In search of lost cities

Ute Junker unleashes her inner Indiana Jones at some of the world's most intriguing ancient sites.

Are you ready for an Indiana Jones-style adventure? Remote locations, vanished cultures, searing deserts and ancient canyons, all with a side serve of buried treasure or mystical insight: what more can you ask from a holiday? These six destinations offer as many thrills as you can handle, as shown by our special rating system. One hat is suitable for adventure novices; three hats are perfect for the most intrepid explorers. Grab your bullwhip and get ready for a wild ride.

Karakorum, Mongolia

If you thought the closest the famed Mongol hordes came to civilisation was a bunch of tents and a couple of recipes for mares' milk cocktails, think again. In 1220, two years after Genghis Khan rallied his troops here, the city of Karakorum was founded, which Genghis Khan's son elevated to the capital of the Mongol empire. The walled city in the Orkhon Valley was a surprisingly cosmopolitan place, with 12 pagan temples, two mosques and a Nestorian church. Karakorum also featured a tree-shaped fountain - crafted by an expatriate Parisian silversmith - which had four pipes, each of which reputedly offered a different alcoholic drink.

When Genghis Khan's grandson, Kublai Khan, moved his capital to Shangdu, Karakorum started its slow decline. Today, the town has virtually disappeared, apart from a giant stone turtle keeping lonely watch. However, the neighbouring Erdene Zuu monastery, with its 108 stupas, is worth a visit and the Orkhon Valley, with its picturesque lakes, waterfalls and mountains, is a destination in its own right.

Treasure alert: It's a safe bet that Kublai Khan packed up all the valuables when he changed capitals. So far, the closest archaeologists have come to treasure is a scattering of jewels, ceramic and coins.

Up for adventure: It's a long drive from Ulaanbaatar, so you'll probably end up spending at least one night at a ger camp, munching on dishes that may include sheep's testicles.

Getting there: Intrepid Travel's 15-day Wild Mongolia trip takes in Karakorum as well as Ulaanbaatar and a homestay with Mongolian nomads. From $2190 a person.

Calakmul, Mexico

There are plenty of Mayan cities in Mexico but none quite like this. Inhabited for 12 centuries, at its peak the city was one of the Mayan superpowers. Along with more than 6000 surviving structures, the people of Calakmul bequeathed to us a colourful history, complete with an evocatively named line of kings: Sky Witness was succeeded by First Axewielder.

With a population of 50,000 people at its peak, about AD250, Calakmul is home to some of the most impressive Mayan architecture found anywhere, including a 24-metre-high pyramid.

Unlike some of the monumental Mayan ruins elsewhere, Calakmul was a functioning city, surrounded by ordinary residential homes.

One of the site's most remarkable features is the many elaborate murals depicting scenes of daily life.

Treasure alert: Only a fraction of the 100-square-kilometre site has been discovered, so there's plenty of opportunity for hidden treasure to surface. One tomb has revealed a cache of jade masks and ornaments. Who knows what else is waiting?

Up for adventure: A lost city in the middle of a jaguar-filled jungle? It's the perfect setting for an adventure.

Getting there: Duende Tours offers three-day Calakmul tours from Cancun or Playa del Carmen, available with a driver or as self-drive. Rates start at $US379 ($358) a person.

Sigiriya, Sri Lanka

The palace on the peak, Sigiriya is a castle built on top of a rock standing 350 metres above sea level. In the 5th century, King Kashyapa chose to found his new capital at Sigiriya (the Lion Rock) because he thought the site would be impregnable. Security was an issue for Kashyapa, the illegitimate son of the old king: having killed his father (by walling him up alive) and chased the heir to the throne away, he had plenty of enemies to defend himself against.

That didn't stop him including some creature comforts in his heavily fortified palace. The slopes of Sirigiya feature elaborate landscaping. On one of the boulders, the remains of the king's audience hall can still be seen, with a five-metre-long granite throne.

The palace was famously guarded by a huge Lion Gate, of which only the paws remain. However, you can still see the famous Mirror Wall.

Once so highly polished the king could see his reflection as he walked past, it's now covered in ancient graffiti, including poetry. The beautiful frescoes of female figures on one of the walls are remnants of an elaborate picture gallery that, it is believed, was destroyed by the later resident Buddhist monks.

