The market town of San Francisco el Alto adopts its suffix for good reason. Perched at 2610m atop a rocky escarpment, it looks down over the plain of Quetzaltenango to the perfect volcanic cone of Santa María that pierces the horizon to the southwest.

But on Friday mornings, few of the thousands that gather here linger to take in the view; instead, the largest market in Guatemala’s western highlands commands their attention. Things start early, as traders arrive in the dead of night to assemble their stalls by candlelight and lanterns, stopping periodically to slurp from a bowl of steaming caldo broth or for a slug of chicha maize liquor to ward off the chilly night air.

By dawn a convoy of pick-ups, chicken buses and microbuses struggle up the vertiginous access road, and by sunrise the streets are thick with action as blanket vendors and tomato seekers elbow their way through lanes lined with shacks. There’s virtually nothing geared at the tourist dollar, unless you’re in desperate need of a Chinese-made alarm clock or a sack of beans, but it’s a terrific opportunity to experience Guatemala’s indigenous way of life – all business is conducted in hushed, considered tones using ritualistic politeness that’s uniquely Maya.

Above the plaza is the fascinating animal market, where goats, sheep, turkeys, chickens and pigs are inspected as if contestants at an agricultural show. Vendors probe screeching porkers’ mouths to check out teeth, tongues and gums, and the whole event can descend into chaos as man and beast wrestle around in the dirt before a deal can be struck.

San Francisco el Alto is 1hr by bus from Quetzaltenango.

 

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Work off that moussaka with a hike up the most monumental of the Greek mountains – Mount Olympus. Soaring to 2920m, the mountain is swathed in mysticism and majesty, mainly due to its reputation as the home of the Ancient Greek gods. Reaching the peak isn’t something you can achieve in an afternoon – you’ll need at least two days’ trekking, staying overnight in refuges or tents. You don’t need to be a climber but you do need to be prepared: it’s a tough climb to the summit, and requires a lot of stamina and some degree of caution: the weather may be stiflingly hot at the bottom, but there could still be a blizzard blowing halfway up. Passing sumptuous wildflowers and dense forests on the lower slopes, the rocky, boulder-strewn terrain and hair-raisingly sheer drops of the summit are well worth the struggle. Just watch out for Zeus’s thunderbolt on the way up.

The best map to use is Road Edition’s no 31 Olympos, 1:50,000.

 

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The road to Corcovado National Park was once paved with gold – lots of gold – and although most of it was carried off by the Diqui Indians, miners still pan here illegally. These days, though, it’s just an unpaved track that fords half a dozen rivers during the bone-rattling two-hour ride from the nearest town, Puerto Jiménez, and which runs out at Carate, the southern gateway to the park.

The journey in doesn’t make an auspicious start to a hike in Corcovado – and it gets worse. Trekking here is not for the faint-hearted: the humidity is one hundred percent, there are fast-flowing rivers to cross and the beach-walking that makes up many of the hikes can only be done at low tide. Cantankerous peccaries roam the woods, and deadly fer-de-lance and bushmaster snakes slip through the shrub.

But you’re here because Corcovado is among the most biologically abundant places on Earth, encompassing thirteen ecosystems, including lowland rainforests, highland cloudforests, mangrove swamps, lagoons and coastal and marine habitats. And it’s all spectacularly beautiful, even by the high standards of Costa Rica.

Streams trickle down over beaches pounded by Pacific waves, where turtles (hawksbill, leatherback and Olive Ridley) lay their eggs in the sand and where the shore is dotted with footprints – not human, but tapir, or possibly jaguar. Palm trees hang in bent clumps, and behind them the forest rises up in a 60m wall of dense vegetation.

Corcovado has the largest scarlet macaw population in Central America, and the trees flash with bursts of their showy red, blue and yellow plumage. One hotel in the area offers free accommodation if visitors don’t see one during their stay – it’s never happened. And after the first sighting of the birds flying out from the trees in perfectly coordinated pairs, the long journey to reach Corcovado seems a short way to come.

