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10 Gap Year Locations You Didn’t Know Existed

Written by Jenny McWhirter on 07 / 01 / 2016

Gap Year Advice

The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page...

With Christmas over and the beginning of the year promising rain, rain and a little more rain. I imagine, like me, you are desperately trying to pull those travel plans together to give yourself something to look forward to...

You’ve seen the Inbetweeners 2 movie and you’ve heard all your friends brag about their trip around Southeast Asia or their latest escapade whilst inter-railing in Europe. As I sit here in the airport between flight departures for our volunteers the departures board lists the same old destinations.

How about this year you head out somewhere different, you experience those scenes from the movies that no one can believe actually exist? These are hard to find but luckily for you, I’ve managed to put together a list of 10 off-the-beaten-track Gap Year locations to explore.

#1 Tianzi Mountains, China

Whilst South-East Asia gets all the attention China is somewhat neglected on the backpacker trail. However, in a quest to find some amazing destinations I have unearthed a true cinema set.

As you step off the bus that has ended its journey in the Tianzi Mountain region you walk into James Cameron’s Avatar. No, not everyone is blue and fighting evil. Instead, the setting with its gorgeous stone pillars that look as if they’ve been purposefully placed around the landscape, couldn’t be closer to the film set used by Cameron himself.

Formed underwater almost 380 million years ago the movement of the water and its removal left resilient pillars standing up to 4000 feet above sea level providing the ideal stepping stone for panoramic views. A true travel photographer’s dream.

Feel a day just wouldn’t be enough? A lovely stay at the Jinhua hostel would only set you back £23 and situates you in the centre of the region.

#2 Salar de Uyuni, Bolvia

Somewhat more on the traveller’s trail but a destination it is almost impossible to believe exists. This brilliantly named location is the world’s largest salt flat. Covering 10,582 km2 it is located in Potosi and Oruro in Bolivia.

It is a renowned breeding ground for pink flamingos and a visit in the summer months is a true spectacle with a blur of pink covering the beautiful majestic salt flats. As you wander the beautiful, endless white wonderland you will realise you are in the best spot for a great selfie.

The salt flats around you act like a giant mirror and therefore there are endless angles to reflect you, it’s one that is sure to make your Facebook cover.

#3 Tunnel of Love, Ukraine

A return to a destination often not associated with gap years but has a hidden gem worth exploring. Tucked away in the North-West corner of Ukraine lies 3 kilometres of railway that is nicknamed by the locals the ‘tunnel of love’.

It attracts couples and travellers alike, fascinated and enchanted by this charming railway that is covered 360o with lush green trees. Amazingly trains still run over the railway track three times a day to deliver food to a factory located on the other side of the tunnel.

It’s well worth heading onto the tracks for a stroll under the trees. It is rumored that if you make a wish under the tunnel it will come true…could 2016 change under the spell of the tunnel of love?

#4 Pamukkale, Turkey

Having watched the above video you are probably wondering why in early January I am putting up a snow and ice covered landscape; you want winter sun, yes? Well whilst this landscape looks as though it is covered in ice it is in fact located in Turkey and is a layer of calcium carbonate.

The calcium carbonate is left behind by the water from the area’s hot springs that flow over the area. This guarantees you a unique location as it is constantly being formed and reformed as the water flows over it.

Whilst this video shows you this beautiful landscape you will be treated to your very own version of the landscape when you head out to Turkey.

#5 Zhengye Danxia Landform, China

Remember that book that you had in year 2 or 3 where the girl steps into the painting in the museum? Now I don’t know about you but it was always my dream to be able to step into a painting like that young girl and have a wander around.

There is good news out there. This amazing landform again based in China is exactly like stepping into a mountain painting. The stunning colourful steep cliffs see an array of different hues. This amazing formation was formed around 6 million years ago and is a result of the movement of the earth’s crust – don’t ask me to explain how that works!

Alongside these stunning mountains sit rivers that flow through the valleys offering magnificent views. Just across the way you will catch a glimpse of outcrops of rocks that resemble specific and interesting shapes; castles, cones, birds, humans and beasts to name but a few.

Want to explore this geology haven? There are a range of different places to stay for varying prices depending how close to the park you wish to be.

