“When you first see it,” says Alberto Gana, general manager of Chile-based adventure outfitter Latitud 90, “You know immediately that it’s unlike any other place on Earth.” Chile’s Valle de la Luna, the Valley of the Moon, is one of several can’t-miss places in the vast Atacama Desert that shares its borders with Bolivia, Peru, and Argentina. And it lives up to Gana’s description.
In recent years, Chile has seen a dramatic increase in active travelers searching for outdoor adventure. But even though it’s generally regarded as the safest and most developed of all South American nations, Chile remains a secret to many Americans. That means you’ve probably never been to, or even heard of, the Valley of the Moon. And that’s why we’ve chosen it to kick off our list of five places you’ve never been—but can’t afford to miss.
The Valley of the Moon, Atacama Desert, Chile
Hidden away in the driest desert on earth lies Valle de la Luna, a moonscape marked by giant rock pillars, windswept dunes, and an immense crown of volcanic peaks. Most visitors arrive in the late afternoon to hike across the crest of the valley’s massive sand dune and wait for the setting sun to wash the distant volcanoes in shades of pink.
Getting a place to stay near Valle de la Luna is easier than you might think. The desert oasis town of San Pedro de Atacama houses scores of guesthouses and inns, including the ultra-affordable Residencial Juanita for about $14 per night, the upscale Hotel Altiplanico at $130 per night, and the pricier resort hotel Explora, starting at about $2,000 for four nights, including guided adventure activities. Most visitors add Valle de la Luna to an itinerary that includes a sunrise visit to the steaming El Tatio Geysers and a stop at the area’s natural hot springs. Travelers on a tight budget could also arrive in San Pedro and seek out one of the many local tour operators who lead trips to Valle de la Luna for about $7 per person. Chile’s national tourism website is another good source for planning a trip.
Chile’s capital city, Santiago, is the country’s international gateway. Flights from Santiago to Calama—the starting point for most visits to the Atacama Desert—take about three hours, and from Calama it’s another hour’s drive to the town of San Pedro. LAN Airlines operates flights to Santiago from New York, Miami, Los Angeles, and dozens of other U.S. cities. The airline also packages airfare and discounted hotels and activities through its recently launched vacation wing, LAN Vacations, which offers guided tours supplied by outfitters such as the upscale but affordable Latitud 90.
Murren and Gimmelwald, Bernese Oberland, Switzerland
“Picture Yosemite with a Swiss village on top,” says Troy Haines of Alpinehikers, a hiking tour operator that focuses on walking holidays in Switzerland. “That’s Murren.” It’s an apt description. This tiny town of just 300 year-round residents sits at the edge of a 3,000-foot cliff and looms over the Lauterbrunnen Valley like something out of a Swiss storybook. Better yet, it’s a real-life hiker’s paradise—a gateway to the higher-elevation trails of the Swiss Alps.
Just below Murren is Gimmelwald, about a half hour’s walk away. There are no cars allowed in these alpine towns, but you can reach them via a vertigo-inducing cable car ride (to Gimmelwald) or a rickety old funicular (to Murren). Travelers have to want to get there, which keeps the villages and their hiking trails relatively crowd-free. “The extra bit of effort to get there is definitely worth it,” says Rich Perkins, a traveler who has visited Gimmelwald seven times since 1995.
If you’re on a tight budget, consider staying at the mountain hostel in Gimmelwald for $16 per night. It has perhaps the most spectacular location of any hostel, anywhere. Or, let your wanderlust take hold and hike to Hotel Obersteinberg, which has rooms from about $50 per night and is a two-hour walk from the outskirts of Murren. “It’s also a working farm with dozens of cows. They make homemade cheese every day in their smoky little barn,” says Haines, who frequently brings travelers to the inn on his Bernese Oberland tours. “The Breithorn and Jungfrau peaks both tower above it. It’s just a beautiful place.”
Murren and Gimmelwald are about four hours by train from either Zurich or Geneva, the two major international airports in Switzerland.
