Category Archives: UNESCO World Heritage

Austin-Lehman Adventures Supports National Parks

Glacier National Park, celebrating centennial in 2010, is first beneficiary

“Preserve a Park” is a new conservation and educational initiative by Austin-Lehman Adveventures, an award-winning tour opeator. It will benefit a different national park each year via financial contributions to an organization that supports that park, while featuring an educational experience for guests who book one of the company’s “Preserve a Park” trips.

The first beneficiary is Glacier National Park, celebrating its centennial in 2010. This year, ALA will donate $100 per guest from each Glacier trip to the Glacier National Park Fund, a not-for-profit that supports the ongoing and future preservation of Glacier National Park’s natural beauty and cultural heritage. Austin-Lehman Adventures is offering three six-day five-night trips to Glacier: August 1-6, August 8-13, and August 15-20; price per person is $2,498.

Coupled with adjacent Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada, Glacier is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was the world’s designated Peace Park. Glacier National Park was known to Native Americans as the “Backbone of the World.” Today, even though the namesake glaciers themselves are rapidly shrinking, the park preserves more than one million acres of stunning glacier-carved terrain that encompasses old growth forest, alpine lakes, rugged mountains and sweeping meadows of wildflowers. Highlights of park trips include biking, hiking and rafting both less traveled and most famous routes. These include the celebrated Going-to-the-Sun Road, one of North America’s most scenic roads and an 11-year building feat.
 
ALA has built an international reputation for small group active travel to destinations in North, Central and South America, Europe and southern Africa. The company specializes in adult and family multi-sport, hiking, biking vacations that emphasize history, culture, and geography’s natural beauty. Trips are limited to 12 guests (18 on family departures) and feature excellent regional dining, distinctive accommodations and all-inclusive rates and services.
 
I have visited Glacier National Park three times — always in winter and always on cross-country skis. I’ve nibbled at the fringes of the huge park both from the west side of the park and from the Izaak Walton Inn on the south side, including traveling there to by train to Amtrak‘s last flag stop in West Essex, Montana. I’ve seen a bit of park that way and also not seen it at all, when the snow was swirling. Summer pictures are tantalizing, and I applaud the company for supporting the organization that supports the protection of Glacier and other parks in the future.

Images of Guanajuato the Gorgeous

Charmed location and charming center in fabulous Spanish colonial city

Guanajuato is one of the most beautiful cities I’ve seen. Set in deep valley and connected to the “outside” by tunnels through the steep mountains, this Spanish colonial gem is a vibrant, walkable city. Its narrow lanes, kaleidoscope of color and a cacophony of sound are energetic and energizing. Site of the 21,000-student University of Guanajuato, it is a youthful city as well.

Lording over the city, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is this heroic statue of El Pipila, a hero of the Mexican Independence movement two centuries ago.


Spreading beneath El Pipila’s feet is this enticing panorama.

This steep funicular whisks passengers between the plaza in front the El Pipila monument and the heart of the old colonial city.

The funicular’s base terminal is just a block from the triple-domed basilica and the simple back of the Teatro Juarez.

The theater and the basilica from the front.

The landscaped plaza across the street is not a customary square but a triangle, but still squeezes in a gazebo and a fountain..

India laurels, pruned to box-like shapes, grow thick and provide shade.
India laurel branches are all but impenetrable. I watched a small boy try to climb the tree and give up in discouragement, because even he found now route through.
The center of Guanajuato has two main vehicular streets, several pedestrian-only streets and a maze of narrow colonial streets.

Guanajuato’s wealth came from rich silver mines in the surrounding mountains. Ore carts are used as decorative objects here and there in town.

Simple swinging doors to a neighborhood bar invite photography — or entry.

The following images are just buildings and streetscapes that appealed to me.

Artist Diego Rivera was born in Guanajuato. His family’s house is now a museum. The ground floor is furnished with period antiques, and the upper floors are a museum of his and contemporary artists’ works.

