It’s fitting that we should start with the most famous of all mythical destinations, Atlantis, which was first mentioned in allegories from Plato’s Timaeus and Critias. Of course, like every other entry on this list, there’s some speculation that Atlantis may have actually existed. As the story goes, it was an Atlantic Ocean island that was lost when the waters around it rose, allegedly destroying thousands of years of learning and culture, not to mention the advanced infrastructure. It’s worth mentioning that even some who dismiss the nation as fictional are open to the idea that another sunken nation may have inspired the Atlantis story. Subsequently, countless undersea expeditions have been launched in an effort to locate the legendary land.
According to Nahuatl legend, seven tribes — Acolhua, Chalca, Mexica, Tepaneca, Tlahuica, Tlaxcalan, and Xochimilca — converged to form one land that they called Aztlán. Dubbing themselves the Aztecs (Aztecah means “people from Aztlán”), they would go on to create one of the most powerful empires of the ancient Americas, even though it is likely that Aztlán never actually existed. Still, anthropologists have suggested the Pacific coast state of Nayarit as a possible former location of Aztlán, as well as the states of Guanajuato, Jalisco, and Michoacán — and even as far north as the Southwestern United States! Descriptions of the place itself also vary, ranging from references to it as a paradise to those that speak of a tyrannical elite that once ruled over the citizens.
King Arthur is famous for his defense of Britain against Saxon invaders in the late fifth and early sixth centuries, even though his historical existence is debated and disputed by modern historians. Likewise, it is unknown whether the capital of Arthur’s realm, Camelot, truly existed. Nevertheless, tales prevail of the enormous castle built upon the peak of a great hill, the fabled round table at which 150 knights could sit, and the disastrous battle on Salisbury Plain where Arthur was mortally wounded. Camelot would have obviously been located somewhere in Great Britain, but Arthurian scholar Norris J. Lacy was likely right when he described it as being “located nowhere in particular [and] can be anywhere.” Similarly, the existence of the mythical Arthurian country of Lyonesse has also been debated for centuries.
First described in the 1530s, El Dorado (“The Golden One”) was the name given to tribal chiefs of the Muisca people of Colombia, who would cover themselves in gold and wade into the waters of Lake Guatavita, located 35 miles northeast of Bogotá. This tale led many to believe that there was a remote city in South America where gold was abundant and not valued nearly as much as it is in the rest of the world. Gold was said to cover everything from the buildings to roads to clothing. Although El Dorado has always been generally regarded as mythical, curiosity and greed has nevertheless led to countless expeditions to the region by explorers from all over the world, including two attempts by Sir Walter Raleigh in 1595 and 1617. Similar stories and situations exist for other alleged lost cities of Latin America, including those of the City of the Caesars, Paititi, Sierra de la Plata, and two entries further down this list.
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Who wouldn’t want to track down a spring that grants eternal youth to those who bathe in its waters? Tales of this destination have existed for thousands of years, including appearances in the writings of Herodotus (fifth century B.C.), the mythical exploits of Alexander the Great (third century), the stories of Prester John (early Crusades), and the expeditions of Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León. It’s worth noting, however, that contrary to popular belief, de León likely wasn’t looking for the Fountain of Youth during his exploration of Florida. Instead, he reportedly believed it to possibly exist in the waters of Bimini in the western Bahamas.
Julfar (or “Julphar,” now known as Ras al Khaimah of the United Arab Emirates) is one of the most debated places in this list, as numerous references to the city have been made throughout time, but historians have frustratingly been unable to find all of it.
Home to the fictional Sinbad the Sailor and the real navigator and cartographer Ahmad ibn Mājid (born 1421), Julfar is said to have thrived for a thousand years as a port and commercial center before falling into ruin and disappearing from memory for almost two centuries. Part of the actual site was finally discovered by archaeologists in the 1960s, but as it was allegedly a substantial city of around 70,000 people only five centuries ago and existed since the sixth century, historians are baffled by the fact that most of Julfar still apparently remains hidden under the region’s sand dunes.
Said to be located in eastern Honduras, Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés reported hearing “trustworthy reports of very extensive and rich provinces” around 1520, but never located them. The legend stayed alive for centuries and was rejuvenated when, in 1927, aviator Charles Lindbergh reported seeing a “white city” while flying over Honduras. It is uncertain if Lingbergh was the first to describe the area this way, as the name “Ciudad Blanca” may have been used by ethnographer Eduard Conzemius earlier in the same year. Additionally, adventurer Theodore Morde spoke of a similar city in 1939, Tibor Sekelj searched for it in 1952 (but was unsuccessful), and author Christopher Stewart attempted to retrace Morde’s steps in 2009. In 2012, documentarian Steve Elkins and the Honduran government reportedly found Ciudad Blanca using advanced surveying technology (and reasserted this fact in 2013 with images that appear to show a network or plazas and pyramids), but University of California, Berkley archaeologist Rosemary Joyce dismissed it as hype. A 2015 “discovery” was also met with criticism and doubts. Still, with more than 200 archaeological sites discovered and documented in nearby areas during the last century, there’s still plenty of hope that the White City might still be found.
Nineteenth-century traveler and writer Augustus Le Plongeon first proposed the idea of a lost continent called Mu as an explanation for the founding of numerous ancient civilizations, such as those of Egypt, Greece, India, and Mesoamerica. The idea is that when Mu began rapidly sinking about 10,000 years ago, the island continent’s inhabitants fled on ships and canoes in all directions. The continent supposedly existed in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and British writer James Churchward mapped its size as comparable to that of South America — possibly larger! Although the Mu theory has been generally discredited, no one knows for sure what mysteries lay beneath the Pacific waters.
The Greek explorer Pytheas first wrote about Thule in On the Ocean after his travels between 330 and 20 B.C. It was discussed by numerous other important figures (including Strabo, Pliny the Elder, and Pomponius Mela) in the following centuries, and the name was eventually incorporated into the medieval geographical term “ultima Thule,” which denotes any place beyond the borders of the known world.
Although Thule was generally described as being an island nation (possibly Iceland or Greenland), modern interpretations of some accounts suggest the land could actually be Norway. For instance, Pytheas claimed it was a six-day sail north of Britain, and Pliny mentioned “it is day and night continually by turns (for six months).” On the other hand, Strabo doubts these claims, calling Pytheas “an arch falsifier.” Talk about an old-school diss.
In the world of explorers, Lt. Col. Percy Fawcett was one of the best there ever was. After serving in the Royal Artillery and British Secret Service, he befriended Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who would later use the stories of Fawcett’s numerous Amazonian expeditions as inspiration for his novel The Lost World. In 1925, Fawcett, his son, and his son’s friend returned to South America in search of a city the explorer referred to as “Z,” which was described in numerous ancient legends and mentioned in some historical records, including a 1753 account by a Portuguese hunter that called it a stone jungle metropolis of great “size and grandeur.” Fawcett believed this modern-day El Dorado to exist somewhere in the Mato Grosso region of western Brazil, although it’s possible that it was also located further east and may have been the archaeological site known as Kuhikugu, which was only recently uncovered.
It is unknown whether Fawcett and his companions ever reached his Lost City of Z, however, since they failed to return from that 1925 expedition and were never heard from again. In subsequent years, as many as 100 additional explorers disappeared or perished while searching for Fawcett and Z.