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.
A gravity-defying palace: Lucknow, India
Few people have heard of Lucknow, capital of the eastern region of Uttar Pradesh in India, and even fewer know of the maze-like palace complex—a blend of European and Arabic architecture—that is located there. It was the brainchild of 18th-century ruler Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula, who put nearly 22,000 city residents to work during a severe famine (struggling noblemen were rumored to have come in at night to avoid being identified among the crew). Bara Imambara's magnificent central arched hall—which stretches 50 meters long (roughly half the length of a soccer field) and about three stories high—is held up, amazingly, without any pillars, girders or beams. Instead, the hall was constructed solely with interlocking brickwork. Another one of its mysteries is the Bhulbhulaiya, a dense labyrinth of more than 1,000 narrow stairway passages meant to thwart any possible intruders—some stairways lead to abrupt drops, others have dead ends. It’s possible to roam around the secret maze, preferably with an approved guide, and to explore the adjacent mosque and manicured gardens.
Find your way: Hussainabad Trust Road, $7; extra $3.30 for the main hall, extra $1.50 for a labyrinth guide, open daily, dawn to dusk. It's a two-hour flight from Mumbai to Lucknow at about $75 each way.
The truly lost Incan city: Choquequirao, Peru
These 15th-century ruins, which consist of a central plaza and dozens of slope terraces built some 6,000 feet above the glacier-fed Apurímac River, received fewer than 7,000 visitors in 2006. That’s just a little more than 1 percent of those that made the trek to its far more famous sister site, Machu Picchu, whose nickname “The Lost City of the Incas” seems misleading given its typical tourist crowds. But at its height, Choquequirao was no less significant: It was roughly the same size as Machu Picchu and believed to be the last main religious center of the Incan Empire before its fall. From the tiny town of Cachora (about 100 miles away from Cuzco), getting to Choquequirao is an arduous 20-mile trek. You’ll pass arid country full of cacti and agave before the vegetation turns lush. Take a breather to spot the occasional condor, and exhale with the jagged, snow-capped Vilcabamba Range in the distance.
Find your way: SAS Travel Peru offers a five-day Choquequirao trek; 011-51/84-249-194, from $390 per person with a four person minimum.
An unexpected royal city: Isfahan, Iran
When Shah Abbas chose to relocate the capital of the Persian Empire to Isfahan around 1600, he was determined to make a big impression. So surely he'd be disappointed to know that centuries later his masterpiece remains hidden in plain sight—at least for Americans, who are largely restricted from and cautioned against visiting Iran. The Shah's massive building centered on grand Naqsh-e Jahan Square, which he surrounded with four monumental structures: the gleaming, mosaic-tiled Royal Mosque to the south, the Portico of Qaysariyyeh to the north, the Mosque of Sheykh Lotfollah to the east, and the magnificent entrance to Ali Qapu palace and the royal gardens to the west. Ali Qapu's grand covered balcony was where the shah and his guests would watch polo matches, horse races—even public executions. Inside, spiral staircases connect each floor, and the walls are adorned with intricate bird-patterned murals. Even more impressive is its sixth floor Music Room, covered with ornately decorated stucco niches and cutouts in the shapes of pots and vessels that once reverberated the sounds of the ensembles who performed there.
Find your way: As an American, if you don’t know anyone in Iran who can sponsor your visit, then you have to go through a tour group and stick with it; Cyrus Travel arranges visas to Iran and offers customized tours throughout the country, 800/332-9787, from $300 per person per day.
An open-air museum of elaborate wooden churches: Karelia, Russia
It requires a flight or overnight train ride from Moscow or St. Petersburg and then a ferry ride to reach Kizhi Island, part of the 1,650-island chain on northern Russia’s remote Lake Onega. Your reward is becoming one of the choice few to explore the one-of-a-kind State Kizhi Museum, made up of nearly 90 wooden structures, including chapels, windmills, and granaries. Its most remarkable portion, set on a narrow strip of land on the island’s southern tip, is Kizhi Pogost, a walled enclosure that houses an octagonal bell tower and two 18th-century wooden churches. Twenty-two cascading bulbous cupolas fashioned from aspen shingles top the 121-foot Church of the Transfiguration of Our Savior. Amazingly enough, this masterpiece was built without a single nail. Legend has it that a sole axe was used to carve the shingles and the interlocking corner joinery that hold the majestic structure up, and after its completion, was tossed into the water so a similar marvel couldn’t be built.
Find your way: Transfers are available directly from Airport Peski, October–May, 011-7-814/2747-566; they can be made through Tourholding Karelia, May–October, 011-7-814/2-733-433. Admission to the island, $21.50; guide service, $3.50 per person. Summer, 8 a.m.–8 p.m.; fall, 9 a.m.–4 p.m.; winter, 10 a.m–3 p.m.; spring, 9 a.m.–4 p.m.
A Buddha so large it took 90 years to build: Sichuan, China
It took almost the entire 8th century to carve the 233-foot-tall Leshan Giant Buddha out of a mountainside in central China—about 1,400 miles west of Shanghai (and far out of sight and mind for most travelers)—but the result still stands as one of the world's largest Buddhas. Its ears alone are more than 23 feet in length (that’s the height of a two-story building), and even its smallest toe is large enough to sit on comfortably. But it’s not only the Buddha’s giant scale that’s impressive. On its head are 1,021 intricate, twisted hair buns hiding a complex drainage system that helps preserve the statue. The Mount Emei area itself has enormous religious significance; Buddhism was first introduced to China here. Thrill seekers can get up close to witness the Buddha’s sheer size by navigating down a steep, 250-step zigzag path along its side; those looking to take in the statue from a distance (and see additional figures carved into the cliff) can opt for a boat ride—the statue sits at the confluence of where three rivers meet.
Find your way: Take bus No. 8 from Beinjiang Lu to the north entrance of Mt. Emei Scenic Area, within which the statue is located, or a ferry from the Port of Leshan to the Scenic Area (local bus routes No. 4, 9, and 12 connect Leshan to the port). Alternatively, a bus makes the 100-mile journey from Chengdu's South Gate Bus Terminal to Leshan and local buses run every 10 minutes between Leshan and Emei. Open May–Sept. 7:30 a.m.–7:30 p.m., open Oct.–Apr. 8 a.m.–6 p.m., $12.
A Mayan complex that's still unearthing marvels: El Mirador, Guatemala
The little-known Mirador Basin, hidden among 2,000 years of jungle growth in northern Guatemala, is called the Cradle of Maya Civilization—and for good reason. Its five Preclassic Maya cities—El Mirador, Nakbe, Xulnal, Tintal, and Wakna—are each larger and older than the nearby (and far more famous) Tikal by at least 1,000 years. Among their astounding innovations are super-size temples and pyramids, including La Danta, the largest-known pyramid in the world measured by volume, and the remains of the world's first highway system. And there may be more to uncover: Just two years ago, archaeologists discovered a massive limestone frieze that dates back to 200 B.C. But illegal logging and tree clearing to make way for cash crops like corn are threatening the forests (an alarming 70 percent has been destroyed in just a decade). In an effort to preserve the region, an international effort led by the Global Heritage Fund with help from the Guatemalan and U.S. governments is underway to establish an 810,000-acre national park in the region.
Find your way: Tikal Connection Tour Operator offers a five-day trek to El Mirador from Flores in the region of Petén, Guatemala. Participants must be in good physical condition, as the trek and tour totals nearly 40 miles; 011-502/42-111-027, from $350 per person.
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