Traveling is something most of us want to do as much as possible, assuming we can afford it. But visiting the standard tourist destinations around the world, which do have plenty of great characteristics, does become boring after a while. For those of us with a sense of adventure, and who want to see our planet in its truest form, we can go exploring its natural wonders – of which Earth has plenty. Below is a list of ten such places, where we leave the concrete, steel, and all the comforts of home behind, and return to the most pristine parts of the world Mother Nature has to offer.
10. The Ancient Gondwana Rainforests of Australia
About 175 million years ago, the super-continent known as Pangaea began to slowly but surely break apart in two large chunks. While one shifted north, and became Eurasia and North America, another equally large landmass known as Gondwana drifted south. On this tropical, southern continent an ancient rainforest began to take root, covering virtually the entire southern hemisphere of the globe. As it, too, eventually began to rip itself apart, slowly turning into the southern hemisphere as we know it today, the prehistoric forest began to disappear.
Except for Australia, that is, which more or less maintained the same latitude as the greater Gondwana continent. We think of Australia primarily as a desert landscape, but here the old rainforest also endured, and it exists even to this day, thus making it the oldest continuous jungle in the world. Predating even the long lost dinosaurs, the Gondwana Rainforests can be found on the easternmost fringes of the Australian continent, covering roughly 0.3 percent of the island nation. As Australia itself began migrating north at some point, the once densely forested continent slowly changed into a vast grassland, and later into the arid desert it is today.
Nevertheless, these woods are the largest pockets of subtropical rainforests in the world, and are full of some of the oldest ferns and conifer species, as well as the first descendants of flowering plants, which initially appeared in these jungles some 100 million years ago. Between those ancient trees, the kangaroo can also trace back its own origins. In fact, the Gondwana Rainforest is home to about half of all Australian plant families and about a third of Australia’s mammal and bird species, many of which are found only here, and nowhere else.
9. The Beagle Channel in South America
Located at the southern tip of South America, Beagle Channel serves as a somewhat of a safe passage for ships crossing between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Measuring some 150 miles in length, it’s only eight miles at its widest, offering some really spectacular views in all directions. With Mount Darwin towering 5,900 feet over its surrounding landscape, the cliffs and slopes around provide for the perfect amphitheater in which Mother Nature hosts one of its greatest performances.
It was named after Charles Darwin’s famous ship, the HMS Beagle, which on its second voyage in the early 1830s surveyed the narrow strait and gazed upon its beauty. On January 29, 1833, while winding his way through the waters, Darwin wrote in his field notebook, “It is scarcely possible to imagine anything more beautiful than the beryl-like blue of these glaciers, and especially as contrasted with the dead white of the upper expanse of snow.” In a scenario such as this, even today one can marvel as a piece of glacier breaks off and hurls itself into the waters, while sperm whales swim close to the shore. That’s accompanied by hundreds upon hundreds of penguins flocking on many of the tiny islands scattered throughout the channel. Sea lions, seals, Magellan and Gentoo penguins, arctic and sea birds, all are drawn here at the joining of the two mighty oceans by the large numbers of fish.
The surrounding wilderness is no less striking, being host to the southernmost beech forest in the world. The largest woodpecker in South America can be found here, along with other endemic species, native only to the windy, Tierra del Fuego archipelago.
8. China’s Sacred Mount Hua
Going up some 7,217 feet into the air, Mount Hua (also called Huashan) is only the ninth tallest peak in the country, but nevertheless, is considered to be among the “five biggest mountains in China” due to its sheer steepness. Located in the Shaanxi region, close to Huayin City and 75 miles away from Xian, Mount Huashan utterly dominates the surrounding landscape, rising like a spike from the flat plains below. But despite its seeming inaccessibility, people have been climbing it for hundreds, if not thousands of years.
There is a 7.5 mile long, winding pathway going around and around the mountain, up to its very top. But this is no ordinary path, mind you; rather, it’s an extremely narrow walkway made out of planks and bolted right into the rock face. Three planks across and a chain to hold on to is all that keeps you from falling hundreds of feet onto the vertical cliff face. Regardless of the apparent perils, the way up is worth it, as you will come across many old Taoist temples and former palaces from past Chinese dynasties.
