In the mountain village of Koto, Nepal, there is a path that branches off the legendary 150-mile Annapurna Circuit and passes—ceremoniously, tantalizingly—through a large stone gate. This trail is off-limits, a nearby sign reads, unless you have a registered guide and a special permit. Luckily, I’ve got both. I proceed through the stone portal with my guide, Ian, and I pause to spin three Buddhist prayer wheels. With this simple gesture, I leave one of the world’s most popular trails (sadly, the Annapurna Circuit is also known as the “Coca-Cola Circuit”) and head north into the Forbidden Valley, also known as the Nar-Phu Valley, a Himalayan region where Western visitors are comparatively few and far between.I’m traveling with Epic Tomato, a new expedition-focused venture from the U.K.-based travel company Black Tomato. Epic Tomato specializes in getting well-traveled, thrill-seeking clients like myself off the grid for serious adventures far away from the normal, more casual tourist circuits. I’ve gotten off the beaten path before, hiking through the backcountry of Zion National Park in Utah and the Himalayan foothills in India. What makes this trek different is that despite the remoteness, you encounter people who actually live in the mountains you’re hiking. This ancient route opened to limited trekking in 2003. The trickle of tourists has brought small changes such as new wire suspension bridges and widened ledges—improvements that make the journey slightly less mythic than it once was, and considerably less harrowing. But remarkably, the valley, and the lifestyle of its inhabitants, are much the same as they were centuries ago.Hours after spinning the prayer wheels in Koto, we are well on our way to the next village, Phu. Inaccessible by road and three days away by foot, Phu is one of the most remote villages in Asia.The path is cut into a rock face high above the Phu River. To my right, a slope bursts with tall pines and firs; to my left I stare down at the rumbling river. At one point, I squeeze myself against a ledge to let a donkey train pass underneath a waterfall. Later on, I find myself behind a lone villager.After spending the night in a rustic campsite, we start hiking at seven the next morning; soon the deep, narrow gorge opens and we find ourselves on a terraced plateau dotted with wind-bent junipers. Pisang Peak rises into perfect blue skies; across the river sits a red-roofed monastery. In the late afternoon, we pitch our tents amid a jumble of abandoned, straw-roofed homes. I sit atop one, thinking big thoughts and eventually none at all.The landscape becomes yet more austere on day three, as we hit 13,000 feet and counting. We arrive at Phu, a honeycomb of simple, flat-roofed houses packed onto a hillside. A dusty village hemmed in by mountains, Phu is a place of scant resources. Piles of firewood, gathered on long, back-breaking walks, double as insulation. Yak herders shout at each other across the hills. “Nepali cell phone,” Ian jokes.The next morning, I wake before everyone around me. I leave my tent to contemplate the fading stars when I notice the outline of a villager trudging toward me. He’s heading into the hills, a basket on his back, and as he passes me in the half-light, he gives me a knowing smile—as though, today at least, we belong to the same brotherhood of early risers.The Tibetan border is two days’ walk to the north but closed to foreigners. I exit the village by the same route I entered and begin the two-day journey back. It’s a rapid comedown, and not just in terms of altitude. I felt like a privileged guest in this isolated land of rock and wind, where the solitude was as intense as any I’ve ever felt, even as I shared it with people who have inhabited the Nar-Phu Valley for centuries. See video Darrell Hartman shot on his trip. Nar-Phu Valley Trek with Epic Tomato, (888) 341-9663, epictomato.com. From $9,189 for a 15-day trip including meals, accommodations, and charter flights within Nepal. Photo by Taylor Miles. This appeared in the July/August 2012 issue.
Steeped in ancient culture and tradition, Nepal is often thought of as a spiritual retreat in the heart of the Himalayas. Tourism flourishes in Nepal, as adventurers and intrepid climbers brave the dramatic landscape and connect with the cultural soul of the place. Travel can be a challenge, with altitudes more familiar from plane flights than hikes.
The family-owned Yandup Island Lodge is located on a private island across from the remote Playon Chico community on the Caribbean coastline of San Blas, Panama. The eco-lodge offers two tours a day: a visit to a beach on one of the archipelago's deserted islands and a cultural tour that connects guests to the local Kuna Yala indian community.
