Chile Mission Dispatch

To drive along the highway in Arica, Chile, is like going through a stage set for Holes. But, as one reaches higher altitudes on the way into the mountains, or altiplano, the landscape suddenly changes, and the desert becomes a carpet of greenery and fresh blooms.

Arica was part of Peru until 1889 and its port was a primary destination along the Silver Route, an economic engine that defined much of the region tied to the rise and eventual decline of the Potosi mines. This historic corridor is dotted with dozens of rural towns, many settled at strategic locations to service the mule-driven caravans that once carried silver and other precious minerals from Bolivia to Arica, the first leg in an arduous journey to Spain.

Picturesque features of many of the towns along the trade corridor are the church facades and bell towers that still dominate the streetscapes and skylines of the region. These once-prosperous towns went into a slow decline when the mines slowed down, but the historic churches continued to be maintained and new ones were built by the Diocese of Arequipa (Peru), even after the region had become part of Chile as a result of the Pacific War. In 1910, when the Peruvian religious orders were expelled, the churches fell under the jurisdiction of the Archbishop of Iquique in Chile. The vast distances of the churches from the seat of the bishop made caring for the churches difficult. Added to the Diocesan difficulties of maintaining the churches was the migration of many of the traditional parishioners to Arica in search of better economic opportunities. This left more than 30 churches in a precarious state. Many of the churches were used for special occasions and religious and local cultural festivities.To this day many of the towns have limited access by roads and are reached by mule or on foot..

Azapa, Poconchile, Timar, Gua?acagua, Codpa, Chitita, Pachica, Esqui?a, Ticnamar, Guallatire, and Mulluri are some of the Aymara names of these towns, and their churches are just as unique. Their decoration, altars and imagery combine Spanish and Andean motifs, and their adobe walls, built following ancient pre-Hispanic techniques, survived many earthquakes, until a lack of maintenance meant they could stand no more.

Seeing the churches of Arica-Parinacota come back to life through the efforts of Fundacion Altiplano, and their Chilean, Peruvian, Ecuadorian, German, and North American experts, is satisfying. Through training, local capacity building, restoration and creation of new economic and cultural opportunities in these towns, the small communities that remain are more likely to stay, and the younger generations that left are likely to come back, even if just for the Belen film festival or a traditional guatia (meal cooked underground with hot stones) made with lamb, corn, potatoes, habas, and humitas (sweet corn tamales), like the one we shared with a local family, in the midst of a field of oregano and flowering alfalfa.

The level of prosperity reached during the silver years may never return to these towns, but through sustained improvements, they may have a chance to flourish again, just like the desert after a long drought. World Monuments Fund is proud to have a role in the revitalization of these communities.