UNESCO Sites in Mexico

UNESCO sites in Mexico

Mexico boasts as many as 34 UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Most of them are historical sites that tell an exciting story, whether they date back to the first centuries or after the colonization of the Spaniards. Very often, they merge appalling ancient ruins situated in beautiful landscapes or they show a fusion of rigid European city layouts with native culture. Some are within a short distance from Mexico’s popular tourist cities, and others are a bit more hidden in the jungle or the mountains. Furthermore, Mexico comprises some highly biodiverse areas, one of the main reasons to visit them. However, the best way to do it is to hop on an organized tour. 

All in all, here is a list of all 34 World Heritage Sites in Mexico listed by state, and a map for easier navigation.

Baja California Sur

Whale Sanctuary of El Vizcaino

This whale sanctuary situated in the center of the Baja California Peninsula is a part of the El Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve. It was protected by UNESCO in 1993. It comprises marshes, wetlands, desert habitats and two coastal lagoons, Laguna Ojo de Liebre and Laguna San Ignacio. Namely, they are the most important reproduction site for the grey whale which was close to extinction. Also, from around January to March there are organized tours to see the amazing creatures. Other marine mammals that can be found here are the California sea lion, harbor seal, blue whale, northern elephant-seal. But also turtles, fish, land mammals, and many migratory bird species. In fact, ospreys and half of Mexico’s population of Brant Goose depend on this habitat.

Whale Sanctuary of El Vizcaino
Whale Sanctuary of El Vizcaino

Rock Paintings of the Sierra de San Francisco

The rock paintings in Mulegé Municipality in Baja California Sur are one of the most impressive collections of prehistoric art in the world. The rock paintings on cave walls supposedly date back to 100 BC although, according to new findings, they may even be 7,500 years old. The biggest reasons for their well-preserved state are the dry climate and a fairly remote location. Furthermore, the paintings showcase animal species, people, and their relationship with nature. Also, they are done with precision and a variety of colors. These characteristics make the paintings bear witness to a unique artistic tradition. They were first discovered by the Jesuits in the 18th century. Moreover, visiting the 250 sites is easier with a guide, while El Palmarito and Cueva del Ratón are easier to access.

Campeche

Historic Fortified Town of Campeche

The port city of Campeche is situated in the state of the same name on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. It was founded in the 16th century by the Spanish conquerors. It was protected by UNESCO in 1999 due to its well-preserved checkerboard street plan and the fortification system. As the city was wealthy and an important port at the time, it became a target for pirates. Today, the 18th-century city walls integrating 7 bastions are the city’s main attraction. Other popular sights in the so-called Rainbow City include the colorful Calle 59 street, the city’s waterfront Malecon, and the Baroque Cathedral.

Ancient Maya City and Protected Tropical Forests of Calakmul

This site is located in the State of Campeche on the Yucatán Peninsula. It includes the ancient Maya city set in the tropical forests of the Tierras Bajas. Interestingly, it also falls within the Mesoamerica biodiversity hotspot, which includes all subtropical and tropical ecosystems from central Mexico to the Panama Canal. Namely, the well-preserved ruins are situated in the jungle of the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve. Calakmul is a hidden gem that used to be a Maya capital with 50,000 inhabitants. Interestingly, most of it has still not been excavated. But, there are mural paintings in massive overgrown temple pyramids, stelae carved with pictures and glyphs, pottery, and sculptures. It also has a diversity of mammals like spider monkeys, American tapirs, and jaguars, which the Maya considered sacred.

Ancient Maya City
Ancient Maya City

Chiapas

Pre-Hispanic City and National Park of Palenque

Palenque ruins that date back to 266 BC were protected as a UNESCO site in 1987. This archaeological site is found in the jungle of the Chiapas state, only 5 kilometers from the town. Due to this, Palenque is one of the less visited Mayan ruins. However, it is one of the most remarkable examples of the Mayan culture of the Classic period. It comprises pyramids and temples, among which is the Temple of Inscriptions containing the longest carved inscription of Maya hieroglyphs. Moreover, the ruins showcase refinement and lightness that define palencano style, and therefore, new ways of construction. Moreover, its sculpted reliefs on walls bear witness to the Maya mythology and rites.

