On one his frequent art-buying trips to Mexico, Hank Lee came upon Ocumicho in the mountains of the state of Michoacán. "It's eternal springtime there," says the co-owner of San Angel Folk Art in San Antonio, Tex. "There's never really a hot summer or a cold winter. The town is filled with flowers and vegetation, and baby chickens are everywhere."
The village, two and a half hours from the main road between Guadalajara and Morelia, is known for its clay devil figurines and painted pottery. "The artists get inspiration from the tabloids," explains Lee. "Everything is about sensational topics, like Ebola and killer bees."
Two stores off the main square serve food, and a typical dish is squash-blossom tacos with homemade cheeses. "But everyone wants to feed you," says Lee. "In a villager's home, you'll usually see a woman sitting in the living room with a pile of corn, shucking it, husking it, and grinding it by hand. And the women of the town all wear traditional dress: petticoats with aprons, puffy-sleeved shirts, and hair in pigtails." As for lodging, Lee offers three options: "Stay at hotels back by the main road, rent a house, or camp out in the town square. No one minds." Michoacán Tourism Board: 011-52/443-312-8081, turismomichoacan.gob.mx.
United States: Greenwood
The Mississippi town of Greenwood, 130 miles south of Memphis, is experiencing a renaissance. Much of the revitalization is thanks to The Alluvian, a high-design hotel opened in 2003 by the Viking Range Corporation, the kitchen-appliance manufacturer, which has its headquarters in town. The hotel and Viking's cooking school have attracted foodies and artists, who, in turn, are opening restaurants, shops, art galleries, and even a blues museum.
Last fall, Ari Weinzweig, cofounder of the Ann Arbor, Mich., culinary colossus Zingerman's, went to Greenwood for a conference. "Visiting the area is like going to another country," he says. "Not in a bad way! It's just the feel, the pace, is different. You drive through fields and see how cotton looks when it doesn't come in a box."
Weinzweig loves the pastries that Martha Foose, the cooking school's executive chef, makes at her Mockingbird Bakery. But his greatest find? "The Delta tamales," made with beef and cornmeal. "They're all over the area," he says, "but the best ones are at Doe's Eat Place." The family-run restaurant, 55 miles west in Greenville, has served Delta tamales for more than 60 years. The Alluvian: 866/600-5201, thealluvian.com, from $175. Greenwood Blues Heritage Museum & Gallery: 222 Howard St., 662/451-7800, threedeuces.net. Mockingbird Bakery: 325-B Howard St., 662/453-9927. Doe's Eat Place: 502 Nelson St., Greenville, 662/334-3315, doeseatplace.com.
El Salvador: Suchitoto Jim Kane, founder of the tour company Culture Xplorers, travels to Mexico, Brazil, Peru, Guatemala, and El Salvador three months a year. "We try to go to places that aren't necessarily so far off the beaten path, but that we want to experience in a different way," he says. One of Kane's recent finds is Suchitoto. "It's one of the prettiest towns in El Salvador, with well-maintained colonial architecture and cobblestone streets. It reminds me of Antigua, Guatemala, 20 years ago." The village, on rolling hills next to a lake, is less than an hour north of San Salvador. Suchitoto attracts artists and hosts festivals throughout the year. A boutique hotel, Los Almendros de San Lorenzo, adds to the appeal. "For under a hundred dollars a night, you get a trendy hotel in a sleepy town," says Kane. Los Almendros de San Lorenzo: 011-503/2335-1200, hotelsalvador.com, from $80. Guatemala: San Marcos "We buy high-grown coffees, usually starting at 4,000 feet, which means mountains are always around," says Alain Poncelet, vice president of coffee and managing director of Starbucks Coffee Trading Company. "It makes the views very unique." Poncelet spends nearly a third of the year traveling to plantations. "I was on a farm in the San Marcos region of Guatemala recently," he recalls, "walking up the mountain with the farmer, when I heard a very loud noise and saw rocks rolling down. The farmer laughed and said that the volcano had 'awakened.' " Eruptions of the Santiaguito volcano regularly shower the area with ash. Though Santiaguito is in the province of Quetzaltenango, which borders San Marcos to the east, its eruptions can be felt for miles. San Marcos has three volcanoes of its own, including the highest peak in Central America, Tajumulco (13,845 feet). Departing from Quetzaltenango City (a.k.a. Xela or Xelaju) every Saturday morning, Quetzal Trekkers leads two-day peak excursions that include transport, food, guides, and camping equipment. Covered in the rate at Takalik Maya Lodge, south of San Marcos in Retalhuleu, is a coffee plantation tour, as well as entrance to Takalik Abaj National Archaeological Park. Since the ruins were unearthed in the late 1800s, 277 Mayan monuments have been discovered. Quetzal Trekkers: 011-502/7765-5895, quetzaltrekkers.com, $50. Takalik Maya Lodge: 011-502/2333-7056, takalik.com, includes all meals, from $57.
