In a tour of the city’s cultural and architectural legacies, Shafik Meghji discovers that it’s not just the steep hills and ancient elevators that rise and fall in Valparaíso, Chile.
In the mid nineteenth century Valparaíso lived up to its nickname of “The Jewel of the Pacific”. It was one of the world’s most important ports, thanks to its key position on the shipping route from Europe to the west coast of the US, midway up Chile on the Pacific coast. The city also benefitted from Chile’s booming silver and copper trade, the government’s decision to create public warehouses where merchants could store their goods, and later the California gold rush. British, French, German, Italian and Swiss businessmen flocked to Valparaíso, extravagant mansions and public buildings were built, and the local economy flourished.
However, at the start of the twentieth century the good times came to an end. On 16 August 1906 a powerful earthquake almost razed the city to the ground, killing over 2000 people. Then, eight years later – almost to the day – the situation became terminal. On 15 August 1914, 17 days after the outbreak of World War I, the Panama Canal opened, rerouting international shipping traffic and swiftly deflating Valparaíso’s once buoyant economy. Since then Nobel Prize-winning poet, and one-time resident, Pablo Neruda’s description of the city has been rather more accurate than its old nickname: “Valparaíso is a heap, a bunch of crazy houses.”
Today the local economy remains in the doldrums, and crime and poverty rates are high for Chile. But despite these disadvantages this “heap” remains one of the most beguiling cities in South America. Home to innumerable artists, musicians and writers, it has a vibrant, bohemian cultural life – the former prison, to take just one example, has been turned into a cultural centre. Valpo (as it is known locally) also has an unparalleled setting: colourful houses cling precariously to a series of undulating cerros (hills) circling a wide bay. These steep hills, many of them covered by cobbled streets, are linked to the narrow port area below by a series of wheezing ascensores (funicular lifts), built during the city’s golden era.