15 Natural Wonders You’ve Never Heard Of
You’ve heard about the Grand Canyon, Mount Everest, and Victoria Falls, but these lesser-known, more remote natural wonders deliver a similar “wow” factor without the crowds.
Salt flats of Uyuni, Bolivia
From lakes to deserts, Bolivia offers many natural wonders, including the world’s largest salt flat. Set in the southwestern part of the country, the Salar de Uyuni delivers 4,086 square miles of glistening white salt. “Few American travelers ever get to Bolivia, opting for more popular Peru, Chile, and Argentina,” says Rebecca Rhyan, destination specialist, Latin America, for Cox and Kings. “The salt flats are an other-worldly landscape for anyone who enjoys a bit of adventure.” Although the topography is mostly flat, the destination sits on the Altiplano at 11,995 feet above sea level; expect chilly temperatures when the sun goes down. Touring the destination with Cox and Kings includes breakfast in the middle of the salt flat on Pescado (fish island) and overnights in a stylish and luxurious Airstream camper.
Bagan, Myanmar (Burma)
One of the richest archaeological sites in Asia, Bagan (also referred to as Pagan) is home to a collection of more than 2,200 temples, stupas, and pagodas. The collection represents a scenic tribute to the religious history and devotion of the settlers of Myanmar over the centuries; some temples, such as the graceful circular Shwesandaw Pagoda built by King Anawrahta, date back to 1057. Though gaining popularity, Burma is still very much off the beaten track when compared to Thailand and Vietnam, explains Vinni Bernal, destination specialist, Asia for Cox and Kings. The Buddhist culture in Burma is among the most authentic in any Southeast Asian nation, and in Bagan, travelers witness some of the most intact temples in the world. “Burma is like Thailand 30 years ago,” says Bernal. “The Buddhist culture is fully intact and the tourism infrastructure is improving.” While many temples can be explored by foot, an early morning hot air balloon ride over Bagan is one of the best ways to see the site. You’ll want to check out these other popular travel destinations in Asia.
Karijini National Park, Australia
Known as the Grand Canyon of Australia, Karijini National Park in Australia’s Pilbari region on the west coast is the country’s second largest park, offering more than 2,400 square miles of mountains and escarpments rising from flat valleys, rocky water pools, waterfalls, and unique wildlife like red kangaroos and rock wallabies. Hiking the red rocks, spotting more than 800 species of wildflowers, and swimming in the crystal clear waters of the gorges and pools are highlights. While the water of the gorges and pools can be alarmingly cold, summer temperatures in the desert environment can soar to more than 100 degrees.
Set on a high plateau in Turkey’s central Anatolia region, Capadoccia, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is known for its unique moon-like landscape and mushroom-like volcanic rock sculptures, known as fairy chimneys. Settlement of the area dates back to the Paleolithic era. During the reign of the Roman Empire, Christians used the area as a place of escape, building homes and churches into the caves and rocks. Today, travelers can explore the ancient tunnels and churches of this historic site and even stay in cave hotels, but one of the best ways to see the intricacies of this destination is via an early morning hot-air balloon ride. “Capadoccia and its almost moon-like surface is unlike anywhere on Earth,” says Dania Weinstein, destination specialist, Africa and the Middle East for Cox and Kings. “The best view is from the air, in your private hot air balloon.” These are the other locales in the Middle East that should be on your bucket list.
Magnetic Hill, Ladakh, India
Located in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir that extends from the Kunlun mountain range to the Himalayas, Ladakh is a remote high desert valley known for historic medieval temples, Buddhist monasteries, and rugged terrain that lures outdoor adventurists. It’s also home to Magnetic Hill, a gravity-defying phenomenon. Located at an elevation of 14,000 feet, Magnetic Hill and its surrounding topography produces the optical illusion that a slight downhill slope appears to be an uphill slope—and a vehicle left out of gear will appear to be rolling uphill. The optical illusion is attributed to an obstructed horizon. “Those who make the trip up to Ladakh, are rewarded with an India that is quite different from the hustle and bustle of the Golden Triangle,” says Seema Prakash, senior destination specialist, India for Cox and Kings. “Magnetic Hill can really play tricks with your eyes.”
