The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) defines world heritage as “our legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what we pass on to future generations. Our cultural and natural heritage are both irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration.”
To identify, preserve and protect these places considered to be of outstanding value to humanity—whether for cultural or natural reasons—the organization created its prestigious World Heritage List. Today, that roster includes more than 1,100 locations, from Arctic fjords to Zimbabwe hills, and from American national parks to endangered wonders at risk of disappearing.
Below, you’ll find a catalog of some of the UNESCO World Heritage sites that you can experience on Natural Habitat Adventures tours (click on the links to learn more about specific adventures). I hope you’ll take some of these beautiful, fragile and one-of-a-kind places into account when deciding where to go for your next educational, scientific and cultural exploration into the natural world.
• Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda. I can’t think of a more enticing and seductive name for a national park than Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. As its moniker suggests, this realm of steep mountains is covered in thick, tangled jungles. It’s also one of Africa’s most ancient habitats, surviving the last Ice Age when most of the continent’s other forests disappeared.
A biodiversity hot spot, the national park might possibly have the greatest number of tree species for its altitude in East Africa. It hosts rich fauna, too, including a number of endemic butterflies and one of the greatest mammalian assemblages in Africa. A little less than half (about 500) of the world’s population of endangered mountain gorillas call the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park home.
• Mosi-oa-Tunya/Victoria Falls, on the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe. The outstanding columns of spray, mists and rainbows from Victoria Falls on the Zambezi River can be seen from miles away. During the 1800s, the Kololo tribe living in the area described these falls as “the smoke that thunders.”
In more modern times, this geological beauty is renowned as the greatest curtain of falling water in the world. More than 19 million cubic feet of water per minute plummet over the edge—over a width of more than a mile—into a gorge almost 355 feet below.
• Ngorongoro Conservation Area, United Republic of Tanzania. Sometimes described as the “Eighth Wonder of the World,” the spectacular Ngorongoro Crater is Earth’s largest intact volcanic caldera. The density of wildlife inhabiting the crater and surrounding areas throughout the year, which may be the highest in Africa; the presence of critically endangered species, such as the black rhino; and the annual migration of wildebeests, zebras, Grant’s and Thompson’s gazelles and other ungulates make the Ngorongoro Crater globally important for biodiversity conservation.
This World Heritage site also includes the Olduvai Gorge, a 30-mile-long, 295-foot-deep ravine that is one of the most valuable paleoanthropological locations in the world. For more than 80 years, the gorge has been subject to extensive archaeological research, yielding a long sequence of human-evolution evidence and human-environment dynamics that span almost 4 million years.
• Rock-Hewn Churches, Lalibela, Ethiopia. Carved into a rocky massif that sits about 8,600 feet above sea level at the base of Mount Abuna Yosef, the Rock-Hewn Churches of Lalibela in Ethiopia take their form, orientation and placement from geological features. Rather than being constructed in a traditional way, the churches were hewn from monolithic, stone blocks. These rocks were further chiseled out, forming columns, doors, floors, roofs and windows.
While precise dating for the complex has yet to be determined, scholars generally agree that it was built in four or five phases between the seventh and 13th centuries.
Asia and the Pacific
• Chitwan National Park, Nepal. A subtropical lowland, Chitwan National Park in Nepal is wedged between two east-west river valleys at the base of the Siwalik Range in the Outer Himalayas.
• Kaziranga National Park, India. Located in the State of Assam, Kaziranga National Park is the single largest undisturbed and representative area in the Brahmaputra Valley floodplain. Inhabited by the world’s largest population of greater one-horned rhinoceroses—as well as moon bears (Asiatic black bears), sloth bears, elephants, panthers, tigers and thousands of birds—Kaziranga is regarded as one of the finest wildlife havens in the world.
• Alto Douro Wine Region, Portugal. For more than 2,000 years, traditional landholders in Portugal’s Alto Douro Region have produced wine. Throughout the centuries, row upon row of terraces have been built with various techniques. The earliest, employed before 1860, was socalcos, narrow and irregular terraces buttressed by walls of schist that required continuous maintenance and upon which only one or two rows of vines could be planted.
The Douro vineyards were rebuilt at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century into long lines of continuous, regularly shaped terraces. The new terraces altered the landscape, not only because of the monumental walls that were built but also owing to the fact that they were wider and slightly sloping to ensure that the vines would be better exposed to the sun.
This long tradition of wine production has produced a visually dramatic terrain that is a reflection of its economic, social and technological evolution.
