The city of 60 gardens

When Shanghai residents are looking to escape, they head to this tranquil city of gardens and canals.

Life in one of the world’s most populous cities can be exhausting, which is why Shanghai residents are always looking for ways to escape the skyscrapers and traffic.

A favourite option lies just 100km to the east of the Chinese megacity – and only 30 minutes away by high-speed rail: the historic city of Suzhou.

Founded in 514 BC by King Helü of the Kingdom of Wu, Suzhou is one of the Yangtze Delta’s oldest and most prosperous cities. Its position between the Yangtze River in the north and Taihu Lake to the west meant that the city always had an abundant water supply, which fed the canals and classical gardens that Suzhou is world famous for.

The tranquil Master of the Nets Garden is a popular attraction (Credit: Credit: Rita Heine/Flickr/CC-BY-ND-2.0)

The tranquil Master of the Nets Garden is a popular attraction (Credit: Rita Heine/Flickr/CC-BY-ND-2.0)

The first gardens were built in the 6th Century BC, but at the city’s heyday (roughly from 1500 to 1700), Suzhou had more than 800 of these tranquil spots, designed by scholars to replicate the natural environment on a smaller scale. Today there are 60 left to explore, nine of which are recognised asUnesco World Heritage sites.

My first stop was the Humble Administrator’s Garden–Suzhou’s largest – located north of the historical quarter. The secluded 52,000sqm park was commissioned between 1510 and 1516 by tired political envoy and poet Wang Xiangcheng, who wanted a place to spend his retirement in peace.

From the tall entrance gates, a labyrinth of cobblestone pathways led to small pavilions scattered throughout the garden on low, rocky hills; their curved roofs providing shade for the visitors resting on wooden benches below. In the garden’s centre were a number of ponds, interconnected via narrow streams that flowed underneath charming bridges, replete with darting orange-and-silver fish.

Scenic Suzhou is an inspiration hotspot for artists (Credit: Credit: Eva Rammeloo)

Scenic Suzhou is an inspiration hotspot for artists (Credit: Eva Rammeloo)

There must have been at least 100 admirers trying to catch the lush landscape on paper. Art students with sketchbooks and easels sat on the pavilion steps, or on large, smooth rocks by the main pond, which was barely visible under gigantic lotus leaves. It was a beautiful – though crowded – sight.

I made my way next door, to the free Suzhou Garden Museum. Inside the low Ming-style building were landscape designs made by artists hired by Suzhou’ intellectual elite during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties. Over hundreds of years, a large elite class had formed here due to Suzhou’s prosperity from trade and manufacturing, making the city synonymous with high culture and elegance.

The narrow canals remind visitors of a time when Suzhou was less populous (Credit: Credit: Russ Bowling/Flickr/CC-BY-2.0)

The narrow canals remind visitors of a time when Suzhou was less populous (Credit: Russ Bowling/Flickr/CC-BY-2.0)

Back then it was believed that the unpredictable beauty of nature allowed intellectuals to think properly. This meant that having a garden was essential – and so a green space became part of every Suzhou household. While the elite competed over their elaborate garden designs, even the poorest city dweller would have planted some shrubs in his courtyard.

Chinese classical gardens are significantly different from gardens in the Western world, however. As the Chinese believe, Europeans want to conquer nature, keeping plants and bushes behind their appointed boundaries. Chinese garden designers, on the other hand, seek to find the ultimate harmony between man and the natural world.

Chinese tourists kick back in Suzhou (Credit: Credit: Eva Rammeloo)

Chinese tourists kick back in Suzhou (Credit: Eva Rammeloo)

This means that although the bushes, plants, trees and flowers might seem to grow wildly, they are in fact meticulously planned around pavilions, ponds and bridges in order to reflect the Chinese appreciation of balance and harmony. Rocks play an especially important role in this philosophy, symbolising the bridge between humans and nature. Although stones might look scattered, their placement between the manmade pathways and the garden’s natural elements – bushes, trees and waterfalls – is highly deliberate.

To see the city in its heyday, visit Suzhou’s small historic quarter. White two-storey Ming-style houses look over tranquil canals bordered by graceful willows, and playful stone bridges and steps descend from the quays. The contrast with Shanghai’s shiny skyscrapers and intense traffic couldn’t be clearer.

Visitors can enjoy a boat ride through Suzhou's canals (Credit: Credit: Eva Rammeloo)

Visitors can enjoy a boat ride through Suzhou’s canals (Credit: Eva Rammeloo)

At times, the main street Pingjiang lu can feel like a tourist hotspot, with vendors selling everything from Nutella waffles to brightly-coloured Chinese fans. But when I visited, there was nothing glossy about the traditional wooden boats that drifted through the canals, steered by scruffy old men who didn’t seem at all eager to take my money.

I decided to stop for a light lunch of juicy xiaolongbao at Shi Jian Huo Jian, an unpretentious restaurant on the crossing of Pingjiang lu and Baita lu. This delicious dish of small, steamed, meat-filled soup dumplings is typical to the Jiangnan area, where both Shanghai and Suzhou are situated.

Traditional soup dumplings, called xiaolongbao, are a Suzhou favourite (Credit: Credit: Eva Rammeloo)

Traditional soup dumplings, called xiaolongbao, are a Suzhou favourite (Credit: Eva Rammeloo)

My final stop for the day was Jinji Lake, 7km to the east and one of the many lakes in the area that helps bring calm and cool air to the city.

While the lanes were narrow in the historic quarter, the landscape was here vast and open. As I followed a long, winding boulevard along the water, the only sounds were my footsteps on the wooden boardwalk and faint conversations blown from over the water. The few visitors I could see were riding the tandems and tricycles for hire on the west side of the lake. On the opposite side, the outline of a Ferris wheel loomed through the fog next to a series of high rises. Boats drifted to the manmade isles in the lake’s centre. As I strolled a little further, I heard some older ladies chatting in a thick Suzhou accent.

The water around Suzhou offers space and tranquility (Credit: Credit: Eva Rammeloo)

The water around Suzhou offers space and tranquility (Credit: Eva Rammeloo)

I felt myself relax and unwind. If I’d had more time, I would have gone camping at Lake Taihu in Suzhou’s southwest or visited the famous old town of Tongli in the city’s south. For now, though, I stopped and listened to the birds and the sound of the boats splashing on the water, enjoying the solitude and peace before returning to the hustle and bustle of Shanghai.

These cars are seriously adorable

Driving past towering icons like Big Ben and the Matterhorn, these tiny cars are taking on some proportionally epic adventures.

