10 of the best UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Latin America
What is UNESCO?
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization is a branch of the United Nations committed to preserving and promoting places of cultural or natural importance. A country must nominate an area or specific landmark to be awarded UNESCO world heritage status outlining its ethical, cultural or natural properties- this is then put to an international committee who make their decision. There are a number of criteria these sites have to follow, so it is not easy to get this prestigious status!
There are an incredible 59 world heritage sites in Latin America and this number is growing as more sites are discovered and awarded this sought after title. In this article we will be outlining ten of our favorites! This is just a taste of the incredible sites Latin America has to offer.
Machu Picchu, Peru
This iconic site stands 2,430m above sea level in a dramatic landscape of mountains, often partly covered by cloud. This ancient city was built all the way back in the 15th Century and was eventually abandoned by in the 16th century when the Spanish conquered the Inca Empire. It was not until 1911 that the first archaeological findings were released to the public, and ever since then it has become the most famous archaeological discovery of the modern day. It is described by UNESCO as “among the greatest artistic, architectural and land use achievements anywhere and the most significant tangible legacy of the Inca civilization”, a fitting tribute to an intriguing area of history.
Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
Famous for having an unquestionable contribution to Charles Darwin's Theory of Natural selection, the Galapagos archipelago is made up of 19 volcanic islands and is it located 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador. An area of unrivalled natural beauty, the archipelago is preserved by numerous conservation projects and travel is limited in order to protect the rare nature of the area. It is home to the majestic giant turtles, land iguanas and many species of finch, including the famous 'Darwin Finches' who were believed to lead Darwin to his conclusions on evolution. This extraordinarily beautiful and fragile ecosystem is home to some species that can be found nowhere else on earth and is vital to scientific studies and discovery.
San Augustin Archaeological Park, Colombia
Declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1995 San Augustín Archaeological Park is a fascinating an intriguing historical site. Situated around 400km South West of Bogotá and near the small town of San Agustín, this site of Archaeological interest is famous for its 600 impressive stone statues depicting people, gods, saints, animals and monsters. These pre-historic monuments stand tall, some as high as 7 meters, and are almost as flawless as the day they were carved. It is thought that the first statues could had been carved as early as 3300 BC, which was an incredible discovery as it suggests that human inhabitants at this time had fundamental stone carving technology, something archaeologists did not think was possible until the discovery of these bewildering statues.
Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina
An area of outstanding beauty, this breath-taking feat of nature has to be seen to be believed! The park is located in the Southwest of Santa Cruz Province in Argentine Patagonia and is famous for its numerous glaciers that span over 600,000 hectares. The most famous is probably the monstrous Perito Moreno Glacier. Sitting in the middle of Lake Argentino the landscape changes dramatically from woodland, to river bank, to this towering giant. As ice shifts you can hear thunderous booms, it is really quite extraordinary. Also, it is one of the only glaciers in the world that is growing not shrinking.
Iguazu falls, Argentine/Brazilian border
These massive, majestic falls are the pride of Latin America. Standing at 80m high and 2,700 m in diameter, Iguazu is made up of 275 separate waterfalls and is nearly twice as tall as Niagara Falls! They span from the Misiones Province in Northern Argentina to the Brazilian state of Parana. The land surrounding the falls is covered in ravine forest and lush, dense vegetation and is home to an incredible diversity of rare animals and plants. Walk ways have been built around the falls so visitors can get the best view. This is part of the conservation project and does not ruin the amazing aesthetic of Iguazu.
Trinidad and the Valley de los Ingenios, Cuba
The beautiful city of Trinidad is located in the central Cuban province of Sancti Spíritus (‘The Holy Spirit’) and, in the late 18th and 19th century, was known for its sugar industry from the surrounding Valley de Los Ingenios (Valley of the Sugar Mills). The town has been excellently persevered and contains only single-family houses alongside its impressive buildings, therefore not given in to the crowding that has happened elsewhere in Cuba. No vehicles are allowed into the centre, protecting it and making for a relaxed and calm atmosphere. In the heart of the historic centre is Plaza Mayor, where you can see grand colonial architecture with buildings dating back to the 18th century such as Church of the Holy Trinity, Brunet Palace which houses the Romantic museum, the House of Mayor Ortiz and the Palacio Cantero which is one of the most impressive buildings on the square. In The surrounding Valley de los Ingenios you can still see former sugar cane mills, plantation houses and other evidence of the past industry that thrived in this area.
Easter Island, Chile
Easter Island is part of Chilean territory – a volcanic island that lies around 3,500km off the coast of Chile. It is famous for its 887 iconic Moai statues carved into head and torso shapes by the Rapa Nui people in around 1250 AD. These mysterious statues stand up to 13 ft tall and weight around 14 tons, it is still a mystery why these statues were carved and how the Rapa Nui people managed to move the gigantic structures into the positions they stand in now. A whole community flourished in this unlikely setting- it was thought the first settlers arrived in around 800 AD and a whole economy was formed by the Rapa Nui, who developed a unique, artistic culture, the likes of which had never been seen before. These impressive statues were a product of this distinct culture and have stood the test of time to this day.
Chichén Itzá, Mexico
The sacred site of Chichén Itzá is located in the Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico and was once the centre of the Mayan Empire in Central America. The site consists of stepped pyramids, temples, columned arcades, and other stone structures which date as far back as A.D. 750. Chichén Itzá was an important ceremonial and religious site as well as a sophisticated urban centre and the heart of regional trade. After centuries of success and affluence, the city met a ‘mysterious end’. The iconic stepped pyramid El Castillo is what first comes to mind when talking about Chichen Itza. This amazing structure is thought to be a representation of the Mayan calendar, as it has 18 terraces on each side, the number of months in the Mayan calendar. Each of the 4 sides has a stair case with 91 steps leading up to the top (365 steps in total, one for each day of the year). The advanced architecture and design of Chichén Itzá is astonishing when you take into account how many years ago it was crafted!
Penínsular Valdes, Patatgonia, Argentina
Penínsular Valdes is located off the coast of Patagonia and is an important site of conservation for marine mammals notably southern right wales, southern elephant seals, sea lions and orcas as conditions are ideal for these animals here. Its spectacular surroundings and possibilities of spotting wildlife in its natural habitat, make it popular for visitors from all over the world. It is known as one of the best locations in the world to get up close and personal with aquatic life. As well as marine life conservation of rhea (of the ostrich family), the guanaco (of the llama family) and the mare (looks like a large hare) is also prevalent.
Historic city of Sucre, Bolivia
Bolivia’s first capital city Sucre, was founded by the Spanish in the 16th century and many of its buildings still show well-preserved 16th century style. The architecture in the city is an excellent blend of local traditional styles, and those imported from Europe, resulting in beautiful buildings surrounding the city. Sucre lies towards the south of Bolivia, in the foothills of the Sica Sica and Churuquella twin hills and in the shadow of a towing mountain range, giving the city very pleasant surroundings. Often known as Bolivia’s most beautiful city, Sucre is characterized by its pretty red roofed houses and buildings with white wash walls and has strict controls on development meaning its beauty can be preserved.