“Valparaíso es un montón, un racimo de casas locas.” (Valparaíso is a heap, a bunch of crazy houses.)
– Pablo Neruda
Spread over an amphitheatre of hills encircling a wide bay, Valparaíso is the most intriguing and distinctive city in Chile. Its most striking feature is the array of houses – a mad, colourful tangle of them tumbling down the hills to a narrow shelf of land below. Few roads make it up these gradients and most people get up and down on the city’s ascensores (lifts), ancient-looking funiculars that slowly haul you up to incredible viewpoints.
The eastern end of town near the bus station is of limited interest; instead head west to the old town which stretches along a narrow strip of land between Plaza Victoria and Plaza Wheelwright (also known as Plaza Aduana), at the city’s historic core. The port district, with its British-style banks, atmospheric bars and old-fashioned shops, is the most idiosyncratic part of the city and should not be missed. Unfortunately you’ll also have to contend with a certain amount of noise, general shabbiness and crime. However, just go up two or three ascensores, check out the enchanting cerros Alegre and Concepción, and sample the views by night, when the city’s flickering lights are reflected in the ocean – and you’re sure to fall under Valparaíso’s spell.
The bay was chosen as the site of the new colony’s port as early as 1542, when Pedro de Valdivia decided it would “serve the trade of these lands and of Santiago”. Growth was slow, however, owing to trading restrictions, but when Latin American trade was liberalized in the 1820s, after independence, Valparaíso started to come into its own. On the shipping route from Europe to America’s Pacific Coast, it became the main port of call and resupply centre for ships after they crossed the Straits of Magellan. As Chile’s own foreign trade expanded with the silver and copper booms of the 1830s, the port became ever more active, but it was the government’s innovative creation of public warehouses where merchants could store goods at low prices that really launched Valparaíso into its economic ascent.
Progress and setbacks
Foreign businessmen, particularly British ones, flocked to the city where they ran trading empires built on copper, silver and nitrate. By the late nineteenth century they had turned Valparaíso into Chile’s foremost financial and commercial centre. Even as it prospered, however, Valparaíso continued to be dogged by the kind of violent setbacks that had always punctuated its history, from looting pirates and buccaneers to earthquakes and fires. On March 31, 1866, following Chile’s entanglement in a dispute between Spain and Peru, the Spanish admiralty bombarded Valparaíso, wreaking devastation. It took a long time to rebuild the city, but worse was to come. On August 16, 1906, a colossal earthquake practically razed the city to the ground, killing over two thousand people. The disaster took a heavy toll on Valparaíso’s fortunes, which never really recovered. Eight years later, the opening of the Panama Canal signalled the city’s inexorable decline.
Today, Valparaíso wears a rundown, moth-eaten air. Crime and poverty are worse than elsewhere in Chile, the sex trade is still rampant, and at night parts of the town are dangerous. That said, it’s still a vital working port, moving thousands of containers annually, and has been the seat of Congress since the return to democracy in 1990. The port underwent a mini-economic boom in the early years of the new millennium, though the city’s inhabitants, known as Porteños, do not seem to have benefited enormously. As the capital of Region V, it also has its share of galleries and museums, but the city’s chief attractions lie in its crumbling, romantic atmosphere and stunning setting.