World Heritage Sites: A Nature and Culture Guide to the Americas

World Heritage sites are considered to be the most culturally and naturally significant areas across our planet. These sites are designated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) for their “outstanding universal value”. World Heritage sites range from exquisite, historic towns to some of Earth’s greatest natural wonders. The designated sites are featured abundantly in each continent. With over 1000 sites with World Heritage designation, it is difficult for some to know which to prioritize. This blog will explore a range of World Heritage sites, from the most popular to the lesser-known, over the vast lands of North, Central and South America. Thus, every world traveler will know exactly which sites to see for the best of nature and culture in the Americas.  

World Heritage site designation

As previously noted, World Heritage sites are areas that UNESCO deems to be of “outstanding universal value”. Such sites are considered to be of significant global importance and, in accordance, belong to the global population, regardless of country. There are three types of World Heritage sites: natural, cultural and mixed. Natural sites are those that have importance to Earth’s natural state, such as ecological processes, wildlife habitats, sites that exhibit the exceptional beauty of nature, etc. Cultural sites are those that have importance to human development and tradition, including archeological sites, towns of historical impact and transcendent works of art. Mixed heritage sites contain aspects pertinent to both culture and nature. 

Machu Picchu World Heritage site
The famous Machu Picchu is designated as a mixed World Heritage site. Image by GeoEx

To be designated as a World Heritage site, the site must meet at least one of UNESCO’s ten selection criteria. These include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Represent a masterpiece of human genius;
  • Exhibit importance in development of architecture, art, civic-planning or landscape design;
  • Contain natural phenomena or exceptional natural beauty;
  • Bear example to human culture or traditions of historical significance;
  • Exemplify Earth’s history, stages or geographic development;
  • Represent on-going ecological or biological processes, including: wildlife, marine ecosystems and plant life;
  • Inclusion of essential natural habitats for endangered species for conservation.

Protection of World Heritage sites

Protection is an integral aspect of UNESCO’s World Heritage mission. To maintain their designation, all World Heritage sites must be committed to the protection and management of their entities. This is of the utmost importance as, above all, UNESCO values the preservation of these sites in order for their importance to be shared with future generations.

World Heritage site of Yellowstone National Park
The highly protected/preserved World Heritage site of Yellowstone National Park. Image by Riviera Travel

There are several ways that UNESCO pledges to support their designated World Heritage sites. First, they encourage all parties to establish the aforementioned management and reporting protocols to enable the thorough plans for preservation. In accordance, they provide professional and technical training to all sites. Furthermore, they bring public awareness to the conservation of said sites, and try to involve the local community in the protection efforts. Also, emergency assistance is given to all sites that are deemed to be ‘in danger’. These efforts are all in relation to their mission of protection and preservation.

North America

World Heritage sites in North American feature a greater occurrence of natural sites than many other continents. This may be due to some of its larger countries being ‘younger’, and therefore, less historically or culturally significant sites. Alternatively, this may also be due to its array of varying, beautiful landscape with an abundance of natural beauty. Regardless, there are many options for nature World Heritage sites, and some unique cultural sites to visit over this vast land.

Gros Morne National Park- Canada (Natural)

Gros Morne National Park is a stunning World Heritage site on the Atlantic Coast in Newfoundland, Canada. This park is a true sight to behold, with beautiful lakes, towering waterfalls, staggering cliffs and fjords that look like a Norweigian postcard. This unique park has many aspects that display the stark beauty of the natural Canadian landscape. With such demonstration of exceptional natural beauty, Gros Morne meets its first criteria for World Heritage natural site designation

The fjords of Gros Morne National Park in Newfoundland, Canada. World Heritage site
The staggering fjords of Gros Morne National Park. Image by Travel Trade Gazette

World Heritage criteria

This park meets a second World Heritage designation criteria, which stems from its distinctive land formation. Gros Morne bears a clear example of the fundamental, earth-forming process of plate tectonics. UNESCO explains this example of geological evolution that is evident in Gros Morne’s landscape:

“The property presents the complete portrayal of the geological events that took place when the ancient continental margin of North America was modified by plate movement by emplacement of a large, relocated portion of oceanic crust and ocean floor sediments.”

