There are destinations, and then there are one-of-a-kind destinations – travel experiences that will leave you awe-struck. And while everyone knows the likes of Grand Canyon and Niagara Falls, there are other lesser-known natural wonders equally deserving of featuring on your travel bucket list. In this article I’ve picked 9 of the most one-of-a-kind nature travel destinations across the world to inspire your next trip.

 

Fuego Volcano, Guatemala

Fuego Volcano Guatemala

A trip to the heart of Guatemala offers you one of the world’s most incredible bucket list experiences – getting close and personal with an erupting volcano. The fiery and very active Fuego Volcano has been erupting regularly every 10-20 minutes since 2002 and shows no signs of stopping. These are no huge eruptions, but mesmerising enough (especially at night!) as loud explosions thunder through the otherwise tranquil air and lava cascades down the volcano.

For an overnight trip you can hike up the neighbouring Volcano Acatenango in what is a tough but rewarding trek that ends at a campaign spot set up at 3,700m altitude. Rewarding because you’ll end up enjoying some of the most incredible sunset and sunrise views while witnessing surreal lava eruptions. If you’re not completely exhausted there is an optional tour extension to climb up Fuego itself to enjoy the eruptions from closer up. Don’t expect a peaceful sleep on Acatenango, with some of the louder explosions sure to wake you up through the night before the red-eye 4am sunrise hike to the peak – but the fact it’s an utterly once-in-a-lifetime experience justifies that.

There are a number of tour companies offering overnight camping hikes to Acatenango (which looks over Fuego). Based on my own experience, I can vouch for Soy Tours (and no, this is not some paid link). Soy Tours feature local guides who also set up the tents and sort out all the food & drinks, and the option to borrow the necessary backpack and warm clothes if you don’t have them. The price is outstanding considering the incredible experience you’re getting.

Getting to Fuego / Acatenango Volcanoes: The volcanoes fit easily into any Guatemala itinerary as you’ll be basing in the famous earthquake-baroque city of Antigua which is just an hour’s drive away. Organised tours will take care of the travel, while the hike itself takes 4-5 hours up to the basecamp and around 3 hours back down.

Best time to visit Fuego Volcano: Guatemala makes for the perfect winter getaway if you’re in the Northern Hemisphere. November to April marks the dry season, which means less clouds and rain to enjoy the incredible volcanic views.

Rainbow Mountain, Peru

Rainbow Mountain Vinicunca Peru

Known as the “Mountain of Seven Colours” as well as Vinicunca locally, visiting this natural wonder really takes your breath away. And that’s usually before you even reach it, as the short but demanding trek to the viewpoint is at a dizzying 5,200m (17,000 feet) altitude above sea. 

The Rainbow Mountain was discovered quite recently in 2015, after the snowcap melted (nice one global warming!) to reveal the incredible seven colours. These came to exist over time as different layers of metals and minerals gradually eroded away and resulted in a marbling effect. 

Initially a hidden gem, Rainbow Mountain has gradually picked up in popularity and is now becoming quite crowded with numerous day tours taking visitors to the start of the 8km round hike. But it’s one of those destinations that is still very much worth admiring despite the increase in visitors. 

If you’re struggling with altitude sickness, chewing the readily available coca leaves or hiring a horse from the locals to take you to near the top should do the trick. And as the viewing area facing Vinicunca is fairly compact, my top tip is to pick a tour operator that gets you there before the crowds arrive, such as the company Rainbow Mountain Travels. It’ll be worth it (but be ready for a very early start!), they also have oxygen tanks readily available for those struggling. And if you’re up for it, there are options to explore other non-rainbowy but still stunning scenery like the Red Valley in the same area.

Getting to Rainbow Mountain: The city of Cusco is the best base to visit Vinicunca, with most day tours departing from there. As part of any Peru trip the ancient Inca capital is going to be your base anyway. Be prepared for early departure (around 4AM) and altitude sickness. And be sure to acclimatise for a couple days in Cusco before taking the tour.

Best time to visit Rainbow Mountain: Visit between March and November. The Southern Hemisphere winter between June and August offers the best chance of cloud-free skies, but you never know as the weather up in the mountains is unpredictable.

