The pyramids of Meroe, in Sudan. (Bloomberg/Albee Yeend)
If visiting the world's most ancient temples and monuments—Angkor Wat, Machu Picchu, Chichen Itza, Petra—inspires your inner Indiana Jones, just imagine what it would be like to explore world wonders few people have ever even heard of yet.
Some of the world’s most staggering historical sites—places that have long existed as local secrets—have recently been made accessible thanks to a slew of intrepid tour operators, hoteliers, or infrastructure developments. In the coming years, these places will find their way onto hordes of global travelers’ bucket lists, but for now they are still relatively under the radar.
There are the dramatic, thousand-year-old temple complexes in India that are immaculately preserved but were hard to visit in style—until the area’s first luxury hotel opened. There is a jungle-shrouded archaeological site in Colombia that predates Machu Picchu by 650 years, and a spectacular sacred city in Sri Lanka that’s until now been off limits because of underdeveloped infrastructure and political turmoil. And that’s only a drop in the bucket.
“A willingness to move a little off the beaten path often provides great rewards,” said Lisa Ackerman, executive vice president of World Monuments Fund, who says that the joy of discovery and lack of crowds makes these underexplored sites especially exciting for visitors.
But the benefits of visiting these places go far beyond that. Spreading visitation among more sites, she says, is an important key to tourism management everywhere—as proven by the fact that overvisitation to Machu Picchu continually threatens to shut the site down for tourists for good. (It’s not just Peru, either; the overtourism phenomenon is playing out across the globe.) And by creating a viable tourism economy around newly discovered sites, travelers motivate locals to take pride in their heritage and invest in its preservation.
With that in mind, we’ve assembled a list of the newly accessible wonders of the world, along with the practical information you need to get there first.
The remains of a royal empire in India
It wasn’t long ago that visiting the 14th-century ruins of the Vijayanagar Empire in Hampi, India, meant taking an overnight train from Bangalore and sleeping in a three-star inn. (The lost city is situated in central Karnataka, placing it almost midway between that southern Indian tech hub and the beach town of Goa.) But in the past two years, a handful of independently owned, small-scale resorts have opened, crowned by the recent arrival of Kamlapura Palace. The five-star hotel is the area’s first, with 46 rooms that offer a modern-day reimagining of the area’s historic remains; local expert Victoria Dyer, of India Beat, calls it a game-changer for her high-end travelers. Getting there is easier, too, with plenty of infrastructure investment going for road improvements throughout the state.
As for the monuments themselves, expect 265 square kilometers of terrain to explore, speckled with mysterious-looking boulders. The Hindu temple of Virupaksha, dedicated to Shiva, is said to be one of the oldest structures in the empire (and possible in the country), dating to the 7th century, while exquisitely preserved sites such as the Sule Bazaar, the Queen’s Bath, and the elephant stables offer a remarkable glimpse into old Indian life.
The onetime Mayan capital in Guatemala
Ashish Sanghrajka, president of Big Five Tours & Expeditions, says that El Mirador is five times the size of Tikal, the ruins that bring hundreds of thousands of visitors to Guatemala each year. But given that they’re still being unearthed by a team of archaeologists, it’s hard to know exactly how large and how important they really are. For now, the answer to both is “very”—the head scientist on site has said that unearthing it has been like “finding Pompeii.” After all, this is believed to be a onetime capital of the Mayas, and it is one of the backdrops for Morgan Freeman’s TV series, The Story of God.
So why has nobody else caught on? For one thing, getting there has typically required a dangerous, five-day trek—but Sanghrajka is sidestepping that by taking his first travelers to the region by helicopter. The chopper lands in a tiny village nearby, where guests can engage with locals who have rarely encountered foreigners; then they saddle up atop donkeys for a three-hour trip through a still-active dig site. (Sanghrajka says the archaeologists are even open to some hands-on help, since visitation is so rare.) “It’ll probably be another 10 years before they have the place fully cleaned up,” he said. “But seeing a place like this totally untouched is something incredible.”
