8 Dreamlike Abandoned Settings Being Reclaimed by Nature

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

Overgrown village
Abandoned village on Gouqi island, China.

 Jane Qing

There's a strange and undeniable draw towards abandoned places. Ghost towns, forsaken movie palaces, swank shipwrecks, crumbling castles and the like all lure in adventurers with their promise of poignancy and a special brand of voyeurism. They offer visitors no small measure of irony, what with their juxtaposition of one-time splendor and dilapidation. And they stand (or fall, perhaps more accurately) as a tangible example of human folly – as in, let's build a spectacular setting and then lose interest or the means to ensure that it endures.

There are legions of sites and publications dedicated to so-called "ruin porn." But for those of us nature lovers, the best of this may be the simple beauty of the wild world reclaiming that which it once called its own. Eventually, abandoned 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: Shengsi Archipelago, China

Window in the abavdoned village
Elizaveta Kirina / Getty Images

South of the mouth of China's famed Yangtze river, an archipelago of nearly 400 islands dots the water, 18 of the islands which are habitable. One of them, Gouqi Island (shown here and above), 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 sticking around to fish ... and the abandonment of villages like this one now bustling with a new kind of life.

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Hotel del Salto: Tequendama Falls, Colombia

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. But alas, now the falls have the dubious honor of being the "largest wastewater falls in the world."

A few miles upstream, Bogotá's untreated liquid wastes are dumped into the river – making the rooms with a view also the rooms with the stench of sewage. The hotel was closed in the 1990s and the forest is slowly creeping in.

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Kolmanskop, Namibia

credit: Michiel Van Balen/Flickr

There's little mystery as to why mining centers so often become ghost towns, it's par for the course; a rush arrives to extract the riches, a town is built, the riches are stripped clean, the rush hits the road. Namibia's Kolmanskop is no different. In the early 20th century, a German railway worker found a diamond in this area of the Namib desert near the southern coast of the country, and a soon-to-be prosperous German mining settlement followed.

The colonial history of it all is devastating. As National Geographic explains, "Only four years before the discovery of diamonds at Kolmanskop, the Namibian Herero people rebelled against the German colonizers, who retaliated with genocidal ferocity by killing over 60,000 Herero."

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. Left behind are the structures and belongings, well preserved by the arid environment, and flooded with desert trying to reclaim its place.

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Holland Island, Maryland

credit: baldeaglebluff

First settled in the 1600s, by 1910 Chesapeake Bay's Holland Island played home to around 360 residents, making it one of the largest inhabited islands in the Chesapeake Bay. The fishing and farming community boasted some 70 homes, stores and other buildings, including a post office, two-room schoolhouse, a church, and more. Unfortunately, the wind and tide had other plans for the silt and mud island, and erosion on the west shore 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 house pictured above was built in 1888 – it was the last structure standing, until it succumbed to the bay in 2010.

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Initiation Well at Quinta da Regaleira: Sintra, Portugal

credit: Stijndon

In the town of Sintra one can find a beautiful, if not a bit eccentric, estate known as Quinta da Regaleira. 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 "Initiation Well" shown here was never intended for water collection, but for ceremonies like Tarot initiation rites – the 90-foot deep arcaded spiral staircase has several small landings, the spacing of which, along with the number of steps, are inspired by the Tarot.

The estate has been abandoned for years, but is now classified as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO within the "Cultural Landscape of Sintra." And although it is managed by the state and maintained as a tourist attraction, that can't stop the moss and vegetation from carpeting the walls of this mystical space.

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Valley of the Mills: Sorrento, Italy

credit: Mentnafunangann

Known locally as the “Valle dei Mulini" (Valley of Mills), this grouping of some 25 flour mills in a deep gorge dates back to the 13th century. Located to take advantage of the year-round stream at the bottom of the crevice, the mills were used to grind the wheat used by the Sorrentine population.

Other buildings, like a sawmill and a wash-house, joined the group, but eventually the flour milling was taken up by more accessible pasta mills and the buildings were shuttered in the 1940s. Now all that is left are ancient industrial ruins, and no shortage of verdant plant life that doesn't seem to discern between stone building and cliffside.

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SS Ayerfield: Sydney, Australia

credit: Rrong

We usually see shipwrecks at the bottom of the ocean, colonized by corals and curious sea life; this one is different. It can be found in Sydney's Homebush Bay and rather than submerged, it's perched on the surface and sprouts a mangrove forest.

Leave it Mother Nature to so nicely decorate our blights. The SS Ayerfield was built in 1911 and is one of four abandoned freighters wiling away the time in the water; once used to transport coal, oil, and war supplies, when the ships were decommissioned, they were simply left in place.

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Angkor Wat, Cambodia

credit: Francisco Anzola

Settled 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 14th centuries.

But of particular note is the temple of Ta Prohm. 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. And as you can see, the trees are winning.