Cappadocia, Turkey

Cappadocia Hot Air Balloons Turkey

With its otherworldly landscapes, Cappadocia is unlike anywhere else in the world. It’s a spectacular landscape of fairy chimney rock formations, ancient rock-cut houses and caves and the beautiful valleys that surround them. Located in the heart of Turkey, the ancient land is perhaps best known for the hot air balloon experiences, and rightly so. Soaring right over the surreal Cappadocia landscapes as the sun rises is likely to forever remain one of the most memorable hours of your life. It’s not cheap at around €150-200 (£125-£175), but absolutely worth it. Alternatively, just seeing the balloon-filled sky over Kapadokya from the comfort of your cave hotel while sipping a coffee is a special experience in itself.

But there’s much more to Cappadocia than balloons. It’s a fairly large area explorable by foot, bike, quadbikes, horses – whatever your fix. Once you’ve had enough spotting of phallic The area features ancient underground cities from Byzantine times such as the 60m-deep Derinkuyu, where Christians hid themselves beneath ground from the invading forces.

Best time to visit Cappadocia: April to June or September to October offer the best weather conditions without the overwhelming heat of July & August. You could even visit in winter for a very different experience – this part of Turkey does get quite snowy and cold.

Getting to Cappadocia: With the Turkish Airlines network, you can easily get to Cappadocia from just about anywhere in the world. Most visitors arrive with a connecting flight through Istanbul to Kayseri Airport, followed by a transfer to the towns of Göreme or Uçhisar. While you’re at it, stop over in Istanbul for a few days as part of the same trip – you will not regret it.

Tip: If you want to do the hot air balloons, book for your first morning in Cappadocia so that if it’s cancelled because of weather you have another few attempts the next day. It’s recommended you book ahead.

Uyuni Salt Flats, Bolivia

Sunset & Land Cruiser at Uyuni Salt Flats, Bolivia

Literally a vast salty plain in the heart of Bolivian Andes, the Uyuni Salt Flats is undoubtedly Bolivia’s best-known destination, and you can see why. Seemingly endless hexagons that let you play with perspectives, cactus islands, abandoned railroads, hotels made entirely of salt and colourful flamingo lakes are just some of the unique sights you can explore on a multi-day 4×4 tour. At times you’ll be in a painting of Salvador Dali (there is a small desert nicknamed after him), other times you might be hopping through bubbling geysers, or maybe enjoying an open air hot spring bath with the full view of Southern Hemisphere starscape, far, far, far from any light pollution.

Coming in winter you can witness the plains flooded – the water has nowhere to go. This offers perfect otherworldly mirror reflections all the way to the horizon, akin to the world’s largest mirror. Although you won’t be able to explore as far with the flooded ground as you can during the dry season.

Best time to visit Uyuni Salt Flats: April to May or October for the edge months of the dry season. If you want to see Uyuni Salt Flats flooded, try your luck in the rainy period of December to April.

Getting to Uyuni Salt Flats: Fly into La Paz, then take an overnight bus to the small town of Uyuni where most tours depart from. Otherwise a short flight from La Paz is the easiest but more pricey option. As part of the tour logistics, you could continue the trip down to Chile and San Pedro de Atacama if you want to keep exploring South America.

Tip: Yes, you can book a 4×4 tour ahead for peace of mind, but chances are if you turn up to Uyuni the day before or even in the morning, you’ll bag yourself a better deal. I can vouch for that.

 

Bai Tu Long Bay, Vietnam

Bai Tu Long Bay Cruise Vietnam

A cruise through the spectacular islands that make up Bai Tu Long Bay in Northern Vietnam is sure to become one of your most memorable travel experiences. Even if you’re not sold on the idea of cruises, consider this an exception – the hundreds of mini karst mountains that tower over the ship as it navigates past them are a geological marvel that you won’t get tired of admiring. Located near the more famous Halong Bay, this bay is every bit as beautiful yet for now, receives a fraction of the visiting cruises overcrowding its neighbour. This means plenty of pristine beaches and clean swimming waters to explore.