Just as US cities boast Mexican restaurants, Guanajuato has a bagel place. Cultural cross-fertilization works both ways.

Good night, Guanajuato.

Guadalajara’s Hospicio Cabañas Fab Faberge Exhibition

Imperial Russian treasures displayed in magnificent Spanish Colonial landmark

The opening reception of the Society of American Travel Writers’ 2009 convention took place in Gaudalajara’s magnificent, monumental Hospicio Cabañas. Originally a hospital and refuge for the homeless and the helpless, and later an orphanage, it now houses the Cabañas Cultural Institute and its schools for arts and crafts, and it has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Aficionados of Spanish Colonial architecture know it for its grandiose presence in the heart of Mexico’ second-largest city. Art lovers revere the brooding, dramatic murals painted by Jose Clemente Orozco more than 120 years after the building was completed. Much of Orozco’s work in his native country was destroyed, because it was considered to dark and too violent, but masterpiece remains.

That we would see Orozco’s work in the Hospicio Cabañas was no surprise. What was a surprise is that at the end of the opening event, someone casually mentioned that the Faberge collection would be left open for us. If you read Spanish better than I do, click here for more information on the exhibit. I have no idea how long this magnificent exhibition of Romanoff treasures will be open, but I was thrilled to have seen it. Photography was permitted — under the watchful eyes of armed guards –but I was too busy looking and trying to puzzle out the key parts of Spanish descriptions of each object to try to take lots of pictures, and some that I snapped through glass didn’t come out all that well. There were, of course, jewel-encrusted compacts, cigarette cases and more; paintings and paper documents; swords and scepters; garments and opulent geegasws, and an intruiging explanation of the role the late Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis had in protecting (or something) Romanoff treasures when as an editor with Doubleday, she shepherded a book on the topic.

Can Moses Save Venice?


Is the $7 billion project to save the coastal city from rising waters working?

Global warming, climate change or whatever you wish to call the syndrome that is causing polar ice to melt and sea levels to rise are of concern to the world’s low-lying coastal cities. These concerns are particularly urgent in magnificent Venice every winter with its rains. MOSES (Modulo Sperimentale Elettromeccanico) is a massive (and massively controversial) $7 billion engineering project begun in 2003 to construct 79 movable underwater gates designed to regulate the tidal flows in the city’s lagoon (right) to prevent flooding and yet allow large cruise and container ships to pass through. Click here to see photos of floods in Venice in 2004.

Venice, founded in the fifth century, rose to be Europe’s leading maritime power and center of Renaissance art and architecture, is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Tourist interests and architectural preservationists are pro-MOSES. Environmentalists continue to oppose it because they are concerned with with a closed system of stagnant water with prevented from flushing out the Venice lagoon. Several months ago, contractjournal.com reported that the mile-long rock and concrete system has caused a new coral reef to form and species previously unseen there to find habitat there. These include the endangered giant pen shell (Pinna Nobilis), an endangered bivalve that can grow to about a yard long and the Dustbin Lid jellyfish (Rhizostome Octopus), the largest in the Mediterranean.

Placido Domingo to Perform at Chichen Itza

Gala concert worth a cultural journey to the land of the Maya

I never was fortunate enough to hear the Three Tenors in concert. Placido Domingo, Jose Carreras and the late Luciano Pavarotti sang at the Baths of Caracalla in Rome in 1990, at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles in 1994, near the Eiffel Tower in Paris in 1998 and in Yokohama in 2002 in junction with soccer’s quadriennial World Cup finals, plus selected sites around the world.

One of these three incomparable tenors, Placido Domingo, is scheduled to headline a gala concert on October 4 at Chichen Itza on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula to celebrate the revered Mayan site’s 20th anniversary as a UNESCO World Heritage site and the first anniversary of its selection as one of the New 7 Wonders of the World. A stage will set up in front of the giant Pyramid of Kukulkan (aka, El Castillo), flanked by the remnants of 1,000 columns and inspiring the name, “Placido Domingo in Chichén Itzá: The Concert of the Thousand Columns.” Tickets are $50 to $1,000 and may be purchased through Ticketmaster in Mexico.

