These UNESCO-listed sites are rich in culture, history and intrigue – the most magical spots that America’s lower hemisphere has to offer...
Visiting Qhapaq Ñan is a daunting prospect. This network of Andean roads was built by the Inca to connect their capital Cuzco to outposts of the empire as far afield as the Colombian sierra to the north and Santiago in the south.
The system, which was trodden by message-relaying chasqui (runners), traders, soldiers, pilgrims and llama caravans, weaves across six countries, via high peaks, thick rainforests and arid deserts, covering some 30,000km.
At the moment it’s more an idea than a cohesive site – while masterful engineering has ensured much of the matrix is still intact, many pathways are overgrown.
However, you can easily visit patches of it. Peru’s Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is the headline segment; other traceable bits include the highland route between Achupallas and Ingapirca in central Ecuador, the various strands around Rancagua in Chile, and Bolivia’s Takesi Trail, which starts near La Paz, crosses the Cordillera Real and dives down into the lush Yungas valleys.
See the South Patagonian Ice Field at its most splendid. This UNESCO site encompasses 6,000 sq km of incredible iciness: around half of the park is covered in namesake glaciers, which ooze down rugged mountainsides and crash into blue-turquoise lakes.
One lake, Argentino, is fed by three vast ice tongues (Upsala, Onelli and Perito Moreno), which regularly calve thunderously into the milky waters. Los Glaciares also protects a swathe of pristine Patagonian steppe, Magellanic forests and southern beech (fiery in autumn), as well as puma, condor and ostrich-like choique.
The alpine village of El Chaltén is a good hub for trekkers; from here you can hike round Mount Fitz Roy. Alternatively, for the drama of Perito Moreno, catch a bus from El Calafate then stroll between the viewpoints on the Península de Magallanes, take a boat trip up to the glacier’s 60m-high face, or hire a guide and crampons to walk on top.
Iguazu’s so good they inscribed it twice – the Argentine side of this gigantic, jungle-shrouded waterfall became a UNESCO site in 1984, the Brazilian side in 1986. In short, it’s a natural World Heritage wonder whichever angle you’re coming from, a comely collection of between 160 and 270 cascades (depending on the water volume) tumbling into a border-straddling gorge.
But while the 3km-wide falls are the most obvious attraction here – and visitable in various ways, including upper trails, lower trails, get-you-wet boardwalks and boat trips – the surrounding parks are a less-expected revelation. The spray ensures everything around Iguazu Falls is well watered, leading to a profusion of green. This is a realm of subtropical forest, thick with Brazilian pine, wild palms, imbuya, tree ferns, lianas and epiphytes.
Potosí, which sits breathless on the barren plains at an altitude of around 4,000m, is a place of mixed fortunes. In the 16th century, when silver ore was discovered here, it became the richest city in the Americas. But when the supply dried up in the 19th century, Potosí went into decline.
So it is with its World Heritage status. The city was inscribed in 1987 for being a matchless example of colonial industrialism and architecture. However, in 2014 Potosí was placed on UNESCO’s ‘In Danger’ list: the continuance of mining is destabilising Cerro Rico – the ‘rich mountain’ from which all the silver was sourced – and threatening the authenticity of the site.
Potosí is still worth visiting, though. It has more than 20 churches and over 2,000 historic buildings, some with red-tiled roofs and graceful porticos, some in pretty pastels, others with intricate iron balconies.
Forget the Inca for a minute. The Tiwanaku culture, which at its peak (AD 500-900) numbered 50,000 people, is the real cradle of Andean civilisation. Its centre was the namesake city of Tiwanaku, perched close to the southern shores of Lake Titicaca at a lung-squeezing altitude of 3,850m. The city once covered several square kilometres, though only a small part has been excavated.
What has been unearthed is the ceremonial centre of Tiwanaku, a complex of ruined pyramids, temples, palaces and megaliths set amid the barren highlands. Most striking is the seven-tiered Pyramid of Akapana, believed to be the religious heart of Tiwanaku – local Aymara people still come here to leave offerings to the achachilas (mountain gods).
