Chile Seeks More World Heritage Sites

Chile Seeks More World Heritage Sites
18 sites to be suggested

By Christina Latz

(May 20, 2004) It’s going to be a tough choice. Will it be altiplano churches, La Moneda presidential palace or the Spanish colonial forts at Valdivia?

Chile’s diverse cultural heritage sites are in a race to be suggested to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as World Heritage Sites by the Chilean government.

The UNESCO designation is intended to help preserve the world’s treasures for the benefit of humanity. Getting the designation is usually a tremendous help in securing funding necessary to guarantee restoration and maintenance of the heritage sites.

The Chilean government’s list includes 18 candidates, waiting to be officially put forward to the UNESCO sometime over the next 10 years. Here are the most interesting of them in a nutshell – spread out over Chile’s 4,300 km north to south.

Numerous churches and chapels in the Tarapaca plateau, Region I, are the farthest north on the list. They date back to the encounter between indigineous cultures and their Spanish colonizers. First missionaries arrived in the Tarapaca region at the end of the 16th century and started constructing churches in a technique called “Andean Mestizo.”

Archeological sites of the Chinchorro culture from Region I and part of Region II are also among the North’s treasures. The ancient Chinchorro culture populated the area about 9,000 years ago. They were originally hunters in the Andes who moved on to the coast and became fishermen. The Chinchorro used colored shells as bait for fish and are famous for developing a technique for embalming the dead 3,000 years before the Egyptians got around to inventing similar methods of preserving bodies.

The Inca Trail is more widely known in connection with the Peruvian city of Cuzco, but in fact leads through part of northern Chile passing the Precordillera. For this ancient stone paved road of the Incas to become an official site, a joint effort and a proposal must be made by Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, Ecuador, Colombia and Chile.

Chile’s Region I also boasts Iquique’s main street, Calle Baquedano, which looks like the setting of an old movie with its colorful Georgian-style buildings dating from around 1880 to 1930. The city’s port attracted many foreigners – especially from Britain and North America – because of the flourishing saltpeter mines closeby. The foreign influence, the town’s temporary affluence and in addition to this the harsh desert climate led to Iquique’s rather peculiar architecture.

Ghost town Humberstone and the nearby saltpeter mine Santa Laura have already been presented as candidates to the UNESCO. International experts will be visiting both sites 50 kilometers east of Iquique, Region I, in October to evaluate the claim. The mines and housing for the workers were constructed in the 1870s. Humberstone was named in honor of a British engineer who improved the living conditions of the miners and their families and even constructed a swimming pool and a theater for the workers in the middle of the desert.

Saltpeter was first used for making explosives and later on was valued for its fertilizing properties. The export of the mineral was a crucial element for the economic, social and political development in Chile.

Sites in and around the Santiago Metropolitan Region include the presidential palace La Moneda, the San Fransisco convent and a sanctuary on the Cerro El Plomo.

The latter is an Incan sanctuary situated at 5,400 meters above sea level in the Andes. In 1954, treasure hunters discovered the 500-year-old mummy of an eight-year-old boy who had been sacrificed to the Incan god Sol (sun) on the peak of the mountain (ST, April 16). Scientists recently determined that the boy froze to death while asleep after being abandoned by his people. The mummy is now in the Natural History Museum in Santiago.

The La Moneda palace in the center of Santiago is a landmark in colonial architecture in South America. As such, it is standing for election as a World Heritage Site. La Moneda was completed in 1805, bombed during the 1973 military coup and restored years later.

Another Santiago site is the San Fransisco church and convent opposite the Cerro Santa Lucia in the captial’s city center. The buildings were constructed in honor of the Virgen de Socorro (Virgin of Help), whose image had been brought to the country by the founder of Santiago, Pedro de Valdivia. Valdivia and his men believed that the Virgin saved them from the attacks of the indigenous people. The church and convent are the oldest colonial buildings in Chile.

Also of national pride are the Spanish fortresses near Valdivia, Region X, that held off French, British and Dutch vessels with their crossfire in the Bay of Corral. The 17th century fortresses at Corral, Niebla, Amargos and the Island of Mancera were conquered by a single Chilean warship under Scotsman Lord Thomas Cochrane in 1820. Now, the men of Corral entertain tourists with an unintentionally hilarious re-enactment of the battle.

Further south in Region XII the caves of Pali Aike and Fell, where hunter-gatherers settled about 11,000 years ago, could be suggested to the UNESCO. The remains of cremated human skeletons, various tools and other artifacts as well as bones of now extinct animals, such as the big milodon, belong to the archeological treasures found in and around the caves.

As well as promoting these 18 new sites, the Committee of Chilean Sites of the World’s Cultural Heritage will have to help maintain the ones already awarded by the UNESCO: Chiloe’s wooden Jesuit churches (Region X), the coastal town Valparaiso (Region V) and Easter Island, in the Pacific Ocean, 3,700 kilometers west of Valparaiso.