It’s best to visit Corcovado during its dry season (Dec–March). Meals and camping space or lodging need to be booked six weeks in advance (+506 257-2239, [email protected]).

 

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The interior of the Sinai peninsula is a stark, unforgiving place. Beneath a strikingly blue sky lie parched mountains, rocky outcrops and great expanses of barren sand, interspersed with isolated oases and crisscrossed by medieval pilgrimage routes. It is, in the truest sense, a landscape of biblical proportions.

In the south of this region, just a few hours’ drive from the booming tourist resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, rises the magnificent 2285m Mount Sinai, venerated by Christians, Muslims and Jews alike as the site of God’s unveiling of the Ten Commandments. Although there is some doubt about whether this red-and-grey granite peak is actually the site mentioned in the Bible, it is undeniably awe-inspiring – particularly the views from the summit, reached via 3750 knee-crunching “Steps of Repentance”, or the easier but longer “camel path”. Despite the crowds of pilgrims, travellers and Bedouin guides (and their camels), a night camped out here under a star-filled sky allows you to wake up to one of the most beautiful sunrises imaginable.

Almost as atmospheric – and considerably more comfortable – is a stay at the guesthouse in the grounds of the imposing St Catherine’s Monastery, which stands at the foot of Mount Sinai. Dating back to 337 BC, this active Greek Orthodox monastery looks more like a fortress than a place of religious devotion. Behind its forbidding walls is what is reputed to be the burning bush from which God spoke to Moses, as well as a library containing innumerable priceless texts and manuscripts, including fragments of the world’s oldest Bible, the 1600-year-old Codex Sinaiticus.

For more information see www.egypt.travel.

 

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In an adventure only for the bravest hikers, David Leffman tackles the rhyolite hills, black sand deserts and the icy glacier caps of the 55km trail from Landmannalaugar to Skógar.

Whiteout. Five hours into a five-day hike and I was already stuck in a blizzard, barely able to see my feet through the stinging wind-driven snow, let alone the next yellow post marking the route. I was below Hrafntinnusker, a boulder-strewn hilltop made of obsidian – black volcanic glass – and somewhere over on the far side of the crest, probably less than 500m away, was the bunkhouse where I was planning to spend the night. I only hoped it wouldn’t take another five hours to get there.

There are many reasons to tackle Laugavegur, the 55km hiking trail across Iceland’s southern interior between natural hot springs and volcanic wasteland at Landmannalaugar and the beautiful highland valley of Þórsmörk, “Thor’s Wood”. But the weather, which routinely drives foul, gale-force winds down the highland passes along the route, probably isn’t one of them. Laugavegur’s scenery was meant to be spectacular – rhyolite hills streaked in orange gravel, pale blue tarns, black sand deserts and the titanic, icy masses of glacier caps hovering over all – but I had yet to see any of it.

Progress was slow. Occasionally the flurries cleared for long enough to take a compass bearing on the next guide post, which I then had to follow blindly along its line, trying to forget folk tales about travellers who had become lost and died in similar conditions on Iceland’s interior tracks. But the Hrafntinnusker bunkhouse was reached at last, and next day the blizzard had blown itself out, leaving a metre of snow and clear views extending off the back of the plateau and down to brilliant green conical hills flanking Álftavatn (Swan Lake), my next stop. From here there was a plain of volcanic sand to cross in unexpected sunshine, which was hot enough to strip down to a T-shirt; near the Innri-Emstruá bridge, over a river swollen fearsomely with snow-melt, a herd of Icelandic horses was being driven to summer pasture, following a centuries-old routine. I spent the evening on a rocky ridge overlooking the Mýrdalsjökull ice cap to the south, enjoying the silence and the vast panorama of outlying glaciers spreading across the landscape below.

