Posts Tagged ‘UNESCO World Heritage sites’

Conservation and the Galápagos Islands

Tuesday, June 29th, 2010
The Northern Elephant Seal Pup  Photograph by Thomas Schnetlage

Northern Elephant Seal Pup. Photo: Thomas Schnetlage

The Galápagos Islands are known worldwide for their stunning beauty and environmental diversity. Due to their unique location, size, and home to plants and animals found anywhere else in the world, the islands are in need of environmental conservation and were recognized in 1978 as UNESCO World Heritage Site. As a result, tourist organizations are very careful not to harm the sensitive islands while visiting.

Here are some other interesting facts about the islands:

  1. They are one of the few locations in the world that do not have and have never had an indigenous human population.
  2. In 1959, about 1,500 souls called the islands home. By 2006, the population had ballooned to as many as 40,000.
  3. Although there are eighteen main islands that make up the Galápagos Islands, only five are inhabited by people – Baltra, Floreana, Isabela, San Cristobal, and Santa Cruz.
  4. The islands have a healthy diverse plant and animal population, but have struggled to maintain them due to species that have been introduced by humans. 700 plants have been introduced by visitors since European discovery in 1535 – compared to the 500 native plants. As a result, there is competition between the two groups for survival.
  5. The same can be said for animals – British pirates first released goats on the islands to use for food. Today, non-native animals still include goats, as well as pigs, dogs, rats, cats, mice, sheep, horses, donkeys, cows, poultry, ants, cockroaches, and some parasites. Dogs and cats may attack birds and damage their nests. Pigs can destroy the nests of tortoises, turtles, and iguanas.

The good news is there are many professionals keeping an eye on the environmental balance of the islands, including the Galapagos National Park and The Darwin Foundation. To help learn, study, and educate yourself about our world’s oceans, we recommend the Smithsonian’s own Ocean Portal, which includes tools for educators, amazing photo essays, and information on how you can make a difference in preserving these precious resources.

What would you do to conserve the Galápagos Islands? Share your ideas.

Visit the Galapágos with your family! Click here for more information.

The Everlasting City: Prague

Wednesday, June 16th, 2010
Old Town Prague, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1992

Old Town Prague, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1992

It has survived two World Wars and a Cold War. It has lasted through centuries of religious change and transition between Catholics, Protestants and Jews. It’s also the home of the oldest university in central Europe.

It is Prague—now the sixth most visited European city behind London, Paris, Rome, Madrid, and Berlin.

The city, situated in the Bohemian region of the Czech Republic, is believed to have originated as early as 200 B.C. when the Celts created a settlement in the area. By 973 A.D., Prague became the home of Dukes and Kings of Bohemia and an economic center attracting a diverse group a merchants from the region, including an increased number of Jews. In Prague, you can still visit Europe’s oldest active synagogue, built in 1270.

The population and diversity of the city has fluctuated greatly over time, while facing issues like the plague, which killed thousands of people at a time. After recovering from its final outbreak with the contagious disease in the late 17th century, the population rebounded to 80,000 inhabitants in 1771. Over time, the economy of the area grew with industry, and the population stood at 100,000 by 1837. By 1930, the population expanded to 850,000 people, but shrank during World War II, when Jews fled the Nazi invasion of what was then called Czechoslovakia. Today, the Prague is home to over 1.3 million people and is a top tourist destination.

What is your favorite site in Prague? Old Town Square? Charles Bridge? Or is it Prague Castle? Share below.

Prague is one of the many cities you’ll visit on our Old World Europe tour, including Vienna, Warsaw, and Krakow.

What You Need to Know About Machu Picchu

Tuesday, June 8th, 2010
A stone archway of Machu Picchu with the Andes in the background

A stone archway of Machu Picchu with the Andes in the background

Nobody wants to stand at a nice reception when an acquaintance announces she just got back from the absolutely fabulous Machu Picchu and have no idea what the fuss is all about. To make sure that never happens to you, here are the basics about Peru’s Machu Picchu so you can be as smart and cultured as the next guy.

