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10 Places on Earth That Seem Otherworldly

Mike Grindle is a digital nomad and culture writer sharing insights from his travels.

The Danakil Depression

The Danakil Depression

Many people dream of traveling across the stars and exploring the strange and exotic landscapes of distant planets. But in reality, you don't need to travel all that far to discover places that don't seem to be earthly in design.

From hypnotic crystal-filled caves in Mexico to the mirror-like salt flats of Bolivia to a polka-dot-like lake in Canada, our planet is filled with surreal landscapes. And while the entries on this list might seem to have been pulled from the pages of sci-fi and fantasy books, they are all very much a part of Earth's strange beauty.

10 Otherworldly Places on Earth

1. Lake Retba, Senegal

2. Socotra Islands, Yemen

3. Lake Natron, Tanzania

4. Waitomo Glowworm Caves, New Zealand

5. Grand Prismatic Spring, Wyoming

6. Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

7. Kungur Ice Caves, Russia

8. The Spotted Lake (Kliluk), Canada

9. Cave of Crystals, Mexico

10. Danakil Depression, Ethiopia

The unique pink waters of Lake Retba, Senegal

The unique pink waters of Lake Retba, Senegal

1. Lake Retba, Senegal

Lake Retba could be said to look like any other salty lake in the world. That is if it wasn't for the fact it often appears entirely pink—the result of a type of red pigment-producing algae known as Dunaliella salina. This particular alga flourishes here because it's one of the only things well-adapted enough to survive the incredibly high saline levels found in the lake.

The lake's stunning color, which is more pronounced in the dry season, is only enhanced by the surrounding white-gold sands. But while the lake is a popular tourist attraction, it's also a place of industry. And, if you visit, you'll more than likely come across salt collectors at work extracting the salt. The people there extract the salt by hand, which is, unsurprisingly, a difficult and hazardous task that requires the miners to cover their arms in shea butter for protection.

Dragon Blood trees native to the Socotra Islands

Dragon Blood trees native to the Socotra Islands

2. Socotra Islands, Yemen

Socotra is a four-island archipelago found in the Indian Ocean and is one of the most isolated places on Earth. This isolation and the hot climate on this UNESCO-protected island have resulted in unique and otherwordly flora and tree life. Most notable are the "Ufo-like" dragon blood trees, which seem like something out of a sci-fi film. These trees, named for their red sap, are not the only unique lifeforms on the island, though, as it is also home to many mammals and birds you won't find anywhere else.

3. Lake Natron, Tanzania

Another lake known to change in color occasionally is Lake Natron, a place entirely inhabitable to all but the most well-adapted species. That's because the alkaline water in Lake Natron has a pH as high as 10.5, which is more than enough to burn the skin and eyes of most animals. Despite this, the lake supports a thriving ecosystem, including large flocks of flamingos and other wetland birds.

What truly makes this lake so surreal is what it does to the creatures unfortunate enough to perish there. The lake's high levels of sodium carbonate, which Egyptians used for mummification, will often form over perished animals, making them appear as if they have turned to stone.

Waitomo Glowworm Caves

Waitomo Glowworm Caves

4. Waitomo Glowworm Caves, New Zealand

Caves and the creatures within them often appear very alien to us. But a particular set of caves in New Zealand provide an even stranger experience for the observer. That's because these caves are home to a glowworm called Arachnocampa Luminosa that lights up the cave's ceiling in a blue-green glow so that it appears not unlike the night sky. These worms, which are actually a type of fly larvae, are found exclusively in New Zealand and create these lights to attract the insects on which they prey.

The Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone Park

The Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone Park

5. Grand Prismatic Spring, Wyoming

The Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone Park may not be as famous as Old Faithful, but it is inarguably bigger, stranger, and more dazzling. Indeed, the Grand Prismatic is Yellowstone's largest hot spring, being around 200-300 feet in diameter and more than 121 feet deep. With water that easily reaches a blistering 160 Fahrenheit, it's also highly inhospitable to most forms of life.

As well as its size and heat, the spring is known for its iconic bands of orange, yellow, and green that ring the deep blue water at the center of the spring. These rainbow-like layers get their hues from different species of thermophile (heat-loving) bacteria living in the progressively cooler water around the spring. But just what type of bands you'll see changes with the seasons and which particular species is flourishing at any given time.

Lightning over Salar de Uyuni

Lightning over Salar de Uyuni

6. Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

At 4,050 square miles long, Salar de Uyuni is the world's largest salt flat and an incredibly unusual and almost dreamlike environment. Created by an ancient lake that dried up thousands of years ago, this salt flat's endless horizon and unique reflective qualities have made it popular with photographers and racing enthusiasts. In the dry season, the former lake is essentially a desert. But in the rainy season, nearby lakes overflow and leave a thin layer of water over the salt, resulting in a surreal and spectacular mirror effect.

Stalagtite in Kungur Ice Caves

Stalagtite in Kungur Ice Caves

7. Kungur Ice Caves, Russia

Locked in an everlasting winter, the Kungar Ice Caves may be the closest thing to a real-life Narnia that actually exists. That's because, even in the middle of summer, when temperatures are scorching outside, the temperatures within the cave never rise above freezing. As a result, the inside of the cave is covered in a stunning collection of ice formations, crystals, and stalagmites. Indeed, many describe the interior as like being inside 'a jewelry box'.

8. The Spotted Lake (Kliluk), Canada

For much of the year, the spotted lake appears like any typical lake. However, as the lake dries up during the summer months, evaporated water leaves behind small briny pools. The high concentration of minerals in these pools results in a polka-dot-like landscape of blue, yellow, and green "spots" of water that look like something from a Dr. Seus book.

Supposedly, the lake was once even more colorful and strange. But during WW1, the lake was mined heavily for minerals to make ammunition. However, today the lake is under the ownership and protection of the indigenous people of the Okanagan Nation, who have long held the lake sacred. As such, this surreal landscape will be protected from any further development or mining for years to come.

9. Cave of Crystals, Mexico

Two hundred ninety meters beneath a mountainous landscape in Mexico lies a cave full of massive milky white gypsum crystals that are unlike anything you've seen before. These crystal pillars are more than 5,00,000 years old and were formed from the remains of ancient mineral-rich waters. Many are so big that they tower over explorers whose weight they could easily hold.

As wondrous as these crystals are, don't expect ever to be able to see these natural wonders in person, as the environment inside the cave is highly treacherous to humans. The temperatures inside the cave can go as high as 136 degrees Fahrenheit (58°C), and the air is dangerously acidic. As a result, people can only enter the cave with a special permit and while wearing a specialized cooling suit.

The Danakil Depression

The Danakil Depression

10. Danakil Depression, Ethiopia

Lying some 300 ft below sea level in a highly volcanic area in the East African rift system is one of the most extreme and least-studied environments on Earth, the Danakil Depression. Of the many strange features that litter this landscape, the colorfully luminescent and bubbling ponds of yellow, orange, and turquoise are perhaps the most eye-catching and bizarre. These ponds, which are incredibly acidic, are the result of rain and seawater from the coast being heated up by and mixing with the minerals in magma.

Adding to this hellish landscape are two active volcanoes, including Erta Ale, one of the few volcanoes in the world to have a bubbling lava lake at its summit. The landscape is also covered in geysers and salt deposits and features a massive crater known as Dallol. Oh, and it's also one of the hottest places on Earth, even giving death valley a run for its money with temperatures reaching as high as 55C (131F).

© 2022 Mike Grindle