The problem with going to beautiful places is that everyone else has the same idea. Especially in the age of social media, word on that secluded beach with a stunner of a sunset spreads fast. And when coach-loads of tourists rock up at that serene temple just as you alight from your tuk tuk – well, it can mar the magic a little. But, even as technology seems to shrink the world, it is still a big wide one out there, with bountiful beauty in unexpected corners. Here are 10 such beautiful places you may never have heard of (but hey, don’t tell anyone).
1. Island of Fernando de Noronha, Brazil
If you were to draw a picture of island paradise, it might resemble the archipelago of Fernando de Noronha. Lying 350km off the northeast coast of Brazil, the cluster of 21 volcanic islands rises out of the ocean, all tropical landscapes, powder-white beaches and glistening turquoise waters teeming with sea life, such as dolphins, rays and turtles. Unsurprisingly, snorkelling is first rate.
There’s just one inhabited island and there are strict controls over visitor numbers, to protect the ecosystem. You can take your pick of perfect beaches here, such as the kilometre-long stretch of Cacimba do Padre, the wild Praia do Leão, the shallow pools at Praia do Atalaia, and the gorgeous Baía dos Porcos, its calm waters perfect for swimming.
Staying on Fernando de Noronha doesn’t come cheap. But if you have the pennies, this is the ultimate getaway. The beautiful and secluded Pousada do Vale is welcoming and a stone’s throw from the beach.
If you’re inspired to discover more of Brazil and immerse yourself in local arts and culture, take a look at Rough Guides Tailor-Made Trips carefully-curated Brazilian Folk Art trip. You’ll meet the craftswomen of Campo Buriti in the Jequitinhonha Valley, and learn first hand how to make the famous ceramic dolls.
2. Portugal’s western Algarve
Most visitors to Portugal heading for The Algarve make a beeline for its sun-sure, easy-access southern beaches - arguably among the best beaches in Portugal. Fewer know about the wild beauty of the Algarve's west coast. Here, undulating hills of rough scrub, punctuated by unassuming whitewashed villages, lead to numerous sweeping golden sands.
Several beaches are tucked away down winding, bone-shaking, dirt tracks, their isolated locations and lack of amenities simply adding to their allure.
The Vicentine Coast Natural Park has an abundance of heavenly spots, including a clutch in the area of Vila do Bispo. The tucked away cove of Praia do Zavial, nestled between high hills and eucalyptus trees has just one café/restaurant with prime ocean views, which offers up delicious fresh fish. But you won’t find anywhere to buy a gelaldo at the even more remote Praia da Ponta Ruiva.
The glorious bay, backed by cliffs of burnt ochre, is as secluded as they come – the only people you’re likely to encounter are surfers, and the only sounds are the roar of the Atlantic. More popular beaches include the gorgeous stretch of sand that is Praia da Armado, although even at the height of summer, there’s space for everyone.
The Algarve is an attractive travel destination at any time of the year. If you'd like to explore the Portuguese Azores archipelago, take a look at Rough Guides Tailor-Made Trips Madeira and São Miguel - guided island adventures. Guided excursions take in the highlights of both islands.
3. Choquequirao, Andes, southern Peru
Any talk of Inca citadels will inevitably include Machu Picchu, the most popular tourist attraction in Peru. Far lesser known is its big ‘sister’, Choquequirao, hidden away in the cloud forest of the Vilcabamba mountains, west of Cusco.
What's the reason for its relative anonymity? The fact that it involves several days of trekking, plus a 3,000m vertiginous boulder-strewn ascent to reach it – putting off day-trippers and those less inclined towards puffing their way uphill. Commit to the journey, however, and you’ll be rewarded with stunning mountain scenery of green forests and snow-capped peaks, while following ancient routes of the Incas.
The sight of the forgotten citadel, its ruins spread out over terraces perched on the mountainside, is nothing short of astonishing. Visit during the dry season: May to October.
There is a planned cable car link to Choquequirao, which will, no doubt, drastically raise visitor numbers.
For island hoppers in search of Croatia’s famed sandy beaches, Lastovo, with its rocky coastline, holds no appeal. Its remote location, around three hours by catamaran, or four by ferry from Split, also means sun-hatted holidaymakers are more likely to pile off the boat at Hvar or Korčula with their parasols and picnics, rather than spend the extra hours at sea.