To experience Nepali life off the tourist trail, head to the one-lane town of Nuwakot, a four-hour bus ride northwest of the overcrowded alleys of Kathmandu and an easy detour on the way to the popular Langtang trek. Terraced rice paddies, pumpkin plots, and mango trees surround the peaceful Himalayan village. In the center of town, an 18th-century palace and an ancient Hindu temple are built in the traditional brick-and-wood style of the Newars, the original inhabitants of the Kathmandu Valley. On the palace grounds, look for the elaborate door and window carvings as well as statues of Hindu gods in the wildest sexual positions imaginable. Around the corner at the pagoda-style temple, receive a blessing from the Brahman priest. Ask locals where to grab the best meal and you might get invited home to share their handcrafted rice beer, called thon, and a plate of spicy buffalo lung and goat brains—a surprisingly delicious change from Nepal’s standard rice-and-lentils fare. In the evening, relax at the Famous Farm (shown), a newly opened inn and organic garden. With hurricane lamps and handwoven blankets in each room, the inn is a comfortable alternative to the area’s usual mildewy backpacker guesthouses and glitzy five-star hotels. —Kate Harding Photo by Sebastian Meyer. This appeared in the December/January 2010 issue.
When he learned we were on our honeymoon, a knowing smile stretched across Charlie’s face. Gazing pensively across the sea in the direction of a distant palm-tree skyline, the old Kuna man slowly muttered, “Ah, luna de miel en Kuna Yala…” On our third trip to Central America, my new bride and I were no longer backpacking. No hostels during this trip. Though they do exist in Panama’s Kuna Yala, or San Blas Islands, we had aimed to stay in Caribbean luxury this time. And the Coral Lodge did not disappoint. After departing from Charlie in El Porvenir, where we had awaited transportation, we took a choppy boat ride eight miles west of the Kuna Yala boundary. Along the way, we passed deserted islands so iconic that Hawaiian Tropic and Playboy shoot there. And the perfection above-ground was matched below the surface offshore. I’ve since snorkeled in oceans around the world, but never seen coral so magnificent. During our days at the Coral Lodge we stayed in one of six thatch-roofed villas that jut out from the mainland over the turquoise waters of a small bay filled with its own coral reefs. From our back, private balcony we could while away the days in a chaise lounge or hammock, or dive in for a swim or snorkel around the bay. We also spied howler monkeys during rainforest walks, went sea kayaking, and relished the ecolodge’s gourmet food. It was a brief, indulgent taste of how the other half lives, and I can still picture Charlie’s nod of approval.
If you find yourself in Pokhara, there's no doubt you'll hear about the sunrise hike to the top of Sarangkot to witness the morning glow light up the Annapurna Range of the Himalayas. With absolutely stunning views of Machapuchare, you're wise to take the advice. However, being that you must get up by 5am at the latest to make the sunrise, you might feel inclined to get back down and into your bed as soon as you're finished snapping your pictures and picking your jaw up off the trail. If you plan ahead (read: rest up) and go back slowly, you'll get to basque in the presence of Machapuchare while hiking down and through some amazing villages and terrain. Don't be afraid to veer off the mainline trail; as long as you're going down and you can see Phewa Lake at the bottom, there's no need to worry. With the Himalayas to your right and gorgeous Phewa Lake to your left, I don't think you'll be longing for your bed.