#6 Venezuela

Don’t panic I know I have just told you that one ‘place’ on my list is a country. But seriously this country is awesome and in my humble opinion extremely underrated.

Boasting amazing sand dunes and more national parks than you can count on one hand there is an opportunity for everyone’s taste. From seeing the highest table top mountain, Mount Roraima, which has a permanent cloud ring around it, to bathing pools and wild dolphin shows, you won’t be bored.

If none if these offerings grab your attention perhaps the idea of perpetual lightening but without the nasty thunder clap would have you intrigued. A visit to Lake Maracaibo allows you to see this natural phenomenon with your very own eyes.

Still not fully convinced? Head out to an aptly named island Margarita Island that offers two very different sides. The east renowned for its beaches, bars and nightlife whilst the West is a paradise of arid mountains, mangrove swamps and lagoons, home to sea horses and turtles.

#7 Iceland

Yes I’ve done it again, there’s a whole country. It’s been growing in popularity and if you like all things natural it’s definitely a must-visit. It can be easily combined with a trip to the States as Icelandair offer a free 7 day stop over on flights from the UK to the US, which makes the journey a little cheaper – 2 for 1.

The wonders it offers are endless, from Maelifell an unusual but beautiful volcano covered in bright green moss and surrounded by glacial rivers, to Gulfoss waterfall that you can read all about in my waterfall post from last year.

One of the most amazing and fairytale-like site is the ice cave Vatnajokull which showers you in blue light as you enter and its interior resembles that of jewelled walls. It is an intriguing place although not to be ventured into during the summer months as the melts can cause it to become destabilized.

I’d suggest either hiring a car or organizing a number of coach tours to navigate Iceland as it is not the most populous island and requires some distances driving to reach these enchanted offerings.

#8 Lake Retba, Senegal

Ever dreamed of swimming in a big lake of strawberry milk? Well maybe not but now I’ve mentioned it you’re contemplating whether it sounds like the best idea. Well it is possible to have this become a reality.

A visit to Lake Retba, also known as Lace Rose (pink lake) can provide just this. It’s pink colour, which gives the lake its name, is produced by algae in the water. However, the good news is that this is not poisonous or dangerous to humans therefore you can definitely have a dip.

Better still the high content of salt found in the lake means it acts like a floatation tank which allows you to easily float, a bit like that found in the Dead Sea. As you float and you drift away, your surroundings just add to the serene and secluded atmosphere through the lake’s location in a narrow corridor of dunes. This truly is a paradise not to be missed.

#9 Viñales Valley, Cuba

This serene valley with its striking landscapes and remote, lost-world quality is a must see now that Cuba has opened its borders to tourism. An array of mogotes (boulder-like hills that look like they’ve been dropped from the sky onto the valley floor) scatter the valley and give it a very out-of-this-world feeling.

It’s also an awesome destination for those solo travelers, with laid back locals and a non-touristy feel to the place it’s the ideal place to meet some locals, enjoy the culture and attracts a lot of single travelers so you’re bound to meet some buddies to go exploring with.

If you haven’t got much time I suggest you head to San Vicente, a valley within the valley that shows the best the whole area has to offer. However, if you have a little more time it’s worth heading out to Valle Ancon to truly get off the beaten track and explore this valley to see its full potential.

Why not head out to this valley on a weekend whilst you learn to salsa and speak Spanish on our Cuban 6 week programme?

#10 Socotra, Yemen

Now last, but by no means least, is the intriguing 4-island archipelago of Socotra. Imagine a science fiction movie bought to life and you start to get an understanding of your surroundings on Socotra. I mean even the name sounds as though it belongs more in a sci-fi movie than our world.

It boasts to be the most isolated place in the world and truly is one of a kind. It is renowned for its unusual shaped plants and biodiversity. A whopping 307 species of plant resides only on this archipelago and nowhere else.

Its mysterious charm and air of mythology will leave you wanting more!

From the Weird to the Wonderful

So there we have it, a grand 10 different destinations that are bound to get you talking and thinking of all the possibilities the world has to offer. At no other time is the saying ‘the world is your oyster’ more poignant.

Have you found some truly fantastical places? Or maybe you’ve got some images of a place that just doesn’t look real? We’d love to hear about it and so would the other travellers out there. Get in touch.

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