When you're crafting the setting of your fantasy opus, it's tempting to layer on impossibilities like islands floating in the sky and huge arboreal elf cities. It turns out the world we live in is full of fantastical settings and bizarre natural formations aplenty. Want to ground your fantasy world in reality? Check out these ten real-world fantastic places.
Phi Phi Islands, Thailand.
Most of these islands are little more than rocky spires jutting out of the ocean (photo, above), but with the vivid blue-green waters and dense tropical vegetation, they're a perfect example of an exotic tropical locale. It's easy to imagine them riddled with hidden caves filled with strange creatures, or hiding temple complexes populated by bizarre cults devoted to the glories of their alien sea gods.
Nyiragongo Crater, Congo.
Mount Nyiragongo is a steep-sided volcano in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Within the crater is a lava lake constantly roiling and churning, filling the night sky with an eerie red glow. As the only steep-sided volcano is the world with such a lava lake, Nyiragongo crater is literally unique. It exacts a harsh toll on the villages and cities nearby, both from the eruptions of lava and poisonous gases and other deadly forms of seismic activity. It would make a nice home for a red dragon, a demon, or an entire host of angry fire elementals.
Berry Head Arch, Newfoundland.
There are stranger, more spectacular places in the world, but this natural rock arch in Newfoundland has that certain Game of Thrones ruggedness about it. It is pretty impressive to see a rock arch so large that a grove of trees has grown atop it. Use it as a landmark location in your fantasy world. Better yet, set a major battle scene on top of it. Wizard vs. demon? Starks vs. Lannisters?
Water flows from hot springs and deposits calcium carbonate in large terraces. The calcium carbonate gives Pamukkale it's striking white appearance, and on clear days the reflection of the sky makes the water look a stunning blue. As a result, it looks like an enchanted ice palace, even though the temperature is quite comfortable. Bonus: the necropolis at Hierapolis is not far away. If you can't think of a good use for a massive site filled with ancient tombs and sarcophagi, why are you writing fantasy?
Tanah Lot, Bali.
Pura Tanah Lot is a temple located on a rock formation jutting from the island of Bali. It's a physically impressive location – in silhouette, it looks like a magical ship from certain angles. An isolated temple only accessible via a narrow spit of rock would be a nice place for a pilgrimage, but the legends about Tanah Lot make it even more interesting. It was supposedly designated a holy site by a 15th century Hindu priest, and is said to be guarded by a giant snake created from the priest's scarf.
Tianzi Mountains, China.
These mountains have been carved into towering spires hundreds of meters high, dappled with lush vegetation. The surrounding land is covered with thick, primeval forests. The Tianzi Mountains don't seem to be real – you could put a photo of them on a fantasy novel cover and no one would bat an eye. What could you put here? An ancient temple? A sorcerer's tower? The lair of a long-forgotten beast? The resting place of a sleeping god?
Hamilton Pool, Texas.
If an order of druids goes on a vengeance spree against civilization when their sacred grove is despoiled, it better be a damn fine grove, right? Try this place, a gorgeous natural pool filled with luminous green water, capped by a limestone overhang covered with lush ferns and mosses. Not enough? How about a 50-foot waterfall? That's almost nice enough to make you side with the druids.
Las Cañadas, Tenerife.
The Las Cañadas caldera is a series of volcanoes and collapsed volcanoes, creating a terrifying volcanic wasteland. The desolate, rocky ground is hot and pocked with fumaroles spewing noxious gases. The terrain is jagged, with sharp rocky outcrops creating strange shapes. It's basically Mordor right here on Earth.
Vatican City, Italy.
This is the only urban location on this list, because it is truly singular. Vatican City is a walled off section of Rome that is a separate nation, inhabited by and ruled over by the heads of the Catholic Church. There are so many fantasy concepts there I don't even know where to start. It's a city within a city, that is also its own nation. It's an entire city devoted to a single religion, and built completely around the glorification of that religion. The symmetrical layout of St. Peter's Square, the baroque architecture, the beautiful Vatican gardens – all visually stunning and redolent of antiquity. Your fantasy city could do worse.
Machu Picchu, Peru.
There are a lot of interesting ruins in the world that could inspire fantasy adventures, but something about Machu Picchu is iconic (it was a toss-up between this and Angkor). Located high in the Peruvian mountains, these ruins are about 600 years old. Partly overgrown, worn down by harsh mountain winds, you can imagine that there might be hidden entrances and secret chambers beneath these temples and palaces. A search of the ruined outbuildings might reveal a magical scroll, or a long-lost enchanted sword. Of course, a hideous hybrid beast may well be guarding it when your hero gets there.
This post originally appeared on Robot Viking.