April 8, 2012 at 9:50 AM ET
When we modern folks visit a beautiful natural site, the experience may evoke a sense of peace, a feeling of awe ... or just the need to snap a million photos. For our ancient forbears, though, these places were so much more.
Throughout history, civilizations all over the globe have attached spiritual or religious importance to natural spots that played key roles in their respective cultures. From the mythological homes of powerhouse gods like Zeus and Shiva to the serene spot where the mortal Buddha achieved enlightenment, these are the places of legends.
Some are still used for age-old rituals, others have been lost to time, but all crackle with a special energy and, if you're lucky, just a little bit of leftover magic.
Uluru-Kata Tjuta, Australia
Located in Australia's Red Centre, in the heart of the continent, these two natural rock formations are the main attractions in the World Heritage Site Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. One of the country's more recognizable landmarks, Uluru is a flat-topped sandstone rock standing about 1,100 feet high and almost six miles around, with a soulful, deep-red hue that changes throughout the day. (The site is also known as Ayers Rock, so named by the colonial surveyor who "rediscovered" the place in 1873.) About 30 miles away, Kata Tjuta (a.k.a. The Olgas) is made of more than 30 domes of varying rock types, including granite, sandstone, and basalt; the tallest point is almost 1,800 feet high. Both sites are sacred to the Anangu people of the Pitjantjatjara Aboriginal tribe, who believe the rocks were built during the ancient creation period and are still inhabited by ancestor spirits. (Archeologist work suggests there were humans in this area over 20,000 years ago.) Owned by the Anangu and leased by the government, the park is open to the public, though tribespeople continue to perform rituals and ceremonies in various locations, such as the sacred "Dreamtime" track that runs near the modern hiking trail. The park also houses a Cultural Center and Aboriginal rock art sites, and ranger guided tours are available.
Getting There: Visitors can drive or join a bus tour to the park from Alice Springs (280 miles away), or fly to Ayers Rock Airport/Connellan (AYQ); Qantas and Virgin Australia offer direct flights from several major domestic cities. There are only a few accommodation choices in the area, in different price ranges, and all are owned by Voyages Indigenous Tourism. (Camping is not allowed in the park.) Note that while hiking Uluru is not technically forbidden, the Anangu ask that visitors not climb the rock out of respect for its significance, and also ask that photos not be taken of certain sacred sites. Guests should also not pocket any rocks as souvenirs-those who have say it brings bad luck, and often mail the rocks back to the park. Admission is $26 for a three-day pass.
Cenote Sagrado, Mexico
The ancient Maya revered water for its life-sustaining power, and worshiped Chac, the god of rain, because of this awe of H20. Many areas of Mexico are dotted with cenotes — natural underground sinkholes — and the Maya believed that some of these sites were visited by Chac himself. As a result, some cenotes were designated as "sacred" and kept for rituals, offerings and sacrifices, while others were set aside for bathing, drinking and crop water. One of the most notable of the sacred springs is Cenote Sagrado, located near the major Mayan archeological site Chichen Itza in the Yucatan Peninsula. Created from a natural limestone cave, with steep sides stretching about 60 feet above the water line, this cenote was specifically used for ceremonies and occasional sacrifices; for the latter, men, women, and children were thrown in during drought times to appease the water gods. When archeologists dredged the spring in the 20th century, they found gold bells, masks, cups, rings, jade pieces, and more (many from the post-Spanish period) along with human bones.
Getting There: One of the most visited archeological sites in Mexico, Chichen Itza can be reached by car or organized bus tours (typically about $35 per person) from nearby tourist hubs like Cancun or Cozumel, or via infrequent public bus service; the ride is about two-and-a-half hours from Cancun. The entry fee is $9 and includes the evening light and sound show; headphone tours are $2. Cenote Sagrado is part of the Great North Platform section of the site .
Mahabodhi Tree, Bodh Gaya, India
According to Buddhist traditions, around 500 B.C., when the ascetic Prince Siddhartha was wandering through what's now the state of Bihar in India, he took rest under a native bodhi tree. After meditating there for three nights, the prince awoke with enlightenment, insight and the answers he had been seeking, which developed into the teachings he went on to spread to his disciples. Naturally, the place where the Buddha reached enlightenment is one of the most sacred sites for Buddhists, and has been a major pilgrimage destination for centuries. Today, a temple complex surrounds what is believed to be a direct descendant of the original majestic tree itself, which sits in the middle of a courtyard surrounded by protective carved panels. A beautiful Buddha statue under the tree marks the significant spot.
