Although the recognition of a place as a UNESCO World Heritage Site may often seem like a cliché to which we do not pay much attention anymore, it represents a significant victory for humanity and civilization. Over the centuries, wars, hostilities, and power conflicts have destroyed countless symbols of our heritage, leaving the next generations poorer and crippled. However, since 1972, we have managed to legally and consciously unite towards preserving what our ancestors or nature have bequeathed upon us, for the first time protecting these gifts with international treaties and laws. It is a significant accomplishment for our destruction-prone species and, as such, it should be recognized, respected, and valued.
The list of World Heritage Sites keeps increasing every year. Some of the places are already well-known, while others remain hidden gems waiting to be explored and cherished. Here, we share our favorite ones to be added in your 2020 plans and bucket list. We are confident that their exploration will not only fill your photo albums with fantastic memories but, above all, will leave you enriched and with a higher sense of gratitude for the world that surrounds us. Let us be curious, adventurous, and ambitious and, let us check in 12 months who will have ticked most of the below off their list!
We start with Ethiopia, a country that already boasts nine UNESCO sites, though we prefer to focus here only on three:
The old, walled city of Harar
Harar was a major commercial center, linked through the trade routes with the rest of Ethiopia, the entire Horn of Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and, through its ports, the outside world. It is sometimes known in Arabic as "the City of Saints" and is considered 'the fourth holy city' of Islam" with 82 mosques (three of which date from the 10th century), and 102 shrines.
The Rock-hewn Churches of Lalibela
The town of Lalibela was named after King Lalibela of the Zagwe Dynasty (late 12th, early 13th century), who commissioned the massive building project of 11 rock-hewn churches to recreate the holy city of Jerusalem in his own kingdom. The site remains in use by the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian Church and represents a significant pilgrimage destination for the Ethiopian Orthodox worshipers.
The Lower Omo Valley
The pre-historic sedimentary deposits in the Lower Omo Valley are renowned for the discovery of many hominid fossils: the remains of the earliest, well-dated anatomically modern humans unearthed till now. Based on these excavations, our study of our human evolution was significantly influenced, leading to exciting results. The interaction of any visitor with the tribal communities living there is an additional gift.
Moving to Jordan with its five UNESCO World Heritage Sites, we choose the following two:
The Protected Area of Wadi Rum
Wadi Rum combines both natural beauty and cultural significance. Its range of narrow gorges, natural arches, towering cliffs, ramps, massive landslides and caverns that blends with thousands of petroglyphs, inscriptions and archaeological remains testify to 12,000 years of human occupation and interaction with the natural environment.
Thanks to Hollywood, Petra needs little introduction as its stone-carved structures are recognized the world over. The capital of the Nabataeans leaves everyone speechless with its wealth, size, beauty, and architecture.
Next stop: Laos and the town of Luang Prabang which is an outstanding fusion of traditional, urban Lao architecture with structures built during the 19th and 20th-century colonial era. The unique, remarkably well-preserved townscape illustrates a critical stage in the blending of these two distinct cultural traditions and leaves every visitor speechless with its beauty.
Off to our beloved Nepal and its two treasures:
The Sagarmatha National Park
Sagarmatha is an exceptional area with sentimental value to all hikers heading to Everest Base Camp or Mt. Everest itself. With dramatic mountains, glaciers, deep valleys, and the highest peak in the world, Sagarmatha Park is also home to several rare species, such as the snow leopard or the lesser panda. The presence of the Sherpas, with their unique culture, adds further interest to this site.
The cultural heritage of the Kathmandu Valley is illustrated by seven groups of monuments and buildings which display the full range of historic and artistic achievements for which the area is famous. These include the Durbar Squares of Hanuman Dhoka, Patan and Bhaktapur, the Buddhist stupas of Swayambhu and Bauddhanath, and the Hindu temples of Pashupati and Changu Narayan.
Peru, with its rich heritage, does not come as a surprise in this list. From its 12 UNESCO World Heritage Sites we choose the obvious two:
This stunning city was probably the most amazing urban creation of the Inca Empire at its peak. Built at an altitude of 2,430 m, on the eastern slopes of the Andes, amidst a tropical mountain forest with rich biodiversity, Machu Picchu boasts giant walls, terraces, and ramps, all a testament to the Incas’ architectural and engineering skills. The site maintains its mysterious and spiritual qualities, attracting so many visitors per day that measures had to be taken for its added protection.
Situated in the Peruvian Andes, Cuzco developed, under the Inca ruler Pachacutec, into a sophisticated urban center with distinct religious and administrative functions, surrounded by clearly delineated areas for agricultural, artisan and industrial production. When the Spaniards conquered it in the 16th century, they preserved the basic structure but built Baroque churches and palaces over the ruins of the Inca city. Today, the combination of the Inca and Spanish heritage, along with the artistic creations of modern Peruvians turn Cusco into one of the most charming towns in the world.
From the West to the East: our next stop is the Philippines and the amazing El Nido-Taytay Manged Resource Protected Area. It covers over 36,000 hectares of land and 54,000 hectares of marine waters and contains towering limestone cliffs, beaches, mangroves, clear waters, unique forests over limestone and neat farmlands. It is home to five species of mammals, including the Malayan Pangolin and 16 bird species, endemic to Palawan including the threatened Palawan Peacock Pheasant, the Palawan Hornbill and Palawan Scops Owl. Bacuit bay is also home to the dugong, dolphins and marine turtles, many of which are threatened species. Colorful coral reef fishes like butterflyfishes, parrotfishes, wrasses, triggerfishes, angelfishes, surgeonfishes, damselfishes, emperors, snappers, groupers and rabbit fishes are also found here, the lot making the exploration of this natural treasure a fascinating adventure.
Our last picks are all from Africa: South Africa, Zanzibar, Tunisia, and Zimbabwe. In more details:
The Table Mountain (South Africa)
The Table Mountain National Park is part of the broader Cape Floral Region Protected Area: considered one of the most magnificent botanical gardens of the world, as it contains nearly 20% of Africa’s total flora.
The Robben Island (South Africa)
Robben Island is a huge part of both Cape Town’s and South Africa’s history, as Nelson Mandela was held prisoner there for 18 out of the total 27 years of his imprisonment before the fall of apartheid. The South African Presidents Kgalema Motlanthe and Jacob Zuma also spent time on Robben Island.
The Stone Town (Tanzania/Zanzibar)
The Stone Town of Zanzibar is a beautiful example of an Eastern African, Swahili coastal trading town. Its urban fabric and townscape remain almost intact, while its buildings reflect the unique blend of African, Arabic, Indian, and European elements that have amalgamated into the distinctive culture of the town.
The Ichkuel National Park (Tunisia)
The Ichkeul Park (a large wetland) is a major stopover point for hundreds of thousands of migrating birds, such as ducks, geese, storks and pink flamingoes, that come to feed and nest there. Ichkeul is the last remaining lake in a chain that once extended across North Africa.
The Mosi-oa-Tunya / Victoria Falls (Zimbabwe)
These are among the most spectacular waterfalls in the world. The Zambezi River, which is more than 2 km wide at this point, plunges noisily down a series of basalt gorges and raises an iridescent mist that can be seen more than 20 km away.