Latest from the Blog Lifestyle Stop travelling internationally to help fight Coronavirus On Wednesday the WHO finally declared the Coronavi... Travel Guide to the magnificent Dendera Temple Complex View from the main entrance. The Dend... History 5 Pandemics in history more deadly than the Coronavirus Black Death in Florence. The coronavi... Travel Guide to The Red Pyramid and The Bent Pyramid of Dahshur: Two of the best Pyramids to visit in Egypt I climbed on my hands and knees up t... Travel Guide to the Pyramid of Djoser in Saqqara: The Worlds Oldest Pyramid The pyramids of Giza get most of the... Travel mountain of fire: climbing up Acatenango Volcano Sunset from the top of Acatenango, &n... Mysteries How Stone circles in ancient Britain may have been used as signposts Stone circles are an iconic part of ... Travel Exploring The Palenque Ruins I trudged up the steep, slippery ste... Travel Sumidero Canyon Sumidero Canyon is a breathtaking si... 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Some governments around the world have been slow to act in dealing with the spread of the virus, with certain leaders even trying to dismiss it as less serious than the flu until recently (Trump). Many European countries were especially slow on the uptake, with the devastating results of this now currently being felt in Italy. Soon other countries will be facing similar situations. It’s not just governments who have been irresponsible though, as many travellers have been quarantined or had their flights cancelled despite knowing this was happening... Even now with countries locking down and banning tourists, some people are still planning trips; they see the cheap prices and become blind to everything else. Large numbers of people are still foolishly dismissing the pandemic as overblown hype, though that is quickly changing as the true situation becomes apparent. Clearly people need to take this seriously, while not giving in to mass panic and hysteria. Why travelling internationally now is a very bad idea As everyone will be aware countries such as Italy, El Salvador and India have stopped all travellers from entering their countries, and the USA has banned visitors from most European countries. These bans are going to proliferate over the coming days and weeks now that it’s been declared a pandemic, so even if you still wanted to travel you won’t be able to visit most countries. If you do make it to a country that you’re not currently banned from, you may find yourself going straight to quarantine for 2 weeks. Not exactly an exciting trip. When you eventually get back to your home country you may find yourself quarantined or told to self-isolate. I know this is all obvious to many of you, but some people are stubbornly ignorant and need to be told. If you aren't quarantined then you’ll find that in some countries they’ll be little to do. Albania has just closed all bars, clubs, restaurants, museums and other venues. Other countries are taking similar measures, and as the endemic worsens this is going to become increasingly normal. Travelling by plane puts you at much greater risk of contracting Coronavirus. The virus can linger in the air for a least 30 minutes, so you can see how being in a sealed, pressurised cabin for hours isn’t a great idea. You could also have Coronavirus without realising it, and unwittingly spread it to others on a flight. Some people say they don’t care about getting the virus as they are young and healthy, and in 80% of cases symptoms are mild or non-existent. This is a selfish mindset, as the people they give it to may not be so lucky. The fatality rate is thought to be 1-3%, which is high for such a contagious virus ( at least 10 times higher than the flu). The fatality rate is much higher for elderly people and others with weaker immune systems. We also need to remember that potentially 10-20% of people will require hospitalization. If enough people get it at the same time then health services will be overwhelmed, and the fatality rate will increase. So now is the time to be less selfish, and to think of the consequences your actions could have on others. Final Thoughts We all love travelling, and it’s hard to have our personal freedom to go where we want curtailed drastically for the first time. It’s especially unfortunate for people who already have trips planned and flights booked after months of saving, and now have to cancel. I feel sorry for you. However, sometimes we have to think about the bigger picture and do what’s right to help society get through a crisis. Peoples lives are a lot more important than cancelling one trip or event. Most of us alive today have never experienced a pandemic on this scale, but there have been many throughout history that have killed millions. Hopefully, by taking precautions and governments working together the damage from this can be minimized as much as possible. So for the next 1-3 months everyone should refrain from travelling internationally. We should all do our bit to help any vulnerable people in our communities, and if you show any symptoms make sure you self-isolate. Also stay calm, the Coronavirus pandemic is very serious, but panicking helps nobody. Countries like South Korea and Taiwan are showing that effective measures can have a big impact on reducing the spread of the virus. Unfortunately, the government in the UK is taking a different approach so far. Hopefully in a few months time things will be mostly back to normal, and we can resume exploring this beautiful planet. Guide to the magnificent Dendera Temple Complex Travel View from the main entrance. The Dendera Temple Complex is one of the finest sights in Egypt, which is saying something in this storied land full of historical wonders. It contains the Temple of Horus, which is a stunning building with brilliant artistic flourishes. It’s also the best preserved Ancient Egyptian temple, with the roof still fully intact and the original colours in the paintings showing. The complex lies just outside Qena, which is a city on the Nile north of Luxor that gets very few visitors. Exploring this complex is an awe-inspiring experience, made all the better by the fact you will have the place almost to yourself. Just travelling to the sight independently is an adventure too, as the police often insist on escorting lone travellers here. History of Dendera Temple Complex Although the current complex dates from the very end of Ancient Egyptian times, the site has been occupied for thousands of years. The earliest evidence of building here is from Pepi 1 reign in 2250 BC. There is also proof of a temple being built in 1500 BC. The earliest surviving building is the Mammism built around 350BC. The sublime Temple of Hathor was started during the reign of Ptolemy XII, and mostly finished by his daughter Cleopatra VII before her reign was cut short in 20 BC (I’m sure you all know how her reign ended). Some more work was carried out at the sight while it was part of the Roman empire. Exploring the site The Temple of Hathor Hathor is the Egyptian goddess of sexual love, fertility, music and dancing; she is the wife of Horus, and one of the most important ancient Egyptian Gods. This gigantic temple built in her honour is impressive to behold. It’s so well preserved it doesn’t look 2000 years old. The outside walls contain detailed friezes, included the famous large depiction of Cleopatra and her son. The temple is 43 metres long and nearly 18 metres high. Walking into the temple is an unforgettable experience, as the large hypostyle hall contains 24 colossal painted columns. The paint is so well preserved it’s astonishing to look at. The ceiling is just as beautiful, with many intricate paintings and hieroglyphics covering the stone (you might end up with neck ache after walking around here). The main hall of the Temple of Hathor The temple contains another smaller hypostyle hall, along with a number of antechambers, rooms and corridors to explore. The light in these chambers is quite subdued, which makes exploring them very atmospheric. At the back of the temple is the steep entrance to the crypts, which are so low you have to almost crawl down into the narrow tunnel beneath. The walls of the crypts contain beautiful hieroglyphics and carvings including the famous Dendera lightbulb, which is the subject of much conjecture. Going down into the crypts is a fun experience, so make sure you don’t miss it – just watch out for the mummies and scarabs. Exploring here really is like something from The Mummy or Indiana Jones. Inside the bottom of the crypts in the Temple of Hathor - it was a tight fit! Roof of the Temple of Hathor That's close enough - me on top of the roof of the Temple of Horus. The temple of Hathor is the only temple in Egypt where you’re still allowed to climb onto the roof. The roof is accessed by two steep, winding staircases who’s walls are as lined with intricate inscriptions as the rest of the temple. Technically visitors are only allowed onto one part of the roof, but a little baksheesh will allow you to explore the whole area. The view from the very top is sublime, with the whole Dendera temple complex spread out before you. From here you can appreciate the scale of the place. There is an antechamber on the roof called the chapel of Osiris, which contains the important relief known as the Dendera Zodiac. This depicts the only complete map of the ancient Egyptian sky ever discovered. You can appreciate the sheer scale of the complex from up here. Dendera Temple Complex The whole complex covers an enormous area of 40,000 sqaure metres and is surrounded by the remains of a massive mud-brick wall. There are numerous parts to explore apart from the temple of Hathor, but the two most interesting are the birthing temple and the temple of Isis. The birthing temple is near the entrance and contains some interesting reliefs showing the birth of Gods and Pharaohs. The temple of Isis is behind the temple of Hathor. This temple is small and less impressive, but it has some beautiful images and is a relaxing place to visit. Final Thoughts I’d heard good things about the Dendera Temple Complex before going, and it didn’t disappoint. Just getting here was an adventure. As soon as I tried to walk out of Quena train station a policeman approached me and asked me where I was from and where I was going. When I told him he said the police would take me there, and he phoned his collogues to tell them. In the end I ended up going with two police and one soldier with an AK- my own armed escort. They drove fast and put the siren on for part of the trip, it was a surreal and exciting experience. Exploring the site was more fun than any other temple I went to in Egypt, there are no vendors inside the temple grounds and very few tomb guardians. The guardians here were also more relaxed than in other places, so I was able to explore the sight alone for hours. Exploring the dark chambers and crypts felt like a real ancient Egyptian adventure, the kind you fantasise about when you imagine travelling around Egypt. Make sure you visit the Dendera Temple Complex if you go to Upper Egypt, it's better than any site in Luxor. Practical Information Admission times and price: 7am-5pm and 120EGP entry. Getting there and away: If you are travelling independently from Luxor then the train to Quena is the only cheap option. Dendera is about 6 miles from the station. As I discovered, the police in this city are really paranoid about foreigners travelling here by themselves. On the plus side they are very friendly, and it means you probably won’t need to take a taxi there and back. Staying in Qena: Staying here would be an interesting experience, and a nice change from Luxor. If you do decide to stay here you will have to find a room in person, and the authorities might not be eager for you to go out alone at night. 5 Pandemics in history more deadly than the Coronavirus History Black Death in Florence. The coronavirus has been causing panic and alarm around the world. Not a day goes by without more headlines, articles and posts about the speed with which the virus is spreading in China. So far the official figures from the CPP are over 70,000 infected and at least 1,700 dead (we all know the real figures are much higher). Outside of China the numbers infected are small but growing. The coronavirus is certainly concerning, but compared to these five outbreaks from history it’s nothing yet. Hopefully the coronavirus (COVID-19) won’t become anywhere near as severe as any of the following pandemics. 1. The Black Death The Black Death. It’s very name conjures up images of mass death and suffering: entire villages wiped out; men in plague masks taking cart fulls of bodies to mass graves. People covered in boils dying in agony, with the people who try to care for them often dying in turn. It’s the stuff of nightmares. It was called Black Death due to lymph nodes becoming blackened and swollen, the buboes that give it it’s proper name bubonic plague. It makes you glad to be living in the 21st century. Between 1347-1351 the Black Death swept across Eurasia leaving devastation in it’s wake. Europe was hit the hardest by the bubonic plague, with at least 50% of the population dying in four years. In total over 50 million are thought to have died – it killed so many people it completely altered the landscape of Europe forever. It's been called the greatest catastrophe ever. 2. The Spanish Flu Everyone knows the tragically high number of lives claimed by the first world war, but many people aren't aware that the influenza pandemic that followed it claimed many more. In 1918-19 the influenza known as the Spanish Flu (even though it originated in the US) spread like wild fire throughout the world. The spread of the virus was aided by the mass movement of people ate the end of the first world war, and the poor living conditions of many. The Spanish flu is thought to have killed up to a staggering 50 million people by the time it died away. The mortality rate was 1 in 5 and a third of the worlds population was inflicted. This pandemic is the first case of a H1N1 pandemic, with the Swine Flu in 2009 being the second. If the coronavirus or any future influenza outbreak gets as bad as the Spanish Flu we'll be in trouble. Thankfully medical care has moved on astronomically in just a century. 3. The Plague Of Justian Justian is often considered the greatest of the Byzantine Emperors, but his name is also synonymous with one of the worst plagues in history. In 541 AD rats on grain barges from Egypt brought a new plague to the rest of the Byzantine Empire. This new pestilence went on to kill millions across the empire, decimating entire cities and nearly crippling the empire. The capital Constantinople lost 40% of it’s population, with 10,000 dying a day at one point. The plague spread beyond Byzantium across Europe and Asia, killing at least 25 million people. As you might have guessed this plague was the same as the Black Death, experts think this was the first recorded case of bubonic plague in history. 