From liana-strangled jungle ruins to disappeared desert civilisations and eerie ghost cities, exploring the planet’s abandoned places is a thrilling adventure…
The history: The Nabataeans were some of the most skilled traders in the ancient world. Having abandoned their nomadic lifestyle from the sixth century BC to settle in the northern Arabian Desert, they built a vast trading network centred on a rose-red city carved out of sandstone cliffs. Petra was hugely successful until the Romans annexed it in AD106. Then, as sea trade routes, invaders and earthquakes sapped its influence, it was lost to all but the Bedouin, who kept it as their glorious secret.
The experience: Petra is a city of anticipation. There are few greater reveals in travel than walking the final few steps of the Siq, the 1.2km sandstone cleft that scythes through the mountains to reveal the Treasury (Al-Khazneh). As first impressions go, the vision of its intricately carved façade, hewn from the cliff face over 2,000 years ago, is unforgettable.
From there, visits can last hours as you scramble rock-cut steps to mountaintop altars, royal tombs and the enormous Monastery (Ad Deir), its doorway taller than most houses. For a more atmospheric take, visit on a night tour when the entrance is lit by hundreds of candles projecting flickering ghosts against the rock face.
Also see: If you want to prolong the anticipation, combine a visit with walking the 650km-long Jordan Trail, or at least a section of it. Try entering Petra via the ‘back door’, best reached by a four-day trek along old Bedouin trails from Dana Reserve, passing ecolodges, copper mines, wadis and a little-visited outpost of the Nabataean capital.
The history: Colombia’s far north is a land of secrets, guarded by a dizzying expanse of coastal mountains known as the Sierra Nevada. Much of it can only be accessed on foot, and for those who make the trek, deep within its interior lies the biggest secret of all: the city of Teyuna. Built around AD700, it was once the centre of a Tairona empire that spanned the entire range. But like much of pre-Columbian Latin America, it was abandoned during the Spanish Conquest and only unearthed again in 1972. Local troubles since then mean that travellers are just now discovering it for themselves.
The experience: Teyuna still feels like a real ciudad perdida (lost city). Around 8,000 people make the trek from Santa Marta each year – nearly as many as visit Machu Picchu in a day. Guided walks are the only way in, hiking 44km through forest draped in lianas and past Kogi villages whose residents are instantly recognisable by their starchy white hats.
By the third day you’ll arrive at the foot of the 1,200 steps leading up to the ruins, where 200 or so terraces trickle down the mountainside. Climb to the cluster of carved platforms that marks the highest point and gaze out: what you see is only a fraction of the city still to be uncovered – a thrilling taste of a forgotten world.
Also see: Santa Marta isn’t all that pretty, so make your base at Minca. Surrounded by cloud forest, waterfalls and wildlife, it has plenty of trails to walk and pedal, and is only a short Jeep ride from the El Dorado reserve, home to an impressive array of birdlife, including the endangered endemic Santa Marta parakeet and bush tyrant.
The history: It’s been 33 years since the Ukrainian power plant suffered a meltdown, requiring around 100,000 people to evacuate an area measuring 2,600 sq km. Their homes and possessions have been left much as they were three decades ago, but not everything has stayed the same. Wolves, lynxes and brown bears have all returned to the forests here, which are in turn slowly reclaiming the crumbling villages and towns.
The experience: Guided tours are the only way to enter the Exclusion Zone. Visitors are screened before and after for contamination, but radiation levels in many areas are now so low that overnight stays are possible. In Pripyat, Soviet relics and a rusting theme park make an eerie snapshot of life behind the Iron Curtain.
It’s a bleak yet compelling sight – and one not devoid of hope. While visits to the plant tell its story in detail, most fascinating of all are encounters with the ‘self-settlers’, who’ve returned to the area and bullishly recount tales of starting over in a wasteland filled with wolves and wild boar.
Also see: Chernobyl is typically visited as part of a day trip from Kiev, so spare some time for the Ukrainian capital and take a boat tour along the Dnieper River, learning how the entire city also had to start over after being levelled Previous spread during the Second World War.
