Today’s short tour took us through the twinned cities of Coquimbo (“peaceful water”) and La Serena (the “peaceful” city), two cities of about 250,000 people each.
Coquimbo is largely a fishing port – to which the smell attests! The port itself, and the huge fish market, were completely destroyed by the earthquake and ensuing tsunami in 2015, and rebuilding has been slow, like everything related to infrastructure in Chile. Sitting on the deck of a cruise ship, watching the fishing boats, and the brown pelicans gliding just above the water’s surface and doing some “fishing” of their own, it would be easy to ignore the local issues. Fortunately, two of the things Viking does really well is support tourism in developing areas, and hire local tour guides who are able and willing to share true political and economic perspectives. We’re learning a lot about history, culture, and politics, and taking away new perspectives. One of our fellow Canadian travellers said, “I’ll never complain about things at home again”, but for me the lesson has been that we SHOULD complain when there is injustice or inequality.
There are a couple of notable tourist sites in Coquimbo, and both have religious significance. First is the Third Millenium Cross, high atop El Vigia hill. This cross, completed in 2000, is now the highest monument in South America, surpassing Rio de Janiero’s Christ the Redeemer Statue. Second is the Centro Cultural Mohamed VI, “The Mosque”, built by a Moroccan king as a gift to Chile. It acts as a place of worship for the 35 (yes, that’s really all) Muslim families who live here, but mostly as a museum and cultural centre. Also notable is the rail line down the coast, carrying iron and molybdenum from the area’s mines to the port, to be made into high-moly steel and shipped to China for the manufacture of cars, which are then imported for sale back to the Chileans. One of the issues facing Chile’s economy is that it is almost wholly resource based, with very little manufacturing.
Travelling inland from the port to Las Serena, the streets, housing and shops (there is even a huge indoor mall) speak to a better economy and a focus on tourism. The city was the birthplace of early 1950’s President Gabriel Gonzales Videla, and he poured money into his hometown during his presidency, creating a planned cityscape and reviving/mandating a neo-classical style for all the buildings. As a result, the architecture is lovely, and the colours harmonious. There are beautiful municipal buildings, museums, churches and parks. Unfortunately, as is the case in most larger cities right now, anti-government graffiti is everywhere… as is an increased police presence. The police are clearly aware of what people internationally are hearing and reading about them right now – as we passed, they wanted to shake hands and wish us a good day.
It’s a shame, but it is easy to understand Chileans’ frustration when you hear about the huge wealth inequality, decent quality healthcare and education only available to the rich, and a national pension fund that has been plundered to the point that people are receiving only 20% of what the plan should have been able to pay out. At the same time as we are marvelling at the sights, our eyes are also being opened in other ways.
While most of our tour group was in La Recova Market (bottom centre in the collage above), we took quick respite inside San Agustin Church, where noon mass was just finishing. The church is not huge, but was still imposing with its stone walls and high ceiling. I was particularly taken with the stained glass windows – so simple and powerful, and very different from the intricate Gothic windows we have seen in Germany and Austria. The Spanish style painted stone icons were also very different from the marble and gold-leaf enhanced statues we’ve seen elsewhere. The original construction dates to 1672, but it has been partially reconstructed several times: after earthquakes in 1798, 1847, 1903 and 1975, and even early on after being attacked by pirates! It’s an interesting world down here.