Ruins reclaimed by Mother Nature can be discovered in every corner of our planet. The temple ruins of Angkor in Cambodia immediately spring to mind when you visualise buildings reclaimed by the forest. Who hasn’t seen the photographs of the magnificent fig tree roots engulfing the 12th-century temple ruins of Ta Phrom?
Over centuries humanity has built structures of every description but over time has left many of them abandoned. From castles to theme parks and from temples to entire towns, these forgotten places have gradually been engulfed and reclaimed by Mother Nature.
Working in collaboration with other travel bloggers, I have put together a selection of some of the most unusual world ruins reclaimed by Mother Nature. These are places that have been personally visited by the writer and allow you a first-hand insight into these unique locations.
This article may contain affiliate links. This means that if you make a purchase after clicking on a link, I may receive a small commission. Read the full disclaimer here.
Updated by author – March 2021
Unusual Ruins Reclaimed by the Forest
1. Ta Phrom – Cambodia
Constructed in the 12th century, Ta Phrom was known initially as Rajavihara (Monastery of the King). This Buddhist temple is the perfect example of where Mother Nature has reclaimed the structures for herself. Tree roots engulf the temples and vines trail through window and door spaces, making this jungle setting one of the most visited in the Angkor complex.
Up until recently, archaeologists have left the temples untouched apart from clearing pathways for visitors. Things have now changed at Ta Prohm. Several trees have been removed to protect the temples from damage caused by the continual growth of roots and from falling debris, and restoration works are being undertaken.
Ta Phrom is a spectacular sight to behold with its vivid green moss covering ancient stonework like a patchwork quilt. Wander around the ruins and see for yourself a place that was borne from the jungle and has gradually been reclaimed back by it.
2. Chernobyl – Russia
One of the most extensive and most recent ruins reclaimed by nature is the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, including the former city of Pripyat and the Duga-3 or “Russian Woodpecker”. This approximately 30km zone was abandoned days after the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in April of 1986.
Pripyat is a former city of 50,000 people. Today you can visit town sites such as the music hall, hospital, gymnasium, jail, schools, and swimming pool. Many of these buildings are starting to crumble, and plants and trees are beginning to grow in the structures.
You can visit the iconic rusting Ferris wheel and walk across the football field, starting to become a forest. The Duga-3 site is another favourite place to visit in the Chernobyl Zone. This site is a large radar facility – Soviet spy equipment and the control buildings. While the other spy towers have been torn down across the former Soviet Union, the one in the Chernobyl Zone remains and is a fascinating visit.
Tourism to Chernobyl has significantly increased over the last few years, with several companies offering 1-day and 2-day tours to the zone from the capital city of Kyiv, Ukraine. You must book ahead of time and provide passport information as you must have the permission of the government to visit.
Written by Lisa from Hot Flash Packer
3. Bagan – Myanmar
Exploring one of Asia’s most inspiring religious sites, it’s easy to create an unforgettable itinerary of Bagan in Myanmar. Today, over 2,000 temples stand in Bagan, Myanmar that draws in tourists from around the world, and with good reason.
Most structures in this ancient city were built between the 11th and 13th century and hold a lot of religious significance. As time passed, many have been destroyed by earthquakes and overrun by nature. One of the largest and most devasting earthquakes in 1975 saw vast amounts of damage to many iconic structures over the Bagan landscape.
Despite ongoing restoration efforts throughout Bagan, many of these pagodas continue to crumble, crack and cover with dust. Mother Nature hasn’t just reclaimed the physical formations of these structures; many titles have been forgotten as well. Nature just adds to the sense of amazement and adventure by exploring rural streets with decaying stupas and pagodas, now known only by a number rather than a name.
Written by Ben from Horizon Unknown
4. Taman Festival – Bali
On the east coast of Bali, in a town called Sanur, sits a scene straight out of Jurassic Park. Buildings are wrapped in vines; trees rise through the concrete and old fairground stalls rot and decay. It seems as though Mother Nature has begun to reclaim what was once hers.
This fairground is the Taman Festival – a theme park was abandoned over 20 years ago.
Costing $100million to build, Taman Festival was to feature laser shows, a 3D cinema, an inverted rollercoaster, and the biggest swimming pool in Bali.
However, the theme park was ultimately scrapped and never opened its doors. It seems ambiguous as to why. Some say that it merely closed due to financial problems. Others say that it was struck by lightning on Friday 13th of March 1998, causing irreparable damage which insurance refused to cover.
Whatever the reason for its abandonment, the theme park now sits in disarray, making a spooky yet fascinating urban exploration opportunity for the intrepid traveller.
