9 Stunningly Picturesque Oases

Desert oasis surrounded by trees amidst sand dunes
Photo: Diego Delso/Wikimedia Commons

Oases captivate the imagination. These unexpected dots of lushness in the middle of a desert are intriguing because of the contrast they create with the surrounding landscape. In these places, the switch from sand to greenery is usually abrupt. Some people think these naturally irrigated outposts are romantic; destinations like the palm-covered oasis in Douz, Tunisia, are popular with honeymooners. Other oases are a source of national pride. The Peruvian desert lake of Huacachina (pictured here) graces the back of the country’s 50 sol banknote.

To the desert dwellers and travelers of the past, oases were not picturesque curiosities. They were important pit stops, and often the only thing between life and an unpleasant death from dehydration, hyperthermia or some other arid-climate affliction. These oases were once important desert water sources. Some still are, but they're also popular among tourists and curiosity seekers who want to see Mother Nature’s desert gardens for themselves.

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Tafilalt, Morocco

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The Ziz Valley is home to the largest oasis in Morocco. This particular oasis, one of many in the country, is sometimes described as cinematic. Its date palm trees run right up to the Sahara Desert, and most pictures of the area include both barren hills and lush valley floor. The town of Tafilalt is located in the valley on the edge of a palm forest. A small village called Aoufous, meanwhile, is literally in the middle of the palms.

The Ziz River, which provides the water to this oasis, continues to flow into the Sahara. Like the Nile, on the other side of the continent, the Ziz is surrounded by agriculture. Unlike its famous Egyptian cousin, however, the Ziz flows intermittently once it reaches the desert in easternmost Morocco and Algeria.

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Huacachina, Peru

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Huacachina is located next to a natural lake in the middle of the sand dunes of the Peruvian desert. This is the south of Peru, far away from the capital, Lima, and the popular tourist attractions of Machu Picchu. The nearest city to Huacachina is Ica, which is located on the desert coastline. In terms of average overall precipitation, the desert here is among the driest in the world, so it's somewhat surprising that any oases exist at all.

Huacachina has become a tourist destination, not just for Peruvians, but also for international travelers. Unfortunately, the level of the lake has dropped in recent years. This has been blamed, in part, on local landowners, who tapped into the water table by digging wells, thereby reducing the amount of water seeping into the lake. To combat this problem and help the town retain its picturesque appearance (and tourism allure), water has been pumped into the lake from Ica.

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Wadi Bani Khalid, Oman

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Wadi Bani Khalid is a valley in Oman, which is part of the Arabian Peninsula. Despite its arid surroundings, the wadi is characterized by streams and spring water that bubble up from underground. A number of small villages and some plantations sit near these water sources. Bani Khalid also has colorful rock formations that get their hues (green and red) from a high concentration of minerals.

This is one of the more accessible oases in Arabia. It sits on the highway that connects Muscat and Sur, two of the country’s main population centers. Because of its relative accessibility, this place is popular with tourists, both domestic and international. Swimming is one of the main pastimes, and there are caves and streams in the area as well for those who do not mind trekking in the desert heat.

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Liwa Oasis, UAE

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The United Arab Emirates is just to the north of Oman. The Liwa Oasis is a large oasis in Abu Dhabi. The families who now govern both Abu Dhabi and Dubai, the two ultramodern emirates that dominate the UAE, can trace their origins back to the Liwa area. Farming, using both traditional and modern practices such as drip irrigation, remains the backbone of the economy. However, tourists have been coming in greater numbers in recent years. There are tourist facilities and several hotels, though the focus is on desert sports like dune surfing and off-road driving, not necessarily the oasis itself.

If you are looking for contrasts, however, there is no better place. Liwa sits right at the edge of the dunelands in the UAE and Saudi Arabia known as the Empty Quarter. This 250,000-square-mile expanse is the largest continuous sand desert in the world. Liwa is the last stop before entering this endless sandy wilderness.

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Chebika Oasis, Tunisia

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The Chebika Oasis in Tunisia has all the ingredients oases aficionados could ever want: cool, clear pools, palms and other green foliage, and even waterfalls and rock formations. Most people who come to this portion of western Tunisia are focused on the barren landscapes outside of Chebika. Scenes from the original "Star Wars" film were shot in areas around the oasis and the nearby provincial capital, Tozeur. Thanks to the dry climate, the sets still remain and look very much like they did when they first appeared onscreen 40 years ago. Scenes from "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and the "English Patient" were also filmed in the area.

Chebika gets its share of visitors, too. An important outpost during the reign of the Roman Empire, it also was settled by Berber people. The tourist facilities here are limited, but the popularity of the area as a whole means that surrounding places, including the neighboring city of Tamerza, have good hotels and restaurants.

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Crescent Lake, China

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Located outside of the city of Dunhuang, Crescent Lake has long been an important stop for travelers moving through the Gobi Desert. Called Yueyaquan in Mandarin Chinese, the lake, fed by a spring, is situated right in the middle of a series of tall dunes. Today, tourists come to the area not just to see this natural phenomenon but also to play in the surrounding desert. ATV, dune buggy and camel rides are popular with both domestic and international tourists.

Crescent Lake had shrunk significantly since it was first measured in 1960. The government stepped in during 2006 and began to try to reverse the desertification process. Local authorities have refilled the lake over the past decade. Though it's still not as deep as it was in the 1960s, the shrinking of the depth and surface area appears to have been reversed, at least for now.

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Ein Gedi, Israel

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Ein Gedi is one of the most popular nature attractions in Israel. It's certainly one of the oldest oases in history. Archeologists have found artifacts in caves near Ein Gedi that date to neolithic times. Now, it is the center of a nature reserve that was formed in 1971. The park is bordered by the Judean Desert and the Dead Sea.

The water from the four springs at Ein Gedi is used for agriculture and some of it is bottled and sold. Visitors can hike through the nature reserve on its well-kept trails or they can get an up-close look at the springs, waterfalls and streams that make up the oasis. It is worth looking beyond the water, though, because the park is home to rare species like the hyrax (rock rabbits) and Nubian ibex, both of which are a relatively common sight for hikers.

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Agua Caliente, Arizona

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Arizona’s Agua Caliente is different from other oases on this list because it is fed by a hot spring. The ponds that make up the oasis are part of a regional park in the Sonoran Desert just outside of Tucson. The water is cool enough that it supports fish and plant life. The palm trees that sit along the stream and the pond that it feeds really stand out because they are surrounded by stark desert landscapes.

The volume of water emitted from the spring has varied in recent years. No one is quite certain where the water comes from, but droughts in the area could be to blame. When the water levels are low, water is pumped into the pond from a nearby well. The park around Agua Caliente is popular with Tucson locals, who come for the picnic facilities, trails and also to visit a historic ranch that once served as a health resort and is now a visitors center and art gallery.

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Lençóis Maranhenses National Park, Brazil

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Visitors will find numerous oasis-like bodies of water in Lençóis Maranhenses National Park in northern Brazil. The sand dunes here stretch for approximately 580 square miles. The ponds in the low areas between dune peaks look very much like oases, but they are, in fact, not.

Maranhenses is actually not far from the Amazon rainforest, so it gets plenty of rain each year. The land appears like a desert, however, because the dense sand keeps any vegetation from growing. Impermeable rock below the dunes keep water from seeping into the ground. This means that pools form in the low areas between the dunes. The water levels rise after rains and many of the rain-fed “lagoons” are permanent and even support fish life.