Peru’s Inca Trail doesn’t have the monopoly on walks revealing past glories. Tackle these ten treks to traverse over 5,000 years of history past temples, forts and vast stone monuments
The monumental Neolithic site of Stonehenge was already around 4,500 years old when Pachacutec established the Incan empire Tawantinsuyu across the Andes – and the vast burial chamber now known as West Kennet Long Barrow is some 600 years older still. These are just two of the mesmerising prehistoric sites on and around the Great Stones Way, a waymarked trail that winds 58 km (85 km with detours to some of the big sites) through Wiltshire from the hillfort known as Barbury Castle, near Swindon, to the hilltop bastion at Old Sarum, near Salisbury. A gentle walk best covered in three or four days, it also passes Avebury’s stone circle, huge manmade Silbury Hill, 19th-century white horses, Norman churches and country pubs aplenty.
The first ‘wall’ of China was built around 400–200BC, a mud-and-rock barricade far removed from the later monumental stone barrier snaking some 5,000 km across this vast land from Jiayuguan in the far west to Shanhaiguan on the shore of the Bohai Sea. Though a hardy few have attempted to hike the whole length, most tackle shorter legs along the better-preserved (or reconstructed) sections near Beijing. Perhaps the pick of the bunch is the seven-mile stretch between Jinshanling and Simatai, a sometimes steep, fairly challenging hike along a crumbling length with oval watchtowers around 110 km north of the capital.
The well-trodden hike to Machu Picchu in Peru might be the best-known Inca trail, but it’s far from the only one. The Incas' vast road system known as the Qhapaq Ñan stretched some 30,000 km throughout the Andes, and plenty of it is still in use by locals – and by hikers in the know. Ecuador’s high-altitude 40-km Camino del Inca follows part of a royal road from Acchupallas to the country’s most impressive Incan site at Ingapirca, with its well-preserved Sun Temple and ruined acllahuasi where sacrificial virgins dwelt.
Since the first church was built at Santiago de Compostela in 830, marking the reputed resting place of St James the Apostle, countless trails have emerged leading to this holy spot in western Galicia. The best-known is the Camino Frances, winding 780 km across the Pyrenees from St-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France. Add to the stream of peregrinos following the scallop-shell waymarks past the mighty abbey at Roncesvalles; Pamplona, (in)famous for its bull run; León’s magnificent cathedral; and the Roman ruins of Astorga. Then join the throngs beneath the vast swinging censer in the spectacular cathedral at Santiago to celebrate your achievement.
Mysteries abound on the isolated, surf-lashed Chilean island of Rapa Nui (Easter Island). How did Polynesian settlers even reach this remote spot, some 3,700 km west of the South American mainland and 1,900 km from the nearest speck, Pitcairn Island? How and why did they carve hundreds of vast stone heads, some 10 m tall, in the late Middle Ages? And what caused the decline of the Rapa Nui society? If we don’t know the answers, it’s fascinating to puzzle these questions while hiking the 18-km trail from Anakena beach along the wild north coast, west and south to the ceremonial site of Tahai, near Hanga Roa.
Join the legions of henro-san (pilgrims) who don a white vest and conical straw hat to follow in the footsteps of Buddhist priest Kobo Daishi. Around the turn of the ninth century he walked around the edge of Shikoku island – a 1,100-km epic now dotted with the 88 temples that give the hike its name. Having paid your respects at sacred Koya-san mountain across the Kiisuido Strait on Honshu, grab your walking stick and begin your pilgrimage – typically, at ‘Temple 1’ at Ryozenji.
The 45-km trek to Colombia’s ‘lost city’, perched at 1,300 m altitude in the jungle near the Caribbean coast, isn’t for the fainthearted. You’ll tackle steep steps, brave sticky heat and wade across rivers. But the rewards are plentiful: you’ll meet local Wiwa and Kogui people, immerse yourself in the lush wilderness, and finally discover the circular stone terraces of the site now known as Teyuna, built by the Tayrona people around AD 800.
Two millennia ago, the Nabataean people were carving mighty monuments into a canyon in what’s now southern Jordan. Having grown wealthy from trade in silk, spices and gems, they created a secret city hidden away from would-be raiders, with tombs, colonnaded streets, altars, temples and grand facades hewn from the red rock. Abandoned by the seventh century, Petra was ‘discovered’ by Swiss explorer Jean Louis Burckhardt in 1812 and is now Jordan’s premier historic attraction, thronged with tourists. But tackle the 45-km, four- to six-day trek from Dana Nature Reserve and you’ll not only traverse epic desert landscapes, deep canyons and green valleys, you’ll also enter via peaceful ‘Little Petra’ and the back door to the main site by the ‘Monastery’.
The first Panama City, founded on the Pacific coast of Central America in 1519, is only 70 km as the crow flies from Portobelo. But as the Spanish conquistadors discovered when they blazed a trail across the isthmus to carry looted precious metals to the Caribbean port, it’s a humid, taxing route – and the hike is still challenging today: you’ll need an expert guide to lead you along the 80-km route through Chagres National Park, wading rivers, clambering over slippery rocks and trekking amid dense jungle past hundreds of bird species (and, possibly, lethal fer-de-lance snakes). After five testing days, you’ll arrive at the crumbling remains of historic forts in the now-sleepy fishing village of Portobelo.
We’re biased of course, being based in Bath, but we’d say the views of the past from the 9.6-km Skyline walk are about as good as it gets. Strolling through woodland and meadows, you’ll gaze down at the World Heritage-listed city – medieval Bath Abbey, golden Georgian crescents and Circus, and the glorious Palladian mansion and landscaped gardens of Prior Park. You’ll also pass prehistoric pillow mounds, secret cemeteries and the picturesque folly known as Sham Castle. Download the route guide from the National Trust website.