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Valparaiso’s Decline Leaves Unesco World Heritage Site Graffitied, Crumbling

Anti-government protests that exploded in late 2019 hit the Chilean city hard, leaving some stores still boarded up three years later

The sense of decline in Echaurren Plaza, near the heart of the World Heritage site in Valparaiso, Chile, is palpable. 

On a typical Sunday afternoon, the Emporio Echaurren cafe has pulled down its metal blinds to avoid attempted robberies. Around the corner from the burned out shell of the Subercaseaux palace, buildings stand abandoned, with their roofs caved in and squatters occupying the ground floors. 

“It’s enough to make you cry,” said Cecilia Jimenez, an architect who helped with the bid to become a World Heritage Site in 2003. “There was an enormous energy back then, but that has died.”

Known for its late-19th century urban architecture and the network of wooden and metal funicular elevators that traverse its multiple hillsides, dotted with church spires, Valparaiso was also Chile’s original financial center. The naming of parts of the city as a World Heritage Site was meant to protect its grandiose facades from further deterioration, almost 100 years after the opening of the Panama canal diverted trade from what had been a major shipping hub.

While the designation doesn’t automatically open access to more financing for renovation of a site, it provided publicity for the area, initially attracting tourism and government incentives.

In Valparaiso, subsidies came from the state economic development agency Corfo and from the Housing Ministry. A loan from the Inter-American Development Bank also led to investment, with boutique hotels and stylish restaurants opening up across the Alegre and Concepcion hills.

But the renewal barely reached the port and commercial areas and is now in retreat, with many of the city’s classic buildings beyond repair.

“The big difference is crime — the insecurity that we have now,” said Gonzalo Vargas, co-owner of Vitamin, a downtown diner near Plaza Victoria, just to the east of the World Heritage Site. “Once the sun goes down, you have to close.” 

For the thousands of tourists visiting the city every month, Valparaiso can seem to have a split personality.

Cerro Alegre, or Happy Hill in English, is a beautiful collection of pastel-shaded, corrugated-iron buildings with stunning views over the bay. The area is relatively safe, clean and bustling with life seven days a week, having bounced back from the blow dealt to the tourist industry by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Source : bloomberg