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8 Rules for Exploring Abandoned Places

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Rusting amusement parks. Crumbling asylums. Entire cities with apartment buildings, parks, monuments — and no residents.

The world is full of weird and wonderful abandoned places, from a shopping mall in Bangkok that's home to thousands of koi to a Mexican village half-buried by lava.1 The melancholy beauty of places like these has made them sought-after destinations for photographers and thrill-seeking travelers. You may have seen evidence of their exploits online and thought, "I have to go there!" And you can — but make sure to follow these rules for exploring abandoned places.

1. Ask Permission

It's tempting to assume that no one will notice or care if you sneak into an abandoned mansion. But chances are good that someone still owns the property, and if you enter without permission, you're trespassing. Take the time to do your homework, find the owner and ask if you can visit. Web Urbanist suggests identifying yourself as a photographer, not an "urban explorer."2

2. Pack Protection

By their very nature, abandoned places are most frequently found off the grid — separated from the hustle and bustle of tourist hotspots and everyday life. That’s why it’s a good idea to find a travel insurance plan to be your trusty sidekick as you journey into the unknown. Depending on your plan, benefits can include trip cancellation and interruption benefits, as well as 24-Hr. Hotline Assistance to troubleshoot losing your travel documents or finding where you can grab AAA batteries for your head lamp at 2 AM. Also be sure to download the TravelSmart app, which ensures you’re a touch away from your travel insurance plan and local emergency numbers. Be sure you’re allowed onsite – we cannot provide benefits if you have illegally entered.

3. Know the Dangers

When visiting abandoned places, the most obvious hazard is falling through rotten floorboards — but there are often much more sinister, invisible dangers. For example, the toxic ghost town of Picher, Oklahoma, was abandoned in 2006 after it was found that mining made the ground unstable and many of the town's children were found to have elevated levels of lead. Now the only safe way to explore the deserted town is by drone.3 Perhaps the most famous of all toxic ghost towns is Pripyat, Ukraine, the city left abandoned after the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Sightseeing tours of Chernobyl are available and operators promise that visitors won't be there long enough to absorb harmful radiation, but the site is carefully controlled.4

4. Explore Abandoned Places That Are Open to the Public

Some of the most beautiful ruins you'll ever see are accessible to the public, although they aren't often easy to reach. World Heritage Site Skellig Michael is a rocky island off the coast of Ireland where Christian monks built a community between the sixth and eighth centuries. They lived in beehive-shaped cells of stacked rock that stand to this day. [5]But understand that even visiting public, sanctioned abandoned sites is not risk-free. The site has seen its share of dangerous rock falls and even deaths — and there’s been a serious uptick in travel to Skellig Michael since it was the backdrop for the 2016 filming of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”6

5. Don't steal souvenirs from abandoned places.

Part of the eerie charm of exploring an abandoned place is the sense that its human occupants have only just left. You may see magazines left on nightstands or children's toys scattered on the floor. Resist the temptation to grab an artifact on your way out. At best, you're diluting the experience for other urban explorers; at worst, you're stealing and desecrating a historic site.

6. Join a Group

Preservation groups often hold the keys to visiting abandoned sites. For instance, New York City's long-closed Old City Hall subway station, built in 1904, can only be toured by Transit Museum members.7 Or if you're interested in touring abandoned cemeteries, consider joining volunteer efforts to clean and restore them. It goes without saying that you should never, ever try exploring abandoned places alone.

7. Don't Wait Too Long

The clock is ticking for some abandoned places, as time, neglect or redevelopment threaten to destroy them forever. One dramatic example is an abandoned movie set: the alien buildings of Mos Espa, the town built in the Tunisian desert by George Lucas for the filming of "The Phantom Menace." A sand dune is slowly moving in to cover the buildings. As tourists flock there to see a little bit of "Star Wars" before it's swallowed, fans are also raising funds to save the set.8, 9

8. Accept That Some Places Are Just Off-Limits

The beach resort of Varosha, in Cyprus, is a lovely place — or was until 1974, when its residents fled the Turkish invasion. The ghost town has been fenced off and abandoned ever since, and unauthorized visitors run the risk of being shot by military guards. Exploring dangerous abandoned places is just not worth it; enjoy someone else's pictures instead.10

Safely navigating abandoned places truly comes down to not abandoning your common sense. And just remember: that faint tapping that sounds like it’s coming from right behind you — well, it’s probably just the wind.

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Sep 13, 2019