12 Ancient Sites That Blur the Line Between Fact and Fiction

"Ancient Aliens" host Giorgio Tsoukalos guides us to legendary places every traveler should visit—whether or not the construction had an other-worldly influence.

As a child, TV show host Giorgio Tsoukalos traveled a lot with his parents, and as a teenager, he read a book by Erich von Däniken—an ancient astronaut theorist who thought aliens helped shape construction of some famous historical sites. The travel and the theorizing took hold and he knew he wanted to be involved in that type of research. Now, ancient astronaut theory is what the History channel host calls the “stuff of my life.”

Today, Tsoukalos is the publisher of Legendary Times magazine and a consulting producer and on-screen personality of "Ancient Aliens" on the History channel. In between, he sometimes even leads multi-week trips to legendary sites. He will lead a two-week trip this fall.

Ancient Astonaut Theorist Giorgio Tsoukalos
Ancient astronaut theorist and contributing producer to "Ancient Aliens" Giorgio A. Tsoukalos (Courtesy Legendary Times Media/Photo by Shawn Bishop)

Ancient astronaut theorists believe that some ancient sites were either built by extraterrestrials or that aliens provided the knowledge or technology for the people to build them. "As I traveled, I noticed discrepancies appear in the accounts historians were telling us," Tsoukalos explained.  

Having traveled all over the world investigating ancient sites, Tsoukalos shares his list of 12 legendary places that he said everyone should see. Contrary to popular belief, though, Tsoukalos said he does not believe aliens did the construction but shared the engineering knowhow and technology with our ancestors—and whether there's anything "alien" about these sites, they're all fascinating and worthy bucket-list destinations.

Baalbek, Lebanon

For Tsoukalos, Baalbek is one of the most telling and compelling places for the ancient astronaut theory. There are two things that must be seen, he said: the Jupiter temple and the trilithons—gigantic megalithic blocks found at the base of that platform and around Baalbek. Just a few hundred yards away from the temple are those trilithons—stones so big that they dwarf normal-size people. Archaeologists have estimated that some of those blocks weigh 1,500 metric tons (over 3 million pounds!).

"My colleague and fellow ancient astronaut theorist David Childress says often that nobody in their right mind cuts a block weighing 1,500 tons if it is not easy. We as a species haven’t changed much in 10,000 years. We only do things that are necessary or easy. Obviously, our ancestors had a compelling reason to build this stuff.”

Insider travel tip: Because of the political and military unrest in Lebanon, take extra precautions. Have a personal local connection or someone who can take you around.

Baalbek, Lebanon
Giant, megalithic blocks can be found at Baalbek. Some weigh up to 1,500 tons. (©granycome/Flickr, Creative Commons)

Puma Punku/Tiwanaku, Bolivia

Puma Punku is part of a giant Bolivian site known as Tiwanaku at an altitude of about 12,500 feet that offers amazing views and includes some fascinating acheological finds.

“You find remnants of monuments that stood there thousands of years ago, and now all you find are gigantic platforms scattered about," Tsoukalos said. "There are sandstone slabs there, but there also is andesite that can easily be discerned from the sandstone. Now, you cannot cut andesite with tools archeologists say people had back then. According to archaeologists, they only had copper or iron tools. Right there we have a problem, because you can’t cut andesite with iron or copper tools. My question is: ‘How was it done?’”

He said also that there are massive blocks of stone that weigh upwards of 150 to 200 tons each. “I want to know how this stuff was transported. Historians will say wooden rollers, but at that altitude, you’re above the tree line.”

Insider travel tip: Nearby La Paz (two hours away) offers plenty of lodging options, and don't miss the massive highland lake, Lago Titicaca bordered by Peru and Bolivia. While the nation is largely stable, the UK government website warns that there is a risk of tourists being kidnapped. 

Puma Punku
Huge stones weighing hundreds of tons can be found scattered around Puma Punku, Peru. (©adwo/Shutterstock)

Cusco, Peru

Not only is it just a magnificent place to visit for the views and a jumping-off point for Machu Picchu, but Cusco (sometimes spelle Cuzco) is a treasure trove of archeology, Tsoukalos said.

“There’s such palpable ancient history. There are old wood ceiling beams in a local bar that are charred because of the candles that have been under that wood for generations."

But Tsoukalos says the most fascinating things to see are Incan walls in Cusco made of massive stones that fit together so precisely you cannot fit a dollar bill between them.

