The world is packed with beautiful and unique places…smoking volcanoes, rugged mountains, sultry jungles, and tropical beaches, just to name a few. But some destinations are so surreal and alien-like they don’t look like they belong on this planet at all, even though they’re only a short flight away.
So, if you’re looking to be transported to another world on your next holiday, look no further. From landscapes that look more like Mars or the Moon than Earth to places where you can see aurora borealis-style lights in the ocean, here are 10 otherworldly travel destinations for the ultimate escape.
1. Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
If you’re looking to explore a landscape like no other, then Bolivia’s salt flats are an excellent choice.
Located high up in the Bolivian plains, the land here is covered by a thick crust of salt – so thick that it’s estimated to be 120 metres deep in parts. The blinding white salt stretches on for around 4,000 square miles, glistening like snow as far as the eye can see.
Visiting the Salar de Uyuni is truly an otherworldly experience. The bone-dry land is so inhospitable you’ll feel like you’re on another planet, and when all you see is a shining white surface, blazing blue sky above, and snow-capped mountains looming faintly in the distance, it’s easy to feel as though you’re all alone in the world.
But during the rainy season (December to April), when the flats are covered in water, Salar de Uyuni is even more special. The chalkboard-like land is turned into a vast mirror, reflecting the endless sky, clouds, and mountains so perfectly that the horizon completely disappears.
In this realm of mirages, up becomes down, left becomes right, and you’ll feel transported to another world.
Experience the surrealism of the Salar de Uyuni
2. Vatnajökull National Park, Iceland
Home to glacier-capped mountains, smoke-spewing volcanoes, bubbling hot springs, sparkling blue lagoons, and lava-strewn landscapes, Iceland has long been known for its unearthly beauty.
While this Nordic island has three spectacular national parks, it’s Vatnajökull that’s the largest, and arguably the most otherworldly.
Vatnajökull is actually made up of three separate parks – Jökulsárgliúfur National Park, Caldera of Askja, and Skaftafell National Park – and combined, it’s the largest national park in Europe. It’s difficult to convey the sheer size of Vatnajökull; it takes up 14% of Iceland’s entire landmass and is made up of glistening ice sheets, thundering waterfalls, and jagged mountains.
Within the boundaries of Vatnajökull are some of the country’s most dazzling natural attractions, including 10 volcanoes, canyons carved by roaring waterfalls, and Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon. The latter is considered to be a natural wonder of Iceland, and watching the icebergs slowly drift along the blue lagoon can be a deeply transcendental experience.
Wonder at the mysticism of Iceland
3. The Danakil Depression, Ethiopia
Ethiopia is one of the most underrated and misunderstood countries in the world.
Long associated with droughts and famine, it’s actually one of Africa’s wettest and most scenically versatile countries. However, while the Ethiopian Highlands boast lush meadows, glistening lakes, tropical forests, and rugged peaks, the Danakil Depression is a different world entirely.
This is one of the hottest and lowest spots in the world, a place where summer temperatures often reach over 45°C. It almost never rains here, and it’s this scorching dryness that has helped turn Danakil into one of the most alien places on the planet; a painted desert of volcanoes and geysers, a place where seas of molten magma bubble beneath the surface.
The terrain is a geological wonderland that’s home to salt formations, geysers, and acidic hot springs. The vibrant colours here are caused by water reacting with volcanic minerals; yellow pools of sulphur bubble like cauldrons, while copper salts create bright cyan pools. Known as ‘the gateway to hell’, the Danakil Depression is actually teeming with life – just like the rest of Ethiopia.
Discover the versatile beauty of Ethiopia
4. Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia
If you’re into fantasy and like the idea of visiting a place that will make you think you’ve stepped in The Lord of the Rings’ elf kingdom Rivendell – or perhaps Avatar’s Pandora – then you might want to visit Croatia on your next break.
Plitvice Lakes National Park is the country’s top natural attraction, and is so stunning that it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.
