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.
Although a little rough around the edges, the downtown Barrio Puerto (Port District) still has some architectural gems from the city’s heyday. Highlights include the former Banco de Londres building (now home to a branch of Santander bank), an elegant structure filled with bronze and marble-work imported from the UK, and the stately Turri clock tower, which stands opposite the bank.
Some of the city’s most atmospheric bars and restaurants are also found here. In El Bar Inglés, which dates back to the early 1900s and is tucked away behind a forbidding exterior, you can scan the shipping listings on the walls and – if you’re feeling confident or suitably lubricated – take on the local sea dogs at a game of dominos. A short walk away, the El Cinzano bar is rather more lively in the evening, especially when the aging crooners take to the stage. If you need something to soak up the alcohol, J. Cruz Malbrán – more a museum than a restaurant, and decorated with a clutter of kitsch trinkets – is the birthplace of the chorrillana, a vast, life-shortening combination of steak strips, onions, eggs and French fries.
Echoes of Valpo’s former prosperity are perhaps loudest on neighbouring Cerro Alegre and Cerro Concepción, a short ascensor journey from the downtown districts. These residential areas are warrens of precipitous cobbled streets and narrow alleyways, crumbling townhouses – some now home to charming little hotels and inventive restaurants – and whitewashed churches. Many of the street names – such as Templeman, Atkinson and Leighton – reflect the area’s former British residents, as do the neatly tended gardens, while the half-timbered, shuttered houses show a distinct Germanic influence.
A looping walk round to Cerro Bellavista takes you to La Sebastiana, former home of Neruda, who described it as his “casa en el aire” (“house in the air”). Ransacked by the military following the 1973 Pinochet coup – Neruda was a prominent supporter of the deposed president, Salvador Allende – the house has been painstakingly restored. It contains a treasure trove of the poet’s possessions, which include everything from a wooden merry-go-round horse to an embalmed Coro-Coro bird from Venezuela.
At the top of La Sebastiana, Neruda fitted a telescope and encouraged guests to look across to the roof of a particular house where he claimed a woman would often sunbathe naked. No one else ever saw her, but – almost 40 years after Neruda’s death – visitors still come to take a look. Even if you don’t catch a glimpse of her, the panoramic views of Valparaíso are reward enough.