  1. Machu Picchu is Quechua for ”Big Mountain.” The Quechua are the indigenous people of Peru, and the archaoelogical site of Machu Picchu is located south of the equator in the Andes Mountains and outside the city of Cuzco. But the location of the ruins is truly amazing as it sits in between the Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu mountains, making it difficult to approach and easily defensible in an attack.
  2. The city was built in 1450 at the height of the Incan Empire. By 1572, the city was abandoned, but there is some confusion as to why. It doesn’t appear that the Spanish conquistadors defaced or damaged any part of Machu Picchu, so it is thought that smallpox, which the Spanish brought from Europe, may have been a major factor in the fall of the city.
  3. The buildings located at the site were very well built using a technique called ashlar. This involved cutting blocks of stone and stacking them without the use of mortar. The result is a long-lasting, earthquake-proof structure.
  4. Popular culture has cited Hiram Bingham as the person who “discovered” Machu Picchu in 1911. However, there is some evidence that he wasn’t the first non-Native to stumble upon the site. Simone Waisbard, a longtime researcher in Cuzco, believes three men named Enrique Palma, Gabino Sánchez, and Agustín Lizárragal left their identities inscribed on a rock at the site on July 14, 1901. Others believe a German businessman named Augusto Berns looted the site – a common practice at the time—in 1867. Physical evidence has shown Machu Picchu to be listed on maps as early as 1874. While Bingham gets the most credit today, there may have been other visitors prior to his notable arrival in 1911.
  5. In 1983, Machu Picchu was designated an UNESCO World Heritage Site and was described as “an absolute masterpiece of architecture and a unique testimony to the Inca civilization.”

With these little tidbits in your back pocket, you can be the hit at the party too—or at least answer that Final Jeopardy question and impress your friends.

Have you been to Machu Picchu? Share below.

Want to go? Peru is truly amazing! We still have room on our 2010 tours, or you can plan for 2011!

Venice – Five Things

Tuesday, May 25th, 2010

Ahh…the romance of Venice. The mysterious canals, hidden corners, and artistic treasures make it easy to fall in love with one of Italy’s most picturesque cities. Famous for its Carnivale, Venice has much to offer travelers all year round.

Venice in the soft light of early morning Photo: Jessica Engler

Venice in the soft light of early morning Photo: Jessica Engler

Here are five things you might not know about Venice:

— The city was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987 in recognition of its architectural integrity and for the presence of some of the world’s greatest artists such as Giorgione, Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese.

— The Doge’s Palace was not only the seat of Venetian goverment until the Napoleonic conquest, its design has been imitated around the world. Let us know if Romania’s central rail station or the Scottish National Portrait Gallery look familiar.

— The island of Murano, in the Venetian lagoon, is famous for it’s glass-making. It wouldn’t be, though, if Venetian authorities hadn’t ordered the city’s glassmakers to move there to reduce the risk of fire.

— Ever wonder why certain window coverings are called “Venetian Blinds?” Venetian gondolas once had small cabins with louvered shutters to afford privacy, important in a city where there were once eight to ten thousand of the boats in use. Today’s gondoliers must be admitted to a guild and pass a stringent licensing exam.

— The Venetians love their appetizers and small plates. Visit a local pub in the city and enjoy fried mozzarella, artichoke hearts, or one of an endless variety of topped crostini.

What else do you know about Venice? Please share!

If you’re ready to lose yourself in the winding streets and explore the islands of the Venetian Lagoon, click here for travel to Venice with Smithsonian Journeys.

Hoi An – A UNESCO World Heritage Site

Wednesday, May 19th, 2010
A Vietnamese woman travels by boat in Hoi An

A Vietnamese woman travels by boat in Hoi An

The old town of Hoi An in the South Central coast of Vietnam is a well-preserved example of a traditional trading town during the 15th to the 19th centuries. The shift of the trade routes from Hoi An  to Da Nang resulted in the virtual abandonment of the village—leaving it in much the same state as it was nearly 200 years ago. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999, the small town on the coast of the South China Sea has seen an increase in the number of tourists and backpackers in recent years.

Hoi An was initially part of the Champa Empire, but did not become a major trading post until about 1595, under the rule of the Nguyen Lords. The town became one of the most important ports on the South China Sea because of its ability to ship goods, especially spices, down the river system between highlands, Laos and Thailand, and the lowlands. During the 16th and 17th centuries, many foreigners settled in Hoi An.  As trade relations developed between the French, Dutch, Portuguese and Spanish, Hoi An incorporated a unique blend of foreign and local influences.

The decline of Hoi An as the premier trade port makes this town unique because very little modern Vietnamese influence has infiltrated the culture or cityscape since the 18th century. At the end of the 1700s, Hoi An experienced a sharp decline in trade activity due to the collapse of Nguyen rule. The new emperor, Gai Long, repaid the French for their aid in conquering the Nguyen Lords by giving them exclusive rights to trade in Da Nang, thus establishing Da Nang as the primary trade route in central Vietnam.

Today Hoi An serves as a key cultural destination with numerous arts and crafts shops as well as several Internet cafes, bars and restaurants along the riverfront. Hoi An is famous for the Cao lầu noodle, locally prepared for centuries. Travelers can walk the streets of Hoi An enjoying the magical mixture of cultures of a trade town largely untouched by modern Vietnamese influences for the past 200 years.

Join us in Hoi An on one of these Smithsonian Journeys tours.

What’s your favorite cultural destination? Share below.