Passing through the first checkpoint, marked by a couple of low-slung buildings and a red-and-white pole across an otherwise desolate road, is an anticlimactic affair: A police officer sidles up, scans an official letter of invitation and glances into the back of the van before waving it on into the Chernobyl exclusion zone. It's a lovely fall morning.

The two visitors, a Post correspondent and an interpreter, ride past some of the zone's 74 abandoned villages, derelict little homesteads overgrown with weeds. Many of their owners now live in high-rise apartment buildings between here and the capital, Kiev, about 60 miles to the southeast.

The driver maintains a modest speed. Too many animals -- the fat wild boar, in particular -- tend to toddle out of the birch and pine trees now, he says. The flight of humans after one of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant's four reactors blew up in April 1986 was a boon for wildlife.

There are wolves, elk, deer, fox and bison here. Bird watchers have spotted white-tailed eagles, fish hawks, owls, black storks and the rare green crane. Fish are bountiful, and there's even aquatic life in the former cooling ponds.

Nature is bountiful, but this is still a spooky place.

Little mounds covered with radioactive signs indicate where contaminated rubble was dumped into hastily dug trenches and covered with soil. Hunting and fishing are banned within a 19-mile radius extending in all directions from the ruined reactor and reaching into neighboring Belarus.

The town of Chernobyl, several miles from the plant, once had 10,000 residents and now is home to some of the 9,000 people who work in the zone decommissioning the nuclear power plant and servicing the forests and dams. If not exactly bustling, there are at least signs of human life -- offices, a functioning store, a bar and laundry hanging outside windows.

The statue of Vladimir Lenin, outside the Chernobyl administration building, was painted orange late last year, the color adopted by supporters of a popular revolt that ushered in a new government in Kiev. Now it's back to gray.

At the Chernobyl Information Center, the visitors pick up their guide, Yuri Tatarchuk, 32, who works 15 days on, 15 days off, shepherding reporters, scientists and, increasingly, tourists around the exclusion zone's sights.

Extreme tourism, it's been called, a term Tatarchuk dismisses. "We prefer to think of this as educational," he said. Officials in the zone expect close to 1,000 tourists this year. A one-day excursion from Kiev cost two visitors $220, including lunch (guaranteed not radioactive!).

At the information center, they step onto something that looks like a person-size scale and press their hands against two steel pads. A green light flashes: So far, clean.

Next stop is Reactor No. 4, now encased in an ugly concrete sarcophagus that was hastily thrown up after the accident and needs to be replaced before the end of the decade lest it collapse. There are plans to encase the casing in a metal tomb.

The building literally abuts another reactor, No. 3, which was shut down in 2000. There are two other decommissioned reactors and two reactors that were never completed. Snaking through the vast complex is a wide cooling channel leading to an 81/2- square-mile cooling lake.

The destroyed reactor can be observed at a distance of about 300 yards through the bay windows of a building that serves as an information center. But for security reasons, no photos are allowed from this vantage point. There are 180 tons of nuclear fuel, now in a lava state, resting inside the sarcophagus.

More than 200,000 emergency workers, known as liquidators, picked through the radioactive debris in the months and years after the explosion. Soviet exhortations still adorn some walls: "The Power of Friendship between the Peoples of the USSR is Stronger than the Atom," one reads.

Lunch, back in the town of Chernobyl, is what used to be known in Soviet times as a complexny obed, or fixed lunch menu. The canteen is out of a time capsule, a picture of Soviet prim.

Today's fare is tomato salad, borscht, meat and mashed potatoes, washed down with heavily salted mineral water. Workers pay little attention to the American, Canadian and Japanese guests, who make tepid jokes about mutant vegetables.

Next up is the city of Pripyat, now completely abandoned and located beyond another checkpoint. Beside the police post is a sign, "," advertising an online gathering point and news source for some of Pripyat's 45,000 former residents, now scattered around the world.

Built in the 1970s, a couple of miles from the plant, Pripyat was a young model city when it died. Lenin Avenue's pedestrian zone is now a tangle of overgrown greenery, and branches brush the side of the van as it passes down the street. Moss covers the sidewalks. The apartments themselves were stripped long ago; they stand empty, their windows bereft of glass.

The avenue opens up onto a large square and around it stand the silent Palace of Culture, a sports complex, the Hotel Polissa, the Communist Party's local headquarters and a department store. Nearby is the amusement park with a ghostly Ferris wheel that was never used; it was supposed to start operating on May Day 1986, Tatarchuk says.

Hot spots with elevated radiation levels still dot the city and the wider zone. A trip to a huge vehicle graveyard where 2,000 radioactive cars, trucks and machines are parked is declined.

On the way back, the van stops at Evhenia Rubanova's house, a sweet little cottage on a tree-lined street in Chernobyl. Rubanova, 76, is among 358 mostly elderly settlers who have returned to their homes in the zone and are quietly tolerated by the authorities.

"We were given an apartment, but this is my place," Rubanova said, standing by the carefully tended flowers in her fenced yard, her chained dog barking. "What's an apartment? Chernobyl is a beautiful place, and this is where I want to be."

Rubanova, who returned in 1989, professes to have no fears about radiation. "If I was going to die, I'd be dead," she said, and then recommended with a hint of mischievous glee the local mushrooms, which are heavily radiated.

"They're delicious," she said. "Just boil them and then fry them and they're fine."

As the van passes the checkpoint to exit the zone, the visitors are required to step through another radiation-detection device. The green light flashes. Kiev beckons.

Yuri Tatarchuk, an official guide in the Chernobyl exclusion zone, describes his job as "educational."