It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity, right? Summer officially begins on June the 20th (or Summer Solstice, when the sun reaches its northernmost point in the sky) but in terms of 80-degree temperatures, blistering hot car seats, and wet-blanket mugginess, summer could well have started back in March for a lot of Americans. While it’s always nice to see women wearing fewer clothes, breaking a sweat the instant you step outside is kind of a drag, especially when it’s so humid out that it feels like the air itself is sweating on you. 2011’s summer set new records for heat and humidity and 2012 looks set to follow the same pattern. Here are ten refreshingly arid places to wait out a soggy summer.10. CAIRO, EGYPT
Cairo! The City of a Thousand Minarets, the city believed to be at least a thousand years old, the biggest metropolitan center in all of Africa, and the largest desert city in the world. 6.76 million Egyptians call Cairo home, due to its proximity to the fertile Nile Delta, the rich commercial enterprises based there, and the sorta-kinda-clean waters of the Nile River. If you have been paying even the faintest attention to the news over the last few years, you might also be aware that Cairo’s Tahrir (“Liberation”) Square was one of the focal points of the Egyptian Revolution, just as it was in 1919 (when the British were kicked out) and 1952 (where the constitutional monarchy was ended and the British were kicked out again, Britons being infamous for not understanding that they’re no longer welcome in their former colonial possessions).
Visitors to Cairo can experience the wonders of early Islamic architecture, the rich blend of African cultures that congregated in this important trading city, and a suffocating cloud of deadly toxins that is estimated to kill 10-25,000 Cairenes each year—Cairo suffers the usual side effects of high population, heavy traffic, and huge industries, combined with the fact that the city lies in a bowl-shaped valley that concentrates smog and particulates in the local atmosphere. Add to that a number of violent incidents believed to be sponsored by the Egyptian military to solidify their control over the new government and Cairo may end up being a little bit on the risky side of most tourist destinations.
9. ARICA, CHILEArica, a major port and provincial capital at the far northern tip of Chile, is known popularly as “the city of the eternal spring” for its extremely rare “mild desert” climate—despite receiving the least rainfall of any inhabited area on Earth (an average of 0.03 inches per year), temperatures typically range from 58 degrees during winter to the low eighties during summer, and the record high temperature is an un-desert-like 95 degrees.
Arica’s secret is its position on the west coast of South America in the so-called “tropical” latitudes, allowing it to receive lots of tropical sunshine counterbalanced by the cooling effects of the cold currents of the Pacific Ocean. A city of 160,000 with over 12 miles of beaches, Arica is a well-kept tourism secret that is primarily known for being an excellent surfing hotspot—the famous “El Gringo” wave is the site of annual global surf competitions, and in 2007 the Association of Surfing Professionals selected Arica as one of the sites of its Rip Curl Pro Search world tour.
8. MARS-500 SURFACE ENVIRONMENT SIMULATOR (Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow, Russia)Mars-500 was a hardcore psychosocial and medical training program sponsored by the space agencies of Europe, Russia, and China, and also the name of what would be the most awesome racing event in history. Volunteer astronauts, cosmonauts, and taikonauts spent 520 days in a system of cramped underground tubes meant to simulate the psychological and environmental isolation of a simulated mission to Mars, the climax of which was a period of a few days stomping around in Martian-grade space suits in a slice of simulated Martian environment barely bigger than a Seven-Eleven.
While the experiment’s designers were unable to simulate the effects of microgravity and interplanetary radiation, the overall purpose was to examine the health effects of claustrophobic conditions and severely limited diet in conjunction with the psychological effects of spending almost a year and a half with five other people with only a Nintendo Wii (really!) and a selection of DVDs for entertainment. The experiment ended in 2011 with nobody murdering each other over games of Punch-Out, so it was generally considered a success, but the environmentally controlled underground simulation modules (including the Martian surface environment) remain buried beneath the Russian Institute for Biomedical Problems, and given Russia’s financial situation it’s a good bet that a few thousand dollars given to the right person can buy you a Nintendo-filled month on simulated Mars.