Written by Lauren from The Planet Edit
5. Ciudad Perdida – Colombia
The Lost City of Ciudad Perdida in Colombia is one of the best places to visit in South America. Located deep in the jungles of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, these Mayan ruins were left undiscovered until 1972.
Covered in thick vegetation, Ciudad Perdida is 650 years older than the most famous Mayan ruins, Machu Picchu. Only 10% of the site has been discovered due to its remote location in the depths of rebel territory. It has only been safe to visit the Lost City in the last 15 years. Before that, the jungle surrounding the ancient city was overrun with guerrillas. The Colombian government have since stepped in, and the archaeological site is now safe to visit, though the area remains quiet and relatively unknown.
To reach Ciudad Perdida, you must hike four days through tropical heat, sleep in a hammock, cross ice-cold rivers with chest height water levels and overcome steep hills. A chance to spot a rare toucan, visit indigenous communities and explore this lost world all make it worth it
Written by Roshni of The Wanderlust Within
6. Club Med Resort – Hawaii
The Old Club Med trail near Hanalei, Kauai is an incredibly unique hike: the ruins of a new defunct vacation resort have been completely taken over by nature. In the 1960s and 70s, Hanalei Ridge was home to a vast Club Med Resort. At the height of its popularity, the Club Med was a bustling all-inclusive resort with incredible views of Hanalei Bay. After the hotel failed financially and closed down, the land was purchased and excavated but was never redeveloped. It has since been completely taken over by jungle and wildlife.
As you walk along the trail, you can see ruins from the old development covered in moss and vines. Palm trees have popped up everywhere. Half built bungalows are still up, now covered in lush plants which have grown on the foundations. When hiking over the ruins, you feel like Lara Croft in a Tomb Raider movie in the middle of the jungle.
The Old Club Med Hike is a unique sight and a walk worth taking on Kauai. This short hike (about 1.5 miles round trip) overlooks Hanalei Bay and offers sweeping views of the shoreline. It is one of the best spots for sunset in Kauai. Mostly frequented by locals, this hike is a hidden gem on Kauai. You can access it via Hanalei Plantation Road from the top or walk up from the beach near the St. Regis Princeville Resort and Hanalei Bay Resort.
Written by Julie from Wandering Sunsets
7. Tskaltubo Spa Town – Georgia
Georgia in the Caucasus is rich with abandoned buildings and exciting ruins reclaimed by mother nature. Many of them leftovers of the country’s time as the Soviet Republic. In its heyday, the town of Tskaltubo in western Georgia’s Imereti region was a wildly popular spa resort. Now, it lays mostly abandoned.
More than 100,000 people travelled to Tskaltubo from across the Soviet Union every year for their annual ‘right to rest’. Long before that, as far back as the 7th century, the area was known for the healing properties of its radon-carbonate mineral springs.
After the USSR collapsed, many of the 19 sanatoriums, resorts and smaller bathhouses were abandoned. Visiting today from the nearby city of Kutaisi, you can walk amongst the ruins and observe relics of life as it was in the 1950s. Bathhouse Number 6 is particularly noteworthy since it was built in 1950 for Stalin himself. Bathhouse Number 5, with its unique rounded pools and cut-out ceiling, and Hotel Iveria, with its grand ballroom that’s now completely abandoned, are also worth visiting. Both are sprouting greenery from the cracks in the walls and floors.
Tskaltubo is pretty niche and relatively unknown, so you probably won’t encounter any other tourists as you wander around taking photos. There are still functioning spas in the town, so be mindful of other guests. It’s especially important not to trespass on private property or attempt to enter any buildings that are fenced off or occupied.
Written by Emily from Wander-Lush
8. Yaxchilan Mayan Ruins – Mexico
Most visitors to Chiapas only make time for one of its Mayan archaeological sites, and the one they choose is usually Palenque. And you can’t blame them, as it’s undoubtedly the most architecturally impressive of the three and is easily accessible. But the large tour groups and persistent hawkers detract from the experience.
For some more off-the-beaten-track Mayan ruins, I recommend Yaxchilán instead. These unusual remote ruins are only accessible by river and are rarely visited. You have to trek through the jungle to get from one ruin to another. And you probably won’t have to share the experience with anyone else except the howler monkeys who live in the surrounding trees.
Yaxchilán lies 25 kilometres downriver from Frontera Corozal, a small border town with a couple of hotels that also serve basic Mexican food. This place is so remote that Mexican phone networks don’t even cover it; the locals who do have mobile phones use Guatemalan systems. In Frontera Corozal, you can hire a boat to take you to the Yaxchilán ruins. The journey takes about 40 minutes each way, and the boat driver will wait there for a couple of hours while you explore. Yaxchilan is an unusual remote ruin both reclaimed and protected by Mother Nature.
