If you travel, you’ve probably come across some historic site or national park with a sign indicating it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It always makes you feel like you’re seeing something special. But what does it actually mean?
The question has always nagged me, so I decided to find out. And here’s the lowdown. A UNESCO World Heritage Site is a cultural, historic or natural site that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization deems to be of “outstanding value to humanity”.
The World Heritage Site movement has been around since 1972, when UNESCO adopted a treaty calling for protection of these invaluable places against the challenges of a changing and sometimes violent world. The sites themselves can be just about anything people find valuable: monuments, groups of buildings (like Borobudur, in Indonesia, shown at top), archaeological sites, natural features, geological formations that shelter rare species, or natural sites that have scientific value or great beauty.
The World Heritage Site designation aims to preserve and protect these places from destruction, development and neglect. And in most cases, it works. Governments of the countries pledge to protect them, and if they can’t afford it, they can get international help.
UNESCO has even managed to save some iconic sites from being harmed. The list includes the pyramids of Giza, the archaeological site of Delphi in Greece and the Angkor Wat site in Cambodia.
There are now 1,007 World Heritage Sites spread across the world: you can see the full list here. With that many sites, you could probably travel for a lifetime and not see them all.
Here are five sites that I think embody the spirit of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. They were all fascinating, and I’m glad there’s someone out there looking after them.
Machu Picchu, Peru This is an iconic place, and rightfully so: it’s one famous historic site that’s completely as advertised. To climb the stone steps and look down at the ancient Inca city spread before you is an experience not to be forgotten. Part of its mystique is its dramatic setting, high on the eastern slope of the Andes, with mountain peaks rising all around it. In fact, its location was so remote that the Spanish never found it. The city itself is a fascinating place, full of the Incas’ amazing stonework, terraces, astronomical lookouts, and sacred places whose meaning we’ll never know. To make your visit even more authentic, you can hike the historic trail to the site the way the Incas did.
Gunung Mulu National Park, Sarawak, Malaysia Deep in the forests of Borneo, this UNESCO World Heritage Site preserves an incredible cave system, filled with stalagmites, stalactites and strange rock formations. The centrepiece is the Sarawak Chamber, the largest known cave chamber in the world. The park is also a natural laboratory for humanity, with 17 different vegetation zones, and a wealth of plant and animal life. It’s the place I first saw hornbills on the wing, and I’ll never forget the sight of hundreds of thousands of bats flying out the caves at sunset, one of the wonders of the natural world.
Copan, Honduras Not too many tourists reach this ancient Mayan city in the highlands of Honduras. But if you’re among those who have, you’ll agree it’s worth the trip. Copan (occupied from about 300 to 900 AD) is considered the Florence of the Mayan world, studded with intricate carvings and amazing stone tableaux. And notably, while most Mayan temples feature flat bas-relief carvings, Copan has a number of stelae adorned with realistic three-dimensional statues of Mayan rulers (see the photo near the top of this post). There’s also an entire temple perfectly preserved underneath a later one, and nearby sites where you can see the houses of people who lived and worked in the city.
Chitwan National Park, Nepal Far below the Himalayan peaks is one of Nepal’s lesser-known wonders, a wilderness park that preserves a little of the terai region that once covered the foothills of Nepal and northern India. This sweep of grassland and forest is one of the last refuges of the Indian white rhino and the Bengal tiger. I didn’t see tigers, but I did see the rhinos, and from elephant back, an experience of a lifetime. I also saw wild pigs, monkeys, deer, peacocks, and a wild buffalo — much closer than I wanted to, when one of the large and unpredictable animals blocked the road and stared down the jeep I was riding in.
Panama Viejo, Panama Before there was the modern city of Panama, there was Panama Viejo, the original Spanish settlement on the site of today’s bustling metropolis. And every visitor should take an hour or two to see this fascinating site. The old city, founded in 1519, was one of the strongholds and administrative centres of the Spanish new world. It was abandoned in 1671 after being sacked by the pirate Henry Morgan, but still retains a lot of its character despite being a bit overgrown. The city that replaced it, now called the Casco Antiguo, is a part of Panama City that’s also well worth a visit, though now you’ll find patio restaurants and pop-up bars there instead of abandoned ruins.
There are many more stories to tell, and many more sites to see. Which UNESCO World Heritage Site is your favourite, and how many have you seen? Share your stories.