From the deadly snake island to Coca-Cola's top secret recipe vault, here's the world's ten most interesting places you'll never get to visit
Location: Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of São Paulo State, Brazil
Nearest population hub: São Paulo
Secrecy overview: Access restricted: a snake-infested island off-limits to visitors
Lying just off the coast of Brazil, the island of Ilha da Queimada Grande is populated by a unique and highly venomous species of lancehead viper. An ophidiophobic’s vision of hell, only doughty scientists and crazed adventurers dare set foot on its ground.
Snake Island is home to a vast colony of golden lancehead pit vipers (Bothrops insularis), among the most poisonous snakes on the planet. The golden lancehead is only to be found on this one particular island, so it is understandably rather protective of its territory. Its venom is about five times as potent as that of its cousin, the fer-de-lance, which is itself responsible for more South American snakebite deaths than any other species.
Just getting to the island, which covers about 45 hectares (110 acres), takes considerable determination. It is first necessary to cross a 30-kilometres (19-mile) stretch of choppy water from the coast of the Brazilian state of São Paulo, and there are few local sea captains willing to make the trip. Once at the island, there is no beach to speak of, and access is via a steep, rocky slope covered in hand-mincing barnacles. All of which is somewhat academic, given that the Brazilian Navy expressly forbids civilians from landing there anyway. Only accredited scientists are occasionally given special dispensation to visit.
There are at least 5,000 snakes writhing around the place, with conservative estimates suggesting one for every square metre: they have even taken over a now-defunct lighthouse. Being lighthouse keeper here surely ranked high among the worst jobs in the world. Legend has it that the last keeper lived there with his family until snakes got into their cottage. As they tried to flee, they were taken out one by one by vipers dangling from the branches of overhanging trees. Myth or not, the best advice is to leave their home as it is – a secret serpentine paradise.
Location: South of the Icelandic Coast
Nearest population hub: Reykjavik, Iceland
Secrecy overview: Access restricted: arguably the world’s most pristine natural habitat, unspoilt by human intervention
The North Atlantic island of Surtsey is among the planet’s youngest places, having emerged from the sea during an underwater volcanic eruption that lasted from 1963 until 1967. The territory was quickly declared a nature reserve, and only a small band of accredited scientists has ever been allowed to land there to record how life on Earth spontaneously develops.
The infant island lies around 20 kilometres (12.5 miles) south-west of Heimaey, the largest of the Westman Islands. The first indications of a volcanic eruption underway here came on 14 November 1963, when changes in the surrounding water temperature, arising plume of smoke and the smell of hydrogen sulphide were all observed. However, the eruption is thought to have begun several days earlier, some 130 metres (430 ft) beneath the sea.
By the time the eruptions came to an end in June 1967, Surtsey covered an area of 2.7 square kilometres (1 sq mile). It has been estimated that the wind-battered island will not be returned to the sea before 2100 at the earliest, and it may survive for several centuries. However, two smaller sister islands that appeared during the original eruption were soon eroded to nothing by the Atlantic waves.
Landing on the island is strictly forbidden, unless you are a scientist who has been awarded a permit by the Surtsey Research Society, which supervises all activity on the island on behalf of the Icelandic Environment and Food Agency. Diving in the island’s environs is not allowed, nor is disturbing any of its natural features, introducing any organisms, soils or minerals, or leaving any waste. It is also forbidden to discharge a firearm within 2 kilometres (1.2 miles) of the coast.
The island was inscribed on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites in 2008. By 2004, the assorted life recorded on the island included 69 vascular plants, 71 lichen, 24 fungi, 14 bird species and 335 species of invertebrates. In 2009 it was widely reported that a Golden Plover was found nesting on the island, the first wading bird to do so.
Location: Wasco County, Oregon, USA
Nearest population hub: Portland, Oregon
Secrecy overview: High-security location: Google’s first purpose-built data centre
Google is one of the world’s leading Internet companies, helping to shape modern culture while making an awful lot of money. As proprietors of perhaps the world’s leading search engine, the business requires vast banks of computer servers to keep things working. Its enormous Data Center at The Dalles was built amid great secrecy at a cost of US$600 million and opened in 2006.
