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.
Hashima Island, Japan
The future wasn't kind to the residents of Japan's Hashima Island, which is sometimes called Gunkanjima or Battleship Island (because of its shape) or Ghost Island (because of its residential population). At its peak in the late 1950s, approximately 5,200 coal miners and their families lived on the island because of its easy access to the nearby undersea mines. But then along came petroleum, which replaced coal as the country's main fuel source during the 1960s, and the island's population of miners packed up and moved on, leaving what looks like an abandoned battleship in their wake.
Getting there: In 2009, the site opened up to visitors, though the weather will determine whether you'll be able to sail around the island or actually step foot on it. Tour operator Yamasa Kaiun offers two daily cruise departures.
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