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Blog: Tips for travelling to Ecuador

In September I spent 2 weeks in Ecuador, my first visit to this country. I covered all 5 WHS on a self-designed tour around the country by public transport. The small Andean nation has its pros and cons – it is quite compact for example, saving one the hellish bus rides known from Peru – but it will not make my list of favourite countries in the world that I’d love to return to.

Find below my Top Tips for Travelling to Ecuador as a World Heritage Traveller.

Galapagos Frigatebird displaying its inflatable red throat pouch

1. The Galapagos is expensive but not prohibitive

I spent 560 US dollars to get ‘into’ the Galapagos – and from that point the costs for lodging and food are similar to those in Quito. This expense was split between 440 dollar for the return ticket from Quito (getting there from Guayaquil is slightly cheaper), 20 dollar for a kind of visa fee (“transit control ticket”), to be paid at the departure airport, and 100 dollar for the conservation fee to be paid upon landing. So ‘ticking off’ the Galapagos is cheaper than seeing for example the gorillas in Bwindi. The islands still feature though on our connection High Entrance Fees, where I have updated the Galapagos entry from 100 to 120 USD (2017).

2. Take your time if you want to do the Galapagos on your own

I spent 5 days/4 nights on the Galapagos Islands, and that was actually a few days too little. You'd want a mix between exploring an island by yourself and joining a day tour for those islands that are only accessible with a guide. Besides a bit of personal freedom, this also lowers the cost as the day tours are not cheap at about 150 US dollar. A good additional thing to do would be to take the ferry to Isabela, and stay for 2 nights so you can take day tours from there too. A thing to consider is also the season: I visited in late September, and that was already the end of the summer season so not all day tours were available every day.

At the market of Guamote

3. Don’t miss the Andean towns for their active indigenous culture

Landscape-wise I found the area around Riobamba the prettiest: think Andes mountains plus mega-volcanoes. And that’s where you’ll find the largest share of indigenous population too. Probably only Bolivia rivals the percentage of people wearing traditional dress compared to this region. I recommend to visit the weekly Thursday market in Guamote, where you'll get a glimpse into the life of a small Andean farmer.

4. Don’t expect great pre-Columbian sites

One of the reasons that I didn’t like Ecuador as much as I would have wanted, is the near-absence of pre-Columbian archaeological sites. Where Mexico and Peru are literally covered in them, Ecuador only has the modest Ingapirca. A great place to visit however is the Casa del Alabado in Quito. It is a private art museum with an excellent collection of pre-Columbian remains from Ecuador. It has mostly ceramics, and these are in great condition. It highlights for example the Jama Coaque culture and the Chorrera culture.

Human figurine of the Ancient Jama-Coaque Culture

5. Ecuador’s Tentative List needs some further exploring

At the moment of writing, Ecuador has a Tentative List of 5. The country hasn't been very active nomination wise - actually I have not found any evidence of independent action since 1983. Only the Mining town of Zaruma has been in the news a few times, and if I had more time to spend in Ecuador I would for sure have checked it out. The other 4 sites are a petrified forest, an Andean railway track, an archaeological site with the world’s first traces of cocoa use and a coastal tropical forest. Noone has ever written a review about any of them on this website, so there's some unchartered territory to explore for the intrepid WH Traveller.

Published 14 October 2017

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Blog: WHS #646: Galapagos Islands

The Galapagos Islands don’t need a long introduction: they were among the first batch of inscriptions in 1978 (actually it was the very first on record) and they were also a shoo-in at our Top 200 WHS. One can ‘do’ the Galapagos either via an accommodated cruise or a self-arranged land-based alternative, which has become more feasible and popular in the last 10 years. For me the choice was clear quickly: to be ‘locked up’ on a rather small cruise ship for at least a week with strangers did not seem appealing to me at all. Also I am not a fan of daily water based activities like snorkelling and swimming. So I based myself in the town of Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz island, the largest town on the Galapagos Islands.

Giant tortoise couple on the move at Santa Cruz

Puerto Ayora nowadays is a surprisingly touristy and affluent city. It isn’t unlike a Greek harbour town, with tourists milling around in the streets at all hours and daily departures of ferries to other islands. I had planned on taking two organized day tours from here: to North Seymour and Bartolomé. But unfortunately the latter got cancelled because of too few bookings. Instead of Bartolomé I eventually choose Isabela island. I spent the rest of my time on Santa Cruz itself.

