Published November 12, 2012
| Budget Travel
Obsessed with images from the Mars Rover? Turns out you don't have to go intergalactic to see extraterrestrial terrain. These 10 spots may look like they are on another planet, but they are right here on earth.
Rivers that run red. Blinding white landscapes. Cliffs that wave in swirls of orange. No, those aren't works of science fiction. They are wonders of nature that will leave you shaking your head and wondering just how that is possible. The best part? You won't need a spaceship to get there. We've outlined exactly how you can get there-which in most cases is surprisingly easy.
Salt Flats, Bolivia
The name says it all. This blindingly white landscape in central Bolivia really is salt. Also known as Salar de Uyuni, the area is said to have been created about 30,000 years ago when Lago Minchin dried up, leaving the salt behind. Today, 10 billion tons remain spread across around 4,000 square miles, where it cracks in naturally occurring hexagonal designs. Go during the rainy season (January to March) and the thin layer of water spread over the flats creates the illusion of a never-ending mirror.
See it for yourself: The salt flats are just outside the mining town of Uyuni, about an hour's flight from La Paz. Many tour companies do day trips as well as overnight trips to the flats. Natour's two-day tour includes hikes for the best views of the flats and an overnight at the Tayka Salt Hotel, which is made almost entirely of--you guessed it--salt (uyuni.com.bo, from $385 per person including hotel stay, transportation, English-speaking guide, and admission fees).
The Chocolate Hills, The Philippines
Local lore has it that the mounds on the Philippine island of Bohol were formed from the tears of a giant who fell in love with a local girl. The scientific reason behind the formation of the limestone hills is likely far less romantic (though geologists have not been able to reach a conclusion on the hills' origin). Alas, this is not a Willy Wonka paradise. The name comes from the brown color of the mounds in the winter. If you go in the summer, they will be a vibrant green. Either way, the more than 1,200 conical hills, which vary between around 100 and almost 40 feet high, are a site to behold.
See it for yourself: Bohol's main town of Tagbilaran is a little over an hour from Manila by air. Multiple companies offer daily flights, including Philippine Airlines (philippineairlines.com, from around $50 each way). There is also a ferry from the mainland town of Cebu that is two hours to Tagbilaran (supercat.com.ph, around $13 each way). Once on the island, you can take the bus to Carmen and hike up to an observation platform to see the hills. Or go farther inland to the Grand Luis Lodge on Sagbayan Peak, where the hills will be right out your window (grandluislodge.com, from $55 per night).
Rio Tinto, Spain
Rio Tinto literally translates to Red River, and it is not a misnomer. The 62-mile-long river does run red and the banks look downright lunar as well. The cause? A combination of rare bacteria, a low oxygen count, and pollution from mining for gold, silver, and copper--which has been going on since 3,000 B.C. The river and landscape in this area of southwestern Spain are so Martian that NASA scientists have studied the composition.
See it for yourself: There is daily bus service to the town of Riotinto from Seville, connecting through the town of Huelva (movelia.es, $19 each way). The trip takes about three hours, not including transfer time. Once in town, head to the Mining Museum where you can book a tour of a mine as well as a train trip along the river to see it in all its crimson glory (parquemineroderiotinto.com, $22 per person for museum admission, mine tour, and train ride).
Giant's Causeway, Northern Ireland
Hike down along the coast at the northern end of Northern Ireland and you'll come across a scene that will leave you scratching your head: Hexagonal stones that stacked along the water like the world's largest Qbert set. There are almost 40,000 of the ballast columns, formed 60 million years ago by magma that spewed and cooled along the coast. Some of the columns reach almost 40 feet high, while others are short enough to walk across. One of the most striking sites is the Giant's Organ, a collection of 60 ballasts more than 39 feet high with three shorter tiers, giving the effect of an elaborate organ.
See it for yourself: The visitors' center for Giant's Causeway is outside the town of Bushmills, about an hour and a half-hour's drive from Belfast. There are two paths down to the coast, including a gentle two-mile hike. There is also a shuttle, about $3 round-trip (nationaltrust.org.uk, entrance fee $13 per person).
Spotted Lake, British Columbia
This may be the most psychedelic place on earth. During the warmest months of the year (June through September), the water in this 61-acre lake evaporates, leaving behind rings that make canonical shapes. The high levels of minerals like calcium and magnesium (plus silver and titanium) have the water reflecting blue, green, and even yellow. The lake is a spiritual place for the people of the Osoyoos First Nation and legend has it that the minerals give the water healing powers. Don't even think about filling up a bottle, though. The lake is protected and there is no direct access to the public.
