Don’t be fooled by the relaxing blues, greens and whites you see from outer space: our planet is a weird, weird place. The best part about the items on this list, from the Venusian sulfur fields of northeastern Ethiopia, to the volcano in Indonesia that spews blue fire, is that they’re relatively accessible. The difficulty is choosing which one to visit first!
Ethiopia’s Sulfur Fields
On paper, Dallol, Ethiopia has the distinction of being one of the hottest places on Earth, with temperatures regularly exceeding 150ºF. In reality, its landscapes are positively alien: Vast, yellow expanses with pools of green liquid that look like cool water, but are actually corrosive, concentrated sulfuric acid.
HOW TO VISIT: You’ll need to take an organized tour of Ethiopia’s Danakil Depression from the nearby city of Mek’ele, which will cost around $600 for four days, and also includes a hike up Erta Ale volcano, home to one of only six persistent lava lakes on Earth.
Iceland’s Iceberg Beach
The old adage—that the names “Iceland” and “Greenland” were accidentally reversed—gives some people the wrong impression about Iceland, which is very cold for much of the year, and absolutely frigid in winter. A December road trip through Iceland is not for the faint of heart, but one advantage of visiting at this time is the ability to see the ice beach at the mouth of the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon on Iceland’s souther coast.
HOW TO VISIT: Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon is about two hours east of Vík on Iceland’s Ring Road.
Costa Rica’s Fluorescent River
If we’re honest, Costa Rica as a whole could be an entry on this list—the land of “pura vida,” after all, is pure awesomeness when it comes to weird, amazing nature. It’s a matter of personal preference which of Costa Rica’s natural wonders is the most spectacular, but Rio Celeste, a fluorescent-blue river and waterfall in the country’s western highlands, is definitely up there.
HOW TO VISIT: Rio Celeste, which is part of Tenorio Volcano National Park, is about three hours by car from Liberia or four from San Jose. You can self-drive or take a tour. If you take your own car, however, make sure it’s a 4×4—much of the road here is rough.
Brazil’s Coastal Desert
Tourists have been flocking to both Brazil’s Amazon rainforest as well as its pristine northeastern beaches for decades. Most of them miss Lençóis Maranhenses National Park, which sits between the two. A Saharan-looking landscapes defined by silky, white dunes, the park is at its most beautiful during the rainy season (May-August), when the spaces between the dunes fill with colorful lagoons.
HOW TO VISIT: It’s complicated, especially if you don’t speak Portuguese. Learn more here.
Central Texas’ Prehistoric Waterfall
Among the wrong ideas people have about Texas is the state is mostly desert. In fact, much of it is lush and beautiful, particularly around its major cities. The state capital Austin, for example, is surrounded by jewel-colored swimming holes, the most spectacular among them Hamilton Pool, a towering, semicircular waterfall formed when a prehistoric riverbed collapsed.
HOW TO VISIT: From Austin, head west on Texas Highway 71 to Hamilton Pool Road, then turn left and follow until you see signs for the pool. Call 512-264-2740 to see if the pool is open and to make reservations, which are now required during summer.
New Mexico’s Snowy Sands
If you’re a child of the 90s, you probably remember the video for Boyz II Men’s minor hit “Water Runs Dry” more than the song. In it, the boyz…er, men, traipse barefoot through a landscape that appears to be snow. In reality, these are the stark-white, gypsum sands of White Sands National Monument, in Alamogordo, New Mexico, which remain cool to the touch—but thankfully, not as cold as snow!—even in the blistering heat of summer.
HOW TO VISIT: From El Paso, take I-10 west to I-25 north, then head east on New Mexico 70 until you see the signs. From Albuquerque or Sante Fe, do the same, only take I-25 south.
Indonesia’s Blue-Fire Volcano
The bad news? If you want to see the blue fire of Indonesia’s Kawah Ijen, which is caused by its high sulfur content, you’ll need to ascend the volcano at midnight. The good news? It’s absolutely worth it, to say nothing of how warmly you’ll be welcomed in the nearby village of Taman Sari the next morning, after your hike it complete.
HOW TO VISIT: Fly or take the train to Banyuwangi, where a guide from a company such as Ijen Expedition (which I can personally recommend) will pick you up to begin your adventure.