Tourists call it the “Monkey Temple,” owing to the clans of rhesus macaque wandering through the grottos and recesses of this ancient shrine. The apes climb where they please, siblings squabble, parents scold and protect—a parallel simian culture mirroring our own. The cinnamon hominids perch in niches, studying their hairless cousins circumambulating Swayambhu Chaitya, the whitewashed hemispherical stupa—or reliquary dome—capped with a golden spire and hundreds of prayer flags. The apes are believed to be progeny of Hanuman, who—like Ganesha—sprang from Shiva’s golden seed. The Lord of the Dance apparently tangoed with any species that could follow his kinky tune. As dawn teases the smog-shrouded horizon, I wander through time and space toward the Vasundhara temple with its eternal flame guarded by the goddess of abundance, inhaling a heady perfume of incense and flowers saturating the morning breeze. Every saffron offering is redolent with collective memory, every hand-polished and foot-worn stone a reified chronicle of the rituals and stories brought to South Asia more than three millennia ago by horsemen of uncertain origin. They may have come from somewhere between the Black and Caspian Seas, migrated east across the high passes of Central Asia, then steered south to collided with the already ancient settlements of Mohenjodaro and Harappa. The Aryans were not some master race of giant, blue-eyed, tow-headed Teutons, but they were, however, epic storytellers.
En route from Namche Bazaar, Nepal, we stop to visit the Tenzing Norgay Memorial Chorten. Norgay was a member of the first expedition team to summit Mt. Everest in 1953, along with Sir Edmund Hillary. While trekking in the Nepal Himalayas on our way to Everest base camp, on this day we enjoyed dramatic views of Thamserku, Ama Dablam, and the south face of Lhotse. If you are an outdoor adventure enthusiast, this trek is an amazing way to view some of the greatest 8,000m + peaks. And when you end up back in Lukla where you started, no matter what route you take, you truly realize what a great accomplishment it is to come full circle! Check one off of the bucket list.
The Comarca Kuna Yala, also known as the San Blas Archipelago, is a remote group of nearly 400 islands strung along the Caribbean coast of north-eastern Panama. The Kuna Yala are a semi-autonomous Indian group who inhabit the area and most of their communities are only accessible by boat or plane. During our visit, it was not uncommon to see men paddling or sailing around the islands, searching for the best catch of the day.
I have an uneasy relationship with street food in South Asia. I've had my share of unfortunate encounters in India, and Sri Lanka, and I didn't want to add Nepal to my list. But after wandering Durbar Square for a few hours, I found myself famished. Afraid of what the cool climate and toxic levels of air pollution might be doing to the bananas hanging from shop windows, I went in search of something from the bottom of a big bubbling hot pot. Enter pink pancakes. Near the east gate to Durbar Square, I came across this tiny little stall and a husband and wife team working over the hot pan. To be honest, I'm not sure this is even a street stall - it could have been their house - but they were eager to share their foodstuffs with me, and I'm not one to turn down an invitation. We chatted for a little bit about life in Kathmandu and life on the road, exchanged handshakes and email addresses, and we carried on with our adventure. Nine months later, I remember very little about our time in the square itself (though it is a sight to see), but I can recall just about every detail about this man and his pink pancakes.
Dugout canoes are the mode of local transportation in Panama’s Kuna Yala (aka Guna Yala and San Blas Islands). They also become floating markets to sell wares to foreigners sailing in the area. My new bride and I were on one such chartered sailboat, which led to a special encounter. Throughout our honeymoon, we were visited by merchants known by the boat’s owners, Swedish couple Christina and Ulf. Items for sale included lobsters (a local specialty), the catch of the day, mangoes, coconuts, and molas, which are embroidered works of art traditionally worn as vibrant panels on a Kuna woman’s blouse. Most Kuna don’t have electricity, so Ulf often charged cell phones overnight. One transaction led to an invitation by Kuna couple Pricilliano and Adelaida to visit their family island. Known as Gunboat Island, the entire speck of Caribbean paradise was roughly the diameter of a quarter-mile track. Three generations (more than 10 family members) live in two huts with thatched roofs and sand floors. During the day, clothes hang from the ceiling where hammocks drape at night. Meals are prepared over an open flame. An outhouse sits on a pier. But cultural differences only run so deep. Over several hours, we bonded with two young girls, Elaida and A., who played in the water and sand and climbed palm trees with us. I let them shoot photos and see them in my viewfinder, and they squealed with delight. It was the perfect encounter for a young couple with dreams of starting a family.
We weren't quite lucky to see the snowcapped covered mountains in the lovely lakeside village of Pokhara since we visited during monsoon season. But it was a perfect way to start our introduction to the area and cross over to the trail leading up to the Peace Pagoda. Pay a few ruppees, pack a picnic lunch and guide yourself around the serene Lake Phewa.
