So what exactly is a World Heritage Site? It is a site the United Nations says is of outstanding universal value. Their selection criteria include things like containing superlative natural phenomena or representing a masterpiece of human creative genius.
Wow, that must be some list. Some of the things on the world heritage list seem obvious: the pyramids, the Taj Mahal and Machu Picchu. Yet there is so much more. I looked through all the sites and listed five of the ones I like here. I stayed away from the really famous sites since most people know what they are, but I’m sure several of you will have heard of more than one of the places listed here.
1. Iguazu Falls (Argentina and Brazil)
Wow. That’s an amazing site. The amount of water that goes over these falls (275 in total) is measured at 450,000 cubic feet (12,750 cubic m) per second. Per second! That equals a little over five Olympic sized swimming pools for every second of every day that it exists. That is a lot of water. The site might look familiar to you since it was used as a location in the Indiana Jones movie, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
According to local legend, the area around the falls was once a river belonging to the Guarani Indians. Every year they would sacrifice a virgin there to a snake god called Boi. One year, the woman who was to be sacrificed was rescued by her lover. Boi became enraged and ripped the river in two as the couple was fleeing by boat. The man was turned into a palm tree and the woman into a rock and were kept on either side of the falls separated forever.
The falls form the border between Argentina and Brazil so they can be accessed on either side. Both sides also have walkways which go over the falls so visitors can get an up-close look of them. The Paseo Garganta del Diablo walkway is one kilometer in length. It lets visitors go out to a point where they are surrounded by 260 degrees.
Upon seeing the Iguazu falls, Eleanor Roosevelt said, “poor Niagara”. Poor Niagara, indeed.
2. Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park (Madagascar)
This park is notable for its rich wildlife, unusual plant life and tsingys. What are tsingys you ask? See that picture above? Those grey limestone structures that jut out of the ground are tsingys and can reach about 100 meters high. Basically, it is a forest of limestone needles. They provide rare lemurs and birds their habitat. The tsingys were formed over thousands of years by groundwater dissolving the rocks. What was left behind is a very surreal landscape from another world.
There are several caves to explore here and also a tomb of the Vazimba tribe, the original inhabitants of Madagascar. On average, they were only one meter tall. Their child sized caskets can still be seen.
If you decide to go here, keep in mind that during the hot season, average temperatures are over 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
3. Petra (Jordan)
Sometime in the 6th Century a group called the Nabataeans decided that they wanted to build some temples, tombs and other buildings. In what was probably a genius move, they decided that they would build them on the side of a mountain by carving into solid rock. This gave them the ability to control a profitable trade route while also giving them the protection of a fortress. Oh, and if this looks familiar to you it is from the Indiana Jones movie, The Last Crusade. I know, I know, what is with my obsession with Indiana Jones movies? Last time I promise.
The people who lived at Petra didn’t stay there long after they had an earthquake in 363. Even though it is described as a lost city, the Bedouins in the area always knew of its existence. It was brought to widespread attention in 1812 when a Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt traveled there.
Keep in mind, when traveling to Petra the only form of transport around the site is by walking or camel. Once you are at the site you must walk through a dim narrow gorge called the siq about one mile in length. At the end of the walk, you come upon the Treasury building in the picture above. It is truly an awe inspiring experience and makes you realize why Petra is often called the “rose red city, half as old as time”.
4. Giant’s Causeway (Ireland)
The oldest of these sites, the Giant’s Causeway were formed about 50-60 million years ago by the volcanic reactions in the area. Highly fluid molten basalt formed a lava plateau. As the plateau cooled it contracted and fractured. It left about 40,000 hexagonal basalt columns.
Legend says that there was a quarrel between two giants and the causeway was built for the fight. Before the fight was to begin, one of the giants fled due to the massive size of the other. As he was fleeing, his boot fell off and even today a huge rock there in the shape of a foot can be seen.
Along with being the oldest site on the list, the Giant’s Causeway is unique in another respect from the others on this list. It is the only one that is free to get into.
The Giant’s Causeway mixes legends of giants, beautiful views and wildlife. The site is a marvel of natural beauty and the breathtaking scenery make this strange feature a memorable experience.
Asia and Australasia:
5. Angkor Wat (Cambodia)
Angkor Wat is a massive site about 1 square kilometer in size. One modern engineer estimated it would have taken 300 years to finish building the site. 300 years! According to modern day estimates, it took only 40 years to finish it. Either the workers were using some fancy building techniques or they did a lot of overtime.
In what appears to be a theme for these World Heritage Sites, the temple was abandoned in the 1400s, but the locals still knew that it was there. It was then brought to attention of the rest of the world in the 19th Century.
Despite being built in the 12th Century, Angkor Wat is still being used as a religious center. It was first Hindi and dedicated to the god Vishnu, but now it is Buddhist. Its Hindu roots are seen in its structure which is supposed to resemble the revered Mount Meru.
It takes at least a couple of days to explore this site. The temple complex is massive and all the bas reliefs and sculptures take a long time to navigate. It is definitely a site you want to take your time exploring.
It is one of the most important archeological sites in the world, one of the most visited World Heritage Sites and so key to Cambodian culture they put it on their flag.
Well, that’s the list of five World Heritage Sites you have to see. A trip to any of these sites is well worth the effort. And there is a lesson to learn from this list: if you live somewhere near a significant archeological find, please let someone know. The world shouldn’t have to wait for someone to “discover” it.