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.
Machu Picchu, Peru
Attracting nearly one million visitors per year, one of the biggest misconceptions about Machu Picchu, according to Davis, is that it was some sort of "lost" city. "When actually it was only 'lost' in the imagination of Hiram Bingham," the American explorer-turned-U.S. Senator who rediscovered the site in 1911. "If you go to Machu Picchu, you see the evidence of the network of rural roads that connected it back to the heart of the empire," he says.
Situated 7,970 feet above sea level on the eastern slope of the Andes, the site – which was abandoned during the Spanish Conquest in 1572 (122 years after it was built by the Incas) – is a once-in-a-lifetime trip for most visitors. For Davis, who has visited Machu Picchu at least 40 times, it's also a place for personal discovery. "When you do revisit a site literally dozens of times over a lifetime, it's not just that you're learning new things about the site; you can't help but learn more things about yourself," says Davis. "In that sense, you can trace your memory to times of almost beguiling innocence to deeper levels of knowledge both of yourself and, more importantly, the place where you are."
Getting there: PeruRail offers several morning train departures from Cusco to Machu Picchu, which includes one transfer and takes approximately four hours.
Credit: Dietmar Petrausch / Getty Images