For Placido Domingo, this concert will be something of a homecoming. has a special fondness for Merida where Born in Spain and raised in Mexico, he made his debut recital in Merida beside his mother, Pepita Embil, a well-known zarzuela performer. Over the years, he has headlined a number of charity events to benefit victims of natural disasters. Proceeds from this concert will be used in the ongoing restoration and conservation of Chichen Itza, as well as the development of services in the surrounding Maya communities.

Very few of us can just bop over to Chichen Itza for the concert and go right home afterwards. The Hacienda Xcanatun, a restored 18th century plantation now an intimate 18-suite boutique hotel on the outskirts of Merida, is offering a Night to Remember Concert Package, starting at $1,370 per two for three nights from $1,700 for two for four nights. The package includes double-occupancy suite accommodations; a Yucatecan fusion feast prepared by the Hacienda Xcanatun ‘s chef on the evening before the concert with musicians playing zarzuelas and classic favorites; and white-glove transportation to the Chichen Itza for the concert in a luxurious, air-conditioned bus with open bar and canapé service.

The suites feature high, wood-beamed ceilings, hand-carved furnishings, antiques and original painting, and views of exuberant tropical gardens from their terraces. In-suite amenities include a selection of artisanal Maya chocolates and a bottle of red, white, or sparkling wine. Taxes and hotel service charge are additional.

The Hacienda Xcanatun includes two freshwater swimming pools, an intimate spa offering beautyand wellness and holistic Maya treatments, an eight-acre garden. Tennis and golf privileges are nearby. For more information or to reserve, call he Hacienda Xcanatun at 888-883-3633 or Email hacienda@xcanatun.com.

UNESCO World Heritage List Gains 27 Sites

More locations for the intrepid traveler’s must-see list

“Extinction is Forever” is a mantra often repeated by preservationists of the natural world and promoters of biodiversity. There should be a corollary for the natural and man-made treasures along the lines of “Destruction is Forever.” Sure, nay-sayers can quibble and claim that destroyed buildings and cities can be reconstructed and damaged land can be destroyed, but its never the same.

The World Heritage Committee of UNESCO is the United Nations agency charged with identifying helping to protect, preserve and stabilize the world’s most treasured landscapes and landmarks. It has just added 27 sites to its list. Nineteen are identified as cultural sites and eight as natural sites, bringing the total to 878 sites (679 cultural, 174 natural, 25 mixed) in 145 countries. The 2008 additions are:

New Cultural Sites

Preah Vihear Temple (Cambodia)
Fujian Tulou (China)
Stari Grad Plain (Croatia)
Historic Centre of Camagüey (Cuba)
Fortifications of Vauban (France)
Berlin Modernism Housing Estates (Germany)
Armenian Monastic Ensembles in Iran (Iran)
Baha’i Holy Places in Haifa and Western Galilee (Israel)
Mantua and Sabbioneta (Italy)
The Mijikenda Kaya Forests (Kenya)
Melaka and George Town, historic cities of the Straits of Malacca (Malaysia)
Protective town of San Miguel and the Sanctuary of Jesús de Nazareno de Atotonilco (Mexico)
Le Morne Cultural Landscape (Mauritius)
Kuk Early Agricultural Site (Papua New Guinea)
San Marino Historic Centre and Mount Titano (San Marino)
Archaeological Site of Al-Hijr (Madâin Sâlih) (Saudi Arabia)
The Wooden Churches of the Slovak part of Carpathian Mountain Area (Slovakia)
Rhaetian Railway in the Albula / Bernina Cultural Landscape (Switzerland and Italy)
Chief Roi Mata’s Domain (Vanuatu)

