In July 2005, Sandra Rötzscher arrived in San Pedro de Atacama, a high desert town in the Andes Mountains of northern Chile, to find herself in a four-day sandstorm. The rare event was “annoying and painful,” she remembers, but once it cleared, an otherworldly landscape emerged: craggy rock formations striated by years of sedimentary buildup, fields of geysers letting off columns of steam from the nearby volcanoes, and salt flats populated by flocks of flamingos. It was scenery unlike any she’d ever seen.
The first image that the phrase “mountain town” brings to mind is usually a scene of the Swiss Alp variety, with quaint lodges tucked beneath snow-dusted peaks. And, though many of the world’s most beautiful mountain towns are indeed alpine (or at least similar), gorgeous high-altitude communities exist in places more typically associated with beaches and deserts as well, like Chile or Mexico.
Naturally, given their location, most of the towns that made our list are ski destinations. But while resorts like Whistler, home of the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, draw plenty of snow-hounds, they also draw off-season crowds with their scenery. Summer hikers and mountain bikers traverse the mountains here to enjoy the sprawling panoramas of the expansive Coast Range.
Across North America, Stowe, Vermont also lures visitors year-round. Adrenaline junkies come to take on the challenging double-black diamond trails at Stowe Mountain Resort, while summer travelers hike and camp near its historic buildings. But Stowe perhaps saves its most beautiful face for fall, when the annual explosion of fall colors saturates the tree-covered Green Mountains.
The beauty in these towns isn’t always just natural, either. Because many of them are sequestered in remote locations, they’ve often retained ancient cultural and architectural traditions. The Japanese villages of Shirakawa-go, for example, have a distinctive beauty due to a unique architecture style that developed over centuries.
No matter if it’s ski season in the Alps or autumn in Vermont, each of these communities have a special sort of intoxicating beauty. San Pedro especially attracts people who seek out the magical and mystical energy believed to inhabit this strangely beautiful land. Though Sandra Rötzscher doesn’t really believe in mysticism, she was swayed by the ethereal landscape. “The energy truly was undeniable,” she said.