A day later and I was at the Þröngá, the deepest unbridged river so far, though fortunately only thigh-deep at the time; sometimes you have to wait for the level to subside before attempting to cross. On the far bank was Þórsmörk and a striking change of scenery: after the spartan, restricted palette of the last few days, I was overwhelmed by sudden lush splashes of colour, flowers, dense thickets of dwarf birch with copper and silver bark, thick grass and cushions of mosses and lichens. Þórsmörk’s deep valley runs east-west along the intertwined headwaters of the Krossá, which is fed by ice caps squashing down on the encircling plateaus. There’s nowhere more immediately attractive in the whole of Iceland, with a host of trails along low peaks and scree slopes to keep you active.

Having reached Þórsmörk, why stop there? I decided to continue south over the mountains to Skógar and the next main road, and asked Þórsmörk’s resident ranger, a tough, friendly young man in his mid-twenties, how long this 25km hike might take. He considered me briefly. “For you, I think eight hours. But it is difficult to know. You see that ridge?” He pointed to the edge of the Morinsheiði plateau high above us. “Three hours is enough to reach there. Although yesterday, I ran it in forty-five minutes during a rescue operation.”

Three hours later, via the knife-edge “Cat’s Spine Ridge” (thank you, whoever installed the chain here since my last trip), I was indeed at Morinsheiði, a flat pancake of clay and ice-fractured pebbles, in the middle of which was a sandblasted wooden signpost pointing blankly in three directions. Then came a narrow, 50m-long traverse at Heljarkambur: Icelanders, I know you’re tough, but a six-inch-wide trail with a vertical cliff hedging one side and 90m drop off the other really deserves some sort of warning sign. Beyond was a steep snowfield – a tiresome uphill slog without crampons, I envied hikers coming the other way who simply slid down – then a fresh lava field, a still-smoking souvenir of the 2010 eruption under the Eyjafjallajökull ice cap whose ash cloud grounded aircraft across Europe. This brought a perverse sense of pride to Icelanders, long accustomed to being ignored by the international community, and also vast amusement as they listened to foreign journalists attempting to pronounce “Eyjafjallajökull” (aey-yar-fyatla-yerkutl).

From here the descent to Skógar began abruptly; the previous few hours’ snow was suddenly gone and my pace picked up, then slowed again by a bridge over a river canyon, a short wooden structure whose far-end steps were missing, swept away by flood: nothing for it but to drop my pack off the end and climb down the superstructure. The trail followed the river as it grew steadily larger, cutting an increasingly deep gorge down across moorland, each twist decorated by ever-higher cascades which culminated at the Skógarfoss waterfall, dropping straight off the plateau in a 62m-high curtain of mist and noise. Nesting fulmars – technically seabirds, with the coast in distant sight across a level plain – wheeled in and out of the spray as I descended steps down the side of the falls towards a green sward and the tiny, thinly-spread hamlet of Skógar.

The Laugavegur hiking trail is open from some point in June until late August (exact dates depend on the weather), with daily buses from Reykjavík to the trailheads at Landmannalaugar, Þórsmörk and Skógar. Tough boots, thermals and full waterproof clothing are essential; rangers do not allow people to hike in jeans. Bunkhouses along the route provide mattresses, kitchens and showers and must be booked in advance through Ferðafélag Íslands; bring sleeping bags and food. Attached campgrounds with toilets and water can be paid for on site; you need a storm-proof tent and all cooking gear.

For a map of the trail, see here.

David Leffman is co-author of the Rough Guide to Iceland.

Among the chaos and danger of drug wars and organised crime Honduras can be a surprisingly beautiful and tranquil country. Shafik Meghji explored one of the country’s northern national parks on foot.

“There are sometimes drug gangs in the park, but not in this part,” said my guide Jorge Salaverri, as our beat-up Jeep bumped along a dirt track towards the entrance to Parque Nacional Pico Bonito. “The gangs only ever come here to dump bodies. Tourists get scared when they see them, but nobody is actually killed here.” The strange thing was that after spending a week in Honduras – which has been dubbed the most violent country on Earth – Jorge’s less-than-reassuring statement actually provided some comfort.