The history: Mandu’s roots stretch back to the sixth century AD, but it wasn’t until 800 years later that its golden age began. It was then that the Muslim governor of Malwa seized the city for himself, making it his capital and kickstarting a scramble for power that would make even George RR Martin blush. In the following decades it changed hands regularly in a haze of battles, regicides, abdications and poisonings, but also flourished – until the Mughal empire finally came knocking in 1561, setting its final decline in motion.
The experience: The remains of this Islamic ‘ghost kingdom’, set high in the hills of Madhya Pradesh’s Vindhya mountains, rival those found anywhere. Yet few outside India know about the city, despite it encompassing one of the country’s largest forts. Elegant mosques and darwazas (gates) dot an extensive site that also contains the tomb of Hoshang Shah, which was rumoured to have inspired the Taj Mahal.
But it’s the whimsical flourishes that catch the eye. The sandstone walls of the woozy Hindola Mahal, for example, were designed to give the impression that the room was swaying, while the city’s baobab trees conjure another world entirely. Most remarkable of all, though, is the Jahaz Mahal, which was not only built to resemble a ship floating on water, but also contained a two-storey harem said to have housed 15,000 women. Little wonder Mandu was once known locally as the ‘City of Joy’.
Also see: Madhya Pradesh is full of cultural wonders. The intricate Hindu temples at Khajuraho, the Buddhist stupas at Sanchi and the Omkareshwar river-island pilgrim site (like a mini Varanasi) all offer great insight into a complex region.
The history: Persepolis took 150 years to build but, as legend has it, one man’s word for it to crumble. Indeed, it’s a miracle that anything of Persia’s bejewelled capital survives. Scorching from fires – lit by Greek soldiers rallied on the orders of a reportedly intoxicated Alexander the Great – still marks the surviving stonework. Even the King of Kings (a title Alexander liberated from the Persians) was said to have regretted what he’d done – an act of vengeance for King Xerxes’ 480BC sacking of Athens – in the cold light of AD330. That’s some hangover!
The experience: An hour’s drive north-east of Shiraz reveals a city of ruins that still hints at old glories. Stood beneath the Gate of Xerxes, the mind flits to how imposing it must have been in its heyday. The grand staircases and colonnades of the palace are all that remain of a building once famed across the ancient world for its beauty.
The museum, housed in the old royal harem, offers a snapshot of some of the relics recovered, but plenty still stand. Statues of winged bulls and intricate bas-reliefs depicting nobles bearing lavish tributes of sheep and wine remind you that this wasn’t a city built by slaves; skilled artisans were sourced from across an empire that covered perhaps 40% of the then-known world to build this mighty city.
Also see: Persepolis is just one part of Iran’s ‘cultural triangle’, which stretches from the gardens of Shiraz that inspired Persia’s great poets, to the earthen walls of Yazd (one of the oldest towns on the planet), to the vibrant streets of Isfahan, with its turquoise domes, magnificent palace and walkable riverfront.
The history: As the capital of the ancestral Shona people’s Kingdom of Zimbabwe, Great Zimbabwe was the centre of a medieval gold-trading empire that lasted 400 years and reached as far as China. However, no records chronicled its rise or 15thcentury decline, and for a long time the colonials who arrived to pick its bones refused to believe it had been built by Africans. Even by the 1970s, the idea was still taboo in white Southern Rhodesia. So, when the country threw off British rule, there was only one name it would pick…
The experience: After a four-hour drive south of Harare, the first sight you see is the towering Great Enclosure. In the Shona tongue ‘Zimbabwe’ means ‘great stone house’, and the circular 10m-high granite walls (built without mortar), turrets and towers are still jaw-dropping.
The site lies on an open wooded plain surrounded by rises where some 4,000 gold mines were discovered. Make the hike up to the Hill Complex, the oldest part of the city; this was the ceremonial centre, and the boulder at its heart was where the king presided over sacrifices and rituals. From here you can gaze over the plains and ponder just how something so big could ever be forgotten.
