For the last two weeks of May, before starting a summer internship in Santiago, Chile, I set off across South America with just a small backpack. Along the way I found an unlikely friend, UNESCO.
In four of the five cities I visited, I stumbled upon at least one if not two references to United Nation's Education Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The first reference came in Foz de Iguaçu Brazil while visiting the incredible Iguazú falls. The falls are a tourist attraction located along the Iguazú River in between Argentina and Brazil. They are one of the seven natural wonders of the world and are UNESCO designated World Heritage Site.
Twenty-four miles across town the Itaipu dam tells a different story about what can be done with nature's bounty. The dam provides electricity for 73 percent of Paraguay and 17 percent of Brazil and with an annual output of 98.2 million MWh the dam is the most productive in the world. This incredible feat of engineering did not come without a price. The Guaíra falls, rumored to have been the greatest volume of falling water in the world, were flooded in the creation of the reservoir for the dam. The falls were not listed as a World Heritage Site. As part of their social responsibility after creating the dam, the Itaipu Corporation in partnership with UNESCO built the first ever International Hydroinformatics Center. This UNESCO partnership is prominently featured during the welcome video of the dam tour.
After a 23-hour bus journey from Iguaçu, I arrived in Cordoba, the second largest city in Argentina. I came having heard about the incredible activities, the beautiful church, and central plaza. I discovered only after my arrival that the church and the surrounding area was a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Jesuit Block and Estancias of Córdoba comprise a series of magnificent buildings and pay tribute to the Jesuit influence in the development of the city.
From Cordoba I traveled to Buenos Aires -- a city that proudly embraces its UNESCO connections. The tourist map I picked up upon arrival at the bus station prominently identified Buenos Aires as a City of Design in the UNESCO Creative Cities Network. The map also noted Tango, a style of dance, famous in Buenos Aires as recognized by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. I reluctantly took a Tango lesson as a result of the recognition.
Finally, as a day trip during my stay in Buenos Aires, I visited my third and final World Heritage Site of the trip -- Colonia De Sacramento, Uruguay. This sleepy former Portuguese Colony is about an hour ferry ride from Buenos Aires. Some of the original cobble stone streets are still intact along with the Governor's Mansion, the bullring, and the town's church. The city gives an incredible feeling for what a colonist's life would have been like and presents a significant contrast to the sprawling Buenos Aires.
I started my trip with the aim to experience South America and the intention to visit one World Heritage Site (the Iguazú falls). After two weeks in South America, I had stumbled across three World Heritage Sites and a total of six different references to UNESCO. As a member of the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO I am quite familiar with the organization, yet I did not expect the impact it would have on my trip. This led to a number of reflections.
First, it is incredible that we are an advanced enough of a civilization to come together as humans and recognize the natural and man-made wonders that are important to our heritage. UNESCO isn't a tourism project of one community or country rather it is a reflection of the world.
Second, UNESCO must modernize. The World Heritage Sites and international recognitions of incredible cities like Buenos Aires and activities like Tango help to structure a trip. But most of this happened for me by accident. I was traveling with only an iPad dependent on wifi connections. I could not access the flash player map of World Heritage Sites on UNESCO's website. And, even if I had flash player, my internet connections were often very slow.
In the research for this piece, I discovered Harper Collins collaborated with UNESCO in making an app for World Heritage Sites. While it is quite good, the app does cost $2.99 and lacks geo-locating, trip planning, and other UNESCO recognitions like Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity and the Creative Cities Network.
Finally, UNESCO must expand its outreach to young travelers. I stayed in hostels the entire trip and met young travelers from all over the world. Many of them were on six month or yearlong journeys across South America and the world. Most were unaware of who or what UNESCO is or does and no one was using World Heritage Sites to plan their trip. Better technology can certainly help with this as well as better promotion.
Two weeks of traveling have given me a greater appreciation for the work of UNESCO and its presence and relevance across the globe. I set off with my backpack intent on seeing South America; I just didn't realize it would be with UNESCO.