Honduras should be an easy sell to travellers. The country is home to the spectacular Mayan ruins of Copán, deserted palm-fringed beaches, picturesque Caribbean islands, some of the world’s least expensive diving, and expanses of wildlife-rich rain and cloud forests. Unfortunately, in recent years violence has risen dramatically thanks to the activities of drug traffickers using Honduras as a stop-off between South America and the US. The month before my visit a British tourist was killed in the city of San Pedro Sula, which reportedly has the highest murder rate in the world outside of a war zone.

The tourist industry, needless to say, has taken a real hit. However, despite serious security risks for tourists, it is possible to visit parts of Honduras safely, and the silver lining to the country’s pitch black cloud is that those travellers who do make it over have world-class attractions like Parque Nacional Pico Bonito virtually to themselves.

In the north of Honduras, the park is a dramatic series of forested hills and jungle-clad mountains, interspersed by plunging waterfalls that feed 20 different rivers. Covering an area of almost 565 square kilometres, it is dominated by the soaring 2346m-high peak of Pico Bonito and has an abundance of wildlife.

Jorge and I arrived at the park entrance – a rickety chain bridge stretching over the churning Río Cangrejal, which has some of the finest white water rapids in Central America – without spotting any dead bodies. But neither were there any tourists: the nearby lodges and resorts – each with an unspoilt riverside setting – were all empty.

Once inside the park my lingering concerns about encountering drug gang members (known locally as maras) soon melted away. Jorge, after all, is one of the top guides in Central America, and has worked on TV documentaries with the likes of Bear Grylls, and Ray Mears. He’s also a former Honduran Special Forces soldier.

The aim of the day was to reach the top of the Bejuco waterfall – a stiff two-and-a-half-hour climb – which cascades down over 700m through the forest to the river below. Jorge led the way, swishing his machete to clear a path through the dense greenery. As we climbed higher – stopping periodically to quench our thirst from crystal-clear streams – it was fascinating to note the subtle changes in the flora as lush tropical rainforest gradually evolved into dank and mossy cloud forest.

As we progressed up the trail, Jorge paused to point out toxic butterflies with translucent wings, tiny spider monkeys, armadillo tracks on the ground, howler monkeys high in the canopy, and a male yellow-eared toucan (the rarest of the four toucan species found in the park) perched on a nearby branch. Perhaps even more intriguing, however, was the array of trees and plants.

The park is home to balsa trees, piercingly sharp razor grass, tough ironwoods, twisted water vines, and rubber trees slashed with crosses out of which white liquid rubber drips like spilt milk. Local indigenous groups collect this sap in banana leaves and use it to make waterproof duffle bags. Some of the trees are edible – such as the almond-flavoured bark of the sapote tree and the bitter pod-like fruits of the wild tamarind – and several have medicinal uses, including the monkey ladder tree, whose bark, when ground up and boiled, is a tonic for the kidneys. Just avoid the camotillo palm, Jorge warned, the roots give you killer diarrhoea.

As the day progressed it became clear that the biggest threat to the sustainability of the park does not come from drug gangs, at least not directly. On the hills opposite we saw a series of brown patches amid the greenery where peasant farmers and large-scale ranchers had illegally cleared huge swathes of forest growth. “The situation is worse the deeper into the park you go,” explained Jorge. “We need soldiers to patrol these areas. You wouldn’t need many, but the drugs war and everyday crime take the focus.”

Eventually, after a hard final scrabble, we arrived at the top of the Bejuco waterfall. The wonderfully cool, shady clearing overlooked a shallow pool and a deceptively small stream for such a powerful waterfall. It also offered panoramic vistas of the park: the undulating green Cordillera Nombre de Dios ahead, the river rapids below, and the placid-looking Caribbean Sea in the distance. Jorge laid out a simple lunch on palm leaves – sandwiches, fresh pineapple and super-sweet pineapple juice – and we both sat quietly, listing to the calls, yelps and whistles emanating from the forest and marvelling at the views.

The hike back down was a one-and-a-half-hour scramble, a real work out for the knees and thighs. Jorge darted along nimbly while I was left trailing behind, slipping and sliding over the loose earth. As we neared the bridge we passed two local youngsters – skipping school to explore the park – the only people we encountered on the whole hike.