Chihuahua

Archaeological Zone of Paquime, Casas Grandes

The archaeological zone of Paquimé was declared a UNESCO site in 1998. It is situated just outside the town of Casas Grandes in Chihuahua. Namely, it is the largest zone that represents the peoples of the Chihuahuan Desert. Moreover, Paquimé had a key role in trade between the Pueblo culture and Mesoamerican civilizations. While the city was developing from 700 to 1475 AD, it reached its peak in the 14th and 15th centuries. At that time, around 10,000 inhabitants lived there. Furthermore, the remains include hundreds of rooms of residential character that are built of unfired clay. Today only ruins remain of the former multi-story houses. Characteristic T-shaped entrances and pre-Hispanic urban layout were well-preserved, too.

Casas Grandes
Casas Grandes

Guanajuato

Historic Town of Guanajuato and Adjacent Mines

Guanajuato is the capital of the state of the same name in central Mexico. This colorful city was founded by the Spanish in the 16th century. By the 18th century, it became the world’s number-one silver-extraction center. This can be seen in its mines, like the 600-meter-deep La Boca del Infierno (Mouth of Hell) mining pit, and the subterranean streets. In addition, its architecture is outstanding. Namely, neoclassical and baroque buildings in Guanajuato have influenced the buildings in central Mexico. For example, the Baroque churches of the Society of Jesus (La Compania) and San Cayetano (La Valenciana) have unique Churrigueresque-style facades. The neoclassical Teatro Juarez and the main Basilica are only some of the other important architectural wonders of Guanajuato.

Protective town of San Miguel de Allende and the Sanctuary of Jesus Nazareno de Atotonilco

San Miguel de Allende was established in the 16th century by the Spaniards. Today, its architecture still adorns the city’s charming cobblestone streets. This well-preserved architecture is the reason for the inclusion of its historic center on the list of world heritage sites. One of them is La Parroquia, a Gothic cathedral that was inspired by Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia. Namely, it is positioned on the square Plaza Allende, commonly known as el jardin. The monastery, on the other hand, is situated 14 km from the town. It was inspired by the doctrine of Saint Ignacio de Loyola. Furthermore, it is an example of an exchange of cultural values between Europe and Latin America. Moreover, its interior, especially the mural paintings, make it a masterpiece of Mexican Baroque.

San Miguel de Allende
San Miguel de Allende

Hidalgo

Aqueduct of Padre Tembleque Hydraulic System

This 16th-century aqueduct is located on the Central Mexican Plateau, between the towns of Zempoala, in Hidalgo, and Otumba in the State of Mexico. Interestingly, it includes the highest-ever arcade ever built on an aqueduct. It was initiated by a Franciscan friar, Padre Tembleque, but it was built with the help of local indigenous communities. Therefore, the system is a valuable heritage also because it comprises exchange of cultures and influences. On the one hand, Roman hydraulics, and on the other other, Mesoamerican building techniques – use of adobe. Moreover, it comprises water catchment area, arcaded aqueduct bridges, springs, canals and distribution tanks.

Aqueduct of Padre Tembleque Hydraulic System
Aqueduct of Padre Tembleque Hydraulic System

Jalisco

Agave Landscape and Ancient Industrial Facilities of Tequila

The agave landscape in the western Mexican State of Jalisco was protected by UNESCO in 2006. More specifically, the fields between the foothills of the Tequila Volcano and the valley of the Rio Grande river. Moreover, the protected area also contains working distilleries in the urban settlements. Those include Tequila, Magdalena, El Arenal, and Amatitan. But also, the area preserves terraces for agriculture, housing, and temples. Temples, in fact, bear witness to Teuchitlan cultures that influenced the Tequila area. What’s even more interesting is that tequila is the first Mexican product to receive the designation of origin product. Not only that, but it is also a part of the national identity. Furthermore, its production dates back to the 16th century. Yet, it has been used to make fermented drinks for 2,000 years.

