If planet earth and the human race had family heirlooms, UNESCO World Heritage sites would be among them. Over the years, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) list committee has honored some 1,121 singular landmarks and destinations—from Argentina’s spectacular Iguazu Falls National Park to the 18th-century city of Jaipur in India—as places of vital natural and cultural heritage. The sites must have “the highest legal protection” from the country nominating them before UNESCO vets them for cultural and natural value. According to Paris-based Dr. Mechtild Rössler, director of the UNESCO World Heritage Centre, inscription can help with international support to safeguard a site, including financial assistance, sharing of expertise and, in case of conflicts, UN protection. Even if inscription does not bring direct funds from UNESCO, heritage sites create pride on a local level and bring international attention. Last summer, UNESCO inscribed 29 new sites that show our world is still wildly variegated and wonderful. Here, a look at the ones we find most fascinating.
The 20th-Century Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, United States
Be it a spiraling white art museum that stands out against the grid of Manhattan, or a modernist home cantilevered over a waterfall in rural Mill Run, Pennsylvania (about 60 miles southeast of Pittsburgh), Frank Lloyd Wright’s work helped define and elevate architecture in the 20th century and impacted design worldwide. Both of these sites—the Guggenheim Museum (which turns 60 this month) and Fallingwater house¬—now enjoy UNESCO designation, along with six more of the architect’s buildings. The Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy and the United States National Park Service had vied for this recognition for more than 15 years.
“Wright embraced the outdoors—his organic pared-down architecture influenced the design of churches, museums and homes everywhere,” says Barbara Gordon, executive director of the Conservancy in Chicago.
Paraty and Ilha Grande, Brazil
Under president Jair Bolsonaro, elected October 2018, Brazil is facing environmental scrutiny, with once-protected lands opened to industry or threatened by fires. The trend puts even more importance on the UNESCO designation of the town of Paraty and surrounding natural areas, including Ilha Grande State Park, only 70 miles west of Rio’s urban throng. The area, known as the Green Coast, is a lush and rugged stretch of Atlantic rain forest where 6,500-foot peaks plunge to tropical seas lined with mangroves and reefs. The result is profound biodiversity in a concentrated area, with some 27 species of reptiles and 150 species of mammals, including threatened animals such as jaguars and woolly spider monkeys. The area is also home to traditional communities like the Caiçara, Guaraní and Quilombola.
Not all the heritage is beautiful, but it’s certainly worth noting. The port town of Paraty, with its well-preserved colonial architecture, was part of the 17th-century gold route, and a major port for enslaved Africans who were forced to work in Brazilian gold mines.
She notes that making the World Heritage list helps to also bring attention to more than 400 of Wright’s buildings around the world.
Budj Bim Cultural Landscape, Australia
The Gunditjmara—an Aboriginal nation in southeastern Australia—are deeply rooted in a unique landscape created by the interplay of the Budj Bim lava flows and the wetlands of Lake Condah. Over the course of 6,000 years, the Gunditjmara used the ancient lava flows to create dams, weirs and channels to trap and harvest kooyang (eels). In the process, they created one of the world’s oldest and most comprehensive aquaculture systems.
Through the generations of Gunditjmara working the lava flows, kooyang have come to both sustain the group economically and shape them culturally. In the end, food is culture, as Dr. Rössler notes, “Ensuring sustainability of food resources is important to both physical survival and forming cultural identity, from rituals to oral history.”
Risco Caído and the Sacred Mountains of Gran Canaria Cultural Landscape, Canary Islands
In the mountains of gran canaria, one of the islands in the Canary archipelago off Morocco, sits Risco Caído, an area of ravines, volcanic formations, rich biodiversity and ceremonial importance. Long before the Spanish conquest in the 15th century, Risco Caído served as a western outpost for the North African Berber Maghreb, who occupied caves and used the landscape for some 1,500 years.
The remains of their ancient settlements, with underground cisterns and granaries, have endured; prehistoric strains of barley found in the granaries can be traced back to northern Morocco, and have the same genetic makeup as contemporary barley on the island. Hints of the culture’s artistic and spiritual life endure as well, via rock art and sacred temples at Risco Caído and Roque Bentayga, where it’s believed inhabitants performed ceremonies honoring Mother Earth and the stars.
