Ah, summer’s almost upon us. The days are getting longer and hotter, school’s almost over and done with for a few months, and you’re about to have plenty of time on your hands. Or maybe it’s a winter or spring break, and you’re looking for something epic to make it memorable. Or the spark’s gone out of your relationship, and you feel some traveling might help freshen things up. Or you just need some time away from the rat race, a break from things to refocus, gain a new perspective. What do you do to keep the little ones, or even yourself, busy and out of trouble?
You plan a vacation.
Not just any vacation, mind you. There are the usual spots, but who wants to do the same thing every year? Not you. The Doctor Who Experience in Cardiff? Been there. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Florida? Done that. San Diego Comic-Con? You did that last year, and the year before that, and the year before that. I can tell that you are a seeker of excitement, of the strange and whimsical, and of the unusual. You need a holiday that will blow every other holiday out of the water. One that your family will never forget, and the neighbors will talk about for years. You need a destination that might rival those of the comics and movies you love. Well, you have great taste, and have come to the right place.
You can’t travel to Gallifrey, Mordor, or Oa, so I’m going to show you worlds of wonder right in your own backyard. Destinations that will scare the pants off of you, and others that will make you stand back in silence and awe. Some are actual tourist destinations, others quite a bit harder to get to, but all of them are unique, and a far cry from what your family will be expecting. So pack your bags, purchase your tickets, charge your camera, and climb aboard. I’m going to take you on a trip to 11 travel destinations you won’t believe are real.
11. The Church Of Ice And Snow
Our first stop, the town of Mitterfirmiansreut, in the southern Bavarian region of Germany, may look like the work of Captain Cold or Mister Freeze, or a set for a movie, but it’s not, it’s just a small town where for over 100 years the townspeople have erected a church made entirely from tons of ice blocks and snow!
In the winter of 1910/1911 the townspeople were stranded on Christmas day and unable to go to mass, due to a massive snow storm, and the nearest church being 90 miles away. Town authorities denied their request to build a place of worship, so in an act of protest the villagers gathered up the material they most had in abundance at the time, creating the first Snow Church, a tradition that stands to this day.
Called God’s Igloo by one German newspaper, every year a new mini-Cathedral is built, and thousands of people visit before it to melts away. In 2011, the 65 foot long church took over $200,000, and 49,000 cubic feet of ice and snow, to build after lengthy delays due to unseasonably warm weather. Though the Catholic bishop of Passau has ruled out any baptisms, weddings, or actual traditional masses, worship services are still held each winter.
An act of provocation over 100 years ago has led to this continuing attraction that goes to show where there’s a will, there is most certainly a way.
10. Dean’s Blue Hole
It’s summer, and you’re looking for a tropical getaway unlike anything you’ve ever seen. Well, this might be just the place. Dean’s Blue Hole is the deepest of the seawater blue holes, plunging 663 feet deep into Long Island, Bahamas. It is just one of the many blue holes around the world, large limestone sinkholes filled with water, with entrances below sea level, but Dean’s is the most impressive.
A dangerous, though popular location with free-divers, the roughly circular hole with a diameter ranging from 82-115 feet widens approximately 66 feet down into a 330 foot wide cavern. Swimmer, William Trubridge broke a free-diving world record in 2010, reaching a depth of 302 feet without the use of fins, then, on December 14th that same year broke another record, swimming to a depth of over 330 feet on a single breath!
It has become a popular spot for scientists as of late, due to recently discovered hot spots of microbial life, much of which is yet unknown to science. Cave diving scientists recently found colonies of microbes that apparently feed off of sulfur compounds, compounds that are toxic to most other life on Earth. Similar conditions might exist on other planets, such as Jupiter’s moon, Europa. Could these new discoveries give us an insight into life in the oceans of alien worlds? That question is yet to be answered, but it is definitely interesting to think about.
Whether you’re looking for fun, excitement, or educational purposes, Dean’s Blue Hole will be an experience you will never forget.
Though definitely not named for Dean Venture, I could see this in an episode of The Venture Brothers. It would be a great underwater lair, for sure, and right now, for those with the money to spend, Blue Hole Bay is for sale. It will only set you back about $24,000,000. More information is here.
