Blog WH Travellers

Shandos ... planning a WH trip to South America

Shandos Cleaver and Joel Baldwin are a travelling couple from Sydney, Australia. Among other trips, they have travelled non-stop across Europe for 1.5 years and during Covid did a full circle around their home country. They’ve just returned from a 3-month journey across South America, visiting Panama, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Brazil and Ecuador, plus the USA, and 38 WHS. As Shandos is the chief planner of the two, being goal-oriented and very organised in daily life as well, I asked her for her planning tips for WH travellers.

How do you proceed from a general trip idea towards a more detailed itinerary?

This depends on the trip. On about half of our trips we’ve fully planned (and booked) everything before leaving - such as when we visited India, China and Japan. I use an iterative approach, starting with a rough itinerary (which is probably too ambitious), then checking transport connections and opening hours (and usually needing to shuffle something), then starting to book (generally transport first, before hotels), then compiling detailed notes for each day.

On other trips, I’ve had a rough itinerary and notes on what we want to visit, but leave finalising the details and booking anything until the last minute - a few days in advance. This works best when travelling by car or during off-peak season, such as our trip to Mexico.

I think if you’re intending to tick off WHS and not have some narrow misses you need one of these two approaches - either thorough planning and advance booking (plus a little wiggle room for countries like India) or plenty of flexibility.

Do you use specific tools, apps?

During Covid, when actual travel wasn’t possible, I started using Airtable, an online cross between a database and a spreadsheet. I’ve got notes on all the WHS that we haven’t yet visited, plus data on travel warnings and Covid testing requirements, plus I put together a rough itinerary per country.

I also love to use Evernote and Google Sheets. This year I also started pinning on Google Maps - I love being able to see visually all the key places we want to visit in a city (plus it’s handy for picking out good restaurants in advance).

Did you find South America a difficult continent to plan for?

It’s both easy and hard. The easy part is that there’s plenty of long-distance buses, including across borders, and well-trodden backpacking routes to rely upon in many places. The situation with visas has also become easier in recent years, including for Australians.

There’s also some difficulties though! In most countries we needed to visit a telecommunications shop to get a new SIM. Argentina is frustrating due to the dual exchange rates, plus the inflation rate makes prices difficult to find out. Also, the distances are bigger than you realise - particularly in Brazil!

How long beforehand did you decide on this trip?

In one sense it was last minute, but in another way it had been a long time coming! We initially wanted to visit South America way back in 2017, and then in 2020 I started to plan a trip to Peru, which of course was cancelled. Then in early 2022, after visiting Mexico for 2 months, we were about to book flights to Peru, but had to return home in a hurry as our dog (who was staying with my parents) required surgery.

After our dog recovered from surgery, I wanted to finally travel back overseas with him, travelling first to the USA and Canada, then on to Europe. However, we’ve now decided it’s too risky to fly overseas again with him (especially with the quarantine when he returns to Australia). So we made a last minute decision to fly to South America, booking flights only three weeks out!

Did you book transport, hotels, and tours in advance?

We didn’t book much in advance, just the bare minimum, including our flights up to Peru, Peru Hop bus tickets and the all-important Machu Picchu entry tickets and train tickets. Everything else we booked on the road, including hotels.

We did change tack once we got to Argentina. Due to school holidays, we had to start planning and booking further in advance. Plus we also booked the rest of our flights, after realising flights both within and leaving Brazil are quite expensive, at least at the moment. However, we left some extra days for our time in Brazil, in case issues came up.

Which parts of the itinerary did you worry about beforehand, and how did they pan out?

Our biggest worry was missing out on seeing Machu Picchu. That’s why we started our trip in Peru - so we could plan our itinerary up to that point and book our tickets in advance, before we left home. Everything turned out fine, even the weather, although it’s surprising how disorganised things are for such a major site!

Whatever plans we had went entirely out of the window in Bolivia. Joel came down with a stomach bug that delayed us for a few days, then we got stuck in the town of Concepcion due to a blockade. We were meant to be returning to Santa Cruz and then taking an overnight bus to Argentina, but ended up stuck in the small town in the middle of nowhere for four days.

What were your 3 favourite (T)WHS of this trip?

The stand-out site for me on the trip was Iguazu Falls - it’s just such a spectacular sight! It’s actually two WHS, with separate sites for the Argentina and Brazil site. I preferred the Argentina side but you have to visit both.

Machu Picchu and Galapagos Islands were also both huge bucket-list items on this trip. Out of lesser-known sites, there are some amazing churches in South America, including in the Ouro Preto and Quito WHSs. 

The photos (courtesy of Shandos & Joel) from top to bottom show Iguacu/Iguazu WHS, the couple in Machu Picchu WHS, and the church of Concepcion which is part of the Jesuit Missions of the Chiquitos WHS. Reviews of the WHS in their trip have already been published, such as San Lorenzo and the Cerrado Protected Areas

Els - 2 October 2022

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Michael Ayers 2 October 2022

Too bad Schnitzel wasn't able to add to his WHS count!

Nice work, the top Sites of South America are hard to beat!

Jay T 2 October 2022

Sounds like an amazing trip! Iguazu Falls really is impressive; both sites would be my favorite natural sites in South America. Hope Schnitzel is feeling better after surgery.

Blog Books

Book: Cultural Heritage and Mass Atrocities

Just last week, a book has been published about the destruction of cultural heritage, with a large focus on the fate of WHS in this regard. “Cultural Heritage and Mass Atrocities” is a collection of 32 essays, compiled by James Cuno from the Getty Trust and international relations scholar Thomas G. Weiss. It addresses the deliberate destruction of cultural heritage in conflict, which has gained notoriety during the past decades in Mostar, Bamiyan and Palmyra. Its book cover shows “before” and “after” photos of the Great Mosque of Aleppo.

Memorable essays

The essays were all written recently (late 2021), which I found refreshing as they take into account developments such as the retaking of power by the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Ethiopian army’s actions in Tigray. The authors come from a broad spectrum, consisting of academics with backgrounds ranging from Guatemalan Maya to West Point Military Academy. Still, there is no Russian, Chinese, Saudi, Japanese, Turk, or Brazilian among them (to name a few players with a different view of the world than is common at UK/US universities).

