7 Natural Wonders You’ve Never Heard of
You’ve heard about the Grand Canyon, but these lesser-known, more remote natural wonders deliver a similar “wow” factor.
Salt flats of Uyuni, Bolivia
From lakes to deserts, Bolivia offers many natural wonders, including the world’s largest salt flat. Set in the southwestern part of the country, the Salar de Uyuni delivers 10,582 square kilometres of glistening white salt. “Few North American travellers ever get to Bolivia, opting for more popular Peru, Chile, and Argentina,” says Rebecca Rhyan, destination specialist, Latin America, for Cox and Kings. “The salt flats are an other-worldly landscape for anyone who enjoys a bit of adventure.” Although the topography is mostly flat, the destination sits on the Altiplano at 11,995 feet above sea level; expect chilly temperatures when the sun goes down.
Bagan, Myanmar (Burma)
One of the richest archaeological sites in Asia, Bagan (also referred to as Pagan) is home to a collection of more than 2,200 temples, stupas, and pagodas. The collection represents a scenic tribute to the religious history and devotion of the settlers of Myanmar over the centuries; some temples, such as the graceful circular Shwesandaw Pagoda built by King Anawrahta, date back to 1057. Though gaining popularity, Burma is still very much off the beaten track when compared to Thailand and Vietnam, explains Vinni Bernal, destination specialist, Asia for Cox and Kings. The Buddhist culture in Burma is among the most authentic in any Southeast Asian nation, and in Bagan, travellers witness some of the most intact temples in the world. “Burma is like Thailand 30 years ago,” says Bernal. “The Buddhist culture is fully intact and the tourism infrastructure is improving.” While many temples can be explored by foot, an early morning hot air balloon ride over Bagan is one of the best ways to see the site.
Karijini National Park, Australia
Known as the Grand Canyon of Australia, Karijini National Park in Australia’s Pilbari region on the west coast is the country’s second largest park, offering more than 6,216 square kilometres of mountains and escarpments rising from flat valleys, rocky water pools, waterfalls, and unique wildlife like red kangaroos and rock wallabies. Hiking the red rocks, spotting more than 800 species of wildflowers, and swimming in the crystal clear waters of the gorges and pools are highlights. While the water of the gorges and pools can be alarmingly cold, summer temperatures in the desert environment can soar to more than 100 degrees.
Set on a high plateau in Turkey’s central Anatolia region, Capadoccia, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is known for its unique moon-like landscape and mushroom-like volcanic rock sculptures, known as fairy chimneys. Settlement of the area dates back to the Paleolithic era. During the reign of the Roman Empire, Christians used the area as a place of escape, building homes and churches into the caves and rocks. Today, travellers can explore the ancient tunnels and churches of this historic site and even stay in cave hotels, but one of the best ways to see the intricacies of this destination is via an early morning hot-air balloon ride. “Capadoccia and its almost moon-like surface is unlike anywhere on Earth,” says Dania Weinstein, destination specialist, Africa and the Middle East for Cox and Kings. “The best view is from the air, in your private hot air balloon.”
Table Mountain, South Africa
No trip to Cape Town, South Africa, is complete without a cable ride to the top of Cable Mountain, a 3,558-foot historic peak with rocks that are more than 600 million years old and a system of rare sandstone caves. More than 70 per cent of the plants found on the mountain are endemic. It’s also home to the “dassie,” or rock hyrax, and 22 species of snakes, including the five most venomous: Cape cobra, puff adder, boomslang, rinkhals, and berg adder. “Table Mountain looms over Capetown and just begs you to get to the top,” says Danalee May, senior destination specialist, Africa for Cox and Kings. “Many of our guests opt to hike up and then take the cable car down, just as the sun is setting.”
Wadi Nakhar, Oman
Known as the Grand Canyon of Oman, this remote valley located on Oman’s highest mountain, Jebel Shams (mountain of sun) in the Al Hajar mountain range, two hours from the capital city of Muscat. Trekking through this rugged terrain allows visitors to experience history and view extremely rare plant life and a body of water so blue, it mirrors the sky on some days. A walking tour of Oman with Butterfield & Robinson gives travellers the option to hike along the rim, picnic or swim, and explore the historic village of Akhar. “Our day at Wadi Nakhar is the highlight of our Oman Walking trip. It offers both stunning views along the rim of the gorge, or a hike deep into the valley itself where rare vegetation, rock formations, and a beautiful body of water await,” says Nathan Lane, Oman region manager, Butterfield & Robinson. “On the outer rim, there is a narrow access point that leads to the Balcony Walk—a 50-foot wide ledge, perched in the middle of the canyon, running about three miles long and leading to an abandoned village.”
The Burren, Ireland
Set in County Clare in southwest Ireland, the Burren region is home to one of the most extensive areas of limestone pavement in Europe, a rare global land form. The vast windswept landscape features a cracked pavement of glacial-era gray limestone, dramatic cliffs and caves, lakes, rock formations, and archaeological sites. “In some parts of the Burren, you have the visual aspect of ‘the bones of the planet’ juxtaposed with the region’s other great drama, the ocean,” says Tony Kirby of Heart of Burren Walks. During the spring, the Burren showcases 75 per cent of Ireland’s wildflowers, offering a colourful contrast to the stark beauty of the lunar-like landscape. “It does not stop at the geology and the botany,” says Kirby. “The region is a memorial to bygone cultures with over 2,000 archaeological monuments in the 517 square kilometres.” Other parts of the region include Doolin, the country’s hub for music, and the picturesque Cliffs of Moher.