Santa Cruz is far from pristine, but a good spot nonetheless to see certain species – in particular the giant tortoise. Probably the first stop for every tourist on Santa Cruz is the Charles Darwin Research Station. It is located a pleasant walk away from the Puerto Ayora town center, and you’ll see mangroves, birds and the tortoise breeding center.

The best place to see giant tortoises in the wild is in the highlands of Santa Cruz – you can already see them in the fields along the road between the ferry to Baltra Airport and Puerto Ayora. I went to look at them more closely in El Chato reserve, but on the way up there we already encountered one in the middle of the road amidst the fairly busy traffic of taxis, buses and trucks. The tortoises at the reserve go about eating their grass quietly, they’re wonderful to watch. They’re not particularly bothered by human visitors though they sometimes stop eating and look up. Also I found one or two hissing, a sign of fear or annoyance?

Blue Footed Booby chick at North Seymour

My first full daytrip went to North Seymour, an uninhabited island about 45 minutes away from the canal between Santa Cruz and Baltra. It's a small and flat lava island, known for nesting birds. Especially the blue-footed booby and frigatebird can be seen in large quantities doing their thing. There’s a 2km trail on the island which we slowly hiked accompanied by a guide. We saw many young chicks of both species, often on nests right beside the path. Of course everyone who visits the Galapagos wants a good picture of a blue-footed booby, and you must be a real bad photographer not to succeed. Especially this species is without any fear of humans and often hops closer to get a better look at the passing tourists. Their fluffy offspring, already quite big actually, did take my heart though.

My other daytrip, to Isabela, first involved a public ‘ferry’ ride of 2 hours (the ferries here are small speedboats that take only some 20 passengers). It’s a very bumpy trip but fortunately I had some seasickness tablets left from my trip earlier this year to the Azores. Isabela is the largest island of the archipelago, but I only had time to check out the area not too far from its port. Sleeping sea lions, occupying the wooden benches that must have been meant for waiting tourists, are a common sight here. I did a short hike on the island near two lagoons with flamingos, and returning to the port via a long stretch of beach home to hundreds of marine iguanas and lava lizards.

Marine iguana at Isabela

Beforehand I had bought the Bradt Galapagos Wildlife guide, and then I was already surprised that all of Galapagos’ flora and fauna fit into a 156 page booklet. Anyone who has seen for example the volume and density of a bird guiding book of let’s say Costa Rica will notice that the diversity of species at the Galapagos Islands is very low. During my short stay I saw almost all species of interest named in the book, many of them in large numbers and at multiple locations. Unfortunate misses included the green sea turtle (was seen by people snorkelling during my day trip to North Seymour), the penguins (due to the cancelled day trip to Bartolomé and me not making a real effort for it at Isabela) and the Galapagos hawk.

Published 7 October 2017

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Responses to WHS #646: Galapagos Islands
Jay T (11 October 2017)

The wildlife in the Galapagos is amazing -- I'm glad you got to see so much. It sounds like the seas were just as choppy for you on your ride to Isabela as they were when I visited in May. I didn't need seasickness tablets, but I did find it was a lot less bumpy in the back of the boat, which helped with the rough seas. Thanks for the great reviews of Ecuador's World Heritage Sites!

Blog: WHS #645: Quito

The City of Quito has been on the WH List since its beginnings in 1978. The Ecuadoreans were quick off the mark, with the Galapagos Islands also inscribed that year. From its foundation in 1534, the city always has played an important political, economic and cultural role in northern South America. During its heydays between the 16th and 18th century, numerous churches, convents, colleges and universities were founded. Still, Quito does not have the ring to it of Rio de Janeiro or Buenos Aires and isn’t a tourist magnet in its own right. Most people visit it as an obligatory stop-over on their way to the Galapagos Islands.

Street in the Historic Center

Nicknamed ‘Florence of the Americas’, the city is high on religious art and architecture. In the retrospective Statement of Outstanding Universal Value, much emphasis is given to the Quito School of Art. In this fusion style, indigenous artists executed Spanish religious concepts. It resulted in an extreme degree of ornamentation, with bloody displays of wounds, the abundant use of gold leaf paint and the substitution of traditional European natural iconography with local flora and fauna.

I started my tour of Quito’s religious buildings at the Cathedral and the Jesuit church, located in the street next to it. Both have in common that they are marketed as “museums”, and thus charge a moderate entry fee and prohibit any photography. They also charge different fees for Ecuadorean citizens and foreigners, unfortunately not an uncommon practice in Ecuador. However they do give you a very nice entrance ticket to keep. After you’ve entered the Cathedral and the Jesuit Church, you’ll know pretty well what the Quito School of Art entitles: lots and lots of gold-painted wooden decorations with a dramatic painting or sculpture in between. The Jesuit Church La Compañia even advertises itself on a plaque near the entrance as “the highest representation of Baroque architecture in the Americas”.