The most notable among the essays I found:

  • Chapters 3 and 4: Examples from the past, from the Roman destruction of Alexandria’s Serapeum to that of the Old Summer Palace by the British and the French during the Second Opium War.
  • Chapter 7: Case study on the Uyghur heritage, which is not represented at all in China’s extensive list of WHS.
  • Chapter 8: “Rebuilding” heritage in Afghanistan and Sri Lanka. Addresses the debate whether to reconstruct the Bamiyan Buddhas, although it omits the role of Japan.
  • Chapter 10: Case study on Aleppo by former WHC director Francesco Bandarin, best for his views on “What next”.
  • Chapter 12: Pros and cons regarding reconstruction in Syria.
  • Chapter 14: Case study on Timbtuku, where international actions (including conviction of the perpetrators by the International Court of Justice) seem to eventually have worked.
  • Chapter 27: How cultural lobbying (by the Vatican for example) influenced military decisions during World War II, such as the bombing of the Abbey of Monte Cassino.
  • Chapter 30: Preservation of cultural heritage during peacekeeping missions, using the Serbian Monasteries in Kosovo as its main example.

Key messages

There's a feeling of helplessness surrounding this subject: prevention of these acts seems to be nearly impossible, and WHS have been placed 'in danger' mostly after the fact. This essay collection makes you think about a number of things:

  • The deliberate destruction of objects that are known to be dear to the enemy is an old and widespread practice, not solely a product of non-state terrorist groups like ISIS or the Taliban.
  • There are plenty of international laws that condemn this practice. The main issue is the enforcement.
  • The preservation of immovable heritage (as incorporated in the WH list) is much more complex than that of artifacts or people, who can be brought to a safe place in due time. If you decide to physically protect a monument, that can be a long commitment.
  • Who “owns” a heritage site, especially a WHS? Is it the local community, using it and making their livelihood out of it? Is it the State? Or the World? The answer to this could help in deciding who has to act as its protector.
  • The State Party-centered approach to nominating WHS is particularly vulnerable to nationalist narratives and denial of diverse cultural beliefs. The suggestion is brought forward to require an accurate description of previous uses and users of locations nominated as a WHS.

Should you read it?

It’s a scientific book, with annotations and references. When you’re used to reading more scholarly works, most of the articles are quite easy to grasp. Only the first few articles (including the introduction by former UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova) and Part 4 (which is about international law) are overly heavy on international treaties and the use of acronyms. The e-book is downloadable for free (“Reflecting Getty’s commitment to open content”), while the paperback version (648 pages) for some reason is sold at 85 USD.

Els - 25 September 2022

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Jay T 26 September 2022

Though to be more accurate, the lawsuit is regarding the direct threat to the town of Huaraz from flooding due to melting glaciers, not specifically the endangerment of Huascaran. Still, it makes me wonder what other similar lawsuits may follow.

Jay T 26 September 2022

Sounds like a timely book, even if there are no easy answers for how to protect heritage sites in conflict zones. Th question of who is responsible for owning/protecting World Heritage Sites is an interesting one, too, since I was just reading an article this week about the ongoing lawsuit by a mountain guide in Huaraz, Peru, against the German energy company RWE (though admittedly this is endangerment of a WHS due to climate change, rather than conflict).

Blog WHS Visits

WHS #807: Island of Patmos

Patmos I found the prettiest of the Greek-islands-with-a-WHS. It does particularly well on ‘views’: of the blue sea and the surrounding islands, of that little chapel against the blue sky, of its obligatory row of windmills.  The three components of its WHS also look well cared for. Like the other islands, Patmos does see its fair share of cruise ships, anchoring in the bay outside of the harbour: in 2022, no less than 285 of them will arrive. Overall, I encountered many more 'regular' tourists than pilgrims, which took away a bit of the holy atmosphere of the island.

When you arrive at Patmos from the sea (there is no airport), you’ll immediately notice the large fortress on top of the highest mountain on the island. What looks like a castle is in reality the Monastery of St. John. It was only half past 11 when the boat delivered me, way too early to check in at the hotel. So I had a first look at the WHS. About once an hour there is a bus from the port town of Skala to Chora, the old town where the monastery is also located. The distance between them is only five kilometers, but it's a steep climb.

Many people visit Patmos as a day trip only from one of the other islands, so it is busiest around noon when the boats have arrived. Fortunately, I had two days here, so I saved the more popular sights for the other day when I could get an early start. First I wandered through pretty Chorá, a labyrinth of narrow streets and white stone houses where only the windows and doors have retained their natural color.

Then I walked down the mountain, back to Skala. Halfway through you will pass the Cave of the Apocalypse. This is the most sacred part of Patmos, said to be where the evangelist John had a vision about the end of the world around AD 95 and then penned it down in what later became a book of the Bible. Over the years, many buildings have been built around the cave, so it is initially unclear where to enter. The 'real' entrance is marked by a man selling entrance tickets (3 EUR each) and there is also a shop with pilgrim souvenirs. You go through a few more corridors, with an icon or two on the walls, and then you're in what really is "the" cave. There were a few people praying against the rock wall.

The next day I took the bus uphill again at half past eight. This time I was going straight to the monastery. There were no other visitors at this early hour except for a Greek woman and her daughter. After entering the fort and paying for your ticket, you first arrive at the church which opens into a small courtyard. The outer gallery of the church is covered with murals, but the best ones are kept inside (where unfortunately you are not allowed to take pictures). They fully cover the walls.

Another highlight of the monastery is the museum. It has a focus on icons, and many date from the time when Patmos became a safe haven for refugees from Crete fleeing the Ottoman Empire (early 17th century). That the Ottoman sultan also sometimes collaborated with the Orthodox Christians of Patmos, is apparent from an exhibited edict in which he calls for the return of 3 inhabitants of Patmos who had been kidnapped by pirates... From one of the windows of the museum, you have beautiful views of Chorá, the rest of the island of Patmos and the surrounding blue sea. 