Getting There: A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Mahabodhi Temple Complex is in the Bodh Gaya area of Bihar, India. The site is about three miles from the Gaya Airport and about seven miles from Gaya City. Car service, public buses, and bus tours are also available from the holy city of Varanasi; public buses run about $8.
Mount Kailas, Tibet
This black rock mountain in western Tibet is something of a holy hat trick, since it is sacred to Buddhists, Hindus, and Jains and is thought to be the mythical Axis Mundi, the center of the universe. Hindus believe it is the residence of Lord Shiva and the land of eternal bliss, and have celebrated the mythical Kailas in temple carvings throughout India. Tantric Buddhists say the mountain is the home of Buddha Demchog, who represents supreme bliss, and that three key Bodhisattvas live in the surrounding hills, while Jains believe it is the site (which they call Mount Ashtapada) where the first Jain attained nirvana. The peak is part of the Gangdise Mountain range and is set near the source of some of the longest rivers in Asia, including the Sutlej, the Indus, and the Ghaghara (a tributary of the holy Ganges River). Nearby Lake Manasarovar, considered the source of purity, is another major pilgrimage site for both Hindus and Buddhists.
Getting There: Despite being such a mythical sacred site, Mount Kailas is also one of the least visited, due to its remote location in the Tibetan Himalayas. From Lhasa, it's about a four-night journey over the plateau to the small pilgrim outpost, where there are a few basic guesthouses. From this base, most pilgrims set out on foot, pony, or yak to circumnavigate the base of the mountain, a journey of about 32 miles. There is no record of anyone having attempted to climb Mount Kailas.
Mount Sinai, Egypt
Some of the basic tenets of Judeo-Christian beliefs can be traced back to this mountain on Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, for it was at the top of this peak that Moses is said to have received the Ten Commandments from God. Though there is not much archeological evidence confirming this as the exact place, and biblical scholars have theorized for years about the mythical mountain's location, early Christian monks believed this was the sacred site and established several monasteries in the area. Today, visitors can start at St. Catherine's Monastery at the base of the mountain, then climb to the summit, where there is the small Holy Trinity chapel and stunning views, especially at sunrise.
Getting There: The mountain can only be reached by road; Dahab and Nuweiba are both about two hours away by car, while it's about three hours from resort hub Sharm al-Sheikh. Most hotels on the peninsula can set you up on a bus tour, and many of these arrive at the base around 1 a.m., so visitors can be at the summit for sunrise. There are two ways to climb: by foot (which takes between 45 minutes and three hours, depending on your pace, or by camel, which is about three hours; note that if you choose the latter, you will still have to walk the final 750 steps up to the top. Guests are required to hire a local guide at the entrance for about $15 (the rate is negotiable.) Because of its peaceful silence, the mountain is also popular with visitors who practice yoga and meditation.
Glastonbury Tor, England
Rising out of the middle of the Summerland Meadows in Somerset, England, is a hill that has long had magical connection. For centuries, Glastonbury Tor (Celtic for "hill") has been a source of myths: Some ancient Celtic civilizations considered it the entrance to the home of the Gwyn ap Nudd, alternately regarded as Lord of the Underworld and King of Fairies (a theory that resurfaced in the 19th century), while pagans may have used it for ceremonies celebrating the Goddess. Later, the site was considered a possibility for King Arthur's Avalon, since Arthur and Queen Guinevere's coffins were supposedly discovered at the top of the hill in the 12th century. And even more recently, theorists have linked the hill to the quest for the Holy Grail. To further add to all the speculation, archeologists have found remains of seven deep, symmetrical terraces on the hill's slopes, which could be anything from Middle Age crop land to a Neolithic labyrinth. Whatever the history, the hill is still thought to have spiritual energy, as visitors often report feeling more hopeful and positive after a walk on its slopes. Topped by the remains of the 15th century church of St. Michael, the hill has been designated a Scheduled Ancient Monument, and is managed by the National Trust of the United Kingdom.
