World's Strangest Places
From a helicopter window, Antarctica appears colorless: pure white in every direction, a glaze covering the planet. Swoop into the McMurdo Dry Valleys and the bare, naked ground comes into focus, as does a most bizarre sight: a rust-red waterfall oozing down the face of a mammoth glacier. Welcome to Blood Falls—one of the world’s strangest places.
In an increasingly familiar world—where guidebooks and Google Earth would seem to have exposed every last nook and cranny—it’s refreshing to discover places that still surprise. Sure, they may not be as easy to access as, say, the Rockies (which are divine, if not revelatory), but it’s precisely this isolation that has allowed them to evolve their odd characteristics. Venturing into unknown lands may be surreal, but it’s also impressive—and rewarding.
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Blood Falls is just one example of how Antarctica “will change the way you think about life,” says David Dallmeyer, professor of geology at the University of Georgia and guide for Abercrombie & Kent. “I’ve seen azure blues you can’t imagine. I’ve seen three-mile-wide icebergs break in half and roll inwards.” With 50 years’ worth of excursions under his belt, Dallmeyer is not easily surprised, but, he admits, “In Antarctica, there is nothing else like the Dry Valleys. They’re an enigma.”
But Mother Nature isn’t the sole creator of these oddities. In Turkey, the fairy-tale-invoking Göreme National Park results from both natural and man-made handiwork. Its giant sandstone spires, known as hoodoos—which erosion first sculpted into arresting mushroom shapes—were later carved into houses, churches, and underground communities by Christians fleeing Roman persecution in the first millennium A.D. The resultant bustling canyon-land gives the impression of being a human-populated coral reef (a perfect location for Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, which was filmed there).
“The Love Valley section of the park definitely raises some eyebrows with its giant phalluses,” says Tony Carne, destination manager for Intrepid Travel, an outfitter devoted to sustainable tourism in delicate regions such as Göreme. “Plus,” he quips, “it’s fun to work the word ‘troglodyte’ into casual conversation.”
Weird and wonderful destinations like these can elicit double takes and openmouthed awe in even seasoned globe-trotters. Many of the strange places that follow are even more striking because most people don’t know they exist. Imagine stumbling upon the Grand Canyon or Great Pyramids of Giza for the first time, and you can perhaps conjure the reactions these rare wonders evoke.
Think you’ve seen it all? Read on: you ain’t seen nothing yet.
Blood Falls, Antarctica
In Victoria Land (a region directly south of New Zealand), a murderous hue of what looks like blood stains the white face of the 35-mile-long Taylor Glacier. Blood Falls, as this macabre vision is called, is not in fact a frozen cascade of hemoglobin. The scarlet tint derives from a community of sulfur-eating bacteria that dwell deep beneath the glacier in underground lakes—their crimson iron-oxide excretions dye the ice. But death does lurk in the vicinity: so arid are the McMurdo Dry Valleys that when lost seals and penguins wander irreversibly inland, they never decompose. Their mummified remains are strewn about, completing the ghoulish picture.
See It: Snag a cabin on the final voyage of Kapitan Khlebnikov, a Russian icebreaker that will spend 10 days in the region in October of next year before returning back to the service of the Kremlin.
Las Pozas, Mexico
Built by Scotsman Edward James—poet, trust-funder, and Salvador Dalí–adoring art patron—the surreal sculpture gardens located in the rainforests of Xilitla (about eight hours north of Mexico City) were a labor of love. James broke ground in 1949 and kept adding to his architectural marvel with staircases to nowhere, off-kilter turrets, and open-sided atriums until his death in 1984. His home during those 35 years? A mock-Gothic castle bustling with hundreds of birds, 40 dogs, and—not altogether shockingly—a pet boa constrictor.
Insider Tip: Time your visit to the Xilitla between April and July, when the weather is warm and dry. James’s surrealist castle home is now a budget hotel called La Posada El Castillo (don’t worry, the boa’s long gone).
Eye of the Sahara, Mauritania
At ground level it’s difficult to make out the shape radiating from where you stand. This 30-mile-wide series of concentric rings in the town of Ouadane calls to mind crop circles. But it wasn’t etched by aliens or fashioned by pranksters with too much time on their hands. The upwelling of sedimentary rock has naturally eroded to create what appears to be a rippled pond frozen in the moment after a pebble has disturbed its surface.
Stay Safe: Bad roads and banditry mean overland travel in Mauritania is neither easy nor advisable. For the best perspective, hop a charter flight from nearby Morocco—the Eye of the Sahara is clearly visible from space.
The Boneyard, Arizona
Old fighter jets never die; they just go to the Boneyard. This dirt lot near Tucson is the final resting place for roughly 3,000 retired military aircraft. While some can take to the skies with little more than a spit and polish, others—some up to 60 years old—are gradually being harvested for spare parts.