Travel photographers often strive to capture wide-sweeping landscapes or aerial city shots that showcase a destination at its most grand. But Swiss artist Kim Leuenberger is turning that idea on its head: photographing icons like Big Ben and the Matterhorn at a micro level and using tiny toy cars to change viewers’ perspectives.

Leuenberger’s first tiny-car-photo was shot for an autism awareness project in Switzerland four years ago – and the feedback was overwhelmingly positive. Commenters said the little blue minivan brought them joy, so Leuenberger decided to turn photographing tiny cars into a bigger, personal project.

Behind the scenes of the tiny car adventure in the Isle of Skye (Credit: Credit: Alexandra Lhermitte Schwass)

Behind the scenes of the tiny car adventure in the Isle of Skye (Credit: Alexandra Lhermitte Schwass)

“I started buying more cars and taking them to different places. Now I always have a little car in my bag, just in case the occasion comes up,” Leuenberger said. “When I travel, I go with five different cars, finding the right car for the right place.”

In her photos, Leuenberger only hints at the destinations her cars travel to, subtly showing landmarks in the background. She prefers to highlight the more adventurous side of the vehicles’ personalities, positioning them as though they are splashing around in the water or off-roading in the mountains.

The tiny cars have journeyed to destinations like Greece, Spain and England, where Leuenberger studies photography at the University of Arts in London. She hopes to take them further north to Iceland soon, and her dream is to photograph her classic vans on the California coast.

“I keep taking these pictures because I have fun doing it,” Leuenberger said. “People say it makes them happy, and I love making people smile.”

Catalonia, Spain (Credit: Credit: Kim Leuenberger)

Catalonia, Spain (Credit: Kim Leuenberger)

Hitchin, Hertfordshire, England (Credit: Credit: Kim Leuenberger)

Hitchin, Hertfordshire, England (Credit: Kim Leuenberger)

Fairy Pools, Isle of Skye, Scotland (Credit: Credit: Kim Leuenberger)

Fairy Pools, Isle of Skye, Scotland (Credit: Kim Leuenberger)

London, England (Credit: Credit: Kim Leuenberger)

London, England (Credit: Kim Leuenberger)

Graubünden, Switzerland (Credit: Credit: Kim Leuenberger)

Graubünden, Switzerland (Credit: Kim Leuenberger)

Durdle Door, Dorset, England (Credit: Credit: Kim Leuenberger)

Durdle Door, Dorset, England (Credit: Kim Leuenberger)

The abandoned mansions of billionaires

While most of Shekhawati’s havelis have crumbled and remain abandoned, a small window into the world of these painted mansions is being preserved.

A former home of opulence

(Credit: Neelima Vallangi)

A former home of opulence
Forgotten in the barren landscapes of Rajasthan’s Thar Desert, the Shekhawati region was once home to the unabashed opulence of India’s billionaires. Today, many of the billionaires’ grand havelis(mansions) are crumbling – the fading frescoes marking the only vestiges of the area’s vanished glory. (Credit: Neelima Vallangi)

Drenching the dusty towns in colour

(Credit: Neelima Vallangi)

Drenching the dusty towns in colour
With paintings covering nearly every inch of the grand havelis, the towns and villages of Shekhawati encompass the world’s largest concentration of magnificent frescoes in a single region. To protect these once grand estates from crumbling further, two districts within Shekhawati have banned the sale of the havelis to anyone who could harm their heritage look. Their aim is to conserve and promote Shekhawati as a tourist destination. (Credit: Neelima Vallangi)

Modest merchant homes gave way to grand mansions

(Credit: Neelima Vallangi)

The rise of merchant success
Founded by the eponymous Rajput chieftain Rao Shekha in the late 15th Century, Shekhawati prospered immensely at the turn of the 19th Century. The region reduced taxes to lure merchants and diverted all caravan trade from the nearby commercial centres of Jaipur and Bikaner. Merchants belonging to the Marwari and Bania community, a renowned ethnic trading group in India, moved into Shekhawati from the surrounding towns, and amassed great wealth through a  flourishing trade in opium, cotton and spices. Modest merchant homes started giving way to grand mansions by the end of the 19th Century. (Credit: Neelima Vallangi)

Havelis acted as lavish displays of wealth

(Credit: Neelima Vallangi)

Where wealth melds with artistic expression
When trade moved from caravan routes to sea routes and railways in the 1820s, Rajasthan’s trade centres were on a steady decline. However, the enterprising merchants of Shekhawati followed the money trail and moved to the fledgling port towns of Bombay and Calcutta on the Indian coast, sending back enormous amounts of money to their homes in Shekhawati and thus heralding an era of uniquely painted havelis that acted as lavish displays of wealth. (Credit: Neelima Vallangi)

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Many courtyards and elaborate designs
Most Havelis were built in a similar architectural style – usually two storied buildings with two to four open courtyards arranged within a rectangular block. Each courtyard and the corresponding rooms were designated for specific purposes. The first courtyard after entering the house was for men and their business dealings, the second was for women and the other two were for cooking and animal stables. But the merchants left no stone unturned in giving their mansions a distinct look, with ornately carved wooden entrances, pompous mirror work and the defining differentiator: ostentatious paintings depicting daily life and mythology. (Credit: Neelima Vallangi)

Frescoes adorn every surface

(Credit: Neelima Vallangi)

Frescoes adorn every surface
Inspired by the 17th-century ochre frescoes introduced by the Rajput kings of Jaipur in Amer Fort, the merchants commissioned intricate paintings on every inch of the mansion walls – including exteriors, interiors, ceilings and even the spaces under the arches and eaves. Scenes from the ancient Hindu epics of Mahabharata and Ramayana – along with plenty of decorative floral designs and patterns – were the most common motifs featured in the frescoes for a large part of the 19th Century. (Credit: Neelima Vallangi)

Painters were commissioned to paint havelis

(Credit: Neelima Vallangi)

A wide range of colours
Painters were first commissioned from the city of Jaipur, but after noticing a rising interest in frescoes, members from the potter community in Shekhawati started learning the craft and created a proliferation of distinct styles across different villages. It is not entirely clear if the artists had full reign over the designs or if they were given specific instructions in choosing patterns and mythological scenes.

