Nan Madol, Micronesia

Photo: Tara Sturm,
Photo: Tara Sturm,

Welcome to one of the most mysterious places in the world. You’re standing among the ruins of a 1,000-year-old city in Micronesia. It was built atop 92 artificial islets made of stone and coral. Canals linked them together. Huge sea walls were created out of giant basalt pillars. Temples, tombs, and bathhouses filled the interior. It’s now a wildly overgrown and completely deserted archaeological site.

Nan Madol is often compared to Easter Island or the walled cities built by the Mayans and the Aztecs in Central America. The city’s construction began around the 8th century and continued for hundreds of years. The Saudeleur Dynasty ruled the island of Pohnpei from this magical spot until 1628, when they were overthrown by Isokelekel. It was mysteriously abandoned soon after.

After landing in Kolonia, the current capital of Pohnpei, you boarded a small boat close to high tide. You passed smaller islands, a wide lagoon, and a long reef as you headed southeast. Fishing sea birds dove into the water ahead of you. While the mangroves grew denser once you started maneuvering toward the narrow canals that gave Nan Madol its nickname of the “Venice of the Pacific.”

Now you’re exploring the ruined city. You pass through the high basalt walls. No one has determined how the heavy stones were transported to this side of the island. Nan Dowas, the largest islet, was the burial spot for chiefs. Canoes were made on Dapahu. Coconut oil was prepared on Peinering. While Usenamw was the kitchen. There was no fresh water on the islets. It was brought in with food grown on the rest of the island. Seafood was abundant, though.

More than 1,000 people supposedly lived in this grand city. It’s now home to colorful geckos, bats, and sea turtles. Trees grow between the rocks covered with moss. They’re tangled with bright green vines. And most of the time, it’s at least sprinkling, since Pohnpei is one of the wettest places on Earth. So move carefully but quickly through Nan Madol. When the tide starts to go out, the islets become inaccessible. No wonder they remain so mysterious.


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