The tranquillity of the day in the park, however, provided only a brief escape from the reality of everyday life in Honduras. When I returned to my hotel in the city of La Ceiba, a 30-minute drive from Pico Bonito, the early evening news was on the TV in the lobby: the city’s deputy mayor, it emerged, had just been shot dead as he drove to the airport. The hotel staff didn’t even give the TV a second look – it was just another normal day.

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

For the latest travel advice for Honduras visit: www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/honduras

At the wild and sparsely inhabited eastern edge of Iceland, the granite crag of Dyrfjoll towers above the natural amphitheatre known as Stórurð (the Elves’ Bowl). One edge is sharp and steep, the other a flattened tabletop, and in between, the giant square gap that earns the whole its name: Door Mountain. Hewn by a glacier millions of years ago, the gap is two hundred metres lower than the surrounding cliffs. Heather crowned with blueberries lines the route to Door Mountain, and there are sweeping views across the Héradsflói valley, a vast moorland plain where strands of meltwater from Europe’s largest glacier shine like silver threads on a brown blanket. Few roads cross this landscape, and it remains the last great wilderness in Europe.

For more information on the area, see www.east.is.

 

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Sahara Desert, Morocco

Sleep beneath the twinkling Saharan stars, accompanied by a few irascible dromedaries. You can explore the desert as part of a tour (usually setting off from Marrakesh, and heading up and over the beautiful Atlas Mountains), and choose your level of comfort, from simple canvas tents to luxurious Berber pavilions, complete with soft beds, rugged floors and handcrafted furniture.

Corsica, France

The GR20 is a challenging trek snaking diagonally across the French island of Corsica. Depending on how much of the 180km path you choose to tackle, the hike requires stamina, and a few nights bedding down in refuges (mountain huts) or under canvas nearby. Admittedly, if you like to camp in seclusion, this might not be for you: in peak season, the refuges and accompanying camping grounds get very busy – but the walking and spectacular countryside more than compensates.

Mount Everest, Nepal

Mount Everest needs no introduction, and nor does Everest Base Camp. At 5364m, it’s the highest campsite in the world, the bedtime target for tough hikers en route to the top of the giant mountain. The landscape up here is harsh and inhospitable, but Base Camp retains a cheerful mood with its little domed tents decked with multi-coloured flags.

The Lake District, UK

The shimmering lakes and sheep-studded hills of the Lake District provide a glorious, bucolic backdrop for a slumber beneath canvas. The whole area is peppered with campsites, perfect for families, hikers and nature-lovers. Buttermere, Ambleside, Borrowdale and Grasmere are particularly gorgeous camping spots.

The Outback, Australia

Camping in Australia generally means “bushcamping” – proper back-to-basics stuff, with no amenities to speak of. However, if you do like your water running, a shower to douse yourself in and a barbecue to fire up, there are also plenty of caravan parks (aka holiday parks). Wherever you go, you’re sure to feel humbled by the enormity and breathtaking beauty of Oz’s rust-red outback.

Yellowstone National Park, USA

Yellowstone has long been a favourite camping area for visitors keen to see the world’s largest collection of geysers, including Old Faithful. There are 12 official campgrounds in the park offering basic amenities (you can reserve a pitch in advance at 5 of them), but if you’re after real solitude among the pine-clad hills, then make for the backcountry, where you’ll find smaller, quieter designated camping spots.

Wild Camping, Iceland

Not only is wild camping in Iceland a phenomenal experience, it also helps to keep more pennies in the wallet, which is a hard task in a country this pricey. Wherever you decide to pitch your tent, make sure you’ve got permission from the nearest farmhouse. The national parks – like Skaftafell and Jökulsárgljúfur – provide Scandi scenery par excellence… wildflowers, spiked mountain ridges and hulking icy glaciers.

Milford Sound, New Zealand

Rudyard Kipling waxed lyrical about Milford Sound in New Zealand’s Fiordland, dubbing it the “eighth wonder of the world”. Its beauty is not lost on the general public, so to enjoy this incredible area it’s best to camp there for a night or two. Campsites sit within the bush, which offers fantastic walking right on your “doorstep”, as well as next to trout-filled rivers (bring your rod) and glacial lakes perfect for a refreshing dip.

