If there is one thing even better than exploring the world it is discovering magical places in your own country. Despite having grown up in Scotland I knew nothing of the magical island of Iona until I set foot on it. Island of Iona

ISLE OF IONA’ by MISHIMOTO is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The Island of Iona is a tiny strip of land off the west coast of Scotland. Despite its insignificant size it played a big part in the history of Scotland. First of all, the Irish monk Columba set up a monastery here in the 6th century, which would be the religious centre of the region for centuries. It is also claimed that many ancient Scottish, Irish and Viking kings are buried here. To get here you need to take a ferry from the sleepy coastal town of Oban to the sleepier island of Mull. A quick bus trip to the other side of the island and you can hop on a short ferry trip to the positively laid back isle of Iona. Just before getting on this second ferry I can recommend the tiny second hand book shop someone has opened in their garage in this village. I picked up a copy of The Thirty Nine Steps which, for some reason, became the perfect companion on the island and is now inextricably linked to Iona in my head. Things to Do in Oban on the Way Island of Iona

Oban’ by Roy Lathwell is licensed under CC BY 2.0

On your way here it is recommended to spend a day or two in Oban. It is a cool little town with the most bizarre Roman style folly perched on top of it (see above picture). I decided to try a whisky in a small pub here and buy some tartan souvenirs, almost completely forgetting by this point that I had lived all of my life in this country to date. I was starting to feel like a tourist in my own country and I was loving that there were so many things to do in Oban. You can see the glorious isle of Iona right in front of you as soon as you head there on the second ferry. It is only 1 mile (2 km) by 4 miles (6 km) and counts with a population of just over 100 but it has a cultural legacy far greater than that. You may have once seen the beautiful Book of Kells, currently held in Trinity College in Dublin. This is a fantastic example of the fine religious art carried out here. As well as the ancient royals buried here, the late Labour leader John Smith also found his resting place on Iona. The graveyard is filled with Celtic crosses that have stood there for centuries and make it feel like a mystical, legendary place.

The Island of Iona – Includes joining the Sheep on the Beach

Island of Iona

Oban’ by Roy Lathwell is licensed under CC BY 2.0

It is a fascinating island with a lovely Abbey, deserted beaches and a peaceful, spiritual feel. Lots of pilgrims make the trip to Iona each year but when I went the only other visitors were a few Irish and Australian backpackers. Together we joined some sheep for a stroll along a beach and climbed the island’s highest point, which is a punishing 101 metres (331 ft) above sea level. There aren’t a lot of places to stay and eat here, so booking a room in advance is a good move. Once you get here you will find that it is a completely different type of travel destination from most of the popular places on the planet for travellers to see. This isn’t an action-packed destination where you will rush around to tick world famous sights off your to-do list. Instead, you will find that it is a spiritual, relaxed place to pass a couple of days and forget about the modern world for a while. Doesn’t that make it sound like the kind of place you would love to explore one day?

 

 

 


Iona’ images above by Roy Lathwell is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The Island of Iona – By Robert Bell

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Travelling the world can be a weird experience. Often you turn up to places knowing absolutely nothing about them.

On the bus to Baños, Ecuador, it suddenly struck me that this town had the same name that I had seen outside of public toilets in the past. Was I going to some sort of lavatory based Ecuadorian theme park? Thankfully, I later discovered that the name comes from the abundant hot springs around the place.

My first impression of Baños was that it was small and probably a bit boring. That was before I discovered the pleasure of seeping in hot water under a waterfall, watching toffee get stretched across the road and seeing possibly the world’s worst (best?) stuffed animal collection. For me it turned out to be one of the best places to visit in Ecuador.

Places to Visit in Ecuador

Taxidermy in Basilica Museum‘ by butforthesky is licensed under CC BY 2.0

 

Keep the Volcano at a Safe Distance

places to visit in ecuador

Thungurahua’ by Mihai is licensed under CC BY 2.0

First things first though; what on Earth was all that smoke I could see, that looked like it was billowing out of a volcano?

places to visit in ecuador

Vulcan Tungurahua’ by Rinaldo Wurglitsch is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Indeed. Baños is overlooked by a volcano called Tungurahua and sometimes it just, erupts. This was the first time I had seen this happen anywhere and so I urged a local taxi driver to take me closer. He looked at me like I was a lunatic and walked away, leaving me to admire the volcano from a safe distance.