To get a good overview of the complex and culture, start at the on-site museum, which displays items – pots, idols and fragments of elaborate textiles – that nod to its skills.
Brasília is a World Heritage youngster. The pre-planned Brazilian capital only came into being in 1956, and was inscribed onto the list just 31 years later. This is thanks to the imagination and innovation of urban planner Lucio Costa and architect Oscar Niemeyer, who dreamed up a city of harmonious Modernist design.
The vibe is retro space-age, laid out in an airplane-like shape, with futuristic skyscrapers and government buildings on one axis and the residential areas on the other, linked by excellent roads.
Visit the cathedral, which rears up like a splayed crown of thorns; catch a performance or exhibition at the Teatro Nacional, an Aztec-like pyramid of glass; and head to the blocky, grey-black Central Bank building, where the Museum of Money showcases financial history and an enormous nugget of gold.
This national park in Brazil’s north-east contains a semi-arid land of mountains, plains, valleys, rock formations and Brazilian caatinga (‘white forest’) – a shimmering swathe of scrub, cacti and deciduous woodland. It’s interesting enough in its own right, but the presence of the oldest rock art in the Americas adds an extra tingle.
Some of the 300-odd cave paintings and sites discovered here could date back 30,000-50,000 years. If correct, this contradicts widely held notions of how and when South America was first colonised. The artworks depict a range of scenes, from hunting and dancing to fighting and sex; other pictographs represent animals (jaguar, tapir, rhea) and supernatural beings.
The sites are spread out, so join a tour with an archaeologist guide to help make sense of the magnificent, world-changing markings.
Named for the site of the first Portuguese landing, by Pedro Cabral in 1500, the listed area covers eight protected zones, together comprising one of the best remaining sweeps of this ecosystem; rich, tropical broadleaf forest fuzzes the ocean-side limestone plateau.
Indeed, nowhere on the planet has more tree species per hectare, including pernambuco (the country’s national tree), piaçaba palms, jatoba and jussara as well as areas of restingas (moist coastal forest).
A good base is the lively coastal town of Porto Seguro, from where you can make forays into Monte Pascoal National Park and Pau-Brasil National Park – both part of the UNESCO site. In the former, you can climb the namesake mountain (536m), mountain bike towards the sea and visit the Pataxó Indian settlement.
Brazil isn’t short on colonial-era cities with UNESCO listings but Salvador, nestled on a hilly peninsula overlooking Todos os Santos Bay, arguably has something extra.
It was the first capital of Brazil (1549-1763), had the dubious honour of hosting the New World’s first slave market, and is awash with architectural reminders of the past – from the wide plazas to the baroque basilica to tumbledown streets lined with pastel-hued and stuccoed Renaissance houses.
But it’s the multicultural vibe that you notice most: Salvador is the epicentre of African Brazil, and alleys here buzz with candomblé rituals and beating drums. Browse the lanes of the steep, cobbled Pelourinho, tuck into acarajé (deep-fried balls of mashed black-eyed peas with shrimp paste) and watch capoeira moves being cut on the beach.
Adrift in the Pacific Ocean, Easter Island is one of the remotest places on the planet – and one of the most mysterious. We think that this small chunk of volcanic rock was first colonised by Eastern Polynesians from around AD 700. But quite why they decided to sculpt huge lumps of tuff, scoria and basalt into strange big heads (known as moai), then haul them from the Rano Raraku crater and erect them all over the island remains a puzzle.
There are around 900 statues in all, ranging from two to 20m tall; some are complete, with obsidian eyes, others have been left semicarved. There are also 300 ceremonial platforms and the remains of other domestic structures. Must-sees include the 15 moai of Ahu Tongariki and the beachside sculptures at Anakena. Also, take a walk around Rano Raraku, to explore the Rapa Nui’s alfresco workshop.
