If you're looking for an atypical vacation in a non-traditional location, these five places are among the most beautiful in the world:
1. Nagorno Karabakh
Photo Credit: Hrair Hawk Khatcerian
If you're looking for an adventure through largely unknown territory, Nagorno Karabakh, a landlocked autonomous region between Armenia and Azerbaijan, is the place to go. A country recognized by no one, it's the kind of place that's so contested that not only does it not have an embassy anywhere, but its "Office of Permanent Representation" in Armenia doesn't even ask if you want your visa pasted into your passport. They know you don't, so they just attach it with a paper clip.
Once you make it to Karabakh (which is only accessible through Armenia), stay at the recently built Armenia Hotel in the capital, Stepanakert, and use the city as your base to explore the region.
Feast on shish kebob and grilled vegetables. Go to the local market where an old Armenian woman will fry you a piece of jengyalov hatz, a bread stuffed with 13 types of herbs, on a burning hot griddle.
While in Stepanakert, visit the Museum of Fallen Soldiers, where the walls are lined with photographs of the Armenians who died during the 1990-1994 war with Azerbaijan.
Don't miss the Gandzasar Monastery, meaning "hilltop treasure," built in the 10th century. Visit at night when the lighting gives this ancient church a ghostly presence.
To explore the countryside, use the Janapar hiking trail, which will take you through snow-topped mountains and fields of yellow and red flowers.
"Karabakh and Armenia have always had footpaths used by natives to get from one village to the next, to monasteries and to trade routes," said Raffi Kojian, who designed the trail in 2007. "Shepherds have created a network as well, to graze the animals. The Janapar is a weaving of these many paths to form one long route for visitors who want to experience some of the best Karabakh has to offer. Hikers will meet lots of helpful and curious locals along the route, and no doubt experience some of the legendary hospitality."
The trail is designed to end at a different village each night, so you can easily plan accommodations. If you're staying with a local, don't be surprised if you're offered homemade mulberry vodka with breakfast. Drink up.
2. Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Every February, the beat of the samba drum spreads through the streets and beaches of Rio de Janeiro like a disease, infecting all those who flock to the city for the festivities with the spirit of Carnival.
Wings made of brightly-colored feathers glitter on the backs of women wearing little more than jeweled bikinis. Bronze men in lipstick and coconut bras down cans of ice-cold beer, called cerveja. Tourists look on in amazement, stunned to see the biggest street party in the world sprawled out in front of them.
Samba, which was born in the favelas, is now danced by all classes during Carnival, from the ballroom of the Copacabana Palace to the streets of the slums.
Members of Rio’s six best samba schools practice for months to compete in the Samba Parade, one of the highlights of the festival. Each school, made up of between 3,000 and 5,000 people, has 75 minutes to dance, sing their theme song, and impress the judges and millions of viewers with intricate costumes and floats.
The schools that don’t qualify for the competition take to the streets, performing in block parties, called blocos. During Carnival, hundreds of blocos take place in Rio, effectively shutting down the city.
Costumed strangers press up against each other in the crowded streets. Beach volleyball and pick-up soccer games make way for groups that parade down the beach. No one seems to tire.
3. Atacama Desert, Chile
The Atacama Desert in northern Chile may be one of the most inhospitable places on Earth. "You would have to be mad to live here," said Fiona Martin of the Tierra Atacama, a hotel in the area.
Climatologists call it the driest place in the world, and some areas have not seen rainfall in recorded history. But the sights the region has to offer more than make up for having chapped lips and dry skin.
The town of San Pedro de Atacama is a stepping stone to the vast desert that surrounds it. The dusty streets are lined with day-trip operators who will take you to any of the area's spectacular sights. Go east to the Bolivian border, where you can climb the snow-capped Licancabur Volcano. South is the Salar de Atacama, the largest salt flat in Chile and the second largest in the world, where pink flamingoes graze in clear blue lagoons against a backdrop of volcanoes and the Andes Mountains. Go north to El Tatio, a field of more than 80 active geysers that erupt up to six meters high. Or turn west to walk through the 23-million-year-old rock formations in the Valley of Death (Valle de la Muerte) and the Valley of the Moon (Valle de la Luna), where it's so quiet you can hear the salt crack from the heat.
4. Luang Prabang, Laos
Skip Laos' capital, Vientiane, and head to Luang Prabang, a city set at the confluence of the Mekong and Khan rivers. The quaint city has a laid-back charm and tranquility that exudes Laos' motto: Please Don't Rush. A designated World Heritage Site, the city is filled with golden Buddhist temples and colonial mansions that date back to the French rule. If you're up early enough, you'll see monks in orange robes walking down the main thoroughfare, collecting alms of rice or fruit from townspeople.
A short tuk tuk drive away from Luang Prabang is the Kouang Si Falls, a multi-level waterfall, beginning with a 60-meter waterfall and spilling through several pools below. For a $2 entrance fee, you can feel like a kid again, taking dips in picturesque gem-colored pools, sliding down smooth rocks, jumping off waterfalls, or climbing a tree and rope swinging into the water.
In the evening, head to the night market on Sisavangvong Road, where you can find painted paper umbrellas and lanterns, colorful handbags made by local tribes, handmade silver jewelry, and, of course, spice-filled Lao street food. This market may be one of the only places in Asia where you're not hassled.
5. Cuba (Reporting provided by Whitney Sher)
If you don’t plan on working for the U.S. government or care to abide by the U.S economic embargo, Cuba is where you should plan your next trip. It will not be your typical Caribbean beach vacation or touristy activities-laden trip but a more cultural and historical (i.e. communist) experience.
To get there, you can fly using any non-American airline carrier via Canada or Mexico on any passport to Havana. Get your tourist visa ahead of time from the Cuban Consulate (in person in Washington, DC or by mail). Stay at a casa particular every night. Like most things in Cuba, this B&B style housing is highly regulated by the government. You’ll get to stay with local families renting out an extra bedroom and consume delicious eggs, toast, fresh milk and fruit, and freshly ground coffee for breakfast.
Spend a day or two in Havana walking around this old cobblestoned city and drink guarapo (freshly pressed cane juice) in the heat of the afternoon, visit Ernest Hemingway’s old haunts for a real Havana Club rum and coke, see the rations bodegas, eat ropa vieja (shredded beef simmered in tomato sauce) for dinner, and have ice cream, communist-style, at Coppelia’s.
Make sure to get your hand on some local currency, pesos nacionales, instead of the tourist currency, the CUC or “convertible,” for a more authentic use of your money. You’ll be able to buy the most delicious fresh guava, mango, and papaya smoothies and street food.
Rent a car that comes with an almost-empty tank – to be returned as empty as you wish – and pick up locals along the deserted highway to have great friendly conversations during your drive. Go to Viñales, a town famous for its wooden porches and rocking chairs, its huge caves, and great luscious hiking landscape. On your way to Viñales, visit the Orquideario de Soroa, the largest orchid gardens in the world.
Next, spend the day driving to Trinidad, famous for its Spanish colonial architecture and beaches. Go snorkeling during the day in the Casilda Bay or diving around sunken ships and salsa dance the night away in the street to ever-present live music.