The ancient capital of the Kathmandu Valley is an earthy composition of ornate brickwork and wood filigreed temples built by the Newar tribe. In Bhaktapur’s Durbar Square; the relief carvings on the golden Suun Dhoka Gate, and stone images of the eighteen-armed Ugrachandi, elephant-headed Ganesha, and hawk-billed Garuda transport you back to an mythic era when India was the jewel of Asia. The Hindu caste system was once a pragmatic attempt to provide a stable social structure to an unruly population of wild, war-like nomads, and overcome those problems inherent in a primitive environment. But, like all human “solutions,” those who come out on top can afford to view it as a panacea. “In our community, there is very little crime,” says Gopal—a Brahmin, of course—with condescending pride. “Not like in your country. That is because we are a very religious people. We believe our lives are governed by the gods. So everything is already worked out for us, you see? We do not have to worry about who we will marry, or how many children we will have, because the gods will take care of that. If we have lots of money it is because the gods will us to have it. If we are poor, or of a low caste, it is also because of the gods. We always have someone to thank—or someone to blame. So, no problem! Everyone knows his place.”
In the village of Muchu, I scramble up a steeply pitched slope, and then climb a network of rough-hewn timber ladders through a maze of ochre adobe buildings reminiscent of the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde and Canyon de Chelly. There are more than just physical similarities between the Bhötia—Tibetans who settled on the southern watershed of the Himalaya—and the so-called “indigenous” people of North America. In Neolithic times, it is believed these nomads roamed the high Asian plateau before venturing across a land bridge spanning the Bering Strait to settle in ice-free canyons of what is now the American Southwest. According to Peter Gold, an anthropologist who works with the Navajo in Chinle, Arizona, Tibetans also share art, architecture, and spiritual beliefs with the Anasazi—or “ancient ones”—whose animistic practices were similar to the shamanic Bön-po of the Zhang-Zhung Kingdom.
The women of the Kuna (native islanders) wear bright and colorful outfits that seem to match their tropical surroundings perfectly. The Kuna inhabit a stretch of islands located off the Caribbean coast of Panama, near Colombia. The islands are most accessible by plane from Panama City. There are several hundred islands to explore, so it's best to charter a sailboat for a week to visit a handful of them and visit many of the island villages of these remarkable people. We chartered our boat from San Blas Sailing at the following: www.sanblassailing.com
I saw the first glimpse of them from the plane window – the rigid, snowy Himalayan peaks. They were practically at eye level with our cruising altitude; you could reach out and touch them as if they were the pages of a book. They looked beautiful and scary at the same time. They were so cold, hard, and barren; as if they were saying “leave us alone, you don’t belong here.” I was in Nepal to accomplish a long time goal - hiking the Annapurna Circuit. This 18 to 21 day circuit hike is full of ups and downs and eventually reaches the highest point in the middle of the trek - Thorung La Pass at 17,770 ft. The air is thin and the day I crossed over the pass I sucked up every ounce of air I could find. The peaks look different when you are eye level with them. They are more welcoming and less barren - maybe because you had to work so hard to get there to the pass - the peak finally said..."ok - I accept you." If you have an extended period of time the Annapurna circuit is a great adventure that you give you a thorough understanding of the Himalayas and the various village cultures that dot the trail. Your life is simplified for a month and you learn to appreciate the necessities - food, water, friends - and air. More Information: Get a great account of what to expect from the circuit in this free ebook about a father-daughter Annapurna trek. http://www.ottsworld.com/blogs/tiger-balm-tales-e-book-annapurna-circuit-with-my-father/
Every sunrise at Boudhanath Stupa in Kathmandu brings along with it the sound of ringing bells and Mantras, the smell of incense, the spinning or prayer wheels, and woven in between it all, thousands of pigeons. Buddhist practitioners feed pigeons seeds every morning as offerings to acquire good karma, the watchful eyes of Boudhanath Stupa looming just behind the frantic yet calming scene of people and feathers. Situation in the middle of the hustle and bustle of Kathmandu, Boudhanath offers travelers a look into the Tibetan Buddhist way of life and is on of Buddhism's holiest sites (and also an UNESCO World Heritage Site).
