World Wonders, Ancient Sites

Machu Picchu aerial photo, Peru World Wonders

Machu Picchu, world wonders of Peru. Photo by Martin St Amant.

Best World Wonders in Modern Times

These places become overpriced and wildly overcrowded during the Christmas holidays (December 20th-Jan 5th), Easter holidays (one or two weeks on either side of Easter day), and, unless the weather’s unbearable at this time, also during the summer holidays of late July/Aug.

Sightseeing Tips

When you visit any of these sites, avoid tour packages, get up really early or plan to stay until sunset if you can (if you can afford to stay in a hotel that’s in/beside the site, all the better). Not only will the light be great for photos (think rich colours and long shadows), the temperature cooler and the locals more relaxed, but the humongous package tours will have gone, leaving you in cool, wonderful tranquility (albeit with a few other independent travellers). p. s. don’t forget the mosquito repellent and possibly a flashlight!

Machu Picchu, Peru: ‘Lost’ Inca city

This stupendously beautiful ancient wonder (photo at top) was built by the Incas on a hilltop surrounded by virgin mountains. No roads go there so it’s a hike or train ride (or both) only.

Machu Pichu (also occasionally spelt as Matchu Pitchu! ) is built on very loose, ex-landslide soil, currently slipping off the hilltop at the rate of 5 inches per year and is in great danger of suddenly tobogganing all

Hike the incredible Inca Trail if you can, 3 days, 22km over the mountains. Porters are a necessary option these days.

Otherwise the train from Cusco  means arriving late and leaving early and you’ll always be embedded in a crowd, so stay one night if possible. There is one expensive hotel, the Sanctuary Lodge, next to the site, giving excellent and less crowded early morning access to the site, which opens at 6. am, first train tourists arrive at 9. 30am.

Guest houses, restaurants and hot springs are about four miles (six kms) from the rail station at Aguas Calientes.

Best: April-June, September-November. OK July, Aug (winter). Avoid: December-March (rain).

Bagan (aka Pagan), Myanmar (Burma)

Bagan temples hot air balloon view, Myanmar, Burma World Wonders

Bagan, Myanmar (Burma). Photo by Christopher Michel.

2, 500 17thC pointy buildings – temples, pagodas and stupas – in 16 sq. miles of dry, flat rural landscape. Incredibly beautiful, world-beating 360 degree views from some structures, with zero high rises, apartment blocks or even hotels in view.

Try to stay in smaller Burma hotels, eat in local restaurants and pay money directly to local people – as opposed to fattening up the appalling military junta that controls the country.

Best time for Burma Tourism: November-Feb. Avoid May-June (extreme heat). Bagan deserves at least 3 days. Use bicycles or horse carts for the full flavour.

Fly from Yangon (Rangoon), home of the amazing Shwedagon Pagoda, or take a ferry down the Irrawaddy river from Mandalay – also worth two or three days. Lake Inle‘s floating gardens and leg rowers are interesting, too. Take $US! Preferably new $100 bills and many small ones.

Giza Pyramids and camel, Egypt World Wonders

Giza pyramids, Egypt, the only actual Ancient Wonder still standing. Photo by Mstyslav Chernov.

‘Man fears time, yet time fears the Pyramids’ (Arab proverb) The Great Pyramid is the oldest and only wonder of the seven wonders of the ancient world still standing.

In the desert beside Cairo and a few metres from the Sphinx, the three Giza pyramids are much bigger and older than Mexico’s Chichen Itza, though less shapely and without the jungle city ambience.

The Giza pyramid area is open only 8am-4pm. Rent-a-camel/horse. Go inside a pyramid. There’s lots to do in Cairo, especially the magnificent Egyptian Museum, excellent shopping at Khan el Khalili market, more older pyramids a short drive down the Nile at Saquara and a ton of mosques.

Best weather: October-May. Otherwise it’s seriously hot. Then head for Luxor for more and varied amazing sights or the Red Sea for a dip!

Petra, Jordan

The Urn Tomb, the Royal Tombs in Petra, Jordan

The Treasury in Petra, Jordan

‘A rose-red city half as old as time. ‘
This massive complex of temples and monuments sensationally carved out of solid multicoloured rock is unlike anything else in the world. A trip would be wasted with less then 2 days walking inside magical Petra, though early starts and late finishes are the way to get best views and space away from tourist herds.

Driving there from Israel or Egypt’s Sinai/Red Sea resorts is convenient and usually without problems.

Also, visit Lawrence of Arabia’s Wadi Rum (south of Petra), a Dead Sea spa or the Roman ruins of Jerash (north of Amman) while you’re there?

Best weather: March-June, September-November. Avoid: winter (cold) & summer (hot).

Angkor, Cambodia

Angkor Wat monks, Cambodia.

Dressed to kill in Ta Prohm,  Angkor,  Cambodia.

This Khmer temple/urban complex was one of the most capital capitals in Asia in the 9th-14th centuries, 400 sq kms of stunningly carved, world beating wonders, including Angkor Wat.

Exploring this requires several days; see Angkor Wat and pinky Banteay Srei (25km away) for awesome carvings, Angkor Thom for huge style and imposing faces, Ta Prohm for jungle tangled temples; another 40 great ruins await your time but don’t stray off regular tracks, there are still land mines around.

The local town of Siem Reap is a pretty cool place, quite relaxed, not too much traffic and colourful streets in the evening when tourists are back from Angkor. ‘Pub Street’ and surrounds near the Old Market are lively and buzzing with an interesting variety of bars and restaurants.

Take $US!

