10 Places that SHOULD be UNESCO World Heritage Sites

UNESCO is probably the most interesting and functional UN branch (sorry Security Council). It is dedicated to use its resources to promote education, science, and culture in the world by funding their maintenance and promotion. One example of an amazing cooperation effort for the sake of science is the formation of CERN. In case you have been living under a rock, the scientists at CERN are the creators of the Large Hadron Collider, which recently proved where gravity comes from, a previously unknown boson, disproving the widely held belief that it was magic.

In 1954, a crisis arose (cue dramatic music) as the planned Aswan Dam in Egypt would have effectively destroyed the Abu Simbel Temples, some of the most stunning and iconic structures of ancient Egypt. UNESCO sprung into action! A set of over 50 countries scrapped together some 40 million USD of the necessary 80 million to relocate the temple to higher ground. Egypt got its dam, the world kept a marvel, and no country felt an enormous financial strain as everyone chipped in a little. Win-Win-Win.

From this, UNESCO brainstormed the idea of having a list of places around the world that members would recognize as having universal value to all of humanity. For better or for worse, UNESCO often distances itself from the politics that govern our planet, evident in the recent addition of Kaesong in North Korea, despite that country’s human rights record.

While UNESCO and its so called UNESCO World Heritage Sites are a fantastic guide to some of the best things to see in the world, they sometimes really drop the ball. These are 10 places around the world that UNESCO has shockingly not given World Heritage status.

10) Bio Sphere 2, (Arizona, USA)

Biosphere 2 - UNESCO

The biosphere 2 is one of the most incredible structures with immense scientific ramifications. While most readers have probably never heard of it, it is our key to future colonization of the solar system. It is a structure built out in the Arizona desert which is completely enclosed and self-supportive. With the exception of electricity, everything is generated inside of the glass domes. Food, soil, animals, oxygen, and even water are all recycled and nothing goes in or out. It is pretty much those domes you might have seen in a science fiction show or movie.

But, is it realistic for people to live inside? Well, they have! For two years, a group of eight scientists lived in the dome, along with many different plant and animal species, proving that such technology is no longer science fiction. While the project proved to have its difficulties, and the volunteers admitted to hating each other’s guts by the end, I can’t help but be optimistic. In case you were wondering, Biosphere 1 would be the Earth. For further reading, check out  The Human Experiment: Two Years and Twenty minutes inside of Biosphere 2 by Jane Poynter, a book detailing the adventure.


9) Tulum (Quintana Roo, Mexico)

Ruins of Tulum

When we think about ancient Mayan ruins, Chichen Itza, Tikal, and Palenque are clearly the best known sites. Tulum, however, is one of the best preserved ruins in quite an incredible setting. The port city of Tulum lies at the edge of the Yucatan peninsula overlooking the Caribbean sea. Its waters have been named one of the top beaches in the world and is often considered one of Mexico’s best kept secret.

The Maya city was at its height towards the end of Maya rule from the 13th-15th centuries. Despite Spanish incursion however, it continued to survive almost a century after the conquest by Hernan Cortez. It is believed that it was eventually abandoned as disease swept through the area as it did in much of Meso-America. Today, the ruins are almost completely restored. It holds an incredible amount of history without the ridiculous crowds at much more popular sites.


8) Gyeongbok Palace (Seoul, South Korea)

Gyeongbok Palace - UNESCO

Gyeongbok Palace is a majestic palace in Korea, and one of the most magnificent structures in the east Asian region. Traditions such as the making of spices in the specially designated jar room and the almost hourly changing of the guards makes this quite a special place. The pond towards the back of the palace is a beautiful turquoise from spring-fall and freezes to give a splendid reflection in the winter. As one of the five main palaces, Gyeongbok-gung is the largest and oldest, and it actually predates the “Forbidden City” palace in Beijing, China (which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site) by about a decade (not that anyone is counting). Although it has been burned down and rebuilt on two separate occasions, it is still worthy of UNESCO World Heritage status as it is the legacy of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1911), the longest lasting kingdom in Korean history.


7) Huacachina (Ica, Peru)

Huacachina Oasis

How many of us can say that we have been to a true oasis? I am not talking about that little patch of grass you found in the desert. I am talking about a full blown lake in the middle of a huge sand dune with no natural vegetation as far as the eye can see. If you have never traveled beyond the Americas, chances are, you either went to Huacachina, or you have never seen one.

Huacachina is often called the Oasis of the Americas, and for good reason. The incredibly rare natural phenomenon has not been observed in our hemisphere anywhere else besides this little known spot in Peru. Huacachina is a dream come true, with sand boarding, dune buggies, and of course, hammocks to just relax and let your worries float away.

Bonus: Check out these cool videos of sandboarding too!


6) Native American Reservations (Across the USA)

Paiute Leader
The former chief of the Paiute playing an ancient tune.