Mount Huashan has a total of five peaks, each known for something spectacular. The East Peak, for example, is famous for its utterly stunning sunrises, and the beautiful legend which surrounds it. The Immortal Palm Peak, on the other hand, draws its name from the natural veins in the rock, which make it look like a palm tree. But none are more beautiful than the Southern Peak, which offers hikers some of the most beautiful views of the surrounding landscape, with the lush green of the canopy below and the Yellow River carving its way to the sea. At the very top of this peak, there is an old Taoist temple which has now been transformed into a teahouse, offering those brave enough to make the journey a well-deserved refreshment.
7. The Danube Delta in Romania
As Europe’s second longest river after the Volga in Russia, the Danube crosses through ten countries and four capital cities before it finally finds its way to the Black Sea in Romania. But before it actually reaches the shoreline, it breaks apart into three arms, in and around which the Danube Delta comes into existence. Some 5,000 years ago, this place was nothing more than a gulf in the Black Sea, but as time went on, the mighty river brought with it large quantities of silt, forming the largest and most pristine natural reserve in Europe. In fact, the delta grows by an estimated of 130 feet per year.
Part of the Unesco World Naturals Sites, the Danube Delta is home to the largest colony of pelicans in the world, as well as other 300 species of birds, 75 species of fish, and 1,150 species of plants. It also acts as a temporary safe haven for half of the total world population of Red-breasted Geese, on their way to and from Africa and the rest of Europe. Unfortunately, this is the only remaining wetland suited for all sorts of migratory birds to cross between the two continents. The people living here have become reliant on the abundance of fish and other wildlife the delta provides. Their lifestyle, with a few exceptions, hasn’t changed much for hundreds of years, and you can still find them on their small boats with a fishing rod in hand.
6. The Valley Of Flowers in India
India is one of the most beautiful countries in the world, packed with history and tradition, and should definitely be a travel destination for anyone who wants to do some globe trotting. But there is one place in particular, not known well by the general public, that should be among your first stops. The smallest national park in the Himalayan Mountains, the Valley of Flowers is an alpine gorge surrounded on all sides by snowy peaks. The absolutely amazing thing about this place is that in summer, the entire valley transforms into a huge carpet of flowers and herbs as far as the eye can see. Protected on all sides by mountains and hills, the Valley of Flowers has its own micro-climate, harboring life of all shapes and sizes.
The northern cliff face is covered by rhododendrons, as well as sorb and birch trees, while the southern part is completely engulfed by flowery meadows. Only accessible between the months of June and October, the Valley of Flowers is as pristine as pristine gets. Brahma Kamal, or “the lotus of the god Brahma,” is a rare flower growing in the valley and other slopes in the Himalayas. First discovered in 1930 by Frank Smythe, a British mountaineer and botanist, he popularized the area with his book entitled, simply, The Valley of Flowers. Drained by the Pushpawati River, the valley offers an amazing landscape where you can absolutely feel your stress simply melting away.
5. The Underground Rivers and Lakes of the Yucatan Peninsula
Home to the Maya civilization, the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico is seemingly poor when it comes to fresh water. Well, this is just a trick on the area’s part, since most of its water is hidden underground. In fact, the entire peninsula is littered with over 3,000 cenotes, a word which derives from the Mayan “dzonot,” meaning “abyss.” These are nothing more than sinkholes which formed as a result of soft and porous limestone erosion, which covers the entire peninsula. While geologists see them as a maze of caverns, tunnels, underground rivers and lakes, the Mayans saw them as wells of life and gates to the afterlife.
While some are dangerous for the average person, others are open to the public in the form of ponds, lakes, or open wells. The biggest such system of cenotes is the Loltun, whose name comes from the words Lol (which means flower and, no, has nothing to do with laughter) and Tun (stone). Located some 60 miles away from Merida, some of its caves and galleries were inhabited by people for more than 7,000 years. The stalactites inside some of the cave are so large that they act as “musical instruments,” making a deep sound if touched, similar to a bell. The vast city complex built by the ancient Maya, Chichen Itza, is just 3.7 miles away.