Pastel-painted, palace-dotted, wall-wrapped, Caribbean-lapped Cartagena is a dreamy Latin vision made real. UNESCO says, quite perfunctorily, that within the colonial heart of the city ‘can be found civil, religious and residential monuments of beauty and consequence’ but that seems to be missing part of the point.
Yes, Cartagena has a matchless complex of military walls, fortresses and a bastioned harbour, but it is the fairytale feel and sensual vibe that makes the city so intoxicating.
Soak this atmosphere up on a wander amid the old districts of El Centro and San Diego, where church spires soar, colourful streets squiggle, plazas are shaded by rippling palms and windowboxes drip with bougainvillea. Also, take a walk along las murallas (those old 16th-century walls) to gaze down on the city and the sea beyond.
Speckling the Pacific, just south of the Chilean Lake District, the Chiloé Archipelago stretches around 190km north-south, the surface-probing extremities of a sunken mountain range.
These islands were once the preserve of the native Chonos and Huilliche peoples, who fished and farmed here; however, in 1567 the Spanish arrived. They were followed in 1608 by Jesuit missionaries and, in the 18th and 19th centuries, by the Franciscans, all keen to convert the locals. In order to do this, the new arrivals built a circuit of churches, which they could stay at for a few days as they travelled round, evangelising.
Today there are 60 mission churches on the archipelago, 14 of which are considered particularly impressive, for their exquisite wooden construction, their colourful interiors and their fusion of European and indigenous traditions. Plan your own loop of Chiloé to take some of them in – perhaps the graceful cypress-and-larch church of Nercón, bright blue Tenaún, 53m-long Quinchao (the biggest) or Neo-Gothic Castro.
For a long time, the FCO cautioned against visiting this ancient treasure in southern Colombia; it still does advise against all but essential travel in the regions nearby. Which is a pity, because San Agustín is quite unique, an archaeological wonderland created by a little-known culture that thrived from around AD 0-800.
The handiwork of these ancient peoples is scattered across a wide area in the eastern Andean foothills. There are funerary monuments, burial mounds, stone statuary (in the forms of humans, animals and birds) and even carvings in the rocky bed of a stream. A museum explains some background, then you can hike or horse-ride around the site to get a feel for the scale of the civilisation’s achievements.
The Galápagos might be the Latin American UNESCO site that’s loved just a bit too much. The magical, yet fragile, archipelago struggles under the weight of people wanting to visit, as well as migration, overfishing and invasive species.
However, despite all of the problems, it remains one of the world’s very best wildlife destinations – there are few other places where the creatures are so unafraid and so brilliantly weird, or that have inspired an entire rethink of evolution.
Cruising around the islands will introduce you to its numerous residents – the playful sea lions, the piles of pitch-black marine iguanas, the lumbering giant tortoises, the many types of booby. Boats with kayaks and snorkel gear will allow different levels of interaction. Just tread carefully as you go.
Sangay has been redeemed. This park, which gathers together three 5,000m-plus volcanoes (two of them active) plus valleys, rainforests and a sprinkle of waterfalls, was placed on the ‘In Danger’ list in 1992, when illegal poaching and construction threatened its integrity.
However, by 2005, it was considered fully UNESCO-worthy once more. It’s the range of terrain here that’s so impressive – running the gamut from snowcapped mountain tops and high-altitude páramo to the lush lowlands of the Amazon Basin. Plus, its remoteness means wildlife thrives here: tapir and puma, giant otter and spectacled bear, Andean condor and cock-of-the-rock.
The park can be explored via hiking trails, by bike or on horseback. Technical climbers might fancy El Altar (5,139m), the inactive member of the park’s volcanic trio. Tungurahua (5,016m) is currently too volatile to ascend. Sangay (5,230m) still spits and huffs, but – conditions dependent – can be conquered on a five-day trek.
When UNESCO designated its first 12 World Heritage sites in 1978, the historic centre of the Ecuadorian capital was one of them. Even the powerful earthquake of 1917 couldn’t rattle this Latin lovely: the architecture here remains intact and wonderfully harmonious, a masterclass in the style that became known as the Baroque school of Quito.
