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.
Seattle Underground, Washington
Beneath the city of Seattle is the ghost town of, well, Seattle. In the aftermath of the Great Seattle Fire of 1889, which decimated the city's entire central business district, it was determined that the best way to rebuild would be to do so one story higher. Which meant that an entire collection of business storefronts had literally been buried underground when new sidewalks were constructed.
Or at least that was the rumor. As part of his efforts to save Pioneer Square, Seattle Times columnist-turned-historian Bill Speidel set to determine the veracity of these claims. It turns out they were true. In 1965, Speidel and his wife, Shirley, conducted their first subterranean tour of what was once the city's ground level. And though Speidel passed away in 1988, the tours continue on a daily basis today.
Getting there: Bill Speidel's Underground Tours kick off every hour on the hour daily in Seattle's Pioneer Square. (They begin at Doc Maynard's Public House, an underground – and restored – 1890s saloon.)
Credit: Chris Cheadle / Getty Images