For the rest of the morning, I walked through the old streets again - in one of the streets there were no less than 13 cats lingering around! And I visited the nunnery Zoodohos Pighi, which also has a beautiful old church full of murals. From the recently restored row of windmills, you have good views of the fortress-monastery. We have these windmills included in one of our connections (Europa Nostra Award), however, I am not sure that they are in the core zone as they lie just outside of Chorá. As often, the official site map is terrible so I can't be sure and will give them the benefit of the doubt for now.

Els - 18 September 2022

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Astraftis 18 September 2022

It looks lovely and very interesting! Nice overview, this really prompts me to finally organise a trip to the smalelr Greek islands! !

Blog TWHS Visits

Zagori & Pindos

Zagori and the Pindos mountains will be Greece’s nomination for 2023. It will be a shoo-in, I can already see ICOMOS drooling over features such as “traditional villages with vernacular architecture” and “bridges sponsored by wealthy merchants”. It’s a wonderful site to visit as well: this is a region in Northern Greece that for long has been a well-kept secret within the hiking community. It will be a mixed proposal, combining the cultural features of Zagori with the Pindos Mountains. Northern Pindos National Park is a UNESCO Global Geopark already, so it’s well-protected and has an abundance of information panels both on the area’s geology, plants, and fauna as well as on its villages.

I stayed in the area for 2 nights, exploring it by rental car from a guesthouse in a traditional home in Asprangeloi. On the first day, I focused on the northwest of the region, and on the second day on the southeast. Although the distances are short, the driving takes a lot of time because of the winding, minor roads. The roads were never too narrow though and there is little traffic, so it was fun to drive.

I started my visit by going to the village of Vikos in the early morning. It has a good viewpoint of the Vikos Gorge. The town itself, like many others I would encounter, felt deserted. One shouldn’t be too early in the morning for a good look at the gorge, as it is covered in clouds often. It had rained heavily overnight as well, a common feature in the Pindos mountains.

I then drove much further north, to the twin villages of Mikro and Megalo Papingo. These are very picturesque because of their stone houses. I left my car at the large parking lot just at the town entrance of Megalo Papingo, and then hiked the final 3km to Mikro Papingo. I followed the main road for a while (there is hardly any traffic anyway) until I saw a sign for a shortcut trail across the valley towards Mikro Papingo. This path took me across my first stone bridge, one of the characteristic features of this region.

I had lunch in the somewhat larger town of Vitsa (many of the smaller ones have no amenities at all) and drove through the popular town of Monodéndri. I couldn’t find parking there, so I drove on towards two of the major stone bridges. The Noutsou bridge has a spectacular setting between two huge cliff faces. The Bridge of Plakidas has 3 arches (you’ll only see all 3 when you walk there). It was getting later in the afternoon already and dark clouds had gathered, but I pushed on to the village of Vradeto, where ancient stone stairs apparently can be seen. However, it poured when I arrived so I just turned around my car.

The next day I moved to the other end of this region. Even taking the main road around it took me 1.5 hours to arrive in the village of Trísteno. This is a less densely populated area than the northwest, but the forested scenery of the Pindos Mountains is pretty. In Trísteno I stumbled upon the early morning coffee session of the elderly population and its priest at the village square. The squares here in Zagori are really one of the outstanding features. They are hard to describe – they are oversized and there always seems to be a large old tree and a low church. It may sound like a colonial town in Mexico, but it’s a totally different setting. A better comparator for this region would be Svaneti.

The furthest north I got was to the Bridge of Vovousa, which spans a river in the town center. There are many more villages and stone bridges to be found than I have mentioned above, as well as longer hikes to do and some monasteries to visit. It would take days to see it all. Tourism in the area still is pleasantly low-key, as is the Epirus region overall.

Els - 11 September 2022

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Esteban Cervantes Jiménez 11 September 2022

Love this kind of cultural landscapes: mountainous areas with great nature and landscapes, as well as great culture, vernacular architecture and small towns, that can be very welkkl experienced by hiking. Hope to see it next year become Greece's 19th site and the 1st one for the Epirus region. And hope to get there one day.

Blog WHS Visits

WHS #804: Mount Athos

So this will be the first review of a visit to Mount Athos by a woman! Although a couple of females have succeeded in entering in the past, I didn’t risk trespassing as I still needed to visit 4 more Greek WHS afterwards. I stayed overnight in the nearest town, Ouranoupoli. It lies about 3km from the guarded border with Oros Athos, where the monastic community enjoys autonomous self-government within Greece. The pleasant town has a few memorabilia stores, the pilgrim’s office and furthermore a lot of shops and restaurants geared to the generic beach tourist.

My day started at ease in my hotel room behind my laptop, answering questions about Obelisks, as my boat tour along the coast of the Athos peninsula was only to leave at 11 a.m. But there was that monastery near Ouranoupoli that I had seen on the map: the Holy Monastery of Zygos. It turned out to be the ruins of one of the original Athos monasteries, within touching distance of the border. It would be a 30-minute walk from Ouranoupoli’s city center, but I only had 25 minutes at best for each way. Could I still make it there? I grabbed my bag and speed-walked towards the spot indicated on the map. It’s a sandy road, uphill, and even at 10 a.m. bloody hot without much shade. In the end, I gave up about 1 km before the finish – I wouldn’t have made it in time and the monastery nor the border was visible yet. But definitely scout it out when you’re in the area, I think it would be a good addition to only seeing Athos from a boat. Google maps even shows a photo of a woman strolling along the border fence! 

