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Often, travel experiences can go beyond words. But once in a while, they cross into territory beyond comprehension…into the surreal.

“Life can be pretty surreal at times. And travel is no exception to the rule,” write Dave and Deb, the bloggers behind The Planet D.

In recent post, they chronicle a few of their most surreal travel experiences.

We seem to have some of our strangest experiences when we are on the road. Some of them are completely out of our control and we just have to hang on and enjoy the ride. While others have been completely our own doing. A momentary lapse of reason if you will. Either way, they make for some fun stories around the campfire.

Which got me thinking…

Without a doubt, the most surreal travel experience I had involved snow, hot springs, and 3 mailboxes out in the middle of the desert, no houses in sight.

It was mid-May, and we left at 5 o’clock rush hour east of San Francisco, heading up highway 80 towards Lake Tahoe. Hot air came in through the cracked window as we sat in traffic, but I simply relaxed in the passenger seat.

A friend had led this trip many times before, so for once, I was able to completely let go of the reigns and just sit back and enjoy.

Due to a game of “let’s point out all the weird, dreamy stuff we see” (which is pretty easy to do once you start paying attention – pink buses, guy dressed in drag on the side of the road, etc.), several hours passed quickly, and I noticed the air change as we climbed into the Northern California mountains.

Snow And Heat

Suddenly, I noticed snowflakes falling lazily onto the windshield. I literally felt as if I had been transported to another part of the world.

I couldn’t believe the feeling of sitting in the middle of nowhere, the snow hitting my face as I warmed my body in the hot spring.

Then the darkness began to set in as we made our way past the brightly-lit casinos on the Nevada side of Tahoe, turning off the road onto a dirt path.

My friend drove the switchbacks through the small bushes and what resembled tumbleweed. I wondered, “How the hell does he know where we’re going?”

Abruptly, we came to a stop at the end of dirt path, and he said to me, “let’s go.”

Out of the rented four-wheeler (it was always his approach to rent, knowing some serious damage might happen to the car in the places we were going) we jumped, and in the dead of night, made our way to a tiny, hidden pool of hot water.

Did I mention it was still snowing? That quickly became the fastest I’ve ever stripped. But I couldn’t believe the feeling of sitting in the middle of nowhere, the snow hitting my face as I warmed my body in the hot spring.

After grabbing a hotel room that night, we headed south to Saline Valley, located right beside Death Valley in California. We had to make a stop by these incredible sand dunes, where the most insane wind I’ve ever experienced made our hike to the top and along the edges a bit scary (and sandy in the teeth), but hardly prepared me for where we would transpire just a couple of hours later.

Oasis In The Desert

Mail call / Photo: Bhaskar Banerji

My friend had often told me of this “oasis in the desert,” but I couldn’t believe it until I saw it.

In the middle of Saline Valley, a humongous desert landscape surrounded by mountains, were two natural hot springs with friggin’ palm trees and grass surrounding them.

Apparently, hippies had been trekking there since the 60s, and somehow planted grass in the middle of the desert, with volunteers keeping it up over the years.

Because it is so hard to get to, and there are no signs, only those who know-the-way make it there. Which made the existence of three lonely mailboxes (what the hell are those doing out there?) all the more bizarre.

On that short, two-day trip, I felt a spiritual connection to the Earth that I had never known before. But I also found myself wondering… was it all just a dream?

What is your most surreal travel experience? Share your stories below!

Culture + Religion


About The Author

Christine Garvin

Christine Garvin is a certified Nutrition Educator and holds a MA in Holistic Health Education. She is the founder/editor of Living Holistically...with a sense of humor and co-founder of Confronting Love. When she is not out traveling the world, she is busy writing, doing yoga, and performing hip-hop and bhangra. She also likes to pretend living in her hippie town of Fairfax, CA is like being on vacation.

  • Robert Payne

    Surreal and terrifying – Baja –

  • chris

    No ways thats pretty trippy.

    My most surreal travel experience. Hmm. It has to be in Mozambique, in a chapas (informal taxi), on my way up to Tofinho. We had been on the road about fourteen hours, the heat was like being in a furnace, and we stopped every village to bargain for water or cashew nuts while passengers got in and out of the taxi.

    At one stop this middle aged couple got on, and sat down next to me. The guys wife smiled at me, put her hand straight on my crotch, and started gabbling away in portuguese while her husband smiled and laughed and nodded at me. I didn’t know what the fuck was going on, whether this was going to start a fight, or she was messing with my head or what. I removed her hand, she kept feeling me up and giving me gap toothed grins, while my mate pissed himself laughing and her husband carried on chuckling. Thank goodness they got off at the next stop, about 20 minutes later. Still laugh when I think about it.

