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11 of the scariest places you can travel

(Richard A. Chance/Illustration for The Washington Post)
(Richard A. Chance/Illustration for The Washington Post)

11 of the scariest places you can travel, according to pros

For the TV hosts, authors and social media influencers who travel for a living, it’s only natural to wax poetic about the world’s best places: the most charming villages in Europe, the most exciting safari in Africa, the most beautiful beaches in the Caribbean. It’s less often we get to hear about the places on the other end of the spectrum — specifically, the places that freaked them out.

In the spirit of Halloween, we interviewed these experienced travelers to find out which corners of the globe creeped them out the most. For some, it was unsettling cemeteries abroad that sent tingles up their spines; for others, it was dilapidated guesthouses with supernatural vibes.

Here are the 11 spookiest destinations they shared.

A haunted hotel attic in Rye, U.K.

Mermaid Street in the English town of Rye. The Mermaid Inn dates from 1420 and was used by smugglers in the 18th century. (iStock)
Mermaid Street in the English town of Rye. The Mermaid Inn dates from 1420 and was used by smugglers in the 18th century. (iStock)

On a trip to the United Kingdom with friends, history buff and cookbook author Rick Martinez was compelled to visit the ancient town of Rye — once an infamous pirate port in the 13th century. While having a pint at the Mermaid Inn, a centuries-old hotel known for reports of ghost sightings, one of Martinez’s friends “felt a very malicious presence,” he remembers. With hairs standing on the backs of their necks, the group left and went to their accommodations down the street to sleep.

In the middle of the night, Martinez woke up in the so-called widow’s attic he was sharing with a friend. “I felt like I was just paralyzed — I couldn’t move — but I saw this woman walking back and forth around our room with a knife,” he says. “Meanwhile, as I’m seeing this and unable to move, I hear my friend essentially choking.”

Come morning, Martinez says, his friend reported “whatever was evil that she sensed in the pub had followed us home and was trying to strangle her in bed. So I was like: ‘You know what? This was great. We’re going to just go ahead and take off.’ ”

A paranormal funeral parlor in Cleveland

Scary situations are part of the job for Dalen Spratt, one of the stars of “Ghost Brothers: Lights Out,” which has a new season streaming on Discovery Plus and premiering on the Travel Channel on Nov. 26. One place that stands out to Spratt is the House of Wills in Cleveland, once reportedly the largest Black-owned funeral home in Ohio.

The property has fallen into disrepair and is a popular spot for paranormal investigators; Spratt featured it on one of his shows in 2017. He said while he was there, a woman with experience at the location brought him into the first-floor women’s restroom, and they both gazed into the mirror.

“About a minute in, my reflection in the mirror smiles at me,” Spratt said. “It was the Joker, Cheshire cat, your-mouth-doesn’t-even-open-up-that-wide-or-that-high” kind of smile. He said he fell to the ground shaking, then the women told him her reflection had just smiled at her.

“I didn’t even tell her what I saw,” he said. “That was the freakiest thing I ever saw in my life.”

An eerie old jail in Charleston, S.C.

A front view of the Old City Jail in Charleston, S.C., in 2012. (Shutterstock)
A front view of the Old City Jail in Charleston, S.C., in 2012. (Shutterstock)

Travel expert Samantha Brown, host of “Samantha Brown’s Places to Love” on PBS, toured Charleston’s Old City Jail twice, more than 10 years apart. Both visits left her shaken.

The jail operated from the early 1800s until 1939 in “horrid conditions,” Brown said. Her first visit was a nighttime tour that scared her so much that she had to stop: “I started to see handprints on the walls when I didn’t see handprints before,” she said.

She returned a couple of years ago — but said she would only do the tour during the day. During the visit, the group heard footsteps behind them.

“There was no one else in that jail other than us,” she said. “I was like, ‘Okay, let’s go.’ ”

A bed-and-breakfast with bad energy in Glastonbury, U.K.