4. The Antonine Plague Named after the Roman Emperor Marcus Antonine, this pandemic lasted between 165-180 AD. It’s thought the disease started in Seleucis in Mesopotamia, before being spread to Italy and much of the empire by soldiers returning from a siege there. It decimated the Roman army and killed over five million people, mainly in Italy and the eastern empire. Rome was particularly badly hit, with even one Emperor allegedly dying of the disease. It’s not known for certain what the disease was, but historians have speculated it may have been smallpox or measles. 5. The Third Cholera Pandemic The dreaded Cholera caused seven major pandemics. The mostly deadly of the pandemics was probably the third pandemic from 1846-1860, which claimed at least one million lives. This pandemic originated in the Ganges delta, before spreading across Asia, Europe and much of the world. During the outbreak in London British doctor John Snow discovered the disease was spread by contaminated water. His discovery helped end the epidemic, and aided the worldwide fight against cholera. Guide to The Red Pyramid and The Bent Pyramid... Travel I climbed on my hands and knees up the steep, narrow shaft deep in the heart of the pyramid, breathing heavily due to the thin, stale air. My pants were getting covered in thick, millennia old dust. The passage was extremely dark, with just my small torch for illumination. I soon came to two ropes, and used them to help climb up the shaft which had become even steeper. After a long climb I saw light ahead and felt a slight breeze. I spotted the two guys who had gone up first holding on to metal bars covering the shafts opening. I climbed up next to them and gratefully breathed in the fresh air. If I let go of the bars now I would fall back down the shaft. Looking out I saw we were perched high up the west side of the bent pyramid of Dahshur, with a stunning desert vista around us. I felt like an explorer who had just discovered the secrets of the pyramid. It was an exhilarating sensation. This was part of my experience of exploring the Bent Pyramid of Sneferu, which recently opened to tourists for the first time since 1965. I also explored the nearby Red Pyramid of Dahshur. These two pyramids are awe-inspiring, and easily among the best places to visit in Egypt. Dahshur should be top of your list if you want an authentic Ancient Egyptian experience. History of the Pyramids of Dahsur Dahshur was an ancient necropolis 8 miles south of Saqqara, where many pyramids and tombs were built. The Bent and Red pyramids were built on the orders of Pharaoh Sneferu (2613-2598 BC), who was the most prolific builder of pyramids in ancient Egypt: he built at least 3 large pyramids. The Bent Pyramid was an experimental pyramid, meant to be an evolution of the step pyramid. However, they made a mistake during construction. They started at an angle of 60°, but changed this to 55° and enlarged the base. At 47 metres they realised the building was unstable, and changed to a 45° angle for the rest of it. This led to the pyramids distinctive shape. The Red Pyramid was built shortly after the Bent Pyramid, and they used the lessons learnt from that to build the worlds first true large pyramid. The pyramid was built at a 40° angle making it a lot more stable. Exploring the Red Pyramid Of Dahshur Seeing the Red Pyramid for the first time really is astonishing. It rises majestically out of the flat desert with nothing around to obstruct the view of it. It looks just like what you imagine an Ancient Egyptian pyramid should look like; a perfect stone pyramid in the desert with no urban sprawl nearby to spoil the affect (no burger king or tour groups for miles either). On closer inspection it’s not quite perfect, as all of the original limestone casing has been removed. Apart from that it’s in remarkable condition. At 105 metres tall it’s the third tallest pyramid in Egypt. There are stairs on the outside that lead to the entrance 30 metres up. There is a nice platform here that gives great views of the surrounding desert. Inside the Red pyramid The entrance tunnel of the red pyramid. Main chamber of the pyramid Walking down the steps of the steep entrance tunnel is like something from a Tomb Raider game. The passageway is so slow I had to almost crouch to go down – it certainly makes for an exciting entrance. The passage is 80 metres long and leads into a chamber beneath ground level. From here there is a short passage that leads into another chamber with a high, cobalt roof. At this point you’re under the apex of the pyramid. At the end of here they have built wooden steps that allow visitors to climb up to the third chamber. The third chamber if the most interesting. It has a dark, correlated ceiling 15 metres high. A large part of the floor has been dug up, this was probably done by tomb robbers trying to find the Pharaohs treasure. They never found anything, so maybe it’s still in there somewhere. The pyramid was empty when I went, so I was able to meditate in the chamber for awhile. It was a great experience, though the air is quite thin and has a really strong smell. The Bent Pyramid of Sneferu The bent pyramid is an amazing building, you’ve probably never seen anything quite like it. It lies across the desert just over a mile from the Red Pyramid, it’s distinctive bend giving it an unusual shape. Another unique aspect of this pyramid is it contains most of it’s original limestone covering, unlike any other pyramid found. It’s fantastic seeing it up close, I found the pyramid quite beautiful. At 101 metres it’s also a huge building. There are the remains of some of the pyramid complex of the east side of the pyramid that’s interesting to explore. From here there is a clear view of the remains of the unfinished Black Pyramid. On the south side of the pyramid is the small Queens Pyramid. I was able to climb up here with the guard at the site, who was obviously after a tip. This really is a remote, off the beaten path destination as the whole area was almost empty. Me standing on the limestone slabs on the east side of the pyramid. Exploring Inside the Bent Pyramid Stairs in the bent pyramid. Exploring the bent Pyramid really is like something from an Indiana Jones film. The entrance is similar to the Red Pyramid, with the north entrance 12 metres up the outside. After the long descent you come a corridor that leads to the antechamber, which has wooden steps at the far side going up to a low, rough hewn tunnel. After squeezing through here I myself in a dimly lit corridor that leads right and left. The left branch took to me to the mysterious burial chamber that was filled with bats, the smell so overpowering that I just spent a couple of minutes looking around. Following the passage back the way I had came led to the steep shaft that led to the small opening high in the period – this shaft is known aptly as the chimney. I’m curious as to what the exact purpose of the chimney is, as there is no consensus on it (some academics think it was just built to access a burial chamber). It probably had more than one use. There also haven’t found the sarcophagus of Sneferu, so perhaps there are more chambers and corridors in the pyramid that haven’t been discovered yet. Final Thoughts Exploring these two pyramids was a fantastic experience, it was the type of Egyptian adventure I had always dreamed of having. Visiting some sights in Egypt can be underwhelming, but these two pyramids more than lived up to expectations. The remote location, almost complete absence of visitors and the fact I could explore at will made it feel like I had travelled back in time. The fact these pyramids still have mysteries to uncover makes them even more exciting. If you’re in Cairo you need to take a trip out here. Me on top of the Queens pyramid next to the Bent Pyramid. Practical Information Admission: 60 EP entry to Dahshur, with free entry to the pyramids- yes it’s hard to believe it’s free entry. Getting there and away: It’s nearly 25 miles from Giza and there is no public transport here, so it’s best if you can hire a car or take a taxi. You could also take the metro to Helwan then take a taxi. I hired a car and driver In Giza for a day trip to Saqqara and Dahshur. Equipment: You’ll obviously need good footwear and pants you don’t mind getting covered in the dust of the ages. Bring a torch, and having something to cover your mouth and nose in some areas would be handy. Guide to the Pyramid of Djoser in Saqqara: The... Travel The pyramids of Giza get most of the headlines and tourists (along with scammers and touts), but Egypt is home to over 100 other pyramids. The most important of them is the Stepped Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara, thought to be the worlds oldest large pyramid. This huge building is 62 metres high, and is surrounded by the remains of a large funerary complex. The pyramid is part of the Saqqara Necropolis, which also includes several other small pyramids, temples and tombs. The site is in the desert beyond the outskirts of Cairo, making exploring here more of a real adventure than the pyramids of Giza. History of Saqqara Saqqara was the necropolis of Memphis, the capital city of Ancient Egypt during the old kingdom. The first pharaohs of the old kingdom were buried in mastabas (house of eternity) here, which were flat-roofed, rectangular structures made out of mud bricks built on top of tombs. However, at the start of the third Dynasty under the Pharaoh Djoser a great innovation was made. The Pharaohs Vizier Imhotep (not the one from the Mummy!) was charged with designing the kings tomb, and decided to create something new and massive. The result was the Stepped Pyramid of Djoser, which was constructed between 2630 and 2611BC. Imhotep built it by stacking six mastaba-like structures on top of each other, and encasing it all in limestone. This makes the stepped pyramid the oldest known large pyramid in the world. The labour and resources required to build the Stepped Pyramid meant state power had to become more centrailsed and efficient, which helped with the development of the Old Kingdom. Other pyramids, tombs and temples were built here in subsequent centuries, bit none on the scale of the stepped pyramid. The first modern excavation of the site was by the savants of Napoleons expedition in 1798-1801. During there stay in Egypt the savants studied many ancient monuments in Egypt, and found the Rosetta stone that allowed hieroglyphs to be translated. However, the first modern excavation of the site didn’t start until 1920 with Cecil Firth and later Jean-Philippe Laucer – who made most of the major discoveries at the site over the next 50 years. Exploring the Site The Pyramid Enclosure The entrance corridor of the enclosure. When approaching the pyramid the first thing you notice is it’s surrounding complex is quite well preserved for its age. Part of the original wall is still intact, which used to be a mile in circumference and 10 metres high. The wall had 13 false doors and just one real entrance. The false entrances were built to allow the Pharaohs ka(spirit) to come and go – apparently it couldn’t just float though walls. To enter the enclosure you walk through a corridor of 40 columns and into the large hypostyle hall, which makes for an atmospheric entrance. After the hall there is the great south court, which contains an impressive frieze of cobras. This court was also where part of the Heb-sed (Jubilee) festival was held, which was to demonstrate the fitness of the Pharaoh to rule after 30 years. The Pharaoh had to literally demonstrate his fitness to rule by doing a ritual run here – imagine if we made the Queen do that every three years. Next to the south court are the remains of the Jubilee court itself. The other two remaining buildings I found most interesting were the House of the South Court and the House of the North Court. These represented upper and lower Egypt, and symbolised the new unity of the country. It shows how little civilisation has changed in many ways. The Stepped Pyramid of Djoser Up close the Stepped Pyramid of Djoser is an impressive site, it’s amazing that it’s survived so well after nearly 4,700 years. Walking around it I could feel the history emanating from the building. The atmosphere was helped by the lack of tourists, as very few people make it out here and I was able to walk around the pyramid alone. The pyramid contains 11.6 million cubic feet of stone and clay, and used to be covered in a limestone casing. Just imagine how brilliant it looked shining in the sun after it was built. Unfortunately the pyramid isn’t as stable as it looks, as an earthquake damaged it in 1992. A British firm recently finished saving the pyramid from collapse after years of dangerous work. The pyramid contains a staggering 3.5 miles of passages and tunnels beneath it, with many small rooms and chambers. The maze of passages were probably built to help protect the tombs from looters. The Sarcophagus of Djoser was found in a chamber deep beneath the pyramid. Unfortunately tomb raiders had got there long ago, and most of the treasures and mummy had been taken. The only part of the Pharaoh left behind was one of his feet; perhaps the tomb raiders had a sense of humour. Sadly the passages are currently closed to the public for obvious reasons. The nearest I could get was standing at the top of the steep passageway down. It was like looking down into the start of the Minotaur's labyrinthine. Just imagine, how exciting it would be to explore the many passageways and chambers down there. Hopefully they open the underground passageways to tourists again. The Necropolis of Saqqara The Necropolis of Saqqara is a vast ancient burial ground that covers 16km2, and stretches over 7km from north to south. It would take several days to see every site here, but there are a few places near the stepped pyramid you can add on to your visit. Pyramids of Unas and Userkaf Close to the Pyramid of Djoser, on opposite sides, are these two small pyramids. They were both built in the old dynasty after the larger pyramid. The most interesting of the two is Unas, which contains two chambers inside that are open to the public. The central chamber contains the Pyramid Texts, which are the oldest known Egyptian religious writings. It’s really quiet inside here, so it’s worth the walk to experience the atmosphere. Serapeum This fascinating tomb houses underground burial chambers that used to contain the Apis Bulls, which were bulls mummified and placed in large red and black granite sarcophagi. To reach the tombs required going down a steep, narrow passageway that feels like the entrance to the underworld. The sarcophagi are huge and in impressive condition for there age. The paintings on the walls are beautiful too. Mastaba of Ty Reliefs of every day life inside the tomb. This large mastaba is one of the main sights