Excited about the 5th International UNESCO Conference on Geoparks running from May 12 to 15? No? Maybe you should be! Geopark might not be a well-known or even kind-of-known term just yet, but these babies are the way of the future for eco-tourists.
Essentially, they are UNESCO-designated areas that are geologically unique and scientifically important. They also have to tick archaeological, ecological or cultural value boxes. The twist in the tail is that they must promote tourism in a sustainable way, promote education and help local economic development by supporting and encouraging local businesses.
Visiting endangered heritage sites can be a bit iffy as conservationists row over whether or not tourists are destroying the place, causing some eco-tourists to vacillate a desire to see the site for fear of being part of its destruction.
If heritage sites are the lofty ‘don’t touch me’ ice queens who are in peril, Geoparks are the down to earth ‘Okay, we’ll survive this way’ pragmatists. By involving local communities and encouraging tourism while also protecting the area, they are paragons of sustainable local development whilst also ensuring that adventure travel has never been so guilt-free.
Currently, there are 89 global Geoparks spread across 27 countries. Here’s a look at some of the best.
Katla Geopark, Iceland
Iceland’s only Geopark, Katla Geopark covers about 9% of the country and lies a couple of hours drive from Reykjavik. As well as Katla and Eyjafjallajokull, bane of newsreaders and air travellers everywhere, Katla Geopark also has a vast number of glaciers, craters, geysers, lava fields and thermal springs for which Iceland was most known before its banks went the way of the volcano back in 2008. That banking implosion was good news for tourists, incidentally, as the previously eye-wateringly expensive Iceland is now great value. The area has all the snowy and icy sports anyone could want, and local restaurants serve up the best fish the North Atlantic has to offer.
Araripe Geopark, Brazil
Araripe Geopark sprawls over 5000km2 in the Brazilian state of Ceara. As well as the stunning natural beauty that’s pretty standard in Brazil, it’s also a palaeontologist’s nirvana as it has one of the most important fossiliferous deposits in the world. If that conjures up images of Ross from Friends rather than excites you, you’re not alone. But wait! The geological conditions of the region mean that fossils from up to 110million years ago are perfectly preserved in 3D. As well as fish, frogs, insects, and crocodiles, so many pterosaur fossils have been found that the region is known internationally (well, in international geological circles, anyway) as ‘pterosaurs paradise’. What’s more, these perfect little slices of earth’s history are so common in the region that you’re almost guaranteed to find one yourself. Thanks to its Geopark status, Araripe is now easily accessible and has the necessary mod-cons, and the local Cariri people have set up restaurants and shops.
Yehliu Geopark, Taiwan
One can only assume distance or budget got in the way of George Lucas filming Star Wars in Yehliu Geopark, a 1700 meter long peninsula on the north coast of Taiwan. The scientific explanation for this alien landscape is quite mundane: it’s simply a combination of different types of weathering on hard and soft rocks. Really though, it looks like a prankster chiselled them out for fun in the dead of night and told nobody about it. Mushroom rocks, honeycomb rocks, ginger rock, candle rocks and pothole erosion are a true testament to what an artist Mother Nature is. Their names illustrate their oddness perfectly; the iconic Queen’s Head, the Fairy Shoe, the Beehive, the Ginger Rocks, the Sea Candles, Elephant Rock and Peanut Rock all sound like they should be in a galaxy far, far away.
Bohemian Paradise, Croatia
The Bohemian Paradise Geopark stretches over 700km2 in the Czech Republic’s Bohemia. It originally secured Geopark status because of the sheer diversity of its geology, the highlight of which is the Bozkov Dolomite Caves. These karst caves plunge to 43metres deep, are 1100 metres long and are publically accessible for 350 metres. And then there are the crazy rock formations and unusual structures geologists go wild for. Culturally, Bohemian Paradise is rich on any scale you care to think of, with a proliferation of large castles and little chateaux. Valdstejn is the oldest of these castles, built around 1260, and looks like a Disney sketch come to life. Finally, the Czech countryside is perfect for walking, hiking, cycling, rowing and other adventurous activities.
Songshan Geopark, China
China is the Heavyweight Geopark Champion of the World, with almost 30 UNESCO Geoparks. Songshan Geopark in the Henan province is one of the most famous and has been dubbed “the textbook of geological history”, as it contains an intact layer of five geological periods beginning from 3.5billion years ago. Culturally the Geopark is also a heavyweight, containing eight different Chinese ethnic groups within its 450km2 borders. Mount Song is one of the Five Sacred Mountains of Taoism and has – drumroll- ten temples, five shrines, five palaces, four nunneries, three altars and three abbeys. It’s also home to the Shaolin Temple and its surrounding pagoda forest, one of the largest in China and containing pagodas from as early as 791 AD.