However, this sleepy little island, covering just 18 square miles and home to around 1,000 people, give or take, is a rather special place. Wooded with pine trees (it’s the most wooded island, after Mljet), it offers 200km of glorious hiking trails through forests and vineyards. The gorgeous rugged coastline offers enticing coves and startlingly blue waters for swimming, snorkelling and kayaking.
There is only one hotel on the island, the quiet and rather dated, Hotel Solitudo. But you could book an apartment, such as at Accomodation Triton, in the fishing village of Zaklopatica, with sea views and an on-site restaurant. You can even stay in the Struga lighthouse, which still sends its beams out to sea at night. The lighthouse is also close to the family-friendly beach, Mali Žal, its shallow waters perfect for young paddlers.
If exploring Croatia has inspired you to discover more of the Balkans, take a look at Rough Guides Tailor-Made Trip: Balkans Puzzle Trip. Our exciting itinerary takes in the stunning sights of the Adriatic coast, fertile valleys and picturesque rivers and lakes.
5. Koh Ker and Banteay Chhmar, Cambodia
Angkor Wat is a big feature on Cambodia’s tourist trail, attracting a few million visitors each year, jostling to take pictures of the sprawling 12th-century temple complex - see how to avoid the crowds at Angkor Wat. But, just a few hours away are a couple of sites that have avoided much of the limelight.
Koh Ker, capital of the Khmer Empire in the tenth century is one of Cambodia’s most remote Angkorian sites, its temples of the vast citadel rising above the jungle. The highlight is Prasat Thom, the seven-tiered 40-metre-high, pyramid, which offers stunning views over the forest.
Banteay Chhmar, situated deep in the jungle in the far northwest of Cambodia, is even more off radar and one of the least visited of Cambodia’s Angkorian temples. Built in the reign of Jayavarman in the 12th century, the complex includes nine satellite temples dotted around the forest. Don’t miss the splendid intricate carvings and bas reliefs of daily life and military scenes.
There’s a fantastic community-based tourism scheme (CBT), which offers guided tours and activities, as well as homestay opportunities, giving visitors the chance to engage with locals and experience rural life in Cambodia.
6. Island of Rodrigues
With its Portuguese-sounding name, you might expect Rodrigues to be situated somewhere in the Azores. Yet, this small, sleepy volcanic island, which takes its name from the Portuguese explorer who discovered it, actually sits in the Indian Ocean, some 600km east of Mauritius.
But whereas Mauritius is an established go-to for a slice of sun and sea paradise, Rodrigues remains largely off radar. And this sleepy slip of a thing (just 17.5km long and 8km wide) has 80km of coastline and a large lagoon, where exquisite sandy beaches beckon and impossibly blue waters gently lap its shores. What’s more, there are no glitzy hotel complexes, or impersonal identikit holiday apartments vying for a piece of the tourism pie.
You can easily spend a week here. Relax on the soft white sands – Trou d’Argent is one of the most heavenly – and enjoy first rate diving and snorkelling. Hike the island’s coastal path, and verdant hills of the interior, see the stalactites and stalagmites of Caverne Patate and the giant tortoises at François Leguat Reserve.
Stay at a guesthouse run by local Creoles who will dish you up delicious meals while regaling you with stories about the island. And above all – kick back and enjoy the unruffled slow pace of life. Check here for accommodation on Rodrigues island.
7. Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan
If you were asked to point out these four ‘stans (Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan) on a map, it might be like playing the kids’ party game, pin the tail on the donkey. That’s to say, you might find the general part of the world, but be wide of their precise locations.
That’s because these countries haven’t seen much in the way of western tourism, in part due to tangled visa processes and the fear that travel in these destinations may be dangerous. Things have changed on these fronts in recent years, however, and visitors are beginning to discover the delights of Central Asia.
Uzbekistan sits at the crossroads of the Silk Road, its history permeating the cities that line this ancient route. Samarkand and UNESCO World Heritage Sites Bukhara and Khiva are treasure chests of magnificent mosques, madrassahs, mausoleums and monuments, with dazzling tilework wherever you look. The capital, Tashkent, meanwhile, is a contemporary city, its architecture containing a mix of the modern and its Soviet past.
Find the best places to stay in Tashkent and start planning your Uzbekistan adventure today.
