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10 Extra-Special UNESCO World Heritage Sites

By Pat Tompkins

Jul 26, 2021

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The otherworldly appearance of Pamukkale, Turkey, has made it popular on Instagram.

Photo by Nadezda/Shutterstock

The otherworldly appearance of Pamukkale, Turkey, has made it popular on Instagram.

Cave art or beaches? Mountains or temples? Ancient ruins or volcanoes? You can enjoy both culture and nature at these remarkable sites.

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Yes, all UNESCO World Heritage sites are special by definition. But only 39 of the more than 1,000 are mixed, meaning that they’re noted for both cultural and natural features. Many are islands and/or mountains. A few are famous: Machu Picchu, Tikal, Cappadocia. And some are unexpected: Ibiza? It’s more than a party island. Australia and China tie for the most—four each—and the one in the United States is not exactly on cruise ship itineraries; it’s almost as hard to spell as it is to get there: Papahānaumokuakea, an archipelago of small islands in Hawai‘i.

Even without pandemic-related restrictions, several of these sites are very remote, but that means they are also well preserved—and most are crowd free. Here are 10 of the most intriguing mixed World Heritage sites around the globe:

The Blue Mountains offer more than coveted coffee beans.

Blue and John Crow Mountains, Jamaica

Coffee cultists associate this Caribbean island’s Blue Mountains as the source of rare, pricey beans. But for UNESCO, these ranges, which form a national park, are notable for biodiversity (well over 1,200 species of flowering plants), endangered frogs and birds, and their history as a refuge for enslaved people. The rugged landscape provided the fugitives, the Maroons, with a suitable place to hide and develop a culture closely connected to mountain life. Visitors can tour a coffee factory and join a guided hiking trip.

Cave boat tours are one way to explore this unusual landscape.

Trang An Landscape Complex, Vietnam

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Forested limestone rock towers reach as high as 600 feet throughout this area, and there’s evidence that people long ago lived in the elevated caves here. Situated near a river delta, Trang An also includes a network of subterranean waterways, accessible to visitors by small-boat tours. Today, aside from villages, rice paddies, temples, and a few small tourist resorts, the landscape remains in its natural, dramatic condition—one of the reasons 2017’s Kong: Skull Island was filmed here.

While Pamukkale gets the most attention, the ruins of nearby Herapolis are well worth seeing.

Hierapolis-Pamukkale, Turkey

Nothing new about hydrotherapy. Back around 130 B.C.E., the Greco-Roman town of Hierapolis (sacred city) was a spa destination, as it would remain for several centuries. One reason: the nearby thermal mineral waters of Pamukkale (cotton palace or cotton castle), with its bizarre landscape of terraced basins and petrified waterfalls. An extensive system of canals was built to bring the water not only to the baths but also to village residents and to fields for irrigation. The ancient amphitheater here, one of the best preserved in the world, was a venue for gladiator fights during its Roman era.

Bird lovers flock to the Ses Salines natural wildlife reserve in Ibiza.

Ibiza, Spain

This island, hardly a secret vacation spot, has a reputation for partying. But UNESCO recognized it for culture and biodiversity more than 20 years ago. Throughout history, various cultures have visited this Balearic isle, including the ancient Phoenicians, who had a colony here. Remains of their presence include a well-preserved necropolis. A highlight of Ibiza’s biodiversity is Ses Salines Natural Park, noted for its marine life; it’s ideal for watching flamingos (of the avian type) and snorkeling.

Wildlife and fossil remains are among the attractions at this African World Heritage site.

Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tanzania

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Adjacent to famed Serengeti National Park, this natural/cultural site includes Olduvai Gorge, long an area of archaeological research that’s rich in fossil records of human ancestors. It also features the world’s largest unbroken volcanic crater and supports a wide range of wildlife, including major migrations of zebras, gazelles, and wildebeest. Semi-nomadic Maasai continue to use the land for cattle grazing.

Visitors are dwarfed by the Leshan Giant Buddha.

Mount Emei Scenic Area, including Leshan Giant Buddha Scenic Area, China

This mixed site combines two notable places a few hours’ drive apart. All of China’s mixed sites involve mountains, but only Leshan, near Emei in Sichuan, offers the world’s largest Buddha sculpture (233 feet tall) carved into a hillside. That’s fitting, since this is where Buddhism was introduced to China. The hills and cliffs also feature many historic temples. Evergreen forests and three rivers enhance the setting. As one of China’s four sacred Buddhist mountains, Emei has long been protected; the first Chinese Buddhist temple, dating from the 1st century C.E., tops its summit.

Aboriginal rock art is abundant in Kakadu National Park.

Kakadu National Park, Australia

Australia’s largest national park, located in a tropical stretch of the Northern Territory, encompasses portions of four river systems, waterfalls, wetlands, and steep cliffs and plateaus inaccessible to vehicles. Plus, the thousands of sites of rock art and cave paintings indicate people have lived here some 40,000 years, including Aboriginal people today. Crocodiles, wallabies, and flying foxes also live here, and a large and diverse bird population makes it a prime place for bird-watching. Crocodile Dundee featured Kakadu’s Gunlom plunge pool, popular with visitors.

Rock monument La Theiere (the Teapot) stands in the Sahara desert in Algeria.

Tassili n’Ajjer, Algeria

Nature and culture mix vividly at this site, which offers an impressive array of prehistoric cave art in a landscape of eroded sandstone pillars and arches in the desert. The engravings and paintings, rediscovered in the 20th century, include images of animals; they range over 10,000 years and show species that have long been extinct in the region, such as crocodiles and hippopotamus. They also depict how a society and the climate evolved.

The Bloodvein River, one of several in Pimachiowin Aki, gets its name from red rocks; some feature ancient drawings.

Pimachiowin Aki, Canada

This site, “The Land That Gives Life,” is the traditional home of four Anishinaabeg First Nations communities. In this boreal forest rich with lakes and rivers in the provinces of Manitoba and Ontario, caribou, wolverines, moose, and other wildlife flourish. The local First Nations communities follow their long cultural tradition of “keeping the land,” a responsible stewardship that includes fishing and hunting, maintaining ancient and sacred spaces, and avoiding commercial development.

Walls and shelters on remote St. Kilda testify to its long habitation.

St. Kilda, United Kingdom

Among nearly three dozen U.K. UNESCO sites, St. Kilda is the only mixed cultural-natural site; it’s also one of the most remote. Yet this small archipelago off Scotland’s west coast was inhabited for thousands of years. (No one lives there now, except for 1 million visiting seabirds and feral sheep.) The striking landscape results from the islands’ formation by a volcano. St. Kilda’s high sea cliffs and sea stacks experience some of the tallest waves and strongest winds in Europe.

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