Located in Vietnam, Hang Son Doong Cave is the largest cave on earth by volume. // © 2016 Oxalis Adventure Tours/Thuan Thang
Feature image (above): Ethiopia’s geologically hyperactive Dallol Hot Springs appear supernatural. // © 2016 iStock
Travel has a poetic way of serving up heaping slices of humble pie. It takes keen explorers to distant places beyond their comfort zones and reveals the beauty of other cultures, traditions and people. And standing before some of Mother Earth’s au naturel masterpieces — and realizing just how small a personal problem may be — is just as powerful in renewing one’s perspective.
From the hottest (formerly) inhabited place on earth to a gargantuan cave complete with its own river, jungle and localized weather system, the following natural places offer a nourishing feast for the soul.
HANG SON DOONG CAVE, VIETNAM
Below Vietnam’s Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park is an otherworldly treasure discovered only about seven years ago: Hang Son Doong Cave (Mountain River Cave). The largest cave on earth by volume (totaling 38.5 million cubic meters), this natural wonder could accommodate a full block of skyscrapers within its massive chambers.
Metaphorical scale aside, the natural phenomena that actually lie within the approximately 3-million-year-old Son Doong are nothing to scoff at: a rushing subterranean river, for one, as well as a lush, underground jungle sustained by sunshine that filters through an overhead doline (sinkhole). There’s also the 262-foot-high “Great Wall of Vietnam,” a calcite barrier that divides the cave; a “Cactus Garden” of soaring stalagmites; and a massive cluster of rare cave pearls, which painstakingly formed from calcite and dripping water over hundreds of years.
Getting There: Fly into Dong Hoi, the capital of Quang Binh Province, through Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi. Then, take a taxi or private transfer into the national park.
When to Go: Local operator Oxalis Adventure Tours is currently the only company that has met the strict requirements for running tours to Son Doong. These tours operate from February to August, with a maximum of 10 guests.
Good to Know: In order to conserve Son Doong’s fragile environment, Quang Binh’s government has restricted the number of annual visitors to the cave. In 2017, only 640 lucky individuals will be able to venture within its walls — and tours for the year are already sold out.
Insider Tips: Chau A. Nguyen, managing director for Oxalis, has visited the cave twice. According to him, the weeklong expedition — which is equipped with a support team of up to 35 people, including an English-speaking guide, one or more technical advisors, two chefs, safety assistants and at least 22 porters — is extremely physically demanding.
“People need to be very fit — they’re trekking 50 kilometers while on tough terrain and sometimes crossing rivers,” Nguyen said. “When tour-goers complete the trip, they feel like they have just overcome the biggest challenge of their life.”
At the same time, Son Doong is unequivocally spectacular.
“It’s like a hidden world,” Nguyen added. “The cave has even created its own weather system — you can see the clouds changing in the cave every 15 minutes. It’s very special.”
DALLOL HOT SPRINGS, ETHIOPIA
If clients can’t take the heat, then the abandoned town of Dallol in northern Ethiopia’s Afar Depression (also known as the Danakil Depression) likely isn’t the right place for them. Here, not only do daring visitors enter the kitchen, but they’ll also find themselves in the proverbial oven: Year-round temperatures can climb up to 120-plus degrees Fahrenheit and hover at an average of 94 degrees, and active volcanoes dot the geologically hyperactive landscape.
However, the 1960s mining settlement’s hydrothermal fields — in a startling palette of acid greens, sulfuric yellows and iron-oxide reds and oranges — are an incredible sight to behold. Stretches of land lie more than 400 feet below sea level and form encrusted cauldrons. A hot brine fills these bubbling — and occasionally belching — hot springs. Last but not least, geysers, fumaroles and salt formations resembling radioactive coral reefs round out the Mars-like visage.
Getting There: Fly into Addis Ababa Bole International Airport, located in Ethiopia’s capital city. From there, it’s best to join an organized tour that includes a stop in Dallol.
When to Go: Tourists generally visit Dallol from November to March, but clients who want slightly cooler weather should go from December through February. Still, the average high during this time can hit the upper 80s.
Good to Know: There are no toilet facilities, and visitors sleep under the stars in sleeping bags or on army-style beds.
Insider Tips: Christos Michailidis is the general manager of Pangeans Safari, a local operator and Adventure Travel Trade Association member that has been operating since 2008. According to Michailidis, due to potential safety issues, all visitors to the Afar region must be escorted by members of the local police-militia and the Ethiopian army, and these arrangements can be done upon arrival at the site.
He adds that prior to the trip, all visitors must secure an Afar permit to enter the Danakil desert. A local tour operator can handle these complicated logistics, in addition to providing transportation via 4x4 vehicles and other necessities.
GREAT BLUE HOLE, BELIZE
From above, the Great Blue Hole in Belize’s Lighthouse Reef resembles an indigo-blue pupil that is encircled by a turquoise-colored lagoon. But it’s doubtful that the colossal size of this geological wonder — about 984 feet across and more than 400 feet deep — will be lost even on those viewing from an airborne peanut gallery.
Part of the UNESCO-protected Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System, the Blue Hole was once a dry limestone cave system, formed in a bygone glacier age. When the cave collapsed due to rising sea levels, the sinkhole formed — yet, miraculously, it still retained much of its geological formations underwater, including submerged stalagmites and stalactites.
