Humanity’s love of travel list-making did not start with the internet age. The famous Seven Wonders of the Ancient World was considered a guidebook for the 1st and 2nd Century BCE tourist working their way around the Greek Empire. Unfortunately for modern travelers, those ancient wonders are gone (with the exception of the Pyramids at Giza). So we’ve gotten into the habit of creating new lists of the “Seven Wonders of the World.”
Because this is obviously going to be a hotly debated topic, and because we don’t want to make a definitive list of anything, the “Seven Wonders of the World” phenomenon has been split into tons of different categories. There are the “Seven Wonders of the Industrial World,” which include the Brooklyn Bridge and the London Sewer System; there are the “Seven Wonders of the Solar System,” which include the rings of Saturn and Olympus Mons on Mars (the tallest known mountain in the solar system); there are USA Today’s “New Seven Wonders,” which include the Internet and Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet.
My favorite lists, however, are those that rank the “Seven Natural Wonders of the World.” Like every other list, there’s no definitive agreement as to which ones are the wonders, but all that means for you as the traveler is there’s more you need to check off. So count up how many of these natural wonders of the world you’ve been to, and share your total in the comments!
The New7Wonders list
Back in 2000, the New7Wonders Foundation (apparently still on a millenium-induced high that made them think spaces between words were no longer relevant) decided to reboot the Seven Wonders concept so that the places on the list were actually still standing. The list was chosen via telephone poll, so it’s hardly scientific (as if there could be such a thing), but it was popular enough that they decided in 2007 to do it again for the “New7Wonders of Nature.” Here’s their final list:
The Amazon River and Rainforest
The Amazon rainforest covers 2,100,000 square miles, stretches out over 9 countries, and is the largest and most biodiverse forest in the world. One in ten known species in the world lives here, constituting the largest collection of living plants and animal species on the planet. As for the river, it’s the longest and the largest by discharge of water in the world — an average of about 7,400,000 cubic feet per second!
Jeju Island is a volcanic island and province of South Korea that sits to the south of the peninsula, between South Korea and Japan. The World Heritage Site Jeju Volcanic Island and Lava Tubes is here — it includes the Manjang cave, which with more than 5 miles long is one of the longest lava tunnels in the world. A small part of this cave is open for tourists.
Ha Long Bay
Ha Long Bay in northern Vietnam is a popular tourist destination thanks to its gorgeous limestone karsts and its floating fishing village. The landscape formed by its 1,600-2,000 islands and islets, most of them uninhabited, is just spectacular. Thanks to these unusual landforms, many of them still unaffected by a human presence, the area became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994.
The famous Iguazu Falls straddle the Iguazu River on the border between Argentina and Brazil. Their name, Iguazu, means in Guarani “big water”, and it seems appropriate — made of 275 waterfalls, they’re the largest waterfalls system in the world. The tallest of these waterfalls, where approximately half of the river’s flow falls into, is called the Devil’s Throat — a long, narrow, U-shaped chasm whose thunderous sound visitors never forget.
Puerto Princesa Underground River
The Puerto Princesa Underground River is on the Philippine Island of Palawan and leads into a cave that you can take boat tours through. It was impressive enough as it was but in 2010 a group of environmentalists discovered the river has a second floor, so there are small waterfalls inside the cave. As the river emerges directly into the sea, its lower portion is subject to tidal influences.
Komodo Island is part of the Indonesian Archipelago and is famous for being the home of the Komodo dragon. Its history also makes it a special place — its inhabitants (around 2,000) are said to be descendants of former convicts who were exiled to the island in the 19th century by a sultan in Sumbawa. Apart from marveling at the Komodo dragon, you can also visit the Pink Sand Beach, one of the world’s best destinations for snorkeling and diving.
Table Mountain is the famous landmark that towers over Cape Town, South Africa. There are some great views of the city from the top (accessible via hiking trail and cableway). Its main feature is the level plateau approximately 2 miles from side to side, edged by impressive cliffs. It’s also a cool place to practice some cloud watching — from afar –, as the plateau is often covered by the famous tablecloth clouds.