Natural Properties

Joggins Fossil Cliffs (Canada)
Mount Sanqingshan National Park (China)
Lagoons of New Caledonia: Reef Diversity and Associated Ecosystems (France)
Surtsey (Iceland)
Saryarka – Steppe and Lakes of Northern Kazakhstan (Kazakhstan)
Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve (Mexico)
Swiss Tectonic Arena Sardona (Switzerland)
Socotra Archipelago (Yemen)

Extensions Added Onto Properties Already on the World Heritage List

Historic centres of Berat and Gjirokastra (Albania)
Mountain Railways of India
Paleolithic Cave Art of Northern Spain
The Antonine Wall (United Kingdom)

UNESCO’s World Heritage List now numbers a total of 878 sites( 679 cultural, 174 natural, 25 mixed) in 145 countries. Papua New Guinea; San Marino, Saudi Arabia and Vanuatu have sites inscribed on the list for the first time.

Machu Picchu Under Tourist Seige

UNESCO warns that too many tourists now threaten Peru’s top tourist attraction

I have not yet been to Machu Picchu, the Inca citadel high in the Peruvian Andes, but it is certainly on my go-to list. Maybe I had better move it up. According to an Associated Press report, “conservationists advising UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee warn that landslides, fires and creeping development threaten the site,” due to soaring visitation (800,000 annually) and excessive construction near the site.

The World Heritage Committee meeting in Quebec City, itself a UNESCO World Heritage Site, “was called to determine which of the world’s cultural treasures should be added to its [endangered sites] list — and which of those already included there are now threatened. UNESCO committee spokesman Roni Amelan declined to confirm that Machu Picchu, which was named a World Heritage Site in 1983, would be classified as endangered, but said ‘it’s a possibility’.”

The report continued that “unregulated growth, including a boom in hotel and restaurant construction in the nearby mountain town of Aguas Calientes, is putting pressure on erosion-prone riverbanks and could undermine the site.” Agua Calientes is without “adequate sanitation” and “Peru’s government has done little to address landslide concerns on the winding, mud thoroughfare that leads to the citadel, according to the report.”

Residents of Cuzco, the an ancient Inca city and now a jumping-off point for excursions to Machu Picchu, have protested private development in Aguas Calientes, although Machu Picchu itself appears to be protected thus far. Continued uncontrolled visitation could change that as well. The article quote said Luis Lumbreras, identified as “an independent, Lima-based archaeologist who has studied Machu Picchu for more than 40 years,” as warning, “Machu Picchu was never made for lots of people… “If we put tourists with boots [instead of people in sandals or bare feet] that are jumping, running, climbing the walls, etcetera, that’s the danger.”

Last February, locals protested plans to build more hotels and other tourist facilities, causing suspension of rail service, cancelation of tours and blocking of roads. At the time, the BBC reported, “Hundreds of local farm workers, students and teachers have blocked access roads and the only railway line, barring the way to tourists, who have been reduced to taking pictures of the demonstrators rather than the ruins themselves. The protesters want the government to invest more money in the area, and especially to improve the dirt roads.”

A friend and her family recently returned from Machu Picchu filled with enthusiasm about the experience. She didn’t mention protests or inadequate sanitation or overcowding, but other government have capitulated to development interests at the cost of local culture or respectful preservation of ancient treasures. The relevant UNESCO committee is concerned about this one — and therefore so am I.

Easter Island

Way out in the Pacific, 3,700 kilometers or about 2,300 miles from mainland Chile, lies Easter Island — Isla de Pascua in Spanish and Rapa Nui in the increasingly accepted language of Polynesia. It it is the island to which Thor Heyerdahl sailed on the raft ‘KonTiki‘ and which was first reached by airplane from the mainland in 1951. Bottom line is that Rapa Nui remains remote and also mysterious.