Before the mid-19th Century, traditional pigments made from minerals and vegetables dominated the colour palette, with intense shades of reds, maroons, indigo, lapis lazuli and copper blue along with bright yellow supposedly made out cow’s urine. Starting 1860s, synthetic pigments came into use, which were cheaper and offered a wide range of new colours. (Credit: Neelima Vallangi)

Frescoes in havelis began depicting European influences

(Credit: Neelima Vallangi)

Mixing myth and the modern
By the early 20th Century, the frescoes began depicting European influences and modern advancements – recollections from what the well-travelled merchants had seen in the big cities. In some rare cases, the painters were sent to observe and recreate the scenes. Among the traditional motifs, there are frescoes of Queen Elizabeth, Jesus, cherubs, steam engines and gramophones, as well as whacky creations mixing mythology with modern inventions, such as Hindu gods in chauffeur-driven cars (pictured). (Credit: Neelima Vallangi)

Havelis were abandoned for good after the 20th Century

(Credit: Neelima Vallangi)

Abandoned for good
The havelis and frescoes of Shekhawati blossomed until the early 20th Century; after which, the rich business tycoons left the desert wasteland for better opportunities in bustling metropolises like Bombay and Calcutta and even abroad. After the trade moved elsewhere, there was little development in the arid lands of Shekhawati, and the havelis were abandoned for good.

Some of the biggest names in the Indian and global business scene today – including the likes of the steel baron Laxmi Mittal, Kumar Birla of Aditya Birla Group, pharmaceutical billionaire Ajay Piramaland Nepal’s only billionaire, Binod K Chaudhary, had their origins in the villages of Shekhawati. In fact, according to Forbes, almost 25% of India’s 100 richest were from Shekhawati. (Credit: Neelima Vallangi)

By the 1950s, havelis were falling into steady despair

(Credit: Neelima Vallangi)

The high cost of upkeep
By the 1950s, the thriving towns that had raised these billionaires were falling into steady despair. Selling or renovating these rural family bungalows – some of which could house up to 50 families at once – is a difficult job. The cost of upkeep is high and many of the properties, usually shared between multiple heirs, are embroiled in legal disputes. But since havelis are private properties, the government cannot do much to preserve them. (Credit: Neelima Vallangi)

A new life for the Shekhawati mansions

(Credit: Neelima Vallangi)

A new life for the Shekhawati mansions
Luckily, the beauty and cultural significance of these painted havelis is not lost on everyone. In 1999, French artist Nadine Le Prince bought the 1802-built Nand Lal Devra Haveli (now called Nadine Le Prince Cultural Centre) and painstakingly restored it to its former glory in the town of Fatehpur. In the neighbouring towns of Dunlod and Nawalgarh, Seth Arjun Das Goenka Haveli and Shri Jairam Dasji Morarka’s family mansions have also been restored and turned into museums for public viewings. A few other havelis-turned-museums are scattered in the hinterlands of Shekhawati, and some like Malji ka Kamra, Koolwal Kothi and Castle Mandawa have been turned into heritage hotels.

While some of the havelis may crumble and fall apart – their glory lives on in others. (Credit: Neelima Vallangi)

The demise of a ‘mini-Amazon’?

The controversial Nicaragua canal, dubbed the largest engineering project in history, is forcing a small, sleepy community into the spotlight.

A sleepy, isolated island community in Nicaragua, nestled at the foot of one of Central America’s most active volcanoes, faces an uncertain future. But the danger doesn’t come from the perpetual risk of geological disaster. The threat is manmade.

A view of the volcano Conception (Credit: Credit: Sarah Shearman)

A view of the volcano Conception. (Credit: Sarah Shearman)

Over the past decade, tourism to Isla Ometepe has grown as word of its Eden-like natural beauty has spread. But this dual volcanic island in the middle of Lake Nicaragua, often dubbed a “mini-Amazon”, recently found itself at the centre of a controversial mega-engineering project: a Chinese-run, interoceanic canal that will be deeper and longer than Panama’s, ideal for giant cargo ships.

The proposed 278km route, connecting the Caribbean Sea and Pacific Ocean, will carve through Lake Nicaragua, potentially displacing the surrounding rainforest and threatening indigenous communities. The route will also bring the supertankers right past Ometepe’s Eden.

Work on the canal officially began in December 2014, sparking a wave of protests from those who are worried about losing their homes, and the damage the canal might cause to the environment. Doubts have also been raised over whether there will be enough funding to complete the canal within the allotted five-year plan.

The 267sqkm island, home to a population of just under 30,000, receives about 40,000 visitors a year. Between the rough ferry ride over and the island’s bone-shaking roads, it’s understandable that visitor numbers are still relatively low, even with the island’s incredible beauty.

Birds fly over Rio Istiam (Credit: Credit: Sarah Shearman)

Birds fly over Rio Istiam. (Credit: Sarah Shearman)

On the day that I crossed Lake Nicaragua – Central America’s largest body of freshwater, so vast that Spanish Conquistadors believed it was open sea – Isla Ometepe’s volcanoes were engulfed in a heavy cloud clover that burst as soon as I stepped onto the port. The lush vegetation beamed Day-Glo green against the remaining grey in the sky. Birds and butterflies scattered while villagers carried on with their days. Turns out, the only thing that moved fast here was the weather.

I was staying at Hacienda Mérida, a former farm/coffee-processing plant-turned-ecolodge located in Volcan Maderas National Park. Its owner, Alvaro Molina, was one of the first to bring tourism to the island when he opened the lodge in 2001.

A jetty from the lodge offered uninterrupted views of Conceptión, the 1,610m-tall, very active volcano that towered over Lake Nicaragua. Ometepe’s extinct volcano, Maderas, with its jagged rainforest-covered peak, formed the lodge’s backdrop. Instead of trekking, swimming, kayaking, cycling and horse riding – all popular activities here – I chose a hammock with a view, and flopped.

Conception engulfed in heavy cloud clover (Credit: Credit: Sarah Shearman)

Conception engulfed in heavy cloud clover. (Credit: Sarah Shearman)

The next morning, I set off early to kayak on Río Istiam, a river and swamp that cuts inland through the middle of the hourglass-shaped island. On the 3km paddle towards the river mouth, I passed villagers swimming and fishing in the lake. My guide, Maykel Carillo, said locals used to stay out of the water because it was once infested with bull sharks. By the 1980s, overfishing and a shark fin trade wiped-out the population, but some say a few still lurk under the surface. I dipped in my paddle with extra caution.

Lake Nicaragua will need to be dredged in order to build a canal that’s deep enough for giant cargo ships. “It will kill this lake,” Carillo said. “Many flora and fauna will die.” The local people, most of who are subsistence farmers and rely on fishing, do not have the skills required for the type of jobs the canal will create, Carillo added. “Some have never been to school, so there is no opportunity for them,” he said.

On the other hand, Nicaragua is one of the poorest countries in the world. Officials expect the canal to bring in an investment of more than one trillion cordoba, which would more than triple the size of the current economy.