at Saqqara. It was built for an important court official, and contains some of the best preserved murals from the old dynasty. I was amazed with how well preserved the colours are on some of the murals here: being sealed off in the desert has saved them. The mastaba also contains a sarcophagi and a statue of Ti. The tomb guardian were very persistent here, moving ahead of me to point out things I was already looking at. You have to be firm, but polite, if you want to be left alone to wander around in peace. Final Thoughts The Stepped Pyramid of Djoser is one of the most important monuments in the world, and its worth coming here for that reason alone. The site is a lot quieter than Giza with no vendors here, so it makes for a more authentic experience. Seeing the other sites near the pyramid also makes for a fascinating visit. The tomb guardians can be annoying however. In no other country in the world have I encountered uneducated people being employed to ‘protect’ sites, yet spending most of their time hassling visitors for baksheesh(tips/bribes). It’s almost comical at times. The Egyptian authorities should really do something about it, as it takes away from the experience. Despite this visiting Saqqara is a must if your in Cairo. Practical Information Opening times and admission: 7am-5pm in winter. Admission is 120 EGP in total for the Pyramid of Djoser and nearby tombs. Some of the other sites in the necropolis cost extra. Getting there and away: The site lies over 15km south of Giza, beyond the south-west outskirts of Cairo. There is no public transport here, but you can take the metro to Helwan then from there its a cheap taxi ride away. Remember to haggle hard. It’s also possible to hire a driver for the day in Giza for a very reasonable price. mountain of fire: climbing up Acatenango Volcano Travel Sunset from the top of Acatenango, I stood at the side of the street in Antigua, staring at the colossal shape of the volcano in the distance. It rose up into the stratosphere, beautiful and imposing against the azure sky. As I looked at the volcano I knew had to climb one, there was no way I was leaving here without standing on the summit of a fire mountain. Guatemala is the country of volcanoes, with 14 of them spread around the mountainous nation. Part of the reason I had come to Guatemala was to climb one for the first time, and Antigua was the ideal base to do it from. The scenic colonial city has four volcanoes within two hours, with Acatenango being the tallest at almost 4000 metres. Acatenango also has a twin volcano called Fuego, which is the most active in Central America. The Volcano erupts dozens of times every day. This made it the ideal choice for my first volcano hike. Planning the Hike Several travellers had recommend I use Soy travels for the Volcano hike, as the man who runs it uses local villagers as guides and helps with local development projects. The price is very reasonable at just 35o quazales including all food and equipment. I contacted Soy and booked my place for the two day hike starting the next morning. On Friday morning the two minivans drove into the mountains through the rain, leaving the city behind. Everyone in the minivan was eager to climb the volcano, but also unsure of what to expect. After 30 minutes we pulled into a mountain village to get our bags and equipment. Everyone who didn’t have hats and gloves rented some for 10 quetzales each—we were going to need them. Soy explained what to expect on the hike, and explained how the profits from the company went back into the local community, including hiring guides from local villages like this one. Starting the climb The hike started from just over 2000 metres, where a group of entrepreneurial local children rented walking sticks. We all took one, as we were going to need them. The weather was still bad with light drizzle and thick cloud cover, it didn’t look like we were going to be lucky with the weather. My lungs gasped for air, sweat dripped down my back and I panted with each step as I hauled myself up the first steep section. The soil was black volcanic ash that was treacherous at the best of times, let alone in the rain. I wondered if the beginning was this hard, just how tough was the climb going to be. Luckily I wasn’t the only one who find the start tough, everyone else was finding it tough, especially a few at the back. We had to stop at regular intervals fro everyone to get their breath back, and for the stragglers to catch up. After 30 minutes I was finding it much easier to climb, I was getting used to the altitude and terrain. We slowly slogged up the volcano through thick forest, the view down to the bottom obscured by mist. Thankfully the rain had stopped. At lunch someone asked one of the guides if groups ever turned back from the summit due to bad weather, and he replied it happened sometimes due to safety fears. Only the previous year three people had tragically died on the volcano due to exposure. A torrential downpour had soaked their tent and they died of hypothermia. I was sure we’d reach the summit though. After lunch we climbed up through forest swathed in mist, getting ever higher up the volcano. The hike became much easier as the path turned left and swept around the side of the volcano. To our left the pine forest carpeted the steep slopes of the volcano, and I knew if it was a clear day the view would be sublime. As it was most of the view was obscured with fog, with just an odd gap giving a tantalising view of what lay beyond. We were climbing up through the cloud cover now, so I knew that the weather would probably improve. Sure enough the cloud began to clear, and soon there were large breaks in the cloud cover allowing fantastic views. Everyone admiring the amazing views, and the sight gave fresh strength to our legs. Several of the girls who had been at the back were spurred on by the change in weather, and we made good progress. Over lunch the girls had told use they were still recovering from Montezuma's revenge (diarrhea). It’s impressive they still went on the trip. Base Camp Me watching Fuego Volcano erupting from the camp. Sadly a few months later in June 2018 a massive eruption killed nearly 200 people and devastated the area. Sometime around 4pm we made it to the base camp, a group of 10 tents 600 metres from the Volcano summit. What really caught out attention was Volcano Fuego directly opposite us. As we settled down the huge volcano erupted with a sound like thunder and sent plumes of ash and lave into the clear sky. The sight and sound was awesome, and I was mesmerized by the sheer power and primal nature of it. It soon became clear that the eruption was far from a one-off, as the volcano erupted less than every 10 minutes at first, then every 5 minutes as sunset approached. We ate dinner to the backdrop of the colossal volcano erupting and bellowing like an angry God. Many of the group had their cameras ready trying to capture the perfect shot of an eruption. At sunset we all sat mesmerised as the golden sun dipped behind the volcano, it’s last rays of light piercing the sky. I soaked in the splendour of it all; I had never seen a more dramatic sight before. As the sky darkened the eruptions became more frequent and powerful, and the lava a lot more visible. With each great blast we saw masses of ash and lava shoot into the air like a fiery ejaculation, then fall onto the side of the volcano and slid down. It was a magnificent sight. Some of us talked about how we’d never seen anything so spectacular before, but mostly we all just sat and stared in rapt silence, taking in the show nature was putting on for us. I had truly never seen anything like this before, this was nature at it’s most primal and beautiful. It was also nature at it’s most dangerous. As we had sat there watching the volcano we had noticed by there torch lights group of people from another expedition had climbed onto the nearest side of the volcano. Not long after the sun had set we noticed they had climbed right onto the shoulder of the volcano, close to where the cone started. Clearly they wanted a close up of the show. Perhaps too close, I thought, as they were perilously close to where the lava flowed down the volcano. Suddenly there was a colossal rumble like Zeus coming down from Olympus, and a massive plume of ash and lava shot high into the air. Tonnes of red-hot lava landed on the side of the volcano facing the onlookers, and started racing down to where the group was standing. There were gasps from among our group at one we were seeing. “Oh my God, that group were stood there just before” gasped one woman in shock. “Yes, it looks like it may have reached them” I agreed, worried at the thought people may have just died, and thinking about what we could do to help. I thought at least some of that group may have just been killed. Thankfully a few seconds later we saw torch flashes from the group signalling they were ok. Thankfully the lava must not have been able to reach the vantage point they were watching from. Talk about a close call. Shortly afterwards we saw the groups torchlight swiftly descending the volcano. They had wisely decided not to tempt fate twice in one night. That evening we roasted marshmallows and continued to watch the show. At one point the volcano erupted none stop for 15 minutes: a constant jet of lava spewing out of the cone like a gigantic sparkler. I was the last of the group to go to bed, finding it hard to bring myself to leave the fantastic sight. Sleep was hard to come by, the temperate was so cold I had to sleep with all my clothes on plus my had and hood up. During the night I went outside and marvelled at the sight of the dark volcano framed against a clear, star studded sky. Occasionally the serenity of the scene would be punctured by the flash of the volcano erupting, closely followed by the thundering noise of it washing over me a second later. Despite my tiredness I felt completely alive, and so glad I had decided to climb this volcano. The final ascent Around 4am I was awoken by the guides calling for people to get up. It was time to climb up the Volcanos cone in time to see the sunrise. Once everyone was ready we started our ascent. The ground was soon devoid of vegetation and had turned into the bitty, black volcano soil that we had experienced at the very begging of the hike. This made the going even tougher, as the ground was extremely steep here. I almost stumbled as I groped my way upwards in the dark. My walking pole came in very handy to help drag me upwards. As we got higher I found more strength, and was soon near the front of the group hauling myself towards the summit. At times I used my hands to dragged myself up quicker, exhilarated by the prospect of reaching the summit. After an hour of climbing the sky had begun to lighten, signalling the approaching dawn. It wouldn’t be long before the sun rose above the horizon. Ahead of me I saw the summit of the volcano. I felt renewed energy in my legs and powered up the last steep inline, no longer feeling tired or light headed. One of the guides was at the top and high fived me as I walked past to walk onto the summit. I felt relief and a great sense of achievement at reaching the top. It felt like I was on the roof of the world, and that I could achieve almost anything after climbing the towering volcano. As we stood on the top of the Volcano rim I witnessed the most dramatic sight of my life. The sun rose above Volcan De Agua, sending shafts of golden light across the horizon. We had an almost perfect view of three volcanos from where we stood: the active Fuego which continued to periodically erupt; Volcan De Agua from behind which the sun had risen and the more distant volcan Pacaya. It was a stunning sight, made all the more dramatic by the clouds that drifted between where we stood and Volcano De Agua. To the south I could even see the Pacific ocean sparkling in the distance. Everyone was awed by the sight, taking pictures and marvelling at the views. It’s moments like this which make all the hard work and risks worthwhile. Me feeling elated watching the sunrise. After almost an hour on the summit the guides started signally to us to move. I thought they were going to lead us to the other side of the summit, which was the highest point. Instead everyone started descending the volcano, clearly some of them were cold and suffering from the altitude. I felt great though, so I decided to climb to the highest point by myself and took off at a jog. It took just a few minutes to reach the highest point of the volcano rim, but the altitude meant I was out of breath by the time I pulled myself to the summit. Ahead of me I could see lake Atitlan and the three volcanos around it. Even more amazingly I could see Volcano Santa Maria in the western highlands, which was 60 miles away. Talk about a stunning views. That meant from the very top of Acatenango I could see 7 other volcanoes. No wonder one of the Mayan names for their country was ‘the land of fire’. Below me in the crater I could see volcanologists measuring equipment used to monitor how active the volcano is. The Volcano has been dormant since 1973, but there have been 3 major eruptions in the last 8000 years. Another major eruption would threaten the lives of over 100,000 people in Guatemala. It’s amazing to be standing on something that demonstrates the raw, awesome, yet creative power of nature: to be standing here during an eruption would mean instance death. I stood transfixed by the view, it was intoxicating standing there surrounding by beautiful views in all directions. The Descent The way down was very steep and slippery, with the daylight revealing just how steep the ascent had been. I soon go into a stride that allowed me to cover the stride quickly without the risk of falling forwards. As I caught up with people from another group that had reached the summit I heard about the risks. A man had fallen and badly injured himself while running down the steep, ash covered slopes. The descent was much quicker than the ascent, with barely any stops as we quickly descended through the forest that covers the side of the volcano. On our way down we passed 6 or 7 people carrying down the injured man in a stretcher, he looked in a bad condition. Hopefully he will make a full recovery and live to talk about his close scrape in years to come. We took a different route down the volcano, cutting through humid cloud forest. The trees were gnarled and twisted here, and constantly damp from the ins scent cloud cover. Although we were making rapid progress the steep descent was harder on the knees, and in places it was easier to run down. I wasn’t sure why we were in such a rush to get down, as it would have been nice to savoir the unique environment more. Less than two hours after leaving the camp we were back at the start, stumbling down the black volcano ash path to the road. By this point my legs ached, and I was desperate for a shower and long