9. Icelandic Phallological Museum
Probably not the best place for a family vacation, this museum located in Reykjavik, Iceland houses a collection of over 280 specimens, penises and penile parts, from 93 species of animals, including one human penis. The specimens range from a .o8 inch long hamster penis bone, all the way to just the tip of a Blue Whale’s penis at a whopping 67 inches and 150 pounds! The museum even includes a folklore section, reportedly containing penises from elves and trolls, although they can’t be viewed because according to Icelandic folklore such creatures are invisible.
The founder, Sigurður Hjartarson, opened the museum in 1997 with 62 specimens that he had collected over the years. After retiring in 2004, his son, Hjörtur Gísli Sigurðsson, took over as curator. With thousands of tourists visiting every year, over 60% of them female, and plenty of mainstream media attention, including a Canadian documentary called The Final Member, it would seem that its mission to enable “individuals to undertake serious study into the field of phallology in an organized, scientific fashion” has been a success.
Be sure to check out the museum’s website for more information.
8. The Doorway To Hell
Next time someone tells you to “go to Hell” you’ll know how to get there.
It’s not the set of some new sci-fi movie, Hellgate or something, though by night it is creepy. In a natural gas field in Derweze, Ahal Province, Turkmenistan, lies this phenomenal attraction. Lit by Soviet petrochemical scientists in 1971, and thinking it would burn off after just a few days, the rich natural gas deposits have ensured it has kept burning ever since. Over four decades longer in fact.
Named the Door to Hell by locals due to the boiling mud, bright orange flame, and its pungent sulfur odor that travels far and wide, this 230 foot wide crater has become a popular destination for the adventurous tourist searching for something different. The summers are very hot in the area, while the winters are very cold, so this would make an epic spring break trip!
In 2010, the President of Turkmenistan, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, ordered the hole closed, but as of this writing it is still going strong, but it can’t burn forever, and any day now this door may close for good. This could be your last chance to see it with your own eyes, and it is certainly a thing to be seen in person. Give Mephisto a piece of your mind in person for One More Day when you get there!
7. The Lost City of Petra, Jordan
One of the seven wonders of the world, Petra is a historical site located in the Kingdom Of Jordan, known for its rose colored rock cut architecture. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1985, the “Rose City” remained unknown in the western world until it was exposed by Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt in 1812. Now, it is Jordan’s most visited tourist site.
Established as early as 312 BC as the capital city of the Nabataeans, the thriving trading center’s location between desert canyons and mountains enabled it to control all of the main commercial routes in the region. They were highly creative in capturing the frequent flash floods the area was prone to, using dams, cisterns, and water conduits, and the remains of their irrigation systems can be found to this day throughout the area. It is an especially exciting location for archeologists, as just 15% of the city has been uncovered, leaving a large amount of it underground and untouched by modern man.
If it looks familiar, that’s because it is. Petra is a popular filming site, with genre films such as Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, and Mortal Combat: Annihilation using the location for key scenes, as well as being the backdrop for the Sisters of Mercy “This Corrosion” music video. Unfortunately, due to erosion, weathering, improper restoration, and unsustainable tourism, many of the structures are collapsing. If you do plan a visit, please tread carefully, and respect the site so it will still be here for future generations.
6. Fengdu Ghost City, China
From a lost city to a ghost city. For most, a cruise isn’t about the destination, but the adventure itself. For tourists cruising the Yangtze River, it’s all about the destination. Are you a fan of the works of Steve Niles, Japanese horror films/manga, or creepy places in general? Than this is the destination for you!
Fengdu is China’s famous Ghost City, a little over 100 miles downstream from Chongqing Municipality on the northern bank of the Yangtze River. This terrifying tourist trap is like an evil Disney theme park, combining the cultures of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism, and finishing off with a trip to hell, passing statues of ghosts and demons along the way. People visit from all over every year to learn about Chinese ghost culture and the afterlife, and cross the Modoribashi, or Bridge to Hell.
