What makes a place beautiful? The kind of breathtakingly stunning scenery that stays with you long after you’ve left, like a heartwarming childhood memory? Is it the unexplainable tickle that rises in your stomach when you stand, bug-like, atop a mountain, looking down? The exotic scents and unintelligible chatter that invade the mind when you find yourself in a foreign land?
The world is bursting with gorgeousness and, oh boy, we need it now more than ever. So, in this week’s Sunday Magazine, we’re going to spoil you. Here are some of our favorite places. Most are remote — making this a perfect getaway guide if you prefer a socially distant vacation when the world opens up. Ready to plan your next adventure?
Josefina Salomon, Senior Writer
1. Northern Lights
It may be the closest (fingers crossed) you’ll ever get to encountering alien-like life forms. The northern lights are a natural spectacle of shiny green, blue and purple waves of light dancing in the night sky, like a kind of extraterrestrial water feature excited to just exist. Located in a region known as the Auroral Oval, the aurora borealis’ dazzling display forms as a result of the sun ejecting clouds of gas which, two to three days later, meet the Earth’s magnetic field and generate this spectacular show. The phenomenon is most common between September and March high in the Northern Hemisphere (Iceland is a particularly great location for viewing). Many cultures around the world have tried to explain the origin of the lights. Cree First Nations people, for example, once believed they were the spirits of the dead trying to communicate with their earthbound loved ones.
2. A Summit at the Top of the World
Staying in the Northern Hemisphere, this destination is a jaw-dropping stunner. A majestic piece of rock so beautiful it only agrees to be fully seen one out of every three days (due to cloud cover). Denali — meaning “the tall one” in the Koyukon language — is not only the highest mountain in North America (at 20,310 feet) but also the third highest of the “Seven Summits” (the tallest peaks on each continent). But this giant is also a very cold place. Visiting requires an 18-day round trip that includes a hair-raising flight in a small plane that lands on a snow-covered strip, where you’ll be met by some of the lowest temperatures on Earth. Attempting to reach the top is recommended only for the most experienced climbers. Thankfully, the rest of us can still enjoy its imposing gorgeousness from the forests of its namesake national park or, more likely, from the comfort of our sofa.
3. Ukrainian Train Trips
An overnight train is an environmentally friendly solution for all those who, like me, find a kind of inner peace on long journeys. In my experience, the combination of Soviet-era engineering and design, a cozy sleeping compartment and an Australian, an Argentine and elderly Ukrainian cabin mates gives you, well, a pretty awesome ride. Ukraine offers many overnight train services connecting its biggest cities. Allow me to paint you a picture: a couchette complete with two foldable bunk beds, pillows and duvets, as well as a tiny folding table set against laminated wooden walls, a small window and two dainty pink curtains. Then add four grown adults. In the hallway you’ll find more dated fabric curtains and a carpet that hasn’t been washed for decades. Eleven hours after jumping on the train in Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, you’ll arrive in Zaporizhzhia, the country’s fifth largest city and an industrial center that boasts a number of Soviet-era artifacts. Sweet story? Without speaking a word of Ukrainian, I somehow landed myself a bag of pomegranates harvested from the garden of a fellow passenger.
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This colorful, enigmatic and vibrant port city in the corner of the Peruvian Amazon is an antidote for anyone who’s grown sick of their bed-to-dining room table domestic commute. Buried in South America’s lushest jungle, Iquitos can only be reached by boat or plane. Dubbed the “Venice of the Amazon,” it’s a gateway to South America’s past, where well-preserved Spanish colonial architecture combines with the rich sounds of tuk-tuks and jungle creatures nearby. Hungry? This former rubber-producing settlement is also home to bustling food markets. Wander amid the stalls and taste the super sweet lucuma, believed to have anti-aging properties, and the peach-like aguaje (fun fact: This small red fruit is almost exclusively sold and eaten by women — legend has it that it helps with hormone imbalances). If you’re craving more than fruit, head to Belén, a floating settlement in the south of Iquitos. The sprawling market there offers everything from fresh fish caught by local villagers to insect larvae and even bottled ayahuasca, a psychoactive brew popular in this part of the world. Take note: It should only be consumed by those in the know.
2. Tasmania’s Ancient Forests
There’s something hypnotic about prehistoric rainforests. The palette of greens, the smell of mist, the fluorescent leaves hugging the damp bark of taller-than-life trees. Life growing upon life, worlds within worlds evolving as they’ve done for millennia. Tasmania, the island off Australia’s east coast, has so many rainforests you’ll be spoiled for choice. My favorite, however, is Tarkine in the island’s northwestern corner. This area has something for everybody, from mountain ranges to fast-flowing rivers, sandy beaches, grassy woodlands and the cutest, craziest animals you’ll ever see (yes, we mean the Tasmanian devil). No wonder Indigenous communities have had such a deep connection to this corner of the world for more than 40,000 years. Read more on OZY.
