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.
Kolmanskop is yet another case of urban development gone wrong, in the Namibian Desert no less. After the discovery of a diamond nearby in 1908, prospectors flooded the area with the hopes of striking it rich. And the facilities they built in Kolmanskop – including a hospital, school, theater, and power station – are a testament to the potential wealth they saw buried here. What they didn't bank on was World War I, and the diamond price crash that would follow.
Eventually, all of Kolmanskop's state-of-the-art structures became too expensive to maintain, and by 1954 the town was completely deserted. Today, one of Kolmanskop's most striking features is the harsh terrain upon which it was established; visitors must wade through several feet of sand in order to tour the area (yes, even indoors).
Getting there: Tours of Kolmanskop must be pre-booked, and a valid passport must be presented. Lüderitz Safaris & Tours offers daily tours.
Credit: Michael Toye / Getty Images