Striking colors and steep hillsides packed with historic neighborhoods, Valparaiso is in a class by itself.
I didn’t think we would manage to park the car without major drama. San Francisco has nothing on these steep streets that are often more like sidewalks and space is difficult to come by in any form. We navigated numerous blind ninety-degree turns and miraculously landed in front of our hotel at the top of the hillside. A smiling employee appeared to tell us that he would park the car. We only needed to call ten minutes ahead for them to collect it when necessary. I wanted to kiss him.
Valparaiso is Chile’s sixth largest city, sitting seventy miles (111 km) northwest of Santiago. It has a rich past due to its location on the Pacific Ocean and was enjoyed numerous powerful visitors and enterprise as a major stopping point for ships traveling between the Atlantic and Pacific via the Straits of Magellan. The main focal points of the city today were constructed in the post-independence boom of the early 1800’s.
While the Spanish had been the first Europeans to arrive in 1536, there is a multicultural mix to the architecture lent by the numerous cultures who landed and created their own neighborhoods. These are today preserved as “zonas típicas”. The city’s incredible architectural diversity lent itself readily to its resurgence in the early 2000’s as an artists’ haven.
Through one hotel window of our hotel, I looked over the Port of Valparaiso for the first time. A port that manages ten million tons every year isn’t expected to be beautiful, but the sapphire sea sparkled below. I couldn’t wait to step out and explore, but our trip had been long and the bed called loudly. The next morning, I took in the view from another window and had a strikingly different sensation. Here I was in a gorgeous whitewashed five-star hotel, a splurge for our ten year anniversary, looking onto properties that looked like they wouldn’t survive a strong gust of wind let alone the earthquakes that are common in the region. It made me feel guilty.
At breakfast, the girls who worked the dining room were cheerful. I thought I even heard singing coming from the kitchen, but I was too distracted with the plans of the day to pay much attention. New territory called my name and Valparaiso was a puzzle I’d attempted to solve since booking our trip a year before. It’s difficult to figure it out from a distance and, as it turns out, it isn’t much easier in person. A quick glance at the map will explain.
Tourist Map of Valparaiso Chile
Undeterred, we headed out to try and find our way. The massive incline of the city streets hadn’t magically flattened overnight and even in the October sun, climbing the cities numerous staircases was challenging. This is a town famous for its funiculars, but I’ll be damned if I could find one! Bemused neighborhood cats looked on with boredom, laughing at us as we tried to catch our breath.
When I stopped noticing the cats in the street, I noticed them on the arresting street art that fills the city. Were cats revered in ‘Valpo? What was the deal with all the gatos anyway? Like much about Valparaiso, I never did figure that out. The art, however, is so amazing that it will stop you in your tracks. At the top of one funicular (hurray we finally found one!), this woman watched me from the side of a building.
Paradoxical in nature yet beautiful to the eye—I found it impossible to look away.
From the top of the city on Monte Alegre, we visited the Palacio Baburizza, a mansion in the clouds built as a residence by a wealthy Croatian businessman in 1916 by Italian architects. Now the Fine Arts Museum, it is a work of art containing an impressive art collection within its walls. Personally, the building itself was what I found most fascinating. In a gothic-meets-art-deco way, it is one of the most unusual buildings I’ve had the good fortune to come across. Finally disregarding the map, we wandered through the Plaza Sotomayor and found the home of the first Chilean Navy near the port. The city’s color theme never disappears, not in the official buildings and not even in the city’s fishing fleet.
An article on this burgeoning artistic commune would not be complete without a single note of caution. Theft is rampant and can sometimes be violent. Fifty dollars disappeared from my hotel one morning when I stepped out for a mere thirty minutes without putting my wallet in the safe. Our waiter at dinner one evening tried to get himself an extra-large tip. Two policemen grabbed me at the Hotel Gervasoni, a tourist mecca, and told me to put my camera away because it wasn’t safe.
Wherever tourists with a bit of money mix with a struggling local population, this will happen. While it didn’t ruin my trip, it definitely gave it an awkward angle. Valpo is a happening place with an eclectic vibe that will continue to reinvent itself in the years to come. Pack a bit of sensible caution in your travel bag and do not complain about the few minutes’ inconvenience of using the safe–and you will be richly rewarded by what the city has to offer. Street art is fantastic, but you shouldn’t have to pay to see it.