In its 2,000 years of history, Fengdu has been many things, but it became the Ghost City sometime in the Eastern Han Dynasty, after two Imperial court officials, Yin Changsheng and Wang Fangping, were married and settled there to study Taoist teachings. Their surnames together produce the word Yinwang, which sounded to the villagers like the Chinese term for “King of Hell”.
During the Tang Dynasty, the temples and statues were erected depicting life in Hell, and the Ghost City we know today was born. According to Chinese views of the afterlife, a ghost must pass three tests to enter the Netherworld, so of course those tests became three of the attractions here. Nothing-To-Be-Done-Bridge, Ghost Torturing Pass, and Tianzi Palace are there as a constant reminder that good people are rewarded in the afterlife, while evil men are rewarded with heinous torture.
With its amazing architecture, creepy statues, and goose pimple inducing atmosphere, Fengdu is a really cool vacation spot, just make sure you have virtue in your heart, or you might never be allowed to leave.
5. Chamarel, Mauritius
Ever wanted to visit alien worlds, with crazy landscape that inspires and awes? Well, here’s one just a few continents over. Chamarel is a small village located in the Republic of Mauritius, an island nation off the southeast coast of the African continent. The village, named after the Frenchman Charles Antoine de Chazal de Chamarel, is most well known for its scenic locations including the Seven Colored Earths, the Chamarel Falls, and the Black River Gorges National Park. It was also the home of the now famously extinct Dodo bird.
The Seven Colored Earths, found in the Chamarel plain of the Rivière Noire District , are a multicolored geological formation, and one of the regions most famous tourist attractions. A small area of sand dunes comprised of red, brown, violet, green, blue, purple, and yellow sand and clay, these dunes formed from decomposition of volcanic rock cooling at different external temperatures, creating surreal layers of color. In spite of Mauritius’ occurrences of torrential, tropical downpour, the dunes never erode, and the colored stripes will always separate back into their different layers when disturbed. It really is a thing to behold, like a rainbow you can touch, or an alien landscape.
The Chamarel Falls are three thin waterfalls formed by the River St. Denis with a height of almost 300 feet. Surrounded by thick vegetation, the “best waterfalls in Mauritius” can be viewed from the upper deck at Seven Colored Earths, or from the Black River National Park, and you are free to have a refreshing swim in the shallow waters below.
Black River Gorges National Park in south-western Mauritius is a 6,574-hectacre natural reserve filled with hiking trails through beautiful forest and marshy heathland. It is a great location for a picnic, birdwatching, hiking, mountain biking, or just relaxing. It’s sole National Park, Black River Gorge has a little something for everyone.
Mauritius is a beautiful place to visit, with so much to see and do, and is well worth a visit.
4. The Bolivian Witches’ Market
Remember that one time you were in your hotel room and really needed a dried llama fetus? Oh, that never happened? Well, if it ever does happen, and you’re in Bolivia, El Mercado de las Brujas, or The Witches’ Market, is the perfect place to acquire some. A popular tourist attraction in La Paz, Bolivia, the Witches’ Market is situated in Cerro Cumbre, a mountain clearing, and the Yatiri, or local witch doctors have plenty for sale as it’s a specialty around these parts. But that’s not all. There is a large selection of dried animals, feathers, potions, seeds, powders, medicinal plants, insect parts, and anything else you’d ever need to perform a ritual. Not to mention a plenitude of souvenirs, cheap trinkets, hats, and alpaca sweaters.
The Yatiri are traditional medicine men/community healers native to Chile, Peru, and Bolivia, easily recognized for their ponchos, black hats, Aymara amulets, and coca pouches. Yatiri comes from the verb yatiña, which means “to know”, making the Yatiri “someone who knows”.
While not much more than your typical flea market or street market, it is definitely worth taking a stroll through its small collection of stalls. Why not stay at the hostel, La Posada de La Abuela Abdulia, in the middle of the market to be closer to the meager action La Paz offers? If nothing else, there’s always at least one bar open nearby.
3. Waitomo Glowworm Caves
The next stop on our whirlwind adventure is the perfect place for children, or to reunite with the child within. The caves at Waitomo are one of New Zealand’s most famous attractions. Found on the North Island, this stunning exhibit is part of the Waitomo Cave system that includes the Ruakuri Cave and the Aranui Cave. It is famous due to the fact that it is full of glow worms, Arachnocampa luminosa, the luminescent larval stage of fungus gnats exclusively found in New Zealand. The cave also has a fair share of other interesting insects, including giant crickets and albino cave ants.