I wasn’t all that bothered about the hot springs at first as hot water isn’t exactly a novelty in my life. Ah, but sitting in a hot pool under a waterfall as the sun sets, turned out to be a very special experience. The ideal way to enjoy it is to spend some time in the hot water, then jump into the cold plunge pool. It is an amazing feeling and it became clear why so many people from around the country take their Ecuador holidays in Baños.

After a relaxing hot bath there are few things I enjoy more than a visit to see some (badly) stuffed animals. One of the guys I was travelling with had heard of a bizarre museum in town with a weird collection of taxidermical disasters. We went in half expecting it to be a hoax but we then bumped into some of the most gruesome stuffed animals ever to exist. If my memory serves, it was a local priest who stuffed them, and it is fair to say that if there ever is a taxidermy competition for priests, he is unlikely to win.

Taxidermy in Basilica Museum’ by butforthesky is licensed under CC BY 2.0

One of the Best Places to Visit in Ecuador for? – Toffee and Guinea Pigs

After that, it was time for some toffee. This is a traditional product made in Baños and no Ecuador holidays are complete without it, or so the vendor told me. In an apparent attempt to maximise its tooth pulling potential it is put on a hook and stretched further than you would think possible before being put back on the hook and pulled again.

places to visit in ecuador

Melcocha’ by Rinaldo Wurglitsch is licensed under CC BY 2.0

It is a strangely riveting spectacle and my attention was so completely focussed on the toffee that it took time to see the – Good Lord- grilled guinea pig sitting behind me in a restaurant window.

Cuy, Baños, Ecuador’ by Rinaldo Wurglitsch is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Guinea pig is called cuy here when it is cooked and Baños is a top place to try it. I was told that it is necessary to book one in advance. This gave me the perfect opportunity to shrug my shoulders and say that I would definitely book my cute little guinea pig in advance the next time I was in town.

Baños Ecuador has a lot more to offer than it first appears. I also took a wander up the top of the local hill, following the Stations of the Cross up an arduous climb. It was worth it for the brilliant view I got at the top. This is a small town but it has a special place in my heart for a number of reasons now. Hey, I might even go back and try one of those guinea pigs one day. It should definitely be on your list of places to visit in Ecuador.

places to visit in ecuador

Banos, Ecuador’ by mark goble is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Baños, Ecuador’ by Rinaldo Wurglitsch is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Baños – One of the Best Places to Visit in Ecuador – by Robert Bell

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If there is one place that got me travelling in the first place it is Machu Picchu and the Machu Picchu hike over the Inca trail.

Machu Picchu Hike
Machu Picchu‘ by Ken Bosma is licensed under CC BY 2.0

It is hard to explain the allure this place has for me but as soon as I saw it on the tv I knew I had to go. From there, my first long overseas trip was built around the idea of going to Machu Picchu.

How to Get to Machu Picchu

There are a couple of ways of getting here; by train or by walking for 4 or 5 days on a Machu Picchu hike over the famous Inca Trail in Peru. Normally I take the lazy option whenever it is open to me but I just loved the idea of arriving to this iconic, abandoned city by foot.

The good news is that the walk isn’t all that tough. The altitude makes it kind of hard going at times, as it reaches a high of over 4,200 metres (13,800 ft). However, the overall distance covered is only a fairly modest 26 miles (43 km). The worst aspects of it are the cold and the uncomfortable sleeping on hard ground at night, while the lack of a shower for a few days kind of gets annoying. I still smelt great after 4 days but the other guys in my tent were starting to give off some pretty bad odours.

Amazing Machu Picchu, Peru from JD Andrews on Vimeo.

