There are occasions when someone tells you of a natural wonder they once saw – a bright pink lake, a blood-red river which burns when drunk, a giant crater in the desert filled with flames – and you wonder about their mental wellbeing, or their diet of intoxicants. But there really are places on this planet which look like they belong in another solar system. Here we’ve gathered together ten of the most mind-blowing places on earth, from a giant’s escape route to a Doorway into Hell.
A blood-red river winding between the green hills of Andalusia, the Rio Tinto could be a sight from a horror film. But in fact it is more akin to a sci-fi conceit, and has been used by NASA in tests to determine atmospheric similarities with Mars. Drinking the water risks corroding your throat, as it is highly acidic, with a pH as low as 1.7. The color comes from the same influences that have created this acidity – rare bacteria combined with pollution caused by millennia of gold and copper mining.
Strolling into the Uyuni Salt Flats feels like you’re walking on the ocean or, during the rainy season, on a mirror stretching away endlessly on all sides. It’s an immense landscape, vast, flat and blindingly white, with ten billion tons of salt spread across 10,000 square kilometers. The purity of this color scheme – white against the blue of the sky – is exploded by the flocks of pink flamingos that inhabit the salt flats. The flats were created 30,000 years ago when Lago Minchin dried up, depositing its load of salt on the barren ground, and remain an utterly breathtaking sight today.
The Chocolate Hills are an eye-popping series of 1200 conical Karsts on the beautiful Philippine island of Bohol, spread over an area of more than 20 square miles. If you visit in winter, these mounds will be a vibrant green, but in the dry season they are baked to a chocolate brown. A number of local legends explain their presence, two involving a romance between a giant and a human. In one, the giant is so saddened by the death of his sweetheart that he cries enormous tears which, on drying, form the hills.
In 1694 the Bishop of Londonderry in Northern Ireland made a startling discovery on the country’s northern coast. He found a great stone forest of hexagonal basalt columns, 40,000 stacked along the shoreline like steps or, at one point, like a natural musical organ. Some were as tall as 40 feet. Their symmetrical shape seemed surely man-made. An Irish legend explains their presence as a result of a standoff between folkloric hero Fionn McCool and the Scottish giant Benandonner which, after a clever trick devised by Fionn’s wife Oonagh, resulted in Benandonner fleeing back to Scotland and ripping up the road behind him, leaving the Giant’s Causeway.
Glanced at from the verge of Highway 3 as it runs across British Columbia, Spotted Lake looks like something from a child’s dream, or an acid trip. During the summer months, the water in this alkali lake evaporates, leaving large conical spots behind. These spots are multicolored, gleaming yellow, purple and green in the July sun – the colors change depending on the mineral composition of the lake at the particular moment of your visit. It is supposed to have healing powers, and is sacred to the Osoyoos First Nation people to whom the land belongs, so access to the lake itself is prohibited.
Amid the wild and spectacular terrain of the American southwest, between the Grand Canyon and Zion National Park, stretch a series of red-hued cliffs, streaked with white and cream. These are the Vermilion Cliffs. They are composed of deposited silt and Navajo sandstone, colored by red iron oxide and eroded by the elements to create sharply-outlined crags and escarpments. The cliffs reach their most mind-bending with The Wave, a twisting field of curled sandstone laced with thin ribbons of reds, oranges, whites and creams, that is wildly disorientating.
At almost 70,000 square miles, the Simpson Desert is among the largest sand dune deserts in the world. Even more dramatically, the sand is a vivid patchwork of light pinks and blood reds, colored by iron oxide in the ground. It covers some of the driest and least-inhabited land in central Australia, though many visitors are drawn to its barren beauty. Most well-known is the Nappanerica, or Big Red, a towering deep red sand dune which is 40 meters in height. Simpson also has the world’s longest network of parallel sand dunes, held in place against the rushing desert winds by a chainmail of vegetation.
Venture a little north of the Cap-Vert peninsula in western Senegal and you could stumble across a remarkable sight: a bright pink lake. Also known as Lac Rose, the lake’s color is particularly vivid during the dry season, and its hue changes through the day from a wispy purple to a vibrant pink. The lake is almost 40% saline, and its color comes from a salt-loving bacteria which produces a red pigment, dying the water its unusual shade.
A thousand feet below Naica Mountain in Mexico is a great cavern, its walls split and speared by enormous pillars of crystal, gypsum shards measuring up to 11 meters in length and 55 tons. These are some of the biggest natural crystals ever discovered, and they criss-cross and jut into this subterranean space where they grew undisturbed for thousands of years – until, in 2000, two miners searching for lead accidentally burst into the cave. The site has since become a working mine, while scientists are campaigning for its protection to preserve the incredible formations.
In the middle of the Karakum Desert, in a remote region of Turkmenistan, lies a wide crater filled with roaring flames. It remains, at the time of writing, unfenced and unprotected, so travellers can walk right up to its edge and peer down into the incandescent depths. This incredible site is not, in fact, an entirely natural phenomenon. Soviet petrochemical scientists accidentally collapsed the earth around this cavern while drilling for oil in the seventies, and realised it contained an immense supply of natural gas, rising from deep in the bowels of the earth. The authorities decided to throw in a match – figuratively speaking – to burn off the gas and prevent poisoning, but rather underestimated its quantity, as it continues to burn today.