As we entered the lagoon, the volume of birdsong dialled up a few notches. The wetland is home to an abundance of birdlife, and we spotted egrets, herons, jacanas and blue jays . A committee of vultures perched on gnarled tree branches jutting out of the tranquil water. Conceptión, and the cloud surrounding its peak, created a perfect reflection on the lake’s glass-like surface.

After an hour of paddling – we see a caiman! Or a log! No… it’s a log – we headed back, spotting a turtle, or maybe a rock, on the way.

Many travellers climb Ometepe’s volcanoes, but weather conditions often turn the hike into a walk in the clouds. This was a convenient excuse for me to try a lighter 3km hike to the island’s 50m-high waterfall, San Ramón. As I set out on the rainforest path that runs up the side of Maderas, I spotted a group of howler monkeys, chattering among themselves as they swung through the branches. After an hour’s scramble, I reached the thundering waterfall, its cold mist wonderfully refreshing after the drenching humidity of the jungle.

Hiking to the San Ramon waterfall (Credit: Credit: Sarah Shearman)

Hiking to the San Ramon waterfall. (Credit: Sarah Shearman)

At sunset, the guests at Hacienda Mérida gathered on its jetty. Some paddled out in kayaks towards the sinking sun, which cast a soft, purple hue over the scorched earth of Conceptión’s facade.

Molina traced the horizon with his arm. “In about five years, huge ships could pass by here,” he told me.

There is a still a huge amount of community uncertainty around the proposals, Molina said. The canal could attract more tourists to see the spectacle, like in Panama, he added – especially now that Ometepe has a new airstrip.

Coupled with an influx of workers who will move to the island for canal jobs, Molina said he’s concerned about the sustainability of this population growth, especially since the island already struggles with waste disposal from the minimal tourism it currently gets. For the time being, he has devised his own solution; he’s collected disused plastic and turned it into building material, using it to construct a school next to the lodge where guests are able to volunteer.

Flora and fauna on the island (Credit: Credit: Sarah Shearman)

Flora and fauna on the island. (Credit: Sarah Shearman)

Environmental groups such as Forests of the World have warned about the damage that the canal could wreak over this biosphere, leading to the destruction of habitat, pollution, introduction of invasive species and deterioration of drinking and irrigation water reserves. Molino said a potential upside could be the range of ecological studies carried out for the first time, bringing top biologists and entomologists to Ometepe to conduct research. “Huge amounts of data will be collected and hundreds of new species will be identified – a lot of biological information that was not known now will be.” The canal could also help prevent deforestation – a major problem in Nicaragua – if it succeeds in lifting people out of poverty. “But if the government doesn’t improve education in a dramatic way, then really, the canal will serve no purpose because most of those jobs will be set out for foreigners,” Molino said.

By my last day on the island, the cloud that had been enveloping Conceptión’s peak lifted, unveiling the volcano in its full magnitude. It had been five years since it last erupted, and against the clear blue sky it was possible to see the dents and scars on the almost-red facade.

On the way to the ferry port, I stopped off at a spit that juts out into lake. The black sand, just visible, looked like the back of a whale emerging from the water. I walked to the end, ankles just below the water, and was able to see the famous image of the island, described by Mark Twain in his book Travels with Mr Brown: “Two magnificent pyramids, clad in the softest and richest green, all flecked with shadow and sunshine, whose summits pierce the billowy clouds.”

But 149 years after Twain visited, with such uncertainty over the future of the island, I wondered if the author’s observation about Ometepe – “so isolated from the world and its turmoil” – would remain as enduring as the image before me did now.

A 77km hike that could inspire miracles

With Spain’s Camino de Santiago becoming a victim of its own success, Matthew Hirtes chose to walk this less-crowded, less-known version of the pilgrimage, 1,750km to the south.

Everyone’s heard of Spain’s Camino de Santiago, the 100km-plus Way of St James route that leads pilgrims to Galicia’s cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, where the saint’s remains are believed to be buried. But it will probably come as some surprise to learn there’s another Camino 1,750km to the south, on the mid-Atlantic island of Gran Canaria.


Gran Canaria holds the hidden Camino (Credit: Credit: Guido Haeger/Wikipedia)

Gran Canaria holds the hidden Camino (Credit: Guido Haeger/Wikipedia)

This pilgrimage is so unknown that even people on the island couldn’t seem to give me any information. The details provided by the island’s official tourist board proved sketchy; a pair of French walkers hadn’t heard of the trail and a toothless local suggested I walk along the main road instead. Undeterred, I did my best to keep on track, determined to finish what I’d started.

The world-famous Camino de Santiago had been on my bucket list for many years. I’d heard that its length requires an endurance that separates the hikers from the schleppers, and I was eager to prove my strength after a lifetime of trekking. But then I discovered that only 1% of it takes place on a dirt track; the rest is made up of roads and motorways. I also didn’t want to become just another roadie, one of the around 300,000 hikers who complete the epic trek every year. I was looking for a less-crowded, more spiritual pilgrimage – which was how I found out about this second Camino de Santiago, where 99% of the route is on a dirt track and only a handful of people walk it each year.

Gran Canaria’s Camino de Santiago historically ran between the island’s two major churches dedicated to St James: one in the south-central village of Tunte and the other in the town of Gáldar in the northwest. In 2011, the trail was extended southwards to create a coast-to-coast walk through the lush interior of Gran Canaria.

One of the two major St. James churches is in the town of Gáldar (Credit: Credit: Cristian Bortes/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

One of the two major St. James churches is in the town of Gáldar (Credit: Cristian Bortes/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

The island was colonised by the Spanish in the 15th Century as the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile sought to expand the newly unified country. The conquerors built a church dedicated to St James (their country’s patron saint) in Gáldar – the first Jacobean place of worship constructed away from the Spanish mainland.

Legend has it that Galician sailors ran aground off the coast of Arguineguín in the island’s southwest in the 16th Century. With them, they carried an image of St James on their shoulders as a way of giving thanks for arriving safe and sound on land. They placed this polychrome sculpture in a hermitage they constructed in the Valle de La Plata, before it was moved to the village church of Tunte in 1850. A pilgrimage from one church to the other soon developed, following the seasonal goat herds’ route from north to south and back again. This pilgrimage was originally walked by islanders who were looking for a miracle, or by those who had pledged to do so after their prayers were answered.

Today’s extended Camino de Santiago’s route (a 76.9km, three-day, three-stage hike) starts at the Maspalomas Tourist Information Office, which confusingly is not in the holiday spot of Maspalomas but in the neighbouring resort of Playa del Inglés. There, on a gaudy parade of piercing studios and tattoo parlours, I spotted the first Camino-related sign. (Keep an eye out for Ruta Jacobea signs as well, as the Camino de Santiago’s also known as the Jacobean Route.)