For my Athos cruise, I had booked with the Calypso. Its trip takes 3.5 hours and costs 22 EUR. There are several companies to choose from, but I don’t think there are significant differences. They all sail the same route anyway. You can even do it as part of a full-day tour from Thessaloniki (65 EUR), and you’ll end up on one of these boats. They can hold over 100 people each, and 4 of them were leaving between 10.30 and 11 a.m. when I was there (August 31). When I arrived at “my” boat, members of a large group already had put their proverbial bath towels on all outdoor seats. I was lucky to find a spot on the upper deck and on the left side (the one that faces the shore), next to the steering cabin. Standing room only, and my neighbours turned out to be people that kept themselves busy feeding bread to seagulls. There is an audio commentary in Greek, English and Russian about Mt. Athos and what you see on the shore. The English one seemed to be taken directly from Wikipedia, and was hardly understandable anyway. You can easily look up which monastery is which afterwards as well, so it does not really matter.

So, accompanied by the droning voice of the commentary and the bird-feeding idiots, I had to concentrate on what I could see on the peninsula. One ‘enters’ Athos almost directly after leaving the harbour of Ouranoupoli – there is a stone border wall visible (photo 1). For the first 20 minutes or so the scenery shows mostly forest, with some man-made additions such as wooden beehives and olive groves. The undoubted highlights of the tour are the monasteries, which then start to appear one after another. Most face the coast and are quite close to it. The boats need to stay 500m away from the shore (due to the monastic regulations and the WHS buffer zone), but still, the monasteries can be seen well with the naked eye.  I had brought my camera with 83x optical zoom, especially for the purpose of getting close-ups of the monasteries, and it worked out well. Another obstacle is that the boat faces the sun in the morning, so the best bets are when you’ve just sailed past the monastery and can look back towards it.

Although the monasteries differ in appearance, they all are fortified with tower construction similar-looking to the tower houses of Gjirokaster. Also, they are so much more than a church and some outbuildings – you’ll notice gardens, trails, boat sheds, and even solar panels. The most remarkable ones among the monasteries I found:

  • Xenophontos Monastery (photo 2) - with the red walls of its church peeking out on top.
  • St. Panteleimon Monastery - this is the Russian Orthodox monastery, it is a very large complex with a huge hotel-like structure and green as its dominant colour.
  • Simonopetra Monastery  – it looks like a Bhutanese dzong, hanging from a cliff wall.
  • Dionysiou Monastery (photo 3) – with an impressive terraced garden.

Counting this excursion as a ‘visit’ was never a question for me at all. If discriminatory policies keep me out of the core zone, I will resort to a “from the outside looking in”-type of visit. And its OUV, especially the typical layout of the monasteries, is clearly visible from the sea.  I finally rated it 2.5 stars, the end result of this calculation:

  1. (3 stars) my starting point when I find a site WHS-worthy: here no doubts about its cultural values. The natural aspects are much less outstanding and it seems that IUCN did not even write an AB evaluation about it. A cultural landscape would have been a better choice.
  2. (+ 0.5 star) for the quality of its tangible structures. The monasteries are interesting constructs, with some pretty aspects. But none did really Wow! me (which would have been necessary to gain at least 4 stars), there’s a lot of (relatively modern) hotchpotch construction visible. There also still is no Management Plan for the WHS, although already promised in 2012. Lack of funding is stated as the issue, but it could well be that they are dragging their feet as they don't want snoopers.
  3. (- 1 star) for its discrimination against women. What’s the use of having a heritage site for all mankind, but not letting everybody in? It’s a similar story as with the Stoclet House. If you want to have your own private club, that’s fine with me. You can do that outside of the WH convention. It would be easy to allow female day trippers to visit part of the peninsula, as they are already allowing non-orthodox male tourists. They could open up the monasteries that are willing to show them around.

Els - 4 September 2022

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Shandos Cleaver 7 September 2022

I visited Mt Athos the same way, back in 2018. If they're going to have discriminatory access policies, visiting it this way is good enough for a tick!

Jay T 5 September 2022

Congratulations on visiting such a challenging site. I’m glad there are boat tour operators to provide another way of seeing the monasteries and the landscape.

Blog WHS website

Country pages

In what probably will be my last big effort this year to structurally improve the website, I took on the country pages last week. They always have been far less information-dense than the individual site pages, but I see them as essential landing pages. These are the pages to start from when preparing a WHS-focused trip, to get answers to questions like where are its WHS located, what is their nomination roadmap, and what itineraries were used by other community members. Below is what I changed in the content and structure of the country pages.

States Parties

In the WH lingo, countries are known as States Parties: ”countries which have adhered to the World Heritage Convention”. 194 states so far ratified this convention. I have now also added to the website an additional 4 countries which did ratify but are not active yet. They are Brunei, the Cook Islands, Niue, and Somalia.

This Missing Countries topic on the Forum gives an excellent overview of the discrepancies between what is considered a country by the different UN bodies, and what the activity level of a country is concerning WHS. It is worth noting for example that of the 193 UN members, 3 countries (Liechtenstein, Tuvalu, and Nauru) have not signed the World Heritage Convention. On the other end, 4 states (Palestine, Cook Islands, Niue, Holy See) have, but are not full members of the United Nations.

Country Forum topics

The first point of orientation on the new country page is the country's forum topic. In 2018 we decided that every country was to have its own ‘corner’ at the Forum where all discussions take place. It is meant for community members to share itineraries and tips after returning from a trip. Also, it's the place to post updates on the country’s WHS roadmap.

Of the 194 states, 105 now have such a forum topic. Surprisingly, popular countries such as Austria and Jordan do not have one yet - maybe they just are too easy? Some, like Zambia & Zimbabwe and Senegal & Gambia, share their topic for practical travel reasons with neighbouring countries.

Country Links

The main block continues with a link to blog posts about the country. These include the Top Tips I usually write after a more substantial trip. But also Interviews with a single country focus, such as Iraq and China.

Furthermore, there are external links to relevant websites and news articles about the country's WH position. We had a number of them already from 10-15 years ago; I verified them all and added a few more. These links often address disputes (Thailand-Cambodia, Japan-Korea). But they also announce new Tentative Lists that are in progress before becoming officially registered with UNESCO. And they provide background reading such as “The Future of WH in Australia”.

We do have some links to the responsible authority for world heritage management here too. I did not look for additional ones (they often are very poor) but kept what we had. Overall, many countries still are poorly represented but they will grow organically by adding anything worthwhile in the coming years.