Machu Picchu Hike Pictures with an Inca Kola T-shirt

The best bit? That’s easy. On the last morning you make an early start and then stand at the Sun Gate to see the sun rise majestically behind this mysterious ruined city. If your heart doesn’t skip a beat at this sight it is probably time to check if you are still alive. I might even have jumped for joy at this point. This is also the point when you will want to crack out that amusing Inca Kola t-shirt you bought in Lima – don’t deny you bought one, we all do – and strike a pose for possibly the finest photo of your entire life.

Machu Picchu Hike

Tenzing Scales Machu Picchu‘ images below by icelight is licensed under CC BY 2.0

This incredible early morning view is the main fun you lose if you travel here by train, as well as the building excitement as you get closer to the place. I would imagine that the train is popular with older people, those who are very short of time and those who have some sort of health problem that stops them from doing the walk. However, if you have even the slightest possibility of walking the Inca Trail then I would urge you to do it. In fact, I am typing this while on my knees begging you to do it. There were a few older people in my group, so don’t automatically assume that you can’t do the Machu Picchu hike without checking the facts. Once you check out how to get to Machu Picchu by walking you will certainly want to try it.

Machu Picchu Hike

Once you reach the city your tour guide will take you on a walk round and tell you some of the facts. I enjoyed the walk getting here, more than my time in the city itself but it has to be said, it is a magical place. Machu Picchu means Old Mountain and you can also go for a wander over to Huayna Picchu (Young Mountain) to see it from a different view and take some alternative Machu Picchu pictures.

Every now and then scare stories come out about the Inca Trail being closed altogether or at least having the number of visitors seriously reduced. At the time of writing, it is still very much open but you will want to book well in advance in order to secure a place on a hike, as you can’t walk it alone and it gets very busy.

The altitude issues mean that you will also want to spend a few days in Cusco before you head off to Machu Picchu. This is no bad thing, as it is a stunning travel destination in its own right. In fact, it is so good that it definitely deserves its own article rather than just a few lines here.

Machu Picchu‘ images below by Martin Lang is licensed under CC BY 2.0

 

Tourism in Sikkim is important and not surprising with it’s pristine natural beauty including majestic mountains, sweeping glaciers and lush green forests. It’s nature-walks are a breath of fresh air for any who have been blessed to tread her soil.

Tourism in Sikkim has led to their tourism board promoting the state as ‘Small but beautiful’. Which is very apt, as the smallness of the geographical area (Sikkim is only 7100 sq. km) belies the fact it has such enormous diversity in terms of people, flora and fauna. A predominantly Buddhist and Hindu population, Sikkim’s culture and practices revolve around the simple teachings of two of the oldest religions of the world, adapting to survive in a region with both alpine and sub-tropical attributes and yet smiling at every step of the way.

tourism Sikkim

Prayer Wheels Rinchenpong

Friendly people, great food, an incredible amount of bio diversity that includes more than 5000 species of flowering plants, more than 500 types of orchids and several varieties of rhododendron, ferns, conifers and of course to top it all off, the majestic Kanchenjunga, the third highest peak in the world; It has more in store than you could absorb in just a few days. No wonder it was rated as the world’s top destination to visit in 2014 by Lonely Planet magazine. With or without this rating, Sikkim has been and still is one of the best places to visit in the world and one of the top five tourist destinations in India.

tourism sikkim

Rumtek Monastery, Sikkim

Sikkim‘ by Arthur Pazo is licensed under CC BY 2.0




Political background of Sikkim

Sikkim was always a separate monarchy. The tiny Himalayan nation fought bitter battles for survival with its neighbor Nepal. It was however protected by the British India government and after India became sovereign it acceded to India. Today, it is an integral part of the nation.