It is, however, an increasingly popular tourist destination. Seasoned travelers who have been many other places and seen many other things are drawn to the island’s moai, towering figures carved from volcanic stone, moved to the shoreline and erected, in great feats of engineering for pre-industrial people, on lava-rock platforms (ahu) to guard their respective villages. Rapa Nui National Park is unsurprisingly a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Of the 887 known moai, 288 were set upon platforms, 98 fell or were abandoned and 397 were unfinished and still stand or lie in the Rano Rotaku quarry. I don’t know where the rest are or their condition — and I’m not sure that archaeologists do either. Some moai feature topknots of a red stone called scoria from the smaller Puna Pau quarry. The moai are tall (average, about 13 feet) and heavy (12.5 tons). They faced inland rather than toward the sea, because inhabitants were each others’ foes. They were meant to be seen from the carved front, and each one has a different face — much like the terracotta army in Xi’an, China. The moaisbacks are flat — by necessity because they were carved while lying on the ground. Archaeologists have restored some sites. Others remain primitive.

On the island’s northeast coast is “the navel of the world,” a round, squat black rock with four smaller sit-upon rocks around it. People hunker there to meditate, contemplate, commune with spirits, admire the view or wonder why compasses swing around madly when near the rock.

The spectacular and mesmerizing south coast is worthwhile for watching and photographing the big South Pacific rollers roiling and boiling and crashing onto the black coastal cliffs. The island was once heavily treed, but now the vegetation is largely grass. Stands of introduced eucalyptus grow where once there were palm species.

An unpaved road climbs to the top of Maunga Pu A Tiki, a dormant volcano in whose water-filled crater rafts of vegetation float like little islands. Beyond, at the tip of Poike Peninsula is a curious seasonal colony where Easter Islanders, long after the days of the moaicarvers, lived while they selected their annual leader. The bizarre ritual involved deputizing someone to swim to a nearby rock and find the first egg laid that spring by a particular bird. The leader selected in this strange way lived like a hermit during his rule. Visit yourself and hear the whole strange tale, but also know that the missionaries put an end to it. Rapa Nui is now enthusiastically Catholic, and visitors are invited to the exuberant, music-heavy Mass at the church in Honga Roa. The church is packed every Sunday, beginning at 9:00 a.m.

Honga Roa is, in fact, the island’s only town. Accommodations range from simple hostels to the luxurious Explora Lodge, currently located in a leased private vacation retreat but with plans to build a new property in the next couple of years. Numerous restaurants and abundant shops are scattered along the town’s streets. Consider signs with posted opening hours to be guidelines.

Whether you are looking for fine crafts or mass-produced souvenirs, you’ll find them in many small shops and in two multi-stall crafts markets, one on Tu’u Kohinu (one block to the left of the church) and one that is half crafts market and half produce market at the corner of Tu’u Maheke and Atamu Tekena. Prices vary, so shop around. Don’t be afraid to bargain, especially if you are buying several items, but don’t expect huge price breaks either.

The greatest variation was for what appears to be the only English guidebook to the island, Rapa Nui by Daniel Pardon . We found it at the archaeological museum for more than US$70. Gasp! That is high even for a glossy four-color job, but for that money, there should be an index. We bought it anyway because we were driving around and wanted it for the road. Later, a colleague reported that she had bought it for a few dollars more at a shop in town, but as we were leaving, we spotted it at an airport shop for about half the price. Moral: Try to pick it up on arrival — unless, of course, the prices at various venues have changed.

In the souvenir realm, I found placemats (choice of colors, choice of moai or a still undeciphered writing called rororongo) for as little as ARG$2,000 (US$4) and as much as ARG$5,000 ($10), and small wooden rororongo reproductions in the ARG$25,000 to ARG$35,000 range in town, but for ARG$7,500 at the airport. You have several last chances to shop at the airport. There’s a new brick building with several stalls across from the terminal, numerous stalls in the terminal outside of the security area or in one of several more stalls after the security checkpoint. Abundant, of course, are moai of stone, wood or molded plastic in various sizes and configurations.