4. Lake Baikal in Russia
Hidden deep within the Siberian wilderness, Lake Baikal is the ninth largest lake in the world in terms of surface area. What makes this huge lake stand out from all the rest is the fact that it holds one fifth of all fresh water available. With a maximum depth of one mile, it contains 14,300 cubic miles more water than all of the Great Lakes combined. Similar to Lake Tanganyika in Africa, Baikal formed more than 25 million years ago as a result of a rift in the planet’s crust. The many hot springs in the area indicate the region still being geologically active.
Its waters are so clear that it offers a 130 foot deep visibility, and during winter its entire surface freezes over. Due to Siberia’s extremely cold temperatures, a thick layer of ice forms, through which locals can drill in order to fish. In calm water conditions, ice forms in such a way that one can look through and see the many fish swimming below. The ice also forms intricate designs, with crevasses up to three feet deep, as temperatures fluctuate throughout the winter months. Many species living in its waters, like the Baikal seal or the Golomyanka fish, are endemic to the lake. This fish is the only one in the world which gives birth to live babies, and can reach depths of up to 4,600 feet.
3. The Antelope Canyon in the American Southwest
Called by many photographers “a celebration of the eye, mind, and spirit,” Antelope Canyon in Arizona makes for one of the most complex and intricate ensembles of beauty in the world. A long time ago, herds of pronghorn antelope roamed freely in and around Antelope Canyon, which explains the canyon’s name. Walking through it, one can experience the amazing color show in an array of red, orange, blue, and violet. The further in you go, the greater the contrast between light and darkness becomes, bringing out the rounded shapes of the canyon itself.
Like other slot canyons, this one began as a small crack in the sandstone, through which water slowly carved its way. In some areas, Antelope Canyon can reach a depth of 120 feet and is divided into two separate parts. The lower one is only accessible by going down some stairs through a narrow crack. The Navajo named its upper part Tse’ bighanilini, which translates to “the place where water runs through rocks.” The best time to visit is during midday, when the sun is directly above, and streaks of light go all the way to the very bottom.
2. Huanglong Natural Reserve in China
Known to the Chinese as “the Yellow Dragon,” Huanglong Natural Reserve is a two mile long valley, hidden deep in the northernmost extremity of Sichuan province in China. Located at the intersection of four major floral regions (the sub-tropical and tropical regions of the Northern Hemisphere, Eastern Asia, and the Himalayas), Huanglong is home to a large concentration of different species of plants in a relative small area of land. Golden snub-nosed monkeys, Asian black bears, leopards, Pallas’s cats, Tibetan antelope, and Giant Pandas can also be found here.
But what makes this place stand out is the series of about 3,400 brightly colored ponds, which cascade water from one to the next in a completely mesmerizing view. The mineral rich waters create different nuances of white, silver, orange, pink, and blue, which seen from above look like a yellow dragon, with the many ponds as its brightly colored scales. The many thermal springs found in this natural reserve are said to have incredible healing properties for those who bathe in its waters. The lakes themselves, together with the many caves and amazing wildlife, make Huanglong into a true paradise on Earth.
1. Chile’s El Tatio Geysers
In northern Chile, high up in the Atacama Desert, a series of geysers make up one of the most alien-looking places on Earth. Due to the extremely high altitudes of 13,800 feet, water here boils at only 186.8 degrees Fahrenheit and what is spewed out is the only water found in the entire region. The hills and mountains surrounding the El Tatio geyser field go up another 5,580 feet, adding to the eerie-looking landscape. The narrow runways through which water flows away from the geysers is teeming with heat-resistant algae and bacteria, giving the ground a rainbow colored appearance.
A bit farther down, where the water begins to cool, a sinister frog makes a living by resorting to cannibalism and eating its own kind. With little else to go around, life seems to always find a way. The best time to gaze upon this unique landscape is around 6:00 a.m. to 7:00 am, as the sun just begins to peer over the horizon. On your way there, you’ll be greeted by vicunas, viscachas, and ñandúes, who also scrape a living among the giant cacti and paja brava grasses. After the sun is high up in the sky, and you become more familiar with your surroundings, you can take a dip in the many hot springs, if you dare.