Earth’s greatest hits
Mother Nature sure knows how to make a statement. The planet is dotted with all sorts of gorgeous creations, from cascading waterfalls to towering volcanoes to otherworldly salt flats you won’t believe are real, and all of these natural wonders of the world tell the story of a particular destination. Of course, people travel far and wide just to get a glimpse of the most famous landscapes and the equally stunning but lesser-known natural wonders, and for good reason. Whether you’re interested in diving the Great Barrier Reef, hiking the Grand Canyon, admiring the northern lights, or just taking a tour from your couch and daydreaming about your bucket list, you’ll definitely be inspired by these natural wonders of the world.
Poás Volcano, Costa Rica
One of the most visited volcanoes in Costa Rica is also one of the oldest – it actually helped form the Central Valley. Sitting more than 2707 metres above sea level, Poás Volcano has been active for hundreds of years, though its last major eruption was in 1910. Visitors can still get up close and personal with it at the national park where it’s located (with a reservation, that is). If you’re lucky enough to get a view of the crater, it can be breathtaking; however, views may be obstructed by clouds due to fickle and unpredictable weather conditions, which change by the hour. Dress warm and bring an umbrella, as precipitation is common at the top of the mountain.
The volcano is about an hour’s drive from the centre of San José. But you’ll definitely want to build some extra time into your schedule so you can sample fresh strawberries at the fruit stands along the way or go on a tour at Doka Estate to learn how coffee is made.
Mount Otemanu, Bora Bora
Bora Bora was first made popular during World War II, when soldiers were stationed on the island. Mount Otemanu is the island’s main attraction, and it has an interesting history. “During World War II, the American soldiers used the cave to check the horizon to see if any enemies were coming,” says Marania Teuru, a representative for Tahiti Tourisme. Years later, it was rumoured that women went inside the caves to give birth because giving birth on the island was not permitted. The massive mountain, which stands 727 metres above the lagoon of Bora Bora, is now the perfect backdrop for dreamy Tahitian sunsets. A few of the luxury resorts offer great views of the mountain, including the St. Regis Bora Bora and the Conrad Bora Bora Nui, which have become hot spots for honeymooners.
Marble Chapels, Patagonia
The Capillas de Mármol, or Marble Chapels, are an absolute must when visiting Patagonia. The stunning caves are located in the middle of General Carrera Lake, which makes them accessible only by boat. One of the more remote natural wonders on this list, the iridescent Marble Chapels are actually layers of calcium carbonate formations resulting from 6,000 years of wind and water slapping the rocks. The colours and arches formed inside the cave are truly breathtaking, and even amateur photographers will have a field day here. The best time to visit is in the austral summer, from December to March, when the intensity of the blue waters is intensified by the sun.
Yosemite National Park, USA
One of California’s crown jewels, Yosemite National Park is an outdoor playground for nature enthusiasts. The protected park is approximately 3108 square kilometres, and it features towering sequoias, dramatic waterfalls, beautiful mountain ranges and sheer granite towers. In addition to Half Dome and El Capitan, Yosemite is also home to Yosemite Falls, one of the world’s tallest waterfalls at 739 metres. May or June is the best time to see the waterfalls; September is also a great month to visit because of pleasant weather and fewer crowds.
Great Barrier Reef, Australia
One of the world’s greatest spectacles also happens to be one of the most vulnerable. Whether you choose to view this global treasure from a helicopter or go scuba diving to enjoy close encounters with more than 1,500 species of tropical fish, it’s hard not to notice the direct impact of climate change. Warmer temperatures have led to significant amounts of coral bleaching, and farming pollution has caused starfish to feed off the precious coral. If the damage continues on the same trajectory, more than 90 percent of the living coral will erode within the next decade.
Add this natural wonder of the world to your bucket list before it’s too late, along with these other breathtaking places that might soon disappear.
Haleakala National Park, Hawaii
Maui is world-famous for its magnificent beaches, fresh cuisine and burnt-orange sunsets, but it’s also home to some of the most beautiful landscapes. The top of the dormant volcano at Haleakala National Park is one of the most epic spots to watch the sun rise. At just over 3048 metres above sea level and spanning 12,140-plus hectares of land, Haleakala offers plenty of scenic vistas, sparkling waterfalls (near the park’s coastal section), and endangered species sightings such as the nēnē, the state bird. An important note if you want to hike to the crater at sunrise: You have to make a reservation up to seven days in advance. There is also a $30 fee to park your car, but it’s valid for three days, in case one visit just wasn’t enough.
