Our world is covered in ancient ruins, leftover from bygone eras that rose and fell like waves across human history. Some remain well preserved, while others have decayed with time and weather. Either way, they are some of the most culturally significant reminders we have of past civilizations, and they exist in almost every corner of the globe.
You've seen the most famous ones in magazines, travel posters, and in movies: Machu Picchu, Petra, the pyramids of Giza, the Roman colosseum. But these destinations are often packed with tourists, which can really infringe upon your experience. With a little extra effort, you can have a much more personal adventure exploring some of the more off-the-beaten path historic destinations.
Keet Seel - Arizona, USA
The pristine cliff dwellings of Keet Seel are situated high up on a cliff face in the arid desert outside Kayenta, Arizona. An unsolved mystery, the prehistoric Pueblans who inhabited the ancient village seemingly disappeared without a trace around 1300 AD, abandoning most of their belongings, supplies and tools and stumping historians. At it’s height, the community was as large as 150 people.
Nestled beneath an overhanging cliff, the ruins have been protected from the elements since their abandonment – leaving them very well preserved. The Keet Seel ruins are isolated, and difficult to get to: 17 miles hiking through wending desert trails, crossing rocks and small streams, but the trek is well worth it. Tourists are virtually nonexistent at these remote Native American ruins.
Kuldhara, The Village of Death - Rajasthan, India
Several miles west of Jaisalmer lies the Cursed Village of Kuldhara. The highly intelligent inhabitants planned their village well, with wide streets that ran in grids, and houses that were multiple stories tall. They prospered from 1291 AD to 1825 AD growing in power and size – until one night they simply vanished.
Similar to the Native Americans of Keet Seel, historians haven’t quite figured out what happened, why they all left, or where they went. Their community was largely intact as it is believed by locals that, as they left in the dark of night, they put a curse on the village so no one would ever inhabit it again – and no one ever has. This is a great place for anyone looking for an eerie adventure in the Indian desert.
Qasr al-Bint, Temple of Dushares - Petra, Jordan
Qasr al-Bint, was the only structure built in the actual city of Petra (in 30 BC), and was the largest place of worship in this ancient metropolis. The rest of the structures were carved directly into the rock and cliffs that surround the temple. It was built by the Nabataeans, seized and adapted by the cult of Roman emperors, and eventually abandoned in 363 AD after being catastrophically damaged by an earthquake.
Bagan - Mandalay, Burma
This ancient city (founded around 900 AD) is located in the Mandalay Region of Myanmar, and at its height, featured 10,000 elaborate Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries. Today, visitors can enjoy exploring over 2,200 of those monuments that still remain. The culture of these people was largely religious, and at one time housed as many as 200,000 people, reduced to a small town after the Bagan Empire collapsed following relentless Mongol invasions (~1300 AD).
Bagan has survived hundreds of earthquakes over the course of its 11-century life, which have damaged the ruins, but there are still thousands of beautifully constructed monuments remaining throughout the region, ripe for exploration, worship and contemplation.
Palmyra Ruins - Homs, Governorate
Now a ruined metropolis in the Syrian Desert, Palmyra was one of the most important cultural centers of the ancient world. You can see in the remnant architecture how Roman influences melded with Persian traditions at this crossroads of time. Once a humble caravan oasis, the city expanded under Roman rule as an important axis of trade with China, India and Persia.
Huge Roman-style columns tower over the streets, once linking great temples to formidable fortresses. Visitors can walk along these avenues and imagine how magnificent and opulent the city must have been in its prime.
Derinkuyu, Underground City - Nevsehir Province, Turkey
Not all ruins are above ground. Derinkuyu,Turkey is a multi-level underground city 200 feet below the Earth, big enough to have accommodated 20,000 people, all their livestock, and food stores. There was ample wine, oil presses, stables, and religious chapels, which could all be concealed from the inside by large stone doors.
Built in the Byzantine Era, Derinkuyu was a Christian refuge throughout the Arab-Byzantine wars from 780-1180 AD that connected to other cities through the vast underground tunnel network. Currently, about half the city is open to public exploration – which is a lot of tunnel space and many chambers to get lost in.
Calakmul - Campeche, Mexico
Surrounded on all sides by thick, green jungle, Calakmul is a remote destination. The main features of these ruins are two gigantic Mayan pyramids, the tallest of which is 165 feet! But you have to hike, bike, drive, or hitchhike into the wilderness to reach it – unless you hire a guide.
The city is believed to have once been the home of 50,000 natives, and the area is dotted with highly intricate stelae (great slabs of stone covered in carved pictures and glyphs). This is an all day adventure as you will want to give yourself plenty of time to depict these largely unexplored Mayan ruins.
Koporye Fortress - Koporye Bay, Russia
Located in a historic village outside St. Petersburg, this medieval fortress was first built by the Teutonic Knights in 1240 and was subsequently razed, rebuilt, destroyed, and rebuilt again several times, a tug of war between the Swedes and Russians.
Last attacked in 1703, the scars from battle are clearly visible on the ruined walls of the stronghold, but there are several other impressive ruins in the area that can also be explored during a visit to this historically rich town.
Cleopatra’s Palace - Egypt
These ruins are a fairly recent discovery, and may be difficult to reach for anyone with an aversion to water. The submerged palace and temple complex was first dived in 2012 by archeologists – who discovered a wealth of ancient artifacts, and ruins of the very palace from which Cleopatra ruled Alexandria. It was a huge find, since the city had seemingly vanished into thin air 1,300 years ago.
In fact, Alexandria was sunk in the eighth century by cataclysmic earthquakes that slid the great metropolis straight into the sea. The site is pretty shallow as far as dives go; and you can swim amongst the great stone walls of the ancient palace and examine the two stone sphinxes that sternly guard the bottom of the bay. It's the oldest and perhaps most historical dive on Earth.