In Artenara, many locals still live in cave houses (Credit: Credit: Siepmann/Alamy)

In Artenara, many locals still live in cave houses (Credit: Siepmann/Alamy)

More by chance than by design, given a general scarcity of signage, I ended up on the second route option of the hike’s first stage, heading through the Degollada de Garito, a sheer incline between ravines. I passed the eerie Arteara Necropolis, the burial ground of the Amazigh-descendingcanarii (Gran Canaria’s aboriginal people who occupied the island prior to the 15th-century Spanish conquest). My progress was largely a solitary one, save for a Jeep safari that created a whirlwind of dust. Dwarfed by the volcanic slopes that descended to the left and right of me, I felt humbled by the sheer force of nature.

Gran Canaria is celebrated for its light, but the sun goes down quickly. So, at 7 pm, I set up camp in an orchard close to the village of Fataga. The wind spookily whistled through the surrounding fruit trees, but I was comforted by the fact that I could see the odd car travelling along the nearby main road.

The next day, suitably refreshed, I was able to make up lost ground, reaching Tunte, where Gran Canaria’s original Camino de Santiago began, by mid-morning. Here, I paid my respects by stepping through the door of the church, which was constructed towards the end of the 17th Century over the former hermitage of San Bartolomé. Fittingly, an effigy of the saint, a missionary who brought Christianity to Armenia, still occupies the central part of the altarpiece. But I was more moved by the original statue of St James. Despite my not being particularly religious, I was awed by its presence.

The village of Fataga is located in a valley (Credit: Credit: Michele Falzone/Alamy)

The village of Fataga is located in a valley (Credit: Michele Falzone/Alamy)

The next section of the route was the 18.8km ascent to the heart of the island. My wife had packed my rucksack for me, and even trying it on in our living room, I’d stumbled under the weight. The burden became heavier as the path became steeper, and it was frustrating to see the odd cyclist whizz past. But my shoulders lifted with my spirits as I came to a clearing at the edge of a pine forest.

Ahead, I could see the distinctive shape of the rock formation Roque Bentayga; the mountain Teide loomed above it on the neighbouring island of Tenerife. To the left, I could make out  El Fraile, a rock so called because its shape is reminiscent of a monk, and La Rana, which looks like a frog. Tired by a day’s hiking, the heart-stopping vista felt like a godsend. It was almost as if the monk was sharing a miracle with me.

The mountain air might have been sweet, but it was colder than the lower-altitude valley of Fataga. Given the island’s variety of climates and landscapes, I was beginning to understand why it’s known as the Miniature Continent. And so I spent a chilly night sleeping rough in the hamlet of Cruz de Tejeda, named after its totem-pole-esque stone cross that marks the island’s exact centre.

The El Fraile rock is shaped like a monk (Credit: Credit: Lunamarina/YAY Media AS/Alamy)

The El Fraile rock is shaped like a monk (Credit: Lunamarina/YAY Media AS/Alamy)

The third stage from Cruz to Tejeda to Gáldar is the easiest, descending 1,548m through forest and farmland. But the hard part was the lack of signs to Gáldar. And so I found myself having to retrace my steps from Artenara, the island’s highest village where many locals still live in cave houses, to the Pinos de Gáldar, a viewpoint lauded for its waterfall of clouds. The wind makes the vapours look like they’re cascading from the pine trees down to the pastoral landscape below. Save for the odd car that stopped to admire the view, I peered down alone from this mirador (viewpoint) before returning to my monk-like solitude on the downward path.

Approaching Gáldar, the landscape changed from pines to agricultural land. I passed banana plantations before arriving in front of my destination, the Iglesia de Santiago de los Caballeros, situated in one of Gran Canaria’s prettiest squares.

Entering into the peace and quiet ­of the church, I spotted the font in which the Spanish baptized the early Canarian converts to Christianity, along with another figurine of Saint James astride his horse. My walk finally over, I sat down to rest and reflect on my pilgrimage.

The mountain of Teide is on the neighbouring island of Tenerife (Credit: Credit: Kreder Katja/ Prisma Bildagentur AG/Alamy)

The mountain of Teide is on the neighbouring island of Tenerife (Credit: Kreder Katja/ Prisma Bildagentur AG/Alamy)

If I’d walked the original Camino de Santiago in Spain, I’d have reached my goal. There are only remains of the one body, after all. But my feet were already beginning to itch, and I wanted to be exploring more of the island’s great outdoors. My new bucket-list entry: to walk Gran Canaria’s Camino again – this time from north to south.

Teahouses that few foreigners see

The forgotten mountain (Credit: Credit: Stuart Butler)

The forgotten mountain

Ask people to name the three highest mountains in the world, and few get past Mount Everest and K2. At 8,586m, Mt Kanchenjunga is only about 300m lower than Everest, but for all intents and purposes, the world’s third-highest peak has been forgotten.

Lying on the border between eastern Nepal and the Indian state of Sikkim, Kanchenjunga is worshipped as a tutelary spirit by the Sikkimese. The mountain was first successfully tackled by British climbers in 1955, but they, like all who came after them, stopped just short of the summit out of respect for the locals’ belief that the mountaintop is sacred. (Credit: Stuart Butler)

World-class trekking (Credit: Credit: Stuart Butler)

World-class trekking

Kanchenjunga, a name that originates from Tibetan, means the “five treasures of snow” and corresponds to the massif’s five distinct peaks.

Like many mountains in Nepal, Kanchenjunga offers world-class trekking. But unlike some of the country’s more popular routes, which can become overrun in the prime autumn and spring hiking seasons, the trails to and around Kanchenjunga’s two basecamps remain delightfully free of foreign visitors – likely due to the difficulty and expense of reaching the area. Kanchenjunga is well off the established tourist trail and reaching a trailhead requires several days of road travel or a costly flight. In addition, trekkers must have proper permits and be accompanied by a recognized guide company, generally arranged in Kathmandu. (Credit: Stuart Butler)

Two ways up (Credit: Credit: Stuart Butler)

Two ways up

Trekkers can choose one of two routes: to the south or north basecamp. The trek to the 5,140m-high north basecamp is longer, but offers more time in the high mountains. It’s also possible, over the course of roughly 25 days, to link the two routes via a couple of high passes. I trekked to the 4,730m-high south basecamp, starting in the small market town of Taplejung, which is located a two-day drive from Kathmandu. It took me nine days to reach basecamp, and another five for the hike back.