sleep. Before getting back in the van I turned and took one long last look at the volcano. I felt I great sense of pride at having conquered it’s heights, and despite my tiredness was still buzzing from the experience. It had been two of the best days of my life. How Stone circles in ancient Britain may have been... Mysteries Stone circles are an iconic part of the British landscape. Everyone instantly recognises a photo of Stonehenge and knows it’s in the UK. People come from all over the world to marvel at Stonehenge, and to a lesser extent sites like Avebury in Wiltshire and Castlerigg in the Lake District. They are beautiful places, and invoke a sense of awe and wonder due to there age and mysterious origins. They also provide people with a tangible link to the dawn of civilisation, letting people forget about the complex modern world for awhile; instead imagining the simpler, more natural life of our ancestors. There are many theories as to why stone circles were built, ranging from the reasonable to the ridiculous. However, not many people know that one of the main purposes of the stone circles may have been as navigation aids to help people travel across ancient Britain. History of Stone Circles in Britain The first stone circles in Britain were built over 5000 years ago during the Neolithic period. During this era farming had spread across the islands from Europe, and populations had consequently become more sedentary, with villages appearing all over the country. With increasing populations and better technology came the desire and means to start monumental building. The first stone circle called the ring of Brogador was built in 3200BC in the windswept Orkney islands. Over the following centuries over 1000 more were built across ancient Britain, stretching from the far north to the south coast. Some of the most notable of these were Avebury stone circle in what is now the county of Wiltshire. This is the biggest stone circle ever built in Britain, and one of the largest in the world. Avebury was built between 2850BC and 2200BC and contains three rings of stone circles. It’s so massive that part of the modern village of Avebury sits inside of the stone circle. Castlerigg stone circle in the Lake District has one of the most dramatic settings: it lies at the heart of a valley surrounded by the majestic mountains of Lakeland. It’s also one of the oldest stone circles outside Scotland, having been erected around 3000BC. World famous Stonehenge is the most impressive stone circle, with it’s lintel topped sarsens giving it a more sophisticated look. The stone circle was constructed between 2500BC and 2200BC, though a wooden circle inside a ditch was constructed as early as 2900BC. What surprises many people is Stonehenge is not actually a henge – for it to be a henge the ditch needs to be inside the mound rather than outside. Really Stonehenge should be called Stonecircle, though that doesn’t sound as impressive. Megalithic Signposts Neolithic and Bronze age Britain was a lot more interconnected than is commonly assumed. There was a significant amount of long distance trade around the country, along with a thriving sea trade that connected the islands with the Mediterranean world. To assure travellers and traders didn’t get lost required some type of navigation system, and this is where the stone circles may have came in. Every stone circle had a heelstone for orientation, along with a stone with a capstone on it to indicate sunrise at that time of year. The heelstone pointed to the next stone circle, so that a traveller could navigate their way across the island using stone circles and other signposts in the land to show them the way. If a person got lost on the way, so long as they had remembered the position of the heelstone and sunrise they would be able to re-orientate themselves and continue on their journey. It’s possible people even made rudimentary compasses from leather and wood, to show the position of the sunrise and direction of travel. There were paths and ancient drovers trails between many stone circles too, so these would have made it easier to travel between them. If this system existed it would show that the Ancient British were more developed and advanced that previously thought. To developed should a navigational system over hundreds of miles would take some organisation and a means to pass on the knowledge through the generations. Perhaps they were more civilised than they are often given credit for. Other Uses of Stone Circles Of course stone circles weren’t just used to make sure people could have their order of tin delivered from Cornwall. They probably served several other purposes, as befitted sites that required should manpower to build. Stone circles were used to bury and honour the dead over a two thousand year period. Bones have been found at many sites, along with evidence that cremation was commonly used. At Stonehenge the remains of hundreds of people have been discovered. Recent research shows that there were huge feats here which were attended by hundreds of people, some of them travelled across Britain to reach the site. This shows that Stonehenge at least was a place to honour the dead – a site of pilgrimage for ancient Britons. Stone circles were also used as as places to observe and worship the cycles of nature, with some standing stones set-up to align with the cycles of the sun and moon at different times of year, such as Stenness in the Orkneys. For example at some stone circles we can see that two standing stones have been used to frame the rising sun at the summer solstice, with another pair used to frame the setting sun. This allowed people to mark the changing of the seasons, which was vitally important in Pagan religion. At summer and winter solstice there were celebrations at many stone circles, which involved plenty of feasting and drinking- something that has become extremely popular again at Stonehenge. The last possible major use of stone circles was as an astronomy observatories. Some people have speculated that stones were lined up to reflect certain consolations, and to calculate astronomical events. Whatever the exact uses of stone circles it’s clear they were a central part of ancient Britain for several thousand years. They provided places for people to come together and honour the dead, while also celebrating the turning of the seasons. Perhaps they really were used as a primitive navigational aid too, helping trade to flourish across the islands. Exploring The Palenque Ruins Travel I trudged up the steep, slippery steps that led deeper into the humid rainforest of Palenque National Park. My eyes darted to the trees as I heard a roaring sound like a jaguar – it was just a howler monkey marking his territory. To my right a small river gushed down the mountain slope, turning into a series of mini-waterfalls in places. As I reached a bend in the path that led to a viewing platform, the river had turned into a full on waterfall, the power of the falls sending streams of mist into the jungle. I stood at the rails of a wooden platform staring out at the falls. There is something magical and intoxicating about being close to a waterfall, like it’s power and primal nature can wash away all of our petty everyday concerns, and remind us of the joy of simply existing. After walking further on a came to a long wooden bridge stretching across the river in front of more falls, looking life something from an Indiana Jones film. I walked across gripping the ropes, the swaying movement and proximity of the waterfall making me feel truly alive. My trip to Palenque was turning out to be fantastic, but it hadn’t started this way. Several days before I arrived in the modern town of Palenque late at night to find a hot, very humid and somewhat bland city. After spending so much time in the Yucatan the city had a more run down feel. Wondering around the city during the day revealed that there wasn’t much to see here; it lacks the colonial architecture of cities like Valladolid. The town really isn’t the most attractive gateway to a national treasure like Palenque. Travelling to El Panchen Before coming to Mexico I didn’t know much about Palenque, but after researching it I knew this was one site I couldn’t miss. The Palenque archaeological zone is actually 8 miles from the town itself, and is set within a small national park that contains hills covered in tropical rainforest. Although the modern pueblo might be bland, the countryside surrounding the town and leading to the site is beautiful. I heard that the best place to stay in Palenque is actually El Panchen: a hideaway of cabins and huts in the jungle close to the National Park Entrance. From close to the bus station I was able to get in the back one of the shared collectivoes that ply the route between the town and archaeological zone. Collectivoes are easily the most fun way to travel in Mexico, allowing you to meet the locals and get to out of the way destinations. Mexican drivers aren't known for there safety first approach though! The pickup truck sped down the small road, with houses soon giving way to small farms, fields and then forest. I spotted a few resorts and restaurants off the road, clearly this is the place to come if you want a quiet retreat. After 15 minutes I got off at El Panchen and paid 15 pesos for the ride. El Panchen is a collection of a few restaurants and several small resorts in the jungle. I found a hut in the jungle lodge with a double bed next to a stream that was only 120 pesos a night. The hut even had a small balcony overlooking a fast flowing stream. Staying at El Panchen turned out to be a very relaxing experience. Not much can beat swinging in a hammock reading a book, with just the sounds of the jungle providing a relaxing backdrop. Some of the insects in the jungle can be as loud as an alarm clock in the morning though. I spent two days relaxing just a couple of miles from the site before deciding to finally explore what I had come here to see. A shortcut through the Jungle the jungle river I walked the few hundred metres to the National park entrance and paid the 30 peso entrance fee. From here it’s a scenic one mile walk to the museum and jungle entrance to the park. Sadly Palenque is hardly an undiscovered site, so several coaches and collectives drove past as I walked along the road. A mile down the road is the Museum of Palenque, which has some impressive exhibits. The cost for entrance to the museum and archaeological zone was only 50 pesos. Prices here are certainly lower than at the sites close to the Riviera Maya. The most impressive exhibit of all was the Sarcophagus and burial mask of Pakal the Great, which was discovered inside the temple of the Inscriptions in 1952. Pakal was the greatest ruler Palenque had, and built the temple of Inscriptions in 683 AD. After leaving I noticed there was an entrance to the park that led up the hill into the jungle. This looked a lot more adventurous than following the road round, so of course I decided to take this route. A few hundred metres of walking up this path is what brought me to the waterfall and swinging wooden bridge. After crossing the bridge I came to the first of the smaller ruins that are spread out in the rainforest leading up to the main site. Ruined houses and small temples had plants and trees growing around and over them, so that they looked as if they were organic pieces of the forest. I clambered over the slippery rocks, climbing down into passageways and rooms that would have once housed the cities elite. The air was warm and heavy here, with thick clouds rising above the rainforest canopy. Unlike the Yucatan Peninsula which is very dry in winter and has a distinct dry season, the area around Palenque is true tropical rainforest with a much wetter climate. The vegetation here is lush and verdant; trees, bushes and plants grow in a rich profusion everywhere you look. Exploring the Ruins South side of the central plaza After climbing further up the mountain side through the jungle past more decayed buildings almost lost in their green tombs, I came at last the central plaza. As I walked out into the clearing I was surrounded on all sides by magnificent buildings, this was some of the most beautiful architecture I’d seen in Mexico. From the south side of the plaza I was able to climb up a temple and look out at the view that stretched down the slopes of the hills and across the valley to the plains beyond.. From here it was easy to see why Palenque had been built in this location. The city occupied a strategic location on a plateau at the edge of the mountains, with the only way for an invading army to access the city by climbing up the hills. This meant that any invading army would be spotted from miles away, and would have to fight there way up heavily defended steep slopes. Thoughts of warfare were apt here as Palenque was the site that made academics realise the Maya were just as warlike as other civilisations. Amazingly before Palenque had been fully excavated, many people thought the Maya were a peaceful, pacifist society. Hard to image a people with a penchant for ripping peoples hearts out and drowning them in cenotes were once thought to be peaceful. The Archaeologist Count One of my favourite buildings was the temple where Jean Frederic Walpeck lived with his mistress for two years while investigating the site from 1832-1834. Just imagine waking up to that stunning view every morning and having your breakfast on a 1500 hundred year old porch. Sitting on the steps it was easy to see why the colourful count had ended up spending two years here, it really is a stunning location. The count himself certainly had an eventful life. He was an explorer, artists, engineer and sculptor among other things. Before coming to Mexico he had already explored South Africa and accompanied Napolian on his expedition to Egypt. The count moved to Mexico aged 55 in 1825 as an engineer, before leaving his job to explore the pre-Colombian ruins. From 1832 he spent nearly two years living in Palenque so he could study the ruins. He went on to study other Mayan sites including Uxmal. Allegedly he died at the age of 105 in Paris, when he was hit by a carriage while stopping to admire a beautiful woman – what a character. The Palace What really makes Palenque stand out from other Mayan sites is the quantity and quality of the inscriptions and carvings here. The extensive iconography at Palenque gave academics there first complete dynastic list of any Mayan city, and led to many breakthroughs in our understanding of the Mayan. Due to the beauty of the architecture and the similarity to other ancient sites in countries like Egypt, many people have claimed that Palenque was built by groups as diverse as the Egyptians and the lost tribes of Israel. Clearly the site was built by the Maya though, and has features which have since been uncovered in other Mayan sites. I spent the next couple of hours exploring the central