Travel Jewels to Visit Sooner Rather Than Later
When it comes to selecting a vacation spot, you no doubt consider a number of factors — cultural attractions, online reviews and general convenience, to name a few. It may be time to add another: whether a destination is endangered or disappearing soon. Unfortunately, many of the world’s natural and architectural wonders are imperiled by threats ranging from climate change to overdevelopment to the simple ravages of time. Preservation efforts have offset some of the most immediate hazards. But if you’d like to experience the full grandeur of these locales, you may want to reshuffle your future travel plans.
Travel writer Jasmina Trifoni, author of Places to Visit Before They Disappear, recommends the following dozen destinations in Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas, which stand out for both their beauty and the magnitude of threats facing them.
Of the world’s many “at risk” sites, few have drawn more attention recently than Venice, which is contending with rampant tourism, excessive boat traffic and the sustained effects of climate change. The lowest lying points in Venice, including St. Mark’s Square, are now more than three feet below sea level, and the once-occasional high tides that drench this iconic city have become more common.
To maximize enjoyment and minimize environmental impact, Trifoni recommends sojourns during winter months. “The atmosphere is really wonderful and there are far fewer people than in summer,” she says. “Don’t go in May or June because it’s really packed with people.”
For visitors well acquainted with the grand cities of Europe, the Danube River Delta is like stepping into a different world. Located in Romania and part of Ukraine, the delta is a 2,200-square-mile constellation of lakes, marshes, beaches and islands. Rich with wildlife and majestic vistas, it is one of the largest natural habitats in Europe, with more than 300 species of birds, including Dalmatian pelicans and white-tailed eagles.
“It’s very rural and still mostly underdeveloped from a tourist point of view,” Trifoni says. “You can really see the lives of the people living with the river. It’s still an adventure.”
Nonetheless, the delta is confronting the effects of industrial pollution, including fertilizer runoff and waste from the growing number of ships that traverse it. It’s been denuded further by the construction of dams and canals that have shifted the natural flow of water, and especially by a Ukrainian project to widen a section of the waterway to accommodate a major shipping channel.
Elsewhere in the region, Trifoni recommends a series of Romanian wooden churches, many located in the northern region of Maramures. Beginning in the 13th century, the area was ruled by Hungarian monarchs, who prohibited those with differing religious beliefs from constructing churches with durable materials such as stones and brick. The native people responded by crafting wooden edifices featuring such architectural details as two-tier roofs and magnificent spires that jut into the sky.
The passage of time has exacted a toll on many of these structures, but more than 100 remain. Aided by preservation efforts, some churches feature splendidly restored interiors and elaborate frescoes.
Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo is the oldest such park in Africa. It’s also one of the most imperiled. The 3,000-square-mile expanse of dense forests and wide-open savannahs is home to roughly 300 mountain gorillas, about one-third of the worldwide total. Yet Virunga and its gorillas are threatened by poaching, deforestation and recurring armed conflict between fractious guerrilla groups.
The preserve has its own cadre of armed rangers patrolling the forests to ward off poachers. For safety purposes, only 10% of the park is open to tourists. Yet, Trifoni says, seeing the animals, who share 98% of their DNA with humans, is transformative.
“It’s one of the most touching experiences from wildlife I’ve ever had in my life,” she marvels.
For a different climate experience, Lake Turkana in northern Kenya is the world’s largest desert lake, with shores ringed by volcanic rocks and flat dunes. Devastating droughts and the construction of a mammoth dam in neighboring Ethiopia threaten the lake and nearby environs, including the livelihoods of indigenous tribes who rely on the water supply.
Accessing the area requires a somewhat arduous journey. But the locale is fascinating for its raw beauty, unique geology and anthropological history, according to Trifoni. An abundance of human fossils have been unearthed in the area, and its nickname, “sea of jade,” attests to the water’s tantalizing greenish hue. An awe-inspiring volcano is perched on the area’s southern tip and two million flamingos regularly fly overhead.
Many edifices in this part of the world face challenges, including the Great Wall of China and Taj Mahal. A lesser-known gem is Jaisalmer Fort in northwest India. Erected in the 12th century, it is one of the only such fortified cities in which residents still live. The sandstone buildings and three-ringed outer walls served double duty as a military fortress and way station for the merchants traversing the Silk Road trading routes. Though Jaisalmer Fort now sports modern hotels and restaurants, it retains an ancient feel.
“You experience a kind of medieval life in the 21st century,” observes Trifoni.
After withstanding the elements for centuries, walls have started chipping and the foundations of buildings have shifted. Conservationists blame a poorly designed water drainage system and monsoons that have been intensified by climate change. Restoration efforts have been launched, but they have been slow, given the scale of repairs that are needed.
Several locations in North and South America are grappling with the combination of climate change, natural disasters and heavy tourism. Among them are the Everglades in Florida, Glacier National Park in Montana and Denali National Park in Alaska.
Off the beaten path, Trifoni recommends Potosí, an idyllic village at the foot of a mountain in the Andes. Situated in what is now Bolivia, the mountain has been mined for silver since the 16th century. The area once produced so much of the precious metal that Potosí became the biggest city in the New World and a hub of cutting-edge industrial activity. Centuries of heavy mining have taken a toll, with the peak of the mountain collapsing a few years ago and further buckling expected.
Still, Trifoni insists, Potosí is well worth a trip. Pitched against the backdrop of the mountain, the city is a tableau of baroque architecture, with vividly colored buildings topped by a canopy of red-tiled roofs. “It is one of the world’s great landscapes,” she enthuses.