• The Dolomites, Italy. The Dolomites are widely regarded as being among the most attractive and exceptional mountain landscapes in the world. Their beauty derives from a constellation of spectacular vertical forms—such as 5,000-foot pinnacles, spires and towers—with contrasting horizontal surfaces that include crags, ledges and plateaus. Colors range from bare, pale-looking rock surfaces on high to deep-green forests and meadows below.
Geologist pioneers were the first to be captured by these dolomite walls, and their writings and subsequent paintings and photographs further underlined their aesthetic appeal.
• Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia. A forest reserve in central Croatia, Plitvice Lakes National Park was inscribed on the World Heritage List for both its ecological and geological values.
The waters flowing over the limestone and chalk here have, over thousands of years, deposited travertine barriers, creating natural dams which in turn have created a series of beautiful caves, lakes and waterfalls. The park’s forests are home to Eurasian brown bears, lynx, wolves and many rare bird species.
• Rhaetian Railway in the Albula/Bernina Landscapes, Italy and Switzerland. According to UNESCO, the Rhaetian Railway in the Albula/Bernina Landscapes constitutes an “outstanding technical, architectural and environmental ensemble and embodies architectural and civil engineering achievements, in harmony with the landscapes through which they pass.”
The two historic railway lines cross the Swiss Alps through two mountain gaps. Opened in 1904, the 41-mile-long Albula line features more than 40 tunnels and covered galleries, and almost 150 viaducts and bridges. The 38-mile-long Bernina line, opened in 1910, includes more than 10 tunnels and galleries, and over 50 viaducts and bridges. Yet, the railway blends in harmoniously with its alpine environment.
Not only is it noteworthy on the physical level, but the railway’s socioeconomic impacts on mountain life were substantial, overcoming the early-20th-century isolation of settlements in the Central Alps.
• Vatnajokull National Park–Dynamic Nature of Fire and Ice, Iceland. Vatnajokull National Park comprises an entire ecosystem where magma and the lithosphere are constantly interacting with the atmosphere, cryosphere and hydrosphere to create extremely diverse and dynamic geological processes and landforms. The park has 10 central volcanoes, eight of which are subglacial. Two of these are among the most active in Iceland, and it was here that Iceland’s descriptive phrase “fire and ice” was coined.
The Vatnajokull ice cap reached its greatest extent by the end of the 18th century and has on average been retreating since then. Recently, its pullback has accelerated in response to global warming, making the park a prime spot for exploring the impacts of climate change on glaciers and the geomorphologies they leave behind. The volcanic zones hold endemic groundwater fauna that has survived the Ice Age, and single-celled organisms prosper in inhospitable subglacial lakes that may replicate conditions on early Earth and the icy satellites of Jupiter and Saturn.
Mexico and Central America
• Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System, Belize. Charles Darwin once referred to what is now known as the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System “as the most remarkable reef in the West Indies.” This pristine ecosystem—composed of approximately 450 mangrove and sand cays—provides critical habitat for a number of threatened marine animals and species of conservation concern, such as the American crocodile, green turtle, hawksbill turtle, loggerhead turtle and West Indian manatee, as well as endemic and migratory birds that reproduce in the littoral forests of atolls, cays and coastal areas.
Approximately 247 types of marine flora and more than 500 fish, 65 corals, 45 hydroids and 350 mollusks have been identified within the complex, in addition to a great diversity of crustaceans, marine worms and sponges.
• Pre-Columbian Chiefdom Settlements with Stone Spheres of the Diquis, Costa Rica. Considered unique examples of the economic, political and social systems of A.D. 500–1500, the four archaeological sites located in the Diquis Delta in southern Costa Rica contain burial sites, mounds, paved areas and, most significantly, a collection of stone spheres, whose meaning, use and production remain a mystery.
Discovered in the 1930s when the United Fruit Company was clearing land for banana plantations, the spheres are distinctive for their perfection, density, number, size and placement in their original locations. Their preservation from the looting that befell the vast majority of archaeological sites in Costa Rica has been attributed to the thick layers of sediment that kept them buried for centuries.
• Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, Mexico. Every year, millions of monarch butterflies return to the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in Mexico, a key overwintering site. The monumental numbers of these colorful insects bend tree branches with their sheer weight, and they fill the sky when taking flight. The beating of so many gossamer wings makes a sound like light rain. Witnessing this unique phenomenon is truly an exceptional nature experience.
• Whale Sanctuary of El Vizcaino, Mexico. Located in the central part of the Baja California Peninsula, the Whale Sanctuary of El Vizcaino encompasses the coastal lagoons of Ojo de Liebre and San Ignacio, important reproduction and wintering sites for blue whales, California sea lions, harbor seals, northern elephant seals and the once-endangered Eastern subpopulation of the North Pacific gray whale. The lagoons are also home to four species of endangered marine turtles.
