Valparaiso

This UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the most beautifully situated, most rundown cities I have ever seen. Located around a gorgeous crescent-shaped harbor with homes clinging to steep hills, Valparaiso thrived from the time of the 1849 California Gold Rush, when ships that had rounded Cape Horn re-provisioned in its lovely hardbor, until the Panama Canal rendered it obsolete. It began a slow decline that was not helped by an earthquake in 1904 and subequent tremblors.

Houses — ornate, ramshackle or both (above right) — cling to hillsides. One of them belonged to Chile’s Nobel Prize-winning poet, Pablo Neruda, and is now a museum filled with his personal objects. He wrote in a tower room with large windows taking in a commanding view. Today, the city looks better from afar than close-up. Cobblestone streets, broken sidewalks and steep slopes are filled with brilliant wildflowers, dog droppings and litter. One major road contours over the hills, with many small streets, alleyways and staircases. Too many walls are graffitied. Locals don’t seem to notice or care. Fifteen funiculars, called elevadors, make it easier and more direct for people to move from the seaside port level to the neighborhoods above. The tariff is 100 pesos — roughly 20 cents.

Elaborate public buildings, including the national parliament and the Chilean version of the Pentagon, are located in Valparaiso. So is the military memorial, like an unknown soldier’s tomb with an eternal flame. Souvenir vendors set up stalls anywhere of possible touristic interest. A small, crowded covered food market displays beautiful produce and other products near the center of town. On Sundays, like today, a flea market occupies the median of one of the main streets. Used clothing, cheap shoes, a lot of this and that is laid out on blankets or rugs. There are a few canopies for shade, but no stalls. A couple of Chileans told me that Valparaiso really rocks at night, but by day, alas, it’s still the warts that show.

It is a city with a past and hopefully a future. With UNESCO loans, the city is undergrounding the rat’s nests of overhead wires. Light rail now runs along the waterfront linking the cargo port to the cruise port and even the nearby high-rise resort of Vino del Mar. Maybe the sidewalks will be fixed. Maybe the litter will be picked up. Maybe more of the houses will be restored and repainted. Valaparaiso is something of a cross between San Francisco and Hooverville — still too much of the latter and too little of the former.

Valparaiso is an easy day trip from Santiago, by frequent public bus for about $6 or with one of the tour operators that not only provides transportation to the city by the sea but also up to the hillside neighborhoods.

2 thoughts on “Valparaiso”

  1. Evidently, just as “Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder”, ugliness is also. I was Valparaiso a couple of weeks ago and saw what you described, but it was not that much different than San Francisco, Chicago or New York. I will admit that dogs are more plentiful there as are there droppings.

  2. I think we pretty much agree on Valparaiso, comparing it — at its best — to San Francisco. But crumbling buildings, some in a steady state of decline since an early 20th-century earthquake, litter, dog droppings and badly broken, IMHO, mar this beauty.Neither San Francisco nor New York nor Chicago has been declared a World Heritage site, and the most decaying sections of these cities are not considered tourist attractions. I am hopeful that UNESCO investment, as well as the potential of increased traffic while the Panama Canal is being rebuilt, will help the city overcome its problems and prosper again.

Comments are closed.