Country Info

The country pages now also have a block with 'official info', similar to the site pages. It includes:

  • the country’s full name – where applicable, at this website we use a shortened one for easier use in the list boxes: so it's Bolivia instead of 'Plurinational State of Bolivia';
  • the region it belongs to -  regions are "defined by UNESCO for its activities, and do not necessarily reflect the actual geographical location of countries"; thus determining to which region a country belongs is not intuitive;
  • the year in which it hosted the WHC: in total, only 29 different countries (out of 194) have been the organizer of the yearly WHC meeting; it was held in Paris many times in the early days. 2023 will be the 2nd time for Thailand, and the city of Brasilia has already been the venue twice;
  • the years in which it was a member of the WHC.

I have left out very specific UNESCO details such as the country's year of ratification of the WH convention, as well as a link to the official UNESCO country page, as I personally find them not too helpful. But I can be convinced otherwise of course.

Is there something that you’d like to see added to the country pages?

Els - 28 August 2022

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Els Slots 3 September 2022

Not "intended", but it is because I added them only earlier this year. Sorting by date is a bit difficult, as all the ancient reviews have no date at all. It will go away by itself, as people keep on adding new reviews and mine will disappear from the shortlists.

Joel Baldwin 2 September 2022

Looks great, nice work!

Just a minor thing, I think there's a bug with the "Recent Reviews" box. It displays a couple of the most recent reviews and then a bunch of yours (even when they're quite old!). For example the Brazil page has two recent reviews, then the rest are your reviews from 2004 - is that intended behaviour?

Durian 28 August 2022

Maybe list of top 3 most/least visit WHSs of each country, or after country info a collage of photos of that country that maybe borrow from 5-6 latest reviews?

Blog Connections


I am preparing 4 trips simultaneously at the moment, doing my homework for the final 4 months of this year. One of these trips is a return visit to Rome. It is organized by people I know from my Art History studies – so I do not have to do any practical planning and can just follow someone else’s lead for once! I did my usual website preparation though, going through the connections and adding new explanations where necessary. Regarding Rome, the Obelisks stood out to me: apparently, the city is home to no less than eight ancient Egyptian and five ancient Roman obelisks.

An obelisk is a very specific kind of monument: four-sided, narrow tapering, ending in a pyramid-like shape at the top. The updated connection list now shows 30 WHS with obelisks within their core zones. Despite their considerable size, obelisks seem to have been moved around a lot!

Ancient obelisks

The Ancient Egyptians ‘invented’ the obelisk, so any history should start with them. Ancient Thebes still has one standing on the left-hand side of the portal of the Luxor Temple. It dates from the reign of Ramesses II (c. 1250 BC). At the Karnak temple complex, there are the second largest remaining obelisk at the Precinct of Amun-Re (of Hatshepsut), the obelisk of Thutmosis I, and the obelisk of Seti II. The largest obelisk known lies unfinished in the quarries at Aswan.

Obelisks also occur in countries nearby. Byblos in Lebanon has the Temple of the Obelisks (photo 2): a number of obelisks and standing stones located in a court. “The Abishemu obelisk has been interpreted to include a dedication to Resheph, a Canaanite war god, although this is disputed. Another obelisk has a hieroglyphic inscription Middle Bronze Age king of Byblos Ibishemu, praising the Egyptian god Herysha." The site of Petra has a tomb with four pyramidal obelisks, built as funerary symbols by the Nabataeans in the 1st century BC.

Ancient obelisks abroad

The Romans were the first that started dragging Egyptian obelisks from their original locations to Europe. In Rome alone, there are eight ancient Egyptian obelisks.

Some eventually moved on beyond Rome, as the Popes liked them too: Vatican City got one in the middle of St Peter Square, "traditionally known as Caligula’s Obelisk as it was Caligula who in 37 A.D took the monument from Alexandria ... The Vatican Obelisk was moved to its current location between 1585 and 1586 under Pope Sixtus V ". The Boboli obelisk (at one of the Medici Gardens) was moved in the 18th century from Rome to Florence (it originally came from Aswan / Heliopolis).  The Obelisk of Urbino came from a temple of Isis in Egypt; it was moved to Urbino in 1737 to celebrate Pope Clement XI.

The Obelisk of Theodosius in Istanbul was brought there on the orders of the eponymous Roman emperor. It came from Karnak. Finally, the Luxor Obelisk in Paris was reerected there in 1836 by King Charles X. It is the right-hand half of the above-mentioned obelisk in Luxor that remains in place.

Roman obelisks

The Romans apparently liked them so much that they started constructing original obelisks as well. Five can be found in Rome. There’s a 4th-century Roman obelisk in Arles. A special mention is the one in the Longobard town of Benevento: it dates from 88/89 AD, was carved from red Aswan granite and flanked the entrance of a newly constructed temple to the Egyptian goddess Isis.

Modern obelisks

It took until the 16th century for the obelisk fashion to reappear. They were erected as memorials in city centers and as decorations in palace gardens. 

The architects of the monumental palaces and gardens were never shy of adding some orientalist touches. Aranjuez, Lednice, Schönbrunn, Sanssouci in Potsdam and Studley Royal Park all have an obelisk. Some even have decorative hieroglyphs without any meaning. The very small ones at Blenheim Palace and Villa d'Este (in a small pool floats a boat with a mast in the shape of an obelisk) might be considered just follies.

Memorial obelisks came into fashion in the 18th century, and continue to appear liberally mainly in the Americas due to their fondness for neo-classicism. A notable example includes the gravestone of Thomas Jefferson at Monticello. Often these obelisks were erected to commemorate people or events, such as the 17 miners that died in a fire in Idrija and the World War I memorial designed by Jože Plečnik at Prague Castle.

Finally, I removed some from our original connection that are not 'true' obelisks, although they are sometimes named as such. The ones at Aksum and Cienfuegos are stelae (lacking the pyramidal top), as is the Tello obelisk from Chavín. The Guglia dell'Immacolata in Naples is a baroque spire. We had the Santa Eulalia Obelisk in Merida as well but I have not found a photo to see how its ‘obelisk’ looks. 

