10 must-see natural phenomena around the world
From the tropical paradise of Cook Island to the rolling greenery of the Scottish Highlands, your travel bucket list is ever expanding. But we suggest you add a little wiggle room in your itinerary for some of these you-have-to-see-it-to-believe-it sites. Pink lakes, sherbet-colored mountains and glowing beaches—this planet is an amazing place. But make plans to see these wonders soon, before they disappear.
Great Blue Hole (Belize, City Belize)
If you couldn’t tell by its name, the Great Blue Hole is a giant underwater hole in the middle of Lighthouse Reef, 73 miles off the coast of Belize. Technically, it’s a sinkhole that formed as far back as 153,000 years ago, before sea levels were as high as they are today. After some glaciers danced around and melted, oceans rose and filled in the hole. The near-perfect circle is 1,043 feet in diameter and 407 feet deep, giving it a dark navy hue. Not only is the Great Blue Hole a World Heritage Site of UNESCO, but it was also one of Jacques Cousteau’s top diving spots, so you know it’s legit. You’ve got to be an expert scuba diver to actually go down into the hole, but snorkeling on its edges is allowed (and frankly offers more colorful scenes of fish and coral due to the sunlight). But, if you want the best view? Hop on a helicopter for a visually stunning flyover tour.
Salar De Uyuni (Potosí, Bolivia)
In the mood for something savory? How about 4,086 square miles of salt? That’s how big Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat, is. Located in southwest Bolivia, near the Andes Mountains, this bright white, flat expanse looks like a desert but is actually a lake. Let us explain: Roughly 30,000 years ago, this area of South America was covered in a giant saltwater lake. When it evaporated, it left behind a thick, salty crust on the earth’s surface. Today, the flat produces salt and half the world’s lithium. During the rainy season (December through April), smaller surrounding lakes overflow and cover Salar De Uyuni in a thin, still layer of water that reflects the sky almost perfectly for a sublime optical illusion. If your goal is seeing as much of the flat as possible, head out during the drier season (May through November). Tours are available from starting points in both Chile and Bolivia. Just be sure to hydrate.
Mud Volcanoes (Azerbaijan)
Nestled between Eastern Europe and Western Asia is the Republic of Azerbaijan, home to hundreds of volcanoes that regularly spew goopy, gray mud. These short volcanoes (10 feet tall or so) dot the desert landscape throughout Gobustan National Park (another UNESCO World Heritage site) near the Caspian Sea. Since eruptions are caused by gases escaping through the earth instead of magma, the mud tends to be cool or even cold to the touch. Don’t be afraid to join in if other visitors bathe in the mud, which has been used for skin and joint ailments and in pharmacology. Certainly not FDA-approved, but when in Azerbaijan, right?
Vaadhoo Island (Maldives)
After taking a dunk in Azerbaijan’s volcanic mud, we recommend bathing in glow-in-the-dark ocean water on the tiny tropical island Vaadhoo. Visitors can see the ocean shores light up at night due to tiny phytoplankton in the water. These bioluminescent buggers emit a bright light when the water around them hits oxygen (aka, waves hitting the beach) as a defense against predators. Lucky for us, this creates a naturally occurring liquid glitter we can swim in. Consistently ranked one of the top vacation spots in the world, the Maldives is also increasing in popularity because it’s sadly disappearing. About 100 of the 2,000 islands that make up the Maldives have eroded in recent years and water levels continue to chip away at many of them. Might be time to move this item up on your bucket list.
National Science Foundation/Peter Rejcek/Wikipedia
Blood Falls (Victoria Land, East Antarctica)
There are a bajillion beautiful waterfalls to see around the world before you die (or they dry up), but Blood Falls in east Antarctica is one of a kind for its blood-like, well, flow. Explorers discovered the red-hued river flowing off the Taylor Glacier in 1911, but it wasn’t until last year that we figured why exactly the water was red. Turns out, there’s iron in the water (from an underground lake) that oxidizes as it hits the air. It’s tricky to get to Antarctica, yes, but certainly worth the trip to see this five-story-tall phenomenon in person.
Lake Natron (Arusha, Tanzania)
If you’re dying to see naturally occurring red water but aren’t partial to Antarctica’s chill, Lake Natron in Tanzania is a hot option. Salty water, high alkalinity and shallow depths pretty much make Lake Natron a warm pool of brine only microorganisms could love—and love it they do. During photosynthesis, the lake’s microorganism population turns the water a bright reddish-orange. Since the lake is no fun for large African predators, the setting makes a perfect annual breeding ground for 2.5 million lesser flamingos, a species listed as “near threatened.” So get there quickly. And kiss a flamingo for us.
Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve (Michoacán, Mexico)
This entry on our list isn’t so much about a particular location as it is about what happens there. Every fall, monarch butterflies begin a 2,500-mile migration from Canada to Mexico. Over 100 million butterflies travel together, turning the skies orange and black, down through the U.S., before settling in central Mexico. Once they’ve reached hot spots like the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, about 62 miles outside Mexico City, they nest, essentially taking over every square inch they can find. Pine trees literally sag with the weight of hundreds of butterflies latching onto branches. Visiting in January and February is best, when the populations are highest right before the butterflies head north in March. Fun fact: The monarchs that make it back to Canada in spring are the great-great-grandchildren of the butterflies that lived it up in Mexico over the winter. Unfortunately, the monarch population has dwindled significantly in the past 20 years, due in part to shrinking milkweed availability, the monarch’s favorite food.
Jeju Volcanic Island and Lava Tubes (South Korea)
For spelunking enthusiasts, Jeju Island is a must-see. Located 80 miles off the southern tip of South Korea, the 1,147-square-foot island is essentially one big dormant volcano with hundreds of tinier volcanoes around it. Most notably, however, is the Geomunoreum Lava Tube System below Jeju’s surface. An enormous system of 200 underground tunnels and caves formed by lava flows between 100,000 to 300,000 years ago provide ample space to pretend you’re Lara Croft. Did we mention many of these caves have multiple levels? And there’s a lake underground, too? With some of the longest—and largest—caves in the world, it’s no surprise this is another UNESCO World Heritage Site on our list.
Ma Mingfei/Getty Images
Zhangye Danxia Landform Geological Park (Gansu, China)
There’s really no other way to describe these mountains than as orange sherbet rocks. The Zhangye Danxia Landform Geological Park is mile after mile of brightly colored, striped hillside made of sandstone and mineral deposits. Formed over millions of years as tectonic plates shifted and pushed underlying rock to the earth’s surface, this—you guessed it—UNESCO World Heritage Site is a lesson in both geology and art. Similar rainbow-colored mountains can be found in Peru, but this range in China’s northern Gansu province is easier to hike and offers equally stunning views of red, orange, green and yellow stone. Visit between July and September for optimal sunshine and light.
Federico Fioravanti/Getty Images
Cascate del Mulino (Saturnia, Italy)
Volcanic activity heats water below the earth’s surface, creating either boiling geysers or calm, steamy, natural hot tubs. We’ll take option #2. While there are many places to experience the soothing properties of hot springs (Blue Lagoon, Iceland; Khir Ganga, India; Champagne Pool, New Zealand), and we highly recommend you get to at least one in your lifetime, the Cascate del Mulino springs in Saturnia, Italy, caught our attention. Formed naturally by a sulphurous waterfall carving its way through rock, this sprawling landscape of pools clocks in at 98° F and is constantly flowing. The water is said to have healing properties thanks to sulfur and plankton swirling around. The best part? Cascate del Mulino is free to swim in and open 24/7. If you’re in the mood for a more upscale Tuscan hot springs vacay, stay at the Terme di Saturnia, a spa and hotel situated closer to the hot springs’ source.
Canada's largest city spreads out along the northwestern shore of Lake Ontario, and it's a dynamic, multicultural and inclusive experience like almost no other place on earth. Not only is Toronto a thriving living city,it's also become one of the world's truly must-visit destinations. Regularly ranked as one of the greatest places to live, Toronto is the cultural center of the country and home to the biggest events, the most pro sports and the greatest concentration of theaters and restaurants.
Recent decades have seen regular multi-million-dollar upgrades to the city's public spaces, with a slew of great museums, iconic architecture and the redevelopment of the now glittering lakefront adding to the city's appeal.
Add in an ever-growing number of world-class hotels, upbeat nightlife that runs from dusk until dawn and a vibrant and diverse culinary scene influenced by the eclectic makeup of the city's people. Bright and bustling, cosmopolitan and cultured, unpredictable and energetic, Toronto has become one of the greatest cities on earth.
What you see and where you go will depend on the length of your stay. A week is good, longer is better. But even a long weekend will give you a taste of 'The Six' — one of the city's many nicknames, reworked recently as 'The 6ix' by one of its most famous sons, Drake.
However long you stay, you can't hope to see it all. So, consider what follows a starting point for your first visit…
City Hall, Toronto
The checklist sites
No visit to The Six can be considered complete without ticking off several of Toronto's true heavyweight sights. All of the following are in or within easy reach of the city's compact, walk-able and very vibrant center.
The CN Tower is unmissable in every sense, a vast freestanding spire that looks down upon the city and takes its place as one of the 'Seven Wonders of the Modern World'. Head up for the city's best 360-degree views, or get your heart racing on the EdgeWalk — a journey around the circumference of the tower's main pod, 116 stories high and tethered by a harness.
