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Glowing Termite Mounds of Emas National Park

Not only do they provide a home for up to several million termites; they’re also nesting sites for many birds.

Edson Vandeira/National Geographic RF

ALTO PARAISO DE GOIAS

These termite mounds can grow quite large, with diameters nearing 30.5 metres and towering heights of 5 m or more. Not only do they provide a home for up to several million termites; they’re also nesting sites for many birds and home to hundreds of glowing pyrophorus beetle larvae. At night, the termite mounds look like they’re wrapped in Christmas lights. While the adult beetles eat plants, the young are carnivorous and their lights are a lure. Unsuspecting insects will make their way toward the pretty lights, only to be seized for a meal by the hungry larvae.

The glowing mounds are best seen in the savannas during the summer, though they can be found in the jungles as well. The terrain can be quite rugged, but there are several private tour outfits who can guide you.

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Gocta Falls

COCACHIMBA, AMAZONAS

In May, 2005, a German economist named Stefan Ziemendorff went for a hike in the remote Utcabamba valley of Peru. In the distance, he spied what looked to be an impossibly tall two-tiered waterfall that hadn’t appeared before on any map. The following March, after returning with proper surveying equipment and measuring the falls at 771 kilometres, Ziemendorff held a press conference to announce that he had discovered the third tallest waterfall in the world. The rank of third-tallest has been hotly contested since then, but that’s not the only debate.

Like many of geography’s most heralded “discoveries,” Ziemendorff’s wasn’t news to everyone. While the waterfall may have been a total secret to the outside world, there were 200 residents in an isolated village called Cocachimba who not only knew all about it, but lived almost directly underneath it. As it turned out, the locals had good reason not to bring it up – they were afraid of it.

According to locals, once upon a time, a man named Gregorio told his wife that he was taking off for a short trip. Not realizing that his suspicious wife had decided to trail him through the forest, he made his way toward the base of Gocta. There, the wife caught Gregorio cavorting with a beautiful blond mermaid at the food of the falls and flew into a jealous rage. The frightened siren grabbed Gregorio and pulled him into the waterfall with her. He never reemerged and locals came to believe that anyone brave enough to hike to the falls was chancing a run-in with dangerous, supernatural forces.

According to town official, it took the safe return of dozens of tourists before the residents of Cocachimba shook their phobia of Gocta. The town has since come around to the benefits and beauty of the natural wonder that looms overhead.

Cocachima is five hours east of Trujillo. Resident guides are happy to take you on a hike to the falls.

Laguna del Diamante

Laguna del Diamante, at the foot of the Maipo volcano, on the border of Argentina and Chile in the high mountains of the Andes, at 3,300 meters above sea level.

EAQ/iStockphoto

SAN RAFAEL, MENDOZA

There are plenty of reasons why life should not exist at Laguna del Diamante. Located within one of the world’s largest calderas the lagoon is surrounded by sulfur-spewing vents. The hyper-alkaline lagoon is five times saltier than seawater and has levels of arsenic that are 20,000 times higher than the amount deemed safe for drinking by the EPA.

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Despite these inhospitable conditions, which mimic those of the early Earth, millions of bacteria known as “extremophiles” have managed to flourish. Scientists hope that the mysterious microorganisms can be used to discover new antioxidants or enzymes and may someday help to explain how life on Earth began.

The lake is four hours south of Mendoza, Argentina near the Chilean border. The road there is only passable from December to March. Four-wheel-drive tours depart from nearby San Rafael and Mendoza. Expect a bumpy ride.

Lencois Maranhenses National Park

The best time to visit the dunes of Lencois Maranhenses National Park in Brazil is May through September, when the rains have stopped and the lagoons are at their fullest.

Alamy

BARREIRINHAS, MARANHAO

Known as “the bedsheets of Maranhao,” Lencois Maranhenses is an area packed with sand dunes, 24.1 km inland from the Atlantic in northeast Brazil. During the rainy season, the valleys between the dunes fill with water, resulting in an odd sight: a desert full of blue and green lagoons. Look closely and you’ll see fish between the dunes, hatched from eggs transported from the sea by birds.

Entry to the park is via the town of Barreirinhas, about 4 hours east of Sao Luis. Tour buses depart daily from the Sao Luis Bus Terminal.

Salar de Uyuni

Salar de Uyuni was created after a lake dried up thousands of years ago.

AIZAR RALDES/AFP/Getty Images

UYUNI, POTOSI

Hotel Luna Salada is built almost entirely out of the most abundant local resource: salt. The walls are salt bricks held together with salt mortar. You can eat at a salt table, sleep on a salt bed, and watch the sun set over the stark white of the Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flat in the world.

Salar de Uyuni was created after a lake dried up thousands of years ago. It is a place where nothing seems to make sense. In the wet season, a thin layer of water turns the Salar de Uyuni into a mind-bending mirror, its 39,842 square km of white desert reflecting the sky and creating the illusion of infinity.

Fierce sun during the day gives way to freezing temperatures at night. (This can be a nuisance at Hotel Luna Salada, due to limited hot water, so bring warm clothing and ask at the front desk about showering times.) Giant cacti are the only form of vegetation, but pink flamingos gather by the thousands at nearby Laguna Colorada.

Uyuni, Bolivia is a 10-hour overnight bus ride from La Paz. Buses also leave from Sucre in the morning. They stop in Potosi and then go on to Uyuni, where they arrive in the late afternoon.

Semuc Champey

Semuc Champey national park in Guatemala.

Opla/iStockphoto

LANQUIN, ALTA VERAPAZ

Tucked away in the densely forested mountains of Alta Verapaz lies an idyllic limestone paradise. Virtually inaccessible to all but the heartiest four-wheel drive vehicles, the Semuc Champey natural monument boasts six stunning tiered turquoise pools and an extensive cave network, complete with underground waterfalls. The shockingly blue pools rest on top of a natural limestone bridge covering a portion of the Cahabon River.

If you choose to take a guided tour, you’ll start with an optional rope swing leap into the river before grabbing a candle and wading through a series of watery caves. The above-ground portion of the tour meanders through the forest before dropping guests at their final activity: a relaxing swim in the limestone pools.

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While it is possible to rent a car and drive on your own, the easiest and safest way to get to Semuc Champey is by booking a minibus through a travel agency in one of Guatemala’s larger cities. Minibuses will drop you off at Lanquin, the town closest to Semuc Champey, and from there you can either walk for about 2.5 hours or take a 4x4 pick-up truck taxi to the entrance of the falls.

Excerpted from Atlas Obscura, 2nd Edition by Joshua Foer, Dylan Thuras and Ella Morton (Workman). Copyright © 2019. Used with permission from the publisher.

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