Do you know of any other WHS where an obelisk can be seen?

Els - 21 August 2022

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Meltwaterfalls 24 August 2022

Bahá’í Temples: Carmel West: Place of Revelation
This is a small open space, where in 1891 Bahá’u’lláh composed the “Tablet of Carmel”, the charter of the Bahá’í world administrative centre. It is marked by an obelisk marking the site of a future temple.

Els Slots 23 August 2022

And thanks to meltwaterfalls: 7 new ones in the UK

Els Slots 22 August 2022

Three more: Struve Geodetic Arc, Canal du Midi, Fontainebleau. Thanks to Jasam. See the connection page for details.

Els Slots 21 August 2022

Update on the Mérida mystery: the obelisco de santa eulalia is a column, not an obelisk. But, there is another obelisk in Mérida, and it IS in the core zone (thanks Solivagant and Jasam for the updates).

Els Slots 21 August 2022

Have added the one in Wörlitz!

Blog WHS Visits

Skellig Michael 2022

In my experience, even after having covered the WHS of a continent well, there are always those annoying little islands left at the fringes to ‘tick’. In Europe for example, I am missing St. Kilda, the Vega Islands, and even Risco Caido on Gran Canaria! Skellig Michael has also been a nagging thorn in my side for years, after missing out due to bad weather on my first try in 2019. On August 12, 2022, my second attempt was succesful. This WHS has been closed a lot over the past 2.5 years, so I think it’s worthwhile to share some up-to-date visitor information in addition to my personal experience.

How and when to visit

There are at least 3 ways to get a look at the island:

  1. From a distance: from the Kerry Cliffs (4 EUR entrance) or the viewpoint just outside of St. Finian’s Bay (free) you can see it, although it lies still some 10km away. I did this in 2019, and with the help of my superzoom lens and a little post-processing, I managed to take this shot of Skellig Michael. I did not count this as a ‘visit’ as you do not feel its remoteness and surrounding rocky waters. The stairways and structures on the island also aren’t visible to the naked eye.
  2. Boat tour around the island: there are dozens of daily departures if the sea is not too rough. They promise to get you “within touching distance” of the island and stay there for about 45 minutes. The boat ride up there will give you the iconic views of the pyramidal rock that are part of its OUV. You can also “see several features not visible from the island paths, such as the disused lighthouse, and other monastic stairways”. Views of the Monastery though are limited and the WHS core zone is land only. In 2022, these tours are priced at 45 EUR + 5 EUR booking fee.
  3. Landing tour: limited to 15 boats a day, weather permitting. A tour now costs between 120 and 140 EUR. You’ll set foot on land, walk the same stairways as the monks did, and have up-close views of their constructions. For safety reasons (so people do not rush on the stairs), all stays are at least 2.5 hours long. It’s the best possible visit, but you could even trump this by receiving permission to visit the Hermitage as well on the far side of the island.

General things to consider before you go:

  • If you’re in doubt about whether you could do it (height or sea-wise), there’s an excellent safety video that shows the landing tour in great detail.

  • Booking nowadays is mostly done online. The websites will show a calendar of availability. Cancellations are more common at the start and end of the tourist season when the weather is less predictable. The 2022 landing season runs from May 14 – September 30.

  • The success rate of a landing seems to be a well-guarded secret, although I’ve seen mentioned that the boats go out “every 5 out of 7 days”. Based on the most recent management plan, in 2019, 15,616 people set foot on the island. At a daily visitor rate of 160-180 and let's say a 4-month season, that would be a 54%-61% success rate on a given day...

  • Rockfall nowadays is the site’s biggest threat and the reason for its closure from June 13 to July 2nd this year.

My visit in 2022

I booked just 3 weeks before, as I surprisingly found open spots for landing tours available in August. Friday August 12 was forecasted as sunny with winds between 5 and 7 km/h in the morning (I believe anything below 20 km/h is low). I was on the 8.30 departure of the Jerdemar, booked via Skellig Michael Cruises. The boat, just large enough to fit the 12 passengers, has an overhead covering which was a blessing on this sunny day. The boat ride was uneventful and nobody got nauseous or wet.

The first bit of excitement came when we arrived at Little Skellig: this island is just littered with gannets. We observed them for a while from the boat, and we discovered a seal at its coast as well. The bigger Skellig next door, Skellig Michael, looks green in comparison. We started our visit there with a slow circumnavigation of the island. The skipper pointed out the various boat landings and stairwells that are not used anymore. Also, the old and current lighthouses are visible. And there was another seal waiting for us.

We disembarked at 10.20, so almost 2 hours after we left Portmagee. The landings of the 180 daily visitors are staggered, so the small island doesn’t get overcrowded. We had to share our slot with 2 other boats. One first walks on a flat trail along the rock wall, this includes an area with new wooden coverings after the rockfall incident earlier this year. You’ll also pass the visitor's toilet, a new addition to the site. There is more construction going on: the authorities are upgrading the path to the lighthouse, which would offer alternative things to see for the visitor. Now we all had to go up to the monastery! At the bottom of the stairs, we had to wait first for a guide to give us a safety talk.

The stairs don’t require big steps and are wide enough to let people pass. There are several places as well to step aside and catch your breath. It takes people generally 25 minutes to get to the top, and you see people of all ages and sizes succeeding. At the end of the day, I did not feel my legs at all, so it isn’t very strenuous. My health app reported that I covered 3km and 39 ‘floors’ (= 39 * 16 steps).

The climb is worth it anyhow, as it gives you a feel of the monks’ work to ‘tame’ this island. The best part undoubtedly is the monastery area, where you can see the beehive huts, the vegetable gardens, the cemetery, and the cisterns (there’s no water source on the island). This is a small, enclosed area and with 36 tourists milling around it was hard to get photos without people in them. One of the guides that live on the island gave a talk about the history of the monastery and what the purpose of the buildings was.