Agave Landscape
Agave Landscape

Michoacan

Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve 

Each November, a biosphere reserve between Michoacan and the State of Mexico is filled with millions of butterflies. Namely, monarch butterflies from North America stream to the forested mountains in November and stay until March. They settle on the trunks of oyamala, pine, and oak trees, which is quite a view for nature lovers. Then, the orange butterflies find their way back to Canada and the US in spring, when they pass another 4,500 kilometers. Moreover, there are three zones in each country open to visitors. One of the most known sanctuaries is El Rosario in Michoacan. Meanwhile, Piedra Herrada in Mexico is very close to the National Park of El Nevado de Toluca and the town of Valle de Bravo.

Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve
Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve 

Historic Center of Morelia

The picturesque city of Morelia is the capital of the State of Michoacan. Morelia was protected by UNESCO in 1991 thanks to its impressive architecture. Namely, the city was built in the 16th century. Furthermore, it preserved its original checkerboard layout and more than two hundred historic buildings. Besides, this overlooked city is a fusion of different building styles, that combined create “Baroque Moreliano”. Moreover, the city has numerous cathedrals, cupolas with azulejos, and towers, all built in characteristic pink stone. What’s more, Morelia is the birthplace of several personalities who fought for an independent Mexico. One of them is José María Morelos, after whom the city was named.

State of Mexico

Central University City Campus of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM)

This protected site in Mexico City is an ensemble of buildings, sports facilities, and open spaces. It is a distinct example, or more, a masterpiece, of 20th-century modernism, urbanism, architecture, engineering, landscape design, and fine arts. Interestingly, besides being modernist, it also has features of the Mexican pre-Hispanic past. This university campus was built from 1949 to 1952 and involved more than 60 architects, engineers, and artists. The reason for its uniqueness is also the fact that all of the principles of modern architecture and urbanism were applied. It contains university buildings, sports facilities, a library, museums, and more, all surrounded by open spaces, gardens, and esplanades.

Central University City Campus of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México
Central University City Campus of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México

Luis Barragán House and Studio

The house and studio of Luis Barragán, the most prominent figure of modern Mexican architecture, were protected by UNESCO in 2004. They are a distinct example of Barragán’s creative work in the post-Second World War period, situated in Mexico City. The simplistic white facade of the house in Miguel Hidalgo district contrasts its colorful interior. Namely, the house comprises bold colors, like bold pink and yellow. The colors, along with textures and carefully chosen sources of light, make Barragan’s style so distinct. The interior is also minimalistic, with particular attention brought to symbols, art collections containing mainly Mexican artists, and furnishings. Interestingly, some of them come from craft markets and antique shops. Moreover, soon after Barragán’s death, the house became a museum. Also, today it is visited by architects, architecture students, as well as art connoisseurs and lovers.

Historic center of Mexico City and Xochimilco

Also known as Centro Historico or just Centro, this central neighborhood in Mexico City mainly comprises the main square Zócalo. Namely, it is the place where the Spaniards started to build Mexico on the ruins of the capital of the Aztec Empire, Tenochtitlan. Therefore, it contains many buildings from the 16th to the 20th century. Right next to Metropolitan Cathedral there are ruins of Templo Mayor which is one of five Aztec Temples in the city. The second part of this site, Xochimilco, is situated 25 kilometers from the city. It is a network of floating gardens and canals that show the ingenuity of the Aztecs. It is possible to go on tours on boats called trajineras, accompanied by Mariachi.

Xochimilco
Xochimilco

Pre-Hispanic City of Teotihuacan

The holy city of Teotihuacan or “the place where the gods were created” is situated only 1 hour away from Mexico City. Namely, from 100 BC to 650 AD, it was one of the largest and most powerful cities in Mesoamerica. Besides, Teotihuacan’s art was the most developed among the classic civilizations of Mexico. It was protected by UNESCO in 1987 since its sacred monuments represent an impressive example of a pre-Columbian ceremonial center. Laid out according to geometric and symbolic principles, the buildings line the Avenue of the Dead. Moreover, the rigid geometry contrasts the rich decorations of the Temple of the Feathered Serpent. Other important buildings include the Pyramid of the Moon and the Pyramid of the Sun – one of the biggest in the world.

