The Most Beautiful Places in the World Are Hidden in Plain Sight
It’s time to reassess your travel bucket list.
There are seven natural wonders of the natural world, hundreds of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and countless towns and cities dubbed “the most gorgeous in the world.” But the downside of all those decrees and superlatives is that some of the world’s most stunning places are absolutely swarmed with view-wrecking tourists… and you’re among them.
We’re not knocking those places: They’re definitely worth the journey, even if the thrill of seeing a singular natural phenomenon is diluted when you get poked in the eye with somebody’s selfie stick.
Good thing we live in a great big world where many, many wondrous things still fly under most radars. Sure, some require multiple forms of transport and maybe even a local expert to point you in the right direction, but once you’ve arrived, you’ll want to repeat the entire journey just to get a second look. We scoured the globe for a starter list of lesser-known locales to fill out your bucket list. Get ready for untarnished views and a whole lot of awe.
Ever wonder what happens when freezing water traps methane bubbles created by bacteria feeding off dead matter on the sea bottom? Of course you haven’t, but that doesn’t make it any less stunning to look at. At Abraham Lake, those bubbles of methane (undetectable in your standard, non-frozen lake) create pockets that resemble millions of orbs trapped in the ice. Just don't light up while you're snowmobiling; if the ice cracks and those bubbles burst, methane is highly flammable.
Cueva de los Cristales
Don’t feel bad for not knowing about this “Cave of Crystals”—up until the year 2000, nobody had even heard of it. While everyone else was recovering from Y2K panic, two brothers mining for silver drilled in Chihuahua and accidentally uncovered a massive cavern filled with translucent, 30-foot crystals, some of which are nearly half a million years old. If you can stomach a 20-minute van ride through a mine shaft, you’ll be greeted by triple-digit temperatures and 90% humidity thanks to the magma field that flows only a mile under your feet.
Dean's Blue Hole
Long Island, Bahamas
There are some spectacular beaches in the Caribbean and otherworld crazy cenotes in Mexico. Dean's Blue Hole combines the two—albeit underwater—and is the largest blue hole in the world. Surrounded by a stunning white-sand beach and limestone walls, you’ll have to get past the initial 60-foot bottleneck before Dean’s Blue Hole opens into one of the largest underwater cenotes on the globe, complete with turquoise water, seahorses, and tropical fish (it's a hotspot for tarpon and snapper). Clear visibility and no current make it a place as scenic below the surface as above.
Waitomo Glowworm Caves
North Island, New Zealand
Having trouble seeing all the stalactites as you float through this massive cave system in the middle of New Zealand? Don’t worry, the thousands upon thousands of bioluminescent glow worms will make sure you have a good view… if you can stop staring at the celestial show they’re putting on. Waitomo isn’t exactly a secret, but in the grander scheme of New Zealand scenery, it’s often overlooked by overwhelmed travelers. Take an easy tour or go more extreme with some waterfall climbing. Either way, you’ll leave thinking that Lord of the Rings might have actually been a documentary.
Misiones Province, Argentina
Iguazu Falls aren't that obscure, but they're probably just another one on your list of big waterfalls to visit someday, up there with Niagara and Victoria—which sells them way too short. This isn't so much a waterfall but a venerable city of waterfalls—250 of them stretching nearly two miles—that dumps 53,000 cubic feet of water per second. Throw in the fact that they're located in a gorgeous South American rainforest, and you’ve pretty much got one of the most impressive feats of nature on the planet.
The name literally means "bedsheets of Maranhao," the state in Northeastern Brazil where these coastal dunes sway over 600 square miles of shoreline. The dunes are formed when the Parnaíba and Preguiças Rivers bring sand from the country's interior to the ocean, and then the ocean currents—aided by northeasterly winds that blow inland—send that sand back to the shore. Though the area might look like a desert, temporary lagoons spring up in between the dunes during rainy season and often double as exceptional fishing holes.
Cavernas de Marmol (Marble Cathedral)
Lake General Carrera, Chile
These only-accessible-by-boat caves near the Chile-Argentina border reflect the color of the water that flows through them, shining turquoise in the spring and deep blue in the summer. The reflections also change the appearance of the patterns in the marble; meaning, if you visit the caves at different times of year you'll have a completely different experience. Then again, after the 1,000-mile drive from Santiago and lengthy boat ride, once might be enough.
Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park (a.k.a. Forest of Knives)
Antsalova District, Madagascar
The moniker might sound like the setting for a horror movie, but the surreal beauty of this limestone forest is anything but terrifying (unless you’re afraid of limestone, in which case stay far away). Quite the opposite, in fact. Here, slabs of rock stab 200 feet high and mix between trees to create a forest made of leaves and jagged peaks. Climbing here is the main attraction but be warned, it can be dangerous: Slip and you could find yourself with a Ginsu-like gash.