7. FORD ARIZONA PROVING GROUNDS (Wittman, AZ) / CHRYSLER ARIZONA PROVING GROUNDS (Yucca, AZ) / GM DESERT PROVING GROUND YUMA (Yuma, AZ)While Arizona isn’t 100% scorching desert wasteland and even features a brief monsoon season in late August, the dry air, high temperatures, and flat, empty ground make it an ideal place to stress-test new car designs, and the Grand Canyon State is home to all three American manufacturers’ main desert test facilities. GM, Ford, and Chrysler test the endurance of domestic and international models in temperatures above 100 degrees Fahrenheit and air so dry it feels like standing in front of an open blast furnace, and since all three are convenient to major or medium-sized cities (Yucca is just outside Kingman, and Wittman is so close to Phoenix you can often see the test track out your window as you’re flying into Sky Harbor International) drivers and engineers can end a long shift in the hot sun in a cool, dark bar, often featuring strippers.
Why not plan a vacation that takes in all three test tracks, taking pictures of the latest Corvette/Mustang/Viper prototype by day and shooting tequila by night? Well, because all three test sites are heavily restricted and guarded, and most likely you will be arrested by corporate security teams, and since the Yuma track is actually located within the Army’s own Yuma Proving Grounds (a no-fly zone, so new GM cars couldn’t be photographed from the air), you could conceivably be shot for treason. Hmmm… probably a better idea to look at the Grand Canyon instead.
6. COOBER PEDY (Southern Australia)Known as “the opal capital of the world,” Coober Pedy (from the Aboriginal “kupa-piti” or “white man’s hole”) is a tiny mining town on Australia’s Stuart Highway known for being incredibly hot, incredibly dry, and dotted with hundreds of man-made caves that serve as houses, hotels, and churches to the local miners. While temperatures on the surface of Coober Pedy can reach 118 degrees, the underground homes (which are priced comparable to typical aboveground houses and can be expanded with just a hammer, a chisel, and a lot of free time) stay at a comfortable 75 degrees year-round, even in the relatively chilly winter months.
Southern Australia is the driest state of what is generally considered to be the driest inhabited country and humidity levels rarely exceed 20%, so travelers tired of muggy summer weather are welcome to stop by and enjoy Coober Pedy’s nightlife, which includes a completely dry golf course that is only open at night (when the temperature is bearable) featuring glow-in-the-dark golf balls and a portable patch of turf that golfers can carry with them and take shots off of.
5. GOBI DESERT (Southern Mongolia)“Yawn,” you might be thinking or possibly yawning. “Everybody knows about the Gobi Desert. That’s nothing new at all, and I could totally be reading some other article about dry places right now.” Well buckle up, bro—this isn’t your dad’s Gobi Desert article, because while the Gobi is indeed a vast and complicated environment created by the rain shadow of the Himalayans and features many different desert biomes, it also is home to the completely awesome Mongolian Death Worm, a snake-like creature commonly reported to be two to five feet long with a correspondingly thick body that can spray deadly corrosive acid from either end AND has the ability to kill with deadly electric shocks from a distance.
Despite having an incredibly cool name, a SyFy Channel Original Movie based on its life, and the sworn testimony of thousands of Mongolians (including renowned Prime Minister Jalkhanz Khutagt Damdinbazar) as to its existence, Western biologists remain skeptical that the Mongolian Death Worm actually exists and feel that it is most likely a misidentification of various burrowing snakes and reptiles combined with a pervasive cultural tradition. Really though, who are you going to believe—the Prime Minister of Mongolia and the SyFy Channel or some killjoy scientist?
4. RACETRACK PLAYA (Death Valley National Park, Inyo County, California)A high and isolated dry lake bed measuring nearly four square miles, Racetrack Playa is not just a great name for a rapper, but a unique and mysterious geographical anomaly just to the northwest of the infamous Death Valley. While the playa itself is not particularly unusual, the famous “sailing stones” that inexplicably slide across it are unlike anything else in the world. Solid boulders, often weighing several times more than a human being, somehow skid along the surface of the dry, cracked lake bed, leaving distinctive tracks that geologists and meteorologists measure in the futile hope of understanding what drives their progress across the desert wasteland—no human or camera has ever actually witnessed these rocks moving.