For the first four days, the trail coursed through small villages, patches of tropical forest and terraced fields like the one pictured here. Crops vary depending on the altitude, with rice grown at lower levels and barley higher up. The big cash crop in the region is cardamom. (Credit: Stuart Butler)

Teahouse trekking (Credit: Credit: Stuart Butler)

Teahouse trekking

Most people travel with porters and camping gear, but you can also stay in teahouses. In popular trekking areas such as Annapurna, Everest and Langtang, teahouses cater almost exclusively to foreign trekkers and are increasingly sophisticated, sometimes even offering hot showers and wi-fi. In the Kanchenjunga region, however, the teahouses are used mainly by local shepherds, traders and porters, and are simply villagers’ homes with a room or two for rent. Conditions can be basic – you’ll get a bed and a shared toilet – but staying in them allows visitors the chance to get to know locals in a way that’s rarely possible on more popular routes. The man pictured here owned this home and teahouse in the village of Phumphe. (Credit: Stuart Butler)

Teahouse style (Credit: Credit: Stuart Butler)

Teahouse style

Teahouse decor has its own distinctive style. Newspaper is commonly used as wallpaper, and homes are further adorned with posters of fantasy American homes, fast cars or, as in the case of this teahouse in the village of Mamanke, images of Indian and Nepalese film and pop stars. The woman pictured here is a neighbour who stopped by for a chat and a cup of tea. (Credit: Stuart Butler)

Sweets and shops (Credit: Credit: Stuart Butler)

Sweets and shops

While still difficult to reach, this remote region is becoming increasingly accessible. As such, many villages have at least one tiny shop selling a few basic provisions, including biscuits and sweets. The shopkeeper pictured here resides in Phumphe. (Credit: Stuart Butler)

Yeti footprints (Credit: Credit: Stuart Butler)

Yeti footprints

In Yamphudin, the final village en route to the south basecamp, the man pictured told me that he and his son once walked over a high mountain pass that leads to Sikkim. On the way home, they spent a night in a remote shepherd’s hut on the edge of the tree line. When they went outside the next morning, they discovered giant footprints in the snow circling the hut and disappearing into the forest. He and the boy were too scared to follow the tracks, he said, as both believed they were the prints of a yeti. Many villagers, in fact, believe that yetis exist in the region. (Credit: Stuart Butler)

A misty forest (Credit: Credit: Stuart Butler)

A misty forest

Beyond Yamphudin, the trail entered pine forests where rhododendrons blistered with red, pink and white flowers. Almost every tree was covered in Spanish moss, which hung from the branches like an old man’s beard. A dense, cloudy mist filled the air at all times, obscuring the mountain vistas and lending a silent, spooky feel to the forests. (Credit: Stuart Butler)

A bridge to the mountains (Credit: Credit: Stuart Butler)

A bridge to the mountains

The trail then climbed sharply for a couple of hours, crossed a 2,540m pass and descended through tangled pine and rhododendron forests where red pandas and pheasants reside. We came to a modern suspension bridge spanning a river. These kinds of bridges have appeared only in the past couple of years. Prior to that, shepherds crossed the rivers on flimsy log bridges. (Credit: Stuart Butler)

Symbols of the high Himalaya (Credit: Credit: Stuart Butler)

Symbols of the high Himalaya

In the summer (June to August), shepherds live with their yaks – symbols of the high Himalaya – in high pastures located up to and above 5,000m. As autumn approaches, the shepherds and their animals slowly descend from the mountains, seeking milder weather.

More often than not, these animals are actually a much stronger cross-breed of yaks and cows; pure-bred yaks are quite rare in Nepal. Locals often make cheese from the animals’ milk, and yak meat is eaten in much of Nepal. (Credit: Stuart Butler)

Sleeping outdoors (Credit: Credit: Stuart Butler)

Sleeping outdoors

This photo was taken at dawn at Ramche, the highest night stop on the trek at 4,580m. The tents froze over during the night, but by midday, hikers could wear T-shirts. (Credit: Stuart Butler)

The end of the road (Credit: Credit: Stuart Butler)

The end of the road

The trekking route to the south basecamp ends at Oktang, where a mixed Buddhist/Hindu shrine (pictured) overlooks both the basecamp and the upper part of the Yalung Glacier. Continuing any farther requires mountaineering experience and equipment. Unless you’re prepared to reach the high passes to get to the north basecamp route, you have little option but to spin around and retrace your steps back to where you started.

For me, that moment made for mixed emotions. The thought of enjoying a hot shower, donning clean clothes and checking emails filled me with anticipation, but I was sad to leave behind this incredible world of frozen glaciers, misty forests and villagers who open their homes and speak with passion about yetis. (Credit: Stuart Butler)

Bhutan’s dark secret to happiness

Citizens of one of the happiest countries on Earth are surprisingly comfortable contemplating a topic many prefer to avoid. Is that the key to joy?

On a visit to Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan, I found myself sitting across from a man named Karma Ura, spilling my guts. Maybe it was the fact that he was named Karma, or the thin air, or the way travel melts my defences, but I decided to confess something very personal. Not that long before, seemingly out of the blue, I had experienced some disturbing symptoms: shortness of breath, dizziness, numbness in my hands and feet. At first, I feared I was having a heart attack, or going crazy. Maybe both. So I went to the doctor, who ran a series of tests and found…

“Nothing,” said Ura. Even before I could complete my sentence, he knew that my fears were unfounded. I was not dying, at least not as quickly as I feared. I was having a panic attack.

Thimphu, capital of Bhutan (Credit: Credit: Thomas Halle/Getty)

Thimphu, capital of Bhutan. (Credit: Thomas Halle/Getty)

What I wanted to know was: why now – my life was going uncharacteristically well – and what could I do about it?

“You need to think about death for five minutes every day,” Ura replied. “It will cure you.”

“How?” I said, dumbfounded.

“It is this thing, this fear of death, this fear of dying before we have accomplished what we want or seen our children grow. This is what is troubling you.”

“But why would I want to think about something so depressing?”

“Rich people in the West, they have not touched dead bodies, fresh wounds, rotten things. This is a problem. This is the human condition. We have to be ready for the moment we cease to exist.”

Places, like people, have a way of surprising us, provided we are open to the possibility of surprise and not weighed down with preconceived notions. The Himalayan kingdom is best known for its innovative policy of Gross National Happiness; it’s a land where contentment supposedly reigns and sorrow is denied entry. Bhutan is indeed a special place (and Ura, director of the Centre for Bhutan Studies, a special person) but that specialness is more nuanced and, frankly, less sunny than the dreamy Shangri-La image we project onto it.