Revillagigedo Archipelago

This archipelago is situated to the east of Mexico in the Pacific Ocean, 390 kilometers southeast of Cabo San Lucas. Namely, it is made up of four islands. San Benedicto, Socorro, Roca Partida and Clarión are in fact peaks of volcanoes that form part of a submerged mountain range. The islands are a valuable habitat for wildlife, and more importantly, nesting and feeding grounds for seabirds. Not only that, but the waters are a habitat for sharks, dolphins, rays, and whales. Moreover, 366 species of fish, 26 of which are endemic, and also sea turtles. The archipelago that was protected by UNESCO in 2016 is also a national park and a marine reserve. It can also be visited on organized tours.

San Benedicto island
San Benedicto island

Morelos

Archaeological Monuments Zone of Xochicalco

One of central Mexico’s most important sites was listed as a UNESCO site in 1999. Xochicalco, which is situated in the State of Morelos, was founded in the 7th century on a series of hills. It is a great example of a fortified city. Not only that, but also the most important religious, economic, and ceremonial center from the Epiclassic period. This period, which lasted from 650 to 900 AD saw the decline of many Mesoamerican cities, like Teotihuacan. It also saw movements of peoples and new relationships between regions like Yucatan and Guatemala. Moreover, the most important monuments are The Temple of the Feathered Serpent and a cave converted into an observatory.

Earliest 16th-Century Monasteries on the Slopes of Popocatepetl

Fifteen monasteries on or near the Popocatépetl volcano date back to the 16th century. They were designated in 1994 as a UNESCO site both for their historical and cultural importance. They played an important role in converting the indigenous peoples of Northern Mexico to Christianity. But, their architectural concept is also important. Namely, the native culture can be seen in decorations and wall paintings. Not only that but also open spaces and wide atria influenced architecture throughout Mexico and more. Out of fifteen well-preserved monasteries, eleven of them are situated in the State of Morelos, three in Puebla, and one in Tlaxcala.

Oaxaca

Historic Center of Oaxaca and Archaeological site of Monte Alban

This joint site is situated in the southern Mexican State of Oaxaca. The town of the same name is an example of a Spanish colonial town with a strict building pattern. Namely, Oaxaca was designed as a checkerboard with square blocks and portals. It was established in the centuries and is an example of a fusion of Spanish and Indian cultures. Nine kilometers from there, the site of Monte Alban is the most important archeological site in Oaxaca Valley. The pre-Columbian ceremonial center contains impressive temples, a ball game court, tombs, and bas-reliefs with hieroglyphic inscriptions. Those bear witness to the civilizations that lived here, Olmecs, Zapotecs, and Mixtecs. Moreover, the city was Zapotecs’ capital from 500 BC to 850 AD.

Monte Alban
Monte Alban

Prehistoric Caves of Yagul and Mitla

This archaeological site comprises two pre-Hispanic archaeological complexes Yagul and Mitla. They are located in Tlacolula Valley in central Oaxaca. Besides Yagul and Mitla, other prehistoric caves and rock shelters have been found, too. Interestingly, there have been found human, architectural and rock art remains. But more importantly, the evidence of the progress of nomadic hunter-gathers to incipient farmers. Namely, 10,000-year-old seeds and fragments of wheat spikes have been found in cave Guila Naquitz. They are in fact the earliest evidence of the domestication of plants on the continent. Not only that, but the fact that it allowed the rise of the Mesoamerican civilizations also adds to its importance.

Prehistoric Caves of Yagul and Mitla
Prehistoric Caves of Yagul and Mitla

Puebla

Historic Center of Puebla

Situated 100 kilometers away from Mexico City and at the foot of the Popocatepetl volcano, Puebla. Namely, the capital of Puebla State and one of the biggest cities in Mexico was founded in the 16th century as “Puebla de los Angeles”. Surprisingly, it preserved the checkerboard layout and most of its architecture. For instance, old colonial villas, houses with colored tiles azulejos the cathedral of Puebla as well as Biblioteca Palafoxiana and the Rosary Chapel. They are all situated in the historic town around the main square – zocalo in azulejos. European and American influences are both present in Pueblas barrio barroco district.