See it for yourself: The Spotted Lake is about a 10-minute drive from the town of Osoyoos, just a few miles north of the Washington state border. You can easily see the lake from along Highway 3.
Socotra Island, Indian Ocean
While the other locations on this list are amazing due to the landscape, it's the flora on this island 250 miles off the coast of Yemen that makes it so unbelievable. The largest of the four-island Socotra Archipelago, the island has about 250 species of plants that are not found anywhere else in the world. This includes the canopy-topped dragon's blood tree, which has blood-red resin that runs down if the trunk is pierced and the desert rose, which can grow to 10 feet with a bulbous trunk that swells with water absorbed in anticipation of dry weather.
See it for yourself: The island has a long monsoon season, so it's best to visit during the drier months of January through March. There are regular flights from the Yemen capital of Sanaa on Felix Airways (around $180 each way). The hotel options on the island are limited, but try the 29-room Summer Land Hotel (from $100 per night for a double room) in the island's capital of Hadiboh.
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
This wilderness in northern Arizona/southern Utah is home to some of the most striking landscapes in the American Southwest, and that's saying a lot. The nearly 300,000-acre site is known for its abundance of colorful shale and Navajo sandstone that been eroded by the elements to create cliffs and escarpments that rise as high as 3,000 feet. In the northwest of the park is the Coyote Buttes, where you'll find The Wave, a wall of red sandstone that twists and turns in a way that just doesn't look natural--but is.
See it for yourself: Permits are required to hike in Vermilion Cliffs. Paria Canyon and Buckskin Gulch permits are available at on-site pay stations or in advance ($5 per person), while permits for Coyote Buttes are available online only ($7 per person) and there are only 20 issued per day. Be aware that the hike can be fairly rugged.
Perito Moreno Glacier, Argentina
The immense size of the Perito Moreno Glacier is incredible--it is more than 50 miles in length and 500 feet deep. The terminus of the glacier is Lago Argentino, where a 50-foot blue-hued ice wall rises from the lake. The Perito Moreno is also one of the only glaciers left on earth that is still growing. As it expands it causes a dam in the lake, and when the lake's water wears away at the ice, a giant rupture is caused. The natural occurrence happens every few years. The last one was in March 2012.
See it for yourself: The glacier can be found in Las Glaciares National Park and is about two hours from the town of El Calafate, Argentina (which is itself a three hour flight from Buenos Aires). Many tour companies offer day trips to Perito Moreno from El Calafte. Viator's full-day tour includes transportation from a local hotel and a guided tour to some of the best spots to see--and hear--the imposing glacier (viator.com, from $106 per person).
Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, China
The towering limestone pillars at this park, part of the Wulingyuan Scenic Area in China's Yunnan Province, may look familiar--rumor has it that they were the inspiration for the floating forests in Avatar's fictitious world of Pandora. There are 3,000 of the jagged columns--at least one rising more then 3,500 feet in the air--that got their start more than 200 million years ago when seas receded and the limestone landscape took over. Today about 157 different types of trees grow in the forest park (including the rare Chinese dove tree) and the frequent fog that covers the area makes them seem even more cinematic.
See it for yourself: The town of Zhangjiajie is the gateway to the park and is reachable by air from major cities throughout mainland China as well as Hong Kong (about $500 roundtrip from Beijing or Shanghai, according to Kayak). There are frequent buses to the park from town. Once you are there you can either hike up for the best view, or take the cable car the half-mile ride up Huang Shi Zhai.
Simpson Desert, Australia
Australia is a large land mass with many extremes, but there is nothing like the Simpson Desert, which lies in a largely uninhabited region near the center of the country. That's because sand that swirls through the 54,000-square-mile desert is a blood red. This is a dunal desert, with linear dunes that can be 125 miles long and as tall as 23 miles. The color comes from iron oxide in the sand, with shades ranging from light pink to blood red. The further you get from area's river channels, the deeper--and more unsettling--the tone.
See it for yourself: This is an isolated part of Australia, but there are two towns close to the desert--Birdsville and Oonadatta. The drive from Adelaide (the closest major city) takes between 15 and 20 hours. Visitors to the park must have a Desert Parks Pass to visit (from $40 per vehicle for access over a two-month period). You will need four-wheel drive to traverse the desert. Temperatures can be extreme during the Australian summer and the park is typically closed from the beginning of December until mid-March.