Argentina: Pampa Linda A Patagonian valley two and a half hours from the ski resort of Bariloche, Pampa Linda is way off the beaten path, the kind of place where the inhabitants don't generally have much exposure to visitors--which was exactly what Kevin Hodder, at the time a race manager for the TV show Eco-Challenge, was looking for in 1999. "For active travel, it's hard to beat," says Hodder, who spent five months annually hunting for Eco-Challenge locations. "They call the mountain Mount Tronador--the word for thunder--because the glacier is always calving off, and it sounds like thunder as chunks of ice break and fall into the valley." Adventurers can hike or ride horses to a lodge at the base of the glacier and then make the seven-hour climb to the lowest peak (10,456 feet), overlooking Lake Nahuel Huapi. A stream rife with trout runs through Pampa Linda and widens into a river for rafting and kayaking; a hut-to-hut trail leads to the world-class rock-climbing spot Cerro Catedral. Activities can be arranged through the rustic lodge Hosteria Pampa Linda within Nahuel Huapi National Park, where Hodder stayed. Hodder has since acted as a segment producer for the challenges on Survivor, and now works as the supervising producer for an upcoming Discovery Channel show. Yet he spends winters just as he did before he got into TV--as a backcountry-skiing and mountaineering guide in his hometown, Whistler, B.C. "I still consider myself a mountain guide first and a TV producer second," he says. Hosteria Pampa Linda: 011-54/294-449-0517, firstname.lastname@example.org, from $62. Brazil: Caburé Benjamin Weiher works at a desk these days, but for four years, the operations supervisor for G.A.P Adventures guided small groups through South and Central America. "I wore so many hats: translator, organizer, medic, and even therapist," says Weiher, who switched to the office life in March of this year. A scout for G.A.P had come across Caburé, a village in northern Brazil, six years ago, and Weiher visited on a 2002 tour. Caburé is a peninsular strip of white sand hugged by the Atlantic Ocean, the Preguiça River, and Lençóis Maranhenses National Park. (Lençóis means "bedsheets" in Portuguese; the park takes its name from the 380,000 acres of rippling dunes, which resemble an unmade bed.) "It's not much more than a few dozen thatched-roof buildings and an endless beach," says Weiher. To get there, he recommends hiring a private motorboat in Barreirinhas for a one-hour trip down the river, or taking a chauffeured dune buggy from Tutoia, a three-hour trek, half on local roads and the rest on the beach (ask at the little travel agencies in Tutoia). A handful of friendly pousadas, such as Pousada do Paturi, rent out ocean-side rooms and serve straightforward seafood meals. "You relax in hammocks, swim in the ocean, go sandboarding, or hike through the park--local kids are usually the guides," he says. "Caburé is one of the most relaxed places I've ever been." The boat costs about $70; ask at the dock. (The public ferry is $5, but takes five hours.) The buggies, which hold three passengers, cost about $90. Pousada do Paturi: 011-55/98-3349-9902, pousadadopaturi.com.br, $34. Brazil: Olinda As the A&R consultant for Putumayo World Music, Jacob Edgar spends at least one week per month traveling the world seeking exceptional talents. On a recent trip to South America, he visited Olinda, a colonial town in the Brazilian state of Pernambuco, known in the world-music scene as a hotbed for forró. (Pronounced faw-haw, forró is reminiscent of zydeco.) When you've had your fill of strolling through Olinda's cobblestone roads and marveling at its 16th-century Portuguese architecture, Edgar recommends that you plant yourself in a local café and listen to the vast array of musicians. "Music is absolutely everywhere," he