Loco por Valpo

March 9th, 2020:

Early in the morning, we took the metro in Santiago from almost one end of the east-west red line to the opposite terminus, then an inter-city bus between Santiago and Valparaiso. The journey which should have only taken one and a half hours ended up taking 4 hours, thanks to a road block on the highway halfway there, which led to us returning to Santiago and taking an alternative route. We were told it was an accident, but heard from locals afterwards that it was likely a roadblock due to protests which were foreseen on that day. The delay was not a problem for us, but a Japanese tourist who did not seem to understand a word of Spanish had to be consoled. As it turned out, she had an international flight to catch from Santiago later that day and was panicking due to the unexpected length of the trip. In the end, she seemed satisfied with a few photographs taken from the bus before arriving at the Valparaiso bus terminal and jumping on the next return bus to Santiago!

Romantic, bohemian, dirty, authentic, colorful, run-down, dangerous……….so many ways to describe this magnificent city of close to 300,000 people. Either you love it or you hate it. It’s hard to be somewhere in-between. As you may have guessed, we loved it, seduced by its charm!

View of the city from a funicular

Valparaiso, or Valpo as the locals fondly call it, was founded in 1544 and is a major port city on the coast of Chile, about 130 km (driving distance) west of Santiago. It is known for its colorful houses and murals, neighborhoods (cerros) built on a series of hills spread out over the city, and its steep funiculars. The architecture of the historical buildings and houses reflect the heavy european immigration from the 1800s, but unfortunately the city has been the victim of many disasters in the past including a major earthquake in 1906 and a huge fire in 2014 which destroyed part of the city. Economically, the city was hit hard and suffered a period of sharp decline after the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914, since it became no longer necessary for ships to navigate around Cape Horn to get from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. Recent political and social protests have also left their mark in the streets, on buildings, and historical monuments. In 2003 the historical center was declared a world heritage site by UNESCO. The city has an undeniably rich history which is still reflected in its character today.

The best way to visit Valparaiso is on foot, and despite the steep hills, sometimes very steep, the views from above are well worth the effort. It is also on foot that one discovers the narrow passages, the staircases, the old wooden funiculars, the painted murals and graffiti and the neighborhoods that are off the tourist map.

The charm of the old historical houses come from their distinct architectural design and the painted metal corrugated sheets which cover the outside walls. Many shops maintain a “period” look with vintage style signs from another bygone era.

The Chilean poet Pablo Neruda had a home high up on one of the hills which he called “La Sebastiana” in memory of the original owner who had left the house partially constructed and abandoned. The house, which was pillaged in 1973 after the military coup, was restored in the early 1990’s and turned into a museum.

La Sebastiana

The physical aftermath of the recent social manifestations which started in Chile in October 2019 and which were forecasted to continue well into 2020, prior to the state of emergency declared by the government in March due to the coronavirus pandemic, are visible in many places of the city. Women’s rights were revindicated across the country in the form of marches and protests on international Women’s Day, March 8th. Many murals have been “adapted” to support the causes.

It was with great pleasure that we discovered a mural painted by the Chilean artist Inti Castro, a Valparaiso-born urbain artist who also painted a mural in our home town of Mulhouse, France, near the open-air market where we usually do our shopping at on Saturday mornings.

The bus trip back to Santiago was fast and uneventful. We would explore the capital city the next day…..


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