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Each year, the United Nations unveils a list of the world's most stunning natural attractions, called World Heritage sites, and chances are, you've never heard of them—Papahanaumokuakea, anyone? The designation shines the spotlight on a handful of hidden gems, while also protecting them from man.
Over the past 28 years, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has identified more than 180 of these natural wonders across 77 countries. These "World Heritage Sites" are deemed "unique, irreplaceable, and authentic." The esteemed club includes the likes of the Grand Canyon, Mount Everest, and Victoria Falls among other iconic sites. (Manmade landmarks, such as Rome's Colosseum, are counted separately.)
This summer, the UN agency added some particularly picturesque landscapes to its list.
The region known as China Danxia spans six subtropical areas approximately 310 miles southwest of Xi'an, home of the terra-cotta warriors. Red sandstone pillars, ravines, and other fantastical shapes recall Mars more than they do southwestern China.
Phoenix Islands Protected Area
Hundreds of species of fish, mammals, and birds have made their home in and around the Phoenix Islands, about 6,000 miles northwest of Fiji in the South Pacific. The island region is the world's largest marine protected area.
Réunion National Park, Réunion Island
Creole-flavored Réunion Island lies in the southwest Indian Ocean approximately 400 miles off the eastern coast of Madagascar and is towered over by two volcanic peaks.
Preposterously clear lagoons and extensive coral reefs protect rare marine life around this set of tiny islands and atolls in northwestern Hawaii (reachable only by chartered plane). Ghost alert! As native tradition has it, spirits return to this area after death.
Ngorongoro Conservation Area
Zebras, wildebeests, and big cats wander the grass that covers the enormous crater of the extinct Ngorongoro volcano. The entire Ngorongoro Conservation Area covers over 3,200 square miles and lies to the east of the decidedly more famous Serengeti National Park.A World Heritage site since 1979, Ngorongoro's received an extended designation this year to also recognize its cultural significance: It's where evidence of humanity's distant ancestors was discovered.
Prehistoric Caves of Yagul and Mitla
Archaeologists discovered the historic cave dwellings with rock art in the central Mexican province of Oaxaca, about 340 miles south of Mexico City. In addition to rock art, the caves are famous for the 10,000-year-old Cucurbubitaceae seeds and corncob fragments found here—the earliest evidence of domestic plants on the continent.
Putoransky State Nature Reserve
This nature reserve is situated more than 62 miles north of the Arctic Circle in northern Central Siberia, and is a vital migration route for reindeer crossing its tundra and rivers. the Putoransky State Nature Reserve is technically a desert because it rains and snows so little here, though snowfall does tend to linger owing to the icy temperatures.
The Sri Lankan leopard, slender loris, and other endangered animals roam the Sri Lankan highlands. Their forest habitat lies over 8,000 feet above sea level on this teardrop-shaped island off the southern tip of India in the Indian Ocean.