says. "The drums echo through the streets." His favorite spots include Forró do Arlindo, a nightclub in the backyard of a blind accordion player. "It's rustic," he warns, "but there's no better place to sip cachaça and hear great live music." The club is one of a handful on the outskirts of Olinda, in addition to dozens of forró bars in Recife, Olinda's sister city five miles away. Forró do Arlindo: Avenida Hidelbrando de Vasconcelo 2900, Dois Unidos. Ecuador: Sarayaku Nation In the past year, as director of Global Exchange's Reality Tours, Malia Everette met with the Naxi people and Tibetans to brainstorm a trip to Yunnan, China; inspected refugee camps on the border between Jordan and northern Iraq as part of the Global Exchange Peace Delegation; and dropped by San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, to catch up with tour operators. But her favorite stop last year was in the pristine southwest corner of Ecuador's Amazon, a half-hour flight from Shell (which is a five-hour drive from Quito) that skims over lush forests. The Sarayaku Nation operates a modest ecolodge there. "Visiting is an amazing opportunity to learn about indigenous people and the resilience and beauty of a culture," she says. Sarayaku elders lead hikes--pointing out birds and medicinal herbs--and explain their systems for crop rotation and fishing. Sarayaku women prepare the meals and fashion pottery with geometric patterns using natural pigments and sap for polish. Everette left feeling humble and inspired. "It's food for the soul," she says. Book the lodge and flight through Papangu Tours, 011-593/32-887-684, email@example.com, from $249 for three days.
Asia & Australia
Australia: Simpson Desert Lonely Planet now sells more than 6 million guidebooks annually. With all that success, it's no wonder that Tony Wheeler--who founded the company in 1973--spends six months of the year searching for new regions to report on. "I like places that are on the edge even if they're not going to be seriously visitable for awhile," he says. He means places like the Simpson Desert, the majority of which is in the southeastern corner of Australia's Northern Territory. It spreads out over 50,000 square miles of uninhabited red-sand ridges. "It's surprisingly beautiful country with a lot of vegetation," he says, "and if you're lucky, plenty of wildlife." Most folks begin in Alice Springs, then head south, starting their eastward desert crossing at Dalhousie Springs. Officials advise a caravan of at least two four-wheel-drive vehicles--in case one breaks down--and a UHF radio or satellite phone to call for help if necessary. "Between Mount Dare and Birdsville there's no habitation, no campsites, no hotels, no fuel, no water, and no help if you hit problems," says Wheeler. "When you want to stop, just pull over and set up your tent." The light at the end of the desert is the Birdsville Hotel. "The celebratory cold beer there is one of the highlights of the trip." Australia 4 Wheel Drive Rentals: 011-61/88-94-53-338, australia 4wheeldriverentals.com, from $93 per day. Desert Parks Pass available from South Australia's Department for Environment and Heritage: 011-61/88-64-85-300, parks.sa.gov.au, $71. India: Mahansar Relief Riders International runs horseback trips to provide humanitarian aid in rural Rajasthan, India. "I scout for villages in need of help," says Alexander Souri, its executive director. Souri is on the road at least four months of the year, leading tours, looking for villages in need of aid, and working with outfitters and the Red Cross. "Everything I did before this"--he was an international-event planner, a special-effects producer for The Matrix and X-Men, and a commercial director in China--"gave me the skills to run Relief Riders International." While in Rajasthan, Souri stumbled upon