The CNN list
Though it pains me to give any credit to CNN whatsoever, this list sits a little bit better with me than the voter-influenced New7Wonders version — I can’t get behind a list that doesn’t include the Grand Canyon or the Great Barrier Reef. Again, this is by no means authoritative or scientific, but here’s the CNN list:
The Great Barrier Reef
Australia’s famous, gigantic barrier reef is sadly at risk of being destroyed by climate change, overfishing, and tourism — coral bleaching is more widespread than previously thought, and scientists have admitted this great wonder is at terminal stage. A sad end to the world’s biggest single structure made by living organisms.
The Grand Canyon
The famous, massive canyon cut by the Colorado River through Arizona is one of the few wonders that belongs on every iteration of this list. At 277 miles long, up to 18 miles wide and attaining a depth of over a mile, it’s not the longest nor the steepest canyon in the world, but its overall scale combined with the beautifully colored landscape make it a natural wonder. The Colorado River has been carving this canyon over the course of, according to several studies, 5 to 6 million years.
Harbor of Rio de Janeiro
Brazil’s most famous city fills in the spaces between the surrounding mountains and the ocean, making it one of the most beautiful cities on Earth. And above it all, it’s watched over by the Christ the Redeemer statue — one of the regularly cited manmade wonders of the world.
Its peak is 29,029 feet above sea level, or at least it was. Nepal’s earthquake in 2015 is believed to have clipped the mountain’s height, so India and Nepal are about to measure it afresh. For the sake of counting these, if you’ve seen Mount Everest (in the Himalayas on the border of Nepal and Tibet), you’ve been to it. You don’t have to have made it to the summit.
The aurora (aurora borealis or “Northern Lights” in the north, aurora australis in the south), is caused by the collision of solar winds with Earth’s magnetospheres, and can be viewed from pretty much anywhere within certain latitudes, depending on the visibility and severity of the geomagnetic storms.
Victoria Falls — on the Zambezi River between Zimbabwe and Zambia — are the largest waterfalls by volume in the world (5,604 ft wide and 354 ft high). Their local name in Tokaleya Tonga is Mosi-oa-Tunya, which literally means ‘the smoke that thunders’ and gives a perfect explanation of what you’ll feel if you get close to it.
The Paricutin Volcano gets on most lists just for the sheer bizarreness of its history. It was a cornfield in 1943, and then, in the span of a year, grew to a height of 1,102 feet. The villages around it are buried in lava, and only a belltower juts from the rock.
Again, the lists above are by no means definitive, and the world’s far too big and wonderful to limit the chosen wonders to seven. Also, there are some glaring omissions: No Yellowstone? No Sahara? Some of the listings feel more like the result of high-pressure tourism campaigns than the legitimate best things the natural world has to offer. So it’s worth our time to go into some of the ones that aren’t included in the finalist lists, but should be considered “wonders” anyway. Here they are, excluding the Great Barrier Reef and the Grand Canyon, which we’ve already covered:
Bu Tinah shoals
Bu Tinah, off the coast of Abu Dhabi, is a coral archipelago that is totally closed to the public. As such, it’s the one you’re the least likely to have been to on this list. Its thriving habitat is a unique living laboratory, of key significance for climate change research. This distinctive natural habitat with its shallow waters, seagrass beds, and tall mangroves, set amid extensive coral reefs, hosts rare and globally endangered marine life.
The Dead Sea
The Dead Sea, on the border of Jordan and Israel, is one of the saltiest bodies of water in the world. So salty that you can famously float in it, and that no macroscopic organisms can survive in it. It was one of the world’s first health resorts (for Herod the Great), and it has been the supplier of a wide variety of products, from asphalt for Egyptian mummification to potash for fertilizers. However, it’s receding at an alarming rate.
The Jeita Grotto is a series of caves in Lebanon that was inhabited in prehistoric times and is now a major cultural symbol of the nation. They were inhabited in Prehistoric times, but right now can only be visited by boat — they channel an underground river which provides drinking water to more than a million Lebanese.
Kilimanjaro is Africa’s tallest mountain, and — as it’s a dormant volcano — is the tallest free-standing mountain in the world. Since Hans Meyer and Ludwig Purtscheller reached its summit in 1889, it has remained a popular climbing destination. It has also been the subject of many scientific studies because of its shrinking glaciers.