Rick Steves, the famous guidebook author and travel guide, was hosting a tour of Cotswold villages and Stonehenge in the ’80s, and was scheduled to stay in an old bed-and-breakfast near Glastonbury.

The area is known as one of the most spiritual places in Britain, drawing religious visitors and new-age witches alike. To boot, the guesthouse was built on a spot where two ley lines crossed. (Some people believe ley lines are invisible gridlines that channel the Earth’s magnetic field, and ancient civilizations aligned landmarks along them to harness power.)

Once the group went to their rooms to tuck in for the night, “I just felt some creepy spirit in my room,” Steves says. “I went out into the hall, and everybody from the tour felt the same creepy spirit in their rooms.” Having spent thousands of nights in hotel rooms, “I’ve never felt anything remotely like this,” Steves says. “So we just all grabbed our bags. … We vacated that haunted hotel.”

The skull-lined Paris Catacombs

The Paris Catacombs hold the remains of some 6 million people. (Michel Euler/AP)
The Paris Catacombs hold the remains of some 6 million people. (Michel Euler/AP)

Travel agency CEO Rani Cheema loves to be up early to beat the crowds. That’s how she found herself being one of the first few people of the day to enter the Paris Catacombs in 2015.

Wanting to keep moving, she listened to a bit of the tour, then walked ahead of people — until she realized she didn’t hear anything and was completely alone, surrounded by gated hallways, walls of skulls and darkness.

“I kept saying I didn’t like this, I don’t want to be alone,” said Cheema, whose agency, Cheema’s Travel, focuses on luxury culinary travel. She found the rest of the group and “zoomed past everyone and got out of there” once she neared the exits.

Cheema doesn’t believe in ghosts, but a friend who practices shamanism was convinced that a family of them followed her back from the catacombs and caused a wave of anxiety that she felt when she returned home.

“They kept saying you didn’t want to be alone,” the friend said of the ghosts.

Shades of ‘The Shining’ in Banff, Alberta

The Banff Springs hotel in Alberta, Canada, was built in the 1800s. (iStock)
The Banff Springs hotel in Alberta, Canada, was built in the 1800s. (iStock)

Barry Hoy, a Canadian travel writer and blogger at AsianMapleLeaf, recently visited the Fairmont Banff Springs in Banff, Alberta. “Beautiful, castle-like,” he said of the sprawling hotel, which opened in 1888. “Definite creepy vibes.”

Hoy went on a hotel tour on an earlier visit and learned two famous ghost stories about the property: one about a long-serving bellman who couldn’t give up his job, even after death, and another about a bride who died at the hotel before her wedding. Hoy said he has wandered the halls of the hotel, but never encountered anything himself.

“I joke about wanting to see stuff, but I really don’t,” he said.

An abandoned lighthouse on a Scottish isle

When travel writer Rolf Potts peeked inside an abandoned building underneath a lighthouse on Scotland’s Isle of Scalpay, he thought he came face-to-face with a ghost. It wasn’t a supernatural experience, but it was spooky enough to rattle him.

In 2016, Potts stumbled upon a lighthouse that had, like so many others around the world, switched from manual to automated operations. He noticed an open door to the deserted crew quarters and crept inside. The dank, empty room was a tableau of a bygone era, the workers’ tools and diversions moldering on the table.

“I saw video games rotting away under this ancient building,” the 52-year-old author said. “ ‘Astro Wars’ and ‘Space Invaders,’ the archaic games of my youth.”

Seeing the vestiges of his childhood now decrepit and faded made him aware of the growing distance between his adult self and his younger counterpart.

“It felt nostalgic and macabre at the same time,” he said. “It was an intrinsic realization of the shortness of life and my own mortality.”

A narco’s luxe prison in Medellín, Colombia

For a tour of La Catedral, TV host Nathan Fluellen hired a former police officer to show him around the mountaintop mansion where Pablo Escobar served his five-year prison sentence, starting in 1991. When the pair reached the room where the Colombian drug lord tortured and killed his victims, the guide sent Fluellen in alone.

