For thousands of years, human beings have been mesmerized by the night sky. Ancient civilizations in the Middle East, Greece, Rome, and Mexico looked up to the stars (literally and figuratively) where gods resided. They gave birth to constellations with nomenclature while regarding the heavens as sacred and, essentially, discovered full life purpose in the great beyond. The night sky was honored in rituals, and, eventually, it guided sailors in navigation, determined harvesting, and was immortalized in mythology. As civilizations advanced, the science of the sky was truly appreciated thanks to pioneers like Galileo, who rooted observational astronomy into our world. But as the earth keeps spinning, the sky seems to fade. With modern civilization, the night sky has dramatically lost its significance, merely a backdrop in densely populated cities, an airspace for planes, an afterthought for dreamers.
In San Pedro de Atacama, however, the night sky is intoxicating. The off- the-radar desert town in northern Chile is one of the few places in the world where sky-loving travelers congregate for a spectacular display of the heavens at night, a reflection of how our beautiful planet still inspires. The sky here is the main attraction. It is so magnetic you’d think Mother Earth herself gave this remote part of the desert special attention. Due to San Pedro de Atacama’s high altitude and little light pollution, the stars are vivid, appearing so close you feel that you can reach out your hand and graze them with your fingertips. It’s this sort of allure that has inspired me to visit three times now, though it’s not the only place in the world that seduces me with awe-inspiring, man-to-nature connection, and it’s not strictly a star-spangled sky that mesmerizes.
Destinations all over the world are known for their ravishing landscapes and topography that have spellbound visitors for centuries. From the Grand Canyon to the Great Barrier Reef, staggering settings take our breaths away with life-changing, moving natural experiences. These places define a moment in time, giving us reason to trek across the globe to find peace, pulchritude, and absolute nirvana. And while beauty is in the eye of the beholder, journeys to stunning, natural places can be the ultimate answer for soul searchers, spurring profound moments of meditation, and connecting body, mind, and spirit.
While these places yield natural beauty so immense you can’t truly capture them on camera, visitors are simply awe-struck and inspired, taking a part of the destination with them. Some of the most mind- blowing places in the world are known strictly for geological phenomenon that encourage us to be better human beings, to appreciate nature, and to find ourselves on spiritual quests. Most important of all, these distinctive places are the history we don’t learn in school, the history that has survived longer than cultures, architecture, and even entire civilizations, truly testing time and rooting our world in wonder. Among the far-flung locations that have blown our minds with their untouched natural beauty, several visually stunning places have transformed our trips into personal journeys, filling us with wonder, clarity, and a deep appreciation for nature. For humankind, these are the unforgettable places that truly embody the best of our rare planet.
SAN PEDRO DE ATACAMA, CHILE
You may have heard of the Atacama Desert from a friend of a friend who knows a backpacker who thrives on centuries-old communities, unspoiled nature, and the thrill of exploring one of the remotest parts of the world. While the Atacama Desert is about 35 million years old, the desert has been inhabited for mere millenniums, in and around the small village of San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, which only has a population of 2,000. There’s one main street where locals sell handcrafted merchandise, adobe- style caves serve as watering holes, and desert excursions are offered from a handful of agencies (note: historical tours are engaging considering the Incan culture, Spanish rule, and native communities).
The aesthetics and commerce are minimal; nature is the main attraction in the bohemian-minded desert paradise. Due to Atacama’s high elevation (8,000 feet), most travelers start their activities easy with the picture-perfect Cejas Lagoons. Smack in the middle of sprawling desert, three small lakes glimmer like a mirage. They are so richly concentrated in salt, your body naturally floats, akin to the Dead Sea in the Middle East, so be sure to pack your selfie stick. It’s one of the most unique visuals Mother Nature never intended. For those who like to get high on sodium, there’s also the salt flats in Soncor, a remote attraction that is made up entirely of salt, and the sighting of flamingos that live here is as mystical as the destination.
Among the breathtaking attractions here, the night sky truly captures the allure of the Atacama. The largest telescope ever built is located here, and top astronomers have appointed San Pedro as having the clearest skies in the world. The harmonious blend of high altitude, no humidity, and virtually no light pollution contribute to the perfect setting for sky clarity. The stars at night are vibrant, commanding, and so brilliant you don’t need a telescope or binoculars to see southern hemisphere constellations. It’s so transcendent that you anticipate sunset. In fact, it’s common for travelers to simply lay out in any part of town, away from the dusty glow of street lamps (very few exist) and gaze at the stars for hours, which are not only enchanting to view, but a meditative moment to embrace.
There’s no other place in the world quite like Atacama, and, fortunately, for now, the skies will remain as clear as they have since Earth emerged in our solar system. Stay at Explora Atacama, deemed as the best in the desert. Among top accommodations, Explora is the Aman of South America, and all meals and activities are included. With their own observatory, planet and galaxy viewing is unrivaled, and the luxury hotel chain also owns the Puritama Hot Springs, bubbly springs that are refreshing and detoxifying. The guides are well versed in the area and escort you to some of the top attractions in addition to off-the-radar places few eyes have seen.
There’s something so special about Sedona, Arizona, that travelers visit and literally never leave. Many locals will also be quick to admit they were “called” to Sedona and made it their permanent home. This remote desert town cradled in a valley and surrounded by ancient red- rock buttes and canyon walls (and pretty much nothing else) is mind-numbingly scenic. More than 10,000 residents have surrendered the fast-paced life to call it home. Native Americans used to come here on pilgrimages, finding the city’s famed Red Rocks canyons sacred and meditative with regenerative and inspirational effects. Sedona gives off a charge that’s both enlightening and subtle, and it’s one of few places in the world with vortexes, which are really strong points of energy that some people say they can actually feel. These vortexes have an unexplainable positive affect physically, mentally, and emotionally. Whether influenced by mysticism, fate, or intuition, travelers continue to be mesmerized by Sedona’s hard-to-ignore magnetism. Whether soul searching on a spiritual quest or looking to heal and connect with nature, no one can deny this laid-back, New Age town truly has transformative qualities. With the inspiring vortex energy, Sedona has even garnered a reputation for healers and psychics who now reside here, like world-renowned psychic Claudia Coronado.
One can admire the dramatic red rocks from virtually anywhere in town, but to truly experience Sedona one must don their hiking boots and sashay to the 150 hiking trails that snake through the canyons. It’s here you’ll find the vortexes, and also discover awe-inspiring vistas. All trails are unique, and most are all-level friendly (though, due to the surrounding beauty, many hikers are compelled to take that extra step up a hill, through a crevice and climb peaks to capture the immensity of the ravishing desert landscape).
One of the most iconic hikes is at Cathedra Rock, incidentally home to a powerful vortex. The natural landmark rises significantly in Coconino National Forest with monoliths towering from the trail entrance, offering various levels, steep grades, and awesome, panoramic views from various vantage points. Visitors make the first ledge their happy spot, but ascend a little higher to the top and you’ll find panoramic views of the area’s geological formations and colorful layers that are both enormous and unforgettable. Should you want a guided hike, Trail Lover Excursions offers tours with young and enthusiastic guides who can take you to incredible vantage points that aren’t crowded with tourists.
Stay at L’Auberge de Sedona, unarguably the most luxurious boutique hotel in Sedona with 18 cliff villas that provide amazing views of the Red Rocks (you don’t have to go further than your balcony to wit- ness the views). The resort’s fine dining, French-American restaurant along the creek is the desert town’s most prominent place for a roman- tic bite with a stunning backdrop.