“The Coricancha Monastery there tried to expand its garden in the 1970s to mimic masonry style of the Incas. But if you look at pictures and compare modern construction work to the ones from a long time ago—guess what?—the modern wall is less perfect than the ancient wall. It’s crazy,” Tsoukalos said. He thinks a pre-Inca civilization built the original walls, though most mainstream historians and archaeologists attribute the work to the Incas.

Insider travel tip: Drink cocoa leaf tea because it helps visitors adjust to the high altitude. Most hotels offer it for free. Also try a Pisco sour, the national drink of Peru, while eating Guinea pig, a local delicacy.

Cuzco, Peru
Stones in the ancient walls of Cuzco fit together so precisely, you cannot fit a dollar bill between them. (©rehak/Shutterstock)

Sacsayhuaman, Peru

This site just outside of Cusco has terraces of giant stone blocks that create a massive wall. In fact, Tsoukalos said, it seems the builders were able to somehow soften the stone in order to shape it and make it fit together so precisely.

"There are local birds that build nests in rock crevices and soften rock with their own saliva mixed with an herb," Tsoukalos said. "Is it possible that ancient Incas transferred this for their own use? And the other question is: Who taught them this?”

Insider travel tip: Visit the giant rock quarry known as Zona X to see amazing stone formations such as perfectly cut, upside-down stairwells. 

The ancient builders of walls in Sacsayhuaman somehow fit stones together perhaps by softening them somehow, Tsoukalos, says. (©shipfactory/Shutterstock)

Machu Picchu, Peru

Tsoukalos points out that there are three masonry styles in Machu Picchu. The material at the bottom is significantly older than what followed with the smaller stones, he said, so why would older civilizations who supposedly had less technology use larger blocks?

“Sometimes there are three levels to the construction—the bottom level has massive, gigantic, megalithic blocks as big as railway wagons; the middle about half a size smaller. And at the top, brick-sized stones are just thrown up there. That makes no sense.”  

Insider travel tip: There are limited options for staying near the peak of Machu Picchu. For more budget-friendly options, look to the nearby town of Aguas Calientes (“hot waters” in English). For a scenic journey, many travelers take the train from Cusco to Machu Picchu.

Machu Picchu
Tsoukalos wonders if perhaps the ruins at Machu Picchu are older than many think. (©kelseygreen/Shutterstock)

Mahabalipuram, India

Mahabalipuram is “a magical place right next to the water,” Tsoukalos said, with many carved objects there that show Hindu mythology brought to life in the rock carvings.

“What you see in the carvings is interesting,” he said, “because you see the nagas [mythical Hindu creatures] and their epic battles in the sky. The artistry brings Hindu history to life. It’s a picture book made out of stone.”

Insider travel tip: Whenever you travel by cab, negotiate your cab fare in advance.

Tsoukalos says the artistry of the Mahabalipuram architecture "brings Hindu history to life." (©waj/Shutterstock)

Nazca, Peru

Nazca, about a six-hour car ride from Lima, might not seem like much from the ground except for a lot of sand and rocks. It only get interesting when you see it from the air.

"The only way to fully appreciate Nazca is to rent or charter a plane and see the geoglith formations from the sky," Tsoukalos said.

From the air, some formations look like animals. "The animals aren’t the most interesting formations, though," he said. "There are Nazca lines that look like airstrips. It looks like an airport, but I’ve never said they are runways for aliens. Ships would sink in the sand. So what are they?"

Insider travel tip: Anyone prone to airsickness should take precautions. “The pilots will fly pretty wild and bank at 90-degree angles,” Tsoukalos said.

Nazca, Peru
Nazca, Peru, has ancient formations on the ground that become shapes only when seen from the air. Some, however, are straight lines, almost as if they were used as airstrips. (©krupenkin/Shutterstock)

The Paracas History Museum, Peru

The 20 or more elongated skulls on display at the Paracas History Museum are "downright bizarre,” Tsoukalos said. Archeologists usually attribute elongated skulls to the practice of parents binding the heads of newborns to mimic the look of their gods.

“Having seen these things and being a little familiar with anatomy, I can say that if you compare a human skull’s features, the sutures are not in the same location on the elongated skulls. I am willing to say: What if we are actually looking at another species; i.e., what if they are extraterrestrial?”

Insider travel tip: Some TripAdvisor reviews of the museum say it is not always open during the hours posted and that people should call the museum if they go and it is not open.