When Google came to construct its first custom-designed facility, a site on the Columbia River not far from the Dalles Dam offered not only suitable land on which to build and a local population to work there (employees number around 200), but also the possibility of plentiful and green hydroelectric energy. A business such as Google inevitably consumes enormous quantities of electricity, and the chance to build a more environmentally friendly facility fitted in neatly with the company’s declared motto: ‘Don’t be evil’.
The Data Center, codenamed ‘Project 02’ in its early days, was shrouded in secrecy when it opened – even visiting journalists were required to sign confidentiality agreements. Although the secrecy level has since declined, security – both of the site itself and the data it contains – remains of paramount importance.
A full-time Information Security Team works to ensure the integrity of electronically held information, while the centre itself is surrounded by a perimeter fence that is patrolled by guards and constantly under closed- circuit surveillance. While Google wishes to make the world’s information universally accessible, it clearly harbours no such ambitions for its own data centres.
Location: Coca-Cola World, Atlanta, Georgia, USA
Nearest population hub: Atlanta, Georgia
Secrecy overview: High-security location: repository of the secret recipe for the iconic beverage
Coca-Cola might well be the world’s favourite drink, with a reported 1.7 billion servings sold every day. Such is the mythology that has grown up around the Coca-Cola brand that its recipe is perhaps the most famous trade secret in history. Jealously guarded since first being committed to paper in the early part of the 20th century, it now resides in an extraordinary vault that doubles as a tourist attraction.
The Coca-Cola story begins in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1886 with a chemist called John Pemberton, creator of delights such as French Wine Coca (a heady mix of wine and cocaine) and Pemberton’s Indian Queen Magic Hair Dye. Facing the spectre of prohibition, he set upon devising a non-alcoholic version of his Wine Coca. The result was a brownish syrup that he intended to market as a sort of ‘cure-all’. Quite serendipitously, however, a batch of this syrup was mixed with carbonated water, creating the drink that is known and loved today.
Company legend has it that only a tiny band of people know the recipe, and they are not allowed to travel together for fear of an accident in which the formula might be lost forever. In December 2011, the recipe was retrieved from its vault at SunTrust Bank and, under high security, was transferred a few minutes down the road to a new purpose-built vault at the company’s World of Coca- Cola exhibition.
In front of the watching media, a metal box believed to contain the recipe was placed into a newly constructed two-metre (6.6-ft) high steel vault. This vault is never opened, and is protected by a barrier that keeps the viewing public several metres away. The area is kept under surveillance, with guards on hand to deal with any troublemakers. By the door stands a keypad and a hand-imprint scanner, although officials have refused to confirm if these are simply for show.
Location: Andaman Islands, Bay of Bengal
Nearest population hub: Port Blair, Great Andaman
Secrecy overview: Access restricted: a remote island whose people reject contact with the outside world
North Sentinel Island, which covers only 72 square kilometers (28sq miles), has an indigenous population of somewhere between 50 and 400 Sentinelese, one of the last groups on earth to have resisted contact with the modern world. Jealously protective of their isolation, any attempt by outsiders to land on the island is likely to result in a hail of arrows.
North Sentinel lies to the west of the southern tip of South Andaman Island and is one of 572 islands in an 800-kilometre (500-mile) arc. The island lacks any natural harbours and is surrounded by uncharted coral reefs that have largely kept out visitors as well as keeping in the Sentinelese, whose own rudimentary boats are suited only to calm lagoons.
Tentative attempts from the 1960s to make contact with the Sentinelese met with limited success. Incidents such as the one in 1974 when a visiting documentary crew was attacked and the director suffered an arrow to the thigh were not uncommon. After many years of regular landings and gift offerings, the first recorded friendly contact was made in 1991.
However, similar schemes with other native peoples of the islands (including the Great Andamanese and the Jarawa) had ended disastrously when those populations were decimated by exposure to common but unfriendly diseases. Under pressure from groups arguing that the Sentinelese should not be forced into contact, the government gave up on its contact programme in 1996.
