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25 Most Surreal Places on Earth

A simple online search will show you just how diverse our planet is. Yet it isn’t until you see these surreal destinations with your own eyes that you can both appreciate their beauty and untamed power.

Travel is one of life’s great pleasures and there are many different ways to fill up your passport. Yet venturing to some of the most unique sights will do more than just fill your camera with Insta-worthy pictures.

From inhospitable lakes and deserts to lush, high alpine forests and everything in between, this guide will show you why you should never stop exploring.

25. White Desert, Egypt

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Egypt’s White Desert is an alien landscape that belongs on everyone’s list. Forget the popular pyramids, the White Desert is a treasure chest of natural wonder, highlighted by the utterly confounding rock formations found within the national park.

The journey begins by venturing into the Black Desert, complete with ancient lava stones. After some dune bashing, you’ll find yourself within a desert coated white by calcified limestone and sculpted by the fine and dainty hand of Mother Nature.

The snow-white landscape also offers sandboarding, mountain biking, kayaking in nearby oasis and utterly gorgeous star gazing.

24. Lake Natron, Tanzania

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An alkaline lake in Tanzania’s Arusha Region, Lake Natron is known as the deadliest lake on earth. No, Lake Natron is not your typical lakeside getaway. Here, you’ll trade swimming for admiring one of the world’s most inhospitable landscapes.

Lake Natron is hauntingly beautiful. Images of animals that have been “turned to stone” have placed this destination on the map. Its pH level can reach 10.5 which is enough to burn skin. Surrounded by towering hills, the lake is colored deep red, an ominous sign. Yet it’s doesn’t scare the lesser flamingos which are famous for flocking to Lake Natron, the birthplace of 75% of the species.

23. Bryce Canyon, Utah, USA

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Featuring the largest collection of hoodoos on the planet, Bryce Canyon is a marvel to explore. The red rocks and pink cliffs combine to create a long list of top-shelf vistas set upon the aptly named Grand Staircase.

Along a high plateau, the national park features more than just exceptional geography. Visitors will also discover a world of rare flora and fauna and a night sky that will have you lying awake, eyes wide open well into the early hours.

With well-marked trails, it’s easy to get around but be sure to time your treks so you can enjoy the evening’s brilliant golden hour.

22. Phang Nga Bay, Thailand

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Surrounded by rugged cliffs and intriguing caves, Phang Nga Bay features some of the best paddling on earth. Phang Nga Bay hit the mainstream with a helping hand from Hollywood, featuring in James Bond and Star Wars. But on arrival, you’ll quickly realize, the bay was always destined for stardom.

It’s been a national park since 1981 and the vast bay is teeming with fascinating natural landmarks including James Bond Island, a limestone sea stack that rises from the Andaman Sea with purpose. After paddling around the island, discover caves and archaeological sites before seeing what treasures lie beneath the surface.

21. Waitomo Glowworm Caves, New Zealand

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In the North Island, visitors can discover New Zealand’s answer to the Yucatan’s cenotes. Under three hours from Auckland, the Waitomo (Maori for water and cave) Glowworm Caves are an intricate system of caves, subterranean rivers and sinkholes.

The highlight are the glowworms strewn across the ceiling, dangling and shining among the stalactites. From the water, your guide will take you through the tunnel discussing both the science and legends behind the cave and its famous glowworms, a grotto that took 30 million years to form. Other highlights include ziplining though the illuminated cave.

20. Ta Prohm Temple, Angkor

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Colloquially known as the Tomb Raider Temple, Ta Prohm was built almost 900 years ago. Today, the ancient temple is slowly being eaten alive by the return of the rainforest, a memorable mix of natural and man-made beauty.

Many of the temples around Angkor have been cleared, but Ta Prohm remains a bastion to the rightful order of things. It’s an experience that showcases the architectural genius of the Khmers, yet the eternal power of the jungle. Visitors will be able to see inscriptions of the temple’s original inhabitants, and explore ancient passageways and historic courtyards.

19. Svartifoss, Iceland

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Combining a waterfall with fascinating basalt columns, the Svartifoss is a sight not to be missed. The name translates to black falls due to the burnt lava that stands like an enormous organ behind the tumble veil of white.

To see the falls, you’ll need to venture one mile from the car park with an elevation gain of over 350 feet. After 30+ minutes you’ll be gawking at a 66 feet waterfall with hexagonal columns forming one of the world’s most unique waterfall backdrops. The columns are so striking they inspired the Hallgrimskirkja Church in Reykjavik.

18. Plitvice Lakes, Croatia

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Located within Croatia’s largest national park, Plitvice Lakes are one of the world’s most beautiful destinations. The lakes are divided into travertine terraces surrounded by dense rainforest home to rare birds, bears and wolves.

