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Steppes Big 5: Latin America Carnivals

Carnival Season, Brazil

It is carnival season in Latin America and with the residents of Rio preparing to drum, mambo and shimmy their way through the streets of the city this coming weekend, we thought we would share our favourite carnivals with you. Joyful processions, music and masquerade are not just the reserve of Brazil…

1. Brazil

Aside from the world-famous Rio Carnival, here are two others that we feel are well worth considering:

Olinda is a beautifully preserved colonial town and its annual festivities are known as the ‘carnival of participation’ during which people of all ages are encouraged to make their own costumes and join in with the street celebrations. Notable for the huge papier mache puppets, known as ‘bonecos’ which are carried aloft amidst the colourful parades and rousing music.

Probably best known as the first carnival to feature an electric parade float the colourful carnival of Salvador de Bahia is the second largest after Rio and nowadays features a huge truck decked out in some serious lighting and topped by a live band which forms the centrepiece of the celebrations.

2. Argentina

A carnival with the devil at its centre, the festivities at Quebrada de Humahuaca begin with the unearthing of Satan – a large devil shaped doll, buried at the end of the previous year’s festivities.  Mixing traditional indigenous and catholic celebrations, Satan is let out to play during 9 days of partying before being buried for another year.

3. Bolivia

Located amidst the Andean highlands at 3,710 metres above sea level, Oruru Carnival is the highest located carnival in the world and celebrates the traditional dress, cultures and dance from all corners of Bolivia. Recognized by UNESCO as a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” the centrepiece of this 10-day festival is the ‘Dance of the Devils’ featuring hundreds of devils dressed in suitably scary costumes. The aim is to appease the devil through offerings, dance, music and costume. The festivities end with a huge water bomb fight.

 4. Mexico

Nicknamed the most joyful carnival in the world, the 9 day Veracruz carnival is the largest in Mexico. Opening with a huge bonfire to burn away bad moods the festivities feature numerous competitions for the best group based on anything from their costumes to their dancing and even their joyfulness.
The carnival ends with the burial of Juan Carnaval, a mock funeral and an amusing reading of his will.

Traditional Mexican Bunting

5. Colombia

Set in the colonial town of Barranquilla, this 4-day carnival has strong European, African and Indian traditions and is the largest carnival outside of Brazil. Another carnival that has been recognised by UNESCO as a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” the festivities stem from a mix of catholic and pagan celebrations. Beginning with a six-hour parade of flowers the festivities feature much drum and wind based music and many dances with strong African links having originated from the Congo.

If you would like to plan a holiday to Latin America to coincide with any of the above carnivals. Email inspire@steppestravel.com or call us on 01285 601 753.

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Walking the Americas

Levison Wood returns to our screens with a new series on Sun 08 Jan, 8pm. This time Levison is trekking 1800 miles from Mexico to Colombia, initially exploring the diverse range of landscapes found in Central America before attempting to cross the Darien Gap into Colombia and South America.

Along the way Levison meets a fascinating array of people from Mennonite farmers, shamans and pilgrims to the Bribri tribe in Costa Rica. Catch all the action of this new series on Channel 4.

If you are interesting in following in some of his foot steps, check out our Colombia – Darien Gap, Caribbean Coast and Medellin holiday.

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Steppes Big 5: Gastro Experiences in Latin America


Latin American food is as expansive and contrasting as it is flavourful and robust. Its colourful history and diverse culture all culminates in a wonderfully rich and exuberant cuisine. Here are a few areas of interest to whet your appetites and perhaps ignite a desire to travel muy pronto!

1. Mexico

Mexico is renowned for its cuisine and whether you are up for a taco street tour or prefer to embark on a traditional Oaxacan cookery course, the gastronomy here is out of this world. However, worth mentioning is the new culinary era that has emerged in the colonial city of San Miguel de Allende. World famous Chef, Enrique Olvera, is cooking up a feast of contemporary Mexican food at the poolside restaurant Moxi. Frequented by San Miguel de Allende’s elite, the 7 course taster menu draws crowds and the chocolate mousse with mandarin and mescal is not to be missed.

2. Peru

Huaca Pucllana in the Miraflores District of Lima is located on a pre-Inca archaeological site. It is a spectacular setting, especially at night when the site is lit. The gastronomic experience is phenomenal. Traditional Peruvian dishes including ceviche, guinea pig, beef heart, and fantastic array of use wild vegetables grown across the country in the different microclimates. They also make a mean Pisco Sour.

