15 Natural Wonders You’ve Never Heard Of
You’ve heard about the Grand Canyon, but these lesser-known, more remote natural wonders deliver a similar “wow” factor.
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 10,582 square kilometres of glistening white salt. “Few North American travellers 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.
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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, travellers 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.
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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 6,216 square kilometres 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.
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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, travellers 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.”
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.”
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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.”
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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 per cent 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.”
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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 travellers 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.”
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The Burren, Ireland
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 per cent of Ireland’s wildflowers, offering a colourful 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 517 square kilometres.” Other parts of the region include Doolin, the country’s hub for music, and the picturesque Cliffs of Moher.
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Kravica Waterfalls, Bosnia
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 colour—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.
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Valley of the Moon, Chile
Located in Los Flamencos National Reserve in northern Chile’s Atacama Desert, Valle de la Luna (valley of the moon) is one of the country’s most unique destinations. The shimmering sand dunes and moon-like sculptures make for a dramatic landscape. “No other place in the world can be compared to this one, with no water, no fauna, and no flora,” says Malcolm Parkinson, Exodus Latin America product manager. Atacama, one of the world’s most popular destinations for star gazing, offers a range of activities for active travellers including trekking, sand boarding, and climbing. “There are salt flats, geysers, altiplanic lagoons, and volcanoes,” says Parkinson. “You can spend an evening at the Moon Valley watching the sunset and the land transforming in front of your eyes—and the experience can be enhanced by enjoying a freshly prepared pisco sour.”
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Lake Natron, Tanzania
This serene-looking lake set in northern Tanzania is so corrosive that it is believed the water can burn the skin and eyes of animals that are not adapted to it, turning them into mummies. The water alkalinity comes from the sodium carbonate and other minerals that flow into the lake from the surrounding hills as well as from the mineral rich hot springs that feed the lake. Shallow (less than ten feet) but vast (56 kilometres long), Lake Natron boasts an average temperature of 40 degrees celsius and an abundance of cyanobacteria, a bacterium with red pigment, which gives the lake its characteristic red and orange glow. Despite its saltiness, the lake is home to a thriving ecosystem and serves as a breeding ground for about 2.5 million Lesser flamingos (a species of flamingos) who thrive on the cyanobacteria. “Mother Nature has truly outdone herself with Lake Natron,” says Christine Tucker, Africa region manager, Butterfield & Robinson. “The harshness of the colours for some animals offers protection for others, such as flamingos, as the spirulina algae’s luscious red colour cloaks the animal. The complexity of the water and all the things you cannot see are enhanced by the expansive, jaw dropping natural beauty surrounding this hidden gem—you have to see it to understand it.”
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Kwang Si Falls, Laos
Kwang Si Falls is a three-level waterfall about 29 kilometres south of the ancient capital of Luang Prabang. Vibrant blue water flows down the falls through a series of pools, smaller at the top and widening as the water falls into the jungle river. Visitors can swim in the wider pools, and locals have built a wooden platform as a viewing or jumping off point for those wanting to dive in. “Northern Laos offers natural beauty with meandering rivers flanked by jungle-clad hills and karst mountains,” says Tom Harari, Exodus’ Senior Product Manager and former Laos guide. “While not as grand as Iguazu or Victoria Falls, the park is a serene place that combines falls and cascades, a green jungle, and turquoise pools—a calming and cooling place on a hot afternoon.”
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Sossusvlei, which translates to “dead-end marsh,” is set in Africa’s largest conservation area, the Namib-Naukluft National Park. Characterised by the large red dunes that surround it, Sossusvlei is a vast, white salt and clay pan with dunes that reach more than 1,200 feet high. While the area remains dry most years, any unusually rainy seasons turn the pan into a glassy lake, reflecting the surrounding dunes. “From the timeless sand rippling across towering dunes to the skeleton trees of Deadvlei (one of Sossusvlei’s most popular pans), Sossusvlei is captivating,” says Michele Harvey, Southern Africa region manager, Butterfield & Robinson. “We plan the day in order to cycle into the park to appreciate the enormity of the dunes and the stillness of place,” she says. “You need enough time to walk into Deadvlei and across the crusted pans surrounding the camel thorn skeleton trees—the dark, dead branches contrast beautifully against the vast blue skies and the apricot hued dunes.”
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Makgadikgadi Pan, Botswana
The Makgadikgadi Pan, a salt pan set in the middle of the dry savanna of northeastern Botswana, is one of the largest salt flats in the world. Actually a collection of several pans surrounded and intersected by the Kalahari Desert, Makgadikgadi Pan extends across 16,058 square kilometres all within the Kalahari Basin. As a remnant of the now dried up Lake Makgadikgadi, the pan is dry, salty clay much of the year, but during years of abundant rain, some of the pans flood, becoming grassy plains and attracting wildlife such as zebra and wildebeest as well as flamingos, which flock to the Nata Sanctuary by the thousands. “The experience of the Makgadikgadi Pan is one of vastness,” says Harvey. “An almost disorienting feeling overcomes you, as the sky and panoramic views become one, and the distance turns to an endless expanse. It’s truly remarkable that this type of experience still exists—it’s a must-see for travellers in Botswana.”
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