Famed French explorer Jacques Cousteau propelled the Blue Hole to fame when he first charted its depths in 1971 and later positioned it as one of the top 10 dive sites in the world.
Getting There: Fly into Belize’s Philip S.W. Goldson International Airport, then take either a short flight or a longer water taxi ride to Ambergris Caye, Belize’s largest island. Next, a two-hour boat ride with a local operator can transport clients to the Blue Hole. Another option is to schedule an aerial tour with operators Astrum Helicopters or Tropic Air.
When to Go: Avoid rainy season, which typically starts in June and lasts until November.
Good to Know: Beginners are recommended to only snorkel or dive within the first 40 feet of water above the Blue Hole, and only experienced divers — with at least 25 dives under their belt and with the supervision of professional divers — should venture beyond that point. Stalagmites and stalactites will appear around 100 feet below, and giant groupers, nurse sharks and the occasional Caribbean reef shark have a reputation of crashing a dive party or two.
Insider Tips: For easy accessibility to the Blue Hole, Anaiya Mussolini, CEO of Travel with Anaiya, a Virtuoso agency, recommends an overnight stay at private island Long Caye and booking through local operator Huracan Diving Lodge.
“Long Caye is only minutes away from the Blue Hole and has much fewer people on the tour,” said Mussolini, who has visited the natural wonder once on her own and twice with clients. “You can also expect to be the first ones at the Blue Hole, which makes a big difference when you are experiencing a once-in-a-lifetime dream.”
LENCOIS MARANHENSES NATIONAL PARK, BRAZIL
Torrential rain does a sand dune good — a notion proven by the remote Lencois Maranhenses National Park, where a roughly six-month-long rainy season results in thousands of crystal-clear, aqua-colored lagoons tucked into rippling heaps of sand. The Portuguese word Lencois translates to “bedsheets,” a clever nod to the 383,000-acre expanse of blinding-white dunes that lie wherever the wind decides.
Set on Brazil’s northeastern state of Maranhao, Lencois Maranhenses receives about 47 inches of rain per year — thus thwarting the park’s classification as a desert — that gets filtered through the sand before filling seasonal, swimmable lagoons up to 10 feet deep.
Getting There: From Sao Luis, Maranhao’s capital, it’s a three-hour ride to Sangue. Then, a 4x4 vehicle is required to reach Santo Amaro, a remote fishing village that offers excursions into Lencois Maranhenses. Or, travel four hours to the more touristy Barreirinhas, another gateway into the park.
When to Go: The lagoons are at their peak right after the rainy season, which runs from December until the end of May. However, they don’t fully evaporate until around September, when the unforgiving sun and winds return.
Insider Tips: Sarah Taylor, owner of Los Angeles-based All Set Concierge, suggests that clients traverse the park on foot — not by car.
“To sustain these natural surroundings and preserve the park for future generations, take in the beauty on a guided hike instead of by terrain vehicle,” Taylor said. “You’ll be able to absorb the experience and see some of the dune birds, fish and other wildlife that are unique to this area. And you’ll even be able to tune into the sounds of the wind and birds. It’s truly unforgettable.”
Riccardo Boschetti, founder and owner of local operator Wild Brazil Wildlife Tours, recommends devoting at least two or more days to Lencois Maranhenses.
“If time permits, spend at least one night in nearby Atins, an old fishing village full of charms and mysteries in the white-desert beaches,” he said.
PREIKESTOLEN (PULPIT ROCK), NORWAY
If the two-hour hike to reach the top of Norway’s Preikestolen (also known as Pulpit Rock) doesn’t take your breath away, then the panoramic views of Lysefjord and the adjacent mountains will. In the 19th century, a wisecracking sportsman named Thomas Peter Randulf renamed the chiseled cliff — formerly called Hyvlatanna (Planed Tooth) — when he sailed into the fjord below and noted its resemblance to a cathedral-style pulpit. Randulf also was reportedly the first person to hike up to the approximately 82-square-foot plateau.
But the 1,981-foot-tall Preikestolen had formed long before, when a drifting glacier in the ice age helped to shape the plateau’s angular, cracked features. Today, the stony-faced formation is the fjord region of Ryfylke’s most acclaimed resident, attracting more than 200,000 visitors each year — including plucky professional base jumpers who don’t possess even the slightest bit of acrophobia.
Getting There: Take a flight to Stavanger, followed by a bus and a ferry to Tau in the south Ryfylke district. Then, rent a car or hop on a bus to Preikestolen Mountain Lodge, where the trail begins.
When to Go: It’s best to visit sometime in May through September to dodge cold, snowy conditions and slippery trails. Even still, always wear layers and bring a windbreaker, as the weather can change quickly.
Insider Tips: “It’s sort of in our blood to go hiking; Norwegians love nature and exploring the mountains, coastline and fjords,” said Harald Hansen, information/public information manager for VisitNorway, who has completed the hike 10 times since the age of 7.
He advises to start the relatively easy hike as early as possible or in the early afternoon, while keeping in mind that Norway’s summer sun doesn’t set until 11 p.m. Additionally, the crowds thin out during the week.
“You can also do a trip with local operator Outdoorlife Norway, where you stay overnight at the Pulpit Rock and watch the sunrise,” Hansen said.