3. Humahuaca’s Earthy Rainbows
Speaking of ancient times, if boulders “rock” your boat, then Argentina’s Quebrada de Humahuaca is the place for you. A small town nestled in the foothills of the Andes, it gets its name from its rich Indigenous heritage. This is a favored stop for people trekking this section of the Inca Trail, offering a window into how early farming communities lived 10,000 years ago. The miles of gigantic red, orange and brown rocks that dot the region serve as an enormous, outdoor archaeological museum, hiding thousands of years of history and culture from the untrained eye. Sharpen your ears to the sound of the wind that has been shaping the landscape for millennia and, better still, listen for the traditional tunes that have for generations filled the air and the hearts of the people in this corner of our planet. But that’s not all. The food here is as good as the view. Heard of quinoa? This is its homeland. Have it as a side with locro, a hearty stew made from potatoes, carrots and beef, and wash it down with chicha, a fermented, corn-based alcoholic beverage. Worried about the altitude? At nearly 10,000 feet above sea level, it’s certainly a consideration, but don’t despair — that’s what coca leaves are for.
and places in between
1. COVID-19 Safe in Bhutan
Looking to really get off the beaten track, and stay safe? This tiny kingdom’s relatively unspoiled landscape and culture could be exactly what the doctor ordered. With 90% of its adult population fully vaccinated against COVID-19, Bhutan is among the safest places to be. For those who make the trip, head to the astonishing Tiger’s Nest monastery to appreciate spectacular views and architectural genius at an altitude of over 10,000 feet. But if you’re looking for complete solitude, Jigme Dorji National Park is the place to go. Its verdant, mountain-ringed valleys, dotted with colorful huts and temples, are ideal for trekkers or anyone searching for a cure for screen-weary eyes. The catch? Traveling around this tiny nation is only allowed with a local tour guide, which changes the meaning of solitude. Still, don’t let that put you off, as the authorities are looking to protect the country’s pristine environment from excessive tourism. Plus, having a local guide explain the ins and outs of this unique country (and to translate) will only deepen your experience.
2. Socotra’s Trees
An Indian Ocean island and World Heritage Site, Socotra is, simply put, out of this world. Located some 220 miles south of mainland Yemen, this place is so special that many animals and plants are endemic to the island. Among them is the dragon blood tree, which for years has been used as both a paint and a medicine, and the Socotran chameleon, a small, hissing reptile with a crazy long tongue. But there’s one more thing that makes Socotra feel almost alien: its mind-blowing white dunes, formed by years of strong winds blasting the island’s rocks. Be warned: Ascending these sandbanks is a cardio workout, but the reward when you reach the top is nothing short of spectacular. Considered one of the most remote places on earth (although it now has an airport), the history-rich Socotra attracts intrepid travelers looking to leave the beaten path behind.
3. Screaming Water in Lesotho
The Maletsunyane Falls in Lesotho plunge into a gorge so deep that the sun can’t reach its lowest points. Icicles can be found throughout the winter and spring. When you walk by this waterfall, which features one of the steepest drops in the Southern Hemisphere (630 feet, to be precise), your hearing feels like it’s taken on new powers. Close your eyes and listen carefully to the deafening sound of the furious water crashing into rock, much like the screams of people past, at least according to one terrifying legend. Scary stories aside, it hasn’t put off a handful of wild adventurers who every year travel to the area to rappel from the edge of the falls. If rock climbing and skydiving are not your cup of tea, you can always enjoy some of the most beautiful parks in this corner of Africa. Fun fact: Lesotho is the only nation in the world that is entirely 3,280 feet above sea level, with 80% of its territory reaching heights of 5,905 feet.
4. San Agustinillo’s Beaches
If there’s a natural phenomenon that best describes the collective feeling humanity has been experiencing over the past 18 months, it might be the Pacific Ocean: shifting uneasily, evolving and angry. If you spend enough time observing the Pacific’s waves, impatient and determined — as if purposefully trying to get somewhere — you can almost hear them speak. There are many places in the world to view the power of our largest mass of water, but few offer as winning a seat as San Agustinillo, a tiny fishing village hidden between some of Mexico’s most popular beaches. This strip of sand, home to a smattering of cabins and shacks, is the perfect spot for those easing their way back into the rat race of modern life. What more could one ask for than quiet evenings, huitlacoche fungus tacos and mezcal cocktails? Best of all, a short drive away, on Escobilla beach, visitors can visit a turtle sanctuary and rescue center — and help release hundreds of baby turtles back into the sea.