Valparaiso is a colorful, bohemian port town about an hour and a half outside of Santiago. It is popular among Santiago locals for weekend getaways and backpackers. In fact, the most common question among backpackers about Valpo is, “have you been yet?” not, “will you go?”
Jordan and I arrived on Thursday afternoon, which was a mistake because we didn’t account for almost all hostels being full due to the weekend influx. We had to search around, from hostel to hostel, until we found an open room. We eventually found one, and that evening explored the city.
Valpariaso is built on several hills, the most historic and popular being Cerro Alegre and Cerro Concepcion. These are the places to stay. The best way to get to know the town is just to set out walking. Get lost, wind up in a staircase behind an alleyway, back track, and eventually find your way down to the port. Because of its location, Valpariaso was called “burnt hills” by the indigenous people due to the amount of fires that frequently occur. The wind, the heat, and the hills make a bad combination, so people are very careful about fires and helping one another in cases of emergencies.
In 1849 Valparaiso became the most important port on the continent. The Californian gold rush was in full swing, and ships would go south from the US east cost, around Cape Horn, and up again to California. Valparaiso was a natural stopping point to resupply and rest, so the town grew. Many European immigrants that originally meant to land in California stayed in Valparaiso to open businesses and make a new life there. This affluence grew until 1914, when the Panama Canal opened. The downtown port area still has many of the beautiful old buildings. Some are abandoned and crumbling, while others have been converted into government buildings.
While the rich lived down near the water, the less-wealthy basically squatted on land and built what the could, far up the hills. Thus, the crazy stairways and narrow passageway. Many of the buildings are very colorful, and it’s the best part of town. Because Chile experiences so many earthquakes, the homes used to be made of adobe, something that will shift with the earth. However, adobe is easily worn down by the water and wind, so they had to cover the adobe. Originally, they covered their walls in corrugated sheets of tin, which had been brought as ballast weight from the ships rounding Cape Horn. But tin rusts, so they began to paint their homes with whatever leftovers ships had, thus the bright colors. Now it’s tradition, and blue and green are the most popular colors.
Murals are also very popular here, stemming from a muralism movement in Mexico from the 1930s. It came here in the 60s, then was outlawed during Chile’s dictatorship. Now it’s considered vandalism unless done on your own property. The artwork adds to the relaxed, bohemian vibe through town.
The hills here are pretty steep, so immigrants pooled money and built ascensors (also called funiculars), like cable cars that acted as elevators. At one point there were 26 running. Now there are only 6, but the number will increase as the cars are renovated. The oldest was constructed in 1883. These are a really cheap method of transportation, and definitely worth doing, if just to save your thighs from the endless stairs. But they are also a tourist attraction in their own right, and usually just cost 100 pesos a person, always paid at the bottom of the hill.
Valparaiso, though not the primary port in South America anymore (not even the primary port of Chile), is still the headquarters of the navy and still a great place to hang out for a few days. We took the free tour, called Tips4Tours, which lasted about three hours and went all over Cerros Alegre and Concepcion and the flat, port area. We recommend it. To get to know the town you only need about two days, which is what we’re spending here. If you want a nice, relaxing time to dig into the city, I think four or five days is enough. While it is a coast town, the beast beaches are at Vina del Mat, about a 15 minutes bus ride north. These two towns can make a long, good beach weekend before traveling north to the Atacama desert.