Masurian Lake District
This well-connected system of lakes (with over 2,000) in Poland is a popular European vacation spot. Connected by rivers and canals, the lakes form an extensive system of waterway surrounded by large forests and historic towns. It’s a great destination if you like water sports like sailing or windsurfing, or other activities such as hiking, fishing or kayaking.
The Sundarbans — mostly in Bangladesh, though partially in India — is the world’s largest tidal mangrove forest, and is famous for being one of the largest Bengal Tiger reserves. A UNESCO World Heritage site since 1987, the Sundarbans covers 3,900 square miles and home to a wide range of wild fauna, including 260 bird species and other threatened species such as the estuarine crocodile and the Indian python.
Kudos to the Maldives for getting their entire country on the list. The Maldives are a series of coral atolls in the Indian Ocean, and, if climate change raises sea levels by even a little bit, they will no longer exist — the nation’s highest point is only 7 feet and 10 inches off the water (it’s the world’s lowest country). Its waters are home to several ecosystems, including a variety, 187 species, of vibrant coral reefs. This area of the Indian Ocean, alone, houses 1100 species of fish, 5 species of sea turtles, 21 species of whales and dolphins, 400 species of mollusks, and 83 species of echinoderms.
The world’s tallest uninterrupted waterfall (at 3,212 feet) is in the jungles of Venezuela. They were not known to the outside world until American aviator Jimmie Angel, following directions given by the explorer Fèlix Cardona who had seen the waterfall six years before, flew over them on 16 November 1933 on a flight. The falls are named after him.
Bay of Fundy
Canada’s Bay of Fundy is famous for having the highest tidal ranges in the world, with a maximum of an incredible 71 feet. It’s also a popular whale-watching destination — 12 species of whales, including the rare Right Whale, call the Bay of Fundy home each summer and fall.
The Black Forest
Germany’s famous Black Forest gets on this list for their ham alone. Dense and dark, the forest is home to the cuckoo clock, charming little towns, and fairytale castles. It’s also the place where Hansel and Gretel had their encounter with the witch and where Little Red Riding Hood was followed by the wolf.
The Cliffs of Moher
Western Ireland’s Cliffs of Moher are one of the country’s most popular tourist destinations.
El Yunque is the only tropical rainforest in the US National Forest System — find it just a short drive east of San Juan, Puerto Rico.
The Galapagos Islands
The Galapagos Islands are perhaps most famous for their biological diversity, which informed Charles Darwin’s groundbreaking theory of evolution by natural selection.
The Matterhorn, between Italy and Switzerland, is considered one of the most difficult mountains to climb in the world.
This sound on New Zealand’s South Island was called “the eighth wonder of the world” by Rudyard Kipling.
Mud volcanoes of Azerbaijan
Azerbaijan has the most mud volcanoes in the world. So they have that going for them, which is nice.
Australia’s Uluru (or “Ayer’s Rock”), is probably the continent’s most recognizable natural icon. You’re no doubt familiar with its form as seen from ground level, so enjoy the aerial shot above.
As impressive as the Italian volcano Vesuvius itself (near Naples) is its violent history, which included the destruction and burying of Pompeii in 79 AD.
Yushan is Taiwan’s tallest mountain, and is surrounded by a gorgeous national park. (via)
There are a few obvious choices which didn’t make any of the lists above, so I’m throwing them in myself. Hey, I’m the writer. I have that power.
Yellowstone obviously has to be on here. The Yellowstone Caldera and National Park feature some of the most stunning landscapes in the world. Pictured above is the Grand Prismatic Spring.
The Sahara Desert
The Sahara is the world’s hottest desert, and its largest behind the polar deserts. It spans 11 countries and an entire continent.
Salar de Uyuni
Bolivia’s salt flat (the world’s largest) is a favorite spot of travel photographers. It’s easy to see why.
Pando (“The Trembling Giant”) is a tree colony in Utah that is actually a single organism. It is both the heaviest thing living, at 6,600 tons, and is also possibly the oldest living organism, at 80,000 years old.
The Giant’s Causeway
The Giant’s Causeway is a group of basalt columns in Northern Ireland that are believed to be about 50 million years old.
The stunning sandstone pillars of Zhangjiajie’s Wulingyuan Scenic and Historic Interest Area looks like it belongs on Avatar’s Pandora rather than Earth.