by Liz Fleming
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Sometimes, it takes a near miss to convince the world of the need to protect cultural treasures. When plans to build a dam in Egypt threatened the ancient Abu Simbel temples, UNESCO launched an $80 million dollar campaign involving 50 contributing countries. The temples were relocated and the World Heritage List was born.
Preserving the natural, historic and architectural treasures of our world for future generations is a sacred trust and the precious sites on the WHL list have ‘outstanding universal value’. From Chichen Itza to the Great Wall of China and the Great Barrier Reef, these sites are now protected and still enjoyed by a world of visitors.
How many of the UNESCO World Heritage sites have you seen? Check out our short list of favorites for inspiration for your next trip!
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Ride a camel down the sikh, the narrow pathway between towering red sandstone cliff-faces leading to Petra, the ancient capital city of the Nabateans. One of the world’s most important archaeological sites, Petra’s wonders have survived centuries of sand and wind and include the Khasneh, the Urn Tomb, the Palace Tomb, the Corinthian Tomb, the Deir or Monastery, the remains of copper mining and an extensive network of cisterns and reservoirs that pay tribute to lost civilizations. Jordan’s must-see examples of elaborate tomb and temple architecture spanning from the first centuries BC to AD will etch themselves on your memory.
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Consider the numbers of the Great Barrier Reef where more than 2,500 reefs, tiny sandy bays and broad vegetated cays, 900 small islands and their larger continental sisters rising as high as 1,100 meters above sea level form the globe’s most extensive coral reef ecosystem – a bucket-list-must so be sure to bring your tanks, fins and masks. A panoply of sponges, anemones, marine worms and crustaceans inhabit the reefs, and you can share the marine extravaganza with more than 400 types of coral, 1,500 fish and 240 bird species, 4,000 types of mollusk, as well as endangered species such as the dugong (‘sea cow’) and the large green turtle.
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Cambodia’s northern province of Siem Reap is home to South East Asia’s most important archaeological site - the 400 square kilometer Angkor Archaeological Park. There, your breath will catch in your throat as you stare up at scores of ancient temples, advanced hydraulic basins, dykes, reservoirs and canals and bear witness to the ancient glories and prowess of Angkor, the centre of the Khmer Kingdom. Architecturally and religiously important temples such as Angkor Wat, the Bayon, Preah Khan and Ta Prohm will show you the cultural heart of the region, but your own heart will be captured by the quaint rice farming villages where you’ll meet the descendants of the original inhabitants of Angkor.
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The mystical Medina of Marrakesh, founded in 1070–72, was an important seat of political power in the western Muslim world. Wander the ancient streets and marvel at the symbol of the city, the Koutoubia Mosque with its 77m minaret. Explore the legendary Kasbah, the ramparts, gardens and monumental gates will take you on a trip into history. Stunning must-see structures from later periods include the Badiâ Palace, the Ben Yousse merdersa, and les Saâdians tombs. Be sure to tour the Jamaâ El Fna Square, a true open-air theater still in constant use, surrounded by the beautiful Gardens of Aguedal, Ménara and the lush Palm Grove.
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The beautiful Ligurian coast between Cinque Terre and Portovenere not only bears testimony to the ability of people and nature to exist in harmony but is also a rare example of a tradition way of life that has survived for a thousand years. Visit an island café, enjoy a lunch of freshly caught fish and meet villagers who have preserved their homeland for generations. Be inspired by the way these ancient communities have remained a vibrant part of the socio-economic life of their region. Tour the Portus Veneris dating back to mid-first century BC, a former base for the Byzantine fleet and part of the "Route Napoleon" coastal passage.
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Brazil’s Iguaçú National Park and Argentina’s Iguazú National Park share one of the world’s largest and most impressive waterfalls - extending more than 2,700 m. Forming a 2,700m wide semicircle, the Iguaçú Falls cascade from a height of 72m and are a Mecca for nature-lovers. Depending on the flow of the Iguaçú River, the number of waterfalls ranges from 150 to 300 and the clouds of spray they create foster a lush habitat for rare and endangered species such as the giant otter and the giant anteater, both living in the 185,262.5 hectare Iguaçú National Park. You’ll feel the mist on your face for what seems likes miles before you reach the stunning falls.
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Antoni Gaudí (1852–1926) created works of such exceptional architectural importance in and around Barcelona, Spain that he is credited with influencing the development of architecture and building technology in the late 19th-20th centuries. If you love architecture, art, history or all three, you’ll adore Gaudí’s whimsical, creations, including: Parque Güell; Palacio Güell; Casa Mila; Casa Vicens; Casa Batlló; Crypt in Colonia Güell and, of course, the Nativity façade and Crypt of La Sagrada Familia. His work is an exceptional synthesis of the Arts and Crafts movement, Symbolism, Expressionism, and Rationalism and an outstanding example of the pinnacle of Catalonia’s cultural achievements – an essential part of your Barcelona tour.
