Santiago may be the Chilean capital, but to my mind, Valparaiso is far more interesting. It sits right on the coast, about an hour and a half drive from Santiago but is well worth the trip.
The city has a fascinating history. As one of the most important historical Pacific sea ports it was a main stopping point for shipping as it traveled between the Atlantic and Pacific. Even today, there is a large active sea port terminal and naval base that dominated the dock area. It also remains an important administrative centre for government, being the home of the Chilean National Congress.
During its heyday in the 19th Century it attracted large amounts of immigration from European countries and the European influence can be seen everywhere you turn – from old London banks, Dutch shipping agents, the traditional Victorian style English Bar.
Get out of the hustle and bustle of the centre and travel up into one of the 40 or so surrounding hills and the atmosphere dramatically changes. It’s a completely different feel. The noise, traffic fumes and general chaos of the city evaporate as you climb out of the port area – a journey that is made a little easier by taking one of the numerous Victorian funicular railways up the steep hills. Once you are on higher ground, looking down onto the port you are met with dozens of streets filled with faded and crumbling colonial style wooden houses in brightly painted colours, the odd street artist and musician and various shops cafes and restaurants.
A couple of interesting facts about the housing here. Firstly, the huge amount of wood that was used for buildings is Oregon pine (or Douglas fir to give it its proper name). In the 19th and early 20th centuries Chile supplied nearly all of the world’s nitrates for fertilizer, huge amounts of which were shipped to the USA. The ships returning to Chile needed ballast and the wood was a readily available and cheap cargo for the return journey. Secondly, the enormous variety of bright colours used on the houses is apparently due to the fact that the merchant port carried out essential repairs and maintenance on shipping vessels, including repainting them. The various leftover paints were taken and used by residents to paint and protect their houses.
The opening of the Panama Canal in 1914 rendered Valparaiso of less strategic importance for shipping and over the coming decades the city gradually fell into disuse and eventually partial dereliction. The area is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and over recent years has started being restored to its former glory as new owners move in.
There are also some fantastic colourful murals and street art that give it all a rather vibrant, edgy and bohemian feel. One such street art proudly declares “We are not Hippies, we are Happies”. That says it all really.
Check out the full gallery for some more photos from Valparaiso