The most surreal places on Earth aren’t just spell-bindingly beautiful, but possess the power to transport you into a fantastical reality. Here, Phoebe Lowndes picks 14 of the world’s most awe-inspiring destinations. You have to see these places to believe them.
1. Marfa, Texas
This small desert city in America’s Southwest is gathering notoriety for championing contemporary art and culture. In this unlikely location, you’ll find historic architecture juxtaposed with minimalist sculpture in a vast expanse of arid desert. Tales of paranormal phenomena are also rife, with UFO sightings and unexplained incidences of eerie lights – known worldwide as the ‘Marfa Lights’ – witnessed with surprising regularity to this day. Marfa is charming, mythical and altogether unmissable.
2. The ‘Devil’s throat’, Iguazú Falls, Argentina
Eleanor Roosevelt famously exclaimed “Poor Niagara” upon laying eyes on Iguazú Falls, and it would be hard to disagree. Dare to lean even a tiny bit over the rail on the jutting viewing platform at the heart of the Falls, known as ‘the Devil’s throat’, and you will be rewarded with a surreal and breathtaking rush. As water surges underfoot, the sensation of being swept away (although safely stationed) is nerve-tingling. The sound is roaring and intense; it shakes you to your very core.
3. The Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
Sunrise on this crystalline plane is surreal to the point of supernatural. Once a prehistoric lake, it is now dried to a desert-like landscape of flat, white and endless salt. The salt crust stretches as far as the eye can see without a single blip or spot, save for the odd vehicle ferrying passengers and a cacti-covered island named Isla Incahuasi. The sense of space and expanse is enthralling. Couple this with the altitude and you’ll be left even more breathless than you imagined.
4. Škocjan Caves, Slovenia
Journey underground into the depths of the Škocjan caves and you’ll discover a natural spectacle straight out of fantasy fiction. As you venture along undulating pathways lit by low lamps and explore large rock chambers, you might boggle at the caves’ extraordinary likeness to the cavernous lair of J.R.R Tolkien’s demon Balrog. Cross a bridge straddling the largest underground canyon in the world, and dare to stare into its seemingly endless abyss. The surreal beauty of these caves is underscored by their significance as a site of rare natural history.
These striking natural hot springs at first glance look like icy pools, but the mineral rich thermal waters of Pamukkale are the perfect temperature for bathing. Terraced travertine basins form natural swimming baths, but there are also blindingly white mineral forests and petrified waterfalls to discover here. Plus the site of an ancient Roman and Byzantine city named Hierapolis, testament that people have been soaking in these therapeutic waters for thousands of years; one of the pools even boasts an ancient submerged column.
Approximately six million people lay interred in the depths of the Parisian catacombs. Their remains were brought here from overcrowded cemeteries during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and stacked up the walls to create a grisly display. A surreal “attraction” to say the least, this crypt-come-tourist-site is certainly not for the squeamish, but morbid fascination draws plenty of curious visitors.
7. Pig Beach, Big Major Cay, the Bahamas
Swimming with pigs in the Bahamas is one of the most surreal travel experiences out there. Forget mud and troughs of slop, the unlikely residents of this uninhabited island of pure white sand and glassy water love nothing more than basking with visitors in the shallows. Whoever coined the phrase “happy as a pig in muck” was sorely misinformed. There’s nothing more to be said other than: remember snacks – these greedy little piggies love a treat.
Embark on a pilgrimage to the shining Golden Temple, the holiest of Sikh gurdwaras, where shelter is offered to pilgrims regardless of religion or creed, and even sightseers are provided with a clean bed and free meal. Up to 100,000 people are catered for every day, with food prepared by volunteers in staggering quantities. Eating cross-legged on the floor alongside your fellow thousand pilgrims is an unforgettable experience. And that’s before a walk around the temple at sunrise, to the ethereal strain of sacred song.
For adventure on an epic scale, journey to Tsingy. The joint effect of horizontal and vertical erosion has formed geological ‘forests’ of limestone here in the northwest of Madagascar. Giant rifts on these rock needle edifices create exclusive ecosystems, with each peak, niche and slope providing an environment for rare and unique species. It’s somewhat off the beaten track, but worth the effort to get here, especially to be one of the few tourists that do.
Chiselled into a mountainside, grazing the heel of Italy’s ‘boot’, is an intriguing, atypical city of grottos running deep into the rock, inhabited by ‘troglodytes’ since the Palaeolithic era. Other than exploring labyrinthine streets of rough-hewn buildings, you will spend most of your time in caves known as the Sassi. Although modernised, the cave hotels, shops and homes nod to the past by preserving the original limestone structures giving a sense of what it might have been to live here centuries ago.
11. Japan during cherry blossom season
Come spring, Japan is a country beset by excitement that can only be described as blossom fever. Before the first bud blooms, the nation turns to ‘blossom officials’ who scrupulously monitor the trees and forecast the date when these much anticipated flowers finally burst into life. Shops are swamped with blossom-related products and customary hanami picnics are enjoyed by all, thrown specifically for the purpose of admiring the exquisite clouds of pink.
12. Catatumbo Lightning, Venezuela
An atmospheric phenomenon occurs over Lake Maracaibo every evening for 300 days of the year. In an earth-shattering display of streaking power, lightning splits the sky with an average of 28 bolts per minute, illuminating the area in flashes so bright that night is turned to day. This reliable show owes its regularity to the perfect conditions for an electrical storm, created by warm winds from the Caribbean colliding with cool air from the Andes.
13. Chefchaouen, Morocco
The colour blue carries connotations of peace, calm and serenity. So it is hardly surprising that the beautiful town of Chefchaouen, awash with shades of sapphire, is an escape from the frenetic heat and energy of typical Moroccan cities. Surrounded by the rugged Rif mountains, this world of narrow streets and archetypal doorways provides a surreal and alluring escape.
14. Snow and Ice Festival, Harbin, China
The largest snow and ice festival in the world is just as surreal as you might expect. Life-sized buildings, built from blocks of ice taken straight from the Songhua River, are chiseled to perfection and lit in fantastic displays of bright neon. Visitors can climb the steps of full-scale ice palaces, wander the battlements of glacial castles and ogle replica landmarks, built in frosty facsimile. We recommend hailing a flashing horse and carriage to whisk you around this curious wonderland of kitsch.