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3. Argentina

Siete Fuegos Restaurant at the Vines Resort & Spa is making headlines. Cooking beef here has become an art form, and most recently our own celebrity chef John Torode visited Siete Fuegos in BBC documentary ‘John Torode’s Argentina’ to learn a thing or two. With an open –flame cooking techniques and 9 hour cooking times, there is no question that the Siete Fuegos is serving up some of Argentina’s finest beef (and fish) and paired with exceptional wines, creating one of Argentina’s culinary highlights.

4. Cuba

Progressive Dining by Vintage Car. If you just can’t decide on where to eat, then this is the answer. Have a different course in a different restaurant. And so you don’t have to pace the streets, we’ll chauffeur you in a vintage car. Begin with cocktails at the famous Hotel Nacional or the Rooftop bar at the Saratoga. Your vintage car will then take you on for starters at Dona Eutemia by the San Cristobal Cathedral before main course at the incredible La Guarida – a sensational paladar, now with a roof top rum bar. If you like sharing, the Cuatro Leches desert at Chef Ivan Justo is a fun way to round things off which is presented in the original can of condensed milk – and 2 spoons! If the night is still young, the after dinner options are endless – it is Cuba after all.

5. Colombia

Bogota is fast being recognised worldwide as a fantastic international city with a growing social scene and some great dining experiences. Most notably Club Colombia is one of the best known upscale restaurants attended by the city’s movers and shakers. Enjoy the taster menus or a contemporary twist on the traditional dishes such as Ajiaco, which is a potato soup typical of the Bogota region, livened up with chicken, corn and capers. However, if you want to sample the real thing, Colombian street food is delicious. Go to restaurant El Solar for the best Bandeja Paisa – it’s a heart attack on a plate but if you have a 15 hour day in the fields ahead of you – it is just the ticket. (At least the half an avocado on the side is ‘good fat’). Arepas are baked dough with cheese inside; warming and filling and served with almost every meal. But when you are feeling peckish you can buy them from a vendor on the street for just up a $1.

Start your gastro adventure with us, call us on 01285 880980 or email inspire@steppestravel.com for more advice.
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Men wanted for hazardous journey

“Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success.”

So read Shackleton’s apocryphal advert recruiting for his Trans Antarctic Expedition in 1914. One hundred years ago on 18th January 1915 – only one days sail from her destination the “Endurance” became stuck in pack ice. The rest as they say is history.

Thankfully our trips are not quite as gruelling as Shackleton’s but here are some other great explorers, in whose footsteps you could follow. Who would you choose?


Image credit: abc.net.au


101 years ago this month Australia’s foremost Antarctic explorer Douglas Mawson returned home after two years of triumph and terror in Antarctica. Along with Roald Amundsen, Robert Falcon Scott, and Ernest Shackleton, Mawson was a key expedition leader during the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration.

see all antarctica holidays


Image credit: Wikicommons


The first African-American Arctic explorer and an associate of Robert Peary on seven voyages over nearly 23 years, including the first to reach the geographical North Pole. Admired by Greenlanders for his hunting, sled driving skills and being able to speak the local language.

see all arctic holidays


Image credit: ornaverum.org


The British plant collector and explorer Frank Kingdon Ward travelled throughout Tibet, China and SE Asia in search of rare and elusive plant species including finding the legendary Tibetan blue poppy and the introduction of it’s seeds into the world’s gardens.

see himalayan holidays


Image credit: www.phfawcettsweb.org


If you haven’t yet read “Exploration Fawcett” – do. It’s an extraordinarily thrilling real life account of some of Fawcett’s ten years searching for a lost city in the Amazon basin. His disappearance in Mato Grosso remains an unsolved mystery.

see amazon adventures


Image credit: weareoca.com


Father of modern ethnobotany, Schultes fieldwork and studies of indigenous peoples of the Americas and their uses of plants led him to be the first to alert the modern world to the destruction of the Amazon rainforest. He collected over 30,000 specimens, 300 new to science and published numerous discoveries including the source of the dart poison “curare” now used as a muscle relaxant during surgery.

see colombia holidays


Image credit: rooneyarchive.net


Often accredited as discovering Angkor Wat, at least in highlighting it’s presence to the West. Naturalist Henri Mouhot explored Thailand (Siam), Cambodia and Laos. Supported by The Royal Geographical Society and the Zoological Society of London, his legacy is a diary of observations of the people, places and fauna of these areas. He fell ill and died near Luang Prabang where you can see his tomb today.