Pokhara, Nepal is the starting point for many treks to the Annapurna Himalayas as well as other adventures including paragliding. The day was all around amazing, riding the van up the side of the mountain on hairpin turns, strapping into the harness, running off the side of a cliff, and instantly getting transported to the views of the valley and mountain range. The day could not have been better, the views were honestly one in a million.
Of all the cities in the Kathmandu Valley, my favorite was Patan mainly because there was traditional Nepalese arts and handicrafts was on display everywhere. When I mean everywhere, I mean everywhere….on walls, stairs and steps, building facades, rooftops, pavement, benches and even in downspouts. Walking through Patan was like walking through an outdoor museum; I found my head spinning up, down and all around trying to take it all in. Of everything that I saw in Patan, this beautiful silver and brass lintel, which hung above an entry at the Golden Temple (Kwa Bahal), was my favorite. The piece is a beautiful example of repousse work which is a method where the metal is shaped by hammering from the reverse side to form the raised design on the front. Each of the Buddhas is depicted with their hands in different ritual poses (mudras); the center Buddha is depicted posing with what is commonly known as the “earth witness” mudra. Kwa Bahal is a Buddhist monastery that dates back to the 12th century. It’s worth a visit if you like to see some fine examples of Nepalese religious art. The monastery building itself is embellished with intricate wood carvings and there are many artistic pieces scattered around the monastery’s courtyard. From Patan’s Durbar Square, it’s a very short walk to get to the monastery though its entrance is inconspicuous. Keep your eyes out for the pair of decorative stone lions that guard it.
On the second day of our trek to Poon Hill in the Annapurna Sanctuary, my friend Brill and I stumbled upon this absolutely gorgeous waterfall pulsing through a deep, green canyon. It was the early morning--about 7:30 when we first got to the river and it was quite cold outside. About 53 degrees cold. And then we dipped our feet into the water and it was quite cold. About 53 degrees cold. Yet somehow, after much heated discussion, Brill and I established that jumping into this waterfall was quite simply something we had to do. Forget the frigid water, forget the frigid air--we didn't come to Nepal to stay warm and safe and dry. So I stripped down to my board shorts and hopped up on the little ledge on the right. I dropped to the ground and pumped out 20 pushups--doing whatever I could to jack up my body temperature. And then I jumped. The water was ice. Absolutely freezing. I surfaced immediately and stroked hard for shore. Adrenaline ripped through my veins. After about 20 seconds, I stumbled onto land--swearing loudly, cursing the brutal cold, laughing at my shaking hands. And I felt so darn alive.
I don't know if there is a more amazing feeling than sitting on top of such a powerful animal. Bath time for the elephants in Chitwan was something I was looking forward to throughout my entire trip. You can simply watch the happy animals splash and play in the river or you can join in on the action. If you take part be prepared to get seriously wet. Getting splashed in the face by an elephant trunk was definitely something I will never forget. Bring some bananas from the local market to as a sweet treat.
In a span of one week, my husband and I went from escaping the hot humidity of the Gulf of Thailand, to climbing through the thin chilly air up to Renjo La Pass that sits at 17,500 feet in the Everest Region of the Nepalese Himalaya. Since Mount Everest’s is as one might say, “a land in the clouds,” the weather is perpetually fickle and many visitors to Sagarmatha National Park won’t even get a glimpse of the peak through the thick and stormy clouds that crash into the mountain top and pour down it’s ridges. During our trek through Sagarmatha I wasn’t trying to fool anyone, I was desperate for a perfect view of the tallest mountain in the world and I was not going anywhere until I had one. Fortunately for me (or more for my husband), I didn’t have to shout my proclamations for too long; the view came at the top of our very first pass. Towards the final steps of our trek to the top of Renjo La, we could see that the weather was going to be gracious to us for the slightest moment. The vibrant prayer flags were blowing in the wind as the clouds parted around this section of the mountain range and she was in perfect panoramic view, Mount Everest. This was the only time we were able to have a perfect view of Mount Everest in a two week span and I will be forever grateful for this moment!