Read also: Three must-visit places in Chiang Rai
Sprawling Roman mansions in Portugal
They were created in the 2nd century BCE, renovated under the reign of Emperor Augustus, and then buried under hundreds of years of debris—but now, 100 years after their rediscovery, the Roman ruins of Conímbriga are ready for the 21st century spotlight. With tourism to Portugal hitting an all-time high, overlooked sites such as Conímbriga are gaining awareness—along with nicer places to stay nearby. Virginia Irurita, founder and co-owner of Made for Spain & Portugal, books her guests into Hotel Quinta das Lágrimas, a recently renovated member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World in the neighboring town of Coimbra. “Not only is it a beautiful city,” she said, “it’s also the homeland of fado singing [a melancholic, local style of music], which is a must-see in Portugal.” She’ll also arrange personal guides to bring the lavish Roman mansions back to life again—showing off everything from thermal baths to colorful mosaic décor and gardens with hundreds of historic, hydraulic-powered water jets. (Yes, really.)
Pyramids on steroids in Sudan
Sudan has twice as many pyramids as Egypt—and yet many people couldn’t point to the vast nation on a world map. (It’s just a short ride down the Nile from Luxor and Aswan.) Tourism infrastructure here is still in its infancy because of a prolonged civil conflict that led South Sudan to split off in 2011, but it’s become an object of fascination practically overnight for luxury outfits such as the Explorations Company. Owner and director Nicola Shepherd is now coordinating privately guided, six-day trips that include visits to the pyramids of Meroe along with the temple ruins at Soleb, an Egyptian monument to the god Amon that’s decked out in hieroglyphics. Overnights are at high-end tented camps and polished local guesthouses. A bonus, Shepherd says, is an easy airlift to Nairobi for combo trips that tack on a beautiful Kenyan safari. But the real draw is having world-class desert ruins all to yourself, with barely even a security guard in sight.
Read also: Five must-visit places in Vietnam
An ancient capital in Morocco
Volubilis, the capital of the Mauritanian empire, couldn’t have been built in a prettier place—in the Moroccan mountains near Meknes. Yet it’s on hardly any itineraries. Now that’s starting to change, as such operators as Intrepid Travel are adding it to more tried-and-true stops such as Marrakesh and Chefchaouen. Even in a country that’s steadfastly held onto tradition, Volubilis feels like a true time machine. Its impressively ornamented ruins, which date to the 3rd century BCE, bore 10 centuries of occupation, with Romans, Christians, Muslims, and Berbers all leaving their mark.
The lost city of Colombia
This 1,000-year-old ruin in the Colombian Sierra Nevada is 650 years older than Machu Picchu and has perhaps even more mysterious appeal. Built by the Tayrona people atop a mountain pass that’s dotted with palm trees, it was believed to have claimed as many as 10,000 residents in its heyday—but the surrounding jungle swallowed it up until the early 1970s, after a group of bird hunters turned tomb-raiders dug into the earth and found heaps of golden artifacts. At least that’s how the locals tell the story. Adventurous hikers can traverse a five-day equivalent to the Inca Trail to arrive as the dramatic terraces of La Ciudad Perdida (literally, the Lost City). But now, luxury Colombia tour outfit Galavanta choppers guests in and out from their namesake lodge in the nearby mountains. They’ll also arrange cultural exchange experiences with the indigenous Kogui communities, which are said to have descended from the monuments’ creators.
A lion-shaped fortress in Sri Lanka
When King Kassapa ruled over Ceylon in the late 400s, he decided to place his capital atop a 600-foot-high granite boulder smack in the center of modern-day Sri Lanka—a country that’s slowly been reborn to tourists after a prolonged civil war ended in 2009. The whole thing doubled as a massive piece of sculpture: Not only did workers carve stone staircases leading all the way to the top; they also added brick and plaster work to create the illusion of a gigantic lion emerging from the forest. The first two flights of stairs are straddled by enormous, clawed paws; another flight emerges from the lion’s mouth. At the summit, visitors can explore what’s left of Kassapa’s palace, gardens, fountains, and ponds—but the climb is half the fun. Then you can retreat to your own sumptuous digs, at the soon-to-open Pekoe House, in nearby Kandy.