December 1, 2014
For me, one of the best aspects of venturing abroad (aside from the much needed R&R) is the opportunity to learn more about the area you’re staying in. Here are the five best places I’ve visited for cramming in a bit of history.
The Man Eating Mines of Potosí
The promise of mineral wealth has been a driving force in South America’s history, enticing the Spanish to colonise and exploit its abundance of resources. Potosi in Bolivia was where the majority of the silver and tin shipped back to Spain originated and, once thought to be the richest city in the world, it’s now sadly impoverished. The only reminder of the city’s past is the Spanish phrase for someone of unimaginable wealth – ‘un potosi’.
The Cerro Rico (meaning ‘rich mine’, or charmingly nicknamed by the locals ‘the mountain that eats men’) is still mined, though no longer on the same scale. In exchange for gifts of dynamite and coca leaves, visitors can take a tour of the co-operative mine and experience the horrendous conditions endured by workers past and present. Safety precautions begin and end with leaving an offering for the statue of El Tio (the devil) at the entrance. The miners are all friendly and keen to spread the word of their working conditions. An unforgettable experience.
Killing Fields memorial and Tuol Sleng
In Cambodia there are two extremes of historical tourism to take in: the breath-taking beauty and serenity of the temples in Angkor, most famously Angkor Wat, and the – in contrast – often shocking monuments to the Khmer Rouge regime. Tuol Sleng genocide museum, a former prison, offers a harrowing glimpse of Cambodia’s more recent past, and Choeung Ek Killing Fields memorial gives a grave sense of scale, with bones piled from floor to ceiling on the site of one of the Killing Fields.
At the other end of the spectrum, Angkor Wat is an incredible sight. Built in the 12th Century, the largest religious building in the world is best visited around 6am if you are to have any hope of seeing through the crowds! We jumped at the chance to view this awe-inspiring Buddhist temple from a different angle, going up in a hot air balloon at sunrise.
Though Pompeii is also very busy, it is still a fantastic place to visit. Even the smallest and most bizarre details have been preserved, including the phalluses on the cobbles pointing the way to the brothel, carvings on a water pump and preserved graffiti. These all build up a sense of Pompeii having once been a living city, rather than just an outdoor museum.
Also well worth a visit is Herculaneum, an hour’s coach ride from Pompeii, which is better preserved (and a lot quieter), with many houses still intact. Herculaneum was a wealthier town than Pompeii and the houses are filled with stunning mosaics. It’s incredible to be able to wander into the houses and see the beautiful decoration covering every surface.