Our lead-in to coming here was filled with expectation as the research on this city seemed to promise so much. We were coming off a long period on the ship so were looking forward to being on land and eating dodgy street food again. So much so that we factored a whole week into staying here exploring the olden and current wonders that it had to offer. Even if it meant having to schlepp our bags again.
Lets set this up a bit, Valparaiso sits on the Pacific coast of Chile and was considered one of the most important port towns in the world, up until the building of the Panama Canal. In its heyday, the city provided respite to thousands of sailors heading from Europe to California.
Prior to the Panama Canal, ships from Europe would travel south down the coast and cut through the Strait of Magellan (to avoid rounding Cape Horn) in order to get to the Pacific Ocean.
During the gold rush it was a major trade route and became known as “the jewel of South America”. It is the home of Latin America’s oldest stock exchange, the continent’s first volunteer fire department, Chile’s first public library, and the oldest Spanish language newspaper in continuous publication in the world (El Mercurio de Valparaíso). In 2003, the historic quarter of Valparaíso was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Because of all of this trade in the 18th 19th and the 20th centuries some amazing colonial and post colonial-style buildings were built, along with palaces and estates of wealthy businessmen.
Well, Valparaiso was a bit of a disappointment. Since the building of the Panama Canal, the place has pretty much gone to pot. The stunning old buildings are now just crumbling down, are boarded up or are in just a disgraceful state of disrepair and neglect. What promised so much yielded a city in neglect.
Rioting and protests (over inequity) took place between 2019-2022 after economic assessments identified that 1% of the population in Chile controls 26.5% of the country’s wealth, while half of the population have only 2.1%. The trigger to the conflict and protests was the raising of metro fares. But this 3 years of unrest have left virtually every surface of the city scarred or vandalised.
But the recent rioting belies the decades of neglect that preceded it. To say that Valparaiso is poor is an understatement. Makeshift street markets are everywhere with people trying to sell the most inane low-value items just to make a buck. Used clothes and shoes, toiletries, and even used phone chargers lay on blankets on the streets while someone tries to turn over some cash from them. It is like a permanent car boot sale on every street (without the car boot).
Plazuela Anibal Pinto is the practical if not official heart of town. It features the statue of Neptune that was built in 1892. From the plaza as you look up the hill you will see a bright yellow house perched on the top of a cliff.
This house is on the corner of a barrio (neighbourhood) known as Concepción. The Concepcion neighbourhood is the home of all art in Valparaiso. Everywhere you look is street art of varying kinds. Some are mere graffiti that gets reinvented almost daily while others are exceptional murals by well-known artists. This area is the key to revitalising and reinvigorating the town.
We took a funicular up the steep hill to the Concepcion Barrio to check out some of the amazing street art. We wandered the streets and took our happy snaps and dodged the tour groups as they similarly checked out the artworks.
As great as this neighbourhood (Barrio) was, and as much potential as it held for revitalising the city there was still work to be done. From high on the hill, surrounded by artworks, there was only about 2-3 places to sit and have coffees, cakes and lunch. There was not a bar in sight and restaurants were almost invisible. An entrepreneurial spirit could set this place alight.
And then of course the whole thing was ruined by a recent trend of mugging tourists. The short-sightedness of people astounds me more and more often every day.
Between 1883 and 1916, around 30 funiculars (bizarrely, sources seem unsure of the exact number) were constructed to connect the businesses of the Lower Town with the residential districts on the hills above. Many of these still survive and are officially listed as National Monuments, although not all of them are currently in service.
These Funiculars save some serious leg work for the princely sum of about 50c. As we were at the bottom of the plaza, we took the Ascensor Concepcion, one of the first funiculars built in Valparaíso.
Palacio Baburizza is the former residence of Croatian businessman Pascual Baburizza located in Valparaíso, Chile. It was built in 1916 by Italian architects, and eventually turned into a museum in 1971, and declared a historic monument in 1976.
The Plaza Sotomayor is the original customs square and is lined by the old buildings of the city that fill the full blocks of the surrounding streets. But mostly it is dominated by the palatial blue-coloured Edificio Armada de Chile (headquarters of the navy). The focus of the square is a monument that honours the Chilean sailors who fell during two battles that took place in 1879.
At the northeastern side of the square are two similar towers, which create a sort of gate entrance to the port from the city.
The statues were nice, or they would have been if they were not all covered in spray paint and pigeon shit. The parks were nice, even if mostly used as urinals and beds for the homeless. It is not that this place was terrible because it wasn’t. It was just the disappointment of how far it had fallen from where it once was and where it could be.
Despite the poverty and threats of muggings, at no point did we feel unsafe. The town was nice, if a little dishevelled and mostly friendly. The prices were pretty comparable with what you would pay for things in Australia, but the quality of what you would get was lesser.
I guess the thing for us was that our accommodation was substandard. We were paying a high price for a place that had no interest in having guests. It was a hostel, but in reality it was more of a rest home for lazy millennials. They had carved themselves a beautiful niche for themselves where they listened to music with noise cancelling headphones and ate free food and did nothing. They had multiple wifi options but only theirs worked. The ones for the paying guests would not even connect.
The list of what was wrong was too long to get into but suffice to say the place was terrible. So after a couple of days when we were woken at 3am by a massive thump that was enough. As it turns out, we had just experienced our first earthquake. The town was set against an ocean and on the side of a mountain. Neither places you really want to be in the case of a major earthquake.
A mere 5km from where we were was the epicentre of a 5.0 magnitude earthquake. So we got up at 3am, packed our bags and dressed for a rapid departure (in the fear of aftershocks etc).
The rest of the evening/morning was drama-free but with all else going on in Valparaiso, we took this as a good enough sign that it was time to move on. So we found our way downtown and hopped on a bus and went to the capital of Santiago.
Valparaiso could have been an amazing experience, and can again be one. I am certain if our accommodation was not so shitty we might have been less inclined to dash away. A quick investment in some urban renewal and a curbing of petty street crime and this place could once again be fantastic.
A few public toilet blocks, some paint given to those seeking jobs and this place could be very different. They are already trying. There has been an addition of market stalls along Avenida Argentina where the open-air food market takes place every Wednesday or Saturday. If this was open to the other marketeers in between times the place would be tidied up and given an aura of legitimacy rather than the current version.
It would be interesting to come back in 3-5 years to see if progress is made. It is now on the cruise ship ports of call so there is regular trade starting. A clever plan, well executed could see this place getting back towards its former glory.