Curator of the Americas Collection at the British Museum, Dr Jago Cooper, could be the modern day Indiana Jones, except he gets into far less trouble. As part of new BBC4 show Lost Kingdoms of Central America (September 15, on BBC4) he goes off to some rather exotic places (Mexico, Costa Rica and the Caribbean) in search of lesser-known cultures. "Travellers with a sense of adventure can leave the beaten touristy track and go to places most people don't even know exist," explains Cooper. "A lot of people go to Costa Rica as a tourist, but few actually go and visit the archaeological sites there. You can go right up into the volcanic regions and down into the Delta and see some extraordinary archaeological sites." The same goes for the Caribbean, he says "Loads of people go to the Caribbean on holiday but very few people go into the deep caves and explore the rock art."
Ahead of the show, Dr Jago Cooper reveals his top five lost kingdoms, all of which are packed with legends, traditions and culture to discover around the world...
1. Sigiriya, Sri Lanka
"It’s a stunning cliff top citadel," says Cooper. "It has a giant cat with two big feet, which come down to mark the staircase to the top of the citidel. You climb up these giant steps to these wall frescos of women, who have been painted in these rock shelters. It’s got stone cut reservoirs on top of it, and there are lots of snakes slithering around, which gives it a bit of atmosphere."
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2. Turrialba, Costa Rica
"Costa Rica is a stunningly beautiful country. It has the highest percentage of national parks of any country in the world, so they play on environmental tourism," says Cooper. Guayabo de Turrialba is a beautiful Chiriqui site (900AD-1400) in central Costa Rica and it’s right up in the volcanoes, some of which are still active and smoking. This site has huge circular stone foundations. These beautiful roads are built through the cloud forest, which connects to many of the other sites. It’s overgrown with big sub-tropical rainforest, and you can walk around the site, giving you a real sense of discovery. Costa Rica is really set up for travel, there are lots of walks, surfing and archaeology. What’s really interesting is looking at how past cultures harnessed that environment. They had amazing water management systems, which controlled these downpours. Water channels would flow into reservoirs and then they use that to irrigate the agricultural crops."
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3. The Olmec, Veracruz, Mexico
"I would recommend the Xalapa Museum in Veracruz, it has hardly any tourists going to it and I think it’s one of the most interesting museums in the world," says Cooper. "It’s an extraordinary, it has been beautifully designed by a fantastic architect. Inside it are these Olmec stone heads, which date back 2500-3000 years, that’s seriously old. They are representations of individuals from Olmec society. These giant stone heads are about two metres tall. There are four of them in the museum, from the archeological sites. Seeing an Olmec head up close is a remarkable thing to do. There are lots of different theories about why these stone heads were created, lots of people think they were sports people, some think they were warriors; my feeling is that they represent rulers and having them around was a way of projecting power. It’s a beautiful drive from central Mexico as you drive out into the Gulf of Mexico, where it’s hot, humid and has lots of different environments."
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4. Utuado, Puerto Rico, Caribbean
"This is a short drive from San Juan, where most people fly into, and Puerto Rico has fantastic sandy Caribbean beaches, but what you don’t realise is that in the centre of the island is a beautiful limestone Mogote landscape," explained Cooper. "Mogotes are beautiful round hills that interlink. In between all these Mogotes are rivers, that flow through and wind their way around them, they create a beautiful landscape of arches and caves, where people go walking and white water rafting. The site of Caguana, in the heart of the Mogotes, is one of the most important archaeological sites in the Caribbean. It has big stones with carved figures, which are representatives of gods and ancestors on the sides. It’s a beautiful thing to see, and not a lot of people go there."
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5. Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico City
"This is one of the most beautiful archaeological sites in the world," says Cooper. "There are a series of temples, pyramids and complexes dominating the top of the hill, which connects three different valleys. People can walk around, and visit a museum and courtyard, there are lots of steps to walk up and down, and watching the sunset from the top of the hill is remarkable. Oaxaca also has amazing food, you can try grasshoppers and chilli."
Watch Lost Kingdoms of Central America, September 15, on BBC4
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