and western plaza of Palenque. The beauty of the buildings and dramatic location was somewhat spoilt by the crowds of people. Although Palenque is not as busy at Chitchen Itza it is still firmly on the tourist trail, and there are some souvenir stands inside the sight too. It made me image what it must have been like to have explored this place in the 19th century, when the entire site was was covered in thick rainforest. The site I found most intriguing apart from the temple of Inscriptions was the large central Palace. The Palace is a huge jumble of buildings, staircases passageways and tunnels. I spent an hour looking around all the different rooms and areas, admiring the intricate inscriptions and carvings. Palenque really is quite a unique site, although it shares features with other Mayan cities the style is clearly also different. Walking through the low tunnels and passageways of the palace is an exciting experience too. Western Plaza View from the highest temple of the western plaza. The western Plaza is filled with three more amazing pyramids built in the classical period, known as the Temple of the Cross group. The pyramids are all on the side of the hills, giving great views from the top. Each of the pyramids has a temple on top with elaborately carved reliefs inside. I was impressed by the detail of the carvings, clearly the Mayans were extremely skilled artisans. Unfortunately I wasn’t the only one who was impressed, as there were lots of people drawn to these temples. Still the crowds couldn’t mar the views from the top of the main pyramid here, which gave superb views of the whole site and surrounding jungle. I imagine it must be amazing to stand up here at night and watch the stars from this vantage point. Temple of the Inscriptions Temple of the Inscriptions The most spectacular site in Palenque is without doubt the pyramid known as The Temple Of The Inscriptions (a name that really fits the place). This pyramid is stunning and set against a lush backdrop of tropical rainforest. What really makes the pyramid special is what is inside it though. Part of the inside of the Pyramid is open to visitors, so I was able to go inside the pyramid and look at what had made this site so famous. Inside the pyramid the air was hot and heavy, and I could feel the weight of the stone above me. At the end of the corridor was a large tomb where the sarcophagus of Pakal the Great was found. Although the sarcophagus had long since been moved to the museum, the slab it had lain on was still intact. This giant limestone slab was covered in intricate inscriptions. It was amazing to think that the sarcophagus had lain there undiscovered for 1400 years. At the very end of the passageway was another tunnel leading down, but unfortunately this one was closed to the public. Being inside that tomb in the pyramid made me think about the great lengths people will go to to leave their mark on the world. Most of us would like to be remembered long after we are dead, and elaborate burial chambers are one of the ultimate manifestations of that. Ultimately we all want to leave are a mark on this planet one way or the other, and cities like Palenque are some of the most dramatic examples. Conclusion I really enjoyed exploring Palenque. The site is set in a picturesque location that gives the site a wild beauty. Not much is better than exploring temples and pyramids amid a backdrop of tropical rainforest. The burial chambers and underground passageways also help Palenque to stand out from most other Mayan sites. In my opinion the beauty of the architecture here is also unsurpassed by any other Mayan sites in Mexico; with perhaps only Uxmal and Chiten Itza comparable. The only downside to the sight is the large crowds here and souvenir stands. I would certainly recommend everyone travelling in southern Mexico to visit the site. Sumidero Canyon Travel Sumidero Canyon is a breathtaking site. A river lazily meanders for 10 miles between towering cliffs that reach a kilometre high in places. Crocodiles laze on the river banks and vultures squabble in large groups in-between scavenging for their next meal. The beauty of this place is simply mind blowing, and has to be seen to be appreciated. This report details my trip to the canyon, which turned out to be one of the most stunning places I’ve been to. I hope it inspires some of you to visit this wonderful place. Getting to Sumidero Canyon I was staying in the beautiful city of San Cristobal, nestled 2300 metres up in a valley of the Chiapas mountains. I normally avoid tours like the plague, but decided for visiting Sumidero Canyon a day tour would allow me to get the most out of it. A chose to take a tour with which cost only 240 pesos for the whole day a-bargain compared to western countries. The minivan left the city around 8.30am for the 90 minute ride to the Canyon. The journey there was exhilarating in itself. The mountain road passes some breathtaking scenery, with soaring peaks and plunging valleys covered in pine forest on all sides. When we arrived at the carpark in the small town of …., the sun was already beating down and the temperature was rising. We had dropped a 1000 metres since leaving San Cristobal, so I was suddenly back in a tropical climate after the chill of the high mountain valleys. Boat Trip through the Canyon As the speedboat waited to leave, the brilliant blue of the sky was matched by the clear waters of the lake. The speedboat revved it’s engines and shot of up the river away from the town. This was one fast boat! At the start of the canyon the cliffs are quite low and not very dramatic, but they soon started to get higher and steeper. The rock walls were partly white here and covered in forest. After 10 minutes the cliff walls had risen dramatically and the river narrowed, turning into a gorge. As we neared the highest part of the Canyon the view was amazing. Two massive cliffs rose up out of the calm water on either side of us. It was a staggering sight to behold, it felt like we were entering another world. We skimmed over the water and all around me I could see huge, towering grey walls rising up to touch the sky 1000 metres above us. The combination of the spectacle and the speed of the powerful boat was exhilarating. One of our first stops was to a cave in the walls of one of the cliffs. This cave was full of stalactites and was home to fruit bats. The driver expertly brought the boat close so we could look inside without leaving the boat. The wildlife of the Canyon Apart from the amazing scenery, the other reason to visit Sumidero Canyon is the diverse array of rare wildlife here. The canyon is home to hundreds of species, including eagles, vultures and crocodiles. I’d never seen a crocodile in the wild before (which was one of my reasons for coming) so was eager to spot one. My wish soon came true. We spotted a crocodile lazing on the bank, sunning itself in the brilliant morning light. It was a decent size, but nowhere near as big as some of the ones we saw later. We saw several more crocodiles, including one beast that was swimming lazily through the water. It was amazing to be so close to an animal that has been alive since the dinosaurs, though I was glad I was inside a boat at this point. I spotted other animals on the boat tour including monkeys, eagles and of course vultures. There were dozens of vultures on one side of the canyon, most of them relaxing in the sun with the odd one flapping off to search for carrion. Sumidero Canyon really is a paradise for animal lovers. The last area of the Canyon is the reservoir in front the Chicoasen Dam. The cliffs end here so the scenery isn’t as dramatic, but it’s still quite a beautiful spot. There were hundreds of birds scattered across the reservoir too, this area really is still a haven for wildlife despite the pressures of economic development. Driving to the Lookout Point After speeding back to the dock at up to 50mph, we had lunch before boarding the minivan to drive up to the lookout point above the canyon. After driving through the city of Tuxtla Gutierrez the road climbs steeply up the mountain side, before snaking along the edge of the cliffs. Soon we were well over a 1000 metres above the valley floor. The drop to out right seemed to go on forever, and in many places there was no safety rail. It’s at times like this when you hope you have a good driver. The Lookout Point After the exciting drive through the mountains we eventually arrived at the main lookout point. The view from here was utterly staggering. The viewing platform perches on the edge of one side of the canyon, with views across to the adjoining cliffs and down towards the river. The river itself was a tiny blue ribbon 1000 metres below me. The whole scene was so sublime it almost seemed unreal. Without doubt this was one of the most awe-inspiring views I’ve seen in my life, and I’ve seen a lot of great views. It was hard to tear myself away from the view, but I had to rejoin the group for the long drive back to San Cristobal. Final Thoughts Sumidero Canyon turned out to be one of the highlights of my trip, and was an exhilarating day out. Not much can beat speeding through a 1km tall canyon that looks like it belongs in Jurassic Park. I don’t normally recommend taking tours, but for this canyon it’s defiantly worth taking a tour to get the most out of your experience. The only downside to the tour was I would have liked to have spend more time at the lookout points, but it was still a great experience. Guide to the Dramatic ruins of Pergamom in Turkey Travel Perched on top of a hill above the modern town of Bergama stand the beautiful ruins of Pergamom. The ruins lie across the top and front of the hill, with cliffs on the other three sides giving the sight a very dramatic setting. Huge pillars and a large theatre give you an idea of how impressive the city used to be. The ruins are some of the most imposing and awe-inspiring in Turkey. On the other side of the city are the remains of the Asklepion, which was the second most famous healing centre in the Hellenistic world. People came from across the world to cure themselves here. Today you can follow in their footsteps and visit this amazing place. It’s truly one of the highlights of Turkey. History of Pergamom The earliest evidence of a settlement here is from the 8th century, though for centuries it was little more than a town. The area was conquered by the Persians, before being restored to Greek rule by Alexander the Greats invasion of Asia Minor in 334BC. The city first started to really grow in importance after this, especially when the Attalid dynasty was founded in 281BC. After they became independent of the Seleucid empire in 190BC, Pergamom became capital of the powerful Attalid kingdom. This is when some of the first large monumental buildings were built here. During this period the Asklepion also added to the cities fame, with it being a world renowned healing centre. The city was conquered by the Romans in 140AD. The Romans massively expanded the city, with a 2.5 mile wall built around it. At it’s height in the second century AD the city had a population of over 200,000. The city was badly damaged by an earthquake in 262AD, and was sacked by the rampaging Goths soon after. It never fully recovered from this, and was also sacked several times during the Byzantine period by Arab and Seljuck armies. Exploring the Ruins The Acropolis of Pergamom The ruins of the Acropolis stand on a 335 metre high escarpment between two rivers. To reach the ruins it’s possible to hike up the hill or take a cable car. I opted for the empty cable car and was treated to an exhilarating ride up to the top, with views of the town on one side of the hill and a reservoir on the other. The most famous site here are the ruins of the Alter of Zeus, which used to be a massive structure that contained a beautiful frieze depicting the war between the Greek Gods and Titans. Sadly the entire frieze was taken and moved to Berlin Museum in the 19th century. While much of the structure is missing, what remains is very impressive. The pillars are huge, walking under them gave me a sense of how massive the original building was. I was also able to climb up some of the reaming walls. The chambers and passageways under the building are well preserved; walking through them felt like exploring a lost ancient Greek necropolis, especially as it was quite dark and the area was empty. Walking along the ruins on the far side of a plateau is a must, as it offers great views of the surrounding mountains and the reservoir in the valley below. The wind was intense here, adding to the raw, primal feeling of being in this ancient city that had been left to rot atop it’s mountain fastness. Close to here are the shattered remnants of the Library of Pergamom, once the second biggest in the world. The most impressive surviving building at the site is the theatre, which is the steepest theatre from the ancient world. It had a capacity of 10,000 people. It’s built into the hillside so the steps fall sharply away- I wouldn’t have wanted to climb them after drinking wine all evening. From the top of the steps you can see the remains of Pergamom falling away towards the modern city. The Red Basilica The ruins of this large temple lie in the old town near the base of the hill. This temple was built by Roman Emperor Hadrian to honour the Egyptian Gods. It was later converted into a church. The main temple is quite well preserved and you can see the remains of a few statues scattered around. There are two large rotundas (round towers) on each side of temple. One of them is part of the temple and you can go inside it. There is a large underground complex beneath the site, but unfortunately it’s closed to the public. The Asklepion While these ruins aren't as dramatic at the Acropolis, they are just as important. They’re also a peaceful place to wonder around and relax in. The Asklepion was built around a sacred spring, and became the second most famous in the classical world. You enter the site along the remains of the sacred way, where you can follow in the footsteps of pilgrims who came here to be healed. The sacred way leads to the remains of the underground passageway, where water from the springs still comes out. Patients would spend their first night here, and in the morning they would have their dreams interpreted by physicians. They believed the dreams were sent by the healing God Asklepios, and that they held the key to healing a person. Walking through here was a powerful experience, as I could imagine the thousands of people who had come here to be healed. The site also includes the remains of the temple, a theatre and residential buildings. It’s a very relaxing, contemplative area with few visitors to spoil the serenity. I certainly found visiting here a refreshing experience. Final Thoughts This was one of the most spectacular sites I visited in Turkey. The combination of the ruins and the setting on