Gros Morne National Park, UNESCO

This monumental plate tectonic shift is highlighted in the scenic fjords and glaciers. Thus, with two exceptional criteria met, this natural wonder is something every nature lover must experience when exploring North America.

Pre-Hispanic City of Chichen-Itza, Mexico (Cultural)

Mexico is truly the culture capital of North America. Unlike its counterparts of Canada and the USA, the majority of Mexico’s World Heritage sites fall under the cultural classification. This impressive list of cultural World Heritage sites can be best exemplified with the Pre-Hispanic City of Chichen-Itza.

This ancient city of Chichen-Itza was established during the Classic Period, and was originally settled between 415-455 A.D. The second settlement of the city (during the 10th century) is praised for its historic significance due to its connection to the Maya-Toltec civilization. During this settlement, the Toltec warriors migrated south to the city, and established a profound impact on the civilization. Consequently, a fusion between the Maya and Toltec traditions and cultures occurred, demonstrating the phenomena of acculturation. During this time, significant monuments and works of architecture were established, further cementing the significance of this historic unity of cultures. 

The famed Pyramid of Kukulkan in Chichen-Itza, the World Heritage site
The famous Pyramid of Kukulkan in Chichen-Itza. Image by Travel Pulse

World Heritage criteria

This cultural site meets three criteria for World Heritage designation. The impressive monuments and architectural feats are considered Mesoamerican masterpieces. This includes the Great Ball Court, the Temple of Kukulkan and the Temple of the Warriors. Furthermore, these monuments were deemed to have significant cultural influence during the 10th to 15th centuries. Finally, as mentioned previously, Chichen-Itza was the site of the unification of the Maya and Toltec cultures. Thus, it has great archeological significance for human development. The historic and cultural magnitude of this area can be explored by any visitors to this iconic World Heritage site.

Central America

Despite a much smaller geographic area, Central America still boasts an abundance of significant World Heritage sites. In this region, most sites are classified as cultural sites, with many sites preserving important regional history. However, there are still some incredible natural sites that encompass the lush beauty of the area. 

Darien National Park- Panama (Natural)

Darien National Park earns its World Heritage natural site classification through its breathtaking landscape, biogeographical significance and its plethora of wildlife. This unique site acts as a natural bridge between Central America and South America. It is noted to be the first point of contact between the two previously separated lands. Furthermore, the park has a staggering 560,000 hectares of land, making it one of the largest, protected areas in Central America. This property is host to several different ethnic groups, including Indigenous peoples such as the Embera, Wounaan and Kuna groups. These diverse peoples include a crucial cultural aspect to the conservation of this significant natural property.

Leopard resting on a tree in Darien National Park, Panama. A World Heritage site
Some of the incredible wildlife found in Darien National Park, Panama. Image by Animist Ecology

World Heritage criteria

It first meets the World Heritage site criteria through its spectacular display of natural beauty. With such a grand size, it hosts a wide array of scenic landscapes. Such landscapes include a vast coastal region, a volcanic range and a series of gorgeous lakes and rivers throughout the property.

Additionally, this monumental site is home to an impressive variety of mammal and plant life, adding to its World Heritage site accreditation. This area hosts a specular 169 mammal species. Among them are the near-endangered Jaguar and Brown-headed Spider Monkey. Further, its lush flora and fauna attract many species and allow for it to thrive as an ecosystem.

Finally, through its biogeographical significance it meets its third criteria for World Heritage designation. The merge of the South and Central America land masses at this site has resulted in the fusion of two different landscapes and local ecosystems. Thus, it marks a significant starting point in evolutionary ecological progress.

León Cathedral- Nicaragua (Cultural)

The León Cathedral, located in León, Nicaragua, is a marvel of architecture, culture and history. This cathedral, also known as Real and Renowned Basilica Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, was built between 1747 and the 19th century. It was constructed to be the first diocese of the Catholic Church in Nicaragua. The architect, Diego José de Porres Esquivel, perfectly encapsulates the architectural transition from Baroque to Neoclassical. This was a notable and influential fusion of styles. This site also houses many exceptional works of art, including impressive mantelpieces and historic paintings. 

