If you’ve been on this planet for very long, chances are you’ve at some point gazed up into the starry night, and wondered what it might be like to visit a galaxy far, far away. Would everything seem maddeningly bizarre, you might’ve asked. Would air sink and water float? Would branches grow from leaves? Would natural structures bulge from the ground in shapes and colors unimaginable?
We’ll likely not see those precise examples of imagination, but luckily, the curious among us don’t have to wait for the invention of interstellar travel to explore nature’s greatest real oddities. Anyone seeking imagination-defying sights can find them–right here on planet Earth–you just have to know where to look.
Salar De Uyuni, Bolivia
Tucked away in the Bolivian mountains lies Salar De Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat. Once a prehistoric lake, the flat’s water dried up long ago, leaving a 4,000 square-foot basin coated with several feet of salt. When it rains, the basin turns from a bone-white desert into a mirror of brine. Traveling the flat at this time feels like walking among the clouds, as its reflective surface blends into the sky.
Vatnajökull Glacier, Iceland
Vatnajökull is a massive glacier–Europe’s largest–covering over 8% of Iceland. In the summer, melting water carves a web of hollow halls through the ice. When the winter freeze arrives, visitors can tour winding, cavernous paths formed of water trapped in motion. Sunlight refracts through the ice’s curves and contours, creating an aquamarine illusion of frothy, flowing currents overhead.
Caño Cristales, Colombia
Known as the “Liquid Rainbow,” Caño Cristales is among the world’s most spectacular streams. From July to December, its waters take on an array of vibrant colors. Cool blues, vibrant greens and shades of red shimmer beneath the river’s surface. Its brilliant spectrum appears during the bloom of the Macarenia clavigera, an aquatic flower that grows only within Caño Cristales’ riverbeds.
Yuanyang Rice Terraces, China
2,500 years ago, the Hani people of China molded the Yuanyang countryside into a marvel of beauty and ingenuity. The mountainous environment made rice farming difficult, so the Hani sculpted thousands of terraced rice paddies out of the hills. Row upon row of small, pool-like paddies gently slope downward. Seen from afar, Yuanyang resembles a colossal, curvy staircase winding into the distance.
Socotra boasts perhaps the most alien environment known to humankind. Home to over 700 native species, the four-island archipelago is located 240 miles off the coast of the Arabian Peninsula. Socotra’s ecosystem has produced some of nature’s most striking creations. Chief among them is the dragon’s blood tree, which looks less like a tree than a combination cactus, mushroom, and sea anemone. The tree was named for its blood-red sap, which is prized by locals for its usefulness as a dye, as well as its medicinal purposes.
It’s possible that many of the universe’s amazing sights are closer to home than we may assume–so close, in fact, that all it takes to reach them is a plane ticket and a sense of adventure.