The Most Beautiful Places in the World You Didn't Know Existed
Anyone who's watched more than two episodes of The Twilight Zone -- or read the angry comments when we named the most beautiful place in every state -- knows that beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder. Undaunted, we proceeded to tell you about all the beautiful places you didn't know existed in California and New York and even in Nevada, because believe it or not, there actually is beauty there outside of a strip club.
But enough about America, there's a whole big world out there; and it's full of stunning scenery that you've probably never laid eyes on -- until now. Here are 20 of the most spectacular places on the planet.
Ever wonder what happens when freezing water traps methane bubbles created by bacteria feeding off dead matter on the sea bottom? Welcome to Abraham Lake. Here, 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" -- until 2000, nobody had heard of it. That year, two brothers mining for silver drilled here and accidentally uncovered an epic cavern filled with translucent, 30ft 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 a mile under your feet.
Dean's Blue Hole
Long Island, Bahamas
There are some spectacular beaches in the Caribbean. And some other-world crazy cenotes in Mexico. Dean's Blue Hole combines the two -- albeit underwater -- and is the largest blue hole in world. Although honestly, the white sand beach and limestone walls that surround the hole could make this list as well, they're equally as stunning. That said, descend past the initial 60ft bottleneck and Dean’s Blue Hole opens into one of the largest underwater cenotes in the world, 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.
OK, OK, so we couldn't resist throwing at least one US spot on the list. About an hour outside of Aspen, and an eight-hour hike from the nearest road, there's a ghost town at the base of the Rocky Mountains. And the lone remnant of that ghost town is this old mill. If you visit in the fall, the combination of golden leaves, blue sky, and white snowcapped peaks might be the most unexpectedly beautiful vista in the American West.
Misiones Province, Argentina
Iguazu Falls aren't that obscure, but they're probably just another one on your mental list of big waterfalls to visit some day, up there with Niagara and Victoria. Which sells them WAY 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
What happens when you take a Patagonian peninsula made completely of marble and surround it with a massive glacial lake? Weird, swirling marble caves that change color, that's what! 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.
Forest of Knives (Tsingy Forest)
The name might sound like the setting for Halloween 12: Michael Does Madagascar but the surreal beauty of this limestone forest is anything but horror-inducing. Quite the opposite. Here, slabs of rock stab upward 200ft in the air, mixing with trees to create a literal 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, other than the fact that there's never a pot of gold at the end of them, is that as soon as you try to Instagram one... POOF!... it's gone. If only rainbows were made out of sand that could withstand thousands of years of rain and erosion. Well, guess what rainbow lovers, meet the Seven-Coloured Earth of Chamarel! These rainbow dunes in Mauritius are formed by sand of seven distinct colors -- red, brown, violet, green, blue, purple, and yellow. Even cooler: pick the sand up, put it in a bottle, 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 1,300ft-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, and 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.
Hiking to the top of an active volcano is cool, but you know what's really badass? Sailing into one. Tough to do in most places, but not Antarctica; this active volcano (which last erupted in 1992) in the South Shetland Islands has a horseshoe-shaped caldera, and ships can sail right up to its smoldering beaches. As you cruise around the volcanic bay, you'll see both snow and ash covering the lava formations amidst the steam.
This seven-mile-long, mile-wide channel between the mountains on Booth Island and the Antarctic peninsula was originally nicknamed the “Kodak Channel” because it was so photogenic. Although today, it would probably be "Instagram Channel." Either way, you want to catch it when the entrance isn't blocked by ice and the boat can make the trip inside.
Even if you don't hit this wetland in September, when the seepweeds mature from green to bright red, 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 over 200 species of birds as they migrate from Asia to Australia, and you can nod approvingly at them all from wooden bridges built over the water.
Sea of Stars
Vaadhoo Island, Maldives
There are more than a few bioluminescent bays in the world, where a species of phytoplankton known as dinoflagellates glow/illuminate the water when an influx of oxygen disturbs their cell membrane. This one on Vaadhoo Island in the Maldives stands out, however, because the bright-blue light appears to be reflecting the stars over this island.
El Nido is classically known as the gateway to the Philippines' Bacuit Archipelago and, according to (urban?) legend, was Alex Garland's inspiration when he wrote The Beach. Although, yes, Leo's adventure was set in Thailand, the limestone cliffs, bright-green foliage, and turquoise waters here apparently make it hard to distinguish between the two. Also, just so you know: a trip to El Nido requires a seven-hour bus ride.
Lord Howe Island
There’s a reason you haven’t heard of this island 375 miles off New South Wales: there’s no cellphone coverage. Which means as beautiful as it is, nobody can go all selfie-stick/Instagram crazy while they're there; they're forced instead to do something novel like appreciate the 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 Earth's most southerly coral reef, making for world-class diving and snorkeling. Which is even better considering you don't have to share -- only 400 visitors are allowed on the island at any given time.
An otherwise unremarkable residential bay in Sydney makes this list not for its water, but for the ship that sits near the coastline. Built during World War I, the SS Ayrfield ran supplies to American troops in the Pacific during World War II before an oil company bought it in the 1950s and stationed it in the middle of this bay. Then nature took over. Now, it’s a man-made island filled with trees and wildlife, and one of the most decrepitly beautiful sights in the world. A work of art almost unto itself.
Chapel of Saint-Michel d'Aiguilhe
Le Puy-en-Velay, France
Talk about wonders of the world; even with today's technology, imagine how hard it would be to build ANYTHING on top of a small pointy rock? Now imagine building a stone cathedral in 962, without cranes, hydraulics, or anything other than actual people hauling stones up 268 stairs. Sounds fun, right? But the result is this beauty, built atop a basalt needle with a sweeping view of the city below.
Crystal Cave at Skaftafell
Vatnajokull National Park, Iceland
Blue ice is more than just the GOOD ice pack the nurse gives you when you sprain your ankle. It’s a brilliant, aqua-colored geologic formation that results when air bubbles are compressed out of ice over time. And it is in abundance in this cave at Vatnajokull National Park. Don’t let the 22ft shoreline entryway fool you; the cave tapers down to as few as 4ft, 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.
Picos de Europas
While the Alps and the Pyrenees get all the attention, this tiny range near the northern coast of Spain is equally as beautiful. The range only stretches about 26 miles (and its highest peak, Macizo Central or Macizo de los Urrieles, is barely 8,000ft 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 exotic wildlife in the summer.
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