Location: Beneath Threadneedle Street in London, England
Nearest population hub: London
Secrecy overview: High-security location: the safest place to store gold bullion in Europe
The central bank of the United Kingdom, the Bank of England was founded in 1694. Since 1734, it has been based at Threadneedle Street in the heart of the City of London, and from 1797 it has had the nickname of the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street. Beneath its floors are cavernous vaults that store not only the gold reserves of the UK but also the wealth of countless other countries.
As of 2011, the UK government held gold reserves of around 312 tonnes (1 million troy ounces) in the Bank of England, which roughly equates to 23,000 bars of 24-carat gold. Billions of pounds worth of gold belonging to other countries is held here too, often deposited by governments who don’t have access to a suitably large and secure vault in their own nation.
The vaults themselves are vast, with a floor area large enough to accommodate the pitch of Wembley Stadium four times over with room to spare. The walls are designed to withstand bomb blasts, and for this reason the vaults took on the role of air raid shelter for bank employees during the Second World War.
Access these days is via huge doors that are opened by keys 90 centimetres (3 ft) in length (not the sort of thing to slip into a pocket unnoticed). As the key is inserted into the lock, the person attempting entry must give a password via a microphone next to the doors. The identity of staff who work in the vaults is a closely guarded secret in order to lessen the chance of an employee’s family being kidnapped and the employee being blackmailed into granting access.
While all that gold is securely tucked away in the Bank’s vaults, visitors to the Bank’s museum are given the opportunity to handle a gold bar for themselves.
Location: Beneath Threadneedle Street in London, England
Nearest population hub: London
Secrecy overview: High-security location: the safest place to store gold bullion in Europe
The Vatican Secret Archives is the repository for many of the most important documents related to the history of the papacy and the Roman Catholic Church. Although open to accredited researchers, much of the Archive’s contents remains off-limits: critics suggest it hides evidence of numerous dark episodes from the past.
In reality, the word Secretum in the Archive’s Latin name Archivum Secretum Vaticanum has more of a sense of ‘privacy’ than ‘secrecy’ – that is to say, the Archive is the papacy’s private possession. Today it contains somewhere in the region of 85 kilometres (53 miles) of shelving, holding materials that date back to the eighth century.
It was Pope Paul V, in 1611, who commanded the construction of what became the Secret Archives, now located next to the Vatican Museums. The Archives opened on 31 January 1612, with Baldassarre Ansidei as their first custodian. In 1810, Napoleon Bonaparte transferred many of the contents to Paris, but most were returned by 1817 following Napoleon’s fall from power. In 1881, Pope Leo XIII took the momentous step of opening up the Archives for scholarly research.
Among the Archive’s treasure are documents relating to the bloody period of the Inquisition. It also houses King Henry VIII of England’s petitions for divorce from Catherine of Aragon. There is also allegedly literature relating to the trial of Galileo in 1633 on charges of heresy (the papacy not being overly keen on his insistence that the Earth was not at the centre of the Universe), as well as a letter from Michelangelo complaining about late payment for his painting and decorating work.
All researchers wanting access must have a university degree or equivalent, and members of the clergy need a licentiate degree or PhD. Before access is granted, a formal application must be made, accompanied by a letter from a recognised institute or qualified individual in the field of historical research. If there is already someone researching in your particular area of interest, you’ve probably had it.
Location: Beneath Moscow, Russia
Nearest population hub: Moscow
Secrecy overview: Existence unacknowledged: a secret underground metro system created in the Soviet era
The Cold War was littered with tales of ingenious subterfuges and outrageous hoodwinking, but few stories can better that which tells of an entire underground secret transport system for use by government officials, built beneath the streets of Moscow and entirely separate from the official Metro. The Kremlin and FSB (Russia’s security service) refuse to confirm or deny its existence to this day. A variety of dates for the beginning of its construction have been suggested, the earliest of which is 1947.