the village of Mahansar in the Shekhawati region, an area in the triangle formed by Delhi, Jaipur, and Bikaner that's famous for its havelis (traditional residences) decorated with colorful frescoes. "You get a sense of grandeur, of something old that's slowly decaying by time, not by development," he says. Some of Mahansar's best frescoes are on three vaulted ceilings in the Sona Ki Dukan Haveli. The gold-leaf paintings depict scenes from the Ramayana and Gita Govinda. (Ask nearby shops for a key; donations welcome.) A few rooms in the Narayan Niwas fort, built in 1768, still contain frescoes, as well as antique rugs and carved wooden doors. Conveniently, it's now a hotel. Narayan Niwas Castle: 011-91/1595-264-322, from $26. Japan: Inami On Aaron Richter's first day in Inami, it started pouring. He ducked into a shop, then looked around. The shop stocked one thing--umbrellas. Richter was in the mood to appreciate serendipity. It was 2002, right before he started working at W Hotels Worldwide, where he's now the senior director of design. He had taken some time off after his mother passed away. "I had to get across the planet," he says. "An inner journey, or something like that." Unlike the relentless, meeting-driven travel he does now--in July he went to Brussels, Qatar, and Istanbul, "and that was actually kind of a light month"--Japan was all about wandering. He was there for five weeks, mostly in Kyoto, and visited Inami for three days. It was an architectural pilgrimage. "The town has a history of woodworking," he says, "and there's the Inami Woodcarving Museum, designed by Peter Salter." But what he took away was less about architecture than craftsmanship. "Wherever you walk, you'll catch someone's studio out of the corner of your eye. People are very friendly, and accommodating about showing their work. They're proud of it, and rightfully so." Richter stayed at a ryokan called Yamashita. "I got attacked by this guy staying there. Not attacked--he just wanted to be my instant friend." The guy insisted they perform karaoke. Richter still can't believe it: "He could barely speak English, but he sang Sinatra perfectly. I did John Denver's 'Country Roads.' " From Kyoto take the Thunder Bird "Raicho" train to Takaoka (three hours), then the Johana line to Tonami (20 minutes), then the bus to Inami. Inami Woodcarving Museum: 733 Kitagawa, 011-81/763-82-5158, $4.25. Yamashita Ryokan: 011-81/763-82-0231, from $116. Japan: Jozankei Josh Berman, owner of Level 1 Productions, went to Hokkaido, the northernmost island in Japan, to film Long Story Short, the latest of Level 1's seven freeskiing films. When they weren't on the mountain, he and his crew whiled away time at the footbath hot springs in Jozankei, a small town outside of Sapporo. "It's completely outdoors, but under a roof, and about a foot deep. You take off your shoes, roll up your pants, and put your feet in. We sat there for an hour and a half with snow falling around us." Jozankei is home to three free footbath locations, including Tarono-yu ("Footbath for Friendship") and Ashitsubono-yu ("Footbath for Longevity and Health"). The natural springwater and stones embedded in the floor are meant to soothe the feet, especially after they've been exposed to extreme cold--perfect for backcountry skiers who've been up to their waists in powder. For those who'd like to soak more than tootsies, several hotels in the area, like the Jozankei View Hotel, have their own private hot springs for guests, and also offer day visits. The town's namesake natural hot spring was discovered more than 130 years ago along the Toyohira River by a monk named Jozan. Today, it's a retreat where, besides soaking, you can hike several trails. Jozankei View Hotel: 011-81/11-598-3223, from $73 per night, $7 day pass. Jozankei Tourist Association: 