see south east asia holidays


Image credit: AP


Darwin described him as “the greatest scientific traveller who ever lived.” His epic and extensive journeys in Latin America made him a founder of modern geography, mapping northern South America he understood completely the link between nature and habitat . He was the first to propose that the lands bordering the Atlantic Ocean were once joined – the Humboldt current is named after him.

see galapagos holidays


Image credit: treasure-explorer.nla.gov.au


One of the Dutch navigators – In 1642 Abel Tasman sailed to Mauritius and discovered Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania). He was the first European voyager to reach New Zealand and the first to sight Tonga and the Fiji islands. Today sailing or kayaking in Abel Tasman National Park and walking it’s trails combined with a boutique lodge in the South Island make a perfect holiday experience.

See new zealand holidays


Image credit: mongolschinaandthesilkroad.blogspot.com


Ibn Battuta began his journeys as young as 20, initially a pilgrimage to Mecca became 29 years of constant travelling covering 44 countries and 75,000 miles. Encountering many dangers and adventures along the way ( he was almost beheaded by a tyrant ruler) towards the end of his life the Sultan of Morocco asked him to dictate the story of his travels,”Rihla – My Travels, translations of which can be read today.

see moroccan holidays


Image credit: khudi.pk

 East african coast – zheng he

The extraordinary eunuch, explorer, mariner and diplomat Zheng He set sail more than 600 years ago making at least seven epic voyages reaching south east Asia, the Middle East and Africa. A towering giant of a man at seven feet tall and in command of Ming dynasty’s 300 ships and 30,000 men. His voyages strengthened China’s place in the world and trading routes within it. Perhaps his most unusual cargo being transporting home China’s first giraffe.

Are you inspired to join a Steppes adventure? Take a look at our modern day explorers leading our group tours this year

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Where to go in 2015

Over the last few months I have been asked again and again by journalists which destinations are the ones to watch for 2015. Here they are, chosen by myself and the Steppes specialists – who are after all – the eyes and ears on the ground. Is there anything we have missed?
PS: I’m bound for an exciting African destination, new to Steppes. Currently heading to Zakouma National Park. Watch this space.



With Avianca now operating direct flights between Bogota and London, the door to Colombia has just been opened further. Colombia is finally moving out of the shadows of it’s neighbours and fast becoming a safe travel option with the added interest of guides who have lived through 40 years of turmoil, providing a fascinating insight into life now and then.



With Marigold Hotel II set to hit the big screen in 2015, you can be sure the media will be scouring India for the real life equivalent. The new Bujera Fort in Udaipur is the brain child of an English couple and will no doubt therefore draw comparisons with Hotel Marigold. Combined with Jawai Leopard Camp it will make for a great alternative to the more commonly used Golden Triangle properties.



Luxurious boat charters covering parts of the archipelago previously off limits to tourists will open up the full potential of Indonesia’s diving – tipped by many as some of the best in the world, especially around Raja Ampat.



Zimbabwe is bouncing back. Fewer tourists, better prices and phenomenal wildlife. Home to some of the best safari guides, exquisite lodges and dramatic scenery, it won’t be long before Zimbabwe is rightfully back as one of the finest safari destinations in Africa.



The big destination in 2015 for adventurous families with older children. Self-drive is an easy option in the US and gives families a sense of freedom and flexibility. We recommend combining this with a number of guided excursions in America’s national parks. If wildlife and remote wilderness sound like your kind of holiday then head to Alaska.



Japan’s best kept secrets can be found hidden within its 6,000 plus islands. Ranging from the remote subtropical island chain of Ogasawara, set to rival the Galapagos and reached only by a 25 hour boat ride, to the island of Okinawa, the birthplace of Karate where it is possible to dive with manta rays and hammerhead sharks.



Mongolia has a sense of space, tradition and laughter that cannot be found elsewhere. Travel west to the Altai Mountains and ride with the Kazakh eagle hunters who hunt on horseback in the winter.

Read Justin’s blog and watch his video.


Papua New Guinea

Go now before it changes. A cliché but sadly true for Papua New Guinea. Whilst remote and little visited, stereotypes of primitive, uncontacted tribes are outmoded. Already by the late 1960s the lowland peoples were no longer wearing traditional dress. Although the peoples of the highlands were, they would only do so for another thirty years, traditional dress having faded out by the turn of the millennium. See our holiday ideas.


