Get ready to be awed by ethereal landscapes that rank among the planet’s most beautiful places.
We’ve all seen them on Pinterest or Instagram: surreal, eye-popping landscapes that look more like photo illustrations than real-life places. Multicolored salt flats, marbled ice caves, limestone needle forests, and volcanic valleys that glow highlighter-yellow couldn’t possibly exist on Earth — could they?
Not only do such landscapes exist, but they are among the most beautiful places on our planet. Occurring naturally due to phenomena like flash floods and magma eruptions, these otherworldly locales inspire awe and guarantee bragging rights. Some of these may be daunting to get to, but they yield unforgettable experiences. As a bonus, a selfie at the edge of a boiling lava lake will instantly earn the hashtag #adventuretravel and up your Instagram cred.
We’ve rounded up seven of the world’s most unusual and beautiful places. Warning: may induce a serious case of wanderlust.
No, this is not the setting for a sci-fi film. Best known for its maars (craters formed by magma-motivated steam explosions), Dallol is a sprawling volcanic environment comprised of salt flats, cinder cones, lava lakes, and hot springs colored by sulfur and mineral deposits. Inhabited by northern Ethiopia’s Afar people, this alien wasteland is located in the Danakil Depression, which sits 410 feet below sea level and is considered the hottest spot on Earth, with sustained temperatures of 94° Fahrenheit. The climate is extreme and the fumes can be toxic, so it’s not for the casual traveler. But there’s nothing like it on Earth, which alone makes it bucket list–worthy.
In Navajo Nation is a slot canyon so spectacular that photographers often brave flash floods and rock falls just to document its undulating sandstone walls. The descent is via steep metal stairs and ladders — dodgy but worth it, considering the panorama of sculpted rock formations that awaits. Over centuries, rain, flash floods, and wind shaped the sandstone into wave-like arches and gave it its characteristic brushed texture. The colors — from vermillion to umber to gold — give the place a spiritual quality, particularly when a column of light punches through the roof of the canyon and shimmers in its dark recesses.
Imagine acres of towering, needle-like limestone formations, crowded like a front of soldiers refusing to allow passage. Now add dense dry forests, waterfalls, underground caves, and 11 species of lemur, including some that only occur here, and you have the planet’s strangest and most inaccessible UNESCO World Heritage Site. Tsingy de Bemaraha’s one-of-a-kind geomorphology consists of karstic structures eroded into jagged pinnacles by millennia of rainfall and flowing groundwater. The karsts are home to endemic wildlife so hard to reach that much of it has yet to be classified. The area encompasses a national park, which can be accessed by two river crossings, strenuous hiking, and a series of suspended footbridges (don’t look down!), as well as an integral nature reserve that’s a supremely rich biosphere not open to visitors.
Even polar deserts get more rain than the Atacama. Known as the world’s driest desert, this 41,000-square-mile wilderness in the rain shadow of the Andes and the Chilean Coast Range has been likened to Mars. It seems like a fair comparison when considering sites like Valle de la Luna, with its extraterrestrial-looking salt pillars, and Valle de la Muerte, a hyperarid expanse of sand and stone. Improbably, life persists here. The Atacama is dotted with small towns, such as the charming San Pedro de Atacama, and has recently become popular with adventure-travel outfitters offering such excursions as high-altitude volcano climbing, sandboarding across endless dunes, and horseback riding inside red canyons.
Anyone who remembers the otherworldly landscape of Pandora in James Cameron’s Avatar will appreciate the mist-cloaked spires of Tianzi Mountain. Located in the Wulingyuan Scenic Area in China’s Hunan Province, the 16,000-acre expanse of water-and-wind-eroded mountains was the real-life inspiration for the mythical Pandora. It’s hard to distinguish fantasy from reality when the sandstone towers burst through the clouds like petrified fingers imploring the heavens, or when the peaks blush rose-gold beneath the rising sun. And though you can’t fly over them on a banshee, the Tianzis are accessible via cable car and light hiking.
If one can see the strange, surreal beauty in death, the Deadvlei (or Dead Marsh) surely numbers among the world’s most beautiful places. A desiccated clay pan amid the Namib Desert’s red sand dunes, Deadvlei gets its name from the forest of dead camel-thorn trees that sprout from the white clay like sculptures. In the hyperarid conditions, the trees did not decompose. They simply dried up and were scorched to their current black color by the sun. The landscape is so bizarre, it has even inspired Hollywood: The Cell, with Jennifer Lopez, was one of several films partly shot there. A stout all-terrain vehicle will get you there, but be warned: the heat and dryness are real.
Iceland’s largest glacier with an underbelly of active volcanoes, Vatnajökull is a spectacular site and an unforgettable hike. But what lies beneath this icy world is even more jaw-dropping than the surface. The Vatnajökull ice caves, accessible by monster four-by-fours in winter only, exist within the glacier’s natural crevices. Ice sculptures, marbled in umpteen shades of blue, undulate into strange shapes and funnel into tight passages that bring to mind the frozen world of fairy tales. The main caves have become something of a tourist attraction, but the Waterfall Ice Cave, accessed by a longer hike and rope work, beckons to more adventurous travelers. Being inside Waterfall is a true sensory experience, as glacial water trickles and ice cracks all around you, a reminder that even the most beautiful places are ephemeral.