Accepted theories typically incorporate the local winds (the tracks are always in line with prevailing winds) and various types of ice and frost that form a thin, slick surface for the stones to glide along, but anybody who pays attention to this sort of thing knows that the only plausible explanation is that ancient aliens did it. Racetrack Playa is open to the public, so if you want to stop by, hang out with the ancient aliens, and possibly ghost-ride a sailing stone, book yourself a flight to Inyo.
3. TAKLAMAKAN DESERT (Northwest China, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region)Popular accounts claim that the name of the Taklamakan is derived from the words Takla Makan, or “go in and you will never come out.” Not so! Linguistic scholars believe the true derivation of the word Taklamakan is the much more cheerful “place of ruins” or “abandoned land” or in some dialects “The Sea of Death.” Many people have gone into the Taklamakan and came out more or less alive, given that crossing that desert was a major part of the gigantic “Silk Road” trading route that dominated medieval China, and that the desert was once dotted with walled oasis towns that thrived as havens from the harsh windblown sands, endless dunes, blazing heat and biting cold.
The Taklamakan is geographically and topographically very convenient to the frigid winds of Siberia, and winter temperatures can go as low as twenty degrees below freezing—during the mysterious rain-and-snowstorms that thrashed China in 2008, the entire desert was covered with snow for the first time in recorded history. At almost all other times, however, the Taklamakan is entirely devoid of any sort of water, and with the bypassing of the Silk Road and the increasing desertification of Northwest China, the famous oasis cities of the Taklamakan are today windy, dusty tombs. Bottom line for Taklamakan vacationers: make sure you bring along a cooler of beer and make sure your will is in order.
2. ATACAMA DESERT (Chile, Copiapó Province / Third Chilean Region)Popularly regarded as the overall driest place on Earth, the Atacama Desert is a vast 40,000 square-mile plateau dotted with salt lakes, lava flows, mutant cacti, and almost nothing else. Standing roughly 10,000 feet above sea level and fenced in by the even taller mountains of the Andes, the Atacama is so dry and devoid of life that it’s frequently used as a stand-in for Mars by both space agencies and film companies. Popular British car-review-and-goofing-around TV show “Top Gear” made the crossing of the Atacama in cheap used cars part of their 2009 South American special episode, but conditions there went from funny (in order to prevent lethal high-altitude pulmonary edemas, the hosts were required to take Viagra and benefit from one of its more obscure side effects) to scary as oxygen starvation took its toll on both vehicles and humans—the cars were making barely a tenth of their designed horsepower, and the hosts described their altitude sickness as “all the bad parts of being drunk.”
While Top Gear eventually gave up the high Atacama route for health reasons, the infamously difficult and lethal Dakar Rally has run motorcycles, cars, and trucks through the Atacama since 2009, when the rally race moved out of Africa after one too many terrorists and tribal warlords stole brand-new rally-prepped Subarus to use as part of a rebel army. Despite the Atacama’s well-earned reputation for desolation and death (a French motorcyclist died in the inaugural 2009 South American Dakar Rally from altitude sickness), natives and entrepreneurs persist in living there, as is shown by satellite photos of “solar ponds” built to collect energy and farm salt.
Next: The 5 Best Summer Beaches and 5 to Avoid
1. ANTARCTICAThe fifth-largest continent in the world, Antarctica’s overall average precipitation is a mere 6.5 inches per year, technically qualifying the entire region as a gigantic desert (although the Antarctic Peninsula, the northernmost tendril of the continent that reaches out to menace the southern tip of South America, can receive yards of snow per year). The Antarctic is generally so cold that any sort of humidity in the air--even from the breath of researchers and explorers--immediately freezes and falls to the ground, becoming another part of the packed glacial ice shelf that covers the actual rocky surface of Antarctica to an average depth of over a mile.
The only open and unfrozen water anywhere in Antarctica are hypersaline lakes like Don Juan Pond, considered the saltiest body of water anywhere on Earth, being over 2/5ths pure salt sloshing around in what is technically sub-sub-sub-freezing water. If you’re not fully convinced that the worst part of heat is humidity, you might want to test that theory in the Antarctic, except (1) it takes an enormous amount of money and effort just to fly you there and (2) once you’re in Antarctica there’s not much to do besides perform climatology studies. There may not even be a decent bar there.