While it is not often that UNESCO allows such a strange submission to become a world heritage site, it is definitely not unheard of. Native American Reservations in the US need to be admitted and protected as World Heritage Sites as soon as possible to prevent their extinction.

Today, there are over 300 Indian reservations in the United States with almost a million families living in them. While this may seem like a healthy number, their culture is quickly dying out. There is constant pressure to stay in the reservation while the reality of things is, there are few opportunities for the youth. One example would be the Paiute tribe where about 500 speak the language but just a handful of natives (none of them young) are versed enough to teach it. By accepting Native American Reservations as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it will bring awareness and hopefully a nice amount of tourism which can support this sinking ship.


5) Cenotes of the Yucatan (Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico)


The Grand Cenote in Chichen Itza
The Grand Cenote in Chichen Itza

Another fascinating wonder of the Yucatan peninsula comes in the form of this natural phenomenon known as a ‘cenote.’ A cenote is loosely translated to mean “sinkhole” which doesn’t really begin to describe them. They can be thought of as lakes that are fed by an underground river network. While they are rare occurrences throughout the world, the group in the Yucatan peninsula numbers in the hundreds.

More incredible is the location of the cenotes. They occur most densely in a semi circle, perfectly outlining the Chicxulub Crater, the impact crater off the cost of Mexico which is thought to have caused the extinction of the dinosaurs 66 million years ago. Not only are they rare and beautiful, but they may be the legacy of the space rock that seriously altered the evolution of our planet and allowed mammals to become dominant.

If that isn’t enough, let’s go back to the Maya. They believed cenotes to be sacred and even used them in many of their sacrificial ceremonies. The archaeological site of Chichen Itza has the “sacred cenote” on one end which is clogged, possibly from all the people they threw down there.


4) Historical Center of Xian (Shaanxi, China)


The Drum Tower of Xi'an
The Drum Tower of Xi’an

The historical center of a preserved city seems to be popular with the world heritage committee. Italy alone has had 7 of its cities’ centers preserved as WHS, and they would add more if they could. Therefore, it is incredibly puzzling how a historical city that is as preserved as Xi’an, China has been snubbed.

Xi’an is one of four cities that have served as capital of China over the millennia. It has been around for over 3000 years and its famous, 12 meter tall city walls tower around the ancient city till this day. The bell tower and drum tower at the center of the city have stood since the 1380s and are excellent places to gaze at the city center in all of its glory. If you are so inclined to fork over a couple of yuan, you can even ring the Bell Tower yourself!


3) Crater Lake (Oregon, USA)


Photo Credit: Zainubrazvi
Photo Credit: Zainubrazvi

While not the largest crater lake in the world, it is certainly one of the prettiest. Crater Lake is a massive lake in the middle of the Oregonian wilderness and is thought to have some of the cleanest water in World. Formed by the eruption of Mt. Mazama 7700 years ago, Crater Lake is the result of centuries of snow and rain at the top of the caldera. It is measured to be almost 600 meters deep and is available for scuba diving. Probably the most distinctive feature of this lake is what looks to be an island in the middle. Good luck getting to it though, as no boats are allowed on the lake itself, so let’s hope you are a good swimmer.


2) Sado Island (South Jeolla, South Korea)

Dinosaurs in Sado

Sado is one of the least known islands that has even locals asking “where is that again?” This little known island lies tucked away off the southern coast of the city of Yeosu, which recently hosted the 2012 World Expo. This small island however, has a big, Jurassic secret. Yes, I am talking dinosaurs!

Southern South Korea (please excuse the apparent redundancy) is one of the main places where you can find dinosaur tracks in the world. While they are not necessarily limited to Sado, this, and neighboring islands, are indeed the epicenter of it all.

If you are a dinosaur fanatic, check out Sado and chances are, you will be the only one there. Despite being listed as a potential world heritage site, very few seem to ever visit unless they are there to fish. Go ahead and try to google “Sado dinosaur” and you will have a really hard time even finding how to get there. In fact, asking about it has been the only time I was able to stump the tourist information hotline in Korea. Quite a shame for such a fantastic paleontological site.

To add more to the mystique of Sado, while it is listed as a separate island on the map, neighboring Cheung-do and JangSado are linked by sand and rocks. A fourth island, Chu-do (which also has dinosaur tracks) is linked as well once a year when the tide falls low enough. Compare this map with this satellite image. Pretty cool huh?


1) Son Doong Cave (Quang Binh, Vietnam)


Photo Credit: www.sondoongcave.org

When it comes to man made things, UNESCO is quick to give it’s seal of approval to the biggest in the world of pretty much every category, the biggest wall (the great one), the biggest pyramids (the ones in giza), and so on. When it comes to natural wonders however, it seems that they really drop the ball.

The cave of Son Doong in Vietnam is the largest and most extensive one in the world. Discovered in 1991 by a local man, it wasn’t revealed to the public until 2009, sparking wonder and amazement. While it is very difficult and expensive to tour the cave at present, accessibility has never been a requirement and should definitely at least be up for consideration. This cave looks to be one of the most incredible natural wonders. Did I mention is has a river running through it?