Phnom Penh is just about worth a couple of days, while some beaches accessible via  Sihanoukville (which is overbuilt, overcrowded and understyled) are beautiful and/or dippy hippy retreats such as Otres 1. Otres 2 is the place for grown ups while Ko Rong and Ko Rong Sanloem an hour offshore may offer your idea of paradise. Cambodia Beaches

The Ream National Park has lots of activities options.

Best weather: December- February. Avoid: April (extreme heat), September, October (heavy rains, impassable roads).

Taj Mahal, Agra, India

Taj Mahal, Agra, India

The Taj Mahal river view, Agra, India. Photo by Steve Evans.

The marble memorial to Shah Jahan’s wife, finished in 1653, is justly famous for the exquisite general design but also for fine semiprecious stone inlay work. The Taj is on the banks of a river in a tranquil, pastoral setting.

Close by, the Red Fort is also interesting, and if you are a dedicated ancient architecture freak then the Moghul built Fatehpur Sikri, a few hours drive from the Taj, is worth the trip.

200kms/125miles from Delhi makes a tiresome day trip and unfair to the sights so stay over at least a night if possible.

Best weather: October-March. Avoid: the summer (extreme heat)

Luxor, Egypt

Luxor Temple, Luxor, Egypt.

Luxor Temple, Luxor, Egypt. Photo by Omar Shawki.

Various stunning temple complexes and monuments on both sides of the River Nile, including the Valley of the Kings, Valley of the Queens, Temple of Hatsepshut, Luxor Temple and loads more make this area one of the top wonders of the world.

Train or fly to Luxor from Cairo, car travel through middle Egypt is not permitted . Stay at least three nights at Luxor, but preferably not on a boat! They’re noisy, smelly and pollute the Nile – unless boat management have arranged power hook-ups with local authorities.

The west bank of Luxor is less developed and thus closer to real Egypt. There is a bridge across the Nile now and smaller hotels in the west might suit independent travellers. And after hot and sticky high culture Red Sea beaches, snorkelling and sensational diving are pretty close.

Best: January- April, October, November. Avoid: July, August (extreme heat).

Chichen Itza’s Castillo pyramid, Mexico world wonders

Chichen Itza’s Castillo pyramid, Mexico.

Ruined 5thC Maya city, featuring the prettiest pyramid in the world and other stunning buildings, monuments and carvings. 1 day is not enough for Chichen.

It’s well worth overnighting at the nearby town (or at the lovely Mayaland hotel if you can afford it) to avoid the 10. 30am tourist rush from Merida(120kms away).

Merida is a pleasant colonial town with an excellent free local music scene nightly and easy access to another good ancient site, Uxmal, while the terrific beaches of the ‘Maya Riviera’, such as Tulum, Playa del Carmen and even Cancun are just a few hours drive.

A few hundred kilometres away in Chiapas state is another great site shrouded by jungle, Palenque. And if you yearn for wannabe wonders still half buried in the jungle, go from Palenque to Bonampak and Yaxchilan.

Best weather: November-April. Avoid: May-October (rains)

Bhaktapur, Kathmandu valley, Nepal

Chichen Itza’s Castillo pyramid, Mexico

Bhaktapur, Nepal

A superbly restored medieval town (courtesy of UNESCO), saturated with monuments and carvings, some very rude but wonderful! Bhaktapur needs a couple of days at least.

The rest of the Khatmandu valley, especially the town of Khatmandu, also offers amazing monuments and sights while the Himalayas are just on the horizon. If you don’t have time to travel India, Nepal will give the flexible tourist a taste of India.

Best weather: October, November, February, March. Avoid: July-September (rains).

Tikal pyramid, Guatemala world wonders

Temple of the Great Jaguar in Tikal, Guatemala. Photo by Dennis Jarvis.

Tikal is the largest Mayan pyramid group, still fighting off the jungle and surrounded by wildlife, especially birds and raucous howler monkeys in a 370 sq. km national park.

Fly to Flores and stay there or at El Remate, or best of all head for Tikal, (45km away) and stay overnight at the site if you can, to really capture the spirit of the place after dark and at dawn.

Antigua city, Lake Atitlan and Chichicastenango, though not exactly wonders, are colourful and interesting while you’re in Guatemala.

Best weather: November-May. Avoid: June-October (rains).

Great Wall, China

The Great Wall of China at Jinshanling.

The Great Wall of China at Jinshanling. Photo by Craig Nagy.

The longest wonder of the world by far and the only man-made object visible from space. For convenience but horrific crowds, climb the Great Wall at Badalang 70km/45 miles NW from Beijing, where there is also the fairly interesting Great Wall Museum and Ming Tombs en route. For solitude climb it at Huanghua, 60km north of Beijing.

Beijing city is also, of course, full of wonderful sights old and new including the Forbidden Palace, the Summer Palace, the Temple of Heaven and the super-modern ‘Duck Egg’ National Opera House.

Best: April-July, September, October. Avoid: winter (extreme cold).

Easter Island (Rapa Nui), Chile

Easter Island moai, Chile

Easter Island, Tongariki moai at sunrise, Chile.

Rapa Nui, also known as Easter Island, is a distant, little developed South Pacific island containing a couple of thousand inhabitants and hundreds of enigmatic stone statues known as moai.

Although owned by Chile – 2, 300 miles away – most of the people are of Polynesian extraction. This is a bleak, bizarre, stunning experience, and there’s a great beach too. 3 or 4 days is probably enough for this world wonder though clouds and rain are common any time of year so if pictures are your thing give yourself time to get sunny shots from the right angle.

Best weather: September – April (summertime) but OK most of the year. Avoid: May (wettest month) and June-August (crowds), if possible.