Despite its reputation, Valparaiso is one of the most charming cities we have come across, ever, with its ascensores and its corrugated iron houses, its colours and its atmosphere.
Valparaiso is filthy. It looks abandoned, much of it poorly maintained. And it stinks. Pee. Almost everywhere. Everybody must just pee in the open, although somehow we don’t see it happening. But we do smell the result. And I suppose with so little rain it just doesn’t wash away.
Valparaiso is also infuriating. Maps are, by definition, two-dimensional, and the ones we have are not very good, in any case. But really, you need a three-dimensional model to find your way, because except for a narrow coastal strip, Valpo, as the town is known, is built against a steep slope. Looking for the cemetery we don’t realize that we are in fact walking along it, but that it is a hundred meters higher. Crossing from one street to the next may well involve a hair-rising ascent via very steep stairways, leaving us breathless at the end. The good thing is that the locals have realized this long time ago, and have installed a series of near-
vertical funiculars – ‘ascensores’ – to assist in the movement between the lower and upper parts of town.
But above all Valparaiso is one of the most charming towns I have ever come across. Never mind the stink, never mind the many wrong turns, walking through the winding streets of the mostly residential neighbourhoods of Cerro Alegre and Cerro Constitution, every turn is rewarded with the view of another colourful house, another tiny wooden balcony, or another enchanting little ally, or indeed, steep stairway. Many houses have walls of corrugated iron, but rather then looking cheap and abandoned, they have been decorated with the graffiti for which Valparaiso is famous. Sure, some is of the destructive form, aimless single colour spray paint, that we saw so much in Santiago, and in many Argentine cities. But most of it is amazing art work, brightly coloured abstract designs or figurative paintings, faces, animals, under-water scenes, a wide variety. Obviously, one can debate about the artistic quality, and not everything is equally attractive, but that is not the point. This town is painted. And is still being painted – we meet a girl who asks us to take her picture, next to the work she apparently completed yesterday.
The history of Valparaiso is closely connected with the port. For hundreds of years, during the time of the Spanish colonisation, and afterwards, it was the first port that ships from Europe called at after having entered the Pacific through the Strait of Magellan, rounding the south end of the continent. Lively trade attracted, amongst others, lots of British interest and investment, and Valparaiso was a rich city. In 1902 the ascensores were installed, and they were of good enough quality to survive until today, some fifteen of them at strategic locations, especially steep cliffs, connecting the merchant’s residences with the trade houses and the banks down near the waterfront. But in 1906 a massive earthquake destroyed much of the town, and although reconstruction was taken up immediately, the faith of the city was overtaken by history: the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914 abruptly put an end to Valparaiso’s importance as a port. The decline was brutal; nowadays it is one of the most criminal, unsafe cities in Chile.
But with a charming residential centre. Often we are reminded of the gingerbread houses in Haiti, wooden structures with galleries and balconies, and wooden shutters. Others have the walls covered with corrugated iron; apparently, corrugated iron was carried as ballast by the the ships that came from Europe to collect the mining products. Being offloaded worthless, people realised that these sheets could be used to cheaply protect the wood and adobe structure of which the houses were made, from the occasional rain. Which explains why so many houses are covered with rusted corrugated iron. Which is quite ugly, thus people started to paint them – or so I speculate. Which is why Valparaiso has so much graffiti, real nice works of art, along its streets.
There are lots of places of interest, all pretty close together. A number of ‘paseos’, pedestrian-only walking paths reached by the ‘ascensores’, provide wonderful views over the bay, the city and the distant densely-built hills. The cemetery, to which I am always attracted, comes in three sectors, of which one, Cementerio Disidentes, is especially meant for immigrants, many of whom were Protestants. The tombs date from long ago, and indeed support many German and British names. Another favourite is the market, the Mercado Cardonal, inside, as well as outside, a large adobe-and-metal market building, selling fresh products. Everybody is mightily concerned about our safety, and especially my camera, yet, there is a pretty relaxed atmosphere, and I never feel unsafe. Stall holders are happy to chat, make us taste the most delicious melon, or insist on being photographed with their wares. Even the city’s drunks want their picture taken.
At the other end of town, after a short ride in the Valpo-characteristic ancient trolleybus, is the port, still very active, with lots of colourful containers being loaded onto large ships. Quite a few smaller boats are moored near-shore, equipped to take big groups of tourists around; yet, despite it being high season, only one seems to be in action, and even on the busy Sunday afternoon, it is not full. Seems a case of severe overcapacity. Which cannot be said of the ‘ascensores’, for which often long queues form. However spacious the old wooden cabins, their capacity seems to be limited to eight, or sometimes twelve, people. But better to wait in line, then to have to slug up the steep slopes. Or is it because we just enjoy the fun of being in this old contraption, slowly hauled up the mountain. Fabulous, can’t get enough of it!
next is beach resort Vina del Mar