If you want to take pictures of this particular way of decoration, your best bet is the Sagrario Chapel which is adjacent to the Cathedral. Although this isn’t the most exquisite among Quito’s churches, it displays the gilded ornamentation well and the church is free to enter.

17th century Altarpiece in San Francisco Convent

The highlight of Quito for me was the San Francisco convent complex. It is huge, covering the whole block of a large square. Sadly this square now is inaccessible and broken up for 80%, because of the construction of the Quito metro system. Works will go on to 2019. Fortunately, the interiors of the monastery and its church and chapels are also very beautiful. The church is slightly lighter in atmosphere than the other churches in the city, and the gold-coloured carvings do not prevail.

Next to the church the former monastery houses a religious museum. They have an abundance of Quito School paintings, sculptures and 4 great altar pieces (see pic 2 above). I enjoyed my rounds through the museum, being almost the only visitor. Although there are quite a lot of tourists in Quito, they apparently do not enter its museums. I had the same experience the day before at the Casa del Alabado, where they show an unmissable collection of pre-Columbian art from Ecuador.

Quito School interpretation of Jesus

In all, the historic centre of Quito warrants a full-day visit. In addition to the sites described above, the City Museum (housed in a former hospital), the Dominican church (with its Moorish wooden ceilings) and the neogothic Basilica del Voto Nacional (with gargoyles in the form of local animals such as iguana and turtle) are well-worth visiting. Despite its steep streets the center is easily explored on foot. There’s police presence literally on every street corner, which may or may not reassure you. It all seemed quite friendly to me.

Published 30 September 2017

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Blog: WHS #644: Sangay NP

Sangay National Park is a rarely visited WHS in the central highlands of Ecuador. Only 17 community members were there before me, resulting in a 874th spot at the ranking of Most Visited Sites. That’s less than Zabid (Yemen) or Ilulissat Icefjord (Greenland) for example. It would be interesting to find out how the other visitors approached Sangay, especially before the controversial construction of the Guamote-Macas road. I did it the same way as the only other reviewer so far (Jay T): with a car and driver/guide arranged by Julio Verne Travel in Riobamba. They also advertise downhill bike tours along that road, and can arrange multi-day hikes into the area.

Laguna Magdalena

The WHS covers only about half of Sangay National Park: the most restricted area. When you drive along the Guamote-Macas road, you’ll be in the core zone for only 8 km. The map from 2009 at the UNESCO website clearly shows the road at the southwestern tip, plus a lake system called Lagunas Magdalenas right beside it. Confusingly, their popular name is the Atillo Lakes (named after the nearby village). The outline of my day trip was to visit these lakes and drive on all the way down the Guamote-Macas road to a town called 9 de Octubre, to see the landscape change from subalpine Páramo grasslands to subtropical rainforest (one of the key features of this WHS).

Driving up from Riobamba, the scenery starts with rich agricultural lands. The lava soil is nutritious. One of the main products that is created and transported from here is fertilizer. Other crops include strawberries, potatoes, cabbage and tree tomatoes. There are even numerous greenhouses, used for growing ‘normal’ tomatoes. The scenery only changes slowly after having passed the “Welcome to Sangay National Park” sign. There still are numerous villages almost all along the road.

Typical vegetation around the lakes

The lakes are located at 3,466m altitude. A cold wind is blowing here all the time. I only noticed one duck braving the water. We got out at the parking lot near the Black Lake, a separate lake from the Magdalena lake(s) – deeper and thus darker in colour. A small trail leads up to a hill top from the parking. We climbed it and enjoyed the views some more. We were so blessed with the weather today, even the guide was taking lots of pictures as it rarely is as clear here as it was this day.

There is so little traffic on this road that we could stop when and where we wanted. According to the guide, rangers still do spot wildlife along the road. The most sought after mammal of course is the mountain tapir, the mascot of the park. These tapirs (mountain tapirs and ‘normal’ ones) are called “danta” in Spanish, and we even saw a sign that we had to be careful driving because of danta crossing the road. Well, we only wished to see one! We had to make do with two vultures having a snack along the side of the road.

