UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Africa
The picturesque and remarkable territory around the Bandiagara escarpment is named after the Dogon people who live here. The escarpment is a 200 km long sandstone cliffside, towering 300 to 500 metres above the sandy plains that run all the way to Burkina Faso. The Dogons live in village scattered here over three different areas: the plateau, on top of the cliff; the falaise, or cliffside, were villages hug the steep rocks; and the plains. The area is spectacular, both naturally and culturally, with the Dogon people still protecting their unique cultural traits. While short visits to some of the bigger towns are possible, most villages can only be reached by foot. Exploring these requires multi-day treks, but also offer the largest rewards regarding insights into the Dogon way-of-life and the exploration of the escarpment's pathways and cliffside alleys. Guides are not an official requirement, but basically essential nonetheless. Not only to find your way and for understanding the Dogons, but primarily as to avoid breaking the many taboos surrounding Dogon life.
It's impossible to determine whether the ancient and crumbling houses of Old Chinguetti is rising out of the Sahara's famous dunes or being consumed by them. For centuries an important caravan stop, a home of Islamic scholars, and the most important gathering place for commencing the Hadj (holy pilgrimage to Mekka) for the desert dwellers in what is now Mauritania. During the 17th-century, more than 32,000 camels passed through the city daily! Citizens here claim that Chinguetti is the seventh most holiest city in Islam, that is, however, not a claim heard outside the city itself. However, once the sea trade of the colonial era replaced caravans, it marked the beginning of Chinguetti's demise. Today the town, founded around 1300, is Mauritania's most valued and visited historical site, with the old city's 16th-centrury mosque being its most recognizable landmark. After Chinguetti (together with three other desert towns, Ouadane, Tichit and Oualata) was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000 a slow process of restoring some of the crumbling building have luckily been initiated.
When slavery was abolished on Mauritius, the sugar plantations were looking for labourers. Contract workers from Asia, mainly Indians, were "invited" in great numbers. Every single one of them went through the Aapravadi Ghat in Port Louis. It is a complex of buildings at the harbour where the immigrants were kept while papers were sorted out. Today these buildings are a UNESCO World Heritage site and have recently been turned into an informative museum.
This characteristic mountain rock right on the shore is one of Mauritius' two UNESCO World Heritage sites. According to legend, escaping slaves from the sugar plantation hid on top of the mountain. Unaware of the abolishment of slavery, they jumped to their death when soldiers came to tell them the good news. It is possible to hike almost to the top where amazing views await. The hike is little bit technical (ropes and some scrambling), so local guides will offer their service.
Boasting the most impressive sunset in Morocco, a windy beach, and a UNESCO-recognised harbour, Essaouira is well worth the two-hour drive from Marrakesh. Here is lively, but no hassle. The harbour is dominated by dozens of small, blue fishing boats, a market, and a citadel, which walls extends all around the medina (old city). Both the walls and the citadel offer unobstructed views of the sun setting over the Atlantic Ocean – as does most of the city's roof terraces. In fact, the old town is almost overflowing with romantic spots. The picture perfect beach extends for many kilometres south of the city. However, strong winds and dunes make it more suited for the wind- or kitesurfing and quad biking than for swimming and sunbathing.
The world's biggest Islamic medieval city and accidentally also the world's largest car-free zone. The medina, Fez el-Bali, dates back 1200 years and is one of those places where time has been at a standstill. It is a labyrinth where getting lost is inevitable, where goods are still transported by donkey and where it is quite impossible to expect what awaits around the next corner. Especially famous are the city’s tanneries where leather is still dyed in pits as it were hundreds of years ago. If it all become too hectic, the peaceful Bou Jeloud Gardens does offer some tranquil relief. The same does Fez el-Jdid, or New Fez, which is only 700 years old(!) and less affected by tourism. It almost goes without saying that the medinas of Fez are on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
If you have seen Lawrence of Arabia, Gladiator or Game of Thrones, then you will already be familiar with Aït Ben-Haddou – though you probably don't realise. The UNESCO World Heritage Site have featured numerous films and tv productions. Arriving at Aït Ben-Haddou, you quickly understand why. The fortified city, which used to be an important caravan stop between Marrakesh and the Sahara, consists of no less than six castles, with many of the houses grouped together behind more defensive walls. This creates a system of fortifications within fortifications. The granary on the hill's top offers good views of the surrounding area. Four families still live in the ancient city, while most others have moved to the modern village across the river bed. Located in the foothills on the southern slopes of the High Atlas the drive to/from Marrakesh beautifully snakes through Morocco's highest mountains.
Tired of the chaos in Marrakesh? Fed up with the hassle in Fez? Morocco’s third imperial city, which is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, got none of that. It is more pleasant, relaxed and slow-moving than its two sister cities. Hence, it also sees more local visitors than foreign tourists giving it a distinctly local feel. This charm is accompanied by a number of sights: the beautiful Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail, who made Meknes Morocco’s capital in the late 17th century; a vast underground prison; the Bou Inania Medersa (Quranic school); the Heri es-Souani granaries; and, of course, an old medina. Or you could just enjoy some mint tea on the bustling Place Hedim in front of the grandeur Bab Mansour. The square resembles Marrakesh’s more famous Jemaa el-Fnaa, though this is smaller and easier to take in. Should you want to get out is the Roman Ruins of Volubilis just an hour’s drive north of Meknes, a UNESCO site in its own right.
Morocco's capital city is often overlooked and bypassed by visitor's, who quickly to head to better-known destinations. That's a shame as the city offers visitors a cultural mix unique to Morocco. Rabat is at once both the past and the present, both in Africa and in Europe; UNESCO has recognised this by letting the "Modern Capital and the Historic City" share its World Heritage status. Nothing illustrates this better than riding the city's tram – it's virtually a time machine. Hop on at the Medina's medieval city walls below the castle, drive through the wide boulevards of the colonial neighbourhood, Nouvelle Ville, and disembark in Agdal, where European cafés and designer brands dominate the streets. Exploring Rabat is at the same time exploring all of Morocco's history – from the idyllic Roman ruin just outside the city's centre – to the modern Morocco in Agdal. Both will be a breath of fresh air for anyone who wants a break from the country's more hectic destinations.
Mozambique Island is the cradle of African colonialism and so soaked in history that it's deserved a UNESCO site. First came Arabian traders, and later the Portuguese. It became one of the central ports for the slave trade and was for a long time the capital of Portuguese East Africa, leaving the island with a density of colonial buildings not matched by many other places in Africa. What makes Mozambique Island further unique today, is that people are living in and among these decayed mansions, giving the island an almost squatter feel. Most of the historical sites are at the northern end, where the once cobbled streets are now sandy and potholed and the crumbling once-grand buildings stand neglected among bushes and shady trees. The southern end of the island is a densely populated shack town with easy going people. There are also several beaches around Mozambique Island, but they are mostly used by playing children and fishermen fixing their boats, but local guys will be happy to do boat tours to nearby islands. However, Mozambique Island's charm is the old houses and laid back atmosphere.