Advocates of Metro-2 contend that it has up to four lines, the longest stretching for some 60 kilometres (37 miles), at a depth of between 50 and 200 metres (165 and 660 ft) below the city. The tunnels are said to be virtually the same size as the official Metro, but there is no third rail, suggesting that its trains were diesel powered. Rails are recessed into concrete, perhaps to allow the possibility of other vehicles (cars, trucks or tanks, for instance) using the tunnels.
Of course, there are plenty of cynics ready to pour cold water on the idea of such an elaborate network. Firstly, they argue, the creation of such a system would require huge amounts of manpower and the excavation of unimaginable amounts of rubble – so where did all the rubble go, never to be spotted by a passing spy satellite? Moscow also has a shallow water table, with groundwater an ongoing problem for the official Metro lines, let alone the even deeper Metro-2.
In recent years several former Soviet officials have all but confirmed the existence of something resembling Metro-2. Many, though, have pointed out that if the system does actually exist, it is likely to need significant repairs and upgrading to turn it into a practically useful system today.
Location: Assumed to be in the Khentii Province of eastern Mongolia
Nearest population hub: Ulaanbaatar
Secrecy overview: Location uncertain: last resting place of the legendary Mongol leader
Given the name Temujin at birth, Genghis Khan went on to unite disparate nomadic tribes to establish the Mongol Empire, winning himself a reputation as one of history’s most feared warriors in the process. In accordance with his wishes, he was buried in the utmost secrecy: the location of his tomb remains one of history’s enduring conundrums, despite numerous attempts to find it.
The slaves who built the tomb were murdered once it was completed so that they could not divulge its location, and the soldiers who killed them were in turn dispatched. It is said that the ground was then trampled by horses, planted with trees and even had a river diverted over it to hide the tomb entrance.
Debate rages as to the location of the emperor’s body. Many believe that it is probably in Mongolia’s Khentii Province, perhaps close to the sacred Burkhan Kaldun mountain where Temujin was born. In 2004, an archaeological team claimed to have found his long-lost palace in this region, which many experts assume would have been close to his final resting place. Yet the grave remains elusive and that is no doubt what Genghis Khan would want. According to Mongolian tradition, as long as his tomb is left undisturbed his soul will be kept protected.
Location: Ryanggang Province, North Korea
Nearest population hub: Hyesan
Secrecy overview: Existence unacknowledged: secret mountain lair of the former North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il
Kim Jong-il, reputedly a great fan of the James Bond movies, all but completed his transformation into the perfect Bond villain by ordering construction of a secret military command centre inside his country’s most sacred mountain, Mount Baekdu. Uncovered by foreign defence analysts in 2010, the complex is believed to have been for many years in the building.
Mount Baekdu (which translates as ‘the white-headed mountain’) rises to over 2,700 metres (8,850ft) on North Korea’s border with China. It is a spectacular statovolcano with a habit of erupting about once a century on average (the next eruption is currently overdue).
The secret base was revealed by the Hong Kong bureau of the Kanwa Information Centre in 2010. Built close to one of the ‘Dear Leader’ Kim Jong-il’s palaces, the complex has storage space for helicopters and fighter jets, with an airfield located conveniently close by. Evidence for the lair’s existence was garnered from a combination of satellite photos and the testimony of defectors.
Location: North Pacific Ocean
Nearest population hub: Honolulu, Hawaii, USA
Secrecy overview: Jurisdiction uncertain: the world’s biggest rubbish dump
Twice the size of Texas, a mass of non-biodegradable plastic has gathered in the waters of the northern Pacific Ocean. Brought together by ocean currents, this vast body of waste originates from countries all around the world and poses a major long-term threat to the ecosystem. Yet no nation state or major international body has formulated a comprehensive plan for dealing with it.
The responsibility of no single nation, the great Pacific garbage patch is a truly dirty secret that few outside the community of environmental activists are ready to acknowledge and act upon.
The patch has formed from countless tonnes of rubbish deposited into the sea, 80% of it from mainland areas.
