Hidden Man-made Wonders of the World
Not all of the world's wonders get the attention they deserve. We searched the globe to find nine marvels that are so awe-inspiring, you'll find it hard to believe that they were crafted by human hands—and so far off the beaten path, chances are you've never heard of them.
Of course you've heard of Machu Picchu and Angkor Wat, but have you heard about an Incan city that seems truly lost to today's travelers, or the complex of 52 pre-Angkorian temples so deep in the Cambodian jungle that it takes a local to guide you there? These destinations are jaw-dropping, but they don’t pull in the massive western crowds for a reason: Some of them are remote. That's where we come in with suggested tour operators to make the experience easier and well worth it.
Medieval churches made out of volcanic red rock: Lalibela, Ethiopia
Unless you're from Ethiopia, chances are you don't know about these 11 medieval churches in the small mountain village of Lalibela. The destination is first and foremost a place of worship, which explains why the Ethiopians haven't done more to market it to tourists. You don't have to be devout, however, to marvel at the churches' unusual design. Legend has it that a visit to Jerusalem after its fall to a Muslim general in the 13th century inspired King Lalibela to rebuild the holy city in Ethiopia. He commissioned workers to dig these churches out of the area's red volcanic rock. One remarkable group of four—the House of Emmanuel, House of Mercurios, House of Gabriel, and House of Abba Libanos—was created from the same massive piece and connected by underground passageways. Light filters into the cruciform structures through cross-shaped windows. Another church, the Beta Medhane Alem (House of the Saviour of the World), rests some 35 feet below the surface of the desert.
Find your way: Red Jackal Tours offers a five-day Addis Ababa to Lalibela tour; 011-251/11-155-9915, from $699 per person. Alternatively, any hotel can arrange a guide—we recommend Tukul Village Hotel, 011-251/33-336-0564, doubles from $40. Guide Terekbe Mersha can be reached at 011-251/911-034-463 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cambodia's oldest temple complex (hint: it's not Angkor Wat): Kampong Thom Province, Cambodia
Built during the 7th century, the 52 standing temples of Sambor Prei Kuk are part of the remains of the former capital of Chenla, an ancient kingdom that once ruled much of present-day Cambodia. Spread across three square miles of jungle in Cambodia's Kampong Thom province, the complex predates even the oldest temples of Angkor by some 600 years. Amazingly, it's also far beneath the radar of most travelers—a meager 5,000 annual international visitors make it out to this destination, compared to the million-plus tourists who visit Angkor Wat (that may have something to do with the fact that getting to Sambor Prei Kuk entails a three-hour drive from either Siem Reap or Phnom Penh along the bumpy, stray-dog-ridden National Route No. 6). If you do want to visit, the new Isanborei community tourism project provides local English-speaking guides who will take you around the temples on a tuk tuk. If you’re looking for a truly authentic experience, opt for one of their homestays—you can live with a family, learn how to cook traditional dishes, and even help harvest rice.
Find your way: Isanborei Community Tourism offers tours from Kampong Thom, Siem Reap or Phnom Penh, ranging from day excursions by tuk tuk or bike to homestays. 011-855/97-957-3520, from $26 for a day tour from Kampong Thom per person to $162, including an overnight home stay per person.
World's oldest freestanding monuments: Malta and Gozo
The stone temples on these small Mediterranean islands wedged between Sicily and Tunisia don't get much attention these days; you won't see them in a big-screen thriller or from a mega cruise ship. But as far back as 5000 B.C., millennia before work began on the Great Pyramid of Giza, they were drawing hordes of worshippers. Hagar Qim, the grandest temple complex, commands attention from its hilltop location on Malta’s southern coast. It was constructed from enormous limestone slabs raised to form doorways with lintels (similar to those at Stonehenge) and semicircle formations; one slab stands a commanding 20 feet high and, weighing nearly 20 tons, is believed to be among the largest of any temple. Hagar Qim’s best statues—three “fat lady” figurines and a slimmer Venus of Malta—were excavated in the mid-20th century and are now housed in the National Museum of Archaeology in the Maltese capital city of Valletta. But if you look closely while at Hagar Qim, you’ll find carvings of spirals, animals, and goddesses—all the more impressive given the builders' limited tools: flints and obsidian blades.
Find your way: Take bus 38 or 138 from Valletta, Malta, to Hagar Qim and ferries between the islands of Malta and Gozo. Open 9 a.m.–5 p.m., last admission 4:30 p.m., daily in winter; hours extend to 7 p.m., last admission 6:30 p.m., daily in summer, about $13, 011-356/214-24231.