We rolled out of bed in the dead of night, hopped onto our mechanical bull - a 600cc whirling dervish of unsteady power - and rode off into the mountains. We arrived at SangKot, a favored sunrise destination for many people whom visit Pokhara, and began our climb to the peak. When the sun began to rise we realized there was a problem; cloud cover was severe, and there would be no view of the most dramatic peaks on this day. Dejected, many of the other visitors descended back towards Pokhara, while we decided to take our chances against the coming storm so that we might catch a glimpse of the sun. I'm glad we did. I set up my gear about halfway down the trail and caught the sun just as it broke through the clouds to illuminate Pokhara proper. None of the world's most famous peaks make an appearance in this frame, but that's fine by me. The experience of hiking out to SarangKot in the dark and waiting out the crowds with my travel partner made it seem like we were the only two people on earth enjoying this view. A sublime experience, and one I highly recommend.
We were lucky enough to be in Kathmandu, Nepal for a Full Moon festival. At sunset, the monks lit thousands and thousands of little butter candles around Bodnath Stupa. We sat at a roof-top restaurant while they did the lighting (where this image was taken.) It was simply magical! The smoke from the candles gives everything a hazy glow. Afterward, we went down and walked around the stupa, spinning prayer wheels, and making donations to the monks, who were sitting around the base of the stupa collecting. We tried planning a second trip there for a full moon, but while we were there they did not light the candles. They did have a huge protest regarding the Chinese in Tibet, however.
The ancient buildings of Durbar Square are interesting enough on their own, but what fascinates me is the way people interact with the old and ancient in Kathmandu. We came upon this stunning stone monument, and sat in to listen to a monk explain its significance to passers by. Sadly, I have no idea what language the monk was speaking, so I can't tell you exactly how significant this wall really is. When he finished speaking, the monk approached us and encouraged us to light a candle and place it at the base of the wall. We joined the rest of the folks and felt a little more connected to the space, despite the fact that we had no idea what was going on. But that's alright. From time to time, a bit of blissful ignorance goes a long way.
For stunning Himalayan views, hire a canoe and row across Pokhara's Phewa Lake before sunrise. There are usually plenty of eager locals at the boats docks who are more than willing to row you around the lake and position your canoe in just the right picture-taking spot. The reflections in this mirror-like lake are spectacular and only available in the morning. Plus, sunrise may be the only time of day you'll be able to see the mountains before the clouds roll in. So, set your alarm and drag yourself out of bed to see the Himalayas light up in the rising sun. Afterwards, reward yourself with a very delicious plate of Eggs Benedict and coffee at the very strategically located Mike's Breakfast, beautiful lake views included.
Pokhara is a city in western Nepal that sits in a strikingly beautiful valley. Lush jungles and lakes give way to icy peaks that rise over 8000 meters into the sky. It was in this magical place, that a friend and I began our 10 day trek into the Annapurna Sanctuary. The hike takes you into the heart of the Himalayas and has you spending your nights in village teahouses, interacting with locals and trekkers from around the world. The people are extremely hospitable and the scenery is unparalleled. I shot this particular photo on the shores of Phewa Lake. Pokhara runs along its eastern shore, and this particular spot marks a popular boat tour, where locals will paddle people out to an island temple. I was fascinated by the brilliant colors, the cloudless sky, the distant peaks, and the quiet man with his umbrella. Nepal is a country worth visiting, and Lonely Planet provides excellent books on trekking here. In addition, we bought a National Geographic adventure map that detailed our route.
Tihar happens once a year, and if you happen to be visiting Kathmandu during this festival (roughly October), figure out how to make your way up to a rooftop and watch the city light up. Firecrackers and children's laughs ricochet off the buildings down below as the sky above lights up with firework displays launching all across the city.
Get a FREE trial issue of AFAR Magazine!
Sign up for AFAR newsletters:
Thank you for your interest.
You have been added to AFAR's subscription list for weekly newsletters. ENJOY!