“Valparaiso, how absurd you are...you haven’t combed your hair, you’ve never had time to get dressed, life has always surprised you.” ~ Pablo Neruda
We were so wrong.
We thought our time spent in the Chilean capital of Santiago would prepare us for the smaller coastal city of Valparaiso. After all, like Valparaiso, Santiago contains many stray dogs, is filled with colourful murals and random buildings tucked into odd places. Yet as much as we’d loved Santiago, none of it came close to the gritty glory of Valparaiso.
Only 120 kilometres northwest of Santiago, Valparaiso was once an important supply, banking and commercial center. By the middle of the 19th century, maritime traffic coming around the tip of South America expanded to include the goldseekers of California and British Columbia. European immigrants flooded into the city adding their churches, gardens and businesses. Thirty funiculars were built to move citizens up and down the steep hills and the natural amphitheatre surrounding the harbour rapidly filled with housing and streets.
In 1906, an earthquake trashed the city. Rebuilding was frantic and fast. But the real death knell for the city came with the 1914 construction of the Panama Canal. Although this made Valparaiso redundant, it is also the reason so much of the city has been well-preserved, resulting in a UNESCO heritage designation in 2003.
Some sources claim Valparaiso is comprised of 46 hills, others say 42. Whatever the exact count, today’s U-shaped city rises above the port with barely navigable twisting streets that hairpin across hillsides. Homes cantilever over ravines and houses stack on each other in ways that should be architecturally impossible...and yet, there they are. There are only 16 funiculars left, not all of them operational, as restorations continue.
Our first morning in Valparaiso, we stumbled down steeply-cobbled streets to find the meeting place for a Free Tour. The Free Tour company charges no fees, relying solely on tips for their guides. A proud and passionate local, our guide Danni Bolloni, was vocal not only about the potential for his city, but also about its problems.
One of the big issues is the dogs. The latest estimates suggest 12,000 stray dogs in a city of 300,000 people. There are ongoing programs to provide medical help as well as neutering plans. Naturally, not all dogs are fixed and the problems continue. Dogs are held in great reverence and harming one can result in jail time.
Mix all those roaming dogs with more murals and street art than you can ever photograph. Add in funiculars that have been grinding up crazy-steep grades on rusty tracks since the late 1800s. Throw in potholes, infrequent garbage pick up and the aforementioned dog waste. Then, just in case it doesn’t feel chaotic enough? Remember that Chile experiences almost-daily earthquakes.
As I’m writing this, EarthquakeTrack.com lists 677 Chilean earthquakes in the last 365 days. Thankfully, most of them were barely noticeable. However, the quake in 2010 measured 8.8 and lasted three-long minutes, killing over 500 people, plunging most of the country into a blackout and triggering tsunami warnings in 53 other countries.
Maybe Valparaiso is a must-see city precisely because of the underlying danger of the earthquakes and the gritty dirt of the streets combined with the spectacular nature of the street art and the crisp Chilean wines.
Or maybe it’s the marriage of the colourful walls, the endless variations on those tasty empanadas and wondering if the funicular is really going to make it to the top of the hill. Then again, perhaps it’s the heart-stopping thrill of riding the local 612 bus as it whipsaws up the narrow streets, barely missing the hurtling buses coming down that same ridiculous hill.
Or maybe it’s the experience of overlooking the harbour from one of the many rooftop bars, drinking Pisco Sours and eating one more fresh-and-inspired variation on ceviche.
Then again, coming around the corner and being gobsmacked by yet another incredible mural might be the reason...
Whatever it is, somehow all these contradictory opposites combine to make a resplendent chaos that is hard to explain and impossible to forget.
Visit Valparaiso, where opposites attract.
PHOTOS: by Colleen Friesen
1. Night View of the City
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