the hill make the Acropolis a must see. The Asklepion and Red Basilica also make for good visits. The sites didn’t have many tourists, so it makes for a much more relaxing visit. The town of Bergama itself is also very charming with some interesting places. Practical Information Admission: Acropolis 35 Lira, Asceplion is 30 lira and the Red Basilica is 6 lira. Getting there and away: Bergama is about 1.5 hours away from Izmir. I would recommend staying in Bergama for at least a couple of days. All the sites are easily walkable from the centre, though it’s fun getting the cable car up the hill. Cable car is 20 lira one way and 35 lira for a return trip. Guide To visiting the ruins of ancient Troy Travel The legendary city of Troy is one of the most famous places from the ancient world. Thanks to Homers Iliad, the story of the fall of the city has been retold time and time again since the days of classical Greece. It’s perhaps the most influential story in western civilisation. While the ruins of the city don’t live up to the romantic image of ancient Troy, there popularity today is testament to the importance of myth to humanity. There is also quite a lot to see for anyone with an interest in history and archaeology. Exploring the 5000 year old ruins in this remote, scenic corner of Turkey is a journey through time. This guide will help you get the most out of visiting Troy. If you can I recommend visiting during the week when it’s quieter. History of Troy The first settlement was founded here in the bronze age around 3000BC. It was a mercantile city that quickly grew in power and size due to it’s strategic location on a hill next to the entrance to the Hellespont (Dardanelles). The narrow straits were the only way for boats to pass between the Aegean and the Black seas, thus giving Troy control of the lucrative trade here. By 2500BC the city had grown to include a lower city and an upper citadel, with a kings palace inside the complex. At one point this was incorrectly thought to be Homers Troy. One of the unusual aspects of Troy is how many different layers of city have been built on top of each other. In total nine separate layers of settlment have been discovered, with several further subdivisions. This is due to the city being periodically destroyed, damaged or abandoned, with a new city built on top of the ruins of the old one each time – now that is what I call efficient recycling, we could learn something from them! By the time of Troy VI in the 13th century BC, the city was the most powerful in the north Aegean and there is evidence of substitutional trade with the Mycenaeans in Greece. This city was possibly destroyed by an earthquake in 1250BC, but Troy VII was built on-top of it with even stronger fortifications. This is the troy that is widely regarded as Homers Troy. There is evidence to suggest this city was destroyed by war, and subsequently abandoned for many decades. Arrows, slingshots and human remains have all been found in this layer of the city. While Homers Iliad was clearly mostly fiction, it shows it was probably based on a real war between the Mycenaeans and Trojans. Troy was once again rebuilt, and in subsequent centuries was conquered at various times by the Persians, Greeks and eventually the Romans in 85BC. Discovery of Troy Many people thought Troy was just a myth, but archaeologists Frank Calvert and Heinrich Schliemann believed the Iliad was based on real events and that Troy existed. In 1863 Calvert started excavating at Hissarlick (Troy), and became certain it was the legendary city. He convinced the better funded Schlemann that the site was Troy, and in 1870 they teamed up to excavate the site. Some of Schlemanns methods were very destructive, with dynamite used to get to the lower levels! Nevertheless, over the course of four excavation Schliemann uncovered enough evidence to show the site was Homers Troy. The most famous artifacts discovered was a horde of treasure, which he claimed were Priam's treasure. Further excavations were carried out throughout the 20th century, and have continued through to the present day. The ruins were declared a world heritage site in 1998. Exploring the site The Trojan horse The imposing Trojan horse The most famous part of the Iliad is when the cunning Greeks decided to pretend to surrender, and left a huge wooden horse outside the city walls as a peace offering. We all know what happened next. The authorities here have built a large model of the horse to honour the myth (and boost tourism). It’s very touristy, but climbing inside the horse is a lot of fun. The second story of the horse is quite high up, and gives nice views of parts of the ruins. It also helps bring the myth to life, as you can image Achilles and his men hiding inside the structure waiting for the right time to strike. Just make sure it’s not too crowded when you climb in. The main site The archaeological site has a series of wooden walkways that allow you explore most of the ruins. There are a number of detailed sign boards around the site that explain the history and details of each area. I found this fascinating, as it allows you to follow the development of the city over the course of more than 3000 years. In some cases tour groups made it hard to read the signs in peace though. The most interesting feature are the remains of the walls, which were 5 metres thick and up to 8 metres high and included several towers - very handy to have if you are besieged for a decade. The walls give nice views of the surrounding countryside, and show what a strategic position the city had. The sea is now three miles away, but it used to come close to the city. Schilemans trench is easy to spot, as you can see the huge damage he inflicted to the remains. It’s a good job archaeology has moved on since then. There is a small theatre at the ruins too which is the most intact building left. Most impressive from a historical perspective are the 5000 year old ruins of Troy 1. When they were discovered it made Troy the oldest known European city at the time. Secret Tunnel A few hundred metres from the main ruins of the city I came across the entrance to an underground tunnel. Unfortunately the tunnel is barred by a metal grid to stop curious explores like me venturing inside. It did make me wonder if this is a tunnel that could have been used by the Trojans during the siege. The nearly 200 metre long tunnel is thought to be a water tunnel, and it was built over 4000 years ago, meaning it would have been in use during the time of the Trojan war. Make sure you check it out when you visit, the area around here is very pleasant and has no other tourists about too. Museum of Troy No visit to Troy would be complete without visiting this large new museum. This ultra-modern museum was opened in 2018, and helps to bring the history of Troy to life. The museum has some beautiful artifacts from Troy and the surrounding region, and contains a wealth of information about the history of the site. I’d recommend going here before looking around the ruins, as it will help make sense of what you’re seeing. Final Thoughts Visiting Troy was a fascinating journey through history. It was special visiting a place that has inspired such an enduring, powerful myth. While the site itself is much less impressive that some other ruins in Turkey, the ruins are more extensive than I had imagined. With the help of some background reading and the information provided here, it’s possible to get a good sense of what Troy was like in its heyday. The one drawback of the site is its quite popular with Chinese tour groups now, which makes it busy at times. However, you can avoid the groups if you come early or stay late. Practical Information Admission and opening times: 35 Lira for the ruins and 40 for the museum. 8.30am-7.30pm Apr-Oct, 8.30am-5.30pm Nov-Mar Getting there and away: From Chanakkale you can take a minbus from the local station for 7 lira each way. It takes about 45 minutes. Accommodation: Chanakkale has some great value budget places. The Anzac hotel was amazing for the price, with the best all you can eat buffet breakfast I’ve ever had included with the price. I paid just £10 a night for a large en-suite room with a king size bed and the delicious breakfast. Munnar - Heaven’s Own Getaway! Travel Munnar - An alluring small town amidst a hill station in Idduki district on the Western Ghats. This place dilates the beautiful lush green hill station and is delightfully carpeted with tea and spice plantations which contribute to the scenic view around. With plenty of natural and man-made attractions in Munnar, some find the place a secret hideaway for a romantic stay, some term it as nature's paradise while for other it is an adventure gateway. Tourist places to visit in Munnar bear a perfect harmony between nature and mankind. Munnar is situated at a height of around 1600 meters above sea level as a result of which it is one of the most preferred destinations in India at any given time for holidays or honeymoons. This exquisite place is a complete confluence of wilderness, history and culture. Itʼs the perfect place for those who love to watch wildlife in a non invasive manner, this is also a paradise for bird watching. Boating on Mattupetty Lake you can witness a herd of elephants and other big mammals like bison and deer in their natural habitat. Climate Munnar is a hill station that experiences salubrious climate and does not have extreme climatic conditions like Shimla or Manali. The winter months are by far the best time to visit Munnar since the weather is pleasant. The minimum temperature during this time of the year drops to ten degrees Celsius and is perfect for a vacation or a honeymoon. However, in the summer waterfalls start to dry up and wildlife sanctuaries get shut due to breeding season. Getting to this place at the right time of year ingresses you into the eye catching waterfalls, serene fresh water falls, mesmerising peaks, wildlife sanctuaries, and many other attractions of Munnar. Accommodation At times, finding a well furnished hotel in an unknown place becomes a task. However, in case of Munnar one can easily find a good number of hotels for a reasonable price but be prepared for Munnar is mainly divided into two parts - old Munnar and Munnar. While Old Munnar is where the Tourist Information office is, Munnar is where the bus station and most hotels, guest houses are located. In order to avoid any kind of inconvenience make sure you book your accommodation close to the main area of Munnar. Food As you may know Kerala is every food-lovers paradise, and Munnar being Keralaʼs top tourist destination offers a wide set of yummy palette of food items, which are both vegetarian and non-vegetarian. Everything from breakfast to dinner in Munnar includes a full range of lip smacking eats like sea food, meat, rice varieties, malabar cuisines, snacks and tribal cuisines. The predominant diet in Munnar is fish and rice cooked in coconut oil which is authentic Kerala style. You can taste coconut in almost everything you eat as most of the food is cooked in coconut oil. You can stop by at one of the local restaurants in Munnar and try the authentic cuisines of the town like Appam, Dosa, and meals on a banana leaf. Traveling as a local If you are the kind who likes to wander into the cloud- kissed hilly parts of Munnar then you might consider hiring a local guide. The forest area in this region is very dense and without a local guide you might easily get lost. The locals around this place mostly speak Malayalam and Tamil but around the tourist destinations many of them can speak Hindi and English too. Getting around the town area is certainly cheaper with Bus or Auto but if you feel a bit laid-back, then you could hire a chauffeur driven car for a reasonable fare. If you are travelling alone, you can rent a bike to travel within the city. Places to visit There are quite a few places in Munnar that find a top spot on the list. Starting with the scenic Mattupetty Lake and Dam, you can endlessly explore the majestic beauty of Munnar. Here is a list of top destinations in Munnar. Shooting point - A favourite place near Munnar for the Film shooters. It has a nice view of the mountains at the back from the grassland. The grassland is of fresh green colour which makes it one of the most popular place for shooting. Mattupetty Dam is located 13 km away from Munnar. Itʼs a Concrete Gravity Dam built to conserve water to generate Hydro-Electric power. It also acts as bridge for the road which takes us to the Top Station. The view is great from either sides of the dam. Boating is available in the Mattupetty lake. There are Speed boats and Pedal boats available here. Echo point is the next destination from Mattupetty dam while travelling from Munnar to Top Station. It is a scenic location with an exotic view of the Mattupetty lake. Kundala Dam is situated at 20 Km from Munnar town. It is an Arch Dam. Boating is available here. This place provides a great panoramic view of the hills and the lush greenery. It is around 13 km from Munnar. The Flower garden is present on the way to Mattupetty from Munnar. The have a collection of Plants of Flowers and Spices. The Indo Swiss Farm is located in Mattupetty. A group of high yielding cattle are being reared here. The area in a beautiful green grasslands with the view of surrounding mountains. Top 10 Thrilling roads in the Indian Himalayas Travel Motorbiking in the Indian Himalayas is like none other. The landscapes are stunning, the altitudes are extreme and the ride itself is jaw dropping. An expedition into the serene locations of Himalayas that will leave you mesmerised. The rugged terrain is challenging to ride on but even the mighty Himalayas are no match to thrill seeking maniacs. 1. Khardung La Listed in Guinness book of world records, Khardung La pass is believed to be the highest motor-able road in the world. Khardung La reaches at a height of around 5602 m and is located in Ladakh region of India. The road looks scary for the easily invincible height but the zealous souls often dare to take the challenge of a motor bike ride in this pass. Khardung La lies on the Caravan Route which was once the popular Silk treading route between India and China. The route is stretched from Leh, India to Kashgar in Central China. 2. Kinnaur Road Kinnaur is one of the districts in Himachal Pradesh, India. The district is located in the southwestern part of the state and also borders Tibet on its eastern end. To make it accessible and link to rest of the country, Kinnaur road has been cut into hard rock’s to make a road. At some places the road is carved out of sheer precipice and roads suddenly become narrow and deadly at the start of Kinnaur. The roads take curvy and blind turns as it approaches Kinnaur. 