South Africa

An overnight flight away – no jet lag and guaranteed winter sun. With the current exchange rate of the rand – you can dine in style for less at one of the best restaurants in Capetown. We recommend exploring the Western Cape or stay at the brand new family run Kariega lodge along the Garden Route.



There are some wonderful deals to be had on a number of our hand-picked cruises – from Steam Ship Sudan and Sanctuary Sunboat to a private charter of a Dahabiya. You might also have some of the sites to yourself. Avoid the crowds and go now before they flock back.

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Top 4 Festivals

Rajasthan woman

With Glastonbury and Wimbledon on everyone’s lips and with the promise of a summer full of festivals, we were inspired to come up with a list of our top 4 festivals from around the world. With Steppes Travel coming from the home of the Cheese Rolling competition we have put together some ideas that offer something a little different than just Music and mud…


The Yeepao Competition in the Quindio region of Colombia celebrates the humble Willis Jeep. A vehicle that has become synonymous with the region is honoured each year by the residents who compete to fit as much in, on and under the jeep. They then drive through the main streets of the town, trying to get further than any of the other competitors. Not only a beautiful area of Colombia but a fantastic opportunity for unique and amusing images.


The Jaisalmer Desert Festival in the beautiful Indian region of Rajasthan is bursting with colour and life. Held in the desert city with the Golden Fortress of Jaisalmer it showcases the colourful heritage and folk culture of this region with dancing, costumes and festivities. The friendly locals will invite you to join in and judge the moustache and turban tying competitions!


The Lake Turkana Festival is all about the bringing together of the communities within this remote and little visited region of Kenya. The festival is full of cultural dances and local traditions, aimed to offer insights into the lives of the local tribes and to breakdown stereotypes. The festival not only offers a lively atmosphere but also provides the perfect excuse to get off the beaten track and visit a wild and very different Kenya.


Celebrated for over 70 years, in early November gauchos descend on the little town of San Antonia de Areco to join in Argentina’s version of a rodeo. The gauchos take to the cobbled streets, dressed in all their finery for a week of celebrations. Perhaps the most impressive day is the jineteada gaucha which ends the celebrations which is of course accompanied by the most mouth watering BBQ laden with famous Argentinian steak.


Viva Colombia!

One of my oldest friends is half Colombian and having spent many an evening as a teenager sampling his Colombian mother’s cooking and hearing all about this fascinating country, I knew that I would have to get there someday! Nearly 15 years later, my wife and I were on the plane and after an uneventful flight to Bogota, we finally arrived, descending into the vast crater-like valley within which sits Colombia’s capital.

For some visitors (including my wife!), Bogota is like any other large capital city but I found that it has much to offer. Stunning colonial architecture is found in La Candelaria district which houses some of the colonial era’s most important and historical buildings in the Americas. The gold museum is quite spectacular, showcasing the best historical artefacts from across the country and really informs the visitor of the impressive skills of the ancient civilisations that made these items.

The city is split into Zone’s with Zona T the most well known for its hotels, boutiques, restaurants and nightlife – we arrived on a dry weekend because alcohol is banned during elections, which was a bit of a shame but we still had a great night out!

The likes of Cartagena and the Coffee Region have been open to tourism for many years, however some of the more interesting destinations in the south of the country have only really opened up in the last few years thanks to the government’s strong tactics against the guerrilla movements for which the country is so well known.

We flew south to Neiva, set in a hot and humid region compared to the cooler climes of Bogota. Neiva is the best location from which to reach the archaeological sites around San Agustin, approx. 5 hours drive south west. Along the way we stopped for a short hike into the Tatacoa Desert, a bizarre mini-desert filled with bizarre orange-red rock formations, cacti and various bird species such as the hummingbird which we were lucky enough to see. For the star-gazers out there, it is probably the best spot in the country and has a small observatory. Onwards to San Agustin by part-paved road through sugar cane and coffee plantations as we steadily climbed higher into the Andes.

The archaeological sites in the San Agustin are quite magnificent with uncovered tombs and sculpted figures, some up to four metres high. The most impressive are located in the Idolos and San Agustin Archaeological Parks where some statues, astonishingly, are over 5,000 years old. The region itself is full of sugar cane plantations and coffee farms some of which we explored on horseback; my horse Dynamite was thankfully a lot calmer than the name suggested! Whilst the infrastructure here is quite limited the travel experience that we had was fascinating in every way.