There is a range of companies offering overnight cruises (typically 1 or 2 nights) from the town of Ha Long to suit most budgets. Make sure you pick ones that go to Bai Tu Long Bay (this includes the likes of Indochina Junk). If you can, go for the 3-day 2-night option as the area takes a little longer to reach and you’ll feel sad to leave the fairytale bay so soon after getting there. Depending on the provider, cruises will involve optional kayaking, beach outings, fishing village visits and walks on some of the perkier islands. Or if you prefer, just relax on the junkboat and admire the incredible scenery.

Best time to visit Bai Tu Long Bay: September to November and March to May provide the best chance of drier, more pleasant weather, although that’s by no means guaranteed. Either way it’s unlikely that even outside of Spring and Autumn you’ll experience much more than a couple hours of thunderstorms before the sun comes out again, just expect 500% humidity in the summer.

Getting to Bai Tu Long Bay: Hanoi is the nearest major city (and a stunning foodie destination in its own right), so a trip to Bai Tu Long Bay is best started from Hanoi as a base. Cruise boats generally depart from the fairly nondescript town of Ha Long, which involves a couple hours’ road transport from Hanoi. Many companies offering cruises of the bay will include “VIP” minivan transport as part of the package so you likely needn’t worry about anything besides just showing up.

 

Dolomite Mountains, Italy

Dolomite Mountains Italy

While our planet boasts plenty of scenic mountain ranges, the jagged peaks of the Dolomites stand in a league of their own for their magnificence. Known as the “Pale Mountains”, it’s hard to imagine that these near-white peaks were once coral reefs in an ancient ocean. And this is what gives them that unique beauty that reflects the sun in pink hues during golden hour.

Unlike some of the other destinations in this list, the Dolomites are readily accessible to explore being in the heart of Europe. Located in the Italian part of the European Alps, the mountains are an absolute dream for outdoor activities all-year round. Most famously by winter, the numerous world-class ski resorts like Corvara and Alta Badia offer dramatic downhill views. By summer, the Dolomites transform into a dreamland for hikers, cyclists and those just looking to enjoy a road trip across some of the most scenic mountain passes, green valleys and emerald lakes. The numerous hiking and cycling trails range from easy flat valley affairs to very demanding, technical climbs up some of Europe’s tallest peaks. So there’s something for everyone.

Being in Italy, any trip to Dolomites has the additional layer of consistently excellent culinary experiences. Polenta, game meat, dumplings and apfelstrudel are some of the should-try regional highlights in an Italian take on hearty Alpine dishes.

Best time to visit the Dolomites: In summer, mid-June to late September offer the best weather in which you can readily visit any part of the mountain range. As with most places in Europe, August tends to get quite busy especially in some of the more popular towns like Cortina d’Ampezzo, but for outdoor activities the Dolomites are still fine to visit then.

Getting to the Dolomites: The Dolomites are best accessed by car, but to fly in you have a few options. There is Verona Airport, with simple train connections to Trento and Bolzano, as well as the smaller towns further into the mountains. Innsbruck Airport to the North in Austria is another alternative, also with direct trains to the aforementioned cities. Further out, you could fly into Milan / Bergamo or Venice, both 3-4 hours reach by train.

Azores Islands, Portugal

Flores Island Waterfalls Azores Islands

Imagine a warm Iceland covered head-to-toe with ridiculously vivid greenery – and broken up into 9 diverse islands. This is the best way I can describe the jaw-droppingly stunning Portuguese archipelago of Azores, seemingly isolated in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

Unlike Iceland, so far the Azores have avoided an exponential tourist boom, remaining a true hidden gem destination. And let’s not even mention the price difference! Each of the 9 Azorean islands has its own distinct character, scenery and showpiece. Flores with its Avatar-like landscapes, Faial with its sailing heritage, Pico with its distinct vineyards and the huge volcano that looms in its background. If you love the outdoors, there is ample hiking to spectacular crater lakes and along dramatic coastlines, then there’s whale-watching and sailing. Foodies will adore the fresh Atlantic catch and the distinct local wines. Or how about some volcano-cooked stew (Cozido das Furnas) on Sao Miguel? And yes, there are beaches too of every type and colour – with surprisingly mild waters for the middle of the North Atlantic.

