With the runaway success of Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert’s chronicle of spiritual healing, spiritual travel has grown ever-more popular with everyone looking to nourish their souls and not just darken their tans on holiday. Spiritual travel runs the gamut of transcendental experiences, from traditional religious pilgrimages to yoga retreats and shamanic healing. The global religious travel market generates almost $20 billion per year and is growing fast, however, religious belief is not a prerequisite. An interest in the culture and history of the world’s most mystical places is reason enough to visit our top five picks of spiritual travel destinations listed below.
The city of Tiwanaku (alternative spelling Tiahuanaco) is located at 4,000 metres above sea level in the mountains near the southern shore of Bolivia’s famous Lake Titicaca.The area was home to a pre-Incan society that survived from 1600 BC to 1200 AD; it is considered the cradle of Andean civilisation. The Incas that later colonised the region apparently believed that the ancient Tiwanaku was built by the god Viracocha, who rose from the depths of the lake and created the first humans. Hailed as the Stonehenge of the Americas, the monumental remains of this great culture have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site and include several temples, a pyramid, symbolic gates, monoliths and mysterious face carvings.
On June 21st each year, around 5000 people congregate in Tiwanaku to celebrate the summer solstice at the Aymara Indians’ New Year, called Machaj Mara. Popular with followers of New Age religions from around the world, the highlight of the festival is sunrise, when the rays of the sun shine through the temple entrance on the eastern side of the complex. Then it’s time to party. Locals in colourful ceremonial clothing and visitors celebrate together by drinking singani (Bolivian grape brandy similar to pisco), chewing coca leaves, sacrificing llamas and dancing until dawn.
Ulpotha, Sri Lanka
The traditional working eco-village of Ulpotha is hidden in an exquisite, secluded, wooded dell at the foot of the Galgiriyawa mountains, about a two-hour drive northwest of Kandy in Sri Lanka. The village has been a pilgrimage site for thousands of years and is now a yoga, spa and Ayurveda retreat open to guests for part of the year.
Ulpotha has been nominated for numerous awards over the years and regularly makes it onto lists of the world’s best spas compiled by glossy magazines, television shows and travel websites. Guests can avail themselves of Ayurveda therapies and yoga classes led by practiced experts, although taking part in these activities is by no means compulsory; anyone preferring to relax and enjoy the beautiful surroundings and delectable vegan cuisine can do just that.
The retreat is run as a non-profit and all proceeds from paying guests go to support the locals who manage the attached self-sustaining organic farm and staff the facility when it is open. Other on-site ventures include a biodiverse organic farm, reforestation of village and surrounding land and a free Ayurvedic clinic open year round to villagers (it treats over 100 patients a week).
Medjugorje, Bosnia & Herzegovina
Launched onto the spiritual travel map in the summer of 1981 when six children saw an apparition of the Virgin Mary, the small town of Medjugorje, Bosnia & Herzegovina, nestled in the hills close to Mostar and the border with Croatia, has become a premier pilgrimage site for Catholics. Once a community of only 400 inhabitants, mostly farmers, the village now caters to visitors from around the world.
Millions have visited the hallowed spot on the mountainside, now called Apparition Hill, keen to worship at the site of the vision. The local church, St James’s, offers Mass in more than 10 languages, including Croatian, Italian, Spanish and English, in addition to a daily prayer service in the evening and there are plenty of tours and accommodation for the faithful.
Medjugorje literally translates as ‘area between two mountains,’ and the location is simply stunning, so even for the non-religious, there is plenty of distraction. The surrounding area is densely forested and boasts picturesque waterfalls, vineyards (the local wine is not to be missed) and plenty of sleepy villages. One word of advice: accommodation often books up quickly, so it is advisable to check ahead with the whl.travel local connection to avoid disappointment.
Situated in northern Tunisia, the thousand-year-old city of Kairouan is often regarded as the fourth holiest city in Islam after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. As the oldest Muslim place of worship in Africa, the Great Mosque of Kairouan (first built in 670 AD) has been an important place of pilgrimage for centuries for Muslims, especially those not able to make the long Hajj; it is said that seven trips to Kairouan are equal to one trip to Mecca.
The name Kairouan actually means ‘caravan,’ which is a reference to the city’s beginnings as a stopping place for the desert-trade caravans on the lucrative trans-Sahara trade route. It was turned into an Islamic religious centre in 694 and only Muslims were allowed to enter its walls until relatively recently. As a result it was seen as an outpost of Islam and seat of Muslim scholarship, protecting the faith against the surrounding Jewish and Christian communities.
Although non-Muslims are not allowed inside the mosque, the doors are kept open to allow visitors to see inside and tours to the holy city can be arranged through the whl.travel local connection in Hammamet, an hour’s drive away.
Easter Island, Chile
Considered to be the world’s most remote inhabited island, Easter Island (otherwise known as Rapa Nui) in the southeast Pacific may have become a part of Chile in the late 1800s, but it is very much Polynesian at heart. This World Heritage Site is famed for the hundreds of towering volcanic stone statues, known as moai, dotted around the island and positioned on massive stone platforms called ahu.
Easter Island is also one of the most mystical places on earth, as so much of its history is shrouded in mystery: why and how were the moai built (they can weigh up to 75 tonnes and measure up to 10 metres in length) and what decimated the civilisation that built them? Locals believe the monoliths represent deceased ancestors. Because of this visitors can look, but, out of respect, mustn’t touch. Some experts suggest that Easter Island is an important point on a grid of sacred sites spanning the globe and it may have originally been settled purely because of the significance of its location. As with everything else concerning the island’s origins, though, nothing has yet been proven!