The park is a breathtaking expanse of densely forested hills, crystalline turquoise lakes, and hundreds of tumbling waterfalls. Despite the park’s name, it’s the falls that are really the main attraction, as it’s these series of cascades that connect the 16 shimmering lakes. Strolling through this bewitching park will have you feeling like you’ve fallen into a fairytale.
The unique landscape was created over several thousand years, as the calcium-rich waters travelled downstream and produced the terraced, barrier-like terrain in which the pools formed. The waters teem with fish, herons wade on the shores, clouds of butterflies drift above the bridges, and in the woods above, deer, bears, wolves and wild boar roam.
Uncover the fairy-tale beauty of Croatia
5. Pamukkale, Turkey
If you want to experience an otherworldly landscape with an added slice of ancient history and culture, then Pamukkale, in southwestern Turkey’s River Menderes valley, might be the destination for you.
The name Pamukkale means ‘Cotton Castle’ – and if that also evokes images of fairytales, you won’t be disappointed.
Pamukkale is famous for its gleaming white limestone terraces, which hold pools of warm, bubbling thermal springs. This is a geological fairyland that’s long been popular with locals and visitors (Roman emperors used to bathe here), and now modern tourists have discovered its ethereal beauty. Soaking in the mineral-rich waters, high up on the mountain, is a magical experience.
But it isn’t just the otherworldly landscape that makes Pamukkale so special – because on the other side of the terraces lies Hierapolis, an ancient Roman and Byzantine spa city. Founded around 190 BC, the city flourished until 1334, when it was abandoned after a series of earthquakes. There are few places in the world that combine history and geology so strikingly.
Explore the wonder of Pamukkale and Turkey
6. Cenotes Dos Ojos, Mexico
Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula is known for its stunning white sand beaches, sweltering jungles, and buzzing beach resorts – but it’s also home to a vast and secretive subterranean world.
Cenotes (which means ‘sacred wells’) are natural pools that were formed by the collapse of limestone bedrock, uncovering a mysterious underwater world of magical swimming holes.
Tulum’s Cenote Dos Ojos is part of the world’s largest underwater cave systems, and this particular cenote is the deepest underwater cave passageway in the world. Connected by two sinkholes (hence the name Dos Ojos – ‘two eyes’), this cenote boasts illuminated stalactites and stalagmites, yawning water-filled caverns, and winding, tight passages.
Swimming through these mineral-rich waters, passing through mystical caves or under tree-framed skies, is a magical and otherworldly experience. It’s no wonder the Maya believed cenotes were the entrance to the underworld and swam in here to communicate with the gods.
Step back into the past – or into a different dimension – in this sunken, secret wonderland.
Experience the beauty of Tulum
7. Valle de la Luna, Chile
Chile is one of the most diverse countries in the world, which comes as no surprise considering it’s a staggering 2,700 miles in length.
While Chile’s southern tip is home to Patagonia’s wild, windswept landscape, the scenery in the north is another story – and in particular, Valle de la Luna, in the barren Atacama Desert, looks like a whole other planet.
Valle de la Luna means ‘Moon Valley’, and this is undeniably an accurate description. Exploring this dramatic, lunar-like landscape will make you feel as though you’ve travelled into space, and the jagged peaks, dry riverbeds, and wind-shaped hills – caused by years of erosion – are astonishingly similar to the landscape of our own Moon.
The Valle de la Luna is 10 miles from the oasis town of San Pedro de Atacama, and from here you can cycle into the Valle de la Luna or go by 4×4. If you can be here for sunrise or sunset, the celestial views become even more special.
Nearby, there’s also Chile’s largest salt flat, volcanoes, lakes packed with flamingos, and pre-Columbian ruins, so there’s plenty to do.
Travel to another planet in Chile
8. Vaadhoo Island, Maldives
Famous around the world for their powder-white sand, crystalline blue waters, and swaying palm trees, the beaches of the Maldives are so beautiful they can look almost heavenly. But there’s far more to this tropical archipelago than its beaches – as it’s also home to one of the world’s most impressive nocturnal phenomena.
