Chile and the UNESCO World Heritage list: five man-made wonders

The five sites singled out for inclusion on the United Nations cultural list include wooden churches, mysterious statues and abandoned mining towns.


Chile is probably best known for its iconic natural attractions, from the craggy spires of Torres del Paine to the volcanoes of the Lakes District, to the geysers and lunar landscapes of the Altiplano.

But since ratifying the World Heritage Convention in 1980, Chile has caught the committee’s attention with its man-made heritage, five instances of which were added to the list between 1995 and 2006. According to the 1972 convention that established the UNESCO World Heritage List, selected cultural heritage sites would be monuments, groups of buildings or sites “of outstanding universal value from the point of view of history, art or science.”

Though Chile currently has 19 sites on the tentative World Heritage list, the five monuments already included represent a fascinating cross-section of Chile’s history. Below, This is Chile has listed each of these five in order of when they were added to the list along with a short profile.

Rapa Nui National Park (1995): Rapa Nui – known more commonly as Easter Island – was originally annexed by Chile in 1888, and its mysterious monoliths, called maoi, have since become one of the country’s most recognizable attractions. According to the World Heritage list, the maoi, “developed by a society completely isolated from external cultural influences of any kind for over a millennium…blend with their natural surroundings to create an unparalleled cultural landscape.”

Churches of Chiloé (2000): The lush Chiloé archipelago at the northern edge of Chilean Patagonia is home to some of Chile’s most perfect pastoral landscapes, punctuated by the spires of humble wooden churches that the list describes as “outstanding examples of the successful fusion of European and indigenous cultural traditions to produce a unique form of wooden architecture.” Built under Jesuit and Franciscan influence, the churches are distinguished by their steeples, porticos, and rich interior ornamentation. The 14 structures included on the list are located in the towns of Achao, Quinchao, Castro, Rilán, Nercón, Aldachildo, Ichuac, Detif, Vilipulli, Chonchi, Tenaún, Colo, San Juan, and Dalcahue.

Historic Quarter of Valparaíso (2003): A kaleidoscopic array of brightly painted houses ascend the hills of Chile’s cultural capital and most famous seaport. Known as the “Pearl of the Pacific,” Valparaíso is probably the best loved of Chile’s urban centers, both for its picturesque streetscapes and its vibrant port culture, rich with musicians and artists, restaurants and bars. In addition to its unique architectural heritage, the heritage list cites Valparaíso as “an exceptional testimony to the early phase of globalization in the late 19th century, when it became the leading merchant port on the sea routes of the Pacific coast of South America.”

Humberstone and Santa Laura Saltpeter Works (2005): These two abandoned saltpeter works near the northern city of Iquique used to be part of a network of mines that by 1913 were responsible for 80 percent of Chile’s total exports. Saltpeter, or sodium nitrate, used in gunpowder and fertilizers, was such a lucrative commodity in the mid-19th century that it sparked war between Chile and Bolivia.

Now abandoned, the towns of Humberston and Santa Laura were founded in 1862 and 1872 respectively. At the height of its productivity, Humberstone reached a population of over 3,500 people, while smaller Santa Laura never exceeded 500 residents. The industry was decimated by World War I and by 1959 both saltpeter works had been closed.

According to the World Heritage list, “The saltpeter mines and their associated company towns developed into an extensive and very distinct urban community with its own language, organization, customs, and creative expressions, as well as displaying technical entrepreneurship.” Of the five World Heritage sites in Chile, the saltpeter works are the only ones listed on the World Heritage in Danger list due to a recent earthquake in the region that caused structural damage to the buildings.

Sewell Mining Town (2006): Built originally in 1905 and largely abandoned during the 1970s, Sewell once provided housing and facilities for as many as 15,000 inhabitants involved in the operation of El Teniente, the world’s largest underground copper mine. About 6,500 ft (2,000 m) up in the Andes east of the city of Rancagua, Sewell rises steeply along a central staircase, with brightly painted timber houses arranged around irregular squares.

Developed by the North American Braden Copper Company, Sewell serves, UNESCO says, as “an outstanding example of the company towns that were born in many remote parts of the world from the fusion of local labor and resources from an industrialized nation.” Though today the town is uninhabited, the El Teniente mine remains active and produces fully 3 percent of the world’s copper. Visitors can only visit Sewell on organized trips. Visit the site’s official website for more information.