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UNESCO World Heritage city in Chile looks to reverse steep decline

By Iñaki Martinez Azpiroz

Valparaiso, Chile, Jun 30 (EFE).- Twenty years after its historic quarter was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, this Chilean seaport city and former bohemian hotbed is suffering from economic decline and neglect and looking for ways to revive its sagging fortunes.

In Plaza Echaurren, located in that quarter and the traditional heart of the city, the buildings are reminiscent of those in European capitals in terms of their architecture, but dirt now stains their facades and little or no human activity can be observed.

“Valparaiso is very pretty, but it’s been abandoned. This is a dangerous sector (of the city). There’s a lot of crime,” said Yasmin Fierro, the manager of a 126-year-old bar in one corner of the square.

Hats gifted by visitors from all over the world hang from the ceiling, a characteristic feature of the establishment.

But drops of water now occasionally leak from that ceiling as well, she said, explaining that the building is largely in disuse and rainwater seeps down after entering through open windows on the third floor.

Valparaiso’s history is closely linked to its port, Baldomero Estrada, a historian at the Pontifical Catholic University of Valparaiso, told Efe.

The city grew and developed in tandem with expanded trade with Europe at the end of the 19th century, but it later fell into decline starting in the mid-20th century as that activity decreased.

“Valparaiso lost its central role in Chile. A neighboring city appeared, Viña del Mar, which is growing a lot and attracting tourism, and industry went to Santiago,” he said.

According to official figures, the population of the Chilean capital and the resort city of Viña del Mar increased by 400 percent and 278 percent, respectively, between 1952 and 2017. By contrast, Valparaiso’s population grew by only 34 percent over that same period.


Cerro Alegre (Alegre Hill), a neighborhood near the city center, is filled with colorful houses and is an oasis of tourism and hotels. Even so, the government has come under criticism for a lack of planning in that zone, which has experienced a loss of traditional stores and a sharp hike in rents.

“Nothing is done (to protect the city’s) heritage. The only (preservation efforts) have been carried out by the businesses and people who live here,” said Vanesa Dominguez, co-owner of a cafeteria located in one of the most scenic spots on Cerro Alegre.

The president of the College of Architects of Chile’s Valparaiso branch, Carolina Peñaloza Pinto, who was involved in the UNESCO World Heritage Site application process, said governments at different levels have not had a clear road map nor joined forces to improve the city.

“Determined actions are needed now by the government in all parts of the city, not only in the (historic quarter), to create infrastructure and mobilize the economy. Publicly funded projects could create synergies so the private sector joins in the recovery (effort),” Peñaloza said.


The Valparaiso municipality’s focus now is on the seaport, which is Chile’s second busiest and the city’s economic engine. Although it occupies much of the municipality’s coastal strip, it presently pays no local taxes.

“Since the port and the city became separated, the port continued to grow and the city entered into an underdevelopment curve that the UNESCO declaration did not reverse,” Mayor Jorge Sharp said.

The municipality now wants a tax levied on cargo, estimating that some 15 billion Chilean pesos ($18.7 million) in annual revenue could be raised in that way.

“But the responsibility also lies with the state. There’s a lack of permanent financing for (urban) heritage. If the central government doesn’t provide resources as a line item in each year’s budget, the municipality alone can’t push through a development strategy,” the mayor said.

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