The protection of these winter breeding grounds has been paramount in the recovery of the gray whale after near-extinction as a result of commercial whaling, including in these very lagoons. Most of the subpopulation migrates between the lagoons and summer feeding grounds in the Beaufort, Bering and Chukchi Seas.
Countless breeding and migratory bird species—including a major resident osprey population and more than half of Mexico’s wintering population of brant geese—depend on the lagoons and adjacent habitats. This exceptional sanctuary conserves both marine and terrestrial ecosystems and their delicate interface. The surrounding desert, biogeographically part of the Sonoran Desert, boasts highly diverse flora and fauna.
• Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks, Canada. With rugged peaks, alpine meadows, deeply incised canyons, glaciers, ice fields, extensive cave systems, lakes and waterfalls, the seven parks of the Canadian Rockies possess exceptional scenic splendor.
Together, Banff, Jasper, Kootenay and Yoho National Parks and Hamber, Mount Assiniboine and Mount Robson Provincial Parks are classic illustrations of glacial geological processes. The Burgess Shale Cambrian and nearby Precambrian sites contain significant information about the Earth’s evolution.
• Galapagos Islands, Ecuador. Located at the confluence of three ocean currents, the 19 Galapagos Islands and their surrounding ocean waters make up one of the richest land-and-marine ecosystems in the world.
Seismic and volcanic activity—which is still ongoing—and the extreme isolation of the islands led to the development of unusual animal life, such as many types of finch, the giant tortoise and the land iguana. Following his visit in 1835, Charles Darwin was inspired to advance his theory of evolution by natural selection.
The Galapagos Islands are one of the rare places where the animals far outnumber the people. In fact, only five of the islands are inhabited.
• Historic Sanctuary of Machu Picchu, Peru. Embedded within a dramatic landscape between the Amazon Basin and the Peruvian Andes, the Historic Sanctuary of Machu Picchu is among the greatest architectural, artistic and land use achievements anywhere, and it is the most significant tangible legacy of the Inca civilization.
Built in the 15th century, the approximately 200 structures that make up this outstanding agricultural, astronomical, ceremonial and religious center are set on a steep ridge, crisscrossed by stone terraces. The city is divided into a lower and upper part, separating the farming and residential areas with a large square between the two. To this day, many of Machu Picchu’s mysteries remain unsolved, including the exact role it may have played in the Incas’ sophisticated understanding of astronomy and domestication of wild plants.
Machu Picchu was abandoned when the Inca Empire was conquered by the Spaniards in the 16th century, but it was not until 1911 that it was made known to the outside world.
• Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina. The aptly named Los Glaciares National Park is home to glacial lakes and numerous, massive glaciers, including the 37-mile-long Upsala Glacier. At the farthest end of the park, three glaciers meet to deposit their effluvia into milky-gray, glacial waters, launching gigantic icebergs into the lake with thunderous splashes. The park stretches across 1,480 acres, making it one of the most impressive—and astoundingly beautiful—areas in southern Argentina.
• Pantanal Conservation Area, Brazil. While the Pantanal Conservation Area represents only 1.3 percent of Brazil’s Pantanal region (one of the largest tropical wetlands in the world, covering 75,000 square miles), it is of sufficient size to ensure the continuity of its ecological processes. The transition between the seasonally flooded areas and the Amolar Mountain Ridge, which has a maximum altitude of almost 3,000 feet, is abrupt. This gradient is unique to the whole Pantanal region and offers a dramatic landscape.
Located between the river basins of the Cuiaba and the Paraguay, the site plays a key role in the spreading of nutritive materials during flooding, as well as in the maintenance of fish stocks. It also protects numerous threatened species, such as the giant anteater, giant armadillo, marsh deer, giant otter and the hyacinth macaw, the largest species of parrot. The jaguar population in the conservation area is probably the largest in the entire Pantanal. The number of aquatic plant species found here is also remarkable.
• Grand Canyon National Park, United States. Dubbed “the most spectacular gorge in the world,” the horizontal layers of Arizona’s Grand Canyon National Park retrace the geological history of the past 2 billion years.
The park’s visually powerful landscapes are celebrated for their plunging depths; altitudinous plateaus; temple-like buttes; winding, white-water rivers; and expansive, multihued, labyrinthine topography.
One of the things I like best about UNESCO is the organization’s name. It includes the words educational, scientific and cultural. For me, those three adjectives sum up what travel is all about: science-based learning and genuine interactions with local people; some of whom, it is hoped, are unlike ourselves.
And aren’t those very things—education, science and culture—to paraphrase UNESCO, our “irreplaceable sources of inspiration”?
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,