Treasure alert: Twenty years after Kashyapa usurped his throne, his half-brother, Moggallana, defeated him. Moggallana turned Sigiriya into a Buddhist monastery. We assume he cleared out the valuables before the holy men moved in.

Up for adventure: Your knees will get a workout: hundreds of stairs lead to the top of Sigiriya. The staircase is home to several hornets' nests, so look up as well as down.

Getting there: Natural Focus Safaris has a 15-day Wonders of Sri Lanka tour that takes in Sigiriya Rock as well as the temples at Polonnaruwa and Yala National Park. From $6435 a person.

Ayutthaya, Thailand

At its peak in the 17th century, the city of Ayutthaya - the capital of the empire of the same name - was one of the most magnificent cities of the East. The ambassador of France's Sun King, Louis XIV, compared the city in size and wealth to Paris. With a population of more than 1 million - double that of London - Ayutthaya was an island city, surrounded by nearly 140 kilometres of canals and home to 400 temples.

The expansionist Ayutthayans took on the dominant Angkor empire and won, and repeatedly clashed with the Burmese. Ultimately, though, the Burmese prevailed, sacking Ayutthaya in 1767 and destroying the empire, leaving only a few elegant temples today.

Treasure alert: As recently as 1956, excavators discovered treasures - including gold jewellery and a gold casket containing a relic of the Buddha - in a secret chamber among the ruins.

Up for adventure: Ayutthaya is an easy day trip from Bangkok: the greatest danger you'll face is the traffic. However, you can add some flair to the journey by cruising down the river instead.

Getting there: The Anantara Song, a 100-year-old teak rice barge converted into a four-cabin luxury cruiser, offers a three-day, two-night Thousand Golden Temples cruise, taking in Ayutthaya. From 59,000 baht ($1784) a person, twin share.

Chaco Canyon, New Mexico

Like the city of Petra, which featured in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Chaco Canyon contains marvels within its walls. Between AD900 and AD1150, the Pueblo people used sandstone blocks and timber to construct 15 main complexes, which remained the largest buildings in North America until the 19th century. These massive multistorey complexes averaged 200 rooms; the largest had 700.

Little is known about the people of Chaco Canyon, as they left no written records. However, they obviously had a complex society capable of harnessing great resources. Experts have estimated that to build Chetro Ketl, which has about 500 rooms, would have required 50 million blocks of stone and more than 29,000 man hours.

Treasure alert: Archaeologists have found evidence that processing and trading turquoise was big business for the Chaco people, so stumbling on a horde of turquoise jewellery is not out of the question. However, you might make a bigger score by exploring the site's more mystical side. Many of the buildings have been aligned to capture solar and lunar cycles, suggesting careful astronomical observation.

Up for adventure: Chaco Canyon qualifies as remote by US standards: 112 kilometres from the nearest town. The drive offers plenty of opportunities to catch a glimpse of desert dwellers such as the coyote. Keep an eye out for rattlesnakes if you go wandering.

Getting there: Private full-day tours led by a professional archaeologist are offered by Salmon Ruins, from $US295 for two people.

Troy, Turkey

Troy is probably the most famous lost city on earth. The adventures of Agamemnon, Odysseus and other heroes who besieged King Priam's city have beguiled audiences since ancient Greek times. When archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann announced, in 1870, that not only was Troy a real city but he had actually found it, he was greeted with derision. However, Schliemann had the last laugh: today Troy, or Hisarlik, continues to be an important archaeological site.

Nine different cities - each built on the ruins of the previous one - have been discovered, the oldest dating back 4000 years. Priam's city is believed to be either Troy VI or VII, which came to an end about 1250BC amid widespread burning and slaughter. While it's fascinating to see the different layers that have been excavated, there are disappointingly few ancient structures to admire.

Treasure alert: When Schliemann, who had a flair for marketing, found a cache of ancient artefacts on the site, he promptly announced he'd found King Priam's treasure. In fact, it turned out to date from a much earlier period and consisted mainly of copper shields, daggers and axes, goblets of silver and terracotta, knife blades and just a few golden bits and bobs.

Up for adventure: A comfortable day trip from Istanbul, a visit to Troy can hardly be described as hard core.

Getting there: Peter Sommer's 20-day archaeological tour, In the Footsteps of Alexander, takes in a number of ancient sites, including Troy and the city of Gordium, where Alexander the Great cut the Gordion Knot. From £4350 ($6500) a person.