El Altar volcano

The three volcanoes inside the park – Sangay, El Altar and Tungurahua - are difficult to see from this side. Just past the town of 9 de Octubre there's a viewing platform which supposedly has good views - but it was much too hazy when we arrived around lunch time. In Riobamba, there’s always the Chimborazo volcano west of the park that draws all the attraction. Other snowclad volcanoes rarely come into view. From the road not far from Riobamba my guide pointed out El Altar, the extinct one that has collapsed and isn’t as pretty as the other two. I saw it again the next day from the road while I was on my way to the market in Guamote. Tungurahua should easily be seen from the north (Baños, or possibly even the road to Quito). Sangay however will stay a well-hidden secret to most travellers.

Published 26 September 2017

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Jay T (26 September 2017)

I'm so happy you had good clear weather when you visited Sangay National Park! It's great to see more of the mountaintops around the lakes in your photos. Despite unsettled weather when I visited, I enjoyed my hike inland to the first of the other Atillo lakes, within the park's core zone north of the road; I would have loved to see some of the vistas you got to see, though. Maybe some day I'll get back. Hope you are enjoying the rest of your travels!

Blog: Ingapirca

The Inca road network Qhapaq Nan consists of many sections. One of these is called “Achupallas-Ingapirca”, and it lies in the provinces of Chimborazo and Cañar in the southeast of Ecuador. Like all other inscribed sections, it comprises a stretch of road and associated sites. Parts of the original path are still accessible: there is a 3-day / 40km long trail that can be arranged to cover it. I just visited one of the associated sites, Ingapirca.

Temple of the Sun

The Inca started to expand their empire northwards into Ecuador from Peru only from 1463. They met with a lot of resistance, notably from the Cañari people who were local to the area around Cuenca. The interesting feature of Ingapirca is that it is a mixed Cañari – Inca site. The Inca Túpac Yupanqui ended up marrying a Cañari princess, and the two groups reputedly lived together peacefully afterwards although they kept their own customs.

The guides that accompany visitors to the archaeological site identify themselves as indigenous Cañari, and they are happy to point out especially these remains. The Cañari worshipped the moon, and the remains of their Temple of the Moon cover the first plateau at the site. There’s an interesting communal tomb in front of it, with a vertical monolith on top. Here a woman of high social class was buried together with 10 other men and women who – according to the guide – were sacrificed alive. A bit further into the complex a rock with holes in it represents a Cañari “lunar calender”. The different holes were filled with water to catch the reflections of the moon for each moon-month of the year.

Cañari lunar calendar

Ingapirca is also the largest known Inca ruin site in Ecuador. The most significant remain of that period is the Temple of the Sun, an elliptically shaped building constructed around a large rock. The typical Inca construction style, that can be seen in the many sites around Peru, is also clearly distinguishable here at Ingapirca. Because of the type of local stones that they used, the temple has an attractive greenish hue.

There’s a stretch of Inca road next to the Temples of the Moon and the Sun that was identified by our guide as ‘Qhapaq Nan’ and part of the UNESCO World Heritage. It is maybe 50 meters long and does not seem to go anywhere in particular. The Inca incorporated their newly won territories in their road network often as much as a symbol of their strength, as well as a means for communication and transportation.

The Spanish arrived before Ingapirca was completed. They ruined it, and the site was only restored in the 1970s by the Ecuadorean government. Many stones that were stolen from the site and used elsewhere were returned. They still lay about at the site, waiting for a new purpose.

Inca Road

Ingapirca is an easy day trip from Cuenca. The Transportes Cañar bus company offers a daily bus at 9 a.m. that goes directly to the site (well, including numerous stops to let on or off locals of course). The ride takes 2 hours. The bus waits at the site and returns at 1.15 p.m. For me this was sufficient time at the site, but I did not wander around much because the rain was pouring and the small on-site museum was closed. If you want to stay longer, you can take a bus back to Cuenca via Cañar from the village just below the ruins. There are also a few basic lunch restaurants near the entrance.

Published 22 September 2017

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Jay T (22 September 2017)

I'm sorry to hear it rained during your visit. I really enjoyed Ingapirca, and it makes me look forward to some day visiting Incan sites in Peru.

Blog: WHS #643: Cuenca

They just call it ‘Cuenca’ in Ecuador, but with the Spanish Cuenca also inscribed we have two WHS with the same name! So for the website I’m sticking to its full name: Santa Ana de los Rios de Cuenca. Looking at the current state of our connections, links, reviews (1) and photos (1) for this WHS, not many previous visitors found anything to write home about or even had a critical look at its specific site page. So with Cuenca being the first stop on my Ecuador trip, it’s now time for a makeover.