011-81/11-598-2012, jyozankei.com/english. Laos: Kong Lo Cave Another of the Rosses' top spots isn't for the claustrophobic: It involves a very long ride through a very dark tunnel. An overnight trip to Kong Lo is a highlight of Journeys Within's monthlong tour on the Mekong River, which takes guests from China's Yunnan province to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. "Halfway through, in Laos, we travel by minibus from Vientiane to a tributary of the Mekong, where we board long-tail boats and motor upstream to the Sala Hin Boun Ecolodge," explains Brandon. Accommodations are basic, but the surroundings are stunning, and each room has a river-view balcony. The next morning, the tour heads upriver and transfers to smaller boats that go to Kong Lo Cave. "After we clamber over rocks to get around the rapids at the cave's entrance, the boatmen navigate two and a half miles with only flashlights." At times the cave is more than 300 feet wide, and equally high; it's full of stalagmites and stalactites. "On the other side, you enter a kind of Shangri-la, separated from the outside world by the huge mountain you've just passed through," says Brandon. "When Andrea and I first stumbled upon Kong Lo, we loved the feeling of being modern-day explorers." Journeys Within: 877/454-3672, journeys-within.com, Mekong Experience $5,450. Myanmar: Ngwe Saung A resort area in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) that's only just opened to tourists, Ngwe Saung is less well-known than the popular beaches of Ngapali. "It has gorgeous white sand, great diving and snorkeling, and wonderful seafood," says Andrea Ross, who founded Journeys Within with her husband, Brandon. "There are a few big hotels, but we prefer The Palm Beach Resort. It's privately owned and has lovely beachfront bungalows." One can easily see why relaxation would appeal to the Rosses. Three years ago, they sold their house in California and moved to Cambodia, a country they'd fallen in love with when backpacking the year before. They opened a B&B in Siem Reap, and launched tours. And in 2005, they had a daughter, Callie. Instead of driving the five hours from Yangon, Andrea suggests a boat ride on the Irrawaddy River. "Take an overnight Delta Queen cruise from Yangon. The 14-cabin boat drops you off about 45 minutes from the beach and an included transfer by car or bus gets you the rest of the way." Andrea is excited about offering Ngwe Saung to clients. "A few days there is a great finish to a tour of Myanmar. You're often the only person on the sand." The Palm Beach Resort: 011-95/150-1937, thepalmbeachresort.com, from $140. Delta Queen: 011-95/139-2552, myanmar-rivercruises.com, $250 each way. Thailand: Ko Similan "There's almost nothing I won't eat," says Lori T. Latta. She's one of 15 category leaders for Trader Joe's, the grocery chain; she travels the world looking for new flavors and foods. "Last year I went to Norway three times on a special salmon project," she says. "But recently I've been focusing on Southeast Asia." After sampling food from farmers' markets and restaurants, she tries to put aside at least one day of her trip to do something different: "Why not go a little bit farther?" Ko Similan is one of nine virtually uninhabited islands in the Similan chain, 62 miles northwest of Phuket. The islands were designated a Thailand National Park in 1982. Latta first heard of Ko Similan's world-class snorkeling and diving while researching cashews in the southern part of the country. "You can't get in the water without being among amazing fish and wildlife," she says. "Plus, the water is the most unreal shade of blue." Similan Diving Safaris runs day trips from Khao Lak, north of Phuket (from $111), and four-night all-inclusive Similan diving trips ($496): 011-66/76-48-54-70, similan-diving-safaris.com.
