Eye-popping. That’s one way to describe the following bucket-list-worthy visions of insane architecture, surreal erosion and nature gone wild. “Otherworldly” just feels like an understatement. And these wonders do not, in fact, lie on a foreign planet; you can actually book a ticket to every place on the list. So start planning. Whether you want to crawl through glistening ice caves, witness astronomic phenomena or swim in a pink lake, adventure awaits…
1. Havasupai Falls, Arizona: These images might look totally Photoshopped but they’re 100 percent untouched. That’s just how Havasupai rolls. The blues are so pale (and also milky) that you feel like you’re staring at someone’s screensaver. The fact that the neighboring Indian Reservation is the least accessible place in the Lower 48 (helicopters, donkeys and your own feet are the only ways in or out) means that as beautiful as it is, it’s also rarely crowded.
2. Jellyfish Lake, Palau: Remember in Finding Nemo when they bounced through a jellyfish colony? Well you can totally do that. In real life. And here’s the kicker: you won’t come out of the water screaming and lacerated by millions of jellyfish stings. The jellyfish themselves are harmless. The experience? unforgettable.
3. The Northern Lights, Finland: Watching the Northern Lights streak the sky with purples, pinks and greens is one of those iconic experiences that you’ll never forget. It’s stunning… and relatively unpredictable. So choose a viewing spot like Luosto, Finland: a quaint Nordic village filled with rustic cabins, snowy forests and spas to warm up in on evenings when the lights don’t show.
4. Ta Prohm Temple, Cambodia: If Ta Prohm Temple looks like a set from an adventure movie, that’s because Ta Prohm Temple has totally been used as the set for an adventure movie. Lara Croft: Tomb Raider was shot in Cambodia, which is why every guide at Ta Prohm still talks about the moment they fell in love with Angelina Jolie. Unlike most modern action movie locations, the temple received no computer embellishment. When a place is this awesome, it doesn’t need CGI.
5. Lake Retba, Senegal: No big deal, it’s just your average lake that looks exactly like strawberry Nestlé Quick. But instead of artificial colors and corn syrup, the pigment of Lake Retba comes from algae in the water. It’s also 40 percent salt, so you might not want to drink the stuff. However, you can take a swim, bobbing like a cork and repeating over and over “Man, this is so weird.”
6. Waimea Bay, Oahu: Visit Waimea in the summer or when the surf isn’t breaking and you’ll find plenty of distractions—beautiful people in minimal swimwear, a fun rock to jump off, an incredible variety of jungle plants. But visit Waimea when the swell is pumping and you won’t be able to tear your eyes off the waves. Nowhere does the ocean seem so violent, so intent on wreaking havoc as it does on a monster day at Waimea. The waves roll in thick and full of ledges, sheer drops and boils, making for a surreal experience that you’ll feel down to your very bones.
7. Glowworm Caves, New Zealand: When someone tells you about the glowworms (technically it’s glowworm poop) streaming from the ceiling in Waitomo, New Zealand, the common response is to underestimate the awesomeness of a few million bioluminescent dots on a cave wall. But inside, with all the headlamps off, staring at clusters and constellations of glowworms, you’ll see that this is one of the most stunning sights on the planet.
8. Jigokudani Monkey Park, Japan: The Japanese Macaques that bask in the hot springs at the Jigokudani Monkey Park mid-winter are a sight to behold. Sure, you can check them out in a Dos Equis commercial, but it’s much cooler to be the Most Interesting Man and go see them for yourself. Unlike the macaques that show up later on this list, these monkeys are rarely aggressive—you might say they’re totally chill.
9. Gates of Hell, Turkmenistan: More than any other spot on the planet, this one is exactly what it looks like: a giant, gaping, fiery hole in the earth. We could take some time to explain the history of this natural gas pit, but it’s better to just spend those moments staring into the abyss and taking a quick inventory of your soul.
10. Reed Flute Cave, China: So what if the light is artificial—that takes nothing away from the Reed Flute Cave. It’s filled with stalactites, stalagmites, pillars, stone curtains and probably a healthy population of elves and fairies. With the addition of pastel lighting, these pearl-colored karsts take on a surreal, one-of-a-kind glow.
11. Crystal Ice Cave, Iceland: If you want to see blue-ice formations—and aren’t in the habit of hanging around Antarctica—you can’t beat Skaftafell National Park. This claustrophobia-inducing cave is mesmerizing. When the light dances along the ice it’s like looking up from the underside of a Caribbean wave… without all the salt water up your nose, of course.
12. Cave of the Crystals, Mexico: This place is pretty much Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, but it’s totally real, located right here on Planet Earth and easily accessible to non-caped heroes. It’s a cave filled with enormous crystals jutting through the room at all angles. There’s some cool science behind the formations, but feel free to simply stand back and marvel.
13. The Temple Cave, Borneo: “And the award for the most Indiana Jones-ish place on the planet goes to… Batu Caves!” A temple inside a cave? That’s total Indy-style. If only an army of macaque monkeys guarded the entrance… oh, hold the phone: there actually is an army of macaques at the cave mouth. Be careful: They are known to get testy with snapshot-happy adventurers.
14. Canola Flower Fields, China: Every spring, the valley of Luoping grows a neon yellow carpet as millions of rapeseed flowers begin to bloom. It’s the uniformity of the hue—stretching off to the horizon—that makes this such an incredible sight.
15. Stone Forest, Madagascar: Truthfully, Madagascar—with its pirate graveyards, red sand beaches and horned chameleons—could probably provide enough entries on its own to fill this whole list. If one spot has to be picked, these limestone badlands where lemurs leap from one towering karst to the next make for a pretty solid choice.
16. Petra, Jordan: Have you ever seen a massive rock wall and thought, “Hmmm, I should carve a whole city out of that”? Probably not. Because it’s an unfathomable task that makes building pyramids seem kinda mellow by comparison. Luckily, the Nabataeans already carved Petra, so all you have to do is buy a plane ticket, show up and let your jaw drop on cue. Also, since Petra was the setting for Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, we should probably give it the ‘Most Indiana-Jones-ish’ award.
17. Halong Bay, Vietnam: These limestone karsts covered with jungle seem like they belong in the Jurassic Period. Add to that the traditional Vietnamese junks crisscrossing the bay and you have an otherworldly scene.
18. Mosquito Bay, Isla de Vieques: The right combination of factors make this one of the best examples of marine bioluminescence on the globe. Each flutter kick leaves a million liquid diamonds trailing behind you. It’s totally strange, slightly discomfiting and absolutely stunning.
19. Lalibela, Ethopia: Remember how we gushed about Petra back at No. 16? Well, Lalibela takes the rock carving and cranks it up to 11; this church was literally dug from a hole in the ground. The first Europeans to see the churches of Lalibela (there are 10 more besides this one—because why stop at one church hewn directly from the rock?) bragged so much about their “discovery” that they assumed no one would ever believe them.
20. Mount Roraima, Venezuela: This colossal tabletop plateau sits at the borders of Guyana, Brazil and Venezuela. It also rests on the corner of incredible and breathtaking. We are talking master adventure territory here: where the mountains reach through the clouds, the jungles are thick and muggy, and the views are absolutely mesmerizing.
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