Main door of the New Cathedral

Adding additional links proved to be hard. Actually none of the key attractions of the city has a functioning website. I found a number of blog posts from mainly Americans living in the city glorifying life there, but most were too shallow to warrant a link. I eventually settled for 5 Things You Can't Miss In Cuenca's Cathedral of Immaculate Conception. The best website about Cuenca still is the official one from the local tourist department. It does have comprehensive listings of churches, museums etc with their opening hours. I used it in planning my itinerary for the day, as it has so much more detail compared to what I had been able to find elsewhere.

I easily found 11 additional connections to characterize Cuenca. The New Cathedral, the city’s main landmark, in itself is a rich source. It was designed by a German friar, has 3 blue glazed domes, Carrara marble on the floors and is considered unfinished (there should have been 2 more domes). I visited on a Sunday during one of the almost continuous masses. The huge church can hold 10,000 people and this number surely was present. There are video screens attached to the pillars so even from far the people can see what the priest is doing exactly. A connection ‘kitsch’ would be needed to further describe the interior of this New Cathedral. There’s a 3m high statue of Pope John Paul II for example that looks like a gigantic plastic doll.

Remigio Crespo Toral Museum

The World Monuments Fund (WMF) and the US Ambassadors Fund have been active in Cuenca. The WMF supported the renovation of the Remigio Crespo Toral Museum. It only finished in 2014 and so is missing from many guidebooks and websites about Cuenca. It’s worth visiting though and is free to enter. This former house of a poet shows you how the elite lived in the late 19th, early 20th century. I can disclose that they were fond of Paris. Both WMF and Ambassadors Fund spent their money at the Todos Santos Complex. It covers a historic church (with roots going back to 1540), garden and bakery. Unfortunately it was closed on the day that I visited Cuenca.

Another notable location is Pumapongo. Pumapongo is the archaeological site that covers remains of the Inca city of Tomebamba. The story is that Tomebamba was already in ruins when the Spanish arrived, and that they choose to build their own city 2km away. I think we have to let go the connection Built over the ruins of an Incan city, as this was not technically the case in Cuenca (in contrast to Quito and Cuzco). Both are now enclosed within the modern city, which with 400,00 inhabitants seems to fully cover the valley. I found the ruins more impressive than I had anticipated. The site has a very straight canal running through it, with an “Inca" bath” at the center. Next to it they have re-created gardens, and there are manmade terraces that go all the way up to where the ceremonial center was.

Site of Pumapongo

In all I had expected a little more from Cuenca. For me it did not live up to charming colonial centres such as Guanajuato (Mexico), Antigua (Guatemala) and Granada (Nicaragua). Maybe this is because of its fairly large size, or I was distracted too much by the rainy weather. The city had its heydays in the late 19th and early 20th century, and this period reflects more in its buildings than the colonial era. It has always been a bit of an outpost and did not see the riches of towns that experienced mining booms.

Published 19 September 2017

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Responses to WHS #643: Cuenca
Jay T (22 September 2017)

Yes, that was I. The owner of the company is Dutch, and she was very helpful in setting me up with a tour to the park. I hope you have (or had) good weather when visiting, and hopefully you can get a glimpse of Sangay mountain itself!

Els Slots (21 September 2017)

Hi Jay
I am doing a tour of Ecuador in your footsteps! Two days ago I was in the office of Julio Verne Travel in Riobamba to arrange a visit to Sangay. They asked me why I wanted to go there and I explained the WHS-thing. "Oh, we have had someone here last year who had the same reason". Was it you?

Jay T (21 September 2017)

You beat me to it! I had a Santa Ana de Los Rios de Cuenca review scheduled for last Sunday, but was too busy to post. I guess I'll hold off a few weeks for that. Sorry you had rain on your visit (it rained for me earlier this summer, too), but I hope you enjoy Ecuador!

Blog: WHS #642: Antequera Dolmens

The Antequera Dolmens were the fourth prehistoric European WHS that I visited in the past 4 weeks. After the Ice Age Art Caves, Neolithic Orkney and Gorham’s Cave I was not terribly keen on checking out another one. But well, this was an orphan site that I had left ‘to tick off’ not far from Malaga Airport from where I would be flying home after the WH Travellers Meeting. So on a Sunday morning I drove out there from La Linea, in a little less than two hours. The WHS consists of 5 different features, all located in or around the mid-size Andalusian city of Antequera.

View from Menga Dolmen

Antequera comes with a few pleasant surprises. The first is that it rightly is part of our Free Entrance connection: none of the locations charge an entry fee. The sites are far from unkept though. The locations of Menga/Viera dolmen, El Torcal and El Romeral are all at least manned by security and in the case of the first two they also have a small visitor center with staff, parking lots and toilets.

