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)
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)
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 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)
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)
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)
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 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)
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)
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)
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!
- Top 80 Things to do in Korea OUTSIDE of Seoul (2022) - September 12, 2022
- Mulu National Park Review | UNESCO World Heritage Site - August 7, 2022
- Off the Beaten Path in Korea: Beyond Seoul and Busan - July 14, 2022