You don't have to be a world traveler to lose yourself in the fantastic places that dot our planet. Here are 19 of the most unbelievable wonders around the globe.
1. NEW ZEALAND'S GLOWWORM CAVES
In 1887, Maori Chief Tane Tinorau and English surveyor Fred Mace made an astonishing discovery in New Zealand: a complex of caves illuminated by an otherworldly blue-green glow. For generations, the Maori had whispered about the caverns, but presumably no one had ventured deep inside until this pair went exploring by raft and candlelight. What they found was remarkable. The limestone ceilings of the cave system were strung with thousands of glowing creatures, the larvae of a carnivorous fungus gnat called Arachnocampa luminosa. These “glowworms” use blue bioluminescence to attract prey, which they then ensnare by dangling a gooey string of mucus. These glittering critters don’t live the high life for long—adults don’t have a digestive system and survive only a few days. Today, thousands of tourists flock to the Waitomo Glowworm Caves to catch a glimpse of their brief but stunning show.
2. CHILE'S MOST VIBRANT CITY
Hugging the Pacific coast, Valparaíso was South America’s greatest international waterway until the Panama Canal stole the spotlight. The city is home to Latin America’s first stock exchange, Chile’s first public library, and the world’s oldest continuously running Spanish-language newspaper. Colorful homes dominate, mostly perched on hillsides in a maze of cobblestone alleys. In 2003, its historic quarter was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
3. WYOMING'S PSYCHEDELIC HOT SPRINGS
Photosynthetic cyanobacteria really know how to dress up a place. Yellowstone National Park’s Grand Prismatic Spring gets its signature look as different bacteria produce color-altering carotenoids, which help the microbes survive the heat and protect themselves from sunlight. (Since it’s cooler as you move near the edges, the carotenoid colors change.) The result is a vivid prism of color surrounding the 189°F blue center.
4. INDIA'S FLORAL WONDERLAND
Trek to the Valley of Flowers, part of a national park in the west Himalayas, and you’ll understand why yogis have long meditated here and why, according to Hindu myth, it’s a place of healing. For most of the year, the site is covered in snow. But in summer, more than 600 types of flora make their entrance: Orchids, poppies, and daisies of all shades blanket emerald meadows. Situated at the core of the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve, it is recognized by UNESCO for having “outstanding universal value.”
5. ETHIOPIA'S VOLCANIC VENTS
With sulfur hills, boiling hot springs, and bubbling pools of green acid, the Dallol Hydrothermal Field, in the Danakil Desert, looks like something out of a Seussian nightmare. A constant flow of super-salty hydrothermal water—heated by magma and mixed with mud, iron, and algae—gives the area its fantastic colors. At nearly 400 feet below sea level, it’s the world’s lowest terrestrial volcanic vent. It’s also one of the hottest places on earth, averaging 94°F year-round.
6. A CZECH REPUBLIC BONE EMPORIUM
The Sedlec Ossuary is one of the most macabre sites in Europe, second perhaps only to the Paris Catacombs. Here, tens of thousands of bones cling to every nook and cranny—strung into garlands, piled onto pillars, and stacked into pyramids lurking in the corners. There’s even a coat of arms made entirely of bones, created for a noble family, as well as an 8-foot chandelier said to contain every bone in the human body. All told, the remains of approximately 40,000 people decorate the ossuary, which is sunk below the Church of All Saints in Sedlec, a suburb of Kutná Hora in the Czech Republic.
Legend has it that in the 13th century, Sedlec’s abbot, sent by the king of Bohemia on a diplomatic mission to Jerusalem, brought back dirt from the purported site of Golgotha (location of Jesus’s crucifixion) to sanctify the monastery’s cemetery. Soon everybody wanted to be buried there, and over centuries it expanded to hold the victims of the plague and the Hussite wars. The ossuary was constructed in the 14th century to hold extra bones; the first decorative touches may have been added in the 15th century, when a half-blind monk allegedly arranged the bones into pyramids around the room. But a Czech carpenter named František Rint made the ossuary’s real standouts—the coat of arms and bone chandelier—in the 1870s. He even left his signature, constructed from arm and hand bones, near a staircase. Just imagine the skeletons he left in the closet.
7. BRAZIL'S SKYSCRAPER CEMETERY
“Six feet under” may soon be an outdated phrase as cemeteries like Brazil’s Memorial Necrópole Ecumênica climb to the heavens. The 32-story building is the tallest cemetery in the world. It will eventually hold 180,000 bodies.
8. MANILA'S SLEEPY HOLLOW
Manila North Cemetery in the Philippines may be the only place outside of fiction where the dead and living coexist. Some 10,000 people live among the graves, running businesses and making homes in family crypts where ancestors are never far away.
9. ROMANIA'S BONEYARD OF POEMS
At Romania’s Merry Cemetery, blue crosses are adorned with paintings and funny poems. Here’s one for a mother-in-law: “You, who here are passing by / Not to wake her up please try / Cause if she comes back home / She’ll criticize me more.”