Ha Long Bay, Vietnam
The UNESCO World Heritage site, also known as “Descending Dragon Bay,” is an ethereal and scenic mix of more than 3,000 limestone karsts and isles jutting out from an emerald sea. The biodiverse bay is home to numerous marine and land animals, as well as 14 endemic floral species and 60 endemic fauna species. One of the most peaceful ways to explore the bay is to spend the night aboard a junk boat (an ancient Chinese sailing-vessel). “Spending a few days on the calming waters of Ha Long Bay is a great add-on to any Vietnam trip,” says Bernal.”The limestone karsts rise right from the water, and the destination is home to lots of wildlife, like cheeky monkeys.” Here are 8 spots on earth you can only reach by paddle.
Table Mountain, South Africa
No trip to Cape Town, South Africa, is complete without a cable ride to the top of Cable Mountain, a 3,558-foot historic peak with rocks that are more than 600 million years old and a system of rare sandstone caves. More than 70 percent of the plants found on the mountain are endemic. It’s also home to the “dassie,” or rock hyrax, and 22 species of snakes, including the five most venomous: Cape cobra, puff adder, boomslag, rinkhals, and berg adder. “Table Mountain looms over Capetown and just begs you to get to the top,” says Danalee May, senior destination specialist, Africa for Cox and Kings. “Many of our guests opt to hike up and then take the cable car down, just as the sun is setting.”
Wadi Nakhar, Oman
Known as the Grand Canyon of Oman, this remote valley located on Oman’s highest mountain, Jebel Shams (mountain of sun) in the Al Hajar mountain range, two hours from the capital city of Muscat. Trekking through this rugged terrain allows visitors to experience history and view extremely rare plant life and a body of water so blue, it mirrors the sky on some days. A walking tour of Oman with Butterfield & Robinson gives travelers the option to hike along the rim, picnic or swim, and explore the historic village of Akhar. “Our day at Wadi Nakhar is the highlight of our Oman Walking trip. It offers both stunning views along the rim of the gorge, or a hike deep into the valley itself where rare vegetation, rock formations, and a beautiful body of water await,” says Nathan Lane, Oman region manager, Butterfield & Robinson. “On the outer rim, there is a narrow access point that leads to the Balcony Walk—a 50-foot wide ledge, perched in the middle of the canyon, running about three miles long and leading to an abandoned village.”
The Burren, Ireland
Courtesy Exodus Travels
Set in County Clare in southwest Ireland, the Burren region is home to one of the most extensive areas of limestone pavement in Europe, a rare global land form. The vast windswept landscape features a cracked pavement of glacial-era gray limestone, dramatic cliffs and caves, lakes, rock formations, and archaeological sites. “In some parts of the Burren, you have the visual aspect of ‘the bones of the planet’ juxtaposed with the region’s other great drama, the ocean,” says Tony Kirby of Heart of Burren Walks. During the spring, the Burren showcases 75 percent of Ireland’s wildflowers, offering a colorful contrast to the stark beauty of the lunar-like landscape. “It does not stop at the geology and the botany,” says Kirby. “The region is a memorial to bygone cultures with over 2,000 archaeological monuments in the 200 square miles.” Other parts of the region include Doolin, the country’s hub for music, and the picturesque Cliffs of Moher. Here are 14 more undiscovered gems of Ireland.
Kravica Waterfalls, Bosnia
Courtesy Exodus Travels
Hidden in Europe’s last jungle along Bosnia’s Trebižat River is a series of waterfalls that could pass for the little sister of Niagara Falls. Remote and difficult to locate without a guide, the destination offers the chance to swim in frigid waters beneath a cascade of water that plunges from 83-foot-high cliffs into a natural lake (there’s even a rope swing). “The entire area is exceptionally green with chaste trees, poplars, and figs,” says Samer Hajric, Exodus mountain guide and program coordinator. “The rock and tuff formations host thick lichen, moss, and grass, giving them an emerald color—there are hardly any man made formations near the falls to interfere with the natural environment.” While the Kravice waterfalls are not big in terms of size, they are comparable to Krka or Plitvice National Parks in Croatia, but are less busy, explains Hajric. Here are more of the world’s most incredible waterfalls.