Location: Stationed at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, USA
Nearest population hub: Washington, DC
Secrecy overview: High-security location: the US President’s personal aircraft
Strictly speaking, Air Force One is not an aircraft but merely the call-sign of any Air Force jet in which the President happens to be flying. In practice, however, it normally refers to either one of two Boeing 747-200 series jets (with tail numbers 28000 and 29000) that are at the President’s disposal.
The plane’s facilities are split over three levels, providing over 370 square metres (4,000 sq ft) of floor space. With room for around 70 passengers on board, the guest list tends to be pretty exclusive, and anyone going aboard can expect to undergo stringent security screenings. Aside from the President, the passenger roster may include members of the President’s family and other specially invited guests. George W Bush, for instance, occasionally took his pet cats and dogs for a spin.
Air Force One is equipped with its own anti-missile defense systems, and has infrared countermeasures situated around the tail and the engines, designed to confuse heat-seeking weapons. There is also shielding to protect the plane’s electronics from an electromagnetic pulse attack.
Location: Westminster, London, England
Nearest population hub: London
Secrecy overview: High-security location: the private chamber of the Queen
Buckingham Palace is the British Queen’s official London residence, and one of the most iconic buildings in the world. Yet despite attracting hordes of tourists, large swathes of the labyrinthine palace remain under the highest security and off-limits to the world at large. Most private of all is the Queen’s personal bedroom, once the scene of a notorious break-in.
Today, the Palace encompasses some 775 rooms, of which 52 are royal and guest bedrooms. When in residence (signified by the raising of the Royal Standard), the Queen and Prince Philip occupy a suite of rooms in the Palace’s North Wing. By rights, this should be the single most impenetrable part of the building. But being such a famous landmark, Buckingham Palace has tempted many to test its security over the years, from naked paragliders to undercover journalists, and from paternal rights campaigners dressed as Batman to Osama bin Laden look-alikes.
As well as armed guards throughout the Palace, there are regular police dog patrols and a permanent detachment from the Queen’s Guard, instantly recognizsable in their red tunics and bearskins.
Location: West Flanders, Belgium
Nearest population hub: Ghent
Secrecy overview: Access restricted: home to the First World War’s largest unexploded mine
La Basse Cour (which translates as ‘The Farmyard’) is a 60-hectare (150-acre) privately owned farm close to the town of Ypres. Amid the push-and-pull of the First World War’s Western Front, its location on the Messines Ridge put it on the front line of hostilities. Today the farm sits on a massive 22,500kg (50,000 lb) mine that has yet to detonate.
The Messines Ridge fell under German control in the early months of the First World War, and remained so until 1917. From January 1916, British troops began digging underground tunnels from their lines around the Ypres Salient towards the German encampments at Messines. The idea was to lay a series of mines that could be exploded shortly before a major troop offensive. However, six of the British mines survived the operation intact. Five of them were left undetonated for strategic reasons, while the sixth was lost during a German counter-mining attack and never recovered. It lay beneath a farm then known as Le Petite Douve, which was renamed as La Basse Cour by its owners, the Mahieu family, in the aftermath of the conflict.
And there the mine survives to the present day. While another of the Messines mines exploded spontaneously in 1955 during a lightning storm, the bomb beneath La Basse Cour remains buried some 24 metres (80 ft) beneath the Mahieus’ property.
Location: Bavaria, Germany
Nearest population hub: Munich
Secrecy overview: Site of historic mystery: an ancient complex of mysterious underground tunnels
Southern Germany is home to a labyrinth of over 700 subterranean passages and chambers, known as Erdställe and believed to date from between the 10th and 13th centuries. Entrances into the network have been found in disparate locations, within churches, graveyards and private houses, as well as among woodland. However, answers to the questions of who built them and why remain as elusive as ever.
Similar underground networks are evident elsewhere in Europe, notably in Austria, Hungary, Ireland and Spain. A priest by the name of Lambert Karner was the first to extensively explore the Bavarian tunnels in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The passages vary greatly in size – some are so small that they can only be entered on hands and knees while others are relatively spacious and stretch in excess of 100 meters (330 ft). In Germany, the passages have also traditionally been referred to as ‘goblin holes’ (Schrazelloch), reflecting a once widely held belief that they were supernatural in nature.