“He had been hunted by Pablo for years,” the creator and host of the TV travel show “World Wide Nate: African Adventures” said of his guide. “Only three out of 30 cadets [in his police academy class] survived.”

As soon as Fluellen entered the shabby room with stained walls and chipped paint, he understood the guide’s reluctance to step inside. “You could feel the energy,” he said. “I imagined all of the horrendous things that had taken place there.”

The compound appears on the first season of the Netflix series “Narcos.” But even the showbiz treatment can’t exorcise the evil spirits Fluellen sensed during his 2015 visit.

“I don’t get scared easily,” he said, “but I definitely wouldn’t sleep there, even if they turned it into an Airbnb.”

An unfinished water park in Vietnam

The abandoned Ho Thuy Tien water park has become an eerie tourist attraction near Hue, Vietnam. (Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images)
The abandoned Ho Thuy Tien water park has become an eerie tourist attraction near Hue, Vietnam. (Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images)

Being the only two people at a water park seems like a dream scenario: no lines, no tantrum-prone children, no one else’s germs. But at the abandoned Ho Thuy Tien water park, Kirstie Pike and Christine Diaz felt as if they were adrift in a nightmare.

“It was spooky and heart-wrenching,” Pike said. “It felt haunted.”

The couple, who run the LGBTQ+ travel website and vlog On Airplane Mode, visited the site in 2019, when they were living in Southeast Asia. The water park, which sits outside the city of Hue in central Vietnam, was shuttered before it was completed. Graffiti covers the walls, and broken glass crackles underfoot.

“These eerie slides were completely overgrown” with thick tropical vegetation, Pike said.

The couple climbed into a giant dragon sculpture and peered out of its mouth, which overlooks the lake. Though the sun was shining in a bright blue sky, fog rolled across the water, adding to the sense of horror and dread.

Maybe sharing a water park with one or two other visitors isn’t such a bad idea.

A claustrophobic cave in Upstate New York

Fortunately, Darley Newman isn’t claustrophobic or phasmophobic. The Lockport Cave & Underground Boat Ride in Upstate New York was terrifying enough without the phobias.

“If you want to be scared, you should go down into the tunnels blasted into the cliff face rock,” said the creator, producer and host of several PBS travel shows, including “Travels with Darley.” “The tunnels feel like they could implode at any time.”

The 19th-century engineering feat was good for businesses, providing several industries with extra water from the Erie Canal. But the project was perilous for the miners and children who helped construct the half-mile-long subterranean waterway.

“People sacrificed their lives,” Newman said.

Visitors can choose from several excursions, including the Lockport Haunted Cave walking tour, which appeared on an episode of “Ghost Hunters,” and the Ghost Hunters Experience, which involves spectral sleuthing.

“The immersive ghost tour actively showcases their paranormal side,” she said.

As a reward for not screaming your head off or fainting, Newman recommends treating yourself to a cone at Lake Effect Ice Cream, by the Flight of Five Locks.

A dark, empty cemetery in Mexico City

The Panteón de San Fernando in Mexico City. (Shutterstock)
The Panteón de San Fernando in Mexico City. (Shutterstock)

On the Day of the Dead, Mexico’s cemeteries are traditionally full of life. Unless you go to the wrong burial ground.

Last year, Nellie Huang, a travel writer who shares her adventures on her Wild Junket site, traveled with her husband and young daughter from their home in Playa del Carmen to Mexico City for the holiday. The trio went to Panteón de San Fernando, one of the city’s oldest cemeteries and the resting place of many notable 19th-century figures. Alas, no one else came to party with the dead.

“We went to the cemetery at night. It was very quiet, very dark and empty,” Huang said. “We were the only ones there. It was very spooky.”

Huang and her family didn’t stick around long. They high-tailed it for another cemetery, Panteón San José, where they found what they were looking for: a festive celebration with taco carts, lit candles and living revelers.

“The first cemetery was full of famous people,” said Huang, who will visit Oaxaca for this year’s Día de Muertos. “The second one was more local. I definitely liked the fun one.”

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