Got anymore incredible places you feel have been snubbed by UNESCO? Mention them on the comments!

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7 thoughts on “10 Places that SHOULD be UNESCO World Heritage Sites

  • May 10, 2014 at 7:46 am

    Gyeongbokgung Palace is far less preserved and authentic compared to Changdeokgung. Secondly, when it was rebuilt in the 1880’s it was built in a very different style than the original palace that had been left in ruins for over two centuries. Even the unique structures from the1880’s palace barely exist, indeed only a select few structures date from this period. Deoksogung actually has a far more realistic chance of being nominated, indeed it has been rumored in Korean news articles as a potential candidate.

    Concerning the Historical Centre of Xi’an, several sites within the city will be inscribed this year in the Chinese Silk Road nomination. Both iconic Tang Dynasty pagodas are included in this nomination. The City Wall is part of a tentative serial nomination called City Walls of the Ming and Qing Dynasty.

    If the Native American reservations were nominated it would be (by far) the largest Cultural world heritage site in the world. Navajo nation itself is larger than West Virginia (and some European countries). While a great proposal, it could never be managed as a group or even cataloged properly. You might as well nominate France or Turkey as a whole! What should happen, is their should be more consultation between Tribal governments and the NPS to nominate representative sites within Native reservations.

    Navajo Nation:
    – Monument Valley
    – Canyon de Chelly
    – Wuptaki National Monument (just west of tribal land)

    New Mexico Pueblo Tribes
    – Acoma Pueblo
    – Zuni Pueblo

    – Black Hills Cultural Landscape
    – Wounded Knee

    Fort Berthold Indian Reservation
    – Knife River Indian Villages (just south of tribal land)

    • May 13, 2014 at 2:28 pm

      I know Gyeongbokgung’s potential is minimal, but dammit I just love that palace. Changing the original plans isn’t that uncommon though. Nara in Japan had its main building burn to the ground and it was rebuilt much smaller than before (but is still the largest wooden building in the world). Ideally, I think it would be nice to expand Changdeokgung’s WHS status to all 5 palaces, which would give more resources to rebuild the ugly ducklings like Gyeonghuigung. You’re right that deoksogung has more potential, but I doubt they will just award every individual palace.

      I like the Xian idea, and I assume this will include the stone pagoda in downtown Xi’an? Have you seen that one? While the pagoda itself is pretty cool, it is right in front of one of the most amazing musical fountains in the world! Here is a great shot of the fountain and the pagoda at #6:
      Notice banpo’s fountain on the Han river is also on there… -_-.

      I like your Native American idea, but from an international stanpoint, UNESCO status would go a long way. It would be really hard though. The Pueblo already have 3 sites though (Taos, Chaco Canyon, Mesa Verde), but if Acoma and Zuni are as remarkable, they definitely deserve it.

      Thanks for your continuous contributions. I originally replied to this on my phone but I guess it didn’t post.

      • May 17, 2014 at 1:32 am

        Yes, for Xi’an both the Great Wild Goose Pagoda and the Small Wild Goose Pagoda will be inscribed in the massive serial nomination, “Chinese Silk Road”.

        I guess another difficulty with UNESCO status for Native lands is they are all run individually. Navajo nation has a president, other small tribes have councils, some have chiefs. Moreover, many tribes do not want many visitors. UNESCO could never approve a management plan, buffer zone, or coordinated monitoring.

        Acoma Pueblo is also known as “Sky City”, but I doubt the local people would want tourists visiting their traditional village. Zuni Pueblo is visited more, both are considered the best preserved pueblo’s with the exception of Taos Pueblo. As you mentioned the Ancient Puebloan cultures have (3) world heritage sites, also (1) in Northern Mexico. Wuptaki National Monument, near Flagstaff, is a Sinagua site, currently not represented on the world heritage list. Monument Valley and Canyon de Chelly could potentially be inscribed under “mixed” criteria or as a cultural landscape. Nevertheless, there will be more “Mound Culture’s” that will eventually be inscribed from the US Tentative list.

        “Thanks for your continuous contributions.”

        I enjoy your blog, I guess a lot of your experience correlate with mine. Korea, Mexico, California, American Southwest. Definitely places I am very interested in.

    • August 26, 2015 at 7:06 pm

      For reals. Tulum is pretty cool and so close to a lot of awesome places. You know my bias so I went to the UNESCO site Sian Kaan too :).
      Thanks Agness!

  • March 12, 2018 at 2:29 pm

    your site lies. son doong caves are actually on the list

    • December 30, 2018 at 6:10 pm

      Looks like you’re right. I didn’t realize it was part of the Phong Nha Ke Bang site since it was first explored in 2009 and I only checked records from then on. Good catch!


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