Another positive is that one can only admire the state of conservation (or reconstruction) and the size of these megalithic structures. According to ICOMOS, the “number, size, weight and volume of stone blocks transported and assembled in the basin of Antequera, …, makes the Antequera Dolmens one of the most important engineering and architectural works of European Prehistory”. It did impress me a lot more than Neolithic Orkney for example.

Interior of Tholos de El Romeral

The Tholos of El Romeral I found the most interesting among the inscribed locations. It is the largest and most complex of the three (burial) mounds. In modern times it has ended up in an industrial estate, but Antequera's archaeological service has tried to give it some atmosphere by planting a series of cypress trees next to it and adding benches. However it attracts fewer visitors than Menga and Viera, and I had the site to myself.

El Romeral is different from the others as it was a dry stone construction. It looks like a number of bricks have been put neatly on top of each other, resulting in a dome shaped chamber. The nomination file calls this “the architecture of false cupola ceilings”, or corbel domes - it results in a similar effect to an arch, the construction of which was yet unknown in prehistoric times.

El Torcal

I know that I'm a slower traveler than most who are active on this website, but I even surprised myself how long I stayed in Antequera: it took me 3.5 hours to visit all 5 inscribed locations! That included lunch at the local McDonalds and an hour’s walk through the rocky landscape of the El Torcal nature reserve half an hour's drive away. One can even spend more time at El Torcal and do one of the longer hikes, but it's a bit of a tourist trap with lots of visiting Spanish families (whose members are not the quiet nature lover-type).

Published 16 September 2017

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Responses to WHS #642: Antequera Dolmens
Ian Cade (18 September 2017)

Perhaps we did get through it a little quick, but we didn't include time up at el Torcal, as we stayed up near there the previous night and weren't sure that lugging a buggy around would add much to what we had seen of the landscape already.

I guess we spent about 30/35 minutes at Menga and Viera and about 10/15 at El Romeral (which I agree was the most impressive interior).

So probably an hour once you factor in the time to get between them, and an half hour working out how to get the attention of some one to let you pay at the McDonalds :)

Sharon (17 September 2017)

Wonderful natural site i wanted to go there sometime

Blog: WHS #641: Tetouan

The Medina of Tetouan was the second goal of our 2017 WH Travellers Meetup. This Moroccan city can easily be reached on a day trip from the Spanish south coast. We did so by taking an early morning ferry from Algeciras to Ceuta, and then moved on by a pre-arranged minibus to Tetouan for the final 40km. Crossing the border proved to be easy for pedestrians, although the Iranian visa in the passports of some of our group raised a few eyebrows.

Gate to the Sufi shrine Zaouia al Harrakia (1845)

Tetouan always has been culturally close to Spain. The city derives its character from the arrival of Spanish-Arab refugees at the end of the 15th century, when the last Jews and Muslims were expelled from Andalusia. Later on it even was the capital of the Spanish protectorate of Morocco (1913-1956). A reminder of that is the early 20th century church at the Moulay el Mehdi square in the modern part of town, where we were dropped off by our driver. A guide took us from there through a lively shopping street, until we arrived at the Hassan II square. This is fully fenced off, as to not get too close to the Royal Palace that is the prominent feature of this square.

The old city starts right behind the palace, and that’s probably were we entered the core zone of the WHS. It isn’t 100% clear which parts of Tetouan are actually included, thanks to probably the worst map ever available on the UNESCO website. But by comparing it to for example this city map, it looks like it's limited to the area within the old city walls. The medina is full of market stalls, with honorary mentions for the displays of fresh fish surrounded by cats and the ample supply of live chickens. Berber people in traditional dress are also frequent sellers and buyers here.

The Sakia Fouqia fountain (1608)

A special part of the old city is also the mellah, the former Jewish quarter. Tetouan had a large Jewish population until the foundation of Israel and immigration to other Western countries. They lived in a separate part of the medina. The synagogue is still there, but with the reportedly only 8 remaining Jews in Tetouan it will no longer be in use. This quarter furthermore stands out due to the enthusiastic use of colour. The white walls dominating the entire city of Tetouan are partly painted in green, yellow, blue and pink.

The final part of the old city that we visited was the kasbah, a fortress within the old city walls having its own gateway. Now it is mostly in use as an additional souk. We experienced little hassle from sellers or touts during our tour of the medina - maybe because we were in the company of an official guide. Or because the tourist police are quite active here: some of the members of our group claimed that we were constantly being followed by an "inconspicuous" plainclothes police officer.

