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Some of the most visually stunning places on our planet also happen to be some of the most bizarre-looking. From mysterious caves in Chile to iconic columns in Northern Ireland and the largest salt flat in the world in Bolivia, these sites are worthy of any traveler’s bucket list. While many may seem so strange that you’d think they were unnatural, these stunning but very real wonders simply prove just how amazing nature can be.
Mother Nature truly outdid herself at one of the most fascinating cave destinations in the world, though admittedly it took some 6,000 years of wave erosion to create the undulating patterns that give these spectacular caves their marbleized effect. Carved into the Patagonian Andes, the Cuevas de Marmol are located on a peninsula of solid marble that runs along Lake General Carrera, a remote glacial lake spanning Chile-Argentina border. When the waters are calm, kayakers can even paddle through the caves to get a closer look. The smooth, swirling shades of blues you’ll see on the walls of the cavern are a reflection of the lake’s azure waters, which can change in intensity and hue, depending on the time of year and water levels.
One of Northern Ireland’s most popular tourist attractions, Giant’s Causeway in County Antrim earned its name from the 40,000 basalt columns that interlock to form what looks like Legos, or a walkway fit for a giant. While there are many legends and myths that have been told over the centuries as to how it was created, the Causeway was actually the result of a volcanic eruption that happened about 50 or 60 million years ago. Once the lava cooled it ended up taking its current shape. Today, the area is mostly owned and managed by the National Trust, and a popular World Heritage site found on many tour itineraries.
Described as “the most alien-looking place on earth,” Socotra Island is part of a remote archipelago in the Indian Ocean. It’s so isolated that one-third of its plant life is found nowhere else in the world, resulting in some especially bizarre flora. Most notable are its dragon’s blood trees, odd trees that look like flying saucers sitting atop trunks. They were given their name due to their red sap, which is traditionally used as a dye. The Dr. Seuss-like adenium socotranum trees look like elephants’ legs with pink flowers perched on them. Then, there are the birds like the Socotra grosbeak, Socotra sunbird and the Socotra starling that are found nowhere else on the planet. The island is actually inhabited by about 40,000 residents, and while there are two roads, there is no public transport. Visitors can fly in as the island has its own airport, and vehicles can be rented if required.
The world’s largest wetland area is renowned for its brilliant ruby-hued landscape, thanks to the crimson grasses of the marsh. The swath of marshy flora growing in shallow Dawa County, China waters is actually a plant that’s a rare form of Chenopodium, which is unique in that it can thrive in alkaline soil. This unusual landscape is home to thousands of birds, including a number of endangered birds, and features wooden walkways extending out over the delicate ecosystem allowing visitors to walk among these rare red reeds.
When a prehistoric lake dried up about 30,000 years ago, it left an endless expanse of white hexagonal tiles that stretch to the horizon. Today, this top attraction in Bolivia is considered to be the world’s largest salt flat, stretching for 4,000 square miles in Bolivia’s Andes Mountains, Salar de Uyuni provides more than 25,000 tons of salt per year to local miners, supports a thriving community of thousands of flamingos, and attracts tourists who can check into the Palacio de Sal, a 16-room hotel made entirely from salt blocks. The expanse of salt creates a seemingly never-ending white landscape during the dry season, but the area may be at its most breathtaking in the rainy season when covered with water and the reflection of the bright blue sky creates an even more surreal landscape. One of the best ways to experience it is to join one of the multi-day 4X4 tours that include other attractions in the surrounding desert, like geysers, rock formations, natural hot springs and colorful lakes that house hundreds of pink flamingos.
Goreme was first built back in Roman times, constructed amid the unique rock formations that dominate the area. These towering structures on the high plateau of central Anatolia born of lava rise up to 130 feet into the sky, and over the years, they’ve been whittled down by erosion, creating strange mushroom-like structures that look like something out of a Salvador Dali dream. Since the fourth century AD, humans have been excavating these pillars to form dwellings, which now include boutique hotels. One of the best ways to see this surrealistic landscape is from above, which is why every morning just before sunrise, you’ll see hundreds of hot air balloons being fired up across the region before they float around and above the amazing fairy chimneys.
Though not well known to most of the world, the remarkable desert oasis of Lencois Marahenses National Park in Maranhao, Brazil is one of the world’s truly spectacular, yet rather odd, natural wonders. Here, in the middle of the rolling white sand dunes, a magnificent transformation takes place during the rainy season each year as endless deep turquoise pools spread across the landscape. The pools come from the accumulation of rainfall, which peaks between July and September. By October, the desert begins to dry up once again, and the cycle starts anew. If you time it right, you can even swim in these tranquil, surprisingly warm pools that reach up to an idyllic 86 degrees Fahrenheit.
Visitors frequently make the journey into central Colombia’s Serranea de la Macarena National Park to see why the stunning Cano Cristales has inspired nicknames like the River of Five Colors, the Liquid Rainbow, and even the Most Beautiful River in the World. Originating in the Andean foothills of the Amazon rainforest, these titles can really only be claimed for a brief time each season, when the water reaches ideal levels between October and November each year, coming alive with colorful bottom-feeding algae. The kaleidoscope of pink, green, blue, and yellow is caused by a plant known as the Macarenia clavigera, which makes the river look as if it were a flowing rainbow of brilliant colors.
One of the most unusual, and best known, landforms in Australia, this bizarre rock formation looks like a 46-foot-high cresting wave that will never break. As such, it offers a popular photo-op, where visitors like to assume a surfer pose to capture an ideal selfie. The granite cliff is located near the town of Hyden, about a four-hour drive east of Perth, and was formed by the erosion of softer material at the bottom of its ancient granite dome, while the vertical stripes are the result of rain washing chemicals down its face. While you’re in the area, you can also check out other unique rock formations like The Humps, Hippo’s Yawn and Mulka’s Cave as well as the wildlife park in Hyden, which hosts both rare white kangaroos and koalas.
