1: Rainbow Mountains, Peru
Rainbow Mountains (Dreamstime)
Many might know this Peru highlight as Rainbow Mountain, but for the locals it’s referred to as Vinicunca, which means ‘seven colour mountain’ in the Quechua language. It’s located in Peru’s Cusco region. Another masterful move by Mother Nature, the multi-coloured striped appearance of these mountains was formed by erosion.
It’s no mean feat getting to this natural wonder. You can either reach the mountains via a six-day hike on the Ausengate Trek, or there are now one day hikes available if you’re willing to take on a 15km trek up to 5,020m above sea level. However you get there, witnessing the Rainbow Mountains is worth the effort.
2: Grand Prismatic, Yellowstone National Park, USA
Grand Prismatic Spring (Dreamstime)
The Grand Prismatic Spring is the largest hot spring in Yellowstone and the third largest in the world, an iconic picture of this beloved and busy national park.
The spring is instantly recognisable by its orange, yellow, green and blue shades, which are formed by heat-loving bacteria, the only beings that can survive Grand Prismatic’s inhospitable climate.
The colours might create a picture of beauty, but the spring, which is deeper than a 10-storey building, can reach temperatures of 87°C, and spews out 560 gallons of water per minute. In other words, it’s definitely not the kind of hot spring you want to take a quick dip in.
3: Cappadocia, Turkey
Balloons over Cappadocia (Dreamstime)
Travel to Göreme National Park in Cappadocia has accelerated hugely in the last two decades, helped, no doubt, by those dreamy shots of hot air balloon rides over the area’s unique rock formations.
Erosion has worked its magic across the ages on this region, creating what are affectionately known as ‘fairy chimneys’, although the formations have also been referred to in more 'phallic' terms. The towering pillars of rock were formed by volcanic eruptions centuries ago, which remained when time and weather wore away the softer surrounding rock.
What’s most alluring about Cappadocia’s rock formations is the way humans have integrated with them. There are signs that humans have been living here since the 4th century, and since that time underground villages and towns have spread across the park. There are even boutique hotels in the area now where you can stay inside one of the rock formations to experience this hermit-like way of life.
4: Bryce Canyon, USA
Hoodoos in Bryce Canyon (Dreamstime)
The most iconic and distinctive feature in the red rock deserts of Utah’s Bryce Canyon National Park, hoodoos are spires of rock protruding out from the ground.
While these formations can be found in other parts of the USA, such as Colorado and the Northern Great Plains, the thick ‘forest’ of so many hoodoos in Bryce Canyon make for a majestic vision.
The rock in Bryce Canyon is thought to have been formed around 30-40 million years ago. Time erosion, via frost wedging (when water seeps into cracks, freezes, expands, then splits the rock), is the main reason why the hoodoos have formed here. Their reddish tones are synonymous with the great landscapes of southwest USA.
5: Door to Hell, Turkmenistan
Darvaza Crater (Dreamstime)
Officially known as the Darvaza Crater, Turkmenistan’s ‘Door to Hell’ opened up around 40 years ago. Located on the border of the Daşoguz and Ahal provinces in the country’s north, a desert region where large reserves of natural gas are found, the origin of the crater hasn‘t been confirmed. However, it’s thought that a borehole was set alight here in the early 1970s and the subsequent crater has been burning and belching out fire ever since.
The area surrounding the colossal hole is otherwise empty, making the Door to Hell even more bizarre to witness. Only one person is known to have descended down into the pit – Canadian explorer George Kourounis – but you can see it for yourself by driving to it or hopping on a local tour. The crater is best seen at dusk, when the light is fading but the pit is still burning bright. Don’t forget to take your Factor 50.
6: Giant’s Causeway, Northern Ireland
Giant's Causeway (Dreamstime)
Around 40,000 hexagonal basalt columns make up the jaw-dropping Giant’s Causeway on Northern Ireland’s Antrim Coast.
This UNESCO World Heritage site is thought to have been formed around 50 to 60 million years ago, when lava flow made its way to this region, then cooled when it reached the sea.
Before this science came to light, the setting of this oddly uniform scenery had been the subject of myth and legend for centuries. Scottish and Irish giants Benandonner and Finn MacCumhaill who fought across the ocean are supposedly responsible for this oddity, leaving remnants of their battles on the coastline. However you believe it came into being, the Giant’s Causeway is a magnificent sight to behold.