Back on solid ground, Ripley's Aquarium is almost right next door to the CN Tower and is home to 16,000 aquatic animals and the Dangerous Lagoon. A moving sidewalk that whisks you through a long tunnel surrounded by sharks and stingrays is guaranteed to make your heart race all over again.
Also close to the CN Tower is the Rogers Center, home to Canada's only baseball team, the Toronto Blue Jays. Visit on game day for the full experience, or take the stadium tour to go behind the scenes and through closed doors.
In a city of so many museums and galleries, the Royal Ontario Museum stands out. Not just because it's home to a world-class collection of 13 million artworks, cultural objects and natural history specimens, but as much because it hosts exciting Friday night events that include dance, drink and top DJs.
Two other must ticks include the Art Gallery of Ontario, which houses 95,000 works of art and is free for visitors under 25, and the Hockey Hall of Fame, which taps into Canada's national obsession in stunning depth.
Art Gallery of Ontario
Casa Loma is a must-visit Gothic castle in the heart of the city. North America's only castle is filled with artworks and treasures from Canada and beyond, but its big pull is the network of hidden tunnels to explore as they stretch out beneath the city.
Toronto's multi-cultural makeup is visible all across the city but reflected best in its remarkable culinary scene (see Where to eat and drink). The city's 'fresh and local' mantra is perfectly showcased at St. Lawrence Market, one of the world's greatest food experiences. Pay it a visit and grab a peameal bacon sandwich — a Canadian staple invented in Toronto and now considered the city's signature dish.
St. Lawrence Market
Afterwards, walk off the calories by wandering the historic cobblestone and car-free Distillery District. Once a vast whiskey distillery and an important spot during prohibition, historians mention that even Al Capone would visit the Distillery to load alcohol destined for the States . This iconic landmark now distils creativity within the 19th century buildings now home to hip restaurants, bars, independent boutique stores, galleries and theaters. Visit in December for the Toronto Christmas Market.
Finally, don't even think about returning home without having had a picture taken with your head poking through an 'O' of the multicolored, 3D Toronto sign at City Hall — the most Insta-worthy location in a city of so many. You'll need to head there early in the morning to avoid the crowds.
If you stay long enough, take a ferry and hop across to Toronto Islands, a chain of 15 small islands in Lake Ontario just south of the mainland. They're home to beaches, a theme park and a breathtaking view of the city's skyline and will very happily fill a full day of your stay.
The bucket list
You absolutely cannot leave Toronto without having witnessed the power of the Niagara Falls and its hypnotic mist up close. Trying to visit the Falls from the States is a trip on its own, but it's almost non-optional when you're less than two hours away in Toronto. Take the trip, buy the T-shirt and tick off one of the world's must-see sights.
Explore like a local
Away from the sleek, gleaming towers of downtown lie many of Toronto's less obvious but no less essential attractions. West Queen West is Toronto's hippest neighborhood and artistic heart, a one-mile strip of very chic galleries, stores, restaurants and boutique hotels. Kensington Market is a fantastically chaotic neighborhood and perhaps the best example of the city's famous multiculturalism. It's not a market as the name implies, but a collection of independent shops, vintage boutiques, art spaces, cafés, bars and restaurants from every corner of the globe.
The Bata Shoe Museum is one of the city's quirkiest collections, an unexpectedly fascinating exhibit that retraces the 4,500-year history of footwear. And as you wander the city, you can't fail to notice that Toronto's walls are alive with graffiti. Take a free 90-minute walking tour through the back alleys of Queen Street West and down Graffiti Alley to gain a better understanding of the city's street art scene. If you visit during the sunnier months, escape the hustle by heading just east of the center to High Park, the green heart of the city where forests, walking trails, picnic spots and even a zoo await you. Ideal to unwind after a long day of urban adventures.
When to go With the sun shining, May through October is a great time to visit, but the city is alive through all four seasons. The Spring and Autumn months are ideal as the humidity and visitor numbers are lighter, while Toronto comes alive through the colder months through a wide array of winter celebrations. One of the most spectacular is the Aurora Winter Festival, a six-week celebration that sees the Ontario Place, West Island transformed into four mystical worlds. Whichever season you choose, plan to stay for at least five nights to get a true flavor of the city.
Toronto skyline view
Where to stay To be at the heart of most of the attractions you'll want to see, aim for downtown. One of the best options is the Marriott City Center, not only because it's located right next to the CN Tower but also because it's attached to the iconic Rogers Center where the Toronto Blue Jays play and countless concerts and popular events are held.
Toronto Blue Jay stadium
Opt for a Stadium room and you'll look out onto the field. If you want to experience Toronto's non-stop nightlife, the Entertainment District is the place to be. If you're looking for a luxury experience, discover Canada's first St. Regis hotel in the heart of downtown.
