Just off the southwest corner of the Plaza de Armas is the beautifully restored 1807 Real Casa de la Aduana (the old royal customs house), which now houses the Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino. Unquestionably Chile’s best museum, it is unfortunately currently closed for major renovations and is not due to reopen until 2013.

The museum’s collection spans a period of about ten thousand years and covers regions from present-day Mexico down to southern Chile, brilliantly illustrating the artistic wealth and diversity of Latin America’s many cultures. The items were selected primarily on the basis of their artistic merit, rather than on their scientific or anthropological significance.

The museum’s rooms take you on a north-to-south geographical tour of different areas of Latin America, starting with Mesoamérica, corresponding to present-day Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and parts of Nicaragua; moving on to the Area Intermedia, covering what is now Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica and Nicaragua; followed by the Andes Centrales, or central Andean region (today’s Peru and western Bolivia); and ending in the Andes del Sur (Chile and parts of Argentina).

Area Mesoamérica

The first section of the museum has one of the most startling pieces in the collection: a statue of Xipé-Totec, the god of spring, represented as a man covered in the skin of a monkey, exposing both male and female genitalia. At the time of the Spanish conquest, the cult of Xipé-Totec was widespread throughout most of Mesoamérica, and was celebrated in a bizarre ritual in which a young man would cover himself with the skin of a sacrificial victim and wear it until it rotted off, revealing his young, fresh skin and symbolizing the growth of new vegetation from the earth.

Another eye-catching object, further up the room on the left, is the elaborately ornamented incense burner, used by the Teotihuacán culture (300–600 AD) to pray for rain and good harvests. The face carved in the middle represents a rain god, and when the incense was burning, the smoke would escape from his eyes. Standing at the far end of the room, by the exit, a huge slab of stone features bas-relief carvings depict a hulking, armed warrior with two small figures at his feet. It originally formed part of an immense Maya structure, built between 600 and 900 AD.

Area Intermedia

In this region the continent’s oldest pottery was produced, along with some exquisite goldwork. Pottery made its first appearance in the Americas around 3000 BC on the coast of Ecuador, where it was created by the Valdivia culture. Among the museum’s best examples of Valdivia pottery is the gorgeous little female figurine with a round belly and childlike face, thought to have been used for fertility rites carried out at harvest time. Note also the wonderful coca-leaf-chewing figures known as coqueros, carved with a telltale lump in their mouth by the Capulí culture (500 BC to 500 AD). As well as pottery, this sala contains beautiful gold objects, such as the miniature, finely worked carvings produced by the Veraguas and Diquis cultures (700–1550 AD) featuring images of frightening monsters and open-jawed, long-fanged felines.

Area Andes Centrales

The next room is distinguished by its masks and copper figurines, many of which were retrieved from ancient graves. Among the collection are examples of the highly expressive work of the Moche culture (100 BC to 800 AD), including copper figurines and masks, now a lustrous jade-green colour, and a series of polished ceremonial pots decorated with images of animals, faces and houses. The room also features some noteworthy textiles. Hanging by the door as you go in is a fragment of painted cloth depicting three human figures with fanged jaws – this is the oldest textile in the museum, produced by the Chavín culture almost three thousand years ago, and still in astonishingly good condition.

Area Andes del Sur

Among the most striking pieces on display in the final room are the huge ceramic urns of the Aguada culture (600–900 AD), painted with bold geometric designs incorporating fantastic, often feline, images. Look out too for the wooden and stone snuff trays, carved by the San Pedro people of northern Chile between 300 and 1000 AD, and used with small tubes to inhale hallucinogenic substances. The curious thing on the wall that looks like a grass skirt is a relic from the Inca, who made it all the way down to central Chile during their expansion in the fifteenth century. Known as a quipú, it consists of many strands of wool attached to a single cord, and was used to keep various records by means of a complex system of knots tied in the strands.

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