Our tour ended at the Blanco Riad, where we had a lovely lunch and were welcomed warmly (they also had arranged the driver and the guide for the day).

In the former Jewish quarter

The Medina of Tetouan resembles the ones in Marrakesh and Fez, and one sometimes wonders why Morocco has included so many medinas in its proposals. When you visit a couple of them in a row the attraction wears out. But for an isolated day trip Tetouan proved to be worth it. The really big sights and former wealth (which are present in Marrakesh and Fez) are lacking here, but the atmosphere feels more authentic than at its southern counterparts. It’s quite tourist friendly as well: the more important historic buildings do have tiles with a UNESCO sign plus information in Arabic, French and English attached to them. Unfortunately we were not able to get into any of the historic buildings, such as the renovated Medersa Loukach.

Published 13 September 2017

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Blog: WHS #640: Gorham's Cave

Gorham’s Cave Complex is Gibraltar’s only WHS to date, and it was the main venue of this year’s World Heritage Travellers meeting. This Complex comprises four caves where tangible remains of the Neanderthaler way of life have been found. No skulls or other bones have been discovered in these particular caves (yet), but the archaeologists have been lucky earlier this year to find a Neanderthaler milk tooth!

Overview of the core zone

The Cave Complex is located at the southeastern tip of Gibraltar and its Rock. After casually strolling across the Spanish-British border and crossing the empty air strip, we took bus number 2 from the town center to Europa Point. Europa Point is a collection of monuments and memorials such as a 19th century lighthouse. The main landmark nowadays is the Saudi sponsored Mosque of The Custodian of the The Holy Mosques.

We all gathered a bit further up the road at the Europa Advance Viewing Platform. I had unsuccessfully tried to find it on a map beforehand: this is a piece of tourist infrastructure still in the making. Essentially the 1st and 2nd Europa Advance Battery are being turned into viewing platforms and small scale interpretation centres. The Gibraltar Museum still has to clean up the 2nd Battery which has been used for firing practice by the army until recently. The 1st Battery is almost ready now: there are toilets and the structures to hold information panels have been placed. The information itself is still missing though, and entrance to the Battery is closed to unannounced visitors unlike ourselves.

Military reminders everywhere

The site of the future viewing platform has been chosen well. From there the entrances to the caves can be seen clearly. The inscribed area also covers their natural surroundings, which essentially cover the southeastern flank of the Rock of Gibraltar. Our WH Travellers group was treated to an introduction talk about the area by Sue Davies of the Gibraltar Museum and two staff. It actually is quite hard to imagine what the landscape would have looked like, as the sea level was much lower when the Neanderthaler lived here and the cave dwellers looked out over a coastal plain.

After the talk our group was split into two: 10 lucky ones were to go into the military zone, down the stairs and all up to the entrance of Gorham’s Cave. For conservation reasons the cave itself is closed to visitors. I’ll leave it to one of them to write a review of that experience. The others returned to the town center of Gibraltar, for a more in-depth presentation of the site at the Gibraltar Museum. Sue gave an interesting behind-the-scenes look at how the inscription came about and what the future plans are. I found out why the name of the WHS was changed from “Gibraltar Neanderthal Caves and Environments” to “Gorham’s Cave Complex” at the final stages of its inscription – apparently the Spanish objected to the use of the Spanish translation of the word “Environments”.

The Cave Complex

The Gibraltar Museum does offer all tidbits of local history that can be expected from a regional museum of this size. Findings from the caves mainly include animal bones and stone tools. A difficult task lies ahead of the Gibraltar Museum team to find a way to further promote Gorham’s Cave despite its inaccessibility and conservation issues. Our WH Travellers group (rebranded during the meeting into the "World Heritage Appreciation Society") received a very warm welcome and good introduction to the site by them.

Published 10 September 2017

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Responses to WHS #640: Gorham's Cave
Nan (18 January 2038)

@Clyde: I would keep the boat ride unless it really messes up your itinerary. The views you will get should be nice. The other option is to hike the Mediterranean Steps which should be on the border of the core zone.

Clyde (11 September 2017)

Thanks Els. I sent an email to the Gibraltar Museum for confirmation. I'm going to keep my booking just in case. If they confirm it will be accessible I'll let everybody know. Looking forward to you review on Antequera (hopefully before next Friday, at least in Dutch!)

Els Slots (11 September 2017)

@Clyde: Yes, the photos are taken from the viewing platform. However, I doubt that it will be open next week. They haven't really finished it and did not name an opening date. I heard they closed the gate again after we left (maybe one of the other participants can affirm or deny this?)