Getting There: The Tor is a short walk or bike ride from the center of Glastonbury, which is linked to London by frequent train service. The nearest station to the hill is Castle Cary. Admission is free.
Crater Lake, Oregon
Formed nearly 8,000 years ago, after an alleged massive eruption caused Mount Mazama to collapse, this deep blue, freshwater caldera lake in south-central Oregon plunges nearly 2,000 feet below ground, making it the deepest in the United States and the seventh deepest in the world. The Native American Klamath tribe has long considered the lake a sacred site: Their legends say a battle here between the Chief of the Above World and the Chief of the Below World led to the destruction of Mount Mazama. (Historians believe the Klamath may have witnessed the actual implosion of the mountain.) The tribesmen used Crater Lake in their vision quests (tasks may have included scaling the crater walls), and it is still considered a spiritual spot. The lake is now part of Crater Lake National Park.
Getting There: Crater Lake National Park is about 60 miles from the airport in Klamath Falls and 80 miles from the airport in Medford; cars can be rented in both locations. (There is no public transport service available.) The park is open year-round, but some areas may be inaccessible in winter. A seven-day pass is $10 for cars and $5 per person for pedestrians or bicyclists. Check the official park website for a list of official free days each year.
Mount Parnassus, Greece
Towering above Delphi in central Greece, this limestone mountain looms large in Greek mythology. In addition to being sacred to the god Apollo, who often visited the nearby Oracle at Delphi, the mountain was thought to be the residence of the Muses and, as a result, the home of poetry and song. The three Corycian Nymphs, each of whom was romanced by a major god, were born of springs located on Parnassus, and the mountain was also the setting for many minor myths. Today, the only sacred activity takes place on the slopes: The mountain is topped by two popular ski centers, and is dotted with scenic hiking trails.
Getting There: Mount Parnassus is a winding, two-hour mountain drive from Athens. Day trips and overnight bus tours are also available (keytours.gr, overnight Delphi tours from $176 per person). After exploring the slopes, don't miss a visit to the ancient ruins in Delphi, set in the shadow of the mountain.
Lake Atitlán, Guatemala
Set up in the Guatemalan Central Highlands, and bordered by three volcanoes, Lake Atitlán is the deepest lake, at 1,114 feet, in Central America. Along with its natural beauty, the lake is famous for the Maya villages that ring its shores, many of which have been there for centuries. Ninth-century Panajachel, one of the largest, has been drawing tourists since the 1960s, while in Santiago Atitlán, residents are known for their worship of Maximo, a local idol that fuses Mayan gods, Catholic saints, and Spanish legends. Mayan ceremonies still take place at various sites around the lake, from caves to the top of an adjacent hill. The lake's shores are also strewn with archeological sites and ruins of pre-Spanish towns, including Chiutinamit, a mythological "underwater city."
Getting There: Lake Atitlán is located in western Guatemala, about a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Guatemala City or Antigua. Companies like Transport Guatemala can arrange for bus or van service ($25 per person from Guatemala City, from $15 per person from Antigua). There are a wide array of accommodations, from luxury to budget, in towns like Panajachel, along with tourist activities and dining options.
Sedona, Ariz., has long drawn people interested in healing, spirituality, mysticism, and metaphysics, who come for more than just the dramatic, red-rock beauty. The area is famous for its vortexes, powerful centers of kinetic energy that can have a deep effect on those who visit them; there are four main ones spread around town, including one near the airport. The ancient Native American Yavapai people knew about these centers, and celebrated this "Great Mother" energy with petroglyph paintings and sacred dwellings. Today, visitors can easily walk or hike to the four spots (the one in Boynton Canyon is among the most popular), and once there, can meditate or just soak up the good vibes. Many feel recharged and uplifted after visiting a vortex, and some guests even report having visions or deeper experiences while in town.
Getting There: Sedona is a scenic two-hour drive from Phoenix, home to an international airport, and 45 minutes from the smaller commercial airport in Flagstaff. Maps highlighting the four vortexes are available at most hotels and online (sedona.net).
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