In an era full of technological advances and scientific milestones, it’s truly fascinating to realize that there are, in fact, plenty of locations around the world filled with tantalizing riddles still waiting to be solved. Of course, Hispanic countries stand as some of the most fascinating ones on Earth thanks to its unique blend of ancient history, mystical folklore, and vastly unexplored regions. From haunted islands and abandoned cities to UFO havens and enigmatic structures, explorers of the unknown have in these latitudes the perfect grounds to fulfill their search for the odd and unexpected. Want to join them on a trip across the most mysterious places in Latin America?
Nazca Lines, Peru
Few mysteries can match the huge Nazca Lines that have been baffling archaeologists since they were discovered in 1920 about 250 miles south of Lima. A literally gigantic enigma spread through almost 1,000 geoglyphs etched into the Peruvian desert. Its variety is truly astonishing, depicting dozens of up to 30-mile-long animals like hummingbirds, monkeys, and ants, as well as intriguing humanoid figures, plants, and strange creatures. Even more amazing is the fact that scholars keep finding astonishing new works of art, like the discovery of 50 new lines in 2018.
Although it’s widely believed that the gargantuan designs were crafted by the Nazca, Paracas, and Chavin cultures more than 2 millennia ago by patiently removing layers of rock from the landscape, many conspiracy theorists and UFO enthusiasts question this explanation suggesting a truly unorthodox possibility: that the Nazca Lines were influenced by extraterrestrial beings. As bizarre as it may sound, it’s easy to see their point when you realize that the lines can only be fully appreciated if you fly over the region on an aircraft. They are so massive that it’s impossible to identify any pattern from the ground. Since no Earthly civilization had anything similar to a plane from where to not just admire but also oversee the creation of such a titanic endeavor, the question lingers: how did they do it?
Equally interesting is its purpose. Some have argued that the lines might be an elaborate way of communication with these alleged cosmic deities. Mainstream archaeologists point in a similar direction, suggesting that the Nazca may have conceived them as a way to appease their gods in complex astronomical rituals.
Watching these ancient masterpieces the way it was intended to is one of the best things you can do if you plan to book airline tickets to Peru. There are many local air carriers that will gladly take you on a 30-minute flight above these magnificent masterpieces (just remember to bring some anti-nausea tablets with you …the ride is quite bumpy!). Afraid of heights? No problem. Although less impressive than the aerial experience, it’s also possible to enjoy the lines from a 42-foot observation tower conveniently located at the nearby Panamericana Sur highway.
Xochimilco’s Island of Dolls, Mexico
Ready for a good, old-fashioned ghost story? Meet Don Julián Santana Barrera, a solitary soul who lived many years ago in a peaceful island amidst Xochimilco’s navigable canals in Mexico. His isolated life as guardian of the isle changed forever when he was witness to the horrible drowning of a little girl right next to his cabin. Profoundly traumatized, Don Julián decided to hang a little doll from a nearby tree as a way to honor her memory. However, this disturbing tribute turned out to be the catalyst for a creepy obsession. Hundreds of rusty and disfigured dolls started filling every available space on the island, turning the place into a macabre testimony of his descent into madness. Legend has it, the warden’s actions were influenced by the tortured soul of the drowned child … who, eventually, convinced Julián to drown himself at the same spot where it all began.
Today, Xochimilco’s canals (dubbed “The Venice of Mexico”) are a popular tourist attraction that attracts hundreds of families every year to navigate its waters aboard colorful Mexican gondolas known as trajineras. While many of them are unaware of this sinister tale, some specifically go to this location in order to see the spooky Isla de las Muñecas (Spanish for Island of Dolls) with their own eyes. It’s possible to find guides that will take you close enough to get a good glimpse at this spooky place. Just be wary … it might be difficult to unsee the empty, frightening eyes of these decaying toys!
Tikal Ruins, Guatemala
After all these years, historians can’t still put their finger on it: how and why did the Mayans, heirs of an empire that ruled from southern Mexico through most of Central America for many centuries, abruptly disappear? The trailblazer civilization’s demise at some point during the 9th century, when nearly 20 million people abandoned their cities to be swallowed by the jungle, still remains one of history’s biggest puzzles. Droughts? Deforestation? Overpopulation? Foreign invasions? Scholars have postulated practically everything to try to come to terms with the swift downfall of a culture responsible for some of humankind’s most groundbreaking architectural and astronomical achievements.
Of all the Mayan ruins scattered through the Yucatan Peninsula, few are as iconic as the abandoned city of Tikal in Guatemala’s Petén state. One of the biggest archaeological sites in Latin America, Tikal at its peak was a major cultural, commercial, and ceremonial metropolis populated by at least 120,000 inhabitants. It’s believed that its almost 600 square kilometers held around 3,000 buildings. Nowadays, its imposing pyramidal structures bring thousands of tourists to the heart of the jungle every year. The finest example of this architectural mastery is the Temple of the Grand Jaguar, which rises through nine tiers of stairs to represent the Mayan underworld’s (Xibalba) different levels. This is where one of the city’s main rulers, Ah Cacau (that is, Lord Chocolate), was buried surrounded by his precious treasures. These pyramids’ top floors were used to track the movements of the planets and, well, perform gory human sacrifices to appease their gods. On a much lighter note, the buildings were momentarily transformed into the Rebel Alliance secret base during some of the final scenes of the original Star Wars movie!
Entrance to the Tikal National Park costs about $20, and it’s free for kids under 12. Tour guide providers operate from the nearby Flores airport, taking you there on a 90-minute bus trip. Bring plenty of bottled water, sunscreen, and mosquito repellent. Oh, and always explore in groups. You wouldn’t be the first one to get lost while trying to find your way through this vast complex!
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Easter Island, Chile
We know. The mythic Rapa Nui, better known as Easter Island, is so far away from literally everything that it may sound odd to include it into this Latin American expedition. But, hey, it’s still part of Chile after all … even if both territories are separated by 2,200 miles of Pacific Ocean! The remote, isolated island is, by far, one of the most enigmatic places in the world. For starters, the fact that early Polynesians were able to navigate here in wooden canoes in the first place is, by any standards, an amazing feat by itself. Leaving that aside, we still wonder how did they manage to move throughout the island the huge stones required to assemble their world-famous identity symbols: the moais — head-and-torso rock statues that can weigh up to 14 tons. It’s thought that the Rapa Nui people erected more than 900 of these incredibly accurate humanoid representations between the 10th and 17th centuries, of which roughly 400 have survived. Even stranger is the exact purpose of this practice. Were they allegoric representations of military chieftains, priests, or even gods? We can only imagine, since the Rapa Nui didn’t leave written records of their customs.
The civilization went south due to an extreme deforestation that forced its original inhabitants to flee towards greener pastures. Today, it’s the ultimate tourist destination for explorers, adventurers, and archeology buffs around the world. Just book a flight from Chile or Tahiti, and prepare to be wowed by this astounding testament of sheer human will and dedication in a true one-of-a-kind paradise.