Havasu Falls, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
It’s just about the last thing you’d expect to find in the middle of the Arizona desert: a virtual Garden of Eden at the end of a grueling 10-mile hike into the parched southwest corner of Grand Canyon National Park. This is Havasu Falls, a tropical oasis of blue-green pools spilling out of a hundred-foot waterfall. While it can be seen in many calendars and postcards, it’s also a relative ghost town compared to many of the more accessible corners of the Southwest.
Last year, nearly five million people explored Grand Canyon National Park. Very few of them ever reached Havasu Falls. The reason? It’s not easy to get there—and that’s a good thing. The falls are watched over by the Havasupai tribe and a town of about 650 people who live at the bottom of the canyon two miles upstream. Just how remote is Supai village? It’s the only place in North America where the postal service still delivers mail by pack animal. For most people, getting in and out means either hiking or horseback riding. That’s enough to keep the crowds thin.
The sweltering desert heat isn’t as oppressive in the early spring and late fall, which makes these the best seasons to plan your trip. The trailhead is about four hours by car from either Phoenix or Las Vegas, the two closest airports, and you can stay at either the campground by the falls for $10 per night, plus a $20 reservation fee to enter, or the simple but comfortable lodge in Supai. Lodge rates start at $75 per night.
- Related story: Hiking to Havasu Falls, Grand Canyon’s hidden gem
The Underground Cities, Cappadocia, Turkey
“I’ve never seen anything like it, before or since,” says Jennifer Feltner, who traveled to Cappadocia in February 2002. “It’s an exotic, romantic kind of place. Bizarre and beautiful.”
How better to describe this otherworldly landscape where nearly everything is built not on the rocky terrain, but inside it? These are the underground cities of Cappadocia, Turkey, which date back more than 2,500 years. One of the largest and most elaborate of the cities that visitors can explore today is Derinkuyu, which once housed a community of about 20,000 people in an underground labyrinth that extends 18 stories beneath the Anatolian plateau.
Most budget-minded travelers stay in the town of Goreme, which is a bustling backpacker base and has ample pensions, hotels, and restaurants. Accommodations start at around $15 per night. Cappadocia can be reached by bus from Istanbul or Kayseri, the closest airports.
February and March are good months to visit because it’s the low season for tourism (translation: no crowds) and the weather is not extreme. The Hotel Cappadocia website lists accommodations, rentals, organized tours, even hot-air balloon rides, and is worth a look if you’re considering a trip.
Mount Hekla, Iceland
“Welcome to the Hellmouth.” Long before Buffy the Vampire Slayer scribe Joss Whedon penned those words for his cult hit TV series, medieval Icelanders were probably uttering something similar at the foot of Mount Hekla. Iceland’s second-most-active volcano was believed to be the literal entrance to hell where the souls of the condemned traveled on their way to eternal damnation. This cheery belief left the 5,000-foot-high mountain unclimbed until the middle of the 18th century.
Mount Hekla still displays devilish tendencies today, erupting about once every 10 years (most recently in 2000). Superstition aside, though, the volcano can be climbed in about eight hours. The Icelandic Hiking Association organizes a “night time” group hike every year on the summer solstice (usually around June 21), the longest day of the year. In the winter months when the view is at its most spectacular, travelers can climb the slopes in a snowcat for about $75, and warm their lunches from the volcanic heat just beneath the surface.
In the summer months, buses arrive daily from Reykjavik to the nearby hot springs area of Landmannalaugar. About 45 minutes from Hekla is the town of Geysir and the versatile Hotel Geysir, which offers both luxury and budget accommodation options. If you’re interested in planning a trip, the Iceland Tourist Board is another good source of ideas for activities across the island.
There are countless other offbeat destinations besides Mount Hekla and our other picks—far more than we have space to list here. Because the best roads to adventure often lead to those undiscovered spots, we encourage you to get out there and explore for yourself. And say hello if you happen to see us on the trail, too.
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