Seowon, Korean Neo-Confucian Academies, South Korea
Confucianism attracted wealthy scholars and had elite connotations, but Chinese Neo-Confucianism, which surged in Korea in the 16th century, added the twist that everyone could attain the higher goal of rationalism through displays of dignity and morality. A series of academies, or seowon, taught these beliefs in Korea with the goal of better understanding the outside world and the inner universe of the self. The structures were made of wood and stone, in a pavilion-style meant to connect students with the landscape, looking out over mountains, lakes and rivers: Tasty scenery was part of the spiritual equation, thought to enhance physical and mental well-being. The seowons are still beautiful and serene, the ultimate indulgence for contemporary travelers.
Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park / Áísínai’pi, Canada
The northern end of the Great Plains is rich with spiritual powers for the Blackfoot Confederacy, with archaeological remains dating back 4,500 years. Just over the border from Montana, the Milk River Valley features columns of rocks weathered into eerie obelisks by erosion, while along the sandstone walls of the valley, thousands of Blackfoot Confederacy paintings, drawings and carvings survive, documenting the battles of warriors and historical moments, such as the arrival of horses and the first automobile.
The area, protected by the Provincial Parks Act of Alberta, is still used for Blackfoot ceremonies.
To Aaron Domes, supervisor of Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park / Áísínai’pi, the rock art “tells a story of indigenous life before, during and after the arrival of Europeans to North America. Visitors become immersed in the park’s landscape, history and the cultural traditions that continue to be practiced here.”
Migratory Bird Sanctuaries Along the Coast of the Yellow Sea Bohai Gulf, China
Just north of Shanghai, the world’s largest intertidal mudflat system is crucial to animals that don’t adhere to international boundaries. The area, featuring a vast expanse of marshes, is a breeding ground for an array of crustaceans and fish, and globally significant to huge gatherings of endangered migratory birds that trek from the Arctic to Southeast Asia and Australia. Case in point: More than 90 percent of the world’s endangered spoon-billed sandpipers—birds that summer and breed in Siberia and winter in Bangladesh and Thailand—stop at this sanctuary. To Dr. Rössler, remarkable places like the Bohai Gulf, which abuts intensely urban areas, connect entire regions of the world ecologically, and prove that “when people come and see these sites, they experience a heritage of outstanding universal value.”
Vatnajökull National Park, Iceland
In Iceland, global warming has sped up the retreat of the Vatnajökull ice cap inside Vatnajökull National Park, which covers about 12 percent of the island nation. The park features 10 volcanoes, including eight sub-glacial volcanoes and two highly active ones, with the most recent eruption occurring in 2015.
This is an arena for the tensions between fire and ice. During eruptions, the park is home to the jökulhlaup, floods created by lava releasing pent-up water from glaciers. Through the years, the jökulhlaup has produced new rivers and canyons, resulting in a volatile wonderland in constant flux. For Dr. Rössler, Vatnajökull National Park is “an exceptional and evolving natural landscape.”
The Hills of Prosecco, Italy
Viticulture in the Veneto region of Italy, surrounding Venice and reaching north of the Dolomite Mountains, dates back to 181 B.C. The rugged terrain in the northern stretches of the Province of Treviso, which today produces prosecco, is home to the unique ciglioni technique. Daunting inclines on the region’s dense hogback hills forced vintners to adapt by growing modest patches of vines on narrow terraces, resulting in fantastic checkerboard vistas of vines, farmhouses and forests. Over the years, the topography has become a kind of evolving earth art dedicated to wine.
Little has changed over the past 200 years here, and to Dr. Rössler, this remarkable slice of Italy is another example of wine meeting culture, “expressed through art, such as the 15th-century paintings by Giovanni Battista Cima da Conegliano, and the built heritage of terraces for wine production—part of the culture for centuries.”
French Austral Lands and Seas, Indian Ocean
In the southern part of the Indian Ocean, between South Africa and Antarctica, the French Austral Lands and Seas are a volcanic terrain that includes the Crozet Archipelago and the Kerguelen Islands. The area is remote enough to be relatively safe from commercial fishing—there are still more than 383 species of coastal fish and 14 species of sharks. The vitality of the seas supports the world’s second largest population of southern elephant seals, as well as roughly 50 million birds (some 47 species), including the largest populations of king penguins and yellow-nosed albatrosses in the world, and the exceptionally rare Amsterdam albatross. To top it off, humpback whales, which the traditional culture there views as mythic beings able to help lost travelers, are part of an ecotourism industry that attracts roughly a thousand visitors a year.