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Amazing World Heritage Sites in Mexico

Pyramid of the Sun in Teotihuacan, Mexico
Credit: BILLPERRY | Bigstock

For the past 35 years, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has celebrated World Heritage Day on the 18th of April, a day that commemorates the creation of its World Heritage Site list, including amazing World Heritage sites in Mexico

Officially called the International Day for Monuments and Sites, it recognizes the importance of places worldwide that have particular cultural and natural importance.

Although established by UNESCO in 1983, world heritage site preservation work first began in 1959 to protect the temples of Abu Simbel in Egypt from flooding after the construction of a new dam. Over 50 nations donated US$80 million to fund moving the temples to higher ground.

The World Heritage Site list was founded on the belief that every country demonstrates pride for its culture in unique ways. One of those ways is to emphasize the importance of particular places within the country that have significant cultural and natural importance. Today, 150 countries participate in protecting their World Heritage sites.

The UNESCO selection process begins with participating countries submitting reports that detail the sites they feel belong on the World Heritage Site list. UNESCO uses 10 criteria to evaluate submissions to the list, six for cultural sites and four for natural sites. A site must meet at least one criterion to be included. The list is updated and published at least every two years.

Italy has the most World Heritage List sites, 53. China is second with 52, followed by Spain, France, Germany and India. Mexico is seventh in the world with 34, but is first in the Americas. Twenty-seven of Mexico’s sites are cultural, six are natural and one is mixed.

One of the benefits of being an expat in Mexico is proximity to many of these amazing World Heritage sites. Below is a sampling of some of the sites, followed by a complete list of sites you will want to visit.

Historic Center of Mexico City and Xochimilco

This was one of the first sites from Mexico to be added to the World Heritage Site list in 1987. Built by the Spanish in the early16th century on the ruins of the former Aztec capital, Mexico City has five Aztec temples, the largest cathedral on the continent and fine 19th and 20th century public buildings, including the Palacio de las Bellas Artes.

Colorful boats in Xochimilco
Credit: Cascoly | Bigstock

The beautiful floating gardens of Xochimilco lie about 17 miles south of Mexico City and feature a network of canals and artificial islands, an Aztec legacy.



Agave Landscape and Ancient Industrial Facilities of Tequila

Added to the World Heritage Site list in 2006, this 133 sq. mile site lies between the foothills of the Tequila Volcano and the valley of the Rio Grande River. The blue agave plant has been used since the 16th century to produce tequila and for over 2,000 years to make fermented drinks and cloth. Working distilleries have provided tequila to the world since the 19th century.

Historic Center of Oaxaca and Archaeological Site of Monte Albán

Ruins of Monte Alban in Oaxaca
Credit: Aleksandar Todorovic | Bigstock

Accepted in 1987, Monte Albán has been inhabited for over 1,500 years by indigenous Olmecs, Zapotecs and Mixtecs who built terraces, dams, canals, pyramids and artificial mounds. They were carved out of the mountain and are symbols of a sacred topography.

The historic city of Oaxaca is nearby and is built on the Spanish grid pattern. The city’s buildings are considered architectural gems and were soundly constructed to withstand the numerous earthquakes that affect the area.

Franciscan Missions in the Sierra Gorda of Querétaro

The five Franciscan Missions of Querétaro’s Sierra Gorda region were added to the World Heritage Site list in 2003. They are a blend of Spanish and indigenous people’s architectural styles and decoration. Between the 16th and 18th centuries, their urban layout became the basis for the towns that grew up around them. They continue to be used for Catholic ceremonies and serve as a reminder of the missionaries’ efforts to evangelize the indigenous populations and the coexistence of their cultures.

El Pinacate and Gran Desierto de Altar Biosphere Reserve

A natural site added to the list in 2013, this site consists of two distinct locations. The dormant volcanic Pinacate Shield of black and red lava flows and desert to the east and the Gran Altar Desert in the west, with its great sand dunes that can reach over 600 ft. in height. Ten very deep and mostly circular craters are believed to have been formed by a combination of eruptions and collapses and contribute to the stark beauty of the volcanic area. The site is also a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.

Archipiélago de Revillagigedo

The most recent Mexican site added to the list is a group of four islands located due west of Manzanillo in the Pacific Ocean. This archipelago has four remote islands: San Benedicto, Socorro, Roca Partida and Clarión. It is part of a submerged mountain range with just the peaks of its volcanoes above sea level. The islands provide critical habitat for a range of wildlife, many endangered, and are of importance to sea birds. The surrounding waters have an abundance of manta rays, whales, dolphins and sharks.

Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve

Monarch Butterflies in Michoacán, Mexico
Credit: Keith Paulson-Thorp

A bit over 60 miles northwest of Mexico City, this 217 sq. mile biosphere lies within rugged mountains. Every fall, millions of butterflies from North America return to the site and cluster in small areas of the forest reserve, coloring its trees orange and bending their branches under their weight. In spring, they begin their eight-month migration home. The sights and sounds of this phenomenon create a unique sensory experience. For a first-hand account of this experience, read our blog, “The Monarchs of Michoacán” by Keith Paulson-Thorp.

There are many cultural and natural wonders in Mexico for expats and visitors to see and experience. Here is the complete list from UNESCO:

Cultural (27)

  1. Agave Landscape and Ancient Industrial Facilities of Tequila (2006)
  2. Aqueduct of Padre Tembleque Hydraulic System (2015)
  3. Archaeological Monuments Zone of Xochicalco (1999)
  4. Archaeological Zone of Paquimé, Casas Grandes (1998)
  5. Camino Real de Tierra Adentro (2010)
  6. Central University City Campus of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México(UNAM) (2007)
  7. Earliest 16th-Century Monasteries on the Slopes of Popocatepetl (1994)
  8. El Tajin, Pre-Hispanic City (1992)
  9. Franciscan Missions in the Sierra Gorda of Querétaro (2003)
  10. Historic Centre of Mexico City and Xochimilco (1987)
  11. Historic Centre of Morelia (1991)
  12. Historic Centre of Oaxaca and Archaeological Site of Monte Albán (1987)
  13. Historic Centre of Puebla (1987)
  14. Historic Centre of Zacatecas (1993)
  15. Historic Fortified Town of Campeche (1999)
  16. Historic Monuments Zone of Querétaro (1996)
  17. Historic Monuments Zone of Tlacotalpan (1998)
  18. Historic Town of Guanajuato and Adjacent Mines (1988)
  19. Hospicio Cabañas, Guadalajara (1997)
  20. Luis Barragán House and Studio (2004)
  21. Pre-Hispanic City and National Park of Palenque (1987)
  22. Pre-Hispanic City of Chichen-Itza (1988)
  23. Pre-Hispanic City of Teotihuacan (1987)
  24. Pre-Hispanic Town of Uxmal (1996)
  25. Prehistoric Caves of Yagul and Mitla in the Central Valley of Oaxaca (2010)
  26. Protective town of San Miguel and the Sanctuary of Jesús Nazareno de Atotonilco(2008)
  27. Rock Paintings of the Sierra de San Francisco (1993)

Natural (6)

  1. Archipiélago de Revillagigedo (2016)
  2. El Pinacate and Gran Desierto de Altar Biosphere Reserve (2013)
  3. Islands and Protected Areas of the Gulf of California (2005)
  4. Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve (2008)
  5. Sian Ka’an (1987)
  6. Whale Sanctuary of El Vizcaino (1993)

Mixed (1)

Ancient Maya City and Protected Tropical Forests of Calakmul, Campeche (2002,2014)