7: Marble Caves, Chile
Marble Cathedral (Dreamstime)
Also known as a Marble Cathedral, the caves off Lake General Carrera in Chile are among the most incredible subterranean scenes on the planet.
As the name suggests, the walls of this caves are beautifully marbled, and the waters below them are a bright shade of blue.
It’s thought that the melting and movement of glaciers is what caused this network of tunnels and caverns to be formed and gave them their patterned appearance. It takes a flight from Santiago (now reachable with new direct flights from BA) and a 200-mile drive to reach the caves, but the rewards are plentiful for intrepid explorers who make it here.
8: Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
Motorbike on Salar de Uyuni (Graeme Green)
Firmly imprinted on South America’s backpacker trail, Bolivia's salt flats are one of the most phenomenal sights to witness on this diverse continent.
At over 10,000 square kilometres in size, the Salar de Uyuni are the world’s largest salt flats and offer one of the most unique photogenic landscapes on earth. Scale and perspective disappear here to allow people to take creative optical illusion photos of their friends standing in the palm of a hand, tumbling out of Inca Cola bottles or in other playful poses.
The seemingly endless flats are pure white, appearing like snow and stretching to the horizon. With the sun hitting the salt flats, the landscape is literally dazzling, so much so that early onset blindness sometimes affects locals.
Best seen when the flats are covered by a thin layer of water, here the Earth meets the sky to create a beautiful mirror image effect.
The salt flats also have areas where natural hexagons have formed in the salt, the edges catching the light at sunrise and sunset.
For the ultimate Uyuni experience, stay in one of the Salar de Uyuni’s salt hotels, which are surprisingly cosy, despite the walls, floors, ceilings and most of the furniture being made out of salt.
9: Dallol Volcano, Ethiopia
Colourful pools around Dallol Volcano (Dreamstime)
Ethiopia’s Dallol Volcano is like something off a Jimi Hendrix album cover. Located in far northeast Ethiopia at the Danakil Depression, this psychedelic landscape is both one of the lowest and hottest points on Earth. The average daily temperature is 41°C and it sits at around 410 feet below sea level.
These conditions are what make the volcanic landscape its signature neon yellow and green colour. The magma below the surface of the landscape heats the water coming in from above, with a combination of deposits, salt, minerals, sulphur and iron, via distilling and drying processes, creating the multi-coloured scenery.
10: Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park, Madagascar
Tsingy rock formations, shot from below (Dreamstime)
Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park is found in western Madagascar and is characterised by a forest of limestone karst needles rising from the earth.
It’s thought these curious shapes have been formed as a result of thousands of years of rainfall. The park was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1990, with pathways and rope bridges to take you through parts of the 1,500 square kilometre areas.
It’s not only the spindly scenery that’s drawn people’s attention here. The park is also home to an array of flora and fauna, including lakes and mangrove swamps, endangered species of birds and lemurs, and endemic species, in particular the lowland red forest rat, which only exists in this part of Madagascar.
11: Lake Hillier, Western Australia
Lake Hillier (Western Australia tourist board)
Like something out of Willy Wonka’s sugarcoated dreams, Lake Hillier on Middle Island, one of the largest islands in Western Australia’s Recherche Archipelago, is a brilliant shade of pink. It’s not entirely known why this lake is this bubblegum colour, but scientists think it has something to do with the pigmented bacteria that live in the lake’s salt crusts.
The lake is around 600 metres long and best seen from the air on a helicopter ride, so you can compare the difference between the pink waters and the nearby blue ocean. Only a small number of travellers are dropped off on Middle Island, coming back with stories saying it’s possible to swim in the lake without being harmed and that the water retains its colour when bottled.
12: Huanglong Pools, China
Colourful Huanglong Pools (Dreamstime)
Located in the heart of China, in northwest Sichuan, Huanglong Valley stretches just over three and a half kilometres through mountain scenery.
Over the centuries, calcium carbonate has built up through the valley to create multiple pools made of limestone filled with blue waters. Local legend has likened the formations to a dragon because when the sun hits the pools, it looks like a dazzling beast winding through the valley.
This area was inaugurated onto the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1992 and it’s easy to see why. The clear waters of the pools, nestled in the virgin forest and mountain backdrop, alongside waterfalls, form a peaceful wonderland to walk through.
Emma Higgins is a British travel writer who spends an entire year in one country before moving onto the next. She publishes her stories from the road on her website Gotta Keep Movin'. Her book A Year in the UK & Ireland is a collection of tales about her driving 5,000 miles around the British Isles, and is out now.
Main image: Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia (Dreamstime)