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A Rambler in Valparaiso, Chile


When I visit a city, I'm always thinking about what I will want to say about it, to friends, or in writing. How will I explain what I think I've seen, how will I try to understand more of the city? And what usually happens, after the obvious pieces about particular sights, is a rambling round-up through the city.


Valparaiso doesn't make that easy. It's a good-size city, at about 250,000 people, but it never seems that large. It stretches for quite a way along the bay that made it the premier Pacific port of the 19th century, but its heart is focused on a fairly small stretch of downtown, with most of the population strung across the 45 hills that surround the port.


So, much of our time was spent either in the flat area around the port—called "El Plan" or 'the plain'—or in the hills immediately behind it, most of them reached by a collection of aging funiculars, and all of them by winding pathways among houses perched at unlikely angles on the hillside. Often the front and rear entrances of houses are two floors apart.

DSCN364520161213_11545420161207_150047Near the top of the Artilleria 'ascensor' (top) is the Yellow House, our B&B home in Valparaiso, and a view from our window.


Plaza Sotomayor, directly opposite the entrance to the port, is the official center of the city, surrounded by some of its important government and commercial buildings, including the Chilean Navy headquarters with its port-holed roof, and the Hotel Reina Victoria, built in 1902 for a mainly British clientele. You'll note how narrow it is; the floors are one room deep, with a corridor running along the back wall.


The building behind it is a former bank building whose facade was preserved when new offices were built for Hapag-Lloyd, the German-Chilean shipping company that's the biggest operator in Valparaiso's container port. Another hint of Valparaiso's German connection can be seen in the German word for Fire Department on the (ironically French) firetruck. In pre-WW I days, the city's national groups each organized a volunteer fire department in mostly friendly rivalry, and the tradition continues on several firehouses.


Valparaiso's greatest days as a port were in the 19th century, when it handled most of the cargo between Europe and the Pacific coast of South America and also handled a large volume of trade heading north to San Francisco. In a double-blow in 1914, the Panama Canal made the long trip around Cape Horn unnecessary, cutting Valpo (as locals call it) off the route, and the war itself cut off most of its trade with both Germany and England. The impressive rows of offices and warehouses, like the ones below, date to the years before that.


At the western end of the city, around the big container port, some of these buildings are being restored, and others await a new use. The city seems to be coming back, with the port busy (although with far few jobs than in pre-container days) and a revival of tourism and artistic and cultural attractions. In 2003, the old port quarter was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which has brought in some funding, more visitors, and even a grant to repair and re-open more of the 'ascensors,' the city's funiculars.


The ascensors play an important role in the city, despite their age and condition; the hills are steep, and going up or down on foot without them means a long and winding way. From our B&B, for instance, the one-minute ride on the ascensor saved a 15-minute walk back and forth across the hill to the bottom. Although that walk had interesting sights of its own.


The ascensor you see in the picture above is only a painting, as is the stairway next to it; the building is actually the lower station of the funicular, and the track is hidden behind the facade from this angle. Some of the ascensors have stairways as well, and often they are decorated. This one was only recently covered in these tiles. Below it, the view from the top—and from there, you can't see the tile at all.


Others are painted in vivid colors; one is painted so the steps resemble the keys of a piano, going up the hillside. Because their entrances are often tucked into buildings or have storefront facades, they're not always obvious, but helpful signs can also be fun.


The ascensors are not the only old-fashioned aspect of daily life in Valpo. To our surprise, we found that the thick tangles of wire we saw nearly everywhere are not just phone lines; the city's electric grid is carried on poles and buildings. We were told there's a 20-year plan to put the tangles underground. And we were told that it's 25 years behind schedule.


The hills also serve as neighborhoods, with their own shops, restaurants, churches and more; each has its own characeristics; Cerro Alegre and Cerro Concepcion seem more artsy, with galleries, coffee shops and small museums.


Our neighborhood on Cerro Artilleria seemed more local-focused and laid-back, but with great views of the port, as well as several nice restaurants and a fascinating museum of Chile's maritime and naval history—although with a statue and memorial for the admiral who was Pinochet's closest partner.


Besides the 8 ascensors that are running, several others are scheduled to be rebuilt, and some seem almost ready to go with not much more needed than a paint job. Below, some views across from one hill to the next.


Not all of Valparaiso's landmarks are buildings or monuments; here's a living monument who already has her own tribute...and she knows it. Her name is Osita (teddy bear) but her nickname, La Regalona, means "the pampered one"


Old and new: Satellite dishes and washing share a street scene. Below, a store run by the elderly sons of early 20th century Italian immigrants, said to be the oldest operating store in the city, and the least changed since it opened.


Scenes from above: The port and the iconic clock tower, seen from a museum window up on a hill; another view of the port and Hapag Lloyd building; and yet another venue for 'love locks.'


Of course, Valparaiso has markets. Here on a streetcorner, one of the smallest; below fish gutted and trimmed to order on the sidewalk outside the central market. We visited the Central Market with our teacher for a Chilean cooking class; more on that another day!


Near the market is the building where Chile's Congress meets; this, the Navy headquarters and a major part of the Ministry of Culture are Valparaiso's share of Chilean government; the rest is in Santiago, where most of the country's development in the past 25 years has also centered.


Among Valparaiso's means of transportation—aside from the ascensors—are many small buses, called 'micros,' group taxis called 'collectivos,' a Metro that runs along the waterfront and then to Vina del Mar. Of the lot, perhaps the most unusual is the collection of recycled trolley buses dating to the 1950s and 1960s that follow a route that links the market area in the east to the container port in the west.


At the center of the port, large ships mix with small fishing boats and tour boats that circle the bay. Along the shore there, a popular picnic and snack area.


Chile's naval hero Arturo Prat and his cohorts of the Battle of Iquique are honored by this elaborate  monument in Plaza Sotomayor, the hear of the old city. It faces the Navy building across the square.


You won't be surprised to learn that the newspaper whose headquarters are in this wedding-cake confection is El Mercurio. Below, just a lovely company logo on the face of one of the piers.



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The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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