Images of the recent devastation of Amatrice, the Northern Lazio hill town in central Italy that was damaged by a strong earthquake, makes one wonder how a town like this might ever recover. Will the residents be able to return and rebuild – or will this like other places have throughout history become abandoned wonders. These places still capture our curiosity and draw us in to visit and see them, despite their lack of inhabitants.

Amatrice after the recent earthquake

Amatrice after the recent earthquake

As David Brussat’s Architecture Here and There brought to my attention – In Southern Italy, for over 50 years the Norman Tower of Craco, perched high upon a rocky cliff face, looks out over its collection of stone buildings terracing down the hillside,  as if the town had grown out of the live rock.


Craco, Italy

But its windows and doors show no light and its streets have no life, as in 1963 a series of mudslides, floods and an earthquake led to the city being deemed un-inhabitable. With a history dating back a thousand years, it now stands as a tragic ghostly reminder of the ultimate fragility of man’s effort to inhabit the land.


Craco’s abandoned street scape

Closer to home, three towns in northern Mexico suffer similar fates leaving them as ethereal places that capture the spirit of their former lives that have been transformed by a variety of circumstances – some natural and some man made.

The story of San Juan Paragaricutiro is one of a birth of natural wonder that led to its demise. On February 20th, 1943, a farmer and his family had been working their cornfields just outside the Tarascan Indian village of Paricutin, in the state of Michoacan. After spending the day clearing and burning the piles of the discarded vegetation, Dionisio Pulido discovered something strange as he moved to another nearby field – a larger crack in the earth over six feet wide and over one hundred and fifty feet long. At first he did not think much of this, as it was only about a foot deep. He returned to his work, but not long after thunder would rumble from the ground, the earth began to shake and the air was filled with the stench of sulfur.   As he turned back to the crack, he discovered that the ground had swelled over six feet high, with ash and smoke pouring from the hissing and spiting hole in the earth. This was the birth of a volcano.


A sketch drawn after the initial eruption


A view of the young volcano forming

After little more than a day, the cone had risen over 50 meters high and by week’s end it had reached 100 meters in height with lava beginning to flow out on to the surrounding areas.


The growing volcano

Paricutin and the nearby village of Paragaricutiro were soon being covered by smoke and ash, with molten wave approaching they were evacuated and would disappear below a field of lava by August of 1944.


The village of Paricutin during the eruption in 1944


San Juan Paragaricutiro before it was swallowed by lava


San Juan Paragaricutiro as the lava flow approches

Today, only accessible by horse or mule, one can descend through fields of the mangled swirls of black, hardened lava and find the spire of San Juan Paragaricutiro still standing and the only remnants of these towns, though partially buried.


San Juan Paragaricutiro captured in the fields of lava


While the roof fell in the ravages of the eruptions and time, the high altar still stands as a chapel not quite swallowed by the earth.


Interior before the volcano erupted.


Remnants of the High Altar


Details of the remains of San Juan Paragaricutiro


After a recent eruption in 2011

The small town of Real de Catorce in San Luis Potosi has suffered from a different set of influences – time and economics.


Tunnel entrance to Real de Catorce

Entered through a tunnel in the mountain where a baton is passed to make the single lane is clear as cars go back and forth one at a time. This once a vibrant silver mining town dating from the late 1770’s, it grew to over 15,000 in the 19th century and the town was filled with beautiful churches, a mint, amphitheater and bull rings, and well as shops selling the finest goods from Europe.


Real de Catorce nestled atop a cliff


Templo de la Purisma Concepcion rising up from the surrounding ruins


La Purisma sketch by Mac White


The exuberant interior of la Purisma

After the fall of the price of silver in 1900, the town was nearly abandoned. Today its remains are relegated to the center of town with a few small hotels and restaurants that cater to the tourists and movie productions that seek the town out, but the surrounding rings of the town have become yet another ghostly visage of its former vibrant settlement.


The streets of Real de Catorce


Details from a bygone age


Window detail at #18 Calle Iturbide, Real de Catorce


on the road in Real de Catorce


Ponte de Jesus in Real de Catorce – sketch by Mac White

As an important border town from the mid 1800’s through the 1940, Guerrero fell to the hands of nature by means of man’s progress. An engineering feat in the 1950’s, Falcon Lake was created along the Rio Grande to provide a steady source of water to both Mexico and South Texas, but it would also mean the demise of Guerrero to the south and Zapata to the north and the towns would have to be relocated.


The Church in Guerrero, Tamaulipas, Mexico

In recent times of drought, the water levels of Falcon have fluctuated and at times bring Guerrero Viejo back to life, rising up out of the waters.


A partially submerged chapel.


The chapel interior

In low water times, the plaza returns with walls and arcades water stains marking the time that they had disappeared below the lake. Arches lay on the ground as they had fallen as walls deteriorated in the water, while others still stand as proud reminders of the past.

5/10/98 - CREDIT: Michael Williamson/TWP - Guerrero Viejo, Mexico Town that was underwater for years is now visible due to drought Some sections of Guerrero Viejo that were underwater the longest are falling down and they'll be the first to be reclaimed by the reservoir if the rains come again. (Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post/Getty Images)

Ruins along the former plaza.


An arch remaining


Details stand out on walls and the mesquite trees come in.


Entering through what remains of the streets of old Guerrero

Time and nature will eventually allow nature to recapture places like these, where streets that once prospered not are filled with silt as the water rises and wanes in the seasons. Perhaps it is worth the trip to see these places before they are gone.