There are any number of reasons why a city, town, or even an entire empire goes from thriving to nonexistent: climate change, urban development, and war are just a few of them. For Wade Davis – an ethnographer, writer, photographer, and filmmaker who has spent decades traveling the world and immersing himself in indigenous cultures to learn about everything from hallucinogenics to zombies – the answer is simpler than that: "You know the old expression, 'If you don't study history you're doomed to repeat it,'" says Davis. "Undoubtedly, when Pachacuti built Machu Picchu, he had no idea that within less than a century, the convulsion of the Conquest would flood upon him."
From the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu to a tumbleweed-ridden ghost town in Death Valley, the element of surprise is a recurring theme in the abandonment of a town-turned-tourist destination. And whether a place is taken out by enemy forces or Mother Nature, the lesson in visiting any abandoned city, according to Davis, is "to realize the ephemeral nature of power." Including our own.
"The Roman Empire lasted for five centuries," says Davis. "Five centuries ago, people hadn't even come to America. We look back and say, 'Well the Mayans weren't quite as big as they thought they were.' By the same token, the global civilization that we have – based on hydrocarbons, if you will – could be snuffed out just as the Incas, the Mayans, the Egyptians and every other empire." Consider yourself warned.
Chaco, New Mexico
When one thinks of the best places for touring ancient dwellings, Greece, Egypt, and Italy quickly spring to mind. But smack dab in the American Southwest is the area's densest collection of pueblos, dating back to the year 850 A.D., which showcase the impressively ahead-of-their-time organizational, engineering, and masonry skills of the pioneering Pueblo population with 15 major complexes. Located within Chaco Culture National Historical Park, Chaco was a major cultural center between 900 and 1150 A.D. but became an early victim of climate change; residents began migrating out of the canyon shortly after the arrival of a 50-year drought in 1130 AD.
Wade Davis and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. visited Chaco Canyon during the making of Greg MacGillivray's IMAX documentary, Grand Canyon Adventure: River at Risk. "It's just a very humbling thing to see the scale of places like Chaco Canyon or Mesa Verde and realize that [we] had these sort of networks of roads and a pretty high level of civilization complexity that were clearly wiped out, if you will, by climactic change."
Getting there: As part of the U.S. National Park Service, visiting Chaco is a simple – and multi-optioned – affair. Enter at the Visitor Center, which features an information desk, museum, theater, bookstore, and gift shop. A paved road offers self-guided trails to five major Chacoan sites, each of which takes an hour or less to visit. There are separate trails for biking and hiking and from April through October, there are a number of specialized hikes and programs, including astronomy events courtesy of the Chaco Night Sky Program.
Credit: David Hiser / Getty Images