The Maldives has several ‘glowing beaches’, but none are as otherworldly as those on Vaadhoo Island, which is home to the accurately named ‘Sea of Stars’. Glowing beaches – or to use the correct term, ‘bioluminescent’ beaches – occur when bioluminescent organisms like plankton produce a chemical reaction that emits light, and then later wash up on the beach.
When this occurs, the waters lapping the shore glow with electric-blue or green bioluminescence, creating an ethereal, celestial atmosphere reminiscent of the northern lights.
Walking along the glittering sand, or swimming in the sparkling sea, is an unforgettable experience, and it’s easy to imagine you’ve been transported to the stars above.
Discover paradise in the Maldives
9. Lencois Maranhenses National Park, Brazil
Given Brazil’s sheer size – it’s the fifth largest country in the world, stretching on for a staggering 3,287,956 square miles – it would be a surprise if it wasn’t home to at least one otherworldly travel destination.
There are several spectacular places within this huge country, but Lencois Maranhenses National Park, in Maranhão state, is arguably the most special. Perhaps it’s because, for many people, Brazil evokes images of colourful towns and vibrant fiestas – a place that hums with life and people and noise.
Lencois Maranhenses National Park, on the other hand, is about as lonely and serene as you can get. Located on Brazil’s north Atlantic coast, it’s a vast stretch of dazzling white sand dunes, dotted with shimmering turquoise lagoons. The sense of peace here can feel unearthly, and the rolling dunes and sparkling pools seem to stretch on infinitely.
Depending on the way you’re looking at Lencois Maranhenses National Park, it either looks like a sandy lake or a drowned desert, creating a strange kind of optical illusion. The lagoons are home to turtles and many migratory birds, and they’re perfect for swimming in too.
Witness the wonder of Brazil
10. Namib Naukluft Park, Namibia
We’ve already featured one destination that’s perfect for people who’ve always dreamed of going to the moon…so it’s only fitting that we finish in a place that’s the closest thing Earth has to Mars.
Namibia is one of Africa’s most striking countries, and many parts of it have an unearthly beauty – but nowhere more so than Namib-Naukluft National Park.
Located in Southern Namibia, Namib-Naukluft has a rugged, otherworldly appeal. Its remarkable red sand dunes and twisted, blackened trees make it seem like you’ve landed on the Red Planet – either that, or you’ve stepped into a surrealist painting. The colours here are breathtaking, from the deep red and orange sand, the blinding white salt pans, and the endless deep blue skies.
But there’s more to Namib-Naukluft than rolling sand dunes and eye-watering colours. During the wet season, the Tsauchab River floods the ground, turning the parched earth into azure pools where you can spot gemsboks, ostriches, and many kinds of aquatic birds.
There are also mountains, lakes, and canyons to explore nearby, so there are plenty of chances for adventure.
Experience the dramatic natural beauty of Namibia
There are so many beautiful, diverse, and fascinating countries in the world that choosing which place to visit next can seem like an impossible task.
But if you’re looking to discover somewhere totally different, a destination that’s unlike anywhere you’ve been before – a place that doesn’t even look like it belongs on our planet – then we hope this article has given you some inspiration.
The great thing about all the places featured above is that they have so much to offer: for example, after exploring Mexico’s Cenotes Dos Ojos you can discover the delights of Tulum, admiring Mayan ruins and relaxing on the beach. And, after visiting Croatia’s Plitvice Lakes National Park, you can go island hopping or explore the country’s historic towns.
Part of the joy of travel is being continually astonished at the diversity and uniqueness of our wonderful world – and visiting any of these destinations is a great way to do that.
So, whether you’re drawn to the bleak wildernesses of Iceland or Bolivia, the desert-like landscapes of Namibia or Chile, or the blissful beaches of the Maldives or Mexico, we hope these 10 otherworldly destinations have inspired you.