Tajikistan also excels in stunning scenery. Its two mountain ranges, the Pamirs and the Fann remain largely unexplored by tourists and offer peaks aplenty for superb trekking adventure.
Where Uzbekistan stands out for its architecture and history, the beauty of Kyrgyzstan is in its wild, mountainous landscapes and green, summer meadows. It’s a country known for its welcoming people and long-standing nomadic traditions, which you can experience first hand by staying in a yurt camp, horse-riding, and trying Kyrgyz dishes, such as mutton stew and kumis (fermented mare’s milk).
Kazakhstan is huge, its dramatic landscapes containing deserts, a vast steppe, lakes and steep mountains, ideal for hiking, as well as skiing in winter (yes, really – Prince Harry has even been spotted slaloming the slopes at the resort of Shymbulak). The capital, Nur-Sultan is a display of futuristic architecture, in contrast with Soviet-era Almaty, the country’s cultural hub – be sure to visit its bustling Green Bazaar on your stay in the city.
To discover the highlights of the four ‘stans, book our three-week Along the Great Silk Road Tailor Made Trip, led by an expert guide. You’ll learn about the history, enjoy stunning scenery and experience local culture.
8. Picos de Europa, Spain
Spectacular mountain scenery, where walking paths hug precipitous gorges, wind through high meadows of grazing cows and pass glistening lakes where horses stop to drink. Between jagged limestone peaks, eagles and Griffin vultures soar, their broad wings casting shadows over the craggy rocks below.
This could be the Pyrenees. It’s not, it’s the Picos de Europa, the mountain range stretching over three provinces in northern Spain: Asturias, Cantabria and Castile y Léon. It’s a paradise for outdoor activities, from hiking and rock climbing, to canyoning and mountain biking.
The dramatic 12km Cares Gorge is the best known walking route, along with trails accessible via the Fuente Dé cable car, which whisks passengers up to a height of 1,850m, providing jaw-dropping views across the lofty peaks.
The Picos range also happens to be only a couple of hours or so from the coast, which means you could scale a summit and enjoy a sunset surf – all on the same day.
9. Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, Northern Cape, South Africa
If you’re visiting South Africa, chances are you’re planning on fitting in a wildlife safari. And chances are Kruger National Park, the best known of its safari game parks, is top of the list.
But here’s an idea: visit Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, straddling South Africa’s Northern Cape and neighbouring Botswana, instead. To say it’s big is an understatement. It’s 37,000 square km of sweeping red sand dunes, salt pans and sparsely scattered camel thorn trees.
The vast, wild and open landscape is ideal for spotting big cats – leopards, cheetahs and the mighty black-maned Kalahari lion, as well as giraffes, gemsboks, herds of blue wildebeest, and everyone’s favourite – mischievous-looking meerkats. It’s also superb bird-watching territory, with eagles, bateleurs, vultures and goshawks likely to put in an appearance.
After sunset, the nighttime showstopper begins, as millions of glittering stars explode across the sky.
Inspired? Book your stay at Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park today.
10. San Blas, Panama
If you like lying in a hammock, swaying in the breeze under a coconut palm, splashing about in clear crystalline waters and taking strolls along impossibly idyllic beaches Robinson Crusoe style, San Blas Islands will be right up your street.
Probably right up anyone’s street, to be fair, which is why it might come as a surprise to learn that this Panama archipelago of around 400 islands in the Caribbean, is not overrun with tourists. In fact, you might only share those pristine white sands with a handful of other paradise seekers. There’s also fantastic snorkelling to be had, such as around the shipwreck off Isla Perro (Dog Island) and the Cayos Holandéses.
Another reason to visit San Blas, or Guna Yala, as it's known to the locals, is the chance to meet the indigenous Guna people, who ‘own’ the islands, and learn about their culture and way of life.
If you’re inspired to visit San Blas and fancy combining the trip with adventure on mainland Panama, our excellent (and fully customisable!) Tailor-Made Trip: Thrilling Adventures in Panama is for you.
Now you're clued up on some of the world's most stunning under-the-radar spots, find out what Rough Guides readers voted their number one destination when we asked: What's the most beautiful country in the world?
If you're travelling with kids, you might want to discover the most magical places to visit with children before they grow up.
Top image: Choquequirao, Peru © Christian Declercq/Shutterstock