3. Chang La The Chang La is the main gateway to the Changthang Plateau located in Indian Himalaya. It has an elevation of around 5,360 m and claimed to be the third highest motorable pass in the world. Located in Ladakh region this route lies on the way to Pangong Lake from Leh. This 134 km long route remains snow-covered throughout the year and due to its extreme height one can feel scarcity of oxygen. 4. Leh Manali Highway The Leh Manali road is a dirt gravel road that connects Leh in Jammu and Kashmir to Manali in Himachal Pradesh state and spans over a length of 479 kilometer. Glacier Melts, broken patches and water crossings make the road one of the riskiest ever highway. Perhaps the riskiest ever highway in the country. Uncertain weather, high altitude, no roads, extreme cold and no civilization for miles make this a very treacherous track. Carry extra fuel and feel close to heaven. 5. Zoji La Pass At an altitude of 3,538 meters above sea level, Zoji La Pass is one the important and most dangerous mountain pass in the India. The road is very narrow and easily gets muddy during rains and becomes impassible during or after Storms. The heavy snowfall, violent winds and frequent landslides make it one of the riskiest passes in the Himalayas. The Zozila (also know as Zojila or Zoji La) is not the place for a Sunday drive. It’s 9km long, about 3,500m above sea level and provides an important link between Ladakh and Kashmir. 6. Rohtang Pass The meaning of Rohtang, “Ground of Corpses”, itself suggests the dangers associated with it. The pass encounters huge inevitable traffic jams and is usually open from May to November. The path could be closed for infinite time due to heavy snow fall with constant sliding of hills and rain, the road gets covered with slush. Located at a height of around 3979m above the mean sea level on the eastern Pir Panjal Range of Himalaya, this route is located in Manali. This route is very significant for the people travelling to kullu as it connects Kullu Valley with the valleys of Lahaul and Spiti. 7. Nathu La Pass Connecting the Indian state of Sikkim with China, Nathu La is a mountain pass in the Himalayas. It is one of the three trade link between India and China. The pass is at 4,310 Meter above sea level and is one of the highest pass accessible via road. Nathu means “Listening ears” whereas La means “Pass”. The pass is extremely dangerous as it faces heavy snowfall during winters and also there are heavy landslides during Monsoon. 8. Three Level Zigzag road Three Level Zigzag road is probably the most dizzying road in the world. Located in the Sikkim Indian state, in the Himalayan mountains, the road includes more than 100 hairpins in just 30km. It's one of the most scenic drives in the world. The road still remains an adrenaline-pumping journey and is definitely not for the faint of lungs, heart, or legs. This geometry of curves is matchless and during snowfall it takes a panoramic appearance that defies description. The zig-zag road is a definitely an eye catching landscape. Zuluk offers excellent view of sunrise on Himalayas. 9. Taglang La Taglang La is a high mountain pass at an elevation of 5,328 m (17,480 ft) above the sea level, located in Ladakh region of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, India. It’s one of the highest mountain roads of the country. On the top there’s a local sign that incorrectly claims 17,582 feet, which would be 5,359 metres. It’s traversed by the Leh-Manali Highway road. The road is impassable in winters. Great trail for experienced wheelers. Avoid driving in this area if unpaved mountain roads aren't your strong point. 4x4 required. Stay away if you're scared of heights. Expect a trail pretty steep. Wet conditions may make for tough driving along the muddy road. 10. Jalori Pass Jalori Pass is a high mountain pass at an elevation of 10,800 ft (3.120m) above the sea level, situated in the Kullu district of Himachal Pradesh. The pass is the nearest mountain pass from Delhi, approximately 600 km away, and features on every adventure tourist’s map. Make sure you get your vehicle and yourself well-prepared before driving this road. At the top of the Jaluri pass there are restaurants available to take lunch, and a Mahakali temple known as Jalori Mata, visited by thousands of devotees from the nearby villages. Jalori Pass is the first Indian pass to open every year, and is driveable by all vehicles, but are advised to go down in first gear only, according to Indian signals. This pass remains closed in peak on winter only. So in months of December, January and February you need to check before using this road. Usually opens around second week of March every year and closes mid December, depending on the snow. Five of the most beautiful cemeteries in Britain to... Travel Cemeteries are not exactly the type of place that people usually put on their bucket lists. However, cemeteries are often beautiful, tranquil places that offer secluded sanctuaries in the heart of cities. Some cemeteries also contain a lot of history and impressive architecture. Around Halloween is a good time to visit them too, with the autumnal colours and earlier sunsets adding to the atmosphere. 1. Highgate Cemetery, London This iconic cemetery is one of the most famous in the world. It’s the final resting place of Karl Marx, Douglas Adams and many other luminaries. It’s also worth a visit for the impressive Neo-Gothic architecture. Extravagant mausoleums, stately tombs and ruins lie among thick woods. At times it feels like you’re in a completely different world to the busy modern capital. Just watch out for vampires. In the 1960s there were a number of sightings of an alleged vampire in the cemetery. The site had a long history of ghostly apparitions, but apparently this one was different. The sightings generated such interest that in 1970 hundreds of people led by Sean Manchester went on a vampire hunt at night! Of course they didn’t find a vampire, but that didn’t stop Manchester and others from claiming the site was the lair of a vampire. Make sure you take plenty of garlic with you on your visit. 2. Arnos Vale Cemetery, Bristol Opened in 1839, this beautiful Greek inspired cemetery was designed as an Arcadian landscape. There are a number of impressive Grade II listed buildings set among parkland. There is a crypt under the Church which has a memorial to soldiers that died in WW1. Several famous Bristol residents are buried here, including Indian social reformer Ram Mohan Roy. 3. Brookwood Cemetery, Surrey Also known as the London Necropolis. This huge 400 acre cemetery was the largest in the world when it opened in the 19th century – it even had it’s own railway station. It’s still the largest in Western Europe, and contains a staggering 250,000 burials. The cemetery has an abundance of impressive Victorian architecture and wildlife. It’s not uncommon to see deer, rabbits and foxes wandering around. The site also contains the largest military cemetery in the country, with many fallen soldiers from WW1 and WW2 buried here. 4. Glasgow Necropolis The Necropolis contains some spectacular architecture, with monuments designed by many of the top sculptors and architectures of the day. It was opened in 1832, making it one of the oldest cemeteries in Britain. It lies on a hill to the east of the city centre, so I visit here also gives you good views of Glasgow. The Necropolis is subject to a conspiracy theory which claims its 37-acre landscape is a large metaphor for Freemasonry, and symbols of this secret group can be found scattered throughout the site. Perhaps you can find some of these symbols during a visit. 5. Southampton Old Cemetery Not many people outside of Southampton will have heard of this place, but it’s a beautiful site. Opened in 1849, it’s on the edge of the large Southampton Common which is a great place to relax while in the city. There are gravestones of many of the victims from the Titanic here. The cemetery has been somewhat overtaken by nature, with vines growing on gravestones and trees encroaching. It gives the site an atmospheric feel; especially in the evening when it looks like the stereotypical graveyard from a horror film. Walk through here at night on Halloween if you dare... Guide To Tikal: The heart of the Yucatan Travel Towering temples stand proud against a lush green backdrop of tropical rainforest. Majestic pyramids pierce the green canopy in almost every direction. The jungle comes alive with the sounds of hundreds of animals as you wander through the trees, exploring this massive lost city. Tikal has to be seen to be believed. This is without a doubt one of the most impressive ancient cities in the world, and it’s easy to see why it’s considered one of Guatemala's top attractions. If you love history and nature and want to feel like a real explorer, Tikal is one site you have to visit. History of Tikal The Maya first settled in the area that became Tikal as early as 3000 years ago, with evidence of agriculture and a small settlement from this period. However, it wasn’t until the 4th century BC that Tikal started developing into an urban centre. The city was known to the Maya as Mutul. The city grew in importance in the 2nd century AD, perhaps due to pre-classic cities in the Peten like El Mirador collapsing. Tikal started expending and building an empire in the 4th century AD, when several neighbouring cities were conquered. Some archaeologists think Tikal's rise was aided by being conquered by Tetihucan during this century, with the links between the cities helping Tikal to become the pre-eminent city in the Peten region. Tikal had a long standing rivalry with Caracol and especially Calakmul, and was defeated by an alliance of these two cities in 562AD. Despite it’s crushing defeat Tikal managed to bounce back, and eventually went on to conquer Calakmul in 695AD. After it’s victory over it’s greatest rival, Tikal reined supreme as the greatest power in the classic Mayan world, with a population of possibly over 100,000. It was during the century after this, that most of the great monuments you still see today in Tikal were built. Recent research has suggested the area had a much higher population that previously thought, with highways connecting Tikal to other cities and urban areas. Like most of the Mayan world Tikal went into decline in the 9th century, with order in the city collapsing completely by the end of the century. Most of the inhabitants subsequently abandoned the city, with small groups clinging on until 950AD. After this period the city was deserted, the beautiful buildings left to be devoured by the jungle. The city wasn’t officially ‘rediscovered’ until 1848, when the governor of Peten led an expedition here. Some local Maya clearly still knew about the city, as they led the expedition to Tikal (Hernado Cortes himself had also come within a few kilometres of the city in 1525). There were extensive archaeological excavations from 1958-1970 that uncovered many of the major buildings at the site. Tikal was made a UNESCO world heritage site in 1978, ensuring it would receive at least some protection. Location of Tikal Tikal is located in the Peten region, around 40 miles from the beautiful city of Flores on Lake Peten Itza, and about 2 miles south of the small town of Uaxactun. The archaeological site lies within the Tikal National Park, which covers over 57,000 hectares of forest and contains many rare species. This national park comprises a small part of the 2,000,000 hectare Mayan forest reserve; the same reserve that stretches all the way to Calakmul and well beyond. It’s Tikal's remote location within this amazing habitat that gives the site so much of it’s allure Main Sights There is a massive amount to see at Tikal, it dwarfs most other Mayan sites and was the largest one I explored. The ruins cover an area of over 16 square kilometres and contain at least 3000 structures, so you have a lot of ground to cover. However, it’s possible to thoroughly explore all the major sights over a long day — or a day and night if you are feeling adventurous. Here are my picks of the sights you can’t miss. Main Plaza This was the beating heart of the ancient city, where many ceremonies took place and the elite ruled the city from the surrounding palaces and temples. It’s a stunning place, with the plaza being by far the most restored area of Tikal. Exploring this area will give you a sense of the scale and grandeur of the original city. The plaza is surrounded by the iconic Temples 1 and 2, along with the North Acropolis and Central Acropolis. This is the one area of Tikal that can get relatively busy sometimes, as many people understandably make a beeline for it. If you come here very early or late it will be much quieter or even empty though. Temple 1 Also known as the Temple of the Great Jaguar, this magnificent pyramid is the most famous building at Tikal, and one you will probably instantly recognize from Star Wars. The distinctive, very steep pyramid dominates the east of the plaza directly facing temple 2. The pyramid is 47 metres tall and was completed in 732AD. It was partly built to honour king Jasaw Chan K’awil, known as the Great Jaguar, he was buried deep inside the building in a chamber filled with treasure: sadly there is none left. The temple was used for religious ceremonies by Mayan priests. The pyramid was built so that it aligns with the rising sun on the spring equinox, with the sun rising directly over the apex of the temple. It’s also aligned so that the moon passes over it’s pinnacle before midnight. Unfortunately the public are no longer allowed to climb up the pyramid, though if you sneak in at night you can(if you fall don’t blame me though!) I climbed up with a friend near midnight and it was an exhilarating experience; the steps are very steep and slippery in places and one wrong move could have resulted in a fatal fall. By the time we reached the top the rest of pyramid and plaza below us was shrouded in thick fog, making it feel like we were sat on top of a pyramid above the clouds. It was a surreal and magical moment. Temple 2 At the west end of the plaza stands the smaller but still impressive Temple 2, known as the Temple of the Masks. This pyramid is 40 metres tall, and was built as a mausoleum for the wife of Chan K’awil. This pyramid is in remarkably good condition for it’s age, and unlike Temple 1 you’re allowed to climb up it. Stairs and a wooden platform have been built around it to make it easier and safer to climb, and also to preserve the building. The view from the top is impressive, allowing you to look down on the centre of Tikal and imagine what it must have been like when it was the heart of an empire. The view from here at night is even better, with the buildings of the plaza seen against a stunning backdrop of thousands of stars. If you sit facing the Great Jaguar Pyramid on a clear night, you can see the moon rise over the apex of the pyramid, with the light of the moon shining into the temple on top of temple 2. I sat up here for several hours watching the moon rise and enjoying the tranquility. We even noticed what looked like a UFO in