Take a guided tour through three levels of the cave, beginning at the top level and the Catacombs and concluding with a boat ride through Glowworm Grotto, an area of the underground Waitomo river that gets its only light from the thousands of glowing insects that line the walls and ceiling of the chamber. This one is definitely your destination if you’re a science geek like me.
Waitomo is also well known for its Black Water Rafting Company, who will take you on cave diving and underground rafting adventures. Whatever you choose to do here, you will have a fantastic time that won’t soon be forgotten, nor matched.
2. Isla de las Munecas
Now, we leave the breathtakingly beautiful for the breathtakingly terrifying, in our round the world of wonders adventure. The next stop? Isla de las Munecas, or The Island of the Dolls, located just south of Mexico City in the canals of Xochimico. It sounds like an awesomely bad B movie, but I assure you, this place is real, and creepy as hell.
The story behind this unintentional tourist attraction is a tragic one. Over fifty years ago, the caretaker of the island and its only inhabitant, Don Julian Santana Barrera, says that he found a young girl drowned under mysterious circumstances. Haunted by the tragedy, when a doll floated by sometime later, and assuming it belonged to her, he hung it from a tree as a sign of respect to her spirit. Still haunted by her death, he continued hanging dolls amongst the trees, as a way to hopefully appease her spirit. Years later, Don Julian was found drowned in the same spot as that poor little girl. Whether the tale is 100% true is up for debate, but it has inspired visitors to leave hundreds of dolls around the island over the years. The island has even been on an episode of Syfy’s Destination Truth!
It is said that the dolls are inhabited by the spirits of dead girls, and that they have taken on the role as the island’s caretakers. Whether true or not, walking amongst the dolls can be a horrifying experience, especially at night. Many are eyeless, limbless, sun baked abominations with insects and mold where once was hair. Some others are truly charming, yet in an eerie way. It is said that the eyes follow visitors as they walk amongst the lifeless hordes of plastic children on the island, which is actually a chinampa, or artificial floating garden. And while Don Julian’s gesture was an innocent and admirable one, he inadvertently created one of the spookiest attractions on this list. One that has to be seen to be believed!
1. Chand Baori, India
Chand Baori is an impressive 13 story deep step well located in the village of Abhaneri in Rajasthan, India. Constructed by King Chanda of the Nikumbha Dynasty between 800 and 900 CE,its 3500 narrow steps, arranged in perfect symmetry, reach 100 feet into the ground, making it one of the deepest step wells in India. Due to the region being so dry, it was conceived and built as a way to conserve as much water as possible. For generations the well has been used as a community meeting place, as well as a place to keep cool in the sweltering heat since it is noticeably cooler at the bottom of the well.
Fans of architecture will love the beautiful and intricate design employed it its construction, from the thousands of steps, statuary, and sculptures, to the ornamental rock walls above. Three of the sides contain steps, while the fourth side has a set of pavilions with intricate religious carvings, and a royal residence with rooms for the king and queen, should they like a visit. This architectural wonder is no longer in use, but is still impressive in its geometric complexity.
Chand Baori has made appearances in films such as The Dark Knight Rises and The Fall. You should also visit the ruins of Harshat Mata temple across the way, being named for the same goddess that the wells were originally dedicated to upon completion. This 1,000 plus year old marvel simply demands to be seen.
And while you’re in in Rajasthan, India, why not visit another gorgeous piece of ancient architecture? The Chittorgarh Fort, the largest one in India, has stood proudly on a hill since the 7th century, withstanding battle after battle. It is also an impressive site, a lasting tribute to architectural inventiveness, and well worth checking out. This is the perfect place to act out your favorite scenes from Game of Thrones, just don’t kill anyone or sleep with a sibling while you’re at it.
So while there are many fantastical places in comics, books, and film, awe inspiring and full of whimsy, I hope I have shown that the real world has just as much to offer. If you do visit any of these places, feel free to share some pictures with us!