Have UNESCO World Heritage Sites made it on to your travel bucket list?
There are few guarantees in the world of travel. But a “World Heritage Site” designation from UNESCO– the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization– ensures that a destination is important enough to deserve protection for future generations.
As of last summer there were 1052 UNESCO World Heritage Sites: 814 cultural, 203 natural, and 35 mixed properties, in 165 states all around the world. These essential sites run the gamut from ancient ruins and other historical structures to vital ecosystems such as deserts, forests, islands, lakes, and mountains.
Trying to narrow down this expansive list to a “Best of” would be a fool’s folly: So instead here are seven of Discover’s Corps favorites, with details on why these attractions are so… well, attractive.
BELIZE BARRIER REEF RESERVE (BELIZE)
Stretching over 550 miles from Cancun to Honduras, the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef is the world’s second largest coral reef system. The Belize Barrier Reef makes up around 1/3 of it, stretching 190 miles along the country’s coastline.
It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996, and remains vital to Belize’s fishing and tourism industry. In fact, the reef is the #1 tourist attraction in Belize, with exceptional snorkeling and Scuba diving attracting nearly half of the nation’s annual visitors.
Though the reef has suffered from coral bleaching caused by global warming, its surprisingly pristine walls, pinnacles, holes and reef flats are home to an exceptional array of aquatic life (including 70 hard coral species, 35 soft coral species, 500 species of fish, and hundreds of invertebrates). During our dives here, we saw a Nurse Shark, Moral Eel, several Spotted Rays, a Sea Turtle, Pufferfish, Lobsters, and thousands of colorful fish.
GALAPAGOS ISLANDS (ECUADOR)
Named the world’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978, this archipelago of volcanic islands 563 miles off the coast of Ecuador remains virtually as unspoiled as it was when evolutionary theorist Charles Darwin visited during his famed voyage of the Beagle.
Most of the 13 major and seven smaller Galapagos Islands remain uninhabited. There are conservation laws put in place to protect the remarkable biodiversity of its ecosystems that are designed to keep it that way. More than 97% of the archipelago is one big national park, with clearly defined trails and eagle-eyed guides making sure you don’t stray from the path.
As a result , the Galapagos Islands remains one of the world’s most pristine and unspoiled UNESCO World Heritage Sites, with a remarkable array of mammals, reptiles, amphibians and bird species to be seen. Animals such as Blue Footed Boobies, Galapagos Sea Lions, Galapagos Tortoises, and Marine Iguanas have virtually no fear of humans because they have no predators. Don’t be surprised if they break the rules visitors have to observe of keeping six feet of distance from all wildlife.
MACHU PICCHU (PERU)
Often shrouded in fog and defended by granite walls, the ancient city of Machu Picchu had been lost to the world for centuries when rumors of its existence reached explorer Hiram Bingham III in 1908. Three years later, Bingham mounted an expedition on a quest to rediscover the “Lost City of the Incas,” which was constructed around 1440 AD.
Ranking among Latin America’s most popular outdoor adventures, this UNESCO World Heritage Site draws more than 500,000 visitors each year. It’s easy to see why, as the architecture of the ancient city perched high above the clouds remains largely intact, with old temples and luscious green terraces overlooking a canyon on the Urubamba River and the surrounding Andes mountains.
Guided expeditions to Machu Picchu often include hiking the legendary Inca Trail through semi-arid desert, verdant tropical rainforest and breathtaking mountain passes to the stunning pre-Columbian ruins. At altitudes of up to 13,700 feet, it’s no easy trek, but the jaw-dropping views along Peru’s Sacred Valley are certain to provide a lifetime of memories.
OLD HAVANA (CUBA)
Havana’s Old Town– known locally as La Habana Vieja– is considered the cultural epicenter of Cuba. So it’s no surprise the colonial city was awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 1982.
Don’t be fooled by the area’s rough-around-the-edges exterior. There’s a lot of rum-swilling, hip-swinging passion in Old Havana. The somewhat tattered character only adds to the city’s charm. Here you can walk through bustling squares surrounded by impressive baroque and neoclassic-style buildings, which have made Havana one of the most historically significant cities in the Americas.
Can’t-miss activities include taking a ride around the city in a vintage car, sipping a daiquiri in El Floridita (one of Ernest Hemingway’s favorite bars), and listening to the live music that permeates the city. The lively sound of Cuban Son has roots in the mountainous regions of Oriente, but it was perfected in Old Havana during the Prohibition era, when Big Band instruments were added to the traditional folk ensemble.
SERENGETI NATIONAL PARK (TANZANIA)
The Maasai people had been grazing their animals on Tanzania’s vast plains for around 200 years before the first European explorer showed up in 1892. They described the area as siringet, “the place where the land runs on forever.” Although it was made a game reserve in 1921, it didn’t become a national park until 1951.
The Great Migration that ends in the Maasai Mara begins in this 5,700-square mile haven, which is divided into three regions– the grassland of the Serengeti plains, the riverine forest of the Western corridor, and the bushy savanna and open woodlands of the Northern Serengeti.
The park boasts staggering wildlife diversity, from the elephants and giraffes of the north and the Nile crocodiles and colobus monkeys of the western swamps to the huge herds of Wildebeest, Zebra, Gazelle, Impala, and Buffalo that crowd the plains during the wet season. It’s no wonder the UNESCO World Heritage Site is also Tanzania’s #1 tourist attraction!
TAJ MAHAL (INDIA)
India boasts a whopping 35 UNESCO World Heritage Sites. No bucket list would be complete without mentioning the monument one Indian poet referred to as “a teardrop on the face of eternity.”
The Taj Mahal is a globally recognized symbol of India, widely considered among the most beautiful buildings ever constructed. But few people realize that it was originally designed to be a mausoleum. It was originally constructed in the mid 17th century by Shah Jahan, a Mughal emperor, in loving memory of his wife, who died giving birth to their 14th child.
Seeing the Taj Mahal for the first time is one of those rare, magical moments where the reality of its majesty more than measures up to expectations. The landmark’s architectural innovations (such as the raised platform that supports it), symmetrical design, and the way the white marble changes color depending on the weather and time of day combine for a positively sublime visitor experience. Crowds and temperatures rise as the day progresses, so get there at sunrise for stunning, unspoiled views.
TIKAL NATIONAL PARK (GUATEMALA)
One of the largest archaeological sites of pre-Columbian Maya civilization, Tikal’s jungle-clad ruins are so otherworldly, George Lucas used them as a setting in the original Star Wars.
Constructed around 1900 years ago, the impressive limestone ruins cover over six miles, with towering temples and pyramids (some of which measure over 230 feet tall).
Tikal’s ruins are surrounded by lush tropical rainforest, which is home to a remarkably diverse array of flora and fauna. The 142,000-acre park is a haven for monkeys, coatis, deer, reptiles and over 300 species of birds.
Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979, Tikal was arguably the most important Mayan urban center of its time. It’s also the only place in the world that has earned both a World Cultural Heritage Site and a World Natural Heritage Site designation from UNESCO.
Have you visited any of these incredible sites? Comment below with your experiences!