See It: Check out fighters galore and mighty B-52 bombers on an hour-long tour of the Boneyard, organized through the Pima Air & Space Museum. Reserve your spot as early as possible—it sells out weeks in advance.
Göreme National Park, Turkey
The fairy-tale-like rock formations called hoodoos, which pepper the Göreme Valley in Cappadocia, have served as homes, chapels, and schools for 2,000 years. Equally unexpected are the hoodoo interiors: while some have been given over to goats, others are furnished with all the modernity of a New York apartment.
Where to Stay: Cappadocia Cave Resort & Spa, a 76-room hotel carved into a rock hoodoo-style, offers two pools, Turkish and Japanese restaurants, and (not surprisingly) a gargantuan cellar with room for 50 dinner guests.
Socotra Archipelago, Yemen
Sitting alone at the junction of the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, the Socotra Archipelago has enjoyed almost uninterrupted isolation since it broke off from the super-continent of Gondwana (the land mass from which the Americas, Africa, Australia, Arabia, and India emerged) 100 million years ago. Since then, Mother Nature has evolved in many weird and wonderful ways. This Unesco World Heritage Site is home to exotic flora (trees that ooze bloodred sap; some that bear foul-smelling, poisonous cucumbers; and others shaped like bottles), 180 exotic birds, and 700 plant and animal species found nowhere else on earth.
Traveler’s Tip: Don’t bother brushing up on your Arabic. The local Socotri language, spoken by the 40,000 inhabitants, is unique in this world—just like the environment.
Door to Hell, Turkmenistan
One can imagine the surprise of the geologists drilling in the Karakum Desert in 1971 when their rig suddenly fell through the earth and plummeted into a 300-foot-wide cavern filled with natural gas. Deciding it was safer to burn off the methane than to allow it to seep into the nearby village, they lit it, expecting the fire to last a few weeks; 40 years later the flames are still burning brightly. At night, locals say, the scene resembles fire and brimstone of biblical proportions—hence the name.
See It: Listen to fireside stories when you camp in yurts with the seminomadic indigenous tribes on an Intrepid Travel trip through Turkmenistan—BYO marshmallows and gas mask (the sulfurous smell can be overwhelming).
Chapel of the Holy Cross, Arizona
Built in 1956, this bold church rises from the stony bluffs of Sedona’s Mystic Hills, which have eroded over the years to resemble the faces of eagles, snakes, and foxes. Sculptor Marguerite Brunswig Staude conceived of the chapel after experiencing an epiphany while viewing the Empire State Building; apparently, she witnessed a giant cross reflected in the glass of the skyscraper’s towering façade. Thus, the design of the chapel—and her life’s ambition—was born.
See It: Under the watchful eye of soaring condors, immerse yourself in the remarkable history of the Kaibab Limestone site, home to Sinagua Indian ruins from the first millennium and fossilized marine creatures dating back 250 million years. A Country Walkers Grand Canyon itinerary takes in these and other wonders.
Mount Sanqingshan National Park, China
The unearthly scenery in this Unesco-designated 56,700-acre park bears an uncanny resemblance to the floating mountains depicted in James Cameron’s Avatar. But these sheer peaks weren’t digitally created: the nearly 100 granite pillars topped with lush rainforest (and often crowned with rainbows) give the impression of hovering above the earth because their bases vanish into thick mist.
See It: Don’t miss a tour of the 1,600-year-old Sanqing Temple, a Taoist complex filled with exquisite pagodas, gardens, and stone carvings from the Ming dynasty.
Arches National Park, Utah
Framing the high desert of Canyon Country into surreal tableaux, the pink sandstone formations of Arches National Park resemble bowed sticks of pulled taffy. Of the 2,000 sinewy arches, the most famous are Double O Arch, Landscape Arch, and Delicate Arch, all of which appear ready to snap at any moment.
Where to Stay: Don’t camp beneath those arches! On average one topples every year—plus, with the newly opened 34-suite Amangiri resort near Lake Powell, a luxurious desert oasis is just a few hours away.
Neft Daşları, Azerbaijan
Originally planned as a rough 30-mile strip of road built atop lined-up oil tankers, Neft Daşları grew into much more than just a way to reach a drilling platform in the Caspian Sea. “Oil Rocks,” as it is often known, soon began incorporating houses, schools, shops, libraries, bakeries, and other civic structures. Now this full-fledged town has 5,000 residents, 124 miles of streets, and a cinema—a bizarre industrial version of Venice in miniature.
Insider Tip: Skip the arduous three-and-a-half-hour ferry ride from Baku, Azerbaijan’s most easterly point, and rent The World Is Not Enough, in which James Bond battles it out on a replica of Neft Daşları.