Grand Canyon, USA
Arizona has no shortage of majestic mountains and sweeping vistas, but the Grand Canyon is hands down one of the most diverse geological wonders in the state. The visual grandeur of this UNESCO World Heritage Site and natural wonder of the world is characterised by several horizontal layers of rock formations that are nearly two billion years old. Visitors have several options to experience the beauty here: Adventure seekers can enjoy an aerial view from a helicopter ride through the canyons or go whitewater rafting down the Colourado River (not for the faint of heart). For an easy hiking trail, head to the north rim to avoid large crowds and check out the Cape Royal Trail. It’s a flat, well-paved trail that’s popular during sunrise and sunset.
You may have seen the captivating photos of colourful hot air balloons against a magical landscape of rugged cliffs, valleys and minaret-like towers carved into the rocks. It’s hard to believe this place is real, but it is and it’s in Turkey! The Anatolia region of Cappadocia is filled with rich history and culture, including the 40 identified underground cities that lie below the surface and the Göreme Open Air Museum, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most visited sites in Cappadocia. For a good vantage point overlooking the landscape of this natural wonder, check out Uçhisar Castle – or drift during sunrise in one of the hot air balloons.
Blue Grotto, Malta
Malta is a magnificent Mediterranean island between Sicily and the North African coast. The island is known for year-round warm weather, ancient cities, dazzling beaches, and, of course, the Blue Grotto: a series of caves that form high arches along the southern coast of the island. On a clear day, you can see the fluorescent colours reflected on the cave, a phenomenon caused by the underwater flora. Try to book a boat tour early in the morning when the sea is calm, the sun is bright, and there are fewer crowds.
Banff National Park, Canada
Those visiting the Rocky Mountains in Canada between July and September will be rewarded with turquoise-coloured lakes, scenic mountain views, and plenty of wildlife. The summer months allow for some of the best hiking and wildflower sightings of the year, but they also mean peak tourist season. September may be an even better time to visit, since the crowds fade, the leaves start to change colour, and the snow-capped mountains begin to appear in the distance. Biking is also another way to explore the mountains, which boast more than 354 kilometres of cycling trails.
Blausee Lake, Switzerland
Blausee Lake is a small, enchanted lake in the Kander Valley in Switzerland that gets its name from its vibrant crystal-blue colour. The lake is surrounded by a stunning national park with towering pine trees, a boutique hotel, and an organic trout farm. Whether you choose to visit during the summer when the bright turquoise water is glimmering against the verdant backdrop, or the winter, when the snow-covered pine trees look like a Bob Ross painting, Blausee Lake is an idyllic place year-round. There is an entrance fee between $8 and $10, depending on the day of the week, and dogs are allowed in the park on a leash.
Waitaki Whitestone Park, New Zealand
It’s hard to pick just one natural wonder in New Zealand, but Waitaki Whitestone Park tops the list. With picturesque rolling green hills, scenic cycling trails and an abundance of wildlife, this park just may be the most gorgeous outdoor wonderland you’ll ever play in. Walk, bike or drive through the park, and as you do, be on the lookout for unique rock formations. FYI, this New Zealand gem won’t be flying under the radar for much longer because it’s up for UNESCO assessment this year.
Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
The Galápagos Islands are a group of 19 large islands in Ecuador with a unique ecosystem and diverse range of endemic marine life and species. You’ll find the island’s namesake giant tortoise, sea iguanas, penguins and sea lions, to name a few. Watch the tortoises in their natural habitat at the El Chato Tortoise Reserve, snorkel with sea animals, or spot exotic birds. For a challenging activity on land, check out many of the lava trails near the volcanoes. Bartolomé is probably the most iconic island – and the most visited. Hike more than 300 steps to the summit and you’ll be rewarded with epic views of Pinnacle Rock.
Yep, that delicious Italian dish takes its name from an actual place – specifically, a small volcanic island just north of Sicily. Its 3,000-foot-high active volcano, nicknamed the “Lighthouse of the Mediterranean,” has had lava flowing out for years. The most impressive sightings are at night, and the best way to see the volcano is on a boat tour. There are no cars, buses, or trains on the island (only small motorbikes and Ape cars), and flashlights are recommended if you plan to walk around at night because there are no street lights.
Iguazú Falls, Argentina
Split between Argentina and Brazil, these famous falls are all drama and all beauty, all the time. They’re located in Iguazú National Park, a subtropical rainforest that offers many different vantage points of the waterfalls. Book a boat ride and see them up close as you sail through the Lower Iguazú River, or walk through the park – but either way, but expect to get soaked!
