Valparaíso: A City Built in Neverland

A few months ago, I could not have told you the name of a single street in the entire country of Chile.  I could make broad statements about the desert in the north, the mountains in the south, and a fertile wine growing valley surrounding the capital city in the center.  The intricacies of this skinny country were nothing more than abstractions of guidebook details.

Valparaiso mural old Valpo

From the safety of my home up north, I felt called to the poetry of Chile, and specifically Valparaíso. The Llama poured over images of this photographer’s paradise.  Now, I could pick out an image of Valparaíso from a thousand pictures of different cities. Of course, it helps that the Llama has taken thousands of them for me to practice with.

I haven’t written much specifically about the city of Valparaíso, this whimsical port city of mythic proportions, because it sort of eludes description.  But I’d like to introduce you as properly as I can, so this is my effort.

valpo colors (1 of 1)

Valparaíso is a city that was never officially founded–it sort of developed by demand as the port extension of Santiago de Chile, the capital.  The Llama and I smile to one another and say it is a city built by children, as it has that look about it. We imagine a bunch of Peter Pan-types from the He Man Woman Haters Club (because machismo) sitting around a table made of corrugated tin set precariously on a three-legged stool, talking about their infant city:

“You can build your house right on top of mine and then we can play whenever we want!”

“Yeah! And we can make our houses out of whatever we like, put them together ourselves, and paint them in our favorite colors!”

“Yeah! You know what would be great? We should all have puppies!

“Yeah! But I don’t like picking up poop…or trash!” a sentiment met with nodding all around the table.

And thus was born a true city of Neverland, some four hundred years ago.

Valparaiso washboard pasaje Galvan

The layout of Valparaíso is dictated more by geography than by planning. Of course we start with el mar, a sapphire blue that affirms the deep and frigid waters where fish grow monstrously large, or at least they did once.

Valparaiso Lobo del Mar

Valparaiso port ships

Then los cerros, which locals love to count.  From afar Valparaíso appears as one big hill, creating an epic amphitheater to the maritime activities below. But up close, one can see the gullies where the earth folded and compressed rock into its current manifestation.  The gullies are deep and they separate neighborhoods from one another. Standing atop Cerro Alegre I feel like I could almost reach out and touch the mausoleums of Cerro Panteón, but a steep valley separates the living from the dead and there is no bridge connecting them. Instead, there are los ascensores, mostly built over one hundred years ago. With each clank and rumble of the rickety cars, I am transported not just up and down the hills, but also back in time.

Valparaiso Cementerio Cerro Alegre Angel Statue

Valparaiso Ascensor Monjas sculpture installation

Valparaiso Cerro Panteon

Then comes el plano, the narrow stretch of flat land between the sea and the hills.  When the children tumble out of their beds, they roll, slide, or skate downhill to jobs in offices. They handle the paperwork, the tariffs, and the taxes that pertain to the ships coming in and out of port.  There are government offices and business offices, and then there are markets, shops, and restaurants.  Nothing is created or manufactured here.  Shipping containers arrive, products are shipped out. El plano is full of dark and smokey bars, once beautiful buildings in plain decadence, and hardworking locals who peddle their wares or haggle with sellers six days a week.

backstreets of valpo-1

Despite this, or perhaps because of it, there is a feeling of cheerful rebellion that pervades the city.  Men in sweatshirts and torn jeans drink from brown paper bags on colorful mosaic stairways, and the smell of pot wafts up in the middle of busy plazas.  Women in uniforms hang outside salons with suspicious smiles, while suited men laugh conspiratorially over tiny mugs in cafes. Every person seems to have a story, or better yet, a secret.  Valparaíso offers the irresistible promise that just by being there you may learn those secrets, and perhaps earn one or two of your own.

Valparaiso Evening view Cerro Artillera


Machismo: Cuidado! El Machismo Mata!” or “Careful! Machismo Kills” is a sign hung in windows in some homes in Valparaiso. Latin culture is notoriously unfriendly to women, and as topics such as rape, domestic violence, and abortion (which is illegal) are hugely polemic among Chileans, which in many other contexts I would consider to be a progressive country.  The symptoms of machismo in Chile are pervasive, such as the often-shared belief that women can not and should not drive, that they are only suited to hold certain (traditional) roles in the workplace, and earn 30% less for equal work–when “equal work” is even available for comparison. But the sign is not about that–women are literally killed by partners and spouses at an alarming rate.  I read recently that fourteen woman have been murdered by their spouses or partners in Chile already this year (as of April 2016). Some critical education and life-saving work needs to be done here. As an aside, I am trying to wrap my head around the fact that Chileans elected a female president before the U.S.  There are some interesting contradictions to be pulled apart and discovered there.