The archaeological museum on the outskirts of town is more interpretive than anything else. Relatively few artifacts are on display, but 20,000 are in storage pending money to build a larger building and guard the artifacts. The town cemetery is worth a visit too. There is one ATM on a street called Tu’u Maheke. It currently dispenses cash only to MasterCard holders, but other businesses take other cards as well. The post office is one block over on Te Pito Te Henua. For ARG$1,000 (a little more than US$2), the clerk will stamp your passport with three Easter Island stamps. Scuba divers rave about the clarity of the water. Several dive shops located at the harbor use simple open fishing boats for their dive trips.

Easter Island is open range. Cattle and horses wander all over the countryside, depositing their droppings wherever. Similarly, dogs, cats and even chickens wander around town. They are uncollared but also unmenacing. In town, the streets have been paved but the sidewalks remain hazardous with cracks, gaping holes and some concrete slabs missing and storm drains exposed, so do look where you are stepping — whether to skirt sidewalk obstacles or just to avoid the unpleasantness of animal droppings.

The moai deserve more time than most bus and van tours permit, so renting is recommended. Rentals for small 4WD cars are surprisingly reasonable, and gas isn’t too expensive either. Roads from Hanga Roa directly to the most popular sites are paved, but others are not. Tourists on organized tours are never out and about during the fine dawn and dusk light, and the quarry where the majority of moai are found is not included in most tours but is quickly offered for $40 extra. If you take such a tour, cough up the 40, because the quarry should not be missed.

Valparaiso

This UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the most beautifully situated, most rundown cities I have ever seen. Located around a gorgeous crescent-shaped harbor with homes clinging to steep hills, Valparaiso thrived from the time of the 1849 California Gold Rush, when ships that had rounded Cape Horn re-provisioned in its lovely hardbor, until the Panama Canal rendered it obsolete. It began a slow decline that was not helped by an earthquake in 1904 and subequent tremblors.

Houses — ornate, ramshackle or both (above right) — cling to hillsides. One of them belonged to Chile’s Nobel Prize-winning poet, Pablo Neruda, and is now a museum filled with his personal objects. He wrote in a tower room with large windows taking in a commanding view. Today, the city looks better from afar than close-up. Cobblestone streets, broken sidewalks and steep slopes are filled with brilliant wildflowers, dog droppings and litter. One major road contours over the hills, with many small streets, alleyways and staircases. Too many walls are graffitied. Locals don’t seem to notice or care. Fifteen funiculars, called elevadors, make it easier and more direct for people to move from the seaside port level to the neighborhoods above. The tariff is 100 pesos — roughly 20 cents.

Elaborate public buildings, including the national parliament and the Chilean version of the Pentagon, are located in Valparaiso. So is the military memorial, like an unknown soldier’s tomb with an eternal flame. Souvenir vendors set up stalls anywhere of possible touristic interest. A small, crowded covered food market displays beautiful produce and other products near the center of town. On Sundays, like today, a flea market occupies the median of one of the main streets. Used clothing, cheap shoes, a lot of this and that is laid out on blankets or rugs. There are a few canopies for shade, but no stalls. A couple of Chileans told me that Valparaiso really rocks at night, but by day, alas, it’s still the warts that show.

It is a city with a past and hopefully a future. With UNESCO loans, the city is undergrounding the rat’s nests of overhead wires. Light rail now runs along the waterfront linking the cargo port to the cruise port and even the nearby high-rise resort of Vino del Mar. Maybe the sidewalks will be fixed. Maybe the litter will be picked up. Maybe more of the houses will be restored and repainted. Valaparaiso is something of a cross between San Francisco and Hooverville — still too much of the latter and too little of the former.

Valparaiso is an easy day trip from Santiago, by frequent public bus for about $6 or with one of the tour operators that not only provides transportation to the city by the sea but also up to the hillside neighborhoods.