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The many faces of Valparaiso



By Alison Lapshinoff

The colourful houses of Valparaiso tumble haphazardly down the steep hillsides of the mad, Chilean port city, giving way to a multitude of container ships flanking a sparkling Pacific. Here, one is liable to forget to keep a vigilant eye on their camera and belongings, for every twist and turn of the narrow cobblestone streets affords yet another panoramic vista of the vibrantly painted homes clinging precariously to the cliff sides. Beyond, adorned with navy ships and pleasure boats bobbing lazily in the arc of the bay, stretches an infinite, turquoise sea.

Essentially a city of contrasts, Valparaiso is at once captivating and abhorrent, chaotic in one moment, idyllic and peaceful the next. One must only ascend one of the endless narrow staircases that travel up the steep hillsides, their ascent often aided by a creaky and dramatically inclined funicular elevator, in order to escape the lunacy of the city’s compact, downtown core. A constant battle wages here, the choking pollution against the fresh ocean breezes of the Pacific. Majestic old buildings proudly command respect as they combat for space with tall new construction, seemingly oblivious to the clamor at the bases of their stately columns.

Petty crime is rife and poverty evident in the streets of Valparaiso, where shady characters lurk in winding alleyways, hobos beg and the homeless spill into the city’s sporadic plazas. Scarcely a tree or shrub survives among the old stone and concrete construction and pedestrians spill into the streets, the narrow sidewalks inadequate to support the walking population. There is a palpable vibe of chaos, as though the whole city was thrown up hastily with little or no planning, urban design merely a fleeting idea. Some fall in love; others run screaming for the relative serenity of the surrounding hills.

The Spaniards first sailed into this picturesque bay on the Santiaguillo in 1536, no doubt displacing the native population who had sustained themselves for centuries off the bounty of the sea and the fruits of the land. During colonial times, Valparaiso remained a small village, with only a few houses and a church, however, independence from Spain, realized on February 12 of 1818, brought with it a new era of prosperity. The doors were thrown open to international trade, which had been previously limited to Spain and its colonies. The port became Chile’s main naval harbour and an important supplier during California’s gold rush between 1848 and 1858. It was soon considered a mandatory stopover for ships crossing the narrow and treacherous Strait of Magellan or rounding the rollicking Cape Horn, the only routes of the day for crossing between the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans.