Empty rooms filled only with sand, driven there by desert winds: nothing beside remains. Vast, centuries-old rice terraces that are being slowly left to nature. A former cut-and-thrust financial capital turned tourist curiosity. Ghost towns that barely feature on the map, and the structures of once-mighty empires that now lie decaying, Ozymandias-like, tiptoed around by only the most intrepid of visitors. There’s something bewitching about witnessing places that, for whatever reason, have been abandoned to the ravages of time.
Here, our specialists select a forgotten or abandoned place they’ve encountered on their travels, and describe its atmosphere and allure. Should you share their intrigue, it’s often surprisingly easy to experience such out-of-the-way spots on your own trip.
The unfinished chapels of Batalha, Portugal
By Portugal specialist Kevin
Located just 90 minutes from Lisbon, the UNESCO-listed Monastery of Batalha is an overwrought testimony to Portugal’s golden age. Combining the elaborately decorated Manueline style with the aptly named flamboyant Gothic, the church is decorated with a veritable frenzy of ornamentations. This is where you can find many of Portugal’s royal tombs, including that of Dom João I, his wife, Queen Philippa of Lancaster, and their son, Henry the Navigator.
To me, however, the most telling part of the monastery is located behind the main building. The Capelas Imperfeitas (literally, Unfinished Chapels) were built starting in 1437, intended as another sumptuous royal mausoleum. The walls of the chapels are covered in a riot of delicate trees, knotted ropes, armillary spheres and finely wrought angels, all carved from the hard stone with exquisite attention to detail.
However, construction was halted at the halfway point, thanks to the vagaries of royal fortune. The enormous octagonal rotunda has no roof and stands open to the heavens. It was a frankly haunting experience to stand in the empty space and see all this extravagance abandoned to the elements. Sun and rain fall indifferently on the massive buttresses that rear up into the sky to support nothing at all.
By Namibia specialist Anthony
It’s not every day you see a bathtub lying abandoned in sand drifts. But, venture 15 minutes outside the town of rainfall in southern Namibia and you’ll come across Kolmanskop. Here, whole mansions and their ageing contents stand derelict. The Namib Desert’s shifting sands are gradually swallowing their peeling walls and hollowed windows.
Exploring with a guide, I discovered that, during the early 20th century, Kolmanskop was a thriving town of wealthy German diamond-mining pioneers. They built their Edwardian mansions in a German style, and the town had its own hospital, school, casino and power station.
Soon the diamond field started to deplete. Then, in 1928, another, richer diamond source was discovered farther south, and many inhabitants joined the rush, leaving their possessions to the whim of the desert. By 1954, no one was left.
During a southern Namibia self-drive trip, you can purchase a permit to explore Kolmanskop independently, taking as long as you like. Or, join a four-hour shared or private guided tour. As you wander through and around the ruins, your guide tells you more about the people who once lived here and the diamond fever that struck this part of Namibia. There’s no sound other than the wisping of reshuffling sand.
Inside, most of the buildings are empty shells save for deep swathes of sand that have been blown in by desert winds. In places, the sand blocks doorways and staircases, so it feels quite disorientating moving from room to room, and makes for some eerie photography opportunities.
Hampi, Karnataka, India
By India specialist Sophie
‘You must have heard of the mighty Vijayanagara Empire ma’am?’
My guide threw his arms out wide, indicating the mass of monuments spread out below us. The sandstone-shaded collection of temple complexes, stables, bazaars, palaces, shrines and water tanks that littered the landscape made the temples of Bagan look relatively sparse.
We’d climbed Matanga Hill, a pile of giant boulders that looms high over Hampi. Located in the little-visited state of Karnataka, Hampi is well off-track for those exploring the big guns of Indian travel: Rajasthan or Kerala. But, before the Mughals of Rajasthan built their forts, and colonial powers first moored their boats on Kerala’s shores, the Vijayanagara Empire ruled almost a third of present-day India.
And no, I’d never heard of it. But, after a few days exploring Hampi, the grand capital of this wealthy Hindu empire, I became beguiled by the ruins. Unlike other ancient Indian cities which tend to be invaded, occupied and ever-extended, Hampi was ransacked by a Muslim sultanate in 1565, and abandoned.
You can climb down into stepwells, admire the exquisitely carved temple architecture, and walk through bazaars which haven’t been touched (aside from a little light gardening by UNESCO) for half a century.
The monuments are spread out across a huge area, so you’ll need a guide and comfortable shoes to explore them. But, before long, you’ll have an entire temple complex to yourself — were this anywhere else in India, it would be busy with visitors.
A hardhat tour of a ghost town, Puglia, Italy
By Italy specialist Julia
At first glance, Craco looked like a standard medieval Puglian town, its limestone houses built into the sides of a steep, stony outcrop, topped by a severe Norman-style tower. But, once I got closer, I could start to see the cracks in the façade… literally.
The tour started at a nearby museum with a short introductory film that gave a brief history of the town. It was founded in the early medieval period to take advantage of the defensive position high on the hill. But, that same position was its downfall — a series of landslides and earthquakes, starting in 1963, broke the town into pieces, forcing out the residents.
I put on a hardhat as I followed my guide up the steep, crack-crazed main road. We passed a pair of indifferent donkeys who nibbled at the grass growing through the jagged fractures in the foundation walls.
Through my interpreter, my guide regaled me with stories of the decades-long evacuation. The stories were interesting, but I was riveted by the haunting sight of the houses broken down the middle, one half crumbled to ruins and the other half exposing bare rooms that gaped at the sky.
Perhaps most poignant was the interior of the town’s church. Sunlight streamed through the broken roof, falling squarely on a tree that was growing where the pulpit once stood.
By Philippines specialist David
Many visitors don’t make it across from mainland Southeast Asia to the Philippines, a land hovering between China and Australia. As well as the country’s geographical segregation, 350 years of Spanish rule has led to a predominantly Catholic population, and a mix of crumbling basilicas and Spanish churches you won’t find anywhere else in Asia.
Aside from the Spanish-colonial architecture — Intramuros, Manila’s cobbled, walled city is a highlight — there are the beaches. With over 7,000 islands, the Philippines are quite the showcase for the pleasures of sea-and-sand. But, on my last visit, I headed inland to the UNESCO World Heritage-protected rice terraces of Banaue.
I can’t claim that Banaue is forgotten — it does attract a fair few visitors each year, despite the effort needed to get there (it’s a short flight from Manila, followed by a three-hour drive). But, on my last visit, I tried a more unusual way of exploring these 2,000-year-old terraces.
Normally, I’d stay in Banaue town and explore from there, but instead, I headed deeper into the Philippine Cordilleras to the village of Mayoyao. Only accessible by jeepney, this small scattering of homes is surrounded by vivid green rice terraces. You can hike through this elaborate farming system, seeing the complex irrigation systems and stone walls up close.
A simple lodge in Mayoyao’s village square allows you to spend the night among the terraces, before looping back toward Banaue. En route you can hike to other villages, where the ethnic minority Ifugao people live in red-roofed, low-rise clusters among the brilliant green of the rice fields. Accompanied by a local guide, and a guide who had journeyed with me (mainly to act as an interpreter), I didn’t see any other visitors.
New Zealand’s mothballed railways
By New Zealand specialist Ophelia
Its name could pass as the title of some late-Victorian adventure novel, but the North Island’s self-proclaimed ‘Forgotten World’ is more sleepy, bucolic Neverland than mystery-drenched abandoned territory.
A series of deep emerald-green valleys, native bush, braided rivers, pastureland and hummocky hills near the Taranaki region, it’s strewn with the remnants of Maori pā sites. From the early 20th century until the 1980s it was criss-crossed by passenger freight and coal mining railways. Now, only the rails’ skeletons remain.
But, in recent years, the disused rail tracks — and the network of deep, keyhole tunnels they run through — have been restored. You can explore them via adapted golf carts. They trundle slowly along and are so simple to operate, a child could drive them (and many do).
On my last visit to New Zealand, I took a trip on one of the carts and marvelled at just how quiet the valleys were. There’s no traffic noise, and you pass very few homes — in fact, the only locals I saw were the goats and sheep who occasionally tottered nonchalantly across the tracks.
In the tunnels, the darkness was deep and velvety. In some places, you could make out niches — places where railway workers in pioneer days would hide from oncoming trains.
You can extend your experience of the area by driving the Forgotten Highway, a remote stretch of road that residents affectionately refer to as ‘the rollercoaster’. In places, it takes you over high saddles that give you far-reaching views over to the volcanoes of Tongariro National Park. It also sees you skirt a ghost town, Tangarakau — once a 1,200-strong railway boom town, and now virtually recolonized by the surrounding rainforest.
San Agustín, Colombia
By Colombia specialist Tomas
Long a no-go zone due to the guerrilla violence sweeping the area, one of South America’s most beguiling and disquieting archaeological sites is now happily back on the travel radar, like Colombia itself.
In places, San Agustín Archaeological Park looks like a parade ground, its soldiers a series of anthropomorphic sculpted stones and megaliths. Squat and hunched bodies, squinting faces, some resembling frogs, some fanged, and some positively demonic in appearance — academics are divided over their true purpose and meaning.
Part of the mystique of this site is that very few answers exist. The statues have been associated with fertility as well as funerary purposes. Dotted around them you’ll find burial sites — some of their inhabitants met particularly grisly ends, sometimes with the aid of hallucinogens.
The site is a peaceful place to explore. You can stroll along a cloudforest trail, but simply walking around the site gives you views over the surrounding jade-green hills, which are free from development. Try and see the Lavapatas Spring, too. It’s a riverbed carved with the outlines of snakes and other creatures which may have been used in the worship of water.
And, while San Agustín is still mostly passed over by visitors to South America, it’s actually remarkably easy to slot into a classic tour of Colombia. There are four direct flights a week from Bogotá to Pitalito, a small town near the ruins.
By China specialist Duncan
If you want to experience the real Pingyao, you need to venture beyond the main streets (North, East, South and West streets). You’ll leave behind their souvenir hawkers, cafés selling cappuccinos, and large tour groups, and enter a warren of mostly residential lanes.
Here, people sit outside their homes and cook dumplings, while papercutters refine their centuries-old art in tiny workshops (you can even sit and watch, with no pressure to buy).
Then again, you might argue that the crowds and commerce flooding Pingyao are appropriate. For this pastoral-seeming walled town was once the Qing dynasty’s opium-fuelled equivalent to Wall Street or Canary Wharf.
It has a curious boom-and-bust history. After its banks collapsed in 1914, Pingyao became a backwater for much of the 20th century, a shell of its former mercantile, hustling self. That was, until China decided to take steps to preserve the town’s heritage in 1986 — and UNESCO sealed the deal in the late 90s. Now, domestic and international visitors alike flock here annually in their thousands.
Today, wandering around its thoroughfares with your guide, you’ll see careworn buildings that were once a network of draft banks called piaohao. These prospered in the late-19th century under the Qing. You can peek into some of them, including the very first branch, Rishengchang. While not the most polished or high-tech of museums, I enjoyed nosing around its former silver vaults, counting rooms and VIP quarters.
I then recommend taking a walk on the well-preserved city walls. You’ll look down into grids of traditional Ming and Qing courtyard housing dating back to the 16th century, and you can even stay in a converted courtyard property, such as Jing’s Residence. I really like Pingyao at night, when the town is slightly quieter, and the streets are lit by the dim glow of hundreds of paper lanterns.
I have a real affection for the site. In terms of Maya artwork, it’s the pinnacle: you’ll see intricate 3D stelae here, and a staircase that’s encrusted with hieroglyphs (it forms the longest inscription found to date in Mesoamerica).
Only here can you walk through tunnels originally dug by archaeologists, and see how pyramids have been successively built over and concealed by preceding generations, as was the Maya custom. This subterranean perspective even lets you spy some of the pyramids’ original bright paintwork.
And, as a birdwatcher, I’m particularly thrilled that scarlet macaws have been successfully reintroduced to this area. You might see them winging their way over the site as evening draws, heading to roost in the canopy.
Trip ideas for exploring forgotten places
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ColombiaView this tour
IndiaView this tour
Start thinking about your experience. These itineraries are simply suggestions for how you could enjoy some of the same experiences as our specialists. They’re just for inspiration, because your trip will be created around your particular tastes.
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