    • Christine Garvin

      Wowsa, Chris, that’s a good one! Or a slightly scary/pornographic one :)

  • Turner Wright

    It’s weird, but in the middle of random places in Japan I always had a strong sense of deja vu.

  • Dave and Deb

    Excellent! There is nothing like sitting in hot springs while it is snowing out. Up here in the North, many people’s out door hot tubs are busiest in the winter. I love it. I would also like to know who delivers that mail, and who is out there to receive it? I am wondering if it was for the hippie travelers to leave notes for each other back in the day. Just a thought. Thanks for the shout out. Dave and Deb

  • Lincoln

    Well, the most surreal travel experience I’ve had was riding in the crew cab of a small pick-up truck in the mountains of Ecuador. Fog had engulfed us, and “New York, New York” by Frank Sonatra was playing on the stereo.

  • Jessamyne

    A teenager I’d just met in a Puebla bus station telling me (in all seriousness) that he loved me!

    And toasting marshmallows by the lava on a live volcano hahaha. That was a strange moment.


  • Elisse J Goldstein

    Most surreal travel moments:
    Discovering what I’ve come to call the “fun toilets” of Korea & Japan w/adjustable hot & cold water sprays, hot-air blow dryers, etc…
    My best birthday dinner party Ever in KonTum, Vietnam, w/a gift of a bouquet of 49 red roses for my 49th birthday…
    Hanging out the back of a C-130 in Alaska and sketching a “drop” on my watercolor pad, as a US Coast Guard Artist…
    Having my watercolors actually crystalize and freeze while painting on the deck of a USCG icebreaker on the Hudson River off NY…
    Getting my body nibbled on by thousands of tiny “Dr. Fish” for about 5 glorious, surreal hours at a Waterpark in South Korea!
    Skiing in my bathing suit on the Zugspitz in Garmish-Partenkirchen, Germany in early April…
    The first 30 seconds of sheer, unadulterated terror when I went parasailing in Puerto Rico and the parachute started to take me up (after which it was Wonderful!)
    The 10 seconds of almost unimaginable terror (as in “OMG I could drown!) I had while diving with dolphins in Eilat, Israel (after whcih it was Wonderful!)

  • joshywashinton

    Loved this. Truly, my greatest most cathartic moments have been when the commonplace and banal slip under the door and what is left is pure mystery, pure surreal sweetness.

    Here’s to the wonderfully bizarre that keeps us going!

  • Wil from Spot Cool Travel

    My most surreal travel moment: Sitting at a Las Vegas bar with three people from a swingers convention, two cowboys, Mr & Mrs. Finland (who were in town for the Mrs. Universe pageant) and two people dressed as Klingons.

    The swingers were trying to get Mr. and Mrs. Finland to go join them in a hot tub, the cowboys were trying to get invited to the hot tub and the Kingons just got drunk and looked surly.

    • Christine Garvin

      Gotta admit, that’s a good one.

  • Powered by Tofu

    Taking public transportation in Morocco. Nowhere else have I seen sheep put in the luggage compartments and the suitcases on top of the bus in Chefchaouen and then holding a baby for several hours while her mother stood in the aisle, refusing to take our seats, but also refusing to take her baby back, until we finally arrived in Meknes. Very memorable!

  • Victoria Fenner

    Travelling north of the Arctic circle to the tiny Hamlet of Cambridge Bay (pop 1600) in Nunavut, finding a Pizza Hut and a KFC. And a fundraiser where a local daycare was selling naked Big Macs .. flown in from Yellowknife. Reheated, with no lettuce, tomato or special sauce .. you can hear about it on my podcast — search for The Roaming Ear on Itunes

  • Kristi Boes

    Mine has to be coming back to my hometown after not seeing it for three years. Just the feeling of a drive that was both so familiar and strange is something I’ll never forget.

  • Dave

    my most surreal experience was boarding an Air Asia plane to Phuket from Bangkok, and sat next to members of the North Korean football team. With their ‘minder’ several rows in front, they whispered questions in broken english and we talked about football in europe. i bought the guy players a Pepsi, and then they asked to see my passport. When they saw the nationality – and my birthplace – New York City, they blanched: an imperialist had just bought them a drink… of them pulled out a 10,000 north korean won note to ‘pay’ (totally worthless outside North Korea) and slipped it in my shirt pocket. the other player began to berate him in Korean, and then reached over, took the 10,000 note out of my pocket and said, ‘im sorry, Kim Il SUng, he is our father,’ and he put the note back in his friends hand. When we landed, i gave them my business card, but they looked at the email and phone, and shrugged – they didnt have one to give. We shook hands and parted ways. I often wonder how they are doing.

  • Carlo Alcos

    As far as nature goes, Cirque du Gavarnie in the French Pyranees is up there, in the sense of just feeling in awe and feeling insignificant, and being frozen by the beauty.