The Waitomo Caves are one of the most popular attractions in New Zealand, serving as a habitat for glowworms that can only be found in this country. Visitors can float through this magical underground world on an inner tube, gliding down the dimly-lit waters with only the glow of the worms to light their way. If you go, you’re just about guaranteed to be mesmerized by the ceilings and walls that are lined with shimmering blue and green fairy lights. These truly magical caves formed more than 30 million years ago, beginning with the creation of limestone at the bottom of the ocean – standing today as one of the nation’s most inspiring natural wonders.
Located in Los Glaciares National Park in the heart of Argentina’s Patagonian region, Perito Moreno is a nearly 19-mile-long glacier and one of the most famous glaciers in the world. Visitors can witness massive chunks of ice breaking from the glacier, crashing into Lake Argentino, between November and early March, while the more adventurous can board a helicopter flight and go for a walk right on top of it, enjoying a bit of whiskey with natural ice cubes to warm up. It can also be viewed by taking a boat tour across the lake as well as from three on-land viewing areas.
There may be bigger and taller waterfalls in Iceland, but Seljalandsfoss has a special magic about it that makes it a must to see in person. Located between Skógafoss and Selfoss, it’s one of Iceland’s most photographed falls, plummeting nearly 200 feet into a pool below. You can even walk around the pool to the back of the falls for an especially unique perspective that few get to ever experience – in fact, the very fortunate have even been able to watch the northern lights from inside it.
Lysefjorden is a fjord in Norway that attracts visitors from across the globe. While it’s smaller than many of the other country’s fjords, what makes it a standout at this awe-inspiring natural wonder: Pulpit Rock. With a 2,000-foot drop from a flat plateau, with no safety railings, standing atop it gives visitors an adrenaline rush like no other. In fact, it’s renowned as one of the most beautiful and terrifying places on the planet. Even if you stay far from the edge you’ll still be able to soak up some of the world’s most spectacular scenery, including Kjerag peak which drops for over 3,228 feet. The mountain is another popular spot for photography, rock climbing and BASE jumping. The area also hosts a number of fascinating historic sites, like prehistoric rock carvings that date all the way back to 500 BC.
Not well-known by those outside the region, Plitvice Lakes National Park is home to some of the most breathtaking waterfalls in the world, including 16 cascading lakes in crystal-clear shades of emerald and turquoise. The water that has flowed over the limestone and chalk for thousands of years has created the barriers, resulting in natural dams that form jaw-dropping waterfalls as well as rivers and caves. It’s considered to be one of the most impressive natural landmarks in all of Eastern Europe, if not the entire continent. The maze of lakes and waterfalls, lush greenery and clear cerulean waters, is so fantasy-like it seems as if it were computer generated and plopped right down in Croatia. Wooden walkways make access easy for visitors, and while swimming is forbidden inside the park, there are a number of places to take a refreshing dip on a warm summer’s day, like Korana Village.
If you’re into underwater life, the Great Barrier Reef is one natural wonder that you really don’t want to miss. The oldest and largest living coral reef on the planet, it spans nearly 150 miles and is made up entirely of living organisms. The dizzying variety of marine life that can be found here is truly remarkable, including sea turtles, rays, dolphins, giant clams, tropical fish and much more. By heading to the Queensland coast you can hop on any number of boats that shuttle snorkelers and divers out to the reef for an experience of a lifetime. According to the Australian Conservation Foundation, a rise in ocean temperatures of just 3 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit, combined with more acidic water, may soon leave 97 percent of the Great Barrier Reef bleached and lifeless, so this is one trip you don’t want to put off.
Not surprisingly, some of the world’s most awe-inspiring destinations can’t be reached by car, including Kauai’s Na Pali Coast. While it may not be easy to get to, requiring an 11-mile-hike on the Kalalau trail, taking a boat or helicopter tour, the reward of being on this rugged, wild coastline is worth the effort. Located along the north shore of Kauai, it boasts lush, emerald-hued pinnacles that tower along the shoreline for 17 miles, with velvety green cliffs and cascading falls that plunge into deep, narrow valleys. Today, it appears much like it did centuries before, when Hawaiian settlements flourished in the valleys, existing on the fish they could catch and the food they could grow.
Yellowstone is America’s first national park is surely one of its most magnificent. The nearly 4,000-square-mile park is home to more geothermal features, including hot springs, mud pots and geysers, than anywhere else on the planet. You can see one of the most famous, Old Faithful, which shoots steam as high as 185 feet into the sky every 90 minutes, along with many other lesser-known geysers as well as brilliant multi-colored hot springs like Grand Prismatic Spring, the largest hot spring in America and a natural wonder that must be seen to be believed. It was named for its striking coloration in hues that match the rainbow dispersion of white light by an optical prism of orange, yellow, red, green and blue.
The Galapagos Islands are a one-of-a-kind destination located 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador. This microcosm of evolution offers some of the best up-close-and-personal wildlife encounters on Earth. As the islands were never linked to the mainland, to get there, species had to have swam, floated or flown in – and as larger mammals at the top of the food chain couldn’t make the journey, the lack of predators allow wildlife to thrive. Many of the animals have never learned to fear humans, and appear practically tame, which means you can snorkel right alongside an iguana and walk quietly among the resident sea lions and the Galapagos giant tortoise. You can also spot Galapagos penguins, blue-footed boobies and flightless cormorants.