With fiery molten channels that stretch far below the surface, volcanoes connect us to the very core of the Earth. Active or dormant – they resonate with an energy and beauty beyond that of mere mountains.
Their violent origins also tend to create stunning natural landscapes that attract sightseers from around the world. To find the hot spots worth seeing, we turned to question-and-answer community Quora.com, asking “What are the most beautiful volcanos in the world?”
Best known for the stark white-painted buildings that cling to its multi-coloured cliffs, this Greek island is the remnant of a volcanic caldera, formed around 1600BC when one of the largest eruptions in recorded history wiped out most of the island, including some of the original settlements.
Today, Santorini attracts visitors from around the world who are eager to admire what’s left. “To feel how majestic it is, you have to sail inside [the caldera] and stand at a balcony on the edge of the cliffs at sunset,” said Achilleas Vortselas.
In particular, visitors should seek out the uninhabited island of Nea Kameni, located in the centre of Santorini’s caldera. “Nea Kameni itself is a kind of ugly, black-brown blob in the centre of a picturesque, truly gorgeous caldera,” Smitha Prasadh said. “But when you hike around, it has its own beauty. Sloped pits from which ancient and recent eruptions sprang forth – [it is] very different from the craters of more ‘traditional’ volcanoes.”
Mount Mayon, the Philippines
Located about 450km southeast of Manila on the island of Luzon, Mount Mayon is the most active volcano in the Philippines; a September 2014 eruption forced thousands to flee the area. Mayon is also a stratovolcano – a steep cone built from many layers of lava flows – that’s prized for its incredible symmetry.
“The perfect hyperbolic shape of Mayon in the Philippines underlines [its] threatening posture,” Vortselas said. “The ash and lava flows are just the cherry on top.”
Those who hike the volcano are rewarded with views of the towns in the Albay province and the Pacific Ocean. But even those who prefer the view from afar have a historical vantage point at the Cagsawa Ruins, once an 18th Century Franciscan church that was destroyed by an 1814 eruption. The stone tower still remains, serving as the human-built counterpart to the natural wonder in the distance.
Mount Kilimanjaro and Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania
Adventure-seekers from all over the globe head to the border of Tanzania and Kenya to tackle Kilimanjaro, Africa’s tallest mountain. Fewer know that Kili is also the continent’s tallest volcano, unique in the fact that it has three volcanic cones While the Mawenzi and Shira cones are extinct, the highest one, Kibo (on which the highest Uhuru Peak sits), is still active and lets off occasional steam and gases.
Those keen to climb to Kilimanjaro’s dizzying 5,895m summit must be prepared for a dramatic change in temperature, said Julien Vaché. “As you walk, you go from 35C [in the] jungle to -15C on top of Uhuru, its highest peak.”
About 200km west of Kilimanjaro, Ngorongoro Crater is a former volcano that is thought to have once rivalled Kilimanjaro in height, estimated to have been 4500-4800m tall until it collapsed on itself. Today, at 22.5km in diameter and 610m deep, Ngorongoro is the largest crater on earth, creating a unique environment for local wildlife. “Waterfalls coming down the caldera irrigate green pastures and fill a lake at the bottom full of flamingos and a huge fauna on its shores: lion, hippopotamus, buffalos, zebras, gnus, rhinoceros,” Vaché said.
Mount Kelimutu, Indonesia
Kelimutu’s three mysterious crater lakes attract both scientists and tourists to the island of Flores in Indonesia’s East Nusa Tenggara province. “One is emerald green, another dark red, and the third pitch black,” Vaché explained. Scientists say the colours come from the chemical reaction that occurs when the volcanic gases meet the lake’s minerals.
Nearby residents have a different take. “Locals believe that the lakes are the resting place of departed souls and change colour abruptly based on the flow of souls,” Sunni Mewati said. Despite scientific explanations of the colours, “the eeriness surrounding the lakes as a reservoir of souls remains” he added.
Kilauea and Mauna Kea, Hawaii
Hawaii’s volcanoes are known for their active eruptions and otherworldly landscapes. The youngest volcano in Hawaii, Kilauea has been erupting continuously since 1983, “so much so that the lava falls straight into the sea, creating fantastic forms of black rocks and insane smoke clouds”, Vaché said.
At the other end of the spectrum, Mauna Kea is around one million years old. It sits dormant, still impressing with its sheer size, rising 4,205m from the sea. “Mauna Kea in Hawaii is both incredibly beautiful and home to secret treasures, including a sacred frozen lake near the summit accessible only by [a six-mile, 10-hour round trip] hike,” said Lesly Simmons. “You can find snow in the winter and almost zero crowds. We ran into only one other couple hiking from the base to the summit when we reached Lake Waiau.”
Mount Fuji, Japan
Perhaps the world’s most famous symmetrical stratovolcano is Japan’s Mount Fuji, which has served as the muse for many artistic creations through the centuries. “[It’s] the national symbol of Japan: snow-capped, looming in the distance, cherry blossoms in the forefront,” Vaché said. Not only is the mountain itself beautiful and mysterious, but the Aokigahara forest on the northwest base of the mountain also inspires the imagination, as many local folktales describe the demons and goblins that haunt within. At least the mountain itself remains a safe haven – the low risk active volcano hasn’t erupted since 1707.
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