    In Mongolia in the dark we stopped to help another van that was stuck in a pool of shallow water. The family and/or friends were huddled in the back of the van, with a lit fire in the back. They would chuck out burning embers once in a while. From our van, that view across to them in the night, with the glowing embers flying out the back was very strange. Taking into account the context of it all, surrounded by nothingness.

    Last one. On a bus in China’s Yunnan province they were showing a movie. The scene kept flicking back and forth between China and Vancouver, where part of the movie family was living…and where we’re from. Having been gone about 7 months, it was funny to see that. Not sure if that was surreal, but a funny coincidence at least.

  • david miller

    I guess for me it would be sneaking away from mandatory sleep-area in Santa Elena cloudforest preserve in Costa Rica. Waited for the park ranger to go to bed, then nighhiked through the cloudforest and set up a bivouac at the top of an 80 foot observation platform. Huge lightning storms moved in. If the the tower started buzzing or my hair started going all static-y, I was ready to scramble down. But it didn’t. It was like there was lightning all around, storms on all sides, and then straight overhead, stars. After awhile there we these new lights–lightning bugs. They started flashing everywhere through the forest canopy below. So you had total starts, total lightning, and then total lightning bugs. After a while I fell asleep, still wondering when the rain would come, and then about 2 or three hours later I woke up and it was still lightning, stars, and lightning bugs, only across the cloudforest, on the horizon, was this new light I’d never seen before: the volcano Arenal erupting.

    • Christine Garvin

      Ok, David. You win. That’s pretty damn cool, and you told the story perfectly, you writer, you.

      • david miller

        haha, gracias. what do i win exactly?

  • Andrea

    My most surreal travel memory was being invited to a bembe in a barrio of Santiago, Cuba to celebrate the saints day of San Lazaro or Babaluyaye. My host took me to a tiny house and before the ceremony Mel Brook’s Blazing Saddle was on their 14″ TV. Soon the house was packed with drummers and neighbors, priests and priestesses. One priestess was possessed by the saint and decided to bless the heads of the homeowners with fruit. For some reason, I was also especially included. I danced and sang the rest of the night shoulder to shoulder with the swaying, chanting, drumming crowd with tropical fruit in my hair.

  • Vera Marie Badertscher

    Various surreal moments are battling in my brain, “Pick me!” “Pick me!”

    Okay–South Island New Zealand. Walking down the trail on the edge of a glacier, with tropical rain forest on the other side of the trail. (Not to mention their one-way railroad bridges that roads run over also)

  • GG

    I think hitching and sleeping rough often invite the surreal.

    A couple of mine from my first travel were sitting on the banks of the Seine outside the Louvre after sleeping on its edge the night before when some motorcyclists whizzed past; I looked around and Madonna was jogging. She played the most highly attended European concert at that time in the night.

    Later in the trip I was hitching from Thesslaonika to Athens in Greece and got picked up by a German geologist who had already picked up a Greek hitcher. A few miles later we broke down on a long desertish highway, and the geologist went off to find help. He got a guy to come and tow us, and the Greek hitcher and I got in the back of a pick-up. We passed another couple of hitchers down the road, and just shrugged our arms and smiled when they looked at us with amusement.

  • Ryan

    My trip to a remote waterfall in Thailand that proved to be more interesting to travel TO than actually see (and that’s not so say the sight itself wasn’t spectacular). After an unsuccessful search for the bus station in a small border town, I was aided by a helpful Thai (as so many of them are) and driven to a spot on the side of the road where a sawngthiaw–pickup truck with benches in the bed–waited on the side of the road. No wonder the ‘bus station’ had been so elusive!
    I was soon joined by one of the most diverse groups of passengers I had ever encountered. On my right sat an elderly couple on their way to their farm, lugging huge sacks of produce and clothes. To my left, a Burmese mother and her son of about 30 years lasted only until the first police checkpoint, where they were detained for not having any identification. A few locals ended up taking their seats and laughing about the whole ordeal as if it was a common occurrence. Crammed into the space across from me was a blend of one hill tribe family, a few [legal] Burmese refugees and an elderly Ahka (hill tribe) lady who, I later came to find out, was so freaking happy the whole time because she was snorting a mysterious powder I decided was some form of opium. Others came and went, finding a comfortable stop on the roof with the luggage. To top off this motley crew, three armed Thai soldiers hopped on the back, using the extended rear bumper as a platform to stand.
    The highway, formerly nicknamed the “death highway” from a history of Thai-Burmese clashes, wound through the mountains with a plethora of switchbacks, dips and climbs. The drive was littered with breath-taking views…as well as breath-taking sharp curves! I can’t say for sure just how many languages were spoken between all of us, partially due to the fact that many of us were clinching our teeth and concentrating on keeping our breakfast down (some were not as successful as I was). Regardless, all that made the journey exchanged smiles and gasps throughout the four hour adventure.
    While many of us remained on board for the entire ride, some of the hill tribesmen were let off in seemingly random places…far from any sign of life as they disappeared into the mountainous jungle. The Myanmar nationals were brought to a massive refugee camp that as far as I can tell, only exists in my camera. Eventually, we arrived in the sleepy town of Umphang alive and dazed, going our separate ways and to never meet again…until now.
    I can’t say I exactly re-entered reality for the next part of the trip but that cliff-side drive will no doubt go down as one of the most bizarre and fantastic in-transit experiences I’ve undergone.
    ***Sorry to post such a long story but I really haven’t shared that story with anyone yet and I thought I’d write it down while it was still fresh in my mind! I hope you do not disapprove of my rambling!

