years ago. The insight they give us into the cultures and customs of the Inca is still as rewarding – the former’s window frames the constellation of Pleiades, an important symbol of crop fertility – and their structural design, pieced together like an ancient architectural jigsaw, is just as incredible.

You can only hike the Inca Trail on a tour or with a licensed guide. In Cusco, try SAS (www.sastravel.com) and United Mice (www.unitedmice.com).

 

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Spend a few days in the intoxicating, maddening centro histórico of Mexico City, and you’ll understand why thousands of Mexicans make the journey each Sunday to the “floating gardens” of Xochimilco, the country’s very own Venice.

Built by the Aztecs to grow food, this network of meandering waterways and man-made islands, or chinampas, is an important gardening centre for the city, and where families living in and around the capital come to spend their day of rest. Many start with a visit to the beautiful sixteenth-century church of San Bernadino in the main plaza, lighting candles and giving thanks for the day’s outing. Duty done, they head down to one of several docks, or embarcaderos, on the water to hire out a trajinera for a few hours. These flat, brightly painted gondolas – with names such as Viva Lupita, Adios Miriam, El Truinfo and Titanic – come fitted with table and chairs, perfect for a picnic.

The colourful boats shunt their way out along the canals, provoking lots of good-natured shouting from the men wielding the poles. As the silky green waters, overhung with trees, wind past flower-filled meadows, the cacophony and congestion of the city are forgotten. Mothers and grannies unwrap copious parcels and pots of food, men open bottles of beer and aged tequila; someone starts to sing. By midday, Xochimilco is full of carefree holidaymakers.

Don’t worry if you haven’t come with provisions – the trajineras are routinely hunted down by vendors selling snacks, drinks and even lavish meals from small wooden canoes. Others flog trinkets, sweets and souvenirs. And if you’ve left your guitar at home, no problem: boatloads of musicians – mariachis in full costume, marimba bands and wailing ranchera singers – will cruise alongside or climb aboard and knock out as many tunes as you’ve money to pay for.

Xochimilco is 28km southeast of Mexico City, reachable from Tasqueña station.

 

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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.

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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Holding the tiny cocoon in your fingers, it’s hard to imagine it contains a fibre of silk that will be 800m long when finally unravelled. And when you consider 100,000 silk worms are being cultivated here at Vang Viang Organic Farm, you’re effectively surrounded by 80,000km of silk – enough to circle the earth twice.

The farm was established in 1996, in the village of Phoudinadaeng, on the banks of the Nam Song River, as a model centre of organic agriculture: mulberry trees are cultivated using natural fertilizers and predators, and their leaves picked daily to feed the silkworms or to make mulberry tea and wine. Half of each silk harvest is sold for fabric production, while the other half provides income for village women, who weave it at home and then sell silk products back to the farm. Profits from the farm are also used to run a community centre and school, where volunteers can help with English lessons.

Travellers are welcome to visit the farm – you can stay in simple rooms if you wish – to learn about how the silk is processed or see how the fruit and veg is grown using traditional techniques. And if – having learnt that each harvest produces around ten kilos of silk which is then dyed with local plants – you buy one of the brightly coloured scarves made by the women, you’ll have gained a real appreciation of what your silk is worth.

For directions to the farm and details of projects and accommodation (dorm beds US$1, rooms without bath US$3) see www.laofarm.org; +856 205 523 688.

 

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Ask any expat East African what food they miss most and they’ll tell you nyama choma. In The Gambia, it’s known as afra; and in South Africa it’s what you have at a braai. All over the continent, roast or grilled meat is the heart of any big meal and, whenever possible, it is the meal.

A meat feast is also the only occasion in Africa when you’ll find men doing the cooking – charring hunks of bloody flesh clearly answering a visceral male need that kings of the barbecue the world over would admit.

Most people don’t eat meat often, subsisting on a simple starch dish for their regular meal of the day, so it’s perhaps not surprising that when the occasion demands or provides a banquet, meat is the main fare. In Kenya or Tanzania, unless you happen to be invited to a wedding or funeral, you’ll go to a purpose-built nyama choma bar, where flowing beer and loud music are the standard accompaniments, with greens and ugali (a stiff, corn porridge, like grits) optional. The choice is usually between goat and beef, with game meat such as impala, zebra or ostrich available at fancier places. If you select one of these, usually with an all-you-can-eat price tag equivalent to about a week’s average wages, you should cannily resist the early offerings of soup, bread and sausages, leaving space for the main events.

After roasting, your meat is brought to your table on a wooden platter, chopped up to bite-size with a sharp knife, and served with a small pile of spiced salt and a hot sauce of tomato, onion, lime and chilies. You eat with your fingers, of course. You’ll need a good appetite, strong jaws and plenty of time – to wait for your chosen roast, to chew and digest, to pick your teeth while downing a few more beers and to honour the dance requests that inevitably come your way, no matter how full you might feel.