Isle of Harris, Outer Hebrides

Scotland + camping = midges. The Isle of Harris might not be the mainland, but there are still clouds of midges in force up there. Just to warn you. However, the stunning Hebridean landscape – sandy dunes and soft sea grasses, and a rugged, mountainous interior – is irresistible for a hardy camper.

Acatenango Volcano, Guatemala

Acatenango last blew its top in 1972. That’s really not so long ago, but if you have faith in the old mountain, head on up. The ascent takes you through cultivated farmland, followed by cloud forest and then alpine forest, before finally leading you into barren volcanic landscape. You can camp en route, but if you’re feeling brave, bed down in the crater itself. Just watch for bubbling magma…

Hokkaido Island, Japan

Hokkaido Island, Japan’s most northern and remote island, feels distinctly “un-Japanese” and arguably more European (possibly thanks to the lavender, pictured). It’s not particularly touristy, instead being the preserve of Japanese city folk keen to escape the chaos of urban living for a few nights in the wilderness, surrounded by bubbling hot springs, dense forest and gleaming lakes.

Masoala National Park, Madagascar

The main attraction of a camping trip in Madagascar is undoubtedly the wildlife: from red-ruffed lemurs and goggle-eyed chameleons, not to mention the dubious-looking (but still quite cute) aye-ayes, that dwell within the varied ecosystems of Masoala National Park, you’re guaranteed a sighting of at least one exotic beast.

Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya

Drifting off to sleep with the sound of grunting hippos in your ears is an interesting experience, but that’s what an overnight trip to Kenya’s Masai Mara is all about. Standards of camping in the national reserve vary – from petal-flecked honeymooning pavilions to more basic “army-style” tents – but it’s the breathtaking landscape and awe-inspiring animal life that matter most here.

Gower Peninsula, Wales

The Gower Peninsula in Wales is famed for its beautiful coastline – and how better to appreciate it than from your canvas shelter overlooking the rolling waves and butterscotch sand. Surfers (surfing conditions are great round here) and families make up the majority of the camping demographic – it’s what idyllic UK holidays are made of.

Grand Canyon, USA

The South Rim of the Grand Canyon, being closest to travel links, is the most visited section, so if you want to avoid heavy camping crowds, head for the North Rim – though be aware that the tourist season here is shorter, due to less favourable weather. Dawn is a spectacular time to witness the majestic Canyon come to life: as the sun rises, the landscape shows off its fiery furnace colours.

Taman Negara, Malaysia

This swathe of tropical rainforest in Malaysia’s interior makes for a wonderful hiking and camping experience. There are masses of trails – from easy boardwalk strolls to tougher day-treks – but wherever you go, you’ll come across spectacular wildlife like monkeys, elephants, tapir and mouse deer. Less attractive are the leeches, which you’ll need to prepare yourself for. Basic campsites are scattered throughout the park, mostly next to rivers.

Swiss Alps, Switzerland

Fresh alpine air tinged with the scent of wild pine, undulating meadows cloaked with cheery wildflowers and crystal-clear, ice-cold streams trickling down mountain-sides – who could resist such a wholesome camping backdrop? The Swiss Alps have plenty of gorgeous campsites at varying altitudes, offering perfectly peaceful night-time stopovers.

Fraser Island, Australia

Fraser Island – the world’s largest sand island – is about 300km north of Brisbane and home to some incredibly beautiful beaches as well a number of dingoes. Days are filled with an invigorating concoction of swimming, fishing, walking and boating, and at night you’ll be lulled to sleep by the peaceful sounds of the great outdoors just outside your tent.

Cordillera Huayhuash, Peru

Back away from the Inca Trail: the Cordillera Huayhuash means serious Peruvian trekking. Remote and rugged, the Cordillera is part of the Andes mountain range, and comes with accordingly high altitude. Over the years, security and infrastructure here has improved to allow ambitious trekkers and campers access to this challenging and impossibly beautiful terrain.