Also see: The closest town to Great Zimbabwe is Masvingo, a handy pit stop on tours heading west to take in the elephants of Hwange National Park, the balancing rocks of Motobo and the crashing waters of Victoria Falls and the Zambezi.
The history: North America is not a land of ancient cities. While the Inca, Maya and Aztecs south of the border were all gifted builders given to dreams of empire, nothing north of the Rio Grande can compare. On a smaller scale, however, the Ancestral Puebloans (Anasazi) were just as impressive.
They didn’t build showy pyramids, but modest adobe and stone towns, etching them into the canyons and tabletop rocks of the ‘Four Corners’ region (Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico). Mesa Verde is the best known, but its time was short. By the end of the 13th century, just 100 or so years after it had been built, it was already abandoned.
The experience: Accessing Mesa Verde National Park’s main dwellings requires a ticket, so make MESA VERDE NATIONAL PARK, COLORADO, USA Pedal round ancient rock dwellings your first stop the Visitor Center, which also has some good background on the area. Ranger-led tours are the best way to see the sites in peace – the sunrise visit to the Balcony House and the Cliff Palace twilight tour not only offer perfect light for photographers, but limit group sizes to as few as 15, as you crawl tunnels and clamber ladders to get unrestricted views. The 12.9km Spring House day trek is more of a challenge, but if you’re stuck for time, you can also pedal round several sites on a half-day bike tour.
Also see: The Puebloan rock city of Arizona’s Canyon de Chelly pre-dates Mesa Verde by a century or more. Visits are only allowed with an authorised guide and the foot or horseback trek into the canyon almost feels like the Shutterstock; Alamy beginning of a Western movie.
The history: No one knows for sure when Nan Madol was built. Best guesses say it was around the 12th century when this floating stone city, situated on a reef off Pohnpei, was constructed. Its purpose, however, is less mysterious. As the capital of the tyrannical Saudeleur dynasty, it is not fondly recalled, and its capture by a rival tribe sometime between the 16th and 17th centuries was met with few tears. But, lacking fresh water or soil to grow food, it was swiftly abandoned, and tales of its ‘haunting’ have kept islanders away ever since.
The experience: High tide allows boats from Kolonia to cruise the city’s near-100 islets, but taking a kayak is more fun and less dependent on timings, as you wind canals scattered with black-basalt palaces, tombs and residences. You can even wade across at low tide, if you don’t mind a bit of mud.
The war temple of Nan Dowas is the most spectacular of the islands, and the only one still fully surrounded by its 8m-high walls. Wander crypts and defences, then explore the burial, drumming and ceremonial areas. It’s an incredible experience as you splash past the boulder that the warriors would jump off to prove their mettle, speculating as to how these 50,000kg stones were hefted into place.
Also see: Pohnpei is a wild island with a long history. Explore old Spanish forts, trek ridges scattered with the rusting hulks of artillery left over from the Pacific War, and finish with a boat trip to ‘Manta Road’, swimming with hundreds of gliding rays.
The history: For a brief moment in history, Ayutthaya was the largest city in the world, home to up to one million people – and even in ruin, this former capital of the namesake Siamese kingdom still takes the breath away. From the 14th to the 18th century, it thrived, then the Burmese invaded. Armies descended on the palace in 1767 and took tens of thousands of slaves – the rest either fled or were killed. Much of the city burned in the chaos, but what remains is a thrilling glimpse of Thailand’s ‘golden era’.
The experience: Pinnacled with crumbling pagodas and shaded by bodhi and banyan trees, Ayutthaya is a peaceful place these days. A grid of moats and canals, once used as defences, surrounds the city; now they lie still, dappled by floating pink lotus. Most people visit on day trips from Bangkok by bus or train, but the slow boat along the Chao Phraya river sets a more appropriate tone.
Once inside the Historical Park, guided cycling tours are the best way to get around as you pedal time-worn temples and bell-shaped chedi (stupas), the roots of jujube trees inching around their burnt-red brickwork. This was Thailand’s architectural peak, and the way the giant Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon dominates the skyline doesn’t let you forget it.