Clyde (10 September 2017)

Thanks for the review, Els. I'll be there next Sunday and at themoment I'm booked on a Dolphin Adventure Boat Trip.

Are the cave photos in your review taken from the europa viewing platform? If yes, is it freely accessible for all or you had the privilege because they knew about you beforehand?

I think I'd skip the boat trip if I'm guaranteed to see the actual caves (from a viewing platform on land).

Colvin (10 September 2017)

I'm sorry that only a limited group could go see the caves up close, and that there was no access into a cave, but it still sounds like you had a great trip to Gorham's Cave. I'll be curious to find out if they have completed the viewing platform by the time I can venture out to Gibraltar. Hope everyone who made it to the World Heritage Appeciations Society meet-up this year had fun!

Blog: WHS #639: Neolithic Orkney

Ever since I encountered a group of “druids” dressing up at the parking lot of Stonehenge, I have a hard time taking these megalithic sites seriously. Especially the UK ones, as they seem to be surrounded by a mix of semi-religious revival and commercial exploitation more than others. However, Neolithic Orkney was still on my to do-list. This site comprises 4 locations: two stone circles (Ring of Brodgar and Standing Stones of Stennes), a burial mound (Maes Howe) and the remains of a village (Skara Brae). All are located not far from each other on the Orkney island of Mainland.

Ring of Brodgar

I was tempting the logistical odds by visiting Mainland including this WHS on a weekend trip from my home. I flew to Inverness on Friday evening and returned Sunday evening. It’s a loooong commute and of course it would be better to take more time. But I managed to tick off the WHS and see some particular features of the Scottish highlands and Orkney as well.

I started out from Inverness at 7.15 am on Saturday morning. There’s a bus that connects with the ferry to Orkney from John O’Groats. The bus ride in itself is a tour already, as it comes with a guide. On the Orkney side a bus is waiting to take you up to Kirkwall and even to do a full tour of the island. I had only booked to Kirkwall, rather wanting to see things on my own speed. The tourbus was quite cramped and came with a “funny” guide, which can get on your nerves after some time.

A look across the isthmus

From Kirkwall where I was staying overnight I had planned to take the 2pm T11 bus, that connects Kirkwall with Skara Brae and the Ring of Brodgar. This is the most efficient way for an individual traveller to see the main sites. However, at a quarter to 2 there were already so many people waiting at the bus stand that we would never fit into one bus. I decided to go and find a taxi, which also turned into a bit of a quest because a huge German cruise ship had taken over the town and the capacity of its taxi companies. Fortunately I found a female driver near the church, and she took me to the Ring of Brodgar in about half an hour. From there I would continue by public transport.

The Ring of Brodgar is a large stone circle, located on an narrow isthmus between two “lochs”. With over 100m in diameter and a ditch around it, it is an imposing sight even from a distance. There’s no entrance fee taken or any other visitor information given, which is questionable given the importance of the site and the number of visitors. A foot path leads you along the circle, and you can get up and close with the stones (people do touch and hug them). From the Ring another path through the fields leads you to the Stones of Stenness, another and even older stone circle some 15 minutes away. It has the remains of a hearth at the center - which is about the only point of interest that I can name about it.

After that I had planned to go to Skara Brae, probably the most interesting part of this WHS. But there were no taxi’s available, and the hourly bus had just gone. I couldn’t get any data om my phone so I couldn’t check for alternative options (or the opening hours of Skara Brae). Reluctantly I had to give up and return to Kirkwall. From the bus I had a glance at Maes Howe (the 3rd component of the WHS). This is only visitable by a guided tour, which inconveniently starts at the Stenness visitor center another mile away and has to be booked in advance.

Sheep, looking comfortable at one of the Stones of Stenness

In hindsight I could have done better logistically. If you get stuck in Kirkwall like me, I think it would best to take a one way taxi to Skara Brae. After visiting that site, continue on foot to the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness. It’s 5.5 miles on a straight road, so it seems walkable. The Stones of Stenness lie at the main road between Kirkwall and Stromness - from there it is relatively easy to catch one of the hourly buses between the towns that run into the evening. There’s also an evening tour of Skara Brae which looks interesting, but that would be even more of a logistical nightmare by public transport.

Published 27 August 2017

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Responses to WHS #639: Neolithic Orkney
Michael Novins (28 August 2017)

I visited in August 2009 and rented a car from Orkney Car & Van Hire and was able to visit all four components in one day, at a very leisurely pace. I had three of the sites to myself, and only joined others at Maes Howe (since it can only be visited with a group tour). At least for Orkney, public transport doesn't seem the best option.

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