Tehuacan-Cuicatlan Valley: originary habitat of Mesoamerica

The originary habitat of Mesoamerica is situated in the southeast of the State of Puebla and north of the State of Oaxaca. Namely, it contains three components, Zapotitlan-Cuicatlan, San Juan Raya, and Purron. It is the arid or semi-arid zone with the richest biodiversity in North America. Besides this, the site is recognized for its technological advances. Its great water management system of canals, wells, aqueducts, and dams is the oldest in the continent. The other one is plant domestication. Namely, it contains one of the densest columnar cacti forests in the world. Yet, it also includes agaves, oaks and yuccas, and many other often endemic species. Together with archaeological evidence, the Valley bears witness to one of the oldest civilizations on the continent. The adaptations to the land they carried out for 12,000 years are what defined the whole region of Mesoamerica.

Sonora

El Pinacate and Gran Desierto de Altar Biosphere Reserve

This protected site is both a biosphere reserve and a natural UNESCO site protected in 2013. It is situated in the northwestern Mexican state of Sonora, south of the border with Arizona. It comprises sand dunes of the Gran Altar Desert and the volcanic landscape of El Pinacate. The reserve boasts large craters, lava flows, and more than 400 cinder cones. Meanwhile, the sand dunes of the Gran Altar Desert reach up to 200 meters in height. Whereas, its granite massifs can reach 650 meters. Moreover, this site of great beauty is also important for its cultural value and biodiversity. Also, it comprises 540 plant species as well as various mammals, fish, birds, reptiles and amphibians. Anyway, the reserve can be visited with organized tours or on your own following the designated paths.

Quintana Roo

Sian Ka’an

Sian Ka’an biosphere reserve on the eastern coast of Yucatán Peninsula, in the State of Quintana Roo is quite a popular and impressive site. It is one of the largest protected areas in Mexico. Namely, it comprises 528,148 hectares of marine, terrestrial and coastal ecosystems. This biosphere reserve boasts 120 kilometers of coast, wetlands, tropical forests, and barrier reefs. Moreover, countless bird, fish and turtle species, marine life, and land mammals can be found. The endangered Central American tapir, and vulnerable American crocodile, as well. Particularly important are natural phenomena cenotes and “petenes” that can be found here. Namely, cenotes are naturally formed sinkholes filled with water, while petenes are forested islands found in swamps. Archaeological sites of the Maya like Muyil can, too, be visited during the organized tours.

Sian Ka'an
Sian Ka’an

Queretaro

Franciscan Missions in the Sierra Gorda of Queretaro

The five Franciscan missions in Sierra Gorda, Queretaro were built in the 18th century.  Two of them are situated in the municipality of Jalpan de Sierra, two in Landa de Matamoros, and one in Arroyo Seco. Due to their importance, they were protected by UNESCO in 2013. Namely, they were built during the last phase of the evangelization of interior Mexico. But also, they were an important factor in the continuation of evangelization of California, Arizona, and Texas.  Furthermore, the missions are reminiscent of 16th-century convents, with characteristics of the 17th and 18th-century Mexican Baroque. Their most prominent features are surely the richly decorated facades. But also, besides the ornate main portals, missions include native elements. Those include bold colors like red, yellow, and orange, local stone and motifs of jaguars and rabbits.

Historic Monuments Zone of Queretaro

Historic center of the capital of Queretaro was inscribed on the list in 2010. Its inscribed property includes the aqueduct, monuments, fountains, and ornate Baroque religious and civil buildings, the latter special for their arches. Moreover, the historic zone is particular in that its geometric street plan of the colonizers coexists with the Indian twisting alleys. Namely, The Otomi, the Tarasco, the Chichimeca and the Spanish lived together which reflects in the city’s 17th and 18th-century architecture. Interestingly, this city that is often regarded as one of the safest cities in Mexico is associated with the start of the movement for the Independence of Mexico.