Cape Verde: Sal Twelve years ago, former competitive skier Johnny Decesare began making extreme-sports films. After more than a dozen successes, including Not Another Ski Movie and Ski Porn, he turned his attention to a different sport--windsurfing. The founder of Poor Boyz Productions soon found himself on the Cape Verde island of Sal, 300 miles off mainland Africa. "There are white-sand beaches and warm tropical water," Decesare says in his surfer drawl. "And the people are super nice." While filming The Windsurfing Movie, due out in the spring, Decesare stayed at the Sab Sab Hotel. "We were spending 20 bucks a night each on a nice hotel!" he says. Sab Sab is conveniently located behind the Angulo Cabo Verde Windsurf Center. Run by one of the sport's world champions, Josh Angulo, the shop rents equipment and will arrange lessons. Round-trip flights from New York to Sal on TAP Portugal, via Lisbon, start at around $1,200. Sab Sab Hotel: 011-238/242-1300, sab_sab_reservations @hotmail.com from $88. Angulo Cabo Verde Windsurf Center: angulocaboverde.com, one-hour rental $19. Egypt: Siwa "The oasis of Siwa is the only place that's left me speechless," says Kenneth Hieber, who travels at least four times a year for 2Afrika, his tour company. An eight-hour drive west of Cairo, near the Libyan border, Siwa appears in the Sahara like a mirage. The town is built atop an enormous network of natural wells, which bubble out of the earth in the form of two huge lakes--Birket Siwa and Birket Zeitun--and countless hot springs. Siwa is best explored by bicycle; rentals cost $10 a day. In addition to the ruins of Shali, a 13th-century mud-brick village, Hieber recommends a trip to Fatnis Island, in Lake Siwa. "It's covered with date palms, except for a round, tiled pool at its center. I took a swim just before sunset and then sat at a coffee shop watching the sun sink into the Libyan desert." Ten miles outside town is Adrère Amellal, a luxurious ecolodge constructed of sand and clay. But Hieber promises he'll make Siwa much more affordable, offering extensions to the town as part of his company's growing selection of Egypt itineraries. "I'll be selling stays from as little as $35 per person per night," he says. Adrère Amellal: 011-20/2738-1327, adrereamellal.net, $400. 2Afrika: 866/462-2374, 2afrika.com. Morocco: Imlil Over two weeks of correspondence with Cherri Briggs, founder of Explore Inc., a high-end agency for customized vacations to Africa, she contacted us alternately from Cameroon, Botswana, and Morocco. It was fairly typical for Briggs, who travels throughout the continent about nine months a year, seeking "authenticity" and "real African comfort away from the crowds," as she puts it. (Before getting into the travel business, Briggs started a film company and served on the boards of various nonprofits interested in conserving African wildlife.) During her recent stint in Cameroon, she explored the country's northwest highlands and met with several fons, or tribal chiefs--some of whom, she says, have 500 wives. One of Briggs's favorite spots of late is Imlil, a friendly village in the Atlas Mountains, 50 miles southwest of Marrakech. The landscapes around Imlil are so magnificent, Martin Scorsese decided they'd be a fine substitute for Tibet in parts of his 1997 film Kundun. "Imlil has gorgeous mountain scenery--but at 5,000 feet, rather than 20,000," says Briggs. The lower altitude means you're much less likely to be hampered by altitude sickness. "You can hike, take overnight donkey trips, and stay at the ancient casbah," which is now a hotel called Kasbah du Toubkal that helps fund community projects. Kasbah du Toubkal: 011-33/5-49-05-01-35, kasbahdutoubkal.com, from $177. Niger: Agadez "It's the most exotic place I've been," says Stacy Spivak, a buyer for Ten Thousand Villages, about the town of Agadez in Niger. On one of the old trading routes across the Sahara, Agadez was also once the seat of a Tuareg sultanate and dates back to the 11th century. It's still a main hub for the nomadic Tuareg people. Ten Thousand Villages seeks out disadvantaged communities with unique skills, then sells their crafts internationally. Since 2001, stores in the U.S. have carried jewelry from the Agadez area. "It's mainly silver mixed with ebony, all made by hand," says Spivak. She's also delighted by the architecture. "It's sort of like Timbuktu," Spivak says. "They use scaffolding made of branches, then build the adobe around it. The grand mosque, in the middle of town, has very intricate detailing; you can climb up to the windows and look out over the city." Spivak stays at a 13-room guesthouse, Auberge du Ténéré, now owned by an Italian expat. "It's an adobe room with an African canopy bed," she says. "Twigs hold up the mosquito netting." Auberge du Ténéré: 011-227/9659-8958, from $32. Round-trip airfare between New York City and Niamey, via Paris on Air France, costs about $2,000. Buses with and without A/C make the 12-hour trip to Agadez from Niamey: Corninche de Yantala bus station, 011-227/2072-3020, one way $27.