When travellers think of Chile, they picture the sprawling Andes Mountains jutting out from the landscape like sharp teeth or maybe the exquisite Patagonia with its sleepy glaciers. However, what about Chile's cultural side? Not only does the country have a magnificent natural landscape to explore but it also hosts a long and storied history that is documented by its UNESCO World Heritage Sites. By exploring Chile's UNESCO World Heritage Sites, visitors to the country can get the best possible insight into the country's unique history.
Rapa Nui National Park
Rapa Nui, as it is called by the Polynesian locals, is better known to the rest of the world as the mysterious Easter Island. This island is one of the most remarkable and best preserved cultural phenomena in the world. The iconic statues line the shores and pathways like ancient stone guardians with little insight as to why they were placed. The statues were thought to have been carved by Polynesian people that arrived on the island around 300 AD, although no one is quite sure how they arrived on such an isolated island. Regardless, once they settled on the island, they went on to create a culture all their own after being cut off from the rest of the world. Today, visitors can walk the island to marvel at the statues and visit small villages that still exist and learn what little the world knows about Easter Island and its people.
The Seaport of Valparaiso
Valparaiso is a port town a few hours away from Chile's capital city Santiago and would be just another lovely little town in Chile if not for its well preserved unique architecture. The 19th century Latin architecture in Valparaiso is similar to other shanty town styles found elsewhere in South and Central America, but also unique to Chile by adapting to the steeply climbing bay it was built upon. Another unique factor in Valparaiso's layout is that it is not laid out on a grid pattern like most cities today. Instead, the city moulds with the hilly landscape that results in a series of winding streets and climbing staircases with almost all of them lined by beautiful buildings of all colours and hues as they slope down to towards the sea. Visitors should try to conserve some energy climbing up and down the hills by riding the some of the last surviving funiculars in Chile. These little cars that are winched up and down hills also serve to give a unique look at the city through the eyes of its old 19th century residents. The view of the colourful city from the water is also a fine way to see it without quite so much walking.
Humberstone and Santa Laura Saltpeter Works
Kevin Dooley viaFflickr.com/pagedooley (CC by 2.0)
Chile's natural landscape is not only beautiful to look at, but it also holds huge mineral deposits underneath the soils that have served to drive Chile's economy for years. In the early 1900's, that economy-booming mineral was saltpeter. Saltpeter was essential to making gunpowder and before the dawn of the World Wars, a highly valued resource. Unfortunately, the floor on the saltpeter industry fell out and the once prosperous saltpeter mines in Chile were abandoned. Humberstone and Santa Laura Saltpeter Works was one of those mines, but today the mine and the company housing surrounding it sit abandoned, although preserved so Chile and its visitors will never forget such a profitable age. This ruin sits in the middle of the desolate and barely hospitable Atacama Desert where even few animals manage to live. Yet, this mine and its people still managed to squeeze out a life here.
The Churches of Chiloe
Chiloe is not a typo, but rather an archipelago of several islands off Chile's mainland only separated by a narrow strip of water. The distance from the mainland may just be under a kilometer, but Chiloe has developed a distinctive culture, food and architecture that set it apart from the mainland. A special aspect of that unique culture is the churches on the islands that make up its World Heritage presence.
There were over 100 wooden Jesuit churches littered throughout the islands at one point, but today only 50 to 60 of them survive in various states of prosperity and decay. From afar, they look much like plaster or painted stone buildings that sport beautiful golden shingles and crosses that serve as beacons to the community, but upon closer inspection, each and every church is made almost entirely from wood.
What makes these churches so special, aside from being nearly all wooden, is how they meld together indigenous and European culture into a form of wooden architecture unlike any other found in the world. This is one of the rare times where indigenous and foreign cultures have peacefully intermingled together to create something that is beautiful without any bloodshed.
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