Veracruz

El Tajin, Pre-Hispanic City

The most important archaeological site in Veracruz is also one of the best-preserved towns from the Epiclassic and early Post-Classic periods. Namely, El Tajin flourished from the 9th to the 13th century. Not only that, but it became one of the main centers of the Classic era following the fall of Teotihuacan. Furthermore, it was protected by UNESCO in 1992 due to its pyramids, monumental platforms, and as many as twenty ballcourts. Interestingly, the reliefs bear witness to the use of ballcourts as places of sacrifice. Yet, the most important building is the Pyramid of the Niches, a magnificent six-stepped pyramid with 365 recesses, one for each day of the year. Besides the architecture, the site preserves the tradition of voladores. These flying men are a remnant of an ancient Totonac ritual that served as a prayer to the rain god.

El Tajin
El Tajin

Historic Monuments Zone of Tlacotalpan

The historic center of the Spanish colonial river port in the State of Veracruz was added to the list in 1998. However, the reasons for its inscription were its well-preserved urban layout and architecture. Namely, it combines Spanish and Caribbean traditions. Those include wide streets of the well-preserved city grid and single-storey, vividly colored colonnaded houses with tiled roofs. But also, an abundance of mature trees, both in open spaces and in courtyards. Furthermore, Tlacotalpan is divided into two sectors. The larger “Spanish” quarter on the west and the “native” one on the east, connected with the public space in the middle.

Tlacotalpan

Yucatan

Pre-Hispanic City of Chichen-Itza

This sacred site in Yucatan in eastern Mexico is one of the most visited archaeological sites in Mexico.  It is also situated only two hours from a very popular Mexican resort, Cancun. Namely, Chichen-Itza was built around 600 AD and was the center of the Mayan civilization. It comprises both Mayan and Toltec architecture and among twenty-six monuments, the most popular one is El Castillo. Also known as the Temple of Kukulcan, the iconic pyramid was dedicated to the Mayan serpent deity. Besides architecture, Chichen Itza is known for cenotes – limestone sinkholes filled with water that Yucatan is full of. One situated within the site is called Sacred Cenote. Interestingly, its dredging revealed that other than the water supply, it was used for sacrificial offerings to the rain god Chaac.

Pre-Hispanic Town of Uxmal

This ancient Maya city is one of the most important archaeological sites on the Yucatan peninsula and one of the best in Mexico. It is situated in the State of Yucatan, an hour south of Merida. The size of the monuments and the architectural styles bear witness to their social and economic importance. The most important buildings are the Pyramid of the Soothsayer and the Pyramid of the Magician with rounded corners. Interestingly, the layout of the site demonstrates their knowledge of astronomy. The city that was founded in 700 AD is also the center of the Puuc region that comprises other Maya sites, Sayil, Labna, and Kabah. Together, they represent the peak of Maya art and architecture.

Pyramid of the Magician
Pyramid of the Magician

Zacatecas

Historic Centre of Zacatecas

Zacatecas’ historic center was protected by UNESCO in 1993. Namely, it is the capital of the state of the same name in the north-central part of Mexico. Furthermore, it was built in the 16th century on the slopes of a narrow valley following the discovery of a silver lode in the vicinity. Soon, it became the mining center of Mexico, alongside Guanajuato. Its valuable architecture dates back to the 17th and 18th centuries and includes both civil and religious buildings. There are fifteen complexes, among which five convents. However, the main church dominates the others for its Baroque facades, neatly carved portico, and indigenous elements.

Historic Centre of Zacatecas
Historic Centre of Zacatecas

Mexico and the United States

Camino Real de Tierra Adentro

Also known as The Royal Inland Road, this World Heritage Site is a 1,400 kilometers long part of the Silver Route. Namely, it is a route that extends from Mexico City to Texas and New Mexico. It was used as a trade route for 300 years, from the mid-16th to the 19th centuries, mainly for transporting silver. The silver was extracted from the mines of Zacatecas, Guanajuato, and San Luis Potosi, and mercury was imported from Europe. Camino Real consists of five World Heritage Sites and 55 other sites. They include haciendas, churches, bridges, historic towns, and more, from Mexico City to Valle de Allende in Chihuahua. Furthermore, the route helped to create social and cultural bonds between Spanish and Amerindian cultures, seen in the fusion of architectural styles.

Map of UNESCO Sites in Mexico

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