Now, stop imagining and start packing, because Valparaiso exists, and is fast becoming the destination of choice for visitors to Chile. New arrivals in Valparaiso quickly learn that it is the harbour and hills that dominate the city’s landscape, and indeed its lifestyle. Waterside, rusty tankers and shiny cruise liners litter the port, while the hills above are packed with colourful clapboard homes, and rickety-looking ascensores transporting locals to those lofty abodes.
To get a real feel for the city and the most encompassing overview of its layout and features, we headed straight up the cerros (hills) that envelop it. The ascensores that transport weary walkers up the hillsides are a godsend, the 15 funicular lifts comprise the largest system of its kind in the world. Built between 1883 and 1925, and each a declared national monument, the lifts are one of the city’s biggest attractions. Artillery Hill, Concepcion and Polanco have proved most popular with tourists, but after a little inside tip, we boarded one of the charismatic coops headed for Cerro Allegre. The reward at the top was better than we could have imagined. Just a couple of shaky steps, and then you are strolling down a promenade, almost immediately presented with a 180 degree view of the city and surrounding coastline.
From here it is possible to take in, at once, the city’s most defining images and characteristics. Getting away from the main drag, we slipped down through smaller streets and passageways, corner after corner surprising us with a new and contrasting vista. Each hill is almost a kind of peninsula, at one step there are views of the busy port, and three steps later a steep drop down narrow stairways leading to backyards crammed with semi-dry washing, discarded toys, empty wine bottles, and snoozing cats.
It is here that you get a close up view of the multi-coloured houses for which ‘Valpo’ is famous. Large, looming constructions of timber and corrugated iron, the tradition of painting them in such bright and disparate shades traces back to efforts by Chilean sailors to pinpoint their own place as they returned to port after a long and lonely voyage at sea.
After an afternoon exploring the heights of the city, it is back down into ‘El Plan’ (the City) for a refuel and readiness to sample the saucier side of the centre. A good night should start with a fine meal, and the finest fare available in a city so dominated by its port is without a doubt its ‘fruta del mar’ (fruits of the sea). For this, the only place to eat is of course on the waterfront itself. Down on Caletta Membrillo, the faded fishing boats almost drop their catch off at the restaurants’ doorsteps, there is surely nothing fresher anywhere in the world. The options, of course, are endless, but for the uninitiated we recommend the Sopa Marinera — a colourful concoction of all that is weird and wonderful and found in saltwater. It is a soup, but also a meal and according to the locals an aphrodisiac that betters a feed of fresh oysters.
As with any lively city, after a hearty feed it is time to head out and explore the nightlife on offer. The charm of Valparaiso is due in part to its seedy, seaman-filled past. The city has always opened its arms to the sailors of the world. Historically it was a port of vital importance to those trying to open up trade between the established civilisations of Western Europe and Asia, and the fast developing Spanish colonies of South America. This international invasion made for what is today a melting pot of cultures, and vibrant collection of immigrant communities.
From neighbours, the Argentinians, Valparaiso inherited the tango — a musical legacy that steals the hearts of locals and visitors alike even today. To get a taste of real Valpo tango, we made for El Cinzano, a favourite for drinkers of all ages, boasting musicians, dancers and sepia toned photographs. As macabre as it may sound, to really get a feel for the history and impact of international immigrants on the make-up of the modern day population of Valparaiso, a visit to the cemetery is a must. In reality, there are actually two cemeteries: one for the city’s strong Catholic population, the other for the ‘dissidents’. The latter was the first non-Catholic cemetery in Chile, laying testimony to the lives and deaths of thousands of Anglo Saxon European immigrants who headed out into the unknown to make their fortune.
Like so many places of interest in Valparaiso, the cemetery sits precariously on the crest of a hill, surrounded by a high masonry wall and punctuated by openings providing stunning views onto the port. Some visitors may even find themselves witnessing the powerful spectacle that is a fireman’s funeral procession. A solemn affair but rich in tradition, a torchlit midnight parade winds slowly up the cerro, escorted by a gleaming brass band and impeccably dressed officers seeing their colleague off to a lofty resting place.
For more light-hearted pursuits, there are of course some cultural must-sees in Valpo. Probably its most famous some-time resident was the poet Pablo Neruda whose house ‘La Sebastiana’ has been transformed into a museum displaying personal effects, journals, and a glimpse into the poet’s life and love of the city. Down in El Plan lies the colourful Mercado Central, and back up the hill the old jail, part of which is now a funky art museum and the remainder of which gives us a chilling idea of what life in a Chilean prison would have been like.
Valparaiso is but an hour and a half bus ride from the Chilean capital, Santiago, and there is plenty to see outside of the city’s confines. First port of call for most visitors is the neighbouring seaside resort of Vina del Mar, a fairly soulless but pretty enough town boasting wide sandy beaches, glitzy boutiques, gourmet cafes and an imposing casino. There are many other possibilities heading south, but one of the best places to get away from it all is the fishing village of Quintay. Once a sizeable whaling station it now caters mainly for residents of Valparaiso and those looking to escape the crowds for an afternoon.
Another option is a visit to the more well known of Pablo Neruda’s homes, this one in the village of Isla Negra. One of three houses owned by Neruda, this is where he chose to spend most of his time. Otherwise, an hour north of Valpo is Horcon, a small but lively fishing village well on its way to becoming a veritable Hippie Haven.
As with many inspiring international destinations, there is more to see in Valparaiso than could be seen in one week. There are sights that must be glimpsed in certain seasons, and surprises that cannot even be foreseen. If you can pay only one visit, then get there for the festive season — New Year’s in Valparaiso is a loud, vivid celebration of music, food, and drink. It would be a fitting final night for a stay in Valpo, and a reminder about all that is great about the city — with that magnificent harbour providing one of the most picturesque backdrops to a fireworks display you will ever see.