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Never deserted and carefully preserved, the ancient city of Rhodes will introduce you to the flavor of the medieval world as it was. When the Knights of Saint John of Jerus, Jerusalem’s military monks, arrived in 1309, they established themselves in the Byzantine city around the Acropolis, building the Castello, perhaps the greatest monument of the Middle Ages. Though badly damaged during the Ottoman period, the Castello was rebuilt in 1912 and today houses the Museum of Rhodes. There you can immerse yourself in a fascinating collection of tombstones, paintings, statuary, jewelry, books and mosaics, including the Trophy of Mithridatic Wars, the statue of Laokoon, and the mosaic of Medusa.
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If you’re looking for the world’s best one-day hike, do the famed Tongariro Alpine Crossing in the Tongariro National Park, the oldest national park in New Zealand, located in the central North Island. There, the mountains are of religious and cultural significance for the indigenous Maori people, symbolizing the connection between the environment and their community. Hikes could take you past both extinct and active volcanoes, including Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe, and Tongariro. While you’re hiking be sure to be respectful of the summits, all of which are Måori religious sites and considered tapu or sacred.
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Tour the excavations at the ancient Turkish site of Ephesus, built originally in the 10th century and the site of both Hellenistic and Roman settlements, and you’ll discover spectacular monuments of the Roman Imperial period that include the Great Theater, capable of accommodating 25,000 spectators, and the Library of Celsus. One of the twelve cities of the Ionian League during the Classical Greek era, Ephesus flourished under the control of the Roman Republic in 129 BC and gives you a chance to travel back in time to a Roman port city, with its busy sea channel and harbor basin.
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Prague, one of Europe’s most beautiful cities and a cultural center of the early Middle Ages, has been home to such intelligentsia as Charles IV, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Franz Kafka, and Albert Einstein. Because the city wisely avoided large-scale demolitions and urban renewal, we are fortunately still able to wander the historic streets and explore such exquisite monuments as the Cathedral of St Vitus, Prague Castle and Hradćany Square, the Gothic Charles Bridge, the Romanesque Rotunda of the Holy Rood, the Gothic arcaded houses around the Old Town Square, the High Gothic Minorite Church of St James in the Stark Mĕsto, and the Valdgtejn Palace.
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Panama City, founded in 1519, is the oldest continuously occupied European settlement on the Pacific coast of the Americas. Laid out on a European rectilinear grid, it was abandoned in the mid-17th century but replaced by a new town (the ‘Historic District’) that preserved the original street plan. Today, amateur historians and architecture fanciers will be fascinated by a mixture of Spanish, French and early American architecture that blends with the fascinating archaeological remains of the original settlement – the Archaeological Site of Panamá Viejo, now a 32-hectare protected heritage site.
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Towering 2,430m above sea-level in a tropical mountain forest at the meeting point between the Peruvian Andes and the Amazon Basin, the Historic Sanctuary of Machu Picchu will stun you. It was the most impressive artistic and architectural achievement of the Inca Empire and is no less impressive today. Built in the fifteenth century, the extensive settlement of approximately 200 structures, giant walls, terraces, ramps and aqueducts was mysteriously abandoned when Spaniards conquered the Incas in the sixteenth century. No battle took place – the people simply disappeared. Follow in the footsteps of explorer Hiram Bingham who discovered Machu Picchu in 1911 and solve the mystery yourself!
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With a total length of more than 20,000 km, the Great Wall of China begins in the east at Shanhaiguan in Hebei province and ends at Jiayuguan in Gansu province to the west. Begun in 220 B.C. when sections of earlier fortifications were joined together to form a united defense system, construction continued until the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) at which point the Great Wall became the world’s largest military structure. Walk the wall, gazing at the sweeping landscape and come to an understanding of the enormous historic, architectural and strategic significance of the Great Wall, China’s national symbol for safeguarding the security of its people.
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Chichen-Itza means "At the edge of the well of the Itzaes" – appropriate since this ancient center was built near two cenotes or underground water sources. One of the greatest Mayan centers of the Yucatán peninsula, this pre-Hispanic city was sacred to the Mayan world but throughout its nearly 1,000 year history, was also influenced by other cultures. Spend a day strolling the grounds of Chichen-Itza and see both Mayan and Toltec world views displayed in ancient stone monuments such as the Warrior’s Temple, El Castillo and El Caracol, the circular observatory. Imagine priests making sacrifices at the temples and warriors engaging in games of strength and courage in the ancient ball court.