Glastonbury, UK

This image (dating from 2005) is in no way meant to put you off from camping at Glastonbury, the world’s biggest and best green-field music festival…but it would be reckless to go without expecting a least a little British downpour at some point. Nothing can match the sight of thousands of exuberant festival-goers descending on the picturesque Vale of Avalon in Somerset in June.

Waitomo Caves, New Zealand

Waitomo sits on a veritable Swiss cheese of limestone, with deep sinkholes and beautifully sculpted tunnels all lit up by ghostly constellations of glow worms. As you ride in a dinghy across an inky underground lake the green pinpricks above your head resemble the heavens of some parallel universe.

Coober Pedy, Australia

In the virtually waterless outback, in searing temperatures and extreme terrain, the underground people of this town have created the “opal capital of the world”. The name Coober Pedy stems from an Aboriginal phrase meaning “white man’s burrow” and here homes, museums, opal shops and even art galleries all exist beneath the surface.

Cango Caves, South Africa

A quarter of a million visitors come to Oudtshoorn each year to gasp at the fantastic cavernous spaces, dripping rocks and towering columns of calcite in the Cango Caves. The awesome formations here are the work of water constantly percolating through rock and dissolving limestone on the way.

La Ville Souterraine, Canada

Winter in Canada is extreme and canny Montréalers have created the largest underground city in the world in order to avoid the cold. Since the 1960s, 33km of connected passages have spread to provide access to the Métro, major hotels, shopping malls, thousands of offices, apartments and restaurants and a good smattering of cinemas and theatres.

Craters of the Moon National Monument, USA

This surreal 83-square-mile park in southern Idaho arose from successive waves of lava pouring from wounds in the earth’s crust for over a millennium. The caves are damp, pitch black and silent, but where rocks have collapsed bright sunlight floods in to reveal the secrets of the underground.

City Hall Station, USA

This New York City subway station opened to great fanfare in 1904 but is today eerily silent. The architectural grandeur of the disused station – stained glass windows, skylights and brass chandeliers adorn its curved walls and arched ceilings – can only be viewed by passengers as train #6 loops back uptown or at occasional events like this Centennial celebration.

Yucatan’s cenotes, Mexico

The limestone shelf that forms the Yucatan Peninsula is riddled with sinkholes called cenotes. The most stunning are enormous deep wells of turquoise water set in dramatic caverns and considered by the Maya to be gateways to the underworld.

Puerto Princesa Underground River, Phillippines

A guided boat tour beneath low-lying limestone cliffs and through vast unlit sepulchral chambers is an unforgettable and magical experience. This unique underwater river system is said to be the longest in the world and is visited by more than five hundred thousand tourists each year.

Reed Flute Cave, China

Named for the reeds once found outside the entrance, this natural limestone cave is a brightly lit magical fairyland with impressive stalactites, stalagmites and rock formations. This reflective pool in the heart of the cave makes for a breathtaking spectacle.

Mary King’s Close, Scotland

Spooky tours led by costumed actors explore the warren of underground streets and spaces beneath Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. Tenements had been built on the steep hillside and when work on the City Chambers began in 1753, the tops of existing houses were simply sliced through and the new building constructed on top.

Ajanta Caves, India

Hewn from the near-vertical sides of a horseshoe-shaped ravine, the caves at Ajanta occupy a site worthy of the spectacular ancient art they contain. The remarkably preserved murals, carvings and sculpture dating from 200 BC to 650 AD are considered masterpieces of Buddhist religious art.

Derinkuyu Underground City, Turkey

Located in a rain-washed basin in Southern Cappadocia, this extensive ancient underground city contains family rooms, communal areas, stables, churches, wine and oil presses, chimneys to bring fresh air, wells to bring fresh water, a school complete with study rooms, and even makeshift tombs. Thousands of people could retreat behind stone doors to safety.