Getting to the Azores: Your likely entry point will be Ponta Delgada on the biggest island, Sao Miguel. There are plenty of connecting flights via Lisbon, and an increasing range of direct but mostly seasonal flights to the likes of London, Paris and New York. Beyond that, you’ll want to island hop by a local plane with Azores Air (or sometimes ferry for neighbouring islands). 

Best time to visit the Azores: It’s a mild all-season destination, but June to September offer the best chance of good weather. Keep in mind the Azores are so green for a reason – it’s likely to rain at some point in the day! The weather dictates a lot of activities here from volcano hiking to whale-watching, so keep the schedule flexible and pray for Zeus’s mercy. Winter stays relatively mild, but gets windy with bigger chances of choppy waters and cancelled flights or ferries.

Read more: Azores Island Hopping: Which Islands to Visit? 

 

Chocolate Hills, Bohol, Philippines 

Chocolate Hills Bohol, Asia's Natural Wonder Gem

In the middle of the central Philippine island of Bohol, over 1,000 peculiar hills stretch right to the horizon. In the dry season, when the vegetation turns brown, the unusually-shaped lumps resemble chocolate truffles or Hershey’s Chocolate Kisses (that awful US chocolate). Come in late November to May for the chocolate shades, but even in their greener state this is a sight to behold.

Being a popular venue, expect plenty of visitors on the official viewing platforms (especially Chocolate Hills Complex, less so Sagbayan Peak). Best idea would be to come early, or spend a couple hours just riding the scenic roads on a moped or car and find some of the less trodden viewpoints. There are plenty.

Getting to Bohol and the Chocolate Hills: It’s not too complicated to reach Bohol. You could fly into Manila, then get a domestic flight straight to the new Bohol-Panglao Airport. In this case you might want to overnight in Manila. Alternatively you could fly to Cebu International Airport (well-connected to key hubs like Singapore, Hong Kong & Dubai), then take a 2-hour ferry from Cebu to Tagbilaran Pier on Bohol. From there, getting around is easiest on moped and reaching Chocolate Hills from most of the island takes around an hour. Alternatively there are tours available.

Best time to visit Chocolate Hills: November to May marks both the most comfortable, drier weather and the time you can witness Chocolate Hills in their browner shades.

Read more: Bohol’s Best Things to Do – the Perfect Itinerary

 

Castellucio Plateau, Italy

Castelluccio Plain Poppies, Italy's Hidden Gem Wonder

Why visit Castelluccio Plateau: phenomenal flowering spectacle on a plain surrounded by mountains

In the heart of Italy’s Apennines lies one of its most colourful natural wonders of the world – if you visit at the right time of the year.

The twisty road up through Umbria’s Sibillini Mountains all of a sudden opens up to a large plateau – the Pian Grande – visually impressive in its own right. But what really makes this a spectacle is La Fiorita (literally “The Flowering”), an annual summertime flowering that transforms the plateau into an extraordinary and vast mosaic of colours, from hues of yellow to red and violet. Timing varies by year, but usually late May to July captures many of the wild flowers in bloom.

The lone hilltop village of Castelluccio di Norcia overlooks all this beauty and provides impressive views of the plateau from a different perspective. Unfortunately Castelluccio and the area experienced a number of serious earthquakes, the latest of which as recent as 2016 left much of it in ruins.

Best time to visit Castellucio Plateau: The exact flowering time of the poppies, lentils, daisies and cornflowers that make this natural spectacle varies year by year, but usually takes place from late May to mid-July which is the best time to visit.

Getting to Castellucio Plateau: Car is your friend, unless you want to join an organised day tour. Perugia, the Umbrian capital, is 2 hours’ drive and serves as a perfect base to visit the area. It has an airport served by a handful of international flights including London. Rome is a longer 3 hours away by car.

Read more: best hidden gems of Italy

 

 

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