Location: Eastern Cyprus
Nearest population hub: Famagusta, Cyprus
Secrecy overview: Access restricted: a fenced-off ghost town since 1974
In its heyday, the sun-soaked Mediterranean beaches of Varosha made it one of the world’s most popular holiday destinations. Filled with luxurious high-rise hotels, it was beloved by the Hollywood jet set, with visitors ranging from Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton to Brigitte Bardot. But in 1974, politics intervened and life as it was known in this tourist playground came to a grinding halt.
The Varosha area is a neighbourhood (if it can now be called that) of Famagusta, a city lying just north of the Atilla Line that today divides Cyprus between the Greek south and the Turkish north.
Varosha now resembles a modern-day Pompeii, capturing a lost moment of time. Breakfasts sit half-eaten on tables beneath light bulbs that burned for years, no one having turned them off. Car dealerships sit silent, their forecourts filled with what were the latest models back in 1974. Similarly, boutiques are stocked with the dubious fashions of the mid-1970s.
Meanwhile, buildings uncared for and unloved for almost four decades, slowly deteriorate as nature inexorably reclaims her territory. The roots of untended plants and trees are gradually undermining the structural safety of once grand edifices, as untreated roads crack under season after season of raging sunshine. Beaches once populated by sun-seekers are now home to colonies of sea turtles.
So it is that a strange situation holds whereby it is possible to tan yourself on the beach in the Turkish-Cypriot resort of Famagusta while Varosha sadly decays next to you, testament to an intractable civil conflict.
Location: Galmadug region, central Somalia
Nearest population hub: Galkayo
Secrecy overview: Access restricted: a pirate-controlled enclave in war-torn Somalia
A small coastal town on Somalia’s east coast, in recent years Hobyo has become synonymous with the endemic piracy problem around the Horn of Africa. As well as being home to a large number of the pirates themselves, it has been used as a dock in which to harbour hijacked vessels. Civil war has rendered the surrounding region lawless, leaving Hobyo essentially off-limits to outsiders.
Situated in Somalia’s semi-autonomous Galmudug region, Hobyo was once capital of a prosperous Sultanate, but went into decline after it came under the jurisdiction of Italian East Africa in 1936. he small town has a scattering of run-down buildings, fighting an everlasting battle against the sands of the receding coastline. Its water supply is compromised, there are no hospitals or schools in operation, agriculture has all but died and tourism is out of the question. For some, piracy seems the only answer (though few locals seem to reap the benefits from the vast revenues it raises). Some estimates suggest the illicit business employs 10% of the population.
Location: Thiruvananthapuram District, Kerala, India
Nearest population hub: Thiruvananthapuram
Secrecy overview: High-security location: sight of a treasure horde worth billions
Southern India’s Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple was built in the 18th century. When in 2011 its vaults were opened for the first time in over a century, they were found to contain gold, silver and jewels with an estimated value of over US$15 billion. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a portion of this new-found wealth was immediately spent on improving the temple’s security.
The enormous Thiruvananthapuram temple, dedicated to the Hindu god Lord Vishnu, was built by the rulers of the Travancore kingdom (which joined with Cochin in the 20th century to become modern-day Kerala). Its construction included six large, granite vaults into which offerings to Vishnu were deposited over the course of several hundred years. It is believed that several of the underground chambers had been sealed for at least 130 years.
Some of the vaults offered up more treasure than others, but few had expected the amount and extent of valuables that would be revealed. The trove included solid gold idols, a gold chain said to weigh more than 3kg (6.5 lb), antique diamonds by the handful and even two coconut shells covered in beaten gold and adorned with rubies and emeralds.
These ten weird and wonderful locations have been taken from 100 Places You Will Never Visit: The World's Most Secret Locations (Quercus, £14.99). Learn more about the world's secret places you don't know about and couldn't visit even if you wanted to. The book is available online – order your copy now.
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