The León Cathedral World Heritage site in Nicaragua
The León Cathedral in Nicaragua. Image by UNESCO World Heritage

World Heritage criteria

The León Cathedral fits two criteria of World Heritage site accreditation. First, the cathedral symbolizes a critical interchange in human values. This work of architecture exemplified classic Spanish art influences of the time. These influences merged with a prominent integration of new social and religious characteristics emerging in Latin America at the time. This unique style shaped by cultural and social factors, has significant cultural and historical bearing. Furthermore, this cathedral illustrates a prominent stage in human history. It is representative of Central American religious architecture at the time, as well as the social and stylistic themes of that era.

South America

South America has a plethora of both cultural and natural World Heritage sites. Over its vast land and many countries, there are plenty of options to see a mix of historic towns, cultural monuments and scenic landscapes. 

Iguazu/Iguaçu National Park, Argentina/Brazil (Natural)

This breathtaking site is so expansive, it spans two countries and is comprised of two sister parks. Iguazu and Iguaçu national parks are centered on the Argentinian and Brazilian border. A magnificent waterfall is the principal attraction in these sites. Its astonishing size, 2,700 meters in diameter and 82 meters in height, makes it an almost incomprehensible natural beauty. The widely spread mist from this monumental waterfall covers a vast area, leading to an ideal climate for the growth of tropical vegetation. The resulting tropical rainforest is another magnificent aspect of these national parks. 

Igauzu Falls World Heritage site at sunset
The stunning Iguazu Falls on the border of Brazil and Argentina. Image by Enchanting Travels

World Heritage criteria

These adjoining sites are classified for World Heritage accreditation by meeting two criteria. Most notably, these sites are designated as exceeding the threshold for extraordinary natural phenomena and tremendous natural beauty. Noted as one of the largest, most remarkable waterfalls in the world, this vast network of rapids and cascades are an astounding display of nature’s true excellence.

Additionally, the rainforest meets the qualification for biological significance. The connective properties of Iguazu and Iguaçu parks form the largest protective zone of the Interior Atlantic Forest, a remnant of the Paranaense subtropical forest. This zone has great biodiversity, with a host of over 2000 plant species, 80 mammal species and 400 bird species. This diverse and essential ecosystem is able to function due to the climate created by the tumbling falls and resulting humidity.

Rapa Nui National Park, Chile (Cultural)

Rapa Nui National Park is a protected cultural site on the famous Easter Island, the most secluded inhabited island in the world. This park exemplifies the culture of Rapa Nui, the Indigenous name for Easter Island. This World Heritage site is most commonly known for the monumental statues called moai, which represent the ancestors of the Rapa Nui people. There are over 900 of such statues on the island that average in size at thirteen feet. The moai bear testament to the tradition, creativity and culture of the Rapa Nui people.

The maoi sculptures at the World Heritage Site on Easter Island
The moai of Rapa Nui National Park, Chile. Image by Inverse

World Heritage criteria

Rapa Nui National Park meets three criteria for World Heritage site designation. First, it exemplifies a masterpiece of human creation. The moai are a unique, monumental feat of architectural genius that are not only aesthetically interesting, but also culturally significant. These statues were made by hand with intensive, hand-carving techniques.

Furthermore, this park bears exceptional testimony to the Rapa Nui culture and civilization. From the 10th to 16th century, the Rapa Nui people erected these colossal statues without the influence of the outside word. As if frozen in time and tradition, these statues still captivate the attention of the world.

Finally, this site exemplifies human interaction with an environment after environmental instability. During the 16th century Rapa Nui faced an ecological crisis due to the depletion of natural resources. The Rapa Nui people persevered, and now their culture and tradition remain on the island with evidence of their distinctive cultural landscape.

World Heritage in the Americas

The Americas are an example of the inherent beauty of both human tradition and this world’s natural state. These vast lands showcase a variety of scenic landscapes, critical ecosystems and biological diversity. Further, they exemplify the creative masterpieces of human creation and provide a visual testimony of human culture and tradition. The World Heritage sites of the Americas truly represent the best of nature and culture that these monumental lands have to offer.

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