The pandemic has clipped our wings and kept us very close to home since last March. We look at our photos, read through our posts, and long to be back on the road. Some of you are likely feeling similarly restless and travel is likely many months away. And when we are able to head out again, who knows what the terrible spread of COVID will have done to the world.
In the meantime, with this post we’re beginning a series that draws on time spent in dozens of countries across six continents to share with you our favourite places and experiences. We’re going to proceed with a new category every post and describe our top five picks.
We’ll begin with a category we’re going to call our favourite ancient mysteries. These are sites that inspire significant awe and are swathed in mystery, even if historians and archeologists offer clues about the site or the people who created or lived at the sites.
Number 5: Nazca Lines (Peru)
These ancient lines have intrigued us ever since they were featured in the 1968 book Chariots of the Gods? Unsolved Mysteries of the Past. Erich von Daaniken wrote about sites around the world that supposedly celebrated ancient astronauts who had brought advanced technologies to societies of the past. As for the lines themselves, including numerous large figures, von Daaniken proposed that they were created to signal to aliens to please return. His thesis was widely popular but just as widely discredited by the scientific community who favour earth-bound explanations for the ancient sites and events he described. Recently, even more figures have been discovered in the region.
There is a tower by the highway that provides a view of a small area of the lines, but the best way to fully appreciate them is from the air.
Number 4: Stonehenge (England)
The biggest mystery associated with Stonehenge is how exactly, thousands of years ago, did people manage to move and erect such large stones? It’s clear the structure lines up with important solar and lunar moments, but these are big stones, many traced to a quarry in Wales. Were they dragged here or perhaps brought by boat? The latest theory is that they were actually prefabricated: cut and erected elsewhere, taken down, moved, and reassembled at Stonehenge.
We were on site for the summer solstice sunrise. Stonehenge was wide open to the public, something the authorities said was not going to be allowed again. It was crowded and festive, maybe that’s how they were originally experienced.
Number 3: Pompeii (Italy)
Hands up if you studied Pompeii in school! Don certainly remembers the dramatic story of a Roman town buried in volcanic ash and only rediscovered centuries later. As it turns out, Pompeii was actually a kind of resort town for wealthy Romans – they built mansions, numerous temples, baths, an amphitheatre, a coliseum, and more. The streets were lined with houses for the working class, markets, and brothels. And it was completely buried when Mount Vesuvius erupted, and then it was forgotten. Archaeologists have carefully revealed much of the city, uniquely preserved from the very moment it disappeared from sight. It’s a surprisingly massive site, a one-day visit does not do it justice.
Number 2: Chichen Itza (Mexico)
We’ve been out to the ancient Mayan site of Chichen Itza twice over the years. The first was a typical day-trip break from the beaches of Cancun, the second visit was years later and part of a week-long guided tour of Mayan sites located on the Yucatan Peninsula. The timing was such that we were on site for the 2012 winter solstice. This day marks the end of the Maya Long Count cycle of time, interpreted by some as a predication the world would also end that day. It was quite thrilling to join with so many thousands of others. Sure, some may have assembled here expecting to welcome the end of time, but most were obviously more interested in celebrating the promise of a new era for humankind.
Number 1: Machu Picchu (Peru)
Machu Picchu is an unparalleled wonder. Was it a mountaintop fortification, a religious retreat, or something else? And either way, why was it abandoned? The site is massive, breathtaking, and ultimately one of the world’s great human-made mysteries. Archeologists and scientists are still learning about the site to this day – a new documentary describes work to reveal a highly sophisticated drainage system built underneath all the structures, vital to keeping the whole thing from sliding down the mountainside during the rainy season.
A word of advice. Stay the night in Aguas Calientes and catch the pre-dawn bus up to the entrance in order to take in the sunrise and spend the whole day on site. Many people we talked to that day or later who were with tour groups spent as little as 45 minutes exploring a site that needs hours to even begin to fully appreciate.
Watch for the next edition of Our favourite places on earth!