Written by Wendy of The Nomadic Vegan
9. Wat Mahathat – Thailand
The city of Ayutthaya in Thailand has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1991. As one of the first capital cities of Siam, the city contains a large number of stunning temples, at its height, there were 400 temples here.
The most well known and the most photographed temple in Ayutthaya has been reclaimed by nature and is all the more stunning for it. Wat Phra Mahathat temple – the monastery of the Great Relic
The most famous location in Ayutthaya is the famous sandstone Buddha head wrapped in tree roots, which you can find at Wat Phra Mahathat, located in the centre of the island of old Ayutthaya. The first recorded mention of Wat Phra Mahathat was in 1374, although the temple built at that time had another name – It wasn’t until 1384 that the temple was extended and got its present name. The whole city was abandoned around 1767, following an invasion by the Burmese.
The Hidden Buddha Head
The area of the temple is stunning, and there are endless rows of headless cross-legged Buddha. The main area of the temple is deserted, primarily because most people come here specifically to see one thing – and that’s the single Buddha head reclaimed by nature. Tangled into the roots of a tree is a Buddha’s head.
While there are many legends as to how the head came to be there, its most likely to have been abandoned following one of the times that the Burmese sacked the city, as it was likely too heavy for the thieves to take further. It’s the ultimate iconic photograph of Ayutthaya, but be sure to follow the rules – you’re not supposed to be above the Buddha, so crouch and be respectful!
The temples of Ayutthaya are well travelled, and the city is easy to reach and move around. The history is stunning, and the temple ruins are too, try to go early or later and avoid the crowds.
Written by Sarah of A Social Nomad
10. Choquequirao – Peru
Just 40 kilometres south-east of Machu Picchu lies another great Inca site: Choquequirao. Meaning “Cradle of Gold” in Quechua, this is quite possibly one of Peru’s most impressive but least-known ruins. Unlike Machu Picchu, where visitor numbers hit 4,000 daily, only a few dozen tourists explore Choquequirao.
But it’s not just its relative obscurity that makes this site so fascinating. Constructed in the 15th century, it served as an estate for Inca royalty. Although larger than Machu Picchu, only about 30% of the ruins have been discovered. Excavations started as late as the 1970s.
Part of its appeal – and one of the reasons it receives so few visitors compared with the Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu – is because it’s so damn hard to reach. The two-day Choquequirao trek involves a gruelling 10 kilometres of uphill hiking, meaning it’s no walk in the park. If you plan on doing it, you need to be prepared with camping equipment plus food for the journey, although you can hire a mule (or opt for a tour) if you want to make your life easier.
Written by Steph of Worldly Adventurer
Sites Reclaimed by the Ocean
11. SS Copenhagen Wreck – Fort Lauderdale
Fort Lauderdale Florida is home to hundreds of dive sites consisting of natural coral reefs and ships sunk as artificial reefs. However, there is one historic shipwreck that’s accessible to divers and snorkelers – the SS Copenhagen. The Copenhagen crashed into a shallow reef in 1900 while transporting coal to Cuba. Salvage crews tried for days to save the ship until they were called away to fight the Hoboken Docks fire.
The vessel lay derelict and visible from shore for forty years until pilots used it as target practice for WWII. Only then did she sink out of view. Today, SS Copenhagen is an underwater archaeological preserve. Divers can see the wooden structure articulated on the sandy bottom, the ship’s anchor, and a plaque telling her story. Piece by piece, the sea is reclaiming the ruins of the boat as her history fades. For now, she remains a decaying reminder of when America routinely traded with Cuba, and wooden vessels sailed the seas.
Written by Ed and Jennifer of Coleman Concierge
12. Shettihalli Rosary Church – India
The Shettihalli Rosary Church, also known as the ‘Submerged Church or Floating Church’ is in Karnataka, India. In the 1960s the church was abandoned following the construction of the Hemavati Dam and Reservoir. After the dam’s construction, the church remained submerged in the water during the monsoon season. It is one of the most popular places to visit near Bangalore.
The ruins of Shettihalli church seem to have an eerie charm, making them a mysterious and exciting place to visit. The best time to visit is during the monsoons (July to October) when the church is submerged in the water. During the winter (December to May) the entire church and its grounds are accessible. You can take coracle rides during the monsoons so that you can explore the church up close! The area surrounding the church is so peaceful and calm, its a wonderful place to spend a day.
Written by Neethu of Our Backpack Tales
Copyright of photo – Wikipedia