Iglesia de San Francisco – Valparaiso, Chile - Atlas Obscura

Valparaiso, Chile

Iglesia de San Francisco

This iconic hilltop church doubled as a lighthouse in the 19th century, guiding ships into the port of Valparaíso. 

The Iglesia de San Francisco (San Francisco Church) sits atop Cerro Barón, making it one of the most visible landmarks in Valparaíso. Completed in 1846, the Catholic church served a secondary function as a lighthouse, guiding ships towards the port. In more recent years it has suffered a series of devastating fires, but stubbornly refuses to be burned entirely to the ground.

Built by the local Franciscan community, the church and its prominent steeple made an immediate impact on the skyline of the city, which at the time was developing into a major seaport. Ships rounding South America via the Straits of Magellan and Cape Horn often docked at Valparaíso, which received a steady influx of European immigrants, mainly from Britain, Germany, France, Switzerland, and Italy.

The church, therefore, became an important point of reference for those at sea, the light in its tower helping ships navigate to the port. It was typically the first thing these ships would see, and sailors lovingly referred to the church as “Pancho,” the diminutive for “Francisco.” Pancho, in turn, became one of the nicknames for the city, and remains in use today.

Apart from some remodeling in 1890, the church sat in relative tranquility for almost a century. Then, in 1983 (the same year it was declared a National Monument of Chile), the church began to attract a most unwelcome visitor: fire.

The first fire struck in February 1983, and it took a few years to complete the reconstruction. Then, in September 2010, and while the church was still being repaired following an earthquake earlier that year, another fire threatened to reduce the Iglesia de San Francisco to ashes. The fire started in the church’s attic, possibly from some welding sparks, and damaged most of the roof. The reconstruction effort cost about $4 million.

Just three years later, a third fire set the church ablaze. It began next door at the Institute of Mathematics of the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaíso, and leapt its way to the church. The damage was extensive, almost to the point of a possible complete collapse of the structure, and reconstruction efforts are still underway. But despite all this, the admirably resilient Iglesia de San Francisco still stands, its tower a historic marker in the old port city.