    • Ian MacKenzie

      Thanks for sharing your story! Don’t worry about the length… sounds like an amazing experience. I had a few similar ones in Southeast Asia myself, but nothing quite as eclectic. Gotta love non-conventional forms of travel.

    • Christine Garvin

      No, Ryan, thanks for sharing! It was a great story, and I’m sure it’ll prompt some people’s stored memories of similar wild transport experiences in different parts of the world…

  • Kaitlin Mills

    Surreal was staring up at the pollution in Shanghai unable to see the stars, only the buildings lit up around us while we had a Chinese meal in an Australian resturant. Great article by the way.

  • Brian

    People who live around southern NJ and Philadelphia will understand this one…

    Here I am in China on my break from work for Chinese New Year. I fix it so I’ll be in Hong Kong over the holiday itself. And who do i meet right in the middle of downtown Kowloon?

    The Mummers of Philadelphia. (

    It turns out one of the guys went to my high school when I was 2 and another one lives near where I have more family. The world is a very small place…

  • Cornelia

    Surreal was taking the train to Berlin with my sister through what was then East Germany. We couldn’t figure out if the East German conductor was trying to extort money from us, or if we actually had to pay extra. We were in a compartment with a couple of Germans, and a Chinese guy. Although we looked German we couldn’t speak anything other than a couple of curses in German; luckily my sister was fluent in Mandarin, so she and the Chinese guy started chatting away. It sure weirded out the Germans though.

  • Rachael Taft

    Scariest and most surreal experience:

    Riding down the Amazon on a tiny boat in the middle of the night, where the only source of light is a flashlight the “captain” has–well, that and the lightning crashing around us. Oh, and there was one flickering lightbulb in the back of the boat. We were rocking all over the place and regularly getting the motor stuck in vegetation, turning a two hour ride into something much longer.

    The impenetrable darkness and violent storms around us were pretty frightening, but I knew it was time to be scared when all the locals on the boat pulled the life jackets from the roof and put them on, leaving enough for each of the rest of us to share with another person. My friend and I clung to the shared vest and just sat praying we wouldn’t die. If all that wasn’t enough, I had also been ill before we got on the boat, thrown up over side, and drank so much water to rehydrate myself that I ended up having to pee in a bottle so that I wouldn’t explode before we reached our seemingly impossible-to-reach destination. It’s definitely one of those experience that I look back on and think, “Wow, did that really happen?”

  • beth

    i went to london last halloween to see french and saunders and do some sightseeing/pub crawling. i used the underground to get places, and i knew that it’s taboo to talk to other people on the underground. i was trying to fit in and not be too touristy, but i had to use a tube map ’cause i’m not a native. i was studying my map trying to find out which was my stop when some people standing next to me asked me where i got my map in the the most beautiful upstate south carolina drawl… we talked for about 10 minutes about what wew were doing in london, where we were from, etc. turns out these people were from greenville, which is about 75 miles from my hometown, asheville,nc. i even went to the same university as this guy’s brother. and they were in town to see french and saunders too. talk about a small world….

  • http://N/A barbie mcmurray

    Mount pisgah N.C. we drove to to parking spot that takes you to the trail, 31/2 miles straight up, we ate wild blueberrys and drank water from small springs. it took forever to get to the plat form at the top, we layed down on the plat form and watched the tower swaying back and forth, the clouds were flowing right over us, and then we heard the slight sound of a motor, we stood up and looked around and there was a small piper cub flying below us! the blueberrys,the spring to drink from , the clouds covering us and the towering swaying was awesome but the airplane below us was surreal. none of this was planned on and that made it unable to forget, who would want to?

  • marissa

    now that sounds like something straight outta Fear and Loathing…
    Excellent :-D

  • Dani Good

    I am venezuelan and the first time I went to Costa Rica I went to visit Arenal. For me it was just amazing enjoying the natural hot springs in a night full of stars and the active volcano on my front erupting red hot rocks. You could see the volcano exploding little by little and continously, and hear the roar of the land. It was just amazing!

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