Paracas History Museum, Peru
The elongated skulls at a Peruvian museum are unique. (©taco_witte/Flickr, Creative Commons)

Delphi Site, Greece

Some people believe Delphi was one of the “navels of the world,” a place where civilization began. It also is where the Greek god Apollo is said to have descended from the sky in his flying chariot.

“What’s interesting is that the stone masonry in Delphi and Cuzco/Sacsayhuaman is virtually identical,” Tsoukalos said. “And both are considered a ‘navel of the world,’ with deities descending from the sky and imparting knowledge on people. You have the same masonry style on different sides of the world—even the same story about people descending from the sky. So you have to wonder: Were they visited by the same beings? If so, who were they and where did they come from?”

Insider travel tip: Be sure to see the replica of the Omphalous, a cone-shaped stone object that legend says began everything at Delphi after it fell from the sky. According to the legend, two metallic birds emerged from it and flew around the world then decided Delphi is where civilization would begin. A similar legend exists in Sacsayhuaman.

Delphi site, Greece
Legend has it that Delphi, Greece, is one of the "navals of the world"—where civilization began. (peterlazzarino/Shutterstock)

Dendera Light at Hathor Temple, Egypt

In a chamber under the Hathor temple in Dendera, is an engraving on the wall of something that looks like a light bulb.

“It’s interesting,” Tsoukalos said, “because how did the ancient Egyptians light the insides of their temples and chamber corridors that wind so deep inside? They were able to carve deep inside, yet there’s no soot on the ceilings that would indicate torches. Is it possible that the ancient Egyptians had access to light and electricity? Archeologists would say the engravings are lotus flowers. But I say they look more like the depiction of a light bulb as they could comprehend it, especially when you consider the hieroglyphs about illumination that go with it.”

Insider travel tip: Egypt is another country that has seen recent civil and governmental unrest, so exercise common sense and check State Department travel advisories. 

Dendera light at Hathor Temple, Egypt
Some say this engraving deep in a cave under an ancient Egyptian temple is of a man holding a lotus flower. Tsoukalos proposes that is a light bulb. (©mountainpix/Shutterstock)

Derinkuyu, Turkey

It doesn't look like much when you arrive, because the most interesting thing to see is the underground city. About 10 to 15 minutes away are the so-called fairy chimneys, which are tufa towers with little rooms in them. Tsoukalos suggested renting one for the night. 

“Somehow, this is an entire city carved out of bedrock,” Tsoukalos said, “and essentially nobody knows who did it, when or why. The only thing that’s clear is that there are giant disc doors that can only be closed from the inside, meaning there was an exterior enemy. Now, why would you be hiding in this area?"

Tsoukalos and other ancient astronaut theorists propose that the people might have been hiding from an aerial enemy—something impossible from the standpoint of accepted history.

Insider travel tip: As of March 29, 2016, the U.S. State Department warned of increased terroist threats, especially near the Syrian border in southeast Turkey. Derinkuyu is in central Turkey, but caution is still urged. The State Department warns travelers to avoid large crowds, follow instructions of local authorities, monitor local media and stay at secure hotels. 

The underground city in Derinkuyu can be closed off from the outside only by closing doors from the inside. What were the ancient inhabitants protecting themselves from? (©pakhnyushchy/Shutterstock)

Easter Island

Without a doubt, Easter Island has to be on everybody’s bucket list, Tsoukalos said.

“It’s one of the most remote islands in the world with nothing for 3,000 miles around. It’s great for ancient astronaut enthusiasts because of the stories of people who descended from the sky, and that mythology is still told to this day. Is this possible?"

The most famous artifacts on Easter Island are the huge Moai statues, which were built to honor the islanders' ancestors.

“My question is not how they carved the stones, because it’s volcanic rock, which is very porous and easy to work with. I’m interested in the question of transportation. The go-to answer is wooden rollers. But the Moai are bigger than what you see [many statues are partially buried]. The weight would require enormous wooden rollers. But where are these rollers? We can verify what trees were on the island at that time, and those trees didn’t have trunks big enough to use for this purpose.”

Tsoukalos said Easter Island is a great meditative place. “You may get a sense of how little we are in the scope of the universe.”

Insider travel tip: When on Easter Island, go to the post office for the postal stamp that you can only get on the island.

Easter Island
The Moai heads on Easter Island are only part of a much larger statue, the rest of which has been buried over time. (©alberto_loyo/Shutterstock)