10. SIBERIA'S SECRET GALAPAGOS
Lake Baikal might just be the biggest ecological record-setter you’ve never heard of. Nestled in the Siberian mountains north of Mongolia, Baikal is the largest freshwater reservoir in the world by volume, containing 20 percent of the world’s unfrozen surface freshwater. That’s more than all the Great Lakes combined. It’s also believed to be the oldest lake in the world (a spry 25 million years) and the deepest, surpassing 5000 feet in some spots. The water is among the world’s clearest, so transparent you can see 130 feet down.
Siberia doesn’t have a reputation for being a nurturing environment, but Baikal bucks the stereotype. It’s home to around 2000 species of plants and animals, and two-thirds of those species can’t be found anywhere else in the world. The Baikal seal (or nerpa) is the only freshwater seal on the planet. The golomyanka (or Baikal oil fish) is partly translucent, has no scales, and can handle vast changes in pressure thanks to special porous bones and loads of lipids. No wonder the lake has been called the “Galapagos of Russia.”
And it’s bound to break more records. Lake Baikal sits in an active continental rift valley, created as Asia slowly tears apart. As the rift grows at nearly an inch a year, the land below will continue to sink, increasing Baikal’s depth. Right now, the basin is about 400 miles long and 50 miles wide. In millions of years, it will stake its claim as Earth’s sixth ocean.
11. THE PHILIPPINE META ISLANDS
Here’s a mind puzzle: On the island of Luzon, Taal Lake rests in a volcanic caldera. It contains an island that, at its center, has a crater lake—which also has an island. In other words, an island on a lake on an island on a lake on an island. Got it?
12. DOMINICA'S SCALDING POND
Dominica’s Boiling Lake is technically a large hot spring. It sits at a scalding 200°F but it boils in the center—it’s so hot a cloud of vapor floats above the surface. The lake may be 200 feet deep, though no one is adventurous enough to dive in and check.
13. AN ANTARCTIC SALT LAKE
Don Juan Pond in Antarctica is so salty it could almost be classified as brine. Because of all that salt, Don Juan is impervious to the elements: The pool, about a foot at its deepest, never freezes, even in temperatures as low as -40°F.
14. A FORGOTTEN FOREST IN WALES
In January 2014, violent winter storms along Wales’s coast revealed the petrified remains of a prehistoric forest near the town of Borth. To some, the jagged stumps of oak and pine, buried around 4,500 years ago, were proof of the nation’s Atlantis: According to Welsh legend, the mythical kingdom of Cantre’r Gwaelod was drowned below the waves when a distracted maiden allowed a well to overflow.
15. AN ATLANTIC SHIPWRECK
During the Civil War, a steamship named the Mary Celestia sank off the coast of Bermuda. Over the years, hurricanes swept tons of sand to and from the shipwreck, revealing new nooks and crannies for archaeologists and divers to explore. In 2015 a bottle of wine discovered with the wreck was uncorked at a South Carolina wine festival. Somehow, its heady bouquet of sulfur, saltwater, and gasoline failed to win the blue ribbon.
16. BRITAIN'S HIDDEN ARCHAEOLOGICAL SITES
Relics buried underground can cause the grass above to grow differently, causing strange lines in the grass—called cropmarks—that become especially obvious during dry spells. In 2010, a heat wave in Britain revealed 60 new archaeological sites— including Roman forts and prehistoric villages. Then, in 2013, maintenance workers failed to water parts of Stonehenge, and suddenly the parched grass revealed where ancient stones once stood, proving it was once a complete circle.
17. PERU'S FLOATING ISLANDS
For centuries, the land around Lake Titicaca belonged to the Uros people. But when the Incans forced the Uros off their territory hundreds of years ago, they adapted in an astounding and unparalleled way: by abandoning land itself. Using totora reed, the Uros constructed their own islands. It was a handy defense strategy—if they ever felt threatened, they could just move their home.
Today, the floating village comprises about 60 islands. The larger islands hold up to 10 families, or about 50 people, while others can only accommodate a couple. (Along with waterproof thatched reed homes, residents share an outhouse island!) With continual maintenance, each island can last up to 30 years. But since the reeds decompose in the water, producing gases that help keep the islands buoyant, new reeds must be added regularly. That means the base of each island can be up to 8 feet thick.
For years, the Uros lived in seclusion, about 9 miles into the lake, but a nasty storm in 1986 convinced them to move closer to land. When they dropped anchor near Puno, Peru, they discovered a surprising byproduct: tourism. Today, visitors to the the village might feel like they’ve left the modern world, but in fact the Uros don’t shy from modern technology: They use motorboats and solar-powered televisions, and even have their own radio station.
18. A PALEOLITHIC PRESERVE IN THE NETHERLANDS
Flevoland is a Dutch province that was once underwater—an inlet of the North Sea—until it was drained in the 1950s. Today, it’s home to some 400,000 people and a modern Jurassic Park: A nature preserve stocked with paleolithic-era animals.
19. MIRRORED MOUNTAINS
For six months a year, the Norwegian town of Rjukan is cast in perpetual shadow by the surrounding mountains. To fix the problem, an artist in 2013 installed mirrors on the mountainside, which bathe the town square in sunlight.
—Amanda Green, Bess Lovejoy, Caitlin Schneider