Standard practice at meat bars is to go to the kitchen and order by weight direct from the butcher’s hook or out of the fridge. Carnivore, on Langata Road, is Nairobi’s best-known and biggest nyama choma bar.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Secreted away in the souk quarter behind the Basilica of the Annunciation, in a maze of streets too narrow for cars, lies the Fauzi Azar Inn – a 200-year-old mansion that has been converted into the most welcoming place to stay in Nazareth. Centred on an arched courtyard, its ten adjoining rooms are decked out with heavy drapes and cushions that soften the heavy sandstone walls and high painted ceilings, making this an oasis of calm beside the daily hubbub of the markets.

But the Inn’s owner, Maoz Inon, has bigger dreams for Fauzi Azar, and has designed it to be more than just a relaxing hideaway. He has developed a “Jesus Trail” – a 65km walking route that traces a path between some of the most significant points in the story of the Gospels, from the fields and forests that surround Nazareth, along the Sea of Galilee to the place where Christ gave the Sermon on the Mount. With the help of volunteers (who get free lodging in Fauzi Azar for four weeks or more in return) he has worked with various other guesthouses to mark out the route with accommodation stops along the way. So rather fittingly, the Jesus Trail ensures that in one of the world’s most divided countries, there is always a welcome at the inn.

For directions, rates, reservations and volunteering info see www.fauziazarinn.com; +972 4602 0469. Further info on the Jesus Trail is at www.jesustrail.com.

 

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Every year in Ireland, thousands of people do the Newgrange lottery. Entry is by application form, with the draw made in October by local schoolchildren. And the prize? The lucky winners are invited to a bleak, wintry field in the middle of County Meath on the longest night of the year, to huddle into a dank and claustrophobic tunnel and wait for the sun to come up.

It’s not just any old field, though, but part of Brú na Boinne, one of Europe’s most important archeological sites. A slow bend in the River Boyne cradles this extraordinary ritual landscape of some forty Neolithic mounds, which served not only as graves but also as spiritual and ceremonial meeting places for the locals, five thousand years ago.

The tunnel belongs to the most famous passage mound, Newgrange, which stretches over 273ft in diameter, weighs 200,000 tons in total and is likely to have taken forty years to build. The lottery winners get to experience the annual astronomical event for which the tomb’s passage was precisely and ingeniously designed: through a roofbox over the entrance, the first rays of the rising sun on the winter solstice shine unerringly into the burial chamber in the heart of the mound, 65ft away at the end of the passage.

Not everyone gets to win the lottery, of course, so throughout the year as part of an entertaining guided tour of the mound, visitors are shown an electrically powered simulation of the solstice dawn in the central chamber. Once you’ve taken the tour and seen the impressive visitor centre, the perfect complement is to drive 19 miles west to the Loughcrew Cairns, a group of thirty similar mounds that are largely unexcavated. Here, you borrow a torch and the key to the main passage tomb, Cairn T, and you’ll almost certainly have the place to yourself. With views of up to sixteen counties on a clear day, you can let your imagination run wild in an unspoilt and enigmatic landscape.

The Brú na Boinne visitor centre (www.heritageireland.ie) is 10km southwest of Drogheda in Co. Meath. The Loughcrew Cairns, near Oldcastle, are accessible only with your own transport – pick up the key for Cairn T from the coffee shop at Loughcrew Gardens (www.loughcrew.com).

 

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It’s mid-afternoon and you’re sitting in an outdoor café when suddenly the street is closed to traffic and a procession of villagers comes streaming by. Women with delicate frangipani blossoms woven into their hair balance lavish offerings of food, fruit and flowers on their heads and walk with grace and poise, while men march by playing musical instruments or sporting ceremonial swords. All are making their way to one of the village temples to honour its gods and celebrate the anniversary of its dedication.

Bali is home to over 10,000 temples of varying sizes, each one of which has a dedication ceremony at least once during the course of the Balinese year of 210 days. Each anniversary celebration, known as an odalan, is carried out on an auspicious date set by a local priest and usually lasts three days. In preparation the temple is cleaned, blessed and decorated with flowers, silk sarongs and colourful umbrellas. Women spend hours weaving elaborate headpieces and decorations from palm leaves while men carve ornate objects from wood. Streets leading to the temple are lined with vivid flags, banners and long, decorated bamboo poles (penjors) that arch overhead with woven garlands of dried flowers and ornaments fashioned from young palm leaves. Worshippers from around the island arrive en masse to celebrate with prayer, ceremonial dance, drama, musical performances and food to entice the gods and spirits.

Celebrations take place inside the temple walls: fragrant hair oils and smoke from sandalwood incense fill the air as the chimes of bells and the shimmering sounds of the gamelan orchestra electrify the atmosphere. In one corner worshippers kneel before an altar filled with offerings to recite prayers and be blessed with holy water and rice, while in another spectators are treated to an elegant dance of girls in golden costumes. Shadow-puppet performances recount ancient tales while barong dances ward off evil sprits. All this activity competes with the sizzling smells of saté being grilled over coconut husks and the laughter of lads gambling with cards.

Foreigners are invited to attend temple cere-monies, however you must respect local customs and ensure you are appropriately dressed with a sarong, headpiece and footwear.

 

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