the sky above the jungle – it was a spherical object with different coloured lights around the centre. Perhaps it was just a weather balloon or another mundane object though... North Acropolis At the north side of the plaza is this large collection of buildings built atop an artificial platform. This area is one of the oldest in Tikal, with the foundations of some buildings dated back to the 3rd century BC. The buildings included palaces and ceremonial centres, with rulers being buried here until 550AD. Some of the buildings here are badly eroded, but you can still get a sense of the former size and grandeur of the place. There are lots of different temples and stairways to climb up here, giving you a good workout (thoroughly exploring Tikal is like a day long gym session). The views of the pyramids from the top are particularly majestic. In front of the Acropolis is a collection of stele and altars commemorating different rulers and events in Tikal's history. It’s remarkable they have survived this long, still keeping alive the deeds of people who have been dead for millennia. Central Acropolis On the south side of the plaza is another Acropolis, which isn’t quite as old as the other one but is still over 2000 years old. Part of it was used as a Royal residence, with some of the other buildings possibly used for religious functions and as schools. The Acropolis was occupied until Tikal was abandoned. The Acropolis is a maze of small rooms, courtyards and buildings, with the odd tree thrown in for good measure. It shows how time is the great leveller, with travellers like us tramping around what was once part of a secluded, rarefied world for the elite of Mayan society. Temple 3 Situated a few hundred metres west of the great plaza, this pyramid is still almost completely swallowed up by the jungle. Only the top of the pyramid has been cleared, so the lower levels are still swathed in trees giving the building a wild look. Known as the temple of the Jaguar Priest, this pyramid was completed in 810AD and was the last great monument to be built in Tikal. It seems fitting that the last pyramid built before the collapse should still look like the quintessential lost jungle pyramid. The area was deserted when I came here, making it feel even more like I was exploring a real lost city. The building is closed to visitors, and for once I decided not to climb up anyway, as I didn’t want to damage the badly eroded steps. View from Temple IV Temple 4 This colossal pyramid towers over the forest at the far west of Tikal. It’s the tallest structure at Tikal at over 65 metres. Better yet you are allowed to climb up this pyramid, with steps winding up from the jungle floor to the very top. The views from the top are mesmerizing, with the peaks of five pyramids the only man-made structures visible above the green canopy of the thick forest, which stretches as far as the eye can see in all directions. It really is an awesome feeling being stood on top of here looking out at such a view. The view from here at sunset is out of this world, and better yet when I was here there was only one other person admiring the show. Tikal, Temple V Temple 5 South of the central Acropolis is this impressive pyramid, which is the second tallest in Tikal at 57 metres. It was built around 700 and archaeologists aren't sure which ruler it was built by. Unfortunately you're not supposed to climb this pyramid, but it’s certainly an impressive site. There is a nice contrast between the front which has been cleared of vegetation, and the sides and back which are still mostly covered. It gives it the impression of building being slowly consumed by the jungle. The Lost World No I’m not about to start writing a review of the latest Jurassic Park film, or the original Michael Crichton book (which is worth a read). The lost world complex, or Mundo Perdido in Spanish, is a fascinating collection of 38 buildings in the south of Tikal with it’s own unique architecture. This one of the oldest areas of Tikal, with the largest collection of Pre-Classic buildings in the city. Some of the buildings date from as far back as the 6h century BC; it’s awe-inspiring that these buildings have survived for so long lost in the jungle. The building most people make a beeline for here is understandably the Great Pyramid of the Lost world, which provides some of the best views in Tikal. The pyramid is 35 metres tall and has a large flat rooftop, perfect for getting panoramic views of Tikal. Due to this pyramids location you have uninterrupted views of all the tallest pyramids at Tikal, it really is a mesmerizing view. I’ve been told you also get the best views of the sunset from here. The rest of this large complex has some interesting buildings, including a palace complex and the ominously named temple of the skulls. There are three temples here that were used for astronomy, with the positions of the stars tracked throughout the year. Astronomy was vital to the Mayans, as they used the positions of the constellations to predict events and hold ceremonies. For me the greatest pleasure of exploring here was simply the quiet atmosphere, and seeing how nature has taken over civilisation. Most of the vegetation hasn’t been cleared from the area, so buildings are still shaded by huge tropical trees and in many cases have trees growing through the buildings. It shows now nature is always quick to reclaim land when civilisation retreats. It made me imagine what if our civilisation collapses, and in a thousand years future explorers stumble upon the ruins of some of our once great cities, reduced to decaying shadows of their former selves. The husks of a few skyscrapers poking above the lush green carpet. Complex P At the far north of Tikal is this interesting twin pyramid complex, which is the quietest and most secluded spot in the entire abandoned city. The complex is nearly 1 Km north of Temple 5, and is reached by walking along a narrow path that cuts through the forest. The walk there alone makes it worthwhile, as some of the old trees here are immense, and you are sure to see some wildlife along the way. I saw a family of spider monkeys playing in the branches just above me. I had the Pyramids to myself for nearly an hour, and it was so quiet I was able to meditate on top of the main pyramid. Sitting next to the temple on the tallest pyramid, with the trees gently swaying in a slight breeze and no sounds apart from the occasional insect, allowed me to experience a level of profound calm and relaxation it’s often hard to achieve. Final Thoughts Sometimes when you dream about going to a place for a long time, the reality doesn’t match up to your fantasies. You build up an image in your mind of a place that might be totally different to the reality, so when you finally go there it shatters your illusions and leaves you feeling let down. Thankfully that wasn’t the case with Tikal. I’d wanted to visit Tikal for many years, and imagined what it would be like to explore it. The reality of it being there was even better. I half expected Tikal to be overrun with tourists, but the site had nowhere near the numbers of visitors as places like Chichen Itza. The park is huge and spread out, so I often found myself exploring areas alone, or with a couple of other visitors. It made it feel like I really was exploring a city that had been lost in the jungle for a 1000 years. Exploring Tikal at night was even more amazing, it was one of the greatest experiences of my life. Not much can compare to sitting on a pyramid under a dazzling night sky, looking out over the grandiose, jungle clad ruins of a once mighty city. Do yourself a favour – go to Tikal. Practical Information Admission price: 150Q Rather than selling tickets at the entrance, surprisingly you can only get them at the national park entrance 12 miles away. Tickets are valid for one day, though I went in with the same wristband the next day! Opening Hours: 6am-6pm As you can imagine with a park this size, it’s really easy to stay after it closes, or you can sneak back in at night. I’d recommend staying to watch the sunset and the stars come out, the whole place really comes alive at this time. It’s like a different world at night too. Just watch out for snakes... Getting there: You can take a shuttle from Flores for 40Q one way or 70Q for a return. It takes around 1.5 hours to get there. If you want an even cheaper option public buses go from Santa Elena, but they naturally take longer and don’t go that frequently. Accommodation Most people who visit Tikal do so on tours or day trips from Flores, or one of the other towns around lake Peten Itza like El Ramate. However, if you have the time it’s really worth staying at one of the hotels near the entrance so you can experience Tikal at night. Hotel Jaguar Inn Tikal An attractive hotel and restaurant, that has wooden bungalows with large rooms spread around a verdant garden. Also has about a dozen tents already supplied with air mattresses and sleeping bags, perfect for budget travellers or anyone who wants to get as close to the jungle as possible. I stayed here and found it a good base-camp, the food was also quite nice though a bit overpriced. Tents are 100Q a night. Jungle Lodge The closest hotel to the site entrance. As the name suggest it’s cabins really are in the jungle. Has a good swimming pool. Like all the hotels here electricity is run by a generator, so there is no power after 9pm, which makes for a more authentic experience. Tikal Inn Next to Hotel Jaguar, this hotel looks quite similar and has the same attractive surroundings. There is also a pool here and the rooms look clean and spacious. Do Artifacts Always Belong In Museums? Travel Perhaps the most famous line in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is ‘that belongs in a museum’, spoken as he risks his life to retrieve a stolen artifact. Although most people wouldn’t go that far in making sure a relic ends up in a museum, it’s what many people naturally assume – precious artificats belong in museums. Museums are wonderful places. They preserve fragile artifacts while allowing anyone to come and experience history first hand. However, not every ancient object needs to be in a museum. There is a case for leaving some items where they are found, keeping the landscape intact with the object in its natural resting place. In 2001 William Saturno went on a Peabody funded expedition to a remote area of the Peten in Guatemala. He was hoping to find an undisturbed site to research. His guides got lost in the dense jungle, and by chance they came across a ruined city deep in the forest. Unfortunately the city had already been looted and looked like a battlefield in places. Tomb raiders had burrowed trenches into jungle-clad temples and removed many artifacts. You can imagine his frustration as he surveyed the scene before him. However, William went into one trench and discovered that underground murals had been exposed by the looters. The murals were exquisite, and would turn out to be the oldest Mayan murals ever discovered. In the past many people would have uncovered and removed all the murals straight away, with them often ending up in a museum. Even today some archaeologists would have immediately started excavating the site to reveal all the murals. William took a different approach: he instead secured the site and spent two years organising a project. He then led a team as they uncovered and restored all of the murals, revealing just how amazing they were. It turned out they were from 200BC, and the temple has since become known as the Mayan Sistine Chapel. Rather then remove them after they were restored, he decided to leave the murals in place in there natural setting. This approach ensured that the site was left intact and the murals stayed where they had been for over 2000 years. This meant that future travellers could come and marvel at the murals, and feel a sense of discovery and awe too. Experiencing objects in the place of there creation is a more powerful experience than when they are dislocated in a museum. In this case it’s a much better approach than stripping the temple of it’s beauty, taking away it’s very heart. Transported to a museum the murals would lose there connection to the landscape, and would become just another exhibit. Some of the Stela at Calakmul I trudged down a narrow path in the jungle, the sunlight blocked by the dense canopy of trees above me. God it was hot and humid. I came out into an area where the trees were thinner, and stopped and stared in wonder; It was another former plaza within the ancient city. I could see the start of series of small temples to my right, and could make out another row on the opposite side of the plaza. I made my way towards the temple opposite, the light lancing down in shards through the gaps in the branches overhead, and stopped in front of a group of large stone slabs. The stones had faded Mayan symbols on. These were Stele that told the history of the ancient Mayan city of Calakmul. They had been stood here for over 1400 years. They had seen the city go from one of the largest in the world, to a forgotten, abandoned ruin in a remote corner of the Yucatan. The Stele were here when the city was rediscovered, and now they were here as I stood before them. It was a powerful feeling to stand before objects that had stood in one place for so long, objects that told the story of a once mighty empire. I felt the weight of history as I gazed at them, and I imagined what it must have been like here when the Stele were completed. It could have been different – many Stele have been removed from Mayan sites to be sold to private collectors or museums. Fortunately some of the Stele at Calakmul have survived. The site would have been diminished without them, and I was certainly glad they were still there when I came across them. Museums are magical places. They allow people to feel a true connection to our past, to feel the weight of history in person. Walking around an old atmospheric museum is a pleasure many people enjoy. When a museum is quiet and you slowly meander around the rooms and corridors, it feels at times like you are walking through history. It’s the type of intangible connection you can never get from a book or especially a computer screen. Museums also allow experts to study and catalogue items in a secure location, helping us to expand our understanding of the past. Many items held in museums would have been destroyed or lost if they hadn’t have been transported there. Western museums especially have conserved millions of irreparable items. They certainly play a huge role in preserving the cultural heritage of humanity. However, more needs to be done to ensure that some items can be preserved in the location they are found where possible. It would be a tragedy if every ancient site was stripped of most of their artifacts and artwork. Like Indiana Jones said many artifacts are better off in museums….. just not all of them.