Churches of the Altiplano

Photo in the Public Domain.

Churches of the Altiplano is part of the Tentative list of Chile in order to qualify for inclusion in the World Heritage List.

The Churches of the Altiplano are the product of the encounter between the colonial Spanish and the indigenous Tarapaca. From the late 16th century on over 50 small chapels and churches were built by missionaries in the "Andean mestizo" style. They all are simple in their design, with use of stone, adobe, wood and straw.

Map of Churches of the Altiplano

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The coordinates shown for all tentative sites were produced as a community effort. They are not official and may change on inscription.

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Malta - 29-Feb-24 -

Churches of the Altiplano (T) by Clyde

I visited the La Tirana location of this tWHS as a small detour on my way to the Saltpeter Works WHS. From a quick search online, the locations can be either small adobe-like chapels/churches or much bigger wooden churches built on former old temple remains. Getting to La Tirana is quite simple as a detour from the Atacama Desert Highway, but the potholes and unpaved roads soon seem to catapult you back in time in a sort of time machine. The industrial landscape near the saltpeter works seems far away, and the laid back pampa life kicks in.

The town lies in an oasis in the middle of the Pampa del Tamarugal, about 72 km inland from the port of Iquique (another tWHS). The town is quite notable for its religious feast in honor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, which is celebrated on the 16th of July each year, and apparently is the most important religious feast of the Norte Grande.

The area around La Tirana was deforested in the 19th century largely as a result of high demand for firewood driven by the paradas method used to process saltpeter, so for this reason I felt it was a fine complementary visit to the Saltpeter Works WHS. After checking my tyres were still inflated, I parked my rental car in front of the main square of La Tirana to see the Altiplano Church. Apparently the current church is the third temple built in the same place. The first temple was destroyed by an earthquake in 1868 while the second temple was destroyed by a fire which broke out.

The third La Tirana Altiplano church construction began with the help of miners from all over the pampas. The Pacific War interrupted the work, and it was only inaugurated in 1886. It is built on a wooden base covered with zinc sheets. The reconstruction of the temple allowed the remodeling of the town around it. In the square there are several non-Christian local bronze statues which seem to refer to the presence of religious dances in La Tirana and their leaders. It is believed that before 1879, the beginning of the Pacific War, there were dance groups of Aymara origin that celebrated the transfiguration on the 6th of August. With the presence of Chilean sovereignty, the celebration of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, patron saint of Chile, started to take place every 16th July.

The Chinese dance is believed to be one of the oldest non-Aymara brotherhoods (1901). Around 1920, a large number of new brotherhoods emerged that had their center in the town of Pozo Almonte. The oldest dances in La Tirana are the those of the Llameros or Pastoriles, which represent the domestication of the llama; the Las Cuyacas, with a majestic dance of Inca origin accompanied by native instruments; and the Los Chunchos, symbolising a jungle dance. The church of La Tirana represents the encounter between religious dances, religious leaders and clergy. 

Regardless of whether this tWHS ever gets inscribed, I hope to revisit the Atacama Desert area in Chile both for its outstanding natural and cultural qualities. I just scraped the surface with a touch-and-go visit, but it certainly found its place on my to revisit list as a worthwhile destination. Next time round, I'll try to visit other locations including the smaller adobe-like ones.

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Full Name
Churches of the Altiplano
Religious structure - Christian
1998 Added to Tentative List

The site has 10 locations

Churches of the Altiplano: Isluga (T)
Churches of the Altiplano: Achauta (T)
Churches of the Altiplano: La Tirana (T)
Churches of the Altiplano: Camiña (T)
Churches of the Altiplano: Mocha (T)
Churches of the Altiplano: Nama (T)
Churches of the Altiplano: Caraguano (T)
Churches of the Altiplano: Cariquima (T)
Churches of the Altiplano: Colchane (T)
Churches of the Altiplano: Cotasaya (T)
WHS 1997-2024