Also see: For a historical ’what happened next’, head to the outskirts of Bangkok to see Thonburi, the city at the centre of the Siamese kingdom that succeeded Ayutthaya, exploring the origins of modern-day Thailand and its capital on a cycle tour.
The history: High in the Andes of northern Peru lie the remains of a fortress every bit as impressive as Machu Picchu. Sitting 3,000m up, Kuélap is breathtaking in every sense – but it’s probably not what you think. First off, it isn’t an Inca settlement – this was a stronghold of the Chachapoyas, a littlechronicled Andean people known as the ‘Warriors of the Clouds’. They occupied the site from around the fifth century AD, some 700 years before the Inca Empire existed, and while their city did eventually fall to their great rivals in the late 15th century, by that point even the Inca were on borrowed time. They left it to ruin several decades later as the Spanish swept across the continent.
The experience: While visitors descend by the trainload on the Inca glamour sites of Cuzco, in the north 0 a different story. Historically, this had as much to do with Kuélap’s location. Until a cable car was installed in 2017 at Nuevo Tingo, around an hour’s drive from the city of Chachapoyas, reaching the fortress required a tough trek or a hair-raising 4WD trip.
Even now the site still isn’t well known and is mostly unrestored, but no less impressive. Its 20m-high limestone walls were built using ten times the volume of rock used in the Pyramid of Giza, and inside, blasts of cloud forest pepper the ruins, wrapped in scarlet bromeliads. The mountain mists only add to the sense of discovery as you wander round houses, narrow corridors, cemeteries and sacrificial areas almost undisturbed.
Also see: Peru’s northern triangle of Trujillo, Chiclayo and Chachapoyas is a heady mix of tombs, pyramids and cloud forest, and the chance to trek by horse or foot to the thundering 771m-drop of the Gocta Waterfall is not to be missed.
The history: History can be fickle. It was the Phoenicians who first settled Tunisia’s north-east coast, establishing Carthage at the centre of a powerful trading republic. They mapped new worlds and built great wealth, but little from the Punic-era survives today. In 146BC, at the end of three long wars with Rome, the city was razed and rebuilt as Roman Carthage, affording a frontrow seat to the slow decline of an empire.
The experience: Today’s Carthage takes its lead from the city’s wealthy past. The Tunis suburb is now an upmarket residential neighbourhood, home to the rich and powerful – you may even spy the presidential palace – yet hints of its past lives still sprawl the hills.
In the UNESCO-protected Archaeological Site, you’ll find the remnants of Punic-era graves and residences, as well as a fourth-century AD basilica, but it’s the Roman influence that dominates. Cisterns and limestone ‘cannonballs’, relics of the many battles, scatter the site, while a first-century AD Roman amphitheatre lies on a nearby hillside. It’s all quite haphazard, so a visit to the Carthage National Museum beforehand is a good idea to get your historical bearings.
Also see: It pays to skip busy central Tunis for the nearby medieval coastal village of Sidi Bou Said, where the white-and-blue walls reflect the hues of the Gulf of Tunis below. Meanwhile, yet another Roman legacy lies to the south in the form of El Jem – a huge amphitheatre in the style of Italy’s Colosseum.
The history: When Arab marauders began laying waste to Central Anatolia around the eighth century AD, its residents had a bold idea: head underground. Subterranean cities pockmark much of this hallucinogenic land of tuff-rock ‘fairy chimneys’ and striped mountaintops.
The deepest is Derinkuyu, capable of stashing 20,000 people across its 18 levels. But more caves are being stumbled upon all the time, with the latest (and perhaps largest) uncovered in 2013 when builders accidentally crashed through its walls.
The experience: Buses from Nevşehir take you to the site of Derinkuyu, though its entrance is hardly inviting. A small hut leads to the opening, from where electric lights breadcrumb the way down into the eight levels open to the public. Its narrow passageways offer little hope of escape if you meet a tour group, so it’s not for the claustrophobic.
That didn’t bother its residents, though. People were thought to live down here for six months at a time, with schools, dining halls, bedrooms, wine cellars and stables all hewn from the soft volcanic tuff.
