Eiffel in Peru (or is it Chile).

January 18, 2015

Arica, Chile

Before he designed the framework for the Statue of Liberty, before his famous tower and before his infamous design for the locks on the French attempt to dig a Panama Canal (for which he was arrested and jailed) Gustave Eiffel made pre-fabricated buildings.  In 1868 Arica, Peru (as it then was) was devastated by an Earthquake and Tsunami.  In 1876 Eiffel’s workshop was commissioned to build three buildings and ship them to Arica.  One was a customs house.  It’s now a cultural Center with a period amphitheater that is partially covered by a late 19th century wrought iron lattice with glass set inside.  The others two buildings were a government building and a cathedral.  Both the Customs House and the Government building have iron frames and bricks, each stamped with a number and Eiffel’s trademark to be assembled in Arica.

The Gothic Revival Church is all Iron.  Iron frames hold up the building and the walls are cast and stamped painted iron.  The walls show some rust, but the structure survived successive earthquakes and is now St. Mark’s Cathedral.  Others passengers took tours into the Andes or across the (name) desert but I wanted to see these buildings so Suzi and I fended for ourselves.  When we left the port both a port employee and a cab driver trying to talk us into taking a tour with him told us that it was Sunday and the Church was closed.  I wasn’t buying that.

The church was, indeed open.  We attended part of mass and the sound; well it’s what you might expect from sound made inside an iron shell.  We were attracted into the church by the sound of the children’s choir singing the liturgy done in folksong style, accompanied by guitars.  This choir does not have the sound of sweet voiced kids but has a harsher edge, amplified and reverberated by the steel structure.  The priest used a microphone but didn’t need to.  Suzi and I, sitting in the back pew, could clearly hear the lay readers.

Eifel designed the building so the pieces locked together and a key was needed to assemble and disassemble it.  When Chile took Arica in the War of the Pacific in 1880 the Peruvian Governor took the “church key” with him so that the Chileans could not dismantle the church and take it away.

Arica has a lot of wrought and cast iron work, not just the cathedral.  The Central Market was built after the earthquake from salvaged material from the destroyed customs house and is called “The Recova.”  It has a lot of wrought iron.

In fact the whole motif of the town seems to be wrought iron.  The lamp posts, the telephone booths and a lot of construction are made of the material, although it is largely faded and rusting.  Globes on the lamps are missing and spiral compact fluorescent bulbs sit in the sockets.  Anyone who is a fan of steam punk would like this city.  It was the rail head for Bolivian exports and one of the first German Locomotives is on display, labeled a “Vapor Engine.”  The port of Arica is in Chile but it is the main sea outlet for Bolivian products.

The War of the Pacific was fought between Peru and Bolivia on one side and Chile on the other.  Bolivia lost its whole seacoast and Peru lost Arica.  This is a war in which I have no stake but it’s fascinating to hear it told from the Peruvian side one day and two days later from the Chilean side today.  Morro de Arica is the giant Gibraltar like rock (look up height) where the Peruvians lost the battle and the city.  It has a military museum overlooked by Christ with outstretched arms as if blessing the Chilean military victory.   It also has a plaque honoring the dictator, General Pinochet, one of the few remaining in Chile.

Standing on top of the Morro we looked out along Arica’s container port, the main outlet for Bolivia, and it’s nice swimming and surfing beaches.  I had planned to swim, but even though Arica is in the tropics and it is high summer, the cold Humboldt Current kept the temperatures in the high 60s or low 70s and I was more interested in other things.  From the Morro you also get a good view inland at the absolute desolate mountains.   We are still in the Atacama Desert that runs down from Peru.  It is one of the driest places on earth.  There is less than one inch of rainfall a year.  Some buildings have gaps in their roofs and no one seems to care.  In most main markets the space is covered.  In Arica there are slats in the roof to shade from sun but they wouldn’t protect from rain.  It just doesn’t rain, but it can be cloudy, as it was most of the day we were there, and humid.  The hot dry desert meets the cold Humboldt Current.  It produces clouds but no rain.  It is a strange climate.

As I mentioned, the town is run down but is still pleasant enough.  On Sunday morning we found a crowd gathered outside Johnson’s Department Store, which did not open until 11:30.  But it turns its free wi-fi on early and a crowd of locals gathered with laptops, smart phones and tablets, soon joined by Prinsendam’s crew and passengers.  By the time the store opened it has a large gathering.  I stopped to watch this Sunday meeting and, of course, pulled out my iPhone, checked mail and downloaded updates for apps that I do not want to download when I am paying for internet on the ship.  The sidewalk cafes with free internet attracted a lot of ship crew and passengers.  Word spread quickly.  There’s a lesson here, Lincoln Street.

Arica gets 7 cruise ships a year and has put a lot of effort into welcoming our ship.  The tourist office set up a tent at the gangway with brochures in English with a self-guided walking tour.  It is well written in that each stop on the tour was accompanied, not by facts, but by some story an anecdote, to make it come alive.  Like the Recova is on land owned by the Franciscans because the owner of the property came home one day to find his wife making love to a sailor and he gave the property to the church because he could not bear to own the property where he was betrayed or the house that was turned into an informal maritime museum by its eccentric owner.   One of the stops on the walking tour is the “Hippie Fair” or Thompson Street.  It is a place where people from the mountains come down to sell handicrafts and the hippie backpackers and surfers buy there.  There were no vendors on this Sunday although there were several tents set up in the main plaza selling handicrafts at above hippie prices.

The city gave us a nice send off.  Half an hour before “all aboard” they set up a tent on the dock to shade a band and four different folk dance groups performed.  Longshoremen in hard hats and day glow vests stopped work to watch although some work continued.  Trucks backing up made that annoying back up beep which was not in rhythm with the dancers.  The dancers performed until we started moving and waved us off as we sailed away.


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