Where to eat and drink Nowhere is Toronto's incredible diversity more evident than in its food scene — taste Toronto and you're tasting the world. The city is brimming with restaurants and cafés serving everything from high-end fine dining to comfort food from an informal neighborhood joint — plus every option imaginable in between.
For fine dining, consider Alo, Canis and Edulis. Book a table at Canoe, Lavelle, The One Eighty or 360 at the CN Tower and you're guaranteeing a view as spectacular as the food. Or experience the city's remarkable fusion food at DaiLo (French-Cantonese), El Catrin (Mexican-French) and the unexpected mashup of Rasta Pasta (Jamaican-Italian).
The above suggestions don't even scratch the surface of a food scene to rival any city on earth, with options to suit every taste and any budget.
How to get around Toronto is perfect to explore on foot or via a growing network of cycle routes. For a quicker journey, buy a Presto card to use the TTC, Toronto's subway, streetcar and bus system.
How to get there Fly into Toronto Pearson International Airport (YYZ) with United and you're around 15 miles west of the city center. The most comfortable route in is via the Union Pearson Express, which runs every 15 minutes and gets you downtown in 25 minutes ($13).The TTC is a cheaper option at under $5, but it can take an hour and a half and involves a number of transfers, while a taxi will take around 30 minutes and cost $45.
United flies to Toronto from numerous U.S. cities including our Hub city locations. Book your trip via united.com or by downloading the United app.
Around the web
Following the devastating wildfires in Australia and powerful earthquakes that shook Puerto Rico last week, we're taking action to make a global impact through our international partnerships as well as nonprofit organizations Afya Foundation and ADRA (Adventist Development and Relief Agency).
Helping Puerto Rico recover from earthquakes
Last week, Puerto Rico was hit with a 5.2 magnitude earthquake, following a 6.4 magnitude earthquake it experienced just days before. The island has been experiencing hundreds of smaller quakes during the past few weeks.
These earthquakes destroyed crucial infrastructure and left 4,000 people sleeping outside or in shelters after losing their homes. We've donated $50,000 to our partner charity organization Airlink and through them, we've helped transport disaster relief experts and medical supplies for residents, as well as tents and blankets for those who have lost their homes. Funding will go towards organizations within Airlink's partner network, which includes Habitat for Humanity, Mercy Corps and Americares, to help with relief efforts and long-term recovery.
Australian wildfire relief efforts
Our efforts to help Australia have inspired others to make their own positive impact. In addition to teaming up with Ellen DeGeneres to donate $250,000 and launching a fundraising campaign with GlobalGiving to benefit those impacted by the devastating wildfires in the country known for its open spaces and wildlife, our cargo team is helping to send more than 600 pounds of medical supplies to treat injured animals in the region.
Helping us send these supplies is the Afya Foundation, a New York-based nonprofit that seeks to improve global health by collecting surplus medical supplies and delivering them to parts of the world where they are most needed. Through Airlink, the Afya Foundation will send more than $18,000 worth of materials that will be used to treat animals injured in the Australian fires.
These medical supplies will fly to Melbourne (MEL) and delivered to The Rescue Collective. This Australian organization is currently focused on treating the massive population of wildlife, such as koalas, kangaroos, and birds, that have had their habitats destroyed by the recent wildfires. The supplies being sent include wound dressings, gloves, catheters, syringes and other items that are unused but would otherwise be disposed of.
By working together, we can continue to make a global impact and help those affected by natural disasters to rebuild and restore their lives
Australia needs our help as wildfires continue to devastate the continent that's beloved by locals and travelers alike. In times like these, the world gets a little smaller and we all have a responsibility to do what we can.
On Monday, The Ellen DeGeneres Show announced a campaign to raise $5 million to aid in relief efforts. When we heard about Ellen's effort, we immediately reached out to see how we could help.
Today, we're committing $250,000 toward Ellen's campaign so we can offer support now and help with rebuilding. For more on The Ellen DeGeneres Show efforts and to donate yourself, you can visit www.gofundme.com/f/ellenaustraliafund
We're also matching donations made to the Australian Wildfire Relief Fund, created by GlobalGiving's Disaster Recovery Network. This fund will support immediate relief efforts for people impacted by the fires in the form of emergency supplies like food, water and medicine. Funds will also go toward long-term recovery assistance, helping residents recover and rebuild. United will match up to $50,000 USD in donations, and MileagePlus® members who donate $50 or more will receive up to 1,000 award miles from United. Donate to GlobalGiving.
Please note: Donations made toward GlobalGiving's fund are only eligible for the MileagePlus miles match.
In addition to helping with fundraising, we're staying in touch with our employees and customers in Australia. Together, we'll help keep Australia a beautiful place to live and visit in the years to come.