After visiting every country in the World, I’ve become somewhat obsessed with rankings and lists. Maybe one of my all-time favorite rankings is the alternative Seven Wonders of the World. I wasn’t really happy with the official list that came out in 2007. In my humble opinion, it seemed a bit like a popularity contest, so I decided to gather my own list. It had only one pre-requisite, they must be off-the-beaten-path wonders. Thus, here’s my list of seven hidden gems that could easily be an alternative to the Seven Wonders of the World:
7. Meroe Pyramids, Sudan.
In fact, Sudan has more pyramids than Egypt and it’s a fascinating destination. I arrived in Khartoum, amidst the protests against the government, and embarked myself in an odyssey to organize an adventure that seemed impossible: sleeping in the pyramids of Meroe. Boy, was it thrilling! I slept right under this ancient city and couldn’t believe I was the only one there. During the day, only local Berbers roam around this impressive wonder on their camels. Meroe one of the few places in the World that are still both gorgeous and completely free to wander.
6. Mayan Ruins of Tikal, Guatemala.
With all due respect to the Mayan ruins in Chitzen Itza, they simply can’t compare to the wonders of Tikal. Watching the sunrise on Temple IV, 70 meters above the ground is simply unforgettable. The wild feel you experience in Tikal, surrounded by thick jungle and full of biodiversity, together with its vast ruined complex makes it unparalleled. In addition, Tikal only receives a fraction of the visitors than its more popular Mexican neighbor, so it’s really a no brainer! Then again, when it came down to the actual voting, I guess Guatemala isn’t as popular as Mexico.
5. Tiger’s Nest, Bhutan.
I am a big fan of the Himalayan region and Tibetan Buddhism temples and constructions since I traveled to Tibet at age 20 in 2009. Those characteristic bright red and white buildings with golden details are hard to forget. Impressive as they were in Tibet itself, in Bhutan, they took it to a whole new level, by building a monastery atop a sharp 900m cliff overlooking Paro valley. This unique view is the most rewarding prize after a strenuous hike up, and the whole experience is simply mindblowing.
4. Rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, Ethiopia.
Imagine entire rock-hewn churches. Sculptures taken to the ultimate level. Now, let’s assume that those numerous religious temples are open to worshippers and hold ceremonies normally. Completely authentic, true to their purpose, and unaltered by tourism. No handrails, no screens or lines, just the unique raw works of spiritual art. That place exists, it’s called Lalibela, and it’s in Ethiopia. If you happen to visit, make sure to do it on a weekend, so you don’t miss out on Sunday Mass.
3. Ancient Roman city of Leptis Magna, Libya.
Leptis Magna is arguably the best Roman ruins outside of Italy. Its state of preservation is simply exquisite due to the silt sediments deposited by the local rivers that form a Delta flowing into the Mediterranean. Under Italian colonization with Mussolini, efforts were made to unearth this legendary city, and it’s believed that 80% of it still hasn’t been discovered. Today, you can wander its broad avenues and paved streets and feast your eyes with Roman baths, fountains, plazas, ports, theaters, colosseum, circus, and markets. Due to the Libyan Civil War, not many foreign visitors actually explore Leptis, and it’s mostly local families strolling on weekends. Time your visit with the sunset, and make sure to sit at the top of the theater stands overlooking the Mediterranean.
2. Mud skyscrapers of Shibam, Yemen.
I would recommend you hold off on visiting Libya and Yemen, at least until the civil wars are over and the turmoil is left in the past. However, add this place to your bucket list: Shibam. It’s a centuries-old city known for its eleven-story skyscrapers made out of mudbricks. Hence, it often received the monicker of “Manhattan of the Desert”. Yemen was my country 188 and in a recent trip on September 2019 I managed to sneak in this forgotten wonder. Listening to the call to prayer at sunset as I roamed its empty streets is one of the highlights of my travels. Due to the constant threat of Al Qaeda in Shibam, only a handful of foreigners had been lucky enough to witness its beauty, and I sure felt very fortunate to be one of them.
1. The Great Mosque of Djenné, Mali.
Witnessing that unreal sunset on the call to prayer from one of the most beautiful unknown mosques was mindblowing. Unknown recently, because 10 years ago, tourists flocked Mali. Nowadays, everyone that lived on that bustling Tourism Industry struggles to survive. Yet, they greet you with a special warmth, as if they were ignorant to the region’s current struggles, as if time had frozen and it were still 2009. They want you to feel at home. As it once was. Kids, young and old gather around you at the town’s square, in front of Djenné’s crown jewel. “You are the first tourists in 6 weeks!”, they say. Crazy, if you ask me.
As you can see, these are lesser-known wonders of our World. No hoards of tourists lining up to take a selfie, and open to exploring their true authenticity, unfiltered. Did you know any of this list? Do you have others you’d propose as an alternative to the New Seven World Wonders?