By 12.15 I walked down again, my boat was set to leave at 1 p.m. I did take my time to take photos of nesting birds and local flora. I can’t see the island getting any natural recognition though, too much has been altered over the ages (not only by the monks but also due to the construction of the two lighthouses and a helipad) and I did not find the scenery as pretty as similar sites in Iceland or Newfoundland. The return boat journey took about an hour, so it was a 5.5-hour tour in all. The outstanding part of the day for me was seeing the fairly intact dry stone monastic constructions, considering how old they are and what an effort it must have been to create them.

Els - 14 August 2022

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Els Slots 16 August 2022

Thanks for the link, Liam! Interesting to read.
"he thinks the Star Wars hype around the island has seen its peak"

Liam 15 August 2022

Well done! There was a pretty good article on the experience of working on Skellig Michael this weekend on the BBC too: 'I like the solitude and peace of the island'

Jay T 14 August 2022

So glad it worked out for you the second time! Skellig Michael looks amazing.

Blog Connections

Threatened by Oil and Gas Exploration

In the past week, it was all over the news that the DRC government has opened parts of Virunga WHS up (again) for oil and gas exploration. Simultaneously, I was prepping for my upcoming Chad trip and discovered that the Ennedi nomination had been significantly reduced in size to carve out an area for oil exploration just before nomination (much to the frustration of ICOMOS and IUCN). Surprisingly, in our ‘Damaged’ series of connections, we did not have a connection yet for World Heritage Sites Threatened by Oil and Gas Exploration (though we have Oil Spill). So I decided to create one.

A structured approach to finding these sites proved to be difficult. A search for “oil” on the UNESCO website brought me to 47 sites with “Soil” and similar words in their description. You’d want to do a full-text search on all documents, not only on the website text, but this feature is not available. A query through our “News Links” brought in a few more, as did a search in the State of Conservation (SOC) and IUCN outlook reports. None of the sites seemed to have been put in danger from oil or gas exploration. 

I ended up with 17 WHS which I think are the clearest examples. IUCN in its 2020 Outlook on the status of natural WHS, divides the threats they face into “Current” versus “Potential”. All quotes below are taken from the respective IUCN Outlook 2020 assessment unless stated otherwise.

Sites with Current Threats

  1. Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks: "Most of the mountain parks abut active resource extraction areas (forest harvest, oil and gas, and mining areas) and park managers have identified potential impacts to wildlife movement and species (e.g. grizzly bear, woodland caribou) posed by such activities."
  2. Dinosaur Provincial Park: "Gas exploration and development occurs on portions of the perimeter of the site and associated infrastructure has the potential to degrade the beauty of the site in those areas."
  3. Lake Malawi: "Offshore oil exploration activities have commenced in the northern part of the Lake... Although this is some distance from the World Heritage property it presents the risk of oil and other pollutants spilling into the lake, which would have far-reaching consequences. In late 2013, a second oil concession was awarded, which covers the southern part of the lake, including the entire property. ..  More recently, Hamra Holdings Inc. has been licensed to explore for oil in the lake until 2022."
  4. Ningaloo Coast: "There are several offshore oil and gas extraction operations near the site and a number of pending on- and offshore project proposals, which potentially pose a significant impact of the World Heritage values. Potential impacts include effects on migratory species, connectivity and ecological linkages within and adjacent the site, cumulative impacts including effects on migratory species from seismic testing, drilling, and operations. Offshore petroleum incidents, such as accidental discharge of oil or other pollutants pose a significant and most likely irreversible threat to the marine life and ecosystems."
  5. Paraty and Ilha Grande: "reservoirs located along the marine sedimentary basins, .., in waters between 2,000 and 3,000 meters deep and at distances ranging from 50 to 450 km from the coast. In their central part, the projects are located in front of the states of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. Possible environmental impacts such as oil leaks, beach contamination, introduction of exotic invasive organisms and others, are related to the activities of the production pilots."
  6. Wadden Sea: "No new exploitation installations for oil and gas are permitted in the World Heritage site. One existing installation, the Mittelplate, was excised from the site, as well as a gas exploitation area in the Netherlands. .. Subsidence as a result of gas extraction in the Dutch part of the Wadden Sea is causing impacts, with a maximum of 42cm subsidence reported in 2015 underneath Ameland island."
  7. Wrangel Island: "Recent research indicates that the hydrocarbon potential in the South Chukchi Basin may be significantly higher than previously suggested. ... The interplay of oceanic advection, limited emergency response capacities and arctic weather conditions suggests that Wrangel Island, including important polar bear habitat, would likely be affected by spills even in considerable distances from the site."

Another one from North America must be added, Chaco Culture, although it is not mentioned in the Outlook as it is a cultural site and therefore not monitored by IUCN: "Energy exploration and extraction, specifically oil and gas production currently threatens viewshed and the assocciated cultural landscape" (Periodic Reporting 2013) and "On November 15, 2021, the Interior Department placed a 2-year pause of new oil and natural gas leasing on federal lands within a 10-mile buffer zone of Chaco Canyon." (news source).

And looking at the most recent developments, Virunga should be downgraded to this category as well: "Most of Virunga National Park is covered by 3 oil prospection blocks (Blocks III, IV, and V).... The World Heritage Committee has repeatedly expressed its concern regarding the existance of oil concessions in Virunga National Park and requested the DRC government to not issue any more exploration permits for Virunga NP."