Also see: Around 9km away, Kaymakli is another cave city worth visiting, but if you want to escape the gloom, hop in a balloon and float over the fairy chimneys (spires of compacted volcanic ash; see p170) and rock-cut churches that make Cappadocia so magical.
The history: The Inca empire stretched far and wide. From the mid-15th century AD, Lake Titicaca became an important pilgrimage site for its people, and travellers flocked from across the Andes to Isla del Sol, where they believed the god Viracocha dwelt. There, they would stay at Copacabana, on the lake’s edge, spend several days praying in preparation, before crossing to the island to make offerings of chicha (corn beer), gold and silver at the sacred rock of Titikala.
The experience: After the Spanish conquest of the Inca, the island was looted and its temples stripped of their stone to build churches on the mainland, so don’t expect any big monuments. But the joy here is just strolling the narrow ribbons of trails in peace. There are no cars on Isla del Sol, so once you’ve taken the boat from Copacabana, getting around requires two feet and a bit of sweat.
Old staircases and the remnants of temples scatter the slopes, with the maze-like Chincana complex one of the most atmospheric. Stay in one of the island’s many hotels and use it as a base to wander, visiting Aymara settlements and nearby isles, while the glistening blue waters of Titicaca ripple gently on the horizon.
Also see: Isla de la Luna has even more Inca trails and ruins to explore, and on the Peruvian side of the lake, Isla de Taquile is famed for its ‘knitting men’.
The history: Between the sixth century BC and AD150, when it was mysteriously abandoned, the Maya jungle city of El Mirador was home to as many as 80,000 people. It was the ‘supercity’ built a thousand years before such feats became commonplace for the Maya, and as you enter via its limestone causeways, which spider out like pale limbs through miles of forest-covered swamp, it’s impossible not to be struck by the scale of its ambition.
The experience: No roads, no regrets. It’s a minimum 40km walk from the remote village of Carmelitas to El Mirador, and while you can do it in a day (and at great expense) with a helicopter, anticipation is everything. The Mirador Basin is so diverse that it contains six types of tropical forest, and fording the wild bajos (swamps) is worth a rump’s worth of mosquito bites.
A return hike takes five to ten days, depending on which of the surroundings ruins you take in en route, waking up each day to the dawn roar of the howler monkeys. Only a few thousand brave it each year, and for those who do, the views from the half-uncovered 72m-high pyramid of La Danta (one of the largest in the world) are rich reward.
Also see: There are a number of other Maya cities in the Mirador Basin: Nakbé was the first to be built, more than 2,800 years ago, and connects to El Mirador via a 12km causeway, while Wakná was the last to be discovered here – in just 1998.
The history: Like many Maya cities, Caracol’s fall is shrouded in mystery. In its sixth-century AD heyday, when 35,000 buildings scattered the jungle and the city’s prowess on the battlefield saw it defeat its great rival Tikal, over 140,000 lived here. By the mid-11th century, barely a soul remained. Many blame a ‘great fire’, but despite the city’s size and historic importance, it took an accidental discovery by a mahogany logger in 1937 to bring it to the world’s attention – 900 years later.
The experience: Caracol’s jungle ruins receive barely a trickle of visitors, yet few can match them for grandeur. Anonymity is hardly an excuse. At 200 sq km it’s more than twice the size of modern-day Belize City – it’s just that it’s quite tricky to reach.
Plans are afoot to fully pave the approaching road in 2019; for now, reaching it still requires a three-hour 4WD journey from the nearest hub, San Ignacio, through the Mountain Pine Ridge forest reserve, roamed by cougars, jaguars and Baird’s tapirs. Once there, climb the Caana temple (43m) – still one of the largest structures in Belize – and the observatory for incredible views, high above the looted tombs and the ball courts, where games were once played to determine who would be sacrificed to the gods.
Also see: The jungles of Belize’s western fringes are scattered with caves and waterfalls, and are virtually uninhabited barring a few lodges. Side trips to the Rio Frio cave and wild swims in the Rio On Pools are a great way to cool off in solitude.
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