Great Blue Hole, Belize
This massive sinkhole is part of the Belize Barrier Reef, one of the most pristine reef ecosystems in the western hemisphere, and it’s a favourite spot for serious divers because of its incredible marine diversity. It’s also home to several shark species. Translation: It’s not for the faint of heart, but if you’re an experienced diver, you won’t want to miss it. While you’re in Belize, make sure to check out Ambergris Caye, the largest island in the country.
Dead Sea, Israel
The Dead Sea (also known as Salt Sea), located about an hour away from Jerusalem, is estimated to be approximately three million years old. It’s a top bucket-list destination, and for good reason – there’s nothing in the world like floating on the Dead Sea. The saline water has such a high density that it keeps swimmers afloat. People with skin conditions especially love to visit because they lather the mud on their body and the mineral-rich saltwater is said to have healing powers that are good for the skin. Just make sure to avoid shaving one to two days prior to your visit because the salt will burn any cuts; you shouldn’t stick your face underwater either.
Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
Also known as the Salt Flats, this extraordinary attraction is the world’s largest salt flat – the result of dried-up prehistoric lakes. June to August is the dry season, so more tourists visit during this time. But December to April is less crowded and amazing in a whole different way: When the rain hits the salt flats, it causes a glass- or mirror-like effect, which looks really cool in photos. If you visit, keep in mind that the high-altitude flats are nearly 3650 metres above sea level, so you may experience altitude sickness if you haven’t given yourself a few days to acclimate in town first.
Padjelanta National Park, Sweden
Sweden tops the list as one of the most sustainable tourist destinations in the world, and with so much natural beauty, it’s easy to see why. The country’s largest national park, Padjelanta National Park, is adjacent to the Norwegian border, and it’s a peaceful mountain escape where the Wi-Fi is weak and the air is fresh. The open terrain surrounded by alpines makes it an ideal destination for hiking, especially in July and August. Pack light, but don’t forget binoculars! You might spot newly born calves, birds or other animals.
Milford Sound, New Zealand
A remote fiord within Fiordland National Park that was formed by glaciers from the Ice Age, this remarkable jewel is surrounded by lush New Zealand rainforests, steep cliffs, and cascading waterfalls. It’s the only fiord accessible by road in New Zealand, but the best way to experience it is by boat. Take a scenic flight from Queenstown for breathtaking aerial views of the snow-capped mountains, then take a cruise to observe the black coral and sea life. The best time to visit is after heavy rain, typically in December or January, when the waterfalls are more intense. Need another reason to visit? Check out these breathtaking photos of New Zealand.
Suytun Cenote, Mexico
While most travellers head south of the border for the beautiful luxury resorts and sparkling blue waters, you’ll also want to venture out for a day trip to see this stunning natural wonder near Cancún. Located about 15 minutes from the colonial city of Valladolid, Yucatán, the underground cave has a stone walkway where a natural light beam shines through a small hole – and creates the perfect photo op. There are bathrooms and changing facilities at the park, and the site has a small entrance fee of about $6.
Elephant Rock, Saudi Arabia
Jabal AlFil Elephant Rock is one of AlUla’s most recognizable natural sites: Wind and water erosion over millions of years created this massive elephant-shaped rock in the middle of the desert. It’s best to view this amazing rock formation during sunset, but dress warmly for cold desert evenings. And, in general, both men and women are encouraged to dress modestly and avoid tight-fitting clothes.
Northern Lights, Iceland
There are many places to view the northern lights (also known as the aurora borealis), and Reykjavík is certainly one of them. Colourful streaks of light create striking rainbows in the dark sky, creating a photographer’s dream shot. The months of September and April are prime time for catching the dancing light show, but unfortunately, there isn’t one location that offers optimal sightings. It also depends on the weather conditions, so it’s best to leave it up to the local tour guides to show you the best locations.
Grand Prismatic Spring, USA
Wyoming is home to many iconic natural wonders of the world, including Grand Teton National Park and Devils Tower National Monument, but it also has the world’s third-largest hot spring. The remarkable Grand Prismatic in Yellowstone National Park is the single largest hot spring in the park – it’s larger than a football field, so it’s hard to miss! A feast for the eyes, the rainbow-coloured hot spring has a deep blue centre and orange spider legs radiating outward. Avoid the crowds by climbing up the new trail to an overlook on the nearby hillside; the 965m hike is worth the view.
Sign up here to have Reader’s Digest’s favourite stories straight to your inbox.