This design ethos originated in the 17th and 18th centuries, combining Spanish, Italian, Moorish, Flemish and indigenous styles to create something spectacular.
Amid the Old Town, laid out neatly in a series of squares, are some real gems: the monastery of Santo Domingo, with its exquisite works of art, and the La Compañía church, with its glittering interior of gilded walls, altars and plasterwork. Take a walking tour around the Old Town or ride the teleférico sky tram up Pichincha volcano for the finest city overview.
Paraguay’s only UNESCO site – like a fair few other Latin inscriptions – owes its existence to those proselytising Jesuits. The Christian crew arrived in the Río de la Plata Basin area in 1588, encouraging locals to adopt the religion but not enforcing a full Europeanisation; consequently, many indigenous traditions remain.
La Santísima Trinidad de Paraná (built in 1706, and the better preserved) and Jesús de Tavarangue (1760), both now in ruins, are 10km apart, and follow a similar design: a central church flanked by the home of the Fathers, with the chiefs’ residence nearby, plus workshops, a yard and cemetery; the indigenous people’ homes were along streets radiating from a large square.
There were rumours the (over) popular lost Inca citadel might be declared ‘In Danger’ when the UNESCO Committee gathered in July 2015, with a final decision postponed until 2017. Certainly the site is a victim of its own popularity.
Well, it’s a hidden ruin that out-foxed the Spanish, tucked deep in lush, misty mountains, tumbling delightfully down an improbable slope, and accessible only via a splendid old paved pathway or a scenic train – what’s not to love? It has all the romance you could want from a travel destination – but sadly all the people you don’t.
Relieve a bit of the burden on the site by hiking one of the alternative trails to Machu Picchu – perhaps via the Salcantay route, Lares Valley or Choquequirao – and by visiting some of Peru’s lesser known archaeological gems.
Manú is massive. This park in the Peruvian Amazon covers some 15,000 sq km of tropical forest, snaking rivers, alluvial plains and Andean foothills. The biodiversity here is off the scale; for example, around 850 bird species have been recorded, though who knows how many more species might lurk here. Creatures we do know about include jaguar, giant otter, giant armadillo, black caiman, various monkeys and myriad macaws.
Tourism is only allowed in three areas of the park: the Acjanaco Sector/Tres Cruces, a high-altitude region of puña grasslands and cloudforest, home to puma and Andean bear; the Cultural History Zone, in the Palotoa River Basin, home to the Pusharo petroglyphs; and the Manú River Sector, where boat trips and stays at jungle lodges offer an introduction to both the prolific wildlife and the native culture.
Er, yes, meat production heritage! Who knew it was so important? In answer: not as many people as know it now. The factories here, on the banks of the Uruguay River, represent South America’s newest UNESCO site, freshly designated in July 2015.
It’s a huge complex, founded close to the livestock-rich prairies in 1859, and showcasing the whole method of meat manufacturing – from sourcing and processing to packing and dispatching.
The old El Anglo plant, which closed in 1979, is now a heritage museum, an eerily empty disarray of people-less warehouses, unhinged gates, rusty hooks and collapsed cattle corrals. As for the rest of Fray Bentos, there are some leafy plazas and some colourful houses, and the sandy beaches of Las Cañas are 8km away.
Canaima, in south-east Venezuela, hard up against the Brazil and Guyana borders, feels positively prehistoric. Around 65% of the park is covered by tepuis – majestic, jungly flat-topped inselbergs that have evolved in splendid isolation, from both the outside world and each other.
This means the area is a hotbed of endemism, with each tepui summit having its own unique ecosystem; the most explored is Mt Roraima, which can be climbed on a steep and sweaty five-day expedition from the village of Paratepui.
The park is also a-splish with waterfalls, not least Angel, the world’s highest, which tumbles 1,002m down the side of Auyantepui. There are also rarities such as giant anteater, giant armadillo and little spotted cat, to the native Pemón people, who have roamed amid Canaima’s forests and savannah for at least 10,000 years.
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