Seven-Coloured Earth of Chamarel
One of the problems with rainbows—aside from the startling lack of gold at the end—is that they’re temporary. But not this rainbow made out of sand that could withstand thousands of years of rain and erosion. Dubbed the Seven-Coloured Earth of Chamarel, these rainbow dunes in Mauritius are formed by sand in seven distinct colors: red, brown, violet, green, blue, purple, and yellow. What’s even cooler is that if you pick the sand up, put it in a bottle, and mix it up, eventually it'll resettle into the same seven distinct layers. Every time.
It's hard to believe when standing under an oppressive sun in the middle of 1,300-foot-tall sand dunes that this valley was once a lush forest fed by the Tsauchab River. That, of course, was 900 years ago. Since then, the area has become so parched that the remaining trees didn't even have enough water to decompose, so they now sit as charred relics. Add rusted sand and a deep-blue sky, and this is one of the most colorfully desolate places on the planet.
South Shetland Islands, Antarctic Peninsula
Hiking to the top of an active volcano is cool, but you know what's even cooler? Sailing into one. Tough to do in most places, but not in the Antarctic Peninsula. This active volcano (don’t worry, it hasn’t erupted since 1992) in the South Shetland Islands has a horseshoe-shaped caldera, and ships can cruise right up to its smoldering beaches. As you sail around the volcanic bay, you'll see both snow and ash covering the lava formations amidst the steam.
Even if you don't hit this wetland in September, when the seepweeds mature from green to bright red (thus the name), the 16-mile marsh is still one of the most beautiful spots in China to glimpse birds and wildlife. But, if you are there in September, you're in for a treat: The red fields attract flocks of more than 200 species of birds as they migrate from Asia to Australia, and you can watch the impressive show from wooden bridges built over the water.
Sea of Stars
Vaadhoo Island, Maldives
There are more than a few bioluminescent bays in the world (La Parguera in Puerto Rico being one of the more infamous), where a species of phytoplankton known as dinoflagellates gives the water an otherworldly glow. This one on Vaadhoo Island in the Maldives stands out, however, because the bright blue light seems like it’s reflecting the stars over the island.
Inner Hebrides, Scotland
Located on the uninhabited island of Staffa and named for the hero of an 18th-century Scottish epic, Fingal’s Cave uniquely hexagonal basalt columns have been inspiring everyone from conquering vikings to poets and PInk Floyd for millennia. The columns were formed by cooling lava, but the geometry suggests an arts and crafts project undertaken by ancient titans. You can catch a glimpse of it via sightseeing cruise and, weather permitting (it often isn’t) explore the entrance by foot.
Palawan Island, Philippines
El Nido is classically known as the gateway to the Philippines' Bacuit Archipelago and is said to have been Alex Garland's inspiration when he wrote The Beach. The book and movie may have been set in Thailand, but the limestone cliffs, bright-green foliage, and turquoise waters here make it hard to distinguish between the two. It’s also a trek to get to, since a trip to El Nido requires a seven-hour bus ride. It’s worth the journey.
Lord Howe Island
New South Wales, Australia
There’s a reason you haven’t heard of this island 375 miles off New South Wales—there’s no cellphone coverage. Which means it’s a forced (or maybe welcome?) digital detox where the main attraction is wildlife. Wildlife that, because of the island's perpetual isolation, includes birds, insects, and plant species that don’t exist anywhere else in the world. The island also sits near the world’s most southerly coral reef, making for world-class diving and snorkeling. Which is even better considering you don't have to share, since only 400 visitors are allowed on the island at any given time.
Crystal Cave at Skaftafell
Vatnajokull National Park, Iceland
Don’t let the 22-foot shoreline entryway fool you; the cave at Vatnajokull National Park tapers down as little as 4 feet and will crack and pop when you walk inside. That doesn’t mean it’s about to collapse, though; it’s just the sound of glacial movement against the volcanic island you’re descending into. The blue-crystal cave is centuries in the making and looks so unreal, it’s been used as a backdrop for everything from Game of Thrones to Interstellar.
Picos de Europa
While the Alps and the Pyrenees get all the attention, this tiny range near the northern coast of Spain—which runs through the regions of Asturias, Cantabria, and León—is equally beautiful. Picos de Europa only stretches about 26 miles (and its highest peak, Macizo Central or Macizo de los Urrieles, is barely 8,000 feet tall), but when it comes to skiing and snowshoeing away from the masses, it’s a tough location to beat. And thanks in part to an abundance of wildflowers and Spanish brown bears, it's one of the prettiest places in Europe to spot wildlife in the summer.
Serranía de la Macarena, Colombia
Visiting the River of Five Colors requires sturdy boots and a flight from Bogota (getting to Colombia, however, is easier than you think). But venture deep into Serraria de la Macarena National Park an you’ll find one of the most psychedelic sights on the planet—one that was only “discovered” by cattle farmers in 1969. Here, aquatic plants essentially paint the riverbed in vibrant reds, yellows, greens, and blues as water. From waterfalls to cenotes, the Skittles aesthetic helps create some of the most eye-popping natural splendor in South America… which is really saying something.