Catacombs of Paris, France

Tourists can wander through miles of claustrophobic, dark and damp caves, tunnels and quarries said to hold the bones of around six million Parisians. Lining the gloomy passageways, long thigh bones are stacked end-on, forming a wall to keep in the smaller bones and shards, which can be seen in dusty, higgledy-piggledy heaps behind.

Cheddar Caves, England

Beneath the towering Cheddar Gorge in the southwest of England, the Cheddar Caves were scooped out by underground rivers in the wake of the Ice Age. Today the vast caverns are floodlit so that visitors can gaze upon beautiful stalagmites, stalactites and rock formations mirrored in glassy pools.

Kverkfjöll Glacier Caves, Iceland

Lurking beneath Iceland’s stark interior is a frighteningly active volcano whose intense heat melts ice from the base of the glacier. The tunnels and caverns etched by the rivers are enthralling frozen palaces that stretch for over 2km and are best explored with an experienced guide.

Capuchin Ossuary, Italy

This macabre attraction beneath the Church of Santa Maria della Concezione in Rome displays the bones of more than 4,000 friars who died between 1500 and 1870 in elaborate and ornamental designs along the walls.

Casemates du Bock, Luxembourg

Beneath the northeastern corner of Luxembourg City’s old historic district, the vast network of underground passages and chambers here are a clear legacy of the country’s strategic position within Europe. Now a World Heritage Site, what remains of the underground ramparts is eerie, claustrophobic and utterly fascinating.

Grotto di Nettuno, Sardinia

Reached either by boat or by 656 vertiginous steps carved into the face of the cliff, these stunning natural caves became a popular tourist attraction after being discovered by fishermen in the eighteenth century. Stalactite and stalagmite formations and a saltwater lake are highlights inside.

Wieliczka Salt Mine, Poland

Placed on the original UNESCO World Heritage list in 1978, this astounding underground mine not far from Kraków is visited by more than one million tourists each year. Nine levels have more than 300km of galleries with works of art, altars, and historic and religious figures sculpted in the salt.

Grotte de Pech Merle, France

Original prehistoric cave paintings can be viewed close to the village of Cabrerets in southwest France. The astonishing rock art depicting bison and mammoths was discovered in 1922 and short of inventing a time machine, this is the closest you’ll get to the mind of Stone Age man.

Home of the EU, and for most people Europe’s most boring country, Belgium is hardly the most obvious choice for an activity holiday. Yet the thickly wooded hills of its southernmost region, the Ardennes, are one of the country’s biggest surprises: sharply scenic, with peaks of exposed limestone, criss-crossed with waymarked footpaths, busy with wildlife, and cut through by fast-flowing rivers, it’s a hiker’s and kayaker’s – even a climber’s – heaven.

First off, just walk. There is fantastic hiking all over the Ardennes, and at La Roche-en-Ardennes you can undertake any number of relatively easy hikes that loop out from the town; Rochefort, too, whose most popular walk is named after the Belgian King Albert I who was famously killed in a climbing accident in the Ardennes in the 1930s, is a great centre for both easy and more difficult treks. But at Rochehaut, northwest of Bouillon, the hikes get more serious, indeed the paths that follow the valley of the Semois river are definitely not for the fainthearts, with some very steep climbs, some of which you have to negotiate by means of handrails and fixed ladders, ropes and footbridges. But it’s well worth the effort, and the scenery is so spectacular, looking down on the sweeping meanders of the river, that you have to pinch yourself that, yes, you’re still in Belgium.

Scramble down to Bouillon from here for a spot of kayaking – a good place to start if you’re new to the sport. There are several outfits renting craft, and they’ll let you loose downriver and then pick you up at the end of the day, though be warned that in high summer it can be crowded and the water levels very low. If you’re still feeling energetic, spurn the outfitter’s minibus, and walk back to Bouillon, picking up one of any number of trails that lead back to the town, and maybe even stopping for a beer on the way. You may need to wade through some fast-flowing rapids to get served, but, hey, that’s Belgium.

See www.belgiumtheplaceto.be, www.wallonie-tourisme.be/accueil/fr and www.grsentiers.org for more.

 

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