Valparaiso was the area that I was most interested in visiting as many people had told me of it’s beauty. I hadn’t realized that Vina del Mar and Valparaiso were so close to each other. In fact, there is no clear line between the two. The cities just gently join one another.
Valparaiso aptly translates to Valley of Paradise.
Valparaiso is the older of the two cities. It was originally the first port that ships arrived at when sailing from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. Therefore, it was the most important and best known port on the Pacific Ocean in South America. At the time (late 1800’s), it was a melting pot for all different cultures as many immigrants came to settle in the area for it’s prevailing prosperity and economic situation. Many of the immigrants were from Eastern Europe and Russia, but others came from all over the world.
It is known for being home to Latin America’s first stock exchange, the continent’s first volunteer fire department, the country’s first public library and the oldest newspaper in continuous publication in the world. History truly runs deep through this enchanting city.
Other than being an important port for cargo ships, it was also widely known for the fishing industry as the cold arctic current turns the Pacific ocean into a highway for fish, bringing masses of them nearby throughout various seasons. Sadly, when the Panama canal was built in 1914, the route for ships was changed and Valparaiso was all but forgotten near the southern tip of the continent, causing a major economic downturn.
It is such a shame because Valparaiso truly is a unique area. Of course, the port was the main focus, but when the city grew by leaps and bounds, it had no where to expand except for up the surrounding steep hills. Houses were built mostly with cheap materials such as wood and corrugated metal and then painted with the same type of paint that was used on the ships as it was readily available and cheap. Today, most of the houses remain the same. Some say the bright paint colours were used so that the houses could be seen through the dense fog that covers the area every morning.
Valparaiso is also known for it’s variety and quantity of street art splashing the walls and gates with brilliant colours, throughout the residential areas, with beautifully designed paintings from artists around the world. Although street art is not officially legal, it is widely accepted as part of the community. Many locals seek out artists to design art for their outer house or business walls. And, many artists who find wall space available pitch their ideas to the owner and collaborate before permanently introducing their art.
And, they are very proud of their artistic talent in Valparaiso. Particularly, Pablo Neruda. We visited one of his houses which his wife turned into a museum after his passing. He was world-renowned in poetry, also a well-known and loved writer, politician and diplomat. Today, many of his works can be found translated into many other languages and some still grace the best sellers list.
The central area of Valparaiso is protected by Unesco as of 2003. The areas warmly known as Happy Hill and Conception Hill have the only functioning funiculars in the area.
The funiculars were built starting in the late 1800’s to move people easily and cheaply up and down the steep hillsides. Every morning people would come down the hills to work in the centre or at the port and then in the evening, everyone would be tasked with climbing up the steep hills to their homes. The funiculars were put in place to aid the locals, mainly with their ascent up the hills. Originally there were approximately 26 funiculars throughout the city, painted in bright colours and street art to match the surrounding areas. But now, there are only eight remain in operation.
I was lucky enough to get to travel down on one, El Peral, built in 1902. The ride cost one Chilean peso and took about one minute. There are two funiculars at the same station. As one is traveling down, the other is balancing the gears by traveling up. It boggles my mind that any of the equipment still functions. From the clearly ancient gears, to the warped door that had to be wiggled just right in order to open and the questionable floor boards at the waiting station … it was quite the experience.
Sadly our tour was a bit rushed and I only got to view one or two of the other funiculars in passing. I didn’t have time to photograph them. I wish I had more time to fully explore the beautiful mess that is Valparaiso. I felt my time was too short and rushed to understand the community, but I could instantly feel at home in the disarray of streets and mess of colours. Despite the now poor economic situation, the city is alive with colour, culture and history.