Sites with Potential Threats

  1. Belize Barrier Reef: "A number of Petroleum Sharing Agreements (PSA) in the marine areas used to overlap or be adjacent to the property. An indefinite moratorium on petroleum operations within the limits of the marine zone of Belize was enacted"
  2. Carlsbad Caverns: "Currently, the most significant impact by the region's oil and gas development on the park is on the views from the park. Flaring has increased haze, limiting views of daytime vistas, and increased ambient light to impact views of the night sky."
  3. Ennedi Massif: "The reduction in the area proposed for inscription was triggered by the fact that an oil concession was granted in the area which was removed from the boundaries. While this means that no oil concessions overlap with the boundaries of the site as inscribed, .... Future oil operations in the vicinity of the site may have impacts on the site's integrity and values"
  4. Gros Morne: "Potential petroleum exploration activity in the vicinity of Gros Morne remains a possibility and would be of major consequence to the property’s exceptional natural beauty and biodiversity if it were to go ahead. ... While there is currently no opportunity to bid for licenses offshore directly adjacent to Gros Morne, there is no mechanism in place to prevent the bid system from re-opening this area in the future."
  5. Manú NP: "Oil and gas exploration and extraction is occurring south of the site. The Camisea gas field, one of the largest energy projects in Peru, is located in a remote area in the immediate vicinity of the site. Interest in a possible expansion despite National Park and World Heritage Site status has been repeatedly expressed which would carry significant risks to the site and the indigenous populations that inhabit it."
  6. Selous Game Reserve: "To this day, there appears to be a lack of clarity in terms of mineral exploration and exploitation in the property and a major overlap between the game reserve and exploration and extraction licenses becomes obvious from publicly accessible cadasters." 
  7. Tubbataha Reefs: "There is continued interest in the Philippines to explore for oil/gas in the Sulu Sea. However, exploration is forbidden within the Marine Park and buffer zone."
  8. Waterton Glacier: "These actions [The Province of British Columbia banned oil and gas and mining in most of the Canadian Flathead Valley in 2010 (British Columbia, Province of and State of Montana, 2010); North Fork Watershed Protection Act (2014)] have reduced a major threat of fragmentation in the lands connecting the World Heritage site with other montane habitats along the Rocky Mountains"

Based on news reports and small remarks in official documents, there are more candidate sites for this connection. Being cultural sites, however, they seem to be under less scrutiny than natural WHS. Examples are: Mesa Verde (Oil and gas production in southwest Colorado), Lamu ("the proposed port and cruise ship berth, and oil exploration"), and Ahwar of Southern Iraq ("clarification and regulation measures need to be put in place in buffer zones where potential oil extraction activities could constitute").

Possible impact

The possible impact of the threats is surprisingly variable:

  • wildlife cannot roam as freely anymore to buffer areas
  • earthquakes
  • spoilt views
  • contaminated air and water supply
  • social unrest
  • oil spills that harm marine and coastal biodiversity (although these seem to happen more after shipping accidents)

Do you know of any other WHS that are Threatened by Oil and Gas Exploration?

Els - 7 August 2022

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Els Slots 7 August 2022

Good find, that WWF report, Solivagant! I am checking them with the IUCN Outlook 2020. If a site is in there, at least the risk is still there and I will add them to the connection.

There is already a difference between "Current" and "Potential" - Some sites have good legal protection now (Belize Barrier Reef), but this can be overturned quickly when a political situation changes.

Solivagant 7 August 2022

A "problem" with the Connection is how "real" or "active" does the possibility have to be. This WWF document from 2015 lists far more

And I noted that the Giants Causeway actually had a concession which overlapped the boundaries - but was cancelled....

Blog WHS website

Perfect Inscriptions

Jonathanfr asked a while ago on the Forum whether we could have a Connection called “Perfect inscriptions”. 'Perfect' meaning: a recommendation of inscription by the advisory body, then inscribed at the first attempt. I was afraid sites like this would be too common to justify a connection, but as we have all the data anyway (thanks to crawling through all available official documentation in the past by some community members) I crafted a query for it to see what the outcome would be.

The process

I queried our database on the data displayed on the site pages under “Site History”. To determine perfect status, I excluded sites that have either been Referred, Deferred, Rejected or got an Advisory Body Overruled in their history before Inscription. I did so too with sites that got a Conditional inscription, sites where an Incomplete dossier has been submitted and sites where the State Party had requested it to not be Examined (often a move to avert a negative conclusion).

I ended up with 790 of the current WHS where the nomination process can be seen as Perfect. That’s 68% of them all! The list includes major sites such as Machu Picchu and the Serengeti, but also Srebarna and Lednice-Valtice.

Trends by year

When we compare the number of Perfect inscriptions as a percentage of the Total inscribed in a year, it looks like this:

The perfect percentage is slowly and steadily decreasing, though not as much as I would have expected. 2010 seems to have been the year when the trend really broke. And 2018 had no perfect inscriptions at all!

We must keep in mind that the transparency around the WHC has increased a lot over the years. The AB evaluations in the early years were either non-present or brief. Also, with the increasing focus on substantiation (such as a thorough comparative analysis), both on the side of the AB’s and the State Parties in their nomination files, there is more material for debate.

The trendline of the total number of nominations with “issues” (Dismissed (=Referred, Deferred, Not inscribed), AB overruled) per year is as follows:

Here we also see that from 2010 on, the number of AB overrides has surpassed the number of regular dismissals.

It is interesting to note that the number of dismissals stays at a fairly similar level over the years. So could we conclude that the AB overrides are statistically justifiable corrections? Have the AB’s become more critical of what is offered to them and does the WHC revise that? Or can the WHC not accept that the average intrinsic quality of the potential sites goes down when the list expands?

Country differences

When we compare the WHS on this topic by country, Egypt stands out with a 100% perfect score among its 7 inscribed WHS. No other country with 5 or more sites inscribed does have such a good track record. Greece does well too (94%), as do The Netherlands (92%) and Bulgaria (90%).

Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Syria score particularly bad, with only 17% perfect each.

The full list by country can be found here, and the statistics of the major countries look like this:


Finally, does it matter whether an evaluation has been written by ICOMOS or IUCN? Not so much: out of the total of 897 cultural inscriptions, ICOMOS was overruled by the WHC 106 times. 29 out of 257 mixed and natural inscriptions got lucky. That’s 12% versus 11%.

Els - 31 July 2022

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Jonathanfr 5 August 2022

Very good work, thanks!

Els Slots 31 July 2022

In the total list, I forgot to exclude the ones having "Requested by State Party to not be examined". Fixed that now - the total perfect ones is down from 812 to 790. Thanks winterkjm for reporting!

Els Slots 31 July 2022

On request, I've also added a link to the full list of countries and their perfect % (you'll find it above the table).

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