6 Great Offbeat Places to Go in 2012

PHOTO: Where to Go in 2012
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If you've been to Paris, London and Florence and are ready for an adventure, check out one of these offbeat destinations. Go horseback riding through the Atacama Desert, slide down a waterfall in Laos, or swim through underwater caves off the coast of Thailand. From the desert to the jungle to the ocean, there's something here for everyone.

PHOTO: Where to Go in 2012
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Atacama Desert, Chile

The Atacama Desert in northern Chile may be one of the most inhospitable places on Earth. "You would have to be mad to live here," said Fiona Martin of the Tierra Atacama, a hotel in the area said. Climatologists call it the driest place in the world, and some areas have not seen rainfall in recorded history. But the sights the region has to offer more than make up for having chapped lips and dry skin.

The town of San Pedro de Atacama is a stepping stone to the vast desert that surrounds it. The dusty streets are lined with day-trip operators who will take you to any of the area's spectacular sights. Go east to the Bolivian border, where you can climb the snow-capped Licancabur Volcano. South is the Salar de Atacama, the largest salt flat in Chile and the second largest in the world, where pink flamingoes graze in clear blue lagoons against a backdrop of volcanoes and the Andes Mountains. Go north to El Tatio, a field of more than 80 active geysers that erupt up to six meters high. Or turn west to walk through the 23-million-year-old rock formations in the Valley of Death (Valle de la Muerte) and the Valley of the Moon (Valle de la Luna), where it's so quiet you can hear the salt crack from the heat.

Lisbon, Portugal

If you want to go to Europe but don't feel like paying astronomical prices, head to the Portuguese capital of Lisbon, where you can lunch on a delicious baguette sandwich and fresh-squeezed orange juice for under $5. The best time to visit Lisbon is in June, when the city transforms into an outdoor carnival, with colorful garlands and lights adorning buildings for the saints' days. The festivities start on June 12, the eve of Saint Anthony's Day. Saint Anthony was known as a matchmaker, so many couples get married on the 13th, and men who are unmarried present the girl they hope to marry with a pot of basil. Processions march down the main avenues, live music takes over the city center, and dancers perform outdoors. Locals barbeque in the street, and bars shut their doors and serve caipirinhas, mojitos and sangria outside.

PHOTO: Where to Go in 2012
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Whitsunday Islands, Australia

Visit the Whitsundays, a collection of tropical islands nestled between the coast of Queensland, Australia and the Great Barrier Reef. Cuddle a kuala on Hamilton Island, where golf carts are the only vehicles on the road. Spend a day at the Great Barrier Reef, scuba diving with sea turtles. Take a seaplane to Whitehaven Beach, a 4.3-mile stretch of white sand, and hike up to the scenic lookout. Fly over Hill Inlet, where Tiffany blue water meanders through white sand, creating swirls of color.

PHOTO: Where to Go in 2012
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Railay Beach, Thailand

Devastated by the tsunami in 2004, Thailand's southwestern coast is still rebuilding its infrastructure and suffering from post-tsunami drops in tourism, giving the area an untouched and abandoned feel, which only adds to its beauty.

Phuket is the most frequented island on the coast, but for a less seedy experience, head to Railay Beach, accessible only by boat. From Railay, walk to Phra Nang Beach, where you can swim to a limestone cliff in the water. While you're swimming, look down to see stalagmites rising from the floor. At night, head back to Railay Beach to watch the sunset and enjoy Thai food at one of the many restaurants on the beach.

PHOTO: Where to Go in 2012
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Venlo, Netherlands

Once every 10 years since 1960, the Netherlands hosts Floriade, an international flower exhibition. This year, from April 5 through October 7, the city of Venlo will turn 163 acres of land into a flower park. In addition to stunning mosaics created out of flowers, the festival offers daily educational activities, making it a perfect place to bring children. Venlo is located on the German border and not far from the Netherlands' border with Belgium, so rent a car and visit neighboring countries after the festival.

PHOTO: Where to Go in 2012
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Luang Prabang, Laos

Skip Laos' capital, Vientiane, and head to Luang Prabang, a city set at the confluence of the Mekong and Khan rivers. The quaint city has a laid-back charm and tranquility that exudes Laos' motto: Please Don't Rush. A designated World Heritage Site, the city is filled with Buddhist temples and colonial mansions that date back to the French rule. If you're up early enough, you'll see monks in orange robes walking down the main thoroughfare, collecting alms of rice or fruit from townspeople.

Spend an afternoon at the nearby Kuang Si Falls, a multi-level waterfall where you can take a dip in picturesque gem-colored pools, slide down rocks or rope swing into the water.

In the evening, head to the night market on Sisavangvong Road, where you can find painted paper lanterns, arts and crafts, and of course, Lao street food. This market may be one of the only places in Asia where you're not hassled.

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