The lakes are the star of the show, with their crystal clear water akin to that found in the Caribbean or within a cenote. Connecting each lake are equally eye-catching waterfalls and underground tunnels. Each lake is surrounded by deposits of calcium carbonate, (yes the same ingredient used in your trusty Tums), creating a natural dam or turf barrier.

17. El Peñón de Guatapé, Colombia

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El Peñón de Guatapé is a towering rock that soars out of the valley floor weighing 10 million tons. Worshiped by the Tahamies for centuries, the rock became a major destination when the first known ascents were completed in 1954.

Today, you can journey to the top of the 650ft giant via a series of hair-raising staircases admiring the postcard-worthy views along the way. The staircase follows the only crack in the otherwise perfect rock. After 649 steps, you’ll look down on a veritable maze of lakes and distant islands.

16. Larung Gar, Tibet, China

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In Sichuan Province, Larung Gar is the largest monastery in the world and is home to 4,000 monks and nuns. Since it was established in 1980, Larung Gar has expanded dramatically to become a rolling red hill of tiny terracotta homes.

For travelers, you’ll need a sense of adventure. It’s a strenuous journey. On arrival, Larung Gar can be overwhelming. The maze of streets and poverty, along with the beautiful architecture and welcoming community is a lot for the senses to handle. At over 12,000 feet, the alpine Buddhist community has few peers.

15. The Pinnacles, Australia

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In Nambung National Park in Western Australia, the Pinnacles are a rare geological formation in a country full of them. Two hours north of Perth, the Pinnacles are formed from limestone deposits left behind after the ocean receded over 25,000 years ago.

Erosion played its part, carving each Pinnacle into another masterpiece. These pillars of dense deposits and ancient sea shells stand as high as 12 feet tall. From the impressive pillars, you can see the landscape change from vast desert, to sparkling sand dunes and eventually the blue of the endless Indian Ocean.

14. Chocolate Hills, Bohol, The Philippines

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The Chocolate Hills in the Philippines are a collection of over a thousand mounds that turn chocolatey brown during Bohol’s dry season. Scattered like giant termite mounds through otherwise lush forests, the seemingly identical look of each would lead many to think they’re man-made.

Instead, the mounds were formed by the erosion of limestone over thousands of years. Only the hills remain to tell the tale. From various viewpoints, including at Sagbayan Peak, you can admire the Chocolate Hills that spread near and far.

13. Underwater Waterfall, Mauritius

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From up above, there are few more surreal sights than Mauritius’ Underwater Waterfall. In the middle of the Indian Ocean, the waterfall tumbles down a deep crevasse into the deep endless blue just off the edge of the lush island.

If you’re still trying to wrap your head around it, don’t worry it’s merely an optical illusion. The 2.5 mile drop would make it the tallest waterfall on earth. However, the look of the waterfall is formed by the combination of sand and silt that run along the island’s ocean shelf.

12. Deadvlei, Namibia

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Featuring one of the largest sand dunes on earth and a petrified forest, Deadvlei (Dead Marsh) is a strange yet awe-inspiring destination. Over the ages, the dunes have rusted thanks to clay in the subsoil. As a result the petrified trees, some as old as a thousand years, stand frozen in time as others decay under the endless sun.

When you aren’t admiring the skeletal trees, you can gaze upon dunes that soar over 1,300 feet towards the heavens. But not all life is lost, you can discover salsola shrubs surviving off morning mists. The monstrous red dunes of Deadvlei are in Namib-Naukluft National Park.

11. Kelimutu Lakes, Indonesia

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Located on Flores Island, the Kelimutu Lakes are a trio of alpine lakes surrounded by dense greenery and rock burnt by ancient lava flow. However, these lakes are far from your regular bodies of water. Frequent changes in the water’s chemical elements means the water changes color as much as six times per year.

Accessing Mount Kelimutu, home to the Twin Lakes, isn’t difficult with a sunrise hike adding even more memories to an unforgettable destination. Hiking trails lead to a natural balcony with breathtaking views of both the lake and into the distance.

10. Danakil Depression, Ethiopia

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Found in the northern section of the Afar Triangle in Ethiopia, the Danakil Depression is the hottest place on earth. Beneath the surface, continental drift has created one of the most unique and alienesque landscapes you’ll experience on your travels.

At its hottest, the Danakil Depression can reach over 130 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s one of the world’s most desolate and dangerous regions, where acidic springs, lava lakes and volcanoes dot the landscape.

Yet there are still signs of humanity from the ghost town of Dallol to the nomadic Afar who have survived in this surreal location for centuries.

9. Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island, Australia

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Found along the famous Great Barrier Reef, Whitehaven Beach is rated as one of the most spectacular on earth. For good reason too. Eco-friendly and always pristine, the blinding white sands lead to calm seas with a vibrant world beneath the surface.