Best time to go

Sikkim’s penchant to wow you at every turn is what makes it a fantastic place to visit. Tourism in Sikkim has lots to offer no matter what season you visit, though it is best to avoid the monsoons, which starts late may / early June and continues well into September. The nature of the soil which is particularly susceptible to erosion does not help its cause either and the state experiences quite a few landslides which blocks roads for days.

tourism sikkim

Travelling within Sikkim

For less than $100 a day you can book an all-wheel drive vehicle that will drive you to any place and any location you wish to and have a permit to. Foreign nationals travelling to Sikkim will require an inner line permit. For backpackers and those who want to spend less than $50 a day, local taxis are available at almost all places. Shared taxis running on fixed routes are far cheaper and will cost you less than 1/10th if you rent a car for your sole use for the same distance.

Stay in Sikkim

Having one of the smallest GDPs among Indian states, with few industries, the majority of the people live on the income that is generated through tourism in Sikkim. In recent years efforts by the ministry of tourism in Sikkim and various local bodies have helped communities in rural areas to open up their homes to tourists. Humble accommodations, home cooked food and a chance to meet and mix with the people drives tourists, mainly those who love to stay away from the hum-dim of noisy towns to stay in these village home-stays. One such lovely accommodation is the Dhungay Homestay which is situated at 15th mile Martam between the villages Hee and Bermiok on the road leading from Jorethang to Pelling.  I highly recommend this place.

Places to visit

The best places to visit in Sikkim include Barsey, Gorudongmar, Nathula (part of the ancient Silk Route), Yuksom and Yumthang.

Sikkim‘ by Sukanto Debnath is licensed under CC BY 2.0









Sikkim‘ by Sourav Das is licensed under CC BY 2.0





 

 

Tourism Sikkim – by Rajib Mukherjee

Whether you still call it Burma, or it’s now, not so new name, Myanmar, as it is officially known, one thing is for sure, this is a country you should be heading to quick time.  Why visit Burma now? There’s no rush, right? Well yes, there kind of is.

why visit burma

‘U Bein Bridge, Mandalay’ by Staffan Scherz is licensed under CC BY 2.0

So, why visit Burma? All this..

And this

Basically Burma isn’t somewhere that has been easily accessible for many years, in fact tourism was a big no no. In recent years this has all changed, and although it’s not currently at the same level as places around it, such as Thailand, it is possible to head to beach resorts and cities to explore the stunning nature, culture, and wildlife that make up the jaw-dropping country as it is now. It’s illegal to camp, and you must stay in a licensed hotel, of which there aren’t that many, but if you manage to base yourself somewhere central then you’re certainly good to go.

I say you need to go now, or at least very soon, because the fact is that as soon as somewhere opens up to tourism, everyone gets on the band wagon. We mentioned Thailand a little earlier; once upon a time this used to be somewhere only backpackers and the intrepid went to, but nowadays everyone and their auntie is heading off for a Full Moon party or trekking through the jungle on the back of an elephant. Burma isn’t mainstream yet, and that’s what makes up so much of its charm.

why visit burma

Sunrise view from Golden Mountain

Mysterious, misty mountains stand imposing against lush, green landscapes, almost like something from another world. Remember the Jurassic Park film, the Lost World? Do you remember how it looked so earie and prehistoric, well to me that’s how Burma looks. There is something so stunningly natural and unspoilt about it that it must be retained for as long as possible – of course it won’t be, because tourism will take over, because tourism means money, and economies love money.

As it stands at the current time, Burma has retained a lot of the old Orient, something you won’t find anywhere else, because even China has lost a lot of this with the influx of visitors from all over the world. On top of this, traditions and cultures remain, and this is one of those places that you will feel you are really travelling in, not just visiting. Exploring somewhere as it is in its purest form is the best way to get a real feel.

I can compare this to where I am currently residing, in Turkey. Basically I am in a country that is rich in culture and traditions, but I am living in a tourist resort, and many days I feel like I am back home in the UK. In Burma this isn’t the case, because you are living the life of the locals when you head here, even to the few tourist resorts that are currently cropping up around the country.

So, if you want to visit somewhere authentic and real, before everyone else cottons on to the trend, I suggest travelling to Burma, sooner, rather than later.

Bagan, Myanmar Images below by KX Studio is licensed under CC BY 2.0









Burma/Myanmar‘ by dany13 is licensed under CC BY 2.0