One of the highlights of the trip for me was the road journey to the ‘White City’ Popayan, a five hour drive from San Agustin. We passed through rainforest, home to tapir and spectacled bear, volcanic landscapes and high-altitude grasslands filled with thousands of unusual frailejone shrubs. As we drew closer to Popayan the landscape changes to lush pastures of rolling hills with hot springs and waterfalls. Popayan itself is a pretty town, in keeping with its original white-washed architecture, but I did not fall for the place – probably because it rained for our whole stay! The surrounding area is very interesting with the Purace National Park, traditional villages and an incredible condor viewing point, where feeding condors can be viewed some 20 feet away.

We continued our overland journey to the Coffee Region or Eje Cafetero, which admittedly was a welcome relief with some more upscale hotels and a bit of comfort after a few days off-the-beaten track! I must say that this part of the country is so well set up for tourism but not over the top. We stayed at traditional coffee haciendas (a real must!) and saw that the best of the region, visiting a lovely old coffee farm where, after 29 years, I was converted into a coffee drinker – I now realise what I have been missing all these years!

The Vallee de Cocora was another favourite spot with lovely hikes and horse rides into the valley and surrounding rainforest – I have never seen so many orchids or humming birds for that matter! Colombia’s endangered national tree, the Quindian wax palm manages to survive here, reaching some60 metres in height. Combined with visits to the beautiful towns of Salento and Filandia with their coloured houses and intricately decorated balconies, this was a special day and it felt like we had experienced the true coffee region.

After our tour to some of Colombia’s lesser-known highlights, I relished the opportunity to spend a few days in Cartagena, secretly hoping to find the spot where Michael Douglas held on to the alligator’s tail in Romancing The Stone! I was disappointed to find out that it was actually filmed in Mexico!

The old town of Cartagena is stunning and within hours it has made it on to my favourite destination list. It is a bustling and thriving city with real life coexisting alongside the lovely boutique hotels and tourists. In fact this was the first place on the trip where we saw more than a handful of tourists. Beautiful colonial architecture, fantastic seafood, great nightlife and friendly people, Cartagena is not to be missed and if I could I would fly there for a long weekend away! Sipping mojitos atop the city walls at sunset with views to the ocean and the old and new parts of the city will always stay with me.

Heading east of Cartagena, by road, our next destination was the Tayrona National Park where we stayed at the government run Eco Habs overlooking to the beautiful Caribbean coastline. It is possibly one of the most idyllic settings I have ever been to, with jungle clad mountains to the back and golden sandy beaches to the front. I had wanted to visit this area for years after reading a book called The Gringo Trail as a teenager and I was not disappointed by the location.

The sea here is quite rough with strong undercurrents which means some of the beaches can be dangerous, however this did not detract from our stay as we rode on horseback to a lovely protected beach and walked back. My lasting memory of Tayrona is waking up at sunrise, flinging open the large doors and laying back down in bed to watch the sun come up over the blue Caribbean Sea.

Colombia has already become one of my favourite South American countries with its diverse, interesting destinations and landscapes and above all the people are genuinely the friendliest I have ever encountered. Safety is always a concern when travellers are considering a destination, however we felt as safe as in any other country and felt reassured by well organised security in the cities and countryside. Colombia is finally shaking off its reputation for cocaine and banditos and is fast becoming one of the top ‘up and coming’ destinations in Latin America and deservedly so given that it is such a wonderful country.

Please feel free to email or call Oliver on 01285 885333 to discuss Colombia or for any further advice on your holiday to Colombia.

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Volvo Classics Adventure: The Pan American Highway

100 classic Volvos and 200 participants have arrived in Buenos Aires for an epic journey through Argentina, up South America along the Pan American highway and all the way to Cartagena de Indias in Colombia.

Organised by the Dutch Volvo Classics association, this incredible drive sets off from Buenos Aires on 10th December, heading south to the ‘End of the World’ in Ushuaia and driving through Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and ending in Cartagena on 14th January.

The cars will make 10 border crossings and travel over 15,500 kilometres, passing some of the most spectacular landscapes on the continent. From the towering granite peaks of Las Torres Del Paine and the glaciers of Argentine Patagonia to the snow-capped volcanoes of the Chilean Lake District and shimmering Uyuni salt flats in Bolivia; not forgetting the incredible history of Cusco and Machu Picchu, before heading north to the historic cities of Lima, Quito and Cartagena on the Caribbean coast.

Why not follow the Pan American Highway as part of your own epic South America holiday?! Steppes Travel’s Latin America specialists can put together an incredible holiday to South America, completely tailored to your personal travel requirements. We have first-hand knowledge of Latin America and know the region intimately after our work travels and our own holidays.