Memorial Chorten Monastery in Thimphu (Credit: Credit: Prakash Mathema/AFP/Getty)

Memorial Chorten Monastery in Thimphu. (Credit: Prakash Mathema/AFP/Getty)

Actually, by suggesting I think about death once a day, Ura was going easy on me. In Bhutanese culture, one is expected to think about death five times a day. That would be remarkable for any nation, but especially for one so closely equated with happiness as Bhutan. Is this secretly a land of darkness and despair?

Not necessarily. Some recent research suggests that, by thinking about death so often, the Bhutanese may be on to something. In a 2007 study, University of Kentucky psychologists Nathan DeWall and Roy Baumesiter divided several dozen students into two groups. One group was told to think about a painful visit to the dentist while the other group was instructed to contemplate their own death. Both groups were then asked to complete stem words, such as “jo_”. The second group – the one that had been thinking about death – was far more likely to construct positive words, such as “joy”. This led the researchers to conclude that “death is a psychologically threatening fact, but when people contemplate it, apparently the automatic system begins to search for happy thoughts”.

None of this, I’m sure, would surprise Ura, or any other Bhutanese. They know that death is a part of life, whether we like it or not, and ignoring this essential truth comes with a heavy psychological cost.

Linda Leaming, author of the wonderful book A Field Guide to Happiness: What I Learned in Bhutan About Living, Loving and Waking Up¸ knows this too.“I realised thinking about death doesn’t depress me. It makes me seize the moment and see things I might not ordinarily see,” she wrote. “My best advice: go there. Think the unthinkable, the thing that scares you to think about several times a day.”

A devotee before the Buddha Dordenma statue in Thimphu (Credit: Credit: Prakesh Mathema/AFP/Getty)

A devotee before the Buddha Dordenma statue in Thimphu. (Credit: Prakesh Mathema/AFP/Getty)

Unlike many of us in the West, the Bhutanese don’t sequester death. Death – and images of death – are everywhere, especially in Buddhist iconography where you’ll find colourful, gruesome illustrations. No one, not even children, is sheltered from these images, or from ritual dances re-enacting death.

Ritual provides a container for grief, and in Bhutan that container is large and communal. After someone dies, there’s a 49-day mourning period that involves elaborate, carefully orchestrated rituals. “It is better than any antidepressant,” Tshewang Dendup, a Bhutanese actor, told me. The Bhutanese might appear detached during this time. They are not. They are grieving through ritual.

Why such a different attitude toward death? One reason the Bhutanese think about death so often is that it is all around them. For a small nation, it offers many ways to die. You can meet your demise on the winding, treacherous roads. You can be mauled by a bear; eat poisonous mushrooms; or die of exposure.

Another explanation is the country’s deeply felt Buddhist beliefs, especially that of reincarnation. If you know you’ll get another shot at life, you’re less likely to fear the end of this particular one. As Buddhists say, you shouldn’t fear dying any more than you fear discarding old clothes.

Schoolgirls in traditional Bhutanese dresses (Credit: Credit: Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty)

Schoolgirls in traditional Bhutanese dresses. (Credit: Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty)

Which isn’t to say, of course, that the Bhutanese don’t experience fear, or sadness. Of course they do. But, as Leaming told me, they don’t flee from these emotions. “We in the West want to fix it if we’re sad,” she said. “We fear sadness. It’s something to get over, medicate. In Bhutan there’s an acceptance. It’s a part of life.”

Ura’s lesson, meanwhile, stuck with me. I make it a point to think about death once a day. Unless I find myself especially stressed, or engulfed in an unexplained funk. Then I think about it twice a day.

A caffeinated return to Florence

Cafe Riviore on Piazza della Signoria, Florence (Credit: Richard I'Anson/LPI/Getty)

In an effort to relive his days as a university student in Italy, the Thirsty Explorer finds that the land of espresso is not as familiar as it once was.

I never really understood the saying “you can’t go home again”. I go home all the time and not much has changed: I lay on my father’s couch, watch mind-numbing amounts of TV, raid the fridge at 3 am, have my aunt do my laundry and generally revert back to my teenage self.

But after returning to Florence for the first time since a four-month study abroad programme in 2006, I realised there are some places that you can’t go back to. I learned this because a loud, ringing bell told me so – but we’ll get to that later.

I arrived in Florence early in the morning for a 21-hour layover en route to Korea; the journey had taken 12 hours, and I was exhausted. But Italy is the perfect country for a weary traveller: there are beautiful churches and benches everywhere and ­– more importantly – coffee is never more than a few steps away.

Italians drink more coffee than almost any country on Earth, which is an impressive feat considering they drink it roughly a thimbleful at a time. Coffee culture here is pretty much the opposite of most of the rest of the coffee-drinking world. While most of us treat a cup as an excuse for hours of relaxing, conversing or using a cafe’s free wi-fi, Italians treat coffee like a drug to be enjoyed quickly but frequently. It’s why sitting with a coffee can cost you roughly three times more than drinking it while standing.

It was in Florence that my love for coffee started to blossom. It began as a relationship of convenience and necessity – the espresso machine just outside my classroom door would spit out double shots of espresso in a matter of seconds. Two of these each morning before my 8 am class became a ritual that – once I stopped getting the shakes – was solely responsible for keeping me awake during class.

Soon, my days were punctuated with trips to the bar (what Italians call a cafe), elbow to elbow with Florence’s working folks, ordering un caffé. Drinking black espresso with such purpose and speed somehow made me feel more like an Italian and less like a wretched US university student who previously relied on what Italians call acqua marrone (brown water) – weak, watery, flavourless American coffee.

During my brief return to Italy, I was determined to return to my days of espresso drinking. I was determined to feel like an Italian again.

Unfortunately, I spent the first hour of my return wandering around lost, something I normally enjoy when discovering a new city. But this time it was frustrating; I was supposed to know these streets! Eventually, I found my arms reluctantly outstretched with a ludicrously large tourist map in front of my face. Time to get some coffee and regroup I decided. Within 15 seconds I was at a bar – as is always the case in this city.

Before ordering, I stepped into the restroom. Slowly, with my memories returning, I remembered that in Italy, the flush is sometimes located on a string dangling from a wall-mounted tank behind the toilet. I pulled the string expecting the toilet to flush and instead, an intensely loud buzzer blasted throughout the bar. Thanks to my rusty Italian and general laziness, I had ignored the sign marking the box as an emergency alarm.

I panicked, trying to find a stop button before they came in, stretcher in hands, expecting to find me sprawled out on the floor after some unmentionable accident. After a never-ending minute without success, I bolted – the alarm still flooding the bar.