El mar: The Llama and I finally went out to sea yesterday.  We got on board a small tour boat for $3000 CLP (about $4.50 USD) which cruised around the bay as the guide pointed out familiar landmarks and commented on the important vessels docked there.  I was most interested when he spoke of the current trends in the fishing industry.  In his view, there seem to be two major factors impacting the ability of artisan fisherman to practice their craft in Valparaíso they way they had for hundreds of years:

1) Offshore poaching by Russian, Korean, and Japanese commercial fishermen, who  are encroaching on Chilean waters.

2) Global warming, which has impacted the kinds of fish that occupy the Pacific directly off of Valparaíso, as well as the quality. He mentioned that fisherman now travel four to five hours north in order to find the same catch they used to find locally.

There are two other factors I’d like to mention based on conversations I’ve had and on my own observations:

3) Over-fishing by local fishermen, who seem to have little interest in honoring protected reserves to ensure growth and sustainability, and are more concerned with today’s catch and today’s cash.

4) Local pollution.  Chalking up the changes in quality of the water to “global warming” somehow skirts local responsibility.  All around us plastic bags and soda cans floated by, and we witnessed men on ships tossing things into the water.  That’s not even looking into the impact of waste left behind by massive cruise ships, naval vessels, etc. There seems to be a disconnect between the quality of the fish and the treatment of their habitat.

Of course these are only a layperson’s observations–I am open to the possibility that I am wrong about these things.

Los cerros: The hills! Most counts come in at forty-two in Valparaíso, though I’ve heard higher and lower numbers. Most visitors will spend 70-90% of their time on Cerro Alegre and Cerro Concepción which is where most hotels, museums, art galleries, and gourmet restaurants are located. Those who are a little more adventurous will hit Cerro Panteón, Cerro Carcel, Cerro Bellavista, and Cerro Artillera. That’s six out of forty-two. There is a lot going on in this city that bubbles beneath the surface.

Cerro Alegre: “Happy Hill.” Perhaps Cerro Alegre was named for the pretty English gardens planted by the majority of prosperous English and German immigrants who built beautiful homes there in the 19th century.  I’m tempted to believe our Tours for Tips guide though, who claimed that Cerro Alegre had originally been the designated hill of brothels, from which the fisherman would come down wearing huge smiles on their faces.

Cerro Panteón: “Cemetery Hill.” For two hundred and fifty years, the city of Valparaíso did not have a cemetery – the dead would be “buried at sea” or at random places high up in then-unpopulated hills. (There go those children again!) But obviously this became unsanitary, and in the mid-1800’s a hill at the edge of the city was set aside for burying the dead.  Two were established: A cemetery for Catholics, and Cementerio de Disidentes, for non-Catholics, due mostly to the large number of Protestant and Anglican Englishmen in the population. Cerro Panteón is no longer considered the “edge” of the city.  It sits smack dab in the center with a spectacular view of a bustling city.  I find it both eerie and beautiful.

Ascensores: “Elevators,” though technically they are funiculars or “cliff railways” that ascend at a steep incline rather than directly up and down the way an elevator would. Mostly built over a hundred years ago, I find it incredible that eight of the original twenty six ascensores are still in operation.  They seem an unlikely and precarious mode of transportation, as necessity died out due to cars and buses. As a pedestrian, though, I am grateful for Ascensor Espiritu Santo, which carries me from El Plano to halfway up Cerro Bellavista for 100 CLP or 15 cents.

El plano: “The flat.” The flat area of Valparaiso is probably it’s least beautiful, though most historically significant. Much of the original architecture has been lost and replaced by horrific mid-century cement blocks.  The beautiful murals characteristic of the hills don’t reach the plano; mostly one sees basic tagging and many of the buildings are grimy and ill-maintained. There are exceptions to this, of course.  There are some beautiful buildings and street paintings, charming plazas and of course one of my favorite places, Mercado Cardonal.  But in general I recommend wandering the pedestrian passageways of the colorful hills instead of spending too much time on the plano.



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