Such a paradise tends to be remote, yet Whitehaven is only 30 minutes from the accessible Whitsunday Island. The crystal clear water is as blue as the sky above, making for excellent diving with the impossibly white sand greeting you with open arms as you make your way back to the surface.

8. Lençóis Maranhenses, Brazil

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Words can’t do justice to the dune and lagoon combination found within Lençóis Maranhenses. At the same time, it is both starkly contrasting yet the partnership is effortless. Only when standing on the golden dunes and admiring the turquoise waters will you understand.

The mass of dunes are spread across an eye-catching rolling expanse. Each peak rolls down into a trough of bright blue water, one of the national park’s 1000-plus lagoons. The otherworldly sight is surprisingly off the beaten path and one enjoyed without a horde of fellow adventurers.

7. Antelope Canyon, Arizona, USA

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Impeccably carved by thousands of years of rain and wind, Antelope Canyon is a narrow passageway harboring some of the most spectacular landscapes on earth. At its most narrow, the slot canyon is a mere three feet wide, having already dropped as much as 100 feet.

The moment you step into either the Upper or Lower Canyon, you’ll feel a world away from the arid Arizona landscape with the canyon artfully guiding you along. The beams that reach the canyon’s floor add an extra layer of beauty to an already stunning destination.

6. Cenotes of the Yucatan, Mexico

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Scattered along the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico is a collection of beautiful cenotes that provide some of the most memorable diving experiences. Cenotes are often found in regions rich in limestone, creating underground swimming holes filled with fresh water, marine life and flora.

Each cenote has its own personality, whether it be an open-air cave or fully underground with giant stalactites dangling from the ceiling.

Many are considered spiritual places, whose underwater tunnels are teeming with historic artifacts and the legends of ancient gods such as the Sacred Cenote near Chichen Itza. Others are great for diving, with dancing light and fossils, including Case Cenote

5. Salar De Uyuni, Bolivia

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You may know them as the Bolivia Salt Flats, but Salar De Uyuni is the proper name for the world’s largest salt flats. The famous natural wonder sits on the high desert plains in the country’s southwest and features a phenomenon known as the World’s Largest Mirror.

The salt flats present travelers with incredible reflections where it’s hard to discern what is up and what is down. The horizon is a blur in the distance that warps perspective, where an object in the distance can appear to be right next to you, yet infinitely smaller.

4. Meteora, Greece

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One of the largest archaeological sites in Greece, Meteora, is a collection of 9th century monasteries surrounded by monoliths that have outlived humanity. In total six breathtaking monasteries provide a stunning glimpse into the lives of those in ancient Greece.

The Meteora cliffs were destined to be seen as a place of the Divine. It’s a remote, peaceful and intrinsically spiritual place. The monasteries were developed on enormous sandstone cliffs that were carved by thousands of years of wind and rain. Some stand as high as 1,500ft above the valley floor with monks needing ladders and ropes to reach their hallowed retreat.

3. Honghe Hani Rice Terraces, China

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From above, the Honghe Hani Rice Terraces look like a work of abstract art by Jackson Pollock. But it’s really a complex system of rice terraces spread across a million acres in the foothills of the Ailao Mountains.

The terraces have existed for over 1,200 years, capturing the rolling water as it makes its way down to the valley below. The Honghe Hani Rice Terraces span four counties and 82 quaint villages that also feature a range of cattle, ducks and fish.

The collaboration on a technical level is astounding, but it’s the rainbow-esque terraces that will linger long in your memory.

2. Mount Roraima, Venezuela

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Seeing Mount Roraima in person is a visceral experience. You may have come across it previously, as the famous plateau above the clouds was a popular screensaver. The mountain is surrounded by stark cliffs that lead to an open flat-topped mountain 1,300 feet above everything else.

The unique geography dictates weather on a micro level leading to it often being surrounded by clouds beneath the edge of the plateau. From Gran Sabana you can trek to the summit over multiple days, making your way from valley to peak through a wet, lush and unforgettable landscape where a whole other world awaits.

1. Cappadocia, Turkey

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In Central Turkey, Cappadocia is a scene straight out of a fairytale. Combining both natural and man-made beauty, it’s a spellbinding destination. The region combines five provinces featuring awe-inspiring desert landscapes packed with rock chimneys, rolling hills and deep valleys that reflect the early morning light.

Travelers come to Cappadocia to see it from above. The openness of the scenery works well with a slow-rising sun, whose beams create a dancing mass of shadows and light. But its vastness is underrated. There’s much to see on the ground from charming towns, historic caves home to early inhabitants and a region teeming with delicious eats.

Photo of author

Edward Wilson