I should’ve legged it out of there, but for reasons still unknown, I decided to go up to the bar and order an espresso, probably to make amends for my error.

But no one took my order. No one even looked at me, save for one barista who gave me a quick smile (which may or may not have been related to the fact that I was the idiot who had just set off an alarm loud enough to disrupt any and all conversation). They were all busy making coffee. These baristas were not apathetic students trying to earn beer money; these were true professionals. Only after they were done making their espressos and cappuccinos did they stop to turn off the alarm and take my order. Good thing nobody had actually had a serious accident in the bathroom.

Of course, it wasn’t until after ordering that I realised I had broken multiple unspoken rules of Italian coffee drinking. I didn’t need to wait until the barista was finished with the current cup – shouting your order to a barista with her back turned is perfectly acceptable, expected even. Oh, and you don’t call it an espresso. You call it un caffé. But my Italian was beyond rusty and my confidence gone.

Thankfully, coffee in Italy is always served at a temperature cool enough to drink immediately. So I quickly loaded a map on my phone, downed my coffee in one smooth motion and – fully embarrassed at this point – made my way back out into the city for a fresh start.

I used to know which narrow streets to take to get shelter from the sun, which alleys to walk to take advantage of cool breezes. I could still taste the flavours of my favourite gelato shop and was dying for my first bite of a panini from Salumeria Verdi after six years of it haunting my dreams. But now I found myself looking at a map, standing on a wide road, baking in the sun like the rest of the tourists. My favourite gelateria, La Carraia now had a second location; and Salumeria Verdi now had a full English menu and even a second, English name.

After lunch, I popped into another of the countless bars and ordered an afternoon cappuccino – a faux pas in Italy, where you’re not supposed to drink anything with milk after your afternoon meal. I was tired and disenchanted from reliving cherished memories with the ghosts of old friends. I was in the mood for a cappuccino and I broke the rule knowingly. I was a tourist here, anyway; it’s not like I was returning home.

A paradise protected by butterflies

Turkey’s 86,000sqm Butterfly Valley is home to roughly 100 species of butterflies, creating a protected oasis where time seems to stand still.

Our boat pulled in about two hours before sunset, when the disappearing light was turning the Mediterranean Sea from sapphire to aquamarine and the descending shadows were creeping up the imposing rock walls that isolate Butterfly Valley. The beach was nearly empty and the water was calm enough to skip stones across. As the sun finally lowered itself into the sea, I dove in with it, floating on what looked like liquid sunshine.

Located on Turkey’s famous, 500km Lycian Way and only accessible by water, the 86,000sqm Butterfly Valley is home to roughly 100 species of butterflies, including the endemic orange, black and white Jersey Tiger. A waterfall that cascades from the 350m-high back canyon wall eventually becomes a gentle river, watering the lavender-flowered native chaste trees: the butterflies’ natural habitat. The Turkish government named the valley a preservation area in 1987 to protect the butterflies and local flora ­– a distinction that has protected the valley from the fate of its better-know neighbour, Oludeniz, a beach resort 5km north, where hordes of tourists are far more prevalent than swarms of fluttering creatures.

An aerial view of Turkey’s Butterfly Valley (Credit: Scpist/Getty)

An aerial view of Turkey’s Butterfly Valley. (Scpist/Getty)

Oludeniz, which translates to Blue Lagoon, remained virtually unknown until travellers began camping there in the 1980s. Today, it’s a particularly depressing example of paradise lost. The town is filled with neon lights and English-themed restaurants. The sea is dotted with faux-pirate ships and booze cruises. The beach is marred with drunken, sunburned tourists, and the clear skies are polluted with seemingly infinite paragliders launching from the surrounding green mountains.

In contrast, the Anatolia Tourism Development Cooperative bought Butterfly Valley from the villagers of Faralya in 1981 and opened it for tourism in 1984. Three years later, when the government deemed the valley a national preservation area, the cooperative outlawed the construction of permanent buildings. Today, they allow only tents and ramshackle bungalows, and they’ve focused on natural growth as opposed to commercial. Olives, pomegranates, lemons, oranges, grapes, walnuts, peaches, apricots, palm, oleander and laurel all thrive here.

For eight months a year – between April and November – a small and diverse group of hippies and backpackers descends on the valley, where days are marked by sunrise and sunset yoga practices and evenings by unplugged music sessions. Once mid-afternoon hits, after the few tour boats are gone for the day, Butterfly Valley belongs to those who are willing to spend the night under the stars, living gloriously free of the more luxurious conveniences of Oludeniz.

Liquid sunshine (Credit: Brad Cohen)

A sunset turns into liquid sunshine. (Brad Cohen)

In my four days there, I didn’t see one laptop or cell phone, probably because the only electricity in Butterfly Valley is reserved for powering the area’s multiple dining areas. Twice a day, fresh and abundant family meals, often including home-grown produce, were served at community tables under a canopy of grape vines. Mediterranean-style breakfasts were composed of white cheese, olives, cucumbers and tomatoes, and dinners were largely vegetarian Turkish feasts.

At one end of the beach, the temporary residents often sat at a bar built into the rocks, sipping beers and, late in the day, watching the sun set. At the other end, under the canopy of the Fish Restaurant’s thatched roof, travellers took a break from the heat while enjoying grilled seafood fresh from the water. Next door, a booth with air tanks and wetsuits served as an improbable dive shop.

Nearly empty beaches (Credit: Brad Cohen)

The beaches were nearly empty. (Brad Cohen)

Beyond the shoreline, those daring enough to hoist themselves up tenuous, nearly vertical ropes could climb the gushing waterfall at the canyon’s back wall, or ascend even steeper ropes to the village of Faralya, which offers sweeping views of the valley below. At the base of Faralya, a wooden stand served as a makeshift bar for both day hikers from Butterfly Valley and more intrepid souls in the middle of the 500km Lycian Way trek. The beers were best enjoyed in the hammocks at the edge of the cliff.

For some, Butterfly Valley is a yearly retreat, a place to escape their busy city lives for a few weeks or months. For others, it’s just a one-time visit to a spot that seems to operate outside of time. Minutes turn into hours and hours turn into days. You could be anywhere in the world, but in this age, it’s hard to believe Butterfly Valley exists anywhere at all.

Gulet boats moor in the Mediterranean (Credit: Paul Biris/Getty)

Gulet boats moor in the Mediterranean. (Paul Biris/Getty)

An island paradise you haven’t seen

A trip to this long-lost Eden – known for its tropical forests, azure seas, creative cuisine and quirky city – will show you a whole new side of Cuba.