8 Dreamlike Abandoned Places Being Reclaimed by Nature

Mother Nature has no problem moving back in once humans have hit the road.

A village that is overgrown with greenery
Gouqi Island, China.

CNS / Getty Images

Although abandoned places can sometimes seem cold and lifeless, they're often anything but. When humans flee, nature moves in on the deserted territory, turning shipwrecks into water-locked forests and old Italian flour mills into verdant oases. Oftentimes, Mother Nature's takeover makes dilapidated relics look even more spectacular than they were in their original state. Eventually, vacated structures become completely swallowed up by vegetation and the earth itself, leaving few traces of the human footprint.

The following unusual locations are at the beginning of their journeys back to nature, offering the first few glimpses of what is yet to come.

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Gouqi Island

Greenery growing over Gouqi island's abandoned village
Elizaveta Kirina / Getty Images

South of the mouth of China's famed Yangtze river is a 400-island archipelago known as the Shengsi Islands. One of them, Gouqi Island, appears to be utterly forgotten by time. Once a bustling little fishing village, the development of new industries like shipbuilding and tourism meant fewer people stuck around to cast their lines. Today, ivy and creepers cover the quiet alleyways, climbing on the walls and over the roofs of abandoned homes, inns, and even a school. While it's no longer used as a fishing village, Gouqi Island has become an under-the-radar tourist attraction reachable only by ferry.

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Hotel del Salto

An old hotel covered in moss in front of a waterfall
credit: YouTube

At the Tequendama Falls, the Bogotá River meets a narrow rocky gorge and does a dramatic 433-foot swan dive before resuming its journey below. A well-known tourist attraction, the falls are located in a forested area not far from Bogotá and once attracted fancy lodgers who stayed at the marvelous Hotel del Salto.

The sights and sounds must have been pretty sublime; alas, the falls eventually acquired the title of "largest wastewater falls in the world" and promptly ran most visitors off the property. A few miles upstream, Bogotá's untreated liquid wastes are dumped into the river, which makes the rooms stink of sewage—a pitfall one simply can't see past no matter how good the view. The hotel closed in the 1990s, and the forest has slowly been creeping in on it since.

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Sand-filled room in the abandoned town of Kolmanskop, Namibia
Michael Toye / Getty Images

In the abandoned Namibian mining town of Kolmanskop, tons upon tons of sand have been swept by the natural forces of the powerful Namib into people's former homes. Entire dunes exist in abandoned living rooms. The sand has broken down doors and filled old bathtubs.

There's little mystery as to why mining centers so often become ghost towns: A rush arrives to extract the riches, a town is built, the riches are stripped clean, the rush hits the road. In the early 20th century, a German railway worker found a diamond in this area of the Namib now dubbed the "forbidden zone," and a soon-to-be prosperous German mining settlement followed. But by the early 1930s, Kolmanskop's diamonds became scarce, and even richer diamond deposits were found farther south, sparking an exodus from the once-thriving town.

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Holland Island

Birds perched on abandoned house on Holland Island

baldeaglebluff / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

Settled by early colonialists in the 1600s, Chesapeake Bay's Holland Island played home to around 360 residents by 1910. The fishing and farming oasis was one of the largest inhabited islands in the Chesapeake Bay, with 70 homes, stores, a post office, a two-room schoolhouse, a church, and more. Sadly for the residents, erosion on the west shore of the developing island made of silt and mud began taking its toll.

Despite the building of stone walls to help protect from the encroaching tides, the last family was forced to leave in 1918. The last house standing, built in 1888, finally succumbed to the bay in 2010. Today—as the sea rises and the land of the island sinks because of subsidence, water laps at the house's sinking foundation while seabirds gather on its roof.

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Initiation Well at Quinta da Regaleira

Quinta da Regaleira
Daniel Viñé Garcia / Moment / Getty Images

In the town of Sintra, the beautiful (if a bit eccentric) Quinta da Regaleira estate was built in 1904 by a wealthy Portuguese businessman. The ornate gothic grand house plays anchor to a network of gardens, tunnels, grottos, and two wells, all steeped in symbolism of ancient secret orders and other mysteries. The famously overgrown Initiation Well—a 90-foot-deep arcaded spiral staircase—was intended not for water collection but rather for ceremonies like Tarot initiation rites. It contains several small landings, the spacing of which, along with the number of steps, is inspired by the Tarot.

The estate has been abandoned for years but is now a UNESCO World Heritage site within the "Cultural Landscape of Sintra." Although it is managed by the state and maintained as a tourist attraction, the moss and vegetation continue to creep up the walls of this mystical space.

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Valley of the Mills

Abandoned mill covered in greenery
Ukususha / Getty Images

Known locally as the Valle dei Mulini (Valley of Mills), this grouping of some 25 abandoned flour mills in a deep gorge in the heart of Sorrento, Italy, dates back to the 13th century. Erected in a crevasse in order to take advantage of the year-round stream at the bottom, the mills were originally used to grind the wheat used by the Sorrentine population. Other buildings, like a sawmill and a washhouse, joined the group, but in the 1940s, flour milling was replaced by more accessible pasta mills. As a result, the buildings shuttered. Now, all that's left are ancient industrial ruins covered in lush vegetation.

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SS Ayrfield

SS Ayrfield shipwreck with trees growing from the top
Eddy Dallimore / Getty Images

Shipwrecks are usually found at the bottom of the ocean, colonized by corals and curious sea life. The SS Ayrfield in Sydney's Homebush Bay is different. Rather than being submerged, it's perched on the surface of the water and sprouting its own little floating mangrove forest. The ship, built in 1911, is one of four abandoned freighters once used to transport coal, oil, and war supplies, now wiling away time in the water near Australia's capital. As the trees inside it grow, their branches spill over and break through more and more of the hull.

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Angkor Wat

Tree roots growing over Angkor Wat temple ruins
Stewart Atkins (visualSA) / Getty Images

In the jungles of Cambodia’s northern province of Siem Reap, Angkor Wat is a vast network of beauty, an area that UNESCO calls one of the most important archaeological sites of Southeast Asia. As capital of the Khmer Kingdom, the sprawling surroundings boast ornate temples, hydraulic structures, and other feats of early urban planning and art from the 9th to the 14th centuries.

Of particular note is the temple of Ta Prohm, now covered in the colossal roots of silk cotton and thitpok trees. Their tendency to grow over the ruins have earned them the nickname "strangler trees." While the other monuments are maintained and protected from the hungry crawl of the jungle, archeologists have left Ta Prohm to the whims of the trees.